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***This is a Great Fiction Countdown 2015 post. I’ll be reading and responding to a new short story published or reprinted in 2015 every day throughout the month of December. If you have a recommendation, tweet at me or use the contact form.***
Story One: “A Careful Fire” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam
Originally published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue 184 (October 2015).
Read the piece for free here.
A dark, cyclical story about a servant girl named Mabella who lives in the house of her “Master” and jealously covets the flight of winged women (referred to as “the Winged”) who sing outside her window and gather in ponds and forests beyond her Master’s estate. Without giving too much away, Mabella begins a forbidden affair with her Master whose sexual attention often arrives paired with baskets of blueberries. After she and her Master share an encounter with a trio of wounded Winged, the Master begins to lose interest in Mabella sexually. He takes up with a captured Winged and forgets Mabella altogether.
Mabella’s plight feels real throughout the piece. It’s easy to empathize with a character who is essentially taken advantage of by a person in a position of authority over her (literally, her Master). The interesting twist in Mabella’s case is that she seems to feel genuine love for her Master. She counts the days between their encounters and when he stops coming to her bed completely, she loses it. This attachment never feels contrived because Stufflebeam does such an effective job setting up Mabella’s relationship with her Master. Their sex often involves the blueberries and afterwards “She [Mabella] does not wash the juice from her skin but hides the blue stains beneath her clothes.” This tactfully paints the picture of a budding obsession. It also serves as an early allusion to Mabella’s transformation (back?) into a blue-skinned Winged, but more on that later.
Although Mabella’s love for her Master feels authentic, the relationship is always fraught with imminent threat. Stufflebeam suggests early on that the sex between Master and servant is both forbidden and shameful. “You seem like a careful girl,” he tells her at the outset of their affair, as if to suggest that a lack of discretion would result in the end of their tryst if not something more dire. When they journey off the estate together to observe the mutilated Winged, the Master waits until they’re out of sight of the house before taking her hand. When he finally does reach for her, “Mabella’s hand is trapped in his, a beautiful cage of flesh and bone.” This is not a romantic tale.
The story takes a dark turn after Mabella is scorned by her Master. She eventually escapes and descends into a kind of madness, ripping the wings off of larger and larger animals until she graduates to attacking the Winged in her Master’s bed. At the nadir of her character arc, she trades a blowjob to a local curio man to have the Winged woman’s mutilated wings sewn onto her back. This surgery grants her the power of flight momentarily before the dying wings begin to poison her blood. Her fallen body is recovered by the other mutilated Winged, who decide to return her to her Master’s estate, but not directly to her Master (this distinction seems material to the mutilated Winged, but I’m not sure why). That’s when things get really interesting.
Back at the Master’s house, the Winged that Mabella mutilated has assumed her place as a kitchen servant and is now calling herself Mabella. From my reading, it appears Mabella is caught in a cycle of servitude and sexual/physical abuse. The closing paragraph mirrors the opening, lending weight to this reading. With Mabella locked away in prison, the imposter once-Winged stares out of Mabella’s window and listens to the flying women’s song. The parallels are close enough to suggest that the itch Mabella feels in her back as she watches the Winged at the story’s outset is actually the scars from her own sawn-off wings.
One minor technical thing I’d like to take from Stufflebeam is her ability to characterize in the context of plot. This is an important ability, especially when writing second-world fantasy in short form. An author has so little space to accomplish worldbuilding, plot and characterization that it helps if words and sentences are doing more than one thing at a time. In the very first paragraph Stufflebeam sets up her world of winged women while characterizing Mabella in a compelling way.
When she closes her eyes, she imagines their dance like white hot comets streaking through the deep dark blue. Their skin is the color of sky. For this reason, blue is Mabella’s favorite color; during berry season she sneaks blueberry tartlets from the kitchen.
These sentences are doing so much work. Mabella daydreams about the Winged. Mabella’s favorite color is blue, a fact that is relevant to the story. The Winged are also blue. Blueberries, an essential element of the story, are also introduced. In that very first paragraph we already get a ghost of the greater story. Contrast that with an opening paragraph that just describes the setting. Or just describes the character via a long list of physical and emotional attributes. Obviously Stufflebeam’s technique is the stronger.