|Art by Artur Zima|
It’s another well paired issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, with two works (one short story and one novelette) that very much involve bargains, bodies, and children (or at least the specter of them). For all that they go very well together, the stories diverge strongly on how they approach children and child bearing. Both characters are looking to make bargains, to find a way to get what they want, but what exactly they want is very different. Freedom and relief mean different things for them, but both know that they’re willing to do just about anything, pay just about anything, for what they want. If you want to know what that entails, though, you’ll have to follow me to the reviews!
“What the River Brings, and What It Takes Away” by Natalia Theodoridou (2298 words)
No Spoilers: Sapo is a woman living alone by a river running down a mountain, taking the advice of a witch with regards to her fertility. Because she never wanted children, slipped her husband something to decrease his potency until he takes her to a witch and the witch gives her something of an ultimatum—eat stones from the river every day and she won’t get pregnant. Stop, and...well, the piece looks at the weight of that “bargain” and the toll it takes on Sapo, and her relationships, and where she goes from there. It’s a dark and rather heavy piece, but one that challenges the idea that avoiding pregnancy is every really easy or safe in a world where women are expected and pressured to reproduce.
Keywords: Stones, Rivers, Deer, CW- Pregnancy, Dreams, Witches, Bargains
Review: So it’s difficult for me to read the story and not see parallels to birth control, and specifically to oral contraceptive (“the pill”), where Sapo is essentially given that option, that as long as she continues to eat these stones she can avoid getting pregnant, which for her is horrifying and upsetting. And she thinks at first that the witch has given her a way out, a freedom, only to discover that eating these stones carries its own weight, its own price. For her, the stones not only wreck her teeth, they make her feel heavy and they make it hard to fall asleep, so that she needs to take something in order to get to bed, with the added side effect of vivid and upsetting dreams. So what seems simple at first is shown to be anything bot, and yet she must endure because the prospect of being pregnant is that bad—something reinforced when she comes across a pregnant deer who is dying. The piece is visceral and often difficult, showing in vivid prose the damage that this “bargain” causes. For Sapo, it’s something that she wishes were different. That she wishes she could just have control over for herself, rather than having to take all this on herself, terrified that if she misses a day she’ll be punished, that she’ll lose what protection she has. And it does show the weight that many women carry being solely responsible for their own fertility and being expected to control it perfectly, knowing that if they make a mistake that there is no help, no compassion, no chance to take control of their bodies. Knowing they are policed, that they have to make “bargains” that can very negatively impact their lives but that it’s what they need to do in order to stay relatively free. And it’s a careful and complex piece that you should definitely check out!
“Across the Bough Bridge” by Mackenzie Kincaid (7706 words)
No Spoilers: Josina opens the story prepared to cross the Bough Bridge into the underhill to make a series of purchases and, she hopes, make it out before nightfall. She takes her items to trade, a new name, a deep grief, and a hope she barely allows herself as she goes in armed with a set of rules and a care she hopes will be enough to see her home to her wife with good news. The piece is tense, one wrong word enough to doom both her mission and her life, and the piece deepens as it becomes more and more clear what she’s trying to do, and the price of failure. It’s a richly imagined world full of danger made more acute by willing entry into the underhill.
Keywords: Fae, Bargains, Queer MC, CW- Loss of a Child, Sculpting
Review: I love the take on the Fae and bargains in this story, the walking on eggshells feel as Josina goes into underhill under a different name and determination, having to stay strong from the start in the face of some dark magic that is designed to mesmerize and befuddle. She’s on a mission, though, and she’s not about to turn back. Even as the cost to her keeps on going up with each stop. And I love that escalation, the way that it costs so little to enter, but then she has to bargain for each piece of what she hopes to create, losing parts of herself in the process. It’s an exercise in not losing more than she’s willing to give, though, of paying the proper price. Knowing that it might all come to nothing at any moment, at each point—perhaps especially that it might turn to nothing even after she’s already paid a steep price. That in some ways the system works this way in order to try and get her to pay everything and still end up with nothing. There’s so much risk to it, and yet it’s balanced by her skill and her love, her hope and her need to try and undo some of the hurt she and her wife have felt since losing their child. And I appreciate that the story doesn’t linger on that, doesn’t really say how they lost their first child. Instead it shows how they are willing to try again, and reach for what’s right for them. It’s a story with a palpable darkness, unfolding in a well built world where the Fae are not legends but a very real force living just on the border of the human world, not without sympathy but very true to their natures, pushing for the best bargain, pressing at Josina’s weak spots to try and drive a deal that benefits them most. What results, though, is something affirming and warm, a story of overcoming fear to build something delicate but wondrous, tinged with darkness but alive with light and love. A wonderful read!