Words for Thought #16

September 29, 2017

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A.C. Wise’s fiction has appeared in publications such as Apex Magazine, Uncanny, Clarkesworld, and multiple Year’s Best anthologies. Her work has won the Sunburst Award for Excellence in Canadian Literature of the Fantastic, as well as twice being a finalist for the Sunburst Award, twice being a finalist for the Nebula Award, and being a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. She has two collections published with Lethe Press, and a novella published by Broken Eye Books. Her debut novel, Wendy, Darling, is forthcoming from Titan Books in June 2021, and a new collection, The Ghost Sequences, is forthcoming from Undertow Books in Fall 2021. In addition to her fiction, she contributes review columns to Apex Magazine and The Book Smugglers. Find her online at acwise.net.

Welcome to another edition of Words for Thought. This month is full of uneasy and haunting tales about hidden things being revealed that stick with you long after you finish reading them.

The Lamentation of Their Women by Kai Ashante Wilson published at Tor.com is a violent yet lyrically-written story. Nisha's aunt, rumored to be a witch, is dead, and Nisha has a few hours to gather anything she wants from the apartment before it's repossessed. She calls on her on-again, off-again, cheating boyfriend, Anhell, to go with her. They discover a body folded away in a chest under the coffee table with a machete and a shotgun. That's when the devil changes their lives.

You-know-who sidles up and offers…what? Change. Not for the better, not for the worse, just a change. But one so huge that you can’t even dream it from the miserable little spot, miserable little moment you’re at now. And don’t go expecting wishes granted, or that kind of boring shit, because transformation belongs to a whole ’nother category. But, oh, babygirl, this could be a wild hot ride. Are you down?

The shotgun and the machete want blood, and as long as Nisha and Anhell provide it, they will be untouchable. No law can stop them, and aren't they just tired of seeing black widows and orphans on TV in yet another story about police violence? Isn't it time to see white widows crying, and white cops losing their lives?

The story is unapologetically violent, but it's violence that feels earned. Even though Nisha and Anhell are doing the devil's work, they are also avenging angels. The story echoes the real-life mythologization of Bonnie and Clyde and the fictionalized Natural Born Killers; violence is glorified, and the people doing the killing become anti-heros. The difference here is Nisha and Anhell aren't white. The story deconstructs the trope, asking readers to think about who is allowed to commit violence, and how that violence will be viewed. Who will be labeled an anti-hero, and who will be labeled as a "thug" or an "animal". It's a powerful story that drags institutionalized racism into the light, asking the reader to look at what has always been hidden in plain sight without flinching or turning away.

Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand by Fran Wilde from the September/October Issue of Uncanny is another story seething with anger just below the surface. Initially, I accidentally wrote "below the circus," which is apt here as the anger is wrapped in a deliciously creepy carnival story. Wilde makes effective use of second person POV, putting the reader on the spot and asking them to confront their own unconscious prejudices and drag the unseen out into the light. You pay for your ticket and enter the carnival. The narrator guides you from room to room, each one increasing your unease. You're invited to look at the displays, to gawk, to thrill in that which is different, smugly imagining you can walk away unscathed. Until you come to A Room of Objects that Are Really People, and A Room of Objects That Are Very Sharp, and you're reminded that's exactly what you've been doing your entire life -- gawking, judging, feeling smug because you're "normal."

Remember the way we turned to bone and stone when you looked at us on the street? Froze, waiting to see what you’d say? Imagine the pain of it, the hardening of each joint when you thought that word, the non-scientific one, the one that rhymes with eek. You feel it, don’t you. That chill down your spine, the hardening? Yeah, we know. That’s why you pay your dime.

It's a story about othering, one that's beautifully told, with sharpness at its heart. Words mean things, they hurt people, and they lessen you when you use them carelessly. While it's a story about confronting the hidden ugliness within, there is hope to be found. Once seen, your prejudices can't be unseen, or forgotten; it's up to you to let seeing them change you for the better.

In Search of Stars by Matthew Bright, published in Glittership directly addresses the idea of hidden things in its opening line: "It starts with a secret place, as many stories do." The secret place is a gay club, never seen directly in the story, but imagined and longed for by the narrator. On the outside, it appears to be a launderette, and that's just what it is by day, but by night the upstairs changes. The closest the narrator gets is standing on the street outside, where he meets another man who is looking for the same thing. Desire is mixed with shame. After the narrator sleeps with the man, he covers it up, literally, applying an experimental paint that causes the man to float away.

On the bed, I kneel, apply the paint gently. I cover him in reverse order of the skin touched by my tongue and fingers, turning it warm pink to cold blue. By the time I have covered his chest and thighs, he is lighter, rising up from the bed. When I cover his arms, they rise above him, as if he is reaching for an embrace.

This isn't the first man he's sent floating away either. As he continues the cycle of lust and banishment, the narrator re-encounters a school friend, Eugene. He wonders if Eugene is like him, but Eugene regales him with tales of all the women he's slept with, urging the narrator to take him out "slumming" to meet more women. He wants illicit things, the dirty side of life, but when they go out, he seems unsatisfied. Eventually they end up at a diner where a waitress the narrator slept with once works. This, it seems, is what Eugene has been looking for, something that gives him permission to cross a line. All three go back to the narrator's apartment, and afterward, he paints Eugene and himself and they both float away. This final act feels less about shame, and more about freedom and letting go of fear. There is still an edge of darkness however as Eugene doesn't consent to be painted; like all the others, the narrator covers him in his sleep. Additionally, one can't help wonder what happens to the painted men? Do they die, or simply drift peacefully forever? Either way, it's a lovely story, full of gorgeous imagery, longing, and hope.

The Creeping Influences by Sonya Taaffe in September's Shimmer Magazine opens with a group of peat cutters unearthing a bog mummy.

She came out of the peat like a sixpence in a barmbrack, her face shining like wet iron between the spade-edge and the turf, the bright rusty plait of her hair broken like a birth-cord around her neck. Jimmy Connolly swore, and Dan Wall crossed himself, and thin-faced Sean MacMahon gaped like someone had shoved him by the scruff of his neck to a keyhole, all consternation and wanting to see more. 

The peat cutters speculate about her; perhaps she was a sacrifice, or maybe she was unfaithful and murdered for it. The narrator, Roddy, is guilty of adultery, and this last speculation touches a nerve. From the initial unearthing, the story continues bringing new secrets to light. Roddy's lover is Katherine Morgan, whose husband mysteriously disappeared. While Roddy was assigned female at birth, they are non-binary. Katherine has no qualms about accepting pleasure from Roddy, but refuses to touch Roddy in turn, which they takes as a sign she's disappointed they don't have a man's body. A second body turns up, this one clearly a murder or a suicide, and it's quickly identified as Katherine's husband.

The bog mummy, Roddy, Katherine, and her husband are all intertwined, their stories of desire, unfaithfulness, and violence all reflecting each other. The language and imagery are stunning throughout, and each new hidden thing revealed deepens the characters. It's a highly effective tale, one that lingers long after the reading is done.

You Can Adapt to Anything by John Wiswell, published in Daily SF is a flash piece largely about what is unseen and unsaid. Wiswell packs a lot into a short space, leaving much of the story to happen in-between the words. Miguel and Juniper are building a portal to another dimension. They are perfectly in synch, to the point where they finish each other's sentences. The portal comes online, they flip a coin, and Juniper is chosen to test it out. As she approaches the portal, she sees herself reaching toward herself. Before she can process what's going on, they've swapped places and the portal snaps closed. She's faced with a Miguel almost, but not quite, like hers and a life that is almost, but not quite, her own.

As she works with the alternate Miguel to reopen the portal, their relationship to each other is shown through negation -- the careful way they don't touch, how Juniper doesn't want him to finish her sentences. In the space of just a few hundred words, Wiswell portrays loss, longing, and coming to understand oneself. Juniper never really sees the alternate Miguel for himself until she's faced with her own Miguel again, just as she doesn't see herself clearly until faced with her double. Juniper's choice at the end feels earned, and the conclusion satisfying, showing growth in her character, which is not an easy trick to pull off at flash length.

© A.C. Wise


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