This month we’re looking at Adrift by the inimitable Kim Steutermann Rogers. Adrift is a beautifully melancholic cli-fi flash that tells the story of four very different women who become inextricably tied together after a flood disaster in Hawaii.
You can read the whole thing here (but make sure you come back for the anatomy lesson. Also, definitely read it because everything below is one big spoiler)
This story was the winner of the Fractured Literary Anthology Prize and it’s easy to see why – it’s a masterclass in flash fiction. There is such wonderful tension throughout, the reader almost feels as though they are walking a tightrope between resistance and futility, resilience and hopelessness. I love how the character’s connectedness deepens as the story progresses, from the physical to the emotional, culminating in a collective defiance against their ‘rescue’ at the end.
Awash with stunning images of the natural world and vivid sensory detail, this compelling story is a poignant cry against the adverse and horrific effects of climate change, but it’s also a story that commemorates the power and strength of women – we don’t need any male heroes here, thank you very much!
What the story does emphasise is the need for a collective protest against what is happening to our planet and, because it’s written with such gentle empathy, the overall impact is strikingly powerful.
Let’s look in closer detail at this beautiful story. Be warned you may need a box of recycled tissues!
Note: story in plain text. WHQ comments in orange italic.
Adrift by Kim Steutermann Rogers
It was the year the flood washed a parade of homes downriver.
Here, we start right at the point of conflict. Bam! the reader is instantly thrust into the story. The use of ‘parade‘ is wonderful, we instantly have this interesting word choice – a parade is a spectacle of some sort, combined with the vivid image of the houses being washed away, there is the physical feeling of movement. Something momentous is happening, immediately, engaging the reader from the get-go and we ask what happens next?
From ONE line, people! Wow.
They called it a rain bomb. Kate’s home was fourth. She followed three other women, unable or unwilling to leave their homes that once lined the largest river on their tropical island.
Love this, the use of ‘unable ‘– why?, ‘unwilling’ – why? We have these wonderful contrasting ideas here, are some of the women helpless, others defiant? We are drawn in and want to know more about the characters. And look at the sentence structure – lovely. Two very short statements followed by a longer more revealing moment. Ahhh, gorgeous pacing.
Kate tried her phone, but no calls connected.
Eek. Ominous! Kate is disconnected from everyone and everything, she needs a lifeline and quick!
Aunty Lani, from the house ahead of her, tossed Kate a rope, and that’s how the four women tied their homes, their lives, their fates together.
Oh, and there it is, the lifeline! Pivotal moment right here – the rope is a wonderful symbol of linking the women together, an immediate connectedness and there is also the idea that Kate is being saved by another woman. Sisterhood – yeah!
What a sight. Four houses, all shades of green, headed for a crescent-shaped bay backdropped by lush fluted mountains sliced with waterfalls. Oh, the waterfalls. So many that they looked like icing dribbling down the creases of a pound cake.
Initially we think this is a description of a beautiful, heavenly place, contrasting with the terrible disaster that is unfolding. But read again. Oh, the waterfalls, so many. Hold on, surely too many? This is a flood, not beautiful at all. And while the mountains are gorgeous, they are a symbol of all that is about to be lost. A devastating moment for the reader
There was food and water. Everyone packed disaster kits these days. Everyone filled their bathtubs whenever sirens alerted a pending natural disaster. Everyone knew the disasters were coming more and more often. It used to be hurricanes or tsunamis, but with warming temperatures, extreme flooding had become a more deadly disaster.
The casual tone here, the repetitive phrasing, everyone packed, everyone filled, everyone knew, builds tension wonderfully but also the underlying helplessness is palpable – we knew it was coming, yet we could not stop it so instead we prepared ourselves, thus resigning ourselves to the terrible certainty of what will come. This is not prophecy, it is fact and we cannot stop it. It’s too late.
It stopped raining by evening. At dusk, frogs climbed onto the women’s decks. Frogs by the dozen, frogs crawling on top of other frogs, frogs seeking rescue and sending the women onto their roofs at sunset, as a full moon rose over the eastern sky, painting it a post-apocalyptic orange-gold.
Nature flees, and the frogs overwhelm the women. Nature seeking refuge outside of its natural habitat is deeply unsettling. The frogs are gross, the image of them climbing and writhing makes our skin crawl. And yet, we also feel sympathy for them, the flood affects them as much as the women, struggling in vain to find safety. The women climb onto the roofs, they still cannot or will not leave either their homes, nor each other.
The post-apocalyptic orange gold, is in a sense, ironic since it’s happening in the ‘now’. The writer brilliantly embedding the warning, this is NOT the future, this threat is real and is happening today.
For dinner, Jodi shared a vegetarian lasagna she’d made the day before with taro leaves and vegan cheese. Kate made a salad from the bag of mixed greens, her last from her ex-girlfriend, the farmer. The women shuttled everything, one to the other, in baskets they hooked to the ropes connecting them.
This is such a shift in the story, from desperate fleeing of the floods and frogs to a joining together, a resilience, the act of cooking and eating as a shared experience incongruous against the backdrop. This is a moment of intimacy between the women, and it masterfully lulls the reader right at this central point in the story. These pauses are important, a moment for the reader to breathe before the tension is ramped up once more.
“Like dessert?” Aunty asked and passed around banana bread with macadamia nuts, the bananas and nuts she grew in what was once her backyard. Stephanie was the practical one. She tossed everyone a lime and said they were good for washing your hands. “Armpits, too.”
Here the idea of sharing and taking care of one another is expanded and emphasised. We begin to learn more about the characters, their lives outside of this moment. The writer very cleverly develops her characters through action in a way that feels completely unforced. The exposition through character action feels beautifully blended.
And then, right at this midpoint in the story, in this moment of comfortable intimacy, she suddenly and quite strikingly brings back the ominous tone – ‘Armpits, too’ – uh oh, listen up! This is not a fleeting moment, we may be in this terrible predicament for some time.
At ten o’clock, a phone pinged, and everyone thought they’d floated into cell phone range, but it was just Jodi’s alarm, a reminder to take melatonin before bed. Instead, Aunty passed around a bottle of Patron. “I was saving it,” she said. “But I figure this is as special as it gets.” Stephanie went inside her house and returned with tortilla chips and salsa. “Good to have something on the stomach,” she said.
I love the wry humour in this moment, it’s the brilliance of Steutermann Rogers that she recognises human complexities and that humour can often be found in dark moments. At this point in the story, we feel as if we know these women deeply, masterful writing in such a short space. I also like this connection to the title ‘everyone thought they’d floated into cell phone range’ a great moment to remind the reader that whilst they’re drinking and eating and bonding, actually they’re ‘adrift’ , everything is out of control and they are at the whim of the environment. Such beautifully subtle layering.
No one slept that night, and Kate learned their stories, piecemeal, relayed like the old game of telephone. Aunty was going through a divorce, or not, she couldn’t decide. Her husband spent most of his time fishing or racing outrigger canoes, his first love the ocean, a cliche if there ever was one. Stephanie had just lost her dog to cancer. Jodi was a cancer survivor—breast. And, Kate, recently split from her long-time girlfriend, her lease expiring, trying to figure out her next move. As a seasonal field biologist, Kate couldn’t afford to live alone in Hawaii.
I love this paragraph, this nod to their ‘other’ lives, the almost normal problems people face, relationships, illness and so on, how they discuss THESE matters and not the terrible thing that is happening. How they connect and share a real moment of sisterhood and understanding. All of this is under threat, we (the reader) feel such empathy for these women, because really, perhaps in the end, none of this will matter, because all of it is lost.
Kate tried her phone again. No bars.
And bam! from the empathetic intimacy of the last few paragraphs, the reader is suddenly face-slapped back into the moment. Danger. threat. Tension. Brilliant!
No one asked the question that was on everyone’s mind.
I love this! Again, an absolute masterclass in observing complex human behaviour.
When the moon started to arc for the horizon,
Beautiful phrasing, I love the feeling of the moon reaching for the horizon, rather than just fading, this idea that everything is just beyond what is reachable. The moon is wonderfully symbolic in this story, associated with the ocean, with the feminine, with time moving exponentially,
Aunty ran fishing lines between the houses and baited the hooks with frogs.
Undefeated, resilient, I love this character.
She’d learned a few tricks from her fisherman husband, she said. With any luck, she’d cube up an aweoweo and make poke for breakfast. “I’ve got scallions,” Kate said, another leftover from her girlfriend. Jodi didn’t eat fish, not after the baby seal died when it snagged a fish off a fisherman’s line, swallowing the hook, too. But she offered chili pepper water.
Now we see a broader picture, the writer very cleverly widening the lens and scope of the story. Here we learn that it’s not just here, in this moment, that things are terrible, but other horrors are taking place farther afield too, both in the human and the natural world. This knowledge about the fisherman gives the reader a sense of the wider community .
Just before the moon dropped out of sight, Kate heard the sound of a whoosh and felt a spray of droplets coat her body. A pungent smell lodged in the back of her throat, and she could just make out a humpback whale, a bloom of red expanding around it. As the women watched, another whale one-third the size surfaced. They listened as they heard the whale calf take its first breath. They watched as it nudged its mother’s side and wrapped its long slender tongue around a teat extending from its mother’s belly. The whales rolled around on the water’s surface, sounding shortly after sunrise.
This is such a truly beautiful paragraph, demonstrating new life in a catastrophic world. Once again, just as the reader gets-semi-comfortable, something happens to pivot this story and we gasp!
The women are immersed in the moment, both emotionally and even physically – ‘a spray of droplets coat her body’ – and we have another reference to the beauty of nature and this idea that all creatures are affected from the smallest of frogs, to the seals, to the mighty whales. The women are in and of it all, this whole cycle of life and destruction. I love again this reference to the feminine, to motherhood, to those who create life contrasting sharply with those who destroy it. The whale of course, hunted for its meat and oil, is a deeply poignant symbol of that which is endangered.
Kate could barely see the island, their flotilla having drifted far off-shore, but she could see the look on every woman’s face. “That deserves more Patron,” Aunty said and sent the tequila around again.
This penultimate paragraph is breathtaking. The message powered home, the natural beauty of the world should be celebrated, the life cycle of all creatures must be protected, it’s a deeply moving moment in the story.
Before they could check the fishing lines and think about making breakfast, they heard it. Whoop. Whoop. Whoop. The women looked up, their hair blowing in the turbulence of the helicopter’s blades. But not a single one stood.
I love the use of ‘turbulence’ in this final paragraph – man and machine disrupting the natural calm and beauty of the moment. And the ultimate defiance of the women. ‘Not a single one stood’ is a wonderful gasp-out-loud moment. Beautifully done.
3 Lessons For Your Own Writing
Note here how Steutermann Rogers cleverly develops her characters through action. It can be tricky to write fully rounded characters in short fiction – especially flash. Take time to think about how your character actions can help with exposition. Is everything they are doing relevant to the story? Do their actions reveal something about themselves or drive the plot forward. Don’t have your characters doing random meaningless things! Stephanie Carty’s Inside Fictional Minds is a great resource for exploring character action.
Motifs and symbols
In this story, we notice the recurrence of the moon, the rope as a life line and as a symbol of connectedness and the sharing of food as a symbol of empathy and building trust. Think about the images and symbols you use in your stories as a way of really deepening the meaning of your themes. A repeated symbol that changes throughout can really help the reader engage with the story.
For example, here the moon rises full, it arcs toward the horizon then drops out of sight. We not only have this wonderful reference to time moving but also all the other connotations of the moon: the feminine, moon cycles and their connection to the ocean and to the natural world, the moon as a fixed point in our world. But note how the writer uses the sentence ‘the moon dropped out of sight’. Can we be sure of permanence, the sharp image of it dropping away – it’s gone! This mirrors the message in the story. That everything is at risk of being lost.
Everything in flash and short fiction should have meaning. If the clock on the mantle only ticks, then perhaps you don’t need the clock. Make a list of objects and symbols that have deeper meaning to you and try and weave them into your stories.
Sometimes it’s painful to write about the things we are passionate about and sometimes it’s difficult for the reader to read such things full pelt. This story has a powerful message. We can feel the writer’s anger and despair about climate change, yet the story is beautifully measured, told from the POV of the women and their experience, lending it much more emotional resonance. The tone and pace are not frenetic, everything develops with gentle ease and yet, wow, it is so powerful.
Think about what you want to write about and the most effective way you can write your message without bashing the reader over the head with a mallet. By slowing down, digging deep into the emotional character connections, by allowing the reader to come to a slow realisation, your story will carry far more weight than if you desperately try to hammer it home.Write aslant. How can I come at this story from a different angle? How can I allow the reader time to breath and connect? Sometimes just by shifting to different POV or writing from a slightly different angle, your story can have much more power and meaning.
Oof. That was intense!
Let us know what you think about this story over on the forums, and remember it’s not your job as a writer to know these things ahead of time, or even to plant them in on purpose (although it can be fun to do if you’re into that sort of thing). It’s your job to write a story that feels right and let the reader think whatever they want. Kill that author, Barthes-style! Speaking of which…
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