‘Boat In Shadows, Crossing’ by Tori Truslow – 2013 BSFA Award Short Story Club
‘Boat In Shadows, Crossing’ was originally published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies #113.
Usually I would say read the story before reading this post. This time, I’ll say read the story but then read this Short Fiction Snapshot from Abigail Nussbaum before reading on. Done? Okay.
First impressions are important but they can also be deceptive. Most of the commenters on Nussbaum’s piece – myself included – had a strong negative reaction to the opening paragraph of Truslow’s story but ultimately liked the whole thing. So let’s the skip the horrid tweeness of the introduction in which we are told we are reading a story (told by someone within Truslow’s story) and move onto the meat.
The meat turns out to be a story within a story within a story. A bunch of indolent young men, attended by a servant, are whiling away the evening telling each other tales. Chief amongst them are brothers Cail, “clever and dutiful”, and Jerrin, “lazy and stuffed with dreams” (Truslow pre-emptively lampshades this conveniently broad characterisation by having having her narrator note: “You know how brothers are in stories”. These metafictional insertions are an unwelcome but defining characteristic of the story.)
But it is not the brothers who are the heart of the story but there servant. Truslow nicely sketches both their indulgence for their employee (“Bue poured their cups full to the brim, and served himself too, as none had forbidden him.”) and the limitations of this (“You’ll do it,” said Jerrin, bored of joking. “Or I’ll have you sent back to your swamp, where you can practice your wit on the crabs.”) This beneficence extends to allowing him to tell his story.
But ‘he’ is not right; or rather, ‘he’ is not solely right. Bue was a country girl from a family of fishers who discovered an unexpected talent for magic. “And her parents thought, and conferred, and spoke to their cousins and their neighbors, who all agreed: a girl with such a talent could marry well.” So far, so traditional. But Bue’s response and, more importantly, her parents’ reaction is not:
Bue’s smile was not a delicate thing but a big rash grin when she said, “why should I be a girl?”
And her parents were not hard people. “Ah, is that how it is?” said Bue’s mother, who had seen her nodding at shrines to the double-god Kam. “It’s a week till Crossing, isn’t it?”
“Go as our son, then,” said her father. “If you find yourself happy, well enough. If you change your mind, come home for the Carnival, and we’ll send you back as our daughter.”
This easy, happy fluidity of gender is the story’s great strength and allows Truslow to pursue a new type of fairytale that looks forward rather than back. Unfortunately she then spoils the effect of this passage by making her narrator lecture the reader:
Have I confused you? Oh, to be telling this tale in my own tongue! They say a bad workman blames her tools, and maybe so, but your language throws up strange borders. Understand: to her parents, Bue was a daughter, but to herself? Neither “he” nor “she” is exactly right, and nor is any third word. But these are the words you understand, so I’ll do what I can with them.
No, I wasn’t confused, I was impressed; now I’m simply annoyed. Anyway, Bue travels to the city, where she uses her “haunt-tricks” and a bit of typical fairytale trickery to tame a ghostwood barge belonging to the brothers’ father. Truslow is probably at her best both in the language she uses to describe magic and the description itself (my favourite neologism, however, is “night-tired” for hung-over). Bue then finds a fairytale princess in a tower to be rescued which is prettily managed, if fairly familiar.
As the story heads to its conclusion, Truslow again swerves off to tell another story. This time it is ‘The Wandering Lovers, or How Kam Married Theirself’, the origin story of the god of the Crossing. But why? This sort of background explication is entirely unnecessary when over the page we have a much more direct and affecting depiction of the outcome: “They saw a stranded Carnival boat of young boys with painted ladies’ faces, striking parody poses, all but one making themselves giddy laughing at each others’ antics. The last of their number simply peered at her new reflection in a puddle and smiled; her friends didn’t laugh at her.” On more than one occasion, ‘Boat In Shadows, Crossing’ is a story that would have benefited from being told true. Like many of its characters, it wears a mask but is at its best when we can see its face.