Welcome to July’s Words for Thought. This month’s stories are all focused on family—found family, birth family, blood family, and family by choice. Happy reading!
The Trees of My Youth Grew Tall by Mimi Mondal in July’s Strange Horizons, focuses on a woman who defines herself as Binu’s mother, her own name forgotten in favor of her relationship with her son. Once upon a time, her people made their lives in the forest’s trees, but as industry and the modern world encroach, they’re forced to move into the city.
To climb is to expand your horizon—see far beyond the walls that define your life, spread your habitation over an earth much more dispersed than the cramped vessel that is your body. No man who has climbed down a coconut tree is ever the same man who went up.
In the city, the forest people struggle to find work, Binu included. He’s restless and tempted to turn to a life of crime. Why shouldn’t he and his mother have nice things? The city people are so rich, they won’t notice a few things missing. Binu and his mother argue over his plan, and during the night, Binu runs off. Suddenly, a woman who has spent years defining herself by her relationship with her son finds herself alone. Binu’s mother stretches what little money she has, but eventually she’s forced to turn to begging. By luck, she’s offered a job cooking in one of the rich houses and embarks on a journey of self-discovery, ultimately reconnecting her with her roots. She takes to climbing trees again in search of her son, but she also finds joy in climbing for its own sake and learns to take pleasure in her work and gaining new skills. The story’s ending opens up a world of possibility, and personally makes me want to read about the further adventures of Binu’s mother after she reclaims her name and agrees to work for a man with an “unearthly eye.” Mondal’s writing is lovely, and there’s a strong emotional core to the story. It speaks to the role women are often expected to take, but also the genuine and fierce love that can be found in that role. The story also explores the balance between adaptation and cultural assimilation, and keeping tradition alive, and what it means to be home—to have a home, to build a home, or to find one. Binu’s mother’s strength comes through in all her choices, and she’s a fascinating character, both in her relationship with others, and in her rediscovery of herself.
“_Good.“ by Sunyi Dean, published at Flash Fiction Online, is another story about a woman defined by her relationship to a man—in this case, her husband. Unlike Mondal’s story, it is no longer a relationship built on love. While the protagonist’s husband isn’t physically abusive, he overwhelms her at every turn, speaking for her and over her, making decisions for both of them and expecting her to go along, and wanting her to be grateful for all he’s given her. Now, however, he’s dying, and his last wish is to be cloned and carried by his wife in utero so he can be born again.
I think of mini-him, growing in my belly. Running circles round the kitchen table. Having his memories, still owning every possession, ruling over me from a height of three feet—a child tyrant.
The one catch for her husband is that iClone requires the protagonist’s express consent to this plan. As always, he tries to speak for her, to bully her, and guilt her, but for once in her life, she has the power, and she’s no longer willing to be pushed around. “_Good.” is the kind of story that shows how brilliant the flash format can be. There is nothing extraneous here, leaving a story that is honed to a fine point. In less than a thousand words, Dean paints a complete and utterly chilling picture of this couple’s relationship, which is one that gets more disturbing the longer you think about it. According to the author bio, this is Dean’s first attempt at flash fiction, making it all the more impressive. She absolutely hits it out of the park the first time around.
Speak Easy, Selkie Suicides by E. Catherine Tobler, published at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, is a story of found family on multiple levels. It’s set in Tobler’s world of Jackson’s Unreal Circus, a found-family in its own right, where the broken and unwanted go to find magic, acceptance, and a use for their unique talents. This particular story focuses on Grand Duchess Maria Romanov (who is neither a duchess nor a Romanov), who has been a background character in other Circus tales, though no previous knowledge of Jackson’s Unreal Circus is required. (That said, I highly recommend seeking out Tobler’s other Circus stories, which will soon be conveniently gathered in a collection forthcoming from Apex Publications.) The Grand Duchess is the circus’s resident fat lady, though, like all of the acts, her performances are not quite what is expected.
Fabric and skin parted with a wet whisper and those in the tent found themselves gazing at something they did not understand, for the immense body before them had become like a vast aquarium. Maria’s round belly grew clear, showing them strange fish they had never glimpsed before. Her veins became as long streams of seaweed that blue and orange fish darted among until she allowed the creation to spill from her fingertips and flood the tent.
Before becoming the Grand Duchess, Maria Romanov was a girl named Louise with weak lungs and a short life expectancy. She found a strange skin on the beach and took it for her own. When she slipped into the water, it transformed her, and a whole new world opened up, one where she wasn’t sick, or even human anymore. In her new form, Maria built a found-family of her own, taking in lost and broken women seeking release through not-quite-suicide, letting the water strip them of their selves as it once did for her. However, at one of the circus’s stops, the original owner of the selkie skin finally catches up with her, leaving Maria facing a difficult choice. As with all of Tobler’s Circus stories, the language here is breathtaking. Everything drips with magic and darkness, the two perfectly blended. It is a story about hope and escape, but also about sacrifice. In order to gain something new, something old must be given up. It isn’t always an easy story—there is genuine pain in the women seeking transformation—nor is Maria purely a good character. Overall, it is a gorgeous story, and well worth a read as it explores family of a different kind.
You Can Make a Dinosaur, But You Can’t Help Me by K.M. Szpara in the July/August issue of Uncanny, is an emotional gut-punch of a story, but one with hope at the end. Emerick is a trans man, trying to cope with his gender dysphoria. His boyfriend, Leo, also a trans man, is incredibly supportive, but experiences and expresses his gender in a very different way. This necessitates careful conversations and negotiation of language between them, allowing each to give the other what they need without hurting themselves or each other. Emerick wants to get bottom surgery to help with his dysphoria but can’t afford it. Leo suggests visiting Emerick’s father, who happens to be the founder of Owen Corp, a Jurassic Park-like research facility on an island filled with living dinosaurs that arrived through a portal to another world. Emerick is reluctant; his relationship with his father is strained, but he doesn’t see any other way.
You roll your shoulders in an attempt to rid yourself of anxiety’s slowly tightening grip, but it remains. Or, something like it. A hum that glides over your skin cool like water, buzzing like electricity. That is not your anxiety, it’s the island. You forgot this island has a feeling that leaks out of the portal. It’s stronger than last time—or than you remember, at least. Amplified by your own nerves, perhaps. They’re making it difficult to feel much else.
Like the buzz of the portal, every interaction Emerick has with his father sings with tension. Emerick’s father repeatedly and stubbornly misgenders and deadnames him. Making matters worse, he does it with a smile, believing himself to be a loving and supportive father. He introduces Emerick and Leo to Dr. Noelle Hartford, one of the scientists on the island, who he sees as the daughter he’s always wanted, all the while refusing to see and acknowledge the son he has, and it’s heartbreaking. Noelle does see Emerick, however, and sees a way to help him become fully himself. She came through the portal, too, and it left her with the ability to perform genetic manipulation with a simple touch. The heart of the story is its relationships—the supportive and loving relationship between Emerick and Leo, and the painful relationship between Emerick and his father. Szpara does a fantastic job of exploring multiple facets of love, showing the way it can wound people, balanced against the way it can uplift them and make them more themselves. The dinosaurs add wonder to the story, and at the same time, their presence, along with the title, feels like a tongue-in-cheek jab at the kind of fandom that happily embraces aliens, dragons, and resurrected dinosaurs, all while claiming people of color, trans people, and queer relationships have no place in “their” stories.
Nussia by Michele Tracey Berger, published at The Book Smugglers, is the story of a family chosen to host the first alien to live on Earth. Thirteen-year-old Lindsey is ecstatic. Not only was it her essay that won her family the honor of hosting the young alien, Nussia, she’s certain their guest will be her best friend. The rest of the family is happy with the honor and the opportunities it will bring, but Lindsey’s parents are also all too aware of the pressure and expectations on them as a black family hosting the first alien.
Mom helped me put together a care package to send back to Nussia with jacks, Betty and Veronica comics, and Tiger Beat magazine. I hoped she would love all the items in the package and know that I was taking care of everything on my end. My new friend was going to be great! Her coming to stay with us was going to erase how invisible I felt.
When Nussia arrives, Lindsey can’t wait to show her around and share all her favorite things, but to her disappointment, Nussia wants nothing to do with her. She bonds with Lindsey’s older sister, Virginia, and even Lindsey’s father, while Lindsey’s every attempt at making friends is rebuffed. When Lindsey’s parents throw her a surprise birthday party, Nussia uses her powers to levitate the other guests, an act which causes a euphoric feeling in humans similar to getting high but leaves Lindsey out of the fun. Lindsey is crushed, jealous of her sister and resentful of her father. Lindsey’s grandmother comes to stay with them, and she’s the only one on Lindsey’s side, even when Nussia escalates to outright humiliating Lindsey in front of other kids in the neighborhood. Tension grows between Lindsey’s parents, between her grandmother and her mother, and between Lindsey and her sister. Nussia is at the heart of it all, but the rest of the family is determined to prove they are worthy of being her hosts. Eventually, Lindsey learns that Nussia never wanted to come to Earth. Here, she is cut off from her family and will never fully Awaken, a stage in her people’s life cycle marking the transition to adulthood. Nussia blames Lindsey and is set on taking her anger out on her by tearing her family apart. As with Szpara’s story, Berger’s gives us complicated family relationships that are sometimes painful and sometimes uplifting. Lindsey’s bond with her grandmother is a lovely and supportive one. Her relationship with her mother could be the same way, but her mother is in an impossible situation, trapped by circumstances and aware of the eyes of the world on her and her family. Meanwhile, Lindsey’s sister and father are wrapped up in their own concerns and barely see her anymore. Berger does an excellent job of using human-alien relationship building to drag the ugliness of humans’ relationships with each other into the light, exploring the way families can fall apart, and highlighting the unfair pressure that comes with being black and in the public eye.