Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-January
Some more of the 2011 ‘zines that I dug belatedly out of the mailbox, one belated 2011 anthology, and some current monthly ezines as well as a first look at one: Something Wicked, which I find less wicked than its name.
- Lightspeed, January 2012
- Strange Horizons, January 2012
- Shimmer, December 2011
- On Spec, Fall 2011
- Something Wicked, January 2012
- River, edited by Alma Alexander
Lightspeed, January 2012
Now incorporating Fantasy Magazine, to present four original stories in a month.
“How Many Miles to Babylon” by Megan Arkenberg
Apocalypse. Alien invasion has covered the Earth with darkness, and nightmarish creatures pursue the few survivors, which include the narrator and her husband. The radio has given them hope that there exists a stronghold of light calling itself Babylon, and they drive continually, hoping to find it.
Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great. The words ring in my head, as repetitive as a nursery rhyme. What if it’s true? What if Babylon is not our new Jerusalem with angels at the gates, but a charred skeleton city, a ruin with monsters nesting in its bones?
Somehow, it doesn’t seem likely to me that a group of survivors would name their refuge after a long-extinct city, even if it does allow the author to use the nursery rhyme as her title. Otherwise unremarkable apocalypse tale.
“On the Acquisition of Phoenix Eggs (Variant)” by Marissa Lingen
After a stiff bidding war, collector Louisa Pickering brings home her latest-acquired phoenix egg, only to discover that it is not what she had in mind. The egg is humming. It is a variant.
I know a phoenix egg from a mere roc or a painted bird egg. I know what I am about here. I will not be taken in. Louisa Pickering knows her phoenix eggs, and I have never been wrong. I gave it another look, and again with my wizard’s loupe.
She has been cheated, and now all she wants to do is dump the defective thing.
The mannered tone of the narrative makes this one entertaining, even if the rather unusual premise is not entirely consistent.
“Blue Lace Agate” by Sarah Monette
Cops. Although in fact paranormal investigators in this scenario aren’t really cops, and there seems to be hostility between the two departments, for reasons not disclosed here. This is the partner story, with the rookie partner determined to take all the shit the senior one dishes out, for the chance of learning from him. While they are on an unrelated investigation, Mick picks up a ring and immediately flashes on a ritual murder. The experience unhinges him, and his partner wisely knows what to do about it.
All at once, Mick said, “Here!” his voice so urgent that Jamie slammed on the brakes in instinctive response, hard enough to throw them both forward against their seat belts. He swerved the car over against the curb; Mick was already clawing at the door, scrambling out, leaving the door not only unlocked but flapping open. Jamie locked the car and followed him more slowly, knowing that it wasn’t going to matter.
A bit thin. Usually, in the partner story, the junior cop has to exhibit some exceptional bravery or cleverness; Jamie manages on mere sympathy and niceness.
“The Five Elements of the Heart Mind” by Ken Liu
Tyra, sole survivor from her ship, has crash-landed on a world long ago colonized by humans who have by now lost knowledge of technology and advanced medicine. People from Tyra’s culture have eradicated most bacteria and intestinal flora; Fazen’s society uses ancient theories and herbal cures to establish a balance in what they call the “heart mind.” This resonates with the advice Tyra always got from her father: “Go with your gut.”
Heartwarming to excess, along with too much optimism and faith in human nature as well as in natural healing. The scientific idea behind the story is interesting, but the story itself is cloying: “Dances with Gut Flora.”
Strange Horizons, January 2012
Continuing the refreshing trend to a predominance of science fiction from this ezine.
“MonitorBot and the King of Pop” by Jessica Barber
In a future police state, Izzy is under surveillance because her brother is a member of the rebel army. She cooperates fully with the authorities and is therefore annoyed to find a protean MonitorBot in her room. But it turns out that the bot’s interest is extracurricular; it’s a fan of Michael Jackson, and Izzy is an impersonator, although struggling with a bad knee. A strange relationship ensues.
It’s kind of fantastic, actually—the bot seems to know what she’s going to do before she does it, and it bends in accommodation, shoring her up at just the right moments. There are a couple of jumps that she’s been phoning in recently—they launch off the wounded leg—but now she could swear the bot is doing something to let her fly higher, travel farther.
I like this unusual relationship, but I can’t really believe the ending is going to work out well.
“In the Cold” by Kelly Jennings
Nicola is a member of the second generation on a struggling planetary colony where the margin between failure and survival has grown too thin. She is often at odds with Hugo, the colony’s top executive, in large part because everyone is aware she is the one most likely to replace him.
Hugo would claim, I can hear his dry tones running as I scout the corridors, it’s not the getting caught, it’s the doing right, are we a community or are we not, do you work to build or do you tear down, a community can only tolerate so much dissent. This is how they defeat us, those ropes of language.
One night during a storm, she catches a fleeting distress signal from outside the dome – a child’s voice asking for help. But are conditions too hazardous outside to risk sending out a search team?
A story of leadership, responsibility, and hard choices. A bit didactic. I have to quibble with the author’s agronomy: pears require more chill hours than peaches.
“Recognizing Gabe: un cuendo de hadas” by Alberto Yáñez
A transgender story. Gabi has known as long as he could remember that he was really a boy, not a girl, but he couldn’t convince his parents he was serious until a visit from the family’s fairy godmother, who set them straight. Still, knowing it is one thing, accepting it is another. Gabi wants to be accepted for himself – a boy who likes to cook in the kitchen.
All the pretend I had to do for amá and apá, that all stopped after nina Tere’s visit. She mostly convinced my parents that I wasn’t crazy or willful or even a freak. I was just their son, Gabriel.
They missed Gabriela for a long, long time.
The fantastic element is minimal here. Nina Tere doesn’t wave a magic wand and transform Gabi physically; what she wields is moral authority. It’s a story of family, an awfully optimistic one.
Shimmer, December 2011
A nice issue of this little magazine, with several stories more science-fictional than fantastic.
“Food My Father Feeds Me, Love My Husband Shows Me” by A A Balaskovits
A carnivorous take on the Bluebeard legend. The narrator’s father is a gourmand who butchers his own meat, and she is his favorite daughter.
When all my sisters put their white and smooth hands to their chests and faint at the gore on his killing smock, I gently untie its knots and wash it with my bare hands until they stain red. Because of this, my father gives me the first and largest servings of leg and rib, and when he boils lamb’s head I am always allowed to chew on their glossy black eyes.
But when she marries, her husband turns out to be a former butcher, now a vegetarian who, with loving words, forbids her to eat the meat she craves.
A richly sensuous narrative (some readers will say “gross”) that hints of incest and cannibalism. Strictly speaking, there is no fantastic element present except for the apparent suspension of the process of decomposition.
“Chinvat” by Sunny Moraine
A future in which the Golden Gate Bridge has been closed due to earthquake damage, but jumpers still seek the place out. A man named Denn has become a local legend, patrolling the bridge to deter suicides, and journalist Carter Nolan – a suicide survivor himself – has come there to interview him. No one thinks this is a good idea, not Denn and not Nolan’s wife.
The fantastic element makes it a ghost story, although in essence it’s about Carter confronting his personal ghosts.
“Made of Mud” by Ari B Goelman
It seems that there are small semi-living creatures who form themselves from mud, and the narrator’s father discovers a pit of them in their yard. The narrator is happy to observe the mudlings but worries about the young sociopaths next door, whom his parents rather inexplicably tolerate. The ending is not particularly surprising.
“The House Was Never a Castle” by Aaron Polson
The orphaned narrator lives with his sisters, one living and one a ghost, in a house with no exterior doors where they take refuge from the war being waged outside. Occasionally they go through a crack to gather bugs and worms to eat, but this is risky, if they are discovered.
Surreal post-apocalypse. I am not entirely convinced that there is anyone actually alive in this world. Except the bugs and worms.
“Minnow” by Carlea Holl-Jensen
A surreal vignette in which the narrator “swelled up like a helium balloon” and floated into the sky to reminisce. It makes an arresting image, but no actual sense.
“Trashman” by A C Wise
This is a special trashman who performs a kind of trashomancy by which he knows everything.
He’s pieced your life together from the shredded stubs of each bill you’ve paid. He’s tasted the remnants of every one of your meals, scrying coffee grinds and tuna cans, egg shells and banana peels, laying them out like an augur’s bones.
This has always creeped out the 2nd-person narrator, but now that his lover has disappeared, he needs the trashman.
An ambivalent, almost godlike figure, ominous but benign at the same time.
“We Make Tea” by Meryl Ferguson
Science fiction. In the wake of a catastrophic war, the robots running an abandoned tea factory yearn for a human presence. Then a human arrives, but he is not quite what they had in mind.
“Now listen up, you brainless, stinking pile of metal. I am taking my construct and I am leaving. And when I get back, I’ll have a company with me. And we’ll be moving in here, and reprogramming everyone, and there will be no more of this damn tea!”
A Lite apocalypse. The neurotic desperation of the cook robot makes this one stand out a bit from similar scenarios.
“Bad Moon Risen” by Eric Del Carlo
Werewolves. Although the author is coy and doesn’t use the W-word. Surviving humans fight a desperate battle to hold them off, as so many survivors have done before, in so many other stories just like this one.
“Some Letters for Ove Lindström” by Karin Tidbeck
The narrator retreats to her childhood home where she writes to her newly dead father, but the question is really her mother – who or what was she, and where did she come from?
She was standing at the edge of the forest, her back turned. Her dark hair tumbled in tangles down her back. The hem or her red dress dragged at the ground. I was sitting in the sandbox. I couldn’t move. She walked in among the trees and there was a tinkling sound on the air, like tiny bells.
The fantastic element here is ambiguous, but it subtly evokes the legends of the animal wife who eventually abandons her husband and children. The ending suggests something more ominous, but nothing in the text implies what that might be.
“Gödel Apparition Fugue” by Craig DeLancey
Poignant homage to mathematical logician Kurt Gödel, a man whose genius is not sufficiently appreciated outside his field, whose brilliance was such that when he claimed time travel was possible, his views could not simply be dismissed. But ghosts?
“If numbers are real, but immaterial; and if our souls grasp them; then aren’t our souls real, but immaterial? But not Albert, might not Oskar, still exist? Might we not know them again?”
The story itself is an argument that it may not be fantasy, despite the hint of ghosts. Certainly the subject matter is otherwise the stuff of science fiction, as well as a reflection on some of the greatest thinkers in the history of science, who are still people with the usual needs of people, including love and friendship.
On Spec, Fall 2011
Another little magazine, this one Canadian. Nine stories in over a hundred pages, plus nonfiction and poetry. A few of the stories are a bit longer than the usual, which I like to see.
“The Silent Machete” by A A Hernandez
A story of ghostly possession. After Carmen’s father killed her mother with his machete, she left Puerto Rico, intending never to return; she married an Anglo guy and never spoke Spanish. Perhaps it was her fault for naming her daughter Esmeralda, after her mother.
Perhaps my mother’s spirit flew in and closed up her mouth, or maybe she’s just mute. But I can’t help thinking that her silence has something to do with my mother’s murder.
Eventually her husband has the idea of taking the child to Puerto Rico, where the supernatural really kicks in.
The powers manifesting here seem to me more malevolent than they do to the narrator, going well beyond revenge.
“The Rook and the Web” by Carolyn Watson
A long-married couple who don’t seem to notice each others’ existence notice the new visitors in their house: the wife lets a crow inside and the husband finds a spider making a web over the TV screen. Each becomes obsessed with these creatures, who quickly take over the house.
By the dinner hour, Eunice and the crow had become inseparable. Streaks of white poop covered her plaid dress and a few black feathers had lodged in her hair. The crow tugged Eunice’s ear when he wanted food. The ear tugging was painful, but Eunice had no time to complain.
Too absurd to be really frightening. It seems to be more of a cautionary tale for married couples than horror.
“Your Source of Tears” by Andrew Barton
Science fiction fantasy. A pair of astronauts is on an expedition to explore a comet, but too many strange things are happening, and Manfred is convinced that space has driven him crazy. First, a silver woman appears in the spacecraft, as if she were one of the crew. Now it seems that the probe piloted by his partner Zépherine is missing; Manfred leaves the ship and goes after her, onto the cometary surface.
There is more neurosis here than heroism, more weirdness than wonder. None of it seems real.
“The Observation Deck” by Kristin Janz
In this vignette, a member of the space station’s crew enjoys the naive delight of a young woman headed for the stars.
“When Ayanna Kapoor Waits” by Anthony J Rapino
The narrator would have us believe that Ayanna is “nothing more or less” than a human woman, except with three arms. But I don’t believe it, because Ayanna’s clairvoyance approaches the level of the divine; her parents considered her a blessing from God, and she may be even more than that. At any rate, Ayanna loves Peggy, and Peggy has just been diagnosed with a fatal disorder, and Ayanna knows how to save her.
It’s nice to have a goddess as a best friend. Lucky Peggy. A bit less lucky for the reader, for whom this piece offers no tension and no real surprises.
“The Halberdier, by Moonlight” by Scott H Andrews
A setting that resembles our 16th century in warfare, although the concept of the afterlife is different. When war spread across the countryside, the icevintner’s son joined in, despite his father’s pleading. Now, killed in battle, he only wants to beg forgiveness, but the dead cannot speak to the living.
If he couldn’t speak to his father, perhaps he could leave some message that his father might find. Or perhaps his presence might give his father a presentiment of his regret. Or would just standing in the same room bring him the barest spark of atonement, even if his father had no sensation that anyone was there?
A tragic, moving tale, an effective portrayal of the horrors of war, as well as an individual’s yearning for atonement. The afterlife is well-conceived.
“Oh Most Cursed Addition Engine” by H S Donnelly
Humor. Two brothers live together on their family estate, each obsessive in his own way. Walter, faced with the troublesome task of keeping the estate’s books,
began to ponder the question of whether, in this modern age, with locomotives and steam engines performing the labours previously performed by animals and men, it might also be possible to invent an intelligent machine: one that could perform the tedious but mechanical process of arithmetic.
Mr Babbage of the Royal Society has taken an interest. In the meantime, his brother Toby, a retired military man, is constantly digging up the grounds to recreate the battles of Wellington’s Peninsular Campaign.
A comedy of errors that nevertheless comes much closer to the original spirit of steampunk than all the clockwork fairies currently infesting the fantasy field. Clever and amusing.
“Hexenhaus” by Megan Fennell
Hansel and Gretel, after the witch is dead. Hansel has gone rather psychotic and refuses to eat or to leave the house, as it rots around them. All the responsibility has now fallen on Gretel, who has by now grown up. A sort of twist ending comes from an aspect not original to the fairy tale.
“The Virgin’s Tears” by Priya Sharma
In the reign of Louis XV, the young alchemist called the Comte de St Germain shows up in Paris and begins to climb the social ranks. He is befriended by Sophie, an aging saloniste who is soon inappropriately infatuated, to the point of jealousy. But St Germain’s real interest may be in her library, where she has a rare volume describing the properties of the Virgin’s Tears, said to confer immortality.
This historical fantasy plays with the rich material of the Parisian salons. A novel take on St Germain, who of course is a figure of legend that has long fascinated fantasy authors, but this time, it is Sophie who stands out as a character, interestingly flawed.
My caustic tongue. Too much. Too blunt. Now he would take offense and I would be prostrate with apologies. Or else embarrassed and ridiculous and in need of reassurance. How tiresome these games were.
Something Wicked, January 2012
Issue #17 of this monthly “Science Fiction and Horror” ezine from South Africa. There are four stories, posted one a week, each accompanied by pieces about the authors. I don’t really see any overt horror.
“She Can See Tomorrow Today” by Mel Odom
Emily is a precognitient being pursued by a sinister government agency that forcibly recruits her kind for sinister government work, when all she wants is to be left alone. At first, she keeps up a line of denial to the agent who has tracked her down, but at last she goes on the offensive.
“I don’t have a television because I don’t want to see people I know bad things are going to happen to. I don’t read newspapers or magazines for the same reason. If I’m not careful, my life is one nightmare after another. Did you know that?”
The basic scenario is not new, but the interest here is in the way knowledge of the future can be used against an enemy. I’m not sure, however, that a member of that particular sort of agency would be so easily manipulated.
“Concerning Harmonies and Oceans” by K A Dean
A dystopian future where ocean-going cities engage in destructive status wars for no good reason. The cities have learned to employ song as a weapon, using harmonics that shatter enemy structures. Within the cities, there is the familiar division into castes, with extreme hostility shown to the lower orders, for no good reason. Harin is a boy from the lowest level who gets a chance to audition for the chorus, despite the contempt in which his caste is held.
The plot here is rather standard, but the scenario is so strongly distasteful that it stands out, not really in a good way. The reader is suppose to sympathize with Harin but might be distracted by thinking it would be an improvement if all the cities were to sink to the ocean floor and rid the world of their presence.
In the eyries of towers and in roof gardens the aristocracy of Seventh giggled and gibed, titillated. Dressed in slim, fitted clothes, dark suits, starched and crisp, with sharp creases and formal ties, they lacked the ostentatious flourishes favoured by the citizens of Third City. Across canyons of steel and concrete, glass and silver, the well-dressed and gaudy lords and ladies of Third reciprocated, braying.
“The Lighthouse” by Genevieve Rose Taylor
The nameless narrator keeps seeing a ghost, perhaps a premonition of her death.
From the safety and warmth of my little garret room, I watch her stagger by, clutching her belly with one hand, searching for something she will never find. Even though I’ve never seen a ghost before, I know this isn’t a living woman stumbling along the cobblestones. She’s long past needing the help of shelter and a warm fire.
The narrator has been fortunate in finding shelter herself, with a kindly older woman who assumes she is pregnant, but the narrator’s problem is actually some kind of malignancy that will eventually kill her. Her interest in ghosts leads her inexplicably to explore an abandoned lighthouse.
The ghosts here have a thematic presence as a reminder of mortality and death, but they don’t otherwise figure in the story, to the point that some readers may feel a bait and switch going on, promising a ghost story and not delivering one. The connection between the ghost stories and the lighthouse is a weak one. At its heart, this is a mundane story about the burdens of dying. I like the prose, but it has an archaic quality that gives the impression the setting is some time in the last century.
“Jack of Spades, Reversed” by Cat Hellison
Fantasy war. Louise has paid Attery to guide her through the jungle as she undergoes the change from human to pseudo-bird, but the Queen’s scientists are on their trail. There is war between the humans and the old beasts who seeded the world with the spores that bring on the change, but only the changed ones can function in the Space Between and face the enemy there.
. . . it’s bad enough to be turned half-way into a giant butterfly and press-ganged into a war I couldn’t give two shits about. I don’t need a mage scrabbling about in my brainpan on top of that.
Interesting premise, from what we can see of it. The details of the human society, which may or may not be based on Tarot cards, are only hinted at, as are the motives of the Queen’s Jack. I’d like to have seen this world expanded, to know more of it.
River, edited by Alma Alexander
The editorial forward describes this 2011 project as
a collection of stories any of which may or may not take place on the banks of the same body of water as any other in the treasury of tales… and yet which would all tell of the same River, in essence, the River that flows through all the stories of all the world.
For me, this theme evokes the ancient belief that every river, stream and spring is a divinity, a concept illustrated in many of these stories. The volume has obviously been crafted with loving care. The ToC is in the form of a map with the stories placed along the river’s banks, arranged thematically from wellsprings to the merging with the sea. Unlike many anthologies of this sort, most of the stories seem to have been written specifically with the theme in mind, rather than dragged out of the trunk to be repurposed.
The problem is the too-great-similarity of tone. It’s like reading through a twelve-course meal where every other dish is dessert, and even the meat and the bread and the vegetables have been sprinkled with sugar. There are too few tart or savory dishes, too few palate-cleansers. Too many benevolent forces hover over the stories to make sure the characters won’t suffer the consequences of their acts. There is little narrative tension. There is no real edge.
“The Well-Keeper and the Wolf” by Tiffany Trent
Elspeth the eternal well-keeper tells us that
I guard the Well at the center of the world, the Well from which the great River flows. Here it is but a spring, a trickle, forced up from the bedrock of the world by magic, infused with the dreams and terrors that slumber deep within the cosmos.
But someone is at the door and wants in, an old lover who would drink up the well with its magic and dreams, if she let him. A tempter.
Mostly backstory, the old tale of lovers who take different paths, separated by jealousy and envy. There are apparently “masters”, not-quite-godlike beings who teach the well-keeper that her river is only an avatar of a cosmic river of stars. She believes them, but I feel she may be too credulous, as they are the agents who have brought discord into her world. The story, however, doesn’t seem to note this.
“Rites” by Mary Victoria
Set in Cyprus during a lengthy drought. A mad English painter [aren’t they all?] comes to the village where unloved Effie lives with her cranky grandmother, where water no longer flows from the tap in the garden.
A child of six at her grandmother’s house that first summer, she had been thirsty and wrestling with the garden tap, in quest of a drink. She turned the spigot too far; water had spurted out in a fountain of droplets. It made her giggle, because the afternoon was so hot, the fountain of water so high, and the drops on her face so pleasantly cool. And while she was standing there, drenched with water and bliss, she heard the voice.
The painter seems to have the ability to capture images not seen.
Nice use of myth, melding it with the image of the spring, appropriate to the anthology’s theme. I would have liked to see the laurel leaves reworked more subtly, though. As they are, it’s a bit much.
“The Fall” by Irene Radford
A waterfall personified, a minor goddess or nymph.
Then back to the top of the cliff, and repeat. The joy of my existence sends me plunging over the edge. Ever constant, ever changing, ever picking at the rock behind and underneath me, molding it to fit my will.
The story element is fairly inconsequential. It’s all about the joy of being the stream.
“They Are Forgotten Until They Come Again” by Jay Lake
Another personified river goddess [capitalized, too] in a devolved future where humans offer Her human sacrifice. But the men of the tribe make a mistake when they steal Angry Eyes’ crippled baby as an offering, because she is particularly favored by River.
Her dance grew stronger, stranger, faster. Wind whistled around Smallish Boy, and where moments before had been a blue sky only a little ragged with clouds, fat raindrops flew hard and fast from west to east, stones slung by Ocean to be borne by Storm to this
Smallish Boy makes an interesting and insightful protagonist, not yet susceptible to the sex magic employed by the woman, like Odysseus with his ears full of wax. He also seems to have better judgment than any of the other characters. Mostly I liked this one because things went wrong and people suffered the consequences of their acts.
“Scatological” by Deb Taber
Back from the river they came each night, and the trails they left of froggy turds froze on the benches and crunched in the streets as the winter turned mild days into interminable cold nights under the cloud-softened sky. And the frogs, if they truly—impossibly—were frogs, continued creeping in from the river, raising their numbers from tens to hundreds at a time. And when they died, if they were truly— impossibly—alive, they continued washing back to their flowing home.
Annalee moves into town and discovers that, while the frog shit stinks, their song is sweet.
A story of ecological balance and imbalance, in which shit necessarily plays a major role, as little as we like to admit it, or smell it. A good point.
“Floodlust” by Jacey Bedford
When Zanna was a child, she met a man by the bank of the river and promised to marry him. Of an age to marry, she has met him again, but now she understands he is a sort of river “angel”, and in order to join with him, she would have to trust him and breathe the water. She has seen too many men drowned in the river, including her father, and she can’t bring herself to do it. As the result of her weakness, she is trapped among her husband, her human lover, and her river lover, the father of her elemental child. No good can come of this.
Actually, Zanna gets off more easily than she deserves, even though she has to pay for her mistakes. It could have been a higher price. Maybe should have been. You don’t break a promise to a god and get away with it.
“Five Bullets on the Banks of the Sadji” by Keffy R M Kehrli
Named for their rivers, the Sadji people have been enslaved by the Koretl and some still carry on the resistance; thus the narrator’s brother was killed and when he finds himself against his will harboring a fugitive from the poison hounds, he remembers the magic of his river.
The limitations of river magic may be stark as the walls of a stone gorge, but properly channeled, a river can move boulders. I had seen my mother move water before. I dropped the oars and clapped my hands once before shoving them down into the river.
I like the way the author uses the rivers as a metaphor for political power, with the trunk overwhelming the tributary and the people assimilating as the waters mingle downstream of the confluence. But the parallel isn’t exact; here, power can move upstream.
“The River” by Joshua Palmatier
A despairing mother drowns her children in the river, and Erick the Seeker is sent to find and kill her. The problem with this one can be found in the author’s endnote:
If you enjoyed “The River,” check out The Skewed Throne, where you can learn more about Erick, Varis, Bloodmark, and the Mistress.
Nope. I have no interest in reading about characters from some series I’ve never heard of, who don’t really do anything in the story at hand, which engages too little of the author’s attention.
“Lady of the Waters” by Seanan McGuire
A riverboat with a strange crew docks in a town where the locals are sacrificing girls to a magician in exchange for good fishing. I found the crew of centaurs and other anomalies to be a distraction, except for the interesting fish-woman. The mystery was less solved than revealed.
“Vodnik Laughter” by Ada Milenkovik Brown
An interesting variant on the river-spirit legends, Czech vodniks that trap the souls of the drowned in lidded cups. As a young child, Iveta ignores her mother’s warning and falls into the river, where a vodnik grabs her. Iveta asks him to take someone else instead, and the vodnik takes the soul of her unborn brother, along with her mother in childbirth. Because Iveta is a musical prodigy, her widowed father exploits her as a young female Mozart, but Iveta keeps hearing the voices of the vodniks in the music, taunting her.
The frightful hand held up a pretty porcelain cup decorated with swans, such as one would use to sip chocolate or coffee. It had an ornate lid, like a beer stein. The scaly thumb bent and the lid flipped up. She dared not turn to see if her brother was inside.
I like the vodnik story, but I’m not sure how closely the prodigy story fits with it. And Iveta gets off way too easily.
“River-Kissed” by Joyce Reynolds-Ward
Marthe is on a journey downstream, changing into a sort of mermaid, a metamorphosis supposed to have Significance. That’s about it.
“Beyond the Lighthouse” by Nisi Shawl
Leelah is an older woman who seems to have everything but love. She is now infatuated with a younger man who reminds her of her first, long-dead, lover, yet convinced she is too decrepit to attract him. She is also an out-of-body adept, taking the form of a bird when she flies over the river, attracted yet fearful of where it joins the sea, of being lost in it – the river serving here as a metaphor for life, and the sea for its dissolution. As a warning, she has established a psychic lighthouse on the last island before the river’s mouth.
Unlike everyday lighthouses, her Cracker Isle beacon’s beam stayed steady, unwinking. Also unlike other lighthouses, it warned of water, not rocks or sandbars or navigational hazards. It warned of dissolution, boundarilessness.
This is by far the best-written work in the collection, full of depth and symbolism. Yet I find I can’t really like Leelah very much. Her obsession with Felix comes uncomfortably close to stalking, even perhaps to psychic manipulation. And the author throws in a distasteful gratuitous slap at a white woman, just because she can, I suppose.
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