In Cathy Ulrich’s second book, Small, Burning Things, she proves again how mighty flash fiction can be. These tight short stories are mostly women- or girl-centered, and all of the fiction brought in some uncomfortable aspect relationships. Small, Burning Things solidifies Urich’s position not only in the world a flash fiction, but in fiction in general.
The first story, “A Burning Girl,” starts as a fairy tale would. “There was one day at school that one of the girls start on fire.” Such an absurd line compels the reader forward, including this reader, which wanted to know why the girl started on fire. Also, I was intrigued that Ulrich would start with such a poignant story in this collection. It is a story about girlhood, about thinness and belonging, but it is much more complicated than all of those things combined. What works really well in this first story and in each subsequent story is what is left unsaid, unwritten, screams across each page. And does the girl actually burn? We are not given an answer. At least we are not given an answer in this first story alone.
“How We Fossilize” comes immediately after “A Burning Girl,” and is just as powerful, but in a different way. She begins the story with two very poetic lines, “Cows fall into the river and float away, till their carcasses wash up on the banks near our house. Their ribs are like dinosaur teeth.” Another writer would use those lines as a starting point to spring onto a literal meaning, but here, Ulrich stays with the dead cows. They are the center of the story. They become the stuff of playthings: “At night, we shine flashlights on our fists. Our fingers make the shape of dead cows on the wall.” Of course, a story that begins with dead cows can only lead to something horrible, but the way we’re led is handled expertly.
In these pages, there are stories of unrequited love, unsuspected death, abandoned babies, and metamorphosis bordering on body horror. Like a poet, Ulrich plays with language with ease. For instance, in “A House with Mughal-Style Doors,” she starts each paragraph with the same phrase as if it is an anaphora. She uses imagery to paint the difficult parts of heartbreak and loss, and she lets the white space on the page do so much work. These are short stories that are mostly two or three pages long, or even, like the story “There Is No Word For A Mother Who Has Lost Her Child,” less than a page. A mere paragraph. And in that paragraph, the word dear and deer are repeated again and again. Somehow that brief, micro fiction lingers and lasts.
Ulrich is a prolific storyteller. You can find a lot of her work online and in print in literary magazines. She is also a champion of other writers’ works, sharing others’ short stories and flash fiction on social media, and editing the successful short story journal Milk Candy Review. Reading her work, it is clear that she has strong command of the short story form. Her flash fiction are more than slices of life; They are large moments boldly told. They are full of characters as round as any character found in a novel. They are weighty and whimsical, and they are enjoyable and serious.
I want to end by talking about one more short story, and that is the last story, “A Burning Girl (ii). It starts pretty much as the first story does (“There was one day at school a girl started on fire”), but it takes a quick shift, differentiating it from the first story. This story is shorter—less than a page—but just as powerful, just as indelible. It serves as a perfect ending for these harrowing tales.
Small, Burning Things by Cathy Ulrich
Okay Donkey Press
DeMisty D. Bellinger is the author of the novel New to Liberty and of the poetry collection Peculiar Heritage. Her work can be found in various journals and anthologies, in print and online. DeMisty is a creative writing professor in the middle of Massachusetts. Learn more about DeMisty at demistybellinger.com .