"Play" by David J. Schwartz
"Errant Souls" by John Schoffstall
"This is the Train the Queen Rides On" by Becca De La Rosa "Diabolique d’amour" by Scot Peacock
"In Ophelia’s Garden" by Stephanie Parent
"Followed" by Will McIntosh
"Threads" by E. Catharine Tobler
"A Half-Lizard Boy" by Matthew Lee Bain
"A Static of Names" by Peter Bebergal
"The Fabricant of Marvels" by Sarah Micklem
"The Juniper Tree" by Angela Slatter
"Crimson-lady at the Auction, Buying" by Jeanette Westwood
"At Uncle Ogden’s House" by Fred Coppersmith
"A Message from the Welcomer" by Michael Emmons
"Swimming" by Veronica Schanoes
"Errant Souls" by John Schoffstall is a story of a boy ill at ease with his soul. Jorge’s father has told him not to play outside on a windy day, or his soul will blow away, but Jorge does anyway. At first, he feels free. His soul had suffocated him, dragged him down. Soon, however, the novelty of the feeling wears off, and he realizes that without his soul, cold, ponderous thing that it was, he can feel neither joy nor pain, love nor hate, but only a restless boredom that dogs his steps.
Is it better to be joined with a soul you hate, but at least have the feeling to hate it, or to slowly wither away, soulless and empty, until there is nothing left of you at all? Jorge returns to the place where he lost his soul, desperate for life and feeling, but his soul will have none of him. It is as relieved to be rid of him as he is to be rid of it, and prefers to die rather than join with him again. Jorge despairs, but the soul of Ivy Tabi, a girl who rejected her soul and died soon after, offers a solution.
Is it better to lose your own soul and find another, or to make peace with the one you were born with? Through Jorge’s friendship with Ivy’s soul—and the folly of the other children of the village—we learn that the answer may not be as clear as it seems—and it may not be the same for everyone.
Do you believe in trains? Should you believe in trains? In "This is the Train the Queen Rides On," Becca De La Rosa asks that question and answers it in a story that feels loosely-structured and rambling until you read through it several times. Then, it begins to take on a hidden form, still loose, but present. Meaning comes slowly in this story, and only after three or four readings. But the story is still worth reading those three or four times. Woven with surrealist magic, shot through with a twisted dose of reality, and sprinkled with sparkling snow. What should you believe in? And is reality really the realest real you can find? Maybe…or maybe not.
I didn’t enjoy Scot Peacock’s "Diabolique d’amour" as much as I could have. It took too long to figure out what had happened—and what was happening—and the abrupt flashbacks kept jerking me out of the story, making me relocate myself mentally and adjust to the new flow of the story. It’s a story of a young man captivated by a magician’s assistant in a devil’s costume—but is Beatrix woman, devil, or angel?
That question weaves through one change to another, flashback to present and back to flashback, with a different answer every time. Or is it the same answer all along? You’ll have to read the story and answer that for yourself.
Next up, we have "In Ophelia’s Garden" by Stephanie Parent, a story as hauntingly beautiful as the cry of the great horned owl. In a half-whispered, lyrical way, it tells the story of a baker’s daughter out of place with herself and her world, of daydreams and fairy tales that are as lonely and frightening as ice, or as the pull of water, holding you down.
The author has woven together themes of herbs and gardens, young women and old, water and life and death, in a masterful way. Who was Hamlet’s Ophelia? Who might she have been? And how many other girls might have been like her? I’ve read stories where the author twined in references to Shakespeare plays, but normally those stories fall flat because the author’s story can’t compare to Mr. Shakespeare’s, and the comparison is best left unmade. From the quote at the beginning of this story, I was half afraid that this would be one of those. But I was relieved and, I must say, pleasantly surprised. "In Ophelia’s Garden" is a strong story with strong characters and writing good enough to hold up allusions to the Bard himself. A fine piece of work, and well worth the read!
I never thought I would be deeply moved, touched, or encouraged by a story about the undead. But that was before I discovered "Followed" by Will McIntosh. On one level, it’s a zombie story about undead who shuffle after those who deserve their haunting. On another level, it’s a sermon, of sorts, on the importance of being ecologically aware, of not using more than your fair share of resources, of the results our piggish American lifestyles have on people all over the globe. But most of all, at heart, it’s simply a tender story of a man and a child, with an ending that brought tears to my eyes.
Peter is a good man. He drives the most energy-efficient car he can afford. He uses solar power. He has fluorescent light bulbs. He buys locally grown food. Corpses only claim the reckless ones, the resource-guzzlers who take more than their fair share of the world’s resources simply because they can, yet a corpse-child has begun following him. She tracks him everywhere—to the restaurant, to his house, to the college where he teaches—her presence a silent accusation that he hasn’t done enough for the helpless of the world. Or is it?
The end might be predictable for some of you. I didn’t see it coming. But even on second and third readings, it still moved me. Earlier I called it a sermon, of sorts. Not for a second does it fall into preachiness. The writing is beautiful. The characters are deep, real, vibrant. Worth the read, every time.
E. Catharine Tobler‘s "Threads" was another favorite of mine. Among other things, it’s a story of beauty exchanged for beauty created. Sewing is forbidden to Joan. She loves the embroidered designs of the gypsies camped for the winter on her mother’s fields, also forbidden to her. Her mother is a frail, fading woman, forever waiting for a husband away at war, forever governing the household within her rules. And those rules include sewing and embroidery; Joan is not to pick up a needle, not even to wind a ball of forgotten yarn. Drawn to the forbidden, Joan doesn’t realize the price creating beauty will exact—but even if she did, would it be enough to dissuade her?
Most of all, I think, "Threads" is a story of hope. As Joan discovers the delights—and the price—of this new way of creating beauty, she also discovers hope, and life beyond the slate-grey blur of her mother’s home. And, at the end, she discovers something far, far more.
The Table of Contents lists the next story as "A Half-Lizard Boy." But the story itself bears the slightly longer title, "A Half-Lizard Boy, A Reptile Man, and An Unjaded Shiny Something." The second, longer title is almost an entire synopsis of the story, something almost slipstream, almost stream of consciousness, not quite either, and too much of both. It’s a story that sparkles like the jewels, like the Momma, a tender, touching story with writing that is bright and hard, like a jewel. Matthew Lee Bain has written a beautiful piece, but there isn’t much to say about his story that the story doesn’t say about itself. Get it. Read it. See for yourself.
If you want a science fiction story where the emphasis is on the science—in this case, botany and biology—you want "A Static of Names" by Peter Bebergal. Everything has a name for the main character, everything and everyone except the main character himself. And nothing can be understood, nothing can be truly loved, until you know its name. Upon his wife’s death, the main character begins to drown his grief in his work, classifying not only insects and plants, but noises. Every noise has a name, and he hopes that by writing down the names, he can complete his mourning and finally release his wife. But it doesn’t work that way.
"A Static of Names" is a story of a man driven mad by himself, by the project he devises for himself. It’s a story of love and of grief, and an exploration of one of the most powerful themes in literature: our names. What do they mean? What hidden secrets may lie behind them? The main character hopes to find his wife in this static of names, but for the duration of the story, he himself remains nameless. It’s an interesting story, not a bad read, but it pales in comparison with others in the magazine. Not one of my favorites.
"The Fabricant of Marvels" by Sarah Micklem is a bit of flash about Zil, creator of mechanical birds, fabricant of marvels. Told in a rambling, not-unpleasant style, it recounts, like an old friend musing about times gone by, little tidbits about Zil’s marvelous birds, his vanishing memory, and the clever perfection of his work.
Angela Slatter‘s "The Juniper Tree" is a fairytale through and through, from the doting but dimwitted husband, to the wicked and jealous stepmother, to the magic of the juniper tree and its berries. Simah’s father remarries upon her mother’s death, and her new stepmother, predictably enough, becomes jealous of his attentions to Simah—which she feels are a slight to her own daughter, Marlechina. The stepmother finally becomes angry enough to kill Simah, convincing young Marlechina that it is her fault. But the juniper tree begot Simah, and it won’t let her go so quickly.
If you like fairytales, "The Juniper Tree" is cleverly constructed with a few twists that keep it from being like every other fairy tale you’ve ever read. If you don’t like fairy tales, then no amount of twists will convince you to like this story, because it is, unabashedly, a fairytale of a story.
Jeanette Westwood‘s "Crimson-lady at the Auction, Buying" is a strange story. I never quite managed to understand the plot, if there is one, or who the "you" of the story was, but you don’t need to understand the plot to understand the themes running under it: love and longing, hope and fear, and envy.
Fred Coppersmith‘s "At Uncle Ogden’s House" is a fine bit of flash with a fun twist at the ending, almost more of a joke than a story, but fun in spite of that. Uncle Ogden’s house is terribly boring and normal, no matter what Uncle Ogden may have said…well, mostly.
"A Message from the Welcomer" is a fine bit of worldbuilding. Michael Emmons has created a fascinating tribe who calls themselves simply "the Day." He describes, in marvellous detail, the beliefs and customs of the tribe. As a worldbuilding exercise, it does very well. But there simply isn’t a story here.
Of all the stories in the issue, "Swimming" by Veronica Schanoes was my least favorite, most likely because of the blatant vulgarity on the first page, or perhaps because the author used punctuation (or lack thereof) for artistic effect, but the punctuation (or lack thereof) ended up detracting from the effect, rather than heightening it. Yet, in spite of that, it too has a whimsical weirdness to it that grows on you. It’s told in first person, but not for a moment do you believe that the narrator is the main character or the focus of the story. "Swimming" is a story of a house, the house belonging to the narrator’s soon-to-be in-laws, the house which they began building years ago, perhaps even before their son was born, the house which they want the narrator and her soon-to-be husband to share with them. It is a story of her relationship with the house, her hatred and loathing and dread of the house, her determination to destroy the house. And not until the end, the very last page, do we realize that it wasn’t really about the house at all, that all along, it was about the narrator, it was about humanity, it was about us.
"Swimming" was my least favorite of the stories, but it lingered with me long after I first read it. You may not like it, but it’s worth reading, anyway.