Sunday, July 14, 2024

Short Fiction Fridays: Coping at the End of the World

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Welcome back to Short Fiction Fridays! I’m glad you’re here. Let’s buckle in for two new stories this week as we talk about episodic story structure, details in world building, and coping with the end of the world.

Genre short stories, I’d argue, are inherently episodic. They just… have to be. There is so much world building to fit into such a small stint of space: whole worlds to create in a couple thousand words. To do it well it has to be conveyed through small details, sudden snaps of insight into what this world is, and how it works. Our two stories this week do this masterfully: “Notes on a Resurrection” by Natalia Theodoridou in Strange Horizons and “A Catalog of Love at First Sight” by Brit E.B. Hvide in Uncanny Magazine. One gives us episodes in a singular life at the end of the world, one gives us episodic reactions to a singular event at the end of a life. Both are about coping with catastrophe, and both are case studies in using detail to create a vibrant, living world. Go read them! Spoilers ahead.


Notes on a Resurrection

“Notes on Resurrection,” is exactly what it sounds like: the collected memories of a handful of townsfolk after a boy rises from the dead. After an obscure but terrible factory accident leaves a large section of a town’s young people dead, the town is shaken when one young man simply rises from his coffin at the wake. The rest of the story proceeds, on one level, as a horror story: the boy has returned but there is something off about him. An indifference, a coldness, and a smell. The town treats him first as a saint, asking him for healing and help, but slowly, over time, they start to turn. The boy’s old friend, returned to town for his funeral reports what he sees:

And yet, I arrived to something else entirely—my friend on his feet and his family in pieces, his mother terrified of her own son, his father talked out of his mind, and around them a circus, a desperate circus speaking of miracles, of Death shorted and owed, of God’s hand, of tests and faith, of salvation. A whole town gone mad.

In the end, the town drowns the boy in the ocean, fearing he was responsible for the recent death of a young girl.

“Notes on a Resurrection” conjures a community with a cool and easy efficiency. It does so through detail. There is the young girl with a crush on the resurrected boy, who had kissed him (and flashed her ankle!) before he died. She continues to visit him and his mother, kissing him and arranging limp arms around herself in a cold, damp-smelling simulacrum of love. There is the father who stays with his dead son, waiting for resurrection, until the lilies rot and the body begins to decompose. And there is the preacher’s wife, whose fingers are worn raw and whose eyes are weakening from knotting so many prayer ropes to meet to swelling demand.

And the real strength in Theodoridou’s creation of this community is its examination of the use of miracles, and their essential singularity. Miracles are a deep curse as much as a gift: they raise the question of why miracles would be bestowed so rarely, so partially. Of why, in a world with miracles, a world with pain can still exist.

The initial miracle is met, of course, by celebration. People cry, scream, faint, and in the aftermath they bring the boy gifts in hope of his favor: his room is overflowing with rings, icons, drawings, and when it’s full people simply hold vigil outside.  But the miracle is so deeply singular, so unique and apart by its very nature. It doesn’t help everyone. It doesn’t even help most people. The second point of view of the story remains nameless at first: she is just “someone else’s mother,” the mother of another boy, still dead, still un-resurrected. “We all think we are the protagonists of every story, don’t we?” she asks. “If not of every story, at least the ones that feature our son dead in a casket.” She goes on to wonder if her son was not the chosen one simply because of some flaw in her being: that she had prayed insufficiently, that she had picked the wrong clothing, that in some unfathomable but critical way she had simply been not enough.

A trade unionist in town, there to investigate the accident in the factory, insists to the reader that he does believe in miracles, that he does believe the boy rose from the dead. But he doesn’t believe it’s sufficient. “I do believe in miracles,” he says. “But miracles are exceptions. They are not for everyone. They cannot change the world” and all of its hunger and exploitation and pain. “And if they cannot change the world, what good are they?”

And finally, the town’s priest faces an intense crisis of faith: he doesn’t eat from the point the boy rises from the dead, he doesn’t sleep, he doesn’t talk or look at his wife. When he first emerges into the narrative he has the wild unkemptness of an Old Testament prophet: tormented eyes, hair askew. When hearing of the death of a young girl without explanation, the priest hovers for a moment, and then makes a decision to reassert the sense of control that he had lost: he declares that the resurrected boy had been the cause of her death, leading directly to the drowning at the story’s end.

“Notes on a Resurrection” is a horror story, but not only in its vacant, smelling-of-soil young Lazarus. It’s a story about the horror of a loss of control, over death, and over life. It’s a horror story about the inability of a community to cope with the confusing, cruel, and arbitrary vagaries of the world.


A Catalog of Love at First Sight

“A Catalog of Love at First Sight” is the inverse of “Notes on a Resurrection”: it’s about how people do cope with catastrophe in a healthy way, through love and will and work. Brit Hvide’s story traces a world increasingly consumed by climate change – the west coast of America is on fire, the east coast is submerged in floods, and the middle is plagued by dust and drought. We trace the story of one person and all the times, against this catastrophic backdrop, they fell in love with someone or something at first sight. They vary from “the boy who kissed me behind the door at school” to her wife to her newly-born daughter to a view of a cityscape.

The story is a masterclass in building a world in small, carefully given details. The story is entirely a collection of small love stories but details about the broader world is parceled out in context. As the narrator falls in love with a soft, kind boy working at a gas station, it’s revealed that she’s fleeing fires that have consumed the west coast and her home. He reveals that his aunt lives in New York, where giant walls have been built to keep hurricanes at bay. When she falls in love with a girl with box braids atop an overcrowded Chicago tenement, drinking Wild Turkey and looking at the stars, it’s revealed that Chicago is one of the only cities to weather the climate apocalypse, having invested in giant wind dispersers and industrial temperature panels – and doomed the surrounding suburbs in the process. All of these are only small side details to the story, but they go miles in painting a picture of a world that is coping with catastrophe with varying levels of success – and always with a cost.

The real beauty of “A Catalog of Love at First Sight,” though, is how love of world becomes conflated with a love of people, and then how, inversely, a love of people becomes conflated with a love of the world. At the start of the story, every time the narrator falls in love, the object of her affection overlaps with a love of the natural world. Her first love at first sight is her mother:

Cold and wet and smacked with air. I scream until I feel a familiar heartbeat. Smell of milk, and beyond that, the smell of lavender. Blooming in fields that stretch to touch the horizon. Home. Safe. Warm. Warm like the burning sun in the burning sky.

The love of her mother is at once personal (a heartbeat) and ecological, expansive – lavender fields that stretch to the sky. The second love if a boy from school: “His name is Dallas, which is a place that seems very far away and exotic, and he wears a dinosaur backpack.” Her love for him is wrapped up in her love for and curiosity about the wider world: dinosaurs, Dallas, and all the faraway, different things that she longs to know more about. And this continues throughout the first half of the story. The boy at the gas station she loves has dimples “the size of moon craters.” Her daughter who loves bubbles and birds and bananas. Her wife whose smell reminds the narrator of her old home, her old lavender farms.

This is all the more touching because, at first, this is a story of anger at the earth. It betrayed the narrator, took from her the things that she loved and cared for and burned them to the ground. From early in the story she studies astrophysics and seeks to find a way to escape the earth. But as the story evolves, and as her family grows in New York City, the story becomes one about how our love for people can inspire a new love for the world. Her loves at first sight become more abstract: The View of the City from the Hurricane Walls (in which she stares over the flooded city with her daughter and wife) The Forgiveness I Know I Don’t Deserve (in which her brother comes to visit and reveals he’s working with a group that’s trying to restore health to the climate and the earth). Her love for her family, her love for her brother, helps her to see the world in a new light, as a place worth fighting for and saving. The story ends with a new love at first sight: the earth, which our narrator chooses to stay and to help heal, the earth, imbuing beauty onto its creatures and being imbued in turn.

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