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Words for Thought (Short Fiction Review)
Welcome to the latest Words for Thought! As I’m writing this, we’ve had a string of downpours and thunderstorms, with the forecast predicting even more rain on the way. As such, it seems only fitting that this month’s stories all center around water, from rivers to oceans to a bathtub, and a mermaid-haunted pool.
White Noise by Kai Hudson, from the April issue of Anathema, opens with a gift from a daughter to her father. Robert is skeptical of the new hearing aid at first. It looks expensive, but Nina assures him she got it from a site that repurposes lightly-used medical equipment. Robert agrees to try it, and he’s pleasantly surprised. He can follow the conversation at the dinner table and hear his baby grandson playing and giggling, but then he hears something unnerving.
Far away, crackly like static, but growing steadily closer: crying. A baby crying.
No one else hears it and the sound only grows more disturbing: a wet, gurgling sound like a child in distress. Soon, Robert begins hallucinating as well—feeling phantom water dripping from the ceiling, seeing a tiny hand flailing in the sink. Unable to shake the feeling that the hearing aid is to blame, Robert calls the company that sold it to Nina and learns the previous owner was a man whose infant grandson accidentally drowned in the bathtub when he failed to hear the baby’s cries. Hudson does an excellent job of building tension throughout the story, pairing eerie imagery with escalating evidence of a haunting. Sound, voice, and the desire to be heard are every bit as important here as the supernatural elements. Robert is insecure about hearing loss due to age, but his struggles are often compounded by a language barrier as well. As a first-generation immigrant, spoken English is often hard for Robert to follow. At one point in the story, Robert and his wife must communicate with a social worker through a translator, and they are dismissed and looked down on until Robert’s wife resorts to shouting, to force the social worker to listen to her. Similarly, the ghost in the story only wants to be heard and uses the hearing aid to ensure it will ever go unnoticed again. Hudson perfectly balances a chilling ghost story with a touching story about family caring for each other and having each other’s backs against the hostile forces of the world, both natural and supernatural.
Strange Waters by Samantha Mills, published at Strange Horizons, is another story about family. Mika Sandrigal is a fisherwoman lost at sea, but it’s not a mere matter of navigation, she’s also unstuck in time. Waterspouts plague the ocean, snatching up those caught unawares and tossing them back and forward through the years. It happens so often that researchers, librarians, and scribes have assembled tomes laying out the past, present, and future.
The book documented the curious tangled history of a city that knew what was coming. For centuries, fishermen and fisherwomen had washed up on the wrong shore, bringing with them tidbits of information from every known era. The book was the accumulation of their written memories, but there were many gaps and infamous inconsistencies. Did the course of history adjust as more information was added, or were some of the contributors misinformed? Theories abounded.
Mika doesn’t care about contributing to the great pool of knowledge. All she wants is to get home to her children. She rarely stays anywhere long, throwing herself into waterspouts over and over in an attempt to reach her own time. Mills’ worldbuilding is fantastic, full of lovely details, which could each be unfolded into a story of its own. The story simultaneously conveys a sense of epic scale and history, while keeping the story intimate and focused on Mika’s quest. She never loses sight of her goal, perhaps to her own detriment. For a woman constantly in motion, Mika is paradoxically stuck in time, pushing people away and refusing to experience the “now” in an attempt to return to another, idealized time. There are parallels to be drawn to the legend of Odysseus here, but whereas the striving was the point for Odysseus and his return home ultimately disappointed him, Mika misses almost everything the world has to offer in her fixation with returning home. Like Odysseus, the ending of Mika’s journey is not what she expects, but it is still a resolution, which is sometimes as much as any adventurer can expect, given the fickle and jealous nature of the sea.
Sea Shanties by Amelia Fisher, published in Apparition Lit, is a melancholy story filled with longing. Allison is waiting at the diner, where she works, to meet up with Kelly, a girl she went to school with years ago. They weren’t exactly friends; Kelly barely seemed to notice Allison, while Allison tried not to gaze at Kelly too long, or too hard. However, instead of showing up at the diner, Kelly shows up on the news, drowned, with kelp tangled around her legs and a swirl of speculation over whether her death was an accident or a suicide. Allison believes it was neither, certain Kelly encountered the Moray, a creature Allison herself saw during her own near-drowning.
In the final flash of lightning I stared down into the depths and had seen a sliver of deeper darkness hanging in front of me, like a crack torn into the sea. Or it might have been something thin and serpentine and stretching very far down, its outline undulating in a parody of hips and breasts, its face turned up to me.
Allison goes searching for the Moray, and for meaning in Kelly’s death. She wants to be special, chosen, good enough for the Moray to take, good enough to be with, or be like, Kelly. Fisher plays with traditional mermaid stories, as well as the concept of “the one who got away.” Kelly is Allison’s one who got away, and she herself is the one who escaped the Moray’s clutches. The true cause of Kelly’s death is left open-ended, as is the existence of the Moray, and the story is all the more effective for leaving these questions unanswered. Allison wants the Moray to be real; she needs to believe in something that could desire her—even if only as food. Her heartbreak and pain are palpable throughout the story, making it a beautifully-written reflection on multiple kinds of desire.
Into the Gray by Margaret Killjoy, published at Tor.com, makes a nice pairing with Fisher’s story, exploring many of the same themes. In Killjoy’s story, there is no doubt the supernatural creature is real. Laria makes her living leading men to the Lady of the Waking Waters, in her pool beneath the falls, stealing their possessions as the Lady devours them.
A mermaid has her own magic, stronger than that of any creature born with legs, and even though she smiled and her teeth were white, thin razors, her eyes were bright and hazel. Her hair changed color as the sun, the wind, and the mist played off of it. Her skin was a perfect medium-brown. She could enchant any man alive.
Laria considers the Lady her lover, and while she has no doubt about her own feelings, she isn’t certain whether the Lady is capable of love in return. She claims to love Laria, but the passions of mermaids are different from those of humans and Laria suspects their relationship may be one of convenience and use. Even so, she’s determined to be with the Lady and seeks out a witch who can transform her. The same longing woven through Fisher’s story suffuses Killjoy’s story as well, including the sense of love going unrequited. Killjoy’s story also plays with the traditional tropes around mermaids and transformation, adding an extra layer of depth and meaning, by virtue of Laria being trans. Ultimately, the transformation that takes place is not the expected one, and Laria learns to shift her expectations and needs, finding peace without changing herself. While Killjoy offers a slightly more hopeful ending, there’s still a lingering note of sadness here, with the sense of Laria settling for “good enough” instead of having her desires truly fulfilled.
The River Doll by Tariro Ndoro, published in Omenana, offers up a different flavor of loneliness and longing. Fara is chased to the river by her twin brothers and the other children in the village, who are determined to torment her. She swims away to escape them, hiding on the other side of the river until they grow distracted and leave. After the boys leave, Fara builds a doll out of the clay and mud on the riverbank, talking to it as she does, and telling it her worries so she won’t have to burden her mother. Like Fara, her mother is often picked on by her husband’s other wives, and people in the village whisper and call her a witch. When Fara returns home, the clay doll follows her, making the accusations of witchcraft even worse. At first, Fara is afraid of the doll, but with the whole village against her and her mother, she begins to take comfort in its presence. After all, the doll has never harmed her. It sits patiently beside her while she does chores and listens as Fara’s mother tells folktales around the fire, seeming to grow more human every day.
She almost jumped out of her skin when it answered her one day, speaking with a voice that sounded oddly like her own. That’s when she realised the river doll was the only friend she had and she named it Oseja, the same way she had named the other dolls she had made. Now, no one would believe Oseja was once made of clay, at least not by looking at her.
In both Fara and her mother, Ndoro paints a heartbreaking picture of the kind of person who will always be scapegoated, bullied, and blamed, no matter what they do. Even before the clay doll follows Fara home she is tormented, and even before there is evidence of magic in their home, Fara’s mother is accused of witchcraft. The people in the village are determined to hate them; the clay doll is merely a convenient excuse. Despite the way they are treated, Fara and her mother never turn to cruelty themselves, and Fara’s father stands by them both. As with the other stories discussed here, this is also a story of transformation. Oseja transforms over the course of the story and ultimately changes the village and those around her. Her friendship transforms Fara, giving her hope. Even though Fara begins the story as a victim, she doesn’t end that way, and from its grim beginnings, the story becomes one of family, friendship, sacrifice, and love.
Since rainy weather is a good excuse for even more reading, I’ll close out this month’s column with two bonus recommendations. He Sings of Salt and Wormwood by Brian Hodges was my favorite piece in The Devil and the Deep, edited by Ellen Datlow, an anthology full of excellent and unnerving stories about the sea. A free diver encounters something vast and frightening below the waves, and it may or may not be linked to eerie carvings that begin washing up on the shore. The Other Side of Otto Mountain by Ivy Spadille, from Fiyah Magazine #6: Big Mama Nature, takes place on a lake in an abandoned town, where fish rise out of the water to hover in the air, and the mountain holds disturbing secrets. Stay dry, and happy reading!