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Circe - Madeline Miller
When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.
Once when I was young I asked what mortals looked like. My father said, “You may say they are shaped like us, but only as the worm is shaped like the whale.”
My mother had been simpler: like savage bags of rotten flesh.
“Yet,” he said, “may I return? Will you be here? For I have never known such a wondrous thing in all my life as you.”
I had stood beside my father’s light. I had held Aeëtes in my arms, and my bed was heaped with thick-wooled blankets woven by immortal hands. But it was not until that moment that I think I had ever been warm.
The worst of my cowardice had been sweated out. In its place was a giddy spark. I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open.
I stepped into those woods and my life began.
Let me say what sorcery is not: it is not divine power, which comes with a thought and a blink. It must be made and worked, planned and searched out, dug up, dried, chopped and ground, cooked, spoken over, and sung. Even after all that, it can fail, as gods do not. If my herbs are not fresh enough, if my attention falters, if my will is weak, the draughts go stale and rancid in my hands.
'Will you bear my child?' he asked me.
I laughed at him. 'No, never and never.'
He was not hurt. He liked such sharpness, for there was nothing in him that had any blood you might spill. He asked only for curiosity’s sake, because it was his nature to seek out answers, to press others for their weaknesses. He wanted to see how moonish I was over him. But all the sop in me was gone. I did not lie dreaming of him during the days, I did not speak his name into my pillow. He was no husband, scarcely even a friend. He was a poison snake, and I was another, and on such terms we pleased ourselves.
Icarus, Daedalus, Ariadne. All gone to those dark fields, where hands worked nothing but air, where feet no more touched the earth. If I had been there, I thought. But what would it have changed? It was true what Hermes said. Every moment mortals died, by shipwreck and sword, by wild beasts and wild men, by illness, neglect, and age. It was their fate, as Prometheus had told me, the story that they all shared. No matter how vivid they were in life, no matter how brilliant, no matter the wonders they made, they came to dust and smoke. Meanwhile every petty and useless god would go on sucking down the bright air until the stars went dark.
The nymphs wafted around me. Their smothered laughter drifted down the halls. At least, I told myself, it was not their brothers, who would have bragged and fought and hunted down my wolves. But of course that was never a real danger. Sons were not punished.
I did not send my animals away anymore when men came. I let them loll where they liked, around the garden, under my tables. It pleased me to see the men walk among them, trembling at their teeth and unnatural tameness. I did not pretend to be a mortal. I showed my lambent, yellow eyes at every turn. None of it made a difference. I was alone and a woman, that was all that mattered.
Later, years later, I would hear a song made of our meeting. The boy who sang it was unskilled, missing notes more often than he hit, yet the sweet music of the verses shone through his mangling. I was not surprised by the portrait of myself: the proud witch undone before the hero’s sword, kneeling and begging for mercy. Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.
I felt hollowed, gouged like a beach beneath a keel.
Odysseus, son of Laertes, the great traveler, prince of wiles and tricks and a thousand ways. He showed me his scars, and in return he let me pretend that I had none.
He stepped onto his ship, and when he turned back to look for me, I was gone.
I looked at her, as vivid in my doorway as the moon in the autumn sky. Her eyes held mine, gray and steady. It is a common saying that women are delicate creatures, flowers, eggs, anything that may be crushed in a moment’s carelessness. If I had ever believed it, I no longer did.
“What makes a witch, then? If it is not divinity?”
“I do not know for certain,” I said. “I once thought it was passed through blood, but Telegonus has no spells in him. I have come to believe it is mostly will.”
She nodded. I did not have to explain. We knew what will was.
'You have always been the worst of my children,' he said. 'Be sure you do not dishonor me.'
'I have a better idea. I will do as I please, and when you count your children, leave me out.'
Clap When You Land - Elizabeth Acevedo
reminder in my ear:
you are dark
& always been beautiful:
like the night, like a star after it bursts,
like obsidian & onyx & jet precious.
But I know I am beautiful
like all & none of those things:
far in the sky & deep in the earth
I am beautiful like a dark-skinned girl that is right here.
I’ve always preferred playing black
on the chessboard.
conquering my offending
Playing chess taught me a queen is both:
deadly & graceful, poised & ruthless.
Quiet & cunning. A queen
offers her hand to be kissed,
& can form it into a fist
while smiling the whole damn time.
But what happens when those principles
only apply in a game? & in the real world,
I am not treated as a lady or a queen,
as a defender or opponent
but as a girl so many want to strike off the board.
But I feel weighed down,
her words turned to stones.
Tía thinks I have been inviting El Cero’s attention.
Somehow his stalking has turned into
something I must have done.
Code Name Edelweiss - Stephanie Landsem
Not for the first time he wondered about God. If he was as good as they said he was, why didn't he stop this evil? Why didn't he rain down fire and brimstone on people like Winterhalder and Schwinn - smite them like he did the Egyptians in the Bible stories he'd read as a kid? It's not like they didn't deserve it. Maybe God had given up on the men he'd created. Maybe he figured they were too far gone to save.
I was suddenly reminded of the Cheshire Cat in Alice's story. I did not want to promise this man anything. Yet I could not let go of the hope of a job - any job. I dipped my head in assent but with reservation.
What he said then was utterly unexpected.
"What I am looking for - what I desperately need, Mrs. Weiss - is a spy"
Come Tumbling Down - Seanan McGuire
Sometimes Christopher thought any chance he’d had of falling for a girl with ordinary things like “skin” and “muscle tissue” and “a pulse” had ended with the soft, moist sound of Jack driving a pair of scissors through her sister’s horrible heart. He could have loved her in that moment, had loved her when she’d pulled the scissors free and used them to cut a hole in the wall of the world. She’d called her door out of nothingness, out of sororicide and hope, and she’d carried her sister’s body through it, into the bleeding light of a crimson moon.
He’d seen the Moors spreading out around her like a mother’s arms, welcoming their wayward daughter home. Sometimes he still saw them when he closed his eyes at night. And then the door had slammed, and the Wolcott sisters had been gone, and he’d been left behind. He’d hated her for having the chance to go home, and he’d loved her for taking it without looking back or hesitating, and his fate, such as it was, had been sealed. If Jack could go home, so could he. All he had to do was figure out how.
Christopher had survived quite a few things in his seventeen years, from public school to cancer to a stint in a world peopled entirely by sentient, animate skeletons. He rolled to the side before the echoes of the crack had faded, pressing himself against the wall and hopefully out of the path of any further impossible lightning strikes. Not that “impossible” meant much around here. One of his closest friends was a temporarily bipedal mermaid; another was the crown prince of a goblin kingdom, and yet another was technically a candy construct brought back to life by a sort of demigoddess with a really large oven. Judging things based on their possibility wasn’t a good way to stay alive.
Conversations with Friends - Sally Rooney
I felt excited, ready for the challenge of visiting a stranger’s home, already preparing compliments and certain facial expressions to make myself seem charming.
She said she found religious occasions, like funerals or weddings, ‘comforting in a kind of sedative way’. They’re communal, she said. There’s something nice about that for the neurotic individualist.
When we were outside smoking and male performers tried to talk to us, Bobbi would always pointedly exhale and say nothing, so I had to act as our representative. This meant a lot of smiling and remembering details about their work. I enjoyed playing this kind of character, the smiling girl who remembered things. Bobbi told me she thought I didn’t have a ‘real personality’, but she said she meant it as a compliment. Mostly I agreed with her assessment. At any time I felt I could do or say anything at all, and only afterwards think: oh, so that’s the kind of person I am.
You suffer, she said.
Ah, Bobbi said. Profound.
I could perform each poem for a period of about six months after I’d written it, after which point I couldn’t stand to look at it, never mind read it aloud in public. I didn’t know what caused this process, but I was glad the poems were only ever performed and never published. They floated away ethereally to the sound of applause. Real writers, and also painters, had to keep on looking at the ugly things they had done for good. I hated that everything I did was so ugly, but also that I lacked the courage to confront how ugly it was. I had explained that theory to Philip but he’d just said: don’t be down on yourself, you’re a real writer.
I could see a care label bunched inside the seam of the slip she was wearing, which destroyed the effect of reality for me, although the slip and its care label were undoubtedly themselves real. I concluded that some kinds of reality have an unrealistic effect, which made me think of the theorist Jean Baudrillard, though I had never read his books and these were probably not the issues his writing addressed.
The other actors had off-key accents and everything onstage looked like a prop waiting to be handled. In a way this just emphasised how spectacularly beautiful Nick was, and made his misery seem more authentic.
My ego had always been an issue. I knew that intellectual attainment was morally neutral at best, but when bad things happened to me I made myself feel better by thinking about how smart I was. When I couldn’t make friends as a child, I fantasised that I was smarter than all my teachers, smarter than any other student who had been in the school before, a genius hidden among normal people. It made me feel like a spy.
I didn’t feel like writing anything. In fact I felt that if I tried to write, what I produced would be ugly and pretentious. I wasn’t the kind of person I pretended to be. I thought of myself trying to be witty in front of Nick’s friends in the utility room and felt sick. I didn’t belong in rich people’s houses. I was only ever invited to places like that because of Bobbi, who belonged everywhere and had a quality about her that made me invisible by comparison.
Eventually Nick looked over and I looked back. I felt a key turning hard inside my body, turning so forcefully that I could do nothing to stop it. His lips parted like he was about to say something, but he just inhaled and then seemed to swallow. Neither of us gestured or waved, we just looked at one another, as if we were already having a private conversation that couldn’t be overheard.
I ran my finger along his collarbone and said: I can’t remember if I thought about this at the beginning. How it was doomed to end unhappily.
He nodded, looking at me. I did, he said. I just thought it would be worth it.
My mother hated the way I talked about my father, like he was just another normal person rather than my distinguished personal benefactor, or a minor celebrity. This irritation was directed toward me, but it was also a symptom of her disappointment that my father had failed to earn the respect she wanted me to give him.
Was I kind to others? It was hard to nail down an answer. I worried that if I did turn out to have a personality, it would be one of the unkind ones. Did I only worry about this question because as a woman I felt required to put the needs of others before my own? Was ‘kindness’ just another term for submission in the face of conflict? These were the kind of things I wrote about in my diary as a teenager: as a feminist I have the right not to love anyone.
My favourite part of the gospels was in Matthew, when Jesus said: love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you. I shared in this desire for moral superiority over my enemies. Jesus always wanted to be the better person, and so did I. I underlined this passage in red pencil several times, to illustrate that I understood the Christian way of life.
He was awful, I said. He told me he loved Yeats, can you believe that? I practically had to stop him reciting ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ in the bar.
Wow, I feel terrible for you.
And the sex was bad.
No one who likes Yeats is capable of human intimacy.
I thought of myself as an independent person, so independent that the opinions of others were irrelevant to me. Now I was afraid that Nick was right: I isolated myself from criticism so I could behave badly without losing my sense of righteousness.
I sat there tapping my pen against the front cover of Middlemarch, which I had to read for a class on the English novel. The cover depicted a sad-eyed lady from Victorian times doing something with flowers. I doubted Victorian women actually touched flowers as often as art from the period suggested they did.
I thought about all the things I had never told Nick about myself, and I started to feel better then, as if my privacy extended all around me like a barrier protecting my body. I was a very autonomous and independent person with an inner life that nobody else had ever touched or perceived.
I could have told you and I didn’t. But at some level I still see you as the person who broke my heart and left me unfit for normal relationships.
You underestimate your own power so you don’t have to blame yourself for treating other people badly.
In bed we folded around each other like origami. It’s possible to feel so grateful that you can’t get to sleep at night.
It was a relationship, and also not a relationship. Each of our gestures felt spontaneous, and if from the outside we resembled a couple, that was an interesting coincidence for us. We developed a joke about it, which was meaningless to everyone including ourselves: what is a friend? we would say humorously. What is a conversation?