"Cold Fires" by M. Rickert

There are many reasons to subscribe to F&SF, but my own has become a simple, single one: because Mary Rickert publishes most of her work there. Yes, plenty of other good writers appear in those pages, but Rickert is my favorite for the moment, because her stories are enigmatic gems, sometimes sharp and disturbing, sometimes gentle and funny, and often a mix of quotidian details with tropes from traditional fantasy and myth (or, occasionally, science fiction). In her stories, dream logic creates understructures of metaphor -- subtexts and echoes play off the other elements of the story to create a rich imaginative landscape.

The latest issue of F&SF (the October/November double issue) contains "Cold Fires", a complex new tale from Rickert that manages to be three stories in one and much more than that. It starts off like a tall tale of a brutally cold winter:
It was so cold dogs barked to go outside, and immediately barked to come back in, and then barked to go back out again; frustrated dog owners leashed their pets and stood shivering in the snow as shivering dogs lifted icy paws, walking in a kind of Irish dance, spinning in that dog circle thing, trying to find the perfect spot to relieve themselves while dancing high paws to keep from freezing to the ground.

It was so cold birds fell from the sky like tossed rocks, frozen except for their tiny eyes which focused on the Sun as if trying to understand the betrayal.
Rickert has a fine eye for detail and oddity, but this is only the beginning, and while we might think at this point that we know what the story will be (brave people struggling through difficult weather, triumphing over whatever forces caused the birds to fall from frozen skies), Rickert is seldom a predictable writer, and within a few sentences we are introduced to two people (known only as "the couple", as "she" and "he") sitting beside their woodstove and telling stories to each other: "the sort of stories that only the cold and the fire, the wind and the silent dark combined could make them tell".

The majority of "Cold Fires" is taken up with these stories: the woman's story of being descended from pirates and from a witch who devoured strawberries, the man's story of discovering the miraculous inspiration for a bad artist's obsession. Both of the stories explain something for the hearer about the teller, and give a warning -- from the woman, that she may leave the man one day, but the fault will not be lost affection, but rather the "witchy blood" she inherited; the man's story explains why he may be sad or not able to talk about what's on his mind: he has seen perfect beauty and limitless love, and knows that his own love may not "leave an imprint on the world, the way great art does, that all who saw it would be changed by it".

There's more, though, because the final paragraph returns us to the frozen winter, and we learn that the house froze like an ice sculpture and the couple stayed inside it all through the winter -- "By burning all the wood and most of the furniture and eating canned food even if it was out of date, they survived, thinner and less certain of fate, into a spring morning thaw..." -- and eventually the stories they told became secrets they shared, a bond that carried them through whatever weather they encountered, forevermore.

The story is gripping and beautiful because its pieces work together so well, and yet they are also interesting in and of themselves. The frozen world is strange, funny, and a bit scary; the story of the strawberry-loving witch is an amusingly off-kilter fairy tale; the man's story is really two stories of its own, that of the artist and that of the man himself as he tries to learn more about the artist. Each tale has its own path and integrity, but when they all come together, the result is subtle and seemingly infinite in its implications. It is a story of love as art, love as magic, art as magic, the blinding obsession that fuels it all, the inevitable failures, the nobility of attempts, the harsh realities of worldly life, the myths we use (and, perhaps, need) to bind our solitary ways together. The structure Rickert uses for "Cold Fires" is a risky one, because it could easily lead to a numbingly schematic story or one where the individual pieces didn't add up to anything, but she makes it work with the kind of skill and confidence developed over years of practice.

I interviewed Mary Rickert recently (in an interview tentatively scheduled for the October issue of The Internet Review of SF), and I learned much about her, including those years of practice. Though her body of work is still small, it is of a quality most other writers might justifiably envy, and "Cold Fires" is one of her best stories yet.

(If you haven't read any of Rickert's work, Ideomancer has a short interview and three stories: "The Girl Who Ate Butterflies", "Night Blossoms" and "More Beautiful Than You".)