Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early May
The best fiction this time comes from The Dark, which is free from the taint of sentimentality that I find all too frequently in the other publications.
- The Dark, May 2015
- Interzone, May/June 2015
- Clarkesworld, May 2015
- Uncanny, May/June 2015
- Fingerbones, by Erzebet Yellowboy
The Dark, May 2015
A particularly good issue of this dark fantasy zine. The four stories divide into two groups: one darkly horror, the other more fantastic and less shaded. Yet across three of them is a theme of new fatherhood.
“The Ghost of You Lingers” by Kevin McNeil
A real estate agent is showing houses to a young couple, but there is a sinister impediment to every prospective home: a ghost, a neighborhood serial killer, a recent murder-suicide. The 2nd-person narrator expresses determination to find the right house, one where he can start over and shed the dark burdens of his past with a new family. But it increasingly becomes obvious that the narrator is the real problem.
This would seem to be straight horror in a mundane setting until the narrator pushes aside a wardrobe in the basement of one house to reveal a menacing cavity in the wall, radiating heat like an inflammation, or perhaps a gate into hell.
A strong desire to climb into the hole comes over you as you squat in front of it, gently stroking its moist edge. Right now, in this moment, climbing in seems like the most important thing you could do—to travel deep into the darkness and curl up in its heart. You somehow understand that the hole only leads in one direction, and there is no way back. This is incredibly scary, but it is also incredibly exciting.
Taken literally, this is a clear fantastic element, but for some reason I hesitate to take it literally; it seems like more of a hallucination, projected by the narrator’s imagination. But whether or not this is the case, it’s definitely a representation of the narrator’s inner demons and his weakening resolve to turn away from them. The final scene, in which he nails up a picture drawn by an innocent child, is especially ominous. I can’t help recalling how many serial killers have hidden behind the façade of a happy family, all unknown to them. It’s a chilling picture, effectively drawn.
“An Ocean of Eyes” by Cassandra Khaw
Another sinister opening, as a stranger accosts a woman waiting at a bus stop in a city named Ulthar. We see “the scythe of his mouth, his milk-pale skin, his eyes like tatters of the noon sky. A foreigner, most definitely.” We expect the worst but suspect it may not come in the most likely form. Frederic is odd, but Sigrid is equally so. He repels her, but she tries only half-heartedly to put him off. Telling him, bluntly at last when it’s much too late, to leave is a warning calculated to be unheeded.
The reveal at the conclusion, the exact nature of Ulthar’s wrongness, comes as a bit of a disappointment, as the explicit usually does in horror. There’s a subtlety to it, as least, and a care to avoid splatter. But the real interest is in the play of responsibility between the characters, the mutual seduction.
“A Shot of Salt Water” by Lisa L Hannett
While I enjoyed all the stories in the issue, this one is my clear favorite. The setting is a fishing village with a strange heritage, where brine as well as blood flows in their veins, where the young women take ship every year for voyages of adventure and reveling while the men stay home and tend to the children their mermaids bring home. Their return is always cause for celebration.
The shore party leapt overboard, hauled tired skiffs from hard-packed to soft sand. Their hair was dreadlocked, rimed with spray. Ten months at sea had staved in their cheeks, chiselled the roundness from hips and breasts. Blubber-treated packs were slung cross-body, leaving their arms free for fighting. Several hefted short-swords, others had daggers—though weapons weren’t needed for this landing. There were no screams at the seafarers’ approach, no terror at the sight of harpoons. Instead a baritone chorus whooped its greetings, singing tunes that beckoned them, one and all, inland.
Billy Rideout has been especially anxious for their return because his own lass, Beetie, has been gone on her first voyage. He’s now dismayed to find that she’s come back with a baby, and when he gets his first look at the bub, he knows it can’t be his own. It’s much more than a matter of webbed fingers and toes, or a bit of gill-slit. According to custom, none of that matters. It shouldn’t matter to Billy. But it does.
What I’m most pleased with here is the colorful language; it makes the setting glow vividly and the characters leap off the page. I’m also liking the hippocampus reference, as the seahorse is notable for the father’s care of the young after birth.
“Momentary Sage” by Erik Schwitzgebel
In the final scene of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the fairy king blesses the eventual issue of the young lovers’ marriages, that their children will be without defects. Which goes to prove once again that you can’t trust fairies. Because, in this account,
That midsummer’s night, after we four collapsed in fairy sleep beneath boughs and moon, I roused to see a sprite looping through the flowers. Carrying a single seed in his ant-leg fingers, he ducked beneath Hermia’s skirts. She turned once, in dream.
The changeling issue of this seed is born with a preternaturally sharp spike in place of his left hand, and a precocity focused on suicide, for which purpose the sharp tusk is intended: “Non-existence,” he says, “sets a floor beneath suffering. But milk is also good.” The parents, Hermia and Lysander, have been bespelled to love the child Sage unreservedly, so they immediately begin spoiling him in order to extinguish this desire for self-destruction, even to the point of dosing him with opium. Or it could all be yet another dream, as the scenario is related by a bitter and jealous Demetrius, who announces his narrative as unreliable from the outset, like the sensations of love generated by fairy mischief.
A weird rebuttal of the Bard and one of his weakest works, albeit much-beloved by fantasy fans. I rather like the philosophical debates between Demetrius and the infant Sage, but the heart of the story is the repudiation of coerced love.
Interzone, May/June 2015
Not enthusiastic about the fiction in this issue.
“a shout is a prayer/for the waiting centuries” by T R Napper
Two stories alternating, that join at the end, but it’s really all one. In the first, we have a refugee family attempting to escape a war zone in Vietnam. With death-dealing Chinese bots on their trail, the father sends wife and daughter on ahead, promising to join them when he can. In the second is another family of parents and young daughter, in somewhat better circumstances: they have food to eat, they have a regular income, they have peace if they can avoid the attention of the cops. The father is a former prize fighter, now working as a waiter, enduring the imperiousness of the wealthy whose faces he would love to smash in for their arrogance.
I’m reminded of a school exam: compare and contrast. Both stories deal with desperation, sacrifice and hope held out against the odds. The promise in both is the same:
Trung nodded and picked his daughter up. He was about to walk away when Phuong said: “But you’ll follow us? You promise?”
“I promise. Nothing can keep us apart,” he replied. But there was a sadness in his eyes as he said the words, a sadness that twisted in Phuong’s chest.
On the contrast side, the level of desperation differs. The circumstances facing Trung and Phuong are more extreme, their immediate prospects more dire, starvation and annihilation. There is little room for ethical choice, and if Trung commits what we might call an atrocity in order to survive, we may be tempted to excuse him. George and Nhung are materially better off despite their poverty in the affluent milieu where they live, and one measure of this is that they have the luxury of limited choices; George in particular has the luxury of caring for his self-respect. The overwhelming impression of both, however, is deeply dystopian. In this future, if there’s any hope for the downtrodden masses, it’s scant and unlikely; still, they grasp for it.
“The Re’em Song” by Julie C Day
Life in Norumbega rests on the bones and blood of the unicorn re’em. First the settlers slaughtered the wild herds, then gathered the bones.
Harvesting unicorn bones wasn’t easy work. With death, re’em bones condensed God’s blessing inside their hollows, little bone-trapped bolts of His holy spirit just waiting for an opportunity to jab through a digger’s flesh and find the living bone underneath. The entire Kerill Valley was charged with ghosts.
Sunnifa wants out, wants away, and that includes away from her husband Orri. But life in the city’s knackeryard slaughtering domesticated re’em is even worse. Sunnifa comes home to confront her ghosts.
There’s a powerful—powerfully disturbing—central image here, but the story built around it is scanted in a number of ways. The background is theological, but unclearly so. We can see there is some reality to the belief in the potency of the unicorn bone and blood, but otherwise it’s a mystery. Are the re’em holy or diabolical? How sentient are they? Are we dealing with an animal slaughter or a genocide? As for Sunnifa, exactly what is she running away from, and what has changed between her and Orri? We come to her only after her decision to leave is made, which gives us limited knowledge of her motivation. The conclusion sheds some light, but insufficient.
“Doors” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam
I’m not at all sure why Nikki takes her developmentally disabled adult brother to the fair, when he doesn’t really want to go, when she doesn’t have the money to pay for all the treats he’ll want as soon as he sees them, when he won’t take No for an answer and she can’t control him. I think she feels guilty about not taking him anywhere since their mother died and she was left alone as Zack’s caretaker, the end of her own dreams. One of the only attractions she can afford is something called the Space Bender, which the attendants call the hub of the multiverse. Before Nikki can stop him, Zack disappears through one of the doors.
It’s a story of choices, and Nikki is offered several—a universe where her father never left them, one where her mother doesn’t die, one where Zack lives happily without her in an institution. And one other. The choices can all be seen as temptations, holding out the possibility of life without the burden of her brother, a life of self-fulfillment that fate has closed off in this time and place. Since it’s a sentimental piece, there’s little doubt about what she’ll eventually choose. I feel little connection to the story because Nikki is fairly blank as a character. The others in the story seem to think she’s something kind of special, but I don’t see this in her.
“Angel Fire” by Christien Gholson
The narrator is a self-hating rich bastard who has given up on capitalism’s creative destruction. Below him, the poor and ordinary folks are lighting bonfires to call down angels of the apocalypse. The narrator thinks they’d be better off burning people like himself. His self-pity is pretty boring.
“Her First Harvest” by Malcolm Devlin
Purportedly science fiction on a world where the people of idle society grow mushrooms on their bodies, to be harvested at a ball in the governor’s mansion. Nina has come from the country and is worried because this is her first crop, and it seems sparse, and because people might look down on her as provincial. It’s supposed to be a story of manners, but the premise is too ridiculous while the rest is entirely clichéd. Will the ingénue get the nice boy by the end of the ball? Wanna guess?
Clarkesworld, May 2015
This online publication keeps expanding its offerings. I count five pieces of original fiction here, counting new translations as original. Alas, the tone overall is awfully heavy on the sentimentality.
“The Garden Beyond Her Infinite Skies” by Matthew Kressel
A cosmic tale, set in the long early instants of the universe’s first expansion. The universe, it seems, grows like a tree, with branches sprouting new branches, swaying in the gravitron wind. And among the branches are a multitude of Farmers, pruning out anomalies so the branches will grow in the approved manner without giving rise to cancers, such as metastasize into things like life. Aya is a skillful Farmer, but she has come to doubt the rightness of her task, finding the pruned branches sterile.
The sparks from the snuffed world fell. Where the first sparks touched the ground, new realms were born. They flashed, inflated, and slowed, their quark-gluon plasma too hot for solid matter. It would take an eon before galaxies formed. Two or three more before animal life arose. The Farmer folk sang ballads about the sparks of dead realms. The dust, forever alive, the lyrics went. Death, an illusion, just forms changing.
The plot here is of little interest; we know from the outset what decision Aya will make by the end. The real neatness is in the setting and the story’s conception. In essence, it’s a fantasy using the material of cosmology to build with. Some readers will be wanting to match up the author’s rather fanciful, metaphorical descriptions with the current version of the ever-mutating theories of the cosmic birth:
Yi herself was one of sixty four ova gestating inside Delicate Womb, the reproductive organ of Mother Lily, who gloriously blossomed inside the 501-dimensional field, Sky of Skies, who accelerated madly inside the meditating Z-space, Incomprehensible Mind, who lived inside another being who had a billion names and even more descriptions, none of which sufficed to circumscribe it.
So is it turtles all the way down or if the being in question is someone we might have heard of? But what I really wonder is, who hired Aya and all her fellow Farmers? Who gave them their instructions? Me, I’m thinking of the Demiurge must fit in here somewhere. At any rate, what we have here is a conflict between the dead and sterile universe of Central Planning, and the wild, chaotic cosmos of evolution; the formal French garden vs the weeds. We are meant by the plot to be on the side of the weeds, as weeds ourselves, but sometimes I wonder about us.
“For the Love of Sylvia City” by Andrea M Pawley
Actual science fiction, apocalyptic type. The land surface of Earth has been overtaken by wars, with the consequence that overwhelming numbers of refugees seek out the safety of underwater cities—far more than they can absorb. The nameless narrator was lucky; her parents had vital engineering skills, so they were let into Sylvia City along with their child, now the last dryland refugee. Because of her background, she can function closer to the light than those born to the benthos, so she’s been assigned to monitor and repair a communications cable that links the city with the drylands. But an incident with falling debris reveals that war has broken out again; the sky is on fire, turning everything to ash. The narrator knows the consequences, and she knows what she has to do to save her home.
The ocean will suffer greater injustice than ashes though. Carbon weapons release vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the air. So do survivors willing to burn anything they can find for warmth and cooking fuel. Like the last time, the ocean will attempt to absorb it all. The water’s acidity will shoot up. Great colonies of plants and animals will die. New, sickly species will add to the ranks of mutated sharks, thin-shelled snails and algae that grows where algae shouldn’t be able to grow.
Hard-hearted, anti-sentimental reader that I am, I really wish the author hadn’t chosen to drop a vulnerable child into the deeps. The story could have gotten along quite well without him. Further, the text makes it clear that stuff is constantly drifting down to the ocean floor, burying the cable in debris. In a war, there ought to be thousands of corpses in the water. What, then, alerted the narrator’s proximity alarm to this one particular bit of organic debris?
“Mrs Griffin Prepares to Commit Suicide Tonight” by A Que, translated by John Chu
Alas, we’ve seen this one too often before. Mrs Griffin has outlived everyone who once loved her. She’s lonely and doesn’t want to live alone any longer. Her helpful domestic robot advises her on the least painful, least messy methods. Pretty mawkish, albeit well-wrote.
“Ossuary” by Ian Muneshwar
A rather familiar scene: an automated facility out in trackless space where wrecked spacecraft are brought for recycling, although They speak to the AI in charge in terms of graveyards and bones. While Magdelena is ostensibly no more than a collection of chips and circuits, she has dreamlike memories of another form of life.
It always ended with the image of a small, hard planet spinning circles around a star. It was covered by green waters, oceans more vast and deep than Magdalena had ever thought possible. The vision would fade as quickly as it had come.
There’s a coincidence here that I find very hard to credit, that a creature from Magdalena’s world of origin would somehow manage to find its way to the very remote facility where she works. Or, if not a coincidence, still unexplained.
“An Evolutionary Myth” by Bo Young Kim, translated by Gord Sellar and Jihyun Park
Historical fantasy set in a fratricidal era of the Korean kingdom, with the universal theme that as the king does, so goes the kingdom. The current king does not do well at all, being a megalomaniac tyrant. The kingdom, accordingly, is afflicted by drought and the people are suffering, which puts them in hope of a hero come to deliver them. Our narrator happens to be a surviving son of the previous king, and he has good reason to suspect his tyrant uncle will seek his life. Seeking anonymity and concealment, he ruminates on the nature of evolution.
This tendency of creatures to metamorphose into the complete opposite of that which they long to become is also fascinating. Do you realize that the widely-credited notion that sunflowers follow the sun, is actually mere fantasy? They certainly do grow large flowers out of admiration for the sun, but then they bend their faces down toward the ground. They do this because they cannot bear the weight of those flowers. I thought then that perhaps I was like these others: since I wished nothing so much as to flap my wings and fly far away, maybe I would die instead with a heavy body, its belly stuck to the ground as it crawled about.
Thus, as he flees from the tyrant’s reach, he takes on a succession of different forms. So portents come into being, like the white fish with red wings of legend.
My favorite piece in the issue. I like the weirdly fanciful nature of this transformative story, even when the narrator gets a bit talky and moral. Metamorphosis is a central theme in folklore and myth, but the narrator here attempts a general theory to explain it, and that’s a neat fantastic thing. The piece opens epigraphically with reports of portents regarded as having significance. This, too, is a universal theme: the birth of two-headed calves or turtles with the face of Jesus on their shells have always attracted popular attention as having some great meaning or predicting some great event. I also note that the term “monster” comes from the verb “to show”, a thing made manifest. But the monster himself may have more personal motives, such as the narrator here, who wishes only to fly away.
Uncanny, May/June 2015
The editorial introduction responds to certain criticism by declaring that the zine means to publish stories that “make you think and feel.” But I find that the feeling part predominates in this issue, with too much of it being goodfeel. Other than the humor pieces, only the Valente takes a clear, hard look at a tragic situation without making a positive spin or succumbing to sentimentality; it certainly takes thought, which I prefer.
“Planet Lion” by Catherynne M Valente
A military survey vessel happens on a planetary system with a single Earthlike world and a host of gas giants—nothing of great economic value. Certain officers, however, consider it of significant strategic value, and they set up an outpost intended to draw out the enemy, staffing it with disposable organic constructs modeled on actual troops. The constructs were designed to operate telepathically through a mental matrix; on devouring them, the native carnivores, called lions, absorb the matrix as well as elements of the human personalities they were modeled on.
All lions hunt in the watering hole. The watering hole networks the heart of every lion to the heart of every other lion into a cooperative real–time engagement matrix. The smallgod inside one lion lays down the words cooperative real–time engagement matrix in the den of one lion’s brain. One lion called Yttrium accepts the words though they have no more importance than the teeth and hooves left over after a kill. The words mean the watering hole.
The text includes several short reports from the humans involved in the ensuing disaster, but the main narrative belongs to the lions, and we see these events from the lions’ point of view. This results in confusion, since the lions, understandably, don’t comprehend the strategic motives of the humans, and they interpret the consequences in their own terms. The main reason for the confusion as far as readers go is that the military reports aren’t in the same chronology as the lions’ story, which takes place in the aftermath of the conflict, while most of the reports are written prior to it. So when we first see the lions, immediately after the initial survey report describing them, it’s impossible to tell if this is their native condition, if the watering hole is or is not a native telepathic matrix. We see that they have absorbed information from humans they’ve consumed, but the initial survey mentions casualties; perhaps they have killed and devoured members of the survey team. Other terms, most notably the “steelveldt”, have no clear reference at this point in the text.
As consequences accumulate from the lions’ point of view, aided by additional reports, the situation clarifies somewhat, and we see that what initially seems a carnivore’s idyll is in fact the early stages of an ongoing tragedy, the collateral damage of an ill-conceived military adventure in which the possible fate of indigenous sentients is callously dismissed: As for the lions, honestly, I will lose precisely zero sleep over it. Let our jacked–up boys and girls play Hemingway down there with the big cats, they won’t be a problem for long. By the end, we see that the planet has been trashed, its native ecology devastated. I find the final scene heartbreaking: one lion called Yttrium has mated and now looks forward to the arrival of new cubs, not realizing that the world they will inherit is a ruin that may not be able to sustain their species’ population; the lions are doomed.
At least, that’s one interpretation. There’s also the possibility that with their new hybrid human/lion consciousness, the next generation of lions will evolve a different civilization, perhaps leading them eventually to conquer space and devastate the worlds of other species. But that’s not where I imagine they’re going.
“The Practical Witch’s Guide to Acquiring Real Estate” by A C Wise
Humor. Beginning with methods mundane [Zillow] and moving on to methods more arcane, most of which are concerned with the house’s independent will:
The house is not your antagonist in this process. It is also not your friend. You are each working toward an abstract point in your future, one that may never come to pass. Gain its trust, let it win yours. Accept that you will break its heart one day and be open to having yours broken in return. Prove yourself worthy and make it do the same.
“Restore the Heart into Love” by John Chu
After xenophobic violence breaks out across Earth, the Byzantium Library launches into space with a complete archive of the world’s cultural heritage, its sponsors hoping that by the time the ship returns the world will have returned to sanity. It’s been a long voyage, with the crew spending most of its time in hibernation, being waked only when necessary, when something goes wrong. Which, lately, is happening more and more often as the archival media and backups fail.
The ship had an alternate archive grade medium. It rendered data in the crystalline and amorphous states of chalcogenide glass. His team had planned to maintain a copy of the archive in each medium, but they didn’t have the funding to build a ship that large. Instead, the Byzantium Library had just the one copy. Max had chosen to use the proven technology, the organic dye, then stuffed the ship with as much blank chalcogenide glass as they could, just in case.
Here’s the making for a potentially interesting SFnal problem story in space. But the author makes it personal. In this case Max suspects sabotage, as the entire batch of corrupted files are in the traditional Chinese archive, files from Taiwan, which had been in conflict with China. Not only is the medium degrading, the characters in the files have been altered from the complex traditional form to the 20th-century simplified form. OK, that’s one thing. But the author goes much further in making the situation personal, by flashing back to his relationship with his mother, portrayed as a stereotype for whom Max can’t ever do anything good enough. Max had learned Chinese to please her, to be able to communicate fully with her, and it’s from her that he’d learned the value of the traditional forms of the characters, including the word for “love” including the radical for “heart”. [The text is partly in Chinese, illustrating these differences.] Which is really way, way more sentimental than I like.
There’s another troublesome aspect of this piece. The author makes it clear that the ship is failing generally. Hibernation pods have failed; members of the crew have died. And lifesupport supplies were always planned to be minimal. There are decades remaining in the voyage. Is Max, by remaining awake to restore the corrupted texts by hand, using up resources that might doom the rest of the crew? Are any others of the crew now still alive? It’s an odd thing that, while Max wants to make sure their deaths haven’t been in vain, the story has no references to any other individual crewmembers, almost as if Max has been alone on the ship all along [which we know isn’t the case]. Or is Max deliberately sacrificing his own life, the last life, for the sake of the archive’s integrity?
“In Libres” by Elizabeth Bear
“Into the books!” This spell is dreaded throughout the university of sorcery in which Euclavia has almost finished her dissertation. In fact, she’d believed she already had finished it, were in not for her tutor’s insistence that she cite one additional source, to be found, alas, in the library, a labyrinthine institution reaching into other planes of existence. Worse, in Special Collections. Her quest would be hopeless except for the aid of the librarians.
Librarians, with their overdeveloped hippocampi, their furled cloaks, their swords and wands sheathed swaggeringly across their backs. The university bureaucracy was nightmarish, Byzantine, and largely ornamental. But those caveats did not apply to the Librarians, an elite informational force second to none. They were lean, organized, and they knew when to turn left and when to turn right.
Following the glowing sigil on her pull slip, Eu and her faithful centaur companion make their way into the maze with a ball of twine to show them the way back.
This piece fills me with a happy nostalgia for the sub-sub-basement stacks in the graduate library, the air thick with book mold, the fitful lighting. I suspect the author has likewise once inhabited such a place.
“Three Voices” by Lisa Bolekaja
Dark fantasy with music. Andre’s father was an immigrant from Mali whose masterwork was a song, originally written for his son, so difficult that no one could sing it properly, not even himself. He destroyed the ending, then disappeared. Now Andre is a composer himself, and his quest is to find a singer worthy of the song, which he has recreated. He thinks he’s found this singer in Tye, a talented performer from Mali who even sings in his father’s language. What he fails to mention to Tye is that every singer who previously attempted the song has developed throat abnormalities, including cancer in one case.
I’m seeing considerable problems here. First, the story is from Andre’s point of view. Well, Andre is a selfish bastard and I’ve got no sympathy for him. We see this at the story’s opening, with his superficial judgment of women, but it’s very clear when he fails to warn Tye about the dangers of the song.
“But do you fucking care if anything happens to me? That’s my question to you,” she said. Sullen, he didn’t say anything for a few minutes and continued playing the keys until she started gathering her things.
Tye knows, we know what Andre cares about—his stoopid song. She recognizes that it’s an obsession with him. Now the question is, knowing the danger, why does she keep singing it? Is it for the challenge? Is the song that good, good enough that she’d sacrifice her voice for it, or even more? We don’t really know, because we don’t have Tye’s point of view. We don’t know why she chooses, at last, to appear onstage as she does. Knowing what’s going to happen? Choosing what’s going to happen? If it were her own story, we might know, but it’s not, it’s that SOB Andre’s.
Which brings me to the ending. This piece is dark fantasy. Might even be considered horror. The song, very clearly, is a curse, and this is undoubtedly why Andre’s father destroyed it, to keep it from ruining more lives. Andre himself is probably under the power of the curse, which would explain his obsession and his mendacity; the son wants to be sung, and it will do anything to have its way, no matter how many people it destroys. I can only wonder if Tye recognized the curse, if she perhaps thought she could defeat it, which could account for her appearance onstage. But after it all works through to the conclusion, when the evil ought to be most manifest, the author chooses to turn it into an optimistic, feelgood closing scene, a piece of pure wishfulthinkium, denying the horror. And ruining the whole thing.
Fingerbones by Erzebet Yellowboy
In a promising opening, we meet Nusht on the island graveyard where her mother is buried, facing imminent death from the plague that haunts the place. Immediately, the prose pleases:
This is Karbesh, the island of ghosts, one of a crescent of islands in the Karbashi archipelago, the farthest island from Karbashi itself and the only one inhabited. One large, parabolic dune borders the west-facing beach like the half-hump of a sunken camel. Sparse, brown grass spears through its slip-face; between its horns are the graves. Bones wash out to sea and back again. Some never return. This is freedom. This is what the women want. Wash us away, they sing. Wash us clean.
In Karbashi, it seems, a sect of quasi-scientific priests hold a large amount of power. Some time ago, there were false rumors that a plague, once eradicated, had returned to a remote village. The priests descended with their test tubes and samples and succeeded in infecting some of the women. To cover up their error, they moved all the pregnant women to the island and eradicated the rest of the population. The boatmen who still come bringing supplies have all had their tongues cut out to keep the secret.
Nusht dreams of escape and makes fanciful constructs with bones and feathers that wash ashore. Because of some latent magic in her, these come briefly alive. Her latest construct is made from finger bones:
one proximal, one intermediate, and one distal phalange—one for every year her mother has been gone. She knots everything together in the shape of a bird. The distal phalange is its head, the proximal its body, and the intermediate is its tail. The shell becomes its breastbone, and the feathers its wings.
It takes flight in the direction of Karbashi, where Fairka is about to be sacrificed by the priests. She has been their ward since childhood, when a street vendor cut off her fingers for stealing a peach. Fairka prays for salvation to the Divine of Plague, offering the lives of the priests in exchange for her own. Just before the fatal injection is made, a strange bird made of feathers and bones flies into the temple. Fairka reaches for it, and her fingers are suddenly regrown. The priests are eager to study this miracle, and their excitement multiplies when Fairka touches another ward and the girl is suddenly cured of a skin disease.
So far, this is all very well indeed, but then the plot-thread for Fairka becomes the primary one and takes an unfortunate turn onto improbable paths, where she falls into the hands of unlikely villains and remains there entirely too long. I find it especially vexing that the priests, highly motivated to recover their missing ward, are clueless about her whereabouts, which every street vendor seems to know. Eventually, she finds her way onto the right path and matters resolve almost satisfactorily, but there’s still that long dead spot in the story’s center, where much of its early promise dissipates, including, alas, Nusht, whom I regard as the more interesting character.