As genre readers, we're used to authors dumping us in unfamiliar settings, forcing us to work out their rules and customs. And as fantasy readers, we're used to authors who reach for the exotic, for flowery description full of flavors, scents, and colors, the better to make their settings seem strange and unreal. Short fiction in particular seems fond of both of these devices, and Tori Truslow's "Boat in Shadows, Crossing" (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, January 24th, 2013) seems to be employing both in its opening sentences. "Come, let me whisper you a tale of the city where I was born, the Town Where Salt-Plums Grow," the story's unnamed narrator begins, and continues:
Picture that place, between the soul-swallowing land and the heart-stealing sea, where once a merchant prince carved himself fine pleasure-gardens out of the swamp. Picture dusk shivering the water; hear the night-bells blooming! Picture a broad waterway sinking into moth-thick twilight. On the bank red grasses murmur, and the sky is ruffled in patterns like lace or lizard-skin.
A reader with firmly established reading protocols might now be inclined to ignore the latter of these two devices for the sake of the former, to skim language in the hope of working out the story's worldbuilding. In "Boat in Shadows, Crossing," however, the two devices are woven together. It's a dense story, one that demands undivided attention (and perhaps even a second reading), and it lays out its complicated, confusing world, and the equally complicated and confusing story that occurs within it, as much through its choice of words as through plotting or exposition. It's a story in which words often don't mean quite what we expect them to, and keeping track of that slipperiness requires a close and attentive reading.
The story begins with a group of young men carousing together. One of them, a servant named Bue, promises to tell the story of "the happy fruits of a love between living and dead." Again, here Truslow is creating expectations of a much simpler piece than she ends up delivering—the beginning of Bue's tale seems like a fairly straightforward club story format. Instead, the tale is brief and confusing. In it, Bue tells how, growing up in a nearby swamp, he tried to improve his father's fishing traps.
Mutter-stutter went the walls, and I stuck my fingers through the thing's wicker mouth, grabbed hold of the death inside it—snagged like threads on the splinters—and wove it back into the sides. You follow me? Want, chase, take, I told it; swallow us a great fat catch. I made it fins and tail of palm, stones for eyes to see. And Pa took it next day and hung it in the water.
That "You follow me?" feels almost teasing, and perhaps like a statement of intent from Truslow, since of course while Bue's listeners might follow, we the readers are lost, and no less likely to understand what has happened when, next morning, Bue's father finds the trap full of "a clutch of wicker beads rolling about—a bellyful of eggs!" who later hatch into "little basket-shoal with kicking tails and sucking mouths." That sense of disorientation is only compounded when the narrator takes the thread of story back from Bue and retells the story of the trap, only this time with Bue as the fisherman's daughter. When Bue's parents suggest that her skills might win her a rich husband, she instead proposes to go to the city as a servant, and specifically as a male servant.
"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."
For the rest of the story, Truslow refers to Bue alternately as "he" or "she," depending on the gender that others perceive, or on the storyteller's whim. At one point Bue tells another character about "his girlhood, her boyhood," and even the details of Bue's story change according to the teller's gender—"I must have been dreaming of city girls when I fixed it up" is Bue's explanation for why the trap sought out a mate, but in the second version of the story, in which Bue is a girl, we're told that "The egg-bearing trap, [Bue] set quietly into the canal. Its spawn must have had a father—perhaps they'd wish to be reunited."
Nowhere in the story, however, does the narrator explain what exactly Bue is: is she a girl pretending to be a boy, a transexual, or a third gender? And what about the festival of Crossing, frequently mentioned in the story, which seems dedicated to gender-swapping? The narrator gives us some form of answer when she introduces Bue's gender-swap for the first time, but this is only to acknowledge that a full answer might be beyond her:
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.
It's easy to conclude, given how driven it is by gender-swapping—including taking place on and around the festival of Crossing, during which the acolytes of the god Kam wander the city "with clay-filled hands to change the sex of any deity-figure they found," and it is taboo to identify anyone's gender—that "Boat in Shadows, Crossing" is concerned with liminality, but that concern extends past gender. As confused as the boundaries between male and female are in the Town Where Salt-Plums Grow, there are equally fuzzy distinctions there between the living and the dead (the trap Bue builds mates with a living fish, and the story both begins and ends with a marriage between a live man and a ghost woman), and between animate and inanimate. To the story's characters, that fuzziness is as self-explanatory as that regarding gender, and it is equally puzzling to the readers.
Again, Truslow plants hints that require an attentive reader. Talking about his past, Bue tells his listeners that his thoughts of running away to the big city were "always interrupted by the house, the walls." We might take that as a figure of speech for feeling trapped (and later in the story there will appear a character who is trapped by her house, though again that imprisonment is more than metaphorical). When Bue goes on to note that "Pa said those planks weren't special, just bits of old market-boats. But late at night they smelled of salt; muttered in tide-voices like souls chewed up by the sea. Their sighing kept me fixed, and their rhythm steered my weaving," we might again assume that Truslow and Bue are employing imagery, the sound of a settling house described as muttering. It's only when Bue's trap comes to life and even breeds, and later when he tames his new employer's boat by making a wager with it over whether it can catch a fish, that the literal truth of his description becomes clear.
Like good genre readers, we expect to learn the story's world from the characters' casual description of it, as when Bue comments, of his employer's boat, that he was
Wise to buy a boat built from old wicked wood, when all the modern merchants go scrabbling after craft made with demons' trickery; wound-up ghosts in engines they were never meant to haunt. What speed is worth owing a debt to them? No, give me natural haunting any day.
But as the story draws on, it becomes clear that, just like the terms "male" and "female," a lot of the words that Truslow's narrator is using aren't entirely fit for purpose. Terms like "boat" and "trap" mean something different in The Town Where Salt-Plums Grow than they do to us. What is, for example, a "natural haunting"? How can the death in a fish trap bring it to life, much less make new life with a living fish? These are questions that the narrator never seeks to answer, perhaps because, like the pronoun for Bue, our language doesn't offer her the right words. The characters in the story take it as a given that, for example, the city's streets and canals will change shape according to their own whim—even, in one case, refusing to allow Bue passage. By using terms that in our language refer to fixed, mindless objects without complicating them or acknowledging the difference between our definition and the one her characters use, Truslow draws attention not only to the alleged language gap between us and her narrator, but to the story's theme of change and flux.
The action of the story—after Truslow gets past the twin preambles of Bue's story and her narrator's complication of it, and the story of how he tamed his master's boat (there is much weaving in and out of different characters' narratives in this piece, which only serves to make it more tricky and dense)—revolves around Jerrin, the younger, wastrel son of Bue's employer. Goaded by his older brother, he bets his inheritance that he will marry a woman he glimpsed and fell in love with as she looked out her window, and recruits Bue to find and court her for him. That woman, Wyrisa, is trapped in a house that the narrator and Bue treat as a living thing, perhaps charged by Wyrisa's dead parents to protect her, and perhaps a ghost-infested creature hoping to devour her. The house has promised Wyrisa that it will grow her a door when her true love comes to save her—a promise about which both she and Bue are dubious.
Despite the seeming impermanence of her prison—her house is described as a "ghost-eaten thing" with walls "so thin I could see light shining through them"—Wyrisa is the only character in the story faced with hard boundaries. Not only is she a prisoner in her house, but it traps her in a certain story and role, that of a princess awaiting her rescuing prince. The house even forces another face on Wyrisa, which masks her own when she stands at the window—a face that Bue describes, when she wears it, as "false and frozen." Even when she escapes her prison to experience Crossing Day with Bue, Wyrisa's house pursues her like a boogeyman: "See the thin house peering from a thin alley, dripping the dust of its walls to the muddy ground." Bue, meanwhile, steals Wyrisa away to learn the story of the god Kam, whose very origin lies in a man and a woman rejecting their gendered roles, and teaches her its lesson:
there were once more than a hundred genders—you can tell from old stories, they say, whispered histories, and from the shape of our language—but the city merchant-princes boiled them down to two. All the rest get squeezed into this one festival. And we should squeeze them back out.
To be fixed in any respect—in a gender, a house, a face—is, in the world of "Boat in Shadows, Crossing," to die. Life is expressed through change, and through the refusal to be bound by narrow, unyielding words. In the end, Bue triumphs by wearing Wyrisa's face—and her role—for a short period, and then discarding it, and through both acts manages to rescue Jerrin from his reckless wager and Wyrisa from her imprisonment. "I'm no-one's wife," Bue tells Wyrisa. "I'd be yours, your husband, your anything." The story ends with Bue and Wyrisa free to choose not only their future but their role in it—as the narrator concludes, "What follows is their own affair."
It is, perhaps, not the most subtle of messages, and especially in a story that requires so much work to unpack as "Boat in Shadow, Crossing," we might have hoped for a more complicated conclusion as a reward for all that hard work. But then, that hard work is as much its own reward as anything else in the story. Worldbuilding through language—and specifically, through the admission that language is insufficient, and that an alien world and alien habits of thought require alien words that we don't possess—is an uncommon trick, so much so that it might take a while to recognize it in Truslow's story. Once we do recognize it, "Boat in Shadows, Crossing" becomes a delightful puzzle, well worth the time and effort required to work it out.