Browsing the internet for internships at literary magazines, I stumbled upon this fantastic story by Aryn Kyle, as published in The Atlantic. From a distance, it follows Tess, an almost-nine-year-old girl dealing with the pressures of pre-adolescence. Though I had moments of thinking, “Wait, this is an eight-year-old thinking this?” Kyle definitely struck many nails on the head as far as capturing the irrational fears of childhood. She also does a wonderful job explaining why those fears are not so irrational to the child herself.
The first sentence, an unassuming fact, “Tess lies sometimes,” knocked me over for reasons I still don’t understand. I knew, after those three words, that I would like the way Kyle writes. The way that she presents the opinions of her myriad of characters is unique without being gimmicky. When I read anything that I like, I often react out loud, whether it be laughter, gasps, or the simple statement, “This is so good,” and this time was no different. Though there are characters, like Dirk and Deborah, who strike me as dangerously close to being stock-like, they serve a purpose and serve it well. The details that make us human beings and therefore different from one another seem to be missing from these two, the school therapists who try to figure Tess out, but in the perspective of the story, it makes sense. The details that Tess focuses on are the ones that pertain to her and her narrow, eight-year-old world. The fact that they talk with puppets and ask her questions she’s not sure how to answer and that she’s embarrassed to acknowledge that she knows them at all: these are the compelling bits we can see and interpret with comprehension not yet available to Tess. And she does it all with a sense of humor.
In writing workshops I was always instructed to write for the details, to create moments and characters who have moments that will latch themselves onto the readers’ minds. Kyle manages to do this in so many ways. In this excerpt about the hamsters in Tess’ class at school, she presents a possibly jarring and traumatic experience in a way that leaves its effects on the kids as nondescript as it is to the children at the time. We can only assume and speculate on the exact repercussions of the incident, but Kyle makes no direct comment:
In Tess’s classroom, they have hamsters: a girl hamster named Marigold, and a boy hamster named Bon Jovi. Once, they had baby hamsters, pink and hairless like a pile of squirming thumbs. Miss Morris said that when the hamsters got bigger, she would give them to the students who knew their state capitals best, that those students would each be able to take a baby hamster home to keep. Every day after school, Tess sat at her little table and wrote the capitals over and over again, until the words became part of herself, as real and familiar as her own name. She would have gotten a perfect score except that she mixed up the Virginias. But in the end, Bon Jovi ate all the baby hamsters, and nobody got to have one.
She breaks our heart without letting on that that was her intent. I love free fiction online. Take advantage.
What I Wish I’d Written:
“‘You’re ugly,’ he whispers, and sticks her arm with the point of his pencil. ‘You have big, ugly ears.’
“Tess’s ears prickle. They are pink and naked at the sides of her head like two cupped hands sticking out through her hair. She stares straight ahead at the Billy puppet, at his flat, lipless mouth and blank circle eyes. It is the same puppet that played Andy last week in a show about how to know if your friends are selling drugs.
“When the song is finished, Deborah asks if anyone has a question. Beth, whose mouth is always wet and spitty in the corners, raises her hand. ‘Does Billy’s mom ever hit him with a rolled-up newspaper?’ she asks.
“Dirk frowns. ‘Mmm, maybe,’ he says. ‘But mostly she does really bad things, like hold his hand on a hot stove.'”
Image courtesy of tredway.com.