Welcome to March’s “Words for Thought.” Perhaps it’s the lingering cold, and winter’s insistence on hanging on, but the stories I’m discussing this month all touch on death, grief, and loss. However, spring is just around the corner, the days are getting longer, and so, too, do these stories offer notes of hope, and a way through to a place of healing.
Granny Death and the Drag King of London by A.J. Fitzwater, published in the Autumn 2017/Winter 2018 issue of Glittership opens on the day of Freddie Mercury’s death. AIDS panic is gripping London, and already facing so much loss, Mercury’s death hits the queer community especially hard. For Lacey James, Mercury’s proud embrace of his bisexuality is particularly important, with her own bisexuality constantly erased and attacked. She struggles to cope, not only with Freddie’s death, but all the other death around her, exacerbated by the fact that death seems to actively seek her out. She sees black sparkles, an omen that someone is about to die, and she keeps running into the same strange old woman who haunts the funerals she caters.
Fucking Granny Death. An emotional vampire. An ever moving (sic) shark in necrophiliac waters. She was worse than the front page of The Sun.
On top of that, Lacey’s boss is a jerk, she’s afraid she may have AIDS, herself, she’s low on cash, and the queer community feels like it’s splintering around her. When she finally confronts the Granny Death, she offers Lacey a job. Lacey wants no part of it, and tries to go on with her life, but when she goes out to a bar to forget her troubles, she ends up in a fight. The release of violence, and ultimately seeing the public outpouring of grief over Mercury’s death, leads her to realize pain is a step in the healing process. Even fractured, her community is still there, and they are frightened and grieving, too. She accepts Granny Death’s offer, coming to see there can be beauty in death. Death sharpens the importance of what people like Freddie Mercury accomplished, and what they meant to others while alive. “Granny Death and the Drag King of London” is a poignant look at community, icons, and the way grief can tear people apart and turn them against each other. It’s also a story about pushing through loss, finding hope, fighting to be seen, and learning to see others in turn. Granny Death is every bit as charming a character as you’d want, and Lacey is allowed to be prickly and angry, leading to a satisfying character arc. Fitzwater’s writing is slick and stylish, with a rhythm that complements the desperate and broken mood of the story, and the hope it offers at the end.
Dust to Dust by Mary Robinette Kowal, published in February’s Fireside Magazine is short, but packs a punch. As the story opens, Lloyd is working on a spell to banish bugs. He thinks carefully about balance; consequences are important to him. He wants to get rid of the bugs eating the crops, but not the bees pollinating them. Once upon a time, there was a lot of work for people like him, specializing in spells keeping department stores cool, but the advent of air conditioning and the rise of ready-made spells has put him out of regular work.
When he’d mortgaged the house, he’d had a promising career in magic, but it seemed like every day a new pre-packaged spell came out. First the lay-off and now it was getting so the only folks who hired him were ones who needed a tailor-made spell.
Given its length, there’s no way to discuss the story without spoilers, so consider yourself warned. As Lloyd and his wife Edna worry about money, it comes out that Lloyd took out a mortgage on their house to buy illegal ingredients, to make a resurrection powder. Edna died of cancer; he was afraid to live without her and brought her back without her consent or knowledge. Like Fitzwater’s story, “Dust to Dust” shows the lengths to which fear and grief can drive people. Both Lloyd and Edna’s viewpoints are understandable, and they’re both portrayed with humanity and compassion. Lloyd claims he wanted to save their children from growing up without a mother. Edna accuses him of being selfish and afraid to let her go. The story examines the moral complications and cost of magic and posits a world where Christian faith and the supernatural must co-exist. It’s a lovely story, perfectly balanced, and carries real emotional weight despite its short length.
The Triumphant Ward of the Railroad and the Sea by Sara Saab appears in March/April’s Shimmer Magazine. Neave is the only survivor of a tragedy, the rest of her family lost at sea. As an orphan, she boarded Dbovotav, a train endlessly traveling between Bretev, Arnik, and Totyozk. Passengers come and go; the only constants in Neave’s life are the train and Srdan, the train’s self-appointed conductor and the closest thing she has to a friend. Neave makes her living as a competitive eater. It’s the only thing she feels she’s good at, but there’s a deeper reason that drives her.
Here is a piece I own of the truth: I became a competitive eater because I was afraid of floating out to sea. Food is ballast. Saturate your guts, render them heavy as waterlogged rope, and remain planted firmly to the ground.
The towns the train passes through are haunted by emptiness, and even the other passengers feel like transient background noise. Even with Srdan’s friendship, Neave’s life is fundamentally lonely, something she hasn’t fully admitted to herself. Her life is one of constant running, but the sea always seems to be trying to claim her, luring her and Srdan to enter the waves, and manifesting in the strange disappearance of passengers and townsfolk, and the even stranger appearances of mysterious extra cars on the train. Neave’s eating is a coping mechanism; she eats her grief and anger, and only when she fully faces the fact of what she’s doing is she able to begin healing. Saab touches on the idea of emotional eating as a survival strategy, but Neave is never shamed for what she does. Neave turns both food and emotion into fuel to keep going long enough to come to terms with her grief. It’s a beautiful story, full of haunting imagery—dream-like, or nightmare-like as the case may be. Sometimes terrible things happen for no good reason, but they can be survived, though they do not leave a person unmarked or unchanged.
A Very Large Number of Moons by Kai Stewart published in Strange Horizons is the kind of story I’m a sucker for. Like Kowal’s “Dust to Dust,” it’s closer to flash length, with the story existing primarily between the pages of a catalogue of moons kept by a collector.
The harvest moon. The blue moon. The tropical moon. Flat moon—the moon you find in puddles. Strong moon—this is the moon of dogs, and I don’t know why they call it that. Dogs howl at a moon for not being the strong moon. Kite moon, that rides over your shoulder. Indigo moon—the plants that grow under this moon yield a deeper pigment than others, and can occasionally be heard to sing.
Toward the end of the tale, the collector pauses to ask an unseen visitor to his collection, if they are looking for a specific moon. The visitor reveals they are looking for a moon witnessed by the sole survivor of a plane crash, a moon with dolphins playing in front of it. The collector discovers the visitor is that survivor, leading him to wonder why they would want such a sad memory. Is the survivor processing their grief? Will the moon help them heal and move on? Is it tied to the memory of someone they lost in the crash? The collector agrees to give them the moon; it is rightfully theirs, but in trade, he asks for the moon from just before the crash, almost identical, but subtly different. Those differences are a reminder of how quickly the world can change, how grief, survival, adrenaline, or emotion in general colors the way we see the world. Stories told in interstitial spaces fascinate me, and Stewart uses the catalogue format to great effect. The language is lovely, while being spare, leaving the reader plenty of room to bring their own understanding of loss, survival, and the aftermath of a tragedy to the tale.
Like the River Loves the Sky by Emma Törzs from the March/April issue of Uncanny is a lovely and melancholy story with death at its margins. Adriana’s roommate and best friend, NPW, collects dead dogs from the side of the road. Although he’s a taxidermist, he claims he’s taking them for a new kind of project, but he won’t tell her what. NPW is also planning to move away to live with his girlfriend, and Adriana is having trouble coping. They’ve known each other since they were eight, and he’s her last link to her childhood. Her father is dead, and her mother has Alzheimer’s and mostly doesn’t remember her. As NPW’s departure grows closer, Adriana has recurring dreams—of being an apple eaten by a deer, a river in love with the sky, a raging forest fire.
That night I’m a fallen apple and I love a deer. My body unrounds sweet with brown rot and ants swarm heart-like in my hollows, soft pieces of me chewed away in chitin jaws even as another mouth descends to meet around me. Deer-soft lips, yellow doorway teeth, a dark tonguing down a closed wet valley, and I love without movement or desire, an eternal surrendered swallow.
Her dreams speak of the cycle of life, death, rebirth, and change, something Adriana must embrace in order to move on. It’s no coincidence both she and NPW have jobs linked to death and rebirth. NPW has his taxidermy, and Adriana works for an antiques dealer, cleaning out people’s homes after they die and selling what can be sold. NPW creates memorials and trophies from death, and Adriana gives the possessions of dead people new life with new owners. “Like the River Loves the Sky” is a gorgeous and bittersweet meditation on different kinds of death—the perceived death of a friendship, the death of Adriana’s mother’s personality, and the death of an old life. The story also serves as a reminder that death can be viewed as a form of change, making way for something new. Of course, there is mourning and grief involved, but death isn’t always an end, sometimes it’s a transition. The story is beautifully written, touching on friendship, family, loyalty, and loss. It’s a fitting story to close out the column. With its echoing theme of death being a shift in perspective, it forms a bookend to Fitzwater’s story, which portrays death as a friend but also a moment of change and an opportunity to forge something new.