|Art by Veli Nyström|
“Every Black Tree” by Natalia Theodoridou (4414 words)
This is a story of old wounds and finding comfort, and not healing and not healing and maybe learning to live with the scars of what has happened. The piece follows Serah, a woman who lives alone with her daughter and ghost pregnancy following the accidental death of her husband and the murder of the man who killed him, and Pentheas, a man who has been cursed to live forever by an angry god and who now wanders the world searching for the one tree that supposedly can make him stay dead if he hangs himself from it. They meet, and in their mutual hurt there’s a strange connection made, one that seems to part the veil of pain and isolation that has fallen around them, Serah because of how people have treated her and Pentheas because of how long he’s been alive. And I love the way the story moves around the relationship between the two, building up the ways that they help each other, that they find comfort in each other, while not erasing the parts of themselves that hurt, the parts that still crave some sort of ending. A lot of the piece focuses on Pentheas’ quest for death, and how that effects him and Serah, how it doesn’t diminish his love or his feelings or the realness of their connection just because he wants to die. But it does put a strain on some things, notably Serah, but there too I like that she never tries to change him or talk him out of it, for all that she doesn’t want him to die. And the story moves in a powerful and moving way, these two people who have survived so much pain and who bear the scars of their troubles, creating something beautiful together, standing against the pressure pushing them toward despair and misery. Together they find a strength that in some ways it seemed they gave up on, and continue to make the decision to meet each new day, together, never quite whole but whole enough—never quite fully healed, but neither numb to the joy and pleasure they can bring each other. So yeah, a wonderful story!
“And the Village Breathes” by Emily B. Cataneo (8608 words)
This is a story about difference and intolerance, safety and ability. It centers two sisters, Magda and Katry, living in a twon they think is idyllic. And is, as long as things are simple and clean. Magda is a Sleeper, someone who needs to Sleep for weeks at a time sometimes, who needs to recharge and rejuvenate herself. In her village this is seen as natural, is respected in part because Magda is a healer, fairly necessary to keeping everyone healthy and happy. Or so she thinks. And then monsters begin to show up in the town, monsters who also seem to be Sleepers, and slowly things begin to turn, and Magda starts to see that her position in the village isn’t as secure as she believed. The world building here is interested and deep, the Sleepers as a group people who just need space and healing at times because of how they operate. As long as that is respected, things go smoothly. It’s when that isn’t respected, when people react in fear and distrust to any difference they detect in others, especially ones they can trace to a perceived moral failing, like needing to Sleep for long periods of time, being unproductive or giving the appearance of being negligent. And I think it’s interesting how the story imagines this lack of respect as in many ways contagious, that it depnds on having a rather secure situation, and once those Sleepers who have been pushed out start to wind up in new locations, it causes those places not only to reject the new arrivals, but those Sleepers already there. The story shows just how Katry is trying to deal with the situation, but that it’s only ever putting a bandaid on things, because it’s counting on things just magically getting better, and not worse and worse as they seem likely to become. There’s a moment in the story where the characters have the choice of trying to address the larger problem, trying to make a stand, or giving into the weight that the problem is too big, that their stand might only result in their destruction. It’s very difficult to really blame people in that impossible situation, and yet I think the story does make a strong push for people to stand against the path of least resistance. That just because it’s hard and might change everything doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. The ending is...well, not the happiest of things, but I feel it does a great job showing the conflict within Magda and the tragedy of her situation, the ignorance and lack of memory required to believe that things don’t change, or that she’s safe. An excellent read!