Beneath Ceaseless Skies #75, August 11, 2011

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Beneath Ceaseless Skies #75, August 11, 2011

“My Father’s Wounds” by Ferrett Steinmetz
“Bone Diamond” by Michael John Grist

Reviewed by Sherry Decker

“My Father’s Wounds” by Ferrett Steinmetz

Falasta is an apprentice blacksmith, taught by her father. Blacksmiths are also healers, and it is time for Falasta to acquire the healing arts.  She must pass a harsh test, keeping her father alive and healing him from a mortal wound inflicted by her. Falasta is hesitant and filled with doubt while her father has “the giddy anticipation of a boy going to a picnic.”

This is a story of faith more than of magic or the occult. Falasta’s father is convinced she has the gift but she remembers when she tried to save soldiers’ lives on the battlefield and failed. Her father is leading her to the Anvil, a boulder in the middle of a cold glade, all the while attempting to encourage her and to appear confident himself. He describes how his hands trembled when he stabbed his own mother, so many years earlier during this same test. He lowers himself backward on the Anvil and bares his stomach.  “Go on,” he says.

It’s a test within a test, and not anything Falasta expected. The outcome is nothing she could have imagined.

This is where the story slows down when it needed to accelerate. Falasta remembers the soldiers and her failure. She contemplates her current situation and is angry at her father for forcing her to participate in this gruesome healing test.

Faith is not something one achieves. Faith is a gift, the same as healing is a gift. Falasta is in agony. Afraid. Desperate. Heartbroken, Falasta begs the goddess, Aelana, “Let him live?”

There is a line in the story, regarding how a painful memory can “catch in our throats like a fish bone (and) a speck of doubt blocks a miracle.”  But human doubt is also what drives us to our knees and forces us to ask instead of to demand a miracle.

Entertaining story. It’s unfortunate that it’s pitted with common adverbs like gravely, eminently, suspiciously, bitterly and helplessly. Even so, it’s a good tale ─ believable characters, strong descriptions and enough action to keep the eye scrambling down the page. I enjoyed it.

“Bone Diamond” by Michael John Grist

This is a story about greed, pride, terror and insanity. It’s the tale of a jeweler who finds an enormous yellow diamond lodged in the clavicle of a Nile river crocodile in ancient Egypt.

There is no clue at the beginning to warn the reader, but make no mistake ─ this is a horror story. The jeweler suffers guilt and grief over the death of his sister, Allory, to “the pestilence.” The sad thing is, there was a cure and the jeweler made desperate attempts to purchase even one stalk of safram, but didn’t have enough seinu for the precious plant. Every day his grief and guilt grow.

The jeweler is offered six hundred seinu by the Pharaoh’s man, Ktolemy. The exchange is made, but this is a precursor to disaster and the jewelry polisher knows it. Soon, he is kneeling at the foot of the Pharaoh himself, the living Sun God, who asks where such an amazing diamond was found. The polisher tells all and claims to know, out of sheer terror, where to find more. He makes promises he knows he cannot keep.

His fear drives him to extremes. He questions the crocodile meat merchant, threatening tortures too horrible to contemplate. He learns of the crocodile farmer “south of Saqqara” ─ a man named Bes who was once a slave and bears the scars to prove it. The polisher hires a barge, tracks down Bes and finds many more diamonds imbedded in the clavicles of the farmed crocodiles. Bes’ crocodiles have been fed the meat of ibex. The ibex have eaten the safram plant all their lives.

Soon, the polisher has thousands of acres of safram and herds feeding on the safram, and from the clavicle of each and every animal, he harvests a diamond, but none so great as the first one.  More and more desperate because time is running out, he grows as cruel and demanding as the Pharaoh and his man, Ktolemy. The jeweler is ashamed of his actions, especially when he remembers his sister, Allory. She would disapprove his cruelty.

By now his grief and desperation have distorted his mind. He believes his sister is alive and waiting to be rescued from the Pharaoh’s tortures. He realizes the most valuable diamond, the largest, brightest and most dazzling is buried where no one suspects.

The dark insanity in this story develops out of greed and terror and self-loathing, until all healthy logic in one person is destroyed. Human life becomes as expendable as filthy Nile water.

A very satisfying ending, and except for an occasional, jarring adverb, the writing is strong.