Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue 150 magazine mondayIssue 151 of Beneath Ceaseless Skies opens with “Rappaccini’s Crow,” by Cat Rambo that works with the mythology created by Nathaniel Hawthorne in his marvelous short story “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” Hawthorne’s classic tale is one of the finest American short stories ever written, so Rambo is setting a high bar for herself by recalling it to her readers’ minds. She clears the bar easily in this fantasy about a world at war over phlogiston, a power source that is, ironically, being depleted by the war for control of the stuff. The story takes place in a long-term care facility for soldiers injured so grievously that they can’t be patched up and shipped back out to the battleground. The narrator is a Native American woman who has served in the war disguised as a man; the disguise is natural to her, as she has always believed herself to be a man born in the wrong body. Rappaccini is the equivalent of the medical director of the facility where the narrator works as an orderly; as in Hawthorne’s story, he has a garden full of poisonous plants. Here, though, it is neither his plants nor his daughter that pose the greatest danger, but his pet crow, who has a greater intelligence that even our recent science has revealed about corvids. In the main plot, our narrator attempts to protect herself and her patients from this animal, but there is much more to the story than that; sexual politics, Native American issues, the care owed to veterans, love, religion, and many other matters are woven into this complex tapestry. It is a remarkable story, and I will be surprised if it does not appear on next year’s award ballots.

“Crossroads and Gateways” by Helen Marshall is set in an African desert, where Dajan greets the sunrise each morning with his hand gripped around a spear planted in the sand beside him, from which hangs a bright red cloth. One morning he unexpectedly sees a man approaching. It is Esu, who appears as an old man who shifts form in the blink of an eye to that of a boy-god. He greets Dajan as “dead one,” making it clear that we are dealing with two supernatural creatures, though Esu appears to be the one with power, the one who can open a gateway for the other from the desert of Zamani, the past, to a grassland of the now. Esu challenges Dajan to tell him stories, in return for which he answers questions. It is a tale filled with imagery foreign to most Americans, told from a tradition different from our tradition of European fairy tales, and it is all the more beautiful for the differences.

Issue 150 is a double issue in celebration of the magazine’s having reached such a venerable number of issues — and, indeed, that is something worth celebrating. Richard Parks leads off with “The Manor of Lost Time,” a story of Sahel, a demon who is summoned by a careless magician. It may be an old trope, but Parks makes it perform new tricks. Sahel tells his summoner about Driana, a thief who becomes the servant of Ledanthos, an incompetent magician who teaches her more than he thinks he does, for she is much more powerful than he. In fact, she can see Sahel in his prison on Ledanthos’s workbench, while Ledanthos cannot; in fact, Ledanthos has no idea Sahel is there, but believes he merely possesses a statue. Driana and Sahel reach an agreement by which each will free the other from Ledanthos. Driana undertakes her part of the bargain, and learns more than she expected to — as does the summoner to whom Sahel is telling his tale. Parks has a way with his tales of magic, and this one is especially delightful.

“The Black Waters of Lethe” by Oliver Buckram is about three people caught together on one side of a river with no memory of who they were on the other side — assuming that the other side possesses a civilization from which they came, of which there is no immediate sign. When a boat appears one day, the narrator suggests that the three try to cross to the other side of the river, but the others believe it to be too dangerous. Will any of them try to change their fates? Is it possible for them to do so? It’s a short, brutal tale that can be read as a metaphor for much human endeavor, in which we do not know what we’ll find where we get to where we’re longing to be, but struggle to get there anyway.

Adam Callaway tells the tale of how Chernyl came to work in the mines in Lacuna in “The Inked Many.” Chernyl is trying to earn enough money to get married, but he quickly becomes enmeshed in the near-slavery of the company town, where the cost of food and shelter, sold by the mining company, is just about equal to what he can earn with a lot of very hard work. Chernyl’s story alternates with the Inked Man’s story. The ageless Inked Man has watched hundreds of generations destroy and rebuild Lacuna from his paper throne. His words become flesh — or wood, or paper, or whatever he speaks.  It’s hard to see how the two stories mesh until they come together in a lively conflagration at the end of tale. The story is more opaque than it needs to be, the structure causing confusion rather than enlightenment.

The best story in this issue is the last one, “The Unborn God” by Stephen Case. The narrator is the servant of a wizard in a flying house, along with Sylva, an invisible presence that has the form of mist or wind, and the wizard himself, who has stones for eyes. The servant writes with a quill the wizard has fashioned for him, working in a library to learn the magic inherent in other languages. The house is a marvel, not just because it flies, but because it is made of many levels connected by spiral staircases that are not fixed in location. It resists the wanderer. Outside the house are a god’s kites, searching for the wizard. The god is as yet unborn, manifested only unconsciously in organic creatures like the jellies that sometimes fly through the air. Before the servant came to the wizard, the god’s priests had come to his father’s mill — an event that the servant remembers differently every time he recalls it. The story is fundamentally about the wizard’s attempts to keep the god from taking hold of the world. Case skillfully wields time, memory, potential and history in this beautifully written story.


  • Terry Weyna

    TERRY WEYNA, on our staff since December 2010, would rather be reading than doing almost anything else. She reads all day long as an insurance coverage attorney, and in all her spare time as a reviewer, critic and writer. Terry lives in Northern California with her husband, professor emeritus and writer Fred White, two rambunctious cats, and an enormous library.