Split Lip REVIEWS
"A Bright and Pleading Dagger" by Nicole Rivas
by Emily Webber
Many of the worlds inhabited by the women in A Bright and Pleading Dagger, the flash fiction collection by Nicole Rivas, are slightly off-kilter, highlighting how strange and unsettling reality can be. The 2018 winner of Rose Metal Press’s 12th Annual Short Short Chapbook Contest, Rivas’s collection provides a glimpse into the varied experiences of girls and women. In these twelve stories, one character speed dates the world’s oldest man, another coughs up a Polly Pocket doll, while a third—Gretel, from the well-known fairy tale—attempts to alter her fate. Rivas’s prose is distinguished by straightforwardness and, often, a dark humor. Additionally, an undercurrent of danger runs through her stories, reminding us of the ways in which we learn to be on guard as we move through life.
With the sadness, there is sweetness too. In “Crush” and “Bulldog,” young girls navigate middle-school crushes and grapple with their longing to be both fearless and fit in. In “The Butcher,” a woman unflinchingly butchers animals, then lovingly feeds scraps to feral cats. This story highlights Rivas’s beautiful use of language: “To the butcher, the inside of a hog’s ribcage is much like the beauty of a vacant skyscraper stairwell. She drums her fingers against each rib like a child running up the steps two at a time.”
A Bright and Pleading Dagger
Rose Metal Press
“The Comedienne” tells of a woman leaving a party after delivering a joke that offends the guests. The world can provide comfort just as it hurts us, the story reminds us. And the good can be so intertwined with the bad that it becomes hard to tell the difference: “Finally, Sam removed all the glass shards from her hands and arranged them on the nightstand. The table lamp illuminated them in ways Sam found incredibly interesting. If she arranged them one way, they looked like a dagger. If she arranged them another way, they looked like a halo.”
In “The Woman on the Bus,” the protagonist is at lunch with her boyfriend. The story gives voice to how we inadvertently step into roles and stay in situations even when we know disappointment awaits us: “Though you know it’s unwise, you will continue to love and hate him until you can no longer tell the difference between the two.”
The title piece is one of the most powerful, telling of a traumatic experience shared by two teenage girls. As the girls walk home, two older men offer a ride and promise beer if the girls spend some time with them. The men park in a cotton field, and the narrator sits in the car with one of the men and watches as her friend, Jada, disappears into the field with the other man. The story opens with the narrator texting Jada, who hasn’t shown up for work the following day: “Eventually Jada texts back, ‘I’m home, hungover.’ I know she’s safe now—that she made it back to her house after I was dropped off at mine—but somehow the idea of safety seems unreal, impossible.”
Jada never returns to work and stops responding to her friend. We are left to imagine the details of what happened to her. This story delivers a powerful and clear picture of how this trauma will reverberate in the girls’ lives. For this reader, it also summoned a frightening personal experience that left me feeling powerless. I relived when a man taunted me and threatened me with physical harm while I walked past his house.
I suspect these stories will call up similarly emotional experiences for readers, from the seemingly inconsequential to the truly harrowing. Rivas captures how such encounters make our world shift and expertly points out the danger in our ordinary lives. Her stories are empowered by their smallness and overflowing with human experience. They will spark important conversations and remind us that telling stories is one of the ways we make it through life.
Emily Webber (@emilyannwebber) was born and raised in South Florida where she lives with her husband and son. Her writing has appeared in The Writer magazine, Five Points, Maudlin House, Brevity, and Fourth & Sycamore. She’s the author of a chapbook of flash fiction, Macerated, from Paper Nautilus Press.