Several months ago, I had the privilege to judge the 2022 Delaware Scholastic Writing Competition. Among the entries were imaginative but cluttered tales like the babblings of a hyperactive youngster, submissions that might charitably be called “experimental” but perhaps more accurately should be called “incomprehensible,” stories that look promising but need much more work, and, unfortunately, more than one bald-faced TV show plot retelling. Zero points for “Nick Rimes” and his endless slog against the undead.
Then there was Ashley Bao’s “The Sixth Sister.” One thing I love about revisiting a familiar tale such as The Little Mermaid is that it frees us. We know the tragedy of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, and we know the general rules of its universe. Therefore, when Ashley takes us into this world to visit the bereft family that poor Ariel has left behind, she skips the usual exposition and gets the room to write a lyrical tale of love and loss inside a close-knit family. The result has stayed with me.
When I reached out to Ashley about sharing “The Sixth Sister,” through my blog, I learned that she has already published several stories in literary journals. She knows how the business works, and she couldn’t give me license to publish the whole thing. However, she did permit me to print the first five hundred words, and she promised to reach out when the whole piece became available to the public. When it happens, I’ll pass that information along to you. In the meantime, please enjoy a brief excerpt of “The Sixth Sister.”
The Sixth Sister
The oldest wants to start the story at the beginning, the youngest wants to begin at the end.
Beginnings should be logical. Time is a straight arrow, the oldest says.
How boring, the youngest says. She was not always the youngest, but she assumed the mantle reluctantly once enough years had gone by. They know the end. Best leave the most unexpected for last.
The second oldest rolls her eyes. She has listened to this bickering for too many years. Start in the middle if you can’t decide.
Why decide at all? the middle sisters ask. The two of them are closer than the rest, bonded by their birth order. No matter that only one of them is truly the middle sister now. Unlike the youngest, they refuse to rename their birth order. When we remember her, we do not start at her birth nor do we start at her death. We remember her in unexpected orders at unexpected times.
The sisters discuss for a few moments more, but the middle sisters have a talent for being correct.
The day before her fifteenth year began, we were preparing to celebrate. We lit the sea glass lanterns, woven kelp curtains, and lined the cove walls with pink coral wreaths. We chatted about her fifteenth year, how excited she must have been to finally break the water’s surface and see the land above. The youngest sister wagered that our sister would never want to leave the sky once she saw it. By then, we rarely saw our sister; she spent most of her time wandering as close to the shore as possible. We assumed she would tire of it eventually as we all had.
We waited, ready to shower her with delight, and she didn’t arrive. For hours, our father scoured the seas, trying to find the place where she must’ve hidden. She swam through the entrance leisurely while he was away, holding a scrap of leather in her hand. When she smiled at us, our impatience melted away, falling to the sandy ocean floor. We gave her presents, braided her hair, and hummed childhood ditties we had heard from the sea.
Our father returned in a rush of bubbling anger. We heard thunder rolling from far above as he scolded our youngest sister. We huddled together, hiding behind the kelp. But when he left, she had simply laughed.
Father is himself today, I see, she said to us. So who shall take me to the surface?
Ashley Bao is a Chinese-Canadian-American high school senior. Her poetry and short fiction have appeared in Reckoning, Strange Horizons, Cast of Wonders, and elsewhere. She may sometimes be found looking at cute cats on Twitter @ashleybaozi.
Her website is fluffychipmunk.github.io