This issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies focuses in many ways on movement and transformations. On knowledge and ignorance. And, above all, on respect. Both stories feature women who have to navigate worlds that are not open to them. In one, the sexual aggression of men that is societally upheld becomes net that can only be slipped through by transforming into something safer. In the other, the stalking force is colonialism as well as misogyny. And in both the main conflict, and their ultimate salvation, arises from refusing to sacrifice themselves, refusing to give in to the societal pressures pushing them toward victimization and death. It's a very strong pair of stories that I should get to reviewing!
|Art by Jinxu Du|
"The Orangery" by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam (8527 words)
This is a neat story that to me tackles a lot of the tropes in mythology, the image of a woman transforming into a tree to escape the unwanted advances of a man, and draws out a story about desire and consent, violation and, ultimately, respect. The story is told with two voices, one of them a Guardian of an Orangery of trees that used to be people, that used to be women who could escape to becoming a tree if ever they were threatened or had no other way out of a bad situation. The other is of a Guide to the Orangery, revealing the histories of the women who made the choice to become trees. And the story looks at that choice, looks at how it works and how the women might relate to being trees, to being in some ways safe. But also to being cut off from their skin and the ability to make connections with others. The setting is rich with magic and really takes its time looking at the different ways that women are let down by society, offered up as sacrifices to men that people who are violent but allow because it's easier. For these women there is no real way out. Whatever their sexuality or demeanor, if they don't want to settle for the man who wants them, they are betrayed at every turn by those who they should be able to count on. Family members and friends and neighbors—the story beautifully confronts that in these situations a woman can be a wild girl needing to be settled down or a naïve girl who needs to be shown what she's missing out on. The common element is that the women are infantilized and stripped of their consent. And the story shows that this can happen even among people who maybe should know better because people lack the education required to teach them how to spot abusers and what to do with them. It's a powerful story that walks a very thorny path and comes through with some scratches, yes, but as punctuations to the lessons learned and the eagerness to do better and not repeat the same stories over and over again. To acknowledge the darkness around us, but to try and live in the light. It's a great read!
"The Jeweled Nawab Jungle Retreat" by Priya Sridhar (5363 words)
This is a great story about a young woman who leaves home to earn money for her family and finds work at a resort where Europeans hunt foreign game in India, sometimes with disastrous results. The story takes old tropes surrounding Europeans on safari, on big game hunts, and sees them through the eyes of a local, through the eyes of Ram, the main character, the woman passing as a man so that she can work. And I love the ambition that the story gives Ram, not really for money but for something more. For knowledge. For experience. Ram is a quick study and earns some of her money by performing for the Europeans, reading in English and Greek in such a way that they can laugh at her, imagine themselves superior because of her accent, because she has not completely mastered a language that is not her first. And she uses that, plays the part of the dancing bear, in part because it keeps her unseen, uncared about. Until a particular woman takes an interest in Ram as a young man, and until that same woman decides she wants the most dangerous of beasts as a trophy for her wall. The piece is deeply anti-colonial, showing the power that comes from respecting a place and a people. And breaking the trope of the local dying to save the white foreigner from their own stupidity and arrogance. Ram proves again and again that she is savvy enough to survive and to find something that works for her even in a situation where the deck is stacked against her. It's a fun story that moves and that reveals this setting and time that in one way feels familiar because of how it has been treated in popular culture, but then throws all that out the window in order to tell a different kind of story, one that shows that there are some things you cannot tame, that you cannot colonize. And that you cannot expect to survive if you enter into a dangerous hunt with no respect for what you're hunting or who you're hunting with. It's a fantastic read!