Recently, I read a wonderful collection of short stories by Kij Johnson called “At the Mouth of the River of Bees”. In this book, no two stories are the same. Each one is separated by the immeasurable leaps of Johnson’s imagination and her unbridled creative energy. As I progressed through the book, I encountered a slew of different fantasies: a magic act consisting of 26 monkeys, a claw-foot bathtub, and a magician that doesn’t understand her own tricks; a nomadic tribe of horse raiders that wander a distant planet in search of a cure for a plague that has devastated their horse population; a glimpse inside the impossible “Schrödinger’s Cathouse”, where the drinks flow, the women simmer, and nothing makes sense because quantum mechanics suck and there is really nothing we can do about that; and a scene of mind-blowingly explicit intercourse between a young woman and an alien that left me feeling more violated than when the girl who sat behind me in my 5th grade math class insisted on whispering profoundly erotic phrases in my ear while we practiced long division.
No, that isn’t a euphemism. No, I didn’t think it sounded like one, but you can never be too sure anymore.
Either way, this is just the tip of the narrative iceberg. The book is a sincere testament to what stories are capable in terms of both content and style. And yet for all of the science fiction and fantasy elements present, Johnson’s most impressive achievement is her lyrical examination of the human spirit and the finely woven threads of horror and beauty that run through even our most simple moments.
The best example of this lies, in my opinion, in the story from which the collection takes its name. Without giving too much away, “At the Mouth of the River of Bees” follows the story of Linna and her very ill dog, Sam, as they travel along the banks of a river of bees that has mysteriously appeared across the state of Montana. What is remarkable about this story is not the massive stream of bees rampaging across Montana, but the depth of feeling between Linna and Sam. Linna is aware that Sam’s days are numbered, but she still insists on sticking to their routines, and he, perhaps out of loyalty, continues to plod along beside her, concealing his pain the whole time.
But there is a moment in the story when the routines fall away and Linna has no choice but to face the reality of the inevitable. It is dark, and Linna decides to park her car so Sam can rest. She watches him while he sleeps. He’s just lying there, splayed out in the backseat, his chest rising and falling in the faint starlight that presses against the windowpane, and it seems as though death’s infinite arms are creeping closer and closer to her companion. Her thoughts scream “live forever”, but all we hear is the thundering procession of bees outside the car.
This is the masterstroke of Johnson’s work. For it was in this moment that I found my foundation in a veritable river of bees. For me, this absurdity was the only source of comfort I could experience. In contrast, this dying dog appeared unsettling in his strangeness and his beauty, and I felt the need to embrace him mingle with the most basic, indescribable terror. There are many moments in the book when, through a juxtaposition of the fantastic and the real, Johnson restores the magic back to real life, that which should always be miraculous to us, even if on the most fundamental level.
–Joe Masco, assistant poetry editor