Back in 2004, a piece of flash fiction, inspired by my Irish granny, was selected as one of the winners of the Piccolo Spoleto Fiction Open. I got to read it during the festival, in Charleston and it subsequently aired on public radio. It hasn’t been published, though, so I’m giving it a home here. The link to the list of winners is below. For there, you’ll easily see how to find (and read some of) the winners in other years. The full text of my winning story from 2004, Jessie Finds Herself, is below the link.
Jessie Finds Herself
Sunlight, strained through stained glass, casts red and green and orange on the heads of rows of parishioners. Jessie fixes on a watery blue cast not by the Glory-Be-To-God windows, but by the hairdressers of this Scottish seaside village. Sitting with her spine so straight as to make the wooden pews seem slouched, Jessie usually attends the sermon fully, focusing on each word arching out of Reverend Williams’ mouth, landing without a splash. Today, the minister talks of families. As he goes on about growing the congregation with youth, increasing the numbers of children in the crèche and grandchildren who visit, the words seem to dribble down his chin rather than diving elegantly outward. Jessie’s younger son died years ago, hardly having fully committed himself to being 30-something. His wife took their daughter somewhere Jessie was unable to follow. Jessie wiggles her toe secretly in her polished black shoe, thinking of her other son who has taken a far-off promotion and her grandchildren with it. She thinks of them across the Atlantic; thinks maybe she’ll stroll down to the shore after the service and look at the ocean’s calm blue on this sunny day. It’s then, as she tries to pull her attention back inside, back to the spray of the sermon, that she realizes she’s already amid a sea of blue. Curled blue heads dot nearly every row of pew, front to (she dares a half-turn of her head) back.
As she has the thought, the rolling waves of blue-haired ladies rise to sing on the minister’s command. Jessie stands too, of course, briefly thinking how the minister’s walk down the aisle at the end of the service must look a wee bit like the parting of the waters as each blue wave turns its face towards him. Jessie banishes the blasphemy, absently patting her head and so realizing that she, too, is a wave.
Perhaps because of the sermon, she thinks first of the children. She has told those grandchildren repeatedly, “Be an individual.” She’s known the value of this since childhood; learning it by watching her mother bring her and her four sisters from World War I to adulthood without heading to the Parish line, ever. They held their heads above the tide of poverty by thinking for themselves. That’s what she’s tried to teach her grandchildren.
Jessie sings along with the hymn, resists the urge to turn her head with the rest of the waves when the minister passes. She slides out of the pew behind the others, a tide changing directions.
Outside, she glances up at the sky, forgets the stroll. She wants to check the calendar; to confirm that she’s a hair appointment on Tuesday. She thinks of the other ladies under the dryers, blue setting into their silver hair. She pictures herself, separate, stepping out after, no longer one of the rolling blue waves but a newly released white crest.