In honor of Black Speculative Fiction Month, eight SFF authors share stories that honor forebearers and memories of the past, fight the legacies that underpin the brutalities of the present, and demand a future that’s freer than today.
The stories publish on Tor.com all throughout the morning of October 19. They are collected here.
I should know how to spell a Graves family gathering by now.
“Once . . . th-there was . . .” I pause, chewing my heartbeat. Fashionable relatives, peppered throughout the Hilton’s stately ballroom, stare on. Unimpressed. Skeptical. “Once,” I repeat, louder, “there was a housekeeper who—”
“I’on see nothing!” someone shouts.
“But he’s right, though.”
Uncles murmur into bulbous snifters; cousins snicker behind their phones. Dry-mouthed, I squint into the searing spotlight overhead, grimacing around microphone feedback.
“Once, there was a housekeeper with legendary hands.”
Sticking mine out, I curl brown fingers into the staid, hotel air; gaze across attendees at the thirty-third Graves Family Reunion; and conjure a memory spell unique to our bloodline.
“This housekeeper,” I continue, fingers tingling, “was our very own Betty Graves, Great-great-Granny to most of us. As you can see…”
Yet, fear-stricken, I realize nothing’s happening. The room hasn’t responded to my spell; it hasn’t bled obsidian, like the opening of a film, before coalescing around the manifested memory of Betty Graves’s greatest heist.
Silence claims the room.
You ain’t got a dribble of your mama’s magic, someone whispers into my mind, startling me into bumping the mic stand. Of course, I find Aunt Claudette exploiting our blood-link from her table, and I hesitate a fraction too long.
“Enough.” Claudette gesticulates tawny arms, her lips wrung tight. “Promising conjurer, my ass. Chile, sit down and let somebody else work.”
Heat kneads my spine. Heads around the room—coiled and braided, bejeweled and ombré—nod in agreement. I’ve long been “chile” to Claudette, a quiet thing, stick-legged and gap-toothed, watching Mom brag about my Gift. Sid’s better at it than me, she’d laughed. One day, she’ll spell a whole reunion. Watch.
Decades later, I’ve succeeded in withering, hot-faced and unprepared, beneath Claudette’s stare, when I mean to prove myself. To atone.
“That you are.” It’s Aunt Celia who speaks, her voice clear as quartz, soothing Claudette’s narrow fury. “We named Sidney this reunion’s conjurer, and that’s binding.”
Speckled around the room, various Graves family conjurers—who imbibe and archive family births and deaths, triumphs and trials; who behold every momentous occasion the Graves-Byrne-Williams clan has ever had—hum their agreement.
“She’s jet-lagged,” Aunt Celia continues, gliding toward me. “Tonight, Sid’s going to rest up. And tomorrow, she’ll spell us a memory so good, her mama’ll feel it from on high.”
I want to protest, but shame seals my lips, making me slink away. Behind me, Deandre lumbers onto the dance floor with his Casio keyboard, beginning “Für Elise” to open the talent show. Nobody minds that the keys light up, guiding his little fingers.
A long bath later, well after I’d drunk myself silly and sad, Aunt Celia comes for me.
“So, you in here moping when you should be working?” The state of my room is answer enough; she notes my suitcase, propped open, and empty drawers flung wide. “You’re leaving, then.”
When we sit, it’s on the lumpy hotel mattress beside items she brought me days ago: a milky pearl necklace, with the label “Betty Graves’s Greatest Heist”; shavings of concrete from that time “Uncle Harris Bodied Interdimensional Gryphons.” There are blades of grass bound by snot; tire treads, neatly cut; dirt from God knows where; all tethered to the flamboyant family memories Mom had been responsible for.
Thumbing Betty’s necklace, I work myself up to admitting the truth.
“I lied.” Celia stares, but I avoid her gaze. “When you asked if I felt confident taking on Mom’s conjurings, I lied. I didn’t want to disappoint, and I wanted Mom’s tethered-memories for safekeeping.” Looking up, I notice her watching my hands, inspecting the pearls clutched between my thumb and forefinger. “I got Mom’s Gift, but I refused to learn it. Thought it was weird. A little scary, even.”
“And now she’s gone,” Celia replies.
Any minute, I expect her to leave, thoroughly disappointed. Instead, she takes Betty’s pearls, rubbing an empty spot where I’d pulled one from the band. “I knew all that. Otherwise, you’d know a conjuring doesn’t work unless the entire relic’s eaten.”
Oh. My jaw slackens.
“I didn’t ask ’cause I thought you were good. I asked because you’re family, my only niece. All I need to know is what you want now, Sidney. You want to learn? Or leave?”
Suddenly, Aunt Celia looks at me the way Mom used to, her words like hot knives piercing gathered pulp, burning past fear. I’ve been away so long, shaping myself with learnings and blunders alike.
Straightening, I realize—this is no different.
“Hell yeah, I want to learn.”
At breakfast, older relatives grab continental fare in a reserved dining room while children race between their legs, hopped up on orange juice. This time when I face everyone—even Claudette’s steely glare—I don’t stammer and sweat before a mic.
Raising one arm, I swallow Betty Grave’s pearl necklace, metal and mineral ridging my throat; shiver as her memories permanently sink into the meat of my mind. Clasping my hand, Aunt Celia anchors our spell, which cleaves sinew to claim my tongue.
“Once,” I say, my voice oscillating with another’s, “there was a housekeeper whose heists were the stuff of legend.”
Each word is an accordion, folding the walls, bleeding them from beige to black. Then, green—verdant malachite, framed by wide oak trees and blistering sunlight. It’s warm; we’re warm, our onyx and amber hues suddenly awash in light.
Ahead, where the buffet once stood, sprawls a manor house, cordoned by wrought iron welded around a single letter: “B” for Betty. Lapping at lavish driveways, her house was bought brazenly, unforgivingly, with monies from stolen art and jewelry.
My relatives roar, thunderously applauding.
“She defied tradition,” I continue, quieting them as Betty Graves emerges from my chest, translucent, yet resplendent in a peacoat, pearl necklace, and gauzy fascinator. Facing us, she beams across space and time.
“That woman,” we say together, “was me.”
“Conjurer’s Rites” © Jen Brown
Art copyright © Eli Minaya
Jen Brown, a queer, Black speculative fiction author and academic librarian, writes fantastical tales from a plant-filled home in Northern California. Her short fiction is a finalist for the Ignyte Award, and has been published in FIYAH Literary Magazine and PodCastle. She regularly tweets at @jeninthelib, but you can read more about her work at jencbrown.com.