In these stories seers and vagabonds, addicts and gardeners succeed and sometimes fail at creating new kinds of community against apocalyptic backdrops. They build gardens in the ruins, transport seeds and songs from one world to another and from dreams to waking life. Where do you plant a seed someone gave you in a dream? How do you build a world more free of trauma when it’s all you’ve ever known? Sometimes the seed you wake up holding in your hand is the seed of a new world.
“Ursula Pflug’s stories are the kind you want to carry around with you for those days when it feels like you’re living in a strange and incomprehensible world; her stories will make you feel less alone. They are wondrous and unique little creatures that desire nothing more than to play fetch with your weirdest dreams. They are wild inventions built of words and sentences that dig into your psyche and send back reports about all you never knew of the world. They are sly and joyous, scary and entrancing, profound, unsettling, amusing, and utterly—perfectly!—unique.”
—Matthew Cheney, Hudson Prize winning author of Blood: Stories
“Ursula Pflug has to be one of the best short story writers I’ve ever read. There is no place to enter or leave an Ursula Pflug story that is not a portal to dark wonder. First you go in and find transformed worlds; then, when you come out with new vision, your own world changes as you observe it. Enter, and I promise you will be changed.”
—Candas Jane Dorsey, author of Black Wine and The Adventures of Isabel
“An extraordinary collection of magical stories that will wrap you in a timeless embrace and carry you away. Ursula Pflug’s wonderfully gentle and ultimately wise insights will break your heart, bring you hope, and encourage you to seek out the enchanted portals of creativity and love that you might otherwise have missed.”
—Lisa de Nikolits, author of Rotten Peaches and The Occult Persuasion and the Anarchist’s Solution
ABOUT AFTER THE FIRES:
“Ursula Pflug’s incendiary, surreal short fiction immerses the reader in a unique world. The effect is like nothing I’ve felt from reading any other writer’s fiction. Pflug manages to find the extraordinary and the epiphanal in reality, and bring out the reality of her fantastical settings. She’s a true original and this collection is Pflug at her best. A first-rate talent who should be more widely known.
—Jeff VanderMeer, NYT bestselling author of the Southern Reach Trilogy
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I don’t know how it is I came to have no parents and no name. I hear this is a place you can come, if you lookin’ for a name.
I have nothing. But I have had nothing before, and now I am glad to be free of it.
It is in the city. There are five of us, or maybe ten or thirty. The building is an empty one, gutted by fire. We have been sleeping on the floors, on found mattresses. I sprayed them all with a can of bug juice I bought. I do not like fleas or bedbugs.
Since I came here, last week, I have been planting flowers. I dig the earth out of the central courtyard. An empty yard. Probably it is full of lead, but eventually that too will be washed away by rain. The rain is cleaner now.
When I came, there was no one here. Now there are sometimes ten, sometimes twenty of us.
I have planted sunflowers in the yard. Their big heads turn, slowly, throughout the day.
I make window boxes out of some panelling ripped out of a wall. In them I plant geraniums, herbs, and tomatoes. The seeds are seeds I brought from the West. The soil is not good, this soil dug out of the yard. It is not really a yard.
One day I wake up and there are chickens in it. Where did the chickens come from? It doesn’t matter. They lay eggs, and they will be good to eat, when winter comes.
I gather the chicken dung and dilute it with water, and carefully pour it into the pots of plants. The tomatoes are doing fine. When someone new comes, I make them eat tomatoes.
“Vitamin C,” I say. They look at me strange, their eyes wide and dark, blank as stones.
“Eat your tomatoes,” I say.
They are young, most of them. They are young and frightened and ready to fight, and yet their mouths are all open, as though they were expecting something wonderful to come out of nowhere, to fly in.
They gather from the edges of the burnt city, hearing.
What do they hear?
That there is a place, a place you can come.
My sadness is that I am alone, that I am older than everyone here, that I must look after them all. They play with each other, giggling and combing one another’s hair.
They are like children, really. They run up and down the halls of the building, delighted, discovering things. Exploring. They like to rearrange, to take things apart and rearrange them. I remember I did that too. It is necessary, if they are to learn. Why we are here and not somewhere else.
I look after the plants and make the children eat them. I hope that none of them will get sick with something I cannot cure. I make them eat garlic and drink tea brewed from nettles and chamomile flowers. So they will be strong, will not get sick. I dream of someone coming over the hill. A man. He will be here soon. He will help me in my work.
I do not mind anymore, being always alone, being lonely. I no longer look for anyone to fall into, to carry me. I make them drink their teas. I make them wash. I watch as they play their secret, whispering games. I do not mind any more. Now I can do this; now I don’t mind not being one of them, but one of the others.
The man coming over the hill. I realize he isn’t coming over the hill, but is one of the ones here. He says his name is Stephen. He is maybe nineteen. He is very strong. I lean out the seeds window, watching him. He is leading the children. Shit in the pit, he says, not in the sunflowers. Wash your hands before you eat. Here, drink this tea. He yells at them sometimes but they do not really mind. As he becomes stronger, I disappear into the shadows. I lurk in the hallways, disappearing. I can, now. Now it isn’t so much responsibility; now someone has grown, like a sunflower … he is almost ready to harvest for seed. Ready to be an adult, come to help me shoulder the weight. I am glad. He does not speak to me, Stephen, but I can hear his voice in my mind, asking questions. I answer, from my room hidden in the dim corridors. Yes, you can do this and this and this.
Yes, the windmill on the roof is good. They will help you. You must make them work, teach them it is important. Energy and power. Their own. At first they won’t believe you, will not understand why, just as you did not understand, thought it was enough just to drift, to be asleep to your own power. Yes, you can do it.
“Will you help?” he asks me in my mind.
“Yes,” I say. “I will.”
Now they can hardly see me anymore. Stephen sees me, but only dimly, like something half forgotten, like a dream. He has already forgotten that I used to be a real person. He has forgotten I used to be flesh and blood like him, that I too suffered, hated to be so alone. I watch him cry, alone, sometimes at night.
“I cannot do it,” he cries, calling out my name. “I cannot do it, I cannot. You must help me. You say you love me, so you must help. You don’t know what it’s like he says, to work so hard for so little. Everything is darkness here, and I cannot see.”
“You can see,” I say. “There is a little light inside you, and if you turn it on, you will see everything, everything.”
He does then, at first tentatively, like an experiment, and then the whole yard is shining, illuminated, and he can see the faces of the children, some sleeping, some waking. They cannot see his light, but they know something has changed. They stir in their sleep, smiling, cuddling one another.
“You aren’t a human being,” he says. “You cannot know how it hurts.”
“Oh?” I say, but my heart hurts for him, for his hurt.
Then he is better again, and happy.
How I love him.
One day I will come back for him, and then we will be together.
At night, when they are all sleeping, I make the rounds of all my window boxes, gathering seeds. Seeds from tomatoes, from echinacea, cucumber, geranium, hyssop, basil. Parsley, garlic. Valerian, bergamot, mint. Sunflowers, zinnia, sweet pea. And of course, the beans and corn.
I dry the seeds on the roof, under the sun.
Then I climb the stairs again, at night. Up up up the stairs, all around the shadowy building, leaving it behind: its weight, its solidity. Each floor I go up, I look at the sleeping faces, bless them all. Each floor I go up, I feel a lightness, a greater freedom.
On the roof there are stars.
One of the stars moves and comes closer. In a great swoop of the mind I am lifted up up up among them. They welcome me, princes of peace. I recognize them all.
We skim over the night, looking for lights. Where we see lights, we hover and send our minds down into their dreams, the sleeping children. They do not know we have been there, but they feel a presence, a kindness, a benevolent intent. We are happy and shining.
Far below I see a girl, walking over a hill. In her knapsack she holds a packet of seeds and a bottle of water. Through the canvas of the knapsack I can see the seeds, the life inside them glowing like light bulbs.
And on another hill, there is a man. He is making something, seeds a new kind of machine. He will put it on the roof, and it will spin light and energy down from the stars.
One day they will be together, and then my work will be complete.
Inanna Admin –
Seeds and Other Stories by Ursula Pflug
reviewed by The Minerva Reader – May 1, 2020
An extraordinary collection of magical stories that will wrap you in a timeless embrace and carry you away. Pflug’s wonderfully gentle and ultimately wise insights will break your heart, bring you hope, and encourage you to seek out the enchanted portals of creativity and love that you might otherwise have missed.
Inanna Admin –
Seeds and Other Stories by Ursula Pflug
reviewed by Publishers Weekly – May 11, 2020
Pflug’s excellent third story collection (after Harvesting the Moon) showcases her mature, rich, and immersive storytelling. The stories reflect Pflug’s characters’ resilience in the face of 27 disparate apocalypses, united by motifs of seeds and gardening and a striking juxtaposition of hyperrealism with delicate fantasy. Standouts include “Mother Down the Well,” in which a woman seeks to recover the mother she’s never met from the bottom of a mysterious well; the title story, about a lonely older woman who cares for younger people and plants in apocalyptic times; “Unsichtbarkeit,” about an invisibility spell and its impact on a love triangle; and “The Dark Lake,” a decadent examination of domesticity and magic. Pflug’s careful, detailed worldbuilding is beautiful and the recurring motifs of nature, portals to other worlds (“Mother Down the Well,” “The Lonely Planey Guide to Other Dimensions,” “Myrtle’s Mania”), and personal notebooks (“The Dark Lake,” “The Meaning of Yellow”) make the collection feel cohesive and powerful. Readers are sure to be wowed. (June)
Inanna Admin –
Seeds and Other Stories by Ursula Pflug
reviewed by Victoria Silverwolf
Tangent Magazine – May 30, 2020
Canadian writer Ursula Pflug creates works that test the boundaries between mainstream fiction and the literature of the fantastic. Although her stories are difficult to classify, terms such as magic realism, surrealism, and slipstream come to mind. Her subtle, mysterious, and dreamlike tales are as likely to appear in literary journals as in genre publications.
This collection assembles works from as far back as 1983, at the beginning of the author’s career, as well as those published within the last few years. It also includes three stories appearing here for the first time.
“The Lonely Planet Guide to Other Dimensions” alternates the stories of two women. One is a writer, struggling to complete a tale set in a hotel. The other arrives at a hotel that changes position from time to time. It soon becomes clear that the writer created the other woman’s world. The two characters eventually come together, and the writer understands the importance of her work.
Stories about writers run the risk that their authors are just talking to themselves, without communicating with readers. As always, Pflug shows great skill in creating characters and evocative descriptions, but some will find the theme of this story too introspective.
The title of “Unsichtbarkeit” is the German word for invisibility, a theme treated in different ways. Early in the story, the narrator literally disappears from sight. She also works on a computer program that will allow people to erase traces of themselves. In the most metaphoric sense, the narrator’s lover vanishes, later discovered dead by his own hand.
Much of the story deals with the relationships among the narrator, her lover, and a German cabdriver. The narrative, addressed to the dead man, jumps back and forth in time as the narrator recalls their lives together. There are hints that sinister forces, perhaps governmental, drove the man to suicide.
Despite the melodramatic elements of the plot, reminiscent of a spy story, this is mostly a mood piece. The cabdriver is a fully developed character, but the narrator and her lover remain vague.
In “Harker and Serena,” carved wooden poles drift down a river from somewhere upstream. They seem to have magical powers. A woman collects these, and sells them to mysterious figures. A man who grows lichen and leaves on his body arrives, and becomes her lover. She uses one of the poles to cure her son of a fatal illness, leading to unexpected tragedy.
The story ends suddenly, with a scene of gruesome violence that seems out of place. As in many of Pflug’s works, strange events remain unexplained, creating both intrigue and frustration.
Victoria Silverwolf was going to compare these stories to Impressionist paintings, but thought that sounded pretentious.
Inanna Admin –
Seeds and Other Stories by Ursula Pflug
reviewed by The Miramichi Reader – June 12, 2020
In my years of reading and reviewing, I consider Ursula Pflug one of my “finds”, that is, an author that I enjoy reading and want to read everything he/she produces. I was first introduced to Ms. Pflug by her 2017 novella Mountain. Down From (2018), is derived from the seeds of two short stories (“The Dreams of Trees” and “Daughter Catcher”) in this collection of her previously published works from the past decade or so. So, then, Seeds is a fitting title!
“Ms. Pflug’s style is a nice little mixture of literature, surrealism and sci-fi. In short, escapist reading with significance, if you will.”
There are twenty-six short stories in Seeds’ almost 300 pages, and while some are brief (“A Shower of Fireflies”) others are much longer and tell a more complete story averaging about 15-20 pages per story. Ms. Pflug’s style is a nice little mixture of literature, surrealism and sci-fi. In short, escapist reading with significance, if you will. The title story is post-apocalyptic science-fiction that seems a little closer to reality reading it in the midst of a pandemic. “The Lonely Planet Guide to Other Dimensions” has two hotels physically separated by distance, but connected by a portal:
“The hotel is a node. People from another dimension can stay here. The hotel exists in two dimensions at once, and in the other one it’s called The Red Arcade.”
What is fascinating about this story is that Rachel, living in one dimension, is writing a story about Esme, who lives in another, but they manage to meet via this portal. In “Mother Down the Well” a very different type of portal exists deep in a well on a farm in Ontario. Clarissa’s mother fell (jumped?) into it before Clarissa was born and has been living down there ever since.
My mother jumped down the well the day after her wedding to a local settler boy. Everyone thought her young husband must have been awful until a beautiful baby girl floated to the surface nine months later. That would’ve been me. Dave followed a year later although how Pa impregnated Ma once she was living down the well I was too shy to ever ask.
Pa did a fine job raising us. I think he missed my mother a lot and wished he had been able to provide whatever it was she got suckling at the portal down the well, but of course could not. Special as he may have been he couldn’t provide her with whatever other dimensional flavour it was she loved best, for it simply doesn’t exist here on Earth, not now and probably never. Ma never did tell me what it was either.
The above passage is a good example of Ms. Pflug’s pragmatic story-telling style as if things like portals and interdimensional travel are occurrences that are not unusual in themselves, they just transpose that way in the telling, like trying to explain the colour blue to a sightless person.
Is Seeds and Other Stories unusual? Yes. Far-fetched? Maybe, but not unreasonably so, I don’t believe. But this is what I so enjoy about reading Ursula Pflug. “A little bit of escapism with your literature, James?” “Yes, I don’t mind if I do Ms. Pflug, thanks.”
Inanna Admin –
Seeds and Other Stories by Ursula Pflug
reviewed by Matthew David Surridge
Black Gate Magazine – June 19, 2020
Ursula Pflug’s fiction demands to be savoured. Her new collection, Seeds And Other Stories, holds 26 short fictions ranging in length from flash fiction to short novelettes, each marked out by precise language and fantastic happenings seen edge-on. They’re not linked by plot but by threads of imagery: portals to other places; hallucinatory new drugs named for colours; gardening, and plants sprouting from the earth or human bodies. Each individual piece on its own carries a powerful emotional weight. Together it becomes difficult to read more than a few in a sitting, and that is no bad thing.
The stories in Seeds all can at least be read as having some element of the fantastic, though often it’s very slight. “Myrtle’s Marina,” for example, follows a man ambling about the run-down marina he owns and thinking back to moments that might have been magic. “A Shower of Fireflies” is an enigmatic two-page story about a mother reflecting on her life and her children. In the final story, “My Mother’s Skeleton,” a woman speaks to her daughter, remembers her mother, and meditates on art.
Most tales push reality further. “Mother Down the Well” opens the collection with a story about a woman in rural Ontario whose well holds a magical portal and her magic-touched mother. “Judy” is a short science-fictional tale with a post-apocalyptic feel, about a woman who loses a friend among a raging plague. “The Lonely Planet Guide to Other Dimensions” follows a writer who finds an alternate world in a mundane setting, and along with it a power to rewrite existence.
All these stories, and all the stories in Seeds, are intensely focused works. When not told in first person, they submerge themselves in a very tight and limited third-person point of view. Details of description are rarely given, only what matters to the character at any given moment. There’s an implied irony in this approach, insisting on the limitations of a character’s perspective, and it works. These are stories about absences, about things that once were and whether they may be regrown.
They’re also stories about emotionally intense subjects: family, lovers, visions (artistic, psychedelic, or both). Pflug illustrates these themes with an approach to the fantastic that borders on the surreal whether the fantastic or science-fictional elements are overt or not. There’s an allusiveness to them, and a willingness not to explain them. These are not comfortable knowable worlds with clearly-elaborated systems of magic or technology. These are worlds bigger and plainer than the characters we follow, who deal plainly with odd events: there’s little awe here, and where it does exist it’s often an awe of the natural world and not of magic.
The spareness of the stories tends to pull them toward horror. Certainly a piece like “Harker and Serena,” about mysterious magical forces and oddly missing memories, plays with trauma in the way much good horror does. But then a story like “Daughter Catcher,” about a madwoman and witch seeking her missing daughter by working spells out of debris, has a touching upbeat ending for all that it focusses on loss and waste things; on what is thrown away, if also what can be reclaimed. Still the effect is something like horror, in that there are glimpses of realities beyond the everyday which evidently operate according to rules left unexplored and unknowable.
The reader has to put together pieces of story, then, and work out for themselves what’s going on. You could well call this slipstream (which term turns up as the name of a horse in “Trading Polaris,” one assumes used as a knowing genre nod). But you could also say that there are elements here of Southern Ontario Gothic; frequently though not inevitably in the choice of setting, also in a recurring depiction of repressive or conformist societies opposed by some form of outsider. Artists, madwomen, witches, and the generally non-compliant haunt the pages of Seeds.
Pflug in this collection is an observer of desolate spaces. Whether in Ontario or elsewhere, she writes of the poor and the lower middle-class, of musicians living three to an apartment, of bohemians and damaged people dwelling among decaying architecture. These lives, these spaces, are depicted without resentment: lack of resources, if not actual poverty, is merely the nature of existence.
As fits the title, there’s a recurring sense in Seeds of connections across generations. The title story is about a presence working to foster connections among youths and potential teachers, to build a better future. And so we in other stories elders working to establish some better future for the young. Occasionally that’s reversed, as in “Big Ears,” where a young musician helps an older man return to what matters to him. But there’s a frequent sense of steward-like figures, not authority figures, working to make times to come better than the times that have been: allowing seeds to grow and blossom.
On the other hand, there’s also a lot of stories here in which characters are haunted by the past, usually their own. Pflug does very interesting things with point-of-view and memory; stories may be nominally told in flashback, but then the unreliability of memory is also a recurring theme. Many of these stories seem to be told in the aftermath of something else; many of them are stories about recovering from something dramatic that happened once to one or more of the characters.
These things often resolve in some kind of literal or symbolic renewal, and by avoiding any kind of obvious attempt to play on the emotions Pflug’s neutral and precise style can bring about a sense of surprising peace at the end of a story. These are not straightforward reads, and they are not comfortable reads; there are no guaranteed happy endings, and almost no simple endings. But they have a tendency to turn toward the harmonious, in unpredictable ways.
Back in 2012 I reviewed an earlier collection of Pflug’s work, After the Fires. Looking at it again before reading Seeds And Other Stories I was struck by how the stories had stayed in my mind; or perhaps how I’d grown to better understand the work. Character felt more varied than I’d first understood, and the imagery more fluid. Looking at the two books together it’s clear that Pflug’s a writer with a distinct vision of human character and a distinct sense of how to use prose and the fantastic to bring that character out. There is, in particular, a sense of the interplay of generations that is different from any other writer I can think of — less nurturing or conflicted than an interplay of help and misunderstanding, a braid feeding back and feeding forward. The young, here, are as capable of nurturing old seeds as the reverse.
Seeds And Other Stories is a rich collection of stories revolving around art and growth. These tales reward active thoughtful reading, and at the same time deal with powerful subject matter. These aren’t easy stories, but they are deeply rewarding ones.
Inanna Admin –
Seeds and Other Stories by Ursula Pflug
reviewed by The Des Lewis Gestalt Real-Time Reviews: A FEARLESS FAITH IN FICTION — Book Reviewing – August 2020
AS IF LEAVES COULD HIDE INVISIBLE BEINGS
“I couldn’t stop seeing you if I wanted.” Now that I can, it’s not like I can put the ability back in its lock box…”
This story seems to have evolved, presumably since it was written, into the archetypal co-vivid dream, those forever shutting doors in a concertina of lockdowns, recurring gulps of hindsight’s realisation of what you know now is possible, fairies, new existence of your mother, England’s River Ouse, Ouse, just one letter short of where you live now in perfect sweet invisibility…with Mort. Whether it be man or bear out to see your unselfconscious nudity, who now cares? This story has matured, beyond measure, to mean what you never meant it to mean, and only these times of ours today can create such miracles of the work itself always having known ab initio what it meant. Now purely naked in its own autonomous meaning. Leaving somewhere, time and time again, thus it ‘leaves’ again whatever the covidually multi-souled lock box of Ouse or house it happens to have been. Arguably.
MOTHER DOWN THE WELL
“We worked most of the morning and half the afternoon with a complicated assemblage of pulleys and rope, magnets, delicious snacks, and photographs of my brother and me when we were babies.”
From tablets of stone as part of our statue syndrome today, often, at least figuratively, posted out all over the world via the in-boxes of our souls, to a well where mother is deep within and whence she gave birth to this narrator and her brother. One tablet, albeit cracked, had words inducing the ‘hawling’ her back up to live among them, including among the narrator’s indigenous friends, whatever the name of their colour. I say ‘hawling’, because that is my word, but the “leverage” described in the above quote seems for the first time to define that word for me, and to help us understand bereavement’s coming of age as a well’s leverage of birth. A beverage beyond death’s thirst. And thus here, deep down, to feel its emotion. That and naming deers after famous artists, and skinning them as an oblique turning of a kind or blind eye. Humanity cannot truly exist without learning such oblique things from the instinctive truths of fiction. The art of believement.
“…sharing space with brush strokes done hundreds of years ago.”
…as a sort of time travel, this story says. A series of paradoxical views of invisibility and others and self—mutually coded by intercommunication on the internet or indeed by fiction itself or sharing the same space in real life, like being driven by the same taxi driver who was part of “Even the Mirror” that I somehow in my older age now fail to grasp… A story of Pflug Venn diagram auras—as versions of this book’s earlier muses: animals, or even fish or whatever swimming in your wake…? Some even wearing your jacket!
“At first it was a coincidence. But the coincidence, after repeating itself so many times, like links in a chain, transmuted into pattern…”
THE DREAMS OF TREES
I consider this to be a classic, publishable in future important literary anthologies—Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf (both of whom I have real-time reviewed) here blended with archetypal and unique Pflug. A woman in her thirties with all the symptoms of short-term memory loss usually associated with Alzheimer’s and with longer-term childhood memories of her father and journeys on a train in North Africa. Dreams of trains as well as trees. And passing lozenges of light on seatbacks. With chance or synchronous stumblings in books towards an inner truth. I “parse” such meaning in books with my reviews. Books have their own dreams, too.
“…when all those people started dying.”
A brief story, yet for one first published in 1983, an amazing premonition of today’s Covid pandemic itself and the Jungian co-vivid collective dreams attached to it. Just read it and see, the air conditioning/Legionnaire’s, the Tobacco Fiasco as an archetypal or symbolic contagion, the whale deaths as well as the human ones. Judy’s documenting of theories about it, visuals and ideas. Strangely infected, too, in this book by the previous story’s lack of social distance. There is a dog in “Judy” called Hamilton as well as a beach, both mentioned in contiguity on page 199, with ‘Hamilton Beach’ as the sub-heading at the top of this right-hand page, while ‘Judy’ is correctly the sub-heading at the top of both this stories other right hand pages!
THE MEANING OF YELLOW
“…captured and taken on a long ride through inexplicable weirdness—unmoored in space and time, coerced to explore…”
…as I am by this wonderful story, a story that is probably to go in my hall of all time favourite stories by any author! It feels like a very personal story, as we follow Jessica and the yellow notebooks or commonplace books she keeps losing in public places, notebooks, whether permanently lost or refound, seeming to connect piecemeal towards a premonitional gestalt of Jessica’s future. But it was the concept of the yellow couch and her grappling with it Laurel and Hardy Style on an apartment-block fire escape that really got me! You will always remember that this is where you heard of this particular Pflug story for the first time.
THE DARK LAKE
“Because it is only through the skin that these secrets can come. It is nothing you can read in a book, or, say, a seed catalogue.”
…although this story does both those things through extreme prose-poesy and condensation of a whole novel of real AND fictional people into a 10-page distillation by dream. A whole seed catalog of someone running a seed shop and herbs and flowers as cures for curse, a Monsty in the nearby lake who works both ways in the best possible world of backstory and present, via porous genders and strict ones, too, a gender gestalt that lives and breathes as an escape clause living above complex truth of those we meet and rub along with and whatever they inherit, too. And the children we inherit, too. Making our weather. Wreaths as thresholds. Space shorts of Bi-Way on this book’s cover. Time with two selves. Body, as well as mind. Seeds and Other Stories. Empathy. Monsty knows.
Inanna Admin –
Seeds and Other Stories by Ursula Pflug
reviewed by Lisa Timpf
The Future Fire – November 2020
In Seeds and Other Stories, Canadian author Ursula Pflug brings us 26 speculative tales, the vast majority of which have been previously published in venues including Dead North Anthology, Transversions: An Anthology of New Fantastic Literature, Tesseracts 21: Nevertheless, The Peterborough Review, and Prairie Fire. With over 70 published short stories to her credit, as well as two other short story collections and three novels, Pflug is an accomplished writer, and that shows in the polished prose offered in. This particular collection, as is the case with Pflug’s novel Motion Sickness and her novella Mountain, was published by Canada’s Inanna Publications, which describes itself as “one of only a very few independent feminist presses in Canada committed to publishing fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction by and about women.”
In many of Pflug’s stories, the surreal exists alongside the everyday. Between the pages of Seeds and Other Stories you’ll find a hotel that exists on more than one dimension, a giantess living at the bottom of a pond, an inter-dimensional portal at the bottom of a well, and a beaver the size of a sub-compact car. But despite this subtle skewing, the altered realities Pflug creates are still close enough to our own that we’re able to relate to the stories. Her characters are, in many cases, the downtrodden, the cast aside, the quiet recluses—people you might pass on the street and not recognize for anyone exceptional. And herein lies much of the charm.
Many of the stories are threaded through with a sense of loss. Some of the characters can’t remember their names. Some can’t remember their spouse’s name. They may not know why they are where they are, or where they want to go. In some cases, they recall past relationships that for one reason or another, are gone for good. In the hands of some writers, this would equate to dark or depressing fare. But Pflug’s sense of humor, her keen and matter-of-fact observations about human nature, and the ways she gets us to invest in the characters’ inner and outer journeys elevate the stories into a more upbeat state.
One of the stories that stood out for me was ‘Big Ears.’ In this story, set in New York, a down-and-out musician named Joey is befriended by a woman named Rickie. With Rickie’s help, Joey begins to play again, and gradually improves his situation and his life choices. When a friend of Rickie’s, Phoebe, moves in, the three of them must forge a new dynamic. Complicating matters is the fact that Phoebe is a drug user. Joey covers up for her by cleaning up the needles so Rickie doesn’t see them. In so doing, he is forced to deal with his own addiction issues. At one point, he asks himself, “What if he only threw out Phoebe’s needles so he could handle them again, a tiny illicit thrill? It would be so easy to fall, such a comfort.” (47) The interesting speculative element to the story is the fact that in this particular iteration of the world, if you hone your craft you “get” an animal. At the peak of his career, one of these creatures came to Joey: “a beautiful gryphon with yellow eyes who sat behind him when he played.” (38) Due to Joey’s fall from grace, at the start of the story the gryphon has become a drooling, intimidating monster, “a bag of feathers and fur, matted, shedding.” (39) Rickie’s quest to become worthy of an animal of her own and Phoebe’s dawning realization that talent is a quality we can choose to nurture or to waste carry the story forward to an uplifting conclusion.
Another story that stood out for me was ‘One Day I’m Gonna Give Up the Blues for Good.’ In this story, Ruby, the protagonist, works at the Clinic, where workers use alternative therapies for child molesters and other abusers. Ruby describes it as “Psychosis in a controlled environment. So it doesn’t happen out on the street. But you got to go with them, to where they go. And keep one foot on the beach, so’s you can lead them back out.” (126) It’s a dangerous job, physically and emotionally. Ruby’s boyfriend Little Davis starts to work at the Clinic with her, proving to be really good at it, until one day a client does him in. Like ‘Big Ears,’ this story deals with issues around addiction. It also deals with abuse. More deeply than that, though, ‘One Day I’m Gonna Give Up the Blues for Good’ is also about love and self-worth.
At the start of ‘Hamilton Beach,’ the protagonist Petra can’t remember her own name, and doesn’t know where her boyfriend Martin is. She tries to decipher clues that will help her reclaim her lost memories. In the course of doing so she stumbles across a coffee shop called the Dew Drop Inn that seems to be stuck in the fifties. Here, as in many of Pflug’s other stories, the rich description provides a vivid image of the setting:
The place is empty, huge, and dim. The booths are upholstered in shiny red stuff with flecks of gold in it … the rips held together with wrinkled silver duct tape … A taupe Formica counter with red swivel stools and a green Hamilton Beach milkshake machine behind it. God, how I always loved that name. It’s always been like a picture to me, of a perfect place, where you could leave all your troubles behind, where everything would be okay and you’d be happy. (175)
In this iteration of the world, the discovery has been made that “it’s pheromones that keep your memory sharpened.” (172) To access these pheromones, individuals known as “machine heads” seek out virtual sexual experiences instead of relationships with other human beings. In fact, machine heads “never touch living flesh.” (176) This story comes complete with creepy descriptions of these virtual sex experiences. Suspense is maintained as Petra gradually pieces together the dark secret about what really happened to her during the “lost” months she can’t remember. Rather than being crushed by the knowledge, though, like many of Pflug’s other characters she shows the inner strength to deal with unwelcome revelations and move on with her life.
Pflug’s stories whisk us to a variety of settings, ranging from farmsteads and marinas to busy cities. Berlin, New York, and Hawai’i form the location for some of the stories, while others are set in Canada, in or around towns like Peterborough or Oshawa. Humor is a mainstay in many of the stories, with the characters often having a self-deprecating wit and an honesty about themselves and their place in the world. Pflug is one of those writers who can carry off sarcasm without it being over the top or off-putting. In ‘Daughter Catcher,’ the protagonist, Siena, observes that “Whatever her life had become, it sure wasn’t what she’d planned.” (270) Another character notes, “I’ve been going nowhere fast my whole life and I still haven’t arrived.” (131) Canadian readers in particular might be able to identify with the comment in the story ‘Fires Halfway,’ “In Canada to be famous you have to be famous somewhere else first.” (158)
As one might expect from a writer with Pflug’s credentials, the quality of writing is high. The stories read smoothly, and plot and character are for the most part adequately developed.. The majority of the stories had strong endings that left me laughing, thinking, or both, although there were a couple of entries that felt incomplete, more like vignettes—albeit interesting ones. The ending of one story, ‘Harker and Serena’ shocked me the first time I read it. I didn’t feel that the story’s events had quite prepared me for the final paragraphs. Other than that, though, I found the endings effective and powerful.
Pflug isn’t afraid to tackle difficult issues in her stories—drug use, abuse, indigenous issues, and prejudice are underlying themes in some of the stories. Pflug deals with these issues with a deft hand. In ‘Big Ears,’ for example, Joey reflects on his previous pattern of drug abuse, noting that, “At first I thought it fed my music but in not too long it was bigger; it ate my marriage, ate my music, shamed my animal, yet seemed like the only thing. One day you wake up and realize maybe your woman, your proud creature, and your work were more important after all.” (55)
A handful of stories, including ‘Trading Polaris,’ ‘Harker and Serena,’ and ‘Daughter Catcher’ have a magical flair. Again, Pflug’s sense of humor emerges in ‘Daughter Catcher’ as the witch Siena notes, “She longed for the days her mother had told her about: the days when witches were well paid and cared for with kindness, invited to good parties and not forgotten but necessary, and not ostracized in the ragged woods at the bottom of the gardens.” (273)
Though Pflug, in the various stories, has both male and female protagonists, it is in some of the stories featuring female protagonists that she alludes to the sacrifices women make for family. ‘No Woman is an Island’ and ‘Daughter Catcher’ include musings on women’s role in society. In ‘No Woman is an Island’ Azalea remembers of her husband “how impassively he sat by while I lost myself in years of laundry and cooking and scrubbed floors and isolation.” (286) In ‘Daughter Catcher’ Siena recalls “how she’d poured everything into her family … until she was so exhausted she couldn’t even remember what her own dreams had been for herself, or if she’d ever even had any.” (280) However, this is balanced out by the observation that “there were days Siena had noticed how lucky they were, that a tiny bit of heaven had come unglued from the sky to land at their feet, astonishing them, allowing them to live in it. It was like a secret, and she’d taken the best care of it she knew how.” (280) Siena’s balanced observations are in keeping with the overall tone of Pflug’s stories—the characters have difficulties that must be surmounted, but this doesn’t rob them of the ability to see, or at least seek, the positive.
Reading Pflug’s stories, you get the sense that there is an alternate world somewhere very near to ours, where things are subtly different, and that someone has left a door or a window open to let you slip through. The juxtaposition of the mundane and the magical, the rational world we know and the altered reality of the stories, evoked a delighted sense of surprise and at the same time, gave me the feeling that my brain was being stretched—not in a torture-rack kind of way, but a pleasant one. All in all, Seeds and Other Stories contained interesting, insightful, and thought-provoking stories told with a generous dose of wit—which is, in itself, a kind of magic.