Alien is a powerful and flexible word. Aliens are “other.” Aliens are the stuff of science fiction and fantasy. Aliens are traditional literary figures that cause us to see ourselves anew. Indeed, when we witness our “normal” lives through these strangers’ eyes, we become the unfamiliar ones.
Conjunctions:67, Other Aliens collects works of speculative and literary science fiction: innovative short stories, poetry, interviews, letters, and essays that explore the vast precincts of unfamiliarity, keen difference, weirdness, and not belonging.
This provocative issue includes contributions from an all-star lineup, including Leena Krohn, Jeffrey Ford, Julia Elliott, John Crowley, Laura Sims, Valerie Martin, Lavie Tidhar, Samuel R. Delany, Matthew Baker, Paul Park, James Tiptree Jr., Michael Parrish Lee, Peter Straub, Kelly Link, Madeline Bourque Kearin, Jean Muno, Jonathan Thirkield, John Clute and John Crowley, Joyce Carol Oates, S. P. Tenhoff, Brian Evenson, Jessica Reed, E. G. Willy, and James Morrow.
About the Author
Elizabeth Hand (b. 1957) is an award-winning author whose science fiction and fantasy novels include the Winterlong series, Waking the Moon, Black Light, Last Summer at Mars Hill, and Glimmering. Her novels and short stories have won the Nebula, World Fantasy, and Shirley Jackson awards, among others. Hand was born in California and raised in Yonkers and Pound Ridge, New York; she now divides her time between London and the coast of Maine. Over the years she has been a regular contributor to the Washington Post, the Village Voice, the Los Angeles Times, and the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, among many others.
Bradford Morrow (b. 1951) is an award-winning novelist, short story writer, editor, and author of children’s books. He grew up in Colorado and traveled extensively before settling in New York and launching the renowned literary journal Conjunctions. His novel The Almanac Branch was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, and for Trinity Fields, Morrow was the recipient of the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Academy Award in Literature. He has garnered numerous other accolades for his fiction, including O. Henry and Pushcart prizes, as well as a Guggenheim Fellowship. Morrow is a professor of literature and Bard Center Fellow at Bard College.
Peter Straub is the New York Times bestselling author of seventeen novels, which have been translated into more than twenty languages. His two collaborations with Stephen King, The Talisman and Black House, were international bestsellers. Two of Peter’s most recent novels, Lost Boy Lost Girl and In the Night Room, were winners of the Bram Stoker Award. In 2006, he was given the Horror Writers Association Lifetime Achievement Award. Peter and his wife live in New York City.
John Ashbery was born in 1927 in Rochester, New York, and grew up on a farm near Lake Ontario. He has authored more than thirty books of poetry, fiction, drama, and criticism, his work has been translated into more than twenty-five languages, and he has won numerous American literary awards for his poetry, including a MacArthur Fellowship, two Guggenheim Fellowships, and a National Humanities Medal. His book Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975) won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the National Book Award. For many years, Ashbery taught graduate and undergraduate poetry courses at Brooklyn College and Bard College, and his most recent book of poems is Quick Question, published in 2012. He lives in New York.
Martine Bellen’s most recent collection of poetry is Wabac Machine (Furniture Press Books). Her other books include GHOSTS! (Spuyten Duyvil Press) and The Vulnerability of Order (Copper Canyon Press).
Howard Norman is a three-time winner of National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, and a winner of the Lannan Award for fiction. His novels The Northern Lights and The Bird Artist were both nominated for National Book Awards. He is also author of the novels The Museum Guard, The Haunting of L, What Is Left the Daughter, and Next Life Might Be Kinder. He divides his time between East Calais, Vermont, and Washington, DC.
Read an Excerpt
Conjunctions, Vol. 67
By Bradford Morrow
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2016 Conjunctions
All rights reserved.
— Translated from Finnish by Eva Buchwald
IN THE QUIET OF THE GARDENS
The shallow clay pot contained white sand and a black stone. Around the stone, there were rings in the sand traced by Sylvia's fingertip. This was one of Sylvia's miniature landscapes, a kind of zen garden. She named all her gardens, as one does with works of art. This garden was called "Cause and Effect." The white sand was taken from the city's public beach, where Sylvia had spooned it into a plastic bag. She suspected this was an unlawful activity, so she had gone to the beach late in the evening, once all the sun worshippers had gone home. The round black stone was from one of Sylvia's trips abroad, plucked from a Greek graveyard.
The stone was action, any action, or prime cause. The sand was water, and its rings, traveling far beyond the rim of the pot, were the result of the stone being flung into the water.
Sylvia had made her first miniature garden for her niece. She thought Anja might feel inspired to create her own landscapes, which would take the girl's mind off the maelstrom of her parents' divorce and her subsequent move. But it seemed that Anja joined in the game only for her aunt's sake. She managed to put together one landscape in a glass-domed pot that Sylvia gave her, using a little moss and a pebble for a boulder. It seemed to Sylvia that Anja didn't even choose the pebble very carefully, it was just a random pebble of suitable size that happened to catch Anja's eye in the local playground. The mirror in Sylvia's compact served as a lake. And that was that. Having reached the ripe old age of nine, Anja had grown out of playing; nowadays she practiced competitive dance, went downhill skiing, and tweeted with her friends. But Sylvia began spending more and more time in her little worlds. This turned out to be Sylvia's own way of playing.
Small is beautiful, this had always been Sylvia's motto in her youth, but as she grew older she became increasingly convinced of how true it was. Small became more than a mere hobby; it turned into a passion, a new calling.
Possibly it was a notion that had its roots in Sylvia's childhood. Back then, she'd had moments when she'd see everything around her as if it were small and far away. This had happened especially when she was tired. She would be playing hopscotch in the yard, or eating dinner with her mom and dad, and suddenly everything would come to a standstill. She would stop hopping and be left standing on one leg, or if she'd been eating, her spoon would come to a halt between her bowl and her mouth. When she looked around, her friends, her mom and dad, objects, rooms, houses appeared ever so small, as if she were looking through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars, as if they had receded so far into the distance that it was barely possible to make them out. This would last about a minute, if that, then the world would return to normal. Only her mother would sometimes ask her: "What are you looking at?," to which Sylvia would bluntly retort: "Nothing!"
This only happened once during Sylvia's adulthood, one autumn day when she had climbed to the top of a viewing tower with a friend, in order to watch the migrating birds as they left. The melancholic autumn landscape that lay before her — the island, the birch grove with its turning leaves, the suburban tower blocks beyond — all shrank suddenly into a kind of toy land. She could still clearly perceive every single detail, however, and the view seemed more and more beautiful and fascinating. She didn't know whether it was something to do with her eyes or whether it was a sort of fit, like epilepsy, or some other neurological complaint. But these moments didn't frighten her; rather, she almost longed for them. They were crystal clear and yet dreamlike, almost magical.
The world was repeatedly thrown into turmoil, both the world at large and Sylvia's own private world. After being diagnosed with rheumatism, Sylvia retired early on sickness benefit from the bank where she worked, losing her friends and her daily routine. She would very gladly have taken care of her own real garden, but she didn't have one. She did have a balcony, however, facing east, in her one-room, already mortgage-free apartment in a clean, modern suburb. She was very happy about that. It was on her balcony, which got the morning sun, that she drank her coffee in the summertime, and it was there she built her first few miniature gardens.
In her youth, and even in later years, Sylvia had been something of an activist, in her own modest way. She had donated to several humanitarian organizations, first out of her student loan and later out of her modest wage. She had participated in demonstrations against war and nuclear power and private car ownership and poor mining regulations and animal abuse, not only in her hometown but also in far-flung reaches of the world, saving up for months on end for the privilege of demonstrating. Both her own problems and other people's tragedies made her sad. She took matters, both near and far, to heart: devastated environments she'd never seen, strangers who lived on the other side of the globe hungry, homeless, and oppressed. She didn't know them, but to them she extended her sorrow and pity. Of course they were completely unaware of this. Their hunger persisted, wars continued, mines collapsed, the landscape grew uglier, and animals and people suffered.
Now Sylvia applied her rheumatically deformed fingers to the creation of meticulously designed landscapes over which she had unique control. When the scale of things changes, everything changes. The smaller, the better, was how Sylvia thought. Her toy lands were free from suffering. No one could spoil them. They were not only landscapes but also fantasies, like the models for set designs in a theater. But they didn't require actors.
Sylvia ordered miniature equipment over the Internet, preferably on a scale of one to twenty-four, even though the range was more limited than in the more popular dollhouse scale of one to twelve. Sometimes she combined both sizes in the same landscape. It gave a surrealistic touch to her work. In winter, her toy worlds had to be brought in from the balcony. They filled her windowsills but the space wasn't enough. By taking a lot of her books to a secondhand bookstore, Sylvia managed to clear off a whole long shelf to accommodate her landscapes.
Sylvia gathered moss and lichens from the local woods, she picked sprigs of blueberry and lingonberry, heather and coralbells, all of which turned into meadows and copses and coniferous forests in her landscapes. The winter stalks, which Sylvia planted in the sand, became exotic trees. Occasionally Sylvia went to the nursery to buy precious bonsai plants such as myrtle, hornbeam, and Chinese juniper.
One of her gardens was called "Laundry Day." The pot contained a roof-covered wooden well, in front of which lay a tin basin. Sylvia had stretched a piece of thread between two bonsai for a washing line, and from it she hung handkerchiefs cut into quarters, representing sheets. They were attached to the line with minuscule clothespins.
Another garden was called "Road to America." For this she had acquired succulent plants of various shapes and sizes: mistletoe cactus, Haworthia, pebble plants. A dirt road ran through the desert and on it Sylvia had drawn the footsteps of a wanderer in boots. They led to a bright red drinks dispenser with its door slightly ajar. It was full of Coca-Cola bottles.
A square pot, which Sylvia had placed on the bookshelf, was called "Author's Garden." Sylvia had tried to make it resemble an English cottage garden. The little star-shaped flowers of the yarrow impersonated white roses. The landscape included a little house that was surrounded by a picket fence made of matches. The house was, in fact, a music box that Sylvia had been given as a child, a souvenir from Switzerland. When the box was opened, it played Es ist für uns eine Zeit angekommen. The author lived in the music box house. He was not visible, but his typewriter, a wad of paper, and a stack of books lay on the garden table along with a telephone, wine bottle, and glass. A slim wooden chair stood facing the typewriter, and on the chair Sylvia had placed her own hand-sewn cushion. The chair was a miniature model of Charles Dickens's chair. It had slender armrests and crafted legs, and its backrest was wicker. It was the most expensive piece of miniature furniture Sylvia had ever bought.
One garden had been built into a basket. It was rimmed with a low brushwood fence that Sylvia wove from birch twigs. There was a gate in the fence and, beyond the gate, a tree and a well. The tree was a small bonsai that had been trained from a linden shoot. This piece depicted the landscape in one of Sylvia's favorite songs from Schubert, "Der Lindenbaum."
There was a long, narrow pot, the longest clay pot Sylvia had managed to find, in which she created a park boulevard. It led to Rodin's statue The Thinker. She was thrilled to have found a miniature of the statue through a commercial website. The trees in the park were created from the blueberry sprigs Sylvia had collected. Between the sprigs she placed small green iron benches, and the boulevard was surfaced with aquarium gravel. At one end of the gravel stretch, there was a red bicycle and at the other, a black car. This garden was called "I Think I Am."
Sylvia's friend Irene, a former colleague from the credit department of the bank, commented after seeing the gardens; "You're regressing into childhood."
And it was true, Sylvia played like a child, intensely focused, forgetting all else. Creating her miniature worlds gave her enormous satisfaction. Her aches and pains subsided, and she forgot to worry about the madness and injustice of the world. If her hobby did not improve the world, at least it didn't harm it, Sylvia reflected.
Her niece said: "They're nice, Auntie Sylvia. But you could do one with a beach and parasols and lots of people."
But Sylvia's world was devoid of people or dolls representing them, and devoid of animals. They were deserted landscapes, where living presence was only indicated by some object, piece of furniture, clothespins, or just footsteps in the sand.
Sylvia had become devoted to her new solitary hobby for some time, and was relatively content with her life. Then one day her gardens, in which peace and harmony had reigned, showed signs of strange goings-on. At first Sylvia could only wonder at them.
The first landscape to change was "Cause and Effect." The black stone vanished, and the sand, in which she had drawn three concentric rings, lay flat and even, as if someone had smoothed them out. Sylvia searched for the stone for a long time, going through her desk, her bookshelf, the floor, her whole apartment. She thought perhaps her niece, who had been visiting on the weekend, had fiddled with it for some reason and forgotten to replace the stone. It was smooth and round and pleasant to handle. But then it occurred to her to search in the sand, and eventually, deep down in the bottom of the pot, her fingertips touched the stone. It had sunk into the sand representing water, as if it really were water.
Sylvia didn't dwell on the matter; she soon put it out of her mind. Until, one day, one of the white sheets in her "Laundry Day" piece was ripped in the middle. It looked as though some creature had flown through the cloth. She couldn't understand it. Perhaps a bird, a starling or a sparrow, had pecked at it when the pot was on the balcony? Instead of changing the ripped sheet for a fresh one, she renamed the landscape. It might as well be called "Who Ruined the Laundry," she decided.
A change also took place in the garden called "I Think I Am." The black car at the end of the avenue had driven to the other end and knocked over the bicycle, mounting the handlebars with its front wheel. The Thinker sat staring pensively at the sight, which Sylvia did not readjust. She left the bike where it was, partially under the car, and renamed the work "Guilty."
In the "Author's Garden," Charles Dickens's beautiful chair had been knocked over and the wine bottle had fallen from the table onto the ground. The receiver of the old-fashioned telephone, which had previously rested in its cradle, was now hanging from its wire over the edge of the table, as if the speaker had just let it drop. She renamed this work too: "Bad News."
Sylvia could not conceive of any explanation other than that Anja, who had a key to her place, had come over while Sylvia was at the shops or library or out walking. She asked Anja on three occasions whether she had been playing with her landscapes. "It's absolutely fine if you have," said Sylvia. "I'm happy for you to play with them. But I'd like you to tell me."
After the third time, Anja lost her temper.
"I wouldn't lay a finger on your crazy pots, not even if you paid me. It's a stupid game. Stupid! No other adults play games like that."
After that, Sylvia believed Anja was telling the truth. She apologized to her niece for wrongly suspecting her. But it left her even more baffled as to what was happening to her creations. Her little worlds, formerly so peaceful, seats of quiet and harmony, were turning into riddles, theaters of the absurd, stages of dramatic or criminal events. But the reason for their transformation was still as imperceptible as the black stone that had sunk to the bottom of the sand.
Nevertheless, Sylvia felt there was something exciting about the transformations. She accepted them. They brought suspense to her otherwise uneventful life. Until one day "Der Lindenbaum" was ruined. Sylvia was really upset by its fate. Her handsome, slender bonsai linden had broken and fallen — no, it had been felled. Its delicate trunk had been cut about halfway down. When she looked closely at the stump, she had the impression it had been chopped down with an ax. For the first time, she felt a shudder of fear. Her niece would never have been capable of such a monstrous act.
Sylvia rang Irene and asked her to come over.
"I have something important to tell you," she said.
Sylvia once again showed all her landscapes to Irene, and carefully described all the recent changes that had taken place in them. She said she suspected someone had managed to make a copy of her key or Anja's, and entered her apartment when she was away. This person had not stolen anything, however, only destroyed her artworks. Why on earth someone would do such a thing, she could not fathom. It was probably simply vandalism. She had decided to report it to the police.
Her friend was pensive and unusually silent as she observed the sorry-looking gardens. She left soon after drinking her coffee, without her usual chitchat on the latest developments at work.
"Don't report this to the police just yet," she turned to advise Sylvia at the door.
The next day Irene rang to say: "Sylvia, I've booked you an appointment with my therapist. She helped me a lot after my divorce. I'm worried about you. Go and talk to her about your problems. They seem serious to me."
Sylvia was astonished. "I'm not sure I understand. It is a problem, yes, that there's some vandal secretly entering my apartment, creating trouble, and destroying my artworks. But it's a matter for the police, not a therapist. I mean there's no point in me discussing it with a therapist; it's a different matter if the person is apprehended. Then they should definitely start having therapy."
"Go and see her anyway, for my sake," said Irene. "Tell her everything just the way you told me. Please! I'll come and see you tomorrow. We can think it over together."
When Irene arrived, Sylvia was pale and unsettled.
"Come and see," she said, and led Irene over to the windowsill.
Sylvia's latest landscape was on the windowsill. It was built into a long copper baking tin, and its theme was "River of Death." The water was made of cobalt- blue shards of mosaic glass, and a black glass swan swam on the river. Sylvia had found the swan at the local flea market. The banks of the river were lined with dark-green haircap moss. But the swan's long neck was broken. Its head lay on the mossy bank.
"When did this happen?" Irene asked.
"I found it this morning," said Sylvia morosely, placing the swan's head on her palm. "Someone must have come in during the night. I will have to install a chain and safety locks."
"Sylvia, dear, no one has been here. No one!" said Irene.
"What are you saying? What do you mean?" Sylvia asked, at first surprised, then angry.
Excerpted from Other Aliens by Bradford Morrow. Copyright © 2016 Conjunctions. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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