Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Quick Sips - Beneath Ceaseless Skies #260

The first Beneath Ceaseless Skies issue of September brings a pair of stories that certainly shake of the summer heat, opting instead of a colder, darker tone and feel. In each we find young women who make bargains that they don’t completely understand when they make them. About finally getting something they want in a setting where women’s desires are often the first thing suppressed in favor of survival and subsistence. Without anywhere else to turn, they get approached by witches, who in turn seek to take more than is offered. In one of the stories, though, the bargain’s toll goes much beyond even the steep price that was set, and in the other the price is still under negotiation, though a negotiation that now involves a gun. To the reviews!

Art by Piotr Dura

“Ancestor Night” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman (1893 words)

No Spoilers: Paolo is the oldest child in a family that has lost their mother and father. The six children now get by selling family treasures and making due, and on Ancestor Night they travel out into the cold to sing songs and light small fires over the bodies of their parents, submerged under the ice. It’s a holiday, a celebration, and a remembrance, and yet the second oldest child, Jasna, is very reluctant to go. To face the parents that the magic of the night might reanimate. The why of it is unclear to Paolo at first, but becomes darkly clear when they arrive and the rituals begin. It’s a piece that builds an intimate feeling, familial and warm, but that gives way to a pervasive and damning cold. The holiday is supposed to be about honoring the dead, but more and more it seems to be about adding to their ranks.
Keywords: Family, Rituals, Guilt, Songs, Loss
Review: What I like about this story is the intimate, festival atmosphere it manages, and the slippery way that sympathy can twist into hatred, pointed direct at ruin. The piece follows this family that is coping, that is hanging on by a thread, the oldest child caught in the position of putting off their own grief in order to try and keep everything together, the family fed and clothed. And now is a time that’s supposed to be about honoring that, celebrating family. And I love that what really breaks Paolo isn’t really the truth of what his sister has done, what she had a hand in shaping, but rather that for that she is the one who gets to talk to their parents, the one who is made the center of things. That, after putting off their own grief in favor of trying to help her through what they thought was sadness, they find that it’s guilt that has been eating her, and all the sympathy and understanding vanishes. And it’s so cold and dark when that happens, because it shows how it’s not really about their parents’ wishes then, but rather about Paolo and their feelings finally pushed past a breaking point. And I kind of shudder at what might come next after this, what must come next after this, because it represents a moment when Paolo could reach for understanding and love and instead does not. The closing lines are chilling, and in a story very much concerned with heat and cold, it brings a heavy feel of death. A fine read!

“It’s Easy to Shoot a Dog” by Maria Haskins (4455 words)

No Spoilers: Susanna is seventeen and travels into the dark woods with her father’s musket and her trusty dog in order to follow through on a bargain she made ten years ago. The year she got her pup. The year her brother disappeared. Susanna has lived since with the constant companionship of her dog, and yet through that time a worry has grown in her, a knowledge that their time together came with an expiration date—one that’s already up. The piece is quiet and full of a sort of grinding hardship that is only alleviated by the connection that this girl and her dog share, loyalty and acceptance and a balm for all the cold, dreary days. And there’s an uncertainty to the piece, as well, a gamble, as Susanna has to decide what to do and the reader has to ultimately decide what might happen next.
Keywords: Dogs, Witches, Bargains, Siblings, Magic, Guns
Review: I like how this story refuses to fully condemn Susanna for what she’s done, which in the eyes of many would be to make a deal with the devil. The piece does an excellent job, though, to really build a sense of this world, this place, as being rather oppressive. Bleak. Not without its hopes and comforts but really ot with a lot to offer Susanna, who as a child just wants a dog and instead gets a little brother to look after and the promise of more of the same for the rest of her life, refusal after refusal to the bitter end. And in a place that really doesn’t care about her or her desires, the story seems to ask if it’s all that wrong of her to make the decision she does. Especially as a child. And that’s the center of discomfort that I feel the story really plays with, darkness that cannot really be escaped. Because of course no it’s not okay for her to have made this deal, but at the same time she’s no more evil than the people making decisions about her life and her future. And her deciding that she’d pay any price for one thing that could be hers, that she could make happen, that’s a way of trying to take back an agency that has been poisoned by the inequalities and abuses of the system. It’s a fascinating read for that, and the impossible moral situation it brings up, and also the completely understandable bonds that form between human and animal, between child and dog, and how those can be more meaningful and important than any other. Add to that a very palpable darkness and the rather awesome creepiness of a witch in the middle of the woods who will make bargains with children, and you have a rather rending read. Definitely a story to spend some time with!


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