Welcome to July's Words for Thought! It's the end of June as I write this, and the air outside feels like soup. Everything is sticky and sweaty and maybe that's why I found myself drawn to stories of isolation, people cut off from society and humanity. Even if the characters in these stories are looking for moments of connection, when the weather is this hot, I don't want anyone near me. Give me air conditioning, and give me space!
Water Like Air by Lora Gray from the June issue of Flash Fiction Online is a beautiful story about a water spirit who, by her nature, lures men to their deaths. As the piece opens, she sculpts mud onto her glass-like body to take on the appearance of a farmer's deceased wife.
Her sister, Thalia, would have laughed if she saw her then, alone and draped in mud. Thalia doesn’t understand. Her world is quick death and clean water. She lures velvet skinned boys into the deep of her lake. The young ones. The beautiful ones. [...] But Elodia has always been a murky thing, and her feet are mud heavy as she walks through the cornfield toward Tom Hatcher’s farmhouse.
Tom is already near the end of his life, surrounded by memories of his wife, Meredith, who he lost to cancer. It's her form Elodia takes, not a young, idealized woman, but a woman with a lived-in body, with wrinkles and sagging breasts. The story is laced with genuine emotion. Tom and Elodia's longing is palpable — one aching for a lost love, one for a love she's never known, understanding someone so well and growing old with them. Gray offers up a lovely inversion of the typical wicked, seductive spirit trope. Water like Air is a kinder, gentler story. Even though death still waits at the end along the way two lives touch briefly and provide each other comfort, however fleeting.
Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time by K.M. Szpara in the May/June issue of Uncanny opens with the narrator, a trans man, being bitten by a vampire after a drunken night at the club. Finn wakes in the vampire's home where Andreas admits he took too much blood and offers Finn the choice to turn or die. Vampires are required to be registered, but it's too late for Finn. If he chooses to turn, not only will he become a vampire, he'll get screwed over by bureaucracy in the process. Not ready to die, he chooses to turn. Only after the fact does Andreas think to warn him of the side-effects. His body begins purging all fluids; he can't eat, or even drink anything besides water.
Just as Finn begins to come to terms with everything he's lost, the full effect of the purge kicks in, causing him to have his period for the first time in years. Andreas is sympathetic, but he's also a vampire, and very old. He's forgotten what it's like to be human, and can't understand Finn's horror. Sparza makes excellent use of the vampire trope to explore isolation on multiple levels. Not only is Finn cut off from humanity as a vampire, he's illegal, and to the best of his knowledge, there's never been a trans vampire before. He has no one to turn to for medical issues, no one to ask for advice regarding the unique effects of vampirism on his body. He's on the margins of society in the truest sense. As a result, the story is threaded with anger, hunger, and longing.
There's a beauty to vampires that is just out of Finn's reach. He fears never being seen for himself, being stuck in an unchanging form that isn't truly his. The story is poignant in its sense of loss, and offers a unique exploration of trans identity. At the same time, there are elements of found family and acceptance in Finn and Andreas' relationship that bring a note of hope. As with real life, the story doesn't end with a neat resolution, only the next step in Finn's journey toward coming to terms with his new reality.
The Ways Out by Sam J. Miller from June's Clarkesworld is told as a series of reports from an agent assigned to watch a young girl with superpowers. Superpowered individuals are suspect by default, and constantly monitored.
In his first report, the agent recounts Ryx (or S(ubject)1) getting hassled by a group of boys in the skate park until Hector (S2) intervenes. S1 and S2 form a friendship despite their age difference. The agent is uncertain of the exact nature of their powers, knowing only that he needs to be vigilant even though Hector isn't doing anything more threatening than teaching Ryx skateboard tricks.
There's a fundamental sense of loneliness to Ryx and Hector, being on the margins of society, but there's a loneliness to the agent as well. He begins to slip, betraying sympathy in his reports, crossing sections out and rewriting them in more clinical language. He can't help thinking of them as Ryx and Hector, instead of S1 and S2, and seems to long for the life they have, even though they are constantly watched.
In the same way the X-Men comics and cartoons used its mutants to explore marginalized identities and prejudice, Miller draws parallels to the dangerous abuses of power and othering we see too often in today's world. (It's not accidental that neither Hector nor Ryx is white). The treatment of superpowered individuals in The Ways Out maps easily to black kids watched by the cops, or Muslims scrutinized by their neighbors. The story draws a similar line through society -- us versus them, safe versus dangerous. It's clear who has power, regardless of literal superpowers, and who is stuck on the outside of the system, and thus left vulnerable.
The story unfolds slowly, as Ryx, Hector, and the agent's paths inevitably converge. It's a story reflecting on prejudice, but also a story of hope, fighting back, and like Szpara's story, one of found family and people overcoming loneliness.
The Bois by R.S.A. Garcia in the June issue of Truancy Magazine features a protagonist living on the edge of society, charged with keeping the Law, but shunned as a freak and treated as an outcast. An accident burned half her body and now she has synthetic skin, a wired arm, and a false eye that sees things others don't. One of the things it sees is the Bois, a collective consciousness living in the trees at the edge of the village.
The story moves back and forth in time. In the present, the protagonist fights to save the life of a woman named Mags who strayed into the Bois' territory. In the past, Mags is one of the few people who shows genuine interest in the protagonist, flirting and even inviting herself into her tent. Ultimately, the protagonist sacrifices her eyes to save Mags, having them both replaced with wired eyes, further isolating herself.
Papa Bois take that from me. He take the sunsets, and the emotions on people face. The tears I cry for Mags. He leave calibrations and scrolling menus. X-Ray and night-vision. A wired eye is a complex thing--accurate and full of features, like a flight deck on a starship. But it can't see humanity. It can't see ordinary.
The Bois is a beautiful story and a bittersweet one, packing a lot into a short space. It explores a character cut off from society, tolerated for being useful, but also scorned. Along with truly alien life that doesn't care about humanity, the protagonist herself is alienated, becoming more so over the course of the story. In her interactions with Mags, we see her terrified of human connection, even as she longs for it. She latches onto the first person who is kind to her, and gives up another portion of her humanity to save her.
It's a painful story, but like the others here, offers hope. Even though the ending veers away from the magical fix, the protagonist is at peace with her choice, holds onto her moment of connection, and finds a way to move forward.
Beauty, Glory, Thrift by Alison Tam, published at The Book Smugglers in June opens with a thief entering temple where she is entreated in turn by the goddesses who live there. Each offers her something if she'll take them with her -- luck in battle, the ability to attract anyone she desires -- but the thief turns down Glory, Beauty, and the others in turn. Thrift, who considers herself the least among her sisters, offers the thief 50 credits, saying she'll turn it into a feast. The thief is amused enough to agree and takes Thrift with her. Thrift helps the thief bargain for ingredients for the promised meal, which she herself can't eat, but experiences through the thief, Pak. Once the meal is over, Pak immediately tries to get rid of Thrift, believing her to be software and trying to delete the program. When that doesn't work, Pak visits a doctor, who says there's nothing she can do.
From resentment and annoyance on Pak's part, a relationship develops between them. Thrift takes delight in the little things she can experience through Pak, the simple joy of moving her muscles, the feel of fabric. Pak begins sharing more, letting Thrift choose meals, taking her to experience a waterfall, but she never stops searching for Thrift's home world and a way to get rid of her.
The ultimate reveal of Thrift's identity as the preserved memories of a dead person, not properly uploaded, makes her longing all the more poignant. Not only can she not experience physical sensation, or have the relationship she wants with Pak, she realizes how much she's lost. While Pak is a loner by choice, Thrift is forced into her isolation, doubly so by rediscovering then immediately losing her humanity. The developing friendship, evolving into deeper feelings, between Thrift and Pak is lovely and beautifully written.
In the end, even though the life she chooses isn't everything Thrift longs for, it's hers, and it opens new worlds to her. As with all the stories discussed here, Beauty, Glory, Thrift can be seen as a metaphor for the human condition and human relationships -- always imperfect, in that nothing can ever be as ideal as one's imagination, but valuable nonetheless, opening up new possibilities as our lives touch others, and ours to make the best of that we can.