I was cleaning a winter’s worth of debris from the garden beneath my kitchen window, and as I scooped away a pile of withered leaves from between some stones, a garter snake slithered over my hand. It’s possible that I let out a little scream, despite knowing that I was the one who had invaded its space and not the other way around.
Eight months ago, I received a will-publish-upon-edits acceptance on a flash fiction story I wrote about a pre-teen girl and a dead squirrel. The feedback given was mostly positive, except for the fact that the editors felt the piece didn’t really go anywhere. Both asked me to reconsider the emotional payout of the story and perhaps rewrite the ending because, despite the action in the middle, the protagonist returns to where she started. And they were right.
I have not done the edits or resubmitted the story. I reopen the document and spin around the words from time to time, and though I have tidied up some of the language, I just can’t seem make it go anywhere.
So then I am left wondering, can flash fiction be effective if the end loops back to the beginning? What does “effective” mean anyway?
The ouroboros, that mythical snake that eats its own tail, is a symbol of infinity. It is most often drawn as a circle—a mouth unhinged, fangs curled against scales as it swallows itself, the bulk of its body still out in the world. It is an image that displays both the nourishment of eating and the devouring into death. Its beginning is its end.
Don’t we all, in some ways, return to where we started? We speak of ashes to ashes, of dust to dust, but even in small ways, I believe we are always cycling back to where we came from.
We moved a lot when I was a kid and I lived on the same street three times.
I teach at the college where I did my BA.
When I call my son down for breakfast, I hear my mother’s voice in my words.
A return to the beginning is both a frustration and a comfort.
When writing, it seems possible that getting somewhere concrete and new isn’t always important. There is a story in how someone gets to the end; whether or not the end marks a shift seems less important than capturing the weight of the actions within. Perhaps then, not changing makes just as powerful a statement. Or maybe, the changing just hasn’t happened yet, the shift unnoticed until some other time, beyond the story, the way a paper cut isn’t felt until you get a little lemon juice in it. The story that is told is a moment. I think it is fair to say that sometimes it’s ok (maybe even wonderful) for the ending of a story to return to its beginning. We all return to what is known, so when our stories do it, they reflect a larger cycle, a sustaining, a returning, a life, a death.
The ouroboros is not just head and tail, it is the body it rests on, the body that will both sustain it and kill it, the body that connects the start to the finish.
The snake I disturbed in my garden returned to its home once I finished clearing the leaves. I saw it sunning itself on a flat rock between the lilac and the peonies. Now that the dirt has been turned and the weeds pulled, worms will fertilize the soil to nourish the bulbs I planted years ago. And as the warm rains come and the sun hangs longer and brighter, these plants will stretch out, bloom, and then wither and return to the earth, the way have always done.
Amie E. Reilly teaches in the English department at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut, where she lives with her husband and ten-year-old son. Her most recent essays can be found at Fiction Advocate, The New Engagement, The Evansville Review, and Entropy. Her poetry has been published in The Ekphrastic Review and is forthcoming in Unlocking the Word by Lamar University Press. Follow her on Twitter @smidgeon227 or on her blog: The Shape of Me