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Stela & Brandy: An Excerpt from Tara Lynn Masih’s & James Claffey’s ‘The Bitter Kind’

Stella

Sting in the tail, her fragile body covered by a carapace of resolve, Stela circles the washrag around the kitchen counter, the lemon peel and almond bits collecting in a mound. “’Tis the season to be jolly,” she sings, her voice low, so as not to awaken her father. He swung back into town from a three-month haul down to Argentina with a shipment of lumber. Her mother shrinks when the Captain returns to dry land and her brother disappears for days, preferring to spend the holidays with his school friends. When the Captain is away there’s an expansion that takes place in her, as if she’s coming out of a tight hiding space and retaking her original shape. After months in a cabin, the Captain declares himself to be sick and tired of the ocean blue, and resolves to land a desk job with the shipping company and move the entire family the two-hundred miles from Tuscaloosa, with Stela’s beloved Black Warrior River and water oaks, to Mobile, where he can throw his feet on his desk and drink gin morning to night. He’s a handy man with the bottle, Stela thinks, dreading the thought of leaving behind the leafy waterways for the bleak expanse of the Gulf Coast. “God, no. I don’t want to leave here,” she says, rolling her eyes at her father as he plumps her cheek with his thumb and forefinger. “It’s my paychecks that put food on the table and clothes on your back,” he replies, “so you’ll do my bidding.” Her mother, pale and quiet in the kitchen, says little, only how they’ll have to adapt to the humidity of the Gulf and all its swarms of flying cockroaches.

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Her passion is music. American. Gershwin. Antheil. Copland. The Victrola sits in the family room, next to the large potted hibiscus. She sits on the Captain’s lap, the swell of the music and the tapping of his feet on the carpet. His nose is straight and sharp, and in profile he reminds her of those faces on Roman coins. Her Emperor. Her captor. His act at church when the pastor greets the family, and the backslapping manner of the Captain, makes her want to throw up. She thinks this will go on forever, season-to-season, the way magnolia blossoms come and go. On New Year’s Eve, her parents toast the future decade and clink crystal glasses together in the downstairs dining room. “To the future! Down the hatch!” She hears their toasts.

Stela tosses and turns in bed like the restless sea as the strains of “Auld Lang Syne” filter up through the floorboards.

Brandy

It is spring, during the Great Depression, when their neighbor Al Close finally finds the Ghost Wolf that has been haunting every cattle rancher and sheep herder’s farm from the Highwood Mountains to the Little Belts. More than 1,800 cattle and sheep lost to the vicious hunter who melts in and out of the night like a banshee ghost and takes its victims down in its strong jaws, sometimes leaving them partly alive as it flees to its hiding place.

Al’s red Irish terrier and sheep dog track it down, finally, though no one on horseback or looking out of an airplane has been able to find this menace. His dogs, trained for this moment, know what to do. They break into the sleeping wolf’s dreams, as it lies curled in the underbrush, and the terrier latches on to its tail and the sheep dog flushes it out so that Al can admire the huge beast in the moonlight, this larger than life wolf whose white fur glows like a fallen star. Just before Al pulls the trigger, he feels a spark of regret.

This is the story Brandy grows up hearing on his birthday, because this momentous thing happened on the night he was born.

“You got some of that spirit wolf in you,” his Cree mother likes to say. “It left that divine animal and entered you, that’s why you so stubborn.”

His mother is Judith, named after the mountains she fled to with her white trapper husband. They left the basin valley full of cross-breed Chippewas to find gold and sapphires in the rough but accessible lands above. They found little, just small pieces and stones in streams, enough to lay claim to a few acres. Eventually Brandy’s father, Jake Crawford, had to go back to what he knew — hunting and logging.

Judith is famous for her pemmican. Brandy often stands by her side, watching her grind the dry buffalo or deer meat, and fry the fat. She lets him mix in berries and form the cakes of rich protein for local hunters and Indians who make their difficult way across country.

Brandy doesn’t know who he is. Indian? White? Wolf? He howls at his mother sometimes, and she throws him bits of jerky in response. He catches them in his mouth and chews, then runs out the door into the patchwork sunlight and onto the humus carpet on all fours.

TARA LYNN MASIH is editor of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction and The Chalk Circle (both Foreword Books of the Year), Founding Series Editor of The Best Small Fictions, and author of Where the Dog Star Never Glows and My Real Name Is Hanna, a National Jewish Book Awards Finalist and winner of a Julia Ward Howe Award.
JAMES CLAFFEY grew up in Dublin, Ireland. His collection of short fiction, Blood a Cold Blue, is published by Press 53. He is currently putting the finishing edits to a novel set in 1980s Dublin. His work has appeared in numerous journals and magazines, and when not writing he teaches high school English in Santa Barbara, California.

From The Bitter Kind: A Flash Novelette, by Tara Lynn Masih and James Claffey, October 2020 (Červená Barva Press). Permission to excerpt is granted by Červená Barva Press.

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