Flash Fiction: Her Dirt

Jars of Clay, by Ricky Artigas, on Flickr
Jars of Clay, by Ricky Artigas, on Flickr

We’re delighted to present a first for the Wellcome Collection blog: a piece of flash fiction, inspired by one of our exhibitions. Last year short story author Tania Hershman wrote an excellent two-part guest post about fiction inspired by science (see part one and part two). After visiting the Dirt exhibition recently, she wrote Her Dirt, a story about a woman’s relationship with the muck of life…

She keeps her dirt, and at first her dirt is enough. But then it isn’t. So she takes to taking.

There is history here. A clean clean child. Or, rather: demands for a clean clean child. A pure-white home, a childhood washing and re-washing. Do you need to hear of distant mothers and of even further-spinning fathers?

She keeps her dirt in jars, in rows, on shelves, in rooms. She lives, of course, alone. Jars are labelled, jars are all the same. She does not touch the dirt, does not let it glister through her fingertips like stardust. The jars are sealed and left. If asked, she could not say why. But no-one does.

She breaks into her neighbours’ homes. She takes her own dustpan and brush and, no matter how many visits from their cleaner, finds something, underneath, behind. She labels, stares and sees no difference: Your dust or mine? His dust or hers?

Then she hears of Arthur Munby. A Victorian gentleman, he was obsessed, it seems, with dirt. Dirty women in particular. Part of her does not want to hear the rest, her insides long ago scrubbed of any thoughts of this. Of what he might want. With them. But when she looks down at her white white arms, her fingernails untouched, unbitten, the pale cloth of her shirt, she feels life spring up inside her.

She goes out for a walk, and at first she doesn’t know what she’s looking for. She wanders to her nearest train station, and when she is there starts to laugh because she realises she had hoped for coal. But there is no coal, no men kitted out in coal dust, no romantic muscled dark-faced men in this electric age. She will have to go elsewhere.

She takes to walking daily in search of this thing, this idea she could not name if asked, though no-one does. It might be man or woman she is searching for. But everyone is freshly-washed. Even the cats are always cleaning, cleaning.

On one walk, she finds she’s left the city. She did not notice, she had been humming to herself. The pavement has ended, she is on a path and by the path hedges are wild, no trimmers here, no neaten-uppers. She is not tired, which is odd, for she has never been that strong. She is not hungry either, although it must have been hours. Her legs keep moving her towards, towards.

The first puddle is a clue and she walks straight through it, no matter shoes or socks or trousers. A second puddle and a third, and she skips through them, off the path now. And then a barn, its door slightly open. Its door inviting.

What does she see when she walks in?

She sees a grey cube, in the middle of the floor. A large cube made of concrete.

She moves nearer and sees that it’s not concrete. It’s dirt.

She moves even nearer and sees that it’s not just dirt. It’s her dirt. All the childhood dirt she was forbidden. How she knows this she couldn’t say if asked, though no-one does.

As she approaches she sees:

  • lint from pockets in a favourite summer dress that she was made to pick out with tiny fingers
  • mud from their pond that she’d wanted to rub on her face and arms
  • balls of dust from underneath the sofa, where she once hid and sneezed and gave it all away and was dragged out, dust-smeared, and afterwards was hit
  • clippings from toenails that were never seen
  • clumps of hair from the dog she was not allowed to have
  • flakes of her skin from the mattress she cried into when the dog was taken away again

She moves closer still, towards this past-dirt monument. There is no moment when she thinks: How is this here? And: For me? No, there is just her reaching out one arm and then the other, sliding hands into the softness of her-dirt, up to her elbows and then further, to the shoulders, and then she takes that step and walks right in, into the middle of the cube.

As she does, her jars, in rows, on shelves, in rooms, burst open all at once. The dirt – her dirt and his, your dirt and mine – spills out, fountains, spurts, streams and gushes over everything. House dust and grime on every surface, every book, every fork and spoon and knife, every cushion, every shoe and every window sill, until there is a thick thick layer. When it is done, the lids of the jars sigh closed, and everything is blanketed. As if no-one lives here. As if no-one has been here for years, for decades, for millennia. As if we were never here at all.

Tania Hershman is the author of The White Road and Other Stories. She blogs at www.titaniawrites.blogspot.com

7 thoughts on “Flash Fiction: Her Dirt”

  1. Wonderful! Amazing that a story about dirt could be so beautiful. Especially liked the bit where she pushes her arms into the cube, very visceral. Brava!

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