Short fiction recs! March-April 2022
A list of some beautiful stories that I read in March and April.
Stories of ghosts, revenge, and other haunted things
“Douen” by Suzan Palumbo in The Dark
Meh whole body was wrong. From meh ankles, meh feet was twisted with meh toes pointing behind me. I sit on de grass and try to turn meh right foot around to face de correct way but it wouldn’t go straight. When I walk around de gravestones, meh heels went in front of me but meh feet look backwards.
A little girl wakes to find herself transformed. A little girl wakes to find herself at her own funeral, watching her mother cry as the little girl’s body is buried. A wonderfully creepy ghost story, steeped in Caribbean folklore and voice. It’s tense and darkly atmospheric, but what comes through the most is the rage and grief of a child, the abandonment she feels as she witnesses her family—and most of all, her mother—moving on with life without her.
“Xiao Emo—Little Demon” by Ai Jiang in The Dark
Ér—the character in son—was the eldest. Our parents had high hopes that she would be male. Míng—the character in smart—was the second. If they could not have a son, they wished for a daughter who was at least smart. Míng was not. They named me Měi, beautiful. Since they believed our ancestors wrongfully cursed them with daughters, perhaps a beautiful one would fetch them a high price in the markets. Horses and cattle were of much greater value to farmers. My parents sold both my sisters like animals but passed before they could sell me, too. Ér and Míng were spiteful that I had gotten to live.
“Thirteen Goes to the Festival” by L Chan in The Deadlands
The Festival is a month long, the Gates are open, not just to the Narrow City but all of Dìyù. During that month, the dead roam free, while the living burn paper offerings of food, money, and wealth. The air grows heavy with ash and the heady scent of incense. For the tortured, the lost, and the wandering, the Festival represents respite, freedom from chains and suffering. For those in the Narrow City, with its edifices built out of paper and smoke, it is another night out on the town.
A story of the Chinese Ghost Month, when the gates to the afterlife open and ghosts roam the world of the living. The tale of one ghost, Thirteen, who has spent her afterlife serving her elders in the Cloister of Unloved Aunties. Thirteen has made the trip back to the land of the living before. But something will change on this year’s trip. . . A richly atmospheric tale, with Chan’s characteristic bold flourishes of imagination. But there’s also an emotional delicacy to this tale of a ghost returning home.
“The Bleak Communion of Abandoned Things” by M.A. Blanchard in Pseudopod
The house is as quiet as ever when I get home. I appreciate that my ghost doesn’t go in for clanking chains or moaning. I put the kettle on and hang the chalkboard. Erasing chalk-dust history makes me wonder if a chalkboard is a fair trade for the filth the ghost had used to write its initial warnings, for the voice I stole with my mop.
“I got you a present,” I tell the chilly silence. “In case you had anything else to say.”
As part of a divorce settlement, a woman accepts a house she’s never seen, an isolated property that her ex-wife had “won in a card game and forgot.” The narrator thinks that fixing up this old house might be the perfect retreat for her, a place to hole up for a while and heal. But she quickly finds a ghostly presence in the house. A ghostly presence that at first seems hostile, then friendly, and then perhaps something else again. . . I love the slowly unwinding layers to this story. The way my thoughts toward the house—and toward the narrator’s actions and life—kept shifting. Spookily lovely and brilliant
“Shadows of the Hungry, the Broken, the Transformed” by Izzy Wasserstein in CossMass Infinities
Justine’s shadow watches her. It stands under the lamp post across from her flat, her smoky semblance, flickering and shifting under the gaslight. She’s at her window, tea cooling in her hands. Though the shadow has no eyes, Justine is certain that it stares at her, just as she is certain it is hers. She would know it anywhere.
A gorgeous, moving story about a world where grief is made visible when the grief-stricken lose their shadows. Justine is one of the shadowless, a stigmatized group; she lost her shadow when her partner Zara was killed in a riot. Justine is also a heartweaver, one of the few who can create art with threads woven of their own essence. But in her grief, Justine has been unable to weave and is in danger of losing her place as a doctoral candidate in heartweaving at her university. During the course of this story, however, she meets others who are shadowless; she connects to a cause greater than herself, and she begins to awake to the injustices in her society and the truth of who was behind Zara’s death. A beautiful, intricately woven story of grief, art, power, connection, community, and courage.
“Too Little, Too Little, Too Much” by John Wiswell in Cossmass Infinities
The flood comes over Lark. The anticipation of the pain, and the dread that he’ll burn the building down—and this time they’ll be trapped inside—and the scary images of the kittens, unable to extinguish themselves. Every possible future he imagines makes him sick.
Lark and Brantley are brothers, living with their abusive father. The father targets Brantley for the worst of the abuse. But Brantley has recently discovered that if he hurts Lark, Lark will set things on fire with his mind. “You found what you do,” Brantley says when Lark sets his fires. And when Brantley hurts Lark to force him to start more fires and Lark protests, Brantley says, “I do what I do and it makes you do what you do.” An absolutely harrowing, horrific tale of abuse and of pain that perpetuates itself—of one abused child abusing another. Wiswell’s spare, tense prose intensifies the horror of what’s not said, of what’s not graphically described. Yet in the end, there’s a hint of hope, too. A painful but extraordinary read.
Flash tales of immigration, diaspora, and memories
The following are both flash pieces by writers with ties to Ukraine. Their stories are timely, and are also timeless tales of immigration and diaspora.
“Borscht” by Anatoly Belilovsky in Daily Science Fiction
"I can't eat that," she tries to say in Russian, but what she catches as it teeters at the tip of her tongue is: "Throw out this shit!" She switches to English at the last moment. "I can't eat that," she says. English is great for declarative sentences, having the color and the flavor of a glass of cold tap water, its words clink at the surface like ice cubes.
A moving story of trauma, language, and family. Of what’s left behind, of how trauma can color memory, food, and even an entire language. An intense and powerful flash piece.
“Things We Leave Behind” by Alex Shvartsman in Daily Science Fiction
We came from the country that no longer exists, on an airline that is now defunct.
A beautifully written story about a library that may or may not be magical, about what we owe our communities and about finding new community. About what is left behind, and what can be built anew.
“How to Make a Man Love You” by Hannah Yang in Fantasy Magazine
He associates Cecilia with liminal spaces, in-between places, like the sunbaked line of sand between the sea and the road, or the illegible scrawl of time between waking and dreaming. Something about Cecilia always makes Zayyan feel like she is too good to be true, and the only response he knows is to hold on tighter.
Zavyan fell in love with Cecilia at first sight. At least, that’s the story he tells himself. They have a magical, storybook romance. A magical, storybook marriage and life. He brushes off the little moments that suggest otherwise. Until one day when a doubt takes root that can’t be brushed aside. . . A quiet, delicate story about fantasy and truth, about the illusions that love weaves, about how truth and fantasy can be entwined, and whether truth is worth the sacrifice of happiness.
“Goblin Market Auction Catalog” by Katrina Smith in Uncharted Magazine
Once when you were eleven and afraid and the world a place you could not bear to fit, all angles and bright light against the clumsy bruised quiet of yourself, you held a penny as tightly as you would ever hold on to anything.
A lost and motherless girl makes a wish, throws a penny down a wishing well, and summons the boy of her dreams from the sea. A gorgeous story told in absolutely beautiful prose. A tale of grief, music, love and a Faerie bargain.
“Small Offerings for a Small God” by Virginia Mohlere in Luna Station Quarterly
“I can pray, if you like,” Danit said. “What’s your name?”
The godling’s black eyes seemed to take up a greater proportion of the blob that made up their face.
“I don’t know,” they said. “It’s been too long.”
A deceptively quiet story of a cursed soldier and the godling she encounters. A story of evil and consequences, of faith and small offerings. I love the moral and emotional complexity of this story, its refusal of easy answers or resolution.
“An Expression of Silence” by Beth Goder in Clarkesworld
She tears into the nectarine, not caring that the rest of the crew is watching from the spaceship, recording this historic moment for their archives. She feels not like an astronaut lightyears from Earth, but like a wild thing, lost in this last taste of home.
She will meet the sentient beings of Ekara C like this, with juice running down her chin, in her worn jogging pants. If she’s going to die, she wants to be comfortable.
A lovely story of First Contact. It’s filled with miscommunication, as the human astronaut Riley and the being called Yyfal struggle to understand one another. But it’s also filled with wonder and joy—the joy of exploration, of roaming the cosmos, of learning and connection.
“An Urge to Create Honey” by Marty Cahill in Clarkesworld
You stand in the airlock, wondering when they’re going to let you come back home.
Generations of war between two space-faring species. Generations of misunderstanding, of mutual incomprehension. Until one injured human is taken and healed by the alien species, taken into the alien hive and irreversibly modified. Now this human may be a bridge between cultures, a pathway to peace—if he can only draw upon his new abilities appropriately. And if his former crewmates—his human friends and colleagues—can accept him. A brilliant, beautiful story that made me tear up at the end. A story of hope and change and healing, of courage and community.
“The Law of Take” by Isabel Canas in GigaNotoSaurus
Take was the law of orphans like her, and take she had: power, money, safety. Born with none of these, she would build herself into a fortress that could not be felled, her armor impenetrable, her safety secure.
An epic story of airships and empire, of political intrigue and dangerous romance. A story about a brilliantly scheming, ruthlessly ambitious woman who claws her way from nothing to the very heights of power. But along the way, she comes to realize that perhaps she’s not quite who she thought she was.
“Three Songs to Fill Up the Shadow” by Spencer Ellsworth in Beneath Ceaseless Skies
It was shadows-eve, the coldest, longest night of the year, when the blackbird breathes all over the world. He’d made two trips across that day, in in a current so wide and misted that the sharpest-eyed steamboat pilot couldn’t read it, each pole-stroke like stirring Death’s dinner. Now at last, the ferryman jammed his hat down low on his head, his thoughts on a corn-cake, hot buttermilk and a fire.
The ferryman is headed home when, one after the other, three mysterious passengers beg for passage across the river. A soldier, a healer, and a preacher. They carry a magic golden fiddle with them, and are pursued. During the dangerous crossing, the ferryman asks for stories of the fiddle to pass the time, and so a lush and magical tale unfolds. A tale about a wise trickster woman named Laila, the golden fiddle she plays, and how she repeatedly cheats Death himself. This is a story about the power of stories, and of how the beauty of story and song is enough to move even Death. I love the way this story circles back on itself, the sleight-of-hand it plays (it’s a trickster of a story, just like its main character!) I love the richness and beauty of this tale, the wonderful world-building, the rhythms of myth. It’s still early in the year, but I’m predicting that this piece will be among the top stories of the year.
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