Short fiction recs! Sept--October 2021
It’s Thanksgiving holiday in America as I write this; snow is falling past my window, pies are on the table, and dinner will be ready soon. A quiet meal for just me and my husband and children. There is much to be thankful for, always. I hope that you, whoever you may be reading this, also has much to celebrate and be thankful for. Good stories are always worth celebrating, of course, and I am always thankful for them. Here are twelve that I read in September and October.
“How to Find Yourself in a Fairy Tale” by A.C. Wise in Daily Science Fiction
Find clothes suitable for a fairy tale child. Stitch them from frost and leaves. Procure the skin of a donkey, or a barrel driven with rusty nails. If your child would be clothed in silver and gold, they will need to wish beneath a tree grown from your murdered bones. Plan accordingly.
It’s the beginning of many a classic fairy tale: a person (nearly always a woman) desperate for a child. Willing to do whatever it takes, whether that be a deal with a witch or some other terrible bargain. In Wise’s flash story, this classic beginning takes dark and twisted turns, invoking a number of fairy tales along the way. Gorgeously, terribly, darkly magical.
"Hold Your Breath" by K.C. Mead-Brewer in Uncharted Magazine
Toe-curling things happen down at The Lake House. Sex, of course, and howling and injuries and a couple of disappearances, drownings, and once a kid hanged himself from the loft banister and another time a handful of teenagers tore out of there claiming that the walls had started bleeding, and no, they weren’t high, why would you even ask that.
Mead-Brewer has a wonderful way of playing with classic horror tropes, investing them with freshness and depth. In this story, two teenage girls, Tessa and April, have come to the Lake House with the intention of sleeping together for the first time. Once there, however, April becomes uneasy. She feels something calling to her from the lake. . . A wonderfully spooky, atmospheric story that’s also a poignant meditation on identity and belonging, on yearning to be accepted (especially by oneself) and whole.
“Still Life With Vial of Blood” by Nelly Geraldine Garcia-Rosas in Nightmare
There is something about Juan Cavendra’s art that makes me want to close my eyes. The same something that forces me to keep them open in order to grasp a slight portion of the vastness that is every single piece of his artistic production. A something I cannot label with a single word, and have not been able to name despite years of close study of Cavendra’s work.
I love stories that play with form, and this flash story is a superb example. One story is told, calmly, in the main text—a series of descriptions of visual art. A different, much more disturbing, story unfolds in the footnotes. One of the creepiest things I’ve read in a while, and remarkably done.
“Where You Left Me” by Thomas Ha in Lightspeed
I could anticipate the movement of the world, how the vapors would form and the dirt would shift from the wind. It’s hard to describe to someone who’s never had plasma before, but for a brief second, it’s like you see the ghost of possibilities all at once, until they intertwine and focus, and you’re left with the curve of the most probable path, the one you’re almost certain is going to unfold. Just like you always know where to put your mitt when I throw you the ball, you know? When I have plasma, I’m ready for whatever comes at me.
A stunning story where colonists on a distant moon battle skyworms, both sides armed with precognition. But for the human colonists, the precognition (obtained through a substance called “plasma”) comes at a heavy price. A grimly intense, heartbreaking story about exploitation at multiple levels, and a father’s desperate love for his child.
“Eating Bitterness” in The Dark by Hannah Yang
Every evening we tie Mama down.
It’s my job to fold a clean rag for her to bite on, so she won’t hurt her tongue. Three folds, hot dog style. Now that I’m thirteen Baba even lets me place it between her teeth. Ray, four years younger, is too little to do anything except watch, but he wouldn’t want to help anyway. He still thinks only girls should bother with this stuff.
A story where girls grow up to be women who eat bitterness—who grow second mouths to literally ingest the dark moods and thoughts of their families. Who literally take on others’ pain as their own. The narrator is a girl on the cusp of womanhood—of growing her own second mouth and taking on this burden, this duty. The narrator wants this, because in her world it’s a sign of being an adult woman, of growing up. Even as she sees what it’s doing to her own mother. . . A ferociously dark, sharp, and bitter story, that’s also moving in its depiction of the complicated relationship between mothers and daughters.
“What Remains to Wake” by Jordan Taylor in The Deadlands
Spiders’ webs stitch shut her lips. Dirt weights her eyelids. Her hair has long turned to mold and leaves. The forest shifts around her, cycling through the seasons. She thaws. She freezes.
A dreamily gorgeous fairy tale of a cursed princess bride. A magical tale that twists and turns before coming to a most satisfying conclusion.
“Invisible Motels” by Jeremy Packert Burke in The Deadlands
At the Acheron Motel, all lost things are returned to you. When you check in, the staff do not take your bags. They meet you in your room with a dozen handcarts, stacked high with cardboard boxes, and arrange them on the floor, the bed, the dresser. There is no space to unpack, to lie down. If you want to get any rest at the Acheron Motel, you will have to make decisions about what to keep and what to leave behind.
A gorgeously strange and surreal piece. The narrator traverses an apocalyptic landscape toward their lover, staying in a series of strange hotels along the way. On Twitter, the author has described this piece as “ever wish Invisible Cities was more trans and about motels at the end of the world? boy do I have news for you.” There’s a spirit of Italo Calvino in this story indeed, but the voice is also distinctly the author’s own.
“Saint Natalis of the Wolves” by Emory Noakes in Daily Science FIction
When the wolves roll into town, I'm sitting in Saturday catechism listening to Father Bradley explain how sex is like Scotch tape--when thoughtlessly pressed onto too many flannel shirts, it won't stick anymore when it counts. But I've heard this talk before. The sudden roll and pop of skateboards in the church parking lot is more exciting.
I steal a look towards the windows, watch as they weave between parked cars. There's something about the way they whoop and howl for each other that fills me with longing.
A wonderful, rapturous flash tale of a young person recognizing and finding kinship in a pack of wolves. . . and realizing and becoming what they truly are.
“One Coin, Under Earth” by Jessica Yang in Translunar Travelers Lounge
As the train soared up to cloud level, other transport lines zipped by, crisscrossing the sky with a metallic flash. At night, you could look up from ground level and see the transport lines all lit up and twinkling, like constellations brought down to earth.
After graduation, Jinye had spent countless hours staring up at the night sky. She’d noodled around for months, half-heartedly applying to jobs and researching grad school programs fit for a classics nerd. Deadlines had slipped by, one after the other, as quick as the transport lines overhead.
A story about sky cities, the Heavenly Dragon Express Line Limited, ancient gods, and a burned out college graduate. A gentle, sweet story of magic and connection, comfort and healing.
“Fanspell: Flowers in Spring (RobYung, NSFW)” by Anya Ow in Lightspeed
Moonsworn Robyn Lee Weiming, Sunsworn Seo Byung-Jae. Both of them handsome and charismatic and seen together just often enough in Exhibition broadcasts to be shipped. The RobYung fandom already spawns lovingly crafted stories and art about lives that they could have lived together, so why shouldn’t it also spawn lovingly crafted magic that they could have made together? Fanmagic’s usually harmless, though—I should know. It’s how I learned and practiced magic.
A magical take on fanart/fanwriting and contemporary fandom. It’s about shipping pop-magical idols, and it’s also about young women learning magic on their own, together, outside the magical mainstream. I laughed aloud several times, and also winced in recognition as the story captures the toxic parts of contemporary fandom as well as the delightful parts. This is a clever story that’s fun, delightful, and ultimately poignant. (Also, check out the author spotlight—I heartily agree with Anya Ow’s recommendation for the Chinese television show wuxia drama, Word of Honor/Shan He Ling!)
“Six Fictions About Unicorns” by Rachael K. Jones in Uncanny
No one likes being a grown woman with a unicorn. Unicorns are needy and expensive, and they never let you forget them, not for a moment. Your unicorn gets separation anxiety if you leave her home. She won’t even stay put at the stable you’ve paid to board her. It takes her fifteen minutes flat to jump the stall, kick down the door, and bolt for the highway shoulder. That leads to near misses with motorists and awkward questions from animal control.
There are unexpected aspects to having a unicorn. There are consequences. But while it can be tough, there are also joys you can’t imagine. A gorgeous and moving story about a lifelong bond between a girl and her unicorn. A beautiful story about magic and hope and dreams.
A fact about girls and unicorns: one is a wild, magical thing. The other is becoming one.
“Small Monsters” by E. Lily Yu at Tor Magazine
The small monster unstuck each gluey eye and saw the ruby scales of its parent, whose side heaved with long and labored breaths. The birthing of monsters is hungry work, a labor of a week or more. And as the small monster looked upon the world, still damp from birth, its parent lowered its great golden beak and bit off a tender limb.
This is one of the most painful things I’ve ever read, absolutely heartrending. And yet in the end, it is also beautiful, hopeful, and healing. A story about parental abuse and a harsh, terrible world of monsters. But it’s also a story in which a small monster grows and survives and does eventually find true friendship, art, and beauty. A story that acknowledges that terrible things happen, and that one cannot undo the trauma one’s survived. . . but that survival, and a life beyond mere survival, is possible.