It may seem odd that the first description that comes to me for a story set in wartime is “lovely” but the language of this one just flowed over me. It hit my exposition sweet spot in laying out the setting with casual description and character interaction, rather than feeling the need to tell the listener where they are and what’s going on. (But I’ll tell you anyway, so the review makes sense.) Zoya, a Russian fighter pilot in WWII has come down in a rural area behind the front and needs to survive, find shelter, and figure out how to get her plane in the air again, in that order. An encounter in a nearly-deserted village leaves her saddled with a responsibility that threatens those goals, but the seemingly senile old woman isn’t what she seems. A familiarity with Russian folklore will aid the listener in keeping up, given the aforementioned oblique approach to exposition. I loved the casually feminist (or maybe woman-centered is a better term) underlayer of the story that grew organically out of the themes and the historic-folklore roots. (Though now I find myself hungry for a story of “Grandma” and her sisters in their youth–and I wonder how much of that reference is based on the original folklore as opposed to being invention.)
The interplay between gods and their mortal worshippers reminded me a bit of Lord Dunsany’s mythic fiction. What responsibility does a god have for his people? And is it possible for devotion to reflect only love and joy when it’s tied so closely to salvation? I thought the gradually unfolding understanding of the narrator’s identity was cleverly done, though I had to work hard to suspend my need to figure things out and found the first half of the story confusing to follow. I can’t say that this story is one of my favorites–it just missed some of the aspects that make a story click for me. But the originality and the subtle worldbuilding were impressive.
This was a very lightly fantastic piece–the sort where a slight shift in point of view could make it simply imaginative realistic fiction rather than outright fantasy. It builds up gradually following the swimmer Emma Rose and her love affair with the sea and the idea of some day crossing the Channel. The figure that she meets beneath the water might be a mermaid, or it might be a personification of her obsession and self-doubt. We see the protagonist from childhood to early adulthood, working out how to balance her love for swimming with the other things she desires. Learning whether the mermaid is a jealous lover or simply herself. In some ways, I found the story a bit slow. More atmospheric than plot-driven. But the overall shape worked in the end, like a wave building up in the sea and eventually breaking on the shore.
(Originally published 2017 in LampLight.)
I have to confess, this story had me good-crying in my car during the commute. Ghosts aren’t supposed to stick around very long unless they have something very important to do. Wartime creates a lot of ghosts, and our usual definition of heroism doesn’t take into account all the terrible things that desperation or simple need drives people to. All Isa wanted to do was to raise her daughters right and see her husband again when the war was over. Working in the steel mill wasn’t about being a hero, it was about surviving. There was nothing heroic in her death, only in the desperate need that kept her lingering on with a mission to fulfill. I loved the voice and imagery in this story as it pieced together Isa’s past and made me believe that her ghost could inhabit the machinery that killed her. The ending was so perfect and fitting. This is a powerful story about how people survive–one way or another–despite the crushing weight of oppression.
(Originally published 2014 in Shimmer.)
Content warning for animal death. Podcastle managed to schedule “Bullets” for a week when my environment echoed the opening of the story, what with widespread fires in the North Bay and the pall of smoke hanging in the air. “Bullets” opens in the aftermath of a horrific Australian brushfire when the protagonist, Judy, is engaged in the deeply unsettling but morally necessary task of searching out and dispatching livestock and wildlife fatally wounded by the fire. When she comes across the still-living remains of a wild horse she has run out of the titular bullets. Her heartbreaking frustration is interrupted by a wonder. At this point, it’s impossible to talk about any of the significant themes of the story without one small spoiler, though one that happens very early in the story. But if that matters to you, be advised.
The natural world reacts to impossible tragedy with supernatural transformation: the dying wild horse splits open to produce a naked young man whose body retains enough of the fire’s nature that, if not constantly cooled, he will burn whatever he touches or wherever he walks. And, as we learn, he’s not the only one. Throughout the bush, creatures trapped by the fire have transformed into non-verbal humans that hold within them the destructive heat of the fire. But like fire itself, they are neither evil nor malevolent, they simply are. And perhaps in response to Judy’s attempts at mercy, they gather at her farm in a complicated partnership, to rebuild. The fire-children come with technical skills and understanding, despite the lack of direct communication. They fix and build and tinker, moving Judy’s place beyond simple repair to improvement.
This puts Judy in an awkward position relative to her neighbors, who see her luck as a zero-sum game. And someone or something is setting fires everywhere except on her property. Judy has a modus vivendi with the fire-children, but they can’t help burn what they touch. And she wonders.
The story sets up some deep moral problems, not so much for the protagonist who makes the decisions she considers necessary, but for the listener/reader in working out how to frame the nature of the fire-children and so the context of Judy’s actions to determine the genre of the story. Is there a framing by which Judy’s eventual solution is moral? Or has she jumped to a horrific solution to a problem that might have been solved differently? Are the fire-children sentient beings with agency, or are they a type of revenant–a mere emotional echo of the fire’s horror. I’m not exactly sure that I like that the story left these questions unanswered, but it’s a powerful narrative device that I appreciate. I would say that “Bullets” will provoke at least two very different reactions in its audience, depending on how one fills in the story’s unresolved ambiguities.
ETA: (Originally published 2015 in In Sunshine Bright and Darkness Deep: An Anthology of Australian Horror)