Welcome to this month's Words for Thought. Despite the general bleakness of the season, this month's stories are all about new beginnings and seconds chances. Appropriate to the cold, the falling of leaves, and the graying of the sky, however, many of the stories are also touched with sadness.
A Recipe for Magic by Kat Howard and Fran Wilde is the second offering from Barnes and Noble Sci Fi Blog's new original fiction series. Esmé runs a bakery where each recipe is infused with magic; wedding cakes hold spells for joy, and vanilla cakes hold spells for memory.
The bakery’s countertops were clean, but the air still tasted sweet. A sugary grit the color of an iris’ crests and falls, blue and yellow, sifted the light; the sugar dust sparkled as dawn pressed through the shop’s display window. Lux could almost hear the candy flowers hum.
Lux is Esmé's apprentice, specializing in dawn cake whipped together from sunrise and air, however her recipes are tinged with regret and heavy memories. To Esmé's frustration, Lux often shortcuts her work, rushing and ultimately ruining recipes or breaking equipment. Lux recognizes her shortcomings, she's lost apprenticeships before, and she's ready to leave when Esmé insists on giving her one more chance, working with her to unlock her memories and helping her let go of the pain she's been carrying since her mother's death. A recipe for magic is a lovely story, filled with beautiful and mouthwatering descriptions of food, reminiscent of Octavia Cade's The Ouroboros Bakery and Kerry Truong's Cooking with Closed Mouths both reviewed here previously.
Howard and Wilde show how food is both a kind of magic, and a tool for communication. A recipe is more than a set of instructions; it is a history passed down from parent to child, it is an embodiment of culture, and it is a creation of everything the baker is feeling at the moment the dough or batter does into the oven. Baking is a way for Esmé to speak with Lux, and a way for Lux to exorcise her demons. Food is love, and a meal shared can go a long way toward healing, evoking memories and emotions, and wordlessly conveying comfort to someone who needs it.
The Sound of His Voice Like the Colour of Salt by L. Chan in November's issue of The Dark introduces readers to a ghost boy who lives in a haunted house where nothing ever changes. While the house is occupied and has been modernized, the world of the living seems to have little impact on the world of the dead. The ghosts are largely forgotten, repeating old patterns, until the ghost boy catches sight of what he believes is a new ghost, unlike any he's ever seen before. He questions the other denizens of the house, Bibik Neo, who controls the kitchen, Ye Ye, a fraying old man who is barely present any more, and the creepy sisters who rule the yard.
A semi-trailer had borne down on them a sixty kilometers an hour, pulping a hundred bones between them and giving them the limp and sinuous motion of sea snakes. They were forever hiding, in the tall grass, behind the trees, behind your right shoulder; with their unhinged jaws and their fingers as long as their forearms, always taptaptapping like the impatient legs of spiders.
Again and again the ghost boy is told nothing new can come into the house, but he refuses to accept there's nothing more to (un)life, finally making contact with the new ghost whose realm is the internet. She opens up a world of possibilities and shows him change is indeed possible. The story is by turns unsettling and touching as the ghost boy refuses to accept the way things have always been and forges a new friendship. It touches on tradition for the sake of tradition and refusal to consider new ways of doing things, all wrapped in gorgeous and poetic descriptions.
Other Names by Chole N. Clarke in Cosmonauts Avenue opens with Lance on a date with a woman he met through an online app. He notes her pink nail polish and the way the light reflects off it, enough to be distracted and repeatedly lose the thread of her conversation as she tells him about her exes, doing more talking than listening, until Lance inexplicably faints, ending the date.
At home, he rehashes the evening with his roommate Kiera. There is a sense of something off, things not being said. The pattern repeats; Lance goes on more bad dates, fainting, having dizzy spells, getting nosebleeds, while at home, he and Kiera continue to talk around something unsaid. Over the course of the story, Clarke reveals Lance's ex, Alice, died in a car accident that also claimed the life of Kiera's boyfriend Colin.
His date had neon pink shellacked fingernails. Lance couldn’t stop staring at them. The glare off them from the overhead lights was almost blinding. It reminded him of headlight beams bouncing off a rain-slicked road.
Sensory details, particularly the use of reflected light, hints at the accident that took Alice and Colin's lives, along with Lance's feeling of guilt and responsibility. The parceling out of information is effectively done, finally forming a whole that touches on survivor's guilt and trying to move on after tragedy, when you feel you don't deserve happiness.
As with Lux in Wilde & Howard's story, Lance is caught between wanting to start over and clinging to the past. He can't seem to help reliving the tragedy, even as he actively clings to it by continuing to live with Kiera, providing a daily reminder of both their losses. Lux actively sabotages herself, as does Lance, with both stories doing a wonderful job of showing characters frightened of moving on and not fully processing their pain until circumstances force their hands.
Shoots and Ladders by Charles Payseur published in November's Diabolical Plots is a story of infinite second chances. The unnamed protagonist has a reality-destroying gun, given to them by a one-night stand. There are an infinite number of worlds they can access, and one perfect reality where they will have "won" by having everything they could ever want and being perfectly happy. In each world, the protagonist absorbs another version of themself, including their knowledge and skills. The catch is what happens to the other versions whose lives are taken over, and whether the realities are actually destroyed in the protagonist's wake.
The first reality we see seems perfect--a beautiful house, advanced technology, two wonderful spouses, and genetically engineered dinosaurs roaming the yard. But the protagonist moves on to the next world and the next. The story begs the question--would we know perfection if we saw it? Is there even such a thing, or is the human condition such that we always want more, that we always feel the need to peek behind the next door to see what it has to offer.
There's no indication of how long the protagonist has been jumping, or whether they'll ever stop. What seems like a gift might be a curse, infinite opportunities at happiness without ever knowing if it's truly obtainable. The story also brings up the question of consequence and cost--who suffers to create someone else's paradise? And what would you be willing to do for even the hope of perfection?
Caesura by Hayley Stone appears in November's Fireside Fiction. After the death of her brother in a random shooting, Priya isolates herself until her friend Jade convinces her to buy an AI starter kit. Priya's brother, Demetri once inspired her with poetry, and Priya believes she can do the same for her AI, which she names after her brother in his honor. She starts by striking certain words from the AI's vocabulary--hate, heart, love--then asks it to describe the organ inside her chest, trying to teach it to think creatively. Once Demi grasps the basic concept, she moves on, teaching it more complex forms of poetry, including limericks.
Admittedly not the best choice, in hindsight. Especially once Demi learns the one about a man from Nantucket. Priya has to slash all sorts of inappropriate words from the computer’s vocabulary to prevent it from describing the activities of the well-endowed man, biological waste found in a bucket, and a couple frolicking.
Demi eventually gets good enough to win a poetry prize which comes with a hefty check, allowing Priya and her father to go on a camping trip, reconnecting and creating their first happy memories since Demetri's death. However, left alone, Demi freaks out, fearing Priya has harmed herself until she returns to reassure the AI.
Stone explores grief, healing, self-awareness and where the seat of creativity lies. When does Demi truly become self-aware? Can poetry be created without emotion? Where is the line between human and machine intelligence? Demi's self-awareness seems to come from fearing for Priya, suggesting caring for another might be the first and most important step toward humanity. Caesura makes an interesting pairing with Payseur's story; instead of careless destruction, Priya engages in careless creation. She doesn't think about the consequences of teaching Demi until after the fact, nor is she the one who has to pay the price in fear and isolation, however brief. Ultimately, it's a lovely story about healing and moving on, with many fascinating questions about the nature of consciousness and humanity to consider along the way.