Posts Tagged ‘speculative fiction’

Attention writers!

Are you un-agented? Have you been waiting for a high-profile publisher to send out a call for submissions? Do you happen to have a science fiction, fantasy or horror manuscript lying around the house, waiting for its dare-to-be-great moment?

Then this, my friends, is your lucky day!

Angry Robot has announced a week-long open submission period for un-agented works. I don’t happen to have one handy but maybe you do? If so, may the odds be ever in your favor!

* * *

Angry Robot

The Submission period will run for one week, from Monday the 21st of February to Monday the 28th February. 

We are looking for:

– Novel length works.

– A synopsis of the full work in a separate Word document.

– An elevator pitch and author bio in your email.Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror.

– Adult fiction.

– Finished manuscripts.

To apply, please send us:
– A sample that consists of the first three chapters of your work (or first fifteen pages if the chapters are short).
– A synopsis of the full work in a separate Word document.
– An elevator pitch and author bio in your email.

* * *

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

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There are a lot of ways to write, and a lot of types of writing. Fiction alone comes in novels, of course, but also novellas, novelettes, short stories, screenplays, etc. I happen to have a soft spot for the drabble.

drabble is a piece of fiction that is exactly 100 words long, excluding title. Explore the history of it at that link if you like, but for me the important part is the constraint.

One hundred words, no more, no less. 

It’s an easy number of words to produce, of course, but there’s something I find so satisfying about trying to build a story within the confines of such a concrete target. The limits inspire creativity, make finishing feel not only possible but inevitable, and provide a sandbox to play in, if you will.

It’s also a terrific way to dip your toes in the rapids of fiction. My first two publications were drabbles (thanks, Luna Station Quarterly!):

Ray of Light.”
The Witch.”

Go ahead, try it for yourself. And have fun!

* * *

This is my latest drabble, “Adoption Papers.”

I was sixteen when I found the receipt. My receipt.

“What the hell, Dad?”

The paper was old and faded, one tattered corner poking from a manila folder marked “Family Records.” There were maybe ten lines on the page, with a stamp at the top that read “Beta: Final Sale.”

Dad shrugged, like it was no big deal.

“Are you pissed that you’re a bot, or that you didn’t cost more?”

I hadn’t even noticed the total. 

“Twelve and a half bucks? Seriously?”

He smiled. “We always said you were special.”

“Not on special!” 

I blinked. 

“Wait, I’m a what?”

* * *

Photo by Alex Knight on Pexels.com

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It’s been a good Saturday morning, even with all the usual laundry and smoothie and house stuff on the menu. I’m getting things done but still had the feeling at the back of my mind that I should be doing more, making better use of my time by… something. My mind was a maelstrom of possibility, alive with whatever idea caught my attention in that moment. 

Would I be a better me, I wondered, if I were more focused?

It’s a version of what’s called “time anxiety,” the feeling that there’s never enough time, or that you aren’t making the most of the time you have.

“Am I creating the greatest amount of value with my life that I can? Will I feel, when it comes my time to die, that I spent too much of my time frivolously?”

— Time anxiety: is it too late? – Ness Labs

No pressure, right?

This clock is definitely judging me.
Photo by Krivec Ales on Pexels.com

* * *

But between “Getting started with Arduino” and finding the date for the announcement of the Nebula Award finalists (March 15th fyi), I came across a Nancy Kress short story that spoke directly to the moment. 

End Game – Lightspeed Magazine

It’s a great story, full of concrete science with well-structured ideas that still have heart. It’s also something of a cautionary tale, but I often like those because they are like signposts from the future, showing us what to be aware of, and what not to do. (Such stories are also safe, because you leave the bad things behind when you finish the story. I like that part too.)

If I had to summarize the core theme of this story in just a few words? Nature abhors a cheat code.* 

So you know what? I’m going to take a breath, step back, and enjoy the weekend. Learn, read, build, bake, clean, think, and otherwise do. Here’s to making the most best of the day.

* * *

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

— Robert A. Heinlein, Time Enough for Love

* * *

* Technically, it might be more precise to say that “no cheat code goes unpunished” or “be careful what you wish for,” but I liked the image of Nature in the background shaking her head as she pressed the “fine, you asked for it” button;)

* * *

Photo by Ian Beckley on Pexels.com

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Oh hey, just when I was running out of high-quality sci-fi, the universe gives me (drum roll please)… The 2019 Nebula Award Finalists!

Free links where available. Enjoy!


  • Marque of Caine, Charles E. Gannon (Baen)
  • The Ten Thousand Doors of January, Alix E. Harrow (Redhook; Orbit UK)
  • A Memory Called Empire, Arkady Martine (Tor)
  • Gods of Jade and Shadow, Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Del Rey; Jo Fletcher)
  • Gideon the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir (Tor.com Publishing)
  • A Song for a New Day, Sarah Pinsker (Berkley)


  • “Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom”, Ted Chiang (Exhalation)
  • The Haunting of Tram Car 015, P. Djèlí Clark (Tor.com Publishing)
  • This Is How You Lose the Time War, Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone (Saga; Jo Fletcher)
  • Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water, Vylar Kaftan (Tor.com Publishing)
  • The Deep, Rivers Solomon, with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson & Jonathan Snipes (Saga)
  • Catfish Lullaby, A.C. Wise (Broken Eye)


Short Story

The Andre Norton Award for Outstanding Young Adult Science Fiction or Fantasy Book

  • Sal and Gabi Break the Universe, Carlos Hernandez (Disney Hyperion)
  • Catfishing on CatNet, Naomi Kritzer (Tor Teen)
  • Dragon Pearl, Yoon Ha Lee (Disney Hyperion)
  • Peasprout Chen: Battle of Champions, Henry Lien (Holt)
  • Cog, Greg van Eekhout (Harper)
  • Riverland, Fran Wilde (Amulet)

Game Writing

  • Outer Wilds, Kelsey Beachum (Mobius Digital)
  • The Outer Worlds, Leonard Boyarsky, Megan Starks, Kate Dollarhyde, Chris L’Etoile (Obsidian Entertainment)
  • The Magician’s Workshop, Kate Heartfield (Choice of Games)
  • Disco Elysium, Robert Kurvitz (ZA/UM)
  • Fate Accessibility Toolkit, Elsa Sjunneson-Henry (Evil Hat Productions)

The Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation

  • Avengers: Endgame, Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely (Marvel Studios)
  • Captain Marvel, Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck & Geneva Robertson-Dworet (Marvel Studios)
  • Good Omens: “Hard Times”, Neil Gaiman (Amazon Studios/BBC Studios)
  • The Mandalorian: “The Child”, Jon Favreau (Disney+)
  • Russian Doll: “The Way Out”, Allison Silverman and Leslye Headland (Netflix)
  • Watchmen: “A God Walks into Abar”, Jeff Jensen & Damon Lindelof (HBO)


*** pew pew! ***

Photo by Nathan Duck on Unsplash

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The folks over at Boing Boing have listed last night’s 2019 Hugo award winners, complete with links:

Best Novel: The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor)
Best Novella: Artificial Condition, by Martha Wells (Tor.com publishing)
Best Novelette: “If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again,” by Zen Cho (B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog, 29 November 2018)
Best Short Story: “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies,” by Alix E. Harrow (Apex Magazine, February 2018)
Best Series: Wayfarers, by Becky Chambers (Hodder & Stoughton / Harper Voyager)
Best Related Work: Archive of Our Own, a project of the Organization for Transformative Works
Best Graphic Story: Monstress, Volume 3: Haven, written by Marjorie Liu, art by Sana Takeda (Image Comics)
Best Professional Editor (Short Form): Gardner Dozois
Best Professional Editor, Long Form: Navah Wolfe
Best Professional Artist: Charles Vess
Best Semiprozine: Uncanny Magazine
Best Fanzine: Lady Business
Best Fancast: Our Opinions Are Correct
Best Fan Writer: Foz Meadows
Best Fan Artist: Likhain (Mia Sereno)
Best Art Book: The Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition, illustrated by Charles Vess, written by Ursula K. Le Guin (Saga Press / Gollancz)
Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book: Children of Blood and Bone, by Tomi Adeyemi (Henry Holt / Macmillan Children’s Books)
John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer: Jeannette Ng
Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, screenplay by Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman, directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman (Sony)
Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form: The Good Place: “Janet(s),” written by Josh Siegal & Dylan Morgan, directed by Morgan Sackett (NBC)

So excited to see my favorite Murderbot and the Wayfarers series get some love, and I’m looking forward to checking out some of the others on the roster. For more reading material, check out Tor.com’s full list of nominees. Enjoy!

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Hooray, my space pirate draft is complete! At almost 18,000 words, it’s the longest “short” story I’ve written to date. Ok, fine, it’s a novella and I’m ok with that.

I’ll need to go back over it, check a few things, get a degree in orbital mechanics (not really) and answer that age-old question, “Do donuts stay fresh longer in space?” Inquiring minds want to know! In the meantime, the draft is on its way to beta readers.

I like it, hope they do too!


Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.
― Ralph Waldo Emerson


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Looking for new reading material? Good news! The Nebula Award finalists have been announced, so it’s time to pad those To Read lists, people. Here is the complete list, some with links to reviews, previews, and full text where available (and I felt like it:).

What looks interesting to you?


2018 Nebula Award Finalists
The Calculating Stars, Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor) [review]
The Poppy War, R.F. Kuang (Harper Voyager US; Harper Voyager UK)
Blackfish City, Sam J. Miller (Ecco; Orbit UK)
Spinning Silver, Naomi Novik (Del Rey; Macmillan)
Witchmark, C.L. Polk (Tor.com Publishing)
Trail of Lightning, Rebecca Roanhorse (Saga) [review]

Fire Ant, Jonathan P. Brazee (Semper Fi) [preview]
The Black God’s Drums, P. Djèlí Clark (Tor.com Publishing) [review]
The Tea Master and the Detective, Aliette de Bodard (Subterranean) [preview and review]
Alice Payne Arrives, Kate Heartfield (Tor.com Publishing) [excerpt]
Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach, Kelly Robson (Tor.com Publishing) [review and review]
Artificial Condition, Martha Wells (Tor.com Publishing) [excerpt]

“The Only Harmless Great Thing”, Brooke Bolander (Tor.com Publishing)
The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections”, Tina Connolly (Tor.com 7/11/18)
“An Agent of Utopia”, Andy Duncan (An Agent of Utopia)
The Substance of My Lives, the Accidents of Our Births”, José Pablo Iriarte (Lightspeed 1/18)
The Rule of Three”, Lawrence M. Schoen (Future Science Fiction Digest 12/18)
“Messenger”, Yudhanjaya Wijeratne and R.R. Virdi (Expanding Universe, Volume 4)

Short Story
“Interview for the End of the World”, Rhett C. Bruno (Bridge Across the Stars)
The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington”, Phenderson Djèlí Clark (Fireside 2/18)
“Going Dark”, Richard Fox (Backblast Area Clear)
“And Yet”, A.T. Greenblatt (Uncanny 3-4/18)
A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies”, Alix E. Harrow (Apex 2/6/18)
The Court Magician”, Sarah Pinsker (Lightspeed 1/18)

Game Writing
Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, Charlie Brooker (House of Tomorrow & Netflix)
The Road to Canterbury, Kate Heartfield (Choice of Games)
God of War, Matt Sophos, Richard Zangrande Gaubert, Cory Barlog, Orion Walker, and Adam Dolin (Santa Monica Studio/Sony/Interactive Entertainment)
Rent-A-Vice, Natalia Theodoridou (Choice of Games)
The Martian Job, M. Darusha Wehm (Choice of Games)

The Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation
The Good Place: “Jeremy Bearimy”, Written by: Megan Amram
Black Panther, Written by: Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole
A Quiet Place, Screenplay by: John Krasinski and Bryan Woods & Scott Beck
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Screenplay by: Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman
Dirty Computer, Written by: Janelle Monáe and Chuck Lightning
Sorry to Bother You, Written by: Boots Riley

The Andre Norton Award for Outstanding Young Adult Science Fiction or Fantasy Book
Children of Blood and Bone, Tomi Adeyemi (Henry Holt; Macmillan)
Aru Shah and the End of Time, Roshani Chokshi (Rick Riordan Presents)
A Light in the Dark, A.K. DuBoff (BDL)
Tess of the Road, Rachel Hartman (Random House)
Dread Nation, Justina Ireland (Balzer + Bray)
Peasprout Chen: Future Legend of Skate and Sword, Henry Lien (Henry Holt)


Let’s see if embedding my Goodreads list works here… Why yes, I believe it does. If the list isn’t showing for you, find it here.


2018 Nebula Finalists (Many, Anyway!)

The Rule of Three
2018-nebula-finalists and to-read
A Light in the Dark
2018-nebula-finalists and to-read
Fire Ant
2018-nebula-finalists and to-read
And Yet
2018-nebula-finalists and to-read
Alice Payne Arrives
2018-nebula-finalists and to-read
The Only Harmless Great Thing
2018-nebula-finalists and to-read
Tess of the Road
2018-nebula-finalists and to-read
Children of Blood and Bone
2018-nebula-finalists and to-read
Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach
to-read and 2018-nebula-finalists
Aru Shah and the End of Time
2018-nebula-finalists and to-read
The Tea Master and the Detective
to-read, in-progress, on-hiatus, and 2018-nebula-finalists
Dread Nation
2018-nebula-finalists and to-read
Peasprout Chen, Future Legend of Skate and Sword
2018-nebula-finalists and to-read
Blackfish City
2018-nebula-finalists and to-read
The Poppy War
to-read and 2018-nebula-finalists
Artificial Condition
it was amazing



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Right now I’m all about WIPs, or works in progress, in writing and other arenas. (Ironically, I started this post days weeks a while ago and then skipped over it to wrap up November with the NaNoMakeMo post. Now we’re back to this post in progress:)

I haven’t wanted to post much here because my day-to-day isn’t necessarily all that interesting, so I like to have something interesting to say. And the middle of anything can feel… well, just average. It can be tough talking about works in progress.

For example, what did you do today? Got up, hit the treadmill, worked on a story, did some research, switched from the treadmill desk to the standing desk and worked on the day job. Periodically took breaks to do things like make a bunch of sous vide egg cups, wash a million plastic bags**, or hit the workshop.

Speaking of the workshop, part of why my writing project is taking longer than I’d like is that I’m dividing my attention. You may remember I put up a post about the “exciting creative synergies inherent in cross-media productivity” or something like that;) Still true, at least for me, but spreading one’s attention does tend to slow things down, at least that’s how it’s working out for me. It’s like doing a dual major instead of just one. The prep takes forever but in the end, it will all be worth it (right? here’s hoping!).


In writing:

I’ve been working on a longer-form piece and don’t have much to say about it, honestly, except “Hey, still working on that novella!” and “It’s going to suuuuper great when I get it done but, well, it’s not done yet” “Yep, this is taking freaking forever!” and “I’m past the bit with the donuts but now I’m stuck at the part with the walk-in freezer. Honestly, who has a walk-in freezer in space, anyway?” (answer, me:).

I was going to put up a shot of my writing file, but I don’t want you to see all the highlighting and bold text meaning “this word choice is terrible and/or completely out of place and/or if she was wearing a spacesuit in the last scene, how can she be rubbing her face in this bit?, fix it or else!”*

Here’s a shot of a lake in winter instead. From inside, because it was -29C, people!


In wood:

I made a handle for a friend’s fishing pole (you may remember my adventures in deepwater lake trout fishing from a ways back; it involves metal line and requires a sturdy handle, and his wasn’t). Well, I’ve actually made two so far and I’m finishing up a third. Practice is good for skill development, of course, and I want to keep going until I have a product I’m happy with. The proportions of the first version weren’t quite what I wanted (Mr. Man likes it, but I wanted to try again), the second has a potential weak spot (and again), but the third looks just right.


Maybe there’s value in sharing the tedium as well as the highs, the work that goes on behind the scenes so that you know it’s not just you. I’m just a regular Jolene, plugging away at something that makes me happy (most of the time, anyway:). If you think a thing is worth doing, and you’re learning and improving and it’s helping you be the person you want to become (unless that person is unpleasant and/or criminal, just saying), go ahead. Make the effort. I’ll do my best to enjoy all the days, average or not.

So let’s rewrite this experience of “in progress” or the “dreaded middle.” I’m not done yet, but I am rounding the corner. What’s my goal? What’s in the way? How can I break it down to make what’s left more manageable?

I love crossing things off a list. So satisfying! To that end, I’ve started listing each project on a piece of paper and break it down into component parts. Like so:

The big stack on the left are completed goals. Everything else is in progress, including “The Secret Life of Henchman #3” and “make a bed of nails.” Because that’s how I roll:)


(interjection from the future, which is now, but was later, then)

The space pirate story has a beginning (two, actually, must fix that) and an end, and it’s ready for next steps. No one died.


Allow me to rephrase.

No one died who didn’t absolutely deserve it.


Here’s hoping your year is starting off well. Or at the very least, better than Henchman #3’s!



* Still, here’s a bit I find amusing: “The difference between us is that I will actually call you a ride. The fact that they’ll come bearing handcuffs is your own damn fault.”

** I hate washing plastic bags. I like the fact that it keeps waste out of landfills and encourages a reuse mindset, but the process of washing and drying bags is just ridiculous, awkward, messy and inefficient. The whole time I’m chanting to myself, “There has to be a better way.” If you know of one, feel free to share!

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Today is Mother’s Day. I’m not home to bring my mother flowers or make her breakfast in bed, but I do have a present for her. For Mother’s Day, I’m going to ask my mother what cause she’d like to support, and make a donation. I also decided to share this story. It’s not about me and it’s not about her (she’s still with us, thankfully!), but it is a piece about mothers and daughters.

I hope she likes it. I hope you do, too. 

. . . . . . . . . .

Why I Don’t Kill Spiders
by J.R. Johnson

My editor leaned back in his chair as I looked at anything but his face. A flash caught my gaze, eyeshine from a wolf spider perched on a lily by the window. The spider waved at me. I ignored it; grief does strange things to the mind.

My boss frowned, his lean face lined and serious.

“I’m sorry about your mother, Jo, but you’ve got the weekend to decide, no more. Stay in research if you want, but Kristof’s retiring and I’m offering you his job. True, investigative reporting is high profile. You’d have to get out from behind your desk, but your stories would matter. Take it.” His fingers rested on the old-school sheets of half-edited copy scattered across his desk.

“Do you need someone to check on your apartment, feed a cat, water plants?”

The small kindness surprised me.

“No,” I said, not sure which of his offers I was answering. “Thank you, but no.”

The overnight bag nipped at my heels as the heavy glass door swung shut behind me.


Tired from the flight, I tripped coming out of the baggage claim area and heard a loud guffaw from the service entrance. I didn’t look over in case it came from someone I knew. I peered into thick evening fog, searching for a taxi. Already, home felt like an enemy camp.

We ordered pizza for dinner, pepperoni and half olive, like she liked it. I sat with my father at the kitchen table, both of us trying so hard not to see the empty chair that we had no strength left for conversation. Memories of my mother caught in my throat, bright stories I couldn’t bring myself to tell on such a somber night. Instead I finished my last slice and left the crust on my father’s plate.

“I’m going up, see if I can make a start on the vault.”

He nodded without looking my way, eyes lost in shadow.

I slipped through my parents’ bedroom to the cramped little door for the attic. The vault, I called it, overflowing with my mother’s treasures. Her memories. I left the door wedged open with the superstition of the child I once was.

Each bare riser flexed, precarious, and the attic air harbored a parched smell of rafters and horsehair plaster and cobwebs. I left the occupied webs alone; my family has never killed spiders. Stiff and reluctant, my legs resisted as I forced them to collapse onto the wide-planked pine floor.

Dozens of boxes filled the big room, coated with a thin dust of neglect. Most overflowed with old toys, clothes so out of date they were stylish again, and my mother’s memories from college. She never talked much about her degree in folklore, but from the delicate handwriting and care with which she copied her notes I could see she loved it. Faded binders cracked with the suddenness of bone when opened. They went into the discard pile.

I kept her rings. Two solid bands of gold that weighed thick and heavy in my hand, their surfaces marked by years of wear but still lovely. “For us,” my father said when he drifted upstairs and handed me the little velvet box. “She wore one for each of us.” I turned away so he wouldn’t see me cry.

There were other boxes, too, filled with carefully wrapped lengths of hand-woven cloth. They were prettier than I remembered, even the icy white fabric rich only with texture. Each piece incorporated subtly different colors and the patterns never repeated. They were exquisite. They were useless. I saved the best, the ones that reminded me of summer days and warm laughter, and put the rest in the pile for Goodwill.


When I was young my mother wove stories. An oak floor loom occupied most of the front room in our house. She sat on a wide wooden bench and talked while casting the shuttle left, then right. I watched her work the long foot treadles to craft elaborate patterns, shot through with every color of the rainbow. In sharp contrast, the room’s walls held monochrome pictures of blackbirds in trees and sable-limned landscapes. Why keep such stark images?

“Black is beautiful,” she would say. I didn’t believe her, of course, but that is how the story always started.

My parents are white. When they decided to expand their family they did it in a non-traditional way. “You didn’t come to us from a stork,” she would say, my mother. “A spider brought you.”

I did not find this comforting. My parents’ lackadaisical housekeeping habits and love of arachnids only reinforced my fear of crawling things. If there had been a local spider-hating club I might have applied. Not that they would have accepted me.

Small and sleepy, our town was a peaceful little hamlet where everyone knew everyone else’s secrets. That sort of stalemate makes for a successful détente, until some new element comes along to upset the balance. I was that element.

I am not white. Not pale, not pink, not blonde haired or blue of eye. I am black, and despite all my mother told me, not everyone thinks that is beautiful. The nice part was that the town banded together across old wounds. The not as nice part is that they put me on the other side. The first time I came home with a swollen lip my father patched me up and my mother made sure I had an ice pack and consolation cookies. They assumed I lost the fight, and I didn’t say otherwise.

“Johari, have I ever told you the story of how we met?” That’s how my mother liked to put it. She didn’t use the word adoption. I nodded, of course she had, but she smiled and kept speaking, her voice falling into the almost rhythmic cadence of a well-traveled tale.

“Trust me when I tell you, black is beautiful. I know, because here you are, the most beautiful thing in all the world. When you grow up you will be a great storyteller.” My mother liked to exaggerate for effect but I knew better than to interrupt. I settled for rolling my eyes.

“It was a cold day at the end of Fall. The nights came early and winter lurked around the corner. It was the time of year when many creatures become slow, weak. Spiders are like that.” She bit into a cookie.

“I sat in this very room, here by the window,” she said, “when there came a booming knock!” She threw her hands up in mock surprise, spraying cookie crumbs across the floor. I sighed and waited for her to remember that I wasn’t a baby anymore.

“It was night and we weren’t expecting anyone. Afraid in the dark, still I opened the door. What if someone needed our help? And I was right.” She smiled with a tenderness I still felt years later.

“Anansi stood on the threshold. Can you imagine? A giant black spider, weaver of tales, singer of stories, right there on our doorstep. He held a little bundle in two of his arms, wrapped with the finest spider silk. That was you.” The melting ice pack sent a cold bead of water running down my arm.

“‘I cannot care for the child,’ Anansi said. ‘Orphan of my favorite storyteller, she will grow to have the same spark. If you take her, I promise riches beyond imagining.'”

I always winced at this part. My parents were teachers and anything but rich.

“Of course we agreed,” my mother said. “The only thing Anansi asked is that I use this loom to weave the stories of your life, so that someday he might return and know you. And so that you would not forget where you came from.”

Finishing the cookie and putting the ice pack back in the freezer for next time drained the last of my strength. I was tired of being the one thing all the kids agreed on. Tired of standing out, tired of pretending to believe that a talking spider from African legend left me on a doorstep in Iowa.

“It’s ok that I’m adopted,” I said. My mother frowned, perhaps not understanding. “I just don’t want to pretend that I’m something special. I get enough grief in school as it is. Let me be normal. Ok?” Troubled eyes followed me as I climbed the worn carpeted steps to my room.


Hours later I reached to the back of a deep shelf and felt polished wood rather than cardboard. A box the size of a photo album sat nestled in cobwebs and labeled with my mother’s handwriting.

“Johari, my jewel,” it read, ink faint after years of storage. Inside, sachets and sheets of tissue made sure that whatever this was, it stayed safe. Protected. I peeled the layers back, wondering what she could have hidden away all these years.

A letter lay inside, dated on a Sunday in November, the year of my birth. I took a deep breath, thinking I knew what this was but not certain I was ready. Still, I opened the delicate envelope and slipped out several pages of frail blue paper. Airmail stationery, thin and light from the days when connection required such things.

“To My Beautiful Child,” the letter began. “Trust me when I tell you…”

I couldn’t keep myself from reading it through. With this letter she’d woven the story of me for the first and now last time, her voice echoing through the years. I saw myself sitting at the foot of her loom as if nothing had ever happened between us.


Like some adoptees, I went through a period of wanting to know where I came from, who contributed the genetic material necessary for me to exist. And I’m ashamed to say I wasn’t above using that most awful of lines to win fights: “You’re not my mother, you can’t tell me what to do!” I cringed to remember how her face crumpled, and at the hot spike of triumph in my gut.

We fought about my friends. It turned out that the best way to protect myself from other kids was to despise my difference as much as they did. The day in junior high when Toby Miller made some vicious crack about my skin and I laughed was a turning point. No more bruises, no more ice packs in the freezer. All I had to do was give up who I was. My mother didn’t see it as a good trade. I saw it as survival.

We didn’t talk as much after that. No more languid afternoons in the front room, sharing stories by the loom. Her mood was dark but, strangely, her weaving lightened. No more colors, just white upon white upon white. I learned later that white is the color of mourning in some cultures, but at the time I felt relieved. It seemed less peculiar than a mother who made cloth the color of gemstones, of rainbows, of tacky clothing stores at the mall.


The letter was not alone in the box. Beneath the envelope a final fold of tissue protected one last gift, a swaddling cloth of the softest silk, with gossamer filaments woven in a pattern of unimaginable complexity. My fingers’ rough skin caught at the fabric but the threads did not break.

I knew it then, with a certainty as inexplicable as the story in that fragile blue letter. Spider silk.

My mother wanted me to be a teller of tales, the rightful heir to Anansi. Instead she gave me the gift of normalcy, allowed me to lead an unremarkable life. I let the exquisite fabric cascade across my lap and cried.

Darkness clung like the spiders to bare windows, but neither sent chills up my spine. Surrounded by the stories of my life, I was possessed by a conviction stronger than my fear. I would take the job. Stop hiding. I would become something… more.

The house shook as a booming knock rang out on the door.

© J.R. Johnson
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Happy Mother’s Day!
Photo by Wolfgang Rottmann on Unsplash

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It may be Monday but here’s a bit of good news: I’ve got a new story out, yay! Inspired by a trip to the Montreal Symphony at the Maison symphonique, “A Needle Pulling Thread” is free to read and available now from the excellent (and Canadian) Agnes & True.


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