Andrew Caughey, BFR Editorial Staff

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I’m not much of an artist—or really, any of an artist. I can’t draw, can barely read my own handwriting, and if I paint it looks like a bird took a technicolor shit. But I like Photoshop—the files, clicking, filters: it’s technical, but meritocratic.

Here, I’ve copy-pasted the first lines from Radiohead’s Faust Arp over a rainbow made from a lite-brite, the Sistine Chapel, and ultra-pixelated drawing from a movie poster from Faust.

Evan Bauer, BFR Editorial Staff

In judging this year’s flash fiction contest entries, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Yasunari Kawabata, a master of the form.

Yasunari Kawabata was a Japanese writer who, in 1968, became the first Japanese author to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. While he is likely better known for his novels, such as Snow Country and The Sound of the Mountain, Kawabata worked on short stories throughout his career. He calls these stories “Palm of the hand stories,” likely because they could fit in the palm of one’s hand. Each story often comprises only a single page, with longer ones ranging from three to five pages, yet all of them reach beyond their limited confines.

Kawabata was a master of concision; he knew exactly what to include and what to leave out. The brevity of these stories results from this careful craft. The stories contain only the necessary, and these necessary components guide the reader’s imagination in exploring what is left out of the stories.

In “Canaries,” in just over one page, we read a man’s letter to his former mistress. The affair happened long ago, and the man’s wife is now dead. All that remains of the man’s past love affairs is a pair of canaries gifted to him by his mistress, and these canaries, along with the question of what to do with them now, guide the man’s letter. Though the letter is remarkably brief, readers learn a novel’s worth of information about the man’s relationship to his wife and mistress. This effect is characteristic of Kawabata’s tight control; by attaching abstract concepts—grief, regret, the nature of memory—to something both concrete and unique—the canaries—Kawabata was able to craft an evocative story of astounding brevity that lingers in the mind far longer than the time taken to read it. The story presents a limited amount of information, but its presentation kindles the reader’s imagination, allowing the reader to explore perhaps why the man cheated, why the affair disbanded, why he let his wife care for the canaries, and so forth. It is this style of carefully selecting what to leave to the reader’s imagination, I believe, that allows Kawabata’s stories to function so powerfully while breaking from the more traditional story form of having a clear beginning, middle, and end.

With regards to concision, another aspect of note in Kawabata’s stories is his treatment of names. On the whole, characters’ names are withheld; instead they are simply “the man,” or “the innkeeper,” or “the hairdresser.” Only when the number of characters warrants the use of a name for purposes of differentiation do characters receive names. This authorial choice ties back to Kawabata’s tactic of boiling a story down to only the essentials. For example, in “Her Mother’s Eye,” the kleptomaniac nursemaid is referred to only as “the nursemaid”; a name would not be relevant, but her profession is. Similarly, the story’s innkeeper is simply “the innkeeper,” and the maid simply “the maid.” This tactic achieves two effects: it establishes the characters’ relationships to one another in few words, and it gives the characters an ephemeral, ghostlike quality. This second effect is slightly less subject to critical analysis, but there is something to the namelessness of characters that makes them simultaneously more and less memorable. It is as though each story occurs in a rolling fog, unveiling itself during a reading, then dissolving back into the fog once the page is turned. The specificity of each character’s role in a story leaves a lasting impression, but the reader’s incapability to attach this impression to a name, as though it could have been any man or innkeeper or hairdresser, gives these stories their ethereal, dreamlike quality. And this effect, I believe, is one to be admired.

While I think it can be inauspicious to try to emulate another writer’s style too closely, I find that there are a few valuable tips to be gleaned from Palm-of-the-Hand-Stories for the aspiring short fiction writer, especially in terms of flash fiction. First, when envisioning one’s story, one should consider what the absolute essentials are, and in this process, one should not be afraid to reevaluate how these essentials are determined. Things that may seem essential, such as a clear story arc or character names, may in fact not be, as can be seen in Kawabata’s stories. Having determined the essentials, one should boil down the story until only the necessities remain. Leave the story on the burner, leave and return, switch to a different burner and let it simmer, leave and return until it has been distilled into its most concise form. Once the story says the most it can in as few words as possible, then one can at last turn off the stove.

And for those who simply enjoy reading short fiction, I highly recommend picking up a copy of Palm-of-the-Hand-Stories. Savor one of Kawabata’s delicate, poetic pieces each night and let it whisk you into its foggy, dream world as you fall asleep.

Yohey Cho, BFR Staff

A slimy, oatmeal-like, little blob is reacting to the edgy riff of the electric guitar. ”The very unpleasant little creature” from the Flight of the Navigator. Its cells are just beginning to awaken from their inert slumber as they begin to do little flips and contortions, throbbing together as they bathe in the fluid that is secreted from every corner around them. The rugged sound of my electric guitar fills the empty room. Leftovers of yesterday’s meal are standing there, smelling like a grimy drain and vegetables that are too green to eat. Today, I would eat an egg for breakfast. I fixed it and swallowed it down with some coffee made from deep-roasted beans. Inside the gooey stuff, a soul was pulsating. It was my soul. Satisfied with my breakfast, I played a few more cords. The goo inside me began to throb again. It was gradually growing, fusing with my body from inside.

There were trees outside. I and the goo had been walking under their needle-shaped leaves for a little while. These trees used to be different. Until the dictator put a spell on them. He took their personalities away and made them uniform.

The goo was expanding inside my body. I could tell that my membranes were being used by it as places for it to gradually siphon my bodily fluids into without interfering too much with the rest of my body.

Everyone knew that the dictator himself was just a spell. It was said that Someone, some higher being, was responsible for it.

We came close to the cliff. By then, I had turned into the goo. A waste pipe was opening up to the ground where we stood. It led along the side of the cliff to the top where the fortress stood. We went into it and crawled upwards for about half a mile. Inside, it was dark and gunky. A faint sound of music was coming from the direction of the cliff itself. As we went up, the music became louder and louder until it turned into the hum of a machine. We found an exit, and it let us into an enormous room. There were windows on all sides that were looking out onto the clouds. We walked around. Nobody was there. Just thousands of machines lined up all over the place. Some looked old and some new. Many of them looked like they were made of components from different ages put together. Others looked like they were ancient but with little fixes and extensions from all different ages. Someone had spent hundreds of years continuously adjusting and revising, probably as a way to deal with countless exigencies as they came up one after another. Some places were so covered with the footprints of fixes and adjustments they looked like the evidence of ages of sedimentations of minerals recorded in the cross-sections of land. It was hard to tell which parts were functioning. In the middle of the place, we saw a platform that seemed to be wired to the rest of the machines. It looked like a control deck. We walked up to it. There was another blob of gooey stuff. We fused with it and became rulers of the world.

Sean Dennison, BFR Editorial Staff

One day at the docks, a mermaid kissed a boy.

Here’s what happened: the boy was fishing there with his family’s pole. He was at the far end of the docks, the rich end, where fish gobbled up rich-people treats that got tossed from the more ornate vessels. He was thinking of ways humans could evolve to entirely eliminate from the diet those damn fish that he never caught, when he saw the mermaid.

She—he figured she was a she, she had breasts the boy guessed were the same size as his mother’s—broke the surface, covered in kelp but beautiful in ways the boy wasn’t used to. The tailfin, for example, was a rainbow limb. The sunlight hit the scales and waves of color undulated across her surface. The fin itself rounded out in a deep-cut crescent that looked like the fingernail moon.

“Hey,” she said.

“Uh, hey,” the boy said. Awe. When did he release the homemade pole? The one his father crafted after returning from the War, which he used to keep his family alive before the Cough got him? The one the boy now needed to feed the family? It floated away, toward the mermaid, who seized it. She came higher out of the water.

Humanoid. Her skin looked possessed by a spirit of metallurgy in gently oscillating liquid form. Her hair was wild, but the boy figured his uncles would still call her sexy. He also noticed a large starfish adorn her head.

“You know this kills right?” the mermaid said, waving the pole in front of him. Her voice: blue, mellow, but deep down, it had a colorless core that was terrifying and mysterious. It reminded him of the empty oyster shells that littered the town square during New Year’s.

“Hey, you know this kills, right?” she asked him, louder. “Kills fish?”

“No it doesn’t,” he said. “It just catches them.”

“Ah, you’re a sharky one,” she said, and smiled at him. The boy suddenly realized he might be in danger.

“I think you mean, snarky.”

“Nope, sharky.”

“Well, I don’t kill ‘em either,” the boy said. “Mom does, she cooks ‘em.”

“Ah, so that’s who the real villain is,” she said, smiling. “I didn’t even have to torture you.”

The boy gasped.

“Rather quick to sell out your mother,” she added.

“Wait, what are you going to do?” the boy asked, fearful.

“Avenge my brethren,” the mermaid said. She splashed the boy with her fin.

“Wait!” the boy said. “Don’t kill her. It’s me who kills the fish, for they drown in air when they’re trapped in the bucket that I, and I alone, throw them in. If you must avenge your brethren, strike upon me!”

The boy had recently gotten an A in drama class and hoped this was convincing form.

“I was only going to make her eat a poisonous fish, just have her get sick for a while, but death… I can work with that,” the mermaid said.

“Wait, dammit, no! You caught me off guard,” the boy said. And now he realized he wasn’t ready to die.

The mermaid extended her hand, and slapped the boy. He didn’t feel any pain; all his senses searched the mermaid’s extended hand. It hung over the water, wavering, reflecting light onto the ocean surface, dirtied with human refuse, and it made the boy think of dancing crystals.

“I have a request to make, before you end me,” said the boy.

“Please be serious,” the mermaid said. Her hand retracted and she pulled a crab out of her hair. “This is your end of life you’re using.”

The boy went for it.

“I would like a kiss.”

The mermaid shrugged, blasé as a sponge

“Anything else?”

The boy was a bit disappointed in her reaction. In his head, there was a comedic pause, then she burst out laughing, and he got his kiss. But more importantly, his charm and sass had so wooed her he also got his freedom.

“No, I guess not,” the boy said.

“Well, then,” the mermaid said.

“Yes.”

She floated toward him. He was still getting what he wanted: close proximity. He fingered Sebastian.

See, before the Cough had taken his dad, who fought in the War, the boy visited him in the hospital. His dad told long, bitter epics that made the nurses cry and doctors quietly close their office doors. He told the boy about Sebastian, his trusty switchblade that double-mouthed the necks of many an enemy. Before he died, he pulled the boy close.

“You’re a man now,” his dad said. He closed Sebastian into the boy’s fist. “Protect the family, avenge me,” Pa said.

“Dad, you’re dying from a virus.”

“It’s still a living—” he flatlined.

Now, the boy fingered Sebastian. The mermaid moved in; the boy got his kiss, then quickly stepped back, swinging out Sebastian. The blade ejected.

Mermaid blood is a lovely shade of turquoise that science tells us is due to both a magical diet and human pollution. However, it also has corrosive properties for human skin. The blood spewed on the boy, instantly devastating his throat and larynx. His final sound was a slight whistle of blood and air. The both fell: the boy collapsed on the dock, the mermaid floated near him.

The mermaid kissed the boy, but only the seagulls celebrated anything.

Hannah Harrington, BFR Managing Editor

After traveling through four countries for fifty-plus days, it is safe to say that I miss the comforts of my California home. I miss my bed and not having to consult my suitcase every time I need a pair of underwear. If I sound like I’m complaining, let me rephrase my sentiments: despite the fact that I have seen some incredible things and spent time with people from all over the world, traveling is not simply the romantic, beautiful pictures I’ve put on Instagram. At the moment, I have three countries left to visit, but would gladly change my flight home if my plans were not set in stone. I have begun to ask myself, why it is that I traveled here, and why it is that we travel at all. I have come to the conclusion that travelers of the twenty-first century, particularly millennials, are pilgrims of a sort, searching the world and its monuments for some shred of truth about themselves and the world around them. I remain unconvinced as to whether we can find truth at all. I have been left with a lot of questions instead. What is it that makes travel so widely popularized? What gives us the idea to travel in the first place? The phenomenon of travel has gained speed over the last century, and we are able to see so much thanks to the wonders of technology. The biggest fear I have about my own travel is whether I’ll be able to find anything truly authentic.

One of my favorite parts of my month long stay in Paris was visiting cafes and restaurants owned by foreigners. Many of these cafes, mostly run by young, hip Americans or Australians, have opened in the last two to three years. If California borrowed the Parisian cafe lifestyle, then Paris certainly borrowed the California aesthetic. What is most alluring about these cafes, my favorites being HolyBelly, a brunch haven in the Canal district, and Ob-La-Di, a small hideaway in the Marais district, is that there is a community of expatriates who visit them on a regular basis. Though my stay was only four weeks, I managed to become a regular at the cafes and become familiar with their community. A common question that goes around is what these young people are doing in the city anyway—why abandon home for a place that doesn’t even speak your language? There is a sense that expatriates are constantly searching, be it for adventure or self, and they are convinced they will find it outside their own communities.

This spirit of wanderlust defines our generation. We are disillusioned by our culture, and we can temporarily escape it by traveling. We search for authentic experience somewhere outside our own familiarity, but can we find it? What we have left are flocks of twenty-something travelers all backpacking across various locales. Do we find what we’re looking for? What is both alluring and troublesome about travel is the sense of restlessness, that settling down somewhere must be avoided. However, it was only when I settled into a routine in Paris that I was able to appreciate it fully. The fear of settling down, I think, is similar to our fear of oncoming adulthood; we have to see all that we need to see before resigning ourselves to the deep dark dungeon of cubicles and bills. We had better get it in while we can.

Despite my qualms with modern-day travel, traveling has been, for lack of a better term, life changing. What I did not expect when I boarded my flight two months ago is that I would come back with a better understanding of my own country. I have become more in-tune with my own fears, desires, and insecurities. I understand why I was encouraged to travel by older friends and family. You can bet I’ll return home with a suitcase full of gratitude—and a whole lot of Eiffel tower keychains, too.