Welcome to another Words for Thought! Fall is on the horizon, though as I write this, it’s still miserably humid outside and cooler weather, turning leaves, and a desire to switch to hot coffee from iced feels ages away. Fall may well be my favorite season, a little melancholy, but also beautiful, hope and loss mixed all into one. These five stories are all about dealing with grief and loss in some way, but they are hopeful too—perfect for the season. Happy reading!
Clouds in a Clear Blue Sky by Matt Dovey was published at PodCastle in February, however, it feels like a very autumnal story somehow. It opens on a funeral and a group of boys gathered outside while those inside mourn. Colin, the youngest among the boys, lost his father to a terrible accident at the cloud factory where the other boys’ fathers work as well. He’s understandably heartbroken and angry at the world, and in an attempt to cheer him up, the other boys hatch a plan to sneak him into the cloud factory and not only show him how it works but let him try his hand at making a cloud to honor his father’s memory.
The factory was still. There were no-one bustling about between levels and levers, no valves spinning or belts moving or anything at all. Only a warm, low hum and a scent that burned your nostrils to let you know none of it were sleeping, just … waiting.
The problem is, though the other boys in the group are old enough to have been shown around the factory by their fathers, none of them have properly started working there yet, and making clouds is a complicated and dangerous business. Things very nearly go disastrously wrong, but the other boys’ fathers step in just in time to avert catastrophe.
Along with being a story about coping with loss, this is also a sweet story of friendship, full of positive and healthy relationships between fathers and sons and between a group of young teenage boys. Men and boys are too often encouraged not to show their emotions and to react to loss and grief with gruff stoicism or even violence. With this story, Dovey shows a supportive group of friends who have each other’s backs and gives us a son in mourning wanting to honor his father without falling into the trope of the toxic father with impossible expectations that a son can never live up to. Even though it’s a story about loss and grief, it’s full of kindness and caring as well, not to mention great world-building and a wonderful voice, all of which is lovely to see.
Morning by Diane Russell in Fiyah issue 19 takes place on an inhospitable planet where a crew of teenagers is responsible for the day-to-day drudgery work of taking soil samples and operating other equipment as they search for a new home for their colony. Their lives are seen as expendable, just old enough to work the machinery, yet losing one of them wouldn’t mean losing the years of knowledge and skills built up by an adult. Against this backdrop, we are introduced to Naeku, whose sister, Kidege, died due to a cryo-bed malfunction and who is now being forced to work with her sister’s clone—a painful reminder of everything she’s lost.
The crew gave me the canister with her name and number on it, as a curt nod to tradition, recognition that they could not give me my sister back, even though they left the doors open for ghosts. They assigned me the clone to acclimate. Who else was there to teach the Echo to sing? I didn’t talk to the clone, but I carried the canister everywhere. I wondered if when I finally opened it, the inside would smile like castor oil and peppermint and sunflowers.
A routine mission gone wrong forces Naeku to work more closely with the clone and also leads them to make a wondrous discovery beneath the planet’s surface. Naeku’s anger and sorrow, transitioning into hope and a way to move forward are paralleled in Russell’s beautiful descriptions of the planet’s barren landscape contrasted with the lush beauty hidden just beneath its surface. It’s a perfect example of a sympathetic atmosphere mirroring a character’s emotional state and enriching the story. Naeku is a wonderful character and the grudging relationship that grows between her and her sister’s clone is really nicely done, allowing for an exploration of loss, complicated family relationships, the idea of clones “replacing” the original person, and what “self and identity” really mean. There’s also something really wonderful about the concept of an all-teenage crew, sulky and bitter, feeling undervalued and replaceable, and the way that also ties in with the idea of cloning. It’s an excellent story, and like Dovey’s, finds a way to balance grief and hope without tipping too far in either direction.
The Steel Magnolia Metaphor by Jennifer Lee Rossman, published at Escape Pod in May, is a story that is largely about the anticipation of loss and how that can be just as painful as the loss itself. Astrid’s mother is battling cancer and losing. Astrid, seeking something useful to do to help her process her emotions and cheer her mother up, designs a robot flower that zaps the mosquitoes in her mother’s garden—creating a steel magnolia in honor of her mother’s favorite movie, not realizing that the flower in the title is not meant to be understood literally.
Each petal was carefully shaped from the finest iron-carbon alloy, curved delicately while still hot and meticulously positioned to overlap with its neighbors just so to form a blossom. Astrid gazed lovingly at the way each petal’s razor-sharp edge glinted in the light of the setting sun, at the way her creation cast a shadow indistinguishable from the other ornamental trees in Mama’s garden.
Astrid’s autism often leaves her struggling with the concept of metaphors and leads her to grieve in a way her family doesn’t entirely understand. Her aunt, Clara, constantly tries to smother Astrid with hugs, thinking to comfort her, and despite Astrid’s repeated explanations that she doesn’t find it comforting, her aunt struggles to understand Astrid on her own terms. The story is simultaneously lovely and heartbreaking. However, it also offers hope as Astrid comes to her own understanding of metaphor and how it can help her see the world differently and find her way toward acceptance and letting go while still honoring her sadness and her love for her mother.
The Loneliness of Former Constellations by P.H. Low, published at Strange Horizons, is about the loss of self, community, and home, that can result from war. The main character was once a warrior. They believe themself the last of their kind, having lost everyone else on their ship, now planet-bound and living a life of chronic pain. Still, they’ve made a home for themself that is a haven, and they take on a renter, a knight who believes herself chosen for a great destiny, determined to slay monsters and save the world.
“I’ve found the Ancient One,” she tells me, and I recognize the fever in her eyes: the heady anticipation of knowing your time has come, that even the barest tilt of your face—cheekbone, forehead, jaw—bears the weight of watching history. I pressed my lips to such a forehead, once. “I’ll be gone for awhile.”
The story is gorgeously written, full of lush and striking imagery, as it plays with the fantasy/epic science fiction tropes of Great Destiny and The Chosen One. The story takes these grand ideas down to the human level, showing the cost of war and how if looked at from that human angle, those concepts begin to resemble propaganda designed to hide the fact that war and violence chew people up and spit them out before moving on, uncaring. As the two main characters cope with the potential loss of themselves in the machinery of war and struggle with how else to define themselves if not as warriors, they find their way to the beginnings of a new relationship blooming between them, and to the possibility of new and better lives not governed by Destiny and Fate. It’s a lovely story, dealing with loss on both a larger and more intimate scale than many of the other stories discussed here, providing an interesting lens through which to consider both hope and grief.
Pull by Leah Ning, which was also published at PodCastle, is a powerful, terrifying, and heartbreaking story about a woman with Alzheimer’s who can pull other people into her memories. Her husband, John, is doing his best to take care of her, but Amy can no longer control the pull, which increasingly leads to a breakdown in reality for both of them.
That tidal pull came again, stronger this time, and I had to close my eyes for a moment to fight it. She was harder to resist now than she ever was. For one thing, she never used to pull this hard. For another, her pull had become the only way she would talk. Words escaped her more often than not now.
Dealing with both the loss of self and the loss of a loved one, this story is the perfect bridge between Low’s story and Dovey, Russell, and Rossman’s stories. As with Astrid in Rossman’s story, John in Ning’s story is struggling to cope with the loss of someone who isn’t yet gone. While Amy is still alive, she’s no longer herself—increasingly lost in her memories, even as those memories betray her. The story captures perfectly what a frightening thing it must be to lose control of one’s own mind, to find oneself constantly pulled into the past without realizing it’s the past, and then to have that past literally crumble out from underneath you. Ning also touches on how isolating it can be for a person watching someone they love suffer from Alzheimer’s, ramping that up by literally having John pulled into Amy’s world, losing his own control and sense of self as well. At the same time, like the other stories, there is hope in this story. John’s love for Amy, his commitment to staying by her side, and the arrival of Amy’s sister, help ground her and allow the story to have a happier ending, if not a purely happy one. It’s a bittersweet story and despite the pain, it’s well worth a read.