SFM: Santos, Palwick, El-Mohtar, Lechler

Short Fiction Monday: Our weekly exploration of free and inexpensive short fiction available on the internet. Here are a few stories we read this week that we wanted you to know about. 

“In the Shade of the Pixie Tree” by Rodello Santos (March 2017, free at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 99c Kindle magazine issue)

On a sunny springtime day, 14 year old Bekka, the apprentice of a wicker witch, has been sent to the pixie-orchard to pick some new pixies for the witch (the “unripe ones still on the trees, not those flitting to and fro with the wind”). On her way to the orchard she’s stopped by Joakem, a village youth who tags along with her on her errand. Clearly he likes Bekka, and she likes him too, though she acts dismissive.

Suddenly the scene changes to a dark storm, with rain pouring down on a dead Joakem in Bekka’s arms. With Bekka’s dying breath, she attempts to cast an unknown spell. And so the story shifts back and forth in time, converging to a critical middle point.

The youthful characters in this story are appealing: Bekka with her pride in her work and Joakem with his cheerful chatter and occasional teasing that leads the pair into trouble. The vivid descriptions of the pixies growing on the tree branches are enchanting, as is the nature of the unseen wicker witch.

No one else knew the wicker witch was literally as her name described. Behind the illusion of humanity was a creature of reeds, stalks, cane, and vine; alive only through magic. The pixies that Bekka picked were trained to weave whatever wicker limbs might fray or unravel.

The weather, the section titles and the way they shift across the page (reflecting the non-linear timeline of the story), and the gradual reveal of the nature of the pair’s distress and Bekka’s reaction to it, make this short story delightful to unpack. I do wonder, in the end, about the price Bekka has paid. ~Tadiana Jones


Remote Presence by Susan Palwick (April 2017, free at Lightspeed, $3.99 Kindle magazine issue)

Winston (Win) is an overworked chaplain at a hospital where both administrators and staff are in a state of panic about a looming Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO) inspection. Before the JCAHO inspection next day, Winston’s superiors tell him, he has to get rid of the ghost that’s currently inhabiting one of the hospital’s telepresence units, used by doctors to remotely communicate with and diagnose patients (“we can’t have a ghost wandering the halls in a telepresence unit. That’s a valuable piece of hardware”).

The ghost is question is one Maisie Plymouth, age 89, who recently died in the hospital of a stroke. In general, very few spirits are inclined to hang around hospitals after they die. But Maisie craved human contact and socialization, and she didn’t get much of it at the nursing home where she was living at the time of her death. So when Win suggests to her spirit that she move into the telepresence unit so he can better communicate with her (and to get her out of the ER room she was haunting), Maisie’s delighted to find that she can now use the unit to motor herself around the hospital and chat with various patients. In fact, she’s doing some patients a lot of good. Win’s bosses are sympathetic but insistent: Revenants in the hospital are against the rules. Maisie has to be exorcised.

Susan Palwick is an English professor who has spent ten years providing spiritual care as a volunteer in a local emergency room (in fact, she is planning to shift careers and become a medical social worker). Her intimate knowledge of hospitals, caregivers and patients shines through in Remote Presence. The presence and matter-of-fact acceptance of spirits and the afterlife in this story is both touching and humorous. Win, a minister who has doubts about his faith, is a good-hearted and sincere man. This puts him in a difficult position when the demands of his job conflict with his sympathy and care for people ― both living and dead. This novelette is a poignant and effective story, brimming with compassion for people in all walks of life. ~Tadiana Jones


“Seasons of Glass and Iron” by Amal El-Mohtar (2016, originally published in The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales, reprinted and free online at Uncanny, $3.99 Kindle magazine issue; £3.26 UK magazine issue). 2017 Hugo award nominee (short story)

Several of my favourite short-story writers grace the Hugo nominee list this year, and I was particularly pleased to see Amal El-Mohtar up there too. “Seasons of Glass and Iron” has all the delicate imagery that I enjoyed in El-Mohtar’s collection “The Honey Month.” Here we find “sleek-fingered rain” “needled light” and “frosted grass.” The story is also a blend of fairy-tale motifs, female friendship and feminism.

Alternating paragraphs tell the stories of Tabitha and Amira: Tabitha, doomed to walk the world in iron shoes that twist and deform her feet, and Amira, frozen atop a glass hill with only the geese and a golden apple for company. The two tales are combined when Tabitha and Amira meet. What follows is a friendship that allows the women to gradually reveal their stories and their pain. The feminism here is overt ― these are two oppressed women, learning to overcome their servitude.

Perhaps, she thinks, what’s strange is the shoes women are made to wear: shoes of glass; shoes of paper; shoes of iron heated red–hot; shoes to dance to death in.

Like all of Amal El-Mohtar’s work, what stands out in “Seasons of Glass and Iron” is her deployment of language. Somehow she makes reading a silky experience, each sentence a sensory pleasure. The inventiveness behind the magic is also delightful, combining familiar tropes with her own ideas. In particular, the contrast between Tabitha’s pain and the beauty of the world around her is cleverly done. The reader cannot forget the searing, nagging pain beneath the pretty exterior ― and that’s the point.

The first half of the story is the most compelling. By the second half I had a good idea of what was going to happen, and indeed it did. Once the women fully reveal themselves the pace drops off. Nevertheless, “Seasons of Glass and Iron” is a very worthy nominee and a beautiful, poignant story. ~Katie Burton


“The Hulder’s Husband Says Don’t” by Kate Lechler (April 2017, free at Fireside Fiction)

I am folding out our mother’s cloak over the passenger seat headrest, admiring its rich green against the beige polyester upholstery, the carved bone clasps glinting in the streetlight, when he stops me.

From that painterly opening sentence, Kate Lechler foreshadows the conflict, or one of them, in her short story “The Hulder’s Husband Says Don’t” from Fireside Fiction. There is magic from the forest and nature, the hulder’s home ― and there is beige polyester.

A hulder is a figure from Scandinavian folklore, a nature spirit that takes the form of a woman, often beautiful. From behind she can look hollowed out, like a dead tree, and she has a cow’s tail. This hulder met a human hunter in the woods. He could not speak her language so he began to teach her his. The hulder loved him and when he asked her to come to his home, she agreed. Here she learned more words: words like “subdivision” and “stucco” and her husband’s most frequently used word, “Don’t.”

Kate’s story is so poetic and compressed that I think to remove a single word would weaken it. The voice of the main character trembles with yearning and melancholy, growing more melancholy as she realizes that while her husband loved the magic of her in the forest, there is no place for magic in his life. And yet his own words are like spells, poisoning her slowly:

He calls me clumsy after I knock a drink in his lap, and suddenly I drop everything; pens, stacks of letters, a wristwatch he bought me so I could learn to tell time.

“The Hulder’s Husband Says Don’t” flows with perfect pacing to an ending that is startling but not a surprise, delivered as surely and as gently as that exquisite opening sentence. We don’t give ratings to stories by reviewers or former reviewers, so I will just tell you that I loved this story so much I put a link to it on my Facebook page. ~Marion Deeds


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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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KATIE BURTON, who joined us in September 2015, is a solicitor in London and now an aspiring journalist. She was lucky enough to be showered with books as a child and from the moment she had The Hobbit read to her as a bedtime story was hooked on all things other-worldy. Katie believes that characters are always best when they are believable and complex (even when they aren’t human) and is a sucker for a tortured soul or a loveable rogue. She loves all things magical and the more fairies, goblins and mystical creatures the better. Her personal blog is Nothing if Not a Hypocrite.

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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One comment

  1. Kate’s story is truly amazing.

    Also, one of these days I need to get my hands on a copy of The Starlit Wood, because I’ve heard fantastic things about the stories in it. Thanks for reminding me, Katie!

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