Science-minded fox spirits, tiger wives, books that can be read by anyone but their owner—these and more appear in Yoon Ha Lee’s flash fairy tales. Previously available online, they have now been collected in this volume along with four new stories and an introduction by the author.
The mermaid sat on the island and sang without words. She had lost her teeth to the last sailor passing by, which made it hard to form words. Words of foam-rush and and storm-sweep, words of coral uprooted, words of clouds spun upended into the sea’s endless churning cauldron. Still, the mermaid was possessed of great determination and creativity. She shaped her words through the tension of her throat, forced them into seduction-verses.
Once there lived twin witches, one of sand and one of sea. The witch of sand built towers studded with conch shells and polished fragments of glass, and hung them around with rusted chains and lockets grown over with old coral. The witch of sea danced in the foam with the octopuses and porpoises, and braided kelp-strands into her hair, and the frayed old rope of anchors. In the evenings the towers crumbled away as the waves lapped over them, and the two sisters met to roast fish over driftwood fires.
In a quiet land, a great distance from the Lands of the Moon where she had grown up, an alchemist lived in a workshop that she shared with her friend the artificer and a single raven that occasionally condescended to be fed raw eggs and overstrong coffee. (It had yet, however, to produce any theorems.) The alchemist had long ago mastered the inner disciplines that extended her life, although she kept that to herself and her friend on the grounds that being pestered about immortality by importunate princes before breakfast was a nuisance no matter what your age, and in the meantime kept herself well-supplied by trading simpler potions to the local townspeople: glamours to tint your hair the color of peacock feathers, remedies for teething children, the occasional brew-of-inspiration for those who needed to make stirring speeches on short notice.
In the Hills of the Sun, a cat-eyed witch once received a visitor. She had been gathering herbs for her stew, in which several luckless ptarmigans and a rabbit were already simmering, and was wondering whether to break out the last of her peppercorns, when she heard a knocking at the door.
At the yearly cotillion ball, in the palaces of cloud and thunder and seething plasma, astromancers were introduced to the Society of the Sky. One of these astromancers was a young woman who looked out the windows of her room and sighed mournfully every night. She was attentive enough to her studies, in which she studied spiral density waves and the chemical composition of gas giants. In the mornings (as determined by the celestial bells), she embroidered constellations on cloth-of-void, paying particular attention to her favorites in the shape of dipper or dragon, and the pale luminescent thread gleamed in her hands and over the sliver of her needle. In the afternoons she attended serious lectures on the proper forms of address for a magister of red giants, and practiced her handwriting with a dip pen and shining ink, and learned to fold handkerchiefs into the shapes of generation ships. In the evenings, she brewed tea fragrant with starblossoms and flavored it with the honey of distant worlds.
Once in a land of dragons there lived a great dragon queen who collected eggs. Not the living eggs of her kin, but rather the preserved eggshards of youngling dragons. There were gold-rimmed shards from the firedrakes that built their nests near volcanoes, and transparent, glass-like shards from the moondrakes who danced their wonder-dances during the new moon so that the land might not be entirely dark, barnacle-encrusted shards from the seadrakes who kept their eggs in the wrecks of galleons where eyeless human kings stared from devalued coins. All these the dragon queen arranged upon the shelves she had carved into her lair.
Once in a border keep where the winters were tempest-winged and the sun never appeared without robes of violet clouds, there lived a youth who liked to feed the birds. In particular they were fond of magpies with their sleek black-and-white plumage and their cheery cries. Other people who lived in the keep viewed the magpies with scorn, for they were said to bring chancy luck at best, and they made a racket in the mornings. Or during any time of day.
Once, in a far land, there lived a magician whose great passion was not her studies but her food. In her youth she had applied herself passionately to her studies, but her particular school of magic emphasized asceticism and long hours of meditation. However, once she left her teachers and founded her own tower (she was enough of a traditionalist to prefer a tower, and humane enough to call it out of the earth’s bones in a remote location where it wouldn’t trigger seismic disturbances or ghost-plagues), her discipline began to slip. Away from her teachers and her solemn fellow students, it was not long before she began dreaming up feasts of custard and roast goose, couscous and eggplant, quail eggs and minty lemonades.
Once in a wood by a great city there lived a family of foxes. The head of the family, who wore the guise of lady or gentleman or other as the whim took them, had a splendid collection of jewels given to them by any number of human lovers. The younger foxes of the family studied this art of seduction diligently, not because foxes have any use for human baubles, but because the baubles they received from their lovers were an essential component in the game known as “human-fishing.” Any number of humans could be lured into the wood for further pranks by the strategic placement of necklaces, rings, crowns; and from that point on they could be entangled in fox spells and fox riddles for endless hours of entertainment.