Thursday, April 04, 2013

"The crocodiles that live in the bathtub." (You Really Ought To Read)

Picture from Lightspeed.
I read somewhere once that if a writer is going to write about magic, the writer should have a uniform system of magic all worked out with all its rules and logics and the like so that it makes sense.

Which at first I thought "yeah, sounds good, right, makes sense," but then I read Give Her Honey When You Hear Her Scream, which presents the counter to that idea not in argument form, but in the manner of a story that still sticks under my skin, in a good and creepy and unsettling and did I say "great" already? way.

Give Her Honey When You Hear Her Scream, by Maria Dahvana Headley, is a chilling, and I'm using that word exactly correctly, short story about what happens when two people fall in love and begin an affair -- the twist being that the two people are each married to magicians they are now cheating on.

The story alternates at first between softly beautiful passages outlining the start of the affair:

They meet at someone else’s celebration, wedding upstate, Japanese paper lanterns, sparklers for each guest, gin plus tonic. They see each other across the dance floor. They each consider the marzipan flowers of the wedding cake and decide not to eat them.
Notes on an eclipse: Her blue cotton dress, transparent in the sunlight at the end of the dock, as she wonders about jumping into the water and swimming away. His button-down shirt, and the way the pocket is torn by his pen. Her shining hair, curled around her fingers. His arms and the veins in them, traceable from fifty feet.

And darker passages about their spouse's discovery -- as one would expect -- of the affair:

And so, say his wife is a witch. A cave full of moonlight and black goats and bats, housed in a linen closet in the city. Taxicabs that speak in tongues and have cracked blinking headlights and wings. An aquarium full of something bright as sunlight, hissing its way up and out into the apartment hallway, and a few chickens, which mate, on occasion, with the crocodiles that live in the bathtub.
Like that.
Say she knew about this too, from the moment she met her man, foretold the mess in a glass full of tea, the heart-shaped, crow-footed face of this woman who is nothing like the witch.
The night the two true-lovers meet, his wife is sitting in their shared apartment. Coffee grounds shift in the bottom of her cup. A yellow cat streaks up the fire escape, shrieking a song of love and lamentation. The witch’s hair tangles in her hands, and she breaks the knot, tears the strands, throws them from the window and down into the neighbor’s place, where he, wide-eyed, elderly, and stoned on criminal levels of pot, drops the witch’s hair into the flame of his gas stove and leaves it be while it shoots fireworks over the range and sets off the smoke detector.

The thing about this story is not just that it imagines such a story, and imagines what the magician and the witch, scorned and alone, plan to do, but that it places the story in a world where those kinds of things, magicians and witches, and coexist with lovers who meet at a wedding -- but then it turns that world darker and more scary.

It's that latter part that makes the story so memorable, and so worth reading.

There's really two ways you can go with magic, after all: you can go with magic being cuddly and cute, as in Narnia and Harry Potter.  Even with its Dementors and Voldemort's lack of a nose, after all, the world of Hogwarts remains rooted in a fairy-dust, Disneyfied magical world of flying trains and jumping chocolate frogs and a hero who cannot, after all, be killed and so was never in any real danger after all.

There are no talking beavers or letter-bearing owls in Give Her Honey.  There is this, on a date with a magician:

The magician shuffles a deck of cards, very pissed off. The cards have altered his fingerprints. Scars from papercuts, scars from paper birds and paper flowers, from candle-heated coins, and scars from the teeth of the girls from whose mouths he pulled the category Things They Were Not Expecting.
Turns out, no woman has ever wanted to find a surprise rabbit in her mouth.
He finds this to be one of many failings in his wife. Her crooked nose, her dominant left hand, her incipient crow’s feet. He hates crows. But she is his, and so he tries to forgive her flaws.
His wife has woken sometimes, blinking and horrified, her mouth packed with fur. No one ever finds the rabbits. His wife looks at him suspiciously as she brushes her teeth.
Sometimes it hasn’t been rabbits. When they first met, years and years ago, she found her mouth full of a dozen roses, just as she began to eat a tasting menu at a candlelit restaurant. She choked over her oyster, and then spat out an electric red hybrid tea known as Love’s Promise. By the end of evening, she was sitting before a pile of regurgitated roses, her tuxedoed magician bowing, the rest of the room applauding.
She excused herself to the bathroom—golden faucets in the shape of swans—to pick the thorns from her tongue. And then sometime later, what did she do?

That is genius. The magic in Give Her Honey is not just powerful, but it is in the hands of people who get pissed off, it is unfathomable by normal people because it is wielded by someone who thinks it is romantic to choke his date with roses.  This magic is real, more real than the magic in many other books, because it exists in the real world, and is not a trick: the roses, the rabbits, they aren't produced by sleight-of-hand but are actually in the woman's throat and you get a feel for how uncomfortable it would be to live with that kind of magic possible.

Then the story gives you a feel for what it would be like to live in a world with that kind of magic, magic that makes you uncomfortable and hurts at the best of times, now aimed at you:

“What do you have for me?” says the magician. “I love my wife.”
“We’re past that. You’re not getting her back, unless you want half a wife and I want half a husband. Look.”
She pulls an x-ray from her bag. It’s a bird’s-eye skeletal of two people entwined in a bed, her back to his front. In the image, it’s appallingly clear that their two hearts have merged, his leaning forward through his chest, her heart backbending out of her body, and into his.
“How did you get this?” the magician says, both fascinated and repulsed.
The witch shrugs.
She hands him another image, this one a dark and blurry shot of a heart. On the left ventricle, the magician reads his wife’s name, in her own cramped handwriting. “Hospital records from forty years ago,” she says. “None of this is our fault. He was born with a murmur. Now we know who was murmuring.”
She passes him another photo. He doesn’t even want to look. He does.
His wife’s bare breasts, and this photo sees through them, and into the heart of the magician’s own wife, tattooed with the name of the witch’s own husband.
“What’s the point, then? Revenge?” he asks, removing his tailcoat, unfastening his cufflinks, and rolling up his sleeves. There’s a little bit of fluffy bunny tail stuck at the corner of the witch’s mouth. He reaches out and plucks it from her lips.
“Revenge,” she repeats. “Together forever. That’s what they want.”
She pulls out a notebook. When she opens the cover, there’s a sound of wind and wings and stamping, and a low roar, growing louder. Something’s caged in there, in those pages. Something’s been feeding on forever.

I still find myself, some months after reading this story, thinking back on it, uncomfortably.  It's worth reading, and even more worth listening to on the podcast where I heard it.  Both are available here, on Lightspeed: Click to read or listen to Give Her Honey When You Hear Her Scream.


PT Dilloway, Grumpy Bulldog said...

Sounds like a creepy story.

Briane P said...

Creepy but in the best way.

Andrew Leon said...

I may have to listen to that (next week, after spring break is over) if I can remember to do it.

Michael Offutt, S.F.A. said...

You scared me sir.