53-Word Story Contest: September

This month’s judge is Press 53’s fiction editor, Christine Norris! The guidelines have changed slightly, so please read carefully—entries run from the 1st to the 21st of every month, and a new prompt and the previous month’s winner will always be listed on the 1st of the month.

September’s prompt: Write a 53-word story about a secret.

Guidelines and Information

-53 words—no more, no less—titles are not included in the word count.

-1 submission per person.

-e-mail your submission directly to 53wordstory@press53.com by 5 PM Sunday, September 21st Eastern Standard Time. The winner will be announced on October 1.

-Each quarter, Prime Number Magazine, Press 53’s online literary journal, comes out with a new issue. All winning 53-word stories will be published in the journal, as well as on the Press 53 blog!

-The 53-Word Story App is now available for download in the Android App Store (it’s called 53Words)! For those with other smart devices, check out the web app (developed by Daniel Krawiec) at 53wordstory.com

5 Questions, 3 Facts

It still feels like summer here in North Carolina, but we’re taking you to Frozen Latitudes today with poet Therése Halscheid. She talks poetry with us in the interview below. I can’t think of a better way to kick off September!

P53: Tell us something about the secret lives of poets.

TH: I have often thought of the poet as both the fly and the fly on the wall. I can’t speak for everyone, but I think most writers are observers. They are taking a walk, but also walking for words—opening their senses to note what they come upon or what comes at them. This kind of disguised watchfulness can ignite the muse. They hardly ever speak of it. It’s a private act.

P53: How do you organize your personal library?

TH: This might sound strange, but I do not have my own place. I have been an itinerant writer for years, since 1993. I do this by house-sitting. And so I pretty much live without possessions, only essentials such as a laptop and printer, clothes, and oh yes, some books. About the books. My mother still lives in the house where I grew up, and so I have books in the attic, which was my bedroom as a child. There are two small rooms up there, and one is devoted to books. There are two built-in bookshelves, and a couple that I’ve designed. This little library—low enough for gnomes—is arranged according to genres. One shelf is for poetry, one is for art, one for fiction and another, creative nonfiction. There is one for academic textbooks, and one for the literary journals in which my own writings have appeared. When I visit, I will pluck a few favorites and take them with me. This moving library switches around according to what I feel I need to read/reread at a given time. There are always a couple favorites that I have with me at all times. Only recently have I been combing through iBooks, and downloaded Dostoevsky and Annie Dillard. I’m the kind that loves to feel a book in the hand, but the idea of having an entire library in a hand-held machine is growing on me, especially when I need to fit all of me in a car.

P53: Was there ever a time you thought you’d never write again?

TH: I don’t think I have ever experienced a time where I thought I’d never write again. But I have had fears about my writing life, which can curtail confidence. And I do worry about sustaining a long body of work. The start of a project is exhilarating but as the series builds (whether poetry or prose), it can be hard to maintain that initial momentum. These are the fears that can hinder me, but they cannot stop the writing process. They are more like pauses.

P53: Who are a few of your favorite poets?

TH: This question has always been hard for me to answer. This is because I like to select a writer and then penetrate their work, and spend a number of months submerged in their life as well as their writings. There is always something to be learned about craft, whether or not it is my aesthetic. Each poet has an individualized voice/style, they bring into the world. In the end, I’d say there are many that I appreciate, but do not rank. I’ve done this kind of immersion with Whitman, Emily Dickinson, James Wright, Mark Doty, Stephen Dunn, Sharon Olds, Louise Glück, Marie Howe, Mary Oliver, Philip Levine, Arthur Sze, Patricia Fargnoli, to name a few. There are many others.

P53: What is your biggest non-literary influence?

TH: The natural world. Over the years, living in different environments, particularly rustic settings, I have come to love and appreciate the communicative nature of nature. It may not use human words but it transfers thoughts and feelings through vibration.

Three Facts about Therése:

 1. I don’t have a house, but am at home in nature.

 2. I write for myself, but enjoy being and sharing with others.

 3. Still terrible in the kitchen.

Flash Friday

A long weekend calls for an extra short story! This week’s comes from David Jauss. Take a moment to appreciate the people you love this weekend. We’ll see you again in September.

What They Didn’t Notice

When Frank stepped out of the doctor’s office, he didn’t notice the sky. If he had been sixty years younger, perhaps he would have noticed that one of the clouds scudding up from the southwest looked like an enormous white horse. Its long neck was outstretched, as if straining toward a finish line, but it had no legs. Still, its mane and tail were flying.
Nor did he notice the ground. The soil in the flowerbeds that flanked the sidewalk was unnaturally black for this part of the country—imported, no doubt, from some northern state. Had he noticed the dirt, he might have thought about the clay that lay beneath it, damp and tinged with red, as if so many animals had died here for so many centuries that their blood could not be completely rained away.

In a nearby tulip poplar, a gray-green bird with a yellow breast sang over and over a deep-throated song, fracturing its melody each time with four or five abrupt, awkward pauses, but Frank did not see or hear it. If it had been another day, or another place, he probably would have noticed the mask around its eyes—like a raccoon’s, only yellow—and recognized the bird as a yellow-throated vireo. Though he’d been an ardent birdwatcher since the year before he retired, it was a species he had never seen before, one he could have added to his Life List. But he did not see it, so it would have to remain on that larger list of things that were part of the world’s life but not his own.

And when he reached the parking lot, he didn’t notice how long he stood there beside his car, holding the key in his hand. He did not notice his hand either, how it looked like his father’s—liver-spotted, the knuckles gnarled with arthritis. It had been thirty years since he’d seen his father’s hands, crossed upon the black lapels of his last suit. If he had noticed, perhaps his hand would have started to tremble. But it didn’t. It was still, like a small animal that freezes where it stands, hoping it hasn’t been seen.

He stood there for nearly two minutes, a full minute longer than it took for the doctor to change his life.

When Frank left the house that morning, Ellie didn’t notice how his voice quavered when he told her he was going to meet a couple of his friends for coffee.

And when he came home, she did not notice how quietly he closed the door, as if he didn’t want to wake someone who was sleeping.

The Doctor
The doctor did not notice:
(1) The way the carotid artery in Frank’s throat pulsed while
he listened to the biopsy results.
(2) The squeak of his nurse’s shoes as she walked past the
closed door.
(3) The way he kept clearing his throat, as if hinting that Frank
should say something now, anything, whatever he was
thinking or feeling.
(4) The fact that he nodded as he spoke, as if he were secretly
agreeing with Frank’s silence.
(5) The fact that he kept repeating the word options.
(6) A bird’s song outside the window.
(7) The telephone ringing at the nurse’s station and Loretta’s
bored voice saying, “I’m sorry, he’s with a patient right now.”
(8) His hand lightly shaking Frank’s shoulder, as if to wake him.
(9) The coppery taste of fear on the back of his tongue.

The Vireo
The vireo did not notice the man passing below him on the sidewalk. It was also unaware of the obsessive repetition of its song, or even of the fact that it was singing. Least of all was it aware that this day could be unlike any other, or even that there were such things as days, as time, as death.

That night, after they made love for the first time in weeks, Ellie did not notice Frank sobbing silently. And when, finally, his voice shaking, he told her what the doctor had said, she was not aware that the fingers of her left hand curled up slowly, like an animal dying, while her right hand stroked the back of his neck, the stubble left there by the barber.

After he told her, Frank looked at his wife’s face in the dim light the moon cast through their window, but he did not see it, not really. He was seeing her face as it was forty-five years before, when they first met, and he was wondering where that young girl had gone, and where he had gone, the young man he was then, tall and thin and so strong from lifting hay bales that she couldn’t stop touching his arms, his shoulders. Because he was thinking these thoughts, he did not notice the anger that tinged her voice when she asked him why he hadn’t told her about his symptoms or his trips to the doctor. Nor did he dare notice that he was angry too, offended even, that she would go on living without him.

The Vireo
By the time first Frank and then Ellie finally fell asleep, the vireo had been sleeping for hours, its feathers fluffed against the cold and its head tucked under its wing. Torn clouds were streaking overhead, scarring the moon, and a wind was stirring the leaves that surrounded its nest, but the bird was oblivious. It noticed nothing, nothing at all. And in the morning, when it would wake, it would begin to live once again the one day of its life, singing its beautiful, broken song.

Poetry Wednesday

The halfway point in the week is always marked by a poem here at Press 53. This week, Cajun poet Clare Martin provides a quietly incendiary poem from her debut collection, Eating the Heart First.

Open Me with a Fire of Words

I long for the quiet hour: the hour
within the hour, the hour within
myself in which my self
expands with quiet,
into quiet.
I am stilled, then, to hear
the resonance
of a stirring word— the words
thrumming yes
against the solar plexus,
this knife of the sun,
this the pronouncement of lightning
engendered in me
in the quiet hour,
in the exquisite,
quiet hour.  


Julio Cortázar was born one hundred years ago today. Read his Art of Fiction interview here.

A great writer of short stories—his stories are endlessly rereadable; there’s always something new to be discovered. And he inspired two of Christine’s favorite films, Blow-Up (Michelangelo Antonioni) and The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola).

5 Questions, 3 Facts

This Monday, poet Felicia Mitchell gives us some wonderful insight on how she writes, where she writes, and the development of poems that would eventually appear in her latest collection, Waltzing with Horses, which is due out September 1. Do you need a little inspiration to kick your week off? We think this interview has exactly what you need.

P53: What initially drew you to poetry?

FM: Being born. Also, my parents loved to read. We had more books than furniture. I learned to read with Dick and Jane and also Sappho and Edward Thomas. The first poem I memorized to recite at school was Sara Teasdale’s “The Coin.” I began writing poetry as soon as I could write. My first poem (age six) was “The Cave Pearl,” a deeply philosophical poem about female identity and the puzzling nature of language.

P53: Describe your writing space.

FM: I take my space with me. Sometimes, at home, I write in the back room, near the woods. I do write in a study but more often revise there.  It is in a new space, and I have not fully bonded with it. I have written a good bit in the main room, by the hearth. Some of the poems in Waltzing with Horses were composed in the front bedroom, which used to be my study and is now a guest room where I keep the sewing machine. In my bedroom, I write in a daybook and a dream journal. I don’t write too much at work, but I have surprised myself with some poems in the office (including “My Turn Out of the Box” and “In the Realm of Grass”). When I feel blocked, I take a journal and a pen and go off into the woods, sitting on rocks and fallen trees. If I am hiking and have no paper, but want to remember something, I speak ideas into the recorder on my phone.

P53: What kind of music do you listen to? Do you ever listen to music when you write?

FM: I listen to all kinds of music, yet not when I’m focused on writing. Lately I have been entranced by the Debussy channel on Pandora. A few of my other Pandora channels include Folk Uke, Donovan, Francoise Hardy, Jewel, Nina Simone, Sara Watkins, Hot Rize, Carolina Chocolate Drops, and Dolphins & Whales. I have always loved Edith Piaf.

P53: What books could you not live without?

FM: You would have to take a look at my shelves. There are many books that I keep nearby, including a first edition of Laurel’s Kitchen and my great aunt Nell’s Joy of Cooking. I have books that belonged to my grandmother and great-grandmother. When my father died, my mother gave me his books that introduced me to poetry, Edward Markham’s anthologies of “the world’s greatest poetry.” I cherish a copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance that belonged to my brother John, who is deceased. I have saved my son’s books and the children’s books I bought for my mother when she had dementia. I have the first book I ever bought with my allowance at the grocery store, a 1963 Golden Book of Walt Disney’s The Sword in the Stone. I depend on various identification books (birds, flowers, trees, bugs). I could go on….  I use the public library. And let us not forget the biggest encyclopedia of all, the World Wide Web.

P53: You can only eat one food for the rest of your life; what is it?

FM: When I was in graduate school in Austin, the first months, I ate lentils and rice with a little cheese most evenings. I would add different vegetables (peppers, onions, etc.). I could live on that.

Three Facts about Felicia:

1.  I love to play “All the Pretty Little Horses” on the piano late at night.

2.  I am the fourth person in my birth family of six to get cancer.

3.  I grow Jerusalem artichokes, which I call “my crop.”

Flash Friday

Happy Friday! We hope your weekend is going to be filled with fantastic literature, and that we might contribute with this story by Nahal Suzanne Jamir. Her debut story collection, In the Middle of Many Mountains, is seriously amazing stuff. Do you like time travel, oral history, family/culture issues, the fourth dimension, and masterful storytelling? Then it’s probably right up your alley.


She was born in curtains, curtains with a pattern of flowers and curtains that felt like flowers but smelled clean, like midnight from her second-story bedroom window. These curtains, they aren’t thin like paper. That’s what a smarter girl would say. These curtains, they are thin like flower petals. Try looking through a flower petal. And this is how she first sees her mother, on a leather recliner that creaks and moans. This is her mother, silent.


Her mother is gone now, left them for some other city far away. Noise fills the house because of her father, a tall man with hair that crackles when he runs his hands through it. He cries and yells at the ceiling. He throws food into the sink and then lets the garbage disposal run too long. Empty metal clanging.

Finally, one day, he stops the noise and brings the young girl out from the curtains. “What are you doing there?” he asks. And when she doesn’t answer: “Well, I’ve got you now. We’re going to be okay.” A smarter girl would not have believed him.

The envelope says overdue, like library books. She got her own library card a month ago. She reads stories about old things, like swords and magic and large trees. These make her feel safe. She reads and the house is quiet but the words are loud in her head where the dragon and dragon-rider bond and kill danger. Where the magician saves the princess. Where a stone is not a stone, a flower not a flower.

The envelope is new, thin like paper. The girl opens it because she knows how to take care of overdue library books. Inside, a large bill for what are called utilities. Water, gas, electricity. Just add wind, she thought, and you’d have all of the elementals. She’s read about elementals. Without wind, or any one, the elementals wobble out of balance.


For a while, her mother’s things disappeared. They return now as the girl turns thirteen. An eight-by-ten picture of her mother sits on the scratched dining room table, next to a vase of tall flowers. A feminine jacket, practical but almost as soft as velvet, hangs on a brass hook next to the front door. If the light shines through the side window just right, the girl can see the holes her mother darned. Don’t let anything in, her mother used to say in the winter months. Her mother’s voice on the answering machine, asking you to call back. Come back. Backwards motion picks up speed. Her thirteenth birthday races toward her from long-ago, and she braces herself with all she can find.


Something has changed. Her father spends hours in the bathroom. Tonight, when she asks, he says he is praying.

He’s got her trapped. Tonight, she’s supposed to present her AP biology project at an open house. The Destruction of Hydrogen Peroxide by Various Catalases at Varying pH Levels.

Tonight, she knocks and he doesn’t answer, so she picks the lock with a paperclip, and there he is, silent. He clings to himself and sighs in response to her questions. The pungency of rubbing alcohol. He has written “see her die again” in permanent marker and then tried to scrub it out. She can’t leave. A piece of her father’s crackly hair has fallen onto the counter. The girl places it on her thumb, blows and makes a wish. A smarter girl would have cried.


She’s on her first date, wearing a thin dress. Here is a boy with light hair and full-round eyes. He asks serious questions. They both stare at their plates as she tells him about her mother leaving. The whole time, the boy holds her hand and puts light pressure on the veins, one at a time. Does this make her blood stop? He doesn’t ask questions about her father, and she decides she will fall in love with this boy. A smarter girl would have.

On the way to the car, he picks her a pink azalea. She can feel his hand through her dress. And she wonders if this is how it begins. If this is how you forget to protect yourself from sadness, how you forget to leave your child with a kind shepherd. But then, the boy kisses her, and she is back in that garden of clean flowers, watching.

Poetry Wednesday

Today’s poem comes from Shivani Mehta’s debut collection, Useful Information for the Soon-to-be Beheaded—the collection is made up of exclusively prose poems, and I promise they’re all as beautiful as the one below.


The hole in the air is clearly visible when I get out of bed, blackness so complete it shimmers around the edges. Photographs of us are scattered through the house, broken glass under my feet like a trail of seashells. I know I won’t find you. There are two kinds of people, you once told me, the kind who stay and the other kind. I smell rain in the kitchen, remember the taste of it on your lips—perfume of wet soil and inevitability. I’ve had a memory of your leaving since the day we met. The moon, its glimmer fading like an old lightbulb, swings by a rope from the fig tree.