My new piece doesn’t win the Fish Flash Fiction contest. I am stunned. I thought I was going to win. I thought “The Second Flood” was that good. (Did I know I thought I would win? Have I ever thought I would win before?) I scan the short list and then the long list. My piece is not on either one. If I needed to right now, I would be unable to speak, to push out words that make sense. I scan the short list and the long list two more times in case I missed my name. It is not there. There were more than 900 entries, but I can’t believe my story wasn’t even in the top ten percent. I plunge. I wonder how I could have been so delusional. How could I think my piece was any good at all? I know I am a terrible writer. I am underwater, deep in the cold sea where no light lives. I don’t know how long I stay submerged. Maybe work drags me back up, makes be break the surface, breathe air, answer helpdesk questions, grade summaries. Days pass. I am lying on my back in the courtyard in chavasanah. I dream up ways my livelihood might move even more toward my writing. I picture percussive instruments at my writing retreat, and my feet bounce on the yoga mat. I think of a new way of structuring, “When I Was a Dog.” My fingers itch for the pen. “Commit more deeply to your No. 1 focus,” this week’s horoscope says, “and throw yourself into the daring adventure of it.” I leap. This water is warm, strewn with sunlight. I roll over and float on my back, let the tide take me. I remember I can swim.
I pick up my manuscript again on Friday after three months. I cradle it to my chest. I love it without opening it. Then I spend the day reading it. I mark changes in my purple Pilot. It surprises me how few things I find compared to all the other passes I have made. There is magic in this, the way I don’t push, the way I read it all the way through, the way I treasure it. Not big, intense moments, but deep ones and quiet ones, knowing I am happy with this book of mine. The next morning when the sky begins to lighten I see the waning crescent moon. I go back to bed and dream I am on a boat beside an island. There are five carved wooden birds near the top deck, painted in blues and reds and blacks. I get my camera because I am hunting for a new photograph for my coming year of blogging. When I look through the lens in the dream, I see the intelligence in the birds’ eyes, a keen knowing, and the moon hangs below them in the morning light. When I wake up and go out to feed the birds, a hummingbird lands on the top arc of the bougainvillea, and in the curving of my head to watch her, I see the moon again in our daylight sky, echo of the dream. In the last of the late afternoon, I walk to Ralph’s. When I leave the store it’s almost dark. The palm fronds are moving in a warm wind, and the light of late dusk feels again like magic, like I am coming back out into a different world. Sometimes, I think, the years I might have left to me seem too short.
I type, my legs stretched out before me, computer on my lap, afternoon sun beside me on the couch. I am revising a piece I wrote in our Monday group, an hour left before the contest deadline, midnight in the UK. I read my work out loud, like I teach my students. I find tiny things to change. I am deep in the writing when I hear a hummingbird, look up to see her in the living room, the female guardian of the feeder outside the open louvers. In the corner of my eye I think there is another flash, but surely not, not two of them inside at one time. My familiar female hovers near me, then visits the red glass star hanging in the window. When she flies out I hear her friend, still in the room with me, not my imagination. She peers out the kitchen window to the courtyard, then rests on one of the open louvers before leaving me alone, the flutter of hummingbird wings reverberating in the room.
So swift the cloud’s shadow moving on my mountain
A dinosaur lowering her huge head to the ground
Hungry for scrub brush after the rain.
My book manuscript sits on the stool, clean new printout, spiral bound. Now and then I pick it up, rub the clear plastic cover with one hand the way I used to stroke my cats. I cradle it against my chest with both arms, rocking side to side. I am in love with its fresh newness. I am in love with its story. I am in love with its existence after all these years. I am eager to make my final pass or two through its pages. But I am not doing it. I think that’s okay. I trust I’ll pick it up at the right time. I wonder if I’m avoiding, resisting, afraid to finish. And if I am, is it because I don’t want it to be over? Because I don’t want to have to grieve? Or is it because I am afraid of what comes next? Maybe all of it is true. But I am comforted to see it waiting for me on the stool. That feels like a good sign. “Soon,” I murmur. “Soon.”
Tuesday morning I wake up happy again, the first time in weeks. I don’t know why. I am still drinking two strong cups of yerba maté each day, still eating chips and other junky food, still drinking too much kombucha. But my heart lifts over nothing, some secret balance restored, chemistry and spirit righted. Monday was my writing group and sitting group again, so I can point to them, too, but I know it is not that simple. Unexpected joy comes when it will. I am lucky in how often it visits. I stop writing for a moment now, shift in the tall, metal chair, twist my back in an easy stretch, catch the changed light on the cement of the courtyard beside the clay cat. October light. Ordinary miracle. A hummingbird tastes the Mexican petunias four feet from where I sit, purple blossom after purple blossom wiggling on their stems. I can hear my white-crowned sparrows nibbling seeds in the small, square tray feeder tucked beneath the bougainvillea, her own sagging branches, heavy with fuchsia blooms, hiding the birds from me. Yesterday, I heard a verdin peeping outside the open window to the street. I looked up from the computer in time to watch him hop onto a louver, flit to the curtain rod inside, have a look around the living room. I didn’t stop grinning until he’d had his fill and hopped back out again. Today, I am washing dishes when I hear a flurry in the courtyard, a loud thud on the sliding glass door. I turn from the sink in time to see my Cooper’s hawk swoop between the orange umbrellas and follow a dove up over the roof. I’d been dreaming about the winter, about hot springs, about being naked, submerged in the water, cold air against my face, touching my warmed shoulders when I moved. Ordinary magic. Extraordinary gifts.
My short story “Between My Ribs” is a finalist for the 2018 American Fiction Short Story Award from New Rivers Press. The 19 stories selected for their anthology are now with the final judge who will choose the first, second and third place winners in the next few weeks. I’ve been eager to tell you, my readers, wanting to share this sweet news, knowing you’ll feel glad for me and wish me well in this. But I’ve been shy about it, too. As I write, I feel big gratitude and quiet glee. But I’m not sure I can do justice to all the feelings this evokes in me. I feel thrilled and grateful and lucky. Of course. And I’m delighted my first publication will be with this university press who I’ve been so fond of for years now. But I feel afraid and sad and uncomfortable, too, and I can’t really point to why. I know I’ve been grappling with my discomfort over wanting to win. I feel honored to be chosen for the anthology, but I would very much like to win the contest, too. I worry about being greedy, so I wrestle with it. “Of course you want to win,” I say. “That’s only natural.” But it sits awkward in me, this wanting it to be more. But maybe I am only afraid of being disappointed if my story isn’t chosen for first place. Maybe it’s as simple as that.
But there is a deep desire in me to win. I want that recognition. I’ve held myself back in so many ways for most of my life, I think. I want to just step forward here. I want to lead this collection. So I’ll ask for your good wishes in this now while the judge is still reading our stories, still weighing his responses to each of them, still sorting through them for himself. I whisper my own prayers into the palms of my cupped hands. I can hear the house finch in the courtyard, and the mountains are clear this morning for the first time in months, keeping vigil with me. I kiss the center of my palms, fold them around each other, bring them to my heart. I sit very still, holding my hope. And then I open my hands, slow movements, the bird released to take to the sky. I grin, lightened, filled with the honor of this gift, at peace in this moment with whatever is meant to unfold next.
And thank you, too, for holding this in your own hearts with me. Just the thought of it makes me want to cry.
[Editor’s note: I don’t know much about Facebook, so this is clunky. But below is both their announcement of the finalists and my own section of that post when you scroll through all the photos. Here I am in my goofy head covering—I got the news when I was staying at the hostel and had to get a photo to them right away, so I took this with my iPad in my favorite chair outside. You can also access the post in their Facebook page here.]