Saturday Storytime: The Gifts of the Giving Tree

When I read Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, I loathed it. A lot of that reaction came from comparing the contents to all the recommendations of the book. The more I learn about Silverstein, though, the less I think he would have appreciated the straightforward praise for his story. I’m pretty sure, however, that he would have appreciated Mallory Ortberg‘s retelling.

Once there was a tree
and she loved a little boy.

And everyday the boy would come
and he would gather her leaves
and make them into crowns
and play king of the forest.

He would climb up her trunk
and swing from her branches
and eat apples.
And the apples stained his mouth a strange color
and it wasn’t green and it wasn’t red
and the stain wouldn’t go away
no matter how much his mother scrubbed his mouth
after he’d eaten them
(she loved the little boy very much)
And they would play hide-and-go-seek.

And when he was tired,
he would sleep in her shade.
(she loved him best when he was asleep)
(he never woke up with quite the same color eyes)
(and his mother hated to hug him after he came home from the tree)
(though she could never explain why)
And the boy loved the tree, very much.

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Saturday Storytime: Falling From Earth to Haphazard Sky (Tadpole Remix)

I was flipping through a bunch of recently published F&SF stories, waiting for a title to catch my eye when a name caught my eye instead. E. Catherine Tobler. Checked the blog. Nope, hadn’t featured one of her stories before. Then I read this one and, oh, yes, that was going to change. Only on looking at her website did I realize I’d tweeted a piece from her on the new SFWA bulletin shortly before. It’s a pleasure to be able to feature her fiction.

He isn’t adjusting well, they say.

They want to observe him. They want him to come in, so he isn’t always so alone in the house he called home. He’s walking the meadows to mush, his neighbors say. Spends all night spinning circles in the grass.

They wonder at his pat answers. His time in the station–two years, he is reminded, reminded of investments in time and money–should have left a significant, perceptible change upon him. They slide him back into the scanner to look inside every nook and cranny.

He recalls with chilling precision the way, in school, a frog upon a black wax tray was placed before him. Spread upon its back, the frog’s legs pinned to the wax, belly pale and bulbous. Swollen with preservative fluids. He closes his eyes and he can smell that smell, can taste it in the back of his throat. Closes his eyes and can remember the tug of frog skin perceived through the length of scalpel. They don’t cut him open, but he feels the same tug.

They slice him into monochromatic layers, thread-thin. Sagittal, coronal, transverse. They disassemble and reassemble and ponder and question. He is no different, they say. But he must be! they say.

He feels the motion of the galaxy (falling, one into another) and the slide of one planet through the gravitational plane of another–so far distant it impacts nothing, nothing but him–and he cannot tell them. He feels the endless suck of a black hole, feels a speck of debris caught in the event horizon; this debris possesses a desire to be at long last swallowed whole yet holds the knowledge that it never will be. Forever suspended.

They ponder his brain and his heart, but never his courage. He wants them to ask the questions they don’t, the questions he cannot put into any kind of proper words. Those words have not reached this planet yet, but are streaming ever closer. Light year by light year, invisible through space, but en route. He feels that tug, too.

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Saturday Storytime: Ten Sigmas

This story from Paul Melko is going to spoil me on parallel world tales for a little while I think. I mean that in a good way.

In some worlds, the truck is there, past us, or there, coming down the road. In some it is red, in some it is blue, and in others it is black. In the one where the girl is looking out the window at us, it is metallic maroon with white script on the door that says, “Earl.”

There is just one world where the girl lifts her broken, gagged face and locks her one good eye on me. There is just one where Earl reaches behind him and pulls the girl from sight. In that world, Earl looks at me, his thick face and brown eyes expressionless.

The truck begins to slow, and that me disappears from our consciousness, sundered by circumstance.

*

No, I did not use my tremendous power for the good of mankind. I used it to steal the intellectual property of a person who exists in one world and pass it off as my own in another. I used my incredible ability to steal songs and stories and publish them as my own in a million different worlds. I did not warn police about terrorist attacks or fires or earthquakes. I don’t even read the papers.

I lived in a house in a town that is sometimes called Delaware, sometimes Follett, sometimes Mingo, always in a house on the corner of Williams and Ripley. I lived there modestly, in my two bedroom house, sometimes with a pine in front, sometimes with a dogwood, writing down songs that I hear on the radio in other worlds, telling stories that I’ve read somewhere else.

*

In the worlds where the truck has passed us, we look at the license plate on the truck, framed in silver, naked women, and wonder what to do. There is a pay phone nearby, perhaps on this corner, perhaps on that. We can call the police and say . . .

We saw the girl once, and that self is already gone to us. How do we know that there is a girl gagged and bound in any of these trucks? We just saw the one.

A part of us recognizes this rationalization for the cowardice it is. We have played this game before. We know that an infinite number of possibilities exist, but that our combined existence hovers around a huge multi-dimensional probability distribution. If we saw the girl in one universe, then probably she was there in an infinite number of other universes.

And safe in as many other worlds, I think.

For those of us where the truck has passed us, the majority of us step into the street to go to the bagel shop across the way. Some fraction of us turn to look for a phone, and they are broken from us, their choice shaking them loose from our collective.

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Saturday Storytime: Glory Awaits

Did you know that Adam Lee has published two science fiction novels? Dark Heart and Broken Ring follow the life of Myrren Kahliana, a young woman in a world in which gods are real but can still be opposed. Now he’s also published two stories set in the same world, stories which set the stage for the novels. You can check them out to get a taste for Adam’s writing.

Soldiers all around Warde were starting to their feet, shouting in alarm, grasping for shields and weapons. But the enemy had already brought their bows to bear. A hundred, a thousand bowstrings snapped back, and a black storm of arrows hurtled toward the unprepared army.

The arrows fell with deadly accuracy, falling into Vraxor’s ranks like a flock of black birds descending on ripe wheat. And the officers, most of whom were mounted on horses and wearing bright dress uniforms, were the easiest targets.

“Fall back, men!” shouted Warde’s lieutenant, mounted and beckoning the men of his company. “Regroup! Gather around me and prepare to charge!”

Suddenly, there was a hissing whir and a sharp sound, and the long black shaft of an arrow stood out from the lieutenant’s throat. He looked startled, reached up to touch the shaft transfixing him, then opened his mouth as if to speak. Instead, blood gurgled out and he toppled from his horse.

Many officers, not just the lieutenant, had fallen in that first barrage. Warde saw a colonel’s horse, riderless and milling about among the crush of confused and frightened men. The battle was already becoming a rout, as the companies that had been preparing to charge the enemy had stalled in the face of Lahar’s deadly bowmen, and the entire force wavered on the edge of breaking up in panic.

One of the men in Warde’s squad, wide-eyed and frightened, seized him by the arm. “Sergeant! What do we do?”

While arrows flew and men screamed and died all around them, Warde thought furiously. The enemy held the high ground, and their officers had been decimated by the surprise assault. The proper response would be to fall back and regroup, to wait for orders.

But Arvis’ words were ringing in his ears. Glory awaits

“We will charge!” Warde shouted, pouring all his voice into a bellow to be heard over the screams of dying men. He drew his sword and held it up high, letting the polished blade catch the light and blaze like a banner. “Follow the river course uphill! Break their flank. For Vraxor and glory!”

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Saturday Storytime: Little Faces

Vonda McIntyre is one of the earliest women to be nominated for a Hugo. She’s been nominated several more times for several more awards since then. It will be unsurprising to anyone who reads this story that it was multiply nominated as well.

“Zorargul,” Yalnis whispered. She had never lost a companion. She chose them carefully, and cherished them, and Zorargul had been her first, the gift of her first lover. She looked up at Seyyan, confused and horrified, shocked by loss and pain.

“Come back.” Seyyan spoke with soft urgency. She stretched out her graceful hand. “Come back to bed.” Her voice intensified. “Come back to me.”

Yalnis shrank from her touch. Seyyan followed her, sliding over the fading bloodstain in the comfortable nest of ship silk. Her first companion extruded itself, just below her navel, staring intently at Zorargul’s body.

Seyyan stroked Yalnis’ shoulder. Yalnis pushed her away with her free hand, leaving bloody fingerprints on Seyyan’s golden skin.

Seyyan grabbed her wrist and held her, moved to face her squarely, touched her beneath her chin and raised her head to look her in the eyes. Yalnis tried to blink away her tears, baffled and dizzy, flooded with the molecular messages of anger and distress her remaining companions pumped into her blood.

“Come back to me,” Seyyan said again. “We’re ready for you.”

Her first companion, drawing back into her, pulsed and muttered. Seyyan caught her breath.

“I never asked for this!” Yalnis cried.

Seyyan sat back on her heels, as lithe as a girl, but a million years old.

“I thought you wanted me,” she said. “You welcomed me—invited me—took me to your bed—”

Yalnis shook her head, though it was true. “Not for this,” she whispered.

“It didn’t even fight,” Seyyan said, dismissing Zorargul’s remains with a quick gesture. “It wasn’t worthy of its place with you.”

“Who are you to decide that?”

“I didn’t,” Seyyan said. “It’s the way of companions.” She touched the reddening bulge of a son-spot just below the face of her first companion. “This one will be worthy of you.”

Yalnis stared at her, horrified and furious. Seyyan, the legend, had come to her, exotic, alluring, and exciting. All the amazement and attraction Yalnis felt washed away in Zorargul’s blood.

“I don’t want it,” she said. “I won’t accept it.”

Seyyan’s companion reacted to the refusal, blinking, snarling. For a moment Yalnis feared Seyyan too would snarl at her, assault her and force a new companion upon her.

Seyyan sat back, frowning in confusion. “But I thought—did you invite me, just to refuse me? Why—?”

“For pleasure,” Yalnis said. “For friendship. And maybe for love—maybe you would offer, and I would accept—”

“How is this different?” Seyyan asked.

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Saturday Storytime: The End of the World in Five Dates

I’ve featured one of Claire Humphrey‘s stories here before, but this one got to me. It started with the Harold Camping. It ended with..well, that would be spoiling it. Let’s just say I remember knowing I couldn’t live past a certain age. I’m happy to say I was wrong.

I: May 21, 2011 (according to Harold Camping)

Robin called it an apartment, but it was really part of an old carpet factory in the Junction: an echoing space where one of the looms used to be, furnished with a broken church pew, two wheelchairs, and the bench seat from a minivan.

The smells of paint and dust were good, banishing the phantom smells of antiseptic and latex gloves from my nose. I leaned in the doorway of the breakroom and watched her sweep. “Where’s everyone going to sit?”

“On the floor,” she said. “That’s why I’m sweeping it.”

“And you’re cooking dinner on this thing?” I gestured over my shoulder at the twelve–burner gas range; eleven of the burners were clotted with molasses–brown grease and a surcoat of dog hair.

“Petra’s bringing food. You’ll like Petra.”

“No, I won’t.”

Robin threw the broom down with a clatter, and marched over to the dentist’s cabinet in the corner. “Jesus,” she said. “You need an attitude adjustment, stat.”

She handed me a bottle of Crown Royal, about a third full. I poured some into one of the paint–stained mugs from the work table. The paint didn’t come off into the whiskey, so I drank it.

“Now,” Robin said, picking up the broom again, and sweeping the pile of dust and filings underneath the work table. “You are going to love Petra. Know why? Because she’s extremely fucked up.”

“Oh. Great.”

“Shut up and drink! She’s fucked up and she’s my oldest friend, and you can’t mess around with her. Be good to her. Got it? Even if you can’t be good to yourself.”

“It’s not about being good to myself, for fuck’s sake. If this is confirmed, it means surgery and chemo and all kinds of unpleasant bullshit and there’s just no point to it.”

“But you don’t know for sure! What if you’re wrong? If it really is cancer, Cass, you can’t just leave it alone —”

“Watch me.”

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Saturday Storytime: Turnover

Y’all know who Jo Walton is, right? She’s only won just about every genre award that exists. Well, if you don’t know her, consider this story a nice little taste of her work.

“We’ll never get to the New World,” Jay said.

Just then, Il Magnifico stood up, flourished his red cape, and called the gnocchi. Kitchen workers processed out singing, carrying the flat, steaming trays, and we made a mad dash, along with everyone else in the room, to get it while it was hot.

“What do you mean?” Mei Ju asked as we stood in line. “We’ll get to the new world in a hundred and twenty-five years.”

“Indeed, saying anything different is like questioning gravity,” Genly said.

Jay laughed, and held up his hands, pale palms towards us. “Speranza will get there, sure as taxes. But we will not. We’ll be dead. If you have grandchildren, perhaps they’ll get there as old people. Your great-grandchildren will no doubt settle it. But us? No. Were our ancestors who got onto Speranza going to the New World? Were their parents who died on Earth? Were theirs who never even heard of the Starship Project? How about my ancestors dragged across the Atlantic from Africa in the hold of a slaver, were they on their way to the stars?”

The line moved forward and we moved with it. “They were in a way. Their genes were going. Our genes will get there,” Midge said.

“The only thing you care about is genes,” Genly said, grinning.

“Whereas I,” said Jay, reaching the head of the line and putting his plate out for the server to ladle the gnocchi onto it, “care nothing about genes at all.” Jay despised his parents. He hadn’t even wanted to make his Contribution, even though nobody gets to be an adult without. I’d eventually persuaded him that just as he’d give a kidney to save a life, making his Contribution was giving his genes to help some infertile or consanguineous couple after he was dead. “Maybe the genes of my poor devil slave ship ancestors will get to the New World, maybe the genes of all our ancestors back to Olduvai Gorge. But I won’t. And I’m glad I won’t.” He bowed to the server. “Grazie, mille grazie.”

He took his plate back to the table. I waited, thanked the server as she loaded mine, then followed him. “How can you be glad?” I asked him. The gnocchi were heavenly, they always are. I’ve had gnocchi elsewhere and even made them myself, but they’re nothing compared to the way they do them at Teatro del Sale. They taste the way I imagine Ambrosia would taste.

“I’m glad because I like living on Speranza,” he said. “I think life farming on the New World sounds tedious in the extreme. And I think you’d hate it even worse than I would.”

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Saturday Storytime: Silent Bridge, Pale Cascade

Still reading off Rachel Swirsky’s Campbell recommendation list because wow. Benjanun Sriduangkaew has published mostly in anthologies, so this is one of your few opportunities to read her online, though more are coming soon.

Grass crackles and hisses. She draws the blade, its petals unfurling razor mouths, and recognizes that this weapon is personal to her. All generals have them: a bestiary of blades and a gathering of guns, used to an edge and oiled to a sheen. She maintained a smaller collection than most; this was one she always kept at her side.

The grass is stilled, coils of circuits and muscles and fangs, petroleum stains on Lunha’s sword. She fires a shot into its vitals to be certain. A detonation of soundless light.

Her datasphere snaps online. Augmens bring one of the walls into sharp focus, an output panel. At the moment, audio alone.

“We had to make sure you were physically competent.” A voice keyed to a register of neutrality, inflection and otherwise; she cannot tell accent, preferred presentation, or much else. “It is our pleasure to welcome you back, General Lunha.”

“My connection is restricted. Why is this?”

“There have been some changes to data handling at your tier of command. We’ll send you the new protocols shortly. It is routine. You’ll want a briefing.”

“Yes.” Lunha attempts to brute-force access, finds herself without grid privileges that ought to have been hers by right.

“Your loyalty to the Hegemony has never been questioned.”

“Thus I’ve proven,” said Lunha, who in life served it for sixty years from cadet to general.

“We will not question it now.” The panel shimmers into a tactical map. “This world would offer its riches and might to our enemies. Neutralize it and the woman who lures it away from Hegemonic peace. Peruse her dossier at your leisure.”

The traitor planet is Tiansong, the Lake of Bridges, which in life was Lunha’s homeworld.

Their leader is Xinjia of Pale Cascade, who in life was Lunha’s bride.

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Saturday Storytime: Tornado’s Siren

It is still award nomination season in F&SF land, which makes me very happy. So many people pointing to good things I missed because I don’t have the time to read everything. (The reason for this feature is making sure I make time to read something regularly.) Thanks to Rachel Swirsky for the pointer to this story by Brooke Bolander. I may identify with one of the characters in this story. It may not be Rhea.

Left with no other choice, Rhea sets out to prepare by herself in all the ways she’s been taught. She strips the blankets and pillows off the bed and piles them into the bathtub. She grabs a flashlight and hauls Murray the big yellow tabby into the bathroom with her, all ten pounds of yowling, wounded dignity. When there’s nothing else to do, she shuts the door, climbs into the tub, and huddles beneath the comforter. The air is stifling, and Murray won’t stop meowing. She tries to say the prayers she’s been taught, but they don’t stop the aching in her gut like Grandma says they should. Bad things happen to good people all the time. Even at nine she’s a little wary about putting all her faith into such a moody higher power, although that’s the kind of thought she would never say in front of her grown-ups.

The waiting is the worst part. Balled up in the blackness, hoping that maybe nothing will happen, listening to the wind increase and rake at the walls. Listening, always listening, unable to do anything but stay put, the air getting more and more stale under the heavy sheet. Rhea holds her breath for as long as she can—it feels like hours—and then comes back up, clawing at the bedding for a fresh breath. She tugs the blanket away just in time to see, through the window, the neighbor’s privacy fence go spiraling by, panels of plywood twirling like old newspapers.

The full force of the storm hits the house a second later. Everything—roof, walls, window, her popping ears—creaks and then gives before the bull’s roar of the twister.

Rhea thinks she screams, but the whole world is screaming too so it’s hard to tell. Glass shatters and pops into her face, cutting her cheeks. Bathroom tile and bits of plaster rain down on her head. The room pulls apart in hunks, walls peeled down to pink insulation and rose-printed, rose-scented strips of shredded paper. She realizes the ceiling’s gone when hail begins to fall, nasty, biting little chunks of cold ice. Through the wall of noise and debris, looking up and up and up, she can see the jaws of the monster, an endless swirling throat of fog and whipped rain.

Frozen, Rhea stares up into the twister and waits for it to gobble her whole, blankets, bathtub, and all.

“Why?”

She doesn’t know why she says it. It just comes without a thought, the last thing she’ll probably ever whisper swallowed up in the fury of a tornado.

For a moment everything stops. The tornado’s voice grows still. All the little chunks of trash hang frozen in the air, like someone’s just hit the pause button. Rhea can see flowering shrubs and someone’s shoe, a lawn gnome and two china cups. Then, just as suddenly, it all comes tumbling down. As quickly as it arrived the storm moves on, grumbling deep down in its throat.

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Saturday Storytime: Selkie Stories Are for Losers

It’s award nomination time again. As I said last week, this is my annual excuse to revisit great writers I’ve featured before. This week, it’s Sofia Samatar‘s turn, with another great story I passed on featuring when it came out.

I hate selkie stories. They’re always about how you went up to the attic to look for a book, and you found a disgusting old coat and brought it downstairs between finger and thumb and said “What’s this?”, and you never saw your mom again.


I work at a restaurant called Le Pacha. I got the job after my mom left, to help with the bills. On my first night at work I got yelled at twice by the head server, burnt my fingers on a hot dish, spilled lentil-parsley soup all over my apron, and left my keys in the kitchen.

I didn’t realize at first I’d forgotten my keys. I stood in the parking lot, breathing slowly and letting the oil-smell lift away from my hair, and when all the other cars had started up and driven away I put my hand in my jacket pocket. Then I knew.

I ran back to the restaurant and banged on the door. Of course no one came. I smelled cigarette smoke an instant before I heard the voice.

“Hey.”

I turned, and Mona was standing there, smoke rising white from between her fingers.

“I left my keys inside,” I said.


Mona is the only other server at Le Pacha who’s a girl. She’s related to everybody at the restaurant except me. The owner, who goes by “Uncle Tad,” is really her uncle, her mom’s brother. “Don’t talk to him unless you have to,” Mona advised me. “He’s a creeper.” That was after she’d sighed and dropped her cigarette and crushed it out with her shoe and stepped into my clasped hands so I could boost her up to the window, after she’d wriggled through into the kitchen and opened the door for me. She said, “Madame,” in a dry voice, and bowed. At least, I think she said “Madame.” She might have said “My lady.” I don’t remember that night too well, because we drank a lot of wine. Mona said that as long as we were breaking and entering we might as well steal something, and she lined up all the bottles of red wine that had already been opened. I shone the light from my phone on her while she took out the special rubber corks and poured some of each bottle into a plastic pitcher. She called it “The House Wine.” I was surprised she was being so nice to me, since she’d hardly spoken to me while we were working. Later she told me she hates everybody the first time she meets them. I called home, but Dad didn’t pick up; he was probably in the basement. I left him a message and turned off my phone. “Do you know what this guy said to me tonight?” Mona asked. “He wanted beef couscous and he said, ‘I’ll have the beef conscious.’”


Mona’s mom doesn’t work at Le Pacha, but sometimes she comes in around three o’clock and sits in Mona’s section and cries. Then Mona jams on her orange baseball cap and goes out through the back and smokes a cigarette, and I take over her section. Mona’s mom won’t order anything from me. She’s got Mona’s eyes, or Mona’s got hers: huge, angry eyes with lashes that curl up at the ends. She shakes her head and says: “Nothing! Nothing!” Finally Uncle Tad comes over, and Mona’s mom hugs and kisses him, sobbing in Arabic.


After work Mona says, “Got the keys?”

We get in my car and I drive us through town to the Bone Zone, a giant cemetery on a hill.

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