The stories in Cathy Ulrich’s collection Small, Burning Things once again prove her to be one of the masters of flash fiction.
Kevin Brockmeier wrote of the book wrote of the book:
“With her book GHOSTS OF YOU, Cathy Ulrich immediately became one of my favorite flash fiction writers, and SMALL, BURNING THINGS is every bit as audacious, shimmering with just as much strangeness, humor, and melancholy as that amazing debut. Ulrich is a master of the art of compression, finding entire worlds in purses and playgrounds, French films and burning houses, teenage girls and yo-yo champions, axe murderers and giraffes. You can feel every sentence she writes being squeezed down to its perfect essence.”
When people asked me about my last book, I told them it was about murdered women. If they ask me what this one’s about, I’m going to say: Burning girls.
I think, sometimes, that everyone has a little flame burning inside of them. It’s the little flame that makes them them. Sometimes it burns brighter than others. Sometimes it burns you all the way down.
This book is about those little flames, those little fires. It’s about the way it felt (feels?) to be a girl and to want and to desire and to burn.
Each of the stories in this book has a little spark in them, a little burn and ash. And so do these songs:
I’m on Fire – Bruce Springsteen (Story: A House with Mughal-Style Doors)
Even before I put this collection together, I associated this story with this song. When I was young, I was in love with this boy who sometimes lived with his father. The house had a Mughal-style door — I’d never seen one in person before. It led to one of the rooms we never went in (our exclusive domain was his bedroom, with the occasional trip to the kitchen; the rest of the house was his father’s, a mysterious creature whom I don’t think I ever actually met). I loved the shape of that doorway, and lying in bed with that boy in his room, listening to the tinny radio playing this aching song.
As She Dreams – Goth Babe (Story: You Were Always Coming Home)
I don’t know what this song is about. (I don’t actually know what any of Goth Babe’s songs are about, but there’s something so lovely about them all.) But I love that line “Only for a moment, I want you to sleep in.” There’s something really loving about that line for me, something that makes me feel like the mother in this story would have looked at her sleeping child in her bed, when she should have already gotten up, and just let her be, only for a moment.
Harrison Ford – Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin (Story: Like Light from Dead Stars)
I’m sure this song is about the actor who plays Han Solo and Indiana Jones, but I like to pretend that it’s about silent film star Harrison Ford, who was a staple of movies that needed a handsome leading man — but perhaps not as dangerous as Valentino, as charismatic as John Gilbert, as swashbuckling as Douglas Fairbanks. This song makes me think of the flickering silver of the screen, the magic of opening titles. It makes me think of how magical and miraculous movies were back when they were first new.
Bagatelles – Charlotte Fever (Story: A Tree Falls)
The girl in this story could really be any girl who wants to feel special and loved and makes some really poor decisions because of it. When she listens to French pop music in the story, this is the song I think of. I think she would wear red lipstick … like: really, really red.
One Two Three Four Five Six Seven Eight Nine Ten Barbie Dolls – Pizzicato Five (Story: Like Doll Parts)
I remember I was on a road trip with a college friend and this song popped up on my playlist. I said to her “we are probably the only people on the highway in Montana listening to this song,” and she thought probably we were the only people on the highway anywhere listening to this song. It’s always been a favorite of mine, but I don’t think she liked it. It’s a fun, bubbly pop song — but it makes me think of doll parts.
50 MPH – Memory Cassettes (Story: The Hole at the Center of Everything)
This song is so beautiful, isn’t it? 50 MPH isn’t even that fast, really (the highways here have a speed limit of 80 now, can you imagine that?), but it is such a magical number to think of. 50 MPH. I think the little two-lane roads to get in and out of this small town would have speed limit signs with that number in big black letters on them. I think the grieving families would be pushing their cars to that limit, trying to leave their loss behind them as fast as they could.
When I’m Small – Phantogram (Story: A Nearly Beautiful Thing)
I love the line in this song, “I’d rather die than to be with you.” The wife in this story and the ballerina, I like them both. I’m not sure how I feel about the husband. Maybe he’s trying to capture something he lost. Maybe he’s a jerk. Maybe he just really likes documentaries about bears. But I feel like, when he comes home and the wife finally realizes that he’s been cheating, this is how she is going to feel. “I’d rather die than to be with you.”
PARAD(w/m)E – Sylvan Esso (Story: Burning Summer)
This is such a cheerful song for such a grim topic! But maybe it’s so cheerful because the lyrics are right — once we’ve destroyed everything, what’s left to hurt? Might as well have a parade in the apocalypse! This is a story about the world right before we’ve killed it all.
A Short Happy Life – Medicine (Story: The Falling Girls)
The abrupt ending of this song. The line “Is it my turn to make you cry? I’m not keeping score.” That chiming opening. The wall of sound that builds and builds. And that title! I don’t know if the girls in this story had happy lives, but they had short ones. I think one of them might have found this album in her mother’s things and listened to this song on repeat as she pulled an ill-fitting wedding dress on over her head.
Cathy Ulrich is the founding editor of Milk Candy Review, a journal of flash fiction. Her work has been published in various journals, including Black Warrior Review, Passages North, and Wigleaf and can be found in Best Microfiction 2019 and 2020, Best Small Fictions 2019, and Wigleaf’s Top 50 Very Short Fictions 2019. She lives in Montana with her daughter and various small animals.