Currently Browsing: Vol. 5 Issue 3

Editor’s Note: Vol. 5, Issue 3...

Sacrifices make heroes (or cowards) of us all. This issue of Ideomancer provides us with a wide variety of sacrifices, large and small. Haddayr Copely-Woods shares the trials of the reluctant artists’ inspiration in “Hot”. With Hannah Bowen’s “Tin Cup Heart”, we see the kinds of sacrifices a man makes in the name of love. Amanda Downum, in her short story, “The Moon, the Garden, the Wall”, allows us a glimpse at guilty sacrifices, and Sarah Monette’s “Letter from a Teddy Bear on Veteran’s Day” visits sacrifices, old and new.

Our poets this month, Samantha Henderson and s.c. virtes, continue the theme with “Hero” and “adam inquisitive”.

Meanwhile, Sean Melican, our Ideo reviewer, catches us up on his summer reads.

Please enjoy this quarter’s issue!

Marsha Sisolak
Publisher

Contents

Vol. 5 Issue 3

Editor’s Note

Fiction

“Hot” - Haddayr Copley-Woods

“Tin Cup Heart” – Hannah Bowen

“The Garden, the Moon, and the Wall” – Amanda Downum

“Letter From a Teddy Bear on Veteran’s Day” – Sarah Monette

Poetry

“Hero” – Samantha Henderson

“adam inquisitive” – s. c. virtes

Reviews

Nine Reviews – Sean Melican

 

Nine Reviews by Sean Melican...

Seven Touches of Music. Zoran Zivkovic. Alice Copple-Tosic, translator. Aio Publishing. ISBN: 1-933083-04-2

Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology. James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel, editors. Tachyon Publications. ISBN: 1-892391-35-X

New Dreams for Old. Mike Resnick. Pyr. www.pyrsf.com ISBN: 1-59102-441-2

Strange Birds. Written by Gene Wolfe and inspired by the artwork of Lisa Snellings-Clark. DreamHaven Books. ISBN: not found

Catalyst: A Novel of Alien Contact. Nina Kiriki Hoffman. Tachyon Publications. ISBN: 1-892391-38-4

Monster Blood Tattoo: Book One: Foundling. D.M. Cornish. G.P. Putnam’s Sons. ISBN: 0-399-24638-X

Changeling. Delia Sherman. Viking. ISBN: 0-670-05967-6

The Crooked Letter. Sean Williams. Pyr. ISBN: 1-59102-438-2

The Keeper. Sarah Langan. HarperTorch. ISBN: 0-06-087290-X

Oh, what a busy summer! Short stories, young adult, big fat fantasies, horror. So, for my regular readers (I like to believe I have them) the reviews are shorter than usual. (To quote Shakespeare, “Brevity.”) I’ve broken up this column into sections. Thanks to L. Timmel Duchamp for her kind permission.

Short Fiction

The message, they say, is more important than the medium. But I confess that the book-as-artifact, while not as critical as the book-as-narrative, is a personal fetish. A well-constructed book suggests to the reader that this book, the one in his or her hands, contains a narrative more important and of better quality (Read me first! it says.) than the cheap paperback by his or her bedside. You know the kind. The spine breaks if you open the pages enough to actually read them. They become yellow and brittle. They fall out when the cheap glue fails.

Aio Publishing puts out some of the most wonderful books-as-artifact I’ve seen. Zoran Zivkovic’s Seven Touches of Music is just such an artifact. The cover is thick and pleasant to the touch. The interior of the cover is textured, the pages are thick and creamy and edged in black. I lingered on most pages just to enjoy the sensual pleasures.

Of course, a diamond-studded garbage bag still contains rotten eggs, discarded coffee grounds, raw chicken squirmy with maggots. But fortunately, Mr. Zivkovic’s stories are gems. (Technically, he calls his collections ‘mosaic novels’ and they do intertwine, but each story can stand on its own.) Each of the seven linked stories has characters who are, well, touched by music. Mr. Zivkovic explores how music affects are emotions, intellects, memories, lives. How a touch of music can lead to personal discovery, a second life, a forgotten moment. None of these stories is easily classifiable, and that is what gives them their strengths.

For example, the first, “The Whisper,” involves a frustrated special education teacher, Dr. Martin. “He never taught his pupils anything; nor did he test them, or even talk to them. He did address them, of course, but he could never be certain that they took in any of his words. There was rarely any reaction; when there was, it was enigmatic.” But when Dr. Martin plays Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor, Opus 21, one student behaves in a manner that leads Dr. Martin into the mathematical structure of the universe and the deepest mysteries of the human mind. But while a more traditional story would find Mr. Martin solving the mystery, Mr. Zivkovic is anything but traditional. Yet, the ending is deeply satisfying on a level uncommon in genre.

This is a book to savor, to read and reread, to love. And not just for the words, but for the entirety. Aio will be bringing at least two more of Mr. Zivkovic’s mosaic novels to English readers.

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It is my opinion that every anthology of quality genre fiction should be celebrated. Various market forces have conspired to destroy the anthology, and yet it continues to live. And Feeling Very Strange, unlike many anthologies, does not contain a single weak story. As an anthology, this book is just about perfect.

However, the purpose is, as the editors write, “To form a canon [my italics] out of mist and wishful thinking.” Mr. Kelly and Mr. Kessel should be applauded for the attempt and hopefully, like the numerous best of year anthologies that together create a meaningful dialogue about what science fiction, fantasy and horror are (and are not) and what makes a great story in those genres, this book will be a seed crystal. (According to the August 2006 issue of Locus, another similar anthology Paraspheres has just been released.)

The issue I have is that I believe the anthology has failed in its stated purpose for two reasons. (Buy the book for the stories. Really. My argument will not reduce by one atom the excellence of these stories.) The first is that many of the stories do not strike me as slipstream at all. Remember, slipstream is as much a void defined by what it is not (it’s not mainstream, science fiction, science fantasy, fantasy or horror) rather than what it is. In Bruce Sterling’s words, “… this is a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the late twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility.” The editors say, “We contend that slipstream… embraces cognitive dissonance rather than trying to reduce it.” For example, while Karen Joy Fowler’s “Lieserl” and Howard Waldrop’s “The Lions are Asleep this Night” (excellent stories, I feel the need to reiterate) are excellent examples of late twentieth century alternate history, I failed to ‘feel strange’ or experience cognitive dissonance while reading them. (To be fair, I’m fairly certain I miss an awful lot of Mr. Waldrop’s references.) Bruce Sterling’s “The Little Magic Shop” is a wonderful inversion of an old chestnut, but does an inversion make us feel strange? George Saunders’ “Sea Oak” has a zombie, but zombies stories are essentially a sub-genre of their own, and while odd, the story doesn’t seem to use the tropes in anything other than a conventional manner.

However, what is undoubtedly slipstream is Carol Emshwiller’s “Al.” The familiar trope is that of crashed spaceship, but the usual markers�discovery (usually by precocious children or government agents) and the standard dichotomy between love and fear: a mistake that writers and others make is assuming that complex human responses can be boiled down to childishly simple notions of good or evil (which are never as black and white as they seem… but this is not the place for such an analysis)�are missing. We only know it is about a crashed spaceship (At least I think so, but I’m not sure, which might be the mantra for readers of slipstream.) because of reference to James Hilton’s Lost Horizon and a story of the sudden appearance of remarkable stranger.

Aimee Bender’s “The Healer” starts with, “There were two mutant girls in the town: one had a hand made of fire, and one had a hand made of ice.” There is absolutely no authorial effort to rationalize. It simply is. (I believe this is what Mr. Sterling was writing about. So much of modern life is impossible to comprehend, but the reality is undeniable.) The impossible is, while written literally, used to analyze human behavior. (Another facet of slipstream.) The remainder of the story takes place in a perfectly mimetic world.

Jeffrey Ford’s “Bright Morning” is about as perfectly slipstream a story as imaginable. While initially it reads as a semi-fictional autobiography, there is a subtle shift in narrative where it becomes another semi-fictional autobiography.

Benjamin Rosenbaum’s “Biographical Notes to ‘A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, with Air-planes'” is slipstream because the title is critical, for the story referred to in the title (and it is a story, with the narrative arc and all) is entirely absent while the story that is present is presented as a forward by the author. It’s notable that both “Bright Morning” and “Biographical Notes…” are written by authors with the same name as the authors, but they are not the same authors. Nor are they what could practicably be referred to as alter egos for the flesh and blood authors you can meet at conventions never write even a sentence which would suggest that this isn’t ‘really me.’ Narrative and what many naively (but necessarily) name ‘real life’ are impossible to separate. (O what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to conceive… of a definition of slipstream.) The conceit of Mr. Rosenbaum’s story (the real Mr. Rosenbaum, and I know at least Mr. Ford would argue vociferously with the qualifier ‘real’) is that Mr. Rosenbaum lives in the world we know as pulp fiction, with enormous blimps, eccentric autocrats, and nonstop action with almost-cartoon villains bursting through doors waving weapons and exquisite chases through the underside of the dirigible. And, of course, a fascinating discourse on causality, which isn’t necessary in the fictional world of pulp fiction. The fictional Mr. Rosenbaum wishes to write a story in which the world is like ours where, “[The] idea smacks of Democratic materialism�as if the events of the world were produced purely by linear cause and effect,” and we assume, “A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, with Air-planes” is that story.

I can’t explain M. Rickert’s “You Have Never Been Here,” the only story original to the anthology, but it alone is worth the price of admission. Written in the second person, it is an ambitious and unfaltering analysis of identity.

The second reason I believe this book has failed (to form a canon of slipstream, not as an anthology of excellent stories) is that while the subject matter would be strange to a reader from fifty or a hundred years ago, the narrative structure (the story arc) would be perfectly comprehensible. None of these stories plays with language the way they play with genre tropes. And if dissonance or strangeness is the (or at least a) purpose of slipstream, then a playfulness of language, a conscious effort to use language to comment on, undermine or even (in a sense) demolish genre and even narrative itself is a necessary facet.

The perfect example, Greer Gilman’s “A Crowd of Bone” (which, to be fair, would fill more than half the anthology) switches point of view so often the reader experience narrative vertigo. You can find it in Trampoline edited by Kelly Link. You can also read Philip Raines’ and Harvey Welles’ “The Fishie” (Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet – 12) for another excellent example of linguistic gymnastics. And while “Lieserl” is an excellent story, Ms. Fowler’s “The Elizabeth Complex”, which collapses the lives of three famous Elizabeth (Elizabeth I, Elizabeth Taylor and Lizzie Borden) to “… attack … the structures of oppression�including their linguistic and literary forms�[and] is slashingly outright.” (Taken from L. Timmel Duchamp’s monograph on the story, which can be found here and is well worth reading in its entirety. You can read the story in either Ms. Fowler’s collection Black Glass or the anthology The Best of Crank!. Both collections are worth owning, incidentally.)

The other linguistic possibility that I felt was missed by the editors was the potential for uncertainty as to whether a story of genre tropes should be read literally or allegorically/metaphorically depending entirely on the what classification the story receives by editors. For example, Maureen McHugh’s “Laika Comes Back Safe” (not included here) involves a boy who claims to be a werewolf, but the reader never sees any evidence of his condition, except evidence which, if the story were published in a mainstream magazine, would be construed as a medical condition one could look up in The Merck Manual Home Edition. (And not lycanthropy.) Is he really a werewolf, or is he physiologically sick? And does it matter? (You can read this story in Ms. McHugh’s collection Mothers and Other Monsters.) The other example is Kelly Link’s (yes, I refer to her, and her and her husband’s magazine and publishing company frequently) “The Hortlak” (also not included here, though her amazing “The Specialist’s Hat” is) which has creatures called zombies, but if it were to published in a mainstream magazine, the zombies would be read as metaphors for modern suburbanites because, aside from the word zombie they don’t display any behaviors that are both categorically zombie and categorically un-human. They shuffle and don’t really speak much, for example, but they don’t eat brains. Like Ms. McHugh’s story, the narrative itself is ambiguous, depending on the surrounding material, and treats narrative not as an isolated event, but another thread in the fabric of consensual reality. (And questioning, of course, the nature of that supposed reality.)

It occurred to me as I wrote this that I have to some extent written a partial table of contents for my own slipstream anthology, if I was ever asked to edit one. (Publishers, I can be reached through ideoreviewguy@yahoo.com). Since Mr. Kelly and Mr. Kessel admit that they have not attempted an exhaustive overview of slipstream, I assume that they expect and encourage vigorous debate.

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Mike Resnick is prolific and as such his collection New Dreams for Old is a mixed bag. His fans are legion and his awards numerous. Which he is not above letting us know, either, for almost every author’s introduction counts the awards for which the story has been nominated or won.

Mr. Resnick is breezy, so the stories flow by quickly; but at his best he is thoughtful. My favorite is the tender ghost slash love story “Travels With My Cats.” At a tender age, the narrator discovers that rare sort of book, the kind which is pleasurable to read many times. It gets packed away and rediscovered when he is much older. He searches for other books by the author, but there are none, and then for the author herself. Mr. Resnick writes of love (real love, not lust or convenience, but a meeting of minds, if I may be so trite) with a rare talent, which is also evident in “A Princess of Earth,” “Down Memory Lane,” the heartbreaking “For I Have Touched the Sky” and “Robots Don’t Cry.” (Another story which relies on the implied omission of the title; if robots don’t cry, who does?) “43 Antarean Dynasties” exhibits another kind of love, the bittersweet love for a lost civilization. And the hatred of those too ignorant to appreciate it.

“The Elephants of Neptune” (slipstream, really), “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” and “Hothouse Flowers” are ol’-fashioned what-if? scenarios, but their concision packs a wallop otherwise lost in the sort of story (you know the kind I mean) in which the author, convinced the idea isn’t enough, writes long and meaningless scenes with characters he (or more rarely, she) doesn’t truly care about for the sake of ‘character development.’ But Mr. Resnick cares about all his characters, and knows how much to show and when to write THE END.

While there are a few lousy stories, one of which I thought was entirely amateurish, the majority are worth reading.

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Strange Birds is a collaboration between Lisa Snellings-Clark, a visual artist, and Gene Wolfe, who has written two stories based on Ms. Snellings-Clark’s work. The artwork is included. The first story, “On a Vacant Face A Bruise,” is the better of the two, a sometimes meandering story of a runaway who finds work as a carny in a strange circus. The other, “Sob in the Silence,” is as well-written as any Gene Wolfe story, but I’m afraid that the material, a horror story about a psychopath, fails to respond to the particular strengths of Mr. Wolfe in large part because the sorts of conceits and deceits practiced by Mr. Wolfe are better in the visual medium of television and movies (The Ring and Sixth Sense come to mind) when utilized for such a story.

Young Adult

I admit to only a passing familiarity with Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s work, mostly from various young adult anthologies. When Catalyst arrived, I was intrigued by the cover art: a sort of fiery eye surrounded by obviously alien skin reflecting a pretty boy. Cool covers suck me in. This is a cool cover.

Kaslin is a teenage boy whose father is an incompetent criminal and whose mother is a paramedic. Because of his father, they are on a world in which political corruption is unchecked. (Think New Jersey.) He is hounded by Histly, a girl who uses her augmented fingernail weapons to torture Kaslin. The book opens with him being chased into a cave into which he falls and makes alien contact. He and the universe will be changed forever. (Duh.) Moving at breakneck pace, Ms. Hoffman narrates the triple challenges of making first contact, surviving a girl who has as many political and financial weapons as she does physical, and navigating the political labyrinth of a corrupt and criminal society. (The chief export is narcotics. Think Trenton or Camden.)

But I have a difficulty in categorizing this as young adult. While it has the plot and language of an excellent young adult novel, by page twenty-one the aliens have licked Kaslin to orgasm. Ms. Hoffman isn’t delicate�she uses the word ejaculation�but she does portray the conflict between sexual excitement and the ‘ick’ factor of alien fellatio. (The only other young adult novel I recall using the word ‘ejaculation’ is from the fifth Harry Potter in which Ron ejaculates loudly.) The sexual component is critical to the story (whenever a teenage girl and a teenage a boy interact, it has to be, else it fails mimetically-assuming at least one is heterosexual) and is fairly realistic. It is not, repeat not, pornography: the purpose of the sex is not titillation. You can find much more explicit material on the internet. The purpose is to describe the realistic sexual lives of teenagers. It is disconcerting that sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy are never mentioned�from the standpoint that young adults should be made aware of potential consequences�but the world does have some rather astonishing medicine-autodocs in houses�so it would be ludicrous for our consequences to be problematic in their world.

It is dishonest, in a sense, to pretend that teenagers are as much intellectual creatures as adults (though, with some adults I’ve met…) when physiological changes, particularly sexual, are at their peak. It is equally dishonest to present teenage sexuality as controlled, either by teenagers themselves (impossible except with a superhuman will) or society, usually represented by parents. The truth is, teenage boys want it all, and they want it now. Young adult novels which present a chaste kiss as the satisfying pinnacle of teenage sexuality are fooling no one. I’m not advocating promiscuity or even teenage sex. Sex is a health risk and an emotionally charged event. But denial ain’t just a river in Egypt. Which is what makes Ms. Hoffman’s Catalyst such a worthwhile novel: it is unflinching honest.

It is my opinion that parents are the absolute arbiters of what is appropriate in any household. But it is also my opinion that young adults must flout (or at least challenge) parental proscriptions. (Like strength training, you can’t get stronger if you don’t exert force against something.) Frankly, if a parent believes that realistic teenage sexual relations (though not consequences) will lead their child into promiscuity (much like the idiots who believed Harry Potter would lead children into devil worship), then their young man or woman is precisely the one who should read this.

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But there is nothing wrong with dishonesty either, if the author can tell a riveting tale. And Mr. Cornish can. The book itself has beautiful interior illustrations by the author of several of the characters. The back has several appendices, including an exhaustive Explicarium (a glossary), several maps, calendars, diagrams of soldiers’ uniforms, and diagrams of ships.

The story is familiar enough: An orphan, Rossamund (a girl’s name, for which he is teased and tortured by others), is raised in Madam Opera’s Estimable Marine Society for Foundling Boys and Girls, and when he comes of age, is chosen to be a lamplighter. But what he really wants is to be a lahzar, or monster fighter. (Who doesn’t?) The countryside is ravaged by a variety of monsters in a seemingly endless battle between lahzars and monsters. He is shanghaied, learns many lessons about people and the geography, escapes, meets a lazhar who dispatches a monster in a battle that leaves Rossamund thoroughly morally confused, discovers that a lamplighter might not be so bad after all, et cetera. Really, this is just an extended chapter of a huge novel, because by the end (and this ruins nothing) Rossamund has only just reached the lamplighter citadel where he is to be apprenticed. It is fun, fast-paced, well-written-I was hooked from the line, “He had arrived when he was little more than a wailing pink prune, left on the doorstep with an old piece of hatbox lining pinned to his swaddling.”�What a wonderfully unusual detail!�and chock full of detail: historical, magical, biological, chemical, medicinal, cultural. (But, alas, no sex.) The magic of the lazhars is biochemical, a neat change from the usual, the morality of monster-killing ambiguous, many of the characters and events morally complex. A fine, fine young adult book.

Delia Sherman’s Changeling is another fine young adult fantasy. Neef is a changeling (surprise!), which is a human child who has been swapped with a fairy child. Neef angers the Green Lady of Central Park, who protects Neef from most dangers, including the Hunt. But when Neef disobeys Astris, her fairy stepmother, she also angers the Green Lady, who removes her protection. And so it is a race away from the Hunt and into the wilds of New York to fulfill three (of course) tasks. The fun is in the details. Neef grows up on inverted fairy tales, such as Radiatorella, Sleeping Debutante, and the like. In her travels, she encounters a wide variety of fairies from around the world, not merely the usual. There’s a Guide in the back for those unfamiliar with some of the creatures. And the magical potions and non-fairy creatures she uses, while magical to her, are ordinary substances and metaphors or allegories for us. (Kids, if the Bear and the Bull confuse you, go here.)

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Big Fat Fantasy

Sean William’s The Crooked Letter is another reprint from Pyr and won the two biggest Australian awards the year it was published. It is a big fat fantasy (there are three more books) which follows, at least in the first book, the standard template for fantasy: a monstrous creature wants to have absolute control over more domains than he (rarely she) already controls and all that stands between total domination and the status quo is a small band of heroes. But while the template is familiar, the villians and heroes are drawn from a wide variety of mythologies. One of the heroes (well, sort of) is an Aztec deity. The monster who wants total control is Yod-which appears to be a contraction of Yhwh and God. The two main characters are the very rare mirror image twins Hadrian and Seth Castillo. Early on, Seth is killed but Hadrian is left alive. For what purpose? Well, it has to do with Yod’s master plan. The earth that we know is torn asunder as monsters of every sort ravage the world. Hadrian must survive except, if he doesn’t, there are some rather curious consequences. Seth’s death, however, is not the end of Seth, but the beginning of the template quest. But he is is not governed by physicality, but will, so that Seth’s perceptions are merely metaphors for unusual wills (creatures) which allows Mr. Williams free range to describe all sorts of nasty creatures without being constrained by the physics of the ‘real world.’ An engaging, thought-provoking book.

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Horror

(Full disclosure: Dan Braun, a member of Sarah Langan’s writing group, is also an editor at Ideomancer. It is through him that I received the advance reader’s edition.)

Sarah Langan’s first novel, The Keeper, is a horror novel in which the lives of a number of characters are told but comingle only at or near the climax. Susan Marley is Bedford, Maine’s whore. (The location isn’t the only nod to Stephen King.) She’s also mute, crazy, scary, and weird. But I guess if you’re desperate enough…

Bedford is a dying town, actually dead already, but unaware of the fact. The Clott Paper Mill, the reason for the town’s existence, has just closed. The real strength of Ms. Langan’s writing is in her depiction of the depression of the residents and the town. It feels right and the characters behave appropriately. Some simply wither. Others, who are younger, dream of running away somewhere else, or get high, have sex, or some combination thereof. (My father grew up in a small Illinois town which had a major train yard that directly or indirectly employed the population. It is difficult to rectify my knowledge of the husk of that city with the thriving one of my father’s memory.)

There are weaknesses. What is the otherworldly creature Liz Marley, Susan’s younger sister, discovers early on? The image is haunting but it is never revisited. Three characters central to one of the events that drives the climax enter so close to the event that they feel more like an authorial device than genuine characters. And most importantly, while the horror that changed Susan (and you’d have to be dense not to guess right from the beginning) is, well, horrible, it is sadly not terribly unique either. So why is that she is invested with all this power when other girls who have suffered the same thing are merely victims? What makes Susan different?

Still, this is an intriguing debut.


If you would like to have your book reviewed, contact me at ideoreviewguy@yahoo.com. If you bought a book because of me, please let the publisher and I know. If you’ve passed on something, don’t tell anyone.

5:3: “adam inquisitive”, by s. c. virtes...

body trembling
smoke & mirrors broken
without proportion
shaken & stirred
supercharged
hands guard the eyes
against the glare
of possibilities 

the spell fades
Adam staggers and
falls back
reeling
from his glimpse
of the future

he rises to his feet
throws open the door
stares out at the road
suddenly so golden

he came here to lament
about losing his way
but he just might
laugh and
build castles
all the way home

 


 

Scott Virtes has had about 350 stories, poems & illustrations published since 1986. In Feb 2006 he had two new stories published on Amazon.com, part of their new Amazon Shorts program. He has worked an arm’s reach from Russell Crowe (in “Master & Commander”) or trapped in cubicles, daydreaming. He can be found acting up at open mike events around San Diego.

I was wondering what the primordial Adam would have dreamed about. As the first human, he would be an archetype with no past, no folklore. He could only look to the future. Another thread came into play, about creativity, about throwing open the door and seeing what visions may come. The stanzas were: vision, response, acceptance, and entering the new world. Strangely, in my own vision, I saw Adam as a hairless giant about 40 feet tall, and the first castles were made of sand.

5:3: “Hero”, by Samantha Henderson...

I’ve taken away your magic boots,
your enchanted sword,
your ring of invisibility. 

I’ve taken away your talking cat,
your princess,
and her clever maid.

Look, down in the crumbly depths
of your knapsack, there�you forgot
your grandfather’s fountain pen.
Fill it with my blood,
and write history.

 


 

Samantha Henderson lives in Southern California with assorted fauna. Her poetry has appeared in such venues as Strange Horizons, Weird Tales, Star*Line, Abyss and Apex, Lone Star Stories and The Sword Review.

The inspiration for this poem? Fairy tales. Blood. Grandparents. Voyages.

5:3: “Letter From a Teddy Bear on Veteran’s Day”, by Sarah Monette...

1.

It is early morning, barely dawn. It rained all night, and it will be raining again soon. The air tastes green and fresh and heavy. The park is deserted. I walk along the path, carrying the teddy bear in my left hand, as if it were something as normal as a newspaper. Somewhere ahead of me, the Wall is waiting.

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2.

It was July and raining; there was a thunderstorm working up. You’d been dead for three months. I was in my room; I was reading. One of the guys who had served with you came to your funeral. I can’t even remember his name, but he’d had both his legs amputated at the knee, and he was in a wheelchair. He was the only person who talked to me like I was old enough to understand what was going on. He gave me All Quiet on the Western Front and said, “This is about what happened to your brother and what happened to me.” I read it that night, and then I read it again, and then I went to the library, and I started reading like it was life. I read everything I could get my hands on, including a lot of stuff the librarians didn’t think a thirteen year old kid should be reading. But everybody in town knew about Dad, and Mom just said, “It’s educational, ain’t it?” and hung up the phone.

That day I was reading A Separate Peace, lying on my bed with a headache throbbing in my eyes. It’d be another two years before anybody figured out I needed glasses. But the headache was all right; it was like the book and like what was happening in my mind. I heard a crash through the wall, from your room, a crash that felt like the Last Trump. I lay there for a moment, my tongue thick in my mouth and my heart banging in my chest, and then I got up and went out into the hall.

Your door was open; it hadn’t been open since you’d gotten on the plane in Knoxville. I looked in. Mom was on her knees, leaning into your closet, throwing things into a big cardboard box. The crash had been your track trophy missing the box and breaking against the floor. The little running figure that had been on top of it was halfway across the room, lying hard and cold and helpless between the bed and the hall door, as if he’d been struck down trying to escape.

“Mom?” I said.

She sat back on her heels and pushed her hair out of her eyes and said, “Yes.”

“What?”

“Yes, I’m throwing out all his things. I refuse to have a goddamn shrine in my house for the rest of my life.” The glare she gave me was like a dog getting ready to bite. She wasn’t crying; she wasn’t anywhere close to crying. I knew she’d broken your trophy on purpose.

“Mom, shouldn’t you-”

“Get out,” she said.

I stood there, the book still in my hand, one finger still marking my place. I stared at her.

“Didn’t you hear me? Get out!”

I went back to my room and closed the door. The thunder started about ten minutes later, and for a while it was like there was another war on, between Mom and the thunder. Everything of yours that was breakable, she broke.

She dragged the cardboard box out to the curb in the rain, and then another one, and then another. And then she went into the kitchen and started dinner. We both knew Dad wouldn’t be home until midnight or maybe later, and he’d be drunk. So it was just Mom and me, and she’d make dinner, and we’d eat it, and then we’d each go into our own room and die by inches. I don’t know what Mom did in her room; I never did know. She had let you go in there sometimes, but you had never told me what you all talked about. I’d thought I could ask you later, when I was older.

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3.

Veterans’ Day is November eleventh. That’s a bad day at work. Even my patients are restless, and the other wards are hell, where there are people who can follow a calendar and who understand that this should be their day. It isn’t their day, and they know it. Nothing we do can make it their day. Nothing anyone can do can make it their day ever again.

You died on April twenty-second. I can take a day of vacation then, and I always do. I tell everyone that I’m going home to see Mom and Dad, and that always works. They know about you a little bit; I keep having to explain to people why I work where I do, as if intelligence ought to exempt me from trying to help those still trapped in the wreckage.

I lie, of course, when I say I’m going home. I haven’t been back there since I went to college, except for funerals. Dad’s luck finally ran out the year after I graduated. He went off the road in his Ford late one night, dead drunk as usual. The car hit a telephone pole, and by the time the ambulance got there, he was just dead. I think I’d been expecting it to happen since he showed up drunk for your memorial service. Mom and I didn’t speak to each other at Dad’s funeral; she looked straight through me and defied me to remind her that I, too, was her son. I returned the favor.

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4.

I dreamed of you again two nights ago.

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5.

The Wall is black. It’s not the color of a scar, but that’s what it is: psychic scar tissue made visible, tangible, cold and hard and real. There is no way to describe the action of the Wall against the ground. Its black, silent presence is verbless; it is the place for people who do not have verbs. The blackness of the Wall eats action as the blackness of a black hole eats light.

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6.

You volunteered for Vietnam. You were eighteen; you didn’t know any better. I was twelve; I knew even less. I thought anything you did was right by definition. In my experience you had never done anything wrong. You knew Communists were evil, and there was a great hunger in you to do battle with darkness and sin. You never got to read The Lord of the Rings; you were not warned about the price of victory, even for the good and pure of heart.

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7.

In the VA hospital, there is a lounge with a long bank of windows. On sunny days when we wheel our patients in, we try to put them where they’ll be able to feel the sunlight as long as possible. Even plants respond to sunlight.

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8.

Mom didn’t care if I read at the table; it saved her from having to talk to me. I sat there with my book and turned pages, because it was good camouflage, but I wasn’t reading. All I could think of was your things out there in the rain in those boxes, and how the scavengers would start coming by tomorrow, and they’d take away anything that looked worthwhile, and then the garbage men would take the rest, and that’d be it. Nobody who knew you would have anything of yours, and the people who had your things wouldn’t care at all about who they’d belonged to. I thought about the rain hitting the pages of your books. She’d ripped all your paperbacks in half before she threw them in the boxes; I’d seen the pages sliding out of box after box and falling around her in the rain. I thought about the paper puckering and the words blurring and dissolving, and when I remembered to, I turned a page in A Separate Peace. Mom ate like some kind of machine, her hands and jaws moving, her eyes blank and fixed, like they were made of glass and filled with mercury. If you broke them, her tears would poison you.

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9.

The names on the Wall do not accuse, or even stare. It would be better if they did. Statues would be easier against the conscience. Statues can look back at an observer, or even simply look at each other. They can give, however fleetingly, the impression that death is not lonely. The names are simply signifiers that have nothing left to signify. They are unforgiving because there is nothing left in them that can forgive.

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10.

I dream of you in Vietnam, although I have never been there. I dream of you in the jungles and the heat, dream of you cutting your way through greenness turned hostile, dangerous, alien. I dream of you with the other soldiers in your unit; sometimes the man who came to your funeral is there, but I always dream of him in his wheelchair, the stumps of his legs covered by a quilt in the pattern called the Delectable Mountains. In my dreams, you talk to them and laugh, but I can never hear your voice.

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11.

Usually what I do on my Veteran’s Day�your Veteran’s Day�is go to the local cemetery. It’s an old place, full of silence. I look at the gravestones of the soldiers who are buried there; I read their dates and think about yours. I remember the fantasies I used to have, that you were still alive, a POW or a monk in Tibet or wilder, even more impossible things. In my dreams, you were always dead, beyond the reach of fairytales, but lying awake, staring at the night outside my window, I told myself stories, and I still don’t know if they made things better or worse.

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12.

After dinner, we washed the dishes. We didn’t say anything; we didn’t need to. Then Mom went into her room and slammed the door. She probably locked it, too. She usually did, and I never knew if it was just to keep Dad out, or if she was keeping me out, too. She sure as hell wasn’t letting me in.

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13.

I catch my first glimpse of the Wall, black against the green, and suddenly become aware that there is somebody standing beside the path. I turn my head, my heartbeat accelerating. But the man beside the path isn’t going to hurt me. He’s wearing camouflage pants; his dogtags gleam against his naked chest. Half of his head is gone in a red and gray ooze that stains his neck and shoulder. His remaining eye looks at me. It is brown, so I know that he is not you; your eyes were blue.

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14.

I think of you when I look at my patients. I wonder if it would be better if you were one of them, if you were alive and I could touch you. I look at their wives when they come to visit, at the hope in their eyes that turns to pain every single time, and I think, no, it’s better that you’re dead, that I can’t even pretend that I will ever see you smile again. But when I wake up at five in the morning and know, because my eyes and pillow are wet, that I’ve been dreaming of you, I know that anything would be better than this emptiness, and I would give anything to be able to touch your hand again, even if you didn’t know I was touching it.

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15.

A few paces further on, there is another soldier, and then a pair, and then I am walking through a crowd of men, all of them wearing uniforms, all of their dogtags so visible it hurts. I know that if I stopped, I could read the names on those gleaming tags, and the names would burn themselves into my memory. I turn my face away and refuse to read their names, refuse to know them. I think that I see my patients in the crowd, their faces younger than the faces I know, their eyes bright and quick. But I do not stop even for them. I would stop for you, if I saw you, but no matter how hard I look, you are not there. I am struck by a horrible fear: would I recognize you if I saw you? I last saw you in the flesh when I was twelve. I have no pictures of you. When you are in my dreams, you have a face, and I know that face to be yours, but no matter how true they are, dreams are not real, and I don’t know whether my dreaming mind has ever succeeded in catching your real face.

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16.

I went to my room, and put my book on the bed. I sat there for a while, watching it get dark out the window and listening to the rain and thinking about your stuff in those boxes and about what Mom would do to me if she caught me sneaking out there. I thought it was pretty likely she’d throw me out of the house, tell me that if I didn’t want to do things her way, I could go live with Aunt Cindy in Lenoir City. You’d remember the way she used to say that. That summer I could feel the threat in the air all the time, although she’d quit saying it out loud. I think that’s because it had quit being a joke.

Your door was still open; I’d seen that before I went into my room. And I remembered the way you’d gone out the window to meet your friends. After three-quarters of an hour, I eased my door open again and went into your room.

I hadn’t been in there since you enlisted, and you’d never really wanted me in there anyway. But I remembered the way it had been, with your posters on the walls and your books in the one bookcase by the bed. Mom had ripped all the posters in half and thrown them out, like the books, and she’d stripped your coverlet off the bed, along with your sheets. There was no personality left in the room, nothing of who you’d been and what you’d thought about. Mom had said she didn’t want a shrine, but she’d turned the room into something worse. When I read about the aftermath of battles, that’s what I see: your room in the darkness, and how empty it was and how horrible.

I didn’t dare shut the door behind me, in case Mom heard it, or came out of her room and noticed. I walked across from the door to the window as if there were someone sleeping in the room, someone I might wake if I wasn’t careful. I eased the window up, one inch at a time, and only realized when I’d pushed it all the way open that I was holding my breath.

I knew how you’d gotten out; I’d watched you do it once or twice on nights when you’d co-opted me to be your alibi. But I’d never done it myself, and I sat there for some time in the window, wondering whether I could or not. But the rain was still coming down, still obliterating your memory out there in those cardboard boxes. Finally, I swung one leg over the sill and leaned out toward the tree.

It was a big dogwood; I couldn’t remember a time when it hadn’t been exactly as it was, wrapping the side of the house in its embrace, green and white and laughing or bare and brown and hungry. The nearest branch was just far enough from the window that I don’t think either Mom or Dad ever imagined you could use it to get out of the house. Every time I’d watched you do it, my heart had been up in my mouth, and it was even worse when it was me, when it was my hands reaching, my left leg gripping the inside of the window sill, my body swaying out against gravity. There was a moment when I was sure that I was going to fall, that I was going to free Mom from having to look at the way my face was almost but not quite yours. And then my fingers reached the branch, and my hands locked against it as if the tree itself could negate the whole world and teach me how to fly.

I swung myself gracelessly from the house to the tree, scraping my hands and arms, bruising my legs, getting spider webs in my hair and dogwood leaves down the back of my shirt. When you had done it, it had looked so easy, so effortless.

I nearly fell twice climbing down, and when I was finally standing on the ground, my heart was racing and I was trembling all over. But Mom’s window was on the other side of the house; she wouldn’t see me.

I crossed the yard in the rain. The boxes were clumped sadly by the curb. I had to force myself to push the flaps back on the nearest one, and then I found that I couldn’t look inside. I couldn’t bear to look at your remains. The Army hadn’t found enough of your body to send it back home, or at least that’s what we were told. These cardboard boxes were all that was left. Blindly, I stuck my hand inside. My face was wet, and my hair was dripping down my neck. My fingers came in contact with something damp and soft, and I pulled it out.

Between the rain and the dusk, I could scarcely make it out. It was your teddy bear, the one you’d given up when I was six and you were twelve. Teddy bears were for babies, you said, but when Mom suggested you give it to me, you said, “It’s mine,” and it went in your closet. Standing out there in the rain, I remembered how that had made me feel, how small and stupid and worthless, as if I had to be something even more contemptible than a baby. And then the next day, you’d taken me to a movie, some stupid science fiction thing that Mom wouldn’t have let either one of us see if she’d known, and I’d felt ten feet tall.

My fingers tightened around the teddy bear, and I walked back to the house. It was only at the foot of the tree that I realized I couldn’t climb back to your window holding the bear in one hand. I tucked the front of my T-shirt into my shorts and put the teddy bear in my shirt. It lumped against my stomach, squashy and damp and neglected, and I climbed up.

Getting back in your window was even worse than climbing out had been, but I did it. I’d come too far to give up now, and I knew that if Mom caught me, she’d make me take the teddy bear back out to the boxes, or she’d do something else to destroy it. I could imagine her burning it: the stench of scorching plush, her face, remorseless and inexorable, lit from beneath by the flames. I crept back across your room, back along the four feet of hall that separated your door from mine, back into my own room. I eased the door shut behind me, and started breathing again.

And started looking for a place to hide the teddy bear from Mom.

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17.

Sometimes when I dream of you, you are in my apartment, wearing your fatigues and dogtags, prowling through my living room as if it were a Vietnamese village. You look at the books on my shelves, pick up the knickknacks on my end table and turn them over as if they puzzle you. You go into the kitchen and inspect my refrigerator; you go into the bathroom and look in my medicine cabinet. The night before last, for the first time you came into my bedroom. You never used to remind me of a cat, but you prowled around my bedroom like a cat looking for another door. You seemed both restless and unhappy. You came and stood by the bed for a long time, staring down at me. I couldn’t read the expression on your face. Then you went prowling away again, opening my closet, looking through my dresser drawers. You found the teddy bear. You picked it up, turned it over the way you turned over my bookends, and put it back down with a little, tired sigh. You didn’t recognize it. It meant nothing to you.

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18.

The dead men crowd around me as I walk. They do not touch me, do not even reach for me. Only their eyes yearn toward me, yearn toward warmth and memory. They do not remember who they are. They cannot read their own dogtags. I feel a cramping, agonizing need to read their tags, to tell them their names. But at the same time, I know they won’t remember what I tell them. The dead cannot remember themselves; that’s why the living have to. And I cannot be memory for all these men, although I could destroy myself finally in the process of trying. I cannot even be memory for you. I have lost you somewhere. The teddy bear is nothing but a teddy bear, a conglomeration of fabric and stuffing and glass as dead as you are. Nothing green and vital can grow from this teddy bear; it is not a magic talisman that can keep you near me or even let me pretend any more that you belong to me.

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19.

I come to the Wall. The dead men press their hands against the panels and turn to me, terrible pain in their eyes.

“I can’t help you,” I say and flinch at the sound of my own voice. They can’t hear me; the only sounds they listen for are their own, the names they can no longer remember.

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20.

Mom died a year ago. Cancer: it took her fast, devoured her body as if she were her own funeral pyre of dry wood and kerosene. I visited her in the hospital in Knoxville. We stared at each other, and I realized that while I look like Dad, and like you, I have her eyes.

I was the only mourner at her funeral; everyone else who had loved her was dead.

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21.

I hid your teddy bear for years, moving it from secret place to secret place around my room. When I went to college, it went with me, packed in the bottom of a box full of sheets and pillowcases. I hid it from my roommate, knowing that I could never face explaining why I had brought a ragged, mildewy teddy bear with me. I liked my roommate fine, but when I was eligible to move into a single, I did. It was my secret�our secret�and I would rather have died myself than desecrate it by sharing it.

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22.

I don’t know where your name is on the Wall and no longer believe that it matters. I choose a panel near the middle and leave the teddy bear in the border between the Wall and the path. I leave the dead men clustering at the Wall and walk away.

I look back. Like Orpheus, like Lot’s poor stupid wife.

But this isn’t a story. There’s nothing there.


Having completed her Ph.D. in English literature, Sarah Monette now lives and writes in a 99-year-old house in the Upper Midwest. Her first two novels, Melusine (2005) and The Virtu (2006), have been published by Ace Books, with two more novels in the series to follow: The Mirador (2007) and Summerdown (2008). Her short fiction has appeared in many places, including Strange Horizons, Alchemy, and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. Visit her online.

“Letter from a Teddy Bear on Veterans’ Day” was inspired by a necklace of the same title made by Elise Matthesen�there’s even a picture of me wearing it here.

Something about the juxtaposition of a teddy bear, one of the strongest symbols of childhood, and Veterans’ Day, a holiday which commemorates that least childish of sacrifices, evoked the Vietnam Memorial in my head. And from there it was just a matter of listening closely enough to hear the story the narrator was trying to tell.

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