Lon Prater lives and writes on the Florida Panhandle, which he sometimes refers to as the Genre Gulag. His fiction has appeared in Writers of the Future XXI, Borderlands 5 and many other venues. You can find out more about him at http://www.neverary.com/notes.htm.
This poem was inspired, at least in part, by a bit of poorly capitalized roadside scripture, lots of standing water left over from one of the many hurricanes last year and a recent encounter with a soccer mom.
Like many of my poems, the association “clicked” while I was driving, and I had to pull over and scribble this one out before I could go any further.
The queen in her dark halls kept a mirror of ice that had never known the sun’s kiss. Within it was frozen a maiden with pale lips and sweet eyes. A man appeared in the mirror’s cold depths. The queen breathed over its surface, erasing his reflection, and turned. Waited.
The man was not yet old. His eyes were large and dark, seeing too keenly into the shadows of this gray place, its listless shades. He opened his hands to her; dimly, even at a distance, the queen felt their warmth. A musician’s calluses marked his fingertips. His hands were beautiful even so, strong and lean.
“I thought you had come to play for my husband,” said the queen.
The musician’s smile was ironic. “The echoes in these your halls cast strange dissonances. You know, you and your husband, what I came for. Why bring music into it?”
“We hear music so seldom here,” said the queen. She did know her purpose. It pleased her to delay mentioning it. Here, where no green things grew, she felt winter. Blinded, chained, she would have felt the sun’s withdrawal and the fallen leaves, the dead flowers. She was neither blinded nor chained. Winter made her restless in her husband’s halls.
“Are there no poets to praise your eyes?” said the musician. “Or the long fall of light over your shoulder?” His gaze never moved beyond her to the mirror.
She liked the effort. Spring, youth, light–these must be newly painful to him, not the welcome, bitter ache they had become for her. “That’s not the trouble,” she said. “Who can speak of fruits on the tongue, or the color of the sea at twilight, when everything here is either gray or forbidden?”
“Then speak of other things,” he said. “The rocks. The shadows upon the rocks. The footsteps–” His breath caught. A dim shape moved in the halls beyond, bearing an unbearable burden. A moment later, the musician said, “I’m sorry. Manipulation is too easy.”
The queen laughed. “Isn’t that what your singing does? Isn’t that what music is?”
“No,” said the musician. Then: “Yes. That’s part of it.”
“And the whole?”
“They say–you know what they say happens when I sing, how the wind stills and the birds listen. When I play the lyre. The best poetry, the cruelest, remembers what we will become.” His eyes were compassionate. “The best music. And so.”
“And so?” the queen asked, in spite of herself. She watched the way the shadows defined his mouth and gathered in his hair. “Say why your music moves people. Why it is power.”
The musician did not flinch from the word, her implicit rebuke. He had meant to bribe her and her husband with music, to still death’s hand. “What we become,” he said. “The future describes the past; numbers describe the world. What is music but a cult of number? Ratios, rhythms. All I do is sing what I see.”
“Surely anyone could do that,” said the queen.
“Surely,” he said. “I do it.”
“And I cannot.” Unlike him, she lived outside the world’s weave.
“Surely,” he said again. “What good is any of it? I can number and unnumber the days, but they will not run backwards.”
He was coming to his purpose. The queen supposed it was inevitable. She, too, could not unnumber days. “Your wife,” she said. And, because she wanted to hurt him, see that mouth flinch, the eyes unwarm: “Who betrayed you.”
“No more than she would have betrayed me at the end of her thread of years,” said the musician, “or I, her.”
“She left you. For my halls.”
“She chose the snake at her heel instead of the snake in her belly,” he said. “I don’t fault her. She wanted my child. I wanted hers. Death before dishonor.” His empty hands tensed and untensed. “Child or no child, let her come back to me and live out the last of her thread.”
“Everyone who comes here has a story,” said the queen, “a reflection plucked out the world’s eye.” She looked at him sidelong. “Why should you two be different?”
“Because everything here is gray or forbidden,” he said. The earlier passion, the violence, waned. Only his eyes remained other than colorless, and they were still dark. He opened his hands, then closed them.
“Send her back,” he said. “We will return to you in the passing of years. We were born to your kingdom. We have never departed. The future describes the past. Dream that our future describes yours.”
He was speaking to her. To her, not her husband. To her, not the grim shapes that moved in the halls.
If she leaned closer, she might taste his mouth, and his throat, and the warmth that winter denied her. She might let his sun-browned hands taste her skin. She said, “There could be a child.” She stood straight, unashamed, lips curving. She was a queen, not the laughing girl in the mirror.
The musician bowed over her outstretched hand. His breath stroked her skin. “The past,” he said in a low, low voice. “Your past. There could be a child between us.” He straightened and lifted his hand just short of her ear. “She would not have flowers in her hair. She would not catch the sun in her eyes.” His head tilted back a little. “Beautiful, yes. Treasured like the earth’s ores, yes.” He lowered his hand. “Gray. Ashen. Forbidden.”
Just as she was forbidden to leave, these winter months. She had not realized she was holding her breath. “And to think it was your singing I feared,” the queen said.
“What do you think I was doing?” The musician’s smile became crooked. “Did you think I needed a lyre?” The smile vanished. “I would give many things to have my wife walk beside me. That is not one of them. And it would not fill the silence in your heart.”
He had not questioned that she had one.
They stood in silence, neither yielding. The mirror captured him, but left the queen untouched. It already had the maiden.
“There is a price,” the queen said. She ran her thumb along the mirror’s edge, her gaze never leaving the musician’s, then drew the sheen of water across her lips and along the ridge of one tooth. “You are halfway to paying it.”
He stared into the mirror. “My wife,” he said.
“That is the other half,” she said. “Can you ask her to live beneath the sky but avoid the sun? Can you ask her to accept what I shall give to you, which cannot be given back?”
“She is accustomed to difficult choices,” the musician said. His eyes were steady. His voice was not.
The queen drew his head closer. Her fingertips bade him not to close his eyes. She kissed him redly, without tenderness. In the dark halls, the echoing silences, the musician made no sound but his heart’s last beats, an irregular and not unpleasing rhythm. He sank to his knees, staring up at her, blinded. Chained by what she had given him, the life that is not life.
“Go,” said the queen, smiling. “She will be at the gates. You must walk without looking for her face or her reflection. You must walk until you stand beneath the night. And there you must give her the red kiss, and she shall return to you.”
“My queen,” he said. The music was gone from his voice. He bowed deeply and greatly, despite his unsteadiness. His skin remembered sunlight, but it would soon forget. The queen regretted that.
Then the musician departed, as she had told him.
The future describes the past.
So it does, thought the queen, knowing the musician’s story. Knowing herself complicit in the second separation to come, and all the separations, the pomegranate kisses, that happened in the sunlit realm.
Within the mirror, the queen saw the maiden in her forever winter. The musician’s reflection, too, was wrapped and motionless. In the realm above, no water or metal would show him his face. The queen raised a hand to her mouth and wiped away the red.
So, she said to the maiden in their shared silent heart, you have companionship now.
She was a queen, and the maiden was not. It made all the difference.
The queen broke the mirror, leaving warm red fingerprints on the pieces, and thought no more of music, or spring, or any such thing so long as she dwelled in her husband’s dark halls.
Yoon Ha Lee’s fiction has appeared in F&SF and the anthology In Lands That Never Were. She lives in Washington state with her husband and daughter.
“The Sun’s Kiss” arose from exasperation with mythological heroes who undertake apparently foolish actions, and wondering if there might in fact be a good reason for said actions.
The first time I ever see a moth he’s pinned down by two of Dry Rot’s boys. At least I think it’s a he; the women have taken to masculine dress and gait to cut down the rape statistics.
Dry Rot’s here, of course, four feet away from the three men struggling in front of me. A short, stocky man of shadow. By far the most striking aspect of Dry Rot’s appearance is his shrapnel piercing: a line of holes in his person stretching from the root of his left ear, hooking under his chin and striving for, but not quite reaching, the right ear. These holes are kept patent by rings made of shell fragments, cracked bullets, and any other metal originating from spent ordnance.
“Good evening, Dr. Bonadventure,” he says. His voice carries even though he speaks without effort. Easy to see how he became a leader of men.
“I’m not a doctor,” I say, and focus on the moth. At close range he’s certainly a male, scruffy even by Zone standards, sweating, raw friction burns on both forearms. His neck is a tube of writhing worms, veins standing out with his vain struggle against Dry Rot’s muscle men. I lift my oil lamp to his eyes–should use a pen torch but we are conserving–and the iris points north, leaving an excess of white. Pupils reactive, which is good. I move his head around a bit, confirming a unidirectional gaze.
“Room twenty-seven, and be gentle. He’s no use to anybody if he gets a septic wound and dies.” I look to Dry Rot as they drag the moth up the stairs. “Are you going to come inside? There’s food. ‘All offices are open, and there is full liberty of feasting from this present hour–‘”
“Whoa, doc, don’t get all lyrical on me,” said Dry Rot. “Rain check, okay? Give the boys my share.”
I am real.
This is not a Dream.
I am Anslem Bonadventure, and I live in Middle England.
I have to think these thoughts everyday or… something. I’m not sure what.
Sometimes I say these thoughts out loud, when things get really fragmented.
I say, “I am real.”
It rings hollow like the ministrations of a prostitute.
Dry Rot wears a trench coat, and there are two items he carries everywhere: a sawed-off double shotty and a shrunken human head, hole in the crown to accommodate the chain with which it dangles from his belt.
The mouth is frozen in a grimace.
Though I persist, he will not tell me whose head it used to be.
I’m halfway up the stairs outside the Institute when I hear Dry Rot’s voice.
“Doc, you better take a look at this.”
I turn around and he’s pointing at a small group of people gathering near the Institute wall. Their laughter is already raucous and they point upwards. My stomach churns; I know why they’re doing it, who they’re looking at. Third story window, Patricia, nude and in the mood to give a show. I try to ignore the catcalls and finish my cursory on the moth, but it’s too late and I’m distracted.
“Thank you, Dry Rot, and since you declined my food that will be all.”
I sweep ahead of the boys and make my way into the darkness of the Institute. My lamp barely lights me a path.
“Anomaly Induced Suicidality.” For this, McMahon adopts his lecture voice. I shift from arsecheek to arsecheek on the saddle. “That’s what I called it. Nice descriptive name, easy to remember. The colloquials didn’t adopt it, though. Instead, they called the victims moths. Evocative, I”ll grant.”
Colloquials is what McMahon calls people he considers uneducated, which pretty much includes everybody who is not called McMahon.
He clips the electrodes to the shaved temples of the patient. The electrolyte gel makes the scalp glisten in the dull kerosene lantern light.
“It was much commoner in the months following the event that created the Pit. Previously normal people would just lose focus and start walking towards it, neglecting to eat or drink, no matter how far away they were. They crossed London as if it were an apparition site like Lourdes or that bleeding windowpane in Seattle or wherever. I wrote numerous papers describing the phenomenon.”
I know this already. He made me read them all two years ago, but I say nothing. I keep my feet in the pedals and idle while McMahon connects the analogue multimeter to the capacitance unit. The latter is a mass of wires cobbled together with lithium and sulphuric acid batteries as a starter unit surrounding a core of giant capacitors. It is something out of a mad scientist movie from the thirties. No phallic Van der Graaf generator, though.
“It took a year for me to realise that death was the culmination of their melancholic pilgrimage. The dissociation is complete: they are unresponsive to their names or noxious stimuli.
“The colloquials oversimplified as usual, said it was like a moth to flame. Appropriate imagery, considering the photic activity of the Pit, but flawed. Start the pedals, Anslem.”
I start to cycle, watch the dial flicker with the dynamo-generated current. I’ve been told digital readouts exist, but never seen one. There is no crackle, no sparks to indicate the amount of voltage generated, but McMahon nods his big head, and I know I’m doing well.
“Faster, Anslem. We don’t have all day now, do we?” He adjusts the bit in the patient’s mouth. The struggles are futile and comical to me. I bite my inner cheek to stop a guffaw from rising and pedal faster, my thighs and calves taut and hot.
“The moths are not attracted to the flame like their entomological namesakes. True, they move towards the radiation of the pit but it does not attract them; they are repelled by the darkness without. The bleakness–faster!–the bleakness of life outside the Pit literally drives their true selves beneath the surface, and all that is left is the instinct to escape into the only source of light and beauty.
McMahon flips the switch, and this time there are sparks. I breathe like I just did the hundred in nine.
The twitching starts in the forearm muscles just beneath the strap. It spreads from here, and I have a fleeting fear that the bounds won’t hold, but it always does. Within seventeen seconds, he is convulsing all over. The bit has his mouth maximum width so he cannot scream or bite his tongue. Foamy saliva spills down his face, and his back arches. I’ve seen patients die because the seizure flexed their back too suddenly, severing the spine.
“Hmm. Burnt the scalp. Would you look at that,” says McMahon just before the barbecue smell reaches me and I retch.
This is a real event, not a dream.
I am an apprentice when this happens.
In the darkness beyond the range of my lamp, unquiet minds scream, some silent, some vocal. I need no light to get to Patricia’s room, but my calves and knees ache by the time I get there. Six flights of stairs, and I’m puffing.
From outside Pat’s room I can hear the din from the street. A passing thought: did Dry Rot stay to catch a glimpse of Pat’s flesh? She laughs, drives coherent thought from my head. I unlock the door, step in, lock it behind me, leave the key in the hole in case orderlies decide to investigate.
She is backing me, the curve of her spine deepening into the cleft of her buttocks. Inoffensive cellulite sacculation. I see the dome of each heavy breast alternatively from each side as she shakes them for her audience.
“For fuck’s sack, Pat–” I blow out both lanterns. I feel like flinging them to the floor, but oil is expensive, and I might start a fire.
Beyond her, outside the window, men strain, crane their necks. They know she is still there. For her part, Pat looks back at them. Wistfully?
Without looking at me, she says, “I’m meant to be a mad woman, Anslem. I thought I might act like it.”
I say nothing. I seethe because strangers have seen her pubic hair, because Dry Rot has seen her naked.
“You haven’t been here in two days,” she says, and clutches my crotch, borderline painful.
She pulls me to her, and I seethe in a different way.
This is a dream.
I know it’s a dream, but I also know it’s real, the way dreams feel real when you’re in them. It’s the McMahon Institute, and I’m inside the room of one of the clients. It’s time for the morning rounds, but I cannot find anyone to accompany me.
The converted cathedral is too quiet, so I decide to search for other staff members, but I cannot make it to the door. I am paralysed.
I look outside the door, but all I can see is me looking in on myself. Then I’m back inside the paralysed me and the round has started. I am the only patient and the orderlies are all former patients of mine, dead ones, moths, schizophrenics, depressives, bipolars, borderlines, sufferers of cyclothymia.
McMahon is there, too.
He explains my malady to the team in tedious polysyllables. I scream but no sound comes out.
I wake up in my bed, and I’m relieved. I sit up, look out the port in the door, and there’s McMahon with a gaggle of psychotic nurses and orderlies.
Then I wake up for real, with Pat asleep beside me. It’s still intermittently dark, but quiet and cold. The Pit is giving a light show and the room is bright with reflected light from just below the horizon of burnt-out skyscrapers. Goosebumps cover Pat’s breasts and her nipples are erect, but not from passion. A pustule discharges lazily down her shoulder.
I check the lock on the door, look outside to be sure that I’m truly awake, then dress up.
The lesson I have learnt from knowing Patricia is this: women are for life, not just Christmas.
If the Institute were still a church, this would be my congregation: Seine, brought two summers ago, whose umbilicus whispers the deep secrets of the cosmos; Ali, who cannot stop crying and knows not the reason; Ben, in goggles and handcuffs because of repeated attempts at gouging out his own eyes; Ordell, still as a statue, catatonic for close to five years, can’t wipe his own arse without help; Singh, who sets fires; Alice, who is manic and thinks she is the Holy Virgin; Dean is chaotic, undiagnosed, dangerous; Christopher, who beat his mother to death for calling him Ernest, which happens to be the name with which he was christened.
And so on.
This is my flock.
The moth is on the table, and I fill the syringe prepared for him. A nurse called Owen stands by just in case the patient gets violent, although it’s difficult to imagine what a sixty-kilogram man can do against straps that have held down hulks stoned on Angel Dust.
Owen is balding and soft spoken, from the West Coast in the US somewhere, volunteered to come into the zone. He’s not so big, but his arms are like tempered steel. Owen is by far the strongest man I have ever met. I always wonder what guilt he is washing away by being this close to the Pit. Most of the indigenous rich have left the UK after all. He has a girlfriend we all call ‘Noddy’ behind his back on account of a nervous tic she has. She’s sweet, if a little desperate, and the tic is funny as hell because it makes it seem like she’s agreeing with everything you say.
The moth doesn’t struggle.
The fluid in the syringe is a mystery to me. I selected it out of a batch of six thousand different ampoules sorted by shape and colour. I do what McMahon taught me.
We have no antipsychotics, no antidepressants, no mood stabilizers, no sedatives. We have no Electro-Convulsive Therapy. We improvise, though.
For shock treatment, we have the contraption that McMahon designed that generates electricity from a modified dynamo.
We have alcohol. Hooch, actually, but it does the trick.
A while back, some hooligans found a stash of medication and brought it to the Institute, every single box without label. The only way to find out the effects is by trial and error.
“Waste not, want not. Use the suicides.” McMahon, the pragmatist.
Through his ‘trials’, we discover which ones are tranquillisers, but it is hard going, and we lose quite a few to catastrophic reactions. Could be strychnine in the boxes for all we know.
I go intramuscular for this one, depress the plunger, empty the syringe. Owen and I wait and wait, but nothing changes, so we call the orderlies who take the moth back to his room. I’m filing the ampoule under “delayed action” in the ledger when we hear shouts. Outside, the moth is on the floor, eyes wide open, still. The orderlies stare at him like they’ve broken mama’s favourite china.
I turn to Owen. “Are the phones working?”
“Are you kidding? After the light storm we had last night?”
“Fine. Send a messenger to Mrs. Harker. Tell her we have a place for her daughter.”
The first time I see the Institute, I am frightened for two understandable, but, as it happens, irrelevant reasons.
There was the centuries-old cathedral for one. I’m standing there, left hand squeezed bloodless by my mother, looking up at these spires and the workers trying to secularise it, barring the windows, building extension wings, breaking off headstones from the tasteful cemetery beside it, and it makes me want to piss in my pants. It is a lovely summer day, and the street garbage and turds are both well illuminated and dry, less chance of stepping in them. The cathedral looks as if it has wrapped leftover darkness from the night around itself, and I wonder why God would live in such a loathsome place.
My irrational fear: that I will be lifted off the ground by an unseen malignant force and allowed to drop on the spiky, wicked-looking spires where I will hang impaled for eternity.
And then I see McMahon for the first time, and a drop or two of urine warms my shorts for real this time. I already know of him, like everybody does. The way my mother tells it, McMahon is a crazy old coot, perfect for managing crazyfolk. She says she one day sees a six-five crack addict charge him, but the man doesn’t bat an eyelid, just stands there in harm’s way, speaking into a Dictaphone. When the attacker is a foot away McMahon pulls out a taser and stuns him, casual-like, still speaking into the recorder. There are many legends about McMahon–I have spread some of them myself–but in person he is ten times as scary.
He is bearded, wears glasses that lack frames and are smudged, is thin, but looks wiry. His eyes are fire opals, and his gaze is impossible to hold in its intensity. I last twenty seconds before my soul shrivels up, and I study my sandal-clad feet.
“I see you received my message, Mrs. Bonadventure.” He sounds like a lion with human vocal cords.
“Yes, doctor,” says my mother. She pushes me forward. “This is my Anslem.”
“Anslem Bonadventure,” says McMahon. “Good old reliable binomial nomenclature. A surname is excellent genetic branding. This new thing of having single names is just tommyrot, don’t you agree, Anslem?”
I think for a minute, then I say: “What if the single name were a combination of the two previous names?”
McMahon’s mouth goes through some contractions, and he grits his teeth and turns to my mother. “Can he read?”
He purses his lips and looks behind us. My father stands on the street, docile and euphoric from the crushed opiate mother mixed into his food. In the undrugged state, his rage is uncontainable. My brother and I have spent many a night huddled together beneath the burnt-out bus outside our house, shivering from frost and fear.
It costs food or favours to have a relative in the Institute. My mother can barely feed the family from what we grow and exchange from our plot of land, and she is too old to trade favours with orderlies.
She has my younger brother and me.
She trades me.
McMahon gestures, and three burly men walk up to my father and lead him inside. I try to hold on to my mother, but when McMahon calls I go to him without hesitating.
When I look back, my mother is gone. I never see her again.
Christopher embraces violence with a religious, ecstatic fervour. I am not ashamed to be afraid of him, but McMahon just operates the lever to the holding unit, yanking Christopher to the back of the room, and walks in as if visiting a relative.
Christopher lives only to cause unspeakable carnage to biological systems and expresses admiration for Cain of the Pentateuch for the purity of his method and his unadulterated attempted genocide.
“Genocide?” asks McMahon.
“There were only four alive,” says Christopher. He rattles his chains at us as if we should know. “Abel was the potential founder of a whole race. Genocide before the fact. Efficient. Not fun, but efficient.”
Under hypnosis, Christopher has equally perplexing opinions about Adolph Hitler and Genghis Khan.
We hold meetings on Wednesdays, us Middle England dwellers.
I attend because McMahon used to attend, but I find it purposeless. It’s chaotic in the extreme, and occasionally violent. The meetings are an attempt at imposing civilisation upon London, to install a form of government.
It doesn’t work. Roving gangs like Dry Rot’s band and Nish Calcutta hold the real power and have done so since Temuchin forced unconditional peace many years back. The next level of clout is with the Workers’ Guild, and their volubility accounts for most of the noise in the Elephant and Castle underpass in which we hold the meeting. The workers made London function again, all of which is thanks to a petite, but intense, woman sitting in their midst called Montague.
She is disinterested, making notes on her forearm, and even from across the room I can see equations and diagrams. This grey-haired bonfire of intelligence built a wind farm along the south bank of the Thames, rigged buses that run on both solar energy and fossil fuels (the latter smuggled from Outer England), built the Electro-Convulsive Therapy machine from McMahon’s design, and I hear she’s working on a locomotive that will run on garbage, night soil, and a steam boiler. The Workers’ Guild started with some hangers-on and grew from there to a collective of thousands, all of whom worship Montague as Our Lady of London.
I fear Montague like I fear McMahon; I see the same disturbed light in both of their eyes. As if she can read my mind, she looks up at that precise moment, pausing from her scribbling and pinning me to the spot. Her eyes are a faded shade of sky-blue, almost transparent. I feel hot all over and leave the meeting, hasty, pushing outraged neo-communists out of my way.
Outside, I can still hear the sound of the meeting but the words are indistinct, and it reminds me of boiling water. There are patches of asphalt still in the same spot they have occupied for three decades. I have read that the underpass was necessary because there were so many cars in the days before the Pit that they would knock down people crossing the road. I find it difficult to imagine.
Across the street, hanging upside down on a guardrail with her feet, is a child, a healthy one. I haven’t seen a human under fifteen in a year, mostly because their parents keep them under lock and key where they develop rickets and die, which is considered a superior death to abduction and murder by the sporadic proto-cannibals that crop up from time to time. The fact is most kids I have seen have been diseased with corpse-white lesion–heavy skin, bow legs and Victorian-age black teeth, but this girl has long, thick black hair that dangles on the floor as she swings back and forth, white teeth that gleam as she smiles from her solitary play, and baby-fat in her cheeks.
“Hey,” I say, and, all feline agility, she lands on her feet and sprints off. I run after her because I want to know how she lives in Middle England and remains so clean, so pure. Who were her parents?
She’s fast. I catch flashes of her hair as she turns corners down alleys, and when I reach them she’s already at the far end. Then I realise I’m in the wrong place because there’s no graffiti, and a blinder steps on to my path. The child is gone, and I’m in an alley surrounded by buildings so tall the sunlight has a hard time filtering in. Weeds reach for the sky through the cracks in the concrete, waving in the wind, brushing against my ankles. I’m breathing heavy, and I know the blinder can hear it because he starts towards me.
Blinders. Right, well, what happened was a few years back there was some highly addictive chemical on the streets. I forget what it was called, but you sniffed it twice in quick succession to get a hit. Three days later the molecule works it way through the thin plate in the roof of the nose, gaining access to the optic nerves resulting in irreversible blindness, but not before first damaging the frontal lobe and turning victims into chemically-lobotomised zombies of unpredictable behaviour.
I turn around, and there are more blinders behind me. I wonder now why I followed the child, what I was thinking. It’s difficult for me to decide if I’m in danger; you never know what a blinder will do. I turn back to the single blinder, but now there are others behind him and I am boxed-in.
Because I am not a man of action, I dither, and the first of the blinders reaches me. It’s a female, and she holds my shoulder and does nothing else. She looks like a normal, poorly adjusted, starved woman from Middle England but when I brush her hand off she bares her teeth. The others take this as a cue and become frenzied, scratching, striking, yanking my hair. I do not fight; I don’t know how, and a part of me thinks I deserve to die in this nondescript walkway.
But this is not to be.
We avoid the third rail when we walk over the tracks. It is a common superstition among Londoners, unconscious and instinctive. Dry Rot has his sawed-off primed, and he waves it in short jerks each time we look round a discarded coach.
We are looking for a violent psychotic who has been terrorising this area with his poetry and his punches. I do not want to participate, but Dry Rot has the idea that I should determine if said psychotic is truly psychotic or just a violent verse peddler pissed-off at life. Two dead, thirteen wounded, perhaps moribund, no description except that he’s white, male, powerfully built, and likes poems.
“What happened to McMahon, then?” asks Dry Rot.
“Your mentor. He usually comes with me on these forays. What happened to him?”
“He said I was ready,” I say.
“That’s not what I asked you.” Dry Rot stops and the twin-muzzles swing my way.
“He’s gone,” I say. “I didn’t know you two were so close.”
“Gone how?” says Dry Rot, muzzle dropping, not so threatening.
“Away! Back to Outer England! Fuck should I know?”
“I mean, how did he leave?”
“Hot air balloon, from the roof of the Institute.”
Dry Rot chuckled, and continued forward. “I always knew he had an out.”
An hour later we find the poet with his head staved-in, lying across the tracks. Bloody, discarded clubs lie all around him, some broken with the force of impact.
I am real.
On this day I feel more real than other days, but it doesn’t decrease my need for affirmation of my own reality.
“This is not a dream.” It is still important to me to explicitly state the difference between the now and an oneiroid state.
The reason I don’t die at the hands of the blinders is someone drops a rope ladder to me from above. She screams something at me to get my attention and rattles the rungs against the alley wall. I escape because this noise also distracts the blinders enough for them to let go of me. I climb up, looking down to see them drift apart as if nothing happened. No anger, no recriminations, no demonstration of frustration.
Above me, the ladder leads into an open window, and all my muscles ache as I climb in.
This high up I can see the remains of the BT tower, London Bridge, hovel clusters around the Thames, the crushed dome of St Paul’s cathedral, and a sickly miasma coats Middle England. I miss McMahon; he would have had something to say about the cityscape.
“I knew you’d return,” says the woman as she helps me into the room. “How is Patricia?”
I finally look at the woman, and I do not know her. She has a sallow complexion, like she’s not seen the sun in decades, her grey hair is straggly and dirty, her face is full of eruptions and pockmarks, she has no teeth to speak of, just some rotting ivory attached to the upper jaw. She wears a bulbous beige gown, for she is pregnant, and she stinks.
“You must be mistaken,” I say, careful not to make eye contact.
She pulls out a card from behind her, glances at it, and says, “No mistake.”
Every surface in the room is covered with cards. Little two–by–four inch cards with crowded, tiny writing in dark red ink. I start to wonder if perhaps I shouldn’t have stayed with the blinders. I snatch up one of the cards and read:
Social ritual: when asked about the weather it is customary to whine about it, or agree with the opinion of the person asking. There is no actual interest in the weather; they just want a safe topic with which to start off conversation.
Warning: if you notice an obvious deformity, do not draw attention to it, particularly if it may have been worsened by lack of funds for medication.
I sample some of the other cards and look to the woman. “What’s this?”
She looks to a card. “Reminders. I forget things easily.”
“You made cards to remind yourself to shake hands with people?”
“I didn’t make the cards. You did. The Man.”
I now remember who she is. Man is so-called because she has no short-term memory and refers to all men as ‘man’ and blends them into one. I am amazed that she is still alive after all this time.
After several false starts, I make my way out of her room against her protests. My skin crawls where she touches me, trying to hold me back. In the end I have to push her, and she screams about her baby, clutching her belly. I descend the stairs in a flurry of cardboard cards, and without guilt; she has been ‘pregnant’ for at least four years.
“Start simple,” says McMahon. “Silas Marner. The Last of the Mohicans. The Man in the Iron Mask. In that order.”
I find it difficult to keep up with McMahon as he walks ahead. I am trying to make notes of his words and match his stride at the same time.
“Then try The Invisible Man.” McMahon takes me past the prostitutes on Shaftsbury, past some broken sculptures to Trafalgar, and into an ancient museum. I am afraid because narcotics are sold here, and mother warned me away from it many times. McMahon walks past armed guards like they don’t exist, and I scurry after.
“Are you buying, doctor?” says the seller.
“Don’t be absurd,” says McMahon. “Where do you get your supplies?”
“Why? You wan’ get cheaper stuff for me?”
“You have a laboratory?”
McMahon snaps his fingers, and I hand him a sheet with molecular diagrams on it, which he hands to the seller.
“I need you to mass-produce these.”
“You gon’ buy?”
“No. You’ll make them from the milk of human kindness that flows from your heart. Or from the guilt of selling poison to Middle Englanders. I’m not concerned with the reasons. Just tell me when to send the orderlies for the first batch.”
“Are you joking?”
“I can’t run a mental institution without tranquillisers. We discussed this in the meeting, and it was agreed that–“
“I din’ attend no meeting, doctor, and as for tranquillisers,” the seller pulls out a machine pistol and pushes it in McMahon’s face. “I have plenty of them in the magazine right here.”
But despite his bravado, he caves, and within a month, we have some burgundy pills and vials that calm the unquiet minds in the Institute and allow us to take some shackles off. By this time, McMahon has me on Dostoyevsky and slips me some papers by Kraepelin. My father dies of blood poisoning around this time, but I neither mourn him nor think of returning to my mother.
I meet Patricia.
I am her third customer, and she is still energetic enough to return pelvic thrusts and fake moans with reasonable realism. It is November and cold enough for icicles to form beneath one’s nostrils. I’m looking at her face, which bears the clearest skin, with only one or two visible boils. Sheean, the armed chaperone, coughs behind us. I am being asked to hurry up, the last thing I want to do. When I don’t oblige, Pat does something and I finish in seconds. I feel certain my grey matter is leaking out of my ears by this time. As I dress, I ask Sheean if I can be alone with Pat next time.
“I’m not a risk. You know who I am, where I work.” On the other side of the bed Pat cleans up, listens, says nothing. I am in love, of course.
Sheean fidgets; she doesn’t want conversation, she wants me out the door before the next caller arrives. She says something non-committal and ushers me out. For weeks, I cannot pay attention to McMahon’s lessons and think only of Patricia who says absolutely nothing. Then one day on Christmas week, Sheean fobs me off on Man. Her conversation is bizarre, and I often wonder if she belongs in the Institute.
I imagine all those other men being with Pat, while I languish with stinky, incoherent Man. I complain to Sheean, who offers me a Christmas present.
“If you can pull it off, I’ll let you take Patty for Christmas night. You have your own room at the Institute, right?”
“And in return you want…?”
“Painkillers, lover boy. For the deep, intractable pain I feel here.” She takes my hand and places it on her left breast.
I don’t really have a room of my own, but I don’t correct the misconception. I get the painkillers, the easy part. I give them to Sheean outside the Institute at night, and she gives me Pat’s wrist.
I have a plan.
I place Patricia, veiled, wrapped up against the cold, on a stool close to the entrance. “Stay here. I’ll be right back.” She nods, or shakes her head; it’s hard to tell in the lantern light. I am already delirious with desire.
I hurry through the nave, oil sloshing inside the lamp with each stride. There are billets on either side of me where the aisles used to be, housing the orderlies. Towards the end, at the apse, we keep the worst-behaved patients in several fortified rooms. I go down to the basement and open a cell and coax out the catatonic patient inside. He requires little prompting, and automatically obeys–mitgehen we call it–my gentle prods. I navigate him to the apse, but none of the rooms is free. There are cards outside each room stating who is inside and for how long.
A whistle drifts down from the bell tower, startles me, the acoustics in the cathedral a mess since McMahon took over. I operate the mechanism and open one cell. Christopher lies inside, a straining knot of muscle, bone and froth. I encourage the catatonic, and he shuffles into the cell, stops in the middle.
“Play nice,” I say to them.
I spin, intending to close the door mechanism and race to get Pat. Instead, I swivel straight into McMahon.
Several things happen at once.
“Anslem, what are you doing?” asks McMahon.
I’m looking at his eyes and reaching behind me for the switch to close the door, but instead hit the release switch for Christopher.
For the first and last time, I see fear on McMahon’s face, and all I can think is that the man is human after all. His eyebrows rise a fraction of an inch, and perhaps his pupils dilate, far less than what I would do in his position, but a definite fear response for sure.
The universe shatters into fragments of perception: pain, loss of balance as I am pushed from behind; pain, impact with the floor, two incisors gone, just like that; vision, a monster reaching for McMahon with frightening speed; touch, drops of spittle on my face, splashes of blood all over me; sound, screams from McMahon, growls from the inmate, wet sounds; illumination, I realise instead of locking the door I have unleashed hell.
I leap up and pull a lever that yanks short the chain, but Christopher drags an unconscious McMahon with him and bites down again and again.
Good lord, there is so much blood, so much.
I’m surprised that it doesn’t all disintegrate into a dream, and that I don’t just wake up or come to.
I am still Anslem Bonadventure.
“Real,” I add after a pause.
I should say something.
Patricia is standing behind me, expecting me to eulogize. McMahon is a giant despite his diminutive stature, and he deserves… something. While I struggle to conjure up something from Voltaire, the final anchoring rope loosens and the balloon floats away. I have dropped too much ballast from it, and I watch it take McMahon off into heaven.
I stagger and choke some tears back. The wind threatens to throw us off the side of the roof. I feel guilty because my grief is not nearly as much as the lust I feel for Pat.
The guilt does not affect my performance.
Owen cleans the wounds with the hooch from our distillery and packs each one with mould, our only source of antibiotics.
It’s dark now, and the Pit is in the middle of a fantastic eruption. Scintillation counters are going wild and the radio crackles, but there’s no visible light. On nights like this, the staff sleeps in lead aprons. If this were a comic book, superheroes would be born.
“So what about the little girl? Blinders get her?” Owen asks.
“Disappeared.” I wince as he presses down. “I’m beginning to wonder if she wasn’t some sort of hallucination.” It’s out of my mouth before I realise what I’m saying, and to whom. I trivialize it, bury it in crude jokes involving the sex lives of armadillos but I know. I know because of the pause. I noticed he stopped moving for a few seconds when I said it. He laughs and makes an appropriate leery response.
But he’s thinking now.
Sheean takes Patricia’s decision to stay quite well, considering. All I have to do, she says, is supply her painkillers for a year.
I can’t force Pat out because she knows about McMahon and has hinted that she will tell someone of consequence about the bloodshed. The Institute is infinitely better than any life she has outside. I forgive her the blackmail for this reason and supply Sheean’s painkillers. I fit their absence from the pharmacy into my explanation of McMahon’s sudden exit. It’s not difficult to convince the staff that he was an addict. They believe because they want to believe, and because McMahon was a shit.
Two weeks later, Sheean is killed in a brouhaha with some fringe cult that worships prostitutes by drinking their blood.
“Montague’s here to see you,” says Owen.
I’ve been good. Last couple of weeks, I work my arse off keeping the Institute in order, making sure Kentucky Fried Owen notices how balanced I am, how very sane I am. Superhyperfuckingsane. But he’s telling me that a woman who castrates me in my dreams is waiting outside.
“You coming?” he asks, holding open the door.
“Sure,” I say, too casual. Does that sound like I’m stressed? Like I’m hallucinating? Does it?
I step out of the cathedral, and there’s Montague with like a thousand workers. And Dry Rot, face carved from teak, pointing his shotgun right at my chest.
“What’s going on?” I ask. I know, though. I’m just trying to play some final, last-ditch hand while I struggle to maintain control of my bladder and rectum.
Montague speaks fast, with a squeaky voice. “I was with McMahon the night he… disappeared. It took time, but I was able to accept him up and leaving, abandoning what we had. Men do this. It didn’t fit my impression of him but one learns to modify one’s schemata with experience.
“But then there was you, Bonadventure. Weak, pathetic, putting-on-daddy’s-shoes Bonadventure. I knew you lied about the addiction, of course, but I just didn’t have enough information to tease out your reasons.”
Owen moves behind me, part of the whole thing. He’s being careful, quiet, but I could have told him not to bother; I’m not going to resist.
“I saw an old friend today. She had something about you written on some cards,” says Montague.
“Man,” I say.
Montague strikes me across the cheek and I see bright spots dance across my eyes. Stronger than she looks, this one.
“Her name is Annabel Greenville. I know about Patricia and Sheean, Bonadventure. I don’t know why you killed McMahon–“
“Hey, wait! I didn’t–“
“It’s not important anymore. What is important is that we’ve donated your living body to science. Please don’t struggle. I don’t wish for violence.”
Dry Rot steps forward. “I do.”
He fires at my right kneecap, and I black out before I hit the floor.
Patricia has done this to me.
What I find out is she thought I arranged McMahon’s death, for which I can’t blame her since she didn’t witness it. Not that it spooked her, but she figured an insurance policy was in order.
She went to Man.
She thought as long as I was happy with her, I’d never have to visit Man. So she wrote cards outlining what had happened to McMahon, painting me as a murderer, with simple instructions: If I showed up, the cards were to go to Montague.
If you are reading this card, my life must be over or in danger. Anslem Bonadventure killed McMahon and forced me to be quiet about it.
And so on.
I didn’t even know she could write.
This is not a dream, but it could be a nightmare.
There is a bit in my mouth, and the spit accumulates in the back of my throat. The straps are tighter than I remember it being for the patients. My head is shaved and I’m naked.
Owen is cycling.
I am removed from the pain of the shock treatment; after an incandescent moment of agony, I drift away, and the person on the slab is in a distant alternative universe.
When I return, I will be different. There will be no Anslem Bonadventure running things at the Institute, and whatever remorse or love I felt towards McMahon will have dissipated in the stream of electrons running through my cortex.
I hope I get a comfortable room.
Tade Thompson lives in London. He has had some of his short fiction published in both small press and webzines. He is currently working on a novel and is a collaborator on a one-shot fantasy graphic novel. He needs more exercise.
The story is a conflation of many themes triggered when he noticed that his local bank building used to be a church. “The McMahon Institute for Unquiet Minds” is about psychotherapy/psychiatry replacing religion in secular society, the recent murder and dismemberment of a young woman by her husband during a holiday, and the abandonment of the so-called “middle England” demographic in the UK. Tade drew a Venn diagram and this story was at the intersection.
Confrontations catch our attention in this issue of Ideomancer. David Schwartz lets loose with a hurricane and a weatherman in “Virginie and the Fool”. Sam Minier blinds us with a brief glimpse into the confrontations of war in his tale, “7th Period Bayonet Class.” “The Sun’s Kiss” by Yoon Ha Lee provides an intimate look at two characters from mythology. In “The McMahon Institute for Unquiet Minds”, Tade Thompson juxtaposes the sane and the insane. Our poem this month is by Lon Prater, “God Presents Her Wayward Child.”
In addition, we present an interview with Stephen Baxter and reviews of Ian R. MacLeod’s The Summer Isles, Mothers and Other Monsters by Maureen McHugh, and Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners.
We hope you enjoy this quarter’s issue!
Vol. 4 Issue 3
“7th Period Bayonet Class” – Samuel Minier
“The McMahon Institute for Unquiet Minds” – Tade Thompson
“The Sun’s Kiss” – Yoon Ha Lee
“Virginie and the Fool” – David J. Schwartz
“God Explains Her Wayward Child” – Lon Prater
Interview with Stephen Baxter – Robert Rowntree and Lisa Negus
Four Reviews – Sean Melican
The Summer Isles, Ian R. MacLeod, ISBN 9780575097568, Aio Publishing.
Mothers and Other Monsters, Maureen F. McHugh, Small Beer Press.
Magic For Beginners Kelly Link, Jelly Ink.
Telling Tales, Nadine Gordimer, ed, ISBN 0-312-42404-3.
Reviewed by Sean Melican.
It’s a shame these three books couldn’t find a large publishing house to give them the visibility they deserve. I don’t have an intimate knowledge of the decision-making process, but it seems that there is something of a flattening in the field as well as outside it, in that marketing seems to be the dominant consideration. If it can’t be easily fitted with a label referencing a bestseller–“The next Harry Potter!”–it’s a tough sell. Collections are always a difficult fit, but it’s a shame that Kelly Link, who has a story in Best American Short Stories this year, won’t be on the same shelves as some of the other writers who’ll appear in the same pages. And a shame that Maureen McHugh, who is simply brilliant, won’t be next to the latest fat fantasy trilogy or military science fiction novel. What I’m saying is this: go buy these books, give them as gifts and have your friends buy them. They deserve a big audience.
Ian R. MacLeod’s The Summer Isles starts with a simple alternate history scenario: what if the Allies lost the first World War? His answer is that Britain will suffer the same conditions as 1920s and ’30s Germany, and turn into a more or less fascist state, including concentration camps for undesirables–Jews and homosexuals and others– with the euphemistic name the Summer Isles. (The Isle of Man, the Highlands, and other places.) The advertisements read like vacation brochures, Eden-like locales where you can start afresh. (In his introduction, Mr. MacLeod specifically urges the reader not to simply consider fascism, but all forms of “social madness.”) It’s important to remember that long before the late arrivals, the Americans, showed up to combat Nazi Germany, the British, French, Soviets and other Allies had long been fighting a brutal war. For Mr. MacLeod to suggest what happened to Germany could happen to Britain must be, to the British, utterly appalling. But what makes this an important book, as well as one difficult to get published, is that yes, what happened there can happen in Britain or even here and it’s so damn easy. I still shiver to remember the scene when the cattle trains rumble by in the dead of night, bright eyes peering behind through the slats.
Then there’s Mr. MacLeod’s hero. Geoffrey Brooke is anything but, really. He’s a coward and a fraud. He’s changed his name. (Much of the novel is about changing identities.) He teaches at Oxford but he’s not a professor–he doesn’t have the credentials; instead, he got the post, because he’d written regular newspaper column on historical figures for several years, and that he’d gotten because he supposedly taught John Arthur, the hero and despot of this new Britain. The last name is deliberate, a foreshadowing by invocation of that other Arthur.
Oh, and he’s queer. Other than one magical summer of love with a much younger man, Francis Eveleigh, his sex life is one of men’s toilet stalls, darkened storage sheds, bathhouses, and docks. His cowardice is clear when he thinks he should be standing on a tabletop shouting and taking a stand, but instead slinks to a darkened corner. How many men can be heroes? How many will be? It’s easy to fight in a war and maybe even die, but to stand against a tide of condemnation and hatred, that takes courage well beyond what most men are capable of.
Now he’s dying of inoperable lung cancer. His latest lover, a man with a family, disappears overnight. Afraid that he’s been found out, he makes discreet inquiries and discovers that his lover’s homosexuality is not what got him sent to the Summer Isles. He pursues this thread, but not very far, and recalls Francis and the first time he saw John Arthur. He is invited to John Arthur’s fiftieth birthday party, which coincides with (but is not coincidental) with) Trafalgar Day. He is suddenly friends with his boss, Cumbernald, and visits with them at their vacation house. Everyone wants a connection to John Arthur. In perhaps the most surreal juxtaposition, behind the house the trains, with their presumably human cargo, rumble by, while just down the road is the Cumbernald’s nudist colony. In terms of traditional plot, there’s precious little. Brooke merely flows from one incident to the next, past and present commingling, but that’s much of what the novel is about: how little our lives are truly ours, how much of our lives involve simply treading water. How easy it is to fall into one form or another of social madness, and how difficult it is to do what is right.
This is, in the final analysis, a dangerous novel. The same week I read it there was an article in the July 2005 LOCUS about Jeremy Lassen, publisher of Night Shade Book, being visited by two Secret Service agents regarding a photo collage entitled “Guns and Bush,” which was in protest to a Secret Service investigation of a Chicago art exhibit with similar images. Here is part of the story:
The agents interviewed Lassen about the photos, asked him to sign a release form so they could verify statements regarding his mental health history (That’s the scariest thing I’ve read in a long time.), separately interviewed his wife, and indicated they would be interviewing other members of his family. Lassen cooperated fully, and when the agents suggested that his case (What case? What crime?) would look better if he ‘retracted’ the photo-collage series, Lassen complied by taking them offline.
The Secret Service is considering filing criminal charges.
Go ahead. Tell me it can’t happen here. When your mental health is questioned and criminal charges are being considered because you protest the president and his administration’s efforts to stifle the First Amendment, what does that say about where our nation is headed?
I urge you to read The Summer Isles. I’ve long held the opinion that Animal Farm is an awful book because it’s merely a hundred and some-odd page analogy. Replace the animal names with infamous Soviets, and it’s a history book. Mr. MacLeod’s novel is a much better example of anti-totalitarian literature, a sometimes subtle and always brutal examination of the nature of human complicity. It’s an excellent book, and it’ll scare the hell out of you.
The first Maureen McHugh story I read was “Presence” in 2002. I decided I wasn’t impressed. The reason? She writes speculative fiction for grownups. My marriage was still in the honeymoon stage, more or less, and I only had one child who was less than a year old. (Babies are exhausting, but not difficult. They have only simple needs.) My grandmother hadn’t yet been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. I wasn’t ready for her type of fiction.
A few years ago, I didn’t have an answer when I was asked why I thought Ms. McHugh’s stories hadn’t been collected. (Small Beer Press now has, thank goodness.) Now, I’d say it’s precisely because she writes for grownups. Her fiction has more in common with The New Yorker than Asimov’s or F&SF.
Many of her stories would be just as comfortable in mainstream magazines, perhaps more so than genre outlets.
“Presence” is the story of Mila, a woman in her fifties, whose husband, at the ripe young age of fifty-seven, has advanced Alzheimer’s. She seeks a treatment for him that will clean the plaque and rebuild neurons, but what was lost–memories of their marriage, their son, their love–are irrevocably lost. And it may be all for nothing if the disease strikes again.
Mila is a typical protagonist for Ms. McHugh, but notably not for genre. She’s a woman. She’s older and married. Name as many other SF writers as you can who regularly write about older or married people. Or marriages that are anything but domestic bliss.
And what an unsexy topic! Alzheimer’s. There are no aliens, posthumans, spaceships. No dragons, elves, witches. The science is almost peripheral, just a few descriptions of various injections. Certainly no long infodumps so we can see just how smart she is, how thoroughly Ms. McHugh does her research. Some domestic fights–how dull–but no great battles, escapes, or rescues.
But I don’t want to suggest that “Presence” is a dull story. Quite the opposite, in fact. Rather, the critical issue is that its power doesn’t come from the speculative element, the goshwow element that supposedly defines our genre, but from the realistic interactions of two rather unremarkable people thrust into a remarkable situation. Curiously, it’s not even written the way one might suspect, the kind where the ending is Mila’s moral conundrum: Give him the treatment and risk losing my husband, or live with him as he is, knowing that he’s forgotten almost everything. Including Mila and their son, Dan. Instead, almost from the outset, Mila decides to have him “cured”, without really considering the moral costs. Is she destroying her husband? Does she have that right? Is it moral? Mila doesn’t care. A lesser writer would have chosen the other ending, leaving it up to the readers to debate, but not confronting the daily challenge. Ms. McHugh chooses the harder story, the one in which the narrative of the story is nothing more and nothing less, than the exhausting and frightening process of watching Mila’s husband change. Typical of Ms. McHugh, there’s no pat ending, no equivalent of an Aesop’s moral, no relief for the reader: well, it’ll be all right in the end, and at least it couldn’t happen to me.
No, it won’t. And yes, it can. And if you are a grownup, fifty-seven ain’t that far away.
Read it because it hurts. Because it’s frightening. Because it’s important.
“Laika Comes Back Safe” is a curious story because it is an excellent example of the ambiguity of genre that is inherent in many of Ms. McHugh’s stories. (For a better discussion of this phenomenon, read Samuel Delaney’s interview in Across the Wounded Galaxies, or his collection Silent Interviews.) What if your best friend told you he had an inherited disease, one that makes him crazy every so often? What if he told you he was a werewolf? In the context of a genre outlet–Polyphony in this instance– it’s reasonable. But if it were mainstream? Then we’d have to assume that the boy was truly crazy. Ambiguity is one of Ms. McHugh’s many strengths, and we never really know. The story, like “Presence,” isn’t about the speculative element at all, but the pain of adolescence. The title, by the way, is beautifully, bitterly ironic.
When she does turn to more traditional genre stories, Ms. McHugh is adept at inverting the common tropes to forge a truly original story. If you’re at all familiar with science fiction, you’re familiar with Ursula LeGuin’s anthropological stories, and the pale imitations. If not, here’s the tried-and-true formula: An anthropologist, usually female (probably because the soft sciences are associated with women), cannot identify some cultural referent of an alien (truly alien, or just human) society which will allow the previously disconnected puzzle pieces to fall neatly into place. Usually this referent has an analogue to some problem the anthropologist is having within her own culture. Typically, everything wraps up neatly, all problems solved.
But in “The Cost to Be Wise”, the first inversion is that we see the entire story from the viewpoint of the indigenous people, the young woman Janna. We know everything she knows, but, most impressively, Ms. McHugh doesn’t resort to infodumps. Instead, what is unknown to the reader is revealed only when it strikes Janna, most notably with respect to the alien species stabros. (And no, there’s no moment when everyone realizes the stabros have human-equivalent intelligence.)
Veronique, a young, dark-skinned woman, and her ‘teacher’ arrive to visit their friends who are anthropologists–‘teachers’ is the closest translation in Janna’s language. Janna becomes the translator and guide for Veronique.
Sckarline, where Janna lives, isn’t a clan like most people live in on this world, but appears to be a collection of outcasts. They don’t approve of guns or violence, though Janna’s father sometimes hits Janna’s mother. (The matter-of-fact tone about this last is chilling.) They are subject to raids by Scathalos clan, who sometimes trade or buy Sckarline’s liquor, but often just take it by force.
In one of the most powerful scenes, Veronique is sexually assaulted by one of the Scathalos raiders. It is so powerful because it is so unrelenting.
Events spiral out of control into murderous violence. Janna and Veronique are only on the periphery, literally, a powerful literary device since the reader sees, both literally and metaphorically, only the shadows of the precipitating events, lending realism to the chaotic, fragmented scenes.
Finally, the ending is equally powerful, Ms. McHugh again not settling for an easy, satisfying finish, but a difficult, truer, and darker vision. Anthropology offers as little a solution to moral ambiguity as any other methodology for viewing the world.
The other stories are just as good; there’s not a single story that isn’t strong, and most are brilliant. I’ve picked the above stories only because they illustrate Ms. McHugh’s strengths.
For what it’s worth, “Oversite” is my favorite story in the collection because of these two sentences: “About the girl’s palm print found on the wall above his bed. I would picture her, leaning her weight for a moment to steady herself.”
Kelly Link has said that she is a science fiction and not a slipstream writer despite efforts to categorize her work. Her work is not easy to categorize, but she’s right, she’s not slipstream. Slipstream is usually a collection of impossible artifacts or peoples, or anachronistic situations, relying on a weirdness (New Weirdness?) and absurdity to often hide a rather flat and uninteresting story. A romance or a dialectic doesn’t suddenly become brilliant simply because the people are cacti or made of tin cans.
Ms. Link’s stories are hard to categorize because they take relatively ordinary situations–buying a new house, playing poker, hanging out at an underage party while the parents are away–and uses unusual narrative techniques to evoke a variety of genres, mostly horror. In fact, while she uses words associated with genre concepts, her use is anything but ordinary. In “The Hortlak,” there are zombies, but they don’t eat brains or drop rotting, putrid flesh on the ground. The word zombie merely refers to people who appear at the All-Night near the Ausible Chasm, buy stuff, and leave. Zombie might merely be a metaphor for the type of people who visit convenience stores in the middle of the night. Might not be, but there’s simply nothing in the story to suggest one reading or the other. The story, by the way, isn’t about zombies at all but a rather odd love triangle. In “Some Zombie Contingency Plans,” there’s nothing overtly genre at all, except some people discuss what elaborate plans they have should zombies occur. But, of course, zombies don’t exist, and the real question is what elaborate plans do you have for real crises?
When I read Ms. Link had a new book out called Magic for Beginners, I thought that she’d written the YA novel she occasionally mentions in various interviews. Sadly, no, we’ll have to wait. Wouldn’t that be something, though, to have a Kelly Link YA novel out the same time as Harry Potter? The mind boggles.
“Magic for Beginners” might be the opening salvo in a novel. It is, pardon the phrase, a typical Kelly Link story. Here’s the opening:
Fox is a television character, and she isn’t dead yet. But she will be, soon. She’s a character on a television show called The Library. You’ve never seen The Library on TV, but I wish you had. (Boy, do I.)
In one episode of The Library, a boy named Jeremy Mars, fifteen years old, sits on the roof of his house in Plantagenet, Vermont.
Except Jeremy Mars watches The Library. Curiously, he’s both a viewer and an active participant. But he doesn’t know it. This is typical of Ms. Link’s work, where reality and fiction, to use mundane terms that are really only approximations of the concepts, mingle. The Library that Jeremy watches with his best friends and mother, who’s a librarian, doesn’t appear on a regular schedule, and no one has come forward to announce that they are the writer, director, or stars of the show. He and his mother inherit a Vegas wedding chapel and a phone booth. His mother and father are on the outs. His friends are probably people you hung out with. Talis, for example, is as quiet as Calvin Coolidge and definitely not Goth, but has lots and lots of tee shirts. Not slipstream in the sense of absurd collections of objects–every object and type of person exists in our world–but is Jeremy a television character in a show that he watches, and can he save Fox and perhaps his parents’ marriage, while deciding which of his girl friends he would most like to kiss?
“The Faery Handbag” is the closest to pure genre Ms. Link has ever written, and the only story with an impossible object: a giant, furry handbag containing the vanished nation of Baldeziwurlekistan, (my spell check just kicked me and ran out the door) but this seems to be as much a metaphor about the importance of retaining cultural identity as it is a literal object. In this story, as in many others, the narrator speaks directly to the audience, saying, “Promise me that you won’t believe a word. That’s what Zofia (the narrator’s grandmother and owner of the faery handbag) used to say to me when she told me stories.” So, of course, we do. If we don’t believe a word, then we’re forced to accept that this is only an impossible fiction, and all emotional value is drained away. Instead, Ms. Link’s prose is such that we want to believe in this world, in this handbag, in the promise of a kinder, gentler, happier place.
“Stone Animals” is the story that will appear, or has appeared, in the Best American Short Stories collection. Here’s the opening:
Henry asked a question. He was joking.
“As a matter of fact,” the real estate agent snapped, “it is… It’s reflected in the asking price, of course.”
You’ll have to figure out the question Henry asked but when you do, the meaning of the story and the sub-genre Ms. Link is playing with (and offering an homage to) become clear. It is, until the very last sentence, ambiguous in terms of genre, and then the whole thing makes sense. Again, there’s nothing overtly fantastical, but through the magic (for beginners as well as Advanced Placement students) of her narrative, the horror grows with a malignant willfulness. Like most of her stories, it’s difficult to guess the ending but when it comes, the weight of the story settles like an ancient house: heavy and solid and forever. A married couple, Henry and Catherine, with two children, and Catherine pregnant with another, purchase a house with curious stone artifacts. Catherine becomes obsessed with painting the house, so much so that the sizes of the rooms have actually begun to shrink. Henry has to go to the city to work. He was supposed to work from home, but only he can fix things, and he can only do it at the office. There are hints that he may be having an affair with his boss, but maybe not. Objects in the house become haunted, not literally like Poltergeist et al., but in the minds (and maybe in fact) of the homeowners who cannot stand touching or owning certain items.
Ms. Link’s stories are such a pleasure to read because in a very real sense they are nothing like you’ve ever read. How odd, to use such a trite phrase to describe something that is the very opposite of trite. Trying to guess where one of her stories will go is virtually impossible. But her stories encourage you to guess, and that’s part of the fun. The only certainty is, of course, that the boy will never get the girl, the world will not be forever saved from darkness, and what you thought was real isn’t, while what you thought wasn’t, is. Got it?
Good. Now go out and get it.
While not strictly genre, Telling Tales, edited by Nadine Gordimer, is a book worth buying. It’s a collection of stories from writers around the world, chosen by themselves as representing their best work, but what’s important is that the writers and publishers have agreed not to take a single penny from the sale of the book. All monies go to the Treatment Action Campaign, a non-profit group combating HIV/AIDS in Southern Africa. When you buy this book, you donate the entire cost to a worthy cause and you get a truly excellent cross-section of international writers.