Flash Fiction Contest 2nd Place: “The Physiology of Arriving” by Michele Wong

December 5, 2022

“The Physiology of Arriving'” moves through time and travel, with a sense of wonder, apprehension, and curiosity. The movement in time—past and present—is unique and the character is likeable, interesting, strong. The creativity of this piece is a treat! — Guest Judge Kim Chinquee.


Your feet move slowly, dragging one Samsonite hardcase till you reach the departure gate where you feel the eel of awkward slip from head to toe as each word bends the heart when Ba says my child and Ma asks in Cantonese if she’d let your hand go too soon, would your scholarship turn you into the moon, luminescent and distant?

And your hips shift a little on the hard seat, turning to the window where a sky full of promise looks down on the tropical island your bare feet have loved, only easing after take-off, after the body weightless feels gravity suck that eel into your stomach filled with airplane pasta, though just the thought of eating at 30,000 feet makes this a momentous occasion, and your acid gives a slow burn as you wonder how to live in a world without the salty aroma of Ma’s sambal fish, though in the future, you will consume umpteen meat pies and grow an ulcer from a variety of solitudes and beers.

On arrival, your lungs inhale, a deep breath in as the air is cooler without the pull of humidity, before a rush of eucalyptus fills the negative space, and your hand coils from the cold blue of winter. You see a sign that reads Welcome to Australia held by your big brother Yiu-Yan, and in the car you stare wide-eyed and spy, in the distance, mountains the color of the sea; in the next few months, you shall see koalas with pouches, and tails that push wallabies three feet in the air, and in the next few years, you shall witness burnt trees cresting hills of ashes, a body in the morgue and first love.

On your very first dusk, you wear long johns, just like Hawkeye in MASH, and you flop on the couch as all you want to do is rest, but Yiu-Yan is particular and instructional. “Here’s your first beer and Hoover. Gotta learn to drink and clean like an adult now.” Your eel bends as you vacuum under a watchful pair of eyes while you yearn to be sharing your day with Ma, while lazily watching her make spicy sauces from skin, flesh and seed, but your ears tweak as you hear the kak-kak of cockatoos which continue into the soft red of twilight replacing the beat of monsoon winds in the bones of your ear.

For Yiu-Yan’s first sister-cooked meal, your hands open the recipe book Ma gave, filled with galangal, ginger and aniseed. As you trace the intestinal line of your first trout, in search of a pocket to hide garlic slivers, as your fingers feel the smoothness of fish skin, pull the wormy entrails of life, as your thumb is poked by a thorny fin, pinpricks of blood speckle the counter, as you plop the fish into the oil, as it suddenly hisses and crackles with fried water, and your eel stirs and laughs as Yiu-Yan rushes over to wipe the counter and mop the floor, his hands like a stunned octopus, panicky and wild.

For many nights, your ventricles thump-thump in dread—What if I chose the wrong major? Why does Yiu-Yan keep scrubbing everything? Then you remember reading Jane Eyre in school, how she went beyond Lowood, beyond governess, beyond her time, and flourished, and you keep repeating, I am Jane, Jane is I, beyond peril, beyond time. Then when Ma calls the following month, there is static on the phone. “How are you both?” and you reply, “Cold! But we finally dipped our feet into Bondi yesterday,” as your eel stealthily moves to your tongue, and curls it in order to tell her that there’ve been so many tests you’ve had no time to think, curls it to let her know that your classmates have had numerous barbeques and no one’s invited you, and that Yiu-Yan in one drunken night, uttered “I haven’t known happiness since grade eleven,” and that he hides in his room for days, but your heart steels and tells your eel to shut up and be an Amazonian like Jane Eyre, so instead you say, “My fish stuck like gum to the wok,” to which Ma replies, “It’s your first fish, it’s allowed to stick!” because you’ll always be hers and she, yours.

Summers later, to celebrate your new apartment rental, you go to Bondi and swim, not knowing that within twenty-four hours, you’ll almost faint when you’re called to the manager’s office of your first municipal job, where you’re told of your brother’s hanging with his USB cord, and your long-submerged eel awakens as you drive your visiting parents to retrieve his things from his apartment, where you find The Bell Jar, Sertraline and Ativan, and a pet rock you gave him when you were eight, and his books are, as usual, arranged in alphabetical and thematic order, and you don’t know if you can ever be Jane Eyre again.

And now each time you return to the edge of the sea, you wonder how many moments are infinite—catching tadpoles in the mangrove where you’re nine and piggy-backed by a giggling brother, stealing your first kiss under the glow of Jenolan limestones, running through your first field of cornstalks with a beau with a banjo, where you finally understand that in life, we are always arriving, and you turn as you hear laughter erupt, and you see a child slurping a Bubble-O-Bill, chocolate ice-cream melting into her pink face, dribs and drabs onto the warm rocks; in another decade, you shall hear the warm yet impudent lilt of a sixteen-year-old who calls her parents the Dude and his Old Lady, but for now, you wonder if you’ve let her hand go too soon, and your heart skips because it knows that she is yours and you are hers, and your mouth opens to call her, as you swallow the sibilance of a sea breeze and drown the slithering thing within.

Michele’s first love of words began with writing for theatre and her love for short story arose after a story was a broadcast winner in CityTV’s Vancouver’s Story Initiatives. She has been a finalist for the Tobias Wolff Award and the
Quagmire Magazine short story contests. Her work was recently shortlisted in the Bridport Short Story Contest, as well as long-listed in the Bath Flash Fiction & Fish Flash Fiction Prize Contests. Her writing has been or will be published in the Bath Flash Fiction anthology, ScribbleLit, Fiction Attic, Quagmire Magazine &Blue Mountain Review.


At The Masters Review, our mission is to support emerging writers. We only accept submissions from writers who can benefit from a larger platform: typically, writers without published novels or story collections or with low circulation. We publish fiction and nonfiction online year-round and put out an annual anthology of the ten best emerging writers in the country, judged by an expert in the field. We publish craft essays, interviews and book reviews and hold workshops that connect emerging and established writers.

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