Words for Thought #296 min read

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Welcome to October’s Words for Thought. This month’s stories are all about small things taking on monumental importance—from a short journey that feels epic, to a simple wish made by a child that carries disastrous consequences.

An Accidental Coven by Laura Blackwell in Syntax & Salt, revolves around a party where three women arrive wearing identical dresses. Everyone else at the party expects them to be embarrassed and avoid each other, but they become instant friends.

The Artist, the Athlete, and the Gardener found each other and exchanged compliments. They sat down together near us, glasses of wine and whisky and diet soda in hand, laughing and chatting. They did not attempt to keep their voices low, so I learned that they had never met before.

When a photographer and the other guests try to highlight the awkwardness that they perceive in the situation, the women brush it off. As the comments escalate, the dresses come alive, filling the rooms with a swirl of magic that leaves everyone at the party irrevocably changed. For the story’s brevity, Blackwell packs in a lot. The concept could easily be played for comedy, but the story deals with real and weighty issues. Women are supposed to be catty and at each other’s throats, throwing shade in order to elevate themselves. These women are having none of it and refuse to listen to anyone who buys into the artificial rifts created between women, which only benefit the patriarchy. Similarly, the story touches on the idea of women as public bodies, ones whose fashion choices and appearance are fair game for unsolicited commentary every time they leave the house. These women are having none of that, either. They each choose the dress because it makes them happy, drawn to different elements of it, and they don’t care what anyone else thinks. Blackwell perfectly captures the magic in a simple thing like a new article of clothing making you feel good about yourself, while centering friendship between women and the power to be found there.

Abigail Dreams of Weather by Stu West in the “Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction” issue of Uncanny, centers on Abigail, one of several kids in the children’s ward of a hospital complex on a space station. The children spend their days shuffled from one place to another, subject to painful tests and treatments, and talked over and around.

It’s as horrible as she remembers. She can feel the stuff crawling around under her skin. When the bag is empty the orderly takes Abigail back to bed and her mother kisses her goodbye and goes back to work. She spends a few hours just lying there, not eating or talking, staring at nothing.

Even the well-meaning adults willing to stick up for the kids and listen to them are powerless against the medical complex. An AI guards the doors, and no amount of reasoning will allow the kids out into the garden for even a tiny bit of fresh air when the system deems that they are better off inside. However, when a meteor strike threatens, the kids are left to their own devices, as everyone else rushes to the adult hospital to deal with the potential crisis. With only a disinterested janitor left to watch over them, Abigail proposes an expedition across the enclosed bridge joining the two buildings, to visit their friend  Simon, who has been transferred to the adult side of the hospital. Even with this purpose in mind, in truth, many of the children simply want to see the sky through the vast dome enclosing them and feel like they have some power over their lives. The journey is short in distance but feels epic in scope. In one small way, the kids are finally able to take control after a lifetime of being told what’s best for them, setting their own limits and determining what risks they are willing to take. The moment they see the sky is lovely and encapsulates the heart of the story—it may be a scary, dangerous moment, but it is theirmoment, and they are responsible for the risks and rewards involved. West does an excellent job of showing a healthcare environment where even well-meaning people are overworked and under-resourced, leading to patients getting ignored and dismissed on matters of their own health. It’s especially poignant here, with kids who are given very little agency in their own lives in the first place. Ultimately, the story feels triumphant, perhaps even more so because the triumph is a small and personal one.

In It’s Easy to Shoot a Dog by Maria Haskins, published at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, a child’s simple wish for a puppy has life-changing consequences. As a seven-year-old, Susanna begs her parents for a dog of her very own. When her prayers and begging aren’t answered, she sets off into the woods, certain she will find a pup there. Her little brother follows her, despite her repeatedly telling him to stay behind, and soon they’re both lost. Three days later, when they’re in danger of starving, an old woman finds them. Susanna knows at once the woman is a witch and states her case plainly—all she wants is a dog. Even knowing it’s dangerous, Susanna strikes a deal with the witch and she leaves the woods with a puppy and without her brother.

The dog yawns as it stretches, gazing up at her with brown and faithful eyes, jaunty tail already wagging. It’s eager to go with her, watching as she gathers up Papa’s musket, tucks the tinderbox into her pocket, slings the supple leather pouch that holds the powder and the bullet across her chest.

The story is beautifully written, and Haskins does an excellent job of weaving tension throughout. The title and the opening paragraph establish the possibility of the dog’s death, and this threat carries the reader forward as truths are gradually unfolded. Susanna journeys back into the woods as a young woman, ten years after her initial meeting with the witch. Deals with witches tend to favor the one granting the boon, and this one is no different. The exact terms of Susanna’s deal are reserved for the end. All we know for certain at the beginning is that Susanna has a musket and she firmly believes in the mercy of shooting a dog rather than letting it suffer. Along with the tension, there is real emotional weight in Susanna’s relationship with her dog and with her brother. Overall, it makes for a beautiful story that is sorrowful and hopeful all at once.

STET by Sarah Gailey, published in Fireside Magazine, is a story that takes place largely in the small spaces of footnotes and editorial comments. Even the word, STET, editorial speak for leaving something as is, is short, but here is it deployed with power by a woman refusing to be silent about her grief. Anna is the author of report about AI decision-making in self-driving cars. Ed, tasked with editing her work, questions some of her content and her ability to be impartial as it becomes clear her daughter was killed by a self-driving car.

 Anna, I’m concerned about subjectivity intruding into some of the analysis in this section of the text. I think the body text is fine, but I have concerns about the references. Are you alright? Maybe it’s a big premature for you to be back at work. Should we schedule a call soon?

One by one, Anna STETs Ed’s objections, letting her sorrow and her anger stand. She refuses to be silent, and she demands her loss be seen and acknowledged, and that someone answer for her daughter’s death. The format of the story is innovative, and Gailey uses it effectively. Anna’s rage come through in her refusal to have her words changed. Like West’s story, “STET” focuses on the personal, while asking larger questions about the direction technology is taking us, and what might possibly be sacrificed along the way. Who makes the decisions behind AI programming, and what might their motives be? Are they seeing only a dry picture of facts, figures, trends, and numbers, or are they considering the impact each choice could make on a single life, and the potential pain that choice could cause?

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