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Rich and Strange: "The Scrimshaw and the Scream," by Kate Hall

This week on Rich and Strange, an announcement: beginning next week, this column will be running on Tor.com instead of here on my blog, though I’ll make sure to post notifications here. Thank you so much to everyone who’s donated and supported me up to this point; your contributions have been very welcome and helpful.

Kate Hall’s “The Scrimshaw and the Scream” appears in Lightspeed magazine’s Women Destroy Fantasy special issue. I highly recommend reading Cat Rambo, Terri Windling and Wendy Wagner’s respective editorials explaining their choice of stories and the rationale for the project. I read these editorials after having read the fiction, and was pleased to see that, of the original pieces, the one to have struck me hardest was the first one Rambo chose for the issue, determining in some ways the other kinds of stories she’d choose to accompany it.

Felicity is a talented scrimshaw artist, etching images on to bone. But this is ill-seen for a young woman of her class and breeding; scrimshaw’s a rough sailor’s art, no fit accomplishment according to her mother, who forbids it. Cut off from her art, Felicity begins to succumb to an ailment common to those perceived as disobedient in her region: she begins to sprout feathers all over her body, slowly transforming into a bird.

The reason for this localized sort of curse is never explained: a visitor to the area asks, outright

“You’re all like this here.” The woman shook her head. “What is this place, that it turns broken people into birds?”

“We aren’t broken,” Felicity said through her fingers. “I listened to my scream.”

This is a story that squeezes the lungs and maintains its grip from beginning to end. The imagery is viscerally powerful: when people begin turning into birds, they pluck the feathers out of their skin as best they can, and Hall’s descriptions of this made me wince and gasp every time with beautiful, heart-breaking economy. I was fascinated, too, to see that it isn’t just women at risk of turning into birds:

“You are looking very fine today, Felicity,” Ernest said, tucking her hand into his elbow. His watery blue eyes peered at her, skittering over the pale pink wounds on her face as if they weren’t there, as if they didn’t mirror the ones on his own.

The “scream” that Felicity speaks of begins in response to social constraint, but this understanding of the process is muddled in the story, as people are assured that the feathers will stop sprouting when they stop disobeying, when they reconcile themselves to their expected positions, whatever those are. The movement towards understanding the mechanics of the curse is one of the key tensions in the story.

There was a point at which I thought I knew what kind of story this would be and what form its resolution would take; the story blew threw that knowledge. I then thought I could see all the different paths it could take, having moved beyond a relatively common fantasy trope — but I still didn’t foresee quite the resolution it took. While I was pleased to be surprised — especially in light of the story’s general theme of the pressures and constraints expectation place on us — I’ve found myself re-reading the story repeatedly to have a sort of conversation with it, feeling something amiss in it, as if it had an ideal shape it had deliberately stepped aside to avoid.

Spoilers from here on in!

My main quibble is with the unnamed woman, in her dresses of yellow and blue, and her place in the story. Had she been named — had she been more than a foil to Felicity and an object to catalyze her downfall and release — I think I would have been better pleased; had the narrative’s shape around her been different, it might not have left me this niggling. Had the story been about Felicity and Claudette in the present tense, trying to figure out the curse between them such that one’s succumbing to it delivered a crucial message to the other in time, I would have loved it better.

As it was, it was painful to see Felicity’s message delivered to someone who had no need of it. Admittedly this pain lives simultaneously with the pleasure that someone heard it, that someone took to task those who would pretend they hadn’t seen a woman transform into a bird in order to release the scream inside her. But Felicity’s previous interaction with the woman sees the woman almost mocking her, then instructing Felicity on the scrimshaw’s capacity for saving her. This was not a woman who needed that message.

Part of me wanted the story to end with Felicity-the-gull cradled beneath the woman’s arm, leaving towards something more hopeful, a relationship with someone who understood her, who would work to give her back what she’d lost. Most of me, though, remains in awe of the story’s sharp language, its sense of encroaching threat and terrified horror of bodily changes over which we have no control, the brutality of the cosmetics required to keep those changes in check. And as much as I felt for Felicity, released into the oblivion of a bird’s perspective and shrieking flight, I found myself feeling much more keenly for those other women I sometimes felt the narrative despise: the mothers with talon-hands and mouths hardening to beaks, half-twisted into and out of two shapes, who force their daughters to behave themselves because it’s the only way they know to protect them — when in fact those repressions are the root of the harm.

It’s devastating, and accurate, and I recommend it highly.