The Portal Archive: Sybil’s Garage, no. 7

Sybil’s Garage no. 7 marks its growth with a new format in its print version and a movement from ISSN to ISBN. No. 7 contains eighteen stories of various lengths (along with poetry and a long essay on Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds), ranging from science fiction to fantasy, to magic realism, to fable, and in form from traditional to experimental. Every story had something for me to like: vivid description, playful language, a character to root for, mystery, poignancy, tragedy, an intellectual puzzle, a sting in the tail.

“By Some Illusion” by Kathryn E. Baker

“Suicide Club” by Amy Sisson

“The Noise” by Richard Larson

“A History of Worms” by Amelia Shackleford

“Thinking Woman’s Crop of Fools” by Tom Crosshill

“The Unbeing of Once-Leela” by Swapna Kishore

“How the Future Got Better” by Eric Schaller

“The Telescope” by Megan Kurashige

“Under the Leaves” by A.C. Wise

“The Ferryman’s Toll” by Sam Ferree

“The Tale of the Six Monkey’s Tails” by Hal Duncan

“The Pointcaré Sutra” by Anil Menon

“Kid Despair in Love” by M.K. Hobson

“My Father’s Eyes” by E.C. Myers

“An Orange Tree Framed Your Body” by Alex Dally MacFarlane

“The Watcher Thorn” by Cheryl Barkauskas

“Other Things” by Terence Kuch

“The Dead Boy’s Last Poem” by Kelly Barnhill

A number of the stories deal with loss, in some form or another. Bodies, minds, life, hopes, are all fragile things. In “The Telescope,” Martin is literally turning to glass. Once a dancer, he now watches the stage through a telescope. “Thinking Woman’s Crop of Fools” tells a spare tale of a future Africa where one misfortune is all it might take to destroy a family’s hopes. In India, Leela’s mother loses her mind to dementia (“The Unmaking of Once-Leela”), and as a carer Leela loses her profession, her friends, her certainties, her spirit. Later this century, Ambrose (“My Father’s Eyes”) experiences a similar loss, that of his father to an illness that regresses his mind to that of a caveman. In “The Dead Boy’s Last Poem” a girl loves a boy who is a poet; when he dies, his poems cling to her. The nameless narrator of “Suicide Club” begins with a swagger of youthful nihilism and stick-it-to-the-man, but ends with bitter truths. Gawl discovers the costs of being a master of verbal cruelties in a cruel society (“Other Things”). In “The Watcher Thorn,” Dinah misunderstands the magic around her, with tragic consequences. Even the immortal Ferryman who conveys the dead to the afterlife for the price of “The Ferryman’s Toll” feels the emptiness as catastrophe overtakes humanity.

For some, the pain comes in regaining rather than losing. A medical miracle leaves Rachel in Kathryn Barker’s “By Some Illusion” overwhelmed and trying to deal with something she has never had before. Hope is tenuous and comes after long struggle for the hero of “An Orange Tree Framed Your Body,” who needs more strength than most to escape the weight of his inheritance. The discovery of the truth behind a woman’s disappearance leads to murder in “The History of Worms.”

In two of the stories, the fantastic, disturbing as it is, masks something worse in the everyday.  To the narrator of “The Noise,” the zombie apocalypse that imprisons him in his apartment is preferable to reality, while the trickster dead grandmother lurking “Under the Leaves” challenges a suburban family’s denial of death and illness.

On the other hand, some characters just will not stay down. A family gathers in front of the TV set to munch fried chicken and look into the future in the gently satiric “How the Future Got Better.” Six rowdy monkey brothers provoke the gods in “The Tail of Six Monkey’s Tails,” and corporate warfare rises to new heights in the darkly merry “Kid Despair in Love.” And the protagonist of “The Pointcaré Sutra”—my favorite in this issue—has no intention whatsoever of submitting to the narrative assigned her by tradition.


“This is blue. This is orange. This is green.” So begins “By Some Illusion,” the first and one of the shortest stories in the issue, exploring the overwhelming, disorientating impressions of a woman learning to see. Rachel’s ordered world of texture, space, and habit must accommodate new impressions and the possibility of a new independence. The intensity of sensory experience is amply conveyed by the descriptions, but while Rachel mentions the changing relationship with her lover, Jane – who is the one naming the colors for her – the shifts are not played out in the narrative; the story remains focused on the pain and the glory of the senses.

“The first rule of Suicide Club is: tell frickin’ everyone,” announces the ‘I’ of “Suicide Club.” He or she identifies themselves by neither name nor gender, but is, they assure the reader, a celebrity—for the record number of matches they have played and lost, by luck or ill-luck choosing placebo over poison pill. The time must be now, or a little after now: matches are arranged by text message, and the winner’s suicide note released over the net to cheers and applause—just before the audience scatters. Everybody is to know—not before, so the authorities can stop it, but after. The narrator’s voice is persuasive; he or she takes the reader fully into their confidence and describes how select the admission, how difficult it is to graduate from audience to player, how clever the organizers, how impotent the authorities. But in the last three paragraphs the perspective shifts, quite naturally, and reveals the motivation and tragedy behind the bravado.

“It was a zombie apocalypse but everyone had figured out how to deal with it except for me … The noise through the walls had become a perpetual thing at the exact moment that I decided never to leave my apartment again.” Why “The Noise” is so intolerable, who the zombies might be, and what the unnamed narrator is hiding from in his apartment, we find out as first the narrator’s ex-lover, Jimmy, and then his friend Nicole, arrive on his doorstep. They are more amused than appalled by “The Noise” and coax the narrator out onto his fire escape to investigate. But although Jimmy and Nicole accept their friend’s eccentricities and evasions, what they cannot know—because he cannot speak the words—that this time it is different. The narrator’s unreliability is finely delineated, and the topic painfully topical, though I cannot quite decide whether his final disturbing acts are real or imagined. But maybe that is the point.

“The History of Worms” begins with a girl chasing butterflies on a beach, a scientist studying dragons under the microscope, a carnival raising its tents on a beach. Like the opening act of an opera, the elements assemble: two daughters, two mothers—one vanished and one mysteriously dead—a bereaved husband immersed in his work, and the strangers from outside. Wrong has been done, it will be uncovered, and retribution will come. The shape of the story is there, the imagery is as vivid as an opera set, but the answers come so obliquely by hints and suggestions, that I am still left wondering what happened to Irene? What happened to Delia’s mother? What was the significance of the girls’ discovery? What are the dragons?

“I come home to my family of fools as Queen of the Universe, unaware of the future careening towards me with screech of tires and groan of metal.” The entire movement of “Thinking Woman’s Crop of Fools” is encapsulated in the first sentence. The setting is a future Africa, the thinking Woman is Nomsa, and her Crop of Fools her husband and family, who day by day lend their intelligence to enhance hers through a technology called conjoining, enabling her to earn the family a decent living. It is not everything they want—Nomsa is troubled by the way the work affects her, and they cannot spare their daughter’s mental contribution to allow her to attend college—but it could be worse. In three and a half pages, it is worse, and Nomsa finds herself doing what she must to survive. It’s a strong story for its brevity, one that challenges the traditional SF conceit coupling technological advancement and freedom; all technology has done here is allow deeper exploitation.

In “The Unbeing of Once-Leela,” in addition to loss, the theme is one of letting go. Before she found herself disembodied and drifting in persistence-space, Leela was a caretaker, “Leela Manchanda who worked at Naveen Traders, Bangalore, and who looked after her mother.” She cannot achieve the detachment that boss, her friends, and her counselors urge on her—Leela thinks resentfully with scant understanding of the realities of living with a person with advanced dementia. Even after her mother’s death, she is drained of the energy to regain her career, renew her friendships. Now in another dimension, limbo, the afterlife, she finds herself reduced to nothing but memory and the impressions of other identities as bewildered as she. Even if she finds no answers, she finds a resolution. It’s a gracefully written, moving story—painfully realistic in its depiction of the difficulties in taking care of a person with dementia and the social and emotional costs to a caretaker—with a satisfying thematic unity.

“How the Future Got Better” is a tart anecdote of technology and human foibles. A family settles down in front of the television set with a bucket of fried chicken. They might well be drawn from fifties television itself: Mom, Dad, Gramps, Susie, the narrator, and Uncle Walt—joined by their squabbling and slightly incapable neighbors, the Willards, and all their tow-headed kids. The latest technological novelty, FoTax, is about to go live, and very shortly, they will be looking into the future. And they do. And then … but that would be telling.

Why should a man’s leg turn to glass? Why should be there a plague of people so afflicted? In “The Telescope,” no explanation is offered; it is simply a fact of life. Society has arranged itself to shelter those affected, and Martin, a dancer, finds himself shunted smoothly into a new life. It is a life that requires wheelchairs and padded boxes, and watching the rest of the world through glass, streets and parks through windows, and the stage he once danced on through a telescope from the adapted back row. Until he drops his telescope.

“After she died, Grandma liked to go down to the leaf pile at the end of the driveway and wait for the neighborhood kids to jump out and scare them.” Her grandson is likewise suspended between life and death. Recovered from a life-threatening illness, but with no promise that his recovery is permanent, Richard cannot find in himself the desire to make plans or relationships. He has passed up the chance to go to college for that year to hang around his parents’ house, sweeping up leaves and doing “odd jobs that nobody wants done.” And to watch Grandma disquiet his mother, whom he believes thinks that “[d]eath ought to be neat, easily compartmentalized and put aside. It had no business mixing with life.” If he resents such an attitude, he does not express it, other than passively by colluding with his grandmother—she’s a matter-of-fact but enigmatic presence that reminds me of Alan Rickman’s ghostly character in Truly, Madly, Deeply. The unexpected reaction of an elderly neighbor, victim of one of Grandma’s leaf-pile pranks, prompts Richard to see his grandmother in a new way, and to realize that his mother’s denial may not be the real reason for Grandma’s return. He does not get the answer he really wants, but the close is subtly optimistic.

“When he asked them for the toll, ‘something precious’, children and infants always told him stories. The Ferryman thought they were the only ones who really understood what he was asking for.” The Ferryman’s role is to carry the dead across the river to whatever awaits them on the other side. Those who have not chosen to cross wait in the City until they are. But the world above is emptying out—the Ferryman’s passengers speak of apocalypse, revelations, disease, and skies as colorful as fire—the City is dwindling, and humanity is moving on. The Ferryman fills the waiting hours between crossings by talking to his friend, Janusz, a longtime resident of the City, and one of his predecessors, whom curiosity has brought him to revisit the world in its last days. It’s a slow story, perhaps a little too long, but the pace matches the crossing and re-crossing of the river, the increasingly long hours between crossings, the gradual slowing to an end. Though I am not quite sure what to make of the ending, which seems to turn back on everything that has come before.

“The Tale of the Six Monkey’s Tails” is an origin myth with an international flavor. The squabbling of six competitive monkey brothers disturbs the gods of earth, water, air, and fire, until the fire goddess descends to put an end to the ruckus. She’s a blunt-spoken divinity: “You’re all rubbish,” she barks, but she offers each one a choice of gift – in exchange for his tail. It’s a sacrifice, but every one fears the advantage his brothers will gain. With an eye to the unspecified prize, each monkey runs through his strategy and chooses his gift. She plays fair with them, as much as the gods ever do, though the manner in which their wishes are realized is surely not what they envisioned. The telling slides easily into the patterning of poetry and myth, and from the gods’ grouching to the rolling lyricism of each monkey’s transformation. Who finally wins … well, the one who’s telling the story, of course.

Some stories need footnotes, or Google; for me, the playful, nonlinear, allusive, utterly serious “Pointcaré Sutra,” was one. While the author tells the reader what they need to know, there’s a depth to many of the references that’s worth exploring. The story starts in the voice of Zulaikha, “mutant, inconvenient, and sixteen-point-two miraculous years old”, brazen, sensual, and surely sister-in-spirit to Dylan Thomas’ Mae Rose Cottage (she who in Under Milk Wood promises to “sin till I blow up”), only much smarter.  Only child of a Coptic Christian, “doomed,” so she declares, to love Yusuf, who is Jewish. Doomed indeed: Zuliakha is the name of Potiphar’s wife, notorious in multiple religious and literary traditions for lusting after the enslaved Joseph/Yusuf. This Zuliakha has other ideas. “Imaginative resistance,” she tells us, is “the unwillingness of people to imagine morally deviant fictional worlds.” In brief, deceptively disjointed paragraphs – some of which convey a single needed fact, others an entire alternative plot – “The Pointcaré Sutra” moves from ancient Egypt to the modern day, gathering items from scripture, the newspapers, physics, statistics, postmodernist theory, the odd medical journal, and the Kamasutra, for Zuliakha to knead into the dough of her narrative (read the story; you’ll understand where that came from) until it gives her the story she wants. It’s clever, topical, pointed, demanding attention and rewarding it.

In “Kid Despair in Love,” corporate warfare turns physical, as headquarters buildings slug it out on the city streets, driven Transformer-like by their CEOs. In this corner, Kid Despair, “a forty-five-year-old wunderkind … a high-tech refugee who swallows quad espressos like skim milk and chews handfuls of Adderall like conversation hearts,” who, besotted with the anarchist Marianne, has launched an ill-timed callout against 300 Market run by—in the other corner—The Beast, “a wily old bantam … who sucks down a half-dozen raw eggs every lunchtime and inseminates supplicant secretaries every afternoon at four”. Testosterone soaks the air, ancient tribal rituals of combat and succession are enacted, and man is brought low by the wiles of woman. I say a firm ‘down’ to the inner feminist, and simply enjoy the swagger and cant, the language a dark-humored riff on corpspeak that’s just the antidote for the earnest anxiety of the career section of the newspapers in this here recession.

Where Leela’s mother is entirely too present, Ambrose’s father is absent. “Gone,” says his mother, and refuses to talk about him until Ambrose recognizes “My Father’s Eyes” in a photograph. A documentary photographer in training, he has been photographing people suffering from Hollander’s disease, which regresses them to the mental status of cavemen. Most afflicted live in specially set-aside reservations—they are able to take care of themselves, but not thrive in the modern world. Ambrose of the old-fashioned name is something of a throwback himself, in that he works in film rather than digital, for the connection to his father. For a story set at least 50 years in the future, Ambrose’s world feels much like ours. The story moves smoothly to its resolution, though it feels somewhat lacking in obstacles.

“An Orange Tree Framed Your Body” is a science fantasy that seems oddly gentle and dreamlike, given its elements of terrorism, betrayal, torture, and suicide. The young protagonist is the last of his family, and his origins—for reasons I won’t go into—make merely living an extraordinary challenge. “I am surprised—every hour today, this moment of not understanding—that I have reached this birthday.” Dis’ world is divided into the dusty streets and villages outside the city walls, the city itself—no longer quite what it was—and the core inhabited by the elite, who have tried to impose their own dread of change on all. When he walks through the streets, his trouser cuffs are full of explosives intended to destroy an exhibition of glass artworks beloved of the Emperor’s nephew. Yet in counterpoint to the violence, the elite’s fear of change, and his own deathwish, he cannot but notice how orange saplings sprout from cracks between the stones.

In “The Watcher Thorn,” Dinah, spinster and gardener, tends her half-acre of extraordinary plants and shrubs, and stubbornly defends it against her wealthy neighbor’s interest—acquisitive interest, she presumes. In her hands and in her eyes, the plants have personality, none more so than the spiny Watcher Thorn, unique as far as she is concerned, and the sweet pea entwined in its branches. The magic that runs through the garden is subtle, but far from harmless—as Dinah learns as the story moves quietly and inexorably to an unsettling finish, right out of the real tradition of fairy tales.

Two short stories close out the last pages. “Other Things” takes its title from the story’s epigraph, by Henri Michaux, “I say this not to wound; to wound, I say other things.” In the inverted world of the Dutiful Republic, Grawl becomes a master at wounding with words, and is rewarded by a swift rise in his career and society. Given a chance to be otherwise, by his love for a woman who will not play the game, ultimately he cannot.

In “The Dead Boy’s Last Poem,” a girl loves a boy, who is a poet, who writes his poetry on and around her, and then—as poets are ordained to do—dies young. He leaves her his poetry, to hold onto her thereby—a longing as old as art, and as futile as it is old. The story is slight, but the description of the clinging, shape-changing poems, imaginative and playful.

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