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"Salt Wine" by Peter S. Beagle
"Watch Dog" by Hannah Wolf Bowen
"Susano’s Comb" by Jeannette Westwood
"Manuel and the Magic Fox" by Ekaterina Sedia
"The Dawn Walker" by Marly Youmans
"Boy on a Bicycle" by M. A. Thomas
"The Green House" by Sandra McDonald
"There Is No Rice Pudding in the Sea" by Anna Tambour
"Trees, Like Candles, Dripping Wax" by Resa Nelson
"Fortunate Brave" by Leslie Claire Walker
"Hungry Ghosts" by M. A. Palmer
"Black-Eyed Moon" by Darby Harn
The first story in this issue, "Salt Wine" by Peter Beagle, is about the life and fortunes of Henry Lee as told by his fellow sailor and longtime friend, Ben Hazeltine. While Ben and Henry are marooned on a deserted island, Henry takes it into his head to rescue a merrow, the uglier male version of a mermaid. The reward for saving a merrow is the creature’s most prized possession, which for this merrow is the recipe for salt wine.
As you can probably guess, salt wine is more than just a refreshing drink, and the production of it ends up putting the two sailors at odds. It’s a sad tale that tackles ethics, friendship, and love. The prose is flawless, which should be no surprise considering Beagle is a master of the genre.
"Watch Dog" by Hannah Wolf Bowen is the type of story that literary critics (including myself), will love. Bowen flexes her muscles as a writer, using a staccato style of narration that embodies the sense of fractured and failing emotions suffered by Theo, the antagonist. Theo has lost Dicey, his best friend, his lover, his life. Dicey inexplicably disappeared, leaving only her pet robot dog, Trey, behind.
The metaphorical parallel of Trey and Theo works. Trey is programmed to only respond to Dicey’s commands and remains quiet, unmoving from the front porch of the house. Theo finds himself as paralyzed as Trey without Dicey. He wanders from scene to scene, dreamlike and detached. The story culminates with an emotional denouement that will have dog-lovers and fans of short fiction left in wonderment.
"Susano’s Comb" by Jeannette Westwood is a modern retelling of the Shinto story of Susano’s fight with a dragon that has devoured seven of the eight daughters of an elderly couple. Susano is the god of storms and the sea and brother to Amaterasu, goddess of the sun.
Instead of focusing on the actual fight—which is more of a trick than a battle— Westwood gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the complicated relationship between Susano and Amaterasu. It also allows a peek into the final surviving daughter’s feelings regarding her new husband. Though this story works on its own, it is greatly enhanced by some knowledge of the source material, especially regarding the traditional version of Susano and Amaterasu’s dealings with each other.
Ekaterina Sedia offers "Manuel and the Magic Fox," an effective mixture of Japanese and Native American myth. In the beginning, Manuel Lainez feeds a hungry fox while on his way home from visiting his uncle on the Navajo reservation. When Manuel gets home, he finds that his mother has suffered a stroke. A few days later, his still ailing mother sends him to school. When he comes back, he finds that the mysterious girl, Tomiko, has been taking care of his mother while he has been gone.
Sedia uses the parallel between the trickster kitsune of Japanese mythology and Coyote, the Native American trickster god to strongly ground the tale in reality. It is plausible that one of the kitsune would be in the desert due to the proximity of the internment camp. There is also a deeper parallel between the imprisonment of the Japanese Americans in the camp and the forcible removal of the Navajo Nation from the Colorado Plateau to Bosque Redondo in the 1860s.
Though the story’s ending seems to peter out a bit, the sympathy between not only the two characters but their cultures more than makes up for it.
Marly Youmans has a knack for writing the sea so vividly that the reader can almost taste the salt air. In "The Dawn Walker" this is certainly the case. After a storm, Ariel stays home with her baby brother while her parents go out and walk the beach. While they are gone, a freak wave rolls in that kills them and traps Ariel and the baby.
The story jumps back and forth in time with Ariel remembering her imprisonment by the sea or dreaming about it. Youmans’ gorgeous imagery is a nice counterpoint to the simplicity of the underlying message—which seems to be, "live all the way to the very end."
"Boy On A Bicycle" by M. A. Thomas is, hands down, the creepiest story I have read in quite some time. Due to the recent death of his father, Javi must spend his nights alone while his mother works her second job. She has set him a list of rituals to keep himself safe from the monster he thinks of as the neck-toothed thing, a creature that his mother has told him is responsible for the murder of his father.
Suspense builds gradually; mostly through the progressing strangeness of the rituals that are an unsettling mixture of Catholicism and folk tradition. By the time Javi hears noises behind the door, we are shivering right along with him. Many times, the end of a story this frightening can be a bit of a let down, but Thomas leaves us with suspicions that are far worse than the monster. An excellent story.
In "The Green House" by Sandra McDonald, the ghost of Seth Hawthorn’s Aunt Hazel Ann begins haunting him after he sees his mother’s childhood home being torn down. Not your average ghost, Hazel Ann cleans Seth’s house and adopts stray ghost animals. She sets him on the path to discover who his father really is, and on the way he learns to accept himself.
"The Green House" is satisfyingly normal in its depiction of Seth’s life with the ghosts of his aunt, a dog, and a seagull. McDonald does a remarkable job at illustrating Seth’s almost casual repression of his own sexuality. The end is sweet in a way that is refreshing, instead of cloying, and left me crossing my fingers for Seth’s future.
"There Is No Rice Pudding In the Sea" by Anna Tambour is the story of an itinerant man who is also a wizard. He converses with a motionless black cat that asks to be the wizard’s staff, then turns out to be a young boy.
Though beautifully written, the story takes the form of a lunatic’s ravings—which is appropriate, but a little difficult to follow. The wizard is a compelling enough character, and the prose so smooth, that the story holds together through the sheer strength of Tambour’s writing.
Cathy, the main character in Resa Nelson‘s story "Trees, Like Candles, Dripping Wax," looks out her window one morning to see that the trees are melting. She soon discovers that she is the only person who sees it and begins to suspect that she is going insane.
"Trees, Like Candles, Dripping Wax" seems a little less polished than the other stories in the issue, though there are several passages that are nothing short of brilliant. As a high school senior, Cathy ‘s secondary problems seem a little teenaged-angst-ridden to be interesting. Her family can’t pay for college, nobody listens to her, only the nerdy boy likes her. This gets counterbalanced by an honest portrayal of high school social politics. I was especially impressed that Nelson shows how strongly Cathy is tempted to partake in the cruelty of the popular kids in order to fit in.
All in all, the story was a little uneven, but with enough good to make me keep an eye out for Nelson’s next story.
"Fortunate Brave" by Leslie Claire Walker deals with the ramifications of raising the dead. The narrator’s father is revivified—at the request of her grandfather—so he can serve his country for a second time. The narrator is angry at how it affects her mother and plans revenge against the neighbor who performed the reanimation.
Unfortunately, toward the middle of the story, the focus changes from the father to the grandfather and it’s unclear who, exactly, has been brought back from the dead. The tone of the story seems uneven. It starts with a bit of window-shopping—complete with brand name dropping—that implies a less serious tale, then grew darker without much transition. The concept of using deceased war heroes to fight a current war isn’t a new one, but Walker’s take on it is fresh.
"Hungry Ghosts" by M. A. Palmer relates Malcolm’s existence after his death. He wanders through the city where he spent his life, occasionally dropping in on his wife and young son. The other ghosts, who are constantly trying to fill the void left by the absence of life, marvel at Malcolm’s ability to control his hunger.
Palmer’s version of the afterlife is a particularly grim one. There is a sort of resigned hopelessness in the ghosts’ existence. Their attempts to experience even the smallest tastes of life meet with constant failure. They keep trying, not through hope, but because they fear that if they stop they will disappear. All puns aside, the story is haunting, and the end offers the tiniest glimmer of, if not hope, a break from despair.
"Black-Eyed Moon" by Darby Harn is the story of a pair of teenagers who take a road trip to see a piece of asteroid that fell to Earth after crashing into the Moon. Kat, a fifteen-year-old girl, is dying and she wants to hold a piece of a star in her hand. Danny, her best friend, loves her and would do anything she asks.
The speculative element is slight, but this story is a fairy tale just the same. Danny is Kat’s Prince Charming and he sets out to find her the Moon. The story is beautiful and terrible. Like "Hungry Ghosts," "Black-Eyed Moon" suggests that you should take what you can get because there is no guarantee of a happily ever after.