Welcome to September’s Words for Thought. The themes echoing through this month’s stories are water, transformation, and family — particularly the relationship between mothers and daughters.
The Night Bazaar for Women Becoming Reptiles by Rachael K. Jones in Issue #203 of Beneath Ceaseless Skies is a story of transformation, specifically of women into reptiles. It’s such a common occurrence that Hester, the story’s protagonist, is an oddity for her inability to change. Hester sells asp eggs at the Night Bazar. These eggs allow other women to transform, and Hester uses the proceeds to buy any kind of eggs she can get her hands on — skink, gecko, iguana, but nothing words. We never learn a specific reason for Hester’s desire to transform, but there’s a sense of restlessness, of fear, a sense that her own skin is stifling. Hester feels the burden of failure — when so many women around her are able to shed their skins and flee into the desert, why can’t she? Jones gives us a world divided into sunside and moonside. Hester, like most people, has a lover in each. Shayna her nighttime lover helps prepare women’s shed skin for salvage, while Marick, her sunside lover, is with the police. He has never touched her, either to cause harm, or sexually, but Hester lives in fear of being exposed for her illegal egg-selling at the Night Bazar. Here is where Jones takes the story beyond a cookie-cutter tale of a woman oppressed by gender roles, living in fear of an abusive man. Rather than betraying Hester, Marick reveals his own desire to change into a reptile, something previously only done by women. This revelation opens up Hester’s world, allowing her to see past the preconceived notions that have kept her locked into her skin. The story touches on women taking control of their own destinies, gender fluidity, shedding prejudices, and characters finding their true self. The way the story itself breaks with expectation mirrors Hester’s journey in the tale, opening up greater depths for the reader to explore. On top of all that, the world building is stunning and the writing lovely, full of evocative images and elegant turns of phrase.
Those Brighter Stars by Mercurio D. Rivera from the August issue of Lightspeed is both a first contact story, and a story about abandoned daughters searching for a connection with their mothers. Ava is a specialist working for the combined forces of NASA and the ESA. It isn’t until later in the story that we learn her specialty; she’s highly empathic, able to read the thoughts of plants and animals, and has had her abilities enhanced through technology in hopes that she’ll be able to communicate with the aliens on their way to Earth. It’s a three-year mission (the length of time it will take the alien ship to reach Earth), one which requires Ava to sequester herself from her family, leaving her daughter in the care of Ava’s father until she returns. Here we see a pattern repeating. Ava herself was abandoned by her mother as a child. Her (mis)diagnosis of autism was too much for her mother to handle, and she left. Even so, Ava is willing to leave her own daughter, pinning her hopes on the aliens’ arrival ushering in a better world for humanity. There’s a kind of naiveté to Ava’s belief, one that is heartbreaking. In the end, there’s a strong sense that Ava is seeking from the aliens the kind of relationship she never had with her mother.
I was confident that I would read a great benevolence, a desire to nurture us, to help humanity maximize its potential. […]The truth is, when I peered into the Needlers’ alien minds I did feel something, something familiar. I sensed an utter, cavernous indifference.
Ava passes up a chance at a relationship with her own daughter in search of a surrogate for a relationship she never had, yet she remains sympathetic as a character. Her choices are portrayed as tragic, rather than cruel. It’s interesting to think of Ava in terms of the real-world choices many women face between their families and their careers, and the way they’re judged for their choices regardless of which way they lean. Rivera presents a balance, and the story doesn’t censure Ava for her faults. Rather, it shows her as human, flawed, and doing the best she can, which is the best any of us can do.
Painted Grassy Mire by Nicasio Andres Reed from issue #32 of Shimmer is another story of an absent mother, and a story of transformation. Set in Louisiana in 1915, Reed immerses the reader in an atmosphere of sultry, oppressive heat, mosquito-filled swamps, and mud. Winnie is a fisher, like her father. She also takes care of the chickens, gathers their eggs, changes the straw, and notices when they fall prey to the local alligators. At the same time, Winnie is fascinated by the gators, and has an unusual relationship with them. She visits them, respecting their potential for violence, and recognizing them as a force of nature. She doesn’t fear them, exactly, but she isn’t stupid enough to tempt them with her presence for too long, not without giving them something in return. Further complicating things, Winnie’s “abandonment” by her mother is tied to the gators.
She dreamt a hot, wet cathedral stretching darkly into the distance, and a vision of the marsh barred by moon-white teeth. Being carried; gently, gently. The muddy perfume smell of her mother and her tough, scaled legs. Her mother’s voice so low that it rattled in Winnie’s skin.
There’s a restlessness to Winnie’s existence. She is a creature of two worlds on multiple levels, not fitting squarely into any of them. She is caught between the world of humans and dry land, and the world of the swamp and the gators. Her mother is from Proctorville, her father from Batangas. She is the only girl in a village full of men. Winnie has memories of her mother slipping into the water, sinking up to her eyes, and urging Winnie to join her. While she didn’t join her mother then, she still feels the pull of another world of possibility now. In fact, Winnie’s entire existence feels haunted — by her dreams, her memories, a coming storm, the disappearance of the chickens, and her father’s gambling losses, including the loss of a beautiful alligator skin that belonged to her mother. Reed gives the sense of all these things circling Winnie, getting closer, pressing in on her even as she struggles with her own sense of belonging and a desire to shed her skin that is akin to Hester’s in “The Night Bazar for Women Becoming Reptiles.” The similarities between the two stories continue with the idea of a young woman reclaiming her place in the world. Like Jones, Reed does not paint a flat world of women versus men, but a world of subtle shades. Winnie’s father isn’t a saint, but he isn’t a bad man either. In the end, “Painted, Grassy Mire” is a story of sacrifice, giving up one world for another, and while neither may be perfect, ultimately, Winnie finds the place where she belongs.
Floodwater by Kristi deMeester from the August issue of The Dark gives us another take on mothers and daughters. Here, the mother in question isn’t physically absent, but emotionally unavailable throughout the story, which takes place over a few days during a terrible storm and subsequent flood. The seven-year-old narrator is left to her own devices, while occasionally being asked to care for her baby brother. According to her daddy, her momma isn’t feeling well. Something about the rain has upset her mother, and the narrator speculates as to whether this will be like the last time her momma was sad — when she was supposed to get a baby sister, but her parents came back from the hospital without one. There’s something more sinister in this sadness though. Her mother alludes to something inside the rain. The narrator eventually begins to see hints of it — the suggestion of eyes here, the shape of a hand there, and an upturned face drinking in the storm. It’s a tense and eerie story, given extra power by the youth of the narrator, processing adult themes and snatches of conversation to give the reader a chilling picture of the situation.
Daddy told me the baby went into the ground and turned into the flowers in the spring, and so when the flowers came up later that year, I tried to talk to them, but they only ever stared back at me, and I got mad and ripped them out of the ground.
The descriptions are evocative, conveying the terror of something half-seen, but again filtered through an innocent perspective. The narrator is excited at the idea of meeting her sister, and excited at the prospect of her mother re-uniting with her other daughter. Whereas the reader, with a less innocent perspective, can see the true horror in this story.
The Words on My Skin by Caroline M. Yoachim from the July/August issue of Uncanny is another story about the relationship between mothers and daughters. Told at flash length, Yoachim packs a lot into very few words. The story is set in a world where words written on your skin define your personality. The narrator comes from a family of skin writers. As a child, her mother writes words like smart and resilient on her skin. At six years old, she discovers she can write words on herself, and the first one she chooses is fun. As she grows older, the narrator begins adding more words to herself — clever, stealthy, passionate, flirty. There are elements of teenage rebellion versus responsibility, as well as a character learning to be her own person. The mother-daughter relationship is nicely portrayed, and in contrast to the other stories, it is about presence, rather than absence. Yoachim deftly shows the way children can often find their parents’ rules and concerns stifling, even when their parents are only trying to do the best for them. She also shows the way children’s relationships with their parents can change over time, evolving until their concerns are more similar than they ever could have imagined, bringing both sides a greater understanding of each other. A secondary thread through the story is the idea of labels placed on a person by their family, or society as a whole, changing them in literal ways. True to life, there’s a tension between how others see us, and how we see ourselves, and both the labels other people place on us and the labels we place on ourselves can have unintended consequences. “The Words on My Skin” is a story that comes full circle in a satisfying way, and manages a sense of growth for its main character which is not easy to do in such a short space. Yoachim is a master of the flash fiction form, and this story is a perfect example.