What does it mean to be human? Ryan Row’s short story “The Age of Glass” responds to this question perfectly. Is being a human having a soul? Being sentient? Being open with your problems? What about having problems?
“The Age of Glass,” according to the blurb at the top of the story, is a “coming-of-age-during-the-apocalypse tale.” Though the growing up is in the nameless female protagonist’s imagination, we see her trying to make sense of the world around her by attempting to appear more grown up than she actually is.
Form—both of humans and of the enemy Stickmen—is a motif throughout the story. In the first paragraph, the protagonist says that her friend, Tracy, is “shorter than me, and her skeleton is less formed” in comparison to her own, which a boy told her via a note in her locker was “’historic’.” Our protagonist is obsessed—much like the way the blurb before the story’s start said—with form, her own and others. Further into the story, she admires Adam while he smokes. “When he inhales on his cigarette… his chest expands just so in the light. And I imagine this movement of his, this angle, this light, has never been seen before by anyone alive.” She romanticizes war and the way it changes people. Later, she describes a picture hanging on Adam’s wall: “In it, he is smiling in a way I have never seen before. Broadly, revealing his teeth to be a little too large for his mouth. A human perfection in him that I have come to love as his only flaw.”
Our protagonist eschews childish behavior, though she is a child herself and has childish thoughts. This smile on the wall is childish to her. She wants so much to be an adult, like most teens do, that she admires Adam’s adulthood. She describes his smile now as “cool and adult.” She practices her smile in the mirror every morning. Her cool, adult smile with no teeth showing.
When she first happens upon Adam smoking hand rolled cigarettes, they remind her, “embarrassingly” of “tiny tampons.” A little later, Adam’s arrival in Falls City is described using sentence fragments. She sees Adam and can only imagine that this is what she wants.
So, she makes herself appealing to Adam in the way that most teenagers who are attracted to someone do: make themselves attractive. For the protagonist, this is through jogging. She wears shorts that “accent[s] the length and curve of [her] tanned legs” and wearing “brightly colored tank-tops cut low, hugging [her] slim chest and stomach like a finer skin.”
When Adam says he’s been thinking about war and the dreams he has surrounding it, all our protagonist can say is, “cool.” She thinks she understands him, but she doesn’t in the least. I think she wants to understand, but she won’t really get it until she’s in the situation herself.
Glass is another motif in this story. This story is called “The Age of Glass.” When glass is mishandled, it shatters into a million pieces. Glass is beautiful when it is treated with respect. It takes in light; glitters, shines when one moves it around.
The Stickmen’s skin is “polished and geometric, edged.” While our protagonist has not come face-to-face with a Stickman, she has seen videos of them: “I know this from the shaky, soldier taken videos on websites like ‘Save Sentient Species’ and ‘Snuff Before Bed’.” Stickmen have a simple mean of taking out the enemy. From our protagonist: “One clip showed a Stickman reaching toward a group of soldiers, and thin, blue-white beams came from its fingers like tangling marionette strings. The men fell to pieces like dolls.”
In the next paragraph, she describes the Stickmen as “beautiful and misshapen. Almost human… but thin and with random extra joints or protruding nobs of glassy flesh.” They are “faceless, but not headless. Deformed, but alive. Long limbs like bones without flesh. As translucent as moonlight or handmade glass.” Even Stickmen can’t escape her fantasies of war and fighting to save the world.
Stickmen come from the ground, in the Creator Lands, spreading outwards “like a spill and become Crater Lands after they’re sucked dry.”
In the scene where our protagonist is working to reinvent herself, we also meet her mother. Her mother is vulnerable. After the protagonist’s father’s name is added to the list of other people who have went MIA, her mother “move[s] through life as caught in an undertow, struggling against something invisible and all around her.” Her teen daughter, perhaps? It can’t be easy raising a child without a father, MIA or not.
As the story nears the climax, around page seven or so (I printed this story out; it is easier for me to read), the scenes get shorter. When our protagonist learns about Adam, she gets a lot more than she might have wanted.
This story is a bit on the long side (fourteen printed pages), but I enjoyed reading it. Row uses interesting description, and the story feels original to me. Persistent Visions did a good thing by publishing this story. To read this story and others, go to http://www.persistentvisionsmag.com