|Art by Kevin Tong
“The Unusual Customer” by Innocent Chizaram Ilo (3912 words)
No Spoilers: Adaku is the daughter of a cook who runs a small restaurant that still manages to make some of the best food around. Adaku’s world is full of music, songs her mother sings while she cooks that tend to center magic and sadness. Which is part of the legacy that she has inherited from her mother and grandmother and beyond, and it’s the legacy that comes to Adaku in the form of a man who begins to appear in the restaurant. Or maybe appear isn’t exactly the right word. On account of his being invisible most of the time. But it brings a truth that Adaku has begin to suspect out into the air, and creates something of a complication in what was an otherwise fairly straightforward life. The piece is fun and charming, capturing in Adaku both a general dissatisfaction with the ways in which the world is mundane and difficult, and the slowly dawning realization that it’s maybe not as mundane as expected. With touches of fairy tale and parable, the story hides a surprising depth and seriousness under a more irreverent tone.
Keywords: Cooking, Magic, Wishes, Children, Restaurants
Review: There’s a lot about this story that I definitely appreciate, and I love that it reads to me like a fairy tale that doesn’t believe in fairy tales. Or perhaps believes in them too well, so that the romance of the magic wears away and what’s left is a value on human life, family, and wresting those things you really want from a world that is often unfair and cruel. For Adaku, life is shaped around the labor of working, which is its own sort of magic and alchemy, but which is also a lot of tedium and bother for a young woman. For Adaku, magic seems to hold a bit more of a pull, for all that her mother subtly warns her through her songs that all magic has a sad ending. So when the Invisible Customer shows up and seems to have designs for Adaku, it almost seems hopeful. But pinned under that is a darkness that she’s just beginning to see the shape of. And it takes her mother’s quick thinking and mastery of cooking to set things right. And I just really like that here the emphasis is not put on magic being poisoned, or that Adaku’s mother was too greedy or selfish or stupid. Indeed, she proves how wise and clever she is, outfoxing the spirit who wanted to rob her of what she held most dear. And Adaku gets something of a lesson. That magic is a fickle thing, and not at all based on merit or worth. Spirits are tricksters, not to be trusted, but magic is magic, and has a number of uses. Especially for their family, magic is necessary, because magic has been pushed onto them, limiting them. In order to push back against that injustice, they must have some of their own, or take it from someone who can afford it. And it’s just a lovely and fun story about food and magic and resisting the tragic ending. A fantastic read!
“Pigeons” by Nibedita Sen (548 words)
No Spoilers: Kat and Cil are twins sent to live with their grandfather when their mother decides to take some time with just her and new man. The decision has left the girls a bit under-stimulated, and when that combines with a family talent for magic, it’s perhaps not too surprising when things go a bit wrong. And now they have to decide how to move forward, and how to stay together, when one of them isn’t what she once was. For the twins, though, being together is all that matters, even if that means bending some rules, and completely shattering others. THe piece is short and full of a clawing if quiet horror. The twins are children, which means they sometimes make unsafe decisions and in this case that ends in tragedy. They are also resourceful, though, and quite willing to spit in the face of adult values if it means staying together. Which takes them down a dark path indeed.
Keywords: Sisters, Twins, CW- Death of a Child, Resurrection, Pigeons
Review: On the one hand, this is a story very much about staying together, about the strength of the bond between Kat and Cil. It focuses on how they depend on each other, and how they’ll stay together no matter what. It’s just that the “no matter what” in this case includes Cil’s accidental death while playing hide and seek and the very real possibility that their grandfather or mother or someone else will want to put Cil down after Kat brought her back to life. Or, rather, undeath. Which is where I feel the horror of the piece comes from, in that space where Kat should be dealing with the grief about what happened and instead is willing to kill to protect her already-dead sister. For me, perhaps a little bit of the horror is cut by the fact that I don’t want to see the twins separated. They have magic and through that magic Cil isn’t gone. Perhaps this is more about power and how it can corrupt, how it leads Kat so easily down this path where she’s going to kill anyone who threatens what little she has (namely, her sister). In that, Kat’s complete lack of guilt surrounding the death of her sister is refreshing. She doesn’t blame herself or her sister for what happened. She blames the adults around them who didn’t prevent it. Who dumped them in a dangerous place and then didn’t care about them. And in that there’s an element that Kat isn’t acting out of selfishness or fear or guilt but rather a perverted sense of justice. That she’s comfortable thinking that those who will die need to die now because they didn’t protect Cil, because what’s the worth of life if Cil’s was so easily lost. It’s a bit of a creeping read, avoiding (in my opinion) casting Kat as completely emotionless and cold and rather as prioritizing Cil above all others, willing to do what other people might find unthinkable in order to protect the one person she care about. A great read!
“By Stone, by Sea, by Flower, by Thorn” by Sarah Goslee (435 words)
No Spoilers: An unnamed narrator speaks of the hardships they’ve endured in traveling from their home in the south to the north, where they’ve escaped slavery in order to make something for themself. The piece is sparse on details, creating a feeling of desolation, of decline. The narrator is waiting, biding their time, and as the story progresses what they’re waiting for begins to become clear, though the piece never quire completely shows its hand. To me, at least, there is a bit of a mystery that remains, one that has to do with who exactly the narrator is, and what they’re planning to do in a land that hsa taken so much from them.
Keywords: Prophecy, CW- Slavery, Weaving, Sheep, Preparations
Review: A lot of this story, for me, has to do with place and with the land. The narrator notes that where they are from, the people end up reflecting their land, and where there is bounty, the people are sleek and happy. But then the raiders came, from a place full of rock and scrub and winters. And I love how the story evokes the feeling of this isolation that the narrator is in, the purpose that is slowly mulling in their mind. They have a vision of things to come, of a future that they want to prevent, or subvert, before (I think) what happened to them will happen to anyone else. To that end, they have been preparing, and it seems at the end that their preparations are about ready to pay off. And it’s a great study of place and mood and atmosphere, how this land gets into the narrator, and how they plan to get into it, in turn. The language is rich and the imagery is evocative and harsh. A very short, rather ominous piece that’s certainly worth spending some time with!
“A Taxonomy of Hurts” by Kate Dollarhyde (2333 words)
No Spoilers: The narrator of this story has the ability to see other people’s hurts. Their pain as embodied in creatures that cluster around them in a flock of birds, in a swarm of insects or a crop of mushrooms. That the narrator can then take and touch and experience the memory of the pain as if they are the one living it. It gives them a special insight into other people, while at the same time it creates this intense urge to know what their own hurts look like and what it might say about them. The story is largely about classification, about how a person might try to make sense of this power, this reality. And how they might seek to organize something as personal as pain, something as individual as memory. And what that might reveal about the world, and about themself.
Keywords: Birds, Memories, Pain, Classification, Queer MC
Review: This is such a tender and careful story for me, tracing as it does the way that people experience pain. The narrator has a whole taxonomy about it (hence the title) and for me it speaks to the insecurity and fear they have about their pain. That it’s nothing. That it doesn’t exist the way that other people’s pain does. That it’s trivial, or meaningless, or that they’re just making a big deal about it. When, really, the story seems to me to point to the reality that pain is something that defies classification. But that doesn’t mean that it defies recognition. What they do, when they go in and experience other people’s pain, is recognize it and empathize with it. They are able to feel the weight of it, and understand that person a little better. It is an intimate act, and one that allows them to have a better sense of the world. In some ways the story seems to me to touch on how people broadcast their pain. Their memories. How in some ways they are like stories, that can reveal the pains of people, that can help make them real to other people. For the narrator, they are able to understand these hurts, are able to inhabit them, and yet find that they are hesitant about being recognized, being seen, because they fear it will find them lacking, as they feel they have been found lacking again and again. Only when finally they get the chance to be seen, really seen, it’s beautiful and validating. And I just love that connection and how the story builds it up. It’s a fragile and wonderful ending and just a wonderful read!