Short Story Rec: “The Minotaur’s Wife” by Megan Arkenberg

“The Minotaur’s Wife” by Megan Arkenberg is included in the January, 2015 issue of Pantheon Magazine. You can read it for free here.


I had not chosen to marry you, but I had chosen to become the Minotaur, and to do it well.

Like the other Megan Arkenberg story I’ve written about here, “The Minotaur’s Wife” is epistolary and quiet and desperate. I haven’t read enough of her stuff to know if this is a trend of hers, or if I just happened upon two particularly good ones written in a similar way, but hey, if you want two good, melancholy meditations on doomed love in epistolary form, Arkenberg’s got them for you.

This one involves a drug trade, and queerness, and arranged marriages that twist around to something different over the course of time, and barren houses that slowly fill themselves up. What I love about Arkenberg’s writing in this story is how much of Naxos, the narrator, you see in the details she chooses to write about in her letters. The letters themselves, the construction of them, are as revelatory as her actions.

And this works as a story. Where I would have made this something much grander in scale–probably a duology with all of the backstory filled in–Arkenberg limits the scope to such a tight focus. We only see Naxos and Asterion. She has a keen, clean eye for the core of her story and the details that support it. It feels huge, because lives for those living it is always huge, but she keeps that tight focus, and the story works at its clean length because of it, even though it spans over thirty years of Naxos’ life.

Short Story Rec: “Baug’s Hollow” by Cathrin Hagey

“Baug’s Hollow” was published in issue 32 of Luna Station Quarterly, and is free to read here.


She found her cottage yard dotted with spring’s first blooms, yellow poppies bursting from the frigid earth, the flag that other blooms would follow. Hen entered the cottage, pushing hard against the well-sealed door, one of Baug’s many gifts to his then young wife. “Heavy door, warm hearth,” was what he had said.

This is a very sweet, very quiet story about a woman who learns that her dead husband was both exactly who and not quite who she thought he was. I tend to read stories with angst with darkness in them, but this is one with comfort and wonder in it, and the warmth of it etched its way into my heart anyway.

I hope that when I am old that I am as patient and curious as Hen, and that I am as open to the strangeness and the beauty of life as she is.

Short Story Rec: “Firstborn” by Maria Haskins

“Firstborn” by Maria Haskins appeared in Capricious, issue 7. You can read it for free here.


I’m so tired: tired of crying, tired of screaming and begging. The night is cold and silent. It holds no answers, no prayers, no lullabies, no dreams. I am empty, hollowed out, scraped clean. I am nothing: not Em, not mother, not woman, not even human, anymore. I am a smudge of cold and shadow beneath a tree in a forgotten place in an abandoned world.

The best short stories are the ones that take some long-buried part of you, some feeling you forgot you ever felt, and then bring it right to the surface of your heart so sharp and crystallized that it sends you spinning right back in time. “Firstborn” by Maria Haskins did that for me.

Like Em in the story, my kid was born six weeks early. Like Em, the creeping anxieties of new parenthood swallowed me whole. Having a newborn is absolutely terrifying and incredibly isolating, and no one tells you that until it’s too late. For me, I ended up an insomniac who tracked everything in spreadsheets–how much the baby was eating, how often he was peeing, when he was sleeping. All of it. And then my partners intervened and sent me to therapy. And I got slowly better.

This story, about the eerie loneliness and terror of having a new life that only you are caring for, is strange and bizarre and filled me full of old familiar fears.

Short Story Rec: “Three Points Masculine” by An Owomoyela

“Three Points Masculine” by An Owomoyela was published in issue 72 of Lightspeed. It is free to read here.


The damn rev had a point: I got to be a guy because I took a test and it said I got into enough fights, played enough sports, had enough right interests and few enough wrong ones. I got to be a guy because some white-collar jackhole stamped and signed a form. I never would’ve got to be a guy just because I was a guy.

This story hit me hard.

This is some of the realest shit I’ve ever read about what it feels like to be transgender in a ciscentric world. In the context of the story, there are Gender Assignment Tests, and you are rated based on points as feminine and masculine. Certain thresholds of one or the other get you into certain positions and can get you access to certain jobs.

The thing is, this is not that different than the world we live in now. The thrust of the story, the interactions between the trans narrator and John, the trans colleague he works with and ends up depending on, are the kinds of conversations I’ve had with my trans friends. And they boil down to the idea that when cis people are running the show, you’re never going to get those last three points you need. Somehow, that brass ring is always out of reach.

Your identity is never really yours, because it’s always qualified. You have to keep proving it over and over again, justifying it to people who don’t experience gender and life the way you do but serve as gatekeepers anyway.

The story is beautifully written–hard, and sharp, and vicious. The world Owomoyela creates drips with bitter realism just cranked up to eleven. This story gave me all the trans feels and then some.

Short Story Rec: “First National Forum on the Position of Minorities in Malaysia” by Zen Cho

“First National Forum on the Position of Minorities in Malaysia” by Zen Cho was first published in Fantastique Unfettered, September 2011, and is included in her collection of short fiction, Spirits Abroad.


Tell him I always save one piece of the cake for him. Just for him.

Zen Cho’s “First National Forum on the Position of Minorities in Malaysia” is a remarkable work of short fiction. It’s a story of great depth about how constraint creates choice, and how choice forces lives into a set trajectory. The thing about this story is that it’s not long, but it is a slow build.

The characters we’re first introduced to, who are effectively the point of view characters, are not the characters the story is about. The setting in which the action takes place is not really where the story is–it’s a framing device where the real story is told. So, yes, essentially the whole story takes place in one small, stuffy room where a disembodied voice tells a story to an old woman that she already knows. But the trick is that in the telling it is revealed that mountains of story, lifetimes of story, have happened off screen. And I, as the reader, felt all of it. That’s incredibly hard to pull off, but Cho manages it, and she manages it without the seams ever showing.

Short Story Rec: “The Perseverance of Angela’s Past Life” by Zen Cho

“The Perseverance of Angela’s Past Life” by Zen Cho is included in her collection of short fiction, Spirits Abroad.


But she needed to have a surface that could catch on things. She needed to be capable of friction.

This is not a perfect story, but it left me with an indelible image and metaphor of what it feels like to finally, finally come out to yourself and have it stick. And for that, it’s worth a read.

Angela has an excess of magic in her blood, because her best friend has been hanging out with a dragon a whole lot (that’s quite literally another story – see “Prudence and the Dragon”*). As a result, Angela’s teenage self has manifested and started hanging around her. So, she goes on vacation to bring down her blood magic levels in the hope that her past self will disappear. But of course, it’s more complicated than that.

Angela’s literal discussions with herself are gentle and prodding, but what struck me most is the integration of Angela’s two selves, and how that is portrayed. Angela’s past self, who essentially more comfortable with her queerness, is described as imperfect. The adult repressed Angela is perfect, but insubstantial. And this rings true to me, because when you’re in the closet, you’re covering for yourself. You’re spending so much emotional and mental energy making sure you’re not giving yourself away that your self-presentation is locked down, but your interior is emptied out. The imagery of the two unifying, of Angela letting herself become her imperfect but substantial self, was superbly resonant.

*That story precedes this one in Spirits Abroad and was also published in Crossed Genres in February 2011. RIP, Crossed Genres.

Short Story Rec: NETTLESTINGS by Sarah Caulfield

“Nettlestings: A Fairy Tale” was published in The Myriad Carnival: Queer And Weird Stories From Under The Big Top. You can read it here.


They asked him if he could fly and he said not anymore, said I used to, said I forgot how. His eyes peeled naked, they looked away from the desperation there and shrugged, said that’s fine, said it doesn’t matter, said we could use you anyway.

We could use you anyway, and there it is, there’s the thing, that last and single poignant thing: he had never felt of use before. He was a curse, a burden his sister carried upon her back, a guilty smear upon her brow: but not useful, never useful.

Caulfield’s story is a queer, magical retelling of “The Six Swans”. What happens to that last brother? The one that gets the unfinished shirt, the one with the missing sleeve? This story gives him an ending.

“Nettlestings” follows that brother, named Leda, as he runs away and joins the circus. There he finds some comfort, some solidarity. He’s a wounded creature, a wary boy. There, he meets Artemis: a mechanical boy made of jewels bewitched into life who can’t speak but can only sing, whose face is frozen into a single expression but who can feel the wide variety of life’s emotions anyway. And of course Leda and Artemis fall for each other, these two impossible boys, and of course I am rooting for them, days after finishing the story. Also, I loved that these two magic bird-boys had the names of Greek mythological heroines.

The writing is skilled: poetic without being gimmicky, flippant and casual but still polished. I will be watching out for more of Caulfield’s fiction.


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Short Story Rec: MAIDEN, HUNTER, BEAST

“Maiden, Hunter, Beast” was written by Kat Howard, and was published in Lightspeed, issue 68 (Jan. 2016). You can read it for free here.


 

She could believe that a unicorn would make its way here, to this city. It was a place made of myth as well as of concrete and steel, and myth called to myth, even when both were tangible.

Kat Howard’s “Maiden, Hunter, Beast” is only 2,500 words long but manages to weave together three perspectives. The story is consumed by a chase: an ancient unicorn pursued by an old hunter, and a young, modern woman who gets caught in the middle. But Howard fills in enough lore that everything clicks into place.

It’s a story about roles and expectations, and about femininity. The unicorn appears to girl maidens. It’s hunted by a woman hunter. And then the unicorn stumbles across the maiden’s path–this nineteen year old girl who just wants some damn takeout–suddenly she knows what the unicorn is and that it is hunted and what she should do. She just knows.

But nothing is inevitable. There are rules, but within those rules there are possibilities. Howard wrings enormous tension out of the possible endings she lays out of this chase. And there is so much agency in this story. All three characters–the maiden, the hunter, and the beast–all three make important choices along the way. The ending that comes would not have formed had these three particular creatures come together, acted this way, chosen to play their roles or not the way they did. Just a masterful story the whole way around.

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Short Stories I Loved in 2015

I read a great deal more short fiction in 2015 than in years past. Here are the short stories I most enjoyed in no particular order:

“Heaven Under Earth” by Aliette de Bodard

“Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” by Alyssa Wong

“Geometries of Belonging” by Rose Lemberg

“Shimmering, Warm, And Bright” by Shveta Thakrar

“We Love Deena” by Alice Sola Kim

“The Occidental Bride” by Bejanun Sriduangkaew

“Dustbaby” by Alix E. Harrow

“All in a Hot and Copper Sky” by Meg Arkenberg

 

 

Short Story Rec: “Ogres of East Africa” by Sofia Samatar

You can listen to the story for free over at Pocastle, or you can pick up a copy of Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction From the Margins of History.

I find myself adding it in the margins. There is a strange pleasure in this writing and not-writing, these letters that hang between revelation and oblivion.

If my employer discovered these notes, he would call them impudence, cunning, a trick. What would I say in my defense? “Sir, I was unable to tell you. Sir, I was unable to speak of the weeping mother of Kiptegen.”

He would laugh: he believes that all words are found in his language.

This just a stunning piece of short fiction. Samatar is telling many stories at once here–or, perhaps, a single story stretched across many levels–and she does so beautifully, masterfully.

Alibhai and Mary are hired by a White hunter for a trip to go hunting the ogres of East Africa; that’s the most basic reading of the story on the surface. But every element of the story is in conversation with every other element. Everything is symbolic and not symbolic at the same time. Alibhai is both a representative of marginalized people, a person speaking back against literally hundreds of years of narratives speaking over him, and a finely realized individual. Symbolic, yes, but also specific. Everything works at every level.

And the ending is phenomenal.