The Sphinx & She Always Says It Better

Kij Johnson


The editors are delighted to share with you two new flash fictions by this year’s Kurt Vonnegut Speculative Fiction Prize final judge, Kij Johnson. 


The Sphinx

When you were thirteen, you biked to the county park a mile out of Shell Rock. You rode as far as you could along the tangled dirt paths that lay like a net across the so-called undeveloped parts. It was summer; the trees were heavy with leaves, ropes of sunlight visible in the pollen-filled air. There was poison ivy, there were ticks, there were, hypothetically, snakes. You left the bike when it grew too hard to push it through, and walked the rest of the way to the river’s edge.

In July, the water was the color of chocolate milk and nearly as thick, smooth and sluggish and shallow enough to wade across; but there were deep spots, holes and pockets filled with a sticky mud that would suck you right down like quicksand—said the older boys. During the carp mating season, the opaque water seethed with invisible fish; if you went into the river (and you all did, sooner or later), you would feel a hundred sudden currents as they writhed too close; sometimes the brush of scales or a fin against your legs.

Across the river was a muddy undercut, cottonwood-hung bank identical to this one, but from there, you could see here, instead of just being here.

Upstream, there was a modest railroad bridge: modern, not too high. The older boys said you could walk across. The older boys said you could see twenty feet down, between the rails and the ties and the bridge, right into the water. The older boys said they had crossed it, but that you had to watch out for freight trains, you had to be ready to jump if one came. They said you probably wouldn’t die from the fall.

You are not older and not a boy, but you have been thinking of this ever since you heard it was a thing not to do. You pick your way through the decaying lush smell along the shore, toward the graveled slope that angles up to the start of the bridge. It seems taller from here; also, you can see up through the bridge, right into the sky. Is there a train? How soon would you hear it? Is the water deep enough?

The Sphinx is here, and she asks you her riddle.

Q: What are you doing?

The Sphinx is disguised as a mom-aged woman in blue shorts and a plaid short-sleeved shirt. She stands on the tracks high above you, hand shielding her eyes from the sun as she looks down at you. Adults can destroy you if you say the wrong thing.

A: Nothing. I was just looking for fossils.

She says, “Well, don’t do it here. It’s dangerous.” And vanishes.

You have solved the riddle of the sphinx and she has not killed you. And as long as you don’t tell your mother either, tonight when you come home? You are safe.


She Always Says It Better

She falls asleep to the roar of jet engines, and so do you. She never dots her “i”s. Nor do you, though you used to. Sometimes she peels limes and eats them like oranges, and sometimes you do, too. She likes chocolate; so do you, but doesn’t everyone? How can you tell the difference between what is the way you are, and the way she has wrapped herself around your brain stem, tendrilled herself through your lobes? She is like ivy climbing a wall, pressing past the mortar and crushing it to sand, until the bricks rattle and only gravity and history hold them in place. She cannot tell the difference between her and you. Sometimes, neither can you.

But there are places where, in the cracks of her constant regard, one small piece of you returns. There had been a night she was out of town, and you went to a bar and came home alone, past an all-night food stand. You bought a tight greasy paper cone filled with frites and ate them with curry ketchup as you walked. When it started to rain, you stood in the entry of a framing shop until the frites were gone and you could pull on your gloves. And that moment—the rain on your face, and salt and curry on your tongue—that shining moment was the cleanest joy you have ever felt.

You have never told her of it, and you won’t, because then she will tell you of her own perfect moment, and take this away, as well.



We’ll be sharing two more flash fictions in a forthcoming print issue of the North American Review. If you’d like to sample more of Johnson's recent work, it can be found at Clarkesworld and Lightspeed.

Kij Johnson

Kij Johnson’s novels include two volumes of the Heian trilogy Love/War/Death Series: The Fox Woman and Fudoki. She won both the Nebula and Hugo for “The Man Who Bridged The Mist.” In the past ten years, she has worked as managing editor at Tor Books; in collections and special editions editor for Dark Horse Comics; editor, continuity manager, and creative director for Wizards of the Coast; program manager on Microsoft Reader; and managing editor of user communications at Real Networks. Johnson is an Associate Professor of Fiction Writing at the University of Kansas.

Header image by Denise Johnson