Short fiction recs! January-February 2022

 

Late as usual, but here are some stories I loved in January and February of this year.  


Things of the sea and water

“False Gills” by M.A. Blanchard in Uncharted Magazine

I want to be real,” I say, though she didn’t ask. “I want to be like you, an unreal thing more true than real things know how to be. I want to be myself and nothing else. I want to breathe underwater and gnaw on the bones of people who think that they can own me.”


Oh, this dark story of desire and rage. A story that starts off in sunlight and domestic bliss. Two women in love live happily in a fairytale forest cottage, filling their days with mushroom hunting, baking, pickling, cleaning, homemaking. . .until one of the women is seduced by an undine who lives in a well. I love the shifts in this story, how we come to realize that what we thought was domestic bliss wasn’t at all; how our view changes of Lorna, the woman whom the narrator loves. It’s a wonderful, weird, atmospheric and shifting piece of cottagecore horror.  

 

“The Night the River Meets the Sky” by Lina Rather in Fireside

The river’s goddess stretched out her arms, embracing the air she only touched once a year, and then she looked down at the woman sitting in the dirt. “Hello, Mom.”

 

A lovely and heartbreaking flash story about sacrifice—a sacrifice which was not freely chosen, and which cannot be undone. About the grief left behind, and about complicity as well.

 

“Not a Basking Shark” by Hesper Leveret in Fireside

The wild coast of Cornwall in the middle of winter, when the rain somehow falls horizontally, and me. A coast made of endless rocky coves, and beaches which exist only at low tide. In between are the headlands where the rockpools form, each one a tiny temporary ocean unto itself, an ecosystem of miniature crabs, sea anemones, shrimps, and darting fish.

 

A marine biologist alone on the Cornwall coast, investigating “uncorroborated sightings of unusual sea creatures.” The biologist assumes that these sightings are probably just basking sharks. The biologist is wrong. I love the twists and turns in this short piece—how the narrative suggests one thing and then goes off in an entirely different direction at the end. A story that’s evocative, surprising, and most satisfying in a most ominous way.

 

"Every Quivering Fold of Flesh" Jennifer R. Donohue in The Future Fire.

And it didn’t decompose. And the sea birds didn’t pick at it with their sharp beaks. The crabs didn’t tear ragged bits from its underbelly with their claws. The flies didn’t come. The town talked about hauling it off, or blowing it up, but everybody had seen that unfortunate internet video, and so council members argued themselves in circles that would last for months. The thing stayed on the beach.

 

Another piece of true darkness from the sea. A wonderfully weird and creepy piece. It’s about adolescence—the confusion and wildness of it—and it’s about mystery and the unknown. It’s a marvelously unsettling piece that will make you think twice about poking at that mysterious blob you’ve found washed up on the beach.

 

Stories of death and beyond

“The Aftertastes” by Daria Lavelle in The Deadlands (note that this story was published in 2021)

Being a culinarian, he understands food, the way the raw ingredients feel in his palms, the slippery glide of uncooked chicken or shrimp, the earthy grit of an unpeeled potato, the anointing power of fat, of extra virgin or schmaltz or butter. He also understands how food can change, how service and setting and ambiance can transform what you eat, elevate or debase it. He understands that sometimes it’s not the food you’re relishing when you think back on a meal, but the company, the event, the moment that seems too big and beautiful to believe, and the food is just there, a happenstance you popped into your mouth at the right time to manufacture a memory.


In the Afterlife, there is one way by which the dead may return to the world of the living to say one last goodbye. It’s through following a taste memory from their lives, and in the great Food Hall of the Afterlife countless souls go from stall to stall, searching for a remembered taste potent enough to work. All fail, for it’s a rigged game, a false hope, until the Chef arrives.

An absolutely wonderful, evocative story about food. About how the meals of our lives anchor us, how they’re memory and love and life, and of how the best meals are about much more than food.


“Grievances of a Young Midwife” by Lacey Yong in The Deadlands

Now I want

him, pale and refined as the crisp Western collar circling his neck. The firstborn son of wealthy farmers, returned to the village with a head full of barbarous medicine.


This piece was published as poetry in The Deadlands, but it’s a complete narrative story as well. A poetically dark, harrowing tale of an orphan midwife who dares to fall in love above her station, of the horrific reaction from the village women, and of vengeance from death’s realm.

 

“The Pennyfeathers Rise Again” by L. Chan in The Dark

William Pennyfeather was years dead, opened up from thigh to chin by something in the haunted underground of Holborn Station. Until an hour ago, this had been the most traumatic experience of his existence.

 

Some years ago L. Chan introduced us to the ghost-busting brothers Pennyfeather in “The Last Epic PubCrawl of the Brothers Pennyfeather.”  One of the brothers unfortunately died during the course of a job, but that doesn’t stop them from continuing their work in putting unquiet spirits to rest. Now Chan gives us a follow-up story as the brothers ride again, caught up in new peril and mystery, exorcising demons both external and internal. A delightfully creepy romp through a haunted London, lit with Chan’s dazzlingly inventive and dark imagination.

 

More stories of darkness and fantasy and flight

“In the Beginning of Me, I Was a Bird” by Maria Dong in Lightspeed

Birds don’t last. Their hearts beat so fast, the seeds burn them out. We didn’t know that yet—the sky had only just split open, the almost-microscopic seeds floating down on thorn-tipped maple wings to drill their way into whatever they landed on. Sometimes it was soil, or water, or concrete—but often, it was flesh.

 

Maria Dong writes the most mind-bending stories, and this latest is a prime example. Alien seeds fall from the sky, and once they burrow into human flesh a clock starts ticking: the body’s original consciousness only has a limited time in which to jump to another body, and then jump again, and again. A dizzying strange alien apocalypse story, where two consciousnesses find each other and jump bodies together, entwining their existence with one another. Weird, lovely, and just plain cool. A story that asks: What is the self, when self can jump from body to body, from cat to bird to dolphin and more? What is a self that's shared?

 

“Cowgirl and Laundry Boy” by Celeste Chen in Waxwing Literary Journal

When Cowgirl opens her eyes, she doesn’t remember the magpies, nor does she see them lingchi the sky, each tail a hilt, each wing a blade.

 

A flash tale that’s an absolutely gorgeous retelling of the Chinese legend of the Cowherder and Weaver Girl, set in Gold Rush-era America.

 

“To People Who’d Never Known Good” by Thomas Ha in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

It was typical of a Sap to try to resemble something symbolic for the people it was taking from—creatures from folklore, or, if it felt bold, the vague echo of a deity, though that could always go sideways depending on the stability of the culture. 

 

A tense, moving, and layered science-fiction fantasy adventure. A boy and his mother roam from planet to planet, hunting down and eliminating Saps—cruel and cunning life forms that prey upon the neural matter of humans, and eventually destroy a planet’s ecosystem and resources, as well. The mother is trying her best to teach her son all she knows, giving him more responsibility. But both run into more than they anticipated when they encounter the Sap called Prospect Pig. This is a story about hope and hopelessness, about people caught up in vast webs of exploitation, about how just a small bit of seeming good can be used to trap prey. And it’s about sacrifice and family and what a mother and son will do for each other.

 

“The Summer Castle” by Ray Nayler Nightmare Magazine

Coherence is a construct, never occurring in the moment. A moving river cannot reflect clearly. So it is with the motion of life: Only in later stillness do we see the shapes of things thrown out upon the surface. The inverted, clutching fingers of the trees. The enormity of sky.

 

It’s World War I, but a group of young children remain innocent, enjoying summer vacations at their grandfather’s castle and exploring its many mysteries. Even in this seeming idyll, however, the darkness of the war, and perhaps a darkness beyond that, haunts the edges of their world. A strange, haunting, and enigmatic tale about memory, innocence, and war, told in lyrical and evocative prose.

 

“To Embody a Wildfire Starting” by Iona Datt Sharma in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

When she reaches the bottom of the slope, she hits lift speed, the point at which it’s no longer possible to stay earthbound even if she wanted to, and rises. She turns head over tail in mid-air, narrowly clearing the tree line below, and straightens out. Tishrel can see the moment she discards her humanity completely, letting instinct take over. Everything she needs to know about maintaining speed, altitude, vector, is within her body, in the flex and extension of her muscles. Tishrel closes his eyes at the sight of it, taken apart by a grief that will never leave him, and by the knowledge that he is still a creature of fire and depth and sky, and that that, too, will never leave him. From somewhere deep inside him, a voice says: you are a thing Divine-made, and you shall embody a wildfire starting.

 

A story of dragons. A story of revolution and counter-revolution, of a mother and child, of surviving and accepting terrible loss. I love the layered complexity to this, the quiet heartache. Gorgeous.

 

Some older stories from 2021

Award season is coming around in the speculative fiction genre world, and I’ve been catching up on older stories that I’ve missed. Here are some published in 2021 that I loved (I strongly recommend all three for awards).

 

“Proof by Induction” by José Pablo Iriarte in Uncanny Magazine

The Coda allows you to interact with a simulacrum of your father, with his memories and personality at the end of his life.” 

 

Paulie’s father has just died. But with Coda he can interact with a perfect simulacrum of his father. And with this simulacrum, perhaps he can continue to work with his father on mathematical proof for a famous hypothesis—a proof which, if solved, would rock the mathematics field and gain Paulie instant fame (and tenure). And perhaps, also, the approval from his father which he was never able to gain in life. A moving story about academia, mathematics, death, and the strained relationship between a father and grown son. A quietly painful and emotionally honest story which hit me hard.

 

"Clouds in a Clear Blue Sky” by Matt Dovey in Podcastle

How to say anything that wouldn’t sound like summat we’d copied off our mams? ‘He’d’ve been proud for everyone in the factory to see you with him, and proud to show you round and have you see where he did his work, and everyone always said he was the best at cloudmaking, a real artist, you could always tell when your dad was on shift cos the sunsets looked like bloody magic’? Colin knew all that, and he’d know we meant it, but saying it out loud would sound stupid.

 

A quiet, lovely story about friendship and community. Colin has just lost his father, known as the best cloudmaker at the local factory. Colin has never even been inside the factory, never got a chance to see his father at work. After the funeral his friends seek to comfort him outside the local pub while their fathers drink within. The boys hit on the idea of breaking into the cloud factory to show Colin around and release one—just one!—cloud in honor of Colin’s father. I love the delicate manner in which boys’—and men’s—friendships are depicted here, the strong affection and care beneath the diffidence and seeming reserve. And I love the way an entire community comes together in support of a boy and his father.

 

“Submergence” by Arula Ratnakar in Clarkesworld

Now I’m back in the reality I inhabit. Me, Nithya, not her. But now scents and sights and sounds around me are bringing up old memories that are not mine, of a carpet in a house I’d never been to, of a beach in a country I’ve never visited. Ghostly fragments of thought are invading my reality constantly, of laughter and voices and experiences with strangers and friends and family I have never known. 

 

In a world of devastating climate change, new plagues have emerged from nature, and the cure for one plague may be in a newly discovered species of deep-sea sponges. When Noor, a marine biologist who studied those sponges, dies under mysterious circumstances, an investigator named Nithya volunteers to receive the biologist’s optogenetically recorded memories to help solve the mystery of her last days and death. But living with Noor’s memories changes Nithya in ways she doesn’t expect. A brilliant science fiction tale that weaves together so many themes and aspects of real-world science. A future world that has weight and depth. A story that twists and turns, raising hard and tricky questions of ethics as well as of human identity. And at the heart of the story is the growing relationship between Nithya, who is living Noor’s memories, and Irene, the woman who Noor once loved.  

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