Feet of Strength

Feet of Strength

I participated in the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge for my second year. Again, I was the first loser in my group placing sixth overall (first 5 go to third round). In the first round I was challenged to write 1000 words or less with the following conditions: It had to be a drama, containing a fish hook, set in a botanic garden. I had to write this piece in 3 hours (I was officiating a family wedding that day–more on that later) and I would change a few things in the story if I could have, but the wedding was pretty amazing.

To passers-by, Jessie seems common enough. She wears a faded t-shirt, with a small hole just at the belt-line and her most comfortable jeans that don’t accentuate her lithe body. She is barefoot so that the soft loam of the water’s edge sinks between her pedicured toes. They are dancers feet, and she thinks they are ugly. Her mother calls them ideal because they are powerful and angular instead of soft and plump.

The contrast of the buskers, tourists, and the bustling city just steps away make these gardens perfect for picnics at lunch, to soak in some sun, or get out of the house with a curious toddler. For Jessie, she uses these gardens to blend into the shadows peppering the scenes of tranquillity and brings a lunch box and a fishing rod here every day. Serenity abounds with stringybarks and kookaburras keeping watch while she fishes.

But Jessie is not the picture of serenity. She is the embodiment of evil. Her fishing line dipped in the lake has a hook and bait, sure, but the bait is not a worm or minnow, it is a human toe today with more in her lunch box over ice. Yesterday it was ears, the day before fingers, but she was saving those soft, plump, lazy feet for last.

Jessie has been fishing in this lake for weeks on her strolls never planning to catch anything. In fact, she never observes anyone else fishing because the lake doesn’t have fish worth more than a morsel. What the lake does contain are weeds and lily pads. Perfect for getting a snag and losing your bait.

She experiences pure joy watching pieces of her mother sink to the bottom of the little bucolic scene. She is captivated as the filament straightens and then floats before she pulls up a bit. The reflective surface looks like a mirror for towering trees. Every other day, Jessie walks the shoreline until she feels a pull and lets the bottom of the lake have another of her mother’s offerings. Jessie is feeling good today on what would have been her mother’s birthday, so she stands with her toes massaging the moss and turns her face to the sun.

She remembers walking the paths of these gardens in her childhood. Her mother made her walk them barefoot to keep her feet from going soft. All Jessie ever wanted was to wear gorgeous sandals and have soft, polished feet. She was not allowed. In fact, she was not allowed much besides these strolls once a month. She was in a ballet boarding school steps from here and only steps from her mother.

Her affection was not all her mother took away from Jessie. She took away toys, friends, and the outdoors to ensure Jessie spent all her time on her toes with the piano tinkling out barre exercise accompaniment. Even now she controls Jessie. She stole her cat and had him put down. “No distractions,” she yelled through the phone over the screech of Baryshnikov’s last sound.

In truth, Jessie doesn’t like the ballet. She thinks the strength and beauty the audience raves about is a lie. She is living a life of starvation from physical and emotional nourishment to provide their beauty. She has been written up in the Melbourne Age as the greatest to come out of the Australian Ballet School. She has wealth, recognition and a flat overlooking the gardens, but her mother still isn’t pleased.

Jessie recalls their last conversation. The one before she used the strength of her dancer’s feet to kick her mother until she lied there lifeless. The white carpet, the white walls, the white furniture and the whitewashed wood the designers insisted on all contained DNA reminders of that conversation.

“Why don’t you have a husband, Jessie?” was how her mother started almost every conversation.

“I don’t need anyone, Mother. You taught me that.”

“Do you want to end up like me? A bitter old spinster with no one to love?”

“Love, Mother. Have you no one to love? I am standing here right in front of you, and you claim to have no one to love.”

Instead of her mother turning to Jessie and declaring her love as Jessie hoped she would do, just this once, she sputtered, “Exactly. No one worth anything to love.”

Those were her mother’s last words.

Before she even cleaned up her mother’s parts, she ordered a freezer for next day delivery and treated herself to a full day foot treatment at the spa. Those callouses that represented all she hated were filed and scraped soft. She has been back to the spa every day since to keep them that way. She quit the ballet and instead walks the gardens and fishes.

She is stirred from her reverie when she feels the line catch and is brought back to the task at hand when she is transfixed by the ducks fighting. Screams of children frightened by the scene unfolding break up the serenity of the park and create a frantic energy, not in keeping with the blissful surrounds.

Jessie tugs her line to reel in when she discovers the filament is not caught in the weeds but is between the fighting ducks. The screams are not for the ducks but their meal.

That swollen toe with its ostentatious red polish is being torn apart by the angry ducks. Her mother’s toe. She thought to run, but the sight is beautiful in its violence. Jessie freezes on the spot and begins laughing at the frozen foot to her side cut into tiny minnow-sized bites.

The irony is not lost on Jessie as she straps on her lovely, expensive sandals and watches from the soft green shore. The screams turn to tears, the chirps of the birds turn to sirens while Jessie sits captivated by the delicate beauty of her own feet.

WHAT THE JUDGES LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY – {437}  I liked this story. I liked how dark it turns early on.  Jessie is a very compelling character. I liked the idea of ballet becoming this ugly terrible thing to her.  I liked the twist at the end with the ducks/Jessie being caught.  {1743}  This is an Hitchcockian tale of horror.  The high drama of vengeance is played out and recollected, in detail.  It is an inventive murder and and innovative torture for its pathetic protagonist.  {1777}  The writing is beautiful and has a lazy manner about it that reels you into a supposed world of beauty, only to discover the heroine’s mad, distorted fixation with her mother’s death. There are beautiful descriptions of the lake, Jessie’s fishing line, her memories of grueling ballet, her mother’s heartless demands. The story continues on, descending into darker and darker places as Jessie’s thoughts unravel. What a bitter, cruel existence she’s had.  WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK – {437}  I did think the mother’s motivations could be a bit more clear – was she a failed dancer herself? Was all this just bitterness at her failed marriage? I did wonder how no one noticed the missing mother or questioned the main character quitting her job.  {1743}  Be wary of the tense of your verbs agreeing with each other.  Capitalize “Barre.”  “Feet of Strength” may not be the best title here.  However, “Delicate Beauty” might be.  Think about that, and keep the fishing pole and anything sharp stored tight in the depths of your closet while you do.  {1777}  I found just a few typos in the whole story. I’m curious how old Jessie is. How many years did she obey her mother’s wishes until she’d had enough? Ballerinas don’t last long, so I wonder did she quit at the zenith of her career? I didn’t understand the last line of the story. She straps on her sandals and then the screams turn to tears, the chirps to sirens. Is she crying? Are those real sirens? Has the murder been discovered. Sorry, I’m at a loss.

Overall, I found the feedback fair. I loved that there were typos in the judges’ comments (which I left in for fun). I placed 9th of 30 in that round. Not bad for three hours work. I did better the second round and I’ll share that one next week.


  1. I love your humor, but did not realize there was this dark, scary part in you. I can almost see you rubbing your palms together and muttering, heh, heh, heh.

    • You know I did… writing this actually inspired me to make my novel more of a thriller.

      • I just realized that I didn’t comment on the story itself. It was WONDERFUL! I can’t believe it didn’t make it into the top category. For 3 hours notice, and a bizarre prop, you came up with an imaginative and original story line. Kudos to you. I also thought that the “negative” reviews were a little on the nit-picking side. One or two good points, but the rest were not especially helpful. I guess I’d like to read the one that won.

        • Thanks for the nice feedback. The guy that won my group had participated in every challenge NYC Midnight has and wins often, as does the second place finisher. I was placed in a rock-star group at random. My total score would have won in other categories. Next time!

  2. 9 out of 30? That’s less that a third from the top. I loved this story. Can’t wait for the next one.

  3. i love it too!

  4. I liked it! I began reading it and was thinking, “If I know mum like I think I know mum, there must be some kind of twi… ah there it is!” You didn’t just dip your “toe” into this challenge, you went in “feet” first. Ughh, yeah I know.
    Arionis recently posted…Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How?My Profile

  5. Wow, what a thing.
    Very visual.

  6. It’s a brilliant story, and personally I think “Feet Of Strength” is the perfect title. The best thing was how personal the act of fishing was for Jessie. Even in the end she couldn’t escape her mother’s grasp.
    Christopher recently posted…It’s Only Natural.My Profile

  7. I was spellbound reading this. Great job. 9th out of 30 isn’t too shabby.

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