As we enter the Halloween season, it seemed appropriate for this month’s Words for Thought to look at stories about life beyond death. None are typical ghost stories, but they all deal with what comes next and what it means to be alive. They are quiet stories, threaded with rage and loss and longing under the surface. Perfect for October reading.
“My Body, Herself” by Carmen Maria Machado in September/October’s Uncanny begins with death. A woman crushed in a cave collapse finds herself watched over by a woman who wears her body, who is her body somehow, standing beside her, endlessly smoking cigarettes. When her silent body finally speaks, it is to say chase, which the dead narrator also hears as chased and chaste. The cause of her death is revealed through her understanding of these words – a woman is chased because she refuses a man’s advances. Her death is deserved because she was not chaste. Whether she gives in or not, she is damned. The actions of the story are few, confined to a dead woman’s limited field of vision, and the dialogue is sparse, however the story still speaks volumes. The protagonist’s story stands in for the all too-common occurrence of violence against women, showing the impact of indirect violence as well. The woman’s death is a result of daring to say no, because she ran, but what would have happened if she’d stayed? The anger in the piece is quietly delivered, lingering under the surface, like the dead woman and her body. The piece is relatively short; Machado can afford a kind of short hand, which in itself serves to underline the problem of violence against women. It’s so common, we all know how the story goes. However, “My Body, Herself” isn’t a story about the moment of violence, and it isn’t gratuitous. Death is the beginning, and rebirth is the end. It’s a story about dealing with consequences, not brushing them off (like the unexamined rape as a motivating factor trope). The story belongs to the dead woman, but it also belongs to her body, which is no longer her own. The woman who rises isn’t tied to her past, it is of her, but separate. While the story’s actions are few, they mirror its emotional content. Almost everything occurs beneath the surface, with a final breaking through, a refusal to accept the traditional narrative. Anger comes at the end, but it has always been unfolding slowly, waiting to come into the light to claim its own.
“Only Their Shining Beauty Was Left” by Fran Wilde from Shimmer #33 is a story about transformation, and longing, and what happens when the forest – abused for too long – takes back its place in the world. It opens with Arminae Ganit, a graduate student, studying trees. Throughout her life, she’s schooled her mind to the scientific, seeing trees in terms of carbon structures, despite growing up with a father who quoted Ovid at the dinner table, and spun myths of nymphs and gods and magic. As Arminae continues her studies, going on to become Dr. Ganit, all around her, people begin transforming into trees, like something out of her father’s stories. There’s no rhyme or reason to the transformation, people dream and they wake up as trees, still semi-conscious of their former lives. Once they’ve changed, there is no turning back. The change spreads, taking old and young, willing and unwilling. Wilde’s language is beautiful, the images evocative, calling to mind fairy tales and myths, and weaving them effortlessly with scientific inquiry. The life after death in this case is the life of trees, resurrecting themselves from the bodies of humans. It is a ghost story for plants, and Wilde even evokes zombie imagery toward the end of the story, as the trees implacably encroach on a research center, wanting nothing and taking everything. The undercurrent of anger in the story comes from two sources – the trees and Arminae. The trees express their anger not with blunt force, but in the slow way of trees. They overwhelm the world with beauty, the quietest kind of revolution, until they are all that remains. Arminae’s anger is similar to that of the dead woman in Machado’s story, coming from the expectations placed on women, the unwanted attentions they subject to, and the assumptions made about their place in the world.
To not need to crouch to pee while most other students on this research trip stood and marked the leaves; to become impervious to the damp; to not hear colleagues chewing their dinner, grinding meat with their molars. To acquire skin that abraded her classmate’s touch—a hand on a shoulder, nothing meant by it, an accident—or that trapped his fingers in unyielding wood.
Like the trees, Arminae holds her anger close. She doesn’t lash out, but draws into herself. She becomes almost tree-like in her reserve, in her separation from others. These threads of anger, along with Arminae’s longing, and her dual search to understand the trees and herself, form the roots and trunk of this story. They give the story its weight and its power, forming the framework upon which Wilde hangs the leaves of her gorgeous prose.
“Applied Cenotaphics in the Long, Long Longitudes” by Vajra Chandrasekera in September’s Strange Horizons, puts a different spin on the life-after-death question. The story unfolds as a conversation between the AI interface of a deceased artist – Satka – and a group of interviewers. Right from the start, the story questions the idea of what makes a person. Satka is an interface, programmed by the artist herself, but she is one of many instances running at any given time, dynamic and responsive in a way that implies a separate, conscious being. Like the body the narrator encounters in Machado’s “My Body, Herself,” the AI both is and isn’t Satka, and seems to delight in playing with this notion throughout the story. Appropriate to a piece structured as an interview, the story raises many questions. What are the ethics of life beyond death? Can AI create true art, or is art the sole provenance of human beings? Perhaps the most important question the story asks, however, is whose voices deserve to be uplifted, remembered, and heard? Here again is a story with anger below the surface. Wrapped up in the question of who deserves to be heard is the question of who is “allowed” to be angry, and whether the anger of those who are not white/cis/het/males will always be filtered through the lens of “other” and judged against a white/cis/het/male default. Without saying so directly, the story subtly points out the way white/cis/het/males are allowed to be individuals, while people outside these parameters are seen representing “their group”. That being the case, their anger can be dismissed as performative, or unjustified, or undignified. They are too angry, or not angry enough, and in the end, there is no right answer. Their emotions are not their own; they are for consumption, to be reacted to – they are a commodity, not a human expression, because the people expressing them are not seen and understood as human. In light of the AI/ human questions posed directly, this subtext adds another layer to the story. The structure requires the reader to dig through footnotes, like the physical act of digging in Machado’s story, but in the opposite direction. The reader must attempt to descend to a truth, rather than a truth pushing up toward the surface.
“With Her Diamond Teeth” by Pear Nuallak from the September issue of The Dark is the story of two sisters – Taphaothong and Taphaokaew. They have an uneasy relationship; they delight in tormenting each other, but they still need each other. As they’re bathing in the river, Taphaothong is taken by a supernaturally large crocodile with diamonds embedded in his teeth. Taphaokaew is offered up as a bride to any hero who can slay the crocodile, and return Taphaothong’s corpse. Of course, no one asks Taphaokaew her opinion of this plan. Women are brides, to be given away, they have no stories of their own. Nuallak uses violent imagery to underlie the quiet rage allowed to women as Taphaokaew channels her energy as she waits to see whether she will be married off.
My hands want only to drive sharp instruments into fabric and flesh. Embroidery and fruit carving, those feminine arts, satisfy my needs. There’s a memory of my sister in each cut and stitch; one night, after she’d stolen my favourite sugar palm cakes, I sewed her toe and heel to the mattress as she drooled into the pillow.
A hero takes up the challenge of killing the crocodile, and unexpectedly returns with Taphaothong. Now both sisters are expected to marry him. Back from the dead, Taphaothong is strange, though no one else seems concerned. When Taphaokaew confronts her, there is a blurring of identity. They are mirror images, twins, even though one is the elder. This underlines the idea of women as interchangeable – brides, obedient daughters, archetypes, not individuals. They fight, and one sister claims the other’s place, returning to the crocodile’s realm to join the crocodile’s other two brides. There is quiet anger in both sisters – one remarks on the other’s hot temper and her own cold plotting of revenge as contrast. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter which sister is which, they are mythic, transcending their role in their father’s story and becoming something else. They exist in a realm of wives now, a realm of women and mothers divested of men. They exist in a mirror world under the world they were born in, inverting and subverting the aboveground norms. In addition to the story’s quiet anger, there is a sense of hope. Like Machado’s story, the reader is left with the idea of something rising from the depths, a new world order blurring and erasing the notion of binaries and ushering in an era of fluidity between life and death, self and other, and human and animal.
Nicola Belte’s “Muse” from the September issue of Flash Fiction Online is the story of a man who deliberately infects young girls with consumption in order to paint their portraits as they’re dying. The story is told from the perspective of the ghost of one of his victims, watching the pattern repeat as another young woman is brought to the master’s home. In just a few words, Belte get at the disturbing aspects of the muse trope – a woman who exists solely to inspire a man, and the ideal of a woman being more valuable than the reality of her. The story also touches on the idea of women as art objects for consumption, and the male gaze defining a woman’s existence.
“Consumption. To be consumed, to be eaten up, to have all that is superfluous burned away, in one glorious moment.” The master and his men talk in the parlour as I stand outside. I put my face to their long coats on the hat-stand, choke back the smell of January rain and the suffocating smog of the city. “A woman is most beautiful on the brink of death. It is capturing the apple at its ripest, before it starts to decay. There is beauty in death, and in death there is art.”
Art brings the girls immortality, but at what cost? There is more of a sense of quiet desperation and resignation mixed with the anger in Belte’s story. It is left to the reader to hope that the ghosts will one day organize themselves and rise up against the artist to break the cycle of death and haunting.