Welcome to the first Words for Thought of 2018. As we slide from one year into the next, it seems appropriate to focus on stories about worlds intersecting, liminal spaces, and people who are in one way or another caught in-between.
Big Mother by Anya Ow, published at Strange Horizons, is a story set in Singapore featuring five characters occupying the liminal space of childhood. A girl, her younger brother, and their neighbors gather almost daily to go fishing. The oldest boy in the group is obsessed with catching snakehead fish. They try various bait with no luck, until one day they briefly snag a fish they’ve nicknamed Big Mother. The line breaks immediately, and the fish escapes, upsetting the oldest boy. He becomes even more determined to catch Big Mother, convincing the group to go out at night when the fish are more likely to bite.
We had descended past the Gate into deih yuhk, it seemed, to the threshold of the first Court of Hell, which balanced life and death and fortune. We were rushing to meet the Yama King.
The language during their night excursion is full of references to thresholds, divisions between light and dark, and borders between one section of town and the next. The children dart between pools of light like fish, and cross the military checkpoint into a world transformed by the dark into Yama’s Court. While at the water, they see something too big to be a fish, though they catch nothing. Then, a few days later, the two younger neighbor boys come to say their brother has disappeared. There’s no question where he’s gone, and the narrator and her brother set off at once to Yama’s Court to find him ensnared in the river by Big Mother—no longer just a fish, but not quite a woman either. She’s been wounded by a fishhook, and the narrator must make a bargain with her to save her friend. Big Mother is a lovely picture of childhood filled with both darkness and magic. The story is framed by the narrator looking back from adulthood and reflecting on the way the world has changed—both physically and the way she perceives it. During the encounter with Big Mother, we see a stark contrast between the characters’ world views. The oldest neighbor’s approach is aggressive and possessive, as if he is owed the fish as a prize. Whereas the narrator’s approach is conciliatory, looking to bargain and heal. It’s easy to read an underlying commentary on gender politics here, seeing the neighbor’s behavior as an example of toxic masculinity. It adds another layer and new depths to an already haunting and effective story.
A Slip in the Slice by Heather Morris, published in the Winter 2018 issue of Kaleidotrope, is a tale of worlds literally colliding. The premise of the story is reminiscent of “Folding Beijing” by Hao Jingfang, where people can time-share dwellings through the use of chronometers that allow them to occupy the same space, but in different slices of time. These slices aren’t meant to intersect, but one morning, Gwen wakes to a ghost in her bed. It’s her “roommate,” Paul.
Paul’s eyes are wide. One half of his face—the half pressed into a pillow that is still then, not now—is flushed red. His mouth is opening and closing, opening and closing, maybe saying Gwen, Gwen, or maybe just breathing in a strange way.
Freaked out, Gwen goes to her twin sister, Stacy (their father was a comic book fan), inadvertently crashing the tail-end of a date. Along with Stacy’s date, Alex, they return to Gwen’s apartment, where Alex is able to fix the chronometer. He suggests checking Paul’s slice of the apartment, and there they find food rotting on the counter, the place seemingly abandoned, and an eerie message written on the mirror saying Help Gwen or Gwen Help over and over. The police suspect Gwen, even though she barely had any contact with Paul. In fact, limiting contact with other humans is kind of her thing. Over the course of the story, it’s revealed that Gwen and Stacy’s father disappeared when they were young. It may not be the only cause, but his disappearance is certainly one of the factors leading to Gwen’s own stuck state. She is a perpetual student, caught in the liminal space between education and the work force, still trying to impress her father with good grades even though he’s gone. Paul and Gwen’s situations echo each other, both stuck in-between—Paul literally, and Gwen figuratively. Morris uses mirror imagery effectively throughout the story, from Gwen and Stacy being twins, to mirrored time slices in the apartment, and the literal mirror where Paul leaves his message with two possible meanings. All these mirrors are slightly off from each other, underlining the fundamental lesson Gwen must learn about defining herself and not letting others define her. With A Slip in the Slice, Morris does an excellent job of taking a gosh-wow concept, and spinning it into a fully developed story with a satisfying character arc.
Two Years Dead by Kathryn Kania, published at Fireside Fiction, is a charming story about dating in the afterlife. More specifically, it’s about a woman who opens an OKCupid profile two years after her death. She misses life, and talking to people, and even though she promises herself she’s only there to look, she ends up setting up a date.
Her profile had been so intriguing. Bright blue hair against skin almost golden. Her interests were smashing the patriarchy, pole dancing, and baking cookies. Her smile made me wish I could taste those cookies just to tell her how good they were. I was probably doomed from the start. I should never have messaged her.
The protagonist’s hands pass through objects. She can only use a computer by literally melding with it. What will her date think when she shows up? Worse, what will she think if she doesn’t show up? She goes to the coffee shop, once again telling herself she’s just there to peek through worlds at what might have been. When she sees her date looking hurt and rejected, she manifests, and to her delight, though her date is surprised, she’s accepting. It’s a sweet story, and important as a queer narrative. Not only does it have a happy ending, the obstacle to the relationship isn’t queerness, but the narrator being a ghost. As the saying goes, love conquers all, or at least attraction that might develop into love. The characters temporarily bridge the gap between life and death, and if the relationship does work, they’ll have one heck of a meet cute story to tell their friends down the road.
The Fox, Expatriate by Emily Horner, published in December’s Syntax & Salt, is an animal bride story about a woman caught between the world of foxes and men. Although she’s warned by her father not to fall in love with a man, like the fairy tale of the little mermaid, the fox finds the human world is irresistible. She has spent her youth in parking lots, watching human couples, and in tunnels under the movie theater, listening to fictionalized visions of love. She sets her sights on a man with a rust-colored beard, and causes his bike to crash. Then she slips out of her fox skin to meet him as a woman. He’s intrigued by her strangeness, as she is by his. They arrange a date, and eventually she moves in with him, meeting his children, and trying to fit into his world.
When it was only us he didn’t mind my strangeness, and when he had left for work I put my skin back on and hunted voles and snuffled weeds, but with the children I had to feign being an ordinary woman. The lines I had learned from movies failed me, and the noises of the house—two televisions on at once, the blips and bleeps of text messages and Candy Crush—turned spiky in my ears.
One day, a storm threatens to flood the neighborhood. She goes looking for her kin, and finds a den about to be overwhelmed with water. She tries to save the kits within and they claw and kick at her. She’s lost her fox voice, and when she tries to reclaim her skin, it no longer fits. She flees the life she’s built, and makes a new one, working as a waitress, and keeping an eye out for other women caught between worlds, speaking to them in fox language and hoping one day they will answer her. Like many animal bride stories, this one is melancholy, contrasting the bright promise of another world with the ache of what must be left behind. The world the fox has been promised through glimpses at humanity, and particularly the false glamour of movies, steers her wrong. Unlike many animal bride stories, however, the fox isn’t stolen, held captive, or tricked out of her skin. Horner offers up a story of a fox choosing her own destiny, even if it ends up being a mistake. The story is firmly about her growth, and her journey. It even ends on a haunting note of hope as she finds a way to live between worlds, seeking to help others like her who are similarly lost.
She Still Loves the Dragon by Elizabeth Bear, published in the January/February issue of Uncanny, can also be read as a take on an animal bride story. However, unlike Horner’s story, here a human seeks to enter the animal world. Traditional stories tell us that the world of knights and dragons can only intersect in violent ways. Knights are meant to kill dragons, and vice versa, and that is all there is. However this knight has conquered every other challenge available to her, so she seeks out the dragon, suffering pain and risking death, simply to prove herself worthy.
Well, here is a charred coil like a curved trunk that has smoldered and cracked in a slow fire. And there is a flank as rugged as a scree slope, broken facets slick with anthracite rainbows. And there is a wing membrane like a veil of paper-ash, like the grey cuticle and veins of an enormous leaf when some hungry larva has gnawed everything that was living away.
The language is gorgeous and poetic throughout, told in alternating view points, and woven in with bits of song. Although the dragon and knight’s worlds are able to touch, neither can fully occupy the other. By its nature, the dragon is fire, and cannot help but burn the knight. Despite, or perhaps because of this, the knight cannot help but love the dragon. The dragon fears only being seen as a challenge, an item to be checked off the knight’s list, and the knight knows the dragon can never see her as an equal. It is a story about loneliness, about the way love can change a person, and the way love itself changes over time. It is also a story about desiring what is dangerous and even destructive. As with so much of Bear’s writing, there’s a rhythm to the story that sweeps the reader along, and the words themselves shine, not unlike a knight’s armor, or a dragon’s scales.