Welcome to August’s Words for Thought. This month’s stories are all about assumptions, perceptions, and characters who are more than they seem beneath the surface of their skin.
The Ache of Home by Maurice Broaddus from the July/August issue of Uncanny introduces us to Celeste as she’s trying to avoid street harassment on her way home. She stops in at the local food pantry — an organization set up by people from outside the neighborhood — to check it out. Her suspicions about the place are immediately confirmed as a condescending white woman follows Celeste around making assumptions about her and the community. By the time she gets home, she’s weary, but feeling the tug of the Green Space, our first hint that there’s more to Celeste than meets the eye. Her neighbor Ghost drops in, a man who can manifest his tattoos as physical objects. He warns Celeste about a man asking questions, which Celeste suspects has something to do with her fighting back against the new grocery store moving into town, and the gentrification of the neighborhood. The man, who calls himself Limos, shows up at Celeste’s door, and Broaddus unfolds a tense scene over a shared meal as Celeste, Ghost, and Limos battle it out for the neighborhood on the spiritual plane.
Within the space of a relatively short story, Broaddus tackles issues of gentrification, food deserts, and the power structures that keep people impoverished. A few deft lines in the scene where Celeste visits the food pantry perfectly encapsulates the white savior attitude, and the assumption that solutions imposed from outside are inherently superior to anything that could possibly come from within the community.
The conflict at the heart of the story is played out on multiple levels — human and inhuman — as Limos, who comes dressed like a rich man representing corporate interests, reveals himself to be a god. The two levels of threat to Celeste’s community dovetail in Limos, tying the story together neatly. Nothing is wasted. With an economy of words, Broaddus offers up a world that feels fully lived in, and introduces us to characters (Celeste and Ghost) that it would be a pleasure to spend more time with.
We Who Stay Behind by Karl Dandenell from July’s Fireside Fiction is a flash piece making effective use of the collective we to give voice to those who support the heroes, the adventurers, the ones who get all the glory. There’s a portal. Explorers go through it while we stay behind, distributing equipment, rations, and keeping everything running. The Explorers barely see the support team, and when they do, they don’t look beyond the surface, assuming they’re wash outs, or cowards. But when something goes wrong:.
We fasten our helms and step through the Portal. When we find you, or pieces of you, we carry you back like a bride over the threshold, into the regeneration tanks and blissful oblivion. We debrief you. We sit by your bed and encourage you to talk off the record. We hold your new hand, or massage feet that tingle with nerve growth.
Ultimately, the Explorers realize that we have seen horrors, too, that we are the same as they are. The story is reminiscent of Emily Devenport’s Dr. Polingyouma’s Machine, which features a main character working as a janitor, cleaning up after unseen aliens passing through a portal. Both stories underline the fact that there are jobs that are necessary, though not glorious, and those who do them are often overlooked or looked down on. There are elements of classism at work, and like Broaddus’s story, Dandenell reminds us to look beyond the surface of things and not to prejudge. Brief as it is, the story does carry weight and emotion, and offers a satisfyingly complete tale.
We Laugh in Its Face by Barbara L.W. Myers from Fiyah Issue 2: Spilling Tea tells the story of Annie and Octavia, lifelong friends who grow up to be scientists and invent a serum that “cures death.” Their friendship begins in their high school’s Aquarium Club, where they bond over dying fish and their efforts to keep them alive. From that moment on, they are inseparable.
The story is told from Octavia’s point of view, and despite the clear bond between the two, there is also the sense that Octavia is bit in awe of Annie, as well as fiercely protective of her. Annie is beautiful and Octavia loves her, though she doesn’t name the feeling until later in life.
Myers infuses the story with emotion, and it’s beautifully told while examining assumptions, expectation, and invisibility on several levels. An encounter with a young man during Octavia and Annie’s first year of college calls out the stereotype that a woman can either be pretty or smart, but not both. The young man barely sees Octavia, and assumes Annie is only taking courses to fulfill her STEM requirements. She quickly disabuses him, pointing to all the books in the stack he tries to carry for her that are her own light reading for pleasure – books that are far beyond him. Once they make their fortunes inventing the serum that cures death, Octavia tries to become invisible on purpose, moving to an isolated home, not putting any anything in her name. However people persistently seek her out, demanding she answer for the fact that the reality of immortality doesn’t match their idealized perception of what it would be. Disease can’t kill people, but injuries still happen, and age and time are still factors. In this story, Myers offers up a lovely examination of death, life, love, friendship, loss, and perception versus reality.
The last two stories discussed here speak to each other directly, sharing similar themes, but taking very different approaches. Skins Smooth as Plantain, Hearts Soft as Mango by Ian Muneshwar in August’s issue of The Dark centers on a young boy named Harry who carries a monster inside him. From the outside, he appears normal, but Harry must appease the beast by keeping it happy and fed. The story echoes with themes of colonialism, isolation, and the feeling of being caught between two worlds.
Harry mostly looks white from his father’s side, but he still longs for a connection with his dead mother, and the Guyanese side of his family. Harry’s stepmother doesn’t approve of him, and while it isn’t explicitly stated, there is a racial undercurrent to her dislike. His primary connection to his mother’s side of the family is his Uncle Amir, but he only seems interested in introducing Harry to life in the factory where both he and Harry’s father work.
There are divisions everywhere in Harry’s life — between the classes and races in his father’s factory, between Harry and his family, between the more and less affluent houses in the neighborhood, between Harry and the children who know of him through his mother, but who he’s never spent time with. There is even a river, literally dividing the land, furthering Harry’s isolation.
Muneshwar presents the beast inside Harry as an actual supernatural presence, but it can also be read metaphorically for the hunger in him as he grows up and his body changes, for the injustices and tension in his life, for seething anger, and also for the way he is set apart — looking one way, but uncertain of his identity.
The story is rich with sensory descriptions of the flavors and textures of the food Harry uses to appease the beast, and the sights, sounds, and feel of the town around him. It’s a story that pulls the reader in, and allows them to feel the world fully, including the darkness under the skin.
Never Yawn Under a Banyan Tree by Nibedita Sen from Issue 2 of Anathema Magazine also deals with a hungry creature hidden inside a human body. In this case, it’s a ghost accidentally swallowed by the protagonist while she’s on a blind date.
Meena is queer, but not out to her family, and because her mother is determined her daughter will marry the right kind of man (a Brahmin) and provide grandchildren, Meena is forced to keep up appearances. For her part, Meena has learned to game the system, using dates as an excuse to get free food, with no intention of marrying any of the boys her mother sets her up with. Food becomes even more central to her life when the ghost living in the Banyan tree outside the restaurant dives down her throat. He wants to experience food the way he did when he was alive, always taunted by its smell now, but never able to consume it.
Where Muneshwar’s story has a horror-infused tone, Sen’s story is on the lighter side. Meena doesn’t want a ghost inside her dictating her appetites anymore than Harry wants his beast, but unlike Harry, Meena is able to strike a deal and reassert some control over her life. She promises to help save the Banyan tree, which is in danger of being torn down, in exchange for the ghost leaving her body. She recruits her friend, and her crush, Rupsha, who happens to be a journalist to write a story that will rally patriotic feelings around the tree as a cultural symbol. Meena also applies the power of social media, and scathing foodie reviews.
While Sen’s story is more lighthearted than Muneshwar’s, woven with touches of humor and romance, there are similar rich descriptions of flavors and textures. Sen’s story also takes on themes of appearances — the way Meena presents herself versus her true self, and the way she plays with perception and expectation to take the reality of a nuisance tree filled with birds that poop on passersby, and turns it into a cultural symbol and a source of pride.