|Art by Bernard Lee|
March brings a four short stories and a poem to Fireside Magazine, each of them full of darkness and light in warring measures. In each piece, people grow up hoping to find a place to belong. A world that matches the hope and brightness of their dreams and the stories they are told. But as they grow they find other fates waiting for them, trying to claim them. Trying to make them victims of the hunger darkness around them. Without the protection of a just system, these shadows do try to take many of the characters. But not all of them fall into the dark. Some of them are able to rise up, to join with others to fight back and seek to build a space to be true to themselves. It’s a defiant, inspiring issue of fiction and poetry that acts as a sort of extended hand to the weary, urging them up and forward to further the fight. So let’s get to the reviews!
“Parasitism” by Alberto Chimal, translated by Julia Rios (584 words)
No Spoilers: This story opens with the image of a young girl enjoying stories about mermaids. Told from a distance, the piece has a voice of authority or perhaps academia, a bit of fictional nonfiction about mermaids and the truths of them. What happened to them and how they survive to this day. The piece seems innocent enough, but just like with children’s stories about monsters and magic, it hides a darkness that is deep and profound. A darkness about the world, about imagination, and about the ways that the world now pushes people into consumption, stress, and decline. It’s a story with an edge and a look at how stories that seem safe are often...not.
Keywords: Mermaids, Dreams, Infestations, Memories, Knowledge
Review: I love how this story uses a very small space to build up this very complex and very dark idea. The piece centers stories, and fairy tales, and those things that people pass on to keep some of the magic alive for their children. Mermaids and similar creatures, that supposedly live just out of sight, or are maybe glimpsed for a moment in blurry wonder and so live on forever. Only the story does stop there. It shows the danger of those stories, the way that they can implant an image so vividly in a young mind that it becomes a kind of needed escape for that person. For the woman described in the story who is infected with mermaids, it seems that the stress of her job, of having to constantly struggle to survive and thrive and work furiously toward some unknown goal pushes her mind back to the nostalgia of mermaids. To the magic that was promised to her. And that becomes a kind of infection that leaves her unable to do her work any longer, that burns her out. And it’s a wonderful way of exploring how having to work so hard pushes people toward disaster, towards a kind of mental damage that they can’t fully recover from. So that, in the end, all the people have left are those stories, are the images of the mermaids which they’d prefer to the ugly realities they weren’t prepared for and that they aren’t allowed to make any better. It’s a difficult read for the heartbreaking arc of the woman, the way she is destroyed not by the stories themselves but by how they differ from reality and how people didn’t try to really prepare her for what was truly coming. A wonderful read!
“The Blanched Bones, the Tyrant Wind” by Karen Osborne (835 words)
No Spoilers: In the city of Talosoth there is a ritual. One to maintain the status quo, to make sure that the city never changes and its ruler never dies. It involves feeding maidens to a dragon and the narrator of this story is one of those maidens, who has been cut and forced to march up to become food for the dragon to the cheers of the rest of the city. Or enough of the rest of the city. Only there is a new truth to the ritual that no one knows about yet, that none suspect, and that the narrator discovers, which forebodes that change is coming to Talosoth, and sooner rather than later. It’s a piece full of darkness, but also a great twist that brings back the light and the hope that not all corrupt and abusive systems are eternal.
Keywords: Rituals, Dragons, Sacrifices, Maidens, War
Review: The story builds well as this slow walk by the narrator up the stairs and toward the cave where she expects to be devoured. Sacrificed. She’s obviously not happy about this but it’s not really something she’s given any choice about. The implication is that she can do this thing and “help” her city or...probably be killed anyway. And so she walks, and laments as she does the coldness of her city and its ruler. The piece is short but the world building here is effective and tight—in a city where change is seen as something to be avoided at all costs, feeding maidens to a dragon isn’t even seen as a tragedy but as a feature. What might otherwise be framed as a curse is just what the city has agreed to do in order to maintain those in power. It’s a grim situation, and one that could have remained that way, the narrator gobbled up, the darkness accepted. But the story doesn’t end there, doesn’t accept the forced sacrifice of this young woman. Instead it finds in the grim darkness of the world a spot of hope, and a group of people who are not going to just sit there and accept this ritual that necessitates their deaths. There is a sense of reversal when the narrator enters the cave and finds that while the ruler wasn’t looking the women he’s sent to die have changed the rules. They are not just sacrifices, not just maidens. They are people, and they are pissed, and the story leaves the impression that Talosoth isn’t going to remain stagnant, and that the ritual, already reframed by the would-be victims, is only the start of the alterations. Which brings hope back, and warmth, and the possibility of justice, even if it’s not going to end up being clean or peaceful. A great read!
“Hands Made for Weaving, With Nails Sharp as Claws” by Eden Royce (3040 words)
No Spoilers: The world weaver lives in a house by the sea, where the veil between the human world and the world of magic, the world of Mami Wata, is thinnest. Where creatures from that world still occasionally slip through and need to be brought back to their mother lest the storm clouds gather and rage. The weaver lives there alone but for the house, who is companionable and tries his best to keep her company and to give her space. Together they watch the veil, at least until a human interferes and takes something and the world weaver has to leave the house and venture back into the human world that had spurned her so long ago. It’s a story for me about distance, mostly quiet but with the feeling of a storm approaching, something dark and powerful almost there, but not quite, with the uncertainty of if it will rage and rend the world or just blow over, revealing calm skies and gentle breezes.
Keywords: Houses, Seas, Monsters, Mermaids, Kidnapping, Magic
Review: I love the feel of the story, the sense of time and distance that it manages. For me, it really builds up around the solitude that the world weaver has to adopt, not because she wanted to but because the humans wouldn’t allow her to be among them. She’s too tied to the magic realm, even though she’s the one who has to keep it separate for humans. Now, though, it’s more like she’s protecting the magical creatures from the humanity that will abuse them given half the chance. The world weaver slowly begins to realize that it’s not humans that she really wants—it’s company. And it’s company that she already has in some ways, in the form of the house that has cared for her since she was effectively banished to this place. The prose is haunting and beautiful, building up the picture of this house and this sea and this woman who lives there, trying her best to do what she can to maintain a balance and protect those she can. Still there’s a loneliness and a doubt and a hurt that lives inside her, that still wants to be accepted by the humans. And it takes going back to the human city to really get her to understand that she wouldn’t be happy there. That she doesn’t _want_ to be accepted there, because they don’t care about her or each other. Because they allow other people to be killed right next to them without batting an eye. And really it’s with her house that she has something deeper, something secure and affirming. And I love how she gets to see that, and how she finds the home that suits her better than the one she thought she wanted but rejected her, and how she sees that she’s always been accepted by those that now mean the most to her. A fantastic story!
“Team Work” by A. T. Greenblatt (1003 words)
No Spoilers: Rani has superpowers. Or...maybe not superpowers. Is turning half of their body into a grasshopper in order to leap great distances considered...super enough? That’s the dilemma that Rami must face, as well as the widespread unease and stigma around these “extra abilities.” Rami wants to be out there helping people, to belong somewhere in a world that hates and fears them. The local group of people with abilities, though, isn’t exactly about helping people. They’re more about being “good examples” of people with powers, which means being comfortable and safe. When Rami decides they can’t not act when someone needs help (or when they think someone needs help), it creates something of a crisis that threatens to push them back into isolation. It’s a story balancing a kinda cute and funny superhero premise (the powers are wonky and weird) with a much more emotionally heavy moment where a person desperate for community finds that qualifying for a group doesn’t really mean they fit in.
Keywords: Superpowers, Groups, Teams, Stigma, Cats
Review: I love what the story does with superpowers, with the idea of stigma and fitting in. How in many marginalized groups there can be the focus on being safe, on presenting a side to the public that’s supposed to go against the stereotypes and the fears that people have. In this case, that people with abilities are frightening and unwholesome. And in trying to present that united front of “goodness”, they fall into the same belief that they are somehow not good. That they should hide, and should feel the pressure to be “normal.” And as much as Rani wants a place to belong, a group to accept them, they also want to actually be accepted for who they are without having to apologize for anything. Without having to hide or feel ashamed. Without having to hold back when maybe they could do some good and help people. And I love where the story takes that idea, how it builds the tension between Rani and the group, how their anxiety and fear shows through and then...turns out to be justified and true. And it’s a gutting moment because it’s a person who is so desperate for community having it taken away. And that hurts in such a profound way. And yet the story doesn’t leave things there, doesn’t make this about the tragedy of it. Instead, it gives Rani another place to belong. A new group that they can help form in a way that does include them and those like them. Which is a nice way to turn the sadness of the ending into something hopeful, where Rani is doing something important by refusing to censure themself in the face of the stigma of society at large. A heartwarming read!
“The Unseen” by Fran Wilde
I love the sort of creeping feel that I read into the fog in this poem, the sort of malignant growth and spread it has. It’s not a neutral presence for me, with the way that it takes, with the way that seeps and wraps. The language implies to me that it wants to be doing this, that it’s seeking to smother this place, these people. The single line question of “How do you fight fog?” speaks to me because it’s this near-despair at having an adversary that cannot be directly touched or manipulated. The fog is omnipresent, and there are so many ways that this sneaks into life. The fog could be a pain that draws at a person, or a brain fog that seems to hover over everything, making it impossible to really see a brighter future. Inside the poem it’s something that seems to conceal hope, the mountain the narrator wants to climb. Their dreams, their aspirations, are swallowed by this blankness, washed away and muted. It could be like a depression that settles in, that doesn’t let go. And there’s not always a great answer to this. The narrator watches it all happen and experiences the way that it deadens noise and sight and everything. And all they can do in the face of that is to try and keep aware of the fact that the fog only conceals. It doesn’t truly destroy or erase. It covers over to give the appearance of blankness, but the sounds are still there, the city and the bridges are still there. The mountain is still there, though they cannot see it. The piece seems to speak out, using the second person to direct at the reader or at a fictional listener to the narrator. It’s a reassurance that the fog has not taken the world, that it’s still out there waiting. Waiting for the fog to lift so that you might go out then to climb or waiting for you to decide to make for the mountain anyway, regardless of whether or not you can see it, in hope and defiance. And whatever the case, I also love that the title seems to refer both to the unseen things that covered in fog, and to the unseen people who might be struggling against a fog that others do not see. The people who might need a bit of reassurance in the face of a fog that has rolled over everything. It’s a lovely and inspiring read, compassionate and carefully rendered. Definitely go and check this one out!