The previous fantasy I discussed may have gone to odd and surreal places, but it did so one after another in a linear picaresque fashion. Kelly Link’s stories on the other hand go off in odd directions all at once that still tie neatly back into the story later on. It puts me in mind of a flower opening, if the flowers were long strands of rope that, if you followed them for long enough, led back to the stem.
Therefore a conventional summary doesn’t feel appropriately. To write it boldly – a witch is poisoned, and the youngest of her children, carrying a catskin he can wear, goes to the poisoner to take revenge – feels almost inconsequential in comparison to what actually goes on in the story. Even a quotation is unsatisfying, because a paragraph will generally only focus on a single branching direction, and I’d need to quote half a page to give a real flavor of how rambling the story is. And I’m using ‘rambling’ without negative connotations, instead suggesting a genial walk in which you see new sights with every step.
Take, for example, the children. Now, since witches cannot have children in the usual way—their wombs are full of straw or bricks or stones, and when they give birth, they give birth to rabbits, kittens, tadpoles, houses, silk dresses, and yet even witches must have heirs, even witches wish to be mothers—the witch had acquired her children by other means: She had stolen or bought them.
Later it’s revealed that the house she lived in was something she’d given birth to, and there’s an extraordinary funeral rite involving it and her cats. The poisoner, on the other hand, is a man and therefore can’t give birth to houses, so he has to settle for living in built things.
I can’t even talk much about other stories this piece resembles. Even though the boy Small is accompanied by a cat called The Witch’s Revenge, there’s little sense of malice, and Small ends up going to the poisoner more because he has no where else to go than anything else. The fact that Small carries around a catskin, and when he climbs inside and buttons it up he is the size of a cat, has certain folkloric shapeshifter roots. Yet, in large part due to the style of the characters, there’s not much in common with shapeshifter stories either, with the skin being more of a comfort blanket that reminds him of the witch than anything.
In short, I’m at something of a loss. I don’t know what else I can say without copious quoting. Try the link below and see if you can articulate the story better than me.
Kelly Link and Gavin Grant were my fifth week teachers at Clarion West 2012, and this post is part of the 2013 Write-a-thon. See here for more details.
Catskin by Kelly Link
Availability: free online, e-book, print
Word count: 10,200
First published: McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Trilling Tales, edited by Michael Chabon, 2003, Hamish Hamilton
Where to find it: It is available at Lightspeed magazine here
Magic for Beginners, collection, 2005, Small Beer Press (available from Weightless Books here)
Tails of Wonder and Imagination, edited by Ellen Datlow, 2010, Night Shade Books
My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales, edited by Kate Bernheimer & Carmen Gimenez Smith, 2010, Penguin Books
Witches: Wicked, Wild & Wonderful, edited by Paula Guran, 2012, Prime Books