What Lies at the Edge of a Petal Is Love

What Lies at the Edge of a Petal Is Love” began with a dream. For a while, I was writing dream stories, such as this one and “How the World Became Quiet: A Post-Human Creation Myth.” It hasn’t happened lately. Maybe my sleep habits have changed. The stories just seemed full-formed–but odd. Vanilla scent was vivid in the dream, for some reason.

What Lies at the Edge of a Petal is Love

Lynch Albert Young Woman Holding Flower“After the wedding, Ruth moved into the Victorian mansion on Jack’s vast, rural estate. She brought only two bags. One was full of clothes. The other she unpacked like a devotee arranging an altar: an assortment of vanilla-scented lotions, deodorants, soaps, moisturizers, scrubs and splashes.

Every morning, Jack watched Ruth stand by the pedestal sink in her white silk robe: rubbing, dabbing, spraying, powdering, and anointing. When she emerged, he took her hand and inhaled her from soft wrist to slender shoulders.

Jack had met Ruth only two months earlier, during his obligatory annual visit to his relatives in the city. Ruth was also visiting the city, on doctor’s orders; she suffered from a pair of charmingly old-fashioned diseases, malaise and neurasthenia. Her physician believed they might be cured by exposure to the warm southern climate, so Ruth’s mother, an old family friend, had arranged for an extended stay with Jack’s aunts.

Both Ruth and Jack felt out of place in high society, never sure which fork to use and whether or not it was polite to dab one’s face with a napkin between courses. “Being a person is so much work,” Ruth confided. Jack was forced to agree. He fell in love with her slender paleness like the stalk of an exotic plant; with the way drops of water lingered in her hair after she swam in the lake, like dew; and, of course, with her exquisite vanilla scent.”

It was an honor to appear in the first issue of The Dark and to be listed on Locus recommended reading list, 2013. The title nods to William Carlos William’s 1923 “Spring and All:” It is at the edge of the / petal that love waits.

Read here.

“I will be wild. I will be brutal. I will encircle you.”

A few people have made graphics featuring a quote from one of my short stories. I’m including two of them below, which take the quote and make a narrative out of it (using movie images), which is neat. It’s awesome that anyone did this at all, but if I’m going to call out one extra awesome thing, it’s the fancy typesetting in the first set.

The quote is from my short story, “A Memory of Wind:”

I will be wild. I will be brutal. I will encircle you and conquer you. I will be more powerful than your boats, and your swords, and your blood lust. I will be inevitable.

“A Memory of Wind” is a retelling of the Greek myth about Iphigenia, whose father, Agamemnon, sacrificed her so his army could sail to Troy. The classic Greek tragedy Iphigenia at Aulis tells Agamemnon’s story of struggle as he decides whether or not to kill his daughter. There’s a modern play that tells the story from Clytemnestra’s perspective–Iphigenia’s mother and Agamemnon’s wife–and it’s very good. I figured Iphigenia needed a story from her own perspective, too, so I wrote “A Memory of Wind.”

Iphigenia’s story is terribly depressing since she is betrayed (and killed) by her father at a young age. She doesn’t have much opportunity to change her fate. “A Memory of Wind” tells the story from after her death, when she has been changed into a wind powerful enough to blow the ships to Troy.

The thing that interests me about this quote is that, in context, it’s actually an expression of Iphigenia’s futility. When Artemis transforms her into a wind, and she fills with that power, she has a moment’s mad fantasy about avenging her murder. That’s this quote. But the fantasy is abruptly cut off:

But no, I am helpless again, always and ever a hostage to someone else’s desires. With ease, Artemis imposes her will on my wild fury. I feel the tension of her hands drawing me back like a bowstring. With one strong, smooth motion, she aims me at your fleet. Fiercely, implacably, I blow you to Troy.

So there’s an irony in the quote’s original context.

However! Pull it out of the context, and it’s a perfectly cromulent expression of power, anger, and resolve.

So, at some point, someone pulled the quote out of the story. Maybe they saw its potential for being empowering and that’s where the context shift happened. Or maybe they posted the quote somewhere–and then people who haven’t read the story would, of course, see the powerful and angry side of it.

So, basically, this is all really cool. First, some people made fan art of a thing I did — awesome! Second, pretty pictures! Third, I get a nifty shift in perspective.

From hermiohes:

1 wild

I will be wild. I will be brutal.

2 encircle

I will encircle you and conquer you.

3 powerful

I will be more powerful than your boats, and your swords, and your blood lust.

4 inevitable

I will be inevitable.

 

From reyoflights:

1 wild

I will be wild.

2 brutal

I will be brutal.

3 encircle

I will encircle you and conquer you.

4 powerful

I will be more powerful than your boats,

5 blood lust

and your swords, and your blood lust.

6 inevitableI will be inevitable.

On Writing and Mortality

This essay originally appeared on the blog Big Other and was later reprinted on the SFWA website. I’ve rewritten it to make its points more sharply and eliminate repetition. The original version is still available on the other sites.

It was originally published in 2011. I had recently had a death scare.

 

On Writing and Mortality

A year or two ago, an article made the rounds which had asked a number of famous authors for ten pieces of writing advice. Some of the advice was irritating, some banal, some profound, and some amusing.

One piece of advice that got picked up and repeated was the idea that if you were working on a project, and found out that you had six weeks to live, if you were willing to set the project down then it was the wrong project for you to be writing.

I dislike that advice. It seems to come from the same place that makes writers say things like “a real writer has to write” or “any writers who can be discouraged should be.” (A convenient excuse for acting like a jerk.)

Saying that “I have to write” is a way of denying agency. Writing is a risky career and one that doesn’t always yield a lot of concrete rewards or social approval. But if you have to do it, then you can avoid the question of choice.

But ultimately, I don’t have to write. I have to eat. I have to sleep. I might miss writing. I could even see it having a psychological effect. But I don’t have to do it.

And if I had six weeks, I wouldn’t.

Recently, I came a little close to dying. Not as close as some others have been. I don’t want to make too much of the experience. But it changed how I looked at my life, and inevitably, how I looked at my writing. For a while, when I thought I might die, I was viewing myself and my future with tunnel vision–there didn’t seem to be a future to write in.

I regretted that. I wished to have experienced more, and helped more people–and yes, I wished I’d written better things.

But what I really wanted, what I really would have missed, was time with my husband, my parents, my family, and my friends.

This isn’t a novel idea, that someone facing death would wish they’d spent more time with their loved ones. It’s a pretty normal idea, and one most people would probably agree with in another context. But if any project that you’d put aside if you only had six weeks to live is the wrong project and writing is something you have to do, that if you could be discouraged from it, you should be–then that implies anyone who prioritizes family and friends over art isn’t doing writing right.

For me, art isn’t something I do in isolation. I do it to communicate. I want to talk about the messy, wondrous human experience of being human. I’ve been honored to know I’ve written stories that have reached people, moved them, and/or made them think. But my abstract commitment to communicating with an audience that lives beyond me weighs less than my commitment to spending a few more hours with my husband. I do not believe these strangers’ lives would be impoverished more than his and my lives would be enriched.

This isn’t an argument against art. When one has more than six weeks to live, calculations change. My husband and I have decided it’s worth it for him to work eight hours a day so we have enough money to live the way we want to live. I spend time that I could be with him writing and working.

Life is amazing. Art is amazing. Human being are amazing. If I didn’t think so, I wouldn’t write.

But art isn’t only important if it’s the kind of art someone would write in their last six weeks.

And artists aren’t only real artists if they’d spend their last few days creating art.

Poem: A Season with the Geese

This poem originally appeared in Abyss & Apex Magazine.

 

A Season with the Geese

by Rachel Swirsky

Once when we
were young, we flew
to Europe with the geese.
Twined neck to neck
we sailed the Seine
chasing ripples and water bugs,
lost ourselves in Madrid
when sudden snow
veiled us, white on white,
nested in crumbling ramparts
overlooking Rome until
blossoms cracked
the frozen meadows,
reviving spring.

Our season ended
we flew home
clipped our wings
devoted ourselves
to grounded lives.
Now I watch
my window as geese
feather the moon
and long for
one more flight.

Flashback to 2008: “Marrying the Sun”

For a while, I was linking weekly (from my twitter and facebook) to stories of mine from the past decade. I let it lapse, but I thought I’d pick it up again on some Mondays. So:

Marrying the Sun,” published in 2008 by Fantasy Magazine.

I wrote this story because of a prompt from Vylar Kaftan. She gave me the opening line:

The wedding went well until the bride caught fire.

I’ve been obsessed with Greek mythology since I was a kid, which might be why my first, strange thought was to pair the burning bride with the Greek sun god, Helios.

marked for reuse from this site: http://moonstarsandpaper.blogspot.com/2006_10_01_archive.htmlBridget’s pretty white dress went up in a whoosh, from train-length veil to taffeta skirt to rose-embroidered bodice and Juliet cap with ferronière of pearls. The fabric burned so hot and fast that it went up without igniting Bridget’s skin, leaving her naked, singed, embarrassed, and crying.

Of these problems, nudity was easiest to cope with. Bridget pulled the silk drape off the altar and tied it around her chest like a toga.

“That is it,” she said. She pried the engagement ring off her finger and threw it at the groom. The grape-sized diamond sparkled as it arced through the air.

Gathering up the drape’s hem, Bridget ran back down the aisle. She flung open the double doors, letting in the moonlight, and fled into the night.

The groom sighed. He opened his palm and stared down at the glittering diamond, which reflected his fiery nimbus in shades of crimson, ginger, and gold. His best man patted him on the shoulder—cautiously. The bride’s father gave a manly nod of sympathy, but kept his distance. Like his daughter, he was mortal.

“Too bad, Helios,” said Apollo.

The groom shrugged. “I gave it my best shot. I can’t keep my flame on low all the time. What did the woman want? Sometimes a man’s just got to let himself shine.”

I don’t do a lot of humor, but with that opening line, what can you do?

I workshopped this during my last semester at Iowa where it got good reception from the other students. No one seemed to mind much that it was fantasy. I really do think the boundaries are dissolving–which I love, because I hope it means more people will be able to find more fiction they’re excited about.

Also, that means it’s been 8 years since I graduated from my MFA. Weird.

This was one of my first breakthrough stories, though the big breakthroughs–“Eros, Philia, Agape” and “A Memory of Wind”–came out the next year. Jonathan Strahan picked it for his Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, Volume 3.

If you read it, I hope you enjoy.

 

New to the Net: “Monstrous Embrace”

Continuing my theme of reporting late on my news–for the first time, “Monstrous Embrace” is online in print, courtesy of Lightspeed Magazine.

The first line came to me in one of those strange, clear moments:

The_Perilous_Compassion_of_the_Honey_Queen_by_Carrie_Ann_BaadeI am ugliness in body and bone, breath and heartbeat. I am muddy rocks and jagged scars snaking across salt-sown fields. I am insect larvae wriggling inside the great dead beasts into which they were born. Too, I am the hanks of dead flesh rotting. I am the ungrateful child’s sneer, the plague sore bursting, the swing of shadow beneath the gallows rope. Ugliness is my hands, my feet, my fingernails. Ugliness is my gaze, boring into you like a worm into rotting fruit.

Listen to me, my prince. Tomorrow, when dawn breaks and you stand in the chapel accepting your late father’s crown, your fate will be set. Do nothing and you will be dead by sundown. Your kingdom will be laid waste, its remnants preserved only in the bellies of carrion birds.

There is another option. Marry me.

The voice on this story was driving. It forced me rapidly through the story. Although I did a lot of revision later, I wrote the whole first draft in a few fluid hours. That’s rare enough for me to savor.

You can also find an audio version at PodCastle.

New Story: “Between Dragons and Their Wrath”

February is always one of the busiest months for me. This February was so busy that I didn’t remember to click “post” on the entry I’d written about my new story in Clarkesworld Magazine, “Between Dragons and Their Wrath.” I wrote it with my former student, An Owomoyela.

Fourteen-year-old Domei lives in a world jagged with the dangerous, magical scraps from someone else’s war:

Henri Rousseau, Il Sogno, cropped

In the forest, scales are most common. If they cut you, the cut will never stop bleeding.

If you step in a place where a dragon has defecated, food will stream through your body, and you will always be hungry. If you pass a place where a dragon breathed fire, your skin will forever blister and heal and then blister again. If you touch a dragon’s blood, you’ll go mad.

As for me, I was harvesting scales. With a scale, you can till the land faster than anyone using an iron hoe. You can butcher meat in a tenth the time it takes to use a knife. There are good things about dragon leavings, and for those good things, I usually get paid enough to eat.

Scales are common. Everyone knows about those. It was something else that got me.

This story began with a draft An wrote years ago. Last summer, they handed it to me, and I worked on the plot and characters. It was interesting starting with material that wasn’t mine, trying to understand the inside of the story enough to be able to continue and enhance the work that’s already there. I don’t think of An and myself as particularly similar writers, but I think we may approach structure the same way. It’s easier for me to put myself intuitively into their stories than it has been for other people I’ve tried this exercise with. (I do hope that some of those attempts will lead to other published stories also.)

Another excerpt (almost totally written by An):

red dragon cropDuring the war, the Andé slaughtered a big dragon the size of a mountain. They dropped its liver and gall on Hizhang. Bile poisoned the earth, poisoned the air, poisoned the people and the children of the people, and is still poisoning them now. People born in Hizhang have probably never seen a dragon, but they don’t need to.

Every dusk, the cows start lowing from Hizhang. But there are no longer cows in Hizhang.

You see, we were lucky.

The story is also available in audio, narrated by Kate Baker.

Quick Notes: Poetry Planet podcast, & Tiptree Anthology 99 Cents

A few quick notes for this week.

Poetry Planet podcast

Diane Severson puts together the poetry planet podcast that aired recently in this episode of starship sofa. She includes my poem, “Terrible Lizards,” which is about — as you might expect — dinosaurs. She asked me to include an anecdote about it:

Dinosaur eye1) I love dinosaurs. I never went through a dinosaur phase as a kid, but my husband never got over his, so when I met him in college, I got to have a late dinosaur phase, which we still enjoy together.

2) I was driving cross-country through the midwest (well, my husband was driving and I was passengering) and staring out of the windows at all the flat land, and trying to visualize cool things walking through it, which my husband can do and which I mostly can’t. Then I saw one of those huge irrigation devices and realized it was about dinosaur-sized. I never got the visualization trick down, but I can do the imagining with words thing.

Listen here.

Tiptree Anthology available at 99 cents:

Last year, I was honored to participate in the anthology project Letters to Tiptree.

Letters to TiptreeFor nearly a decade, between 1968 and 1976, a middle-aged woman in Virginia (her own words) had much of the science fiction community in thrall. Her short stories were awarded, lauded and extremely well-reviewed. They were also regarded as “ineluctably masculine”, because Alice Sheldon was writing as James Tiptree Jr.

In celebration of the 100th Anniversary of Alice Sheldon’s birth, and in recognition of the enormous influence of both Tiptree and Sheldon on the field, Twelfth Planet Press has published a selection of thoughtful letters written by science fiction and fantasy’s writers, editors, critics and fans to celebrate her, to recognise her work, and maybe in some cases to finish conversations set aside nearly thirty years ago.

I gave my answer in the form of a poem.

If you’re a Tiptree fan, now is the time to buy the book–until March 31, it’s available at 99 cents.

New Story: “Love Is Never Still”

Love Is Never Still” just came out in Issue 9 of Uncanny Magazine, a story about Galatea and Aphrodite, and their broken, bittersweet love affairs. The story begins with the sculptor’s perspective:

Pygmalion & Galatea“I’ve loved other sculptures. Though I’m not yet old, I have worked diligently at my art, and so have loved hundreds. I have loved leaping horses and dour-faced spearmen and exotic animals pieced together from sailors’ descriptions.

Galatea is my culmination. From the beginning, winnowing the ivory to her form has felt more like discovery than invention. Our bodies move together in conversation; mine contorts as I twist and crouch to discover precise angles, and she emerges from my labor.”

This took me about four months of intense concentration to write because it features about fifteen perspectives (the number went up and down while I was drafting) and the writing is very precise. Sometimes it felt like I was writing a really long poem. I actually wrote part of the story in verse (iambic pentameter), but my friend Barry Deutsch rightly convinced me that it slowed the story way down.

I’ll try to tempt you to read with another passage, this time from Galatea’s perspective:

Forms of AphroditeBirth is pain, and I have been twice born. First I was an egg of ivory until he struck away the pieces that were not me and cracked me open. Later, the goddess touched me with her fiery fingertips and melted away the good, solid quiet of my soul. She made me into hot, fragile skin, always beating with blood.

What misery it is to crack at the seams, to be forever bending and reshaping. Once, my body held its place in the world; once, it stood in perfect, unchanging balance. Now I am walking, stumbling, falling, sitting, smiling, resting, startling, kneeling, offering, dressing, approaching, avoiding.

My sculptor is nearby, but turns his face away. I chew a cube of cheese and swallow. Even my insides move.

Read here.

Mad Hatters, Jews, and Aliens: What I Published in 2015

I didn’t publish much in 2015. People who know me well will know that I’ve been dealing with health issues (and related writers block) for a few years now. I hope last year was the nadir, as far as publishing goes–I already have three stories scheduled for 2016 so I can hope the trend continues! But on to 2015:

Have you ever wondered who would win in Jews versus Aliens? I haven’t, actually, but apparently Lavie Tidhar and Rebecca Levene did. The resulting book is a charity anthology, supporting caretakers and children who have been sexually abused. My entry, “The Reluctant Jew,” is about a starship engineer who is drafted against his will to explain Judaism to many-tentacled aliens who prefer to eat the yamulkes.

I’m exceedingly proud of my other short story, “Tea Time,” which came out in Lightspeed in December. I wrote a bit about it on my blog:  It’s an R-rated Alice in Wonderland riff about the Mad Hatter’s love affair with the March Hare.

Begin at the beginning:

His many hats. Felt derbies in charcoal and camel and black. Sporting caps and straw boaters. Gibuses covered in corded silk for nights at the theatre. Domed bowlers with dashingly narrow brims. The ratty purple silk top hat, banded with russet brocade, that he keeps by his bedside.

The march hare, each foreleg as strong as an ox’s, bucking and hopping and twitching his whiskers. Here, there, somewhere else, leading his hatter a merry dance between tables. Rogering by the mahogany slipper chair. Knocking by the marble bust of the Queen of Hearts. Upending rose-patterned porcelain so that it smashes on the grass, white and pink fragments scattering like brittle leaves.

Fur, soft and lush. Warmth like spring. That prey-quick heartbeat, thump-thump, thump-thump.

I started writing something absurd because I love absurdity, but it became a meditation on time and love. I hope people enjoy reading it; I enjoyed writing it.