Flash Fiction: A World in the Palm of Your Hand
As a kid, I collected snow globes. As many as I could get my hands on. The weirder the better.
One was a red kaleidoscope with the snowy globe set ingeniously in a ring around the twistable tubes. Several were modifications on the concept, like the plastic dome that held a smattering of sand, a tiny plastic carrot, and a diminutive top hat I found in a Florida novelty shop. One of my favorites used a plastic deep-sea diver’s helmet as the frame, displaying a world of glitter, seaweed, and circling plastic clownfish through the face plate.
Sun filtering through the globes sent fragments of light spiraling throughout my basement bedroom, disco-fying otherwise gloomy corners. They served as a security system, too, lining glass shelves set into my window, ready to smash and alert me the second an intruder tried to disturb my peace. It was a wide-ranging and varied collection, but it was not their combined power that fed my fascination. Rather, what I liked to do was hold the globes close to my face (so close my nose would bump the glass) and stare into each featured neighborhood, character tableau, or cityscape until the magical moment when the barrier between its miniaturized universe and mine began to disperse.
In one globe, I faded into a replica of Broadway, where I dreamed of Lady MacBething my way across the stages my acting heroes strutted. In another, just a simple brick house, windows lit to show a Christmas tree ringed by packages, and a family, some family like or unlike mine, asleep until the morning that would never come. I loved the perfection of those implied scenarios, each a firework at its peak, each a universe, but just one sliver of it, painstakingly wrought. The changes that could be visited on those spaces were few—snow could be made to fall (or glitter flakes, or tiny, plastic leaves), and rotating a metal tab would sometimes cause the world to spin in only one direction, or to release music meant to match or set the tone of the scene within.
Each globe was a snapshot of a life taken at its “most” something. Its most lovely. Its most hectic. Its most horrifying (as in the case of the single figures—the ballerina doomed to twirl all alone into eternity, the drunk-looking Santa leering in his suspenders, pointing lasciviously at his cherry nose).
I don’t know if I love flash fiction—reading and writing it—because of those globes, or if I collected those globes because something else drives me to examine those small, powerful moments, to take note of the ripple a single change can bring to a life or lives, large or small but always significant and far-reaching. When a story is compressed into the space of 1000, 500, or even 250 words, the author is under great pressure to make it clear, and quickly, why she has invited the reader to the room. There is no time to prevaricate. To set the scene at length. To deliver a lavish back story. Flash fiction depends on each word to do the important work of telling the story, its nature is surprise, and its method requires every reader to bare his willing heart to the knife, and quickly. Readers of flash fiction are given little time to get attached. Little time to fall in love. Little time to grieve. Every second has to count.
In a piece of flash fiction that does its job, one that captures a significant moment at the instance of shift, and hints at the way life cannot, will not, continue on in the same way as before, each flake of snow has a job to do. The reader’s job is only to press her nose to the glass and hold on.
Katie Cortese holds an MFA from Arizona State University and a PhD from Florida State. Her fiction has earned prizes from River Styx, Silk Road, Narrative Magazine, and elsewhere. Her stories, essays, poems, and interviews have most recently appeared in Gulf Coast, Third Coast, Carve Magazine, The Tusculum Review, and Crab Orchard Review, among others. The former editor of The Southeast Review, she currently teaches creative writing at Texas Tech University where she is an Assistant Professor.