Divided into “Tender Bodies” and “Tender Landscapes,” the stories collected here in this first collection of short fiction from a rising star travel from the commonplace to the edges of reality. Some of Samatar’s weird and compassionate fabulations spring from her life and literary studies; some spring from the world, some from the void. Tender explores the fragility of bodies, emotions, and landscapes, in settings that range from medieval Egypt to colonial Kenya to the stars, and the voices of those who question: children, students, servants, researchers, writers.
Tender includes two new stories, “An Account of the Land of Witches” and the Nommo Award shortlisted “Fallow.”
|Publisher:||Small Beer Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.90(d)|
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“Miss Snowfall” by Sofia Samatar Excerpted from “Fallow” in Tender: Stories
Here is the peaceable kingdom.
I once heard a beautiful story. Two people, a brother and sister, worked at the Castle until they were very old. Then the sister fell ill and couldn’t work anymore. In her illness her eyes became brighter and brighter, and her face thinner, until she looked like a little old child. Eventually she was so small the brother could carry her on his back. He carried her up to the Castle for medical treatment. There’s a long part of the story in which the brother staggers through the Castle, getting confused, going into the wrong rooms, waiting for hours to get clearance. All the time he has his sister on his back, and also something else: her pain, which has been growing until it nearly fills her whole body. “Pain is the heaviest thing,” said Miss Snowfall, who was telling the story. A faint clicking came from the back of the room, where some boys were fiddling with chalk. At the end of the story, the two old people were so worn out and bewildered they returned to the village without even seeing a doctor. The old woman died in her bed, underneath her own quilt, holding her brother’s hand. Her last words were: “Do you remember the way to the Castle?” Miss Snowfall delivered these words in a soft voice, almost a murmur, a voice that always filled me with a special anguish, because it made it seem as if she were speaking not to us but to herself, that she was far from us, removed. After the story she took out her handkerchief and, in a characteristic gesture, doubled it up and pressed it to her lips. Temar hated the story of the brother and sister, but to me it’s like a window through which I can see another world.
In those days, if you had asked any of us what we wanted to do when we grew up, we would have answered: “Work at the Castle.” Children probably say the same thing today, but I imagine it carries a different meaning for them than it did for Miss Snowfall’s pupils. For us, who had the immense good fortune to study under a teacher so inventive and eccentric we often didn’t know we were studying, a teacher whose one goal seemed to be to whip our imaginations into a frenzy, the Castle was a temple, a magic portal, a citadel, a cave. Ezera said it was an inverted world in which people floated face downward. Lia insisted people there spoke without words, in bolts of electricity. To all of these fancies Miss Snowfall responded with an approving smile, a smile that was slightly sad and therefore irresistible. We competed with one another for the honor of provoking that smile. Even those whose parents worked at the Castle, such as Elias, whose father was a security guard, or Markos, whose mother conducted inspections of the water system, made up outrageous stories without being scolded. “That’s probably true,” Miss Snowfall would say with her melancholy smile. The classroom was a zone free from accusation. All things were permitted there, above all Miss Snowfall’s weird assignments, which included knitting and lying on the floor to contemplate the inner light.
After school the children would pour out into the yard and then through one of the gates, either through the north gate with the inscription WASTE NOT, WANT NOT, or, like Temar and me, through the south gate, which bore the inscription ARBEITE UND HOFFE. Miss Snowfall also left through the south gate, but not immediately after school. Instead she would stand at the window, half concealed by the curtain, as if she were watching us go, although it also seemed she couldn’t see us, for if we waved to her she never waved back. Temar constructed a romance for Miss Snowfall out of the fact that Mr. Cinders, who taught mathematics to the upper classes, always glanced toward the window of our schoolroom as he bent to pin back the legs of his trousers before mounting his bicycle. But Miss Snowfall never made him any sign either, and so Mr. Cinders cycled home slowly to Unmarried Male Housing, a dreary edifice known as the Barn, to dine (as we imagined) in a hall full of noisy men who made fun of his protruding ears.
Miss Snowfall did not live in Unmarried Female Housing (known as the Henhouse) but in a room above Nimble’s dry goods dispensary. The Nimble family lived in the other rooms. If you were lucky enough to be sent out after supper to get some sugar or a packet of needles, you could see the silhouettes of the Nimble children romping about in the whitish light that filtered through the blinds. The real attraction, of course, was Miss Snowfall’s window, which gave off a yellow light, and through which no movement at all could be discerned. She was reading, we told each other, she was observing the inner radiance, she was writing letters or drawing a self-portrait. I was admitted to this room twice: once after Temar was lost and Miss Snowfall made me sit in her chair and chafed my hands, and a second time when Miss Snowfall herself was lost, having managed, with typical ingenuity, to hang herself from the light fixture.
For me, those early school days are infused with a Sunday glow. In fact, the real glow of Sundays, which has inspired so many verses, and which rules our bodies like the hand of a hidden puppeteer, has never made me as happy as the rusty gloom of the schoolroom. On Sundays when I was a child, we would get up early, like everyone else, and rush outside into the intensified light. My mother would always be there before us, seated in her chair in front of the house, her eyes closed, her entire body gilded. We would sit beside her on the squares of roughcloth we called “the outdoor blankets,” careful to keep our feet on them so our scrubbed shoes wouldn’t get dusty, enveloped in a timid silence, not even waving to our friends across the road, who were sitting outside with their own parents. All over the village, a hush. Only the cows broke it, lowing. And my father would appear around the side of the house, his hands clasped behind him, his beard shining, his good shoes tightly encased in galoshes, returning from letting them out to pasture.
Then we stood and shook out and folded our blankets. My mother snapped shut her collapsible chair. Sometimes she stumbled slightly, saturated, dazed with light. We collected our Bibles and walked to church. Everyone looked dim and hot. A hymn rose, faint but steadily growing, from those who had already arrived. We smiled at each other, at friends, but did not speak. We began to sing. We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing. If we whispered, or looked as if we might step off the edge of the road, our father tapped our ankles with his cane.
Marvelous light. The white church seemed to pulse. You could feel it taking hold of you, lifting you. At school, Miss Snowfall explained the influence of that glow. We diagrammed the pineal gland while she spoke of the delicate secretions that make us particularly happy on Sundays. “Why can’t we have Sunday light every day?” asked Selemon. Miss Snowfall replied with her favorite question: “What do you think?” Hands shot up; we guessed that too much light, like too much sugar, could make you sick, that it would be wasteful, that God wouldn’t like it. Miss Snowfall erased the pineal gland and drew a line representing the surface of Fallow. She drew its tiny, fugitive sun, with arrows for rays. Squares represented the solar fields; a great opaque blob was our generator, which, she reminded us, has to power everything. It has to keep the reservoir working, the heaters for the pastures, the vast grain corridor, the production labs, the smithy, the workshops, the grottoes. “It has to power these lights,” she said, indicating the orange bulbs in the ceiling. “It has to make air. It has to run the Castle.”
We walked home through the eternal cold of the village, hands shoved deep into our coat pockets. I thought Selemon, who worked in the pastures after school, and who always smelled vaguely of the shit he collected on a cart, might grumble about all the fuel that goes to the generators of the Castle. Couldn’t they use some of it to light the sky? But Selemon left us as usual at the crossroads, hat pulled low over his curls, giving us a quick wave before trotting off down Granite Road. We walked on with the other children who lived in our district, our breath rising white in the twilight, a tentative, greenish twilight that colored the tops of the houses, a twilight that would last just long enough for us to feed the chickens and bring in the wash before going out at the touch of a distant switch. Temar walked beside me, her chin sunk in the folds of her scarf. I was already taller than she, though nearly two years younger. I could see from her posture, her frown, that she was thinking, and knew from experience that if I spoke to her now I’d get a sharp reply. So instead of talking to her I talked to our parents at supper, cheerfully, volubly, in order to compensate for her silence. And, as usual, she gave me in exchange for this kindness a gift of far greater worth. When we were in bed, when I was sure she was sleeping, she spoke. Into the icy darkness of our room came the words I would not have dared to say, but which perfectly articulated my own feelings, words that fell on my heart with a bursting shock of recognition, reverberating for days afterward: “I hate Sundays.”
After that I felt oppressed by Sundays, hounded. There was something dreadful about the secret workings of my pineal gland. I considered it a triumph if I could maintain a sour mood in the warmth of the churchyard, among the freshly washed and laughing children. As for Temar, she adopted an outward sign of isolation: It was around this time that she began to wear the shapeless black hat, knotted together from cast-off strings in Miss Snowfall’s classroom, that led people to call her Temar Black Hat. This hat is the reason I am known as Agar Black Hat today, even though I have never worn such an article. I have been left with a phantom hat, a mark. It’s better than nothing. “Fill the slate,” Miss Snowfall used to urge us, “to the edge.”
Table of ContentsTender Bodies
Selkie Stories Are for Losers
Ogres of East Africa
The Tale of Mahliya and Mauhub and the White-Footed Gazelle
How I Met the Ghoul
A Girl Who Comes Out of a Chamber at Regular Intervals
How to Get Back to the Forest
A Brief History of Nonduality Studies
Dawn and the Maiden
Cities of Emerald, Deserts of Gold
An Account of the Land of Witches
Request for an Extension on the Clarity
Meet Me in Iram
The Closest Thing to Animals
The Red Thread