Stories of the Mid-Month

This is the tale of sister stories. They share a mother, me, and a father, an Italian idiom that’d been translated into English. Both stories were born in a global pandemic.

If you’ve never come across idioms translated from their native language into your own, go search for some. What seems to make sense (until you think about them) rarely translates well. Several years ago, I found a website of idioms from around the world translated into English and colorfully illustrated. Reading through the list felt like reading flash fiction prompts.

It was.

Several idioms popped like a gun fired at the start of a race, my imagination off the blocks and adrenaline fueled. Each Friday, I’d work with one to create a piece of flash fiction. My intent was to teach myself flash-fiction techniques—strong imagery, tight prose, use of in medias res, alliteration, repetition, metaphor, and similes—and to improve my general writing skills.

In the meantime, the COVID pandemic ravaged Northern Italy, wiping out families, neighborhoods, and even villages. The news reported military vehicles transporting stacks of coffins and neighbors singing from the safety of their balconies. Once the pandemic seemed to be taking a breather, my husband and I drove down to Venice. When I came upon the Italian idiom, “fuori come un balcone” (outside as a balcony), which relates to the English idiom “you’re off your rocker,” I felt prompted to write a piece about the pandemic’s impact on a Venetian neighborhood.

I reworked and submitted “Outside as a Balcony (Italian: Fuori come un balcone)” several times before Bandit Fiction accepted it. Happy days!

Two years later, Mediterranean Poetry contacted me, the editor apologizing for reaching out so long after I’d submitted “Outside as a Balcony (Italian: Fuori come un balcone)” for consideration. Apparently, my submission had landed and languished in his Spam folder—but he wished to publish it.

At first, I panicked—had I not withdrawn my submission from his publication?

(I had.)

I also checked his submission guidelines. The publication accepted previously published work. So, why not say yes? I responded, mentioning the piece’s publication in Bandit Fiction and that if he was fine with publishing it again (two years, after all, had passed), I’d be happy to see it in Mediterranean Poetry.

But apparently, the Bandit Fiction story wasn’t the story I’d submitted to Mediterranean Poetry (I’d deleted my submission email and had no idea what I’d actually submitted. The editor kindly sent me the copy I’d submitted to him. The two stories read like two sides of a moon. Since I liked both, I gave the editor permission to run the piece he loved.

They’re great examples of what a difference strong edits and a changing approach to repetition can make. Should you wish to compare them, here they are:

Bandit Fiction: “Outside as a Balcony (Italian: Fuori come un balcone)

Mediterranean Poetry: “Outside as a Balcony (Italian: Fuori come un balcone)

What do you think?

Mid-Month Surprise Reveal

So, we’re halfway through January! Time for the surprise I promised. What I have in mind is to share and discuss a story each month. I’ll start with a piece of flash fiction, “Quail,” by Vicki Xu and published by Split Lip Magazine.

“Quail” is set in a Chinese supermarket. Buried in its opening is a hint of a buried regret. Aunty Li, the story’s main character, has “learned to find comfort in” the jumbled Mandarin of Chinese expats living in America. But hearing a snatch of childhood dialect, pure in form, sets off lush, full-sensory memories, and in a moment, we see the contrasts between present and past, an artificial and a natural environment, that reveal the pretense of Aunty Li’s “comfort.” Set among “neat aisles,” where everything is compartmentalized, shelved, and far removed from its place of origins, Aunty Li’s separation from place, community, language, mother, daughter, and self is exposed. A quiet, unassuming moment feels volcanic, and we’re left imagining its seismic repercussions.

“Quail” perfectly illustrates flash fiction’s power of compression. Reading this precisely crafted moment set off seismic waves within me. Who doesn’t have, like Aunty Li, regrets in life? Our regrets might involve a relationship, a job, or the dull routines consuming our day-to-days. Consuming time itself. Perhaps we regret inaction or some bold move. Like Aunty Li, we might counter the stress of experiencing regret by creating a false sense of contentment and convincing ourselves that we find comfort within it.

Reading Vicki Xu’s “Quail,” what did you feel? Is there something in your life that could trigger a memory with the power to create seismic waves? Try to express that moment and imply its repercussions in fewer than 300 words.