At the Mouth of the River of Bees by Kij Johnson
At the Mouth of the River of Bees by Kij Johnson (Small Beer Press, 2012) is a wonderful collection of stories. It’s pointless to try categorising them as fantasy, science fiction or horror. The clichés of labels are irrelevant here. All we have are bare bones of stories that speak to us of weightier matters like life and death, love and hate. They are sly and slip through your defences before you know they are even in the same room as you. Before you can think of excuses, they are snapping at the heels of your thoughts, provoking you into internal dialogues with yourself, helping you see where you failed or whether you can make a better shot next time. I was entranced!
“26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” is like the joke that starts, “Have you heard the one about the monkeys who disappear from the bathtub?” It’s simple, elegant and has a punchline to die for. More importantly, it has a warmth about it that carefully avoids sentimentality and feels completely natural. That’s no mean trick in these cynical times. “Fox Magic” is a story of wish fulfillment for a “person” in love. There’s no rationality of choice in love at first sight. If it happens, it happens and you have to deal with the consequences. In this case, it takes a little magic but then, for a while, everything is as she dreamed. When the dream is punctured, does that mean she must give it up? Such is the tragedy of life that not everyone can have what they dream could be theirs. “Names for Water” is reassurance that, on occasion, all we need to get through a challenge is the sense there’s someone who cares at the end of a telephone. “The Bitey Cat” encapsulates the childhood trauma of parents divorcing. When your world lacks emotional security, perhaps a pet will keep you company. “The Horse Raiders” captures a moment of change. Out of expediency, a group of raiders kills all but two of the tribe travelling with their herd of healthy horses. When the dust has settled, this will probably be a futile gesture to save a way of life. A plague is killing all horses. In the end, the humans will have to adapt. But that does not mean there cannot be atonement for the initial wrongness in the taking. What was taken might have been given if the tribe had been asked. Out of such “might”s, hope is born.
“Dia Chjerman’s Tale” is a pleasing oral history of how a distant Empire took exception to one of its vassal planet’s behaviour and sent a ship on a punishment mission. Such memories, passed down through the generations, encourage the development of survival strategies as each new situation emerges. “My Wife Reincarnated as a Solitaire” is a nice joke as a long-suffering wife escapes the oppressive indifference of her husband by transforming herself into a perhaps not quite extinct bird. May be she should have someone say prayers over her. “Schrodinger’s Cathouse” continues in the faintly humorous line with a man who somehow manages to end up in the box and then either is or is not, if you see what I mean. In “Chenting in the Land of the Dead”, a man imagines the perfect place to take up residence in the afterlife. Unfortunately not everyone else shares his optimism.
“The Empress Jingu Fishes” plays with time as perceived by a person blessed or cursed with the power of divination. Today she knows what happened yesterday and has seen what will happen tomorrow. She has already lost a husband and seen her son become emperor. Knowing she will lose her husband, she marries and loves him as best she can. Then she obeys the gods’ instructions and conquers a land she has never visited before, and prepares to give birth to the son who will one day leave her to join the dispassionate gods who dictate how the future shall unfold. On reflection, such foresight is only a curse for women. “At the Mouth of the River of Bees” ponders the nature of the relationship between an owner and either an animal or an uncountable number of insects. There are two quite different questions posed. The first is what makes you want to be with an animal. The second is why you might choose to give your animal to another. Rather like the first story with the 26 or so monkeys, we need to clear our heads and think clearly about where we are as human beings. Too often, we grow sentimental and this gets in the way of making the decisions best for us or best for the ones we love. Perhaps this is more sad than the monkeys which finishes with fringe benefits for the humans. This self-sacrifice is all for the good of the animal(s). It’s redemptive through loss. “Story Kit” deconstructs the emotional loss following on the ending of a relationship. A writer can use surrogates in the story, describing their suffering as a way of trying to achieve objectivity on her own pain. Except this distancing is only temporary. A writer is driven to write. So after one story is ended, there’s another to begin. That means reliving the loss all over again.
“Wolf Trapping” is a way of reexamining the themes from the last two stories. A serious researcher may follow a pack of wolves as a disinterested observer. It would not occur to him to interfere with nature if one of the wolves was injured. He will allow it to die. She will run with the pack and become so familiar to them, they will accept her. If one of the animals is hungry, she will trap a rabbit to feed it. If one is injured, she will help it heal. Who’s to say who is the more responsible or gets the better understanding of what it means to be a wolf. If such a man and woman should meet, would he have the right to judge her? Her behaviour would distort his scientific observations. Would that give him the right to have her removed from the wilderness? They both have relationships with the wolves that may be lost. She may die of exposure. Is that not her right if that’s how she would choose to die. Is that not the man’s view of nature? That the weak perish and the strong survive? “Ponies” is a nice allegory asking just how far you would go to fit in. Socialisation is usually an all-or-nothing event. Once you start, there’s a price to pay if you stop. “The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles” is a quiet meditation on what’s it’s like to lose your home. Although you can carry an oral history with you wherever you may go, home is always more than a place to live. It always requires another with whom to share the history. “Spar” is also about a couple unexpectedly forced into making a home for themselves while awaiting rescue. After a while, they might become so interdependent, they might resent the rescue when it comes.
“The Man Who Bridged the Mist” is a wonderful flight of fancy about a man who finds himself dissatisfied with himself and the place in which he finds himself. He would rather build a bridge so he can go elsewhere and, in so doing, find a new way to a relationship with another person. Yet, sometimes, the physical process proves more achievable than the social equivalent. It’s ironic. Because humans cannot read each other’s thoughts, there’s a kind of mist in the air between them. They can only vaguely see each other. They have to reach out in ways that will give them a better view. In crossing over to that other person, there’s always the chance you may catch sight of monster in the mist. Quite what your reaction may be is uncertain. You may feel exhilaration you have seen something no-one else has ever seen, or you may collapse in fear. “The Evolution of Trickster Stories” is another fine allegory which thinks about the relationship between superior and lesser beings. For example, for millions of years, human bred dogs to be man’s “friend”. Yet this was just another word for slavery. Humans felt they owned their dogs and could do whatever they wanted to them. But suppose the dogs could be emancipated, even learn to speak. How would man react when a former slave could look him in the eye and tell him a few home truths?
This collection is strongly recommended!
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
This collection has been shortlisted for the 2013 Locus Award.