Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a weekly column dedicated to doing exactly what it says in the header: shining a light on the some of the best and most relevant fiction of the aforementioned form.
Last week, to the best of my recollection, I hadn’t heard of Ursula Vernon. No doubt her name had cropped up on any number of occasions, but I’m afraid I paid it no notice. This week, I read “Jackalope Wives” on a bit of a whim whilst between books, and now I’m aware of what a mistake I made, ignoring her stories.
Many of you will be well ahead of me, I expect—my co-conspirator Brit Mandelo obviously was. After all, the author (and artist) has written (and illustrated) a goodly number of novels, including the Dragonbreath books for younger readers and both volumes of Black Dogs. Most notable, though, is Digger: a professedly peculiar epic about a wombat and a dead god which won the Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story in 2012. Digger was subsequently the subject of an immensely successful Kickstarter campaign which raised more than four times its funding.
Of these I’m keen to read Digger in particular—it sounds like Bone with a side serving of Dave Sim’s Cerberus—but today we’re going to talk about the soulful short story that sold me on the most involving new voice I’ve discovered in some months.
“Jackalope Wives” begins in the company of a broody boy who the girls in town find fascinating. There’s those “who think they can heal him”—who haven’t yet learned better, as the narrator notes—and are drawn inexorably to said sullen soul. But this young man has “a touch of magic on him,” and perhaps that’s why he has little love for the local ladies. He desires something different... something dangerous.
He himself had one thought and one thought only—to catch a jackalope wife.
They were beautiful creatures, with their long brown legs and their bodies splashed orange by the firelight. They had faces like no mortal woman and they moved like quicksilver and they played music that got down into your bones and thrummed like a sickness.
And there was one—he’d seen her. She danced farther out from the others and her horns were short and sharp as sickles. She was the last one to put on her rabbit skin when the sun came up.
She is his destiny, the fool boy believes... so he hatches a plan. Patient as a bird of prey, he waits up one night, catches his would-be wife unawares in the dawning morning and casts her rabbit skin into the fire. But as her fur burns she lets loose a piercing scream. Too late he realises the inherent wrongness of the rite they discuss in hushed tones in town.
Thinking to save her this pain he rescues the remains of her flame-fried hide. Mollified, she puts it on without a thought... but it is no longer what it was. Its magic has lapsed; it can only half-transform the wretched rabbit, leaving her “trapped betwixt and between.” Though she is no human woman now, so too are her jackalope days evidently done:
She was a horror. Her hands were human enough, but she had a jackrabbit’s feet and a jackrabbit’s eyes. They were set too wide apart in a human face, with a cleft lip and long rabbit ears. Her horns were short, sharp spikes on her brow.
The jackalope wife let out another sob and tried to curl back into a ball. There were burnt patches on her arms and legs, a long red weal down her face. The fur across her breasts and belly was singed. She stank of urine and burning hair.
The boy can think of only one person to turn to: he brings the beauty has broken to his Grandma Harkness, who despairs at his behaviour, swearing at him to “be cruel or be kind, but don’t be both” before expelling him from her house. She cannot bring herself to put the poor creature out of its misery either—the right thing to do, surely—but this knowing old crone can take care of the beast at least. She can treat the jackalope wife as if she were one of her own. Or she can try.
The passage of time teaches her otherwise. It becomes plain that there’s no place in town for a girl with her burden, so Grandma Harkness, having no other notion, collects some items to sacrifice and makes a pilgrimage to the top of a distant hill. There, she sets about summoning the Patterned Man, who may—for the right price—be able to give the jackalope wife a new lease on life.
“He’ll kill you,” the old woman said. “Or cure you. Or maybe both. You don’t have to do it. This is the bit where you get a choice. But when it’s over, you’ll be all the way something, even if it’s just all the way dead.”
The jackalope wife nodded.
Though the author has little sympathy for the boy with which the thing begins, “Jackalope Wives” is an extraordinary short story with a captivating protagonist in Grandma Harkness: a careworn old soul set apart from the people by a secret; a secret revealed to excellent effect in the narrative’s melancholy closing moments. In the interim she balances out the boy’s essential selfishness with the patience and grace that comes, in some, with age.
Nary a word of “Jackalope Wives” is wasted: every image is significant, every turn of phrase telling. This a fantastic fable that teaches us that “we shouldn’t always get what we think we want,” that pursuing our hearts’ desires—however righteous or reasonable these may seem—can incur an awful cost; a price that must be paid by us or others.
It’s true that “Jackalope Wives” brings to mind The Brides of Rollrock Island; indeed, though their respective purposes are poles apart, Ursula Vernon’s breed of magical realism has quite a lot in common with Margo Lanagan’s.
So does this strange but true tale strike new ground? I don’t know. Probably not though, no. Then again, “Jackalope Wives” does what it does so simply, so sweetly, so seamlessly that I don’t know that it needs to.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.