[Thursdays around these parts are for R&R…reading and rumination! I’ll dig into a specific piece of writing (usually short fiction) and share my thoughts and analysis.]
This week I’m looking at “Nkásht íí” by Darcie Little Badger, published on December 15, 2014, in Strange Horizons. My word processor gives the story’s length as 4394 words.
Why I Picked It
Strange Horizons is a publication I’ve been following on and off for years now, and its one whose mission I truly respect. Explicitly committed to expanding the range of viewpoints heard in science fiction and fantasy, and to keeping those viewpoints available free online, it’s a site well worth following.
This particular story has its roots in Lipan Apache culture, which is unfamiliar to me, yet is also a story of two people tracking a ghost, a familiar story type. The juxtaposition caught my interest, which grew as I read more of the author’s discussion of how and why she wrote this story.
What to Look For
This story does interesting things with its structure and voice, and the character work is superb. It’s easy to let ghost- or monster-hunting stories turn into special effects spectaculars or too-similar imitations of TV shows like Supernatural or The X-Files. This story, like both of those shows, portrays two characters who share a close, complex relationship and chase a mysterious phenomenon; however, the originality of the characters and the way the author tells the story keeps it fresh.
— Spoilers Follow Behind the Cut —
The story follows two young women, Josie and Annie. Most of the story is told from Josie’s perspective, but Annie’s voice interjects at key moments (including the very first section of the story.
We meet the two as they’re engaged in an odd form of not-actually-begging. They have a cardboard sign offering to listen to people, but they do not take money for it. It was apparently Annie’s idea for them to “busk for karma” like this. The sign attracts a man who claims that, after a car accident, his daughter was murdered by an “owl-woman” that resembled his wife who had just died in the crash.
At Annie’s insistence, she and Josie set off to investigate. This provides breathing room to learn more about their history together: meeting at their middle school breakfast program, staying close after high school, taking off on the road together as they lose connection to their families (in one case through death, in the other through interpersonal strife).
They reach Willowbee, the town where the deaths occurred, where they secure a room and conduct some investigations at the cemetery and the bridge where the accident occurred. They find a gold cross that belonged to Rita, the man’s wife, then see a sort of echo of the accident that killed her.
Back at the hotel, Josie falls asleep for a while, then wakes to the sound of running water. When she sees that Annie is asleep in her bed, Josie goes to investigate.
We get our first extended piece of narration from Annie’s perspective, including more background on her relationship with her great-grandmother, who appears to have shared her connection to the supernatural. While dozing, Annie encounters Rita with the child, Melanie. Annie takes Melanie and runs away.
In the bathroom, Josie encounters “Annie’s ghost (or was it something stranger?)” by the bathtub. This creature has owl-like eyes, similar to Rita’s ghost. The ghost attacks Josie and tries to drown her in the tub.
Annie continues to flee from Rita in the spirit realm and fights her way to Josie, banishing her own ghost as she does. She helps Josie recover from the attack and the two decide to return home. Returning to the bedroom, they discover the baby Melanie on a bed.
“Great-grandmother taught me everything she knew about death before it took her.” [Italics in original]
This comes to us from Annie’s point of view. I like how it grounds the significance of family to the story – both women are motivated in one or more significant ways by their relationships with family members past and present – and clearly establishes that this is a story about death. The particulars of the great-grandmother’s knowledge will also prove crucial to Annie at the climax of the story (as will the great-grandmother’s death), so we have Chekhov’s gun right off the bat.
“I could see my face reflected in Melanie’s wide blue eyes.”
This comes from Josie’s point of view. We close with our narrators – both of whom are daughters cut off in some ways from their families – assuming temporary custodianship of Melanie, another lost daughter. This establishes one point of connection.
Additionally, as a result the struggle with Annie’s ghost, Josie decides to return home to try to reconcile with her mother (who is pregnant with another daughter, allowing her “to complete the picket-fence family she made with Regis [Josie’s stepfather], the one that didn’t include me,” according to Josie right before the ghost nearly kills her). I think that’s significant in connection to this final line. Melanie has been permanently cut off from her mother in a deeply traumatic way, similar to how Josie has been cut off from her mother up to this point. Now, though, she has a chance to mend that fence, driven by “guilt for the rage that almost followed me into the grave and out again.” I like the complexities, similarities, and differences in the relationships and events that connect Josie’s experience with her mother and Melanie’s experience with hers.
Theme: [This is an extended bit from Annie’s point of view. Italics in original]
“Ahead, Rita cradles Melanie.
‘Why did you kill your daughter?’ I ask.
‘Love.’ She rocks the quiet baby. ‘Loneliness. It’s autonomous. Understand?’
‘I never wanted to kill my child, just like the heart doesn’t want to beat. It. Happens. Automatically.’ She laughs. ‘Who do you love?’ “
There’s a lot going on here, but Rita’s two lines draw out a lot of this story’s perspective on how love can work. (It’s worth noting here that this is likely real-Rita, not ghost-Rita, talking to real-Annie while ghost-Annie prepares to attack Josie.) I think the idea that our actions toward the people we love are autonomous and un/subconscious is a powerful one, and it’s one that’s illustrated in several different ways over the course of the story.
Characterization: “We became school chums, a relationship that only exists between classes.”
This comes from Josie, about a third of the way into the story as she’s explaining the development of her relationship with Annie. For a short sentence, it shows a lot, including Josie’s capacity for social analysis and her voice as a character. It also provides one stepping stone in the very realistic development of the girls’ friendship. It’s a relationship that grows slowly, as does happen but is rarely shown in fiction, which prefers either immediate friendship or the hate-turns-to-love tension.
Tone: “Annie’s ghost (or was it something stranger?) sat on the edge of the full tub. Her eyes were round and yellow. Their black pupils expanded; I could not look away from the pits, as if my soul had been drawn into the vacuum beyond.”
So far, this analysis has focused mostly on the human relationships, but “Nkásht íí” is also a ghost story. This is an effective encapsulation of Little Badger’s ability to paint a creepy picture and use the closeness she’s shown between Josie and Annie as the foundation for a very unsettling scene.
As with all of the best short fiction, there’s a lot going on here that works very well. I’d highly recommend this story to anyone. If you’re looking for more background, I’d suggest you take a look at the following:
– “Ghost Sickness,” “Terrible Things: Lipan Apache Ghost Mythology,” and “Nkásht íí” on the author’s blog trace the development of the story and give more background on several of the linguistic and cultural elements in it. I recommend reading the story first, then reading these, then reading the story again.
– “Rich and Strange: ‘Nkásht íí’ by Darcie Little Badger,” by Amal El-Mohtar on Tor.com is part of El-Mohtar’s “Rich and Strange” short fiction review series. El-Mohtar pulls out a different passage that I also enjoyed and offers her thoughts on portrayals of girls’ and women’s friendships.