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The Bad Dad Redemption Arc Needs to Die

A few years ago, right as my relationship with my own father reached a breaking point, I started noticing how often bad dads and father figures get redemption plots in science fiction, fantasy, and horror. A Quiet Place had just come out. John Krasinski, who also wrote and directed the film, stars as Lee Abbott, a soft-apocalyptic hipster dad in a beard and flannel, who kind of looks like he was in an experimental folk band at some point. Carnivorous aliens with sensitive hearing have invaded the earth—a very handy excuse for Lee’s utter inability to have a conversation with his estranged, Deaf daughter Regan. Despite everyone in this movie telling Lee to get his shit together and talk to Regan, he waits to tell her he loves her until approximately seven seconds before he sacrifices himself to save her.

That’s how these things always go; it’s never a conversation, but a one-sided declaration moments before annihilation. These redemption arcs inevitably end with the fathers’ self-sacrifice after spending most of the movie ignoring, neglecting, or abusing the kids under their care. They die, because death is the only way we imagine fatherly failures being forgiven. And we applaud them for it, the writers and the dead dads both. It’s meant to be cathartic. In fact, it is bullshit.

I’ll willingly admit that some of my bias against Bad Movie Dads is rooted in my decades-long estrangement with my own father, who was an abusive alcoholic in my childhood and a fraught ghost haunting the peripheries of my adulthood. My grandmother, with whom he lived, became the mediator between him and his children: buying birthday cards and prompting him to sign them, keeping us all updated on each other. When she developed dementia and went to live in an assisted living facility, he stopped initiating any contact with us at all.

So yes, I’ll admit I’m particularly unsympathetic to the Bad Dad Redemption Arc. But once I started looking for it, I started seeing it everywhere. A Dad (or a stand-in for one) is abusive, violent, neglectful, or unwilling to do the emotional labor of raising a kid. A catastrophe presents itself as the ultimate Get Out of Accountability Free opportunity. The Bad Dad will impart some final stunted effort at affection, usually for the first and only time, and then conveniently die. His fuckery is redeemed, and he avoids being held accountable for all the shit he pulled.

Most of the big SFF franchises of the past decade are veritable Bad Dad Graveyards. Harry Potter’s many father figures get Avada Kedavra’d throughout the series. Peter Quill’s kidnapper/adopted father Yondu is forgiven for being an abuser and human trafficker. Star Wars is an entire saga of garbage dads begetting other garbage dads. Even Luke Skywalker, the one guy you thought might just avoid children like the celibate space monk he is, decides to kill edgelord teen Ben Solo instead of having a conversation with him. When that fails, Luke exiles himself to the ass-end of the galaxy to stew in his manpain, then whiffs out of existence.

All of these sacrifices are self-centered, however. The children in these movies are only ever an afterthought to someone else’s character development. It’s like the concept of fridging was turned inside-out: the children live and the men die. But men get the spotlight, the good death scene, the redemption. The children get the consequences and the lifelong trauma, but that all happens off-screen. I guess it’s not as compelling.

If we read these stories in a harsher light, the Bad Dad Redemption Arc actually punishes men for finally acting like the fathers they should have been all along. Death is the consequence for that ultimate betrayal of cis-masculinity: admitting you messed up, have feelings, are vulnerable. It’s the worst sin a father can commit. There’s no coming back from that. There’s only death.

It surprises me not at all that some of the more interesting and complicated looks at fatherhood in recent years have come from Black writers and directors. I’m unqualified to talk about portrayals of Black fatherhood in depth, but it feels safe to guess that part of this care comes from having to write against racist stereotypes of Black men and families. Such stereotypes were and are used to forward white supremacist agendas, justifying policies that see Black families and populations overpoliced, over-represented in the carceral system, and overly scrutinized by the state.

Black Panther presents us with a father, T’Chaka, who, rather than being forgiven in death, is held accountable in the afterlife. Moreover, his son actually assumes responsibility, atoning for the sins his father committed. We feel complicated sympathy instead for Eric Killmonger, and for all the children like him: abandoned, angry, too hurt to distinguish the boundaries between demanding justice and perpetuating violence.

Black creators have also imagined white fathers in more interesting and nuanced ways. Alex Murray in Ava Duvernay’s A Wrinkle In Time, father of Meg and Charles Wallace and played by Chris Pine, has his shitty moments; his ambitions and refusal to be wrong lead him to abandoning his family for years. But Alex admits that he’s failed, goes home, and lives with his mistakes. Making amends for his failures as a father will probably not be easy, but we see the consequences of his abandonment. Meg in particular is deeply wounded. The journey she takes is ostensibly to save Alex, but it’s also to bring herself back out of the shadow of that trauma. A Wrinkle In Time got a mixed reception, but it’s one of the only movies in recent memory where a dad was forgiven, but his daughter got the spotlight. The accountability lay on Alex Murray, and it was a burden he was willing to shoulder. The story, the journey, the resolution, and the decision to forgive him belonged to Meg.

Here’s a hard truth: death doesn’t guarantee you forgiveness. Dying is not sufficient. Atonement takes effort. For the children who survive their terrible fathers, the pain will not end when their fathers do, in a tidy funeral montage and a few poignant words. Grieving someone who hurt you, not once but over and over, is a terrible legacy to leave behind.

I’ve nursed a suspicion for years: that my father’s move to Oklahoma when I was fourteen—a state that previously he had expressed nothing but contempt for—was a sort of descent into the underworld for him, a willing sentence in purgatory for being a violent failure of a father and husband. When I can look past my own anger and channel some empathy, I think maybe it was a retreat; my father is disabled, with limited mobility and a speech impediment that makes moving through the ableist world frustrating. Why fight to stay in a world that tells you at every turn that you’re not welcome? Why fight, except it’s where your children are?

When he left, our relationship froze in time. He still calls me by a name I no longer go by—not out of malicious transphobia, but because he has no interest in who I am now. He’s too intent on wearing all the mistakes of his past, and I have no idea how to invite him into the present, or even if I want to. For a while, my mother tried to keep him apprised of his children’s accomplishments when my grandmother no longer could. Then he got rid of his phone, and his internet access. I last saw him in 2017, when my older sibling graduated from med school; he hadn’t realized that Donald Trump had been elected president until months after the inauguration.

Does he know I’m a published author? Has he read my books? Or does he only remember me as a child who once accompanied him to open mics and read his poetry for him? Does he think of the writing workshop he drove me to the summer I turned fourteen, how he let me play Neil Young’s Heart of Gold and Led Zepplin’s IV on repeat? Does he think about trying to hit me and my older sibling with his cane, heavy and hand-carved from oak? Does he remember how I used to shut down and freeze whenever his voice rose above a certain decibel?

Most likely, he doesn’t think of me at all. A great-uncle who lives in town told my mother, “He is used to living like he does and accepts the blame for his problems and is content.” If he follows the script Hollywood has laid down, it’ll take a supervolcano or alien invasion for him to reconsider his approach to paternal responsibility.

If his exile was an ongoing trial period for his physical death, my father dragged his children into the underworld with him. I’ve spent nearly twenty years in its shadow, wondering how I’ll handle it when he dies for real, and knowing very well that it might wreck me. He was part of my life long enough to carve out an absence in the shape of his silhouette; for me to know all the ways in which I am like him and of him, for better or worse. Having practice at loss rarely softens the blow.

And as I was first writing this essay, a year since our last conversation, there was a death in my family. Not my father, but his mother; the same grandmother that maintained the link between my father and his estranged children.

The only reason I didn’t find out she died from Facebook is because my mother saw my uncle posting about it first and called me. I didn’t hear from my dad until nearly a day and a half later. “I hate talking on cell phones,” he told my voicemail, in a studied, reading-from-a-script voice. “It’s not you. It’s everybody.”

That’s the best comfort my father could offer: his neglect, at least, wasn’t personal.

Listening to my father’s half-assed apology, I came to a decision. I no longer want any part in his redemption. I abdicate my position as my father’s judge and jury, as his audience, as the witnesses called to testify or condemn. I’m not his keeper, his redeemer, or his character development.

I am abandoning this narrative that I hate so much. I wanted to imagine a good ending for this story, but I’ve reached the limit of my own creative powers. As creators and as audiences, as the children of all kinds of fathers, we deserve better stories. So I’m closing this book, and I’m walking away.

 

WWXD: A Warrior’s Path of Reflection and Redemption

Whenever we circle around the topic of best redemption arcs in fiction (TV, books, etc.), crowd favorites tend to be Zuko of Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005) and recently, Catra, of the recent She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (2018). I am always surprised at one notable absence: Xena: Warrior Princess (1996) with Xena’s complicated (and subtextually queer) six season long redemption arc.1

I’ve often wondered about this fascination with redemption arcs, why it tugs at our story-sense so hard, why we write them so often for children’s shows, and what we can learn from them—what we need to learn from them, especially as adults. This fascination could come from many places. There’s the very Christian idea that through belief in Christ, all earthly sins will be forgiven, and it has its own adherents and interpretations. But there’s also the simple—or perhaps not so simple—acknowledgement that even the tales of Christian forgiveness appeal to the fact that part of being human means hurting people and being sorry for it. We have all hurt people or likely will hurt people in the future, accidentally or, even more likely, on purpose, especially in pursuit of our own ends. In short, according to many moral codes, religious or otherwise, we’re flawed. When we watch shows or read books for their redemption arcs, maybe we’re indulging in the fantasy that we too can be forgiven—or the fantasy that those who have wronged us will put themselves at our mercy in an attempt to atone.

In the first episode of Xena: Warrior Princess, “Sins of the Past” (no, it’s not subtle), we meet Xena the Warlord. She’s on her way back home to Amphipolis without her army. She strips off her armor and buries it with her weaponry in a clearing just outside of a little town called Potadeia (where she’s about to meet her soulmate, obviously, as one does). From the very beginning of the series, she regrets the crimes she committed as a warlord, though it will take many episodes for her to fully come to grips with the lasting damage she’s caused others and how she’s received and perceived by others.

Shortly after she buries her armor, though, she comes across a warlord’s minion trying to round up some villagers to enslave. Xena fights the brigands, digs back up the weapons of her past, and turns them on her fellow warlords. It’s apt foreshadowing for the way Xena proceeds to attempt to atone for her crimes across the series: turning the violence she once used against the vulnerable to their defense instead. This is also when she meets Gabrielle (cough-soulmate-cough). Gabrielle is innocent, kind, and persuasive: Xena’s perfect foil. (And look at the casting: small, blonde, colorful, compared to Xena’s tall, dark, and handso—I mean, broody.) In this episode and thereafter, it’s her faith in Xena’s potential for good that persuades skeptics to give Xena another chance. Gabrielle is Xena’s vouchsafe, and later on, Xena’s touchstone when she needs to remember her new path.

Let’s step outside of fantasy ancient Greece for a second and consider—where are you on your path? Have you even acknowledged the harm you’ve done? The harm done in your name, or the power you wield? It’s a question worth asking as our societies are mired in global and local systems where too few have taken these steps.

All right, back to fantasy ancient Greece, because that’s what we’re here for: powerful women with swords and guilty consciences. And what’s a woman to do when those are her primary assets to offer the world? Well, she begins a lifetime pilgrimage of good deeds. Deeds she is particularly equipped for—seducing and fighting warlords, kings, emperors, and gods to free the vulnerable in their thrall.

Here, we come to Ares, God of War, who wants Xena back as his greatest warmonger and worshipper. He’s willing to give her untold power if she comes to his side, and the more she refuses, the more desperate he becomes. There’s a particular seduction to his offer (and I don’t mean physical, though occasionally, yes, a physical seduction, and Ares isn’t a bad-looking dude, I can see why someone would be tempted). It’s the seduction of a return to the status quo. The changes Xena wants to make in her life are not passive ones—they require effort and pain and a willingness to accept failure not as a stopping point but another chance to do better. A willingness to accept critique. It would be easier, even rewarded, if she took the offers to return to the top of the warlords. Instead, she tries to negate that privilege—usually. (She’s not perfect, and the cracks in her perfection are or lead to some of the most stirring episodes, like “The Debt I&II,” “Destiny,” “Adventures in the Sin Trade I&II” and “The Ides of March,” just to name a few of my favorites.)

We also grapple with one of my favorite questions in media and life—what’s a woman’s role in relation to committing violence? How and when are women, femmes, and those perceived (however incorrectly) as women allowed to perpetuate violence? With the exception of Ares, most of Xena’s powerful and recurring enemies (and allies) are women. One in particular is part of why Xena’s redemption arc is so compelling: Callisto. First, we must acknowledge a victim is not a means to their aggressor’s rise to goodness. Thankfully, Xena is never quite let off the hook.

When we first meet Callisto in season one, we’re like, yes, new woman warrior on the scene! We love a good rival! As the story unfolds, however, we get something else instead: Callisto was a child in one of the villages that Xena the Warlord destroyed. Now Callisto is playing on the rarity of women warlords to ruin Xena’s burgeoning reputation as a good guy by sacking towns with Xena’s signature battle-cry.

It’s a classic case of your past coming to bite you in the ass, and it’s one of the reasons that we have to acknowledge the hard truth of redemption—no one has to forgive you. And someone not forgiving you for ruining their life or even breaking their favorite toy doesn’t make them the bad guy. It means you have to reckon with accepting that the harm you caused isn’t about you. You cannot demand that someone let you “make it up to them” any more than you can demand their forgiveness so that you can assuage your guilt and feel like a good person again.

What we get throughout the series with Xena and Callisto’s relationship (that’s right, you don’t get to confront your past misdeeds one good time, thanks very much, my hands are clean now) is an examination of cyclical violence and trauma, not unlike that which we see played out in the global stage of imperialism and slavery, and the subsequent hatred and resentment. This is not to say the narrative is perfect; despite their history, Callisto is clearly intended to be the villain and Xena the hero (Callisto is literally demonized in later episodes, and the viewer is reminded that Xena, the aggressor, is still the center of this narrative, which is perhaps the primary critique to offer of any redemption narrative). Thinking about the story now, 25 years later, I wish the relationship between the two were troubled even more. In some ways, though, Xena was ahead of its time. In her reactionary pain and quest for vengeance against Xena, Callisto creates even more victims who will grow to hate them both for the role they played in ruining yet another generation. Callisto also reminds the viewer that there are mental costs on the victims of violence, too—and how, exactly, do you provide recompense for causing that sort of pain?

Callisto is just one victim of Xena the Warlord that we meet, and Xena is not always so successful at managing the balance of violence, even with Gabrielle’s faith and guidance. Like I said earlier, Xena has a particular skillset, and when all you have is a hammer… In the middle seasons, we really struggle with Xena as this tendency strains all of her relationships, especially her partnership with the pacifist Gabrielle. In “The Debt,” someone from Xena’s past—someone who helped Xena, who took care of her—calls in a debt: she wants Xena to kill someone for her. Gabrielle begs Xena not to, and across the two-part episode, we are reminded that even those who love you the most will turn on you if you renege on your promises to change. In a series of betrayals, Xena and Gabrielle have to work through a journey of forgiveness on a small scale (see “The Bitter Suite”) that becomes another touchstone not just for their friendship (cough-soulmateship-cough), but for the arc of Xena’s destiny. So many people in her past—Ares, Callisto, even Julius Caesar (see “Destiny”)—tried to dictate the end of her story, that she was, is, and will die a murderer, and that she would be a fool for not taking the power that came with it. And, yes, sometimes, she believes them. The consequences of these setbacks are even more dire—the souls of thousands of people hang in the balance and in the last episodes, Xena must choose how much she’s willing to give up to make right the past.

One of the hardest parts about making up for past mistakes—even past complacency can be a mistake—is that those mistakes happened for a reason. There was some sort of inertia there that kept us from making the decision with the less harmful outcome. Maybe the inertia we had to overcome was ignorance—now you need to make the effort to learn, but gah, sometimes history books are dull, or it takes more than buying one book or attending one diversity and inclusion lecture to understand the scope of a systemic problem or the perspective of a victim.

Or maybe the inertia is that you’re actively benefiting from a privilege that you need—it sustains your health, your life, your financial security, your peace of mind—and to question that, let alone to dismantle that system in the hopes of building a more equitable one that not only ceases future damage but repairs past damages… well, that’s a pretty big obstacle to get over. You’d be putting yourself at risk, maybe even in physical danger. Times like this, you have to ask the hard question: what would Xena do?

To become a part of the solution, and thus earn any redemption to be had, you must do the labour yourself, without asking someone else to do it for you. You might even have to die for it! Xena did—several times. Xena didn’t ask Callisto to tell her all of the ways she could change. Xena looked at her actions, the results, and then put the equation together herself. She wanted to do the hard, self-critical math. Do you?

And therein lies the power of Xena’s story. Not in the late-millennia special effects or the musical episodes (…yes), but in the willingness to follow a flawed character through an arc of growth and temptation, triumph and setback. When you’ve contributed to harm actively or passively, you’re responsible for your own redemption. Keep that ledger book honestly in your heart. No one will know if you fudge the numbers but you. You have to live with it and die by it.

 

1 There are likely the simple generational factors (how old the Xena franchise is) and accessibility factors (Xena is no longer freely available on primary streaming platforms; at the writing of this essay, however, it is available on Tubi in the United States).

 

Interview: C. S. E. Cooney

C. S. E. Cooney is the World Fantasy Award-winning author of Bone Swans: Stories. Her short novel, The Twice-Drowned Saint: Being a Tale of Fabulous Gelethel, the Invisible Wonders Who Rule There, and the Apostates Who Try to Escape its Walls, can be found in Mythic Delirium’s recent anthology, The Sinister Quartet. Both her forthcoming novel Saint Death’s Daughter and her story collection Dark Breakers, will be out in 2022. Other work includes Tor.com novella Desdemona and the Deep, and a poetry collection: How to Flirt in Faerieland and Other Wild Rhymes, which features her Rhysling Award-winning “The Sea King’s Second Bride.” Her short fiction and poetry can be found in Jonathan Strahan’s anthology Dragons, Ellen Datlow’s Mad Hatters and March Hares: All-New Stories from the World of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Rich Horton’s Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, and elsewhere. When she’s not writing, she’s designing games with her husband Carlos Hernandez, and recording albums of mythy-type music under the name Brimstone Rhine. Cooney has appeared in Uncanny four times previouslywith one story and three poemsand she now returns with “From the Archives of the Museum of Eerie Skins: An Account,” an emotionally powerful story of witches and wolfcasters, academia and art.

 

Uncanny Magazine: This story has so many lovely elements—a magic system of witches and wolfcasters, a university and a museum, a heartbreaking crime committed against the protagonist. What was your starting point or inspiration for the story?

C. S. E. Cooney: So, Carlos and I are designing a GM-less TableTop Role-Playing Game called Negocios Infernales. The main mechanic is a bespoke deck of cards. On each card there is a suit (seven suits in all), an image, and an idiom. Carlos and I wrote the idioms together, and we hired artist Bek Huston for the art, and worked with her to build the images and suits of the deck.

All this to say: the cards, separate from the game, work really well as story- and poetry-prompts. Last year, in March of 2020, on the day that Broadway went dark, we went to visit my mom in Phoenix. We thought we would be staying just a week, but news from Queens, New York was so frightening—and my mom would start crying every time we talked about getting a flight home—that we ended up staying for three months. Carlos was on sabbatical, and my job as an audiobook narrator was certainly on pause, and so we were very, very lucky to be able to be so harbored.

During our stay, we did a lot of writing together, particularly experimenting with using our card deck—“La Baraja del Destino”—to inspire us. One of our writing exercises resulted in “Eerie Skins.” Particularly: a card that says, “You are the fuel your anger consumes.”

It’s a card from the Rayo (Lightning) suit, and it shows a person with a wolf’s head breaking out from their burst ribcage. We were doing question prompts that day, and Carlos’s question for me was, “What is hunting the Wolfcaster?” The anguish of the image, and the subversion inherent in the question (Carlos is so smart)—turning what is normally thought of a predator into prey—and having, personally, a great deal of built-up dudgeon from living in our fucked-up world, resulted in my story.

Uncanny Magazine: “From the Archives of the Museum of Eerie Skins: An Account” is a written transcript of an oral history, and it feels a bit like a fairy tale wrapped in the pelt of an academic paper. What drew you to this structure?

C. S. E. Cooney: Last year, summer of 2020, my good friend, the writer Patty Templeton, was just about to graduate with her Master’s in Library Science—with a concentration in Archival Studies. This was just so cool, and a Master’s degree is so intense, that I wanted to make sure I was feting her for many months in a manner to which she (and all my friends, really) should become accustomed. (I.e., having artists of all sorts lavish them with works dedicated to their genius.)

Also, writing it this way was a structural challenge. I often look for interesting structures in a short story, and as it’s not my strong suit, it’s something I have to work at and have an eye out for. Structure is, perhaps, especially important for a first-person account. Because there’s always that question, isn’t there, about to whom, exactly, one’s narrator is talking? Also, this archival structure was an excuse to ask Patty a lot of impertinent questions about archive-y things, all those fascinating little steps, labeling and boxing, and preservation techniques, because, really, what do I know? All mistakes are mine; Patty was a CHAMPION beta-reader.

Uncanny Magazine: I loved the protagonist’s mother, and the dynamic of their parent-child relationship. Interesting, well developed characters and relationships are a strength that features strongly in your fiction—what sources do you draw from in creating them? Do your characters ever do things you don’t expect?

 C. S. E. Cooney: I’m from a big family—five brothers, the darlingest mother (all right, I admit it, almost everything I said about the protagonist’s mother can be said about my mother, and where I did or did not blur some lines might surprise you, re: claws and stuff), etc.

Long-term friendships, a close-knit community, and a municipal system in all its parts—education, peacekeeping, the arts—working together to “bend toward justice,” all of these are incredibly important to me in my real life, and I just think…I just think it’s something that should be in my fiction, too.

Do my characters ever do things I don’t expect? That’s fascinating. That’s like asking me, do you ever surprise yourself? What about your brain? Does your brain ever surprise you? …yes? All the time? I know what I am, but not what my story may be. Or how my story might then change me. I mean, sometimes I start a story and I kind of know the ending. Ahem. The story arrives as (forgive me) “AN ABSOLUTE UNIT.” But sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I just want to try something. Or I had a cool image. Or a dream. Or a feeling.  Or a character voice. Or a line. Or a world in mind, but the world that is empty, and I heard Benedict from Much Ado About Nothing screaming, “THE WORLD MUST BE PEOPLED!”

So much is discovered not in the first draft—which is like choosing one’s chunk of marble for a sculpture, whether commissioned or just ’cause—but in all the drafts to come, wherein one hews out the form and figure, sometimes according to one’s own plan, sometimes according to the marble’s.

I didn’t know the end of this story when I started it. About halfway through the first draft, I drew another card from our Destino deck. (Carlos was also writing a short story; we drew together, and asked each other questions again, based on our cards, but this time, also based on whatever text we had already originating from the first draw). I don’t know when I knew the story would end with performance art. Not till the near the very end, I think. Any reference to the end at the beginning of the story went in at a later draft.

…This is a very whirligig, widening gyre-ish sort of answer, and maybe a bit ambiguous. I don’t mean to be coy. It’s just…stories surprise me. First they don’t exist, and then they do, and it’s all our own fault. Thank goodness for the drafting process.

Uncanny Magazine: If you lived in the world of this story, would you rather be a wolfcaster or a witch?

C. S. E. Cooney: Oh, WITCH ALL THE WAY. I have a huge soft spot for my witches. Wolfcasters are a new discovery, and I have to get to know them a little better. I admit I’ve spent a bit more time with this world’s witches in my novella “The Witch in the Almond Tree,” and also a little bit in my story “Witch, Beast, Saint.” The witch Mar, who has a cameo in “Eerie Skins,” is the main character in “The Witch in the Almond Tree.” Her fellow archivists are also characters in that story.

FWIW: Doornwold itself (and its plague) is mentioned in my novella “The Bone Swans of Amandale” by the rat Maurice, also a skinslipper—so I gave a little nod to him in “Eerie Skins” in that bit about rats. (Blink and you miss it!) I always meant to write another story with Mar and friends that takes place during the Plague of Doornwold and the reign of the Witch Queens. Now, if I do, I have another character—Firi, my main character in “Eerie Skins”—to play her part as a supporting character.

Whether or not that ever happens on the page, who knows? But it’s happening in my brain! Most of my stories are linked, at least by a single sentence, often more, but I like to be a little sneaky about it sometimes.

Uncanny Magazine: You have a strong background in many different arts—poetry, theater, music, prose—and I love that the climax of this story hinges on a piece of performance art. How much do your other art mediums seep into your fiction? Do you find that your prose writing influences your approach to other types of art?

C. S. E. Cooney: Well! Take “Candletown” for instance. Candletown Coal Company started life as something I mentioned in “The Canary of Candletown,” a short story I wrote for Steam-Powered II: Lesbian Steampunk Stories. It went on—in Ballads from a Distant Star, a concept album I’ve been working on—to be the location whence a bunch of miners and their families are abducted by aliens (with the permission of the company bosses, in exchange for alien tech), and taken to mine on a distant planet. Particularly it’s mentioned in the song “Sisters Lionheart,” which I wrote with my friends Dounya and Amal El-Mohtar in mind, and “Little Man Jamie.” Later, Candletown Company features in Desdemona and the Deep, my novella published by Tor.com as the name of the coal company owned by Desdemona’s father, and the site of the story’s central disaster. So, that’s one example. But in general, I’d say, yes. Seepage. Seepage everywhere. I’m a seeping sort of artist. (Eww.)

Uncanny Magazine: What are you working on next?

C. S. E. Cooney: THANK YOU FOR ASKING! I am currently working on my Dark Breakers manuscript for Mike Allen at Mythic Delirium. It collects the first two novellas set in the same world as Desdemona and the Deep, as well as three new short stories and novelettes set in that world as well. It comes out next year, around the same time as my novel Saint Death’s Daughter.

After that, I have two novellas (which are probably actually short novels, but they’re still in their first drafts so it’s hard to say) that I drafted in the latter half of 2019 that I am very eager to get back to. One’s called Fiddle and one’s called I Will Make a Ruin of Myself. I’d love to have those up and on submission by the end of the year. Carlos and I were asked to collaboratively write two short stories for two different anthologies and magazines in the meantime. I also have this very odd short story “Kissing Babies” I’ve been dying to write. Carlos and I are continuing to iterate our Negocios Infernales TTRGP game throughout the end of this year. Our publishers want to start crowdfunding for it in February 2022. And I’m wanting to get back to my Distant Stars album; I’ve been working on it for years! And also I have this shared-world collaborative poetry project in mind, and the main poet I wanted to collaborate on it with me has JUST AGREED. So YAY! And a few other things…

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

 

Art by Bek Huston:

A card depicting a wolf's head bursting from a person's chest, in profile. It reads: You are the fuel your anger consumes. Orange thunderclouds and a sailboat on water border the image and words.

Immortal Coil

[Marlowe] persuades men to Atheism willing them not to be afeard of bugbeares and hobgoblins, and vtterly scorning both god and his ministers

Marlowe is going to outlive him. Of this, he is sure.

He has seen him on the streets of Blackfriars, of Southwark, in Bladder Lane, near Aldgate…

He can pretend to be anything, young Kit. Not so young Kit. The two men are of an age: born the same year (though not under the same stars, not at all), Marlowe the elder by two months and always made much sport of it, saying that in the span of a poet’s brief life, two months equaled two years of a common man’s: witness the glorious successes of his Dido, Queen of Carthage and his Tamburlaine the Great, both on stage with the Lord Admiral’s Men when young Will was still acting messengers and third citizens while sharpening his quill on… Was it that o’ermatched shrew in Verona, that first was played? Or the two gentlemen of Padua (not to mention their dog)?

But Kit looks the younger now. He looks like the man Will knew fifteen long years ago, the last time he saw him, in the spring of 1593.

This is what happens when you make the Bargain, Will.

He is not imagining things. This, Marlowe told him himself, when Will finally cornered him like a fox in his lair, which happened to be a bench in the back of the Boar’s Head Tavern.

Will has been chasing him since that first sighting in the churchyard of St Mary le Bow. The days were shortening to winter. The congregation spilled forth from the packed church hungry for fresh air and a sight of what was left of the blue sky after the sermon by a famous preacher. Will joined the many milling about, commenting on the sermon, the weather, the tombs in the churchyard… Only one man stood, quite still, leaning against the side of Bowe-church, ostentatiously waiting for Will to spot him before he disappeared between one tombstone and the next in the lee of a merchant whose wide-spread cloak was too large by an ell for his station, rot him.

But Will had seen him, seen that little fox face with the lion’s mane—obscured, somewhat, by a great growth of beard, but nothing changed in the set of the shoulders, the length of the stride—a small man, showing the world how he bestrode it with each step.

He saw him again the next day at noon—no ghost, therefore, since ghosts vanish at cockcrow. When Will left his lodgings for a meeting with Burbage, Kit was standing by the corner house, beckoning like the ghost in Hamlet, in the exact manner that Will had played him at the Globe last week. Knowing full well that he was being toyed with, Will still dutifully picked up Horatio’s lines: “Stay! speak! speak! I charge thee, speak!”

Kit put a finger to his lips, swirled a non-existent cloak and vanished—through the simple expedient of walking around the corner. Will followed apace—but since the play demanded it, Will did not seek too hard to find him when he proved nowhere in sight. Marlowe would appear to him again in the form and time of his choosing.

Will emerged from a morning rehearsal at Blackfriars, and there was Marlowe, reading a book against a wall like a man lounging by his own chimney corner. It took no scryer to read it as an invitation to Paternoster Row, where stall after stall of booksellers offered everything from solemn tracts to stolen scripts to new plays, badly-remembered by ill-paid players, ill-set by unscrupulous printers.

The clues were books, today, then, and Will followed a stall or two behind Marlowe, asking each bookseller what the bushy-bearded man in sober black had perused (sans buying). The titles read him Marlowe’s missive:

 

NEWS FROM HELL

ATHEISM CONQUERED

 

That was Marlowe in his humour, Marlowe who scorned Hell and God at once, a definitely notorious possible atheist always just one patron ahead of the hangman. Had Kit discovered God, now? More likely the Devil—but proof of the one as easily as the other would conquer any man’s atheism.

At the next stall, the fox had lingered long over three titles. So far, all plays, all duly registered with the stationer’s office, including this one:

 

THE LONDON PRODIGAL

 

This was easy enough to parse: his friend had been gone from London and was now returned. But how, prodigal? Had he been prodigal with his funds? His talents (which, to be nice about it, the Gospel parables named one and the same)? And did this prodigal son now expect to be fed the fatted calf? Welcomed by his loving, grieving father?

 

A TRICK TO CATCH THE OLD ONE

 

Was Will “the Old One” now? Or was that another reference to Old Nick? This was a play of Middleton’s, a city comedy about a young man in debt, ruined by his spendthrift habits. Prodigal, indeed.

 

THE MALCONTENT

 

Plain enough, as was the next:

 

IF YOU KNOW NOT ME, YOU KNOW NOBODY

 

The best thing about Heywood’s semi-comedy, semi-history had been its title. Will thumbed the quire open, read: Tis bad to do evil, but worse to boast of it: yet He above knows that sometimes as soon as I have come from Bowe-church, I have gone to a Bawdyhouse.

Kit had revealed himself to Will in the Bowe-church yard. But disappearing thence to a bawdyhouse? Not if he expected to be followed by his friend. He snapped the pages shut, returned it to the table, and crossed the yard, as Marlowe just had, to find:

 

A MAD WORLD, MY MASTERS

 

Kit was leaning heavily on Middleton. Well, Middleton did come up with good titles. Thomas Middleton, a fine playwright, who had been a lad of 13 years when Marlowe died, stabbed in a tavern in Deptford. The world lost to him, and he lost to the world, save the six dramas he had penned himself, and the many he’d had a hand in, because Kit wrote fast and was always in need of funds.

He moved on to:

 

WHAT YOU WILL

 

There was his own name, at last.

Will wondered if he should be relieved or offended that none of the titles Marlowe chose had been his. But which of William’s plays’ titles lent themselves to this riddling? Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, Henry V, Anthony and Cleopatra, King Lear, Richard III, Othello, Macbeth… the names of dead kings, dead generals, dead heroes. Only a few of Will’s own titles would fit this game. If he could lay them out, Will reflected, his reply to Marlowe might run something like this:

 

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING

AS YOU LIKE IT

MEASURE FOR MEASURE

…And of course,

LOVE’S LABORS LOST

 

These made a pretty reply. When he caught Marlowe, he would tell him so. He might tell him now, if he were swift: there was Marlowe at the stall opposite, holding a book upside-down, miming his inability to make it make sense, to the annoyance of the bookseller.

As he viewed the pages, Marlowe’s mobile face slackened; slowly he shook his bearded head over and over, as though he were some country bumpkin overwhelmed by city wit, and moved away, leaving the field—the text—to Will:

 

WHEN YOU SEE ME, KNOW ME

 

Those words were clear enough. His mopping and miming were an extra piece of Kit’s deviltry: Marlowe must know how Henslowe had spiced up a production of Kit’s Dr Faustus with bits of Rowley’s silly play back in ’02, right before the old queen’s death.

Will rounded the corner into Pope’s-Head Alley just in time to see young Marlowe strolling away from the stall of Master George Loftes with nary a glance behind him, sure that his old friend followed.

It meant losing his quarry, but Will could not resist the lure of learning the next book’s title, on his life he could not. Besides, he knew Master Loftes—or was known to him—and it would be discourteous to ignore the bookseller’s greeting; still more discourteous, when he heard that “your man, that lately passed this way, and if ye’d been a bit more speedy ye’d have o’ertaken him” had commanded a book to Master Shakespere’s account, and would he like to take it and pay for it now?

Will kept his countenance and received the pamphlet, a small folio of sewn pages, gravely.

“Will you want it bound, sir?”

Why bound, and thus obscured, when the title grinned up at him from the naked title page?

 

LOOKE TO IT: FOR, I’LL STABBE YE

 

A threat? He flicked the pages lightly, reflecting on the previous titles: The Prodigal, The Malcontent… Those had been Kit himself, the man to the life. If you know not me, you know nobody. That was addressed to Will. So too might I’ll stab you be?

He opened the book to the first page, where a poem declared:

 

There is a Humour us’d of late,

By eve’ry Rascall swagg’ring mate,

To give the Stabbe: Ile Stabbe (sayes hee)

Him that dares take the wall of me.

If you to pledge a health deny,

Out comes his Poniard; there you lie…

If you demand the Debt he owes,

Into your guts his Dagger goes.

 

Into his guts, indeed. His guts, his heart, his head—he’d heard it was one, the other, and worse, the wound that had felled Kit Marlowe in the widow’s house in Deptford that spring of 1593. There were as many reasons given as wounds. Which humour was used to give the stabbe to Christopher Marlowe? A debt unpaid, a toast undrunk, respect withheld…? No one knew. Well, the killers would know. Or those who’d set them on. Say rather, nobody was foolish enough to tell, or brave enough to find out.

Marlowe wasn’t dead, then, was that the message of this Look to It doggerel? That he was somehow instead living a life of such ease that it did not age him? Will would not put it past Kit to have written this very verse, sleek-paced and pointed—credited to one “S. R.,” but that meant nothing. It might even be another riddle.

Will gave up the chase for the day, went home via a cookshop, ate his meat as he perused the book Marlowe had caused him to buy.

 

If you demaund the Debt he owes,

Into your guts his Dagger goes.

Death seeing this, doth take his Dart,

and he performes the Stabbing part.

he spareth none, be who it will:

his licence is the World to kill.

 

He spareth none, be who it will.

Be who? It Will.

So, Kit, you are dead, yet licensed to roam the World—great news from Hell indeed—to tell me what? That I am next? To tempt me to your strange, atheist-disproving damnation?

The day with the titles had unsettled him. A game of words, the kind he liked so well that, he must confess, it might all just be his own fancy run wild. Was it truly Marlowe, he began to wonder. Or just a young man who resembled him—a son of his body, even—a man with a roguish wit and invention, leading the ageing writer a merry dance for the sheer joy of it? How could it be Marlowe, in sooth? Will taxed himself with these thoughts in the watches of the night. His brain was overheated, his liver cold… His mother’s late death quick followed upon by the birth of his daughter’s first child making him brood on mortality, lending to an idle shape the name of Christopher Marlowe. He missed Kit still, he did. They’d meant to vie each for Fame and the even more elusive Greatness together. There is no one like the friend who knew you when you first began to know yourself.

He was not seeking Marlowe when at last he found him. On the street, a light touch on his shoulder—a pick-pocket’s trick, and Will clapped his hand to his purse—but it was Kit.

“Good day, Will.” Kit’s voice was gentle. He knew that voice as he knew his own name. “Shall we walk out of the sun?”

And so he found himself in the Boar’s Head Tavern, where he knew no one and was known to none, on a bench deep at the back, far from everything, facing Marlowe across the table. The two men were silent, just taking each other in.

The scar on Kit’s forehead was still there: a small thing that bit off the corner of his right eyebrow. Some said it was there he had received his death wound in Deptford.

But Will had been present when his friend had taken the blow that caused the scar: a jesting duel between Marlowe and the actor Ned Alleyn, each armed with a wooden sword, debating how the ancient Romans had fought in truth, and how to render it onstage. Alleyn struck an unhappy blow. Kit reeled. As the blood from his forehead flooded his face, Kit had roared and roared, caught between his terror at his drowned vision and the hilarity of Ned’s apologies, an actor’s words borrowed from all the parts he knew, that grew more lush and self-abasing with Marlowe’s every holloa.

In the end, it was nothing. Head-wounds bleed, and when this one was finally staunched, it left the mark, the very mark Will gazed on now. No question, then, but that he beheld his friend in truth.

The little fox gazed earnestly at him. “You look older. But of course, you are.”

“And you, somehow, are not?”

“As you see.” Marlowe showed him one smooth palm, turned it over and back again, a conjuror at a fair displaying the same trick over and over: the ball you see, the ball that you do not.

Will saw a young man’s hand, unmarked with labor. What he did not see was the stain of any ink.

He held his own hand out for contrast. It looked as though it had been dipped in the stuff—he must needs forebear to take out his handkerchief and scrub at it. The forefinger and thumb, twin graspers of the pen nib—the streaks of gall between them, and then the bump on the side of the third digit, the seat of Jupiter, above the mount of Saturn, where the quill rubbed ever against it.

“You do not write,” Will stated.

“Never a word. Your chariot has out-paced mine, sweet William. Five-and-thirty plays to my six—and never mind all that verse.”

“I’ve had more time than you, my gentle ghost.”

“I am no ghost.” Kit reached his clean white hand across the table. But Will had no desire to take it. “I go too fast,” Marlowe said.

“An old, old fault.”

“If you won’t take my hand, will you still drink with me? Two men, ale from one pitcher, and we’ll see who needs must rise to piss first.”

“I never knew a ghost who pissed.”

“And do not know one now. Listen—it’s true I left the writing life. But I am well-paid in return.”

“And, thus, in returning?”

Kit laughed delightedly. “There’s my gentle Will. I am as I was at the moment before my death. And will remain so always. Ho, boy!” he called to the potman. “Ale for my friend and me, and no spitting in the jug!”

“How do you live?”

“I live on air, as birds do.”

“With worms and flies?” The lines from his own play came to him as easy as breath.

“I made a bargain, Will. The writing was the price of it.”

“They paid you to stop writing?”

“Not with money.” Across the table, Marlowe rose to his feet, a player playing at being offended. “Do you think me such a low-mouthed cur as that?”

“I’ve known you to do much for merely the price of a pipe of tobacco,” the poet said mildly.

“Well.” Kit sat himself down again. “My silence is not so easily bought.”

“Yet bought it was.”

“It was.”

Will Shaxpur had more patience than any man in Southwark. Marlowe knew it, so he took his time playing out the moment before revelation. He fidgeted with his goffered sleeve cuff, prized a splinter out of the table with his penknife (even a man with no pen still had one, fit to other uses; Will observed his hands; there was nothing wrong with them to stop Kit from holding a pen), lifted it to pick his teeth before finally calling halt to his little dumbshow.

“I do not write. I live.”

Will nodded brusquely. He’d heard that from many a University wit, come up to London to make his fame with words only to give way to temptation, having found his father’s allowance allowed him to postpone the work that precedes fame.

Kit had heard it, too, and hurried on to say: “I live the lives I wrote about, I mean. The time of my choosing, and the personages as well, one upon the next. I have seven times seven centuries of youth and perfect health before me. Like the man born to be hanged—which I suppose I might be, when my times comes (I didn’t ask; I’m nice about such things)—I shall never drown at sea. No plague can touch me. It’s true my skin can be pricked—but the blood I spill regenerates itself.” He gestured with his hands like a very Italian: “Thus I may be pirate, thief or renegado; merchant, painter, costermonger… prince, I suppose, should the means present itself. I’ve all the time to learn a thousand skills, and practice each unto my heart’s content.”

“I see,” Will said, for so he did. “Only have you lost the power of generation.”

“Of writing, merely! That was the Bargain.”

“You’ve traded your future work for present immortality.”

Kit always looked surprised when Will saw straight to the point of things. No one else did that, anymore. Will was forty-four now, and had forgotten the days when everyone expected him to be a raw-boned fool. No friend like an old friend.

“My ingenuity I have not lost. That creative force which makes us higher than the angels. I may yet paint, compose, carve… shape pastries if I will!”

“It’s a fine art, the pastrycook’s. I saw a pie once at the Queen’s table at Windsor made to look like the Tower of Babylon. I might have desired to eat it—but never to craft it myself.”

Marlowe’s retort was lost with the arrival of the potboy with the ale, in a pitcher, and two cups. Playing host, Christopher filled them both, and raised his own to Will.

“To the reunion of true friends,” he said, and William drank to that; how could he not?

But he had his own retort, his own toast ready. “And to truth in reunion.” He drank. “Now, by our friendship, Kit, if you do hold it sacred as you say: tell me what happened.”

“I’ll tell you.”

Had Marlowe’s eyes always been this light, like mirrors he could see into? Or was it the simple pleasure of looking into them again, when he’d long thought them food for worms, that held him so?

“They came to me when Faustus was being played at the Rose. So spare me your suspicions, friend! I know a good bargain from a bad. All I have gained is my life. All I have lost is my writing.”

“Faustus at the Rose. So, two years before your dea—before Deptford.”

“I do confess I thought I had more time.” Marlowe scratched his chin through that deep, ridiculous, obscuring beard. “They never say when it will come. How could I know?” He sighed. “I would have liked to finish my Hero and Leander.”

“Chapman finished it for you with a creditable third Sesto.” Will couldn’t stop himself from talking shop.

“Did he? I haven’t dared to look.”

“The tale of the doomed Greek lovers is hardly unknown,” Will added a bit meanly. “And he was brave to take on not just your poetry but your dimple-arsed Leander.” Will quoted:

 

Even as delicious meat is to the tast,

So was his neck in touching, and surpast

The white of Pelops’ shoulder: I could tell ye,

How smooth his breast was, and how white his belly;

And whose immortal fingers did imprint

That heavenly path with many a curious dint

That runs along his back…

 

Marlowe smiled as though tasting fine old wine, then took a sip of ale. “Well, never mind it. The point is that I knew as those three villains surrounded me in Deptford, held me up against that table with their blades out… I knew my time had come. But I tried not to piss myself in fear, for if the Bargain held, I would outlive their stabbings.” He paused. “They say that at the moment of his death, a man sees his whole life pass by like a great procession. As the knives came closer, my faith in the Bargain was sustained: for what I saw was all my plays, one after the other—stripped of their imperfections, each sweet and meaty like a banquet… a banquet I would never taste again. And that was all there was of death for me.”

Will leaned forward, almost took one of the pale hands. “Is that your purpose here, Christopher? Do you want me to write your plays for you?”

Kit looked at him bleakly. “How?”

“You cannot write. But you speak well enough. Am I to play your scribe, as when we first worked together on all the Henry plays?” Will tried to keep his voice level, lest he betray to them both his strange mix of longing and disdain, of rage at the insult and desire for what was past.

Marlowe was looking down at the nicks he’d made in the table. “No. No, that’s not it. Not it at all.” His mouth twisted in a painful grimace. “Nothing could be farther from my mind.”

“What then?” He asked it gently.

“Have you not divined? Truly not? Then I will spell it out.” He looked up with those strange eyes. “It’s your turn. You are next.”

Will heard the scraping of his own bench, found he had pushed back violently from the table. “How? How can I be next, when I’ve made no bargain? This is not right! I will not have it so!”

“Sit, Will, sit, I pray you. I’ve said it wrong. My lines are all ill-metered, now. Please, friend, sit. Of course you have a choice. Let me explain.”

Will sat, and took a long pull at his cup.

“An invitation only, Will. To the banquet that I now enjoy. Listen: they will come to you, offer you the Bargain, and ask for your consent.”

“They?” The time had come to ask. “What is this they you speak of?

Kit shook his head, like a horse ridding itself of flies. “I cannot say.”

“Cannot?”

“It is impossible.”

If Will was angry, it was on his friend’s behalf. “What bright new Mephistopheles have you found, Kit, that binds your tongue from speaking his Master’s name?”

“It’s not the Devil, Will! I swear it.” He shook his head again in that strange way, as though to clear it. “Nor yet God’s ministering Angels, nor yet the earthy bubbles of the Faerie Realm. They are the stars wrenched from their courses—they are the seekers and the seeking, the judges and the judging, past and future ransomed by a mercy none but they will show—”

“Peace, Mercutio, peace.” Will spoke the lines that he had written for his dead friend. “Thou talkest of nothing.”

And the friend fixed those deep, bright eyes upon him. “When your time comes, you will apprehend.”

“When will that be?”

“I do not know. They come while you are hale and living, so that you may choose before the shadow of death is on you, choose freely and give consent to the Bargain.”

“Which is to write no more, after I die? Not much of a choice. I’ll write no more in any case.”

“That’s not quite it, though, Will.” Marlowe twisted his long fingers against one another. “We who take the Bargain must accept an early death—earlier than nature might have purposed—to turn from writing to eternal life.”

“A violent one?”

“What? Oh—no. Not unless you spy for Walsingham, and consort with atheistical nobles. I believe you’re safe there. You may die in your bed in Stratford. Just not at threescore years and ten.”

“That’s the offer, Kit? After my own short span, a lifetime of being other folk besides myself?” Will drank again, and wiped his mouth. “It holds no true allure. I have been all those people—on the stage, some, but more so in my crafting of them, through and through.” It was his turn to look at the table. “That art is my own,” he murmured to the wood. “The art that others—even you—only begin to scratch at. To know each man, each woman, as I write them, heart and soul and contradictions, all. To give them words to make each moment sing bass, alt, and treble. I’d rather live, and know them, still, than survive my own death trying to become what I am not and failing to do that which I am.”

The fox’s eyes narrowed. He let out an impatient breath. “Write all you like. Write all you may. But don’t play the fool. The bargain is to accept a thousand lives—to live the life that writing has denied you.”

“And then become but mine own audience, ever after?”

Marlowe sat back, considering. In that one moment, he seemed less of a young man, more one his own age, and Will was glad to see it finally. “Is that what troubles you?”

“A bargain is an exchange where both parties benefit. You get eternal life without a pen. But what is it that this mysterious They have gotten in return?  The knowledge that you consented to trade your art for life?”

“I do not know.”

“Kit, my only Kit. No matter how long you lived or however much you wrote, you were destined to die a poor man. You don’t know how to bargain, never did. University man!” he scoffed. “I have a house in Stratford, Kit. I have restored my family’s name. I leave my wife and children—and their children; yes, there is one now—a firm foundation.

“Tell, me, Marlowe: what of that other posterity? Is your seed still good, I mean?” Both Marlowe’s eyebrows shot up together, scarred and unscarred. “In your long, scripting-free life, will you people the world with Christophers, or leave it bare of that as well?”

“Too soon to tell,” Kit said with roguish bravado, the young scapegrace again. “I’ll let you know when I find out.”

“When you find out,” the poet repeated. “You will find out many things, if you live forever.”

“They play it yet, my Tamburlaine.”

“But if you live and live, you may live to see it utterly forgotten.”

“What matter?” Kit pretended not to care. “It is my life that goes on, with or without the work remembered.”

“Then your true, natural life was all for naught.”

“Not so! What’s more, whatever wind may sway a theater audience this way or that, a printed text is writ in stone. My Faustus, for example: though I am gone from the world’s stage, yet Bushnell still saw fit to publish the text some two years past.”

“It’s four years past, Kit. Published the same year as my Hamlet.”

“And you have written other plays since then.”

“I have.”

“Write all you like. Write all you may. Does it comfort you to think that you will die of old age, with all your words played out?”

He said nothing.

“Will—Will, listen to me. It’s fine to be a crafter of words. Not just to be admired for it, but to do it well, and know you do it well. But is not there something… monkish in it? For the time that you are writing, you are mewed up in your cell, your books your only company. The words break upon the page like waves. You’re on an island. An exile.”

“A room in a cave, on an island on an island. This sceptered isle, this England…”

“Which of us wrote that?” asked Kit, distracted by the phrase.

“I can’t remember. We argued over it; I forget who won.”

“This is the way off the island, Will! This—” Marlowe flailed in the air, then paused, suddenly sure of himself: an actor’s pause, then spoken with a flourish: “This is Illyria, lady.”

The words went through him like a spear. The sound each syllable made, the very simplicity of them, that beckoned—no, that ushered one into a brave, new world.

Marlowe saw, and pressed home the advantage. “Illyria, Will. News on the Rialto. Come from the farthest steppes of India. I am again for Cydnus! And that strange seacoast of Bohemia.” He chuckled, and Will let him; an old joke, a land-locked land, before he knew better. “What, not one hit?” Kit persisted in quoting, play after play: “From Tripolis, from Mexico and England, From Lisbon, Barbary? Grapple your mind to the sternage of this navy, and leave your England as dead midnight still… Think you are now in Mytiline… Come to the bay of Ephesus…”

Was ever Scythia half so barbarous? Really, Kit, you do torment me.”

“Certes,” the lion-maned fox said. “Do you think I do not know you? The Bargain: it’s not just life they offer. It’s the chance to read every book yet to be written. Every sea yet to be sailed. Exploration, Will! A way off the island for you at last.”

“And do you come to tempt me now to take this Bargain of yours? to forswear my so potent art only to draw more breaths in this all-hating world? And therewith to see my memory fade, my life’s work come to naught? How is that not hell, my Christopher?”

Marlowe shrugged and drained his cup. “Then stay in your cave, my friend. Leave the world to us. Wait, year by year, for either your death, or the death of your pen—the Bargain is yours to make or to refuse. But think of it, Will! To savor the world in all its flavors. Its honey on your tongue… its words in your mouth…”

Will held up his hand, the sign for an actor to halt.

“It’s not an easy choice, Kit. There is regret in it either way. If I say No, I will regret it on my deathbed. If I say Yes, I will regret it one hour after, the first time I set quill to paper and find I cannot write. And I will have the pleasure of seeing youth overtake me, as my plays go out of fashion, my name forgotten… What comfort, then, is there?”

“To make a new name,” Marlowe said. “Or none at all. But to know the world in all its glory, to be a fully living part of it at last.” Marlowe emptied the last drops from the pitcher into Will’s cup. “Say yes to them, Will. And then you’ll see me again.” He smirked, and rolled his eyes piously heavenward. “We cannot know our ends. But I’ll wager a gossip to a goose I’ll see you again on some high battlement, pennants flapping in a blist’ring wind, what teeth you have left by then bared joyously to the elements, ready with me for a battle that we two cannot lose.”

“How attractive you make it sound. I think…”

“What?”

“I’d rather travel. Learn every tongue, speak with rogues and dukes their language everywhere… inhabit an infinity of lives that way.”

“And so you may.”

“I’ve a good ear for language,” Will said. “And music, too. I’ve never mastered an instrument. There would be time for that.”

“There would.”

Will Shakspere sat back, and templed his fingers. “I’m 44 now, Kit. So I might write on for one year, two years… or even ten, and still count it before my time, I hope.”

“You might.”

“I have always thought a man should die on his birthday.”

“As you will.” Marlowe chuckled affectionately. “I didn’t.”

“Like Caesar’s Cassius.” Will, smiling, quoted his lines:

 

This day I breathèd first. Time is come round,

And where I did begin, there shall I end.

 

Kit said, “Or the Scottish Queen’s last words to the headsman: ‘In my end is my beginning.’”

“…They say.”

“No, I was there. I couldn’t tell you at the time.”

Will kept to the point: “But Mary meant her end in this world, the beginning her eternal life.”

Marlowe tried to look demonic. “Faith, so do I.” He rose, dropped coin on the table for the tab.

“Wait—one question, Kit.”

Marlowe leaned down, so that their two heads almost touched. “What is it, Will?”

“With all this time ahead… with death defeated, and life begun anew… what was it you chose to learn first?”

Marlowe’s fair skin flushed so deep a crimson it looked as though only his immortality could save him from the loss of blood. “To ride a horse,” he said. “I chose to learn to ride like a gentleman, and not a sack of sticks.”

Will grinned at his friend. “A fine choice, Kit. Very practical.”

“Think on’t,” Marlowe said. If he could have vanished theatrically in a blast of fire and smoke, he would have done so. But he just turned, and walked away through the tavern, one man in many, soon lost on the London streets.

CODA

 

She’d meant to go straight to the Ladies’ Waiting Room before her train. But Euston Station had recently been graced with a brand-new bookstall stocked with superior reading matter for passengers on the train lines, courtesy of Mr. W. H. Smith, a gentleman known for his taste and high morals. Here, for example, in ten tempting pocket volumes, the complete works of William Shakespeare. She picked up the last of them. These were the plays she knew the least. Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale… tales of travel, adventure on sea and land—though there was a  favorite, The Tempest: a man exiled to an island, living in a cave, surrounded by magic of his own making, until he returns home at last. She had not known the Bard had written that one so late in life, before his sudden death at the age of fifty-two.

As the short-sighted woman lingered there, examining the titles—a small woman in a plain gray traveling costume—she did not see the two men approaching until they were at her side.

They were well but plainly dressed, themselves—gentlemen, clearly—though the shorter of the two, a ginger man with luxurious whiskers, had allowed himself the levity of a pair of bright plaid trousers in the new analine dye.

They doffed their tall hats to her, bowed courteously.

“Yes?” she asked stiffly. They appeared to be gentlemen, but this was London.

“Have we the honor of addressing Miss Bronte?”

She pressed her lips tightly together and tried not to squint. Should she know them? Were they from her publisher? Had she met them at some dinner last time and forgotten? The taller, older man did look faintly familiar to her.

“Forgive this intolerable rudeness,” the shorter man said. “We have not been introduced, but time presses. Your train will be leaving shortly. You are expected elsewhere. We will not trouble you long.”

The older man shook his head impatiently, as though annoyed at the time even these courtesies were taking.

“We bear a message,” he said softly, “to the Genius Talli.” She clutched a book rack for support. “From the Duke of Zamorna.”

Charlotte knew them then.

“Where have you been?” she said. “I have been waiting for you.”

 

Finis

AFTERWORD

 

In April of the dread year 2020, a visit to friends in Arizona that had been meant to last two weeks was already stretching into two months. It was, in many ways, the world’s nicest pandemic lockdown: my wife  Delia Sherman and I had gone there to write, and now no one was stopping us.

But my soul craved something more. I started dropping hints on Facebook about doing a playreading. To my absolute amazement Emily Carding, a professional British actor (whose one-woman performance of Richard III is a wonder and delight), suggested we read A Winter’s Tale together via Zoom, with her as the jealous, raging King Leontes, and me as her wise Paulina. After I’d stopped running around the house shrieking with glee, I pulled in a few other readers from various corners of my life: in Maine, in my New York neighborhood, in Massachusetts, in Devon… and we sorted out our various time zones and did the reading. It filled us with such joy that we decided to read As You Like It together the following week. That was so utterly engaging that we chose Henry IV, Part I for the next week (because Falstaff), bringing in a guy I auditioned with for my very first in high school play (now a professor of theater himself), a friend’s young daughter training to be an actor, a professor of Spanish and Queer Studies who specializes in crowd scenes with finger puppets… As the weeks and the plays mounted up, we invited in more friends, all professionals (two Toronto, one London, one L.A.) who were hurting something fierce because they were locked down in apartments with no text and no audience. Oh, and my wife Delia and my nephew.

 

I don’t know when we decided that we were going to read through the entire Shakespeare canon, with each play uncut. I know it was Patrick who decided we should call ourselves “All the Bard’s Words (all of them!).”

Almost exactly a year to the day we began, we read our final play in the canon.

I call it a Gift of the Pandemic. Every single week, every word of every play layering in my ear, in my brain. I caught subtleties I’d never noticed before, made connections from play to play of theme, character, language . . . And the friendship amongst this varied and various international gang grew into something rich, magnanimous, nourishing.

I want to thank them for this story. I only wrote it because they were there every week, bringing their skills, their passions, their humor, and their insights to all the Bard’s characters. Thus, when I, um, was reminded that I had a story due for Uncanny shortly after we’d completed the canon, I realized that if I didn’t use the gift the year had given me, I was an ass.

 

So thank you, my beloved Zoomers:

Titus Androgynous

Nick Azzaretti

Sara Berg

Kelly Burke

Emily Carding

Blair Coats

Karen Green

Stuart J. Hecht

Michael Hovance

Alexander J. Kushner

Margo MacDonald

Patrick J. O’Connor

Kate Pitt

Delia Sherman

 

While I was struggling to write “Immortal Coil,” they were there, too, helping out with everything from palmistry to place names. Some Facebook friends came through as well, most notably the scholars Kavita Vidya and Carey Mazer. And when I was in the throes of trying to make page after page of pretty language say something that actually made sense, my dear Liz Duffy Adams, Mimi Panitch and Delia Sherman sat around a big kitchen table with me and saved my life as usual.

 

Finally, thanks to my generous editors, Lynne Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas, for their patience and inspiration.

— Ellen Kushner

 

Mona Lisa’s Abecedarian to Leonardo da Vinci

all they’ve said about the painting is a lie‚ except my being a sphinx of

beauty. to think they’d ever

call me a vampire feels unbelievable‚ until you remember that I’ve been

dead more times than I’ve been alive. the truth remains, my

eyelashes had been plucked and fed to fishes. the untold story goes, they died. once‚

falling backwards into a sea was fun until I learned about

getting drowned. what I can say about being sneaked out of the Louvre is, it

has taught me more about impermanence than betrayal. I must say

inexpressibility was not a disease I suffered from. I loved being beautiful

just like the moon loved quietude. with

kneeling before repressed desires, I’m undoubtedly hopeless. I’m

learning how to be something softer than a work of art; that

my name wouldn’t have been my name, if you didn’t call me so.

never had virtuousness come to me easy. once, I said faith & waited for God to fall

out of my mouth. while sitting in a bulletproof glass, a woman

pelted a ceramic cup at me. I wondered if she’d rather offer me water to

quaff next time. I hear on the news that

roughly 1.7 million people are willing to pay

so much money to see my face. Leo, is it that

they do not know where my grave is?

usually, there’s always a man confessing his love to me but

Vinci‚ I fear I can’t love if it isn’t as much as you loved canvases. I fail

while trying to conjure ways to not feel

x-ed out of this generation. I struggle to smile when all I want is to

yawn my way out of this box. sometimes, I think of you a

zephyr‚ other times, a tornado.

 

(Editors’ Note: “Mona Lisa’s Abecedarian to Leonardo da Vinci” is read by Matt Peters on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 40B.)

Interview: Shveta Thakrar

Shveta Thakrar is a part-time nagini and full-time believer in magic. Her work has appeared in a number of magazines and anthologies including Enchanted Living, A Thousand Beginnings and Endings, and Toil & Trouble. Her debut young adult fantasy novel, Star Daughter, is a finalist for the 2021 Andre Norton Nebula Award. When not spinning stories about spider silk and shadows, magic and marauders, and courageous girls illuminated by dancing rainbow flames, Shveta crafts, devours books, daydreams, travels, bakes, and occasionally even plays her harp. “Heart Shine” is her fifth appearance in Uncanny, a beautiful story of identity and self-acceptance, fireflies and magic.

 

Uncanny Magazine: You’ve created a lovely world for this story, with fireflies, faerie gates, and magic that comes at a very personal price. What was your starting point for the story, and how did you decide on the rules for magic in this world?

Shveta Thakrar: Thank you so much! This is actually an extremely personal story, because I’ve always believed in and longed for magic and am still—impatiently—waiting for my door to Faerie. For me, being a writer is a way to share with others the enchantment I see and feel.

But the spark, if you will, was an evening spent in a forest in upstate New York a few years back. At dusk, the fireflies came out en masse, and as I watched them, holding out as long as I could against the equally numerous mosquito battalion eating me up, all I could do was marvel at their wordless opera. It literally looked like glowing jewels in song. I knew right then that this wondrous image would need a story of its own, a love letter to fireflies and their luminescent magic.

Uncanny Magazine: The story opens by mentioning a craft project that Komal is working on—a silver lotus charm. Do you enjoy crafting? Do you have a favorite project/creation?

Shveta Thakrar: I used to do quite a bit of crafting, and I hope to get back to it at some point. My favorite creation would probably either be a paper mobile complete with dolls of my niece and me—which her younger brothers ripped up almost the second after I gave it to her; oops—or a mixed-media dollhouse room set in a cigar box with the lid cut off.

Uncanny Magazine: Your YA novel Star Daughter came out in 2020, and like “Heart Shine,” it deals with themes of identity and self-acceptance. What draws you to these themes? What other topics or themes tend to show up frequently in your work?

Shveta Thakrar: Thank you so much for reading Star Daughter! As for the themes in question, I don’t believe anyone ever truly stops coming of age. I’m well into adulthood, and I’m still figuring out what I want and where I belong. The answers have shifted as I’ve gotten older and gained perspective and distance, but the questions are still valid.

Other themes I’m drawn to include family, female friendship, and food. Mmm, food.

Uncanny Magazine: Komal does some deep-dive research into folklore to find a way to get into the faerie realm. Do you have a favorite folk/fairy tale, or a favorite bit of folklore more generally?

Shveta Thakrar: I love fairy tales and consider myself an amateur folklorist. I’d say my favorite fairy tale (which happens to be one I’ve retold elsewhere under the title “Daughter of the Sun”—and interestingly enough, in that retelling, the characters have sun and moon hearts, so I suppose radiant hearts are another recurring theme in my work!) is “Savitri and Satyavan,” found in the epic Mahabharata.

Uncanny Magazine: If you were entertaining a firefly prince for two weeks, where would you take him? If you could send firefly spies into the faerie realm, what would you want them to look for?

Shveta Thakrar: This is an excellent and intriguing set of questions. I’d take my prince to forests, nightclubs, immersive theatrical experiences, mermaid tea parties, masquerades, fancy restaurants as well as holes in the wall, outdoor markets, old bookstores, beaches at night, caves where dragons’ eggs might be found… We’d definitely find lots of reasons to travel around the world.

A way into Faerie! But also garments made of cloth-of-sky, fabulous secrets, silver lotuses, harps and dilrubas that play themselves, fire-gem jewelry, enchanted swords, (spell)books, and food like crystallized dreams and skyberry cordial. I know some folklore cautions mortals against consuming faerie food or drink, which is probably wise. However, not all mythic traditions share that prohibition, and anyway, after all my daydreaming, how could I not try it?

Uncanny Magazine: What are you working on next?

Shveta Thakrar: My second novel, which I can’t say much about yet, but it involves nagas and dreams and will be out in summer of 2022.

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

The Hungry Ones

Content Note: Violence Against Women and Misogynistic Slurs

 

The Shadow-moon was full and dark and eating a black crescent into the face of the Sun on the day Aey sought the Hungry Ones. It was mid-afternoon when he left his faithless wife tending her hives and stole away towards town, a basket of Elle’s famous honey over his arm in case a curious neighbor saw him and questioned his mission. Much of the village was at worship, congregated in the foot-flattened sunfield for their weekly adulations, and as Aey picked his way through the empty, rain-mudded streets, he could hear strains of song floating up from the field, growing louder as the sky grew darker.

Elle did not concern herself with the Gods—she was, Aey thought bitterly, too proud to prostrate herself—but on a normal day, Aey too would be at the sunfield singing. Though it was true his regular attendance had dropped since he’d been hurt last summer; first because his broken leg had made it difficult to walk, and then, when it had healed, because he found himself averse to crowds, and to the humiliation of being asked, over and over, if his logging crew had found space to bring him back on, or if he’d found another crew to take him, or if he’d finally given in to Elle’s suggestions that he work for her, as her assistant beekeeper. It was this last question that jabbed with a sting sharper than any hornet—bad enough Elle should make the offer, worse that everybody knew. It was as if, in losing his position on the logging crew, he’d lost too his position as her husband, and been demoted to kept boy. From man to child, in one ill-timed crash of branches.

If he had not hurt his leg; if he had not lost his employment; if Elle’s honey weren’t so in demand; if she had not needed an assistant; if she had not hired thick-armed, flower-faced Davy, too young and stupid to recognize the dishonor in taking orders from a woman; if all of this had not occurred, he would not now be at the house of the Hungry Ones, staring down his own damnation.

But here he was. At the very edge of town, where stone-paved roads turned back to dirt and then to forest, and the house of the Hungry Ones stood silhouetted against a backdrop of trees. In the mid-afternoon night of the Shadow-moon’s eclipse, the house looked grey and forbidding as a cliff-face. But as Aey approached, the Shadow-moon began to slip from the brilliant Sun, and in the sudden light the house bloomed vividly blue and almost ordinary. For some reason, it was this calm facade that sent chills down Aey’s spine.

He went around to the back gate, pulse pounding in his ears, but was surprised to find the garden was a colorful and utilitarian layout of vegetables; if he’d allowed himself to wonder, he’d have pictured roses, or dahlias, or some other ripe and heavy-headed flower. Just as he stood on the stone steps wondering if he should knock, the door swung open.

The Hungry One who stood within did not look at all surprised to see him. “Aey,” she said. “You brought honey. How sweet.”

Aey stood, stupidly, as she took the basket from his hands. He had not planned what he would say.

“You need a spell,” she prompted. “Come in and tell me about it.”

He followed her inside, down a hallway and into a kitchen that did not seem so different from his own. It was sunny and clean, with a swept wooden floor and sparkling copper pans hanging above a potbellied stove. The shelves held what looked like flour, sugar, potatoes, jars of beans—no strange herbs or eyeballs floating in a viscous goo. The Hungry One seemed workaday, herself, in such a context, even draped as she was in the telltale blue robe. She was older than he by perhaps fifteen years, her teak-brown curls shot through with silver, her face lined like any woman of forty, and though she was pretty enough, her lips were thin, her jaw heavy. The eyes alone suggested power: they were a deep, unnatural blue, like the night sky reflected in a lake.

“Where are your sisters?” he said.

“Here and there,” she said. “How is your wife?”

“What do you know of my wife?” he said, bristling, and the Hungry One rolled her eyes, such a petty, human gesture that Aey almost relaxed.

“Elle is sleeping with young Davy,” she said, and he tensed up again. “She doesn’t know you saw the two of them together last night. She doesn’t understand the depth of your anger towards her and she doesn’t know you want to kill Davy in cold blood but haven’t got the nerve.” She cocked her head at his stricken expression. “Stop looking so frightened, Aey,” she said. “You’ve come for killing magic, after all.”

Like everybody, Aey had indulged in speculation: what circumstance might lead him to magic? Perhaps a loved one’s illness, he’d thought, but then his mother had sickened and died and still he kept away from the blue house on the edge of town. Maybe poverty—but the first winter of his marriage to Elle had been one of bitter cold privation, and yet Aey had not approached those stone steps. It turned out that only shame itself was worth the shame of seeking out a Hungry One.

Even before he had come home to find Elle and Davy, he’d been having a bad night. The conversation at the tavern had turned on him without warning: one moment Aey was laughing along as his former foreman described the tremulous flirtations of the mayor’s horse-faced daughter, and then suddenly the men’s laughter flipped, and the sharp tip of it was aimed at Aey himself.

“Anyway, some men like being ridden by a mare, and not the other way around,” said his foreman. “Tell us, Aey, does Elle have a special bridle for you?”

“Solid gold, no doubt,” said a former crewmate. “Only the best for her prize gelding.”

Aey could not force a smile. Such jibes would be easier to endure if it was only fibs and teasing, but all the town knew who filled the coffers in Aey’s home. Elle’s honey, thick and antiseptic, brought people flocking from leagues away, and her curative salves were stocked by every peddler who passed through. Meanwhile, Aey took odd jobs and was known by nobody.

“They say the Hungry Ones are born and not made,” added another man, “but if ever a woman were to please herself to power, it’d be Elle. You mind yourself, Aey, and keep her wanting.”

“You’re supposing Aey’s the source!” said another. “I bet she’s got a stableful of stallions, ready to be tapped dry.”

“If any man laid his fingers on my wife, her skin would be the last thing he touched,” Aey had said, unable to hold his tongue. “I would kill him on the spot.”

The response was instantaneous, and raucous.

“Oh, all fear the wrath of Aey!”

“Does Elle know her pretty toy has teeth?”

Aey knew he ought to pay no mind, but their words sawed away at the thin rope that tied him to calm. They could not know how close their jests cut; how he did, indeed, try and keep his wife wanting, how he turned away from her each night in an attempt to curb her power.

“The day you tame your wife is the day the Light-moon returns to her lover’s bed,” said Aey’s foreman, to raucous laughter, which he forced himself to join. But Burning Sunfather, he was sick of being made a joke.

So sick of it that he had left the tavern, and in this way had discovered the truth. He had come home early, had heard Elle’s whimpered gasp of pleasure from behind the North hives, had seen the glint of Davy’s bare backside glowing in the Light-moon, had felt his knees buckle with fury and pain… And then he had proved all the jibes correct by doing absolutely nothing. He’d had his moment, a chance to strike Davy down and prove once and for all that he would not be made a laughingstock, that he was someone to fear, and to respect, but the men at the tavern had been right: he was weak.

But Sunfather help him, he would find strength.

Now, beneath the placid, endless blue gaze of a true Hungry One, Aey swallowed down his accusatory words: demon, witch, eater of souls. Shame curdled his stomach.

“What you say is true,” he said. “I must kill Davy, but I can’t. I tried, but my body won’t obey my mind, I froze, my feet stopped moving. Elle has taken away my manhood and I’m too much of a coward now to even take it back.” He felt himself spitting the last sentence, expelling the bitter taste of his own words.

“We don’t cast spells of death,” the Hungry One said.

“I know that,” Aey said. “I would not ask it if you did. Mine needs to be the hand that ends him; everybody must know it was me. So I ask a spell of strength. Of bravery.”

The Hungry One examined him for a moment, that pool-blue gaze flicking rapidly across his face, then abruptly she stood and swept towards the counter. “My magic can’t invent what isn’t there,” she said, her back to him. He heard the glug of something being poured. “Nor can I enhance you artificially.” She turned towards him, holding two small glasses of clear liquid. “But I can make manifest your Shadow-side. I can externalize the darkness in you, so he can act where you would not.”

“Let it be done,” Aey said immediately. He pictured himself filled with a dark wrath, all conscience put aside, all fear forgotten.

“Think on it,” said the Hungry One. “Our Shadow-sides are not always predictable. You might find him difficult to reason with.”

“It’s my reason I need overruled,” Aey said. “Murder is not reasonable.”

The Hungry One laughed. “True! So you’re not an altogether fool.”

“Able enough to hear a hidden insult,” he said stiffly.

“Yes,” she said. “In fact, I think your hearing is keenest to disparagement.”

“I’m here for magic,” he said. “Not conversation.”

“Naturally,” she said, her tone suddenly brisk. “Here, we drink.” She pushed one of the glasses towards him. “We’ll raise it three times. First, to the Shadow-moon.” Aey followed her lead, taking a mouthful and no more. “To the Light-moon,” she said, and they drank again. “To the day the two shall touch.” Aey winced at the blasphemy, but together they drained their glasses.

The liquor was very strong and cold, sweet like honey. Aey ran his tongue across his lips.

“Let’s talk business,” the Hungry One said. “Are you familiar with the price of magic?”

“Yes,” Aey said, his face reddening.

“Not that price,” the Hungry One said, her thin lips twisting in a half-smile. “That’s not currency, it’s a necessary first step of any spell. Think of me as a match. You must spark me to use my fire. No, I’m talking of gold, like any businesswoman. In this house we ask fifteen orots for the kind of spell you’re seeking.”

“Fifteen orots!” Aey said. He hadn’t been expecting this. “I wouldn’t walk the streets with such a sum in my pockets.”

“We take banker’s notes,” she said. “And we have a boy to cash them, so your name will not be associated with us.”

“Ten,” Aey said.

“Fourteen.”

“Eleven.”

“Thirteen.” She pushed back from the table. “I go no lower.”

“Fine,” he said, and she watched carefully as he wrote a banker’s note and signed his name. When he handed it to her, she held the paper between two fingers, blew on it once, and it disappeared. It was such a natural gesture that Aey had to replay it in his mind to fully realize what he’d seen. Magic. Up close, and casual.

“Sunfather,” he whispered.

“None of that,” the Hungry One said lightly. “In the blue houses, we swear only to the Moons. Now. We have spoken briefly of the fire that sparks a spell, but I will say it more plainly so there can be no mistake: you must bring me pleasure before I can enact magic on your behalf.”

She began to pull her skirts up past her knees.

“Here?” Aey said, nearly choking. “Now?”

“As good a place and time as any,” she said. Her face was calm, unashamed, but Aey’s heart had tripled its pace and his hands were suddenly damp.

“Very well,” he said, and took a deep breath. He had pictured candles, a bed with many pillows, sweet perfume—not a sunny kitchen and a hardbacked wooden chair. But it was not his magic to control. He dropped his shaking fingers to his buckle, and began to unthread his belt.

“No, no,” said the Hungry One, looking alarmed. “That will not be necessary.”

He hadn’t believed his face could grow any hotter. “But I thought—”

“It would take forever if you went about it that way,” she said. “Use your hands.”

“Ah,” he said. He tucked his belt back. He was nearly faint with embarrassment, but he moved his chair towards hers until they were nearly side-by-side, and she drew her skirts higher up her thighs with a practical swish. Aey had entertained plenty of fantasies of the Hungry Ones over the years, yet now he felt no arousal; the Hungry One looked bored, and the scene felt clinical, nothing like the sweat and blood and heat he’d always imagined. Cautiously, he reached between her bare knees, hand moving past the folds of fabric until he hit the soft fur of her, and he fumbled for a moment before parting her at the slit. She slid down in the chair to better accommodate him, and he dipped two fingers into her, gathering the dampness there before beginning to stroke. He was out of practice. He kept losing the rhythm right as her breath began to change, mumbling apologies as she tensed in frustration, and after a while his hand began to cramp and he had to shake it out while she waited, not bothering to hide her impatience.

“Is this why you withhold yourself from Elle?” she said. “To hide your lack of skill?”

“No!” Aey said. “I’m—I used to be good at this, truly. But Elle was, she wanted it too much. I feared she was like you and would grow her power even more if I—and so—” He stopped. The Hungry One had covered her face with both hands.

“Not another word,” she said, “or I’ll never get there. Light-moon, I weep for your women. Please, hurry.”

Aey went back to work. Finally, her breath began to quicken, her hands flexing at her sides, her eyes squeezed tight. As she moaned, Aey felt something move within his core—not painful but not pleasurable either, a writhing like a den of serpents uncoiling, and as the Hungry One’s body was seized in a rictus and she cried out, her thighs clenching around his hand, her head thrown back, so too did Aey’s body begin to shake and he doubled over in his chair, his trunk suddenly too weak to hold him up, his glistening fingers falling helpless to his side. With a curious sucking sound, like a foot come free of mud, another Aey climbed from his body and stood before him on the kitchen’s worn wooden floor.

“I’ve come,” the other Aey said.

Aey found he could move again. The Hungry One was readjusting her skirts, patting her blue cloak back into place over her knees while the Shadow-Aey looked back and forth between them.

“Welcome,” said the Hungry One.

“I thought,” Aey said, and stopped, unable to gather words through the shock of seeing himself from outside himself. The Shadow-Aey was tall and handsome in the same homespun shirt and leather breeches Aey himself wore, and as Aey watched, he brushed a hand through his black hair in a gesture Aey was intimately familiar with, but from inside. He could almost feel his own hairs tickling his palm. “I didn’t think,” he said, “I never thought he would be separate from my body! I thought he’d remain a part of me, acting from within!”

At this, the Shadow-Aey’s face flushed deep red and his brows drew sharply together, a crease drawn vertical between them. Aey knew his own anger well, but he had never seen the ugly expression play out on his otherwise comely face.

“I am my own man!” said Shadow-Aey. “I belong to no one!”

“Do you know why we’ve called you here?” said the Hungry One.

“Yes,” said Shadow-Aey, visibly puffing up his chest. “Because you need a job done well, and only I can do it.” Suddenly, the proud expression on his face fell away, his eyes growing wide, his lips parting like a startled child’s. “But what if I can’t? What if the job remains undone? Sunfather, what if everyone sees me try and my name becomes synonymous with failure, evoked to frighten children, a fable of disaster?”

“I called you here for murder,” Aey said, disturbed by the fast turn, and he was relieved to see Shadow-Aey’s face clear itself of fear.

“Yes,” said Shadow-Aey, and his face hardened with determination, his eyes glinting. “I must kill Davy, and our wife must watch me do it.” But then, to Aey’s discomfort, his face fell again. “What can Elle see in the boy? He is not nearly as handsome as we. He must be smarter than us, he must be stronger, a better man entirely.” His face hardened once more. “I want to hear him scream.”

The Hungry One was standing, now, taking the empty glasses over to the porcelain sink. “Best of luck, Aey,” she said. “When you’re ready to merge again, instinct will guide you.”

Aey stayed in the chair. He felt out of his depth, and obliquely cheated. He’d thought his Shadow-self would act as energy within the conduit of Aey’s own body, suffusing him with bravery and dark purpose—he was not prepared to wrangle a separate, identical version of himself through the streets of the town.

“I will see Davy’s blood run down my palms,” said Shadow-Aey excitedly.

To disguise him, the Hungry One brought forth an oversized brown traveling cloak, which Shadow-Aey refused to wear. “I don’t look good in brown,” he said. “And my face is excellent, I won’t hide it.”

In the end, it was Aey who wore the cloak, skulking behind his double as they wound their way back home. They kept to the narrow alleys on the outskirts of town and then the unmarked footpaths through the meadow, a guarantee against being seen too often, and questioned. Unfortunately, this route took twice as long, and Shadow-Aey filled each spare step with words.

“Elle will mark my every move,” he said. “She will scream like a little girl and so will Davy, and her whole body will be wracked with remorse for every touch she wasted on him. When I strike him down, she will see the actions of a real man, she will look upon us and see the very essence of manhood reflected back at her, for certainly our penises are larger than Davy’s by far.” He looked anxiously at Aey. “Are they, though? Do you think they are? Davy is very tall and has large hands. He’s quick and kind. Do you suppose Elle prefers him to us utterly? He will die a slow and painful death, and people will speak of our bravery forever! Nobody will dare question our manhood then, even if it is smaller than Davy’s. Our wife, the filthy whore, she will not think us weak anymore, she’ll know her place and weep at night for fear of us.”

“Please,” Aey said, smiling nervously at a passing flower-seller. “Speak softly.”

“Is my voice unpleasing?” said Shadow-Aey. “Do you not think it has a faintly squeakish timbre to it?”

Aey found it jarring to hear his innermost thoughts, his pettiest fears, spoken aloud like this. In fact, he heard now that his voice was not squeakish at all, an agitation that had long plagued him.

“Mark how people cannot help but admire us as we pass,” Shadow-Aey said. “Did you see that woman eyeing us like almond cake? Ha! She would eat every crumb if we allowed her, but we won’t, for she was old and skinny and we are very handsome. Aren’t we? Or can she tell we are a cuckold and subservient to Elle? Oh, look at that fellow’s fine thick beard. We will never have a beard so fine. How I miss our wife sometimes! I miss laying our head on her lap and feeling her trace our cheekbones with her clever fingers. I miss how badly she once needed us. Is she not the most beautiful woman you’ve met, in her funny way? I miss the days she thought herself plain. She was so much more pliable back then.”

“You must be quiet,” Aey said desperately. “Soon we’ll be home, and Elle will be there.”

“So too will Davy,” said Shadow-Aey. “He comes today to help our cursed harlot of a wife fill jars. And all this time he’s been filling her jar, the raving trollop, the bastard, I will smear his blood across my face and shout my victory! Yes, why wait? I’ll kill him on sight. And you of us, you watch! Soon the whole town will tell the story, and no man will ever laugh at us again.”

It was a plan no different than what Aey had himself imagined, and yet hearing it on Shadow-Aey’s lips warped it, somehow. It sounded half-mad. Aey had wanted to want to kill Davy, but he felt the same old conflicted hesitation; none of his double’s certainty had spilled over. He himself was no braver, no surer. He still neither wanted to kill Davy nor watch Davy be killed by his hand. But they were coming to the house, now, and Shadow-Aey strode forward with all the determination Aey had wished for himself. He wasn’t talking anymore, his face was all grim intention, and he went around to the kitchen window and beckoned Aey to follow.

The window was wide open, the smell of fresh honey pouring out. Aey and Shadow-Aey crouched in the thick bushes below the sill, bees buzzing languidly around them as they peered through the window, and even before he looked, Aey heard Davy’s voice, and his wife’s answering laugh. Fresh anger rocked him. The two were standing at the kitchen table, their backs to the window, filling empty glass jars with Elle’s thick honey and stacking them in wooden crates, readying them for next week’s market. Elle was giving Davy some instruction, “With a sideways twist of paper, like so,” and Davy was nodding, as if the shame of taking her direction didn’t touch him.

“You of us, wait here and watch,” said Shadow-Aey, and moved towards the door.

“Wait,” Aey hissed. Panic rose suddenly within him, panic and regret. He hated the boy, he did, yet he couldn’t even stand to see a different self of his kill Davy, was too cowardly even for that—but Shadow-Aey had his hand on the doorknob. “Wait!” Aey said again, and Shadow-Aey looked back at him.

“No,” he said, and vanished inside. Aey stood beside the window, frozen. If he followed Shadow-Aey inside, Elle would see the two of him, and know what he had done, that he had gone to a despised Hungry One—everyone would know, know how sad and desperate he’d become, how he was so much under Elle’s thumb that he could not free himself for long enough to fight, and he would never again regain respect. He had set this in motion: he must be man enough at least to watch it play out.

Aey watched himself come into the kitchen. Elle turned to greet him, all smiles, and Aey felt his fury at her breezy deception rise up in him like thunder, and he could see it at the same time burning red hot on Shadow-Aey’s face, contorting his features. Davy took a step back; Elle a step forward.

“Whore,” Shadow-Aey spat.

“Hey now,” Davy said.

“Did you think I wouldn’t know?” said Shadow-Aey. “Did you think I was so feeble I would let you carry on your harlot ways?”

“Davy,” said Elle. “You should go.”

Now, it would happen now. Aey’s pulse trampled in his ears, he felt dizzy and sick with regret, but he was eager, too, eager to see Elle’s face as he knocked her lover to the ground and proved his dominion in his own home once and for all.

But once again, that did not happen. Instead, Davy scuttled towards the door, and Shadow-Aey let him pass without blinking, scarcely seeming to notice he was there. He was staring only at Elle, with such naked longing on his face that Aey felt weak, as if some protective layer had been stripped from him. Dimly, he heard the front door swing open, and he barely managed to duck back into the bushes before Davy stormed out, casting fearful half-glances back towards the house as he hurried away. Aey could hear Shadow-Aey shouting, and when he stood back up he heard Elle, too, pleading with him.

“I’m sorry,” she was saying, “I would never have wished you to find out in such a manner!”

“Sorry I found out, but not sorry to be such a whore?”

“You won’t touch me!” Elle said. She was near tears, just as in all Aey’s fantasies of this moment, yet it gave him almost no satisfaction to watch. “You barely look at me, you won’t speak to me! What am I supposed to do, Aey, what? I’m young still, and hot-blooded, and my husband refuses to lay his hands on me!”

“You want my hands on you?” Shadow-Aey said, and advanced upon her. “So be it.” He reached out and grabbed her arms, pinning them to her sides, and gave her a rough shake.

“Let me go,” she said, trying to wrench away, but Shadow-Aey shook her again and hung on even as they staggered backward and collided with the tabletop. An empty jar waiting to be filled with honey fell to the floor and burst loudly into shards, and Shadow-Aey took advantage of Elle’s lack of balance to bear into her again, pressing her so she was bent back over the tabletop, trapped. Ineffectually, she grappled at his arm. All the while he was talking.

“Do you know what people say about me? Do you know they say you own me, they call me your pet, they say you keep my manhood in a jar of honey and only let it out once a double-moon? They say you’re the Queen and I’m a drone buzzing around your hive, serving you for all eternity, but you don’t care, you act as if you own the town, the world, but I’m here as a reminder that you’re mine. I own you.”

Elle was sobbing now, struggling for breath and kicking and fighting, but she was small and Aey was large and well-muscled from logging, and she couldn’t break free. “Please,” she gasped, “please,” and outside the window Aey felt as if all his bones had turned to lead. He would kill her; he knew he would. How long had he wanted to see her like this, vulnerable and scared beneath his hands? In all his fantasies he’d turned his rage to Davy, but of course Davy was not the real source, it was Elle, it had always been Elle, and now he was going to kill her if he did not stop himself.

He leaped to his feet just as Shadow-Aey crumpled suddenly to his knees.

Aey halted, his hand on the windowsill, confused. In the kitchen, Elle’s ragged sobs caught in her throat as Shadow-Aey reached up and clutched a handful of her yellow skirts, burying his face within their folds.

“What—” Elle gasped, one hand at her shoulder where Shadow-Aey had been squeezing just moments before, the other hand hovering over his head, uncertain. She was still plainly terrified, staring down at him, her cheeks flushed with exertion and her hair in disarray. “Aey, what—”

“Why don’t you love only me?” Shadow-Aey groaned into Elle’s lap. “I want you to adore me, I want your full attention, I want to be your only god. Does Davy have a larger manhood? Is he stronger than I am? His shoulders aren’t as broad but his lips are very full, are my lips too thin for you? Do you think my hair is girlish? I want all your bees to die! I want to be a bee. I want people on the street to see me and say, Now there goes a man who’s in charge of his wife. I want you to sing me to sleep and hold my hand, I want you to re-learn shame, you whore. Will you kiss me, Elle? Kiss me and tell me you love me? Tell me I’m handsome and strong and useful, tell me how lovely my eyes are, tell me—”

“Stop,” Aey croaked. He could take no more. Elle’s eyes snapped up to where he stood framed in the window, and her mouth opened soundlessly, her face suddenly bloodless. Shadow-Aey ignored him, pressing his face deeper into Elle’s legs so his continued voice became muffled, only a few plaintive words coming through: want, touch, kill, love.

“Stop,” Aey repeated, louder, and hoisted himself gracelessly through the window, taking a step into the kitchen on trembling legs. “Please,” he begged himself. “Please, go.”

Then Shadow-Aey did turn, his face wet with tears and his eyes blazing with hatred. “You got us into this,” he spat at Aey. “You called me here. You needed me to do what you could not. It’s you who should go!”

As suddenly as he’d fallen to his knees, Shadow-Aey stood and stalked toward Aey, his mouth twisted in fury.

“What is this?” Elle breathed. “What madness…?”

“We went to the Hungry Ones,” said Shadow-Aey. “We needed strength. We have it now. He can go.”

And he aimed a blow at Aey’s head.

It happened so quickly Aey had no time to duck or deflect, and he fell back into the windowsill, his ears ringing, vision starring. Another blow followed, swift and hard, and another as Aey finally threw up his hands, and then Elle smashed a jar of honey across Shadow-Aey’s head.

Shadow-Aey staggered back, glass and sticky amber clotting his hair, and Aey was on him, throwing an elbow across his jaw, trying to hammer a knee into his groin, his own hands grappling for his throat and clawing at his face and he’d never been this close to himself before, never felt his body move against him or felt his own harsh breath, never seen tears standing out in his own eyes. His fist grazed his cheek and he ducked, but instead of backing away he pushed forward into himself and came up inches away from his face – and suddenly it felt only right, only natural to press his mouth against his Shadow’s mouth and kiss him.

It was a hard kiss: their teeth smashed together, and Aey felt his lip split from the force of it, but after one fierce moment his mouth beneath his began to soften, and Shadow-Aey went still in his arms and let Aey pull him closer. He felt his Shadow’s tears wet on his cheeks, his lips parting as his body softened in his embrace, his sigh passing into Aey’s body and with it a rushing heat, and then Aey’s hands were empty, he was kissing no one, and he opened his eyes to find Elle staring at him as if he were a stranger.

He slept that night in the forest, listening to the hush and sigh of trees, watching the silver of the Light-moon glinting off their leaves. Come morning he would go back to the home he’d built, collect his things, and take a room in town.

“I saw the face of your hate,” Elle had said. This was after he had told her everything. “I can’t soon forget it. You must go.”

“I saw something, too,” Aey reminded her. “I saw you spread your legs for Davy.”

Elle took a deep breath, her cheeks flushing, fists clenching. She looked as if she wanted to shout. But when she spoke, her voice was quiet. She said, “That’s true. It’s all true. I am what you accuse me of: I’m lustful and ambitious and proud.” She looked away from him. “I thought that’s why you chose me.”

“I don’t hate you,” Aey said, his voice thick. “I’ve never hated you.”

She’d glanced back at him, then, and shook her head very slowly.

Now Aey stared up at the Light-moon, and it stared back at him between the branches, golden and alone, forever tracing a path towards its dark beloved counterpart. He thought of kissing his own mouth, that sweet, warm rush of re-entering his body, and he wondered where his Shadow lay within him. He thought he could feel him, gazing up into the sky with his eyes and beating with his heart.

More Than Meets the Eye: Transformers as Trans Fantasy

I learned about Transformers from my sister in sixth grade. Her English class had watched part of the first live-action movie, and she identified, correctly, that I would love it. I remember sitting across from her at the kitchen table and demanding for the umpteenth time she describe each robot again: what they looked like, what vehicles they turned into, the magnetizing shift of metal and circuitry as they transformed from one mode to the other. Over time, her account shifted from meticulous field notes to incorporate minor embellishments and substantial editorializing—not, I think, because she was getting fuzzy on the details, but because I was hungry for more than what was there.

When I finally watched Transformers several weeks later, I was already far more besotted with the mythology than anything I would see onscreen. It is the premise that I always return to, in near the decade and a half since, tumbling through different continuities and animated series and comics and the robust Transformers Wiki. It feels appropriate now that what I fell in love with was not anything concrete but permutations of concept—variable but still undeniably itself.

The strongest emotion I associate with my transition is relief. Relief that it was happening, or rather that I had made it happen and that things were not worse. That people were not worse to me. My family did not disown me. My closest friends threw a wonderful party (which included sweetly, ludicrously, Transformers decorations from Party City), and when my university insisted on printing my old name on my diploma rather than accept the court paperwork for my pending name change, they all pitched in to pay for the cost of a new one.

The minutiae were less positive, more painful, some avoidable and some not—I told the people closest to me, but started off trying to share my transition as minimally as possible. I changed my name on social media and the university database, and hoped for the best. That is not, of course, how transition works. “My name is different now, and you may ask no questions” is not an adequate explanation. So I avoided extended family and professors and neighbors whose clumsiness around change I did not want to be disappointed by. And I was grateful for the absence of the potential badness so it did not occur to me until later to be injured by the lesser hurt that did.

Transformers was created in 1984: Hasbro bought the rights to rebrand Japanese toy company Takara’s Diaclone and Microchange product lines, and hired Marvel Entertainment Group to develop a backstory. Transformers, or Cybertronians, are sentient robots from the machine planet Cybertron. The name Transformers comes from their capacity to reconfigure their bodies, to reconstitute components from their primary mode into an alternate one—a vehicle, an animal, a weapon or piece of machinery.

The explanation for this ability varies with continuity. In some versions, it is something the Transformers always could do. In others, it is an innovation spurned by the war between Cybertronian factions. (Most media properties follow the Autobots’ efforts to foil the evil forces of the Deceptions.)

And Transformers aren’t confined to one alternate mode: they can scan others at will, and use that new one instead. Although the characters generally select a new option similar in size and function (a car to a different car), there are sometimes radical changes, and it is seldom established in the fiction whether this is a hard limitation, a concession of ease, or mere personal preference.

All of these possibilities interest me—what is it, to be a species that has always known that enormity of change, or rolled it out seamlessly into the whole population?

I can’t even begin to imagine.

Queer tragedy is a genre inscribed so painfully and violently across so many of our lives that I think in fiction there is the desire to either reify it or erase it entirely. The narrative always goes something like this: The pain imposed on me can be made beautiful, and I will cut myself open to share it. Or else: In this imagined world, this pain does not exist and has never existed because the mechanism by which it would be created does not.

I am endlessly grateful for trans memoirs, whether they enjoy in joy or sadness. I am also grateful for the growing body of speculative fiction about transness. But I find works in the latter category nearly always render gender transgression or nonconformity as a nonissue. Trans characters are easily accepted by non-trans parties. Or they are nominally trans, without any narrative impact. Or they are rendered not-really-trans-at all, in the context of a post-gender society.

Gender utopia is deeply appealing. But it is not relatable to me as a trans person navigating transition in an extraordinarily gendered world. Something I think about often is that no one would have minded if they had always known me as a man—that all of the messiness comes from the figuring out of a new thing together.

One of my favorite things about the Transformers franchise is the expedience with which every human being learns and accepts a car is also a sentient biomechanical alien. Ten minutes into the first episode of Transformers: Prime, sixteen-year-old Jack Darby is dragged across town on motorcycle form Autobot Arcee as she’s pursued by Decepticons. Three minutes later they’ve picked up another human, Raf Esquivel, and Raf and Jack are watching the Transformers duke it out in robot mode. “What…what are they?” Raf asks. “Talking cars that turn into robots. Or the other way around,” Jack says. He’s by no means relaxed, but surprisingly level-headed considering the circumstances. Before the end of the next episode, Arcee is living in Jack’s garage.

In Bumblebee (2018), Charlie Watson unwittingly takes the titular character home from a junkyard in his vehicle mode. She spends a few moments in a panic after he transforms in front of her, but in a matter of minutes her fear goes from curiosity, to wanting to help, to a fierce protectiveness. Shock at recognition of change is always resolved within a few minutes of screen time; in every continuity, whoever bought the yellow and black Volkswagen Beetle that is actually Bumblebee decides, This is fine, actually. It might even be great. My car can turn into a robot. Them’s the breaks.

Whether a trans person self-conceptualizes as always having been their gender or as transitioning to it, there is the inevitable experience of trying to get our communities to reconcile our “previous” self with our “new” one. This reconciliation is arduous and long and sometimes unending. The most painful moments for me come not from mistakes, but from others’ choices around preserving my historical self. There was a sizeable period of time where my parents simply didn’t update people because it was far easier than explaining the change. I was hurt by the choice, but I was also hurt because I understood it. Digital information sharing eases many things, but I’ve yet to hear a name and pronoun update conversation between third parties in physical space that didn’t make me wince.

Shortly after I changed my name, I received a congratulatory text from a former cross country teammate. Everyone was happy for me, she said. But they all wanted to know if they could still use one of my old nicknames.

I said yes at the time. What fascinates me about this request is that it was not an interesting or special nickname. It was my old initials, used to distinguish me from two other girls on the team who had the same first name. I still wonder about the origin of the impulse. A place of nostalgia? Fear of erasure of our shared past?

I don’t especially want to pretend that I didn’t run on women’s cross country teams for nearly a decade of my life. But to acknowledge it is to potentially threaten the security and understanding I’ve worked hard to establish now. I want a present that subsumes the past without erasing the fact of transition—easier wanted than realized.

There is a Daniel Lavery quote I always come back to from an interview he did with The Cut right after coming out: “Part of what’s hard is that I don’t want anyone ever to have a reaction to me. I either want them to say, “You’re great, never change,” or “I’ve never seen you in my life, I don’t register you at all, you are covered in camouflage.” Sometimes it’s like there’s no reaction anyone could ever have that wouldn’t feel uncomfortable. Which as you know is not a possible way to be alive in the world.”

There are times I feel incredibly empathetic about cis awkwardness. There are many ways in which cis people behave with active harm or violence towards trans people—these are not the instances I mean. What I mean is that while trans people are becoming more normalized, transition is not; there is no script, let alone a homogenous one across trans experiences, for desires around the messy process of becoming known as yourself.

In Transformers (2007), no one says “Bumblebee, actually I liked you considerably better as a 1976 Chevrolet Camaro, all of the ways I knew how to interact with you are in fact based in the ways in which you were a 1976 Chevrolet Camaro, and now that you are a 2006 Camaro you are lost to me.” Because in the Transformers universe, transition is real and universally recognized and never insurmountable. All reactions can be overcome, the change is real, and afterwards is always effortless.

Transformers is not good. This is something I always tell people ruefully as I am explaining that I love it. Maybe this is to be expected from a franchise whose mythology was generated by the capitalist objective to sell toys. Much of the world-building is incoherent. Narrative conflict stems from control of the resource energon, which comes in any form and is used ubiquitously for fuel, foodstuffs, currency, explosives, other weaponry, alcohol…physics and chemistry do not apply to the Transformers universe. The live action films directed by Michael Bay are astoundingly bad, so much so that reviewing them is a spectator sport. And although they are alien robots who pre-date life on earth and reproduce asexually, Transformers are nearly always gendered. The media cannot escape the box it was created in.

And yet. I think Transformers acknowledges, however imperfectly, a perceived before and after. And treats that transition as not merely acceptable, but normal and good. Society is not only welcoming of that kind of self-refashioning, but built around it. The Transformers universe normalizes transition: there is radicalness in both the magical simplicity of transformation, and the unilaterally positive non-reaction to it.

I don’t know what that would look like for humans. I’m not sure it’s achievable, or even that I want it to be. I don’t know how you reconcile the simultaneous desire to be seen fully and completely and yet also to be entirely unknowable. Part of the appeal of biomechanical life forms and narratives, for me, is the luxury and ease of reconfiguration: it must be nice to scan a four-door sedan with your advanced alien eyeballs and then transform into one. And to have those around you say, I am unsurprised by this new state of affairs. I do not require it to be permanent or certain. I am wholly open to whatever comes next, whether it is quite the same or different than before.

Collection

The day I collected my soul, the cranberries lost their innocence, twining on my doorknob in a search for something sweet. It was nearly sunset, and the mole people scuttled underground with badges and tales of espionage, the orchards dripping with caterpillars. Dark clouds almost sang my feet to sleep when a splitting echo poured forth blood, and you rose to greet me from your magma coffin. I collected your rain, your torment, and dribbled your ashes on the floor in a crucifix. My clipped wings panged as I knelt before the God of Thunder. How soft, how secret your eyes were—how deeply they drank my light, and wafted blue-red before the gleaming mirror. You, who I loved, had become a wiser being than man. And I, who scraped each fallen fragment of you, prayed you would be free. Night died. Your spirit dissipated, your core singing against my chest. I wept before the broken statue. A whisper sang the trees to life.

 

The Protagonist Problem

“Speculative Resistance”—a term coined by Malka Older—posits that one great power speculative fiction wields is that exploring other worlds and ways societies could work encourages people to question extant systems, to imagine alternatives, to hope, to act, and to reject the old hope-ending “because that’s the way it is.” The author Ursula K. Le Guin termed “realists of a larger reality” do broaden expectations, and even galvanize (as we see in innumerable places, from A.I. rights think tanks to Star Wars-themed Women’s March signs), but we can also narrow expectations when we repeat patterns, leaving the impression that even in a thousand magic and alien worlds X is still always true. We know that stereotypes do harm, for example that the attitudes of TV-watching millions are affected by the fact that 33% of Black and 50% of Latino immigrant characters depicted on American TV are shown committing crimes. This essay aims to call attention to something similar but subtler, subtle because of its very ubiquity in speculative fiction, general fiction, even nonfiction, but which—if we step up and challenge it—could do real good: protagonist stories. We don’t mean stories with main characters, we mean something very specific.

Jo Walton coined the word protagonismos in 2010 to mean “the kind of person stories happen to,” but I’m extending that meaning here. We tell a lot of stories in which one special person has the power to save the day, make the difference, solve the problem, and change everything. They might be superhero, a long-lost royal scion, the last of their race, a child of prophecy, or they might—like Frodo—be an everyman who has that special courage or other quality which saves the day. Protagonismos is the protagonist spark, that quality some characters possess which means the plot will not advance until our hero comes to lead the action, be it to victory or defeat. It’s easier to see in clumsy examples. Think of that formula for an action team, there might be five characters: the smart one, the strong one, the kid, the love-interest, and the…protagonist, whose distinguishing feature may be described as courage, or a pure heart, or determination, but really comes down to writing, that they’re the one who always lands the final blow. The armies will not roll out, the superweapon fire, or the princess fall into the pit until James Bond, or Robin Hood, or Captain Kirk, or Aragon and Frodo (yes, there can be two in one tale) arrive and act.

Many such stories are great stories, it’s a great formula, there’s a reason we’ve been writing it since Homer had the Greeks succeed or fail based on Achilles’ presence on the battlefield. But when we use this formula too constantly, when we make it the dominant structure of our stories, we advance the claim that, even in a thousand different worlds, in utopias and dystopias, in dragon cities and on Dyson spheres, from our cave-dwelling days unto the dimming of the sun, history is decided by the actions of special people dropped into each era to be its destined shaper. And while the archetype is old, its saturation has increased acutely in the last few decades (chronology below). The stories may be wonderful (the call to action at the end of this will not be that we never write about protagonists) but the saturation of such stories, the vast majority of stories agreeing that protagonismos is what changes the world, that can be bad. When some stories center protagonists, while others center teams, movements, families, etc., that teaches us that there are many ways a world can change, but when almost every story has protagonismos, it teaches us that all worlds work this way, and leads people to see the real world and real history as resting in the hands of real-world protagonists. This is harmful. It’s harmful when people to see themselves as not protagonists, and differently harmful when people to see themselves as protagonists.

What harm does it do?

Believing that real life has protagonists, but that you yourself are not one, leads to impostor syndrome, feelings of powerlessness, inaction, cynicism, and despair. It leads to the belief that if you personally don’t resemble a protagonist (if you falter, have undramatic setbacks, mundane problems, job hunts, laundry, rent) then you can’t be one of the special few whose actions matter. It leads to the belief that grassroots organizing, even voting, cannot change things, only heroes do. And it makes people vulnerable to conspiracy theories, which are fundamentally about the desire to believe there is a plan, some hero or villain (villains can have protagonismos too) pulling the strings. If you comb through the online discourse of the participants in the January US Capitol attack, the man who literally petitioned the US government to install Steward of Gondor until Trump is restored is far from the only example of super-radicalized individuals explicitly comparing themselves to supporting characters in a book or videogame, whose only hope of improving the world lies in joining the protagonist’s army when he makes his climax speech.

As for the inverse—and it is very possible to see yourself as both protagonist in some senses and side character in others—the feeling of being the protagonist of your own life can lead to recklessness, power trips, and (visible a lot lately) the expectation that breaking rules is okay so long as it’s you. Think of how often the protagonist in an action thriller (or in a Sherlock Holmes story) breaks the rules, burgles the house, crosses the police line, breaks the curfew, resorts to violence first, but it’s okay. If a story starts with someone breaking the seal on the sample/mummy/laboratory/cursed tome, if they’re the protagonist they’re fine, if not they’re dead before scene’s end. Even in the zombie plague epicenter, if the protagonist breaks out of the quarantine zone, blasting through yellow tape and hazmat-suited doctors, it will turn out to be the right decision in the end, and definitely won’t be what makes the plague worse, that will be the actions of side characters or bad guys. We’ve all seen interviews with superspreaders who were not COVID-deniers, yet believed their wedding, their vacation, their one exception wouldn’t be a problem—that expectation didn’t come from nowhere. There are also milder forms of this line of thinking. I worked with many institutions this year to adapt teaching guidelines to make courses easier on students during the COVID crisis, and was amazed to see how consistently, when we followed up with instructors, a large majority reported that they read and liked the guidelines but had chosen not to follow them, since their particular course had special needs, and since they knew all the other courses were following the guidelines, clearly it was alright for just their class to break the rule, if they had a good reason. Remember that, at the most famous school in our culture—Hogwarts—breaking the rules always has positive outcomes, for teachers and students, so long as you have a good reason, and are protagonist-and-friends.

Another side of protagonist thinking, which COVID has brought to a head, is the proliferation in the USA of survivalist stockpilers, a very real demographic which latches onto apocalyptic stories in which the overworked and underappreciated not-yet-protagonist becomes the hero-leader when the plague/flood/meteor/monster comes. This is a genuinely large demographic, enough for apocalyptic bunker design consultancy to be an actual, full-time occupation in the USA. When COVID came, many thousands of people genuinely expected things to fall apart into Mad Max biker-gang microstates where the shotgun is king, and were ready for it, looking forward with excitement to finally becoming the powerful protagonists of their lives, as fiction showed would happen. When instead COVID triggered pop-up food banks, neighborhood initiatives, and months of tedium, the shock of a dream betrayed left such people vulnerable to radicalizing bots and extremist groups, who recruit them in massive numbers (see historian Kathleen Belew’s work on the white power movement).

Before this starts feeling like moral panic language (Blame videogames! Blame comic books! Blame Dungeons & Dragons! Blame Canada!), the protagonist problem is not specific to one medium or genre, and non-fiction is just as complicit, if not more guilty, than fiction. Looking at the genre of history for a moment, Great Man history was bad, is bad, historians try hard not do it anymore, not just because of the “man” part but also because of the “great” part. Great Man history erases the fact that most real changes result from collective action, many people doing many things, from teams, from trends, from multiple factors—this famine, and these bank loans, and this edict, and this old feud, and this printing press, and this Martin Luther dude, and thirty other men and women that you haven’t heard of—but it’s much easier to tell a story just about Luther, especially since (long story very short) for centuries, the genre of history writing was considered a moral teaching genre whose purpose was to show examples of great people and bad people, to give the reader good examples to absorb, and bad to shun. And since what we write is based on what we read, even new histories that try to innovate often find it’s easiest to still center something as protagonist, it just might be the daughter, or the sister, or the unsung Black researcher, or in bolder experiments the codfish, or the number zero, or the color red. A brilliant article by food historian Allen Grieco demonstrates how cantaloupe caused the French revolution, and he’s right, but you have to read it understanding that he intends you to see cantaloupe as one of a hundred interwoven causes, and that’s hard. When you’re a textbook writer with three pages to cover three centuries, it’s a lot easier to pick a couple awesome people—Leonardo! Galileo! Queen Elizabeth I!—than to describe dozens of separate, amorphous groups and factors. (Hi)stories with simple causes are easier to tell, so most histories get whittled down to some hero or villain in the end. We’re living this process now as COVID discourse settles more and more on Dr. Fauci, and the ways we choose to write about the vaccine rollout will determine whether COVID becomes one of these rare and precious cooperation stories—like smallpox eradication or the Hoover Dam—which gets told as a teamwork moment even in textbooks, or whether we’re picking a new Great Man.

Now for the timeline:

What is similar about the following books: Harold Robbins’s The Dream Merchants (1949), Alistair Maclean’s The Guns of Navarone (1957), Arthur Hailey’s Hotel (1965), Paul Gallico’s The Poseidon Adventure (1969), Colleen McCulloch’s The Thorn Birds (1977), James Michener’s Chesapeake (1978), James Clavell’s Noble House (1981), Shirley Conran’s Lace (1982), and Edward Rutherford’s Sarum (1987)? First, they were all bestsellers in their days, books everyone was reading, selling in vast quantities, piled up enticingly in every grocery store and airport bookstall. They had huge readerships. Many became blockbuster movies, reaching millions. And they’re all stories of multiple agency, often described on their back covers as “tapestries,” to tell us they have lots of threads, that we’ll be following lots of characters, whether it’s a few days in a luxury hotel, a week in Hong Kong, or millennia in an English village. In these decades—from the second world war to the late 1980s—tapestry books with multiple agency, many characters all shaping the outcome, was a major mode of bestselling books, and the blockbuster movies based on them. In these books there’s not a protagonist in sight, nobody the plot waits for, they’re all written in Dickensian multiple third: the point of view switches to whoever is most convenient.

These tapestry books were not the kind of multiple third-person point-of-view found today in epic fantasies like George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (1993-present) and Kate Elliott’s Crown of Stars (1997-2006), which have clearly marked chapter boundaries, and where each point-of-view character is recurring, with an arc, and the expectation that, by taking up a POV, the author has committed to seeing that character forward to a personal climax of one sort or another. We might call such books a braid structure, with individual strong strands, each thick and significant. Frequently in braid books, one or two characters/strands still have protagonismos (the plot waits for them) while others support, but all of them have arcs, and conventions. In contrast, in tapestry books the points-of-view can truly be as tiny as threads, and may not have arcs in themselves. In Hotel (1965), we take the desk clerk’s POV as a couple checks in, he gives them a particular kind of room because of his perceptions, we then switch to the man’s POV, then the woman’s. There is no expectation of returning to the desk clerk, but he has agency in that one moment, his choice of room affecting the survival of the other characters when disaster strikes. He is a tiny thread but has power, agency, even though he personally has no arc. The readers of these tapestry bestsellers are comfortable hopping from head to head without the promise that anyone with a POV must be special, and are invested in a true ensemble cast. In these tiny hops into a minor character, agency can be in anyone, not just in characters whose lives have arcs and climaxes, i.e. whose lives don’t feel like our lives.

Zooming out further in the history of fiction writing, the novel as we understand it evolved in English in the eighteenth century, with other exciting things happening in French, Russian, and other languages, but by the nineteenth century novels written in English and Russian tended to have omniscient viewpoints, where the author either explicitly (Austen, Tolstoy, Eliot) or implicitly (Dostoyevsky, Trollope) had the viewpoint of God, who could stop the story to discourse to the reader, and go into the head of any character. Stories like that seldom had protagonismos—it wasn’t absent, but it was rare. Dickens changed this by writing in multiple third-person perspective, where the narrator never steps back and expostulates; instead you’re always in the head of one specific character or another, close up behind their eyes. First person narration also always existed, but at first it usually took the form of epistolary novels or a fictitious memoir (think of Watson writing about Holmes). As the nineteenth century advanced, it became more acceptable to write in first person directly without framing as a letter, memoir etc.

Things changed as the twentieth century began, under the influence of cinema with its intense close-ups, the dominant forms came to be very tight third person (exemplified by Hemingway) as well as first person, though Dickensian multiple third person was still common. First and tight third are the forms in which you most commonly see protagonismos in written prose fiction. Next came the 1950s-80s when tapestry books were big, coexisting with other forms without one form taking clear majority. Some authors of bestseller tapestry books went on writing into the nineties, but at that stage few new authors started writing in this style. Something happened, specifically in the nineties. Could it have been the fall of the USSR and the decline of Marxist collectivist views of history? Or was it just a trend in what was fashionable? Whatever the cause, tapestry books specifically, and multiple-agent books in general, dwindled, so from the nineties to today bestsellers and blockbusters are much more likely to be first person or single tight third, following a clear protagonist, usually with a destined sense of being on the side of the angels, and the ability to get away with things. We do have bestseller braid books, such as Song of Ice and Fire, but even these constitute a small minority of all fiction, enough that people remark on them as unusual for not having a single point of view. They also usually still have a couple characters with protagonismos, while all the characters with power (those who determine outcomes of events) have distinct arcs, rather than power also being wielded by minor people like our Hotel desk clerk.

While this trend is most visible in the mainstream, you see it in science fiction and fantasy from the ’90s on as well, so it becomes hard to find stories about teams, about people who aren’t a chosen one, either explicitly as a plot point, or implicitly because of how the author treats the character. Most examples of team books that come to mind are older, such as C. J. Cherryh’s Downbelow Station (1981) and Rosemary Kirstein’s Steerswoman (1989). There are more examples in fantasy; Steven Erikson is definitely still writing tapestry-style, and Guy Gavriel Kay often writes in actual omniscient point-of-view, like George Eliot. Martin, for all that he is writing a braid, has a discussion in A Clash of Kings (1998) about where agency lies in the case of an irresponsible child king giving an order to a soldier who obeys and undoes all the careful diplomacy with a stroke of the sword. This passage is worth noting as one of the very few direct considerations of multiple agency in genre.

To sum up: in 1996, when the first big budget Mission Impossible movie came out, many who remembered the original 1966-1973 TV commented on how different it felt, despite the faithful formula, because the old show didn’t have a protagonist, it truly had a team. This was more than Hollywood spotlighting a star (Tom Cruise), though the way celebrity shapes film (which impacts books) is a factor. The change from team to protagonist-with-backup reflected a major shift in the pie chart of how we distribute power in our stories. Circa 1990, the single-protagonist structure grew to dominate the pie, while the plural-but-still-with-protagonismos slice also grew, and other story structures shrunk to slivers. We can change that. There is nothing wrong with protagonist stories remaining common, if not the plurality of stories, but it’s when we recognize there is a box that we can think, and write, outside it. Let’s write more stories about teams, plural action, tapestries, taking turns. Let’s write more stories where the plot does not wait for a special few, where power also rests the hotel desk clerk, the bystander—we can even have the voting public or the pop-up food pantry volunteer team save the day. When we do write about main characters, let’s think hard about how we use protagonismos, deconstruct it, invert it, surprise the reader. Varying our story structures, expanding, evening out that pie chart, and trying to use the common model in more innovative and examined ways—all these steps will make our stories newer and more powerful, not less. Le Guin in “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction” (1986), when discussing the problem of how commonly the hero with a spear takes over stories, says, “I said it was hard to make a gripping tale of how we wrested the wild oats from their husks, I didn’t say it was impossible. Whoever said that writing a novel was easy?”

The crises of the last few years were shaped by hundreds of factors, as the French Revolution was, and the protagonist problem may be as small a contributor as cantaloupe, but it’s a contributor the genre fiction world has the power to do something about. If you doubt that power, remember that UK Health Minister Matt Hancock ordered 70 million extra COVID vaccine doses because he watched the movie Contagion, and learned from it that there might be shortages. Stories teach, and team stories, stories which remind people that power is shared, teach something the world really needs right now. For years, the toymaker Matel has released a “Career of the Year” Barbie, different each year and focused on powerful careers (movie director, Mars explorer, judge, roboticist, president), but for 2020 they released a team of four: a political candidate, her campaign manager, a grassroots fundraiser, and a voter, with the motto “Big Dreams: Bright Future” and packaging declaring that it’s teamwork that moves the world. It’s a powerful message, and that’s just 150 words on the side of a cardboard box. Writers of fantasy and science fiction have a lot to work with: 5,000 words, 50,000 words, 150,000 words—let’s use them.

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