|Art by Geneva Benton|
"Vade Retro Satana" by Maurice Broaddus (4965 words)
This is a complex and powerful story that revolves around faith and colonization, assimilation and freedom. The piece is set on a far-off world where Christian colonizers, spearheading a vast Christian organization, has arrived on Nambra in order to “civilize” it. Macia, the main character, is a soldier in that organization, encased in a biosuit that separates her from the world of Nambra, and from the people she both protects and polices. And Macia is a person in conflict, her background very similar to what’s going on on Nambra, her parents converts who died violently, her own past since then dominated by her anger and funneling it into whatever mission the church gave her. I love the way the story tackles the complexity of colonization and religion, the way that these themes find mirrors on Earth, in our past and in our present. And I love the way the story affirms stories and the stories we tell as being foundational to who we are and where we go. That it is not a defeat to recognize that there are things in the past that cannot be reclaimed, and that moving forward is often fraught and difficult. Throw into the mix the heady violence of the story, of the setting, of the characters, and things move from bad to worse pretty quickly. At the heart of the story for me, though, is the way the story pictures faith and religion as most dangerous and damaging at their most rigid. But when more adaptable, when more catered to the needs of the people and not treated as some universal to be “equally” and brutally applied, religion can be a great tool to bring people together. Because it is a story and because stories can inform each other, can bridge distance and culture. Can make enemies into friends. But that the power of stories can also be used to harm, can be used as a weapon, can be used to corrupt and erase. It’s a difficult story at times because of the way it doesn’t look away from violence and conflict, and it also makes it a very hopeful story, in the end, which is beautifully done. An amazing read and a fantastic way to kick off the issue!
"Talking to Cancer" by Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali (5326 words)
This story to me speaks of sickness and infection, about something that’s supposed to be good that turns into something...not. The piece reveals Layla, a woman who can speak to cancer, who can tell it to stop and get it to listen. Of course, the flip side of that is that she can also cause it start. And this power is what the story explores, how it shapes Layla in what she does but also how she feels, and how it twists things around her, the people around her, as they become aware of her gift. Because, in many ways, I read the story as about power, and especially power held by a woman. It’s no surprise to me, at least, that so much about Layla’s history and her relationship with her husband, Moody, is about power. How their relationship is a happy one until she’s the one with the power and he’s not. At the moment that he needs her, that he depends on her, he cannot handle that. He betrays her, in an attempt to reassert his importance, his power. And the story shows just how much damge this does, and just how widespread it is in our society. Because for Layla there is an internal distrust of herself, a guilt and a shame and a suspicion that when people betray her it’s her fault. That for her having power is to also constantly question that power, even when she acts selflessly, even when she does the best she can. Because other people don’t trust her, don’t like that she has power over them, that she has power at all. And I love how the story then explores how Layla moves through the world, how she has to confront the anger she feels, the guilt and her own suspicion that she’s somehow doing something wrong. Because I like how the story shows her moving past that doubt, through that suspicion, that she refuses to let other people decide how to use or not use her gift. The story is about trusting yourself, and moving forward, and finding peace. And it’s a lovely story with a heavy tone but a lifting ending. Definitely check it out!
"The Hard Shell" by Russell Nichols (4184 words)
For those thinking that this issue would be totally serious, the yolks on you, as this story takes readers on a farcical adventure alongside Humpty Dumpty, PI, to investigate the death of a chick that hits a little closer to home than he was expecting. And people, I couldn’t stop laughing. The page explodes with puns and word games and the entire world is designed around that, even as there’s a subtle and lingering darkness that gives the experience some strange and unsettling layers. But okay okay, there’s a chicken or the egg joke in here that I just stared at for like five minutes before applauding. It’s also a lovely twisting of the noir detective story, with Humpty as the hardboiled (...mmm...) detective down on his luck and needing to crack (...heh...) only to find out that it’s his marriage that no one’s putting back together again (BWAHAHAHAHAHA). And all right, I’m still laughing about this story even as I write this review. It’s cute and it’s fun and it’s funny and it’s surprisingly dark, looking at the ways that Humpty builds walls around himself, creates this shell (deep breaths) that is meant to protect him from feeling but really just keeps him isolated from those he’s supposed to care about. [SPOILERS] The relationship he has with Alice, his wife, is great because it reveals so much about both of them as characters, how his life and his cynicism has snuffed out the spark in their marriage, has created this situation where he can’t win because he’s bought into this way of looking at the world and seeing only the ugly and...not really caring about it. He’s selfish, concerned only for himself and his reputation, and the story does a nice job exploring that while also being funny as hell. It’s a strange read, but if you don’t read this story as soon as you can it’s gonna be you with egg on your face.
"The Beekeeper's Garden" by Christopher Caldwell (4568 words)
This story brings things back to a more somber note, imagining a place where a girl is being held by a woman, or perhaps by a creature, interested in erasing her past and making her into something different than she is. And for me the story is about stories and truths and lies, about this girl trying desperately not to be erased, not to forget who she is and where she comes from. The threat she faces, though, is very real, a creature who offers her a manicured environment and a way to fit some beauty standard and acceptability standard, to take away her “rough edges.” There’s the implied promise that along with that comes a certain safety, but it’s a false safety filled with its own harm, with the constant pain of being cut from her environment and her family. The story follows her and she seeks out her own story, and to do that she must seek out the story of others, creating from the stories she hears a better picture of who she is and where she has come from. The story features a heavy history and a definite sadness and tragedy, as the stories that the girl collects are not the sunniest. But they are important, and they show her the way to be strong in the face of erasure, in the face of violence, in the face of the threat stalking her. And I love the haunted feel of this, the urban fantasy bleeding into the strange place, a trap of magic and ruin held at bay by the rickety boards of a fence and the iron will of a young girl willing to fight. It’s a strong, resonating story that reaches for freedom and doesn’t let anything get in the way of that. It’s empowering and fun and another amazing read!
"Home is Where My Mother's Heart is Buried" by Wole Talabi (5432 words)
Awww. This is a super sweet story about memories and family and home. About two sisters, Timu and Arin, who have fled Nigeria and all of Earth behind because of difficulty, because the people they thought they could count on let them down and abandoned them. And it’s about coming to terms with a past that is both painful and beautiful. For Timu, old enough that she had to deal with the direct effects of being cast off, old enough that she had to take care of herself and Arin as they tried desperately to stay alive and well and full of hope, Earth is some place that she left behind, that turned its back on her. She’s embraced a new life on Mars and in some ways Arin has as well, but for Arin Earth also has a pull, an allure. Because she was so young when everything happened, she didn’t feel the same sting, and so that past still has a nostalgic feel, a sense that she is missing something by having no connection back, by only having a connection to Timu. And it’s this conflict that the story circles, that it explores. And I love how it gives Timu space to hurt while also showing that she’s not thinking enough about Arin, not feeling what she feels. The story does a wonderful job of showing that this is a situation without villains, but also full of pain, full of people terrified of hurting each other, of letting each other down, that they’re not fully examining the situation and their own wants and needs. It’s a story that takes this touching look at family and how it goes beyond place and blood but also how it’s something that can change and that can evolve. And for Timu and Arin it’s about trusting each other even when that’s difficult, because they love each other and want what’s best. It’s a story that moves with a quiet purpose and flowing voice and you should definitely check this one out!
"We Laugh in Its Face" by Barbara L.W. Myers (2720 words)
Well okay then. The issue have taken a rather tragic turn but also a lyrically gorgeous one as this story shows two women, Annie and Octavia—two scientists who prevail over death itself by inventing a serum that makes people essentially immortal—as they grow up and live and love and then...well, that would be telling. The story unfolds from Octavia’s point of view and it is a viewpoint soaked in memory and and love. The story does a beautiful job of showing just how skilled and confident these women were, how they held each other up and helped each other forward. How they explored fearlessly and acted with conviction. And the story also looks at what the purpose of death might be, and how fear and how doubt are deadly things, even in the face of confidence and love. The frame of the story is a kind of diary, a kind of confession, is Octavia looking back on the long years of her life, back centuries to the only time that she felt truly alive. [SPOILERS] And what makes the story so heartbreaking is that these two people live a sort of doomed romance, a doomed love, each making the other stronger but also unable to really see bad in each other. Unable to apply the brakes when things are moving too fast. They live and they research and they discover at this furious pace and yet without thinking they run right away from each other, and it is a difficult and wrenching thing to behold. The story is told looking back, and with that comes a sort of nostalgia and also a deep pain, that no matter how long life is there are things that cannot be healed from. That having a body that will not quit, that will not age, isn’t the same as being free from injury. Free from pain. It’s an emotionally devastating story that you should definitely make some time for!
"Graverobbing Negress Seeks Employment" by Eden Royce (3995 words)
This is a great way to close out the issue, by bringing in the tea promised by the theme in the form of root magic brewed up by Miss Prosper, who uses it to bring the dead briefly back to animation in order to help them reach a proper resting place. Most of the time this is work done with a heavy danger, because it seems unholy, because anyone with the power to bring the dead up and walking around, even for a little while, is someone with power. Is a black woman with power. And in historic Charleston, that’s something that many people would not tolerate. For Miss Prosper, though, it’s a way to both make money to live and keep the traditions of her family alive. And, of course, to bring the dead back somewhere they can rest and not in the shallow graves they were left in. Miss Prosper’s old, and though she, too, benefits from the concoction that she brews, the job she’s chosen is one that weighs on her. That makes her have to see the horrors inflicted on black people, the violence and the pain and the death. She has to face it and keep facing it, because otherwise the dead are left to be tended by their killers. The setting is expertly revealed, gothic in many ways because of the heavy fogs and the shadowed nights and the digging up of corpses. Even so, despite the chill of the locations and the at-times gruesome nature of the work, the story is also about taking comfort and warmth in community and in the shared care that people have when they need each other. It’s a story that’s very aware of how people can come together to hold the cold at bay, to bring kindness and closure and some measure of security to a place where there really isn’t any safety. At the same time, it shows how terrifying and awful it is to find people willing to betray that community, to prey on the vulnerable in order to feel bigger, more in control. It’s a story that doesn’t flinch away from some difficult and ugly truths and it does it with a unique style and steely determination that some work just needs to be done. It’s a great story and a fitting way to close out the issue!