At the Mouth of the River of Bees by Kij Johnson

High Craft: Wonderful Stories of Yearning … and More

Self Portrait 2010
Self Portrait 2010

I engage with stories – long or short – that resonate with that energetic space within me where lies the yearning and desire to Unfold and Become … all that I Am and can Be. I hugely enjoyed this collection in all kinds of enjoyments of reading. There are a couple of stories that I love, due to these terms of engagement, and all of them I enjoyed engaging with. Additionally, for writers and aspiring writers, there is much here to learn about ‘craft’ and ‘techniques’.

In a nutshell, there are 18 tales, originally published across the span 1993 – 2012 (one published here for the first time) and their collective scope, taken together, is ‘broad’. I like ‘broad’ in a story collection. That does mean that there are some stories that I may not ‘like’. Which is true here. Even those ones I don’t feel resonant with or enjoy as story I do engage with as writing, quality writing, and can learn from.

The standout story for me is “The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles”. This story is a true treasure; and it would make a most wonderful (short) animated film. The central character is Small Cat, whose home (ideal for the tribe of cats who commune and dwell together) is destroyed by earthquake and fire. And so Small Cat embarks on a journey and a quest … to find. Always yearning, and never giving up the heroic goal, through both danger and support, Small Cat does find what she journeyed a thousand miles for. My Spirit danced as I read. I cried a little. I can’t and don’t ask for more.

Similarly, the story “The Man Who Bridged the Mist” also enticed me to dance within and with it. It is set in “Empire”, where all the people seem to me to be of goodness (this is not an explicit declaration of the story), and all communities are ones of goodness. Kit is the architect of the bridge that is essential for Empire and Rasali is a ferrywoman who ferries across the river of mist, inhabited by fish and “Big Ones” – very dangerous work. It begins ‘quietly’. Then, it stays ‘quietly’. It is long, and so I had time to wonder; “how will it end?”. And the story progresses – quietly – and I wonder again the same question. Which intrigues me greatly. And so I let myself be drawn into the story. At the end of the story (which is told across five years or so) Rasali makes a commitment to her yearning – to further, And Kit also. Very beautiful. Plangent, with the wistfulness that sometimes accompanies our relationship to our own yearning.

Other stories are very different. Some edgier. Some ‘experimental’. “Wolf Trapping”, another high, is ‘about’ our understanding of other sentience. The morality of the scientist, Richard, conflicts with the yearning of Addie, who is developing a relationship with a pack of wolves way beyond the experience and comfort of science. The opening story is wonderfully Ray Bradbury-esque, and is its own trueness. I mean this as a compliment of lineage. “Ponies” scared me in the same feeling way that reading the classic “Mimsy were the Borogoves” did all these years ago. And more good reading besides all these named. I have focused on ‘yearning’. I read it in other stories here too. But then, yearning calls to me. You may equally love and like these stories and not experience them as ones of yearning.

Finally … to return to writers and aspiring writers. There is lots of craft and techniques here. I distinguish the two. One of the highest of the high, for me, is when a story is written such to tell itself and it seems like it is not through the intermediation of these thing called words, but rather, it just flows into the imaginal mind. Frictionless. Telling. That is high craft. Both “The Cat Who Walked …” and “The Man Who Bridged …” were that for me. Straight telling into. Let me repeat. That such telling is high craft.

Be quiet and patient with these stories. And … “The Cat Who Walked …” is a treasure.

Namaste!

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