And lo, there were more short story reviews a week later! Are you impressed with me? I’m impressed with me. The theme this week (note: there is no theme) is surprisingly dark tales of violence, loss, and acceptance.
If you’re one of those people who have a tragic cliché-allergy, I suppose there are elements in this story you’ve seen before. Being the sort of person who thinks every truly good story is just a new skin stretched on the oldest myth-bones in the world—I loved “Cold Wind.”
The old bones of this story are very old indeed: The Hunt. In this case, the Hunt is playing out on a snowy Seattle solstice in a women’s bar, with two participants who are not at all what they seem, who may not even be predator and prey so much as two equals running in an endless loop, uncertain who is chasing who.
It’s an unhurried story (I love a short story that wanders, that takes it’s time), and the reader is pressed forward by the simple, semi-sexual urgency of the hunt itself. And, of course, by Griffith’s painfully excellent prose. From the visceral and poetic:
“Clouds gathered along the horizon, dirty yellow-white and gory at one end, like a broken arctic fox.”
To the insightful:
“Daylight. Daybreak. Crack of dawn. You can tell a lot about a culture from its metaphors: the world is fragile, breakable, spillable as an egg. People felt it. Beyond the warmth and light cast by the holiday they sensed predators roaming the dark.”
To the downright sexy:
“Women have lit up that way for thousands of years when they have found someone they want, someone whose belly will lie on theirs heavy and soft and urgent, whose weight they welcome, whose voice thrills them, whose taste, scent, turn of the head makes them thrum with need, ring and sing with it. They laugh. They glow.”
She owns. It’s worth mentioning that she apparently went from idea to writing to selling this piece in nine days. Go read it and let the awesomeness of the story dull the pain.
Lesson: Admit your inferiority. No, wait—remember to leave room for beauty and stillness and expectation in a story. The chase is only exciting after a long hunt.
This story is much smaller in scope, happening in the very narrow space between a woman and her artificially-intelligent new arm. That sounds like the premise of a bad Twilight Zone episode, but let me count the ways it’s actually a sincere examination of injury and recovery, body and autonomy.
A woman (wait, actually, gender unknown?) gets her arm “cut and burned and shattered into a tube of bone gravel” in an accident. The doctors helpfully give her a new limb, an artificial arm capable of learning and adapting, Stronger and Better than Ever Before! And now she has to learn to live with it, to accept it, to make something artificial feel like her own.
In a hundred ways, this is the same story every injured person has told. The loss of self. The terrible, wrenching dependence on whatever medical miracle is keeping you alive and sane. The isolation from everybody else, even when your injuries are invisible (“They don’t stare and then look intently away, like I’ve heard people used to. I don’t get awkward non–questions, the first few times I go out to the store or to get coffee or just to walk. But I still feel like I’m getting stares when I’m not looking, and I wonder what people would say if they could see you for what you are.”
And in the end, it’s the same rocky, unbalanced process of learning to fully occupy your own skin again, and carry on.
Lesson: You can use the dorkiest premise in the world, as long as you’re telling a true story with it.
Markov’s story is about death. Or, it’s about the rituals that families must perform following the death of their loved one, in order to sew up the rent in the world they left behind. In this world, that ritual involves slowly skinning, dismembering, and grinding the corpse into little red cakes.
Admittedly, my Ideal Story (an imaginary amalgam of everything I love in fiction, mashed together into a Frankensteinian monster that would almost certainly inspire pitchforks) involves a lot fewer intestines, and no flaying at all. I don’t do gore.
But there was another story tucked in at the corners of this one that I couldn’t get out of my head. It never fully comes into focus, but there’s a world outside the burial chamber full of hungry gods and skinwalkers and some eternal war written in the language of knives. Gender and partnership are pleasingly blurred and obscured, here, and it’s these glimpses of what-came-before and what-comes-after that make the story strong.
‘Run. Run toward the mountains and rivers, sword in your hand and bow on your back. Run toward life. That is where you will find your father.’
Lesson: The world should always be much bigger and stranger than the words on the page.