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Words for Thought (Short Fiction Review)
Hello and welcome to another edition of Words for Thought! The stories this time around tend toward the melancholy, exploring the idea of sacrifice, frequently embodied by characters who are asked or expected to make way for others by carrying burdens that are too big for them alone. There is hope in these stories, but often tempered with pain and loss—a good reminder that happiness for one person can mean suffering for another.
“Sweetbaby” by Thomas Ha published in Clarkesworld is a surreal novelette about a family stranded on a remote world after their ship crashes, trying to cope with—or in some cases desperately ignore—the fact that one of their number has become something monstrous.
Part of me always hopes that he’s grown too much since the last time, that he’ll get good and stuck, but there’s always more body than I anticipate before the metal collar and chains around his middle clink up to the surface where we can see, that safe sound of restraints Captain nailed deep, in and all around, in that grimgray oak.
Fran’s brother, Sweetbaby, is kept chained in the backyard. Lights and music calm him, enough that the family can enjoy a nice Christmas dinner together, at least until Sweetbaby snaps, biting into his sister and tearing off her arm. Fran’s parents assure her that Sweetbaby is sick, it’s not his fault. She should tolerate his outbursts, even if it means her death. Fran learns that Sweetbaby hasn’t just been injuring her, but killing her, and her parents have been cloning her, resurrecting new versions of her to go through the cycle all over again.
The story is wonderfully-written. The overall weirdness—from Sweetbaby’s inexplicable transformation to the odd ritual of weekly Christmas dinner that the family has developed to cope—effectively feed into the parents’ deep denial. They have created a kind of static existence, removed from time, where they can pretend Sweetbaby is getting better, and that their festive celebrations are fun, rather than having the specialness stripped away with endless repetition.
It’s painful to watch as they make every excuse for Sweetbaby, lying to themselves and Fran, and ignoring her pain. The choice Fran makes in order to break the cycle of violence is heartbreaking. When she discovers the cloning machine, she makes another version of herself, but rather than forcing that version to carry her pain, she continues to bear the burden, setting the other version of herself free in hopes she’ll have a better life.
“Drowning Songs” by M.S. Dean published in Anathema Magazine similarly explores the idea of one person suffering for the greater good. In this case, Addie bears the burden of suffering not just for her family, but for her entire town.
Every summer solstice dawn, my head was pushed into the water by my father, the priest. It was a sight to see, a holiday affair. Rowe got done up proper—the girls all wore flowers in their hair, and while dirty river water and silt flooded into my lungs, the townsfolk sang me drowning songs.
Addie is resigned to her fate, not seeing a way out, but still finding little moments of joy in her life, like sneaking off to spend time with her lover, June. As with Fran in Ha’s story, Dean does a wonderful job of portraying the heartbreaking moment when Addie realizes she’s truly on her own. Even June is quick to look away from her suffering, willing to ignore Addie’s pain when it benefits her, using her, but not standing by her. And as it is with Fran in Ha’s story, it’s the suffering—or potential suffering—of others, that prompts Addie to act in Dean’s story, breaking the cycle of violence. When Addie’s father becomes convinced that June’s baby is the next Drowning Saint, Addie sets out to save the child from sharing her fate.
“A Small Bloody Gift” by Naomi Day published in Fiyah Magazine also links the suffering of the few to the prosperity of the many, ritualizing their pain and wrapping it in layers of tradition that make it sacred and unquestionable.
Kehaka has known for years that she will inherit her grandmother’s hive, becoming a Keeper, a role that has been passed down from grandmother to granddaughter for generations, however she expected to have more time to find an alternative and escape her fate.
Kehaka was five the first time she saw the bees watering the earth – still a child enamored by the heavy buzzing that lulled her to sleep every night in the room next to her grandmother’s, and still intrigued by the massive bees that crawled along her grandmother’s skin and slept cocooned between her long locs.
Inheriting the hive means living a life of pain, as the bees burrow out of the Keeper’s body and water the earth with their blood. Unlike Fran and Addie however, Kehaka is not alone. Her girlfriend, Coa, is a scientist, specializing in blood, and looking for an alternate solution to the long-standing tradition of Keepers suffering to ensure the land’s prosperity. The society they live in, on the other hand, has decided that the suffering of a few is more than acceptable. Scientists are exiled and silenced for pursuing lines of questioning such Coa’s. If there is a better way, then the District will have to face the fact that they’ve allowed generations of Keepers to suffer for no reason.
As with Addie’s town, Kehaka’s entire District would rather take the easy way out, allowing her to suffer for them, telling themselves it doesn’t really hurt her, all the while knowing they can only do so because it’s her pain, not theirs. Like Ha and Dean’s story, this one is heartbreaking, but there is hope as Kehaka and Coa look for a better way of doing things that might keep others from suffering.
“Broodmare” by Flossie Arend published in Fantasy Magazine explores the idea of burden and sacrifice from a different angle, as one woman seeks to build an underground network to help those in need when the government fails its people.
I’m happy on the road. The land stretches like a languid animal, and I find tranquility in its measured length. Outside the car the earth breathes, the ground rising and sinking. Even though I am the one driving, concentrating on the road and the trucks roaring past, it’s like a meditation for me—my mind empties into the open space. I need it before the border.
As a teenager, Marge discovered she had the power to detect pregnancy while working at a horse farm. She witnessed the owners breeding a horse even after being informed it would endanger her life. Furious, Marge also discovered she had the power to end pregnancies, convincing the body to turn itself back to an earlier state of being. Now Marge works making deliveries from her commune to small towns across Texas, a cover for her true work of helping people in need now that abortion has become illegal in the state, the border strictly controlled, and incoming travelers tested and informed that they will be imprisoned and forced to give birth if they become pregnant while visiting.
The story is beautifully-written, bittersweet, and occasionally heartbreaking, but balanced with hope. Arend does a wonderful job of showing the cost to Marge, the danger she puts herself in, and the physical toll the work takes on her. But if she doesn’t carry the burden, who will? She accepts the weight willingly, knowing her services will always be needed. She also brings others into her network, seeking to build a community of support for those in need.
“To Cheer as They Leave You Behind” by James L. Sutter published in Nightmare Magazine is a dark and unsettling take on the idea of someone making sacrifices and carrying a hidden burden. The person in this case is a mother who discovers she has the power to temporarily inhabit her daughter’s body by taking the pills she had made from her placenta.
You spend twenty-four hours in your daughter’s body. You only know the time because of external cues—Alan returning home, snippets of conversation, the minor changing table disaster that taught you the concept of the Blast Zone. You drift back and forth between colicky panic and exhausted sleep. Yet as the timeline finally syncs back up with the present—your present—the rushing returns. You scream with fear and gratitude as you fall backward down the well of perception.
The first possession is accidental, the second deliberate—done to save her daughter’s life when, as a toddler, she falls from a window. The mother winds back time, steering her daughter away from the window and keeping her safe in her room. As her daughter grows, she can’t quite resist the temptation to subtly steer her life to ensure her success—taking tests for her (or with her, as she would claim), helping (or pushing) her to make good choices in partners and friends, and keeping her out of trouble.
The story does an excellent job of showing an overprotective parent taking things to the extreme. The mother always has her daughter’s best interests at heart, or convinces herself she does, but who truly benefits in their relationship? The mother never asks her daughter what she wants, building her own idea of a perfect life. There are some overtly horrifying moments and some more insidious ones as well. With the mother taking the burden of failure, effort, and mistakes away from her daughter, has her daughter truly lived her own life at all?