Welcome to December’s Women to Read. This month, I have four fabulous short stories to recommend to you. As 2017 comes to a close, I can only hope that 2018 is happier, gentler, and kinder. But if the new year does bring more of the same, I will continue to take solace in fiction – powerful stories that fight back and offer up hope, and wonderful, creative voices that refuse to be silent. So keep writing, keep reading, and keep resisting. We’ll get through this together.
Nora Anthony is a short fiction author and my recommended starting place for her work is Them Boys recently published at Strange Horizons. Right out of the gate, the story flips the traditional animal bride/selkie/mermaid trope on its head. All the mer-people in Anthony’s story are men, boys really, who come up onto the beach to flirt with girls, make out, gather the offerings they leave, and occasionally take them underwater. The girls who go underwater emerge shinning; everyone teases and hints and winks and nudges about what goes on, but no one openly talks about it.
I’m home now. I’m thinking of Aka and the girl and how she sparkled after they came out of the water together, like the ocean was stuck to her skin and lips. I am wondering what happened in the water when I walk into the kitchen.
So much of the story is familiar; even though there are mermen involved, the gatherings are still typical mating displays. It’s all about seeing and being seen, who is watching, who is jealous, who is being admired, who is being ignored. At its heart, Them Boys is a story about sexuality, and particularly the power and danger of female sexuality. Obviously there is the potential for girls who have sex to get pregnant, but beneath all their posturing the mermen seem to be the ones who are terrified. No matter how tough they act, the fighting they engage in, the innuendo and flirting, most mermen run scared from sex itself, afraid of how it will change them. Anthony plays with the imagery of surface and shore versus underwater to parallel expectation versus reality, and outward appearances versus inner life. What is expected of girls, of boys, what makes someone a “real man” or a “good girl”? The story explores the baggage that comes with sexuality, and wraps it all in gorgeous prose, making it an excellent starting place for Anthony’s work.
Stephanie Malia Morris is an author and a librarian, and my recommended starting place for her work is Forty Acres and a Mule from Fiyah #4: Roots. Erin brings her white boyfriend home for Thanksgiving, and from the start, it’s clear he’s uncomfortable. He’s never been an “outsider” before, or been anywhere where he was in the minority. Erin mentally contrasts her family gathering with a work gathering she attended with Caleb where his white coworkers commented on her hair and where he spent the evening constantly touching her like a possession or a trophy. At home, however Erin is fully at ease, reconnecting with her home by climbing the pear tree in the yard before going inside for the meal. Caleb spends the whole time fussing at her, worrying that she’ll fall, further showing a disconnect between them. While he’s concerned for her, he doesn’t seem to know her or trust her to know herself and her own limitations. The tree, however, knows Erin well, catching her when she slips and holding her up. The land is her family’s, earned through blood, and intimately connected to them in a way Caleb can’t understand. In her childhood Erin found a half buried rope by the tree, leading back to the space under the porch, and when she pulled on it, something heavy hit the latticework until her mother told her to leave it alone. This incident and Morris’ language choice throughout slowly reveals a history of violence and lynching on the land, but Erin and her family have reclaimed it.
“This place has always been ours,” I say. “Whether we lived on it willingly or not. Always been ours. Through every. Single. Thing.” I offer him the pear. My hand is steady. “Nothing will make the terrible things that happened here go away. But we claim it, and the land – this tree – it takes care of us. Always. Can you understand?”
The story is a chilling look at racism and violence, but also a story full of hope. It is a story about rebuilding, finding a place in the world, and the land recognizing a wrong that was done and setting it right again. It’s a powerful story, and an excellent starting place for Morris’ work.
Kate Marshall is a short fiction author with a YA novel forthcoming in summer 2018. My recommended starting place for her work is Red Bark and Ambergris published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Sarai is taken from her home as a child and sent to live on a bleak and colorless island to learn the scent maker’s art. Despite her natural talent, Sarai is instead determined to become a poison tamer so she can leave the island and go to court to guard the queen. Her mentor/teacher Jarad tries to dissuade her, telling her poison isn’t her talent, but Sarai sees no other way off the island, and no hope of ever seeing her home again.
“The scent has power to you because of your memories,” Jarad said. “Poison strikes us all the same, but scent is individual. A scent-maker must know the moments of their client’s life, must know what scents define them. And then they can summon any emotion, evoke any memory. That is where our power lies.”
She studies, poisoning herself and mastering each poison one by one. Eventually she seeks advice from Nissa, a former poison tamer who saved the queen’s life from an assassin’s blade, but was banished to the island when she was no longer useful. Sarai learns that Nissa is the queen’s sister, and she is presented with a final choice – make a perfume for the queen and obtain her Mastery, or continue to pursue the art of poison in hopes of killing the queen and very likely herself in the process. It’s a gorgeous story full of rich sensory detail, evoking the way the sense of smell can trigger memory, and how different scents mean different things to each person. It’s reminiscent of Aqua Mirablis by Stephanie Chan, but in a very different setting, a gorgeously rendered secondary world. Along with the sensory detail, there’s a real sense of growth for Sarai’s character, as she evolves from a singular obsession to a more measured view point, and learns to see herself and those around her more clearly. It’s a lovely story, and an excellent starting place for Marshall’s work.
Bringing things full circle back to water, my recommended starting place for Premee Mohamed is The Water and the World from this month’s Mythic Delirium. It’s hard to talk about this story without spoilers, so consider yourself warned. Coach Vinsky is attending the Olympics with his new protege, Auggie. As the story opens, Vinsky is trying to keep Auggie from reading the tabloids. Even with multiple wins, the records he’s broken, and the clean drug tests to prove he’s not cheating, the tabloid still find a way to be nasty, calling Auggie ugly. Fans, on the other hand, adore him, swarming him everywhere he goes, practically tearing him apart just for a glimpse of him. Vinsky knows there’s something different about Auggie, but how different is something he hasn’t fully admitted to himself. He keeps the press away, deflects questions about Auggie’s past – where he’s from, how he came out of nowhere to be an Olympic super star at the “ripe old age” of twenty-six, and so on. Readers of Lovecraft and weird fiction will recognize the hints Mohamed drops – Auggie’s surname of Inns, his appearance. If that isn’t enough, his origins become clear as Vinsky recalls how he first met Auggie, appearing out of the waves one day clutching a strange, monstrous figurine in his hand.
The sun had been rising, just visible as a thick pink glow through the mist, and then we heard it, the familiar sound of a front crawl, a pleasant slap-slap-slap in time to that throbbing roar. As the fog lifted there he was, the hideous young man cutting through the water as if it simply were not there, his form so beautiful, his timing so precise, I felt my hand rise to my chest and stay there as if to hold my heart in.
What sets this story apart from most Lovecraftian fiction is its gentleness. Vinsky describes the unearthly grace around Auggie, and his compulsion to train him. Even in a relatively brief story, Mohamed does a wonderful job of portraying Auggie’s sweetness, his innocence, and his melancholy. The story shares a sensibility with Ruthanna Emrys’ Winter Tide in that both reclaim the Deep Ones and inject them with humanity. There’s a gut punch at the end of the story, where the repeated mention of Auggie’s age finally comes together with the revelation of his true nature. Deep Ones must go to the sea as they age. Auggie’s first Olympics is his last. There’s a purity about Auggie, a gentleness to the way he accepts his fate, that is at once lovely and wrenching. The Water and the World is an excellent story for people who don’t like traditional Lovecraftian fiction and enjoy seeing its tropes upended, and it’s an excellent place to start with Mohamed’s work.
That wraps up 2017’s Women to Read. I’ll be back in the new year with more recommendations. In the meantime, I wish you happy reading and a wonderful start to 2018.