“Charlotte” – Fiction by Nancy Hightower

A Girl Head Behind Spider Web - Toyen, 1934
A Girl Head Behind Spider Web – Toyen, 1934

From our Fall 2016 issue, Nancy Hightower‘s powerful flash fiction “Charlotte” is a dark spin on a classic children’s story. 

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THERE COULD HAVE BEEN A BARN THAT DAY, with giant haystacks and a pitchfork that somehow always got lost. It could have been a one bedroom apartment in Jersey City. There could have been a baby pig so small the mama pig forgot all about it. Or an old pit bull that pissed on the carpet because it couldn’t make it outside in time.

Either way, the dad wanted to kill it.

There was probably a little girl who wanted to save the pig or the pit bull. That kid had street smarts, could work the county fair or Atlantic City and bought her adopted pet a few extra months of life with the dad. The Jersey father might have worked seventy hours a week and had no patience for an invalid pet and headstrong child. They both knew how to hide in a corner, blend into the shadows so the father might not see them. The farmer probably had his own concerns, but daily he eyed the scrawny runt who ate the scraps and yet never grew fast enough. And the daughter saw it. She saw many things, that girl. Some real, some imagined. Who’s to say the spider in the old barn didn’t spin glorious webs into words illuminated by the morning dew? Or it could have been a brown recluse whose ragged weavings she imagined would save her pig from her father’s ax.

Either way, there was a spider.

The Jersey girl had cockroaches and rats to contend with. As scavengers, they refused to spin anything even remotely useful, let alone beautiful. They scuttled across the kitchen floor, inciting the pit bull to bark several warnings until the father got up to smack it. He might have smacked the girl, too, who was trying to quiet the dog.

The pig and the pit bull probably knew they were living on borrowed time.

The little farm girl tried to capture her spider in order to make it spin more messages. When one has a magic spider, it’s best not to let it escape. She probably tried to catch it with a box so as not to touch it. But the spider was fast and scared and did what it had to do. The mother most likely thought nothing of the bite mark on her daughter’s thigh until it turned black and spread too quickly up her leg. The father probably discovered the tattered web in the corner, and then understood the danger. Who’s to say whether the daughter died, or lived on, but with only one leg? Either way, the father went to fetch his ax.

The Jersey girl had no elaborate plan to save the pit bull, which began to piss blood because the father kicked it once too many times. But she had street smarts, that girl, and knew how to cover up her own bruises. She probably kept wondering what would happen to her once the dog succumbed to his wounds. She spun a different story every day.

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NANCY HIGHTOWER has published short fiction and poetry in journals such as Word Riot, Gargoyle, Sundog Lit, storySouth, Bop Dead City, Flapperhouse, and Prick of the Spindle. Her novel, Elementarí Rising, came out from Pink Narcissus Press in September 2013 and her first collection of poetry, The Acolyte, was published in 2015. She currently reviews science fiction and poetry for The Washington Post and teaches at Hunter College. She also co-hosts the Liars’ League NYC reading series with Andrew Lloyd Jones.

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