|Art by Pao-ju Lin|
The August issue of Fireside Magazine contains four short stories and a bunch of nonfiction (which I won’t be covering but do recommend you check out). The stories are all…far from easy things. There is a sense of confinement that runs through the issue, a sense of decline and suffocation. There are people literally imprisoned, either by a corrupt government in the past or a possibly dystopic government in the future. There are people finding their lives sinking, unable to pull back from their descent. There is loss. There is the prospect of more loss to come. The stories are, again, not easy, but they’re also rewarding and quite good, and I’ll get right to my reviews!
“An Incomplete Account of the Case of the Bird-Talker of Yaros” by Eleanna Castroianni (2384 words)
No Spoilers: Told as a series of texts surrounding the Yaros island prison during the seven years of Greek Junta in the 1960s-70s. The authoritarian/totalitarian regime, supported by the US and other democratic nations, used anti-communism as a tool to violate civil rights, including widespread imprisonment and torture. The story focuses on a few voices surrounding this time period and a woman, Thalassini V., who seemed able to talk to birds. Who could overcome the news blackout and censorship doing on in the prison to keep the prisoners isolated, and who because of that became a target of the prison administration. It’s a strange, haunting tale, grounded by suffering, by abuse of power, by torture and uncertainty. But through all that, a fierce hope as well. A recognition that even totalitarian governments cannot be all-powerful. That freedom isn’t something that can be fully suppressed, controlled, or killed.
Keywords: Prisons, CW- Torture, Birds, Family, History, Greece, Islands
Review: I love how the story engages with history, with trauma and some very grim topics, without really being about despair. For me, yes, there is a sense of mourning going on, the characters all sort of trapped in grief. For their country, for their families, for this woman who spoke to birds. An old woman went to a prison island and murdered. Because the warden and the guards could not control her. Because she had a power that they could not break, could not control. And that, really, becomes so much of the story, for me. How the piece looks at power, at the ways that this sort of government, this kind of corruption, cannot stand freedom. Cannot stand people having power that is not explicitly given by the corrupt government. Because it points out the lie at the heart of their work. That they are not all powerful. And it’s a difficult read, because of the abuses, because of the torture, because it’s very grim. The prison is where the government sends people it basically wants to die. It might not kill them all immediately, but there’s a general sense that there’s no escape from the island. The texts are pulled from the diaries and interviews of people who were on the island, who saw Kera-Thalassini, who knew her to some degree. And who watched her transformation into birds. Even her story is steeped in grief, her quest for a daughter who she never found in life. But even if she couldn’t find the news she wanted for herself, still she could help others, feeding them news from the outside, reasons to keep living, to keep hoping. For the other people of the island, she becomes a sort of symbol. Of the things that haven’t been taken from them. That can’t be taken from them. She’s murdered, but even then she isn’t defeated. The birds assert themselves. Their grief. Their power. Their mystery. And it’s just a beautiful story, heavy and wrenching, exploring a time and place that I’ve not really seen or heard about before (thanks, US education system!). It’s heartbreaking and uncomfortable even as it inspires, showing that even in the darkest of places, there can be a spot of magic, and a unquenchable spirit. A wonderful read!
“Down” by Jo Kaplan (2439 words)
No Spoilers: Maribel begins this story in a fairly idyllic place, a university librarian with a husband, both of them with their steady jobs and a nice apartment. It seems happy and secure. Suddenly, though, things start to change. The furniture is rearranged. And her husband suddenly doesn’t have a job or a higher education. More things change, and it seems always for the worse, and the piece shows the suffocating momentum of that, of descent, of going down. The pressure that the world sometimes exerts that makes it seem like rising, like even stopping the plunge, is impossible. It’s an all too familiar feeling, one very much at the heart of many people’s experiences, and it’s captured here in haunting, strange, and chilling detail.
Keywords: Employment, Libraries, Relationships, CW- Abuse, Alternate Realities, Elevators
Review: This is a strange and rather crushing story, one that for me really focuses on the ways things can fall apart, the way that there’s this incredibly downward pressure. One that, gets worse the lower you are. So that sometimes one step down leads to the next, and the next, and the next. For people who are able to rise up out of the gravity, out of the pull of that, it might be okay. They might never really feel it. For those living under its influence, though, there’s often no force stronger in their lives. It becomes this living thing, the jaws waiting to close around them, the grave that gapes in warming invitation. Because so much effort has to be put in the lower and lower you get to try and get out, while at the same time that effort yields smaller and smaller gains. So that Maribel feels this as a sort of blinking plunge, each shift bringing her outside of her affluent comforts and into a place where she is constantly in danger, never safe, never able to rest. And the story captures that so well, the way that people have to live, the way they yearn, the way that after a certain point all they really are is tired. Tired of pushing and pushing and not getting anywhere. Tired of trying so hard only to sink further. Tired of getting further from hope, further from relief, closer only to the finality of darkness and earth. It’s by no means a happy story, but it does a beautiful and chilling job of drawing the trajectory of someone rocked from their perch. Someone realizing that even as they’re falling and think the ground is as far as they can fall, there’s actually a lot further they can go. Without a net, without some sort of help, it’s a nightmare, something that there’s really no recovering from, no braking. And it’s a stunning read!
“Worm Song” by David Naimon (1282 words)
No Spoilers: In this rather poetic and cyclic story, the trees have refrained from leafing. The implications of that are dire, and the consequences of that are sweeping and full of endings. The story unfolds around the trees, their bodies and their decisions and their spirits. There’s a sense I get of mourning while at the same time there is a move to preserve what they can. They grieve for what they’re leaving behind but they’re also not seeking to warn anyone, not seeking to discuss or try to save anyone else. They are moving, they are refusing, they are looking ahead. And it’s a strange, almost dreamlike story of change, endings, and new beginnings.
Keywords: Trees, Change, Roots, Worms, Endings
Review: This isn’t a very easy story to read, as it relies on techniques that require the reader to re-examine and re-examine the story, the cycles. The repetition works into the idea of seasons, years, the timeline of plants, of trees. Slow and revolving, growing outward in rings. And I like how the feeling of the piece for me is that the trees are withdrawing, cutting their losses. It speaks to a kind of loss that’s been going on for a long time, and how they’ve been able to leverage their unique perspective, the way that they see time, to be able to feel that the end is coming. The ends of the mammals and the birds. The end of the surface. The end of just about everything but what’s at the core. So that’s where they go, sending first their roots deeper and deeper and then, when even that fails, their very spirits. It’s an exodus and one that holds some sort of hope for the future. A future where things have recovered from the ravages of what has happened. When the climate has returned to a time when they can once more flourish. And at that point they will grow again. Rejoin with the worms Grow. Until then there is the song. Of mourning, of loss, of hope. The song of the worms, who have slipped away as well. Who are also waiting. Who might be dying. But who might be celebrating as well. The way the cycles of the story move, they shift a bit at the end. Away from endings. Toward that song, toward the prospect that things don’t just get worse and worse. That through that there might be an change for the better. A future. A beginning. And it’s a complex and often difficult read, but very much spending some time with. A fine read!
“Redemption” by Mary Soon Lee (749 words)
No Spoilers: Told in the second person and quite brief, you are a prisoner in this story, though what you’ve done is never revealed. Probably something pretty bad if your sentence is over 800 years. But then, maybe not. The piece works through your daily routine. The food, the work, the moments of art. There is a sense of time here that is wrenching, a sense of repetition that is crushing. The title fo the piece seems to imply that this is done to redeem you, but in some ways it also questions the idea of redemption through punitive measures, through imprisonment. It’s short and carries with it a weight, placing the reader into the position of a prisoner with a lot of time to think but every reason to not want to.
Keywords: Routines, Prisons, Punishments, Gardening, Poetry
Review: It’s an interesting place to put the reader, in the second person perspective of a prisoner serving such a long sentence. In part because I feel that it puts the reader on the defensive, wanting to think that this is unjust, that something about this must be unfair. And indeed the idea of an 800-plus sentence does seem to scream unjust, excessive, etc. That’s a long time, and far outside the realm where most would be able to enforce. Here, though...there does seem to be something that implies the character will indeed live that long. And so maybe the better question is how does one seek to actually reform a being with that kind of a lifespan. Where lesser sentences wouldn’t be easy necessarily, but they also might not be all that much, all things considered. And it brings it back to the title for me. To the idea of redemption. Is there something here that is redeeming? Can a prison sentence really lead to some sort of redemption, can it make up for crimes, can it do anything other than punish the person serving the time? And the answer I think becomes not about the prison, but about what the person is doing there. What you are doing there. The piece features not just bad food and toil, but also art. And I think the art is the more important thing. That maybe what the story is doing is finding something of the redemptive power of art, of books, of the written word. And maybe what part of this was with the time and the toil was to make you ready to really get into the art at the level you needed in order to grow in empathy and compassion. Which I admit is a bit of a leap. The ending has so much power, though, you reduced to ugly crying because of this book. Which might again show how dire this is, how intense the torture, but might also be about you really getting a point where change is possible and desired. It’s hard to tell for sure given the length and uncertainty, but it’s a fascinating story to think about and a lovely read!