In the summer, I crave stories about survival, especially about people and places in flux.
Here, though the sun shines hot and bright through the day, thunderstorms roll in quickly to soak the ground and blow down trees, and there’s a cool, thick smell of wet in the mornings that dissipates by midday. I drive out of my way to follow a small creek that runs alongside a winding, crumbling road. It has no name that I know, whatever it once was called is lost in the anonymous sprawl of suburban living. At odds with the quality of the street, the homes along this stretch of creek are opulent, to say the least. Their driveways are long, the property lines delineated with old-growth trees and shrubs grown so thickly the bright morning light barely reaches the ground.
Within a few weeks of the last frost, between the bridged driveways, the muddy creek banks overrun with small frogs known as spring peepers. Early on, they’re hard to hear over the sound of tires thundering on the uneven asphalt. By the time the summer starts to turn sticky, the peepers become cacophonous. They sing for their mates at night and early in the morning, before the heat builds, uninterrupted by floods, rain, or the road crews who lurch from one end of the road to the other, dribbling tar to seal insufficient patches. As the woods recede and the McMansions proliferate, the frogs keep breeding and hiding and singing.
There is only a thin sunlight this morning, yet the pill glows with promise. It is blue and fat, the kind of gelatinous capsule we used to call a supplement. But those pills were never blue; they were oily colours, browns and yellows, they spoke of healthy colons and balanced chemistry. I used to work in marketing, I know about these things.
There is little that’s new in this story, to us or to the narrator. The world has moved on considerably from our time and hers but the essence remains the same. Ruin and repair in equal measure, and the energy and obsessions of the young do little but exhaust the old. The blue pill promises a new future for our aged narrator, who remembers fondly when children played on the beach instead of with their screens. But for all that her story echoes the too-familiar lament of the modern wannabe Luddite, there are hints that both of her potential choices are the same kind of ending. Either she takes the pill and wakes to a new world where her deteriorating body is renewed, like Neo in The Matrix, a comparison I can never shake when life-changing pills are invoked. Or she chooses to move closer to her lost loved ones, and gives up the promise of a longer life. In her world or yours, which would you choose?
“Madeleine” by Amal El-Mohtar (5900 words)
Queers Destroy Science Fiction – Lightspeed Magazine, June 2015
Madeleine remembers being a different person.
It strikes her when she’s driving, threading her way through farmland, homesteads, facing down the mountains around which the road winds. She remembers being thrilled at the thought of travel, of the self she would discover over the hills and far away. She remembers laughing with friends, looking forward to things, to a future.
Another story about memory and loss, and finding ways to come out on the other side of both. Madeleine’s mother has died of Alzheimer’s, and Madeleine seems to have participated in a drug trial meant to find a way to combat memory loss. Now, much like Billy Pilgrim, she is bouncing through her own life–in memories so vivid and present that she can’t tell whether she’s moving through time or simply remembering so fiercely everything becomes real again–until she starts running into a girl in those reminiscences. A girl she’s never seen before. A girl who couldn’t have been there in her past, but now figures in all her memories. It’s unclear whether the girl is a figment of Madeleine’s imagination or something else. The tactile details that El-Mohtar gives to Madeleine’s memories/visions makes them seem more real than her interactions with what is ostensibly the only other “real” character in the story, Madeleine’s psychologist, Clarice. But the choice of name and profession together left me with the feeling that we can’t trust the most obvious conclusion there, as the combination of the two immediately bring to mind the fevered hallucinations and machinations of Hannibal Lecter. Which of the two realities she experiences should Madeleine take to be the truth? I’ve read the story half a dozen times in the past few weeks and I still wish I knew.