Words for Thought #99 min read

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As I write this, the wind is howling around the corners of the house in a threatening manner. It seems an appropriate background noise for this month’s stories, which all share an element of the struggle between humanity and nature, either at their heart, or around their edges.

The Death of Paul Bunyan by Charles Payseur from December’s Lightspeed Magazine explores the violence so often inherent in humanity’s relationship to the natural world, whether it’s something as seemingly benign as manicured lawns in a planned community, or something as extreme as fracking. The story opens with Johnny Appleseed headed to the drill site where his friend and former lover, Paul Bunyan, died. As the bus carries him across the landscape he and Paul once tamed, he reflects on what they meant to each other over the years, even though they drifted apart.

Occasionally they found themselves in the same place, the same town, and they’d meet, and they’d remember. Remember that what they shared was pain, was rough sex and the same old silences that had driven them apart.

It’s not love, or even desire that draws them together, but what Johnny and Paul symbolize that binds them. The anger and pain they deploy in fighting the land and bending it to their will bleeds over into their personal; Johnny especially sees too much of his own violence mirrored back from Paul, and ultimately it drove them apart. When he arrives at the drill site, Johnny finally learns why the oil company really wants him there. All around Paul’s corpse, a supernatural lake of fire burns, and they want him to tame it, bending the land to his will one more time. The theme of nature reclaiming its own echoes through the tale, as does the idea there are no more wild places. As the wild places die off, so does the need for the legends who tamed them. Paul Bunyan is dead, Pecos Bill hanged himself, and Johnny wonders what purpose he can serve anymore. The parallels between Paul and Johnny’s relationship, and humanity’s relationship to nature are the backbone of this tale. Like Paul and Johnny, humanity and nature have always been inextricably linked, and their relationship has always been a brutal and contentious one.

The Autobiography of a Traitor and a Half Savage by Alix E. Harrow, published at Tor.com, also deals directly with humanity versus nature, with an added element of racial tension. Oona is half Irish, half Amerind, a mapmaker from a culture where the word also means traitor. Mapmakers tame the land; as it is mapped and known, it becomes fixed into a certain shape, no longer fluid and wild, and thus ripe for exploitation by Oona’s employers, the Imperial American River Company. By her heritage and her profession, Oona is caught between worlds. Her boss views her as an animal; her aunts see her as a tool of the Easterners. Even within herself, Oona feels out of place. She fears she won’t be taken into the bone trees like her ancestors, but be left to rot in the ground as a half breed for being too Irish. As much as Oona hates mapmaking, she can’t quit as it’s the only source of income that allows her to care for her sick brother, Ira. Knowing this, her boss uses Ira against her, threatening and punishing him in order to make Oona cooperate. Like Payseur’s story, Harrow weaves the cycle of life and death, and the idea of nature reclaiming its own, into this tale. Just as Oona is growing desperate, Ira reveals he hasn’t been taking his medicine; he gives her the gift of his death, settig her free. Oona pays it forward, giving the gift of the Easterners’ death to the land and giving it its freedom.

Imagine the earth you walk along is just a vast and detailed map rolled out on some surveyor’s table. Now imagine that map is torn away, whisked from beneath your feet, or perhaps all the ink simply runs together in a sudden liquid chaos of rivers and mountains and neatly labeled regions. And your eyes ache just to see it, because you believed all your life that the labels on the map were the truth, and now you see they were just thin ropes stretched over the land and easily shaken off.

Despite the imagery of taming and breaking running through both Payseur and Harrow’s stories, there is a sense that no matter how much violence is done to the land, it is always simply waiting to shake off its bonds and its scars. New life will find a way to emerge.

Police Magic by Brent Lambert from FIYAH Issue One: Rebirth, also deals with racial tension and the idea of nature punishing humanity for years of ill treatment. Two brothers, Kalup and Adrian, are traveling on foot from Georgia to San Diego in search of a woman people call a prophet. An event called the Twisting gave certain people powers and turned the world into a landscape of scarcity. Some believe the Twisting is nature’s way of trying to eradicate humanity and start again. As the story opens, Kalup and Adrian are threatened by a gang on motorcycles until Adrian unleashes his power, burning them alive. Adrian hates his power, fears it will consume him, and he wants the prophet to take it out of him. The power is also known as Police Magic. Cops were the first to manifest it, and it drove them mad, leading them to literally tear people apart. When Kalup and Adrian find the prophet’s sanctuary, they discover a place where the water is clean and there’s plenty of food both stockpiled and grown. Growing plants and healing things is part of the prophet’s power, and Kalup mentally likens Nya to a sea goddess, a spirit of nature. She explains that magic is trying to come back into the world, and the Twisting is the first birth pang. When it began to emerge, magic latched onto whatever it found first, which happened to be the hate and violence inside of corrupt cops. Nya agrees to help Adrian, but the brothers have to help her cleanse the pain causing the twisted magic through forgiveness first. Adrian is understandably reluctant and angry, allowing Lambert to explore multiple sides of a complicated issue. Black people and other marginalized people are too frequently expected to heal the divide, to concede and practice forgiveness even when they are the ones wounded. There is an added element of the emotional labor undertaken by black women embodied in the character of Nya, and Lamberts handles all of these deftly through his characters’ eyes. There is anger in the story, but it’s a story of healing and hope and the bond between brothers as well. Elements of Police Magic are reminiscent of Screamers by Tochi Onyebuchi, discussed in January’s Words for Thought. Both stories deal with power born of rage and police brutality. But in the same way the protagonist of Onyebuchi’s story finds a kind of peace through his father’s poetic writings, Adrian and Kalup find peace in helping Nya, embracing the act of healing and moving forward, while still memorializing victims of violence and never allowing them to be forgotten.

A Human Stain by Kelly Robson, also published at Tor.com, offers a different take on the theme of humans versus nature. The story has a classic gothic set-up: Helen, down on her luck and in debt, is hired to teach an orphaned boy English in a remote German castle where something no one can or will talk about is terribly wrong. As in so many gothic novels and stories, nature is another character here, brooding and dangerous. Helen has just come from Paris, a bustling and crowded city full of beautiful women willing to be seduced, rich tobacco to be smoked, and lavish parties to attend. By contrast, the castle is isolated, surrounded by mountains, and bordered by a lake lovingly but malignantly described.

That morning, the water had been an inky sapphire, the color so brilliant it seemed to cling to the oars with Bärchen’s every stroke. Under the darkening sky it was tar black and viscous.

Beyond the foreboding landscape, Peter, Helen’s charge, is pale and sickly-looking, his beautiful nanny never speaks, and there are bones scattered throughout the house. Peter is fond of escaping the nursery and hiding, and Helen discovers him in the cellar crouched outside what she later learns is the door to the family crypt, digging to reach something inside. He pulls out a bone and puts it in his mouth before Helen drags him away as he repeats the word “Mama”. Along with this genuinely unsettling imagery, there is a sense of claustrophobia to the house, and the sense that outside is no better; the lake is just waiting to swallow someone whole. Hunger and mouths recur throughout the story to chilling effect as Robson layers uneasy details into a truly disturbing whole – creatures half glimpsed in the lake, teeth missing from the nanny’s mouth, and the pervasive smell of salt. The idea of hunger and appetites of other kinds play a large role in the story as well. Helen’s appetite for alcohol, women, and cigarettes is contrasted with the castle’s hungers, and parallels the hungers of a city verus the untamed hunger of nature. Helen’s appetites, which might be considered unnatural or unladylike in “polite society” can be contrasted with the truly monstrous appetites in the castle and the lake. A Human Stain fits perfectly in the gothic tradition, and the repeated images of crouching and creeping call to mind “mad” Bertha creeping around the house in Jane Eyre, Cathy haunting the moors in Wuthering Heights, and the creeping women of The Yellow Wallpaper, putting the story in conversation with its literary ancestors as well as the other stories discussed here.

Seven Salt Tears by Kat Howard from January’s Lightspeed is at its heart a story about mothers, daughters, and choice. It is also a story about the ocean reclaiming its own, and like Robson’s story, there is an undercurrent of women being true to themselves – represented here by the wildness of nature – versus behaving the way society expects they should. As a child, Mara’s mother tells her stories of the sea. They are about women who can whistle up storms or calm them at will, and how selkies can be summoned with tears. She also tells Mara about little mermaid, and Mara questions why anyone would choose to be human. Why wouldn’t the prince have turned into a merman instead? As an adult, Mara feels herself turning into an ocean bound in human skin. Her mother disappeared when she was 18, leaving behind marks leading down to the sea. The police believed it to be suicide, but Mara knows that isn’t true. Mara never knew her father, but as a child she wanted to believe he was something supernatural.

It’s so much more interesting to think of a father who is a merman or a sea monster or a tide than to think of him as a man who walked away.

Mara never suspected her mother might be the one who was more than human, because she stayed. Like her question about the little mermaid, Mara couldn’t conceive why anyone would choose to be human. These echoed questions lie at the heart of the story. The little mermaid chose the love of the prince over her true self, despite the pain it caused her, just as Mara’s mother did, until she couldn’t ignore the call of the sea anymore. There is a gendered element to these choices; responsibility as well as love binds Mara’s mother. In so many narratives, women are expected to stay, raise babies, change themselves and make sacrifices for love. In the end, Mara chooses in the other direction, choosing love for her mother and the wildness of her true nature over staying on land.

To close this column out, I offer a bonus mention for Not An Ocean, But the Sea by Nino Cipri, originally appearing in The Deadline in 2015, and recently reprinted in Arsenika 0. Like the other stories here, this flash piece explores the contrast and conflict between humanity and nature. In this case, the conflict is embodied in the pretentious, man-made environment of the homes Nadia cleans for a living, and the ocean she discovers behind a couch. The houses are full of impossible and impractical furniture, electronics, and surfaces chosen to reflect wealth and status. The houses also embody the divide between the classes, and underline Nadia’s status as immigrant and an outsider. As with Howard’s story, nature recognizes and reclaims its own here. The ocean, Nadia discovers, is actually the Baltic Sea – dark, mysterious, slightly dangerous, but to Nadia, it is home.

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