Welcome back to Reading the Weird, in which we get girl cooties all over weird fiction, cosmic horror, and Lovecraftiana—from its historical roots through its most recent branches.
This week, we cover Tananarive Due’s “The Wishing Pool,” first published the July/August 2021 issue of Uncanny Magazine. Spoilers ahead!
“Joy nearly got lost on the root-knotted red dirt path off of Highway 99, losing sight of the gaps between the live oaks and Spanish moss that fanned across her hood and windows like fingertips.”
Joy’s great-grandfather built the cabin in the North Florida woods in the 1920s, as a refuge from lynch mobs resentful of successful Negro businessmen. A hundred years later, the entire cabin sags, “weary of standing.” It looks smaller than Joy remembers from her childhood summers. Her brother Jesse’s warned her the bathroom’s in rough shape. The only heat comes from a coal stove. The land line hasn’t been hooked up, and she’s getting no cell signal. Not the place she’d have picked for a weekend away from her New York home, except that her father’s there.
He’s been here at least two months, and maybe for the whole year since Joy’s mother died. Joy nursed her through her battle with cancer while Jesse was deployed in Afghanistan. Now that he’s back, it’s fair he should watch out for their father. And Jesse did take Dad to the neurologist to confirm his dementia. He’s promised to spend every weekend. His last visit, however, worried him so much he wanted Joy to visit and help decide whether Dad needs a—more structured environment.
Dad won’t want to leave the woods, the one place he’s happy now. Joy expected to find Dad frail; still, she’s shocked to see his shriveled frame, shadow-circled eyes, and the canula in his nostrils. Though the afternoon grows cold, he wears only urine-stained long underwear and a threadbare robe. Coughing racks him, robbing his breath.
Joy’s seen death close up. She sees it now hovering over Dad. But she sees, too, the grin that strips thirty years from his face as he calls her by his special nickname: “Joya!” She wants to cry. Instead she refuels the stove, checks for food, and tries the land line (still dead). Dad refuses to go to a doctor. He’s already seen doctors, and there’s nothing to be done. What brings tears into his eyes isn’t his physical condition, but the fact that he can’t remember her mother’s middle name. He can’t remember most things, but forgetting Patricia is too much. When Joy tells him her middle name was Rose, he writes it in his notebook along with his grandchildren’s names, his own birthdate.
After settling Dad in bed, Joy notices it’s not yet dark. That’s when she remembers the Wishing Pool.
When Joy was ten, she made friends with a white girl, Natalie, whose family cabin was near theirs. Midway between the cabins was what Natalie called the Wishing Pool: two live oaks leaning together over green-brown water more puddle than pool. Don’t touch the water, Natalie warned. Touching it would ruin your wishes.
Their first wish was for a dog. Next morning Natalie showed up with a black-and-white mutt so muddy he might have crawled out of the Wishing Pool. Lucky made their summer ten times better. Then, just before Joy returned home, Lucky disappeared. Maybe it was because they hadn’t wished to keep him?
Next summer Natalie wished for her often-arguing parents to split up. The summer after that, a new tenant was in Natalie’s cabin. They told her a drunk driver had killed the former owner. Not the mother or daughter, the father. Joy avoided the Wishing Pool after that.
Joy takes a flashlight and pushes through heavy underbrush to the Pool, expecting to find it dried up. No: Brown water still peeps between fallen leaves. She tosses in a penny and wishes for her father to be “healthy and happy.” Wondering whether Natalie blamed herself for her father’s death, she wants to recall the wish. Instead she struggles back to the cabin and checks on Dad. He sleeps peacefully—could the magic already be working? Joy so wants to believe it. She curls up on the sofa and sleeps.
In the morning, Dad is gone. Hearing someone chopping wood outside, Joy hurries to the old woodpile and sees Dad cleaving logs and laughing. It’s a deep belly laugh that should make him cough, but he doesn’t. His breathing sounds strong and clear. Healthy. He laughs again. Happy.
Joy calls to him. He asks, unsmiling, as of a stranger, “Help you?” Hearing her name is Joy—Joya—he merely says she reminds him of someone. And –
He’s pleased to meet her.
His smile may be the one he flashed her mother at their first encounter. Or maybe it’s the one he wore holding newborn Joy. Soon Joy can’t see that smile through her tears.
She only hears the chopping of wood and “her father’s strong huff of breath as his laughter and liberation rang in the treetops.”
What’s Cyclopean: The cabin, like its inhabitant, is not what Joy imagined or remembered: “puny and weather-beaten and sad, more relic than residence.”
The Degenerate Dutch: Joy’s great-grandfather built the cabin in the 1920s to hide from lynch mobs who couldn’t cope with a Negro businessman owning a shiny new Model T.
Weirdbuilding: Wishes have been going wrong for as long as protagonists have been tempted to rub lamps and pick up monkeys’ paws.
Libronomicon: Joy remembers being made to play outside instead of reading Virginia Hamilton books. In the story’s present there are no books, only Joy’s father’s notes on his own life and the names of his loved ones.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Dementia and grief are as close as we get to madness this week. Close enough.
Oh hell. If I’d thought it through, I might not have picked this story for the first birthday my mom didn’t survive to see. It’s an extremely good story. It gets sharply at the entirely mundane horror of losing parents. How it can only be too fast or too slow, body and mind too much in synch or too much out of synch. Nothing makes it better, and yet it can always get worse.
“Time was a mystery and a lie since Mom had died.” That feels familiar.
“The Wishing pool” is very nearly only about that mundane horror. The dog, the car accident, those could be pure coincidence, a child’s magical thinking. But here, they’re the nightmare of that magical thinking. If you really could wish the world different, then you’d be the one making it worse, whether through the momentary whims of anger or through your inability to articulate what you actually want.
That’s what all those cautionary tales of wishes are about, isn’t it? Language simply isn’t adequate to describe our hopes and dreams—especially not if whatever’s listening doesn’t share our priorities. It’s impossible to tell whether the Pool is malicious or extremely literal. But it’s also impossible to get anything good out of it.
Loss of memory, loss of self, also walk that boundary between mundane and strange. The truth of dementia can scarcely be less frightening than the cosmic state changes of Livia Llewellyn’s “Bright Crown of Glory,” let alone the sudden overnight shift provided by the Pool. Perhaps more frightening, because neither health nor transcendence are offered in exchange. Joy gets, for good or guilt, some level of control. She still loses—almost—everything she would have lost otherwise.
There’s probably more to ask here: What does happen if you touch the pool? And larger questions, philosophical questions about whether the tradeoff is worth it, speculation about whether a man who’s forgotten everyone he loved is still himself. The Ship of Theseus for the brain.
I can’t find it in me to ask those questions today, any more than Joy probably can. Maybe next year.
An old Scottish proverb says that if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. A variation is that if wishes were fishes, beggars would eat. I stick by the wisdom of the Great Wishing Trope: Be careful what you wish for—it might come true! Or as Laurie Halse Anderson put it in Winter Girls: “Be careful what you wish for. There’s always a catch.”
According to the Great Wishing Trope (the GWT henceforth), a beggar who wished for a horse would get a whole herd, intent on stampeding him into the ground. A beggar who wished for fish would get improperly prepared fugu.
Gregory Weinkauf has proposed that “All great sci-fi is: Be careful what you wish for.” I don’t know about all great sci-fi, or all great sci-fi, or even sci-fi exclusive of other genres. Fiction in general is lousy with the GWT. As for wishes with magical or supernatural consequences, weird fiction rules. W. W. Jacob’s “Monkey’s Paw” may be the best-known example of the GWT in weird fic. My personal favorite is Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, which also centers on the all-too-understandable impulse to bring a dead loved one back to life. Has this most overweening wish ever ended well?
Due’s Joy doesn’t wish her father back from the dead, exactly, but from the living death of dementia. To exist without memory is to lose the complex self that memory preserves. That’s hell, isn’t it?
Is it? If so, is it a deeper hell for the person losing their memory or for the people around them? Here’s a double-deep hell: The person losing memory will also notice the loss until they reach the point where they forget that they’re forgetting. Joy’s Dad is in the double-deep stage. Awareness of his waning memory tortures him; to stave it off, he writes down such supposedly unforgettable facts as his grandchildren’s names and his own birthdate. The notebook is rendered more pathetic by the pen he’s rubber banded to it, lest he forget where he put his sole instrument for the “harvesting” of memories, the preservation of self.
Crucial to that preservation are Dad’s memories of his wife. He tears up when he can’t remember her middle name. At least that’s something he can write down. Not so much what her smile looked like. Who can describe that in a way that captures Dad’s experience of the smile? No one, not even Joy.
Finding her father sick and miserable, take-charge Joy would do anything to make him healthy and happy. Here’s where the GWT slithers in. Joy has reason to think her wishes could be horses or fishes. Joy knows about the Wishing Pool.
The way Due introduces Joy and her into-the-woods mission would suit a mainstream/literary story just fine. A less sophisticated writer might then proceed directly into her meeting with Dad, but Due serves up a seeming non sequitur, backstory about Joy and Natalie and how they messed around with a wish-granting puddle. Enter weirdness: The Wishing Pool appears to work! The girls ask for a dog. A stray appears the next day, as muddy as if the Pool had birthed it, then conveniently disappears before summer’s end renders it a logistical problem. Later, Natalie asks that her warring parents “split up.” This wish doesn’t come true instantly, but between summers Natalie’s father is killed by a drunk driver. Split-up accomplished.
These wish-fulfilments seem like magic but could be coincidences. Adult Joy treats the Pool as an amusing anecdote, but doesn’t admit that a younger Joy avoided it after learning about Natalie’s father. Thus Due infuses her story with an intriguing hint of the supernatural, a waft of bitter incense that lingers through the subsequent Joy-Dad scene, giving it additional tension. The scene sets up Joy to make a Big Decision no matter what, but now there’s an Uncanny Solution possible.
Uncanny Solutions associated with the GWT are always iffy. “Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can’t see where it keeps its brain,” Mrs. Weasley cautions Ginny. Or even if you can see brain-storage units, like the hoary heads of the Witches who promise Macbeth he’ll never fall until trees move and he’s confronted by a man not of woman born. Wishes always have catches! Never make a magical wish unless you’ve striven to foresee all possible consequences and have formulated a wish-wording to circumvent them!
Maybe you’ll have to present the Wishing Pool with a contract the size of an unabridged dictionary. Or maybe a simple clause to the core wish will do, like the one Joy thinks up after Lucky disappears: They should’ve wished not only for a dog, but for a dog they could keep.
Asking the Pool to make Dad “healthy and happy” is a wish too subject to interpretation. Wish him to be both physically and mentally healthy,” and you’ll have covered whatever’s making him cough himself to pieces and the dementia. Or get still more specific and add that the Pool should restore all his lost memories.
What about the “happy” part of Joy’s wish, though? Ultimately, what’s tormenting Dad is that he’s lost Patricia herself. If he remembers everything, he’ll remember she’s dead. All their potential together will be spent.
To fulfill that happy bit of Joy’s wish, the Pool decides not to restore Dad’s past but to liberate him from it, to restore to him the potential of a girl he smiles at for the first time, the potential of a first child he cradles in his arms. He retains only a shadow-memory—Joy reminds him of someone, and the shadow-recognition makes him smile without any bitterness because there is no pain attached to it. No specifics, no history. Only potential.
Observing the results of her wish, Joy soon “couldn’t see his smile for her tears.” Due leaves the reader to decide whether Joy weeps with grief at being reduced to a stranger in Dad’s eyes or with joy at a liberation so great that it “rang in the treetops” with his laughter.
I’m leaning toward a mix of both grief and joy. Wishes lead to complications, after all.
Next week, we continue N. K. Jemisin’s The City We Became with Chapter 9: A Better New York Is in Sight. As in The Better New York Foundation? Doesn’t sound like a pleasant sight at all…
Ruthanna Emrys’s A Half-Built Garden is now out! She is also the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots. You can find some of her fiction, weird and otherwise, on Tor.com, most recently “The Word of Flesh and Soul.” Ruthanna is online on Twitter and Patreon, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic, multi-species household outside Washington DC.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her young adult Mythos novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.