|Art by Alexey Shugurov|
The latest issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies offers up two short stories that deal very much with memories and with the stubbornness of those in power when faced with an inevitable and dangerous problem that is killing people. In both, the narrators have to deal with being expected to fix a problem that’s become hard baked into the fabric of a place they think of as home. Where actually fixing it would mean breaking it, making it something different from what it was. It also requires the power to actually do something, which only one of the characters actually has. Not that it’s easy. Not that both won’t sacrifice trying to do the right thing. These are two lovely and wrenching stories, and I’ll get to my reviews!
“The Last, Like a River In Flood” by Marissa Lingen (4463 words)
No Spoilers: Ellis is a former student of a prestigious magical school. Now a geomancer in their prime, they have returned to their old stomping grounds at the request of their former advisor, because an accident--a disaster--that happened while they were in school is, well, still a disaster. A flood got into the potions vault, mixed together all the powerful and terrible magics there. Killed three people. But they managed to wall up the vault. It’s just that...that was it. The magics are still there, still moaning from the vault. Ignored by the administration aside from a hastily but tastefully crafted enclosing wall. And they’ve killed two more students. So Ellis is back to finish what they helped to start that night of the flood, when they were still a student. And the piece looks at the ways universities can become corrupt, lose sight of what’s right and wrong in the face of what’s good or bad for the school.
Keywords: Schools, Floods, Accidents, Disasters, Magic
Review: Given that this story comes out at a time when schools and universities are requiring students attend in person classes during a pandemic, there’s a bit of extra bite in showing a school doubling and tripling down on its own viability and image rather than deal with something that is actually factually killing students and staff. And I really like how the story builds that up, capturing the sense of nostalgia and timelessness that universities can have, especially for those who make their lives there. For teachers and students and administrators, schools can seem like their own worlds. Ones that operate on a different system as everything else. They also tend to be elitist and made up of mostly people who are a certain level of affluent. That often gives them an air of superiority and a certain in-group pride. People are supposed to build some of their identity around their school in the same way they might a fraternity or sorority. It’s a club. It’s a sort of family. It’s also maybe a little bit a cult. Not, like, super much, but there are certainly elements that carry over. And here we see how that can play out, with the school placing their survival and reputation as more important than students and staff. More important than people’s lives. And Ellis underlines that, throws that back in the face of those who think it’s not worth it to clean the mess they made, not worth it despite cleaning messes being about the first lesson that students are taught. There’s just this great hypocrisy that the story captures, the dangerous willful ignorance that this school and so many schools adopt because it’s easier than dealing with the big problems. Because for them staying open is more important than anything. Yes, it will be hard for a lot of people to fix the problem. But it likely won’t kill anyone. And that’s sort of a big deal, even if the people dying aren’t that special or important. That kind of devaluing of human life is just monstrous, though, and it’s a great point that institutions should abide by their own lessons, their own professed values, instead of wearing a mask of responsibility but underneath being selfish, greedy, and tyrannical. And here shows the cost of going up against such a system and winning for the most part. But not without a cost, the least of which is the shattering of the nostalgia that school times are “the best years of your life.” A wonderful read!
“Doorway, Smile, Kiss, Fox” by Jeremy Packert Burke (4797 words)
No Spoilers: Themis is a mnemosyne (and all mnemosyne’s are named Themis), a person who is able to be a living vessel of history, of memories, able to take them in by drinking treated blood. The thought is that these mnemosynes can both be depositories of the memories of “great people” as well as adviors when the city’s rulers run into problems. Problems like the way the city seems to be magically growing out of control, threatening to crush everyone and everything inside it. It’s not a problem any of the narrator’s memories can shake an answer out of, and they know that means they’ll likely be put to death soon, exsanguinated to make a new slew of mnemosynes. They can still play for time, though--time to preserve what they can, not from the city’s elite, but from a very different cross-section. The piece is full of longing, the narrator a mess of memories and feelings, anchored by secrets and their regard for their city and some of the people in it.
Keywords: Memories, Cities, Growth, Blood, Queer Characters
Review: This story has such a yearning, deep feel to it. I love the world building and I love how the story ties together the internal and external conflicts. The city, growing out of control, ready to burst from all the new buildings that seem to be coming from nowhere, that are made by the city itself and that bring these deadly consequences. The narrator, full of memories that they can’t just access like a book, that just fill their head with all these images, all these ghosts of people’s thoughts and feelings. In both instances, theses seem issues that arrise from these long-standing traditions that were meant to be shortcuts. That were meant to solve something. But that weren’t thought all the way through. The human element was overlooked, and now things are going to shit. For the city, it means masses of new growth that threaten everyone. It means the prospect of losing that entire history that the narrator was meant to preserve, because mnemosynes just aren’t enough. They can recall some things, can preserve some things, but not in context. Not in a way that seems all that helpful. And for all the city’s officials want to use them to solve their problems, the best that they can do is on a much smaller level, trying to hold onto the small moments in ordinary people’s lives. Their loves. Their secrets. Their comforts and their cares. And I really like how that becomes the focus of the piece. On the narrator’s attempt to sort of break out from the cage they’ve been put in. to repurpose themself as a tool. And I love that. There’s such a doomed feel to it, the people, the rulers, the narrator all basically knowing that there’s no way to fix what’s wrong with the city. But also unwilling to leave. Unwilling to abandon it, at least until they have no other choice. And it’s a haunting, lovely read that I definitely recommend you spend some time with!