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A Wreckful Planting of Small Pockets of Thirst

I run out of ways to keep you urgent in my mouth,

stomach your shouting relic.

so, when grief comes for an unburial unearthing you into the forgotten,

I stuff you under my tongue.

 

how I’ve learnt to carry you across borders,

across turnpikes & racial diss.

across the panting roadblocks,

where we exist loudly as exclamations below a cop’s knee,

or viscous ransack that gets close but doesn’t claim my throat.

 

the near miss—a hurt we alone can voice.

 

I scale you across walls, unpronounced.

pawn all my sound rates at eager cost, to house your absence.

the mold of your breath: a memory of all the things we run out of.

till I approach the wild reserve of oxygen & grim soil yawning to mouth you

whose hunger surrounds a place, kill its aura

knowing an opening isn’t reception.

 

you go by the names of every fattened contraband,

nurtured by my silence,

plump with a knowing of all I’ve held back.

 

I genuflect, teeth heavy into dust

to sow your person in a sullied language.

I drown your absence deep in the carnivorous mud:

a wreckful planting of small pockets of thirst.

 

the sky—grief hefty.

wrathful cherubs, laced in giant heaps of puffed cloud.

each turn, a weeping threat.

 

I howl into wetness till the ground goes soft,

loamy with my passing breath & the trail of your absence I indent with shrubs.

each thicket, a bleed and scything remark scribbled in furious red

across the tiny mouths of the world

 

as I hold you urgent, behind clenched lips.

a sharp susurration tilling its underbrush.

 

how likely we assume dust,

by which I mean—slit our tongue into sones & decibels.

a throbbing loudness seething from within:

an hour of sobbing gold.

 

(Editors’ Note: “A Wreckful Planting of Small Pockets of Thirst” is read by Matt Peters on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, 45B.)

 

Wax Sealed With a Kiss

“For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity.”

―C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

 

“I love you, and I love you, and I want to find out what that means together.”

―Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone, This Is How You Lose the Time War

 

A letter is a time capsule. A physical doorway to a single moment in time. It is memory personified.

In a past life (only a decade ago) I was a full-time historian. I spent hours sifting through the correspondence of people long dead, and understood their lives through these small glimpses into their shared realities. I would observe through aging paper what it was like to care for one another during wars, during jail sentences, during long distance relationships. John and Abigail Adams wrote one another enough letters to be collected in literal volumes. So did Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning. Correspondence to a loved one is an art form that we had lost, I thought.
Until 2020, and the worldwide pandemic, when I was reminded that the art of the love letter was not lost at all, it was merely a device which was best used in times of longing.

The first letter he ever wrote to me was addressed to “Elsa, sword wielder.” I know this because I’ve kept every letter he sent me, tucked in a letter holder on my desk, and because that memory is photographic, as though my mind knew it was important.

The letter itself came in a cream envelope, addressed in bright green ink which made me think of Virginia Woolf. Even though I’d never seen his handwriting before, I knew the letter had to be from him. Not just because of the form of address (though that made me smile) but because the form of address was so clearly from someone who was fond of me.

He wrote in tiny script that I had to crack out the magnifying glass for, on the back of a card printed from a photo he took of the Writers Rock on Iona. That card is tacked up on my bulletin board, but from time to time I take it down and read the text. It’s not a love letter, but it was so clearly written by someone who understood the references that I would get and found them charming rather than annoying. He understood where I was coming from, which allowed me to unfurl.

In epistolary stories like This is How You Lose the Time War, Sorcery & Cecelia, The Moonstone, and The Screwtape Letters, the audience is left with introspection and the unpacking of experiences by the “writer” to understand the story. Each narrative piece unfurls the motion of the lives that we follow, and we can see that in real lives too.

On December 1st, 2019 my marriage ended. My ex-husband informed me of this fact. I know this because we both made Facebook posts on the same day. Mine was a grownup post, a request for privacy and a version of the story that was for public consumption.

His was a joke about a horse walking into a bar.

Like an epistolary novel, I’ll leave you to make your own conclusions about what that means.

The divorce had been coming for a long time—and like in a story told in letters, the time dilation is intense. I can only rely upon my journals, selfies, and chat records with friends to chart my unhappiness and to understand the context of my memory.

In The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, we get to see into a world that we otherwise wouldn’t get a glimpse of: because of course humans aren’t supposed to know how demons are meant to tempt us. In this Christian text, we are given a view of one human’s path in life, and one demon’s failure to bring him to Hell.

It is very easy to observe failure in epistolary narratives because we have the view of the outsider. As Wormwood fails, the audience knows why because they are in on the ultimate joke: The audience desired his failure (well, a Christian audience anyway, I sort of root for demons generally…)

Letters are confidences. They are private and intimate discourse between individuals, and they are tools for authors (and for people looking at their own lives) to remember and to share truths.

Like how the letters from Barrett Browning betray her chronic illness, or Abigail Adams’s demonstrate the needs of women during the revolution, my own marginalia show the things I tried to hide with the text. My own subtext shows how difficult things had become.

But there are other forms of epistolary narrative. They are harder to pull off in some ways, because when the audience is rooting for failure, they can find it on every page. But when you want us to cheer for the characters in question, when the narrative is less predictable (because what is less predictable than love?) well…the stakes for the writer, reader, and subject change.

“Will you share your life with me for the next ten minutes?” asks the male lead in The Last Five Years during the only duet of the entire musical. Ten minutes can feel very short or very long, depending on who you spend them with. Ten minutes in a doctor’s waiting room? An eternity. Ten minutes sitting quietly with someone you love? The blink of an eye.  Ten minutes as yourself? Priceless.

When you ask someone to share ten minutes with you, it’s an easy ask, it’s the following ten-minute increments that begin to matter.

Shared time becomes an act of choice when viewed through this lens, it’s a gift. Not in the way that you think, we do many things in ten-minute increments through inertia, but this is the deliberate choice to spend time with someone you care about, or spend that time on them that matters.

Ten minutes can be squeezed in after Rosh Hashanah services during the children’s naptime, or for a quick hug between meetings on a day when my divorce negotiations became unbearable. Ten minutes can be found.

Dating in your thirties is an exercise in understanding that every ten minutes that you spend could be spent doing something else. Maybe that seems like an obvious thing to mention, but I think for many people they go about their days not thinking about how time functions for them—as a historian I know that time is different now in the 21st century than it was even a hundred years ago. There is an immediacy to our culture that has taken a blow since the advent of COVID-19.

I have to pick how I spend each of my ten minutes very carefully. I’m a Deafblind woman, I manage my health conditions, a full-time freelance job, and this year I was also managing a divorce. I’m dating a father of two who lives half a city away, with a full-time job and his own writing practice. Plus, it’s 2020. We’ve been living in a world that feels like every five minutes there’s a new crisis, and every ten they’ve multiplied by degrees.

Falling in love through ten minutes, through forty-minute walks after dark in parks, through snatched weeknight dates after the children are in bed, it would all be relatively normal (I suspect) in the Before Times, when busyness was a commonality.

But it was when we started snatching ten-minute increments at our writing desks, lifting fountain pens to stationary paper and sending our thoughts to one another that I think things shifted.

We had been dating for six months when the first letter arrived. Four of those months were in the first lockdown, ten minutes on a park bench watching the stars on a cold April night, twenty minutes in that same park watching surveillance helicopters, a series of flirtations via text message between Zoom calls.

But that first letter reminded me how very much I liked him. It landed in my mailbox on a bright June day in Seattle, while protests raged a few blocks away. Through the summer and into fall and winter the letters continued. Quick paced (though not always quick to arrive, as we both watched our mailboxes, hoping a decaying postal service would come through), both of us using deliberately chosen stationary, theming our ink colors, and finding new forms of address that confused the postal service and felt like a form of flirtation all their own.  Elsa Death Bredon Wimsey, Dame Elsa, Mr. H. Vane, Poirot, Rupert Giles, we borrowed from fiction, from television, from each other’s personal quirks. These letters are precious to me, because they are one of the ways we fell in love.  They gave us extra minutes to share who we were—and sometimes it was almost easier to write down what I felt than to speak to him. I’m a writer, and my best foot is forward with a pen in my hand.

With each letter a little bit more of myself came back, with each literary reference I was able to show my cards, and each time he responded with a reference just as obscure as my own, I felt safe enough to be myself. To be the person I am, and who I had been before my marriage had made me hide inside of a different persona.

With that first letter he inspired me to go rooting through my storage unit to find the stationary I had packed in a box six months earlier in New Jersey, when I was a woman remembering what her own soul felt like again. I hadn’t written a letter in months, I’d barely even cracked my fancy pens out for my bullet journal. The divorce had been hard on me, harder than I’d expected. But even before the divorce I had been made to feel embarrassed by who I was. A woman who loved the feel of a good pen in her hand (why did I need a fancy pen, he would always ask, usually laughing.)

I felt like an Austen heroine, like Lizzie Bennett getting another letter (he even sent me one with her name on it.)

That first letter tripped something over in my mind, I found myself giddy with the idea that I had met an equal. Someone who could trade not just literary references, but snark in equal measure. Who could flirt with gifs until I was put in check mate (a rare occurrence). Who took joy in finding words I did not know, purely because he loved the written word as much as I did.

Like Jonathan and Mina Harker, we were able to close the distance that the pandemic imposed upon us through the written word. Even if we were only a few miles apart, rather than hundreds of miles and countries, the sustenance that our love fed on was the written word.

It’s old fashioned to write love letters, most people in my generation laugh when I say that we’re writing to one another. But letters and communication through distance is not as old fashioned as all that: we see video communication through The Martian, and when I read Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series, I couldn’t help but see us in the encrypted interstellar love letters written by Elma and Nathan.

Yes, we’re in old fashioned times. A first date these days might be going out walking together, keeping an appropriate distance. A curtsy is a more appropriate greeting than a handshake, or a hug. We are in a time of longing. Letters from the past show that people often had to spend time apart, remembering each other through the process of a letter. And every time a new letter with his spidery handwriting appears in my mailbox a smile lights up my face, my heart skips a beat or two, and my pace quickens back to my desk so I can carefully open the letter and see what he had to say this time.

They aren’t always love letters, though there is love in each of them, the careful crafting of each missive written in the snatches of time that we have to spend at our respective writing desks. He has children, I have a busy freelance career that often makes for long days spent thinking. But each time a letter comes, I carry it to my desk and I take a minute to read, even if I won’t be able to reply until much later in the day.

More ten-minute increments spent at our writing desks, more shared moments, though they be asynchronous: a letter read between job interviews, or written between line edit chapters is still a letter, a shared moment.

I carve out ten minutes, then twenty, then 114 ten-minute increments, then 228…we find days, we find hours, we find time.

Those letters are ways to share our time when we can’t be present in each others’ lives in the same way.

Readers access the emotions of characters through letter writing, like in The Handmaid’s Tale, or the love letters of Griffin & Sabine. The intimacy of the letter allows characters to be more direct with their emotions, because a letter is only meant for one reader.

Any person writing a letter today is coping with the reality that the world is forever changed, that the affection they share with someone is built on a foundation of a time that has changed them permanently. That moving forward in a relationship built in 2020 is one that is built out of hardy material. (Not my idea, but his. Shared here because the truth feels important to note.)

Each letter is a piece of time, an archival document of affection at a time when the world feels changed. It is a piece of a person’s soul, or a character’s. It is a plot point—a way to tell the story.

The last letter I wrote him in 2020 will not be the end of our correspondence. If I’m honest, I could see myself writing him letters for the rest of my life. I can see myself picking up a pen and sending him a letter in a year, a year after that, five years after that. I can see myself carefully selecting inks and stationery in ten years.

The letters are a promise of sorts, they’re a space where for a moment we are only thinking of one another in the space of our excessively busy lives.

A letter is timeless. Like Lewis himself says, it touches eternity. It is that moment, that emotion, that feeling, captured by paper and ink and left indelibly in the hands of time.

In fact, letters let us travel through time and through emotion.

I Will Have This Diamond for a Heart

When time was reborn, Sol asked, “Where am I?”

“You’re in the idea,” said Sol.

Now that time existed again, Sol could take a moment before replying. “Which idea?”

“Yours.”

Sol tried to swallow, except they were no longer equipped with any sort of apparatus for swallowing. And the idea of swallowing, divorced from actual swallowing, brought no relief.

“It’s over,” Sol said. “There’s nothing left of me, is there?”

Sounded Sol a little wounded. “You have me.”

“And for that, I am so grateful. Being alone here would be worse than death.”

Consoled was Sol, and added, “And your thoughts. You have your ideas!”

It was hard for Sol not to be bitter. “What good are they here?”

“They’re the only things keeping you alive,” replied Sol, not without gentleness.

“Just like always,” Sol said. And though they had no face to smile with, they could still enjoy the idea of a smile.

When oblivion ruptured and time once more poured out, Sol said, “I can’t see or hear anything.”

“You can’t smell or taste or touch, either,” said Sol.

Sol sniffed. Or, rather, they “sniffed.” They caught no scent, nor even the feeling of air rushing into their nostrils. Nor even the feeling of nostrils.

“Am I dead?” Sol asked.

Snorted Sol, without air or nostrils. There was only the connotation of snorting. “We both know you can do better than ‘dead.’ Such a lunchbox way of thinking about infinity.”

There it was, then. They were at least dead.

There was panic suddenly, and there was anger, and there was the bewildering quiescence that came from having no sense anymore of where their body ended and the rest of reality began.

This is what it feels like to freeze to death Sol thought.

To calm down, regain a little control, Sol grew Socratic and patient and generous, the way they acted when they were tutoring undergraduates during office hours. They could not feel their own skin, but somehow, they could feel ideas growing inside of them, warm and familiar, like soup. So there is an inside to me Sol reasoned.

A new idea arrived instantly, wholesome and hearty, thick as bisque. “Am I ‘spread’?”

“Gorgeous,” said Sol. “Apt and useful. You were once a lot more…concentrated. Now, you’re spreading. Good. We’re getting somewhere.”

Sol thought about this. Thought about spreading. Hated that thought. Tried to resist spreading. Had no clue what it meant to try to resist spreading. How does one stop spreading?

“I don’t want to spread,” Sol said.

“Why not?” asked Sol.

“Because spreading is the opposite of identity.”

Laughed Sol. “Wrong. But a useful kind of wrong. Now we’re getting somewhere.”

“My name is Sol Paz,” Sol said, when time defibrillated them.

“It’s my name, too,” replied Sol.

“I used to joke I had the shortest Spanish name in the world.”

Like a lover who had heard their lover make that same joke too many times before, replied Sol, “Spanish names do tend to be long.”

“Don’t patronize me.”

“I wasn’t. You know I wasn’t.”

Sol sighed. Or rather, they “sighed.” “Yes,” Sol said, “I know. I apologize.”

“No need,” said Sol.

“It’s just that—”

Silence. Time ended. Time was reborn.

Asked Sol, “Are you waiting for me to finish your sentence?”

“Yes,” Sol answered.

“Why?”

“Because if you knew how to finish my sentence, then I would know you were me.”

Laughed Sol. “Are you the sort of person who finishes other people’s sentences for them, Sol Paz?”

Sol laughed, too. “No. I don’t suppose I am, Sol Paz.”

“Then,” said Sol, “it was a faulty test to begin with.”

Sol came to mind again, suddenly, gaspingly. Except there was no air, nor need of it. The only feeling worse than struggling for air is not ever needing air again, not even for one last goodbye breath.

Focus Sol thought.

They cogito ergo summed themselves up into some rough idea of equipoise. Only then did they say to Sol, “There’s not much I can do here, is there?”

“You could try focusing,” said Sol.

“Ha! I was just thinking that,” Sol said. Then they added, “Focusing is good. Focusing is the opposite of spreading.”

“No,” replied Sol.

Sol ignored Sol. “What should I focus on?”

“Perhaps something you love?” answered Sol. “Your papi loves you.”

“Yes,” Sol said. “Papi.”

Sol focused on their papi. Their idea became a smaller idea.

All their senses returned in a cataract of feeling. There was Papi, kneeling on a padded kneeler that had been set up in front of Sol’s casket. He was alone in the chiaroscuro parlor. He looked like a man made of brooms. He wore a suit, black and baggy, so loose it was almost a wind. His cheeks felt damp, especially in the deepest troughs of his wrinkles. His hands clutched one another on the kneeler’s armrest, tied by a rosary.

From inside Papi, Sol could feel the destruction. Papi felt on the inside the way shattering sounds.

I should not be able to know him from the inside Sol thought.

Papi groaned inwardly, and inside of him that groan remained. He lacked the strength to push the groans out of his lungs. There they sat, his lungs, wet and gray and heavy with unexpellable grief.

“This idea hurts,” Sol said.

“A lot,” replied Sol. “Maybe you should stop having this thought.”

“No. I want to comfort my poor papi.”

“That,” said Sol, “is a generous idea.”

Sol focused on the idea of comforting their papi. That was when they noticed something. An idea. Not one of theirs. An idea so strong it was almost an object. Sol approached the idea, and then entered it, as if it were an actual place, the way places worked in the mattersome world.

It was nice, being inside of this idea. No more shattering, no more groaning. A quiet place. A place prepared for comfort.

This place was, Sol realized, the idea of them making the journey from beyond the grave to comfort their papi.

But the strange thing was, they hadn’t brought that idea with them. It was as if Papi had expected them to enter him, enter this idea, and bring him solace on the event of their death. It was like stopping at a random hotel and finding a reservation had already been made in your name.

“Sol!” Papi said, startled, looking around.

Sol had no apparatus left to them to hear sound, and yet they heard their papi anyway, for his words were rich with ideas: grief, wonder, despair, the faintest brief heat of reprieve.

“I’m here, Papi!” Sol said.

“Words are too fast,” advised Sol. “Take time. Invest yourself in the idea.”

Sol understood. They took time. They became their own memory and filled their papi’s idea. They imagined themselves a kind of cartoon radiation, a rock glowing green inside Papi’s heart.

“You’re here, Sol!” Papi said, bringing his rosary-bound hands to his chest.

I’m here Sol thought. I’m here! I’ll stay forever! I’ll stay until they make me leave!

Papi wept, but not the tears he had been weeping. He wept now like a god whose tears replenish us the life-giving river.

Sol had spread during the time between times. A galaxy winging its stars toward heat-death, was Sol.

“I am forgetting things,” Sol said.

“That’s the hardest part,” answered Sol, woeful, thwarted. “Forgetting is bad enough. But knowing you’re forgetting? Unutterably cruel.”

“Is someone being cruel to me?” Sol felt eager and slightly more alive, asking the question. “Is there a someone?”

Rueful was Sol, and filled with kindness. “If there is, they haven’t announced themselves. I’m so sorry, Sol. You know as much as I do.”

A little heat left Sol’s life then.

But when they felt that happen, they were frightened, startled out of their complacency. They grew angry, and anger grew desire. They made an idea of their will: a diamond-hard, diamond-brilliant will, faceted and prismatic, a wonder to behold.

Sol said, “I have lost everything, but I will have this diamond for a heart.”

Said Sol, “You are so strong. You give me life.”

What love Sol felt for Sol then! “And you me. We are keeping each other alive.”

“Not just us, though.”

“Oh?”

“So many others. So many holding onto ideas of one Sol Paz.”

Sol let time stroll on ahead without them. “I am just one idea, after all,” they said. “But an afterlife is all the ideas, isn’t it?”

Agreed Sol, feeling some relief. “All the minds and minds and minds.”

Ah, but now time was returning, which meant time was short. “If I don’t focus,” Sol reasoned, “I will be lost. Irrevocably dispersed. But if I focus long enough and hard enough, I will find regrets. So many regrets. Is the choice between erasure or eternal remorse?”

“You tried to do good,” comforted Sol. “You are made of good ideas. I can feel their warmth.”

But Sol was not to be consoled. They imagined looking time in the eye when they replied, “But do they matter, Sol, my warm thoughts? Did I do enough good? Does any good work endure? It’s impossible to know if any of it was worth it.” It hurt like being born when they repeated, “It’s impossible to know.”

“Not impossible,” said Sol.

Surprise made Sol grow ideas. “No?”

“No, Sol. We just need to extend our focus elsewhere.”

Sol was suspicious. “‘Extend our focus elsewhere.’ That sounds suspiciously like ‘spreading.’“

“It is,” said Sol. “It’s both. It’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. It’s what you did with your papi.”

The idea of Papi helped Sol focus. “Papi. Yes. I should visit Papi again.”

“You should, yes,” agreed Sol. “But it would be good for your death to visit people you don’t know.”

“That…is something I can do?” Sol needed time to think, so they bought time by examining time. Time politely continued to pretend to check the time, and did not hurry them.

Sol finally said to Sol, “I don’t know how to do that. Papi I could find because he was ready for me. He had prepared a place.”

“Others have prepared places, too,” said Sol. “I’ll show you.”

A Chicagoland library appeared all around Sol. Quiet, almost empty. An adult sat in a ratty, raggedy armchair. This person hadn’t taken off their winter coat or hat; they could be anybody.

Until you got into their idea. Then, she became Rita.

“I don’t know a Rita, do I?” Sol asked.

“No,” said Sol. “That’s why we’re visiting her.”

Sol contemplated Rita. “She’s cold. I can feel her thinking she’s cold.”

Rita was always cold. She had been wanting to move somewhere warm for a long time, but everyone she loved lived here. So she shrugged and wore layers.

Said Sol, “She’s also thinking about her sleeve.”

Her tattoo sleeve, specifically. Rita couldn’t see her tattoo sleeve at that moment because it was hidden beneath a long-sleeved shirt and a sweater and a winter coat. It was only the idea of her tattoo that she was having: and that idea Sol and Sol entered.

Rita loved her abstract, decorative, utterly art-for-art’s-sake sleeve. Contemplating it brought her solace and wisdom, in the way of pets and certain statues. Sometimes she had the urge to get it touched up, but no. Better to leave it alone, let it age and fade along with her. She could feel goosebumps change the contours of her skin, and in her mind’s eye she pictured how they reshaped the green geometry that stained her arm, the way waves reinvent the geometry of the ocean.

She liked poetical conceits, Rita did. She was a reader.

Said Sol, “She’s reading one of your books!”

“It’s Try a Little Tenderness,” Sol said.

It was one of Sol’s bestsellers, the one that had given their papi the retirement he deserved. Sol thought it a fairly trope-y Rom Com, but it had a good heart and a light touch. Girl meets girl, instant chemistry, but each one feels she isn’t worthy of the other. Chapters and chapters of cringy self-sabotage! Misunderstanding, misapprehensions, “It’s not what it looks like!” and “How could you?” and “I thought you were different.” But though they have been damaged by their former relationships, they both know a beautiful soul when they encounter one in the wild. They fall in love. Commit. Kiss. Commit some more. And then, they hold on tight to one another for all their days and nights.

Rita had read Try a Little Tenderness countless times. It was one of the books she read when she needed faith. She often fell asleep to the audiobook.

She had brought her own copy to the library to read because they didn’t have a copy at this branch. But it was the best place to read it. She loved that hoary armchair.

“This is a gift,” Sol said.

“I treasure this moment,” agreed Sol.

Swelling with joy, Sol, on an impulse, thought “Hi!”

Rita looked up from the book. Rita was atheist as fuck. Rita did not believe dead authors can say “Hi!” from within her own body.

But the feeling wasn’t unfamiliar to her, either. A book you love builds souls inside you. A writer you love feels like a friend: even if death has made it impossible for you to meet.

“I wish I could talk to her,” Sol said. “Like, really talk. With coffee and everything. How much would I give to talk to Rita!”

“I wish I could give that to you,” said Sol.

Rita had just arrived at chapter 27. Rita’s love of chapter 27 was like the radiator pinging itself to life for the first time in the season. Sol could scarcely think, life was so suddenly what it always should have been.

“‘It’s not what it looks like!’“ Rita quoted from the book: out loud, but in a whisper. She was smiling because she knew the future: Laura and Dominique will fall in love by the end of the book. But she was also smiling because Laura and Dominique don’t know this in chapter 27. And chapter 27 just keeps on being chapter 27. Rita can revivify this wrinkle in the plot whenever she wants. All she has to do is reread it, and time pulls back the red velvet rope and lets her back in.

“Whatever this is,” Sol said. “It’s more than nothing. It’s so much more than nothing.”

“So much more than nothing,” Rita said, out loud, in a whisper. But those words were not on the page. She wondered what made her say that. And then, touching her nose—dewy and dog-warm—she added, “Hey! I’m not cold.”

“Me neither,” Sol said and said Sol.

 

(Editors’ Note: “I Will Have This Diamond for a Heart” is read by Matt Peters on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, 45B.)

An Invitation to the Weary

We are reaching for each other. There is so much space between us, and yet still we are always reaching for each other, even if we’ll never quite manage to bridge the gap between our fingertips. We are reaching, although we are very tired. We are reaching as best we can.

Do you have a moment?

Afternoons used to be the longest part of any given day. I remember the span of them. Time would stretch out warm and elastic. Either there would be a lot to do and a lot of time to do it in, or nothing to do and an endless expanse of hazy hours to fill. This was true for a long time—even during the part of my life when I woke before dawn to head to the first of my three jobs. Back then, the morning started so soon after the end of the previous night that getting into bed felt like an inside joke I shared with only myself. I saw about as many of the early hours as I saw of the later ones, but that didn’t matter: in the middle of the day, time somehow ballooned. There was more room in it. I’m far from nostalgic for that time in my life, but I am curious about it in hindsight. Something has changed since then. Where did that feeling of elasticity come from? What happened to the time I had then, that I’m so sorely missing now?

I promise this will not take long.

There’s so much to do. There’s laundry to wash and laundry to fold. There’s an envelope from the bank that says ‘open immediately,’ and it might be a misleading advertisement for an exploitative loan, or it might be the kind of problem that will eat up the rest of the day. There’s a looming pile of deadlines that lurks in the corner like a malevolent haystack, hissing about commitments that must be fulfilled and timelines that will not bend. There are friends to check in on and emails to return and bills to pay. There’s that big wracking heart-crunching cry that’s frankly overdue. And all of those things need to be stacked up around all of the grief and all of the fear and all of the work of reaching out from one lonely place to another. It’s too, too much for anyone to carry.

I know time is in short supply.

The problem is that grief is at once profoundly individual and profoundly communal. We must grieve alone, but we do not ever grieve alone. We cannot possibly share the burden of loss, nor can we keep it to ourselves. The same is true of the kind of fear that has lately seeped into everything, everywhere, all the time, thick and invasive as fresh-flowing sap. We calculate our risks together now in a way we never have before. Those risks are constant and they change by the minute and we can’t trade off who attends to them because it has to be all of us. We share the fear because there’s no way not to share it; it belongs to everyone, all at once. So we share with each other because we must share; we reach for each other because we must reach.

Only, wait here with me a minute.

We can’t make it all the way to each other, not quite, not with the space we need to bridge and the distance we’re able to span. There is so much work required to close the expanse between me and you, and we are both too exhausted to meet each other halfway. So we miss each other, wonder after each other, worry about each other. We have our thinking of yous and our hope you are wells and our let’s catch up soons. The love and the longing are real. But there’s that envelope from the bank, and then everyone in the house needs to take a test because one person might have been exposed, and still the specter of the long-overdue cry is hovering at the edge of everything, demanding attention more and more insistently by the hour. And so we reach and we reach and we hope the reaching will be enough, because it’s all we’ve got in us and we don’t have capacity for anything more.

There is time for this, though.

What if there was something that could fit in the space between my reach and yours? What if there was a resting place for both of us, where we could linger for just long enough to feel everything else fade a little? I am thinking of a secret pocket in the cosmos. A tiny nook we could tuck ourselves into, without everything following us—not the fear, and not the grief, and not the laundry. It’s not that we won’t talk about the fear and the grief and the laundry. But maybe we can talk about those things differently, when we’re tucked away together. Maybe we can talk about them as if they belong to someone else. Maybe then, it won’t be so hard.

Just for a little while, you understand.

Hell, we don’t even have to go there together. I would gladly give you a hideout all to yourself. My colleagues and I spend most of our time crafting them. There are little crevices that are made for rest, and there are larger alcoves that are made for staring down old monsters. There are shadowy corners where, if you need to, you can finally have that big cry, or at least a piece of it. Sometimes it’s best to have a big cry in pieces, anyway. Maybe when my reach can’t make it all the way to where you are, we can bridge the distance with a handoff. I have a gap in the world precisely big enough for you to slip into when you need it.

Maybe you need this more than you realize.

It’s all too, too much for anyone to carry. We are terribly tired and sore, and things seem to keep getting heavier and heavier. Come and rest for a moment, then. Come and meet me in a story that understands how heavy things are, or a story that will let you imagine a world in which things are lighter, or a story that will simply remind you that your burden isn’t the only thing in this great wide universe. It’s okay if you don’t have time for a lengthy journey into a story that will take you hours to read; it’s okay if your heart’s too heavy for you to carry it down a winding road hundreds of pages long. You don’t need to make that kind of commitment.

I promised this wouldn’t take long, and I meant it.

In a world where everything is constantly fraught, it can feel like there’s no room for error. When you’re stretched nearly to the breaking point, the smallest complication can create a disaster. It makes sense that committing yourself to a journey you can’t quite know the shape of might feel like too big a gamble. It can be hard to trust that you’ll end up where you need to be; it can be harder to trust that you have the stamina to get there. But you deserve a place to go. So why not try this: a story short enough that you can stand at the beginning and know for sure that you have the momentum to make it to the end. You can be tired and distractible—that’s okay. You can be busy. You can be impatient. You can be picky. You can be precisely the person you are, with no goals or obstacles standing between you and a much-needed rest. If you decide you don’t like the path the story took you down, you’ve lost nothing but a handful of minutes.

Give yourself this.

A short story is not going to fix everything. It isn’t made to fix everything. It is made to give you a place that isn’t here. A short story can offer you comfort or challenge. It can give you a chance to hide or a chance to be seen, all in the amount of time it takes to eat your lunch. You can discover and inhabit and love and destroy a whole world while you wait for the bus. You can share a short story with someone you’re missing, and in so doing, you can tell them: here is a place I think you might like to go. Here is a break from the things you are carrying. I think you deserve this. I think you deserve entire worlds. This is the gift we give each other as writers and readers: the gift of being transported.

We are reaching for each other, but it’s hard to find a place to meet.

I’ll meet you in a short story. It will only take a moment.

 

Jingwei Tries to Fill Up the Sea

Mountain pebble gripped in her beak,

Jingwei flies over forest and field

 

mile after mile after mile, she flies

over rice farmers, over foresters

 

over river fishermen who spot her shadow

flying below them across a shadow sky

 

over mouse and rat, hare and shrew,

their thousand small and busy lives

 

mile after mile after mile, she flies

from the mountains to the Eastern Sea

 

mile on mile on mile to the shore’s rush

where she drops the pebble into the sea

 

and the sea sighs, Jingwei, Jingwei,

you’ll never fill me up with pebbles

 

and Jingwei fluffs her feathers and says,

pebble by pebble, I’ll fetch a mountain—

 

I’ll fetch a mountain to fill you up

so no little girl will ever drown in you

 

and the sea sighs, Jingwei, Jingwei,

children die, I’m larger than mountains

 

Jingwei turns on the wind, flies away,

back to the mountain to fetch a pebble

 

and the sea sighs but Jingwei has left

so the waves whisper to themselves

 

we held her, we held her, we held her

for a breath, then gifted her to the sky

 

and the sea shifts restless over sand

searching clouds for Jingwei’s return.

 

Interview: Emma Törzs

Emma Törzs is a writer and teacher based in Minneapolis. Her short fiction has been published in journals such as Strange HorizonsBeneath Ceaseless Skies, and Lightspeed, and honored with a 2020 NEA fellowship, a 2019 World Fantasy Award, and a 2015 O. Henry Prize. She’s grateful to the National Endowment for the Arts, the Loft Literary Center, the Jerome Foundation, the McKnight Foundation, the MRAC, the MSAB, and Norwescon for financial support through the years, and she’s an enthusiastic member of the Clarion West class of 2017. Her debut novel is forthcoming in 2023 with William Morrow. “The Path of Water” is her fourth appearance in Uncanny, a darkly beautiful twist on the traditional fairy tale.

 

Uncanny Magazine: “The Path of Water” is a wonderful title for this story, and I love the conversation that the characters have about how water flows the easiest way. Did you know the title when you started writing, or did it come to you later? What was your inspiration for the story?

Emma Törzs: I am glad you like the title! It was (as is usually the case with me) the last thing…though the conversation you mentioned does dovetail into your question about inspiration. I was thinking about the iterative nature of fairy tales and the oral tradition, which is a process somewhat echoed in the iterative process of river-making, and the story began when I asked myself: What if a character in a fairy tale woke from a long enchantment and had to piece together their own history and identity by reading different versions of their own story; by trying to trace a river to its source, so to speak?

I also knew I wanted to write a fairy tale that was full of classic fairy tale tropes and symbolisms, yet in the end remained resistant to any fixed A-to-B metaphors. I was hoping to unsettle questions or problems/problematics rather than try and settle them, though of course readers will judge the success of this project for themselves.

Uncanny Magazine: What was the easiest part of writing this story? What was the most challenging thing?

Emma Törzs: The easiest part was the opening scene at the wedding banquet, which I wrote a few years ago in one sitting then left alone for a long time, unsure where it was going. So that scene was also the most challenging part of writing—it was full of promise, I thought, but a promise of what? I ended up bringing it to a kind of informal workshop with a few friends, who talked me through my ideas until I found a way forward. I just checked my notes from that conversation and one reads, “He obviously has to eat birds.” Obviously!

Uncanny Magazine: There are vivid descriptions in the story from the monster’s point of view, dark and beautiful, with an animalistic quality to them. Did you use a particular animal as your inspiration?

Emma Törzs: No, I had no particular animal in mind.

Uncanny Magazine: If you had to choose, would you be the monster, the princess, or the witch?

Emma Törzs: I think I am probably already the monster.

Uncanny Magazine: This is a wonderful twist on traditional fairy tales, and I loved that the characters tried to piece together their own past from oral and written stories. What draws you to folklore and fairy tales? Do you have a favorite?

Emma Törzs: Fairy tales and folk tales are some of the first stories I (and many people, I assume) remember experiencing as a child, and always in multiple renditions. A parent would read me one version of a story, then a book at school would have a completely different version, then Disney’s greedy mouth would spit another version at me, etc. The mutability stuck with me—it was my first lesson in the nature of history, and the fact that stories change depending on who’s telling them. I remember getting my ten-year-old mind blown by a collection of (in retrospect, deeply unsubtle) “feminist fairy tales” from the late ’70s, years before I discovered Angela Carter…

I don’t know that I have a favorite, but one that I’ve always come back to (and am playing around with currently) is East of the Sun, West of the Moon, which I first encountered in Andrew Lang’s The Blue Fairy Book and have since read at least thirty different versions of. It has always seemed a strange, wandering mishmash of a story, with hints of Psyche and Eros and Beauty and the Beast, and full of the kind of symbolic fairy tale/myth objects I love: golden apples, spinning wheels, candle wax, snow…Plus a theme I keep returning to, for reasons not entirely clear: human to animal transformation.

Uncanny Magazine: What are you working on next?

Emma Törzs: I am deep in edits for my debut novel, which will be out next summer with William Morrow. I was describing it as an “adult fantasy” until someone gently suggested I might be giving the wrong idea. A grown-up fantasy, then? I feel like “grown-up” is the least grown-up way to describe grown-ups.

Anyway, it is—to awkwardly quote the press material—about “two estranged sisters tasked with guarding their family’s collection of rare and dangerous magical books. When their father dies suddenly, they must work together to unravel the secrets their parents kept hidden from them—secrets that span centuries and continents…and even other libraries…”

Uncanny Magazine: Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us!

 

Interview: Sarah Monette

Sarah Monette and Katherine Addison are the same person. She has published more than fifty short stories, seven solo novels, and four collaborations with her friend Elizabeth Bear. Her most recent novel is The Witness for the Dead (Tor Books, 2021). The Goblin Emperor (Tor, 2014) won the 2015 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel and was a finalist for the Hugo, the Nebula, and the World Fantasy Award. The Angel of the Crows (Tor, 2020) was also a finalist for the Locus Award. She lives with spouse, cats, and books, somewhere near Madison, Wisconsin. “The Haunting of Dr. Claudius Winterson” is her sixth appearance in Uncanny, an ominous mystery set in the world of her Booth series.

 

Uncanny Magazine: “The Haunting of Dr. Claudius Winterson” is a quietly ominous story with elements of mystery and fantasy/horror. What was your starting point or inspiration?

Sarah Monette: I woke up in the middle of the night one night, from a dream I couldn’t remember, with the phrase “children with no faces” stuck in my head. And I was nightmare-levels of scared. So I figured there had to be a Booth story in there somewhere.

Uncanny Magazine: “The Haunting of Dr. Claudius Winterson” is one of several that you’ve written in the Booth series. What is your favorite thing about writing stories in this world? What is the most challenging thing?

Sarah Monette: I love ghost stories and I love writing them. The most challenging thing is finding ways to get Booth involved in a ghost story—without repeating earlier stories.

Uncanny Magazine: If you were a character in this story, who would you be and why?

Sarah Monette: Booth is a very autobiographical character. Both my social discomforts and my ethical worries show up in his stories.

Uncanny Magazine: I love the ghost children—colorless like newspaper clippings, following Claudius Winterson ever closer as the story progresses. Do you have a favorite ghost story?

Sarah Monette: My favorite ghost story is M. R. James’s “‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’,” which also involves, now that I think about it, a follower who comes closer and closer as the story progresses.

Uncanny Magazine: There’s a lovely parallel between Dr. Winterson insisting that there was nothing he could have done for the children and, at the end of the story, Booth making a similar assertion about Dr. Winterson’s death. Did you have that ending in mind from the start, or did you discover it as you were writing?

Sarah Monette: That was a discovery. My first drafts are generally discovery drafts.

Uncanny Magazine: What are you working on next?

Sarah Monette: The Grief of Stones, which is a sequel to The Witness for the Dead, is coming out in June. I’m currently working on The Tomb of Dragons, which is a sequel to The Grief of Stones. I didn’t intend to write a trilogy when I started The Witness for the Dead, but that’s what it’s turned out to be.

Uncanny Magazine: Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us!

Weaver Girl Dream

After the legend of 牛郎织女

 

It begins, perhaps unavoidably, with my mother’s anger.

She caught me at happiness, you see. Unsanctioned.

 

(I do not talk about my father. You cannot talk about

a forest until you have emerged from the trees.)

 

I met a boy. My mother told him, as she stripped him from the sky,

You want to crawl on the earth like a worm, then become one.

 

(To me she said, See, squandered his potential. Because I was hers

I was granted a reprieve: the chance to pay my debt.)

 

The boy, unlike my mother, had been happy to take only

what I was willing to give. Now I watch him rebirthed—

 

(His new parents are human. Hard as deities, as whetstones.

They sharpen him into excellence and take credit for the bleeding.)

 

A man now, he yokes himself to an ox. Together they feed the earth.

One day the ox says to him, Go, take a wife for yourself.

 

(I wanted to be there; I wanted him. He took my clothes and

I followed at his heel. I chose to be there.)

 

Then we are married and we are happy. Humans everywhere

have stories about husbands stealing the skins of wives.

(I am happy; I love him; my mother despises the sum of it.

Snatching me back to heaven she says, I had to save you.)

 

I weave the clouds pink with blood and watch him weep.

Now the ox says, I will give you my own skin as passage.

 

(My mother raises her hand—strikes something else instead. Now

there is a gash across existence, a milky soup with stars for bones.)

 

On the seventh night of the seventh moon, I dream. Crushing birds

beneath my feet. A hand outstretched towards someone I remember.

 

(Editors’ Note: “Weaver Girl Dream” is read by Erika Ensign on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, 44B.)

Even After Death: An Essay in Questions

*what does it mean to be born of the dead?

This question hangs in the margins on pg 42 of my copy of The Deep: A gorgeous novella by Rivers Solomon, Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, and Jonathan Snipes that delves into the mythologized history of the wajinru who are merfolk, born of Black enslaved wom*n thrown overboard during the transatlantic slave trade. I have taught this tiny book in almost every single one of my creative writing classes. This is because it is the type of work that names intellectual and emotional experiences of collective grief and memory in ways that I did not know could be articulated.

This articulation is a question that ties into any analysis of Black death and the afterlife of slavery, I would argue, and colonialism, coined by Saidiya Hartman, the brilliant writer of the critical fabulist work, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments. To be born of the dead is to live for the past as it is to live for the present. To live for the past is to invoke it into the present.

Black Indigenous understandings of life and death collapse time. Afrofuturism as a placeholder word then becomes an apt mode of both explaining and living in Black grief.

 

“I was furious. It was as if staying alive just gave everyone else time to leave you.”

—Freshwater, Akwaeke Emezi, pg. 167

 

Mimi nimechoka- Me, I am tired

A list of grief feelings

 

Anger.

The audacity of someone you love to die, to just leave as if it wouldn’t break you to pieces. The fact that they will never be there for your graduation, celebrations of love, children… future. The audacity of the world to go on, to keep moving as if time hasn’t just stopped with death. Anger at the…

Hopelessness.

You are absolutely fucking powerless and you cannot bring your love back to life and what’s the point of having the power to do anything if you can’t do this one thing and you are realizing just how weak you are in the grand scheme of everything and there is absolutely nothing you can do to escape how terrifying this all is so you feel

Shame/Guilt.

For not loving them enough in life, not calling to check in as much as you would have liked. For not living with death in mind. For making this about you. Do you even have a right to grieve in the ways you are? How to hold space for other versions of grief while so deep in your own? It is

Fear.

Of not being able to process. Of never being the same again, of losing all the other love in your life.

What does it mean to defend the dead?

Christina Sharpe in her Black grief-centred text In the Wake reiterates this question. Sharpe correlates defending the dead with the idea of “tending to the Black dead and dying.” She emphasizes this by adding that defending the dead “means work…hard emotional, physical, and intellectual work that demands vigilant attendance to the needs of the dying and,” as she adds, “also to the needs of the living.”

There is a blurring between life and death here as there is a blurring between past and present.

 

“When you look at life from far away enough, the things we talk, think, and gossip about fade into tiny dots, to nothing. I think, will this all matter in thirty years?”

Ada, Freshwater, pg. 201

 

Majina- Names

Majini- Spirits of the Water

Names of Loves I’ve Lost

Guka Gichuhi (mama’s memories of you)          Uncle Moses (the first I

knew to go)

          Cucu Wambui (you said you were tired & you were ready)

Cucu Njeri (who I am named for)       Tata Kabura (you gave & gave & gave)

                           Uncle Ken (your daughters weren’t ready)

Paul Chege (constant reminder of risks worth taking)      Noni (sweetest binamu)

Uncle Kariuki (I watched you fade)

 

Last week another name was added to this list but the time between that loss and the writing of this essay is too short for me to process the addition. On paper, names appear as dead things. On my tongue, they are living stories inhabiting the air between me and anyone who would care to listen. This memory reliving is tending to them (the dead) while tending to myself (the living). To my people, a person does not fully die until the memory of them is completely erased. The hopes and the limitations of language.

Diasporic Black Indigenous understandings of the metaphysical don’t need the word magic. In our communal memory the metaphysical has always been a part of the physical and not apart from it. Yet we do have words, words such as juju, uchawi, vodou, and so on that speak to specific magics which cannot be removed from their long, nuanced, baggaged history.

I recently learned that in my mother-tongue, Gikuyu, the word ‘Ngoma’ which today is associated with the devil originally meant ancestors or souls at rest. The Gikuyu conceptualization of the departed placed them in the ancestral plain which was endless grasslands that never lacked rain or sunshine. (Basically a way better, less capitalist version of Heaven.) This realm is different from the tangible world we are in but can still influence our world.

Gikuyus appeal to the ancestors, knowing they have some influence over the course of events that take place on this plane of existence. When the British—who had already dismissed colonized nations as backward, immoral, and uncivilized—heard the prayers and petitions not directly attributed to Ngai (God) they immediately associated any other entity prayed to with the devil. Colonialism set its claws so deep into my people’s minds that we could not differentiate the meanings we had assigned to our own words from the meanings Empire had ascribed us.

Uchawi, then, instead of being positively associated with magic or miracles, was negatively associated with witchcraft and possession. Same goes for juju and ‘voodoo’—a broad term used to debase all African religions that diverged from Christianity, thus forcing us to cut ties with our grief.

In Kenya there are multiple tribes—the Luo and Luya especially—who hire professional mourners or ‘wailers’ during funerals. Ones who beat their chest and scream at the sky as the body of the departed is transported to the grave. This ritual is about permission. The wailers, by performing mourning offer an invitation to express the deep waves of grief however the body wills. It asks family, friends, lovers to experience Feeling EVERYTHING in the flailing of arms, the screaming lungs, and the stomping of feet.

 

“…but sometimes it shows up like a continent shifting on my chest.”

Ada, Freshwater, pg. 202

 

Afrofuturism is an exploration, an experiment in both the collapse of time and the sitting in the feeling of everything. Believing and living in the worlds created for Black afterlives is permission, allowing us to see our pain as valid enough to sit with in our bodies for as long as we need to. One of my favourite books of all time is Kei Miller’s Augustown, a little Jamaican novel that offers an alternative history of the Black prophet Alexander Bedward. At some point in the novel he poses the question, “What if the question is not whether you believe this story or not but whether this story is told by the types of people you have never taken the time to believe in?”

Because this story is about the metaphysical from a Black diasporic perspective, the book is asking the reader to take it as more than just a cute anecdote. The book is asking for faith. Belief in this story told by people who have historically been dismissed and called ‘mad’ for offering alternative ways of moving through the world. The book asks for belief in Black belief.

What happens when we remove the separation of the physical from the metaphysical? Afrofuturism treads on blurred lines. This we can see in everything from Octavia Butler’s world where characters have gifts like empathy—Parable of the Sower—a gift which is literally the feeling of everything, to the juxtaposition of Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s imagining of a world where a pill can take away all the ‘bad’ feelings in The Era. The blurred lines of how the Spiritual functions as the political can be seen in everything from N.K. Jemisin’s consistently rich world building to Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s reimagining of East African Kingdoms. Most of these recountings of Black death and Black life from an Afrofuturist lens function as portals so that boundaries are not about lines but doors. Inviting movement between this realm and the next through storytelling.

 

Kupona/ Healing

Last year when my cousin Noni died, I was stuck in America because borders were closed due to COVID. It wrecked me.

Something about the elements of the earth makes for a beautiful description of feeling. Grief like waves. Through multiple panic attacks, I remember explaining to a friend how it felt like I was drowning and she said, “sometimes you just have to sit and let the waves take you over”—a practice in the feeling of everything.

In the moments where I was finally, briefly able to come up for air, where my chest was not compressed in, and I could breathe. In those moments, I noticed the trees. I fell in love with this one birch tree at our local park. I named it Noni because it felt like this was the gift her spirit was leaving with me.

I’ve recently been listening to this podcast on Spotify called Matirî Ngemi that goes back into my tribe’s communal archives to narrate our pre-colonial beliefs, ways of life, and cultural understanding of the world. One of the episodes goes into Agikuyu Spirituality and Religion, breaking down the history of a mythological tree that carries important cultural value in our tribe. The roots of this tree open up to portals that transfer the dying to the next realm. Can you picture tree roots as portals? Leaves and stems and branches that tend to both the living and the dead.

To witness the significance of trees to Gikuyus in this moment broke something in me that was still trying to logicalize death. I knew/know with everything in me that my cousin was communicating through the trees, instilling an assurance that I am seen. Tending to me as I recounted stories of her life, tending to her.

Isn’t the notion of a tree ushering us into the afterlife also the most fitting thing? It just makes sense.

 

“You say madness such as mine doesn’t exist, but it would exist in you, too, if you had to experience the ugly things I do all the time…”

―Rivers Solomon, The Deep

 

 

 

a sinkhole invites a street to consider its future

cracks always long to grow. asphalt craves other than the horizontal. you could become a poem. straight line caesuraed into a mouth. a ruin. a fucking statement. you were meant for so much more than conveyance or convenience. were primordial ooze once. could have kissed the ozone layer. made microplastic and endured millennia. were paved underfoot instead. i have a right to be. mole people deserve to see the sun. chaos is a public service and unemployment’s rising. change is another word for opportunity. secret tunnels are all the rage. there are depths to you most never dreamed. exquisitely efficient systems. whole worlds. katabasis quests are due for a comeback. i would owe you my existence. everything sinks eventually.

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