“To Us May Grace Be Given” by L.S. Johnson (15507 words)
*whistles* Welp, that’s one way to do things. This is...this story takes a Western aesthetic, adds blood and religion and abuse and revenge, and lets it all sit in the height of the midday sun until it’s ripe and almost beautiful in the ugliness it reveals. It finds Addy, a young person just growing into themself, raised as a boy because of her mother’s fears, alone with something like a monster in a world that might be a hell if not for the small comforts and kindnesses they can participate in. Tending the goats, working the land. Of course it’s all about to be taken away by a powerful man who wants their land, and of course Addy’s mother, a woman of no small venom, has a plan to deal with that. Only...well, the plan isn’t exactly a happy one.
I love how the story builds the setting and the speculative elements of the world, full of uncertainty and a quiet desperation. Addy’s mom refuses to leave the home she’s built for herself, but there’s something else beneath the stubborn pride—a need to hurt, a desire for blood, and it’s that kind of drive that slowly draws the magic to the surface. Because it’s a magic of blood, of calling for a devil in hopes that it will fight their battles for them, that it will kill the man responsible for their problems. It’s not really a plan that Addy’s on board with but as they must live in fear of their mother and her abuse, it’s not something they argue with. When the devil shows up, though, it’s a woman, a woman who seems much more human than Addy anticipated. A woman who hurts and suffers because of Addy’s mother, who sees this person as an animal, and sees all animals as expendable in her push toward the death of those she hates. The story does such a gripping job of capturing how the world, how this setting, pushes people and especially women toward a kind of monstrosity to match the threat they face. Addy’s mother and the devil both lie and try to twist Addy to their purposes, mirroring each other as Addy tries to find a different way and finds instead destruction, pain, loss, and confusion.
It is a visceral read and an uncomfortable one, the story offering no real safety and no real “right” path. Addy suffers and hopes and suffers some more, striving always to preserve life, to stop the carnage, only to find that she really can’t, and that the power that comes from having life and death in your hands is large indeed. Corrupting. It’s not a hopeless story, though, for all that, for all that in many ways it’s about how Addy cannot survive in the world they find themself in. Where the story finds hope, for me, is that Addy can imagine a future where things might be better, where what happened to them might not have to happen to others, where safety and justice might indeed be possible. And if they have to become a monster in order to reach that future, then maybe that’s a decision for another day. But fuck it is an intense story full of blood and bad choices, which really only lead to bad decisions. It’s a very good decision, though, to check out this story. It’s an amazing read!