This week’s short story, by Brazilian author Fábio Fernandes.
Ganesh, in the Afternoon
by Fábio Fernandes
“For starters, the first sentence in a short story must always be a startling one,” said Villupuram the Elephant God, waving the printed pages in one of his four hands.
“Right, but what about the story? Did you like it?” Satyajit the puny mortal man asked anxiously.
“You will want to create something supernatural, something that does not exist in the world as we know it,” Villupuram answered obliquely. (Villupuram was the mortal name of the Elephant God, for he also was a man, at least part-time.)
“Then you didn´t like it,” Satyajit said, already beginning to feel sorry for himself.
Villupuram just wobbled his head. In Indian body language, the head wobbling is usually considered a sign of approval. With that giant elephant head, however, you could never be sure. That head shake could also mean I’m giving you the answer I think you want to hear, or I hear the words that are coming out of your mouth, or even I really want the answer to be yes, but…
“On the contrary,” his friend finally answered. “I found it most interesting.”
Villupuram started to polish his glasses using the hem of his white long-sleeved kurta; he did it very slowly, with careful circular motions, probably so as not to let the fabric of the tunic scratch the lenses.
That never failed to bother Satyajit: he knew that every time his longtime friend and former teacher did that (and he did that even in his original human form), when he ran through those motions, those calming gestures that usually triggered a calmer mindset which Satyajit himself sometimes used to meditate, he would be more often than not simply looking for the most kind, adequate words to say in an embarrassing situation.
“Is it that bad?,” Satyajit couldn´t help but blurt out the words he wanted to hold back. But maybe it was for the best; if he must have his story completely bashed, he wished the coup de grace to be as quick and painless as possible.
Villupuram squinted his beady eyes and looked at his ex-disciple for a minute (which for Satyajit had seemed the proverbial eternity).
“I didn´t say it was bad,” said Villupuram, his voice strangely mellow for what should certainly be an elephantine glottis. “I said it is interesting. That is many steps up the quality ladder.”
“How many steps?” asked Satyajit.
His friend laughed. An incredibly crystalline laughter.
“You are still so impatient,” Villupuram said. “It´s not bad, this impatience, though.”
The Elephant God rose from his cushions beside the small table they were having tea at and walked clumsily to a wooden closet on the wall of the room, still holding the pages in one hand – the lower right one, Satyajit now noticed. He also couldn´t stop watching that huge body and wondering how could that big, gray, leathery skin fit in human clothing.
He (certainly it was a he, Satyajit thought; it never occurred to him to ask Villupuram if he also underwent a sex change when he turned to godmode) opened the two upper doors of the closet and craned his neck (what neck?, Satyajit asked to no one. He is an elephant, for crying out loud!)inside, as if he was looking for something.
Satyajit could glimpse several figurines inside the closet, which he now noticed was a kind of private shrine: a small silver Kali, a middle-sized golden Gautama Buddha, the ever-present minuscule white-and-blue china figurine (so out-of-fashion for decades now) of Kung-Fu-Tze fishing in a pond, a big purple Krishna.
And, in the center of the shrine, an almost life-sized Ganesh towered over the other gods and philosophers. It was a very colorful statue – the only one of the whole bunch which was full-colored – , all draped in real folds of yellow, saffron, and blue cotton. The plaster skin was painted salmon, as it was commonly depicted in the Indian iconography.
With the statue right by his side as if put there for comparison, Satyajit could see that Villupuram wasn´t so similar as Ganesh as his mother had told him at the airport. He looked more like a strange version of that old nineteenth-century Englishman, whose name he can´t for the love of Vishnu remember now but he knows that was dubbed “The Elephant Man”, because of his deformities, than like a real elephant.
Villupuram straightened his back again and shut the doors close. In his upper right hand, he carried a burning stick of brazilwood incense.
“It´s been a long time since I smelled brazilwood,” Satyajit said approvingly, sniffing the scented air.
“I know,” his friend said with what passed for a smile with that big elephantine mouth (at least he didn´t have tusks, Satyajit thought; he would have trouble to eat). “Your mother told me that the day before you returned home. Speaking of which, you didn´t tell me anything at all about your stay in the motherland. And about the workshop.”
“Oh, the workshop was great,” Satyajit said, managing a not very sincere smile.
“Then why are you here?”
Satyajit´s smile crumbled.
“It didn´t come out exactly as I expected,” he finally answered.
“And why not?”
Satyajit let out a deep, sad sigh.
“I didn´t get a good feedback on my stories,” he said. Then, after a few seconds: “People in the motherland seem to be so closed to themselves. It´s as if they didn´t recognized me as their equal. Sometimes I got the feeling that they can only really appreciate their own writings.”
“A surprise ending,” Villupuram said, looking at Satyajit´s story again.
“What?” Satyajit said, frowning. It didn´t become his friend, always so scientific-minded, to change subjects like this. (He thought that it also didn´t become him to have statuettes of gods at home, but that was becoming a common item now in the houses of many of his friends of the University since the Blossoming.)
“Aside from the complete absence of the supernatural element,” Villupuram added, apparently oblivious to his friend Satyajit´s amazement, “your story doesn´t have a surprise ending. Maybe that´s why the members of the workshop didn´t give this one, for example, the attention you thought it deserved.”
“But you think it was just because of that?”
Villupuram raised his enormous head and just looked at his friend.
“You know better than that,” he said.
Satyajit blushed and nodded, eyes lowered. Some things should be left unsaid.
“Anyway,” Villupuram went on, as if nothing had happened, “the underlying narrative structure of a short story is, as the name goes, much too short in order to allow the adequate development of a complex situation. One must create a sharp, shock situation, a scenario that gives the reader the impression that it simply sprouted from nothingness while things are going on all around, as if that universe was always there.”
“But, from the very start, the writer must feed the reader with small portions of his universe, as bits of paratha along the way.”
“I´m not sure I´m following you…,” Satyajit said.
“Do you remember the tale of Hansel e Gretel? Little bits of bread or cake are also in order. But with parsimony, otherwise the story doesn´t go off. Doing so, the writer can make the narrative go wherever he sees fit, until a finale that catch the reader unawares, taking him by surprise.”
“And how can I do that?”
“There is, indeed, an efficient method you can use,” said Villupuram, stroking his snout. “It´s the hidden story method. You tell one story in the surface, but in fact you´re telling a different story running in a parallel track, so to speak. In the end, you make it abundantly clear to the reader that the parallel narrative in the background was in fact the story that mattered the most, not the one on the forefront.”
“It doesn´t seem easy,” Satyajit Said. “Even more for a Fantasy tale.”
“It´s not easy at all, in no literary genre,” Villupuram said. “But Fantasy is not different, say, from whodunits or suspense stories, is it? Remember the pulp stories of Mohandas and Thomas that you liked so much to read as a boy.”
“But they really happened,” Satyajit countered. “Thomas just happened to retell their cases in the format of detective stories.”
“Some of them, yes,” Villupuram said, scratching his elephant ear with his upper right hand. “But let´s not forget that, after Thomas´ death, further novels started to be written by other authors, keeping Thomas´ name as a house name. And they always follow a preordained formula.”
“But that doesn´t make them necessarily bad stories.”
“No, you´re right,” Villupuram said, twirling in the fat fingers of his lesser left hand the pair of glasses that didn´t fit in his currently overgrown head. “But that formula is just one element of the equation.”
Satyajit listened to his friend´s lesson not in a rapture, as he always did when he came there to study Literature in the past. He was trying very hard to listen now, but the ears flapping, the snout moving up and down snakelike, the four arms gesturing all at the same time, all of this was very confusing and tiring. His cup of tea grew cold on the table.
When Satyajit arrived at his friend´s house, everything was normal, as it should be. The transition to divinity status, however, went so smoothly that several minutes passed until he noticed Villupuram´s ishvara manifesting itself. He never even knew Villupuram, being an intellectual and an accomplished writer, would have an ishvara. Even so, it became manifest the only way it could for a man of letters: Ganesh, the Indian elephant god of wisdom and writing, who acted as a scribe for the sage Vyasa in the Mahabharata.
Villupuram/Ganesh didn´t even seem to have felt the transformation of his flesh; the abnormally grown elephant head, however, had substituted the former one, a beautiful head doted with silky white hair and a long salt-and-pepper beard, and also bright dark eyes framed by prescription glasses.
His two human arms now were four, ending not in elephant paws but in bloated hands, not quite human as well. The upper left hand held a cup of tea with fingers fat as sausages, the upper right one grabbed a saucer, and the two lower ones flipped through the pages of Satyajit´s story.
“Let´s see, then. This paragraph here, for instance,” and the Elephant God showed Satyajit something he felt his former student must see.
* * *
Satyajit knew what Villupuram was talking about. After he said goodbye to his friend, he went home in a kind of daze. He strolled around, watching the streets in the rush hour brimming with people in full godmode and simple mortals, walking to and fro, minding their own businesses.
When he got home, he spent hours reading again the pages of his story, slowly, deliberately. He tried to find any error, grammatical or logical, but to no avail. His teachers at the University had already told him that every writing needs a time to breathe, like a good wine. Only with a certain amount or drawer time the author will really be able to read it without acting like a jealous father.
Maybe it would be all for the better. Maybe his story – an utopian tale in which every single human being had the powers of a god – should be rewritten, or even abandoned for good.
* * *
Later, Satyajit watches the blood-red sun setting slowly from his window. He stopped his writing for a while, and automatically called to mind the words of the Bhavagad Gita: Set thy heart upon thy work, but never on its reward; Work not for reward; but never cease to do thy work.
Writing is just a means to a greater end, not an end in itself. He should have known this by now.
His father came into his room to tell him it´s time to leave for the Festival. He would meet him and his mother in a while: he rose from his chair and walked to the rosewood bookcase near his bed, picking from the topmost shelf one of his favorite books: Ten Little Tigers.
The entire collection is still there: Death on the Amazon, Murder on the Punjabi Express, and many other books featuring the adventures of the famous lawyer/detective Mohandas Gandhi and his loyal friend, the American journalist later-turned-Buddhist monk, Thomas Merton. Maybe these are the kind of stories he is meant to write. There is no blame in that. He just needs to figure out if that it´s what he truly wants to do before trying to write his next story.
Book in hand, he goes to the windowsill. The moon is rising. It´s the full moon of May, the Vesak: the time of year when, according to Buddhist tradition, Siddharta Gautama was born, reached illumination, and died. Satyajit and his parents will follow the ritual procession all the way to Hunchback Mountain to celebrate the Vesak at the feet of the gigantic statue of the Enlightened Buddha.
From up there, they will watch the fireworks and see the lights of the entire city of Vaisakha Nadi, with its big river cutting the land in half, the River of May, which gave its name to the capital city of the Indian colony of Virupakshanagar, in South America.
And it has been much more beautiful since the Blossoming, when the gods started to incarnate in the bodies of humans, for they will always dance and congregate with simple mortals in festival times.
It´s going to be a beautiful night, Satyajit thinks to himself. Literature can wait until tomorrow.
Ganesh, in the Afternoon (c) 2009 Fábio Fernandes. First published in The Nautilus Engine.
Over at Torque Control, they’ve just run their second Short Story Club, discussing, among others, stories by Vandana Singh - Somadeva: A Sky River Sutra (read the story online at Strange Horizons) – and Hannu Rajaniemi – Elegy for a Young Elk (read the story online at Subterranean Online). Check out the discussion on each!
When I was at SFContario last weekend, I attended a panel on “Review and Criticism in the SF Field”, which gave me a lot of good ideas to apply to The Portal . . . among them (as proposed by Patrick Nielsen Hayden) creating a weekly aggregation of interesting writing about genre fiction available on the web. Hence “The Key” was born.
Over at Strange Horizons, Silvia Moreno-Garcia offers A Brief History of Mexican Science Fiction:
At the beginning of the 1980s, Mexican science fiction was facing a death spiral. Then, suddenly, something odd happened: a whole new generation of writers started producing original, unique tales that were not knockoffs of American or British writers. Mexican science fiction was about to hit a stride.
What was the big push behind this science fiction boom? A contest organized by the CONACYT and the State Council of Science and Technology of Puebla, with the winning short stories earning publication in the non-fiction scientific publicationCiencia y Desarrollo. It was not the first time Ciencia y Desarrollo had featured science fiction in its pages. It had included stories by foreign authors, and in 1983 printed its first Mexican science fiction story titled “La tia panchita.”
Nevertheless, the National Contest of Short Science Fiction Puebla and its partnership with Ciencia y Desarrollo ensured that much more national fiction made it into each number. The winner of the first contest was Mauricio-José Schwarz in 1984. Schwarz, along with other writers such as Federico Schaffler—who also headed the speculative magazine Umbrales: literatura fantástica de México (1992-2000) epitomized the new Mexican science fiction movement: young, eager, and bold in its languages and structure.
These awards and new wave of writers seemed to indicate Mexican science fiction was coming into its own. However, after riding high for twenty years, this wave of confidence crashed again in the 2000s. But where did Mexican science fiction originate? Who were the precursors that helped launch the ’80s boom? And how exactly did we go from bust to boom to another bust in the 2000s? – click here to find out!
The Romanian Science Fiction&Fantasy Society (SRSFF) Awards 2010
Friday, November the 19th 2010, at the Gaudeamus International Book Fair (Bucharest, Romania), were awarded the SRSFF (Societatea Romana de Science Fiction si Fantasy) 2010 prizes.
These awards are meant to highlight the efforts of those who, during the year promoted and contributed to the romanian science fiction .
This year five awards were given as follows:
• Best author - Cristian Mihail Teodorescu
• Best artist - Alex Popescu
• Best translator – Mihai Dan Pavelescu
• Best journalist - Stefan Ghidoveanu
• Best publisher – Nemira Publishing Press
In SRSFF’s view, these awards represent the quality benchmarks of the romanian SF for the current year.
The jury was composed of Danut Ungureanu, Marian Truta, Feri Balin, Cristian Tamas and Sorin Camner.
One of the goals of the Romanian Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy is to recognize and support the values of the Romanian SF.
Therefore the SRSFF awards, by the end of each year, a series of awards to highlight and reward the efforts of those who have made significant contributions to the Romanian SF.
The first SRSFF Awards had been held on November 28, 2009 at Gaudeamus, the International Book Fair, in Bucharest, Romania.
Through these awards we want to cover as large an area of fandom activity. Therefore we will not only limit to the the awarding of literary productions. We are convinced that the SRSFF Awards are at the end of each year, a notable event for all fans of science fiction and fantasy in Romania.
The SRSFF Awards poster was created by the digital artist Alex Smith, whom we thank in particular. The design awards diplomas and trophies were made by Viorel Pîrligras, whom we thank very much.
Sorry for the slight delay in posting – without further ado, here is this week’s story, by Indian writer Anil Menon!
By Anil Menon
The boy’s name was Eustace Albert. But that wasn’t the problem. His troubles were of his own making, and his mother summed it up neatly.
“Eustace,” said Mrs. Albert, “you are not a bat, and you should stop acting like one.”
“Eustace,” echoed Eustace, his mouth full of buttered toast, “you are not a bat, and you should stop acting like one.”
Mrs. Albert began to slather the next piece of toast. She nodded ominously at her son, but addressed her husband.
“Tell him, Mr. Albert, that if he keeps this up, Dr. Metenier will cut his tongue out.”
It was, of course, an empty threat. Everyone knows doctors simply aren’t allowed to do that sort of thing these days. No matter what the provocation.
“I’m serious, Eustace!”
“I’m serious, Eustace!”
He granted his mother a friendly glance, as if to say: ‘nothing personal, Mom.’
And indeed there wasn’t. Given the inanity of most human conversations, the echo is as reasonable a response as any. For example, what could possibly satisfy someone who asked:
“Hell, how do I know?” Eustace could have replied. “Why ask me? I just got here. Your guess is as good as mine. Look up and you’ll find out, what? The damn sky is up; shut up; ozone; boll weevils; your time is up? Take your pick, dude.”
But Eustace would merely echo.
It’s a lot harder than it sounds. Any fool can repeat, but it takes courage to void the ego and avoid the jocose intent. Eustace Albert eschewed intent. If you sounded happy, then he too would make the sentence purr. If the mood was somber (“Grandma died, Eustace”), he would try to be equally sad (“Grandma died, Eustace”) but no sadder. Eustace Albert wasn’t in it for the cheap thrills.
Echoing is an art form, where the unsaid is what counts. When the history teacher, Mrs. Richie, once asked him:
“Who was the commander of the Golden Hind?”
Eustace Albert inserted a silent ‘B’ before the Hind. It sat there in vulgar satisfaction, orangutan red, and begging to be paddled. Genius is a gift.
As expected, the herd didn’t appreciate his gifts. People resent being echoed. It’s hard enough to think straight as it is without having to deal with a mobile mountain range. They felt robbed, as if by photographing their words, Eustace Albert was stealing their identity. As philosophers love pointing out, identity means a bit more than the nightly sprint around the local fire hydrants. It extends outwards from the boundaries of one’s skin to “my” clothes, “my” job, “my” girl, “my” lunchbox, and goodness, even, “my” words.
But not according to Eustace Albert. Your words are his bitches, pal!
So it was war. Society versus Eustace Albert. However, he was like one of those resistant bacterial strains. The classic deterrents were useless against him. For example, it was no use trying to foil him with long complicated passages. Eustace Albert had invented the iconical-indexical echo: an echo that began with an “etc.” and the balance was a perfect reflection of some piece of the whole.
Well, they laughed at Edison too.
It was no use trying statements like “I am a monkey’s son,” or “I ate horse crap this morning,” or “My mother likes it in the–” well, you get the idea. The boy was immune to self-referential insults. For a simple reason: You are, therefore he exists.
To insult Eustace Albert was to insult yourself; why on earth would he take offense?
The kids had tried foxing him with foreign languages. Kishore– a weepy little Indian boy– was green-carded in to abuse Eustace in Hindi. Eustace responded with gobbledygook; to his mind (and most semioticians would agree) his task was to echo what he heard, and what he heard was gobbledygook. Eustace Albert: 1; World: 0.
They’d tried seduction. Betsy tried her booby grazes and hot thigh presses on Eustace Albert. She succeeded in frightening him, but somehow, he managed to coo her sweet nothings right back.
They kicked his ass, shoved him around, threw ink on his clean shirts, introduced him to toilet bowls, gummed him to school chairs, mussed his hair, and in general, did everything the Hobbesian state can do to enforce conformity. Eustace endured.
He developed an unusual capacity to hold his breath for yogic intervals. Fat as he was, he could easily outrun any kid on the block. He learned to look piteous and provoke both maternal as well as paternal instincts. He cultivated allies, waged psychological warfare, and in his own humble way, was as ruthless as Gandhi on a hunger strike.
In the end, they admired him. It was impossible not to. There was nothing more entertaining than to see a new teacher try to take Eustace Albert down; the boy could’ve sold tickets.
So yes, perhaps he was right not to take his mother’s threats about Dr. Metenier too seriously.
Mrs. Albert stared at her son. What would she do, she wondered, if Dr. Metenier also failed. Their family doctor, Dr. Ballycock, had given up tweaking pill dosages.
“Frankly, Mrs. Albert,” Dr. Ballycock had said, with a peculiar laugh, “it’s not a biochemical problem. I wouldn’t blame you if you used more physical means.”
“I’ll need a second opinion on that,” she’d smiled and immediately– illogically – felt guilty. “On the pills, of course.”
For a few seconds, Dr. Ballycock had said nothing. “There’s this expert, Dr. Gregory Metenier, who specializes in stubborn– difficult– cases. He’s new to the neighborhood but already has quite a reputation.”
“Not a psychoanalyst?” Mrs. Albert didn’t set much stock in the disgusting Freudian nonsense. “A psychiatrist?”
“Impeccable credentials. A student of Bruno Bettelheim, I believe. I’ll set up an appointment.”
“Bettelheim,” thought Mrs. Albert, as Eustace echoed his father’s burp. Hadn’t Bettelheim told fairy tales?
“Tell Eustace what happened to the boy who wouldn’t stop sucking his thumb,” she urged her husband.
Since she often addressed her husband instead of talking to her son directly, Mr. Albert had developed the unfortunate (but justifiable) habit of ignoring his wife.
“Yes? What? Oh. Came to a bad end, I’m afraid. A very bad end indeed.”
“Conrad. Wasn’t that his name, Mr. Albert?”
“Absolutely. Thumb looked like a prune. Smelled like a twenty-dollar wh–.” He coughed. “Why don’t you tell it, dear?”
Until now, Eustace Albert had only been skimming the conversation, but he immediately perked up his ears.
Mrs. Albert gave her husband the Do-I-have-to-raise-this-child-by-myself look. He retreated behind his paper.
“Conrad just wouldn’t stop sucking his thumb. His parents warned him and warned him and warned him some more. But he still wouldn’t listen. So one day: snip, snip! Along came the tall, red-legged tailor one day with his great sharp scissors and snip, snip! Off came the thumbs. Isn’t that so, Mr. Albert?”
“Absolutely. Jets of blood everywhere. Real geyser. Ghastly. Listen to your mother, Eustace.”
Eustace Albert’s eyes shone. This was the tops. Simply the tops.
“Listen to your mother, Eustace. Did Conrad spin like a garden hose?”
“You’re missing the point, Eustace.”
“You’re missing the point, Eustace. Did he, Mom? Did he spin? Like Sophie Fatale in Kill Bill?”
Mrs. Albert sighed. “I suppose so.”
“I suppose so!” shouted Eustace Albert, finger-scissoring the air. “Snip, snip!”
* * *
As a psychologist, Dr. Gregory Metenier was not exactly reassuring. It’s good to listen carefully, but to listen as if the other person was dinner, well, it simply made Mrs. Albert uncomfortable. The bizarre decor of his office was equally distressing; neither fun, nor cool and definitely not cute. What, for example, was the point of that barber’s chair? His secretary, Tanya, was equally non-reassuring; a beanstalk of a woman who kept surreptitiously sniffing her hands. If Dr. Ballycock hadn’t recommended Dr. Metenier with such enthusiasm, Mrs. Albert would have fled.
“Excuse me, doctor.” Mrs. Albert fingered the straps of her handbag. “But I– we must be boring you?”
“On the contrary. Do go on, madam. Spare me nothing.”
The cultured European accent wasn’t reassuring either. He sounded like James Mason in that unspeakable movie, Lolita. The accent didn’t match those large, knobby, calloused hands; the hands of a peasant. They embarrassed here.
Words poured out Mrs. Albert as if she were an overheated kettle.
“What I want to know, doctor, is whether Eustace has Tourette’s syndrome? I read this book on echolalia and it fit Eustace to a T. But that kid had catatonic seizures and Eustace doesn’t. Sometimes his blood sugar goes up, and he has to lie down but that’s about it. Dr. Ballycock says it’s not Tourette’s but what if there are some unknown varieties? That’s what I want to know. It’s not psychological. We can rule that out. Dr. Ballycock admitted I was a good mother. No Oedipal issues or anything disgusting like that. We’re good parents, we are. You can ask Eustace. Mr. Albert doesn’t take the interest I wish he would, but what can you do? He’s obsessed with his job – he’s a wedding planner – and you know how people are; it’s very sexist, that’s what it is. Mr. Albert planned our wedding, and let me tell you, it was spectacular. Simply spectacular. My sister thought the taffeta was a little much. It was this chameleon color–”
Dr. Metenier yawned. It was a real doozie; a hippo would’ve thought twice about tangling with its owner. Mrs. Albert was yawned into silence.
Dr. Metenier pointed a long knobby finger at Eustace Albert.
“Stop fidgeting, boy.”
“Stop fidgeting, boy. Up yours, Nimrod.”
“Eustace Albert!” Mrs. Albert blushed.
Dr. Metenier picked up a leather paperweight and twirled it on his glass pad. His smile was chilly.
“How long has he being doing this?”
“Since he was about five years old.”
Dr. Metenier continued to twirl the paperweight. “It is not catatonic schizophrenia. It is not Tourette’s syndrome.” He gestured with his chin at the scans lying on his desk. “It is not echolalia. Well, it is echolalia, but not what medicine calls echolalia. Nothing so modern.”
Mrs. Albert waited in suspense.
So did Eustace. Perhaps he only had a year to live. Oh, the scores he would settle.
“Is he a bad child, Mrs. Albert?”
“Bad child? I’m not sure what you mean …”
“Does he break things? Harass the family cat? Light firecrackers at inappropriate times? Does he trip people? Pull pigtails? Look up skirts? Eat soap? That sort of thing.”
“Dear me…. Nothing of the kind.”
“Then he’s civilized enough, Mrs. Albert. Annoying, yes. But that’s the quintessence of children. Why not let it be?”
“But what about later? Suppose he goes for a job interview. Or is on a date? Not everyone will be as understanding as you are, doctor.”
“Oh, I’m all for correction. Spare the rod and spoil the child. Isn’t that so, Eustace Albert?”
“Isn’t that so, Eustace Albert?”
“See, doctor! He’s incorrigible. The other day my sister had come to visit– Aunt Lorraine, Eustace. Remember? No don’t echo that! I’m trying to make a point.”
“Aunt Lorraine, Eustace. Remember? No don’t echo that! I’m trying to make a point. Can we go, Mom?”
“No, we can’t go. As I was saying, doctor, my sister Lorraine had come to visit, and Eustace drove her crazy– simply crazy– with his echoing. Poor dear. She didn’t dare open her mouth all weekend. Not that that’s a bad thing. She won’t let anyone else get in a word. It’s a family joke. Lorraine’s convinced it’s something in the food. All those additives they feed the chickens. Could it be, doctor? Dr. Ballycock wants to put Eustace on a regimen of Clozaril and Loxitane. I thought– Mr. Albert and I thought– we should get a second opinion on Loxitane. The FDA–”
“Oh no, madam,” interrupted Dr. Metenier. “No drugs. Too crude. We have to pluck out the problem by its roots. The old methods are the best. Let me think.”
He resumed twirling the paperweight.
“What would that be, doctor?” asked Mrs. Albert timidly. The silence had begun to buzz in her ears. “The problem, I mean?”
“Inappropriate echoing, of course. Are you sure, madam, that you want him cured? A narcissistic time needs its echoes.”
“I want a normal boy– not that he’s abnormal or anything.” She shot a quick glimpse at Eustace’s face. “He’s a darling. But we’ve become the laughingstock of the town. We simply can’t take him anywhere.”
Dr. Metenier leaned over and spoke into the intercom. “Tanya?”
Almost as if she’d been listening just outside, the secretary glided in. There was something wrong with her, thought Mrs. Albert. Something about the eyes, or perhaps it was merely all those piercings.
“Make an appointment for next Friday, Tanya. And please take Eustace with you; I need to speak to his mother in private for a few minutes.”
When the pair had left, Dr. Metenier turned to her.
“I prefer the old-fashioned methods, madam. You’ll have to trust me absolutely. Do I have your word?”
Mrs. Albert gave him a blank look. “Of course. That’s why I’m here. How many months do you think it’ll take?”
“Months?” The doctor smiled. “A single session should do it. Think of it as an exorcism. It will not be pleasant.”
“It won’t hurt, will it?”
Dr. Metenier steepled his fingers. “That’s not a sensible question. No pain, no gain. But I need your strength, not his.”
Mrs. Albert retreated into the forest of her mind. She nodded, a quick abrupt shake that left no doubt.
“Good. Tanya? Bring the boy in.”
* * *
Tanya was listening outside the door. Now and then she would turn to the boy and smile, as if they shared a secret. Then it was back to eavesdropping.
The creature was creeping him out. She was like a bat, only a little prettier. When she came over, he thought he heard the rustle of wings. But it was merely the rustle of her skirts. When she leaned down, he smelled lavender.
“Want to know a secret?” she whispered. Her kohl-lined eyes were alive with excitement.
“Want to know a secret? What?”
“His name’s not Metenier. It’s Putin.”
Eustance stared at her.
“It was my mother who slaughtered me.
It was my father who ate me.
But pretty Marlinchen looked for my bones
And laid them beneath the Juniper tree.
Kyweet, kyweet, kyweet
Oh, what a beautiful bird am I!”
Eustace continued to stare at her. Tanya leaned towards him.
“That’s from the Juniper Tree. Did you read that in school, my little pet?”
Eustace swallowed. This freak was whacked. “Etc. Did you read that in school, my little pet?”
The intercom burst into life: “Tanya. Bring in the boy.”
“Oh, you’re in for it now,” she whispered, and Eustace was unclear whether she was talking to herself or to him.
Tanya led him back to the office. His mother stood next to Dr. Death. Eustace Albert’s legs felt shaky.
“We shall be doing a glossectomy, Tanya,” said Dr. Metenier. “Set up the apparatus.”
He looked at the boy. “That means cutting out your tongue, Eustace.”
The boy blanched. He shot a look at his mother, but she looked away.
“That means cutting out your tongue, Eustace. You’re whacked, dude.”
Dr. Metenier nodded. “Your tongue was a gift, Eustace. Use it or lose it. That’s the law. Haven’t you read your fairy tales?”
Eustace made a dash for the door. But there was no escaping Tanya. She pounced; there was incredible strength in her arms. Eustace found himself half-carried, half-dragged to the barber’s chair and strapped down.
“Doctor,” his mother began. “I’m not so sure about this.”
“Trust me, Madam. He’ll be a much pleasanter boy without his tongue. Think of the peace and quiet.”
“Well–” His mother sounded confused. “As long as you don’t hurt him.” Her voice trailed off.
Was she crazy? Was she crazy? Eustace let out a roar.
“Do stop howling, Eustace Albert,” said Dr. Metenier in a matter-of-fact tone. “It’ll only hurt a bit.”
“Do stop howling, Eustace Albert. It’ll only hurt a bit. Mommy! Mommy! Help! Fire! Fire!”
Tanya rolled out a sterilized towel and began to lay out the necessary tools. Mirror bright stainless steel retractors, forceps, speculas, scalpels and bowls of assorted sizes. Rolls of crepe bandages, rubber tubing and boxes of wool. But the star of the show was a pair of stainless steel scissors, almost indecently large. It was unclear how it could possibly fit in a mouth.
Dr. Metenier held it up and showed it to Mrs. Albert with undisguised pride.
“The finest Seville scissors money can buy,” he said and clicked his tongue. “Surgeons used to be barbers.”
Tania had inserted something into Eustace’s mouth; he resisted with all his fury, but she pressed somewhere along his jaws and before he knew it, something cold and metallic pried and held his mouth open. He wet his pants. Dr. Metenier came over to inspect.
“A fine tongue. Pity it’s misused.”
“Oh dear, oh dear.”
“Now, madam, you must be firm. Do I have your permission to go ahead? To cut his tongue out?”
The doctor stared at Mrs. Albert. After a moment, she nodded; not to him, per se, but to the wall, the world and the wildness in all things. Eustace strained against his straps.
“I’m sorry, madam. Is that a ‘yes’?”
Tanya’s face broke into an idiotic half-grin.
“Yes,” whispered Mrs. Albert. “Cut it out.”
“Excellent. True love is tough love.” He looked down. “Isn’t that so, Eustace? Don’t you remember your fairy tales? Remember what happened to bad children? Dreadful things. Unmentionable things.”
Dr. Metenier smiled. His shadow loomed large over the tilted chair, the boy in it, the glittering instruments, Eustace Albert, everything.
“Do you know, Eustace, there are fifty-four mutilations in Grimm’s fairy tales? Children have always been morality’s fodder. Now it’s your turn. Snip, snip, Mr. Albert. Are you ready?”
“Dear me. I can’t understand a word. Tanya, hand me the scissors.”
The doctor turned to Eustace. “What’s that, boy?”
“Tanya, remove the clamp for a second. Give the boy his last words.”
The metal came out of his mouth like a grotesque alien probe. Eustace screamed.
Eustace shot a terrified glance at his mother. But she had her back to him, her hands were over her ears. He saw the blood-lust on the doctor’s face and the half-smile on Tanya’s. It was all true, realized Eustace. Witches and ogres, lost children and dying beauties. Threefold quests and stepsister’s bones; pigeon-pecked eyes and glass slippers; gifts that burdened and the pedagogy of fear. There were no safe places.
“NO! No! No!”
“Let me get this straight,” said Dr. Metenier with a smile. “Rip out my tongue, doctor.”
How the scissors gleam as the doctor waits for the echo! How the echo recedes in Eustace Albert’s throat!
“We were mistaken it seems. Silence is consent. Tanya, the sciss–”
Mrs. Albert turned and rushed over to his side. Perhaps she wasn’t a witch after all, but Eustace Albert would’ve his doubts for the rest of his life.
With a sigh, Tanya released the boy. The doctor tilted the chair back, removed the clamps, undid the straps and patted Eustace Albert’s head.
“Of what use is a principle if it’s abandoned at first bite? Either pick those less easily abandoned, or cultivate the art of abandonment itself. Consider yourself advised, Eustace Albert.”
The drive home was a quiet affair. At one point, Mrs. Albert felt something had come loose and she pulled over. She walked around the car, kicked each tire, tapped the gas cover, pressed the trunk, and then got in again, breathing heavily.
“Did you hear this clicking noise, Eustace?”
“No.” The boy had been very quiet throughout.
Mrs. Albert was very sure she’d heard something. She sat perplexed for a few seconds, with her hands on the steering wheel.
“Do you want to get an ice-cream at Kohl’s?”
He didn’t say anything. She glanced at his face; he looked lost in thought, and his eyes were half closed. Perhaps he simply hadn’t heard her.
“Do you want to get an ice-cream at Kohl’s, dear? I think I would.”
They resumed their journey. Mrs. Albert had to stop two more times to make sure, absolutely sure, there really was no sound at all.
What of Eustace Albert?
What of Eustace Albert? There’s no reason to doubt that he lived happily ever after.
“Eustace Albert” (c) 2005 Anil Menon, first published in Time For Bedlam.
Over at the SF Portal, René Walling reviews Solaris #175, “one of the oldest ongoing genre magazines”, and the premier French-Canadian SF magazine:
Like most issues of Solaris, this one offers many mixes: fantasy and SF, literary explorations and pulpy adventure, Canadian, French and American writers, yet somehow the editorial team manages to bring it all together in a coherent and diverse whole. – read the full review.
M. Aurangzeb: The Muslims in your stories are multi-faceted characters while in a lot of other literature they are presented as one-dimensional in character usually represented as the other, what role do you think fiction has in healing between people?
Steven Barnes: Thank you. The humanity of the Muslim characters was of critical importance to me, and I would like to thank two of my advisors, Mushtaq Ali Ansari and Shaykh Taner Ansari, for keeping me honest. I think that fiction is the creation of a consensus dream of humanity, and as such it helps us understand how the author and the author’s culture thinks and feels.
Over the last nine years, I’ve had occasion to be startled, and then to cease to be startled, by the extent to which my Middle-Eastern-ness gets conflated with Muslim-ness as a matter of course, as well as the extent to which people feel entitled to learning my religion along with my name. This is not the space in which I want to think about why precisely that is – I have a blog too, after all – but it is the space which Ms. Awesomesauce Cooney offered me to talk about the ways in which we might see the Middle-East positively represented in fantasy, as well as showcase a writer of fantasy literature who does in fact happen to be Muslim.
I totally hear that. I felt that way coming across words that were clearly borrowed from Arabic in works by J. R. R. Tolkien, and seeing a dark-skinned boy say “salaam” in Ender’s Game. I thought, hey, here is something that speaks to me, directly. It was a huge, huge deal for me at sixteen.
Of course, the… shall we say sophistication of those depictions is an open question. Fantasy novels tend to trade in archetypes. As a reader, that’s a big part of what I love about them: the taciturn swordsman, the spunky princess, the befuddled old wizard, the crazed priest of an ancient god.
But archetypes are only a step removed, if that, from stereotypes. This is the case even when fantasy novels are dealing with Europe or pseudo-Europe. It’s even more the case when dealing with ‘other’ places and peoples, though, and often leads to reducing ‘Islam’ and ‘Arab’ to a stock set of signifiers – fanaticism, honor, violence, sexism, absolutism, scimitars, veils, turbans, and, above all, the harsh, unforgiving desert that produces a harsh, unforgiving people.
This is the case even when we’re dealing with a secondary world – if you’ve got a fantasy map at the beginning of the book, you can be pretty sure that, to the east of the Europe-ish landmass, there will be a big ol’ desert, and it will be inhabited by fierce, proud nomads who wear flowing robes and chop people’s heads off. This handful of central casting shtick is a stark contrast to history’s reality of remarkably varied Islamic cultures.
In contrast, Hayashi’s SF builds realistic worlds using straight-pitch ideas with matter-of-fact detail and minimal window dressing. At first glance his style may seem unpolished, but it is replete with naming games and sophisticated, Japanesque accents and plot twists. Hayashi’s method of building worlds on a foundation of detailed simulation probably started with his career as an author of fictional war chronicles. Of the three authors, his work may also be the closest to standard UK/American SF. In the stories collected here, the process of finding a solution to a challenge via creative application of knowledge and technology becomes the story itself. This is nuts and bolts storytelling—Analog-type storytelling, which is somewhat unusual in Japanese SF.