Words for Thought #328 min read

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Welcome to the first Words for Thought of 2019! This month’s column echoes the last column of 2018, with stories of complicated family relationships and the external pressures shaping them, as well as themes of sacrifice, magic, and the cost of power. 

A Catalogue of Storms by Fran Wilde, from the January/February issue of Uncanny,  is the story of three siblings and their mother living in a town whose citizens are constantly at war with the weather. Before they were born, Sila, Varyl, and Lillit’s great-aunt turned into lightning. She was the town’s first weatherman. Now, the weathermen occupy Cliffwatch, a crumbling house on the verge of toppling into the sea, shouting back storms to keep the town safe. But what counts as safety when the weather constantly nibbles at the edges of families, taking more and more people each day, and when weathermen are worn so thin by their work, they aren’t human anymore?

When storms come, weathermen name it away. Yelling works too. So does diving straight into it and shattering it, but you can only do that once you’ve turned to wind and rain.

“A Catalogue of Storms” is  full of gorgeous, poetic language and striking imagery. The catalogue  interspersed with the narrative adds depth, turning especially poignant after Lillit is taken into Cliffwatch, and Varyl and Sila try naming storms as they try to catch up to their sister. Storms with names like “A Loss That Is Probably Your Fault and An I Told You Not To, Sila” show the strain placed on the family. Sila and Varyl are simultaneously jealous of their sister, and grieve for her loss. They know the dangers in being a weatherman, but long to be as useful, powerful, and special as she is, hoping to be chosen as well. Wilde does an excellent job of portraying their mother’s fear, anger, and weariness, as well, as she struggles to hold her family together. The story highlights the relationship between humanity and nature as the storms and the weathermen feed into each other. The story strikes a perfect balance, dealing with the weighty topic of humanity’s impact on the natural world, while telling a very intimate and personal story of one family’s struggle against a devastating natural phenomenon.

Antumbra by Cory Skerry in Shimmer #46, opens with twins Jasper and Jesse spending their last day at their current school, before their family moves yet again. Jesse, the more popular, confident twin, is able to roll with the constant upheaval, easily making friends wherever he goes. Jasper, however, is sick of being uprooted, and suspects their parents of harboring a secret that is the true reason behind the moves. Even within the family, Jasper feels out of place. At the same time, his twin is his best friend, the one person who understands him better than anyone else.

The secret is, you don’t mind being you. You used to casually mention that you’re not as popular, not as fun, not as adventurous, but people acted like you might be suicidal. Now you know: They don’t want to be a shadow, so they think you don’t, either.

Jasper keeps seeing a strange, pale creature lurking around, and he suspects it means Jesse harm. He also suspects it’s linked to their parents’ secret. Eventually, he forces a confrontation and the truth is revealed: Jasper is a changeling, a creature made of sticks and mud and left in place of Jesse, who was stolen by faeries as a baby. Their parents stole Jesse back, but kept Jasper, as well, and they’ve been on the run ever since. Their motives are more complicated than simple love. With their strong Christian faith, they firmly believe they saved both boys from a monstrous and wicked existence. However, the faerie who comes to reclaim Jasper points out, they denied the boys the chance to truly know and love a place, as well, and in Jasper’s case, to truly know and love himself. “Antumbra” explores the question what is home? Is it a place, or the people who care for you? Jasper struggles with feeling lesser and unwanted, but the fierce love and loyalty between him and Jesse is undeniable, even though they aren’t related by blood. Jesse is Jasper’s anchor, and in the end, what makes a home is their power to choose each other and make their own path through life, together.

Beyond the El by John Chu, published at Tor, contrasts well with Skerry’s story, depicting a tense sibling relationship, built on deep resentment but similarly complicated by the weight of parental and cultural expectations. Connor works as a food crafter, using his gift and passion to tweak food to its ideal form so the servers at the high-end restaurant where he works can create perfect dishes for rich patrons.  

A pile of carrots sits at his prep station. It doesn’t even take a glance for him to know how each carrot will taste. One by one, he takes each carrot and adjusts it to its bliss point, that place where it is the most like itself. He crisps its texture, adjusts its color, and intensifies its flavor. 

His sister, Prue, shows up at the restaurant, demanding Connor sign over his power of attorney over their parents’ assets. His relationship with Prue has always been contentious, and when they were kids, it was outright abusive. Because of the expectations of American diners, Connor’s parents were forced to work long hours to produce cheap food, leaving Prue to raise Connor, an unfair situation which turned her cruel. As adults, Connor was their mother’s primary caregiver before her death, but their relationship was complicated, too. Despite Connor’s passion for food, his mother never passed her recipes on to him, expecting that Prue, as the daughter, should be the one interested in cooking. Connor’s mother told him she would always be there to cook for him—a response born of pride, love, and a sense of duty. However, from Connor’s perspective, it comes off as rejection and not being worthy to carry on the family traditions. In addition to characters with strong personal motives that lead to a failure to communicate, Chu also does an excellent job of capturing the highly personal nature of food. Food is infused with the personality of the person who prepared it, and tied to memory and emotion. Different circumstances will inflect it with different flavors, so following a recipe exactly will not necessarily produce exact results. The personal nature of food is also evident in the contrast between the love that goes into Connor’s attempt to recreate his mother’s dumplings and the machine-like precision and performative aspect of creating ideal foods for the restaurant’s patrons. The budding romance between Connor and Nick, the handsome singer who also performs for others at the restaurant, is beautifully handled. Connor’s fear causes him to keep Nick at a distance, and it’s painful to watch as the reader wants for Connor’s happiness. Despite the melancholy tingeing the story, and the broken relationship between the siblings, Chu still offers up a note of hope at the end, and it’s a truly lovely story. 

May I Want by Tiah Marie Beautment is a stand-alone short story published by relatively new venture, Stubborn Raven. Laila is a weaver like her mother before her, and her mother’s mother, and so on. She harvests silk from the sea to weave beautiful cloth that bestows luck on its owner. She never receives payment, but is cared for by the village, allowing her to support herself and her young daughter, Ziya. 

Laila approached the seabed, abundantly strewn with swaying grass and tinged with silvered moonlight. Nestled amongst the vegetation she saw the long, oblong fan mussels she had been searching for, their razor-fine filaments dancing at her approach. 

Asmin, the Lady’s servant, comes to Laila, asking her to weave a silk for his mistress; the Lady needs to bear a son, or her husband will have her killed. Laila says she will consider it, but only if the Lady, Naja, asks her in person. Laila and Naja were lovers, once, but the Lord could give Naja a life Laila never could. Ziya is, in fact, Naja’s daughter, given to Laila to raise because the Lord only wanted sons. There’s a fairytale like quality to the story, but Beautment goes beyond fairy-tale tropes, filling the story with longing, and giving her characters complicated pasts. Fairy tale structure is deployed, as well, with the repeated refrain of ”May I want?”, Ziya’s way of expressing interest in something as her language skills develop. What is innocent curiosity in a child’s mouth becomes something else in her mother’s—the melancholy expression of someone who feels they are not allowed to desire anything for themselves, who feels constrained by fate, lineage, and station in life. The story is beautifully written, full of characters afraid to express themselves, living with various social restrictions and expectations. Every choice comes with a cost, something else that must be sacrificed. Naja’s choice to marry the Lord costs her relationship with Laila, just as Laila’s choice to pass her legacy and power on to her daughter means conferring the burden of that power at the same time. 

Monsters Come Howling in Their Season by Cadwell Turnbull appears in The Verge’s special “Better Worlds” science fiction issue, full of stories that imagine a hopeful future for humanity in response to the looming threat of climate change.It pairs nicely with Wilde’s “A Catalogue of Storms,” centering on community and found family, both of which can be as tricky to navigate as blood relations. Turnbull’s story is set in the near future, with the residents of St. Thomas coping with frequent and potentially devastating hurricanes. An AI called Common is used as a communal resource to track storms, alert first responders, and connect people with food, shelter, and other necessities. 

I’ve covered six hurricanes, and I’m still incapable of such calm. I’ve heard people describe the sound of a hurricane as a jet engine up close. For me, a hurricane sounds like a train backed with the dead, their song and the train’s ghostly while rising in unison.

Terry left the island as a child. Now she’s back as a journalist covering the storm, but also carrying a lot of guilt from failing to help an elderly neighbor, who died during hurricane Irma when she was twelve. Terry doesn’t entirely trust Common and the data it gathers in the name of protecting people, but she also sees the good it can do. At the same time, she witnesses firsthand the system’s fallibility as she accompanies one of the island’s doctors on a house call, only to find Common alerted them too late, the elderly man it sought to help had already died of a heart attack. The story deftly explores survivor’s guilt, and the complicated feelings that go with coming home. Ultimately, it’s a hopeful story, turning humanity’s damaging relationship with nature into something positive. Like Wilde’s story, Turnbull’s story shows the toll fighting storms takes, but also the way families and communities come together in times of need. Terry’s interaction with Common is lovely, as they share a similar guilt. While Common may not feel emotion or the need for forgiveness, Terry does need it for the role she perceives herself playing in her neighbor’s death. She is incapable of granting herself that forgiveness, but despite her mistrust, Common is the only one who sees Terry’s need and address her conflicted emotional state. Overall, the story is a lovely exploration of sentience, humanity, and compassion, along with human beings’ relationship both to nature and technology.

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