“Desert Locks” by Katherine Quevedo (6480 words)
No Spoilers: Salim is a shrouder, someone who travels through the world completely covered, in part to protect against people taking their errant hairs, which can be used to cast magic. That hair is a source of magic is something that provokes paranoia in many, and more drastic actions for some, who would rather go completely hairless than risk someone being able to cast magic on them. The only thing that really helps is a small box that helps to destroy hair so that others can’t use it. At least, until Salim hears of a new procedure that might be able to go further. Not that he wants it for himself, but he feels that it might have something to do with the disappearance of some of his people, and he’s looking for answers. It’s a strange but interesting piece, anchored by the ways people can have power over each other, and the fragility of trust when people are so vulnerable.
Keywords: Hair, Magic, Trust, Shrouds, Bargains, Exploitation
Review: This story follows the path of a mystery, where Salim is not exactly a detective but is out looking for the truth, however unpleasant it might be. And I love that the shape of the mystery seems to lead toward a rather foregone conclusion--that shrouders have been leaving their faith and traditions behind in order to try experimental procedures that will leave them forever hairless. Which would, in turn, make them invulnerable from those who would try to steal their hair in order to cast magic on them. And really I like how the story treats with that, with the idea that it’s so easy to do something so devastating to someone else, to the point where the responsibility for acts of magic is placed almost entirely on the would-be victims. People have to make sure they don’t do anything that would make it “too easy” to get their hair, because otherwise they will essentially deserve whatever happens to them. Which is really fucked up but also exactly how something like this would work in our world, where we are so eager to blame the unfortunate and the exploited for their exploitation, even as we might be the ones more responsible.
In the face of that, Salim’s trust is rather revolutionary, and a vast source of strength. When he meets a woman, Alia, who has undergone the procedure he wants to know more about, she doesn’t trust him, but he chooses to trust her, to put himself easily in her power, trusting that she’s not the kind of person who would exploit that. And it brings up the belief that only through that kind of radical trust can a society really flourish. Because it’s the only weapon against the kind of exploitation that profits off of paranoia and fear. The exploitation that is indeed the reason that the other shrouders have been going missing. And I love that the story shows how twisted that exploitation is, how sinister capitalism is and how easy it is to corrupt and pervert. That even when a technique exists to essentially eliminate the problem and make everyone safe from magic being used against them, it was abandoned because it wasn’t profitable enough. Which reminds of the ways that medications and treatments are treated here is the US. And I like how Salim and Alia are able to trust each other and through that to defeat the corruption, breaking the vampiric system and allowing hope to spread that perhaps people can more freely trust each other, and dispel the shadows that have fallen over their hearts. A wonderful read!