The first story in The Predatory Animal Ball begins with a pigeon. A regular pigeon, pecking, tottering alongside its pigeon friends. Only this pigeon has a needle sticking out of its eye. And this fact — the pigeon, the needle, the clash of that which is natural with that which is human, the violence of it — is an apt metaphor for all that is to come in this moody, broody flash fiction debut by Jennifer Fliss, a Seattle-based author of more than 200 published stories and essays.
Many of the characters in the collection are in fact animals. Birds, particularly, abound. As I read, I felt as if I were suspended in those moments in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds before the birds actually attacked, while they were just ominously perching. These stories felt dangerous. And like Hitchcock’s film, which some interpret as a political or environmental allegory, Fliss’ stories are rife with symbolism and meaning. There are the haves and have-nots, the powerful and the weak, and all the brutality in between.
In the eponymous short story, for example, a “lowly” field mouse grieving the murder of her beloved by an owl attends a party for animals farther up the food chain than herself. A lion, wolf, tiger, snake, hawk, grizzly, alligator, and the murderous owl itself are present. Missing from the “exclusive affair” are animals like her, animals that lack access to the upper echelons of society, “the small, the vermin, the delicate.” Her fate is out of her hands, determined only by the momentary presence or absence of a more powerful animal’s hunger.
If predation in the natural world is the collection’s theme, then Fliss centers those who are exploited and oppressed — the prey. Field mice are at the mercy of owls. Baby robins are at the mercy of crows. Human beings, collectively, are apex predators, but the most vulnerable among them, women and children, are at the mercy of the more rapacious of the species — men.
I found myself particularly affected by the stories that revolve around the interior lives of women — those who are lost and have lost, who are grieving, who are disappointed — and their relationships with men. Husbands are often emotionally and physically abusive. In “Grovel,” a husband steps on his wife’s eyeglasses, perhaps intentionally, effectively blinding her, forcing her to wear a pair of old contacts picked up off the bathroom floor. In “Watercolor Felon,” a marriage, apparently violent, falls apart: “Eventually we sleep in different rooms and love the walls the way we once loved each other.” In “Contained/Not Contained,” Sarah’s ex-husband “threw parties and coffee mugs,” while the ex-husband in “Dandelions” stashed a handgun under his wife’s pillow. She’d fall asleep, she remembers, “with an oily hunk of metal pushing into [her] ear.”
In Fliss’ crisp, taut, active sentences, men are constantly instructing, demanding, betraying, inflicting harm, persecuting, and subjugating women. One of my favorite stories is the subtle and pitch-perfect “Broken Keys.” The “I” key on the female narrator’s computer stops working. The loss of her “I” — literally and metaphorically — piques the interest of the man she’s been talking to online. It pleases him to have “found someone who gives and gives and gives. Selfishness is not a trait he likes.” Although their burgeoning relationship sours (“Like a piano with dead keys, it was beautiful until it wasn’t”), it’s unclear if she’ll end things with him. And there’s the rub: is escape for women even possible?
The issues Fliss represents symbolically — class, social and political power, gender dynamics — are certainly real enough, even though her stories are often absurd. A tiny woman lives in a tiny terrarium hanging in a couple’s window. A woman named Emily who is beside herself discovers the phrase “beside herself” to be literally true when she sees “the other Emily” beside her. Gargoyles bear witness to the damage humanity has wrought on a city. Swan-shaped paddleboats take pity on a small boy who nearly drowns in the wake of a ferry. And the oppressed become the oppressors when sentient trees turn the tables on a pair of hikers.
The absurdity strengthens the allegory, and it underscores in imaginative ways how we as humans consume one another — or, if we happen to be among the voiceless, the powerless, are ourselves consumed.
The Predatory Animal Ball: Stories
By Jennifer Fliss
Okay Donkey Press
Published November 27, 2021