Beyond the Binary System: short story reviews for May 2015

One morning a few weeks ago, I looked out the kitchen window to find that the maple trees had begun to drop their keys. A thick blanket of bright green whirligigs covered the street and cars. They studded the grass and piled up in the gutter in mounds after a brief downpour swept through them. I’ve never seen a spring yield like it. Even the pine trees are nearly bursting with tiny cones, every branch bristling with two or three times as many clusters as usual. The winter here was long and cold and wet, but I couldn’t help but wonder if the trees are readying themselves for something the rest of us haven’t sensed yet.

Both of this month’s short stories struck a similar nerve.

Cover of Lakeside Circus Year Two Issue OneThe Medici Fountain by Janna Layton (1000 words)
Lakeside Circus, Year 2, Issue 1

The pet fish tell us the fountain is vast. They tell us it is dirty. The ducks tell us it is not so vast, but agree that it is dirty. Often the pet fish are goldfish like us: red or white and red or red and black. Sometimes they are misshapen goldfish with eyes bulging and heads weighted down. There are others that are not goldfish: tiny and silvery, blue and flowing. The small ones we eat. The others that are not goldfish or not properly shaped goldfish die quickly, sinking and gasping. But they all tell the same story about tiny fountains you can barely swim in where it is always too bright and too warm. The water never moves and is so clear that you are always exposed. Always exposed and cramped in brightness.

The ones who survive love the Medici Fountain. It is dark and cool and quiet and you can breathe.

Janna Layton somehow manages to pack an entire culture inside the confines of the fountain, complete with a history and worldview unique to its inhabitants. It might be tempting to write it off as a goofy little anthropomorphic story, but there’s a poignancy to the narrator’s musings about the inevitability of loss, death, and renewal. Lakeside publishes mostly flash, but even for a short short, it felt like this was over too soon. If Layton ever expands this story into a longer one, I’m in.

Cover of Ways of Walls and Words - - Art by Tran NguyenThe Ways of Walls and Words by Sabrina Vourvoulias (7000 words), April 2015

She and her people are in cells lined along a corridor in the deepest reaches of the convent. On occasion the mentally disturbed have been kept here, tended to and made safe by walls so thick they are more than an arm’s length. These people, however, are all one family: a mother; an adult son; four older daughters; and this one, who has spent nearly half her life in here.

That was all the information the Dominican Brothers shared with me the day I started. Except that I must not attempt to speak to the girl or her family through their doors. The Brothers made me swear this before I swept even one stone.

In the language I share with jailer and jailed, my name is Bienvenida, though my Nahuatl name is different. By the Brothers’ reckoning, it has been 1,562 years since the death of God.

This is a bruisingly lovely story about transformations, both those undertaken and those refused. The girl in the cell is Anica, a member of a family of Marranas, or converts to Christianity who were held captive, tortured, and executed by the Inquisition in Mexico City. Bienvenida learns to know Anica through the poems she speaks, which are prayers and imbued with a kind of magic that Bienvenida seems to recognize, though it is very different than the Nahua ways she knows.

Though the passage of time in the story is somewhat muddy—is it years or months that it takes the girls to get through to each other?—the weight of place and consequence are palpable throughout. Though Bienvenida never seems to fear for her life the way you (okay, I!!) might want her to, there is a considerable sense of danger hanging over her acts of kindness and rebellion. Knowing some of the particular history of this period of Mexican history will help to fill in the gaps, but the story carries enough of that on its own.