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Small, Burning Things cover“There was one day at school that one of the girls started on fire.” This is the first sentence of Small, Burning Things, Cathy Ulrich’s second story collection—a punchy opening that immediately plunges the reader into the whimsical, often surreal flash pieces that compose the book. What follows is a collection that examines themes of death, grief, and girlhood through the brevity and impact that is afforded only by flash fiction, and which makes use of the capabilities of the form to deliver poignant pieces that sting like fleeting, sharp burns.

Most of the pieces have a speculative element, ranging from the magical realism of a group of teenage girls falling from the sky to the touch of science fiction in the story of a girl’s relationship with a mad scientist, during which she regularly has her body parts replaced by robotic alternatives. The conjunction of the stories, however, creates a tense, mysterious atmosphere that extends to the more realistic pieces. Even something mundane, like a lover getting ready for a night out with the married man she’s seeing, gains an otherworldly sheen.

Part of this is achieved by the lyricism in Ulrich’s prose, which frequently uses repetition to create a sense of rhythm and sound. In the previously mentioned mundane story, “A Tree Falls,” for example, the lover in question is only referred to as “the girl with the dolphin tattoo,” and the echo of this expression carries the piece’s pace until the end. This trend continues in other stories. In “We Used to Play with Baby Dolls,” the repetition of the phrase “we find the alive baby” in the first two paragraphs emphasizes the importance of this event and its meaning for the narrators. Similarly, every paragraph in “A House with Mughal-Style Doors” begins with the words “after the party,” importing the magnitude of the aftermath to the reader. The lyricism isn’t a gimmick, but a strategically employed tool that makes the stories more effective.

“We Used to Play with Baby Dolls” is one of the several pieces throughout the collection that tackles the theme of motherhood. Finding an abandoned baby represents a change for the protagonists, and they recognise the weight of that change, even if they don’t bear it alone, “not yet.” “Maybe in the Clouds, Maybe in the Stars” takes on the same weight, this time focusing on a character crushed by it, a “woman upstairs” who starts drowning her children. In that story, narrated by a first person plural chorus of the other residents in the neighborhood, motherhood comes across like a prison, and the woman’s crimes allow her to escape it, even if momentarily. The woman “has always been pregnant,” the narrators tell; they don’t know her voice, the beauty of her songs, until she resorts to killing as a way to rebel. Then, they can hear her singing.

Motherhood is also associated with another big theme in the collection, the disappearance of young girls. “Your Sister’s Children Always Disappear” is a magical take on the topic, evoking a maternity-related anxiety in the story of the protagonist’s sister, whose babies keep literally vanishing anytime she looks away. She “practices not blinking,” but it’s never enough: she can never give enough of herself to keep her children safe. A similar feeling of absence and motherly guilt is echoed in the stories “A House with Mughal-Style Doors” and “You Were Always Coming Home.” The first is the tale of a woman identified only as “Deirdre’s mother,” who finds herself going through the motions of life after a specific party at which an implied tragedy took place. The second story focuses on an unnamed daughter who has disappeared, whose mother still waits for her to come home. Despite not being explicitly connected, both pieces nevertheless complement each other, like two mirrors creating infinite reflections.

Disappearing becomes intrinsically connected to girlhood in stories like “An Emptiness Forever,” in which a group of young kids mourns the disappearance of an unnamed girl from their school. The story isn’t magical in nature, but the narrators cling to magical thinking to connect their everyday activities to the disappeared girl:

If Celia spills her milk and she doesn’t wipe it up before it drip-drip-drips onto the floor, that means you’re dead, they’ll find your body within the week. If Keisha’s paper-bag lunch lands in the garbage on her first try, that means you ran away, you’re in hiding, you’ll surface in a decade on the talk-show circuit, with an Instagram account, with a bestseller Disappearing for Dummies.

Under the looming danger that surrounds them as they grow, the narrators imagine for themselves the power to save or doom the missing girl. The fantasy isn’t a guarantee of salvation, but a tool to recover a sense of agency in face of such mysterious grief.

One of the collections’s longer pieces, “The Falling Girls,” features a similar scenario, as a group of narrators watch, impotent, as several girls in their school commit suicide, one by one. In these stories that feature multiple protagonists, the use of the first person plural perspective comes off as intentional and effective: in “The Falling Girls,” for instance, the kids’ failure as a group to comprehend the victims illustrates the isolation of the traumas that can come with girlhood.

There is, though, a common thread throughout this book: a desire to “find” these girls, not just in the sense of recovering their physical bodies, but as an effort to know and understand them. Girls and women in Ulrich’s stories are constantly observed by a narrator who struggles to make sense of them: a girl falls in love with a bat, a group of girls who live in an attic wonder about the lives of those who live in the basement, a neighbor marries a bird, a woman who dances with snakes is doomed to die in the first sentence. In this latter piece, the reader is acknowledged as an observer, as yet another person bearing witness to a woman’s tragedies: “I know it’s not what you want to hear, but the snake woman will die at the end of this story. I know you want to believe there are better things ahead for snake women, bright things, shiny soft things, things without teeth and venom and coiling, scaled bodies.”

Though often portrayed as a feminine condition, absence also affects, on occasion, male characters: “The Largest Man” features an isolated man who is kept apart from the world because of his size; “Everybody Loves the Boy Detectives” is told from the perspective of a gay couple dreaming of a fantasy world, free from homophobia; and “The Difference Between Alligators and Crocodiles” is told from the perspective of a woman who watches her boyfriend get wrapped up in a quest for revenge against the alligator who killed his father. The loneliness inherent in a lack of understanding persists, the absence of connection weighing on each character, looming over every sentence.

Through nuance, empathy, and magic, then, Ulrich crafts a collection in which each brief piece feels like a unique and essential part of a larger whole. In this way, reading the book mirrors the experience of the characters, and the reader becomes a witness to their tragedies, trapped inside their desire to understand each other. We are observers to destructive relationships, ghosts, cloning, and above all to women who remain unreachable—who are visible for one shiny moment, only to vanish from our eyes, escaping from our grasp.



Fernanda Coutinho Teixeira is a fiction writer with a penchant for the fantastical, the scary, and the weird. Born in Rio de Janeiro, she is a second-year graduate student in the Creative Writing MFA at University of Central Florida. Her work has been published in Strange Horizons, The Deadlands and The Ex-Puritan. You can find her at http://fernandacoutinhoteixeira.com/ and on instagram, @fercoutinhotex.
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