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.


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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Saturday Storytime: If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love

One of the great things about an award nomination list coming out is that it gives me a great excuse to feature authors here more than once. I love finding new (to me) authors and sharing them, but every once in a while, this arbitrary restriction I’ve placed on myself means I pass on a great story when it’s published. I didn’t worry too much about this story by Rachel Swirsky, though. I was pretty damned certain it would be nominated for multiple awards this year. And now I can share it with you.

If you were a dinosaur, my love, then you would be a T-Rex. You’d be a small one, only five feet, ten inches, the same height as human-you. You’d be fragile-boned and you’d walk with as delicate and polite a gait as you could manage on massive talons. Your eyes would gaze gently from beneath your bony brow-ridge.

If you were a T-Rex, then I would become a zookeeper so that I could spend all my time with you. I’d bring you raw chickens and live goats. I’d watch the gore shining on your teeth. I’d make my bed on the floor of your cage, in the moist dirt, cushioned by leaves. When you couldn’t sleep, I’d sing you lullabies.

If I sang you lullabies, I’d soon notice how quickly you picked up music. You’d harmonize with me, your rough, vibrating voice a strange counterpoint to mine. When you thought I was asleep, you’d cry unrequited love songs into the night.

If you sang unrequited love songs, I’d take you on tour. We’d go to Broadway. You’d stand onstage, talons digging into the floorboards. Audiences would weep at the melancholic beauty of your singing.

If audiences wept at the melancholic beauty of your singing, they’d rally to fund new research into reviving extinct species. Money would flood into scientific institutions. Biologists would reverse engineer chickens until they could discover how to give them jaws with teeth. Paleontologists would mine ancient fossils for traces of collagen. Geneticists would figure out how to build a dinosaur from nothing by discovering exactly what DNA sequences code everything about a creature, from the size of its pupils to what enables a brain to contemplate a sunset. They’d work until they’d built you a mate.

If they built you a mate, I’d stand as the best woman at your wedding. I’d watch awkwardly in green chiffon that made me look sallow, as I listened to your vows. I’d be jealous, of course, and also sad, because I want to marry you. Still, I’d know that it was for the best that you marry another creature like yourself, one that shares your body and bone and genetic template. I’d stare at the two of you standing together by the altar and I’d love you even more than I do now. My soul would feel light because I’d know that you and I had made something new in the world and at the same time revived something very old. I would be borrowed, too, because I’d be borrowing your happiness. All I’d need would be something blue.

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Saturday Storytime: The Sounds of Old Earth

The 2013 Nebula nominees are out! I’ve only featured one of these stories here previously, as I usually try to find stories by authors I haven’t already featured. I have no excuse for having missed this story by Matthew Kressel, however. It generated a good bit of buzz when it came out in January, and with good reason.

Earth has grown quiet since everyone’s shipped off to the new one. I walk New Paltz’s empty streets with an ox-mask tight about my face. An acidic rain mists my body, and a thick fog obscures the vac-sealed storefronts. Last week they hauled the Pyramids of Giza to New Earth. The week before, Stonehenge. The week before that, Versailles and a good chunk of the Great Wall. But the minor landmarks are too expensive to move, the NEU says, and so New Paltz’s Huguenot Street, seven centuries old, will remain here, to be sliced to pieces in a few months when the planetary lasers begin to cut the Earth apart.

I pump nano into my bloodstream to alleviate my creeping osteoarthritis and nod to a few fellow holdouts. We take our strolls through these dusty streets at ten every morning, our little act of rebellion against the mandatory evacuation orders. I wave hello to Marta, ninety-six, in her stylishly pink ox-mask. I shake hands with Dr. Wu, who performed the op to insert my cranial when I was a boy. I smile at Cordelia, one hundred and thirty-three, as she trots by on her quad servo-legs. All of us have lived in New Paltz our entire lives and all of us plan to die here.

Someone laughs behind me, a sound I haven’t heard in a long time. A group of teenage boys and girls ride ancient turbocycles over the cracked pavement toward me. They skid to a halt and their eager, flushed faces take me in. None wear ox-masks, which is against the law. I like them already.

“Hey shinhun!” a boy says. “Do you know where the frogs are?”

Before I can answer, an attractive girl with a techplant on her cheek blows a dreadlock of green hair from her eyes and says, “We heard some wankuzidi has an old house where he keeps a gose-load of frogs.” A boy pops a wheelie and another takes a hit of braino from an orange inhaler. A third puffs a cigalectric and exhales fluorescent smoke.

“Behind my house I have a pond with a few frogs still alive,” I say.

“Xin!” she exclaims. “How ’bout you ride with us? I’m Lin.”

These kids are as high as orbitals, but it’s not as if I have much left to lose. “Abner,” I say.

And just like that I’m hanging on to her waist as we speed toward my house over broken roads no ground vehicle has used in decades. The wind in my face feels exhilarating.

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Saturday Storytime: Home by the Sea

Science fiction has a long and noble past as the fiction that explores what it means to be human, that wonders how much of our inevitable coming change humanity can endure and still be what we are. This story by Elisabeth Vonarburg lives well within that tradition.

«Is it a lady, Mommy?»

The small girl looks at me with the innocent insolence of children who say out loud what adults are thinking to themselves. A skinny, pale, fair–haired child of five or six, she already looks so like her mother that I feel sorry for her. The mother gives an embarrassed laugh and lifts the child onto her lap. «Of course it’s a lady, Rita.» She smiles excuse–her–please, I smile back oh–it’s–nothing. Will she take advantage of it to launch into one of those meaningless, ritual conversations whereby neighbors assure each other of their mutual inoffensiveness? To cut her off, I turn towards the window of the compartment and look purposefully at the scenery. Heading to the north the train follows the system of old dykes as far as the huge gap breached four years ago by the Eschatoï in their final madness. The scars left by the explosions have nearly disappeared, and it almost seems as though the dykes were meant to stop here and that the waters had been allowed to invade the lowlands as part of some official scheme. We cross the narrows by ferry, and are once more in the train, an ordinary electric train this time, suspended between the two wide sheets of water, to the west rippled by waves, to the east broken by dead trees, old transmission towers, church spires, and caved–in roofs. There is a mist, a whitish breath rising from the waters like a second tide ready to engulf what is left of the man–made landscape.

Is it a lady? You obviously don’t see ladies like me very often in your part of the world, little girl. Cropped hair, boots, army fatigues, a heavy jacket of worn leather; and the way I was sitting, grudgingly corrected when you and your mousy mother came in — a real lady doesn’t sprawl like that, does she, even when she’s by herself. The lady actually likes to be comfortable, believe it or not, and in her usual surroundings she doesn’t have to worry much about what people think. The lady, little girl, is a recuperator.

But she couldn’t tell you this; she didn’t want to see your big, stupid eyes fill with terror. All the same, you don’t get to see a real live bogeywoman every day. I could’ve told you a few things. Yes, I know, If you’re not good the Recuperator will get you, and he’ll say you’re not a real person and put you in his big sack. As a matter of fact, we don’t put human specimens in our big sacks right away, you know; only plants and small animals. Big animals are injected with tracers once they’ve been put to sleep for preliminary tests. If the Institute researchers discover something especially interesting, they send us back for it. I could’ve told you all this, little girl, you and your mother, who would probably have looked at me with superstitious fear. But who cares what recuperators really do, anyway? They go into the contaminated Zones to bring back horrible things that in other times might have been plants, animals, humans. So the recuperators must be contaminated too, mentally if nothing else. No, no one apart from the Recuperation Agency cares what the recuperators really do. And no one, especially not the Institute, wonders who they really are, which suits me just fine.

«Why did they break the dyke, Mommy?» asks the small girl. She’s sensed that it would be a good idea to change the subject.

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Saturday Storytime: Fire Above, Fire Below

Garth Nix is well-known as a prolific writer of young adult fantasy novels, his Old Kingdom and Keys to the Kingdom series in particular. It’s always nice when he finds time for shorter works.

“What’s this about, Hansen?” growled the mayor.

“The Oldgate building fire,” replied the chief. He pointed at the small shed over on the corner of the roof. It had chicken wire walls and a corrugated iron roof, and pigeons were roosting on top of it. “Let’s go over there.”

“What’s the Oldgate fire got to do with a pigeon house?” asked the mayor suspiciously.

“Nothing directly,” said the chief. He led the way, shooing some pigeons off so he could open the door. “But there is something you need to know about the fire.”

“Listen, your people said it was some kind of one-in-a-thousand gas main explosion. We told the media it was a gas explosion! Why do you need to drag me up to a pigeon house to tell me anything different?”

“I wanted to show you something,” said the chief. “Which happens to be here, with the pigeons.”

He brushed the straw from the floor to reveal a trapdoor fastened with a big brass padlock. He opened this with a key he wore on a chain around his neck. The key was iron, big and old, and the mayor thought it must be damned uncomfortable to have it hanging around your neck. He began to wonder about the sanity of his fire chief.

Then the chief opened the trapdoor, and the mayor began to wonder about his own sanity. Under the trapdoor was a cavity, and curled up on a bed of gold twenty-dollar pieces, there was a small dragon.

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Saturday Storytime: A Hollow Play

Sometimes I read a story, and I wonder why I bothered to write any. This story by Amal El-Mohtar was one of those, and I’m glad that it’s inclusion in the “2013 Locus Recommended Reading List” has prompted the publisher to make it freely available to everyone.

When Emily woke again, it was to morning light filtering through the blankets over her head and whispering voices in the hall. She ventured a peek over the sheets, and saw Anna and Lynette in animated conversation, while someone who shared Lynette’s height, cheekbones, and colouring stood silently by with arms folded. Kel? They had short–cropped black hair, sharp cheekbones, and human feet.

Lynette’s remained disconcertingly taloned. She hadn’t imagined it.

Emily rolled over and burrowed deeper into the blankets in search of oblivion.

“Hey,” came Anna’s voice, gently, from beyond the duvet. “Morning. How are you feeling?”

Emily tried to part her lips to say something intelligent and managed a tiny croak of misery. Anna patted her shoulder.

“Have some water. Come on, we won’t bite. What do you remember?”

Slowly, Emily sat up, taking in the company. Anna, in pink flannel pajamas, looked concerned. Lynette without her make–up and feathers was still devastatingly beautiful: her black hair was a long sideways braid over her shoulder, and her light brown cheeks still had a hint of glitter to them. Her eyes were as black as her hair. She looked less like a magical bird–woman and more like someone from Emily’s own family now — as did Kel, who was looking at Emily with distrust.

She accepted a glass of water and took small, careful sips. “Lynette has bird feet.”

Anna winced. Kel muttered something under their breath that sounded like it was probably rude. Lynette waved her hand.

“We will speak of that later. I think Anna meant from earlier in the evening.”


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Saturday Storytime: The Innocence of a Place

I admit to having a weakness for gothic horror, though the overwrought emotionality of much of it makes me giggle when I take a step back. That made finding this story by Margaret Ronald all the better. It shares much of the sensibility of gothic horror without overselling anything.

Ibbotson’s record picks up the next morning, after two fathers came by hoping to help their daughters. Ibbotson’s uncle seems to have reassured them that Wilbraham was taking care of the girls, and given the state of the river at the time, it’s understandable that the fathers decided to wait it out. Ibbotson herself continued to watch through her telescope off and on as the rain continued.

I can certainly sympathize; even though the rain here is hardly as bad and the risk of flood practically nonexistent on the new fill, after a while one does start looking for any distraction. The sound of the rain is monotonous but not unpleasant; what is mildly disturbing is how the rain on the glass changes the quality of the light, turning it from gray to an undersea green. It is sometimes easy to believe that my entire apartment is beneath the water somewhere, submerged deep under sky and stone.

I find distraction in writing up my notes—as Ibbotson did, later on in life.  I wonder if she, too, discovered inconsistencies as she went along, if she found the drumming of rain as conducive to a meditative state. Surely that would explain her time in Kansas; surely that would mark yet another similarity between us.

At the time, though, Ibbotson found a different sort of distraction in pointing her telescope at Wilbraham’s house, where despite the rain a strange game appeared to be in progress. As Ibbotson puts it:

Three or four girls stand at the doorway, then one runs outside. Sometimes the others run to catch her; sometimes they hold on to the doorframe as if it were an anchor, and it must be Mr. Wilbraham or Miss Farles who runs after. They or the girls catch their friend & pull her back into the house. First Cassie Garlin, then Beatrice Silber, then Victoria Bahn. And now Cassie again; she has nearly made it to the water, but Miss Farles has pulled her back, dragging her heels in the mud.

This has happened six times in the last hour. Once Miss Farles herself kept running past Sadie & Mr. Wilbraham had to grab her around the waist and carry both her and Sadie back to the house. I think if it had not been Sadie, who is the smallest at Braxton, he would have lost one of them.

It is as if they seek something in the water, but they fear to leave the house and fear to let their schoolmates leave.

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Saturday Storytime: Jackalope Wives

The new year brought a new editor at Apex Magazine, which is frequently featured here. Lynne and Michael Thomas are moving on, and I expect good things from them wherever they end up. Joining Apex is Sigrid Ellis as editor-in-chief, whom I think you’ll find has a somewhat familiar touch. She’s worked on the magazine for quite a while and is well-prepared to take on this role. After all, she brings us this story by Ursula Vernon in her very first issue.

Now, it happened there was a young man in town who had a touch of magic on him. It had come down to him on his mother’s side, as happens now and again, and it was worse than useless.

A little magic is worse than none, for it draws the wrong sort of attention. It gave this young man feverish eyes and made him sullen. His grandmother used to tell him that it was a miracle he hadn’t been drowned as a child, and for her he’d laugh, but not for anyone else.

He was tall and slim and had dark hair and young women found him fascinating.

This sort of thing happens often enough, even with boys as mortal as dirt. There’s always one who learned how to brood early and often, and always girls who think they can heal him.

Eventually the girls learn better. Either the hurts are petty little things and they get tired of whining or the hurt’s so deep and wide that they drown in it. The smart ones heave themselves back to shore and the slower ones wake up married with a husband who lies around and suffers in their direction. It’s part of a dance as old as the jackalopes themselves.

But in this town at this time, the girls hadn’t learned and the boy hadn’t yet worn out his interest. At the dances, he leaned on the wall with his hands in his pockets and his eyes glittering. Other young men eyed him with dislike. He would slip away early, before the dance was ended, and never marked the eyes that followed him and wished that he would stay.

He himself had one thought and one thought only — to catch a jackalope wife.

They were beautiful creatures, with their long brown legs and their bodies splashed orange by the firelight. They had faces like no mortal woman and they moved like quicksilver and they played music that got down into your bones and thrummed like a sickness.

And there was one — he’d seen her. She danced farther out from the others and her horns were short and sharp as sickles. She was the last one to put on her rabbit skin when the sun came up. Long after the music had stopped, she danced to the rhythm of her own long feet on the sand.

(And now you will ask me about the musicians that played for the jackalope wives. Well, if you can find a place where they’ve been dancing, you might see something like sidewinder tracks in the dust, and more than that I cannot tell you. The desert chews its secrets right down to the bone.)

So the young man with the touch of magic watched the jackalope wife dancing and you know as well as I do what young men dream about. We will be charitable. She danced a little apart from her fellows, as he walked a little apart from his.

Perhaps he thought she might understand him. Perhaps he found her as interesting as the girls found him.

Perhaps we shouldn’t always get what we think we want.

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Saturday Storytime: Significant Figures

I didn’t have much time to read stories just before Christmas. I’m very glad I didn’t miss this one by Rachael Acks in all the rush.

That morning, at great personal risk, Stephen’s waffle iron attempted to tell him something.

Bachelors were not generally known for their possession of specialized kitchen appliances, but Stephen owned a full array of top-of-the-line single use devices, including the aforementioned waffle iron. And perhaps only slightly more bizarre, Stephen’s kitchen gadgets were rather more sentient than any electronic device had a right to be. This was pure self-defense on their part, sheer will to survive actualized by the field of latent unreality that clung to Stephen like a second skin. Only the waffle iron and the blender were old enough to recall the horrifying day when the espresso machine, upon beeping at an inopportune time, had been redefined by a startled Stephen into greasy slag that smelled faintly of French roast.

Thus it was with no small amount of trepidation that the waffle iron sought to draw Stephen’s attention to odd fluctuations of the power grid by flickering its little red light and letting out a strangled beep.

Stephen set his tablet down; he’d been scrolling through the morning’s market reports. The waffle iron dared another plaintive beep as he opened it and levered the waffle free. Stephen frowned, patting at his pocket in search of his pen. “Not going bad, are you?”

Immediately the waffle iron held its light steady. The pen carried with it disturbing implications. Stephen had a degree in theoretical mathematics, which involved solving problems within a closely constrained world where all the rules made sense. But his passion and talent lay in slicing through reality with a sharpened slide rule and redefining the fiddly bits so problems politely solved themselves. In short, Stephen Charlemagne Robins was the rarest sort of person in the universe: a combat mathematician.

A combat mathematician who promptly wandered from the kitchen, plated waffle in hand, tablet forgotten on the counter.

And that, the waffle iron thought with no small amount of bitterness, was the biggest problem with Stephen. The man loved his waffles, but he didn’t blink nearly often enough and was utterly abysmal at asking the right questions.

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Saturday Storytime: Boat in Shadows, Crossing

Tori Truslow says she’d like to be a genderfluid cyborg on Mars. Given her talent for making the suspension of disbelief a small thing, one would almost think it could happen. Thanks to AJ Fitzwater for the pointer to this and other good short fiction from 2013.

Listen: down in the mangroves, just a few days before this story-telling night, a certain fisher pulled up wicker eggs that turned into wicker fish. He showed his wife the trap that bore them, shiny stones tied onto it like eyes. She shook her head and turned to their daughter.

“It’s because you made it too lifelike,” she scolded, “and now something’s possessed it.”

“Oh, no,” the daughter said. “I made it more deathlike. So it’d suck fish to the same fate.”

And her parents thought, and conferred, and spoke to their cousins and their neighbors, who all agreed: a girl with such a talent could marry well.

One said he’d heard of a wealthy ice merchant from across the seas with an unmarried son, who needed someone with haunt-tricks to help their business—he had bought a ghostwood barge to use as a roving shop but couldn’t get it to go. Now, Bue’s parents cared for their daughter but not for ghosty fish-traps—and to be joined to a merchant family was a fine thought. So they asked her, as they sat down to supper, what she thought.

“But Ma, Pa, who’ll tend the traps?” Under her calm face, dismay tumbled with delight. The city, the city! But as a merchant’s wife?

“I can do that,” her mother said. “Just think! No more blistering your fingers with work, but sitting in a high chair and commanding a house! And there’d be money to send home.”

“So send me as a servant,” Bue said, ladling soup into their bowls. “I’ll earn you some coin, and I’d rather work with my hands than worry about accounts.”

“I’ve heard nothing good about rich boys and servant girls,” said her father.

Bue’s smile was not a delicate thing but a big rash grin when she said, “why should I be a girl?”

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