From welcoming gardens, to famous musicians, to wolf men and crow men and exotic maids, the nine stories in this issue of Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet are tied together by unreliable narrators and things that are not as they seem.
If the cardinals waved their red wings at me, and the wolves called me on the phone, I’d be questioning my sanity, but Lewis, the protagonist of “The Wolves of St. Etienne” by A. D. Jameson never does. Wolves love to play Othello, though they occasionally eat the pieces, and they’re always asking Lewis to join them. The wolves are disguised as humans, though never the humans as wolves. And where has Lewis’s family gone? The story ends without resolving any of these questions, leaving the reader (unlike the protagonist) wondering whether this is a tale of madness, or a story about the ultimate fate of humanity.
“The Hedon-Ex Anomaly,” by Jessy Randall, never explains what Hedon-Ex is, or how the rays that emanate from Billy’s head once he takes off his helmet can put an entire school to sleep. Those things are just part of life for the nameless seventh-grade narrator. Being thirteen is hard enough without the Hedon-Ex anomaly turning you into a “whirling dervish.” But there’s an up-side: these dervishes come in pairs, and sometimes your partner is the boy you have a crush on. Could it happen again? “I’m willing to participate in such an experiment in the name of science,” says the narrator.
In “Thou Earth, Thou,” K. M. Ferebee does an exceptional job of matching the language and the pacing of the story to its content. The wealth of domestic detail makes the supernatural elements stand out more vividly.
“Then they sat together on the couch, watching a marathon of a crime drama that neither of them had ever seen. Halfway through, Dunbar fell asleep on Mason’s shoulder. Mason lowered the volume on the TV. [...] It seemed to him that they were the only two living things for miles, and furthermore that all round them darkness was closing. If he moved, if he switched off the TV, they would be marooned.”
The couple have just moved from the city where Mason is at home, out to the country where Dunbar is entirely comfortable working in the garden and writing his thesis. The lushness of the language partners the lushness of the garden, as in:
“Rosemary ran rampant in great spiny outgrowths; tomato plants towered and drooped their sad, untidy leaves. There were masses of flowers, grown tall and rather savage. The smell that rose out of it was vast and wild and heady, a riot of scent somehow indecipherably green.”
The tension builds gradually as the strangenesses of the garden are revealed, until Mason reaches a decision point.
“The Malanesian,” by Sarah Harris Wallman, takes an entirely different approach to story construction. Wallman weaves together two seemingly-unrelated plot lines, a runaway Goth girl and the title character, a live-in maid from far-away Malanesia, contrasting the lives of street kid Lexie and the wealthy but unhappy couple and their daughter. I’ll refrain from describing the ending, but I’m fond of stories that come together with a bang, like closing cymbals. This one made me quite happy.
No, of course Elvis isn’t dead. Elvis will never be dead and gone, but will live on in others. “Elvis in Bloom,” by Karen Heuler, comprises four vignettes that span the childhood, late adulthood, old age, and ripeness of Elvis. He’s an alien? That explains so much. Heuler tells a story that could only happen in the southern US. I’m not entirely comfortable with the voice, as it verges on parody in places. But then again, it’s a story about Elvis, so over-the-top is the only way to go.
In another Southern setting, small-town Missouri, Toby watches his wife Lita’s decline into insanity. “A Sackful of Ramps” is M. K. Hobson‘s retelling of the Rapunzel story. Lita has decided that a neighbor is a witch, but that she will die without the vegetable she craves: a sackful of ramps from the woman’s garden. Toby takes the best care of Lita that he can, so he sets out to get his wife the ramps she requires. This story works in hints of race and class, but the central conflict pulls Toby between two insane women, one he loves and one who holds something he needs. The story ends before the birth, where many Rapunzel retellings begin.
“I’ve always wondered who I was.” Doesn’t everyone? The opening line of “The Mismeasure of Me,” by Carol Emshwiller, probably resonates with everyone, or are there people so secure in themselves they’ve never wondered? The nameless narrator has spent time here and there looking for herself, but never succeeded. Now she’s met an interesting man, and wants to “present him with the real me,” so she tries even harder. She meets a crow man in a dream (or is it?), and ends up defining herself in reference to him, insofar as she manages to figure out who she is at all. Even at the end, she’s more interested in projecting an appealing image than a true one.
Magic can’t resurrect a dead relationship, but in “Music Box,” by David Rowinski, it might be able to nourish the last vestiges. The music box of the title was taken from Janice’s house by mistake when Patrick broke in to recover his own things. This music box is special, and can cause rain, birds, and water; it’s never quite clear whether those are illusory or actual, but they remind Patrick of the best times he spent with Janice. Returning the music box might prompt Janice to think well of Patrick.
The second time I read Joan Aiken’s story “The Sale of Midsummer,” I took notes. Midsummer Village is reputed to only exist for three days a year, at midsummer. A wealthy man wants to buy the village, and a TV crew has come to interview the locals about the legend of the village. It’s midsummer, of course, and the village is just as the name conjures:
“Among the elms grouped in pairs through the village there were also lime trees, and the scent of lime blossom plus cowslip meadow was almost overpowering. The village drowsed in it; a solitary dog barked, a cuckoo called, nobody was about in the street or on the green.”
The reporters talked to five people, and each had a subtly different version of the tale of why the village is only present for three days a year. The emotions of the people telling the stories are fascinatingly at odds with the words they say, and the versions fit together neatly, almost. Nobody is telling the whole truth, not even the interviewer, and the unstated motivations are the most interesting part of the tale.
Two of the stories, “The Sale of Midsummer” and “The Malanesian,” have structures that I very much enjoy: the first uses repeating variations, almost like a logic problem, and the second a sudden resolution. Neither one is easy to do well, but both of these stories succeed. “Thou Earth, Thou” is less interesting structurally, but the use of language fits the building tension beautifully. This issue of LCRW is definitely worth a read.