Those Little Rising Lights

By Cathy Ulrich

Every morning, it’s still dark when I wake. Even in the longest days of summer, I wake before the sun. In the dark, I can see the lights from town. The airport sits atop the horizon, all red and white blinking lights. Without my glasses, they are blur and shimmer, not quite magical, but also, not quite not. And then, some of the lights begin to move. Some of them begin to rise.

And then they are in the sky.

I don’t write every day. But every morning, I see the airplanes as they take off.[1]

When I do write, it’s because I want to write. Because there is something inside of me. Some story or voice, some whispering thing that needed to be let out.

I write my little stories the same way I’m writing this essay, in the small spaces of my day, on a 4” by 6” notepad from the local casket company. My tiny little letters all pressed together.

If I say to myself I need to write something today, I should write something today, all the words go out of me and that little notepad ends up looking so large and so empty.

What I need instead of having to write something is that spark of wanting to write something. Some days, I have that spark. Some days — a lot of them lately, more than I’m used to — I don’t.

Let me talk about one of my published stories: Flash Frog’s “I Do Not Want to Live Without You.” I had the idea before I had the spark. On Twitter, I saw a conversation between two other writers talking about stories based in motels.

“Nobody writes about happy people in a motel,” they said.

So I thought, oh, I should write about happy people in a motel.

So there was the idea. But it just twisted about in my brain for a few weeks, something lingering beneath my other thoughts, something buried and mostly quiet, until I was driving home from work and got stuck at a light and this phrase popped into my head:

“The motel with its raggedy bedspread and tottering TV that only plays 17 channels, two of them Spanish….”

The light turned green as I was scribbling it down.

When I got home, I immediately rewrote the line in better handwriting[2] and kept going, adding in the details of the telenovela playing on the television, the unheated swimming pool, the grape popsicles. In one sentence, the story was done.

I have to admit: I don’t know any more about these characters than the readers do. I think at least one of them is a girl, but sometimes I think maybe they are both girls. I think they are in love, but maybe they are just friends. I don’t know what they’ve done, or what they’re running from. I don’t know where they are planning to go, or if they will ever get there.

And I don’t know if either of them can translate that phrase from the telenovela that ends that story.

No quiero vivir sin ti.

And another of my small stories: Splonk’s “You Are a Plummeting.”

I had the idea after I watched a documentary about suicides from the Golden Gate Bridge.[3] It made me think of a boy I used to know who killed himself by jumping from a bridge.[4] I had read about the documentary before I watched it — some people thought it was horrific that the filmmakers had recorded these suicides, that they had done nothing to stop them. They that had only witnessed.

How horrible it must be to witness.

But that was only the idea. It wasn’t until I was sitting in a rocking chair at church, looking out the window at the blowing leaves, waiting for the children I watch during the services to arrive, that I thought, “After, someone sends me a copy of the video.”

And then, I began to write.

Sometimes I think about those little rising lights in the dark that I see every morning. The sound they make when they’ve flown over my house (the sound follows, of course, the sound comes after). Where they are going, what they are carrying.

Sometimes I think of my little stories that way too (I call them my “little stories” not to be cute or self-deprecating, but because they are little — tiny bursts of words that I squeeze onto the casket company notepad). Where are my stories going, what are they carrying.

Sometimes I think are my stories going anywhere?

Sometimes I think am I?

This morning, I thought of a thousand butterflies. They exist in several versions of a story I’ve wanted to write for the last few years. It has never turned out quite right, never been the story it is meant to be.

This morning, I thought of a thousand butterflies and one more thing that could finish the story, that could make it whole.

Maybe, I thought. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

And then, I began to write.

[1] This isn’t technically true. Some days, the airplanes don’t take off and I watch the empty sky, wondering if there is a storm above, somewhere I can’t see. Some days, it’s something like a Chinese spy balloon that has grounded the airplanes, and really, who could have expected that?

[2] This is a necessary step because I have gone to the typing stage many times, looked at the original story and said to myself, “what does that even say?”

[3] I’m sorry, but it’s not actually about 9/11.

[4] He has haunted me since before he died, and even more after. What I remember best about him was he said to me once: “You have these eyes that always look like you’re about to cry.”

Cathy Ulrich

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 editions of Best Microfiction, Best Small Fictions, Best of the Net and Wigleaf‘s Top 50 Very Short Fictions. She lives in Montana with her cat, who is, perhaps, not as small as you might have been led to believe.