I waffled a bit over this story, and I’m still not 100% sure this story and I will see eye-to-eye, but it was incredibly well written, and once again, the setting is nearly a character in and of itself. This particular story in Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History takes place in Ohio in 1862, during the Civil War, and is centred on Hungarian Jewish families affected by the able-bodied men being taken off to war.
That’s a key component, and also where I waffled a bit. The POV of the tale is from the sister of a pair of brothers, one of whom (not a particularly nice man) is Levi: fit and sent off to war, the other, Julius: disabled, with weak, uneven legs and an inability to pass the basic physical requirements of soldiering. The story is centrally about Julius, and his frustration of not being able to go to war, but also of him finding a key concept in religious texts that make him believe there’s a way he could become ‘a righteous person’ and less ‘useless’ and he hopes to become pure enough to invoke a kind of possession from a spirit capable of using his body to be something better. It’s… a lot. And from the sister’s point of view, it read a little off to me at times.
The ultimate resolution was the flip-side to my waffling at first, then wobbled a bit again thanks to the POV. The speculative element here does come into play along the same notions that Julius describes: that a righteous soul can, indeed, inhabit another body, just not in the way he envisioned. And while it speaks well about him, it still kinda/sorta felt like a “magical cure.” Compounded with the whole of events leaving the sister inspired to learn and do better, ultimately I left “There Will Be One Vacant Chair” quite uncertain.