Rita Bullwinkel, Fiction


Whiting Awards 2022

Rita Bullwinkel. Photograph by Beowulf Sheehan.

Rita Bullwinkel is the author of the story collection Belly Up, which won the 2018 Believer Book Award. Bullwinkel’s writing has been published in Tin House, The White Review, Conjunctions, BOMB, Vice, NOON, and Guernica. She is a recipient of grants and fellowships from MacDowell, Brown University, Vanderbilt University, Hawthornden Castle, and the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation. Both her fiction and translation have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes. She is an editor at large of McSweeney’s and a contributing editor of NOON. She lives in San Francisco and teaches at the California College of the Arts.


From “Arms Overhead”:

Mary read to Ainsley.

“Don’t pause between the pages,” Ainsley instructed. “It interrupts the story. You have to read ahead a little or slow down your speech while you’re flipping, so you can say the sentence that straddles the pages without a noticeable break.”

Mary read, “The ouroboros slays, weds, and impregnates itself. It is man and woman, begetting and conceiving, devouring and giving birth, active and passive, above and below at the same time.”

“That’s right,” Ainsley said. “That makes perfect sense to me.” “Does it, though?” said Mary. “How can it mate with itself?”

“It puts its tail in its mouth, that’s how.”

“So, it metaphorically reproduces,” said Mary.

“Don’t be dense, Mary,” said Ainsley. “It’s science.”

Mary continued to read and Ainsley continued to listen.

Mary was sitting cross-legged, balanced on a stool. Ainsley was lying flat on the wood floor, limbs and hair spread all around. They were both smart girls, but were young enough and pliable enough that it was not yet clear who was smarter. They were the only two people they knew who read a significant amount of books, so they read a great deal together, but they also took long walks in the forests that surrounded their houses and, during the summers, frequently swam and sunned themselves at the community pool.

They thought of themselves as many things, but mostly as humans who other people seemed to identify as young women, which appeared to come with a great many problems, most of which they knew, but some of which they were still in the process of discovering. They had a private joke between the two of them that they were not girls, but, rather, vegetation, plants whose souls were mistakenly rerouted toward the incorrect vessels, and that is why sex made very little sense to them, and why it required a great deal of discussion. In line with their vegetal alter egos, the girls sometimes called each other Red and White, in reference to their favorite fairy tale, because Mary had the dark, tight curls like Rose Red and Ainsley had the pale, blonde, water-straight hair like Snow White. Also, they lived in a part of the country where one had to walk through the woods a great a deal to get anywhere, which seemed to them how things were in the story, and they were, always, traversing the pine-needle paths to get to each other’s houses, so it seemed like a good joke, but also something kind of nice to fantasize about, the two of them someday shape-shifting into flowers and ending up in the same bouquet.

“How can something be above and below at once?” said Mary. “If it’s inside something else,” said Ainsley.

“Oh, I see.”