Welcome to another installment of Words for Thought. This month’s stories are all about families by choice, and families by blood – losing them, finding them, and trying to understand them.
Cooking with Closed Mouths by Kerry Truong (https://www.glittership.com/2017/03/22/episode-35-cooking-with-closed-mouths-by-kerry-truong/), published at Glittership in late March, is a story about chosen family. Ha Neul is a gumiho, a nine-tailed fox, living in America after leaving Korea years ago. They share an apartment with Hana, also a gumiho, who is perpetually stuck looking like a teenager. They are siblings by choice, taking care of each other. Ha Neul works at a local restaurant while Hana attends high school. Hana hunts humans to sustain herself, but Ha Neul chooses to feed on cow livers, hearts, and other organs. Neither can taste human food anymore. For Hana, it is a distant memory. She still eats for the experience, but it doesn’t sustain her. To Ha Neul, all human food tastes of ash. When Hana is assigned the task of cooking something from her home country for a school she asks Ha Neul to try to convince the restaurant owner, Mrs. Chang, to make kimchi fried rice. Mrs. Chang refuses, but eventually agrees to teach Ha Neul to cook it themselves. Because Ha Neul can’t taste their own cooking, they focus on other aspects of food–texture, color, the sound of an egg cracking, the feel of vegetables being chopped. In addition to exploring the non-taste-related sensory nature of food, Truong explores the emotional and psychological aspects as well. Preparing a meal can be an expression of love for your family; the food you eat can be a source of derision with racist undertones (You eat what? Why don’t you eat normal food?); a familiar dish can be a reminder of home; a well-prepared meal can be a source of pride; and food can be a simple source of fuel. Like a skillfully made dish, the story is simple on the surface, but reveals depth as it unfolds, and offers surprising notes like the rich, savory experience of food without taste. The story also weaves in the theme of othering and loneliness, both culturally and species-wise. Hana, Ha Neul, and even Mrs. Chang are isolated, but the shared act of cooking and eating brings them together.
Lares Familiares, 1981 by Rebecca Campbell in the Spring Issue of Liminal Stories (https://liminalstoriesmag.com/issue3/lares-familiares-1981) is centered around a family dinner celebrating the birthday of the family’s patriarch. The story alternates between Mal and his mother Annie, neither quite fitting in. The family is dominated by men who have been loggers for generations, and Mal’s grandfather is the epitome. Mal’s uncle Billy doesn’t quite belong in the family either. He survived a terrible logging accident, but it’s implied his father would have preferred him to die, instead of living full of metal pins and covered in scars. Instead of joining the party, Mal hides out on the porch reading while Annie goes to the kitchen where she’s berated by her mother for forgetting ice cream, thereby “ruining” the entire dinner. Before they can sit down to the meal, a mysterious girl shows up at the door asking for a ride. Billy agrees, and Mal accompanies them. She asks to be dropped off in the middle of the woods, saying their offerings have been accepted, and she has cleared the way for them. The dinner Mal and Billy return to is awkward, full of tension, passive aggressive behavior and outright aggressive behavior. Campbell uses the shared meal and the theme of home and family to explore larger issues. The house is sharply divided into male and female realms, echoed by a rigid line between domestic life and the rugged outdoors. Mal’s grandfather idealizes nature, but a man’s home should also be his castle, and he should have absolute control. The strange visitor breaks down these divides. As a household spirit tied to a particular family, she brings together the familiar and mythic, the realm of men and heroic deeds, and the hearth, making ice cream appear to save Annie’s dessert. Family mythology plays a huge role in the story. The gathering is dominated by Mal’s grandfather’s stories, where Mal’s great grandfather becomes a folk hero, striding through the wilderness, the third of three sons, bravest and youngest. Against this impossible standard, Campbell shows the painful reality through the expectations and tensions that run beneath the surface of the meal. At the same time, she offers up a story about the importance of stories themselves, those we tell ourselves to understand the world, and those that exist regardless.
Sun, Moon, Dust by Ursula Vernon in the May/June Issue of Uncanny (https://uncannymagazine.com/article/sun-moon-dust/) offers up a twist on the farmboy-turned-hero trope. Upon his grandmother’s death, Allpa inherits a sword containing the spirits of three great warriors. Rather than embracing a great destiny, delivered via a magical treasure passed on through his family for generations, Allpa just wants to farm and grow food for the Empire to contribute to the greater good. He has no interest in conquering, much to the annoyance of Dust, one if the three warrior spirits, who is determined to make him a great fighter like his grandmother. Being a people pleaser, Allpa tries his best to learn from Dust to make him happy and so he doesn’t seem rude. While Dust continues to insist on training, Moon is intrigued by Allpa’s farming. He accepts Allpa on his own terms, helping him plant and sharing what he remembers of his own culture’s farming techniques. As they work the earth together, an attraction grows between them, further thwarting Allpa’s grand destiny. Vernon offers up a sweet, quiet story rooted (no pun intended) in domestic life. In a way, the story works as a response to Mal’s grandfather’s ideas in Campbell’s stories: Fighting and heroism is all well and good, but at the end of the day, armies are fueled by what they eat. Without people like Allpa, the machine of war would grind to a halt. It’s a touching story about growth of all kinds, losing one kind of family, gaining another, and Allpa growing into the person he was meant to be. At the end of the day, it seems his grandmother best in gifting him the sword after all.
Praying to the God of Small Chances by L. Chan from Arsenika #1 (https://arsenika.ink/fiction/praying-to-the-god-of-small-chances/) is a story about the fear of losing a family member. The protagonist sits in a hospital waiting area, trying to gather the courage to visit their sick father. Meanwhile, they’ve been quietly praying for even a sliver of hope for their father’s diagnosis, which is when the god of small chances appears. The story perfectly captures the heartbreak experienced by a grown-up child seeing their parent–a once great figure who seemed almost like a god themselves–diminished.
“… You’ve been waiting to go into the ward for weeks. Afraid to see what your father has become. Afraid that anything you do together will be the last time you do it and it won’t be how you want to remember it.”
At flash fiction length, the story perfectly encapsulates a moment in time filled with fear and hopelessness, followed by finding that hope again. For its brevity, it’s a powerful story. One that reminds us that every moment of decision, no matter how small, has a massive impact on our lives. It also reminds us to treasure what we have, and not let fear turn us away from an opportunity to share how we feel with those closest with us, no matter how painful or scary it might seem.
A Place to Grow by A.T. Greenblatt, published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies (https://www.beneath-ceaseless-skies.com/stories/a-place-to-grow/), is a story about a family haunted by loss. Unlike Chan’s story, it isn’t an anticipated loss, but one in the past, though it has a similar impact on the characters in that it cuts some of them off from appreciating what they do have. Lillian lives with her uncles Simon and Arthur. Their original home is gone, along with the rest of their family. Arthur and Simon specialize in building elaborate and intricate worlds within bottles that they can live in, part engineering, and part magic. Ever since the loss of their first world, they’ve been on the run, building new worlds and destroying the old ones behind them. Lillian, however, is sick of running. She wants to put down roots, literally and figuratively.
She didn’t have her uncles’ nostalgia. Forests and islands, and all the other worlds that came before this one, were meaningless to her. She couldn’t remember their first world, the one they hadn’t made. The one that was grand enough to have beaches, cities, and mountains all in one container. But the smell of honeysuckles, the act of sticking her fingers into the rich soil reminded her of… something. It helped that Marci and Gil had joined her. She’d learned how to make friends in this world, too.
Lillian has been learning the art of building worlds from her uncles, and she devises a plan to save the world she’s grown to love, even as her uncles try to tear it down around her. Greenblatt tells the story through three perspectives. The shifting voices highlight each family member’s goals, desires, and private pain, making them feel fully rounded and alive. Rather than an antagonistic relationship with her uncles, Lillian’s relationship is more complex, as real life families are. Each of the three characters copes with the loss in their own way, which puts them at odds, but by the end they are a little closer to understanding each other. In addition to being a strong character study, Greenblatt offers up unique and gorgeous world building, echoed by the characters themselves as they construct their bottle worlds.