Today I’m reviewing Beth Cato’s “With Cardamom I’ll Bind Their Lips” from Uncanny #15 and L.M. Davenport’s “Hic Sunt Leones” from Shimmer #35.
This story from Beth Cato revolves around spices, ghosts, and secrets.
“With Cardamom I’ll Bind Their Lips” is a charming and somewhat sobering story of a curious young girl who learns a little bit more about the world than she was planning on when she undertook an apprenticeship with a local wise woman, Lady Magdalena. We’re drawn into the story through Vera’s sharp perceptions and her obvious interest in Magdalena’s work and in Magdalena herself as they seal Vera’s uncle Ivan into a corner behind a bookshelf until his spirit can fade. When Vera learns that one of the reasons Magdalena is so poor—an explicit contrast is drawn between the comfort that Magdalena brings to the bereaved and the shabby apartment she lives in—is that her husband deserted during the recent war. Vera doesn’t catch the significance of the interplay between her mother and Magdalena when she asks what happened to Magdalena’s husband, but this is a clue to the reader that not everything is what it seems to be.
And indeed it is not. In the course of her investigations, which involves talking to the horses in the police stables (from which Vera had been banned prior to the start of the story), she learns that Vasily, Magdalena’s husband, never even made it out of the city and was, instead, killed and fed to the dogs. Vera, of course, can’t leave well enough alone (the reader already sees where this is going) and ultimately discovers that Vasily was an abuser and that Magdalena had killed him and fed him to the dogs—and in my favorite part of the story, Vera re-seals Vasily and positively revels in the power she holds over his spirt as she silences him forever.
While a bit predictable in places, I found this to be an enjoyable read—well-written and paced with a charmingly naïve narrator and a fascinating setting.
“Hic Sunt Leones” by L.M. Davenport (Shimmer #35)
L.M. Davenport’s “Hic Sunt Leones” is a short and atmospheric story about a search for a house which, in many respects, resembles that of Baba Yaga. The unnamed narrator tracks sightings of the house with pins on a map bearing the legend “Hic Suit Leones”, the ancient cartographical phrase used to denote dangerous or unexplored areas of the map—and indeed, there are lions about the narrator’s landscape.
They’ve been looking for the house their entire life—but is that really what’s going on here? The narrator is also looking for their mother, her mind damaged in an accident, and no longer able to describe the house to the narrator—as the narrator remarks, the woman who woke up from the tumble down the stairs is no longer their mother. Relying upon slips of paper with descriptions of the rooms in the house written in the past, the narrator has nothing to hold on to but the stories of the house they shared with their mother. It’s a touchstone and the only thing the narrator has left of the relationship.
Even though they know that it never appears to those who know about it, the narrator is unable to stop looking. Pins appear on the map and this changeability mirrors the changes in the physical and mental landscapes of the story—the closing scene is almost a matryoshka doll: the narrator in their house, the house in this world, and hoping for something from outside the world to intrude, but intrude isn’t quite the right word, as there is a palpable longing for escape, for connection to something.
I think the house is a proxy for the narrator’s mother, a womb they wish to return to. They believe they were born in the house and it is to the house they wish to return, even though the entrance is the same as the exit and there is no going back. Ultimately, I found this story to be evocative and thoughtful and incredibly sad.