Welcome to February’s Words for Thought! This month’s stories are all about bodies—how they are viewed, how they are treated, their autonomy, and the ways in which we relate to other people’s bodies and our own.
Her Beautiful Body by Adrienne Celt, published at Strange Horizons centers on a woman’s body being displayed at museums around the country, after her death. She is a work of art, or perhaps one of science, as visitors are encouraged to touch and explore her body, and think about it in relation to their own.
She is not kept under glass; in death, she is not a sacred object, but a public one. Those who visit the museum are encouraged to know her intimately—the shape of her teeth, the way her muscles move—and yet, her name has been deliberately withheld by the museum. The story focuses on physicality, not just shape, but movement, inviting readers (and the viewers within the story) to imagine the actions the body took in life. The woman is not overly-sexualized, however she is still an object for the enjoyment and education of others.
After all, what else is the purpose of her beautiful body, besides increasing the world’s happiness? Reach out and touch it. Run your thumb over the scar on her knee, and lift an eyelash off her cheek with the pad of your finger. Blow a kiss towards her face and turn her lips into a smile. When you hold yourself back you fail to respect the gift her body offers: its presence. Its excellence. The unmatched care that has been devoted to bringing it here, for you, today.
Although the story is relatively short, Celt gives readers a lot to think about. The circumstances of the beautiful body on display calls to mind the real-world Body Worlds exhibition, which displays humans and animals, revealing their bones and musculature in ways that blur the line between science and art. The story also brings to mind saints’ bodies being displayed after their death, either whole or as pieces in reliquaries, and the ethical questions around museums including human remains in their exhibitions and collections. On a more philosophical level, the story raises questions about the nature of the body to the self, or the soul—is the beautiful body on display truly the remains of a person, or only flesh preserved? Do our bodies belong to ourselves in death, or is that a selfish notion, since they might be used to educate others? The questions raised by “Her Beautiful Body” lend it weight and make it even more effective.
A Thing with Feathers by Jennifer R. Donohue in the January-March issue of Mythic Delirium also calls to mind the image of saints and reliquaries, however in this case, the body in question is a living one. Lilybeth is a young girl with silver hair, whose parents claim she was born of angels and given into their care. However, instead of caring for her, they travel with her from town to town, selling off pieces of her as miracle cures.
Mother cut all her hair off close, shingled against her skull, and sold off every stray strand to anybody with the coin for it. She sold the tears, a few drops trapped in each little vial, and when they ran out of bottles, she sold handkerchiefs that had wiped away some of those tears.
Whether or not Lilybeth is miraculous is not addressed, but that isn’t the story’s point. What matters is the way Lilybeth is used by her parents, the very people who are meant to protect her. The story addresses the particular vulnerability of children, and the way their bodies are often seen as their parents’ property or an extension of their parents’ will. Lilybeth has no control over her body, and no say in what is done to it; not even her tears are her own. It’s easy to draw comparisons to the stereotype of the overbearing parent who pushes their child into sports, beauty pageants, or some other form of competition that might put their bodies physical danger, along with potentially causing emotional trauma. Like Lilybeth, they are treated as money-making commodities, not individuals to be protected. “A Thing with Feathers” also touches on issues of faith and how far people will go when they are suffering. No one in the towns they visit ever tries to help Lilybeth. They are content to witness her pain for even the hope of a cure. It’s a chilling story, but one that is beautifully told.
Your Slaughterhouse, Your Killing Floor by Sunny Moraine appears in the January/February issue of Uncanny. Moraine structures the story around repeated refrains that echo the set-up of a joke: a girl walks into a bar, and the punch lines, in this case, are literal. The girl in question causes unintentional destruction in times of heightened emotion and extreme sensation—pleasure, pain, desire, anger. The ground shakes, electricity shorts out, glass shatters. When she accidentally gets into a bar fight with another girl, she discovers she isn’t alone.
I know what I am, what I can do; I believed, because of ample and consistent evidence, that I was the only person who could do that—or the only person that happened to, depending on how you want to distribute the agency, because the vast majority of the time it wasn’t something I was going for and it sure as shit wasn’t something I wanted.
The girls become lovers, and for once in their lives, they can truly be themselves. But for the narrator’s lover, it isn’t enough. She craves destruction, wielding her nature like a weapon. She wants the world to burn. The narrator, however, is torn. She’s angry, too, but violence is a double-edged sword that also wounds the wielder.
There’s an intense physicality to “Your Slaughterhouse, Your Killing Floor.” The prose is visceral, crackling with electricity as bodies are explored as centers of both pleasure and pain. The women in the story are allowed to be rough in ways often denied to women. Again, though, the violence is not without cost. Moraine offers up an inversion of the trope of the revenge fantasy, where rape, abuse, or torture is used as a motive to send a woman on a justified spree of violence, but where there are no emotional consequences. This story is all consequence, exploring the physical and emotional trauma of causing others pain, even when there is catharsis in it.
Six Hangings in the Land of Unkillable Women by Theodore McCombs from February’s Nightmare Magazine is what it says on the tin—a world where women cannot be killed. The story focuses on Edith Smylie, whose husband, Gerry, is Superintendent of the Police Department’s Bureau of Homicides. A woman named Liza Barrow has murdered her young son, and Gerry is at a loss as to how to punish the woman. Hanging, bullets, and burning have all been tried and failed. Edith suggests perhaps a hang-woman could do the job, where a hangman could not, and volunteers for the role. Gerry protests, saying it’s unwomanly, but eventually grudgingly agrees, as there are no other options. Edith’s story is interspersed with accounts of violence against women, attacks born of jealousy, rage, and desire. Even though the women didn’t die, the men were still hanged for the crimes. Eventually, it’s revealed Edith herself was stabbed, when she was younger, by a man seeking revenge for something her husband did.
She’d felt her body change even as the knife went in: a deep, interior wrenching, like a pair of burly hands turning soil. No one had heard of the Protection yet, and Edith remembered thinking, That’s what death feels like. She remembered, in that split second, feeling brave and practical about it, like a Roman drinking poison. Then her stomach ate the blade off the hilt.
Even though women in this world cannot die by violence, many still bear the marks of it on their bodies. Edith speculates whether the knife absorbed into her body made her a harder, more willful woman, not dainty and delicate as her daughters and husband might wish her to be. Part of Edith sympathizes with the murdered Barrow boy, but part of her sympathizes with Liza. If she becomes a hang-woman, is that allowing men to turn women against each other and do the dirty work of violence for them?
The story offers an interesting look at the traditional roles of men and women. Despite being unkillable, women in McComb’s world are still considered the weaker sex. Their bodies, words, and actions are still policed, and violence is still done against them regularly. Like Moraine’s story, “Six Hangings in the Land of Unkillable Women” looks at the consequences of violence, and what being a killer—even one sanctioned by the law—does to a person. And like Celt’s story, it offers no easy answers, and is more effective for it.
To Blight a Fig Tree Before It Bears Fruit by Benjamín Naka-Hasebe Kingsley appeared right here in the pages of Apex Magazine in January. Since this column is hosted at Apex, I usually refrain from reviewing Apex stories, but Kingsley’s story fits the theme perfectly, and it’s gorgeous to boot, so hopefully no one minds the exception. The story opens with a terrifying image.
Witness the Meshing. What a crowd has gathered. Reappropriated gallows creak beneath the weight of eight brown bodies hanging. Their wrists are shackled with electric zip ties. Their bellies are swollen to a healthy eight months.
During the Meshing, rich bidders have the opportunity to buy immortality by having their consciousness transferred into women’s babies before they are born. Just as the women are all brown, the bidders are all white, evoking images of actual slave auctions. The story is relatively short, but beautifully written, even with the brutal subject matter. It packs a punch, and is made more effective by not shying away from horror, but also focusing on defiance and resistance, as one of the women, Meshee, fights to reclaim the life of her child.
Like the other stories discussed here, “To Blight a Fig Tree Before It Bears Fruit” explores questions of bodily autonomy, who has power and who is seen as an object. With brown bodies literally becoming vessels for white minds, the story carries echoes of Jordan Peele’s Get Out, but leaning more in the direction of science fiction than horror, even though horrific things are happening. Again, the writing is lovely, but Kingsley never allows readers to lose sight of the terrifying acts being committed.