Say . . . have you heard this one?

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"The Safety of Thorns," by Craig Laurance Gidney
"Within This Present Time," by Karen M. Roberts
"Constituent Work" by Sandra McDonald
"The Last Bee Tree in Lynchburg County" by Catherine M. Morrison
"Practical Villainy" by Jannie Lee Simner
"The Little Tailor" by Stephanie Burgis
"Paul Bunyan and the Photocopier" by Larry Hammer
"Vision" by Hannah Wolf Bowen
"White Shadows" by Sonya Taaffe

Reading an issue of Say . . .  tends to become a game in which the reader tries to figure out just how the individual stories are related to the theme suggested by the title, and what—if anything—they might have in common. In the case of Say . . .  have you heard this one?, there is no doubt of the answer. It is: Say, have you heard this story? These stories are about stories: stories which are repeated, reworked and recalled from the past—or even from the future.
In keeping with Tangent’s editorial policy, this review will consider only those works in this issue which are narrative prose.

Beginning with "The Safety of Thorns," by Craig Laurance Gidney, recognition immediately strikes the reader. Yes, indeed, I’ve heard that one, I know what story has a briar patch, and a figure made of tar, and a fox and rabbit. At least, recognition struck this reader. I do have to wonder, however, how many younger readers will be familiar with the source. The forces of political correctness have supressed this old tale in recent decades, and Gidney’s story illustrates how such censorship can be a mistake.

Young Israel Jones, a kitchen slave, has been sent one night to fetch a bottle of liquor for his master when he meets the Devil, rising out of the briar patch. [And that is another old tale.] The Devil and his wife are not what Israel first takes them to be. They bestow gifts and grant him the refuge of the briar patch, but they are weak and fading gods, and their power is not enough to save Israel from all the brutality of the plantation slave system. Israel realizes that he must find such power within himself.

The plot of this piece is not so interesting as seeing how Gidney works with the material of the old story, shaping and transforming its elements with the suggestions of an even older mythology. Unfortunately, the reader’s interest is diminished by the solecisms and infelicities in his prose, which include several egregious anachronisms. For one: kudzu, which Gidney uses as a leitmotif in this piece, was not introduced to the American South until the late 19th century. Young Israel on his ante-bellum plantation could not have known of it, and it certainly could not have dominated his landscape as the story suggests.

Any author can make this kind of mistake. But spotting and correcting such errors before the work is sent out into the world in print is the proper job of the copyeditor. It is particularly unfortunate to find them in the first story of the issue, which sets the tone for the whole. Where was the copyeditor?

The next piece, "Within This Present Time," by Karen M. Roberts, does not at first seem to be a variation on any well-known tale, although we are now expecting one, and we search through the text for hints and clues. Here we find Sereela, immature, irresponsible and not quite omnipotent, though ephemeral mortals on Earth have sometimes worshiped her as a god. The mortals fascinate her; she travels through time and space to visit them, an "infantile tourist," meddling with histories, corrupting the timeline, ignoring their protests.  But Sereela is not clever enough to avoid the trap they set for her, which turns out to hold a warning from herself, trapped in the future. This time, she had better listen to the cautionary tale her other self  is telling her.

We have certainly all heard: "You can’t fight City Hall." Sandra McDonald gives us a nice variation in "Constituent Work," where Eleanor works for City Hall, listening to the constituents, their complaints and tales of woe, poor souls trapped in a maze of indifferent bureaucracies. Sometimes there comes a case that only City Hall itself can fix, for it seems that City Hall itself is not entirely indifferent. Would that it were so, outside this story!

"Ain’t nobody works with honey bees who doesn’t get stung at least once." This is not a saying I’ve heard before, but it does sound like a good one to keep in mind, just in case. In Catherine M. Morrison’s story, this line is the capstone of "The Last Bee Tree in Lynchburg County," the tale that Abigail’s family has passed down from one generation to the next: the tale of how the bees came to stay in the old cottonwood tree on their family farm. The bees are biomechanical—part biological and part robot—and like many other robots in science fiction, they turn out to have a mind of their own, more than their creators had intended. This anecdote is related as a joke, but what Morrison has created here is an idyll, where a family’s heritage is handed down from one generation to the next, where there will always be fresh lemonade waiting on the farmhouse porch, where the bees still make honey but never sting.

"Practical Villainy" by Jannie Lee Simner is a quirky fantasy tale that centers on a professional villain—complete with trap-laden castle, killer moat, and man-eating roses—who tempts heroes for fun and profit by imprisoning damsels in distress.  But when he kills a couple of cute little kittens who interfere with his nefarious plans, he earns the ire of his young daughter, who is set to follow in her father’s footsteps, but instead becomes a hero herself.  This is a great little tale that, in a very short space, both pokes fun at and makes good use of the fantasy genre’s most time worn conventions.  This is one of the most original tales I have read in quite a long time.

"The Little Tailor" is another story we have all heard. In this version by Stephanie Burgis, the old tale becomes a model for a man’s life, for his rise from poverty and obscurity to success and prosperity. The fantastic elements are only a thin disguise here; we know that the hero is really Grandfather, that the princess is actually a businessman’s daughter. Like the tailor, Peter Bulgarin [which is not his original name] allowed people to believe he was what he was not. He passed as a hero, as an aristocratic exile. As is fitting for a hero, he won the princess as his bride, and they lived happily ever after—almost. For all the rest of her life, Grandma could never get over the fact that he had lied to her, that his life had been based on lies. Yet we suspect that Grandma might be wrong. For if he had remained in Russia, a poor but honest tailor, Grandma would never have met her prince.

Larry Hammer‘s "Paul Bunyan and the Photocopier" tells the story of what happened when the legendary giant lumberjack, now owner of a publicly traded lumber business, makes copies while his secretary is on vacation.  When the copier jams, Paul decides to make his own.  In order to make a plane of glass for the paper to sit on, Paul decides a frozen lake will do, and makes a lasso out of paper clips in order to drag the edge of a lake to his office in Chicago.  This is how Chicago became a port city.  Paul decides that volcanic ash will make a good substitute for toner, and drags a volcano near, then lassos the sun to use as the bright light that all photocopiers use.  This is a clever, funny tall tale for modern times, and was great fun to read.  It gives a nice nod to the old tall tales, while adding a new one to the genre.

In "Vision" by Hannah Wolf Bowen, Bastian is an artist. Word at the university he left years ago is that he could have been a someone if he’d stuck with it. His old teacher sends a young student to him seeking his own answers.  But Bastian doesn’t have answers, not anymore, wondering now if he ever did.  Some days he knows what makes him happy—his art, pigeons in the park—but mostly he’s searching himself, stumbling with his gift.  Bastian, if he chooses, paints "might-have-been"s with his eyes closed, images that always come true.  And what his compositions tell him is that he will be forsaken by love, left heartbroken and alone.  Should he risk his heart again in a love that he knows is doomed, or love as he can, when he can?  Does being able to predict the future enslave one to it?  "Vision" is a rambling, sleepy story, filled with rich imagery and lush descriptions.

Last up, in "White Shadows," Sonya Taaffe gives us a day in the life of Fetch, a sort of shape-shifting doppelganger who steps in and out of others’ identities, leaving them discarded behind her as she moves on to another. She seems to pick up an identity from the mind of someone who knows that person; for a few moments, she is someone else, she is alive. But the brief encounter always has consequences—not for Fetch herself, but for the person she has doubled. Lives are altered, but Fetch goes on, to the next identity, and to the next.

In this piece, there are no old fairy tales that we have heard before, no stories repeated. There is only Fetch, who follows this pattern from one day to the next; her story varies, but it is always the same. Taaffe’s title, "White Shadows," describes Fetch’s shadow; in her, the colors are turned inside-out. But this reviewer, at least, has heard that one before. Do you remember Coach Reeves? Do you remember Corky? I suspect that these are associations which Taaffe did not intend.

Altogether, Say . . . have you heard this one? is a collection of fiction which rewards the curiosity that the title is intended to evoke in the reader. I look forward to seeing what the editors will come up with next. But I do hope that by the time the sixth Say . . . appears in print, they will have engaged the services of a good copyeditor.

(Reviewed by Lois Tilton except for "Practical Villainy" by Jannie Lee Simner and "Paul Bunyan and the Photocopier" by Larry Hammer which were reviewed by James Palmer and "Vision" by Hannah Wolf Bowen which was reviewed by Eugie Foster.)