by Gary Fincke
AT THE EDGE of our back yard, a soft bog formed. I was a sophomore, both old and young enough to test it with my shoes and half-expect hands upraised or a riot of worms. The neighbor’s dog skittered away from there as if that quagmire smelled like death.
My father was worried. The swamp, he said, was spreading. Our house lay downhill, the slope just steep enough that some nights I expected thick slime to slip under the back door, bubbling and multiplying like the ancestry my uncle had traced, by then, all the way back to the 18th Century. ‘The begats,’ my father said, using the Bible-talk he loved. ‘He’ll take us back to Adam if he has enough time.’
In Biology, Mr. Freitag told us that Aristotle, the great thinker, had said inanimate things contained a “vital heat.” The unborn waited in the soil, in dung, in cheese, in bread. The dew itself seethed with miracles, each morning giving birth to insects. As an example of spontaneous generation, what people believed for thousands of years, he read a recipe for mice: Place sweaty underwear into a barrel and cover carefully with husks of wheat.
Wait three weeks. Be patient. It takes time for sweat to penetrate those husks, but one morning, when you investigate, mice will emerge from that wheat, born from intimate perspiration.
‘Think about that,’ he said, meaning us to pay more attention to science, but I was thinking about the underwear, imagining what my lab partner, Becky Smarsh, might have next to her body. Two weeks earlier, Becky had dressed like a Roaring 20s teenager and flirted like a flapper in a thrift-store dress and a string of pearls at our class party. I’d worn my grandfather’s silk vest and silver watch chain. Just before the party ended, I’d wrapped both arms around her, dancing like we were going steady.
During lab, we arranged our flasks like Louis Pasteur, openings straight up or s-curved, some covered, some sealed. We boiled broth and poured. We kept watch until that broth clouded and stunk or stayed clear, refuting the presence of what Aristotle had called “life-force” in air.
It was something to talk about with Becky after class. Laughing about Aristotle lasted all the way to the cafeteria where we separated to sit at different tables. Before lunch period ended, I made a stew of leftover cafeteria food, bits of bread and fruit, filling a condiment cup and sliding it into the hollow of a table leg. I ate above that brew for five days to see what might spontaneously generate. Most important, I wanted one more thing to laugh about with Becky.
On the fifth day, I bolted a sandwich and swilled milk before I raised that table while my small dessert stayed sealed. When I nudged that tiny womb into the light so I could observe the fine hair of mold and whatever else my recipe grew with time, darkness, and heat, a flurry of fruit flies lifted from that soggy cup as if I’d fathered them. They rose and dispersed, disappearing among three hundred third-shift-lunch-hour students before I stood, giddy, and hurried into the hall, carrying my cake as if I might offer it to Becky when I caught up with her for a minute or two of talking before we separated again for our segregated-by-gender health class.
Becky, a few months older than I was, had a brand-new driver’s license by the next week. She wasn’t allowed to drive her father’s car more than ten miles altogether at one time, but it was only three miles to the state game lands where teenagers parked in the large lot that was never used after dark. She found a spot near a distant corner and flicked the headlights on, then off, sending some sort of signal into the trees, creating, she said, the evening and the morning of the first day. ‘We’re alone as Adam and Eve,’ she said, laughing as if the Bible was as silly as Aristotle. She flicked the lights again as she opened two buttons of her blouse. ‘For now,’ she said, ‘as far as I go,’ pressing my hands on her bra-covered breasts in the dark.
‘Yes,’ I said, so in love with just the partial knowledge of her body, that I was ready to say ‘yes’ again and again to whatever she wanted to make fun of, even if it sent us both to hell.
Gary Fincke’s new collection of flash fiction The Corridors of Longing was published by Pelekinesis Press in 2022. Recent stories appeared or are upcoming in Wigleaf, Pithead Chapel, Atticus Review, Fractured Lit, and 100 Word Story. He is co-editor of the anthology series Best Microfiction.