The Parts of the Story Untold: On Nicole Rivas’ ‘A Bright and Pleading Dagger’
Twelve pieces of flash fiction brilliance in which love is the great mystery and desire fuels all.
Chapbook | 44 Pages | 5.5” x 8.5” | Reviewed: Chapbook
978–1–941628–14–0 | First Edition | $12.00
Rose Metal Press| Brookline, Massachusetts | BUY HERE
A Bright and Pleading Dagger, by Nicole Rivas, the winner of the 12th annual Rose Metal Press Chapbook Contest is 12 pieces of flash fiction brilliance. Rivas compresses a world of beauty, longing, life, and death into one- or two-page stories. They are connected by her ability to capture that moment, the exact time and place that needs to be seen and heard. We know this world and these characters, and we feel the sharp stick of the bright and pleading.
The stories move through a variety of points of view and characters, always staying close to their desires. There are the three dates between a 19-year-old and her gynecologist. There is a child so extremely wanting to be like a fearless classmate she writes a nickname across her own chest in permanent marker. There’s a girl navigating her secret crushes on female classmates. There’s a woman finding a unique kind of love during a three-minute speed dating round gone wrong. There’s a thirsty woman who, rather than longing for a drink, strives to be deprived. In all these stories, whether told in first-, second-, or third-person, the reader is always incredibly close to the characters. Their stories are alive beyond the restrictions of written words.
A common theme to the pieces is elusive love. The characters long for it and often just miss it or find it in impossible places. One has to swallow a Polly Pocket from her youth in order to become worthy of love, an extreme or absurd idea that, for the characters and the reader, becomes unquestionably true.
“This time I remembered it, the swallowing. Polly slid down my throat like a car wreck, all busted plastic and broken glass. She walked down the steps. She walked up to them. Her legs didn’t bend and her hair didn’t move, but she was the object of play. I was playing like I used to and I was worthy of love.”
(from “Like a Pill”)
One character finds love on a speed date with Detrix, “the oldest man on Earth, the last person in the world with the first name Detrix.” This love exists during the span of a three-minute speed date and within a staring contest that may have begun with an intimate truth but ends in tragedy. Still, the character finds what she is looking for.
“Despite the new sight, I feel momentarily elated. I feel so happy to have been in love once, to have been loved, even if for only three minutes.”
(from “The Staring Contest”)
Medical emergencies put the characters right on the brink, dealing both with what came before and what will come after. One of my favorite moments of the book was a woman saving her lover from choking. After she successfully gets him to expel the chunk of food, there is a lone clapping from the group of shocked onlookers. Just one person drawn to applause as if the Heimlich had been “an impromptu theatrical performance.” It is these extreme moments where Rivas reveals beautiful truths of our experience reminiscent of Denis Johnson’s “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” with the narrator finding beauty in the howling grief of a woman learning her husband has died. Rivas finds beauty in the reaction to the awkward brink. Not as extreme as an emergency room, but just as true, and just as rare. Love is the mystery, rather than is death. The character in this story is more torn by the inability of the lover to finish the story he had started before choking than she is worried about his brush with death.
“Though you know it’s unwise, you will continue to both love and hate him until you can no longer tell the difference between the two.”
(from “The Woman on the Bus”)
The only thing I wanted differently from this collection was for it to continue, for it to be longer. But isn’t that flash fiction at work? Telling the story in just enough words to get it done, while still letting the untold stories linger, somehow existing as much as the ones told. Possibly the titular story is the only one that bursts a little at the seams of flash. It is the story of two Dixie Store employees who accept a ride with two men in a “salt-caked blue truck.” It’s told from the perspective of a girl who has a horrible encounter with one of the men but is unsure of what experience her friend has gone through. It follows the structure of a longer short story and is easy to see how it would work uncompressed, yet it also fits well compressed. What happened to her friend, the story outside the story, is so large and so unknown.
“The stars were beginning to hurt my eyes. It was no wonder people looked to them for guidance; everything below them was pure chaos. But it didn’t matter. Star and earth were blinding.”
(from “A Bright and Pleading Dagger”)
It’s hard to picture a collection of flash more perfect than this, more bright and pleading, more able both to stab and to save a heart.