|Art by Vincent Chong|
“A Performance for Painted Bones” by Kelly Stewart (4868 words)
In this story, a dancer finds himself in a land of the dead, where most everyone has lost their flesh and exist as skeletons moving about this strange afterlife seeking entertainment and generally being creepy. For the dancer, still in possession of his flesh, the setting is something of a nightmare. There is constantly the pressure to give up his flesh even as it’s something that makes him valuable to people, exotic and fetishized. And yet the desire to return to the land of the living is strong in him, and despite the constant pressure to conform, to just be what the skeletons want him to be, the dancer plots his escape. Meanwhile the story is populated by a few other people with flesh, namely a hunter whose job it is to police those with flesh with the help of a rifle and a pair of skeletal hounds. This form of self-policing is familiar and wrenching, showing how oppressive this setting is with how it pits the marginalized against each other. And the setting is just nicely creepy and complex, all people riding in on a train, losing everything from their previous lives. They are stripped of more than possessions and clothes, though, and they emerge just dead, their identities made into roles, not names. And for the dancer it’s a place where he will never belong, and more so where he’ll never be safe as long as he clings to what’s left of his identity. I love the way the story handles the performative nature of his presence in this place, where he must strive to be what people want while keeping his core true to his mission, true to himself. There’s something melancholy and broken about this world, a real sense that something has been lost on the train ride over, and that moving sadness soaks into everything about the piece. And yet for that the story does not crush hope. The road is definitely not easy, nor is the end a guarantee of happiness, but the dance does not give up, and by the end there is still a hope that things might get better, or at least for the dancer that they will change. A great read!
“A Lasting Legacy” by Osahon Ize-Iyamu (2392 words)
This story reveals Ogu, a young man on the edge of entering adulthood, and with it a chance at earning a leadership position among his people, at becoming the new sheriff. It’s something he feels like he deserves because of his skills and in part because he needs it in order to wash away the shame that his male relatives have brought to his family, all of them disgraces. To add urgency to his mission, his deadbeat uncle has come to live with him and his mother and it all just acts as an added reminder that Ogu wants to be respected, wants to be admired. Not to be a laughing stock like the rest of his male relatives. And the darkness of the piece arises from the way that trying to break this cycle pushes Ogu toward its fulfillment, pushes him toward making the same sorts of mistakes, or even worse mistakes, than the rest of the people who came before him. By being so focused on his honor, on the respect he hoped for, on the rewards that it would bring, and ignoring all the support he had already earned, Ogu wrote his own tragedy. And I like how Ogu has all the chances to turn back, to content himself with his work, with being good and useful. That he gets so obsessed with being the best, with winning this position, seems to be a symptom not of moral virtue but of selfishness and vanity. There’s no evidence, after all, that he is treated poorly because of his family. He seems to have carved out a place for himself with his labor and his drive, but he’s never satisfied. And because of that he finds a voice that shares that hunger, but in a wholly destructive way, and the story wades into some very dark, very creepy waters and never looks back, and it’s a sinking and intense read that you should be sure to check out!