|Art by Omar Gilani|
March brings four short stories and a poem to Fireside Magazine, and the pieces deal rather intimately with distance, with relationships, and with family. They find characters brushing against the unknown or plunging right in, driven by their dissatisfaction and their hope, their stubbornness and their pain. They trace wounds old and new as they try to avoid old patterns of grief and loss and lean towards something new, with all the terrible and beautiful potential that brings. To the reviews!
“Rule of Thirds” by LH Moore (2941 words)
No Spoilers: Maileen is a geologist and diver who revels in exploring parts of the world that might never have known human contact. Underwater caves that stretch into the unknown. Propelled by her scientific curiosity, she risks a lot every time she dives, knowing well the dangers, the unforgiving nature of the deep dark places of the world. And on her latest dive, though, those dangers take a rather unexpected shape--one that might just show the limits of curiosity, or might only deepen Maileen’s thirst for knowledge and discover. The piece is tense as only an underwater story can be, where time is limited and the environment is actively hostile to human life.
Keywords: Science, Caves, Underwater, Geology, Dives, Merpeople
Review: I like that the story unfolds deep underwater and underground, a combination that is terrifying to me and that really does hammer home how inhospitable to humans those places are. They are extremely dangerous and a lot of people die trying to explore them, where getting stuck isn’t uncommon, and running out of air is a constant threat. The bigger threat here might be that Maileen’s group is taking an untested diver, and indeed at first it seems that his inexperience might have doomed Maileen. It’s certainly a thought that occurred to her as she has to contemplate her own mortality with zero visibility and no guideline. It seems like she’s run into the limits of what she’ll discover, proving her mother’s fears right. Except that it wasn’t just the panic of a green diver. It was a discovery that Maileen gets to be a part of. A first contact that you might not consider, seeing as how that normally refers to alien visitation. But the story points out that there’s a huge amount of the planet that hasn’t been discovered, and there might be whole ecosystems that we don’t know anything about. The piece really captures that joy of discovery, of scientific pursuit that isn’t purely academic. That still requires a person to go out into the field and turn over rocks, or at least catalog the rocks and take samples. It’s a tense story, claustrophobic but in a way that lifts, that pulls away into something not limiting, but freeing. Because there’s the realization that the risks are large, yes, but there’s also the possibility of something amazing, something unique, something new and different and awesome. And that’s science sometimes. Not always safe but worth it for those who can’t stand not knowing, not trying, not seeing how far they can push the limits of human experience and knowledge. And it’s a wonderful read!
“Unmended” by Mike Loniewski (1378 words)
No Spoilers: The narrator of this piece is the child of a circus stuntman, whose stage act as Death-Defy is the delight of many, as well as being the only thing keeping their family from crushing poverty. The trade, though, is that with each show, something new breaks in him. And the narrator has to watch as more and more of their father is transformed into metal, as more and more is lost to the injuries that take their toll. The piece is dark, revealing a setting where cycles of poverty and pain keep families in terrible situations.
Keywords: Circuses, Stunts, Family, Metal, Cyborgs, Surgery
Review: This is a rather heartbreaking piece, not least because it shows parents who want so badly to provide for their child, to get them out of this life, or at least protect them from it. That’s been the justification for sacrificing the health and body of the narrator’s father. So that they can make sure that the narrator can live free of it. Without, of course, asking if the narrator wants that. Without caring if the narrator, in turn, wants to sacrifice for their father. And really that’s the heart of the story for me, the way that everyone in the family gets manipulated by a system that is corrupt and calculating, that doesn’t care so long as the money is flowing, and nothing gets it flowing like injury. The crowds here don’t cheer as loud when Death-Defy lands cleanly. When he hits the barrel of water rather than the wall. They want to see the pain, want to know that he’s been injured. Broken. That’s what they come to see, because their situation is such that they all are broken, again and again, by the world and its injustices. So they want to pass that on, want to witness for once someone else paying. And I think the narrator understands that to some extent. But they’re also too young and too poor to have real options. All they’ve been told is the show much go on. And so when their father finally can’t get back up, they make sure the show does. But it collapses the hope that their parents had, and shows the lie of their sacrifice, never about making it so that they’d be able to escape, but always and only about survival. About playing the game of slowly breaking, hoping that maybe something will happen that will change things but always dimly aware that it won’t. It’s tragic and gutting, and it’s very much worth checking out. A great read!
“Mandragora”by Nibedita Sen (2441 words)
No Spoilers: Kavya is dealing with the death of her mother and a relationship with a married (white) man who doesn’t really show any signs that he wants to break things off with his wife. In the wake of her mother’s passing, he receives one final thing, a “gift” of a magical root for her to care for. But what at first seems like the last act of a woman who never had a kind word to say to Kavya turns out to be something very different, as magic of the plant allows Kavya a fresh perspective on a lot of things in her life. Short but sharp, the piece explores a pair of relationships that are fairly toxic before finding one that, though strange and unlikely, seems to hold much more promise.
Keywords: Relationships, CW- Cheating/Infidelity, Plants, Family, Blood
Review: This is a strange story, and one that finds Kavya taking care of a plant that is known to be deadly if roused. Which is a rather strange gift for a mother to give her child upon death, this weird root that requires blood and attention. Kavya guesses it might have been a final rebuke, a way of criticizing how Kavya has not lived up to her mothers ideals and expectations. How she’s failed as the Good Woman she was “supposed to be.” If that’s the case, though, then that’s not at all what happens. And I love that Kavya’s relationship with the mandrake isn’t one defined by a parental dynamic. Which is the dynamic that all the rest of Kavya’s relationships have fallen into. With her own parents, yes, but in many ways with her guy, Geoff, as well. He’s defined to her as being unlike her father. Unlike, but still perhaps paternal in many ways, already married and “safe” in a way that Kavya didn’t have, that she wanted, that would make her feel secure. With the mandrake, though, the whole dynamic is different. The mandrake listens and is present. Requires a drop of blood but isn’t exactly high maintenance. The relationship is on more of an even footing, where they can be almost friends, something that Kavya doesn’t seem to have many of. And it might seem a little sad that this relationship with a plant under her bed is more rewarding than with the man she wants to presumably be with, but I think that acts as the wake-up call, that she gets this very visceral reminder that this guy might have just been a coping mechanism/way of pushing back against her mother’s criticism and that leaning on one toxic relationship to spite a different toxic relationship really isn’t a great thing. And it’s a weird, rather lovely story about standing up, and finding some joy and connection in a very unexpected way. A wonderful read!
“The Words I Starved For” by N.R. Lambert (2287 words)
No Spoilers: The narrator of this story is invisible, made that way by abuse and a hardwood stairs. And unfolding from their perspective is a sort of echo of how their life ended, in a new family where a girl is being abused by her brother, beaten, living constantly in fear. As the narrator watches, the situation follows the same pattern that theirs did. And though they are invisible, though they can’t effect anything, though they seem powerless to stop the tragedy unfolding before them, they resolve to at least be a witness to what is happening. To see. And maybe something more. The piece is dark and visceral and doesn’t shield the reader form the horrors of abuse. And the ending it imagines isn’t without tragedy, but isn’t a story that centers despair. It holds to a bit of hope, and at least the power of being seen.
Keywords: Houses, Ghosts, Family, CW- Abuse, Infestations
Review: This is a hard story to read for me because of how viscerally it portrays this abuse, how honestly it renders it with its hospital visits and ways that these characters are failed. How avoidable it really all was, to a point. If those with power actually cared about what was best for these children instead of what was easiest for themselves. And no, the parents are solely to blame, but I do think the story looks at how abuse in families can escalate because people aren’t willing to take actions, to actually see what’s going on. Families are supposed to be loving and protective and safe. But these definitely aren’t and for many they aren’t and there’s no turning away from that without letting down a huge number of vulnerable kids. And I think it’s tempting to see the ending of the story as a victory, as something of a happy ending. But I think the story does a good job of resisting treating the death of the abuser as a good thing. I don’t even think that the story portrays it as justice, though it’s certainly more just than if the girl had died. Really what it underscores is that justice is perverted by the stain that spreads inside the boy. A stain he invites and nurtures, yes, but one that is also allowed to spread without question, without any attempt really to stop it or discourage it. The boy retains the responsibility for his actions, but he’s also been failed by a system that would rather allow him to abuse than to face the root of what’s happening to him. I like that the story does seem to see that and comment on it, but also recognizes that when it comes down to who to save, there is no real question. What remains isn’t happy, though, isn’t a triumph. It’s perhaps the least bad outcome from a situation that was poisoned from the start, and that death was the best outcome here shows how incredibly fucked the situation in. The story doesn’t attempt to find some happy ending, though. It settles for what’s possible here. Which is a moment of empathy and understanding, of two people really seeing each other in a way that they need. It doesn’t make anything better, but it feels good to have that moment. It’s powerful, and wrenching, and beautiful. And makes for a great read!
“Rotting Flowers” by nwaobiala
This poem unfolds as a series of dense paragraphs that express stories and then multiple choice questions. And I really like the organization of the piece, because it captures a sense of an almost standardized test. The paragraphs are the case studies and the questions test the knowledge of the reader. Only in this case there is for me a distance between what the poem is saying and what the answers to the questions are. Indeed, that distance seems to be what the poem is about, exposing the ways that girls and women are valued or, to be more precise, undervalued and defaced, debased, and abused. The piece looks at the ways that gender roles and gender valuing, especially in the importance put on having sons instead of daughters, contributes to a system where girls are vulnerable and not protected by the men in their lives nor by their culture and society at large. And it hits harder with the structure because that kind of standardized testing is a tool that is used to reinforce marginalization, to reinforce both white supremacy and misogyny, and here the poem complicates the idea that someone against one of those is against both of them, or really rejects the idea that someone can be against either of those things without being against both of them. Because the truth seems to be that those force buttress each other, support each other, so that working against racism can’t really work without also trying to dismantle misogyny. Without taking apart both corruptions, the system finds way to adapt and twist, finding the same old patterns, the same abuses and violations that run along the lines of race and gender. And the piece subverts the form to bring into focus not just the stories of these women, the ways that they are preyed up and prepared to be essentially sacrifices on the altar of toxic masculinity, but the ways that it happens in through a narrowing of options, a rigid demarcation of gender roles, so that the answers to the questions posed can only further entrench the harm, further the damage done. It’s a sharp, powerful poem that you should definitely check out and spend some time with!