I sever the first two fingers of my left hand on a Tuesday. They fall to the ground at my feet, causing a momentary confusion as I wonder what tree has dropped this odd fruit. Then I see the crescent scar left behind by a fish hook and know that these are my fingers, that they are no longer attached to my body, and that I will surely not be going to piano lessons the next day. This is when I know how much I dislike piano, that the momentary relief at the thought lifts my spirits even though I am bleeding profusely.
I am 9, and it is fall, the woods around me swaying in the wind, dead leaves drifting to the ground as I take off my shirt and wrap my hand. It is a new shirt, and I will surely be in trouble, I think, as the blood overtakes the print design – horses that can’t outrun the beat of my heart. I pick up my fingers, still warm, and squeeze them, feeling the texture of my skin. I’ve held my own hand, made the church steeple and opened it up to see the people, twiddled my thumbs and traced the lines of my palm, but always there was reciprocal feeling, touch to touch. It is a one-side game now, my dead fingers rendered mute.
I gather my hatchet, made by my grandfather. My name – Ellie – is etched onto the handle. I loop it through my belt, not cleaning the bright smear of blood from the blade. I trip over the spear I had been making, defense against some imagined enemy who would threaten my forest. I am 9 and determined to protect what I care for.
I head home, leaving behind the canopy of the woods for the rustling of the dried cornstalks. I break into our backyard to see Mom at the kitchen window, working. She is cleaning, baking, cooking, fixing, mending, caring, raising, mothering. She is doing something appropriate to the hour, day, month, year. She is not cutting off her fingers in the woods while making weapons.
I go to the door, unsure how to present myself, her only child, naked from the waist up, hatchet at her side, filthy, bloodied, carrying her own body parts. I squeeze my fingers. They have gone cold; the blood tacky.
I am 9. I do not have the words for this. I cannot explain myself or the mystery of what has occurred; how my blade was untrue, how I have maimed myself for life. Inside I hear: water running, the smell of fresh bread, Mom humming. I step into the kitchen.
“Mom,” I say. “Something happened.”
—Mindy McGinnis is an Edgar Award-winning novelist who writes across multiple genres, including post-apocalyptic, historical, thriller, contemporary, mystery, and fantasy. While her settings may change, you can always count on Mindy’s books to deliver grit, truth, and an unflinching look at humanity and the world around us.
Interview with Mindy McGinnis
What inspired you to write “Something Happened?”
I grew up in a very rural area and still live there. It’s a lifestyle that is easily romanticized, but it also carries a fair amount of danger with it. I spent most of my time in the woods, playing alone, and I often did carry a hatchet with me. As an adult, I think about some of my activities and cringe…like purposefully crossing a flooded stream because I liked how it felt when the current carried me.
What was your writing and revision process like for this story?
It came out fairly quickly, and the tone was exactly what I had wanted right from the beginning. However, with so few words, each one carries a lot of weight. I’d leave it alone for a week or two, return to it and change one or two words. But when you’re working with less than 500, each word carries great importance.
What are some of the challenges and benefits of writing short-short fiction? How does it differ from novel writing?
I think it’s an emotional hurricane for me. I often get one line, or a visual, and try to evoke the gut impact that it brings for me. I’m naturally a tight, concise writer, so I actually enjoy the parameters that encourage me to hone my natural inclination, which is to say a lot by writing very little.
Your fiction spans an impressive variety of genres. How has not staying in one particular authorial “lane” helped your craft and your career?
If I’m being perfectly honest, I doubt it has. I think if I had picked a lane and stuck in it, I might be more successful or well known. I know I’d be easier to market, and my brand would be more defined. I think career-wise it might have been more intelligent to establish myself in one arena. Craft wise, the thought makes me claustrophobic. I read widely, so I write widely.
What’s your best advice for fellow short story writers?
The short story is a form that presents challenges the novel doesn’t. World building, character development and arc, plot…all of the elements you’d have more room for in a novel are constricted to a very small narrative. Flash fiction is an area I excel at, micro-focusing on a single moment and the impact of it. A short story is much more difficult for me. You need more than one moment in a short story, but you need to give equal weight to each and not become involved in a single scene to the detriment of others. It’s a tricky balance, and one I’ve not mastered yet.