Words for Thought #338 min read

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Welcome to February’s “Words for Thought!” Appropriately enough for the month of Valentine’s Day, this month’s stories are all about love, romance, and relationships—good and bad—in their myriad forms.

The Bear Wife by Catherine George, from February’s Metaphorosis Magazine, is a take on the animal bride trope, offering a complex look at the way love transforms people. One of the things I most appreciate is the story’s shades of grey. George gives us a very uncertain animal bride in Sara. She isn’t a passive victim whose skin was stolen, but neither is she completely on board with living happily ever after as a human. Much about the human world is strange, and there’s much about being a bear she misses. At the same time, there are things about the human world she appreciates, like cappuccino and massages. She’s caught in-between; she loves her son, and she’s trying to be a good human mother, but there’s an air of loneliness about her, and a sense of feeling out of place.

Sara knew the stories, too; she’d read hundreds of animal wife tales since she’d left her fur. The stories always blamed the husband for stealing fur or skin or feather. But she’d seen him running on that path before, often enough to know he might trip over her fur while she was bathing. The stories never said anything about how the wife might have wanted to come away for a while, either.

The story is beautifully written and very down-to-earth, despite the animal bride motif. Sara and Aaron attend couples’ therapy. Their relationship is tense and imperfect, but they’re trying. There’s no clear villain in the story, and Sara has agency and her own choices to make. George skillfully gives her story layers. It can be read as a literal story of animals-turned-human, and as a metaphor for the transformation involved in becoming a parent. Before she was a mother, Sara was another kind of creature entirely. Part of her resents the loss of her old self, and she feels crammed into a too-small skin, having no idea how to behave as a parent. “The Bear Wife” is the kind of story that will keep me reflecting on it for a long time.

Old Media by Annalee Newitz, recently published at Tor.com, explores sexuality, love, freedom, and trust. John is a former slave, still bearing scars from his indenture. He’s free now, but understandably has difficulty trusting those around him, bouncing from one casual relationship to another without really letting anyone in. The only person he trusts isn’t a person—Med, his roommate, who just happens to be a robot who also saved his life.

He turned back just once before he fled, and thought he saw Med transform into an avenging angel. Only she was better than an angel. She was real, made of carbon alloy and flesh, not feathers and faith. She’d saved him. Possibly she’d even saved the world.

John and Med watch old anime together. Their relationship is easy and comfortable, and it’s precisely because Med isn’t human that John can trust her. Humans have done terrible things to him, and Med has faced her own discrimination and abuse. They are kindred spirits. As they discuss language, culture, and John’s latest hookup with his co-worker, Michael, the question of Med’s own sexuality arises. Med could incorporate sexual desire into her programming, but it’s not something she’s interested in. She does, however, feel love for John, which initially confuses him. Casual hookups have been his only way of being close to people in the past, but as Med points out, he hasn’t been in love with any them, and love and sex are not intrinsically intertwined. John realizes that what he feels for Med is love, as well. He respects her asexuality, but wanting to be closer to her, he asks if there’s any other intimacy they can share. Med tells him she wants to sleep with him, literally, as robots don’t normally sleep. It’s taboo. A human could damage them while their defenses are down, and there are other dangers, as well, but she trusts John. The simple act of mutual trust connects them more deeply than sex ever could, and John ultimately realizes he can have sexual relations with other people, and a romantic relationship with Med, and both are perfectly valid. The story is a lovely meditation on what it means to be free, to chose who to love and how to love them, and what love means in different contexts.

Tyrannocora Regina by Leonie Skye, published in the final issue of Shimmer, is a story of obsession and searching for love. Cora is the result of an unethical genetic experiment by her scientist father, who modified the DNA of a dinosaur so he could impregnate her. 

On the island I was just M13, the thirteenth egg of female M, the thirteenth letter of the alphabet. This human name, Cora, is a precious thing I extracted from hard ground, cleaned, and polished myself. 

Understandably, Cora’s relationship with her father isn’t particularly good. Her relationship with her mother is non-existent, as her mother can’t feel human love. This lack leaves a void inside Cora, who desperately tries to fill it with pain, through the violent sport of roller derby and alcohol. When she was a teenager, she tried to fill the void with an unhealthy obsession with a scientist named Catherine, who visited the secret island laboratory where Cora was born. Now Cora’s mother is dying, her father is calling her home, and there are alternate threads of reality collapsing into one. Is there one where Cora could go back and fix things with Catherine? One where she could stop her father from creating her and her siblings in the first place? And if she canalter the course of her reality, which path will she choose—one of continued violence, or one where her past no longer holds sway and she can define herself however she chooses? Although Skye’s story isn’t an animal bride story, there are some similarities to George’s story. Both protagonists are caught between worlds, trying to sort out their animal nature from their human side, and occasionally wondering why anyone would find humanity preferable. There are echoes of loneliness in this story, too, with Cora searching for her place and fearing it might be nowhere. The way the story moves back and forth in time, and the way the narrative loops in on itself, serve the story well. Unraveling one’s past can be complicated, as can seeing the way forward. The structure reflects the content, adding an extra layer to Cora’s search for acceptance, love, and a means of controlling her own destiny.  

The Willows by Delilah S. Dawson, from the January/February issue of Uncanny, is not a love story, but rather a Gothic romance with all its attendant passion, isolation, and pervasive sense of threat. April and her lover, O’Leary, have holed themselves up at his family’s farm to write and record their next album. 

It’s not often a city girl like me gets to haunt an ancestral home as summer dies. The Willows is less a swooning plantation estate and more like a calico cat, a farmhouse cobbled together of mismatched parts and sprawled out proudly among the fields and forests. Still, it’s romantic as hell, and I will proudly declare that there’s some fellow feeling between me and the manor, or else why would I love it already as much as I love its master?

At first, the setting seems idyllic. They’re far from distraction, with the house to themselves; they can concentrate entirely on their music and each other. There’s a friendly dog, and fresh berries growing in the yard. April finds herself adapting to farm life, and she likes the way it transforms O’Leary, too, but soon she finds him too much changed. His eyes shift colors. He makes strange and occasionally threatening statements about his family and the house’s past. There’s a mysterious horse that appears out of nowhere and vanishes again. And O’Leary seems to be actively trying to sabotage April’s songwriting with his own weird, rhythmic music. Dawson does an excellent job of infusing the story with paranoia and lingering dread. Like a classic Gothic tale, there is gaslighting, a heroine cut off from her normal life, who doubts her sense of reality, and a man who makes those doubts worse. April is subtly made to feel that she needs O’Leary, that she would be nothing without him, and that she should be grateful to him. The story is unsettling on multiple levels, and Dawson employs the trope of house/location as antagonist to great effect, further infusing the piece with a sense danger, causing the story to linger long after it’s done.

The Crying Bride by Carrie Laben, in February’s The Dark, shares many of the same sensibilities as Dawson’s story. Instead of the threatened Gothic heroine, Laben’s story is told from the perspective of an old woman, looking back on her childhood, and the eerie and pervasive sense of haunting around her family home. 

Yes, Cecelia. I always think of her as the crying bride because that was what I called her when I was a little girl, before I learned her real name. She was in the photo album, white dress with the train piled all around her feet, white flowers clutched in white fingers, tear-trails clear as knife cuts down her face once you knew to look for them.

The story at the heart of The Crying Bride is another Gothic tale of a woman isolated from her family and life by her husband, plunged into a history not her own, and surrounded by secrets and a vague sense of threat. As a child, the narrator existed on the margins of that story, observing from the outside. Her innocence, and the fact that Cecelia’s story took place before she was even born, only adds to the effectiveness of the narrator’s tale. We get snatches of history, glimpses of threat. Ray, Cecelia’s husband, was mean, and a drunk, and the knowledge that something terrible happened just off the page hangs over the whole story. However, from the narrator’s childhood perspective, there was simply a magical tree that always seemed to have a juicy apple just for her, never mind her baby brother’s terror of the same tree and refusal to eat the fruit. There’s a delicate, golden necklace underneath the tree that seems made just for her, never mind her mother’s horror when she sees the necklace, and never mind what might be buried among the tree’s roots. It’s an evocative, moody, and subtle story, with Laben giving just enough detail, and leaving just enough off the page, to create a sense wrongness. At the same time, it’s framed as a story of happiness and success for the narrator—a lonely girl, who didn’t quite fit in, and the only person who didn’t see the crying bride as a ghostly threat, but as a friend.

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