“Try unearthing something fresh” is Amelia Gray’s advice to writers of short fiction. “The best stories have something that needs to be said urgently: now, today, this very moment.”
Freshness and urgency is a difficult combination for a writer to achieve, but many entrants in this year’s Observer short story contest, guest judged by Gray, hit the mark. The five finalists are arguably our strongest batch yet, but getting there required some punishing decisions.
Throughout September we’ll publish the four runners-up, in no particular order, leading up to the winning story in our October issue. So far you’ve read Nancy Dinan’s “Melanie Lewis Plays Dominoes” and Fernando Flores’ “Lee Harvey in His Element.”
Today we offer Chelsea Sutton’s “Only Animals,” a story inspired by a Bukowski poem, as the author tells us after the piece.
The famous rock star dies in his motel room on the same evening my father falls from a nine-story high-rise. He had been writing the words THE TIGERS HAVE FOUND ME AND I DO NOT CARE in bright-green spray paint across the eighth and ninth floors.
The radioman says the rock star’s body is going on a farewell tour. Fifty new concerts over the next ninety days, so get ready, America, and get your tickets before they’re gone.
At the morgue, my mother and I identify my father’s body, green spray paint making his hair stand straight and tall and sharp.
My heart is so far up my throat that I can taste it between my teeth. The body with the green hair, my father, is crushed on the left side, face cracked like a grin, and I press a finger against the crumpled flesh, leaving my fingerprint firmly mixed with the blood and cement dust. My mother sighs and says death and crying are such repulsive things, especially when seen together, good lord, we might as well be animals, only animals would make such a mess of themselves.
The radioman talks about the rock star’s death in a voice soaking in lip gloss and sugar water, for weeping and grief are ugly things and ugly things are criminal acts, dear listeners.
My mother sends me to a support group, Daughters of the Dead.
The group leader opens her arms big and wide and smiles with glowing teeth and says welcome, welcome, my daughters, what a lovely day, so please try to smile. She makes us sit in a circle on the carpet and quote lyrics from the rock star’s songs.
The carpet is thin, tightly curled grayish-green, and it makes me think of my father’s skin, nearly translucent beside the neon shine of his hair.
The group leader makes us sing, and sway, and drum our fingers on our knees until the skin is red and rashy. I don’t know the lyrics to the rock star’s songs. Not one word. But the sound of skin snapping against skin is a sizzling kind of sound, the kind that bubbles and boils over everything in a room, including my ears, including my memory, including my ability to lip-sync words that have never shown themselves to me.
The girl sitting beside me picks at the carpet. She also does not know the lyrics to the rock star’s songs, but she is not practiced at hiding it. Her father did not let her listen to music or watch movies or look at art, she says, because he was scared, so very scared. With each word, she pulls out one strand of straining carpet fiber, like pulling off a scab. He was scared of me feeling sad or confused or, you know. The ugly things.
Fear is an ugly thing too, says the group leader, so if you’re scared like your father, I’ll need to put it in your file.
I’m watching the girl’s hands and they’re shaking with each pull of the carpet. Her hair is scattered onyx and chocolate, a streak of blue down the right side, which she claims appeared overnight, the same night her father died while ice fishing, the same night my father fell while painting the words THE TIGERS HAVE FOUND ME AND I DO NOT CARE, and for once I do not hate the electric orange of my own hair, because of the way it complements the black of hers so exactly.
I say the girl is not scared, she’s only describing her father, and it wouldn’t be fair to punish anyone for the feelings of their father, would it?
The group leader’s smile twitches and she asks the girl what she is feeling now, if she is not frightened.
Cold, says the girl. I feel cold.
The award-winning actor dies in his home on the same day my father goes into the ground, and the radioman announces in a vanilla voice that the actor’s skull will be bleached and given to the Royal Shakespeare Company, where it will star in every production of Hamlet in the foreseeable future.
I walk the streets at night with a can of paint, spraying the word TIGERS on cement and asphalt and brick. I check to see if my father’s last words remain on the nine-story high-rise. I paint a net on the sidewalk where he fell.
At Daughters of the Dead, we watch the actor’s movies. Sit quietly and slide your awkward wet emotions into the cracks between headlines and glossy spectacle, because the trouble with your generation, says the group leader, is you don’t know how to let go, you don’t understand beauty when it’s staring you in the face.
In the dark, I whisper my secret to the girl with blue-streaked hair, my secret of spray paint and the net and how I felt my heart in my throat but perhaps that is nothing to be concerned about, do you think so?
The girl shakes her head and takes my hand, ice growing in tendrils on her skin, her cold breath chilling my ear with a whisper. Do you cry, she asks.
Her father loved to go ice fishing, though he never caught much of anything, she says, and when he did he’d always eat the fish while it was still alive.
Bones and all, she says. They’re animals, and only animals have messy deaths. They must be reminded of what they are, she says, that’s what my father thought. They must be reminded.
I remember the rib bones poking from my father’s chest and my heart crawls up to the tip of my tongue as if it might leap and suicide itself straight into the bowl of popcorn or splat onto the grey carpet. I choke it down in the dark. The actor’s film begins the training montage, and I squeeze the girl’s hand.
He fell, hit his head, plopped into the water, she says. He must have bobbed under the ice for some ten hours before they found him. She fingers bits of the blue streak in her hair.
Did you cry, I ask.
Only a little. She pulls a bit of the blue hair to my face. And look what happened.
Pictures of the rock star’s farewell tour circulate, his face blue and sticky. In London, the actor’s skull attends its first rehearsal of Hamlet. At the dinner table, I ask my mother what she thinks my father meant by THE TIGERS HAVE FOUND ME AND I DO NOT CARE. She stares at her plate and sighs and says this chicken needs more salt, don’t you think?
The renowned artist dies in her studio on the same day my mother gets the final bill from the mortuary, the radioman’s voice gooey as he says the artist’s body will be the subject of her final outdoor installation, her own artsy burial, and don’t you want to see it, dear listeners?
The evening of her death I go on my nightly walk only to find wet white paint covering my net. The side of the building is clean and crisp, my father’s words washed away.
The Daughters of the Dead visit the installation at the graveyard, and the group leader pushes us to the front of the silent crowd, it’s only fair, they’re so young and impressionable, she says, so we end up right on the ropes.
The artist’s body sits before us, gravestones surrounding her and jetting off into the distance, her face puffy and red, eyes fixated and warm and wet, a smile stretching painfully, her hand out, palm up, her hair a brilliant shade of green.
The girl with the blue-black hair grabs my hand and squeezes. Her hand is cold and wet and slippery and I can feel myself falling through green paint, I can feel myself splashing into icy water, I can feel myself.
And I cry for the first time.
Next to me, the girl begins to cry too. My whole arm is numb and cold and blue, but I don’t let go of her hand. My face contorts into ugly shapes, cracked, mangled shadows of grins, like the body with the green hair, my father, who fell feeling the wind on his face.
Groans erupt from the crowd, find my skin like fangs. And I don’t care. I crumple and fall on all fours. The girl falls with me.
Hair rips through my flesh, all cement dust and electric orange and neon-green stripes.
Beside me, the girl is black and white and blue stripes zigzagging over her freckles, her tears falling like snow, catching on her whiskers.
The group leader screams bits of the rock star’s lyrics and the actor’s best lines and says she’s going to have to note this in our files, we’ve left her no choice. Sirens mix with the groans, boots clomping toward us.
I claw at the earth as if digging him back up. The girl digs too, as if searching for a hole in the ice. The tigers will find you. They are trying to find you. They already have.
The girl’s voice crackles like crunching fish bones.
A howl escapes my throat, mixing with the groans of the crowd until it is all one big howl, one big roar, one mess of salty-sour voices in one sad ugly beautiful song.
Chelsea Sutton on “Only Animals”:
“Only Animals” was created out of three intersecting ideas. First, my newfound love of Charles Bukowski and my devouring of everything he’s written. In particular, I came across a poem about grief called “For Jane,” in which you will find the line “the tigers have found me / and I do not care.” Second, this was written during a moment when three celebrities had died in a row (they always go in threes) and I was struck by the shared grief on social media; it was both profoundly sad and profoundly ridiculous to me that we were using these people we did not actually know as vehicles for grief. And third, I am always interested in how we as humans try to contain ourselves into preconceived boxes. This story explores what happens when the box is no longer enough.