Fiction Round Up – February / March

In December 2019, I felt that Christmas was the worst time of year for a person of Dutch heritage to also be a coeliac.

In March 2020, with pandemic-fuelled grocery shortages and a constant fear of will I have enough food to eat if we’re quarantined for two weeks because ordering in gluten-free restaurant food in my region isn’t an option, I have been proved hilariously naive. I laugh at myself now, because sighing over not eating speculaas or pfeffernüsse seems ridiculous in comparison! Do I have enough GF (gluten-free) pasta to go with my rice? I don’t know, but I’m yet to find it again at the supermarket! And so many things are still impossible to get, like frozen vegetables; even fresh vegetables are becoming impossibly expensive.

What do I eat when I can’t get two weeks’ worth of frozen veggies and rice? What do I eat when everyone has stocked up on rice cakes as a cheap shelf-stable food, even though they’re my normal lunch staple? What do I eat when dried beans and lentils, recommended by the internet as a wonder food I should be pursuing during food shortages, all bear “may contain gluten” warnings? Are supermarkets going to prioritise GF replacement foods the same way they’ll prioritise restocking the gluten-containing ones? Can they even get those that aren’t made in Australia, like several brands of GF pasta?

(Why is barley deemed such an essential component in soup mix? Do folks realise how many more foods would be open to me if we stopped adding barley and malt flavouring to things not otherwise containing wheat, rye or oats?)

There are many other things to fear right now, yes. Far too many of my relatives are in high-risk categories, for one. I am privileged enough to be able to worry about continuing to avoid gluten, when some coeliacs have long forgone that option; I am privileged enough that grocery shortages this severe are new to me. Nonetheless, dietary restrictions add a real component of anxiety when it comes to a pandemic, and it isn’t something I see folks discuss or even acknowledge in mainstream conversations about grocery shortages and accessibility.

The ableism that stops me ordering an emergency pizza from Dominos because the website’s fine print says “we can’t confirm that your pizza isn’t subject to cross-contamination during the cooking process” is a problem when society is stable, because it denies me basic access to something other folks take for granted–nearly immediate hot food. During a pandemic, though, the impact of this–along with the bags of dried split peas and pinto beans subject to cross contamination with the barley-containing soup mix–cuts even deeper. When I lose GF option after option through everyone else’s stocking up on these foods, the limited options that remain leave me closer to having to sacrifice my health in order to eat. And being trapped inside the house for two weeks (in the best-case scenario) only to run out of coeliac-safe food is a possibility … while also being one of the less terrifying consequences of contracting COVID-19.

(Not to mention being one of the less dangerous intersections of disability and pandemic, given that disabled people have already died through being unable to access appropriate care both from contracting COVID-19 and from a lack of services doing lockdowns.)

The ableism we’re forced to tolerate in a stable society becomes all the more terrifying, dangerous and lethal during a pandemic, and disabled people need the abled to both recognise it and, as soon as possible, act to mitigate it.

The Mundane Progression of Premortem Colloquy

Cover image for The Mundane Progression of Premortem Colloquy: A Marchverse Short Story by K. A. Cook. Cover shows a cemetery in daylight with various tombstones in the foreground, surrounded by grassy rises and green bushes, with a tumbledown stone fence and trees in the background. A picnic basket sits on the grass at the front, filled with bottles, vegetables and a purple flower. Cover and author credit are written in a white, fantasy-style text.After a night of revelations to her dead aunt Rosie and her living brother Esher, Mara Hill must dare another with Benjamin Lisbet. If she’s truly the woman Mara hopes, surely Benjamin will be receptive to a conversation of the “I love you and want to be with you, just not romantically” sort? Surely this afternoon won’t stray beyond Mara’s preparations of a picnic basket, chives, rehearsed speeches and less-rumpled clothing?

Yet her months of searching for magic to refresh her fading love means there’s too much she doesn’t know about Benjamin. Too much Mara needs to know to hold this conversation without losing Benjamin’s friendship.

Mara thought speaking of her fading love under cover of dark difficult enough … but speaking of romance in daylight is another challenge entirely.

Links: PDF (read in browser) | Patreon | WordPress

PDF, EPUB and MOBI editions are available for download from Patreon.

Length: 7, 160 words / 30 PDF pages.

It’s more common to see female autistics in the role of Shy Person To Be Seduced (usually by a man, with all characters concerned being both cis and heterosexual), a character who needs to be convinced that romances and/or relationships are a good or non-dangerous thing. It’s even less common find those rare flirty female autistic characters in the context of fiction centring on allo-aro experiences, confusions and challenges. Writing an autistic character who flirts, is openly sexual, isn’t submissive and is done with the way the world tramples over her in all her parasol-waving anger? Delightful. Writing an autistic character who has more of my own confusion about what the hell non-romantic even means? Wonderful. Writing two neurodiverse, queer aromantic-spectrum women with their sexual attraction for each other a central component of the story? Glorious.

I’m thinking to write a gloriously self-indulgent sequel to this relaying Mara and Benjamin’s early misadventures in baking now that I’ve retconned Benjamin as coeliac, because Mara’s expectations are far from Benjamin’s They’re Not Completely Flat So That Totally Counts As A Scone reality. (It’s amazing how much more appealing shittily-baked goods become when you’re a coeliac.) This is in part because there’s no point to coeliac if I can’t put the absurd bits into fiction and in part because Mara and Benjamin are fun to write.

What Makes Us Human

Cover image for What Makes Us Human: A Marchverse Short Story by K. A. Cook. Cover shows an archway set into a stone wall, the wall covered by a dull green creeper. A small peach sphere of light glows underneath part of the creeper at the top of the archway. Inside the archway is another stone wall behind a courtyard comprised of a few rocks, two spindly trees and a striped purple cushion. Title and author credit are written in a white, fantasy-style text, the type bright against the grey background.Moll of Sirenne needs prompts in their girdle book to navigate casual conversations, struggles to master facial expressions and feels safest weeding the monastery’s vegetable gardens. Following their call to service, however, means offering wanderers in need a priest’s support and guidance. A life free of social expectation to court, wed and befriend does outweigh their fear of causing harm—until forgetting the date of a holiday provokes a guest’s ire and three cutting words: lifeless and loveless.

A priest must expand a guest’s sense of human worth, but what do they do when their own comes under question? Can an autistic, aromantic priest ever expect to serve outside the garden? And what day is it…?

Links: PDF (read in browser) | Patreon | WordPress

Length: 8, 062 words / 32 PDF pages.

This story broke me, thanks to a spate of power outages resulting in an unopenably-corrupt file that wasn’t auto-backed up to my second harddrive the way it should have been (also because of said power outages). I still can’t look it without a pang of hurt for the draft (now become an unparalleled marvel of autistic-aro fiction, according to my brain) I had to completely rewrite. I’m glad I did it … but it was a hard thing to get past.

But it did give me the Guide and a deeper understanding of Moll, both of whom we meet again in A Quest of Spheres and Phalanges. And it’s a different take on the “aromantic character and author dealing with Valentine’s Day” sub-sub-sub genre of aromantic narratives. Plus What Makes Us Human has something that’s rare in aromantic fiction: a middle-aged narrating protagonist dealing with amatonormativity. Folks tend to assume older aromantics have it all figured out, even though there’s massive hurdles for older aromantics even recognising their own aromanticism, so it’s important to me that folks have a broader range of characters, in terms of age, with which to find connection.

(Moll too is a coeliac, although it’s less stated than implied. Why? Because I can … and because it feels weird to write a character who isn’t.)

Sadly, the best I can say about Human is that I don’t hate it. Hopefully in December the frustration will be more a distant memory and I can judge this on its own merits, not on the lost draft!

A Quest of Spheres and Phalanges

To save Mara’s life, all Esher Hill need do is ride to Sirenne, get his guiding priest to permit his addressing the Grey Mages and convince representatives from a powerful collective of magic workers to heal a dying sorcerer. He has his fathers’ money and a willingness to work off any remaining debt. How much more, short of his now-unsellable soul, can her life cost?

It seems simple enough a prospect, if Esher ignores the encumbrance of a family friend, his inability to remember his medicines, his hand’s meeting a wall, a tray-spilling mishap and the Greys’ staggering disdain for altruism. Not to mention his increasing lack of sleep, stability and sanity following his kin’s revelations and manipulations! But when Esher learns what—and where—he must seek for the Greys’ promise of healing magic, his hope of retrieving their long-lost artefact seems as broken as his right hand. How can he survive the Gast’s pantheon of horrors when he feels increasingly unable to survive his own mind?

How can he help Mara if he can’t even help himself?

Patreon Links: Met the Wall | Vertigo

Length: 9, 257 words (thus far).

I’m posting this long novelette/short novella as a chapter-by-chapter serial to Patreon. It’s a semi-work in progress, in the sense that I still mean to do another cohesive edit of the story as a whole, so it lacks some in polish and togetherness. Since I’ve been struggling with producing longer works, I want to see if this process helps get this story from “messy early drafts” to “actual readable narrative”.

A Quest of Spheres and Phalanges is the story where Esher begins to process Love is the Reckoning. It wasn’t my intent, but I feel like these stories and (eventually) Crew show a man who is coping with his brain but struggles to maintain that coping when faced with events and people that push him off his road–and the importance of finding the people that allow him to begin to regain his footing. (It also wasn’t my intent, but it mirrors my own loss of trust in people and the fight to get back to where I was.) It also gives the story a bit more resonance than its actual purpose of “explaining why Esher ended up in Astreut on a quest for an eldritch artefact” and “introducing Faiza and Indigo”.

Getting the missing Mara and Esher stories written, drafted, edited and posted has long been my goal for 2020, something I’d been planning for months. (Also known as The Year In Which I Will Attempt To Fill In More Narrative Gaps And Work My Way Back Up To Novels.) Quest, alas, has always possessed a background that doesn’t sit too easily in these terrifying times. I do mean to break it up with other pieces, but it isn’t always the most comfortable thing to be working on–and likely not the most comfortable thing to read.

Lastly, I’ll mention that I’ve been working on a series of tutorials and patterns for making pride-themed cross-stitch patches, should anyone wish a distracting craft during our extended hours at home. I find them good for keeping my hands busy while watching TV (which by itself isn’t near distracting enough), and holding a sewing needle isn’t too bad on my hands compared to many other crafts. (Pen, pencil, paintbrush and many cooking utensils are out.) I’ve also got umpteen stim-toy-related tutorials on my @stimtoybox Tumblr, by myself and other creators, for anyone looking for something new to try or make.

Best of luck to everyone. I do hope we can all get through this.