Welcome to another Words for Thought! At the time of publication, we’ll be well into 2021, so I hope the year is treating you well thus far. At the time of writing however, I’m still in the tail-end of 2020, and reflecting on what a truly strange year it’s been. As such, it seems fitting that the stories discussed here all deal with themes of memory and reflection—what do we preserve and hold onto, for whose sake, and why?
“Lost in Darkness and Distance” by Clara Madrigano in the November 2020 issue of Clarkesworld features a family not only trying to hold onto the memory of a lost loved one, but seeking to resurrect him through new cloning technology. Mia is called, along with the rest of her family, to gather at an exclusive private facility where her Uncle Jamey and Aunt Sarita have brought a version of her cousin Charlie back to life.
Charlie and I were more than just cousins, truth to be told: we’re almost twins. Born in the same year, just a few months apart, we’d run with nothing but diapers on in my parents’ house, and in Uncle Jamey’s apartment in New York. During childhood, we’d rather play with each other than with other kids our age. Charlie and I were made of the same material and the same blood. I could predict his reactions before he’d speak, I could read his mind like I could read the palm of his hand, every line and scar.
Mia is struggling with the idea of a cloned version of Charlie more than the rest of the family. Partly due to guilt—she was with Charlie when he died and blames herself—and partly due to the knowledge that this isn’t really Charlie, no matter how much the clone may look like her cousin. To make matters worse, Mia learns that the clones can never leave the facility, and due to their engineering, they die after only two years.
Madrigano packs the story with emotion and grounds it with deeply human characters. The story does a beautiful job of exploring the potential ramifications of cloning technology, along with themes of grief, loss, guilt, and memory. What purpose does bringing Charlie back serve? Does it provide closure, or just a new kind of grief? Certainly it doesn’t serve Charlie, or the clone, and in the end, isn’t it cruel to create a person and force them to live a truncated life as someone they’re not? The story brilliantly combines what-if speculations with complicated family relationships in a beautiful and emotional tale.
“And This is How to Stay Alive” by Shinga Njeri Kagunda in the November 2020 issue of the newly-resurrected Fantasy Magazine pairs beautifully with Madrigano’s novelette, exploring many of the same themes and questions. Kabi discovers her brother, dead of suicide. The family is shocked, heart-broken, but Kabi suspects she understands why he did it. Baraka was berated by their father for wanting to wear eyeliner, and repeatedly told he must fit a narrow definition of manhood rather than being himself. Kabi mourns her brother, but a chance encounter with her mother’s second cousin at the funeral leads her to believe that there might still be a chance to reach him, set things right, and allow him to be the person he was meant to be.
Funerals are for the living, not the dead. Grief captures lovers and beloved in waves; constricting lungs, restricting airflow, and then when and only when it is willing to go does it go. Kabi tries to hold back tears—to be
Like Madrigano, Kagunda offers up a beautifully-written and heartbreaking story about loss, grief, and trying to bring some version of a person back from the dead. Both stories feature characters under pressure from their families to be someone they are not, who died young, and as a result, find their families unwilling to let them go. The question of who this resurrection—whether through magic or technology—serves is explored in both. What does being brought back from the dead do for the person who died? Is the act only to assuage the grief and guilt of others, or does the return have meaning to the one returned? Where Charlie’s clone would likely only experience a different kind of suffering while soothing his parents’ pain, Kabi’s attempts to give Baraka a second chance at life seek to honor who he truly was—not a sanitized memory, or someone else’s idea of him, giving him a second chance to live and be loved properly.
“Collections” by E.L Chen in Lackington’s issue 22 explores cultural memory and the role of museums and archives in preserving the past. Jack lives in a roving museum with his somewhat intimidating mother, who is the museum’s chief curator. Jack maintains the archives, along with his own private collection of objects significant to him, kept in glass jars. A small god finds its way into the museum, begging for sanctuary. Jack agrees, even though doing so will likely draw the attention of the Three-Faced God, who is larger, hungrier, and determined to hunt down every one of the small gods, consuming them until it is the only god that exists.
“Please,” the god whimpers from between things that are not quite teeth, not quite tentacles. The god is about the size and build of a child and Jack can’t count the number of appendages because they keep moving too fast, like a bodhisattva’s arms. Jack hasn’t seen any bodhisattvas for years. The Three-Faced God has eaten them all.
Chen’s story also deals with the complications of family, and explores a different aspect of the act of preservation. Like Madrigano and Kagunda asking who is served by trying to hold onto the dead, Chen asks who holding onto cultural objects serves. Is the act of preservation a way of conquering the past and furthering a certain historical narrative, or are objects in museums honored and remembered for their own sake? What has more value, the object, or the person or culture it represents? Chen draws neat parallels between colonizers collecting objects for their museums versus people trying to preserve their own culture, and the Three-Faced God devouring out of jealousy—the ultimate consumer—versus Jack collecting objects to honor moments and people for their own sake.
“Where the Old Neighbors Go” by Thomas Ha in September’s Metaphorosis explores the memory and preservation of place. Mary Walker is the only one who seems to care about the rapid gentrification of her neighborhood or the neighbors displaced by the act. In fact, no one seems to even notice the old neighbors disappearing, except for her. She is the only one willing to ask questions, and dig deeper in order to discover that it is not merely gentrification at work, but something far more sinister.
Not one of them had seemed concerned about Frank when he disappeared. For days after his house was demolished, Mary had gone door to door to see if anyone had heard where Frank was, or even that he was planning to leave.
None of the neighbors had answers, let alone cared.
Progress comes into conflict with the idea of preserving and honoring the past in this story. Unlike the people and objects in Madrigano, Kagunda, and Chen’s stories, Mary is very much present and alive. She is an inconvenient piece of the past, strange and stubborn, marring the very specific vision of the new age that would come to replace the old. Mary is a fantastic character, prickly, but ultimately caring deeply about her neighborhood, and her neighbors, even if they don’t care for her. That doesn’t stop her from looking out for them, or fighting for what is hers, employing old magic, and making deals with dangerous beings. Ultimately, Mary being observant, and paying attention to the little details that those around her choose to edit out of their reality and overlook as inconvenient becomes the key to saving what she loves.
“The Span of His Wrist” by Lee Mandelo in the November/December issue of Uncanny also deals with the memory of lost loved ones and attempts to recapture and recreate the past. Charlie has the ability to pick up on the memories attached to certain old clothes, experiencing moments of love and loss imbued in them by their former owners. While sorting through old clothing in a vintage shop, a stranger catches sight of Charlie through the window and spontaneously invites him to dinner. The stranger is handsome, intriguing, and seems almost too good to be true, but Charlie also senses an air of loss about him, and wonders if the man is trying to recreate something lost with Charlie as a stand-in. At the same time, Charlie is dealing with his own loss, a break-up he isn’t quite over yet, and figures perhaps they can at least give each some respite from their individual sadness, if only for a little while.
One hand cupped the bottom hem—worn at the edges—and he spilled the length brimming with home through his fingers in a caress: evenings spent reading with feet on a partner’s lap and head on a pillow. Sedate tenderness. It had been loved, deeply loved, soaked through with ages of adoration. He dropped the hanger on the floor and slid the robe over his shoulders.
The story is beautifully written and Mandelo does an excellent job of capturing the way a certain piece of clothing can evoke a memory, a mood, or embody a moment in time. In contrast to Madrigano and Kagunda’s stories, this story explores the way in which revisiting the past and immersing oneself in memory can be a healing act, and a way of letting go. Rather than becoming mired in the past and trying to keep it frozen, Charlie’s night with the handsome stranger opens the door for both of them to embrace and acknowledge their pasts and move on. Accepting the future doesn’t have to mean betraying the past, and old memories aren’t diminished by creating new ones. Just as finding moments of joy and pleasure in the present doesn’t make the love of the past mean any less, or erase it. It’s a beautiful story about honoring the past while moving on from it, showing that the two need not be in opposition or in conflict with each other.