Short Stories 366:82 — “Knotting Grass, Holding Ring,” by Ken Liu

coverIf there’s one recurring facet in Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History that I struggled with as a reader, it was how often the stories are set during (the seemingly endless) slaughter of one people by another. This time, we’re in Yangzhou, Jiangsu Province, China, in 1645, and the Manchus are about to invade a city, and those within are doomed to a person, more or less.

Liu tells the story through the lens of a servant girl at a Teahouse, Sparrow, who both idolizes and is frustrated by Green Siskin, a beautiful woman who handles men as easily as she handles an eloquent turn of phrase (often using the latter to achieve the former) and yet who seems to run hot-and-cold with Sparrow. Casual kindnesses are often followed by quick cruelty, and as such Green Siskin is a cipher. Then the gates open, most are killed, and Sparrow and Green Siskin find a way to survive the initial slaughter together.

What follows is a story of slow revelations, the battle between appearance and reality, confidence and fear, and fighting for every single moment knowing the end will likely only be pushed another step further away. Green Siskin and Sparrow are two very different women on the surface, but there’s more going on than the surface, and the end result—and the dash of speculative to the story—is as elegant as Green Siskin deserves. This was, despite the blood and fear and horror of the reality of the history, a beautiful piece, and the asides in the end about the way history is “remembered” were a wonderful touch.

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