Here we are coming up on the end of May, which seems hard to believe. At least in this corner of the world, spring is upon us. Flowers are starting to bloom, leaves are getting greener, and everything is bursting with color and life. At the same time, we’re not quite out of the dark and the world is still in a precarious state. It’s a good time for self-care, and stories and art are exactly that. In that spirit, I offer up five stories mixing melancholy with hope. They are bittersweet and occasionally frightening. They deal with liminal spaces, change, and coming to see things differently. They are about second chances and new perspectives, and I hope you enjoy them as much as I did!
The Bear Wife by Leah Bobet in Apparition Literary Magazine is a take on the animal bride trope about seeing a person for who they are and not what anyone else expects them to be. Sanchez has been living with Betty Nosemaskwa since July, and now that winter is coming on, things are starting to change. She’s sluggish, slow, and sleeping most of the time. Dishes are piling up, the laundry is going undone, and the locals – something Sanchez is not – have repeatedly suggested the best thing for him to do is steal her bearskin, take control of her, and shape her into a proper bride.
He couldn’t have said when she faded. Between the rolling heat of August and the September leaves, before the snowstorm, she had already retreated to the house, and then two rooms. Before he could trace what had come over her, if it had entered by window or door, she took to her bed and stayed there, and he was here, coping with the remains.
It’s the way most animal bride tales go. A skin is stolen, and one party in the relationship is forced into a shape not their own, made to change to fit the other party’s worldview until something breaks and the whole thing falls apart. Sanchez, however, insists it’s not like that with him and Betty. He puts aside his fear – after all, a bear is a powerful creature that could destroy him – and he puts aside any thought that things could be easier if he followed the locals’ advice. Sure, he could have an “easier” woman, but then that woman wouldn’t be Betty anymore. So he meets her on her terms, instead of dictating his own, caring for Betty and trusting in her and their relationship even as she fully transforms in preparation for her long winter hibernation.
It’s a beautiful, touching, and quiet story, and can – at least to my mind – be read as a metaphor for someone coping with depression, or a neuro-atypical person who under other circumstances might be asked to be the one to bend and fit a neuro-typical world view. The story works perfectly on both levels, as the inversion, or refutation, of the typical animal bride story, and as a push-back against the world asking certain people, generally the most marginalized ones, to change, bend, and confrom, instead of shifting to accomodate them. Whichever way you choose to read the story, it’s a lovely one.
We Are the Flower by Claire Humphrey, a PodCastle original, is a bittersweet ghost story. MC comes across an exact replica of her bike down to the stickers and a tag with her initials on it. Every detail is so much the same that she knows it has to be her bike, despite the fact that she’s currently riding hers, and that the bike in front of her has been painted white and decorated with flowers – a sign that it has been turned into a memorial to commemorate a rider killed in traffic.
That’s what you do when someone dies in a bike accident. You paint their bike white and you set it up where they died. On rural roads people set up roadside crosses. In the city, you make a ghost bike.
That’s what you do when someone in the cycling community, a frequent rider, a bike lane advocate, dies. Someone like me. That’s what you do.
I said it like twelve different ways to myself, and it didn’t feel real.
Only it did feel real, because of some things like how I didn’t really know how I’d come to that corner that day, or where the other version of my bike had gone, or why the fuck I’d turned into a bird.
Once she’s accepted her death, MC is left to figure out why her spirit – occasionally in bird form – is still around. Is she meant to avenge herself, forgive the people in her life who did her wrong, or is there some other unfinished business she’s meant to attend? The anchor point in her post-life, the person she finds herself continually returning to, is her housemate Chris, who’d she’d only just realized she had romantic feelings for right before she died. In fact, she’d been planning to tell Chris as much on the day she died. “We Are the Flower” is both a love story and a ghost story, bitter for the fact that MC and Chris will never get the chance to see how their relationship might have grown, but sweet for the fact that MC is given a chance to see it blossom in a literal sense through one last moment of contact. Chris saw MC truly in life, respected her and understood her in a way no one else did. That ability to see her clearly, and the connection they formed, extends to the ability to see her clearly after death as well, if only for a moment, giving MC the chance to resolve her unfinished business and move on.
Driving with Ghosts by Clara Madrigano in The Dark shares an initial set up with “We Are the Flower” as the protagonist encounters a vehicle that shouldn’t be there, in this case, her grandfather’s Packard Hawk, the car he had when she was young, even though her grandfather is long dead. The car was both a source of joy and pain for Marina; she loved going for rides with her grandfather, but also suffered abuse at his hands while they were alone on the road together – a trauma she has locked away and never shared with anyone.
Many times, while at Penn and, later, in New York, I Googled a particular combination of words: ghosts, cars, loved ones. I never found what I was looking for, an experience exactly like mine, but I found a lot about women and cars. Women who accepted rides from strangers and were never seen again. Women who accepted rides from men they knew and were never seen again. Rides you could book in a serial killer’s car, the real deal; the people who ran the business would even lock you in the car’s trunk so you could live the full experience of the female victims.
Marina sees the car again as an adult as she’s fleeing an abusive relationship with her boyfriend, Mark. There’s a certain lure to the car, and Marina is tempted more than once to accept its invitation and climb into the passenger’s side – whether to confront her grandfather, or merely escape, she isn’t sure. The car becomes the link between Marina’s past and present in more ways than one as she comes to terms with two abusive men in her life and the way they both made her feel powerless. The car, both ghostly and real, reflects the complicated nature of Marina’s relationship with both her abusers, a combination of desire and pain, freedom and captivity, and the way they took her love and used it against her, making her doubt herself and taking away her sense of control. Marina ultimately finds a way through her trauma to reclaim her power, given a chance through this haunting to confont her past and seize the wheel to steer her own destiny.
Uniform by Errick Nunnally in Fiyah Magazine is an utterly heartbreaking story about a soldier who has essentially become a ghost haunting his own life. In order to help his family, Patrick joined the Marines at age 17, signing over his body to be transformed into a living weapon. Now that the war is over, Patrick is trapped. He can’t go back to the person he used to be, and doesn’t know where he fits in a world that no longer has a “use” for him.
On the street, pedestrians crossed out of his path at their earliest opportunity. A targeting matrix flashed over the scene in front of him, doing the only thing it was good for without a weapons system to command: snapping photos. Faces everywhere captured his attention. He wanted to forget his face, but the longing for that vestige of humanity haunted him with the pre-data memory of what he looked like, who he wanted to be.
Patrick withdraws from his family, and from almost every aspect of daily life, other than occasionally riding the subway in an attempt to connect with some shred of his former self. Everywhere he goes, however, he finds himself feared and reviled by the very people he fought to protect, who now see him as an abomination. Until a little girl grows curious about him and asks whether he’s a robot, giving him a second chance to reconnect with his humanity, moments before a tunnel collapse puts the entire subway in danger.
“Uniform” is simultaneously beautiful and brutal, and absolutely had me tearing up by the end. It’s a story that speaks to trauma, and the way soldiers are made into part of the machinery of war, literally in Patrick’s case. Sometimes, the most painful and terrible aspect of war comes after the fighting, when soliders are asked to return home to a “normal” life when they have had their humanity stripped away in order to become more perfect killers, and then are expected to re-integrate into a society that can see them as nothing but dealers of death and violence. Patrick is insulted, called names, assaulted, and suspected of causing the very accident he seeks to save his fellow passengers from when all he has ever tried to do is protect the people he loves, and it is absolutely wrenching to see him suffering, knowing his situation is all too real. However, there are moments of joy in the story as well as Patrick forms a connection with the little girl on the subway, providing a spark of brightness against the story’s powerful exploration of loss, grief, trauma, othering, duty, sacrifice, and what it means to be human.
Smilers by Chip Houser in Bourbon Penn is an eerie yet surprinsingly poignant zombie story. It’s told from the perspective of Aiden whose older brother Zach is doing his best to protect him from learning the truth about what’s happening to those around him.
Aiden rests his chin on the back of the living room couch, watching his older brother mow down zombies in ZomPlex. The zombies grab at Zach’s avatar, mouths moving like they’re chewing. Aiden’s not sure if they’re supposed to be hungry or angry or both. Their facial expressions don’t match any of the cards from the game he plays on Tuesdays with Ms. Hampton. Zombies don’t make a lot of sense to Aiden, but that’s okay, lots of things don’t make sense to him; he’s barely seven.
Outside of Zach’s game, the zombies in “Smilers” aren’t ravenous flesh-eating monsters. Whatever is affecting people started with the oldest among the population, and it’s steadily working its way down to the youngest, allowing Aiden to stay innocent and oblivious for as long as possible. Instead of turning them into ravening creatures, the transformation turns people into empty, mindless things, esmiling in a way that looks wrong and painful, caught in a loop of whatever they were doing when they changed – whether it’s texting a friend, like the cashier at the corner store, or perpetually reading the same page of a newspaper, like Aiden and Zach’s father.
Aiden reads as neuro-atypical, with his own way of processing emotions and the way people express them. He’s been told that smiling means happy, so if the people around him are smiling, everything must be okay, right? Aiden’s main priority is getting his brother to take him to the pool. He knows he’s not allowed to go alone, and besides sometimes there are bullies. Aiden finds it easier to deal with bullies and the world in general when he’s his true self – safely inside the wolf masks that lets him sneak and howl and be strong and unfraid. It’s a disguise that allows him to see himself more truly, even if others don’t fully understand him.
The relationship between Zach and Aiden is touching, and painful at the same time, as it’s clear to the reader and Zach what’s happening, even if Aiden doesn’t fully realize it. The image of the empty smilers is a truly unsettling one, and there’s a growing sense of dread as the world narrows and the plague closes in. At the same time, there’s a sense that some part of Aiden does know what’s going on, and yet rather than give in to fear, he embraces joy and innocence – his brother’s last gift to him. Rather than bend to the world, he shifts his perspective to see only the good things, like a pool all to himself and no bullies to stop him jumping off the high dive board over and over again. Rather than letting the world change him, and conforming to its rules, Aiden remains fiercely and fully himself until the very end.
As always, I’d love to hear your own recommendations for short fiction you’ve loved, whether it be old or new. Take care of yourselves, stay healthy, and happy reading!