Oh wow, this story. We have a young woman raised by a suddenly-religious mother who believes prayer is the reason the daughter came out of a coma, and the young woman trying to navigate her city world to include some forms of freedom outside her mother’s demands. And then the magic comes. “Sapling,” like all the stories in Skin Deep Magic: Short Fiction from Craig Laurance Gidney, has this lovely sense of wonder lurking beneath the world, but also doesn’t shy away from showing the world as clearly toxic as it is—in this case, somewhat literally, as the young woman’s gifts progress and she starts to realize that her powers to slip from notice or to stop people from seeing things are very much natural, but the unnatural things in the world: pollution, concrete, plastic—are potentially affecting her, too.
There’s a small mystery also unfolding in “Sapling,” and that’s a mix of two things: the girl’s powers, but also a man she has seen once or twice entering the park/forest nearby, and a sense she has of him being in danger. We shift to his view from hers and back again in the story, and it’s not long before we start to realize the two are very much linked, and the “man” is no such thing, or at least, not always such a thing, and certainly “man” is not his natural form. As the two stories collide, the characters realize the consequences of choices (and some non-choices).
I loved the ending of this tale, built on a foundation of longing, love, and a sense of wanting to be free counterbalanced with limitations and the reality of the world Gidney crafted. I loved the unique take on the magic/mythical lore of the creatures involved, too. The “magic alongside the rough, dirty city” vibe was so strong in this one I could smell it, with Gidney’s descriptive “through magical senses” prose leading the way almost effortlessly.