SHORTS: Mohamed, Goss, Tyson, Smith

There is so much free or inexpensive short fiction available on the internet these days. Here are a few stories we read this week that we wanted you to know about. 

“Willing” by Premee Mohamed (2017, anthologized in Principia Ponderosa, $3.99 Kindle ebook)

“Willing” is set in a world that has pickup trucks, spaghetti and meatballs, ceramic heaters and gods that walk the earth. Gods demand sacrifices. When the gods help cattle rancher Arnold during a difficult calving season, they soon visit with an “invitation” to Arnold’s youngest child … and everyone knows what that means.

Arnold’s youngest, Clover, is a quiet, strange child, a surprise to her parents. Her next oldest sibling is twenty years older than her. We see her from the early paragraphs of the story and we are captivated by her. She is just old enough to understand the nature of what is being asked of her, just old enough to try to be brave while her parents’ hearts are breaking.

The plot of “Willing” centers around an old cattle ranch technique that may be true or may be folklore. In my childhood I certainly heard of this technique from the local dairy ranchers; none of them had ever used it but they all knew someone who had. The theme of “Willing” is in the title; to what lengths will you go for love? And the language of “Willing” is deep, precise and beautiful, slipping between down-to-earth ranch talk and surreal, frightening beauty.

Although the resolution of “Willing” is completely different from Shirley Jackson’s classic “The Lottery,” there are similarities in the sense of a horrifying thing happening in an everyday world. Premee Mohamed places each homey detail in just the right place: Clover will wear a blue silk dress for her sacrifice; she wants spaghetti and meatballs for her last dinner, but her mom makes eat in her pajamas so she doesn’t stain the dress. Little moments like that, and like the fake-happy voice of the neighbor congratulating them on a visit from the “Those of the Hills and the Green,” make this a realistic world where the every-day is a layer of wallpaper over bone-deep dread.

After reading “Willing” I went to Mohamed’s website (here) because I want to read every short story she’s written. It wasn’t my favorite in the Principia Ponderosa anthology because one other story evoked nostalgia in me (“Lampblack and Dust,” reviewed in last week’s SHORTS column), but I think “Willing” is the best story in the book for the degree to which is achieves what it sets out to ― and for its beauty. Mohamed is a writer to watch. ~Marion Deeds


“Singing of Mount Abora” by Theodora Goss (2006, originally anthologized in Logorrhea: Good Words Make Good Stories, republished 2012 and free at Lightspeed, $3.99 Kindle magazine issue). 2008 World Fantasy Award (short story)

In this award-winning story, Theodora Goss weaves together past and present. The past is an Asian folk tale type of story about a young woman named Kamora, the favorite maiden of the Empress Nasren. Kamora wishes to marry the Cloud Dragon, who turns into a handsome man at night. In return the Cloud Dragon will give his whiskers to Kamora’s uncle Alem Das, a blind instrument-maker, to use as strings for a dulcimer. The Empress, however, refuses to give Kamora permission to marry unless she can find someone who amuses the Empress more than Kamora does.

The present-time part of this story follows Sabra, a student and teaching assistant at a university in Boston. She was born in Ethiopia (once Abyssinia) to a powerful and wealthy man who died in the revolution against the Emperor, and his still-lovely but rather heartless wife.

I insisted on providing for myself, and living in a city that was too cold for her, because it kept me from feeling the enchantment that she threw over everything around her. She was an enchantress without intention, as a spider gathers flies by instinct. One longed to be in her web. In her presence, one could not help loving her, without judgment. And I was proud of my independence, if of nothing else.

Sabra begins a relationship with Michael, her co-TA, who introduces her to Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his evocative poem “Kubla Khan.” But she fears that if her mother ever comes to visit, she will steal Michael away, even though her mother is far older. One day Sabra begins to write a term paper on Coleridge in her ice-cold apartment, and suddenly she finds herself in the cold, stone palace of Kubla Khan, alone … except for Coleridge. They chat, and at his request Sabra picks up a dulcimer and sings for him.

A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.

These two stories are both intriguing: Kamora’s story reads like an authentic fairy tale, and Sabra’s story is brimming with the small, sometimes painful details that make her human and sympathetic. As the two stories to connect together through Coleridge, a woman with a dulcimer, and a name of an empress, I was caught in the enchanting web Goss wove. It’s a lovely work.

I recommend taking a few minutes to read “Kubla Khan” first … and don’t forget the “person from Porlock,” the now-legendary unexpected visitor who interrupted Coleridge’s creative spell while writing “Kubla Khan.” Also, in Goss’ Author Spotlight on Lightspeed, she relates a fun story about how “Singing of Mount Abora” came to be, which involves an anthology of spelling-bee inspired stories, a list of words including “dulcimer,” and a fascination with minor characters in others’ stories. ~Tadiana Jones


“Pip and the Fairies” by Theodora Goss (2005, free at Strange Horizons). 2006 Nebula award nominee (short story)

I went on a bit of a Theodora Goss binge this last week; this story and “Singing of Mount Abora” were my favorites of her works that I read. In “Pip and the Fairies,” Philippa Lawson’s mother was an author who wrote children’s fiction, a series of stories about a little girl named Pip and the fairy characters she met: a green-haired girl named Hyacinth, the Thorn King and the May Queen, and Jack Feather, whom Pip loved. Philippa, who is now a grown woman and an actress, remembers these stories because she loved them so, and because they saved her and her widowed mother from the poverty that was a constant threat.

Her mother never actually called her Pip. It was Pipsqueak, as in, “Go play outside, Pipsqueak. Can’t you see Mommy’s trying to finish this chapter? Mommy’s publisher wants to see something by Friday, and we’re a month behind on the rent.” When they finally moved away from Payton, they were almost a year behind. Her mother sent Mrs. Payne a check from California, from royalties she had received for the after-school special.

After Philippa’s mother died, a documentary was made about her that has revitalized the public’s interest in the Pip stories and in Philippa herself. As Philippa returns to Payton, the town where her mother wrote so many of these stories, she remembers how elements of the Pip stories were inspired by actual events … and, perhaps, how events and characters in the Pip stories found their way into her actual life as well.

This is a gentle, poignant story, a little reminiscent of stories of the real-life Christopher Robin and his mixed emotions of his father’s inclusion of him in his Winnie-the-Pooh stories. The details of a life on the edge of poverty are bittersweet: the lack of lunch money and the constant soup and toast in the Lawson home that morphed into an emphasis on food in the Pip stories, like toadstool omelets or “Jeremy Toad’s cricket cutlets, which neither she nor Hyacinth could bear to eat.” And I think we’d all like to find a door that leads to a fairy land where good companions and magical adventures await. ~Tadiana Jones


“The Hunt” by Salinda Tyson (2017, anthologized in Principia Ponderosa, $3.99 Kindle ebook)

In the interests of disclosure I will start by saying that I’ve been in a writing group with Salinda Tyson for nearly thirty years and she’s a friend. I am not getting any consideration for reviewing her story; if I hadn’t liked it I would not have reviewed it, and anything I say here I would say to her.

Tyson’s short piece abounds with stunning surrealistic imagery cheek-by-jowl with perfectly placed historical details, as an avenging earth spirit conjured up by The Grandmother makes a visit to a train filled with sport hunters planning to shoot American bison on the great plains. The story dips us briefly into the minds of several of the hunters: Frank McCray, the gambler; Randall give-the-beast-a-chance Stevens, who lives for challenge; Lydia Mae Brinkman, known as a “Diana” after the mythical huntress. The Grandmother’s servant, who travels though time as well as space, rides after and overtakes the train, causing a literal change of heart for several of the privileged hunters. From the train, we, through their eyes, see a number of native families scavenging meat from dead animals abandoned by other train-based hunters, cementing the differences between the two cultures.

Tyson’s prose is always gorgeous teetering on strange, as this passage describing the Servant shows:

“… Her spirit horse was made is mesquite bark, spines of saguaro, tumbleweeds, dust devils, rattlesnake skins, and the warm south wind. It skimmed the tall prairie grass, the plains, the mesas and arroyos. The Servant rode bareback, her black and white and sage-green hair streaming behind her like a great serpent rushing through the air.”

As the Servant approaches the train we see her shift and change, and I loved that. I loved the contrast of the “modern” 19th century train with the timelessness of the Servant, and I enjoyed this story, although I didn’t completely understand why some of the human characters, who might have been able to make a difference, suffered the fate they did. I also thought there was a question unanswered about Brinkman and what she did with the bison meat. That’s a nitpick, though. The collision of worldviews was gripping and these dreamlike images stayed with me. ~Marion Deeds


“Come-from-Aways” by Julian Mortimer Smith (2015, originally published in Asimov’s Science Fiction, republished March 2017 and free at Lightspeed Magazine, $3.99 Kindle magazine issue)

In an isolated coastal town, strange alien objects mysteriously appear out of a dense fog and then wash in with the tide. Amongst the dwindling townsfolk, the two main theories are that their area has become an alien dumping ground or that the fog acts as a dimensional bridge/portal, and as spacecraft fly through it pieces break off. The story’s narrator, having just learned the dismaying news that his girlfriend is pregnant, rows out into the fog, and what happens out there ends up having a major impact on his and the town’s future.

Despite its brevity, Smith creates a vivid sense of place — both its physical nature and its sociology — and his word choice and syntax via the narration convey an effective bone-deep feeling of isolation and weary despair. ~Bill Capossere

 


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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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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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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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