Welcome to September’s Words for Thought! This month’s stories are all about communication–speaking volumes without words, how hard it can be to say what you mean, and how hard it can be sometimes to understand others.
By the Hand that Casts It by Stephanie Charette from the penultimate issue of Shimmer introduces readers to Briar Redgrave, a retired assassin now running a florist shop where she specializes in helping her clients communicate through the language of flowers. The front of the shop is for conventional orders, declarations of passion and love, but the secret room in the back of the shop caters to assassins using flowers to declare duels, taunt marks, and call out rivals. An assassin calling himself the Crimson Hawk comes to her shop, seemingly ignorant of Briar’s past. She assumes he’s there on business, but it turns out he wants to declare his love for a fellow assassin, one who just happens to be Briar’s husband.
Flowers were a poor substitute for the elegance of a blade. Who cares who loves or lusts, when who lives or dies is decided by the hand that casts it? Briar had spent years communicating the desires of others, hadn’t she, both before and after? Past time to communicate her own.
The story is fun and fast-paced, with great action and a great character in Briar. Charette hints at a connection to Briar Rose/Sleeping Beauty with the similarity in names, and the imagery of roses and thorns, but they are never explicitly stated to be linked. Either way, it adds an interesting dimension to the story, imagining a life as an assassin for Sleeping Beauty after waking from her nap. Regardless, the story stands beautifully on its own with no fairy tale connection. In addition to directly addressing communication through flowers, Charette does a lot with body language throughout the story in the way Briar and the Hawk size each other up, in the precision of Briar’s actions, and what she does and does not say aloud.
Tamales in Space, and Other Phrases for the Beginning Speaker by Gabriela Santiago appears in September’s Strange Horizons. Carmela runs a candy shop on a space station, which is inhabited by humans and the legunas, a species who communicate through taste. The story is fragmentary and occasionally chaotic, but this is deliberately done, perfectly capturing a sense of cultural dislocation, the whirl of activity on the station, and the strangeness of being far from home. The story revolves entirely around communication, and the failure thereof, as Carmela sets out to make authentic tamales and struggles to get the ingredients she needs–not always easy in space with shipping restrictions. Even among other humans, she struggles to communicate what she needs, or even why this project is important to her. Carmela is doubly dislocated, cut off from her birth country of Mexico, and cut off from earth. She tries to express herself through flavors and repeatedly fails, working through a translator to communicate with the legunas.
What she is trying to say: Once upon a time there was a girl in Pilsen whose family in Mexico City owned a candy empire. The factory was a giant metal forest for her to play in every winter. She dreams sometimes of the clanging of the machines.
What she says: Infant (female) in a nest of a silver leaves. Loudly, loudly! The thunder. A general sense of fish.
When Carmela finally manages to make her tamales, one of the legunas she’s given the nickname Old Tatters barges into her shop and devours them all while they’re still cooking. Even though the action seems inexcusably rude, it allows Old Tatters to truly understand Carmela–her loss, her isolation, and the way she seeks a connection to her home through an authentic experience that speaks of her culture. The last line is a killer, and the story as a whole is effective in speaking to themes of immigration, the importance of context in communication, and the difficulty of communication without said context. The descriptions of food and flavors are gorgeous, and the story highlights the way food can be a communal experience, a way to connect to one’s home when far away, a way to bond with others, or a distancing point between them. Though eating is a universal experience among most living things, what is considered edible and desirable is highly culturally specific, and this story is a reminder of that.
A Taxonomy of Hurts by Kate Dollarhyde from the August issue of Fireside Magazine is about characters who literally wear their emotions on their sleeves, communicating their past hurts whether they intend to or not. Not everyone can see this hurts, but the protagonist can, seeing other people’s traumatic memories in the form of birds, insects, and other creatures. By touching these creatures, they are able to experience those memories, seeing a man being bullied as a young boy or a woman worrying about her elderly mother.
No two people’s hurts take the same form; in the time since meeting the man flocked by starlings, I have seen others surrounded by constellations of lightning bugs, clots of jellyfish, or crusted in fractal coral growths.
They meet a woman named Purvi on the subway who manages to get past the careful way they keep themselves closed off around others. Purvi has mushrooms sprouting from her skin, and she is careful and gentle with the protagonist as a relationship begins to blossom, but the protagonist remains afraid. They’ve been hurt before, though they haven’t fully explored their own pain, at least not until Purvi reveals she can see memories too, allowing the protagonist to understand their fear of rejection and loneliness because of their asexuality. A Taxonomy of Hurts is both about what we communicate with others unintentionally and about a character learning to communicate with themself and see their own wants and needs as valid. The protagonist spends so much time trying to understand other people’s traume, they neglect their own, but with Purvi, they are able to move toward communicating what they need from a relationship and work toward building trust and letting go of fear. The story is full of gorgeous imagery, and has some interesting things to say about empathy–making it a literal tangible thing–and self care. It also portrays the difficulty of understanding others, and opening yourself up completely to another person, even in a world where emotions are literally visible.
Memento Mori by Tiah Marie Beautement, published at Omenana Magazine in late August is about a relationship between two characters, one who just happens to be Death, and therefore doesn’t speak at all. The other character, an unnamed woman, is one of Death’s soul collectors, gathering lost souls from the sea and bringing them to him in corked vials. Her specialty is the souls of those who are still living, but have lost all their memories, leaving their bodies in slow decline and bringing pain to their families. By collecting them, she brings them peace.
As she swam through the deep, many silvery souls drifted by, but she left them alone. They were those of the drowned and their bodies were dead. In time, other soul collectors would catch them, but while they waited they would gently float in a peaceful, slumbering state, unharmed. What she was searching for was far more elusive.
In the ocean, she’s able to transform, growing gills and webbing. On land, she must cope with her Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and constant pain. In the water there is less strain on her joints, and she can move freely, but she can’t stay in the water forever. She can only stay long enough to help those in need, collecting the souls of the lost, and easing the passage of those beyond help. The story is filled with incredible kindness, from the soul collector’s deep caring for those she gathers from the sea, to Death’s kindness toward her. Harkening back to Santiago’s story, in the absence of words, Death communicates through food. It is less the flavors that speak for him, but more the act of lovingly preparing dishes for the soul collector. Death’s actions speak for him as well–he sends the soul collector a service dog to help care for her, he gently kisses the top of her forehead before leaving her, he sleeps curled around her when she doesn’t want to be alone, and above all he respects her wishes, never pushing help onto her when it isn’t asked for or needed. It’s a lovely story, full of beautiful imagery, and a beautiful relationship between two characters who express the most when they are completely silent.
Ice Cream and English Summers by Sunyi Dean from September’s Flash Fiction Online is another story about food in the absence of words. The protagonist is six months pregnant when she loses her job. She and her partner don’t have much money, especially now without her salary. They’re forced to move from their current house to a more affordable house, but even though things are tight money-wise, they make a ritual of daily ice cream. It begins with a pregnancy craving, but becomes something more as the story progresses. It becomes a coping mechanism, a way to share grief without words, something to keep them together even when everything around them is falling apart.
So we went for ice cream. June heat, dirty pavements, crowded store. Still better than being inside. We bought treats with dwindling money because what’s a little bit less, when you haven’t got anything anyway.
The story is effective in its brevity, and again, like Santiago’s story, underlines the importance of food as a shared experience, bringing people together. Ice cream says what the characters cannot say to each other when they lose their child. It stands in for grief, frustration, trauma, and more, allowing them to work through their pain when there are no words to encompass what they’re feeling.