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Words for Thought (Short Fiction Review)
Welcome to April’s “Words for Thought.” Spring has finally arrived, and as a season of transition, it seems appropriate that all the stories discussed in this month’s column touch on moments of revolution, upheaval, and change, whether personal or global.
The Sower by Takim Williams from Fiyah Issue 6: Big Mama Nature, is an unsettling horror story about nature taking back the planet, prompted by the arrival of a celestial object that looks like a giant seed. The story is cleverly structured as a movie trailer, with a series of haunting and effective images building to form a terrifying whole. Vines strangle Brazilian farmers and the camera shows their dangling heels. Later, the same farmers return with broken necks, still tethered to the trees that murdered them, bearing chainsaws and machetes. A group of humans relentlessly dig their own graves and lie down in them like seeds.
The time-lapse sunflowers have broken their choreography, each swiveling to its own logic, looking like nothing so much as satellite dishes scanning anxiously for a signal. When they synch again, they are facing something in the sky other than the sun.
Force-of-nature horror stories present an antagonist that can’t be reasoned with, either because it possesses no intelligent will or the intelligence is so vast and other, there is no way for humans to communicate. Williams offers up just such a cosmic and unrelenting force, one that is frightening, but at the same time, understandable. With the way humans treat the planet, who could blame plants for rising up? And if an alien intelligence came from another world, one with plant-based sentience, wouldn’t they see themselves as heroic liberators or exterminators, getting rid of a virulent plague tormenting the native life forms they recognize as kin?
The War of Light and Shadow, in Five Dishes by Siobhan Carroll in Beneath Ceaseless Skies is, as the title suggests, a story that takes place in the midst of a war, the ultimate moment of upheaval. The main character, Leu, is both at the heart of the conflict and at its margins as Lord Fio’s personal chef. As the story opens, Leu is engaged in a private battle against a fierce chicken, trying to get an egg for his lord’s meal, and is seemingly oblivious to the walls coming down around him and Fio’s death. The invading army, led by Commander Eres, decide to keep Leu around—after all, a well-fed soldier is an effective one.
With a feather blade Leu sliced the sea urchins, holding their hard bristling bodies with a cloth so not to gouge his fingers. With each death the smell of ocean opened up around him. He spooned out the spongey orange roe and mixed it with the chopped whitefish his scrub cooks had prepared. He then forced the mixture through a sieve, one dab at a time.
As with Williams’ story, the structure and framing of “The War of Light and Shadows, In Five Dishes” adds depth. Carroll unfolds the war through a series lovingly described meals, offering a unique twist on a typical epic battle. The fate of nations hangs in the balance, but the tension turns on whether the right herbs can be found or whether hardtack biscuits can be turned into a palatable meal. By focusing on Leu, Carroll leads the reader to think about often over-looked elements of world-building like the chain of supply. She also highlights the way scent and flavor are tied to memory and emotion and demonstrates the act of making history through the power of storytelling. Leu’s tale is related by an unnamed narrator, a chef instructing students in the art of Leu’s famous recipes, and possibly, subtly, in the art of revolution as well. It’s implied that the instructor and the students were all on the losing side of the war, and throughout the tale, the instructor reminds the students of the power of a well-prepared meal, and how seemingly unimportant people and things can change the course of history. The instructor’s tale shows how the narrative of real-life events can be bent to a specific purpose. In their telling, Leu possesses a seemingly single-minded focus on creating the perfect dish, an obsession that makes him appear oblivious to the war, and thus non-threatening. And from that non-threatening position, he is able to subtly direct the course of events. It’s a clever story—one that is intricately constructed and mouth-watering to boot!
Mothers, Watch Over Me by Maria Haskins appears in Mythic Delirium’s Twentieth Anniversary Issue, which also sadly looks to be its last issue. The story follows Maya, a mother dog trying to get her pups to safety. One of her pups is weak and not feeding, and the world is in its last days as the sky burns ever brighter, but a dream Maya knows to be true tells her to journey to the towers where stories say that God lives.
Walking forward is like pushing into a storm, like stumbling through heavy snow, a barrier within and without. Maya knows she would’ve faltered a thousand times, if the telling did not force her steps.
It’s beautifully written, full of striking imagery, telling a story of faith and dogged (sorrynotsorry) determination. Haskins paints a picture of a mother’s love for her children that transcends the species barrier, telling a universal story. It’s not just Maya’s tale, but the tale of a parent willing to fight for a future for their children, even knowing it’s likely to cost them their own life. Maya’s personal survival is not important to her, but the survival of ancestral memory and a lineage carrying on still matters. The story ends on a bittersweet note, with hope, but also with the sense of an old era and way of life ending and a new one beginning.
Flow by Marissa Lingen in Fireside Magazine is a story of personal upheaval, which also touches on environmental change, though in a less violent way than Williams’ story. Gina walks like her father. In fact, the way she moves is so similar that when she encounters a group of naiads in the woods, they initially mistake daughter for father. It turns out Gigi’s father helps the naiads on a regular basis, making subtle changes to the landscape in order to improve their environment. That may involve planting a new bush to slightly redirect a stream, or more esoterically moving pine needles from one place to another. When Gigi’s father dies, she carries on his work, committing herself to the naiads completely, rather than pursuing her own career. However, when she’s twenty-seven, an infection ruins her inner ear and leaves her with vertigo and balance issues, permanently changing the way she moves, and causing the naiads to no longer recognize her.
I can’t walk without falling into walls, tumbling over without warning. I am covered with bruises. I constantly ache from the muscle strains of trying to pull myself upright at the last minute, wrenching myself away from dangerous things when I fall. Familiar places are better, but nowhere is safe.
Gigi is understandably devastated. Her whole world has been upended, but she refuses to let the naiads denial shape her. All they see is her cane and the new way she moves, but that is not her identity. She is determined to remain their champion, and studies water tables, chemistry, and environmental science, finding other ways to improve their lives. The story explores disability and the way one is seen by the world versus the way one sees oneself, but despite the painful aspects, ultimately it is about taking control of one’s identity, changing the world for the better, and refusing to give up on people even when they give up on you. Lingen’s writing is gorgeous and the story simultaneously delivers a gut-punch and a measure of hope.
Carouseling by Rich Larson in Clarkesworld is another story of personal upheaval set against a backdrop of science changing humanity’s understanding of the world. Ostap and Alyce are in a long distance relationship, though Ostap plans to join Alyce in Kenya soon, where she’s conducting important research at the Nguyen-Bohr superlab. Even though they are separated, they are able to maintain a semi-physical relationship using linkwear shirts, which let them virtually synch up to feel like they’re in the same space.
Suddenly he can feel her in his arms, feel her chest pushed against his chest and her left arm draped perfectly over his right shoulder and her right hand clasped loose in his left. The familiar shape of her body trips some wire deep in his brain; for a second he thinks he can smell her citrus shampoo.
Ostap jokingly suggests Alyce wear her linkwear shirt during a big test involving a possible FTL particle, so he can be with her when she makes history. She does wear the shirt, though Ostap doesn’t discover this until later. The test goes horribly wrong; the lab is destroyed, and Alyce and her entire team are presumed dead. After Alyce’s memorial service, Ostap puts on his linkwear shirt one last time, and to his surprise, feels Alyce there with him. By communicating through Morse code, Ostap determines Alyce is caught in another dimension, a world between worlds. He travels to Kenya to see if there’s any chance of bringing Alyce home, but the bodies of Alyce’s co-workers start reappearing in the ruins of the lab, torn apart, and Ostap fears Alyce may be doomed. The story is a beautiful meditation on love and loss, and also offers an interesting look at the question of who is allowed the grieve and the different qualities of grief. Is Ostap more or less entitled to his pain because he knew Alyce only for a short time, compared to her friends and family, but knew her very intimately? On a literal level, the story explores different states of being and the possibility of science changing our understanding of the world. On an emotional level, the story explores different kinds of love and the way it changes people within themselves and in relationship to each other. Larson manages both levels of the story with poignancy and heart, leading reads to care about the characters, even knowing them only for a short time.