|Art by Vicky J. Bawangun|
“Boiled Bones and Black Eggs” by Nghi Vo (4545 words)
No Spoilers: The narrator of this story is a young girl sent to work in her aunt’s restaurant—one that caters to both the living and the dead. In this world, the dead often go about, hungry and in need of a good meal, and it’s up to places like the Drunken Rooster that they get served. The narrator is taught from a young age how to care for the customers of the restaurant, but nothing prepares her for when the ghost of a self-important general shows up demanding service and refuses to leave until he’s had his fill. The piece is dark, circling as it does around death and ghosts, but the piece feels a bit more like a fable than a tragedy, setting up the respect owed to the dead and the few times the dead might deserve a little less than that.
Keywords: Ghosts, Food, Death, Guests, Cooking, Service, Family
Review: I like how the story builds up this world that is largely ruled by conflict and death. It’s not an easy place, which the reader learns quite early when the narrator is sent to work as a child to clear some of her father’s debt. There are jobs to do in order to keep the dead satisfied, and I love how that plays out with looking at history, at the way the dead weigh on all of us, both through the ways we seek to respect the dead and the burdens they drag with them from the violations and violences of the past. And I like how complexly the story looks at that, teaching the narrator first that she is a server to the dead, that she is not there to judge them or criticize them. And then, of course, showing how that’s not always the case. And it’s there, where the story deals with Lord Ning, this blowhard of a ghost who is there really only to make life difficult to people, to hold them captive so that he can tell his stories again and again, that the story dips into what is owed to the dead who were complete shits. And for me this speaks to what to do with history that is...pretty fucking awful. As wars and atrocities are. The key here seems to be choosing not to honor and respect it, but rather to confront it and see it for what it is. To stop giving it so much room at the table, to stop listening to its stories and boasts, and to put it in context of the harm done, the violence, the other hungry dead who were silenced by it. And it walks a dark path because those things are difficult and uncomfortable, but they’re the only way to be free of the unwanted customers who seem like they’ll ruin everything. And it’s a valuable lesson for the narrator, and for us all. Plus, the food writing is just delicious! I want to eat all the things! A wonderful read!
“The Red Honey Witch” by Jessica Paddock (2664 words)
No Spoilers: Arati is a young girl who can hear the bees. Who is linked to them to the point that the protect her, separate her from those around her. And yet even as they share this bond, the bees scare Arati, and the way they make her different breeds resentment and, unfortunately, tragedy. As she grows, resentment shifts to hatred, and it takes some rather drastic events to get her to really explore her complex feelings about the bees, about herself, and about her place in the larger world. It’s a dark story, touched by death and a child’s vulnerability, but for all that war looms and the trajectory of the story seems poised to dip fully into pain and loss, there’s a glimmer of hope, of healing, and of honey.
Keywords: Bees, Witches, Growing Up, War, Healing
Review: I like the careful way this story explores Arati’s nature and her power and her relationship with the bees. How the way that she primarily interacts with them isn’t exactly the way that would be easiest or healthiest for her, because it’s not entirely conscious. She’s a child with enormous power but really no teacher and no real safety. She’s shunned because of the bees, and so she internalizes the anger and distrust that people have about her, which surfaces as shame and guilt and hatred. She’s denied a choice in all of this, and the costs are so great, that she lashes out. By the time she does get a teacher the damage has largely been done, the wonder and joy that she might have felt about herself and what she’s capable of devoured by the tragedies and the treatment she’s endured. The loss that she blames herself for and that really everyone blames her for. Despite that the adults are supposed to know better and protect people like her, instead they punish her and shun her and yet still expect her to act for them, to sacrifice for them. So I do like that the story finds her wanting to break that, wanting to find her own way free of this community that hasn’t really done good by her. And here’s where my reading complicates to some degree, because The story still does place her in a hive with this place that hasn’t exactly been good to her. And while I then like how it brings her to a place where she can be okay with that, can accept her place in the hive and find through it purpose and joy, I think I wanted more room to be given for her to be able to opt out of the hive in a way that wouldn’t destroy either her or the bees or any of the people. Or perhaps just that it might have been an option, because as much as I like the way the story ends, the rather lovely way that Arati learns to overcome her guilt and shame and hatred and finally accept herself and her connection to the bees...I still feel like she doesn’t owe anything to a hive she didn’t choose and that abused her. Still, it’s a richly imagined and beautifully rendered world with a great magic and a breathing darkness. Certainly one to spend some time with!