by Gillian Daniels
“Sheila” by Rebecca Adams Wright (Little A Press; February, 2015), The Thing About Great White Sharks and Other Stories
In general, I’m pretty sure dogs are better than people. I am all too happy to give humans the short end of the stick when it comes to domesticated animals. There are inherently irritable dogs just like there are inherently irritable people, but no dog I’ve encountered has ever been consciously cruel the way people can be. Dogs don’t reason the way humans do, freeing them from a great deal of culpability. If a dog does bad things, my first thought is it’s because a human did something awful to it either in the past or present. This is all to say that in a story about dogs, real or fictional, I tend to be on the side of the dog until I’m convinced otherwise.
John, a retired judge, is on the side of the dog, too, in this case his robotic pet, Sheila. His “A-plus approximation of a Brittany spaniel” comes off as a gentle, aging beast, one that has more longevity due to her mechanical origins but is ultimately more fragile. After a well-publicized incident involving a robotic family “mechanimal” attacking children, the county has decided owning such dogs is a crime and that they will be destroyed. Even the idea of separation from the animal is painful to John, but he’s also come to the conclusion that Sheila is his best, truest connection to his deceased wife. His family tries to reason with him about this, but John’s loyalty is with the companion he’s had for years.
Objectively, it’s hard to say how much agency Sheila does and doesn’t have. On the one hand, her actions are filtered exclusively through John’s nostalgia and emotional investment. He hides her rubber biscuits in easily accessible places now that her robotic senses are running slower. He recalls buying her for his son and wife with perfect clarity. Still, this robot is described with such nobility and authentic dog-ness, it hardly seems to matter whether she’s the unique creature John knows she is or a tool on which he’s projecting a personality. The bond is authentic to him and authentic for the reader. It doesn’t matter that Sheila is made of aging ball joints, wires, and fake fur, or, for that matter, a collection of words on a page; she feels real and so does John’s devotion to her.
This piece wrecked me in more than a few ways, all of them to Wright’s credit. Her collection has a strong “lit fic” flavor, as some genre fans deem it, and this is one of its crown jewels.
“The Salt Mosquito’s Bite and The Goddess’ Sting” by J. Mehentee (March 9, 2015) Strange Horizons
A sweet story featuring a Tibetan child monk absolutely sure he’s going to die by the end of the day because he’s been bitten by a salt mosquito.
As a toddler, Dawa was brought to a gompa by his mother, sure that he was a reincarnation of a lama due to his brilliant memory. Beyond this great intelligence, however, is a boy with a vibrant imagination. A tale about the Buddha vanquishing a bandit with a salt mosquito has him sure of his own fate. The adults in his life attempt to vanquish his paranoia or, in the case of fellow novice Rinzen, take advantage of his naiveté for amusement.
While the danger the salt mosquito poses to Dawa may not be real, it’s plenty suspenseful. Certainly, Reshma, a Hijra or South Asian trans woman, is concerned for the boy’s safety when she discovers him wandering by himself. She indulges him and agrees to find him a “cure” with the help of her sisters and the Hindu goddess Bahuchara Mata.
This piece was an delight to find, offering tenderly-sketched characters and a great deal of warmth. Dawa is the very definition of an innocent, but so is the world he lives in, where strangers are benevolent, and fate, on a good day, is kind rather than deadly. Enjoyable from start to finish.
“Sweetness” by Toni Morrison (February, 2015), The New Yorker
The staggering excerpt from Morrison’s upcoming magical realism novel, God Help the Child. If this short story is any indication, it will be a novel of family turmoil, colorism, and the reinvention of the self. In short, it will be all Morrison.
The “Sweetness” of the title is the name that a mother demands her daughter, Lula Ann, call her instead of “mother.” The narrator in question refers to herself as “high yellow,” denoting her light skin as an African American woman. It’s a mystery to her and her husband why their daughter is “midnight black, Sudanese black.”
Cruelty has been deeply ingrained into this character due to a family history of “passing” for white under Jim Crow law. According to her, Lula Ann’s “birth skin was pale like all babies’, even African ones, but it changed fast. I thought I was going crazy when she turned blue-black right before my eyes. I know I went crazy for a minute because — just for a few seconds — I held a blanket over her face and pressed. But I couldn’t do that, no matter how much I wished she hadn’t been born with a terrible color.” This fantasy element is slight and even arguable, but it’s the bedrock for a stormy relationship, one in which our main character heaps venom on her own child with no true justification.
The degree of self-hatred appears evident, but the narrator seems only peripherally aware of just how much violence she’s done to her daughter. By the end of the piece, Lula Ann, now referring to herself as “Bride,” appears to have perhaps transcended the unkindness her mother has inflicted. The narrator, ensconced in a retirement home, comments on her daughter’s successful career with resentment and as little insight into her own feelings as ever. It’s a riveting, fraught character examination softened only by the beautiful sharpness of its writing.
“The Fox Bride” by Mari Ness (March 20, 2015), Daily Science Fiction
A prince has to marry a fox. After three days, he’s assured by the court magician, court seer, and his father she’ll turn into a woman and be his wife. The fox, meanwhile, collared and distressed, reacts to this imprisonment the way most wild animals would. He withstands her bites as he waits for her to change form, but nothing has happened yet.
Role reversal isn’t a revolutionary method to subvert fairy tale expectations, but here, the audience is asked to interrogate exactly what sort of prize the prince would claim if the fox does turn into a woman. It wouldn’t make him any more content in the role that’s been laid out for him. It certainly wouldn’t make the fox happy who is struggling against him.
“I’ve read the tales, how my great uncles and great great uncles and beyond even that rode deep into the forest, sniffing the air and the moon, until they came across shimmering maidens with red white hair, and took them beneath the moon, and brought back screeching sons who could not be silenced, who barked at any sight of the moon, sons who married the princesses of the house.”
Even with a more contemporary theme of self-determination versus duty, the story doesn’t sacrifice a gentle, fairy tale style reminiscent of Perault. It’s a stylized slice of formalism. The ideal Daily Science Fiction appears to deliver short and immediate satisfaction, but this one lingers. Mari Ness makes this short story as elegant as possible, wrapping up her fable with an ending both earned and thoughtful.
Gillian Daniels is a writer of prose, poetry, and criticism. After attending the Clarion Science Writing Workshop in 2011, her poems and fiction have been published in Apex Magazine, Strange Horizons, Electric Velocipede, Flash Fiction Online, and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine among others. Her reviews are available at The New England Theatre Geek blog and other venues. She is a transplant from Northeast Ohio and is highly suspicious of her home in the New World, i.e. Boston.