The First Hurt

RachelShermanBookGotham Fiction teacher Rachel Sherman's recently published short story collection The First Hurt, contains stories that evoke the wonders and horrors of a young woman’s life, from girl to teenager to adult.  It’s been getting rave reviews, and it was one of five finalists for the prestigious Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize. (Haruki Murakami edged her out as winner.) Here’s what Kirkus says: “If Sherman were a photographer, she'd be a paparazzo exposing people's most desperately concealed flaws. But unlike a cold soul with a zoom lens, the author renders her subjects clearly and empathetically, and her airy, poetic prose is a perfect match for the brittle environments she describes."

Here’s a quick shot, from the short story “The First Hurt”:

In the doctor’s office, back when they used to take X-rays of your feet just to find your shoe size, my grandmother Rose waited for the X-ray machine to begin. She had bad skin and the X-rays were supposed to make whatever it was that made her that way leave. She sat on her hands so she wouldn’t pick her face while bright light seeped into her, hiding in her body for years.

Afterward, she could finally bear to trace her profile in the morning light of the yellow tiled bathroom. She met her husband who had planned on marrying her best friend, but her friend didn’t love him, so he married Rose instead.

After my grandmother married, only the smallest pieces of skin left her, and after her wedding night, she used her hands to clean the places beneath her bed, to wash the sheets, to vacuum and vacuum, and to spread plates upon the table for dinner.

She was antsy. She was spotless. At night her husband would touch her new skin with the back of his hand.


Once my grandmother had skin like mine. She tells me this and looks at me and says, “A real problem.”

She tells me to wash my greasy hair so that it does not rub the sides of my face at night and taint the pillow while I dream.

My grandmother moved into our house in the beginning of September. She took the downstairs guest room for her own and began to share the best bathroom (the one with the light-up magnifying mirror) with my mother. Now she can hear each time I sneak into the room, locking the doors and turning on the bath to steam my face. She has started to knock now that she knows what I am up to. She bangs with her small fist.

“Get out of there, Sarah,” she says.

I unlock and open the door, letting the hot steam follow me outside and into the hall. She takes my face into her hands and puts me close to her mouth.

“Poor thing,” she says with chopped-liver breath.

My grandmother had to move in suddenly. She has been struck by cancer of the bladder: her body has turned on her and come at her from inside. Now that she is old, she has a new place to worry about.

When she moved in I helped her unpack. She was neat with her possessions and had a hard time giving her old dresses away. But she doesn’t like clutter, either. She made me fold her clothes into tiny squares and then lay them in crates while she watched from her new bed.

It is October now, and I have gotten into my school routine. It is a lot like the year before when we first moved here, except now I know where I can hide and where I can cut through, walking across our property to the old apple orchards past the barking neighbor’s dog to get to school. I walk through the woods where the boy’s dirt-bike trails leave puddles when it rains, and a small road of leaves and track marks to follow when it is cold.

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Copyright 2006 © Rachel Sherman.  Reprinted by permission of Open City Books. All rights reserved. To learn more about Rachel and this book, visit here.