“Touchstone” by Mette Ivie Harrison (22470 words)
No Spoilers: Lissa is a young girl who hasn’t yet been Called. Who hasn’t been drawn to the stone up on the mountain to hear what it is she’s destined to be. In the town she lives in, that’s how everyone lives, with a certainty that they are doing the right thing. It keeps things fair, or so they’re all told. It keeps them safe. Except that following one person getting Called, the town enters a deadly situation where no one seems safe, Lissa least of all. Desperate for certainty in a place where people are supposed to know what to do, she finds instead that she might have to make her own rules if she, and the town, are to survive. It’s a tense read, familiar in many ways but with a creepy atmosphere of small town insularity with a rot of corruption at its heart.
Keywords: Fate, Communities, Growing Up, Vocations, Family
Review: The idea of fated roles or assigned roles isn’t exactly a new one in SFF, but it’s always interesting to see it explored. Perhaps strangely, the most recent exploration of this I can think of off the top of my head is My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic with the concept of Cutie Marks, visual representations of what a pony is “meant to do.” The concept is often accompanied by a more egalitarian, perhaps socialist mentality, though in MLP, as in this story, that’s complicated by an economics that not solely sharing based. And here, instead of mark, people are given roles by a stone at the top of a mountain, which forms the basis for the stability and prosperity of the town. Now, these roles aren’t supposed to be arbitrary, but rather to reflect what the person is best at and what the community needs. There isn’t supposed to be regret or loss surrounding this. The stone is supposed to be infallible. But the story explores what happens when that’s perhaps not the case, and what happens when people go against the will of the stone, trying to steer their fate while maintaining the illusion that it’s flawless.
For me, so much of the story is about the shared lie that is holding this community together. People Believe (with a capital B) in the stone, and that makes for its own kind of false stability. False because already there are many people (we never find out just how many but at least two of those featured in the story) who try to make their own way and are “allowed” to. Meaning, there is no justice system here for people who lie about their Calling, and no physical mark to make it obvious to people. What there is is the court of public opinions (which here does have the power to execute people if need be), and I like how the story shows how this has made a very insular and xenophobic community. One that falls back on authoritarianism and is vulnerable to people acting in bad faith and corrupting the system to work more for some than for others. The primary “villain” of the piece is someone very willing to say that the stone is objectively “right” while also acting to try and force their will on the situation, acting as if the only “right” is force and strength. It shows how easy it is in these situations, these systems, to slide into tyranny, because however good and equal the system was supposed to be, it only stays so through constant effort and engagement by the whole community, and where certain people dominate, everything becomes broken and twisted.
It’s a rather difficult story, really. It captures that squirmy feeling of being in danger because of difference. Of seeing that the system isn’t fair but not being in a position to change things. Of wanting so bad to have the same security that everyone else seems to have but knowing also that it’s outside your grasp. And in knowing having to decide what to do. To fake it for the rest of your life. Or to work to change things, to tear things down and hope to rebuild them in a better, more equitable way. It’s a grim story, and there are plenty of moments of horror, shock, and sorrow, that are handled quite well. It might not be the happiest of experiences, but it is inspiring and hopeful. That for whatever damage corruption can do, there can be healing, and rebuilding, and a future where maybe the same old mistakes and lies don’t have to be repeated. A great read!