Fiction from Melissa Benton Barker

Two paths diverge in the forest.

Photo: Jens Lelie

Mother and Son

The Girl on the Bus
The bus winds round and round the mountain, up the mountain, down the mountain, the girl curled, asleep in the last seat, she missed her stop, she’s been forgotten. The bus goes all the way up to the top of the mountain, place of cowbell, ash and fog. Then the bus goes all the way back down to the empty school at the bottom. The girl wakes but doesn’t speak, white daylight all around her. What happens at the empty school? You are the girl. Or maybe you’re not. This is a dream, until it isn’t.

 

The Boy Whines
The boy and the mother are on a hike, a hike the mother hates because it’s so easy to lose the trail. The trail is barely a footpath, often muddled by fallen leaves but everyone says don’t worry. The boy is only four. The boy is tired, so the boy whines but the mother doesn’t slow. She cuts through branches and brush. She’s determined. The boy throws his arms around the mother’s legs but she doesn’t let up, and he releases her. She lets him lag behind. She turns a corner, steps off the path by the creek, hides behind a tree trunk, waits to watch the fear on his face as he passes.

 

The Head
A head bursts through the wall. It’s the head of an ancient Greek philosopher. The head holds a key on its tongue. The head gives you a list of instructions. Except when it speaks it shoots blanks—the words have sound but no meaning. You wake up scraping the wall.

 

The Boy Writes
The boy makes a book of cartoon characters. The characters fly out of his fingers. The main character has horns and an amazing eyebrow dashed across his forehead. The main character chases the minor characters and screams. The minor characters have wobbly faces, wobbly hair. The boy names one of them “Oh No.” The mother knows the main character is really her, the mother. But the boy doesn’t know it—not yet—he doesn’t know it. The mother has all kinds of ways of hurting, of knowing.

 

The Chase
You are riding horses into the woods with your sister. The bearded men chase after you. You know they want your sister. The horses you ride are not well fed. No one has properly cared for them. You ride holding onto mane and rib; they are skeletal. But hungry horses do not differentiate between escape, opportunity, and leisure. They slow even when you stab your heels into their flanks, over and over and over. They halt full-stop and the smell of blood and dust breaks through their pores. They gnaw on grass while the tide of beards comes closer, closer. Your sister’s mouth opens. You will fall face first, your boots tangled in stirrups.

 

The Mother Worries
The mother’s worry runs laps around the house, unspools, then races back and wraps the house like a swaddling blanket or a bandage, but she can’t stop. The worry unleashes and stands beside her or on top of her or she rides it like a wave or it crashes over her or it transposes itself upon her and becomes her, until no one can tell the difference between the worry and the mother. What is the mother’s worry to the boy?
An unstruck match. A boulder. An anchor. A muzzle.
.

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Melissa Benton Barker‘s fiction appears in Longleaf Review, Moon City Review, Cleaver, Best Small Fictions, and elsewhere. She is the flash fiction section editor at CRAFT. She lives in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

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