“The Air in My House Tastes Like Sugar”’ by ZZ Claybourne (8822 words)
No Spoilers: Amnandi and her mother, Khumalo, are witches who have been forced to move from place to place, fleeing the prejudice against magic that many have. Fleeing the shadow of violence that seems to haunt them. Neither wants to move now that they’ve settled in a new place, but an incident with Amnandi and two local children opens a can of worms that threatens to bring the simmering anger towards magic and witches to a boil. And in order to take the heat out, Khumalo might have to uncover some secrets she has no interest in so that she can clear the reputation of witches and maybe work for a world where her daughter can be happy and safe. The piece is largely familial, alternating between mother and daughter as they navigate being new people to a new place and, on top of that, witches in a world where people give power to foolish stories.
Keywords: Witches, Magic, Prejudice, Stories, Portals, Spirits
Review: I love the central relationship of the story, that between mother and daughter, teacher and student. They’re both witches and the story does such a good job of showing the strong bond there, the resolve of Khumalo to protect her daughter but also make her safe, which aren’t always the same thing. Sometimes it is, and there are a number of times that she must act around her daughter, going to parents, smoothing things out. She’s wise, won from a lifetime of surviving, of knowing when to move on and when to stay. And she wants to stay, wants to be able to enjoy the simple beauties around her. I do like that she says multiple times that she doesn’t want to save anyone, that she doesn’t like getting involved, because other people’s problems tend to be more trouble than they’re worth. They draw attention, and even when successful might make some people resentful even if they are also grateful. But neither does Khumalo want to hide. What she wants is to be accepted, is to belong to a place, so that maybe her daughter won’t be in danger, so that her daughter can grow as a witch but also a girl with friends, without the constant fear of having her home burned down or finding an angry mob outside. I also like how the story builds up this kind of code of witchcraft, that Khumalo doesn’t lie, in part because she knows that witches aren’t trusted enough as it is. She doesn’t shrink from the truth, and doesn’t act ashamed of who she is or what she does. Really, that’s where a great deal of the trouble comes from, from people who view magic as something to be ashamed of. When really it’s a tool, a power, and not inherently bad or good.
And really for me the story does a great job of capturing how Khumalo and Amnandi are trying to integrate, trying to make this place a home. They are loyal and faithful to each other, fierce when provoked, and rather damn good at what they do. The danger they face is the fear of magic make physical, made a hungry devouring spirit that they have to face and put down. And to do that they need more than their skills. They need the trust of the community, and trust in each other. And that’s almost more difficult, because prejudice runs so deep. But through their actions and through their kindness and openness, they are able to show that their intentions are good, that they have no reason to feel ashamed. And through work and risk they are able to win the day, which is rather wonderful. It’s a story that plays with fairy tales, flipping the script by calling those tales foolish, adding fire to fear instead of offering anything like real guidance. They are bits of propaganda, and the story does a wonderful job of countering that and giving a different sort of look at witches and the work they do. A heartwarming and wonderful read!