Why, hello! I haven’t blogged since August!
This semester has truly been the most exhausting and hectic academic term of my life. I started off with back-to-back illnesses (food poisoning followed immediately by an interminable chest cold), then had a perfect storm of time consuming coursework and travel (a really fun Monday night Camden/Tuesday morning New Brunswick/Tuesday night Camden schedule), two conferences (one international), lots of grading, and quite a few brand new (to me) theories that took just my whole entire brain to understand. Plus, you know, the annual energy-sapping effects of the ol’ seasonal affective nonsense. I feel like I’ve been sprinting flat out since Labor Day.
I’m still really glad I’m in this program. So that’s a nice sign.
One oft-repeated truth about grad school is that it’s isolating, and that’s been especially true this term, just because I haven’t had time to do anything. This has been frustrating, because I think I’m actually becoming less of an introvert as I get older? I definitely couldn’t do Hermit Life again. But luckily the combined circumstances of next term look like they won’t be QUITE as intense as this one (please let me not have just jinxed that), so I’m looking forward to communicating with other human beings on a more regular basis. Part of that mission includes reviving this ever-neglected blog, at least throughout winter break. I’m excited to talk about some of the highs of this past term (guest lecturing! Monsters conference in Prague!), as well as more media, writing, children/childhood, and current event thoughts. I sometimes joke (“joke”) that I am 100% Strong Opinions By Volume, and I’ve accumulated a lot of pent-up opinions to share over the past few busy, somewhat lonely months. (Shout out to any of my fellow Childhood Studies colleagues reading this, especially my astonishingly wonderful cohort, for being there and keeping me functional since September. Literally don’t think I could do this if I didn’t enjoy being around you all so much.)
But first, as is traditional, for my last post of the year (and decade!), I wanted to do a little round up of media that I was grateful for over the past year, plus a little bit of my own writing. The first part of this post will be very easy; despite the dearth of posts on this blog over the last year, I did manage to review three of my favorite viewing experiences of 2019 (Schitt’s Creek, Rocketman, Hadestown). Another movie favorite from the beginning of this year was Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which I went to see as a 30th birthday present to myself. All of these stories make me fall further in love with our messy human condition, which is all I really want a story to do; as I mentioned in my Rocketman review, I’m always after Big Emotions in fiction.
Two of my guiding principles as a writer and a person are that a) fondness may seem quiet and soft but is actually deeply profound and sustaining and b) despair is the death of creativity. Therefore, while a story can have moments where it is as dark as dark can be (see: Hadestown and also most of what I write), ultimately cynicism will never a good story make, so you always need to give characters and audiences something to care about and keep caring about. To reiterate my Hadestown review, the things and people we care about don’t necessarily fix or save our world, but that’s never what made them matter in the first place. Human connection, art, storytelling, celebration, love — they matter in their own right. To continue that thought, I think we need all those things to sustain us if we’re going to engage in the work of fixing and saving. I know I do. So I guess that’s what I was after in this last year of the decade, and what I’ll be taking into the new one: stories that remind me of the things that matter most, so I can happily continue to care, create, and contribute to the world’s well-being in whatever small ways that I can.
A small extra note about Schitt’s Creek, just because it’s the story that fully dominated my 2019: I’ve been joking (again, “joking”) that that show is responsible for a good 70% of my mental stability as a graduate student, and goddamn am I grateful for it. Anyone who hasn’t watched it yet and is dealing with literally any form of stress in your lives, do yourselves a favor and indulge in this Absolute Delight of a show. I’m so pumped for the sixth season, and yet I’ll be ridiculously distraught when it ends, even though I respect the hell out of Dan Levy for giving his story a proper ending. (I respect the hell out of all of Dan Levy’s storytelling decisions. I can only humbly pay fealty to the undisputed king of slow-burn showing-not-telling character development.) I entitled my review of that show “Disasters Learning To Love,” and I can only hope to find more stories with that most evergreen of meaningful plots in 2020.
Sadly, I don’t have much in the way of book recommendations from this year — which is not to say that I didn’t read novels that I enjoyed, but I didn’t happen on any Big New Favorites. (I did get quite a few books for Christmas, though, so watch this space.) (Also, Anna, if you’re reading this, I am going to read Gideon The Ninth over break, you don’t need to yell at me again.) I did get to write about plenty of books that I care about this year, though. The highlight was definitely talking about monstrous doubling in Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona, Patrick Ness’s Release, and Eden Robinson’s Trickster series, all of which I could not recommend highly enough. That paper, which is the one I presented in Prague, was entitled “With Love from Self to Self: Monstrous Doubling and an Ethics of Care in Adolescent Literature.” I talked about this pattern I’ve been noticing in stories with sympathetic monsters in which the trope of the monstrous body splitting, duplicating, fragmenting, or containing multiple disparate aspects is used as a means of exploring a sort of desperate (and sometimes defiant) self-care in the face of a hostile society.
It’s no accident that this concept appeals to me so much, since I’ve actually written it myself, in MISBEGOTTEN CREATURES. It was exciting to realize that multiple authors whom I really admire are playing with similar ideas and to analyze what these narratives have the potential to communicate about the needs of marginalized young people. I closed that talk out by saying, “Monstrous care from self to self is not sufficient on its own; instead, it is the beginning of the story. It is the first acknowledgement, extended from within, that marginalized, scapegoated, and unstable selves are worth caring for and caring with.” So that’s another guiding thought I’m taking with me into the new year.
Finally, re: my own writing, since this is ostensibly a writing blog: I’ve officially been Writing Seriously (i.e., trying to write novels worthy of publication in a methodical manner) for a little over a decade. If you’d told 20-year-old me that I still wouldn’t actually be published at this time, she’d have been, uhhh … really sad. A lot of things haven’t exactly gone right in my writing career, and I’ve been dealing with the frustration, jealousy, and disappointment of that for a while now. But if things had gone differently, who knows if I’d be getting my PhD right now? I might have just kept on with a day job I liked less, instead of pursuing this additional path. In that case, who knows if I’d be living in a place I really like, so close to my sister and my NEPHEW, who is the most perfect thing to happen in 2019? I can’t take a peek into those alternate universes, but I do know that I’m doing work that I really like, and I’ve learned so much in the last three semesters, and all of it’s going to make my future writing better. Plus, I want the ’20s to be a decade of prioritizing relationships, and so I’m glad to be near my family. So I’ll continue to Write Seriously and embrace all the other opportunities and connections that crop up along the way.
Meanwhile, to everyone who’s read any of my writing (creative, academic, or sporadically blogged) and enjoyed it over the past 10 years, thank you so much. It means the absolute world to me when I find out I’ve written something that’s made another person happy. And you know what? I’m good at it. I’ve worked hard enough in the 2010s to have earned the right to say that. So, beneath the cut, please enjoy a selection of some of my favorite scenes from stories I’ve written this decade. Happy New Year to all!
THE CHILDREN’S WAR
The band finished with a flourish and left to entertain another part of town. Beidrica opened her mouth to suggest following them, but a flash of color at the fountain caught her eye. A skinny boy in a red uniform sat there, spinning a cane with his long fingers and already looking back at Beidrica.
Roy followed Beidrica’s gaze and started shoving his way through the crowd. Beidrica followed, her heartbeat throbbing like a bruise. The last time she had seen Mat, his leg had been a bloody, suppurating mess, and she’d thought …
Never mind what she’d thought. She’d been wrong.
Beidrica’s mother had written to her after she was drafted. The Empire must be your only love, the letter said. Be willing to die for your fellow soldiers, but do not tie your heart to individuals. Should they fall, grief will sap your strength.
It was the only order Beidrica would ever disobey, though she hadn’t meant to. When Beidrica’s family moved to the south shore right before the war began, she and her childhood friends quickly lost contact. In her new home, there were plenty of people she’d hang around with after village school, running races and holding other competitions, but when she was drafted, she didn’t feel distracted by any of them.
Then she’d met Mat and Roy during training. The boys’ friendship was so close that Beidrica had never expected them to open it up to her, but they had, and she had all but forgotten her mother’s order.
In any case, it didn’t matter now. The war was ending.
Mat pushed himself to his feet as they reached the fountain, and Roy threw his arms around him. They were the same height, but there the similarities ended. Roy was pale, broad, and strong. He took obvious care not to knock Mat off balance. When they finally let go of each other, both boys were beaming.
“Welcome back,” Roy said.
“What’d I miss?” asked Mat, his eyes shining.
“You know better than we do,” Roy said, nodding at the red uniform.
Beidrica couldn’t wait any longer. She stepped forward and bowed.
“Master Historian,” she said.
Mat snorted and pulled Beidrica in for a hug. Beidrica squeezed him hard, pressing the realness of his body into hers. He wasn’t ash. He had form and warmth and a pulse beneath her ear.
When she was sure her voice wouldn’t shake, she let go of him and said, “Ow.”
Mat’s eyebrows rose in concern. “What’s wrong?”
“I think I just cut myself on your ribs.”
“Wear your armor next time,” Mat said, rolling his eyes.
Roy sighed. “I see we’re picking up where we left off.”
Beidrica laughed. Mat had been useless at handling weapons, but he never left Beidrica without a partner when it came to sparring with words.
Yet when the laughter ended, there was a long moment in which Beidrica knew Mat hoped for something. She looked away, staring at the courtyard as though it were the most interesting thing she’d ever seen. It wasn’t like she’d never kissed him before, but something heavy and hard closed around her heart at the thought of doing so now.
“Let’s sit,” Roy suggested, gesturing at the fountain.
Grateful for the distraction, Beidrica plopped down. She opened her mouth to say something, but the words died in her throat as she watched Mat settle beside her. The automatic act of sitting was a complicated procedure for him now. Each awkward movement was painful to watch.
Beidrica’s hand uselessly moved to her hilt. Now that the rats were running, she wouldn’t get the chance to avenge the injustice done to Mat’s body anymore. Most Chrondonians would only see a war ruin when they looked at Mat now, but Roy had told Beidrica that when he’d found Mat after that fateful battle, Mat had been unconscious. Running away and passing out weren’t the same thing.
Beidrica arched her back, wringing tension from her muscles. A happy distraction in the form of small children carrying platters of de-spined cactus fruit passed by.
“Better than boiled oats and dried unidentifieds,” Beidrica said, referring to the Command’s supply of meat and vegetable strips that had been dehydrated beyond recognition.
Roy wiped a sticky drop of juice from his chin. “Not like home, but not bad.”
The mention of home undammed a flood of talk about family traditions. Roy insisted that his father made the best citrus relish in the Empire, which Mat vouched for, and Beidrica found herself explaining the northwest’s prizes for the previous harvest’s most impressive crops.
“My family didn’t farm, of course, but we still went to the awards. The farmers make molds before the vegetables rot. So you’re staring at this giant clay pumpkin …”
The conversation continued in this vein for a while, until Roy said, “It’s too bad we missed the sunrise procession.”
Beidrica and Mat nodded their agreement. Beidrica remembered bursting out of the temple and into the dawn with her little brothers. It had been over three years since she last saw them; she found it difficult now to recall their faces.
“I miss hearing the story,” Roy said. “Not that I don’t know it, but I love listening to it.”
“Really?” Beidrica said. “The priests always put me to sleep.”
Roy raised an eyebrow at her, and Beidrica belatedly remembered that he was kind of pious. She was about to apologize when he suddenly grinned.
“I bet Mat could tell it well,” he said. “Eloquence got you the job, right?”
“I’m more eloquent on paper,” Mat protested.
“You’ll have to perform when you rewrite all the epics,” Roy said slyly.
Mat made a spluttering sound.
Beidrica laughed. “And when did you decide the epics needed rewriting?”
“When we were little,” Roy said. “He’s very humble. Come on, Mat, what can be more epic than Awe?”
“I mean …”
“Do it,” Beidrica ordered.
Mat obeyed. He sat up straight and cleared his throat. When he opened his mouth, his voice no longer sounded like his own.
“Before the Two, there was the Universe. Stars and planets, comets and moons filled eternal space, but no one lived to appreciate the glory. Then one blessed day, the Two willed Themselves into existence. He and She, the Two are halves of a perfect whole. They claimed the Universe as Their own, and after a time, They decided to share these wonders. They crafted a new world, forging mountains and filling oceans, growing plants and molding animals as a gift for what was to come next: Their Children.
“The Children could not be their Parents’ equals. The Universe could not sustain more perfect beings; it was only wide enough for the Two Themselves. So the Two gave each Child a single one of Their sublime gifts. As multitudinous as the gifts are, so were the Children. They spread throughout the land to uncover the secrets of the world their Parents had given them.”
Mat paused. The people sitting nearby had stopped talking.
“Then something occurred that the Two had not foreseen. Envy invaded the Children’s hearts. Instead of learning from their siblings and working towards their own improvement, the Children allowed jealousy to harden their souls.
“Eventually, inevitably, tragedy struck. The Two’s daughter, Ambition, and Their son, Intellect, were consumed with envy for the gentlest of their siblings: Awe. Awe greeted her Parents’ world with love. She filled her heart to bursting with the power and majesty of the Universe. Ambition could strive to become better and better, but she did not feel the joy her sister did when she achieved a goal. Intellect could learn faster and understand more than Awe, but his knowledge was empty without her humility and wonder.
“Awe could have taught her siblings her ways, but Ambition and Intellect were too proud to ask. One morning, they found Awe sitting beneath a flowering tree. She found more meaning in a single petal than Ambition and Intellect did in the whole world. In a fit of rage, the pair of them broke a branch from the tree and pierced their sister’s heart.
“The Universe shook with the horror and grief of the Two. Perfection cannot anticipate the consequences of imperfection. The Two do not break, but we can.
“The Two burned the body They had made for their daughter, and They threw her ashes to the winds that blew above her birthplace, returning her to the air from which she had first drawn breath. Awe’s untethered soul rose to her Parents’ celestial home. The Two gathered her in Their arms and revised Their plan.
“The Children would not live forever. Like Awe, they would one day die. Yet they would be able to multiply themselves, so that the most prized creation of the Two would always inhabit the world. The Children’s strengths would mix in their children, so that each new generation would have a greater combination of gifts. Each new life would be unique and exceptional.
“The Two asked Their daughter Awe if she would give of herself to the offspring of her siblings. Awe agreed, and the Two broke her soul apart, placing a spark of her into each human life. There was only one of Awe and many Children, and the Two knew it would be difficult to keep her gift alive. They instructed Their Children never to forget Awe, and to recognize her soul in theirs forever.
“And so we celebrate this sacred day, the longest and brightest of the year. We remember Awe’s sacrifice and promise to uphold her gift. All we experience was given to us by the Two, our first Parents, and we approach each day with gratitude, delight, wonder: we approach each day with Awe.”
The listeners remained silent after Mat finished. Goosebumps rose on Beidrica’s skin. She rubbed her arms and locked eyes with Mat.
“More eloquent on paper, huh?” she said.
The spell broke. The listeners applauded and let forth a babble of praise. Roy looked like he might actually be praying.
“You better write like you speak,” Beidrica told Mat. “Make us worthy of Awe, too.”
Mat grinned crookedly at her. “Won’t be hard to do.”
Beidrica grinned back. It didn’t happen often, but sometimes she couldn’t argue with him.
THE CHILDREN’S WAR, cont’d
Sea spray slapped her face. The Sea of Three Worlds seemed to consist of more salt than water, and though the cut on Tamma’s cheek had almost healed, the droplets burned against it. Tamma’s eyelashes were soon heavy and sticky, and she could barely see past them. She put one foot in front of the other, praying that she would land on solid ground.
The fish skin waders made Tamma feel like her legs had been tied in seaweed. Her skin tingled as the water pressed the smelly garment in tight. She was dry, though, and that was all that mattered. Snatches of lessons from village school anatomy class flitted through her head. Even in the temperate waters of the Allchildren Sea, a body left too long submerged would lose its precious internal heat.
In some places, the rocky shelf only extended for two or three feet before dropping away to depths that Tamma could only imagine. Schools of tiny silver fish hovered like mosquitoes, wondering what these humans thought they were doing, entering the domain of things that did not breathe. Though there was nothing to hold onto, Tamma kept one hand against the rock at all times. She was cutting her palm to ribbons, but she was sure that if she took her hand away, she would tumble into the abyss.
Every step brought her closer to her second chance.
The deserter grunted behind her. Tamma’s chest ached with something more than exertion. She certainly wouldn’t be a hero if anyone discovered that she’d brought a Tentalian home with her. Surrounded by the grasping waves, Tamma could feel the Two and the Children asking her a question and demanding honesty: what did she want for the deserter?
I don’t wish him ill, she thought. He had no family, or at least no family like Tamma had. His desertion hadn’t been an abandonment of anyone close to him. If Tamma were alone in the world …
No. That line of thought was taking compassion too far, and Compassion was not Tamma’s patron. So that still begged the question: what did Tamma want to happen to the deserter?
“We’re coming up on the first resting place,” Larrel called.
The rock beneath Tamma slid sideways. She didn’t have time to cry out before she slipped beneath the waves.
The freezing sea rushed over her, filling the waders and dragging her down. She struck out with her arms, pulling herself towards the surface, but the water churned against her. Now that she was off the shelf, the Sea wanted to keep her there.
A scream burned in Tamma’s lungs, and with an almighty push, she broke the surface to deliver it. She waved her arms as hard as she could, spinning her body until she saw the cliff. She was already more than a dozen feet away. How had that happened? She kicked out. Sideways, she thought. Fight the tide sideways.
Her weighted legs barely moved.
Larrel shouted something, but Tamma’s ears dipped below the water. She could see the resting rock; she’d only been paces away from it. A wordless cry tore itself from her throat. She kicked and swam and begged her body to move, but the Sea of Three Worlds was stronger than she was.
She heard Larrel’s command when he yelled it again: “Take the waders off!”
But she couldn’t. She’d pulled the straps as tight as possible, and now they cut against her neck. She had to loosen them, which meant using her hands, but her arms were the only thing keeping her above the surface. Even if she could wriggle out, she’d never hold onto them, and then she’d be stuck. She couldn’t go forward or back without them.
Tamma’s arms and legs struck out spasmodically, barely slowing her drift further into the sea. Not here, she begged. Beneath her body’s screaming pain, something much deeper inside her shattered. Not after everything you put me through!
Larrel shouted, “No!” Tamma bobbed up just in time to see the deserter push past the smuggler and climb onto the rock. He stripped his waders off, let his pack and jacket hit the ground, and —
Tamma almost forgot to kick. The deserter swam towards her, fighting the current. Broad shoulders, the half-remembered anatomy teacher said. Good for swimming. The deserter dove beneath the surface again, and this time he didn’t reappear. Tamma heard Larrel’s cry, and she wanted to tell the smuggler that he had tried to save them, that she was still grateful. Her brain was too jammed to know if it was true, but it was the right thing to say …
A hand grabbed her arm. Seconds later, her elbow connected with a nose. The deserter came up from the water cursing.
“I’ve got you!” he yelled. “Can you get out of the waders?”
“Loosen the strap!”
The deserter tugged, his feet kicking rhythmically. The tide pulled them further away, but the strap came loose. Tamma slid her arm out, and the deserter held fast.
“Can you get the other one?” he yelled.
Tamma took a deep breath and scrabbled at the strap with her numb fingers. Her body sank, but the deserter’s grip held, and she did not fall away. Soon both her arms were loose. She pushed down at the waders, freeing her body from its murderous weight. Her lungs were ready to pop, but her feet finally came free and she burst through to the surface.
“Do you have them?” she shouted when she had enough air.
“Uh-huh,” the deserter panted.
“Can you swim holding onto them?”
“Lemme just —” The deserter disappeared beneath the water again, and when he resurfaced, he held the waders by one of the boots.
“Now sideways!” they shouted at each other.
They swam for what felt like hours. The Sea of Three Worlds wanted both of them now. The little fish nipped at Tamma’s fingers, asking her to stay. Yet her body did not stop moving, and neither did the deserter’s. Finally, Tamma’s wrist crashed into a rock. She grabbed on with both hands.
“Are you there?” she yelled.
“Right behind you!” the deserter shouted.
She felt the deserter’s hand on her back as he shoved her upwards. Several gashes and tears in clothing later, Tamma was sitting on the shelf, and then she was kneeling, her head above the water.
“Give me the waders,” she gasped.
The deserter shoved them at her before climbing up himself.
“Come on,” he panted. “Get up. Get to the rock.”
Her every muscle trembling, Tamma pushed herself to her feet and climbed. She felt like she was breathing needles, but she filled her lungs and emptied them, over and over, until she saw Larrel. Then she fell to her knees.
“You okay? Talk to me!” Larrel cried.
“I’m fine,” Tamma said, her voice weak.
The waders slapped down next to her, splashing her already sodden hair.
“Liar,” the deserter gasped. He sat down hard, his chest heaving.
“I —” The rest of Tamma’s sentence disappeared into a coughing fit. When she was finished, she was on her hands and knees, spitting salt and snot onto the rock. “I owe you my life.”
Larrel clapped the deserter on the back. “Brave, isn’t he, Madam Messenger? Pretty damn brave.”
Tamma pushed herself up. “I’m so sorry —”
“Nope,” Larrel said. His voice was unexpectedly firm. “No being sorry. It’s a rule of mine. People who just almost died don’t have to be sorry.”
It wasn’t very funny, but Tamma began to laugh. Her breath huffed in staccato bursts. Tears streamed down her face, and she was not so far gone that she did not realize that it was the second time she had cried in front of the deserter.
“You two should dry off before we keep going,” Larrel said, politely ignoring Tamma’s quiet outburst. “I’ll have to cut out the wool from the wet waders. Sorry, Madam Messenger, the going might be a bit squishy from here on out.”
“That’s fine,” Tamma said, swallowing another laugh. Better squishy than dead.
Larrel plunked two canteens down in front of them. “You can drink about half now, but go slow, all right? I’ll give you some food in a second.”
Tamma and the deserter gulped at the canteens. Tamma stopped herself after a few swallows and looked at him. His straight dark hair was plastered to his skull, and his shirt clung to his skin. He shivered a little.
The last remaining laughter died in Tamma’s chest. She remembered the question she’d asked herself before she fell, as well as her answer.
I don’t care what happens to him.
Tamma pressed her hand against her mouth. The deserter gave her a panicked look.
“You going to throw up?” he asked.
Tamma shook her head and swallowed her unvoiced sob.
“My name,” she croaked. “It’s Tamma.”
The deserter looked surprised, but he said, “That’s, uh, nice. As a name.”
“My grandfather chose it.”
“We’re going to get out of this alive, Dayvec.”
He snorted. “That the truth? Or is that just you being you?”
Tamma deserved that. She let it hurt her, and then she looked Dayvec in the eye.
“It’s a promise.”
I pushed myself away from her, sliding along the wall. Cartilage crackled in my ears. This was happening even faster than last time. Fury gnawed at the edges of my mind, but anger was so near to me these days that I honestly didn’t know if I could blame it on the transformation.
My feet curled and stretched, bound by my sneakers. I gasped and fumbled at the laces. Gret took over, easing the battered canvas off as carefully as she could.
“How could Topher do this?” she muttered. “How did she fuck things up so bad?”
It wasn’t anything I hadn’t wondered before, but to hear it from Gret was more than I could bear. I jerked away from her, crying out when my dislocated shoulder hit the wall.
“Shit,” Gret said. “I didn’t mean you’re a fuck up.”
“Not helping!” I choked out.
“Millie, come on. You know what I mean, right?”
“Sure,” I said. Tears sprang to my eyes. “Dr. Topher was supposed to be a genius, but she wasn’t, was she? Not if she thought she could make someone like you out of someone like me.”
“That’s not it!” Gret cried.
There was anguish in her voice, and I was the cause of it. The list of people I hurt grew longer every day.
“You don’t have to stay here,” I said.
“Say that again and I’ll bite you.” Gret pressed the heels of her hands against her eyes. When she lowered them, she had regained some of her composure. “Can you relax at all?”
I laughed in her face. I couldn’t help it.
“Okay, that was a dumb question,” she allowed. “You just seem like you’re fighting the transformation.”
A violent tremor passed through me. Gret clearly noticed, but she didn’t say anything. She must have thought it was the transformation.
“We can fight it, too,” she said. “Like if we’re not sure if this is a good time to be transforming, or something’s screwing with our heads. But you can’t half want the transformation.”
“I don’t want it at all,” I protested.
“It’s still gonna happen anyway,” Gret said. “So just let it.”
I shook my head.
“I really think it’ll hurt less,” she said, like that mattered.
“I don’t care.”
Gret’s face turned stony again.
“You have to care. You can’t just accept —”
Another spasm struck. I held on as tight as I could to that invisible cliff and fought the shifting muscle and sinew with every fiber of my being.
“Millie, stop!” Gret cried. “Just stop it!”
“I won’t do it again!” I yelled. Blood from my tearing throat flew from my lips. “I’m not a protector! That’s not what she put in me! I’m a weapon!”
And of course that was it. EP may not have figured out exactly what Dr. Topher had added to my adaptation, but I was sure to the marrow of my breaking bones that it was violence. She wanted me to be powerful, and she didn’t know any other kind of power.
Gret’s eyes were wide. They traveled the full length of my crumbling body, then rose again to my face. Slowly, she reached out and held me by the shoulders. The thick hair on her palms was soft on my searing skin.
“There’s no one here you can hurt,” she said. “I’m not a threat. You know I don’t want anything bad to happen to you.”
“The wolf won’t care,” I whispered.
“I’m not scared,” Gret said.
The tears in my eyes fell. Gret wiped them away, then stood and returned to pragmatism.
“You should probably get out of your clothes now,” she said.
I shook my head. Not without a cage to cover me.
“They’re gonna rip,” she pointed out. “I have a blanket for you.”
Of course she did. She thought of freaking everything. I crawled to the bathroom and stripped with fumbling hands, wrapping myself in the blanket. When I came back out, Gret had taken off her boots.
“I’d rip my clothes, too,” she explained.
I was dimly aware that Gret was undressing, which would have been cause for alarm at any other time, but my spine had begun to stretch beyond the boundaries of my body. Tentatively, I stopped straining against it, but I resumed the fight a second later. Clanging silver rang through my head.
My every cell was aware of Gret beside me. Even with my eyes closed, I knew exactly how far away she was, and how quickly I could close that distance with claws or teeth. Gret waited until I’d stopped moaning, then leaned over and placed her hand on the blanket against my heaving side.
“If I help you, can you lean on the wall on your hands and knees?” she asked.
My eyes closed tight, I nodded. With steady hands, she lifted my fracturing form, propping me against the wall. I could only put weight on my left knee and my right elbow, but I remained upright.
Gret knelt beside me in the same position. Her body pressed against mine through the blanket.
“This is what we do for kids,” she said. “Watch.”
I opened my eyes. Gret took my slack hand and put it on her shoulder. Then . . .
It was amazing. She was amazing, the whole way from girl to beast. I felt the smooth transition of bone and muscle beneath my hand, the rich coat of fur that wound through my fingers. In half a minute, a dark eyed wolf looked into my face. Every fiber of her fur overwhelmed my senses. Her breath was hot against my cheek, and I could see the ends of her long, perfect teeth. My pain stopped, if only for a fraction of a second.
A real werewolf. In my whole life, I had never seen anything so beautiful.
Then she changed back, and she was Gret again, except she had been Gret as the wolf, too. She had never gone away.
“We show them,” she said. “We let them touch us so they’re not afraid. Then they do what we do.”
“You bite them, too. You can’t do that for me,” I said, not sure if I was telling her or asking her.
“No,” Gret said, quickly enough that I knew she’d thought about it. “I don’t know what that would do, since you’re not — I wouldn’t want to make things worse. But just pay attention to how I change —”
“It won’t work,” I croaked. “Dr. Topher showed me videos of transformations. She told me to change like them. That’s how —”
“Fuck videos,” Gret said. “Feel.”
She transformed again, slower this time, and I understood. I saw the way everything was supposed to fall into place. My shoulder popped. I closed my eyes and visualized the shape the joint would take as a wolf, instead of the girl shoulder I wanted to keep. I poured all my awareness into that one area of my body, like I’d done so many times before.
I focused on Gret’s steady breathing. I didn’t want to hurt her. I was more certain of that than I was of anything else. I hoped it would matter.
I let go.
The transformation quickened. The picture in my mind vanished.
“It hurts!” I wailed.
Gret pushed against me. I pushed back, and I didn’t fight it, and . . .
My shoulder started to shift like I told it to, the way my hand reached for an object when my brain wanted to pick something up. It was like making myself walk into fire, but I did it. I changed the way I chose to.
But there was still a lot more of me to change.
Some shifts started happening all at once, and others wouldn’t happen at all. I tried and failed and kept trying. And I screamed. When I couldn’t scream anymore, I concentrated on my throat as hard as I could, and then I howled.
Gret howled back. It wasn’t a howl of pain like mine was. It was strong and proud.
The edges of my rational thoughts began to fray. Frantically, I tensed again, and the pain increased tenfold. Gret whined and nudged me with her nose.
I bared my bloody, half-changed teeth and growled.
Gret moved in front of me. She was enormous, much bigger than I was. She growled back like a volcano awakening.
Good, I thought. She can kill me if she has to.
I let go one last time and became a wolf.
The storm still raged. All was dark inside the hut, though Ninna could tell from her parents’ sharp and irregular breathing that they, too, were dreaming. She slid off her mattress and pushed open the flimsy door of the hut, surprised that it had not been ripped away in the wind. A spray of water splattered her face, but she was not quite blinded, and movement caught her eye outside. She squinted. What was that thing, writhing in the muck?
A flash of lightning crackled across the sky, momentarily brightening the landscape, and Ninna saw that the squirming creature was a newborn calf, still ungainly from birth. Just beyond the cluster of huts, the calf thrashed in the marsh, which was fast becoming a pond. The storm must have driven the poor thing away from its mother. But what was it doing standing out in the open?
Another flash of lightning provided the answer. The calf’s front hooves were stuck in the mud; the more it pulled and panicked, the deeper it sank.
Lightning struck the marsh, close enough that Ninna could see the pink afterglow like a burn upon the air. The calf wailed, its honking animal terror rising above the noise of the storm.
Shielding herself with her wings, Ninna ran towards the suffering creature.
The mud sucked Ninna’s sandals clear off her feet, but she stumbled as fast as she could through the whipping reeds until she reached the calf. Its eyes rolled madly, the whites showing on all sides. Ninna hesitated as she sized the calf up. It wasn’t big, but neither was she. Awkwardly, she reached her arms around it, but the calf squirmed and aimed a kick with its back leg at Ninna’s shin.
“Stop! Let me help you, you silly thing!” she cried.
She tugged at the calf’s front legs, but it struggled against her so vigorously that it only mired itself deeper. Lightning flashed, blindingly bright, and Ninna could smell the sizzling sky as the mud trembled with the thunder.
“Come on, come on,” she muttered desperately.
“Let me help!”
Ninna looked out from under her wing. Kidu hunched in front of her, rain streaming down his face. She paused for only a moment before moving over to let him near the calf. She thought he would cast a spell — his kit was slung over his shoulder — but he just knelt in the mud beside the frantic creature and braced his body against it to hold it still.
Ninna wrapped her hands around the calf’s skinny front leg — already strong, but still fragile — and pulled. With a great squelching noise, the hoof came free. The calf wriggled worse than ever, but Kidu held him as steady as possible while Ninna dashed to his other side and repeated the maneuver with the other hoof. As soon as both legs were free, it bucked out of Kidu’s arms, knocking him into the mud. Ninna pulled Kidu to his feet.
“We have to get it out of here! Do you think it’ll let us carry it?” she shouted over the storm.
“Maybe, I — where’d it go?”
Ninna lifted her wings higher over her head and spun around. The calf had vanished.
Kidu clutched Ninna’s arm, staggering as though struck. He pointed into the darkness, but Ninna saw nothing.
“Is it there? Do you see it?” she called.
In the next flash of lightning, Ninna understood.
Rising up from the center of the marsh, the cedars loomed like idols. They creaked in the storm, but did not break; the gods would not harm their own sacred trees. Had the Forest been there since Ninna woke up, or had it just arrived? She did not know, so intent had she been upon the calf.
Time seemed to slow. Ninna could barely hear the noise of the storm over the pounding of her pulse in her ears. This time, she could not make herself look away, even as the lightning dimmed, plunging the trees once more into darkness. But Ninna’s eyes were beginning to adjust, or perhaps the dawn was simply breaking behind the clouds, for she saw a smudge of a shadow moving at the tree line. But it was too large to be the calf, and besides, how could it have run so quickly?
“Oh,” Kidu breathed, but again, Ninna had to wait for the lightning to see what he saw. Instead of a calf, an enormous black bull stood against the trees. Heedless of the wind and rain, he gazed at Ninna. His massive horns shone like daggers.
As the lightning faded, the bull turned into the Heroes’ Forest and disappeared.
Ninna slumped forward as though a weight had been tied around her neck. The divine sending – for she knew now what it was – demanded attention, but she could not help turning back to the hut. Kidu put a hand on her arm. Ninna could see from the look on his face that he would not walk away – and he wouldn’t let her do so, either.
Releasing a loud and wordless cry, she turned her face to the driving rain.
“Really?” she shouted.
The sky didn’t answer. The storm raged on.
“Ninna,” Kidu said.
“I know,” Ninna spat. For as little attention as she had paid to Emku’s stories, she was still a subject of Zimbir. She knew enough of heroes to know what came next. Wait, she thought one last time, but nobody listened.
Ninna sprinted towards the Heroes’ Forest before she could become ungrateful enough to change her mind.
**this is the beginning of the second draft and is likely to change drastically, mostly because I still haven’t figured out the fancy and complicated POV things I’m doing for this story. So enjoy this snippet while you can! It probably won’t exist in a year.
The important thing to remember is that we all had lives, okay? We had lives, and we were right in the thick of them.None of the rest of this matters if you don’t hold on to that.
The night before our pilgrimage, there was a party down in the North Boathouse, the one where Majesty Silverlake’s dad stored the old fishing dinghy that capsized the day she Bridged. The pulsers thought it was the perfect spot for a celebration, mostly because they knew how much it would piss people off. The more nervous party goers kept reminding each other that it wasn’t like the boathouse was a real holy place, so no one was going to get arrested for profane defacement, but the whole point was that the venerators loved this place. They needed somewhere to obsess over young Majesty, and no one could be sure precisely where in the bay her heart had stopped. Doctors don’t exactly let onlookers into the triage room at the hospital, either. People get so weird and superstitious around defibrillators. So anyone who felt the need to marvel at fate’s precious intervention into the Death and Life of an eleven-year-old kid could go to the boathouse and thank gods and bones that first she went under, and then she came back up.
Those venerators would not be happy about the spray-painted trees and coral and many-legged insects that now adorned the warped and peeling wood of the wide front doors. They wouldn’t be crazy about the fact that the Silverlake dinghy had been pushed out to sea, either.
“It’s just going to wash back into the bay,” Rem said, winding his arm around his boyfriend’s shoulders even as he rolled his eyes. “Or another fisher will rescue it. It won’t get far.”
“Maybe,” Pall said agreeably. “Or it’ll find a rip tide. Barnacles and mussels and algae will grow all over it. They won’t care that it’s a Death boat.”
“You’re gonna get grounded,” Rem said.
Pall kissed the side of his face, leaving a bright orange lip print on Rem’s silver-dusted cheekbone, then put on a plaintive voice. “But, Nana, I’ve been resting up for my pilgrimage all night. Just ask Ivy.”
“One day Ivy will call in all the favors you owe her,” Rem warned.
But Pall was too busy admiring his own handiwork on a shimmering green dragonfly stretched across the length of the boathouse door. Distracted, he said, “She doesn’t want anything hard to repay.”
It was possible, Pall would reflect months later, that his whole Life was simply a writing student’s workshop exercise in dramatic irony. But, like, a really mediocre student.
Love you all! Happy New Year!