The [Best Canadian Stories 2021] collection begins with three stories in a row that are about “love”—or what should be love, but is in fact an occasion for violence and danger of some kind…. Ahmad’s canny/uncanny use of repetition and dark humour underline how survival is, on some level, a repetitive and monotonous grind. (Get beheaded four times, get up five.)
Meghan Kemp-Gee, Review of Best Canadian Stories 2021 in The Fiddlehead
While I love the stories in Pushcart, I sorely miss the Contributor Note feature of BASS – that is, contributor notes that are for a particular story, trace its origins, its intent, rather than provide a mini-CV. Since I’ve become quite fond of starting these posts with some outside material whenever possible, I’ve had to be a bit creative. Fortunately, this story has appeared in Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2021, as well as Best Canadian Stories 2021, so I was able to find the perfect introduction.
There was a man, let’s call him Henry VIII. There was his wife, let’s call her Anne B. Let’s give them a castle and make it nice. Let’s give her many boy babies but make them dead. Let’s give him a fussy way of being. Let’s make her smart and sneaky, because it’s such a mean thing to do.
Let’s make it so she can’t escape.
Let’s seal the bottle, and shake it, and shake until our hands fall off.
This little prelude to the story sets us in history, but keeps a slightly evil mischievous tone. This isn’t the streamlined modernism so many of us were conditioned to expect. It’s also not the invisible narrator of contemporary fiction. Interesting that an old-fashioned technique can sound so up-to-the-minute. The title turns death into play, and the use of “Let’s” makes the reader and writer co-conspirators, or at least partners, in the game.
So the story starts with her beheading. This should not, however, be taken for historical fiction. In fact, it might be called ahistorical fiction, since it frequently announces the details are uncertain with the same mischievous grin:
Henry will return to the body later, when everyone is gone and what’s left of her has been moved to the chapel. He will stand on the threshold, halfway between one momentous decision and the next. He will kneel on the dais beside her severed head and lay one ornately rubied hand along her frigid cheekbone. Maybe he will stay five minutes. Maybe he will stay 35. Maybe he will cry softly, but it doesn’t matter, because there isn’t a nosy patron around to commission an oil painting for the textbooks, and it doesn’t matter because she’s dead, she’s still very, very dead.
In fact, while the story claims two blows of the sword were necessary, I can’t find a source that mentions that. A sword was used, however, when an axe would have been more typical, and the Smithsonian article goes to some detail to explain why. Spoiler alert: it was just another weenie wag on the part of the King.
And then the twist that takes us from an interpretation of reality to… something else:
We don’t need to stick around while her body crawls its way to her head and fits itself back together. Every excruciating inch of the stone floor is a personal coup, and every inch lasts the whole span of human history. It is slow. It is clumsy. The head falls off a couple of times. The body is floppy with atrophy. There is a lot of blood. She probably, definitely cries. It does not befit a queen.
He is reading the Saturday paper, still in his shirtsleeves, when she breezes in the next morning. The horizon of the paper lowers to the bridge of his nose. He is a man who wears his tension in the way of a beautifully tuned piano, and in this moment he vibrates at a bewildered middle octave.
“Anne,” he says, at an absolute loss.
“Henry,” she says, the picture of politeness.
She sits at the table. Not a hair out of place, not a leaky vein in sight. She butters her toast in four deft strokes. A servant steps out from the shadows to fill her teacup to the brim. It’s all very serene, domestic. If it takes her a few tries to put her toast back on the plate, or if he dabs his napkin with a little extra violence, well, who can say. She slurps her tea, which they both know he hates. He hoists his newspaper back up. Like this, they go on.
It’s this uncertainty woven among the declaratives that I find most interesting. Why specify the number of strokes to butter toast, then indicate maybes on other elements? Does this indicate it’s all speculative, the buttering, the napkin, the reheading? Because of course the reheading is speculative, and if you’re going to speculate, why not include the tiny details that paint the scene?
Of course, a man like this Henry wouldn’t be content to just let things go. Some might feel if their executed wives showed up at breakfast, it might be a sign that they should leave well enough alone, but not him. Page after page, we watch him hang, drown, suffocate, and otherwise murder his wife, and we watch her put herself back together. We hear of the loyalty of her maids, the puzzlement of his advisors.
Time for an escalation: they travel through time.
Henry is learning.
He gets crafty. He invents the portable long-barreled firearm.
Then he invents the firing squad. Then he invents acute ballistic trauma. Then he sends his wardens to find her.
But while he’s busy doing all that, she’s been busy, too, inventing: cardiopulmonary resuscitation. The telephone. The 911 call. First-response teams. Modern-day surgery. Organ transplants. Crash carts. Gurneys. Subsidized medicine. She improvises like it’s the only thing she knows how to do.
It is ugly, obviously. There is quite a lot of blood and gore and spattered internal organs. But she lives. Still, she lives.
Murder and its survival as an arms race. It’s brilliant, isn’t it. The war between the sexes, men ruling women, women fighting back, violence that becomes accepted as part of marriage, all the feminist and antifeminist rantings condensed into one King and one Queen, neither of whom will give up. I find a perverse connection to a meme that’s emerged recently: “What doesn’t kill you mutates and tries again.” Then there’s the game aspect, Anne just having fun. Or maybe something else. I have no idea what it all means, but it’s tremendous fun to read.
I noticed this story was nominated by Ayşe Papatya Bucak, whose delightful collection The Trojan War Museum And Other Stories I read a couple of years ago. I can see a similarity in style.
Ahmad is working on a short story collection. That’s one I’m going to have to read.
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