Pentangle’s Cruel Sister was a formative album for me, its title track in particular. It’s an old murder ballad about two sisters vying for the affections of a knight who has come to court the elder, but truly loves the younger. The dark elder sister drowns the golden younger sister, presumably out of jealousy, only to repent of the murder when a traveling musician turns up a year later playing a harp made of the dead girls’ bones.
The things we do for love, right? The ballad notably doesn’t dwell much on the role of the suitor, despite the fact that he was two-timing the sisters and presumably bears some responsibility for the ensuing tragedy.
Luckily, there are excellent writers willing to salvage the reputations of the maligned dark sisters with more nuanced explorations of this oft-repeated story. “The Girls Who Go Below” by Cat Hellisen (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction July/August 2014) is a beautiful case in point. Milly and Lucy are as close as two sisters can be until the arrival of Mallery, the young man who “is like a wooden peg driven into a split pine,” pushing the sisters apart. This is far from a simple story of sibling rivalry.
Luckily, there are excellent writers willing to salvage the reputations of the maligned dark sisters with more nuanced explorations of this oft-repeated story.
Lucy, the “dark” sister, mistrusts Mallery from the moment they meet. Her sister has dabbled in young men in the past, but it was always Milly who was the predator. In Mallery, Lucy sees someone capable of truly taking her sister from her. “Do I think that perhaps this time it is Millicent in danger of being caught, and not the other way around?” Yet the moment Mallery appears in the story, it is Lucy’s heart which is lost; possibly literally. She first notes the “hollow space meant for my heart” immediately after their first face-to-face encounter in which she warns him off her sister.
As Milly becomes more and more interested in Mallery, he devotes more and more energy to Lucy. He has taken her as a “challenge,” though of what kind, he does not specify. Mallery’s character has a sinister edge to it. His family is rumored to have fairy or witch blood, and he plays a fiddle he made himself whose sound is described as a “sobbing.” Lucy, concerned with the changes in her sister, is willfully blind to any changes Mallery might be causing in her. He is replacing her lost heart as she searches for it in her own places. Even once she is fully in his thrall, she frames her actions in terms of trying to recoup the relationship she has lost with her sister. She blames Mallery for changing Milly, but believes him when he says he can “give her back her voice.” Whether Mallery is simply a skillfully manipulative psychopath or an actual creature of another world, by the time Lucy has agreed to drown the “thing that used to be [her] sister,” it is clearly Mallery who is holding the reigns.
Ultimately, Lucy is an unreliable narrator, unable to tell who has changed or why. Mallery exhibits all the hallmarks of a serial killer, but Lucy fails to take note of his inconsistencies. Her judgement has become as muddied as her South African lake, whether by magic or misdirection. By the final haunting notes of the tale, she is the most otherworldly creature in the piece.
Not everyone is misdirected by love and music, though. Ashley C. Ford’s heartwarming, if short, story of love and memory, “The Reclamation,” (Crossed Genres #18) follows the same themes to a much happier conclusion.
Big Ma’am has been brought in to test out a studio session by a struggling band because Big Ma’am knows good music. Though the band has failed to inspire Big Ma’am before, they know something has changed in their sound with the addition of a new member, the mysterious Jones.
As a character study of Big Ma’am and Jones, the story is suffused with loneliness.
As a character study of Big Ma’am and Jones, the story is suffused with loneliness. Both characters are barely known to the narrator, familiar only through their musical talent. Jones sings “with a beating heart down his gullet,” keeping “all his words locked up inside him, the only way they can come out is in a song.” Big Ma’am dances with her eyes closed, feeling the rhythm without any regard for those around her. Her voice is quiet, the loudness in “the way she moved.” Nobody knows where either of them came from.
Ford’s prose is an evocative mix of wistful memory and scene-stealing characters, but it isn’t Big Ma’am’s heart-tugging backstory or Jones’ heart-broken proclamation that “Ain’t no woman alive can be saved by a song” that bring this piece to life. While the prose is unquestionably beautiful in that sad sort of way, it is the hopeful conclusion that really makes it pop. After soaking in the ambiance of 25 years of music and regret; the characters’ willingness to reconnect, to reclaim what was lost, is refreshing. How the reconnection might be accomplished leaves room for all the most romantic interpretations. The ache of painful memories gives way to the excitement of enduring love.
Where Ford’s story is about the ache of memory, Heather Clitheroe’s “Cuts Both Ways” (Lightspeed Magazine #49) is about the trauma of memory. But love ultimately fails to save Clitheroe’s protagonist, Spencer, from his painful recollections.
Spencer is a forecaster for Distributed Arbitrage, a counter-intelligence agent who uses cybernetically-enhanced psychic abilities to gather intelligence. His enhancements are permanent and invasive, rendering him physically incapable of forgetting anything he has “read” from an area. The story follows him through a collapse after a particularly traumatic assignment, trying to visit his sister and her kids over Christmas as his body and mind break down.
Clitheroe avoids revealing the extent of Spencer’s trauma for most of the story, focusing instead on his attempts to avoid “recall”. He has been taught coping several techniques, but these work less and less well. He has the symptoms of acute PTSD; a form he is fairly certain he will be unable to recover from. Spencer is, in essence, flailing. In the face of this mental collapse, he finds himself dwelling on the memory of a brief “read” of his assistant/handler Megan. She is the “one good thing in his life,” and he’s fairly sure she loves him.
Spencer’s growing need for Megan is heartbreaking. On a practical level, it’s obvious he needs her as a handler, someone who is level-headed and competent under fire and who might be able to help him approach his trauma. On an emotional level, Spencer needs Megan simply because he wants the comfort of a loving companion in the face of collapse. But as Spencer loses control of his mind, his ability to recognize what he needs folds as well. After revealing his trauma to his family in a very public and messy way, he finally flees for Megan and his home. Only on the verge of shut-down does he take the chance and reach out for help and comfort.
As the reader becomes more invested in wanting him to get help, it becomes evident that he is beyond help.
Spencer would rather ignore his problems than face them, and the embarrassment at leaning on Megan (or even his sister) eclipses the fact that he really needs to. Clitheroe reveals the severity of Spencer’s situation a half-step behind his realization. As the reader becomes more invested in wanting him to get help, it becomes evident that he is beyond help. Spencer himself only catches up in the very end, when we’ve finally met Megan in the flesh and it’s clear that she will not be able to do for him all that he had hoped or dreamed. In the end, the story feels like a love story of the most doomed variety. By the time Spencer is ready to admit to love, it’s far too late for it to do any good.