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“An Indefinite Number of Birds” by Kurt Hunt (1523 words)
No Spoilers: Stanley is in a relationship with JD, but something about him doesn’t really allow him to trust it. To relax. When JD says he loves Stanley as much as all the birds in the sky, what might have been a romantic gesture turns into a kind of obsession. One where Stanley’s moods and his self-worth is tied to how many birds are out. In the autumn and winter, that means…not a whole lot. But JD plans for a vacation, a chance for them to get away and leave their worries and maybe work on their relationship. To a place that’s supposed to be a birdwatcher heaven. The piece is tense with anxiety, with worry, with fear. With a sense of inevitable tragedy. But it manages to find some hope all the same, some magic that helps Stanley see what’s right in front of him.
Keywords: Birds, Love, Relationships, Anxiety, Vacations, Queer MC
Review: I love how this story deals so much with fear and self-doubt. With Stanley’s own need for reassurance, his own distrust that love JD professes for him is genuine. And it’s something that’s easy to relate to for those who find it difficult to believe they’re worthy of love, of happiness. Stanley internalizes a whole lot, and in that he literalizes what JD says in order to undermine it, in order not to find proof for that’s true, not to find comfort in it, but to tear it down, to disprove it. And it’s such a wrenching thing because for JD it doesn’t occur to him that this is all because of something he just sort of says off the cuff. For him, his love is genuine, and so when he goes to make plans for their vacation and he picks a birding location, that seems like it's being supportive of Stanley’s new hobby. And I like, in an uncomfortable way, how that ends up being this blow to Stanley, like it’s somehow mocking him, because for him it’s not exactly something he likes doing. He doesn’t look at birds for the joy of it, and most of the time it’s not a positive experience for him. He’s doing it out of anxiety, probably out of trauma, because he can’t understand why someone would love him. And it’s tearing their relationship apart, because he is effectively sabotaging it, assuming that JD’s love is dependent on something like how many birds are in the sky in view at that very moment. When that’s a really bad way of interpreting JD’s declaration. The story is built well around that fear and anxiety and trauma, and I really like where it goes, how it still manages to find some magic, and brings Stanley to where he can see beyond the literal words JD said and to the truth and love beneath them A wonderful read!
“If These Walls Whispered What Would We Hear?” by Aynjel Kaye (735 words)
No Spoilers: The narrator of this story starts as a young child having their first sleepover with their friend, Robin. It’s a fraught thing, because the narrator has had other people over who have not respected the rules of the house. Its fears. And so in turn who have not respected the narrator and their needs. Robin seems different, though, and when it turns out that she understands what the house needs, what the narrator needs, the too become close. And the story is kind of heartbreaking, even as it’s heartwarming, because for all the relationship between the narrator and Robin is amazing, passionate, safe, and affirming, it also doesn’t seem like something that can really last. The piece is short but reveals this very deep and complicated relationship between the narrator and Robin, and between both of them and the house the narrator lives in.
Keywords: Sleepovers, Houses, Fear, Queer MC
Review: This story has a lot going for it for being so short. It’s hot and sweet, tragic and uplifting. It reveals these two characters who get each other, and who find in each other a person who understands them, who loves them, who helps them grow up and understand what love and respect are. And yet they are also people who seem to different paths, going different directions, and that’s so hard, so difficult to watch, because I at least want so much for them to be able to be together, to be happy together. And that doesn’t seem possible, at least at this point. And maybe that’s the hope the story opens up at the end, that these two are linked in ways that time isn’t going to manage to undo. That even if they are apart of a while, they will find their ways back to each other, to their house. But it’s also possible that for these characters, they have been what the other needed. And now they need other things. And as much as it’s painful, as much as I don’t personally want it to be the case, maybe now they need to be apart. To go their separate ways. To find fulfillment with other people, or on their own. To live their lives. They’re still young, yes, and there is still a lot of time for them to find their ways back to each other, but it’s also entirely possible that this does mark an end. And it might too sort of point to the fact that at some point the narrator will have to face what the world outside might be like. That what they and the house has is great, but also keeping them isolated. In any event, it’s a story that I feel punches above its weight. It’s got a great focus on this trifold relationship, and leaves it to the reader what might be the future for them, and what it all might mean. It’s a beautiful read!
“Umami” by Anya Ow (4576 words)
No Spoilers: Yun San is a chef of the highest order, perhaps the greatest in all the empire. And she’s been pulled out of her kitchen and into an unknown wild by Jin, a fushi who is tired of her people being eaten as food bringing good luck. Jin offers Yun San a sort of bargain. Get it so people stop hunting and cooking fushi, and she’ll grant the chef a wish. Yun San complicates matters a bit by first asking Jin for something a bit…delicate. Fushi meat freely given to experiment with, so that Yun San knows what she’s up against. What follows is a complicated narrative that finds Yun San and Jin having to find some way, however strange or underhanded, to get people to stop eating fushi. Not by appealing to their morals, exactly. But by appealing to their greed and their hunger.
Keywords: Cooking, Mythical Creatures, Bargains, Endangered Species
Review: I like how the story recognizes the many ways that endangered species aren’t always helped by some conservation methods. That there’s no amount of bans that will stop people from wanting and pursuing certain things if they think there’s value there. Luck to be squeezed out. The fushi are not the first mythical species to be driven to extinction, and Yun San has to get creative to find a way to convince people that it’s not worth it to still catch, kill, and eat them. A job that’s made more difficult by the fact that fushi are…well, delicious. Nothing else tastes quite the same. There might be no luck associated with them, but that doesn’t change that Yun San really can’t seem to find a way to produce a dish that’s better than those made with fushi. So she does something else. She makes a dish that’s better than those made with fushi…using fushi. Finding that using fushi meat freely given is more delicious than that taken against their will. And that gives her some leverage. And perhaps a chance to change the narrative around eating fushi. After all, it’s mostly societal change that might save creatures who are endangered. And so Yun San attacks the base of the greed for fushi meat. The idea that they’re magically lucky. Along with some wheeling and dealing with the Emperor, it’s possible that she’ll find a way forward, one that will potentially spare the fushi from being completely destroyed, though it might also mean they have to change how they live, where they live. It’s a story that understands that these things are complicated, and sometimes there is no good answer given the depths of human greed. But sometimes that can be turned to avoid tragedy, as much as it so often causes It. Plus, cooking fantasy stories are just great, and this is a wonderful example of one. A great read!
“Tiny House Living” by Kristiana Willsey (1402 words)
No Spoilers: Jude is a woman who finds herself finding some measure of happiness in downsizing. In living small. Giving up possessions. Concentrating on what she can control. Only, as her situation becomes less and less under her control, as she loses more and more, she has to give up more space. More comfort. Has to try and find happiness with less and less. Which she tries to do. But there’s only so much she can lose. Only so much she can cut from her life. The piece for me looks at the ways that there’s a difference between wanting to live simply and having to make do with less because the system doesn’t let you have more. It’s a piece that has almost a fairy tale feel to it, but one with a crushing grimness that grows out of the cheery quest to spark joy.
Keywords: Housing, Employment, Finances, Mentalities, Space
Review: I like how this story sort of shows the trap of minimalist living. In that, when there are ways for people to take up less space, to have to live with less and less, people will try and make them do just that in order to exploit them. What might have been a positive choice becomes something much different and worse when it’s not a choice at all. When people like Jude have to frame it as a good thing, an opportunity, because if they can’t do that then all they have is the weight of all they can’t do. Can’t find a good job, can’t have nice things, are left with less and less they can actually have control over, even their own body, forced to cut away more and more until there’s nothing left. Until, in fact, they are ground into the system, becoming only a source of their own further exploitation. It’s how the gig economy, how freelancing, how the erosion of labor rights have led to a situation where people are earning so far under the cost of living that all they can do is slowly drown. Slowly enough that on the way down people are still making money off them. It’s a story for me of the cost of income inequality, the way that “living simple” is sold to people who are being cut off from the older ideas of prosperity and upward mobility. That instead of having to give people opportunities to have space and live, they are being sold the idea that they are better off with less. Even when they like having more, are happier when they get things like beds and kitchens. When they can do more than sleep and work on and on and on. The piece looks at impossibility of this situation, of these situations, because there’s really no way out of the spiral down, no way to climb back up without a lot of help, which isn’t what’s being offered. It’s a difficult, devastating story about the termination of that arc, and it’s difficult to read, for all that it’s also a powerful and fine read!
“Things Might Be Different If We All Lived Underwater” by Kerry C. Byrne
This piece speaks to me of, well, speaking. Being heard. Having to conform to the ways of one world when feeling firmly entrenched in another. Yearning to be of the world where you heart resides, separated from there by the tortures of having to pass through the world forced on you. Here, the yearned for world is underwater, the narrator desiring to be able to speak underwater, their words becoming bubbles, their bubbles rising, silent but no less expressive. They want to be a platypus mermaid and gotta say, yes to that. The strangeness, the quasi alien nature of the platypus, which exists in a kind of mashed together between. Misunderstood but also self-assured, needing no understanding from others except that others not interfere, not attack or invade. And that’s where the yearning seems strongest to me, that the narrator wasn’t so badly to live sort of on their own terms. Not needing to use the language, the communication of the land. To be able to slip beneath the water and find no difficulty saying what they want to say, of being understood by those they need to be understood by. And I like that there’s this call from the narrator, this kind of invitation. A promise in any sense that if the person they are speaking toward needed help, wanted to come under the water too, that they would be there to make that transition easier. Something that people don’t seem to be extending to them and their struggle with the language of the land. And I just like the way that it builds that space, that underwater world, as being more for them, a reversal of things like the Little Mermaid or maybe in line with it, where communication and speech are easier under the sea. And it’s a lovely read, and definitely worth spending some time with!
“softening, come morning” by Hal Y. Zhang
This piece seems to me to revolve around earth. Soil. Ground. The narrator is near to it, not rooted yet but perhaps like a plant waiting to be planted. Or a person, recognizing that they’re still alive but that some day they might become a part of the earth, the ground, the humus that constitutes the organic material in the soil. There is a…a waiting that I feel sort of moves through the work, that is captured by the title, that is unsaid but present throughout. That waiting, for the morning, for the time in the soil. Not exactly a yearning, maybe, because for the living that means a yearning for being in the ground. But I mean there is a certain…inevitability there, too, and a certain amount maybe of finding beauty and meaning in the transformation, in the change. In the earth. The soil. The cycle of life and death that plays out again and again. The poem ends on the idea of patience. That, whatever happens, the earth can wait. Will wait. That it’s always there, a companion and a lover, ready to embrace in the end, to take in. The piece for me speak to that, finding something promising in that, and maybe on some level wanting that sooner than later. Because maybe the utility of it, the magic of it, can loom larger than the day in day out mundane-ness of existence. Of living in the state we do. Of having to go to work or deal with bills or anxiety. There is a bit of brutal simplicity in the earth and soil. A breaking down of all the worries and fears of the flesh and a become of potential. Nutrients. Sustenance for something, be it bud or tree. And I just like how that comes together, on the borders of something grim but also plugged into the wonder and magic of the natural world. A great read!