No Ruined Image to Atone

Flash Fiction by Pamela Eason
Photo in the Public Domain; more information at end of story.

The clapping had almost subsided. Tinkling sounds spattered through the room as antique coffee cups settled into saucers and ornate forks jingled against cut-glass dessert plates. A few people were sipping drinks that were quickly becoming lukewarm. Others were picking at the marshmallowy dessert Coffee and S’mores was known for.

Megan stepped to the microphone, head erect, back straight, hands by her sides, eyes surveying the small group of thirty or so people composed of local writers and their guests. Some were lounging on vintage sofas, some slouched in overstuffed chairs, and others sat around small round cloth-covered tables. They formed a sort of semi-circle in front of the microphone where Megan waited for the clapping and murmuring to cease. She looks so confident, Hattie thought.

“Thank you for that stimulating reading Terrance,” Megan said, nodding towards the chair where Terrance had taken his seat.

Stimulating is right, Hattie thought, shaking her left foot rapidly. His words and voice were rousing. They made your feel like going right out and organizing a march, or starting a revolution, or something.

“Our next reading will be by Hattie Morgan,” Megan said smiling and looking towards the small table where Hattie sat with her critique group. Hattie’s foot shook faster. A low buzz, like the white noise she played at night, filled her head. “This will be her first reading for us.” Megan’s words sounded distant, muffled.

Faces turned towards Hattie. She’d looked for a group like this since she’d moved to the city three years ago. She had heard about them five months ago from Kell, one of the cashiers at the Words on Pages Bookstore. He’d known she was looking for a writing group and had invited her to come as his guest. Each Tuesday night since, she’d heard most everyone in the group share ideas of love and beauty, of strife, hope and despair, of joy, and pain, longing and loss through poetry and prose. She had heard their souls whispering to hers, but she had never been brave enough to whisper back. She didn’t feel ready now, but she did feel pressure. If she was going to be part of this group, really be part of it, she needed to contribute.

Concentrate. Calm down. Breathe. One, two, three, four, five. Her heart speed up despite the effort. Just follow the rules. Say the name of the poem. Read like you practiced. That’s all you have to do.

Her critique group, Beulah with her short black curls and black eyes, lean Kell with this blonde ponytail and wire-rimmed glasses, and short, spunky, redheaded, freckle-faced Marcie, sat at the table with her. “You got this,” Kell said leaning towards her. Beulah patted her shoulder. Marcie winked and grinned as she held out two fists, thumbs up. Acid rose in Hattie’s throat.

Hattie didn’t have far to go. She had sat at the table closest to the microphone just for that reason. She rose, feeling as if she were in a dream, and stepped to the mic. “Thank you,” she said to Megan. Hattie’s paper rattled slightly as she placed her poem on the music stand with trembling fingers. She looked up. Beulah and Kell were nodding encouragingly. Marcie was tightening her face into a big grin and locking in her thumbs-up fists.

Hattie closed her eyes. Take it slow. She tapped out the rhythm on her thigh. No knowledge shared, No words impaired. She opened her eyes and began, “Unrevealed Words.”

No knowledge shared, 
No words impaired, 

Her voice had squeaked the words out. Too tense. She let out an audible breath.

No other thoughts except his own.  

She’d lost her cadence. Breathe. The rich smells of coffee, cinnamon, chocolate, and pumpkin-pie spice filled her nostrils. Straighten your shoulders. You prepared. You can do this. She bobbed her head slightly to find the beat again.

No truth revised,
No love despised,
No seeds of transformation sown.

Her voice was stronger now, clearer and rhythmic, like a country preacher’s when he’s on a roll.

No kindness learned,  
No anger earned,  
No hatred felt or mercy known. 

That was better.

No beauty scarred,  
No goodness marred,  
No ruined image to atone. 

It was over. Megan was walking towards the microphone, clapping and smiling. Hattie nodded her head in thanks, pulled her poem from the stand, and headed back to the table.

“I feel like I just bombed a big test,” she whispered. Beulah gave her a hug.

“It was your first time,” Kell said. “It will get easier.”

“You finished strong,” Marcie said punctuating her words with two thumbs up.

Public Domain Photo of Art Nouveau Women Collection (1898) by Alfas Mucha @