|Art by Gregory St. John|
“A Pestilence Come for Old Ma Salt” by Dayna K. Smith (3700 words)
This is a story about lies and about truth, about community and the ways that community can be eroded, twisted into something ugly and dark and dangerous. And it’s a rather piece that follows Ma Salt, who is something of the healer of her community, a mountain that feels vaguely southeastern America but could really be about anywhere. Ma is called because the newest member of the community, a newborn, is sick and can’t seem to breathe. A thorough examination reveals the cause, but the remedy is elusive until it’s not, and even then it requires the community as a whole to come together and clear the air. There’s a slight religious quality to the piece that is interesting and, to me, compelling, not religious in a particular faith but rather showing the virtue of confession and a community working to absolve themselves and each other, accepting the imperfections and working to help people. And it does such a good job of capturing how a toxic community, one defined by secrets and deceit, can be toxic for the children brought into it, who have the least immunity to the kind of lies and harm that those lies can bring. The piece moves quickly and with a charming voice. Ma Salt, who has another name, defines a lot of the tone of the piece and her dedication is deep, her drive relentless. She’s someone working to repent for decisions in her past. Perhaps not mistakes, but difficult decisions that she has to live with, and it gives her a power to help others, to cajole the truth out into the open, to reveal the demon among them so that it can be exorcised. The characters are distinct and the web between them complex and revealing of both the vibrancy of the community and the ease that seeds of corruption and harm can take root when people can’t be honest or safe. It really is a wonderful story and I thoroughly recommend checking it out!
“Auto-Rejection: An Outro” by Nin Harris (2485 words)
For me this story takes the idea of magical escape contrasting a more mundane and frustrating real world, and complicates it, rends it and tears it and presents it to the reader wounded and wrecked and difficult. It’s a story told in the second person, so that you come to stand in the place of this person who has just found out they have tumors. Who has just found out that their world might be ending, and all of their careful lies and rejections might be coming to a head. And I love the way that it handles the idea of auto-rejection, which is a sort of defense that you do in order to protect yourself from being rejected. You do it first, before someone else can. You tell yourself no and steer yourself away, away from whatever it was you wanted, away from the dreams that are slowly dying. The main character and by extension the reader is faced with this specter that they might die, and all the while there is a voice, a song stuck in their head, a force that is pushing them to embrace the monstrous. Pushing them to pick up a weapon and lash out. They are dealing with this pull, with the weight of inheritance that your parents have given you. One of violence and murder but also magic. Because the magic and escape of this story are not the peaceful and innocent realms of most portal fantasies. This is not a choice to be a hero on an adventure. The choice is between the question of illness and more, or a magic monstrosity, joining into a world where power is obtained through violence and reveling in the night. And you have to face the full dilemma of what is happening, the fear and the powerlessness and the regret and everything, have to sit with the options flayed out before you, disemboweled and pulsing, and have to watch as the main character, as you, make the call of what to do. It’s a dark story, yes, but also one that doesn’t offer an easy answer. No easy light and no easy dark, but a mix, a twilight, a dawn, where there is still hope, even as there is no promise that things will get better. An excellent read!
“Her Cactus Heart” by Evelyn Deshane (1600 words)
This story speaks to me of thirst and hunger and resilience. Of being in a situation, in a place, that is harsh and desolate, and finding something unexpected there. Finding that, when the rain comes, the landscape transforms, blooms with colors that are beautiful and strange, that seem almost dangerous, but that really must be something else. The disease aspect of this story is a bit tricky, too, because it seems more of a disease of the land itself, the world irradiated to the point that nothing seems to grow. The patient, in some ways, seems dead, or dying. Until the rain. Until an awakening of sorts. The story actually features Dolly and Cassandra, two women living in this setting, working for their families to try and sort it and clean it. But who might be falling victim to the disease as well, the setting blanching away their feelings, their emotions. Making Dolly hesitate to take a chance, making Cassandra perhaps interpret that as a lack of desire. But rain, and life, and action, all find their way into the story, and it’s like a balm, a remedy, the oldest that there is. Water, to wash away a bit of the sickness, to bring about something beautiful in the middle of all the ugly destruction and loss of what has happened. For Dolly and Cassandra, it presents and moment when they can let everything else drop away, when they can experience relief and give relief and it’s a lovely and wonderful moment when it happens, something that brings back hope into the world like rain to the desert. It’s sweet and refreshing, just like the cacti hearts that the characters find, and it’s a great follow up to the last piece. It’s a fun and short and joyous story full of flavor and sights and you should definitely check it out. Delightful!
“Hemera, Hespera, Euphrone” by Kathryn Weaver (2500 words)
This is a story about parents and about illness, about anger and about mobility, about change and bargains and power and life. It features Ioulissa, a young woman travelling with her mother and her mother’s lover on a raft through a great water that is Evening, moving toward night and, it is hoped, some sanctuary beyond. And yet the trip is filled with fear and worry for Ioulissa, who had been sick but who was healed thanks to magic, who was saved but with a certain cost, that her healing lasts as long as the light lasts, and that where they are passing through, Night, there is no sun to power the magic. So Ioulissa fears that if she goes to sleep she will die. But her mother thinks that she needs to sleep, that staying awake will only cause her pain and suffering. And I love how the story frames this conflict, as one that Ioulissa doesn’t really get a say about, because she didn’t get to choose if she lived or died before—she is alive because of her mother’s actions, and mostly she is glad for that, only it’s hard to be glad when her desires aren’t being respected, when her mother treats her like because that one decision was beyond her control, all decisions should be. It’s a very complex and loaded situation, because it asks who should have control here, and in some ways asks if her mother was right to do what she did. Was it right, when Ioulissa didn’t get to choose it. The story does great things with consent while building up this strange world with its seas and its troubles. The piece is all about power and how Ioulissa is denied power over herself and her own death or life. And what happens is difficult and beautiful all at the same time, the story exploring how she can take back some of the power that was denied her, even if only in the very limited way she is able to. And how that can mean something, and how that can move her to a place where she isn’t wrong, where she isn’t punished, where her choosing to act was the correct call, because it was what she decided to do. And it’s a piece that’s full of yearning and dread, and it ends with a deft touch and just gorgeous prose. So yeah, another excellent story!
“The Waking of Giants” by Adrian Simmons (5000 words)
This story looks at a setting dominated by rules and traditions, laws and violence, and finds one young man struggling under the weight of expectations and the desire to do something to escape the shadow of his father. The piece centers the son of a great fighter, a duelist who was injured in the field, struck down so that it was like he was sleeping, and never woke up. What remains for the main character, then, are the stories for his father, of his exploits and his hopes and his manners. That, and the actual body, motionless as death, a constant reminder and something of an obstacle that trips him up because he is not his father, is not that man. He’s not much of a fighter, and though competent, he’s not extraordinary. And it’s a place that seems to fit for him, at least for a while. I like how the story handles the generational shift between parents and children, this idea of inheritence and how people are treated. The main character spends his life imagining what he wants because of the presence of this father who is not a father, because of the room the body inhabits. It’s a sort of haunting, and I like how the story shows the main character dealing with it, trying to make sense of these rules, these traditions that don’t really suit him, that even when he tries his hardest he cannot live up to. Because there’s supposed to be a way for him to still be respected, for him to contribute, and yet at every turn he is told what he is worth, and even when he doesn’t something impressive it is turned against him. I like where the story goes with that, and the ending if a fun, rather clever twist, shwing that sometimes the only option when a system isn’t working out is to rebel fully. Is to seek a different kind of fortune, a different kind of system. And it’s a freeing, entertaining read that does a great job of closing out the issue. Another fine story!