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.

 

Short Stories I Have Lately Loved: 12/11/2015

“Shimmering, Warm, and Bright” by Shveta ThakrarInterfictions, issue 6, Nov. 2015

She leapt into the luminescence, burying herself in its warmth. It soaked into her skin, saturating her, familiar, loving. No, there was no way she could ever be sad.

And yet we see Tejal be sad throughout the story, because that’s how brains are. Even the best balm doesn’t protect you forever.

I read this story weeks ago, but I keep thinking about it as the sun slinks further away and the days get clipped shorter and shorter. I write this next to a paltry little light box, and what I wouldn’t give for Tejal’s sunshine closet. Not that it solves all of her problems, or her mother’s problems, but, still, what I wouldn’t give for one. Shveta Thakrar tapped into the magic of the everyday and the creeping horror of depression in this story. As someone with seasonal affective disorder, and as someone who’s wrestled with depression otherwise, this story sticks with me.


 

“Geometries of Belonging” by Rose Lemberg; Beneath Ceaseless Skies, issue #183

I know that one day he will ask me to heal him.

The day I heal him is the day I’ll heal myself.

There are some short stories that hit you with their precision, with their brevity. And there are are some, like, this one, that are long, luxurious reads. There is a lot going on in “Geometries of Belonging”–plots and subplots that dovetail and mirror themes back together. It’s an intricate, finely wrought piece about damaged people and the damage people do. It’s a heartbreaking piece about heartbreak. It’s just…it’s so emotionally deep and satisfying, and especially as a non-binary person it is so respectful and affirming. Bittersweet and lovely.


 

“Hwang’s Billion Brilliant Daughters” by Alice Sola Kim; Lightspeed, issue 67, Oct. 2015

And then what? It is disputed. Is Hwang a force of good? Is he evil? How does he choose which daughters he appears to? Is he a matrilineal family curse? He tries to explain but it is not satisfying to his daughters.

On the first read, this is a bizarre little fable. On the second read, this is an incredible sad story of immense grief and guilt, the story of a man attempting to reconcile his purpose in life once he perceived himself to have utterly, completely failed. Hwang simultaneously erases himself and makes himself foregrounded in the lives of his descendants–all of his billion brilliant daughters. All the daughters except for the ones he actually wants to see again. It is a sly, clever, terrible, heart-wrenching story.

 

Short Story Rec: “All In A Hot And Copper Sky” by Meg Arkenberg in Lightspeed, September 2015

The whole story is free to read here.

I was your replacement, your stand-in for the survivors, because I was a survivor myself. (And what good are survivors otherwise, but to read our sorrows and grievances against the dead, to listen to what the dead cannot hear?)

Meg Arkenberg’s “All In A Hot And Copper Sky” unfurls slowly; it’s like watching a doctor unwrap bandages on a wound. You catch glimpses of the damage, you know there’s something there, something vicious, but it’s slow methodical work to get to the thing underneath. And like a doctor unwrapping a bandage this story is also deeply intimate–a singular, personal character study of a woman who is not allowed, never allowed, to stop grieving someone she lost because her dead lover is a famous killer (savior? the jury of public opinion remains out) from a failed space colony.

The narrator, Dolores, survived. Dolores survived everything: she survived the failed colony which only had survivors, arguably, due to her lover, Socorro’s, actions, then she survived Socorro’s death, too. But survival is not escape. Dolores lives the rest of her life in the shadow of Socorro’s actions, carrying the weight of her lover’s choices forever.

It’s a haunting story. Like “Dustbaby”1, it’s about grief, but it’s about an altogether different kind of grief–a kind of ferocious and public grief that can’t be escaped.

~

1I will not deny that I am a sucker for stories about grief. For reasons.


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Short Story Rec: “Dustbaby” by Alix E. Harrow in Shimmer #27

The whole story is free to read here.

Grief, in my experience, is a lot like dust. It turns food gritty and sour, it sifts onto your pillow as you sleep and burrows into every pore of skin, and you can never truly be rid of it.

I am only thirty, but I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and writing about grief. I’ve grieved in a lot of different ways, but I’ve (so far, and thank god) never lost a child. I also have a fascination with the Dust Bowl. These two interests are not miles apart. The Dust Bowl was a time of horrific grief for many. It was a time where the earth itself revolted in an unexpected carnage so blistering and total that no one knew what to do to survive it, and many didn’t. The dust literally ate people alive, or it starved them out. It sounds hyperbolic, but it’s true.

I have a book I’ve been working on periodically for the last couple of years about pregnancy. It’s a sort-of body-horror book where I’m trying to capture the utter weirdness of pregnancy, the way it makes your own body alien to you while at the same time connecting you to its intricacies in a new and haunting way.

Harrow’s story brought all of these odd little thoughts and interests of mine together in her story about a lonely, heartbroken woman on a dying farm who finds a mysterious baby in the dust. The story’s style reminds me of Flannery O’Connor or Steinbeck–plain-voiced and gothic at once. Like O’Connor there is in Harrow’s story a current of destruction and a current of resurrection undergirding the story.

It’s brutal and sad and sweet. I loved it. You might, too.