The Split-in-Half Lumberjacks

A lumberjack has accidently sawn through his friend;

this sort of thing happens quite frequently. But there is

plenty of wood one might use for their coffins, collected

from a rainforest stripped for its crude oil. Incidentally,

this provides plenty of barren soil for one to bury them:

the split-in-half lumberjacks, interred in a felled mausoleum.

Our Beautiful Reward Mini-Interviews: Dyani Sabin


We’ve got one more late-entry mini-interview for you on the eve of the Our Beautiful Reward launch event! (which is tonight, and for which you can still RSVP, click that link!).

Dyani Sabin’s searing poem about love amid oppression, “This is a romantic comedy” is online here.

Michael: How do the tools of speculative writing help you to think and communicate about what’s being done to personal freedoms around our bodies?

Dyani: I think that sometimes the only way to talk about issues that are so close to home, painful and traumatic, is to put on the gloves of metaphor, so to speak. Speculative fiction offers a lense into our reality that is unparalleled, because it automatically creates distance. That distance is what allows speculative writing to closely examine these issues—in the same way that memoir only works when the writer has enough emotional space and wisdom to see events with the understanding of time, speculative fiction allows us to do the same thing with culture.

Michael: What are you reading and thinking about that helps put this issue in perspective for you?

Dyani: I recently read Jeanna Kadlec’s Heretic, which I thought was just fantastic, a look at body autonomy and queerness through the lens of someone leaving an evangelical church to find the tarot and a queer community. I also enjoyed—in a totally different vein—Sara Mueller’s The Bone Orchard, which is a speculative fiction novel where the owner of a brothel is forced to investigate the death of the Emperor who captured her—and is entirely about consent, autonomy, and the struggle to define yourself in a world where there are gendered expectations.

Michael: Tell us, if you’d like, about something you’re doing, outside of writing, to make the world a less hostile and dystopian place for human beings with bodies to exist in?

Dyani: I work, every day, to reach out to my world with kindness! There are so many things you can do—lobbying, donating your time and money, calling your congresspeople—and all of that is important, but the thing that makes me feel human is going out into my community and making connections. Meet people in your community, and see other people who are learning and trying and believing in a better world—bit by bit you start to feel like together you can make it happen. And we will.

Michael: That’s a great answer! Thank you very much.

The Air Will Catch Us

My granddaughter Nisha bounces on the tips of her toes, with flutter kicks in between, a hummingbird barely touching the sidewalk. I adjust the rebreather plugged into my nostrils and push myself forward. Keeping up with her has gotten harder, not just because of my age. Walking is different now. The air resists my habitual gait. Little hops lift me into the thickened atmosphere that slows my return to Earth. It’s undignified, but it’s past time I got used to this. I’m not that old. I bob along after her.

“Not too far,” I call. Talking is different too. It takes more effort, timing it with the rebreather. The sounds distort, vowels overwhelming consonants in the heavy air. I have to listen carefully to understand people. Nisha, considerate of my limitations, gives me a thumbs-up. The playground is close, but I grew up not trusting the world. I’ve watched it change along apocalyptic predictions, down to the air getting hotter, wetter, and thicker every year. And stranger changes, that no one predicted, overwrote the science I learned in school. It’s literally a different world than the one I grew up in. I won’t trust it with Nisha, unsupervised. While my son and daughter-in-law are at work, the responsibility is mine.

Plots of kudzu line the sidewalk, taller than Nisha. She turns the corner. I quicken my bobs, sucking air through the rebreather with the hollow sound of a patient in a hospital. The kudzu of my childhood was engineered into a kind of terrestrial kelp, with broad leaves undulating in the thickened breeze. Tiny creatures like fish dart among the fronds. The kudzu still tries to spread over everything, but it traps pollutants in nodules that bud like cancer along its stalks. Rebreathers kept the cancer from my generation’s bodies. Kudzu keeps it from Nisha’s. Maybe I don’t need a rebreather now, but I’m susceptible to pneumonia and a panicked sense of drowning when the viscous air enters my lungs. My son calls the dry, thin product of the device “nostalgic air.” He doesn’t care for it.

Privately, I spend some time every day inhaling the unfiltered atmosphere, training myself not to choke. Sometimes I succeed. It’s a trust fall into the world. I’m trying.

The playground’s plastic and metal equipment is not much different from my own childhood’s. Nisha has a routine. Even before greeting her friends, she scrambles up a ladder and crawls the monkey bars, skipping every other bar. From the last bar she launches herself into space. The air will catch her. I don’t wait underneath like I used to, but I don’t sit down on a bench until she lands on the web of ropes and climbs to a platform.

“You have kids here?” the young mom next to me asks kindly. An unused rebreather is clipped to her shoulder. The kids don’t need them, their parents have them “just in case,” and their grandparents suck on them like life support. Fashion across the generations.

“Granddaughter,” I say, gesturing to Nisha.

“Those two are mine,” she says, pointing at a pair of boys, a few years older than Nisha, doing their best to hurl each other, and all comers, off the highest platform. “We used to go to a different park, but this one’s actually closer.”

I correctly guess they go to Nisha’s school, and we talk about homework, teachers, and activities. She’s patient as I time my words with the rebreather.

I hear shouting from the playground equipment as if through water. A boy sails over a platform’s railing. I can’t tell if he was thrown by my bench-mate’s boys or jettisoned himself. All the adults watch. None rise to their feet. Kids fly now, but I’m the only one still with a helicopter instinct. I grip the bench and keep my seat. The hiss of my rebreather is fast and shallow. The air will catch him. It’s like a prayer. The boy somersaults in slow motion, somehow landing on his feet. He bounces and is airborne again, climbing the ropes onto the platforms.

“I’ll never get used to that,” I say.

“My mother says one never stops worrying.”

Her mother says that. I suppose it’s true. Maybe every generation looks askance at the wonders of the next, afraid to trust them.

I’m embarrassed and irritated by the sound of my breathing. I’m no invalid. As casually as I can manage, I pull the rebreather from my nostrils. I inhale a thick, wet deluge, and manage not to cough. My chest expands. I’m not drowning. I let it out, and bring it back.

Nisha isn’t roughhousing. She’s talking with girls her age, their voices distorted by the atmospheric soup. But at any moment they could fling themselves from a ladder.

Would you jump off a roof if your friends did? My parents asked me that.

I would if it looked fun, I didn’t dare reply.

How the world has changed.

And it does look fun.

I’m on my feet. I don’t remember rising. I step onto the ladder rung and pull myself up. This movement is familiar, easier than walking. I’m not as strong anymore, but now I’m buoyant. The strange science that resists me walking also holds me up. The young parents watch with amusement, not worry. They’ve learned to trust the world. Can I?

I crawl the bars like my granddaughter, every other one, building momentum in slow motion. I grip the last bar with both hands and kick as though swimming, which I haven’t done in years. My body remembers.

I launch myself into space.

Our Beautiful Reward Mini-Interviews: Leah Bobet


To celebrate the official print release of Our Beautiful Reward on March 16th (virtual release party Sunday the 19th, you’re invited!), I asked some of the contributors a few of the questions foremost on my mind. It’s been too long since we’ve run many interviews here, and I’ve missed it; getting to know writers and how they think and feel has been one of the most rewarding aspects of Reckoning for me since the beginning. I hope their answers prove as englightening to you as they have been to me.

We’ve been posting one mini-interview a day. This one is the last—at least for now….

Leah Bobet’s devastating poem “fertile week” is online here. She was also poetry editor for the award-winning Reckoning 5.

Michael: How do the tools of speculative writing help you to think and communicate about what’s being done to personal freedoms around our bodies?

Leah: In some ways, speculative fiction is the literature of consequences: it’s not much of a jump from what if? to if-then. And the question of personal freedoms, of bodily autonomy, strikes me as being fully a question about consequences. When you make the decision to restrict people’s intimate physical choices, what happens to their lives? What happens to their world as those individual consequences silt up and impact each other?

One of my favourite (and most frustrated!) questions in the past few years is: “And what did you think would happen five minutes after that?” and speculative fiction is sincerely a good place to play that consequence-modeling out. Not to scare people, not to go “it could happen to you!” but to think well. To show each other, in digestible format, what and how we’ve been thinking.

Michael: What are you reading and thinking about that helps put this issue in perspective for you?

Leah: This month, Maude Barlow’s Still Hopeful: Lessons From a Lifetime of Activism. Barlow is a climate organizer who started in the 1970s Canadian women’s movement—at quite a high profile—and moved through that into free trade and water sovereignty issues; the book is a small condensation of what she knows about going the distance for a cause.

I was born just after women’s lives changed massively in Canada—higher awareness around domestic violence, wage gap legislation, and women having our own bank accounts—and I always find a lot of perspective in reading about the 1970s women’s movement, especially from people who didn’t stop there, but expanded their work from it. It helps me peel apart always from the world that had just started to happen when I was born, and see attitudes I’d assume were static as the result of motion—and deliberate action.

That reading helps me think about the rollback of rights happening now as the result of kinetic—and moveable—forces, too. Things that moved once can be moved again. It’s a way to rotate the problem: to look at the flood of daily horror stories as not inevitabilities, but calls to organize around each other’s needs and show up for each other.

I’m also keeping up with One Million Experiments, which is one of the million ideas Mariame Kaba’s involved in: a place to profile community-based projects that rethink what it means to keep each other safe. It’s a great space for looking up a model, seeing what you can get involved in, or feeling less alone with the work, because people are out there doing it. We’re doing it every day. There’s a reproductive justice section, and if anyone’s feeling stuck when it comes to community work, organizing, or just how to show up and do the thing with your colleagues, their podcast is excellent. It’s all you need to know about trying, failing, adjusting, and getting back up.

Michael: Tell us, if you’d like, about something you’re doing, outside of writing, to make the world a less hostile and dystopian place for human beings with bodies to exist in?

Leah: The project that’s getting most of my time right now is a 300-person mutual aid network that’s delivering home-cooked food to unhoused and underhoused people in downtown Toronto.

It’s pretty simple: in early 2021, a few people found out what hot or nourishing food unhoused and underhoused Torontonians actually want, and told a few friends, and so forth. We cook it at home on a weekly signup roster, and a small network of volunteer drivers brings it to the Seeds of Hope resource centre. People who need nourishing, hot food get fed—but more importantly, they get that weekly, persistent reminder that hello, we are here, we are a community, we care about them. They are not discarded. And those of us doing the cooking get that weekly, persistent reminder that we are a community too, and we aren’t helpless in the face of any of this. We can take care of each other. We are being constant for and with each other.

I’ve moved from cooking once every other week to being one of a core group of volunteers that’s come together to make this thing sustainable. We redesigned our backend and dropoff/delivery system this fall, cross-trained each other to share more responsibility together, and relaunched this winter. We’re looking at how we can work better with other mutual aid groups now.

I knew no one involved in this project before we started. They’re amazing people. I’m so glad I signed up.

Michael: That’s awesome! Thank you very much for these answers—and for doing that work.

Our Beautiful Reward Mini-Interviews: Riley Tao


To celebrate the official print release of Our Beautiful Reward on March 16th (virtual release party Sunday the 19th, you’re invited!), I asked some of the contributors a few of the questions foremost on my mind. It’s been too long since we’ve run many interviews here, and I’ve missed it; getting to know writers and how they think and feel has been one of the most rewarding aspects of Reckoning for me since the beginning. I hope their answers prove as enlightening to you as they have been to me.

We’re posting one mini-interview a day til we run out.

Riley Tao’s “Hangs Heavy On Their Head” (which you can read online here) is a delightfully inventive flash story narrated by some human hair motivated to make both the attached body and the earth a healthier, more nurturing place.

Michael: How do the tools of speculative writing help you to think and communicate about what’s being done to personal freedoms around our bodies?

Riley: It’s painful to think about the specifics of how trans bodies (or bodies in general, but this is where my knowledge is most personal) are being policed, and wrapping that pain in the vehicle of fiction allows me to handle emotionally difficult topics in more depth and with more objectivity than I would otherwise.

Michael: What are you reading and thinking about that helps put this issue in perspective for you?

Riley: Strangely, it helps for me to read the actual text of laws that are being passed. Sometimes they are disturbingly short; other times their length exceeds my ability to care about. But either way, the bone-dry language in which they are written also helps me achieve that distance that I need in order to clearly think about the situation.

Michael: Tell us, if you’d like, about something you’re doing, outside of writing, to make the world a less hostile and dystopian place for human beings with bodies to exist in?

Riley: Some internet communities make the world better than they make it worse. I’ve tried to grow a couple of my own.

Michael: Thank you!

Our Beautiful Reward Mini-Interviews: Juliana Roth


To celebrate the official print release of Our Beautiful Reward on March 16th (virtual release party Sunday the 19th, you’re invited!), I asked some of the contributors a few of the questions foremost on my mind. It’s been too long since we’ve run many interviews here, and I’ve missed it; getting to know writers and how they think and feel has been one of the most rewarding aspects of Reckoning for me since the beginning. I hope their answers prove as enlightening to you as they have been to me.

We’re posting one mini-interview a day til we run out—today it’s Juliana Roth, whose poem “Roses in Washington Square Park” you can read online here along with a bunch of her past work, all of which is thoughtful and excellent.

Michael: How do the tools of speculative writing help you to think and communicate about what’s being done to personal freedoms around our bodies?

Juliana: I feel that all writing is speculative writing–in that we are taking pieces and fragments of observation and alchemizing them in some way, to present some outcome or sort of epiphany. I think that opening up to what we think can be examined in literature allows readers and writers to explore new possibilities or consequences of current circumstances in a concentrated way. In writing Roses in Washington Square Park, I felt myself drawn to discovering the intentions of another artist and different modes of public interactions: audience with art, overhearing a stranger’s conversation, protest. In doing so, I felt myself make what feels like a wish for a world where boundaries around bodies are respected, understood. Because this isn’t a current reality at all times in the present, I feel it is in that sense speculative, but one that is possible. One that can certainly be more than a wish.

Michael: What are you reading and thinking about that helps put this issue in perspective for you?

Juliana: A lot of poetry. Poets like Ross Gay, Ocean Vuong, Ada Limon–those who really study the land, animals, and communities.

Michael: Tell us, if you’d like, about something you’re doing, outside of writing, to make the world a less hostile and dystopian place for human beings with bodies to exist in?

Juliana: I’m a professor of writing and I work with undergraduates. I teach a class called “Documenting Beauty,” in which they explore the “eye” of their watching, how they think, what they think, how they may resee preconceived notions. Spending a few hours a week studying these concepts together, and reading widely, I hope elevates the room, if only for that short time. Hopefully beyond.

Michael: Thank you very much!

Our Beautiful Reward Mini-Interviews: Marissa Lingen


To celebrate the official print release of Our Beautiful Reward on March 16th (virtual release party Sunday the 19th, you’re invited!), I asked some of the contributors a few of the questions foremost on my mind. It’s been too long since we’ve run many interviews here, and I’ve missed it; getting to know writers and how they think and feel has been one of the most rewarding aspects of Reckoning for me since the beginning. I hope their answers prove as enlightening to you as they have been to me.

We’re posting one mini-interview a day until the release party (or we run out, whichever comes first.)

Today’s answers come from the prolific Marissa Lingen, whose unflinching and intense litany poem “Exception”closes out Our Beautiful Reward.

Michael: How do the tools of speculative writing help you to think and communicate about what’s being done to personal freedoms around our bodies?

Marissa: Oh Lordy. Speculative fiction writing is one of my favorite tools for thinking and communicating about everything. It’s literally what I’ve trained my brain to do. So for me this is a baseline thing.

I think one of the interesting questions that’s coming up with a lot of issues right now is how to find angles to illuminate them that haven’t been overused already. We’ve had The Handmaid’s Tale for a while, you know? I reread Suzy McKee Charnas’s Walk to the End of the World recently, and it isn’t any less applicable than it was when Suzy wrote it before I was born—it isn’t any less brutal—but I think just the very fact that it is a novel from before I was born means—we already have that one. If that perspective is going to get through to someone, we can hand them Walk to the End of the World, we can hand them all these other classics that have been looking at this topic. And so I think there’s a very interesting challenge, how to get a different angle so that people won’t think, yes, I’ve already heard that argument, it’s already been handled—and pulling in sff genre furniture is an interesting way to go about that.

Michael: What are you reading and thinking about that helps put this issue in perspective for you?

Marissa: I’m a member of more than one disabled writers’ community, and gosh, if there’s anyone who talks about bodily autonomy, it’s us disabled folks. And I think that’s what really tied environmental and reproductive justice for me, moving in those spaces with those people and having those conversations.

I also found Diana Athill’s essay about her miscarriage really interesting on this front.

Michael: Tell us, if you’d like, about something you’re doing, outside of writing, to make the world a less hostile and dystopian place for human beings with bodies to exist in?

Marissa: One of the things my immigrant rights group does is to provide very basic backpacks of toiletries, seasonally appropriate clothing in the person’s correct size, a snack, and book or other bit of entertainment for people who are released from ICE detention and have a bus ride back to their friends and family ahead of them. I think this is the sort of thing we too often take for granted—of course people will have a toothbrush, of course people will have a coat, of course the government of my country would not release someone—someone they have agreed is free to pursue their life in the community—in ill-fitting and seasonally inappropriate clothes. And yet that’s exactly what happens if we don’t do something about it. So we are.

Bodies are inconvenient, messy, smelly, unpredictable. If we watch for the places where people try to deal with that by just skipping it entirely, we’ll see a million cracks in the system that are opportunities to do the work together.

Michael: Thank you very much!

Our Beautiful Reward Mini-Interviews: M. C. Benner-Dixon


To celebrate the official print release of Our Beautiful Reward on March 16th (virtual release party Sunday the 19th, you’re invited!), I asked some of the contributors a few of the questions foremost on my mind. It’s been too long since we’ve run many interviews here, and I’ve missed it; getting to know writers and how they think and feel has been one of the most rewarding aspects of Reckoning for me since the beginning. I hope their answers prove as enlightening to you as they have been to me.

We’ll post one mini-interview a day until the release party or we run out, whichever comes first, starting here with M. C. Benner-Dixon, author of the vividly evocative novelette “Those Dark Halls”, which you can read for free online here.

Michael: How do the tools of speculative writing help you to think and communicate about what’s being done to personal freedoms around our bodies?

M. C.: To some extent, it’s an issue of precision. We need a thousand different ways to talk about bodily autonomy because our bodies and the decisions we make about them are not uniform. The stories of our bodies simply cannot fit into a few, easy “this is how it is” narratives. By stepping outside of accepted reality, speculative writing expands the palette for talking about this issue—and that allows for both specificity and variety. Having a body that is the subject of legislative, religious, and social control feels like this, and this, and this, and this. In the speculative sphere, there is room for everyone’s story.

Michael: What are you reading and thinking about that helps put this issue in perspective for you?

M. C.: Every time I encounter a news story that reveals the cruelty of depriving people of bodily autonomy, I am grateful to the journalists who took that story on—well after it has ceased to be “news,” well after reader interest has drifted to the next tragedy or frivolity. The repetition of this reality is essential. It makes the truth indelible in our minds.

Michael: Thank you!

Swimming Whole

First Jeff Martin bought the narrow strip of land between the river and Banks Road from the town, then he spider-webbed caution tape between the trees and nailed posted signs to their bark. The swimming hole where so many of us had spent our childhood summers was no longer ours. And this with each year hotter than the last.

Martin, who also owned The Weekly Gazette, the Dollar Store on the edge of town, and a quarter of the rental properties, bought and moved into the Carter Mansion across the street from our swimming hole after the last owner died. As big as it was, it wouldn’t pass as a mansion nowadays, but the historical plaque in front of it named it the original home of the town founder. A draw, no doubt, for Martin, who fancied himself a self-made man in the way the wealthy who grew up just shy of wealthy tend to do. He didn’t live there one full summer before he convinced the town council that the strip of land—the only spot with passable access down the river-cut gorge—was nothing more than a waste of taxpayer money.

Why pay to have it mown, when he could send his landscape crew over? (And seeing as he was doing the town this favor, really, the property ought to be tax-exempt, didn’t they agree?) Like most things Jeff Martin said and did, it had the sound of a gift bestowed. Like everything he said and did, the beneficiary was definitively him.

How many generations had we kept that spot a secret from the June-to-August tourists who crowded the lake beach and left their soda cans, candy wrappers, and busted flipflops wherever they landed?

The sale went through with only the tiniest announcement buried in the back pages of the Gazette. The caution tape and posted signs were the first any of us heard of it.

Laughing, nervously, we ducked under the tape and made our way down to the hole where we’d swam all our lives. The cops arrived and bull-horned over the river that we were trespassing and had five minutes to vacate or risk arrest.

Men who had grown up there swimming with us turned their faces away when we reminded them of the summers we’d shared. They were just doing their jobs, they said.

The river still belonged to the town and some of us could make it down the opposite river bank, but it was a steep climb and likely to land you splayed and broken on the slate shelf that decked the river, worn smooth by spring and fall floods.

A group of us showed up at the next council meeting and took turns airing our grievances during the public comment portion until we were told our time was up. Two members of the council agreed that something should be done. Three members and the Mayor, who could regularly be found golfing with Jeff Martin during the week when the rest of us were at work, said this was a matter of private property now. They’d followed all required procedures in the sale and if we’d had a problem with it we should have spoken up then.

Three Sundays in a row we protested, crowded by the side of the road with our clever signs and a spirit of camaraderie. The Gazette reporter showed up. Took pictures and asked us questions, scribbling in her notebook as we answered, but we never did see a story in the paper.

Our numbers dwindled until it was just me, a handful of folks who protested everything, and the cops telling us once again it was time to move along.

No matter where I was or what I was doing, the swimming hole and Jeff Martin were there in the back of my mind throbbing like a hammer-hit thumb.

It wasn’t right.

And there was nothing I could do about it.

My husband, Andy, told me I needed to let it go. We, of all people—two men whose right to love each other out in public hadn’t been recognized even half our lives—should know there are bigger worries in the world than the local swimming hole. Racism, sexism, all the isms, and a climate crisis to boot. I shouldn’t hold it against the folks who had lost interest, preoccupied with the business of living.

I went to the river, picked my way down the steep side as the sun set and looked for the ghosts of summers past. I imagined myself teaching the child we thought we might adopt how to swim, tossing them over my shoulders, clapping at their underwater somersaults. Giving them the things my father had given me.

Sitting there, head in my hands, I worried Andy was right—this powerless feeling would consume me if I let it and there were far worse wrongs to confront. Better to change myself than give in to the growing resentment of people who didn’t care enough to take back what had been given away out from under them.

A voice startled me out of my ruminations.

“Why so down, friend?”

A three-quarters moon had risen over the placid river, lighting the snaking lines of current, wet stone bank, and the leaves of trees lining the top of the gorge on either side. I couldn’t spot a soul. A splash in the river caught my attention, and there, in the middle, a salmon the size of a two-year-old swam a lazy circle and asked the question again.

Of course I’d heard of this fish. You can’t walk a block in this town without meeting someone who knows someone who almost hooked it, or heard it speak, or watched it leap fifty feet in the air in acrobatic delight. Even my father believed it was as old as the town.

So here was my madness, finally emerging. Well, what can you do but answer when a fish asks a question twice?

I told it my troubles. Explained about Jeff Martin and the town council and the aching maw in my chest for all the friends and neighbors content to let another piece of what should be ours be pirated off by a handful of people.

The fish dipped under the water and I thought I had bored it, but then its head reappeared. “You’re a good egg, friend,” it said, “so I’m going to do you a solid. A good egg for a good egg.” It laughed at its joke in a voice like a hard summer rain. It rolled over, water shimmering off its moon-silvered scales, and popped a small shining orb out of its vent. With a flick of its tail, it lobbed the egg over to me. It glowed orange in my hand, no bigger than a pea. “In three days, when the moon is full, make a wish and eat that.” The salmon swam a circle and again came to a stop. “All the usual reminders about being careful what you wish for. You only get the one.” And with that it swam off.

I carried the egg home, cradled in my palm, and not knowing what else to do with it, I filled a glass with water and dropped it in.

I told Andy my story and he peered at the little glob at the bottom of the glass. He put the back of his hand up to my forehead. I shrugged him off.

“I’m feeling fine.”

“Okay,” he said in that way that meant if you say so, and asked me what I was going to wish for. I shrugged again and he left me in the kitchen, watching the egg do nothing.

Over the next three days I imagined all manner of wicked ends for Jeff Martin as I worked. If not death, then public humiliations that left him impoverished. In my kinder moods, I considered wishing him a change of heart. A Scroogening. But wasn’t there always another Jeff Martin, waiting to take his place?

I thought of personal gain—a windfall of money that would set Andy and I up for life. But then I would be the Jeff Martin, wouldn’t I?

On the third night, when the moon rose full and gleaming, I stood on our front lawn and wished the wish of my heart: that good people believed they could make a difference if they tried. I drank the glass of water, the glowing egg sliding over my tongue and down my throat.

I slipped into bed and apologized to Andy for not wishing something for us.

He laughed, “don’t be a fool,” and kissed me until we were peeling each other’s sweats off in the dark.

In the morning, I walked down to the diner for a cup of coffee before work, hoping to find the world changed.

But it was just as it had been the morning before. The Gazette followed a developer looking to tear down waterfront buildings and put up luxury condos along the lake. Old white men grumbled at the counter about immigrants taking away jobs, and when I got to work the foreman told our crew we’d have to put in extra hours to make sure the plumbing was roughed in on schedule, but we’d be shorted hours next week so the company didn’t have to pay overtime.

Frustrated and exhausted, I got home no longer furious only with Jeff Martin and the people who wouldn’t stand up to him, but with myself, for having hoped. Color drained out of the world. Everywhere I looked were signs of the inevitability of everything crumbling to shit.

Andy tried to cheer me, but most evenings ended with me scrolling through the news, finding proof of all the terrible things in the world and the myriad ways people make each other suffer. I had been earnest and optimistic and what had it gotten me? Nothing but a broken heart.

My neighbors were right. Better to tend to your own affairs and hope the burning world arrived at your doorstep last.

Three weeks into my festering, I arrived home to find Andy sitting at the kitchen table, a stack of papers in front of him. I eyed them as I bent to kiss him and he nodded for me to sit down. He handed a page over to me, a yellow stick-on arrow pointing to a signature line, “Sign there.”


“Just sign.”

He was trying to play it serious, like he was in the law office where he worked as a paralegal and I was some client in a suit and tie. But you don’t spend fifteen years with a person and not know when they’re buzzing to tell you something, so I played along.

I signed three different papers before he hit me with the sidelong smile—his charming snaggletooth crooked and jaunty—that first caught my attention all those years ago. He unfolded a surveyor’s map, smoothed it across the table. There was Jeff Martin’s house, devil horns drawn out of the roof and a fish penciled in the swimming hole. I followed Andy’s finger down to a spot marked with an X.

“About seventy feet south of the swimming hole, the Jenkin’s property line starts.” He pointed to a spot where the river swung a wide arc away from Valley Road and back towards Banks Road before tumbling down a series of small waterfalls out into the inlet and beyond that, the lake. “Liza has agreed to deed access rights for this portion of land,” he circled a rectangle formed by dotted lines, “to the Friends of the River. A nonprofit of which you and I are the founding members. It’s steep, but you can build a good set of stairs that would do the trick and then it’s just a matter of walking up the bank,” his finger trailed back up to the swimming hole.

The world was still on fire, the wealthy were still fucking over as many people as they could, and all manner of horrible shit still needed to be torn down. But look at this man and how he loved me.

I started on the stairs that weekend, clearing a path through the brush and saplings from the street to the cliff edge. About an hour into my work Liza Jenkin’s daughter, home from college, arrived with a tool belt slung over her shoulder and a cooler of cold drinks. By lunch, three more neighbors had come to lend a hand.

We worked every Saturday for a month, our numbers growing so large that half of us were just standing around offering encouragement and memories of summers past (somebody’s story of a talking fish got us all sharing our own).

Where one person’s knowledge faltered—the sturdiest way to anchor the stairs to the rock face, where to get the best price on this material or that—another stood up and offered what they could.

When it was finished we made our way up to the swimming hole, laughing and whooping, our voices amplified off the gorge walls. We cannonballed, or waded in, or sat on the rock-shelf and dangled our toes, and no matter how many police cars Martin called they couldn’t stop our jubilee.

Podcast Epsiode 29: Catherine Rockwood on Editing Our Beautiful Reward

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Welcome back to the Reckoning Press Podcast! It’s me, Michael J. DeLuca, publisher, and we are coming back out of hiatus just for a minute to celebrate that Our Beautiful Reward, our special issue on bodily autonomy, comes out in print on March 16th. We’re having a virtual launch party on Sunday the 19th at 8PM eastern US time aka GMT-5, which will feature readings from contributors Leah Bobet, Marissa Lingen, Julian K. Jarboe, Linda Cooper, M. C. Benner-Dixon, Riley Tao, Dyani Sabin and Juliana Roth. And we’ll draw names and give away books and t-shirts and talk about bodily autonomy and reproductive justice. Editor Catherine Rockwood will emcee, Julie Day and Carina Bissett of Essential Dreams Press and The Storied Imaginarium will host. It’ll be grand. I’ll post the link to RSVP on the website.

In the meantime, I have Catherine here with me today, and we’re going to talk about Our Beautiful Reward!

[Bio below.]

Michael: I should add that Catherine and I recently met in person for the first time after having worked together on Reckoning staff for several years, and it was lovely, relaxed and intellectually stimulating in ways I had honestly almost forgotten face-to-face human interaction could be in these isolating times. So I hope to share with you all a little bit of that today. Welcome Catherine!

Catherine: Thank you!

Michael: I am excited to try this out with you—we’re doing a new thing here, using the Discord chat where we all have our editorial staff discussions on a daily basis to record a conversation. Catherine is the editor of Our Beautiful Reward, our special issue on bodily autonomy, and I’ve got some questions for her to get us going discussing what makes us so excited about it and how we had such a good time putting it together. First of all, Catherine: what did you learn editing this special issue?

Catherine: I learned a lot. One of the things that I learned is just purely personal and that’s just that I enjoy editing, which I didn’t know before. I learned to be really super grateful for Reckoning’s readers. They saved me from making a lot of mistakes, I think, they helped me read better. Everyone I forwarded things to got back to me with great advice and insights. That’s not to say I didn’t make mistakes, I did, but other people can’t fully save you from that. However, a generous advising team like the one at Reckoning helps improve outcomes. We’re proud of the issue. Part of the reason I feel proud of it is because of the people who helped me put it together. It wouldn’t be as good as it is without everybody. I think the other thing that is really exciting is, I learned that editing expands the imagination kind of like reading does, and there’s a very different feel to it. So you’re not really asking yourself what does this individual poem or story do, but instead you’re thinking—and this was totally new to me, and so interesting—what does this poem or story do together with this other poem or story? And you kind of do that, and you do that, and you find new things, and you find new combinations, until you hit your page limit. Which, it should be said, we had a little difficulty putting a page cap on this issue. We kind of went over our initial limit because there was so much great stuff that was coming in and so many pieces that we wanted. But speaking in terms of what it’s like to edit: it’s super intense to be bringing that togetherness of this set of works into its final shape. And I loved it, but also: I was tired once we were done.

Michael: [Laughing] Me too! It is kind of magic how a group of people who don’t know each other can be all thinking about the same topic, and be brought together after they’ve written something on that topic into a physical/conceptual object—an issue of a magazine—and actually begin to feel like a community, mutually inspiring, mutually supporting. I’ve experienced this a lot with Reckoning. I totally want to echo everything you say about Reckoning staff, they are wonderful, they are a community that feels pretty resilient to me at this point.

Catherine: Yep.

Michael: I’m doing a lot behind the scenes, but the work culture, the creative culture of Reckoning staff is a solid entity of its own, and that’s wonderful.

Perhaps a fun thing to interject here is, as you said, we went over our intended page limit, and I’m glad we did, the work that’s in the issue coheres really well, but it made us have to change our intentions for the physical object, which is what’s coming out here in March. We got all excited about the idea of it having a zine format, sort of like an old style punk zine. We were going to have a piece of vellum—

Catherine: [Laughing] Yes!

Michael: —that would flip back and reveal the art….

Catherine: We got very excited about materials and binding, but yes, that had to change.

Michael: We got to a fair point of talking it through with your chapbook publisher, who is awesome, and was willing to do all this hand-binding, and then alas, too many great words. So now it’s a perfect-bound paperback like all the other Reckoning issues. Oh well—it’s still great.

Catherine: That’s right. Sara Lefsyk at the Ethel zine press was willing to work with us on it, but yes, our page count went over. But people should still check out the Ethel zine press, another great indie publisher.

Michael: Okay, so: what’s the connection between environmental justice and bodily autonomy?

Catherine: Right! This is a big question. And having thought about it—and I’ll just say these are really just my thoughts, which I’ve tried to inform as much as possible through reading and discussion—so one answer for me is that it’s harder to gear yourself up to take action on and for environmental causes if you don’t feel empowered to make basic decisions about what’s right for your own body. And so we have an essay by Amber Fox, it’s called “Ghost of a Chance: A Trans Girl Tries to Live” that really opened my eyes to that, as what I would call a fact. Riley Tao’s flash fiction piece “Hangs Heavy on Their Head” connects developing concern for the environment with an increasing sense of possibility about presenting in public and to oneself as non-binary. When you feel that you can choose what’s right for yourself in terms of gender identity, I think that then extends to feeling you can make actual choices about the world and in the service of the world. Which is of course one of the reasons gender identity is so heavily policed. So—really big stuff there.

Michael: Yeah, for sure.

Catherine: Yeah! It’s huge.

Here’s another more rambling answer, and that is that the definition of autonomy is self-government. But when it comes to the environment, we’re all dependents. We’re all at the mercy of what the environment’s condition is. And that’s not a great position to be in at all right now, overall. Which is why more than ever people who can get pregnant should be able to self-govern about the pregnancy itself. Of course—and this is where the justice part comes in—some of us are more at the mercy of our local environments than others. Due to the historically unequal conditions that have determined where marginalized populations live, in the US and elsewhere. And that’s not fair. Environmental justice work increases bodily autonomy in the sphere of childbearing, where it helps equalize or balance local material conditions including the condition of essential natural resources like air and water that pertain to making a decision about a pregnancy—to continue it or not to continue it, to raise a child or not raise a child, now, as things are.

My thought on this is influenced by—or I would say sourced in—Sister Song, an Atlanta-based organization with national reach, founded and led by Black and Brown women. And you can find the organization at In the 1990s, Sister Song coined the term “reproductive justice” and articulated a careful set of principles around it. “Reproductive justice is comprised by” —and I’m quoting here from their website—”the human right to control our bodies and our future, the human right to have children, the human right to not have children, and the human right to parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities”. Where environmental justice comes into it explicitly of course is in that fourth principle, “the right to raise children in safe and sustainable communities”. There are many things that go into creating a safe and sustainable community, but a functional environment is a sine qua non, it’s an absolute necessity. For historically marginalized communities to experience reproductive justice, they must have clean water, clean air, a livable climate. Which as things now are would take some deep work. We should all be putting time, money, work in to make that a possibility.

So those are some of the connections that I see.

Michael: Yeah. And the concept of reproductive justice here perfectly illustrates how that works.

Catherine: Yeah.

Michael: We got the idea for this issue as a result of the Supreme Court ruling about Roe v. Wade, and then very quickly were forced to expand—”forced”, I mean, we realized that the question of reproduction is only a small part of bodily autonomy—

Catherine: Yes.

Michael: —and the more I sit and think it through, you know, as you’re saying, where you live determines what you can and can’t do with your body including have healthy children?

Catherine: That’s right.

Michael: I’m thinking about the people who live near me in Downriver Detroit who grow up with terribly contaminated air, and as a result, if you’re born in that area you’re incredibly likely to have all these allergies, and your kids are as likely, and all that’s about systemic economic factors that result in Black people ending up living in Downriver Detroit as opposed to white people, etc etc and on and on.

Catherine: Yeah, and again, I feel like I’m coming to this very belatedly and there are many people who’ve thought about it much more deeply, much more profoundly for much longer. But editing this issue, thinking about this issue really brought home to me is, you know, essentially, destroying the environment is removing fundamental choices from people, the ability to make fundamental choices. So in terms of the issue, one of the works that we published that really illustrates this for me, where the author is explicitly talking about that, like, you know, what choices remain to me, based on what other people have done to the environment, is Laurel Nakanishi’s “Ghazal for Freshwater”, where the speaker talks about having a new baby and living in an area where you are no longer in control of whether or not you can offer your child fresh water. And it should get to you, you know, thinking that way.

Michael: Should I say the hippie thing about star stuff?

Catherine: I think you should totally say the hippie thing about star stuff, yes.

Michael: [Laughs] Okay! Something this issue and working with you on it has taught me about is the progressive theoretical conception of “bodies”. This is something I heard about long ago when my partner was in a Women’s Studies program and couldn’t wrap my head around until this moment, really. We are made of profound stuff, star-stuff, as it’s a bit cliché to say in science fiction, but we’re these incredible, thinking, feeling creatures, extending far beyond our physical forms, but bounded by them. We’re in them, and in that sense, in a very real way, environment is a part of them, part of us. Industrialist, individualized society has made it too easy to sever that connection, to think of ourselves as independent of our bodies—and here when I say “our” I am probably unable to help meaning, more than I should at this point, dominant white male bodies—and that makes things conceived of as outside us—again, me—seem exploitable, disposable. And that includes bodies, other bodies. But we are what we eat, what we breathe, what we absorb through our skin, and that’s true of animals and of plants and of people. It’s easy to begin to sound here like I’ve eaten too many of the special brownies, but the lens of environmental justice has shown me that body-mind-spirit is all one thing in ways the hippies that surrounded me in my youth never managed. And I will stop myself there.

Let’s try to talk more about some amazing moments in this issue, without spoilers if we can.

Catherine: So I’m mainly a poet in terms of practice—well, in terms of my own writing practice—and so I’d like to start with the poetry and then move on to the amazing fiction. And I would say, true for both of those…. Let’s see, we have one nonfiction piece in Our Beautiful Reward, we have Amber Fox’s essay, but in terms of the poetry the thing that I like the most about what we assembled is that it really varies in terms of style and form. So we have free verse, we have Laurel Nakanishi’s “Ghazal for Freshwater”, we have Marissa Lingen’s litany, which ends the issue. There isn’t a sameness to the poetry stylistically. And every poem is on topic, but also highly individualized, and that was just—and I’m going to swear here—it was a fucking joy. I mean it was so great to read and think about this very different but again very focused work. Plus the pieces, the poems, you know, really ring the changes on and against each other. For example, we start the issue with Linda Cooper’s poem “After the Ban”, and I don’t think it’s a spoiler—you know, I’m going to do a little, I guess, like, on-the-go criticism. So in this poem—and you have to read it to see how this is done—a young woman is kind of disassembled by “the ban”. And implicitly this is the ban on abortions at all stages of pregnancy, I mean moving into very early weeks where it is in fact impossible for instance to know that you might even be pregnant. The young woman in the poem is sort of disassembled by the ban into a set of abstractions that suddenly reform in just a wild, powerful way at the end of the poem. And in Annabelle Cormack’s “Charcuterie”, a young woman is disassembled in a very different, non-abstracted way. So we also had—and I was delighted by this, we had some very necessary, very visceral body horror included in this issue. To conclude, we have Marissa Lingen’s “Exception”, where instead of the material world turning against known rules, the speaker’s own voice turns against her. So in the framing poems of the issue, “After the Ban” and “Exception”, in both cases—these are very different poems—there’s a moment where what’s settled or decided in the poem drops away, and a whole new set of possibilities hovers or explodes into view. And I love that. It’s a bit of a response; there’s this sense that, with the overturning of Roe v. Wade, you know, something that we understood—that was of settled benefit to a large percentage of—to the American population—dropped away. And, you know, it’s trying to remember that this is a true loss, and it’s costly, and it’s hurting people now, and that we can also try to think of it as a moment of unsettlement, a moment where new possibilities are going to come into view in terms of what might happen in the future. So the poems do that, I hope the issue does that, and I just love what the writers have done.

Michael: Yeah. This again is reminding me of how beautifully it all came together. The sense that—you called it “falling away”—I am aware that this is an issue about a shock.

Catherine: A shock of loss.

Michael: Right. And it shares something with the other special issue we did, which was about COVID, in that it’s a bunch of reactions. And that’s—it’s both wonderful and sad, I mean if we had given people more time, if we had waited, perhaps the issue would have had more activism, more resistance? But it still has a lot of resistance, and it is important to me to give that sense of loss a platform.

Catherine: Yes.

Michael: It also always astonishes me how poetic meanings can evolve—and in prose too, I mean, we read these pieces over and over as we’re developing the issue, and every time I read them in that process they mean a little something different to me. I read Juliana Roth’s poem, “Roses in Washington Square Park”, so many times before I was able to just engage with it as a narrative of something that was happening to a narrator and her mother in a park, and when it actually did I couldn’t understand how I had engaged with it the previous times I’d read it. The other thing that occurs to me here is Mari Ness’s poem “Green Leaves Against the Wind” articulates exactly what I was talking about a minute ago about interdependent bodily forms. There’s the line “I could feed this garden with my blood.” And I’m thinking about every time I clip my nails. This may be gross, but I put it in the compost, and then those proteins feed my plants, which feed me again, and I am interconnected with all that. My garden is me. And that is something it has taken me until this long to realize about that poem. And this is about how the pieces interact with each other, as you were saying at the beginning of this discussion. Part of the wonderful thing about editing is looking at these pieces individually and then learning new things about them when they’re placed side by side. And the most striking example to me in this issue of that is what happened when we looked at Julian Jarboe’s and Dyani Sabin’s poems next to each other. They’re both about the risks of physical and emotional love when bodies are under threat, and they really play off each other beautifully, and they’re both very subtle, and I was unable to grasp some of the subtleties until I looked at them next to each other.

Catherine: Yeah.

Michael: Which makes me feel obtuse, frankly, but in a good way because I’m learning.

Catherine: [Laughs.]

Michael: But we should talk about the fiction too. Uh, which direction are we walking—as an issue, as a field, as a society—with respect to Omelas? I really like how comparatively undystopian this issue is in the traditional sense, the science fictional sense, considering the subject and where we are in the world right now. Nobody’s trapped in a distant orbital maze to make a point. Instead, for example in Anna Orridge’s story, they’re trapped in a walled subdivision taking care of somebody’s kids. The dystopia here is close, in time and in scale, it has nuance. Does that feel like a relief to you as much as it does to me?

Catherine: Yes, and I think also particularly in relation to this topic, that it’s important to understand—I think it is like genuinely capital-I Important to understand that to some extent the dystopia is us. [Laughing.] And yet that also sources of hope and familiarity and community are also us as it relates to this topic, environmental justice and its relationship with bodily autonomy. And so Leah Bobet, who has a wonderful poem, “fertile week”, in the issue, recently talked about the interest of setting work what she called “five minutes into the future”. So that’s a Leah Bobet quotation there, “fiction set five minutes into the future”. A lot of what we accepted for Our Beautiful Reward is set there. I think that is because, as you say, one of the factors is that our call was quite immediate, it was quite reactive in relation to the overturn of Roe v. Wade at the end of June 2022, and so people responded with immediate, you know, this applies to my life, this applies to your life, fictional renderings. But this is, I think, important—it was certainly important to me as an editor. I think generally, though not universally, this is important to Reckoning as a publication. You could speak more precisely to that. But none of the stories end on what you’d really call a note of despair. So Rimi B. Chatterjee’s “A Question of Choice”—fantastic story—leaves us with a view of evolving resistance to patriarchal reproductive tech in northern India. That story is just so fun, I mean like it shows and discusses a lot of super difficult things, but it’s also just fundamentally unbowed at its very core, and I hope lots of people read it. Dana Vickerson’s beautifully structured short story “On This Day, and All Days, I Think About What I Have Lost”, does end in a state of profound grief, but it’s also about endurance, stubbornness, recovery. I do love the fact that if you’ve read around in the field, you know, in speculative fiction and what you would call more—not space opera-y, but like more distant worlds, you can kind of get the outlines of galactically huge things under the surface of the apparent everyday in the fiction in this issue. So for instance, Anna’s story “Wild Winter Rose” is partly I think about the way dislocation to another country can be as terrifying as emergency space travel unless you have the help of some kind of community.

Michael: Yes! So much of this is in conversation with a shared body of work. And I never want Reckoning to be exclusively genre and I personally have no idea how to distinguish between genre poetry and non-genre poetry, which you and I have talked about in the past.

Catherine: Yep.

Michael: But I feel like genre thinking and metaphors are much more in the public consciousness than they ever have been, and a moment like this… I felt like this in 2001, actually. When 9/11 happened I thought, I have entered a science-fictional side timeline, and I didn’t like that feeling, and I didn’t think that reaction was appropriate to what had happened. But, you know, an emotional response is an emotional response—

Catherine: Yes.

Michael: —and I can’t be too critical of myself about it at this point from something so long ago. But I feel, with everything that’s happened, not to name that orange-headed guy, but it all repeatedly feels that way these days, and we have these huge metaphors underlying everywhere. So when I was reading the Dana Vickerson story, I thought about the world of Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower, in which some similar things happen, dystopian, dark things that look a lot like the United States of today, in frightening ways that lots of people have pointed out. But Vickerson’s ending is hopeful to me in an interior sense where Butler’s ending… the hope it provides is in the stars. It’s saying “this world sure is messed up and dystopian, and this country’s origin is in slavery, and maybe that’s inescapable, but maybe we can get away from it into the unknown. And that never quite worked as well on me as the ending of that Dana Vickerson story, even though it is incredibly sad, tragic, and the character is left isolated and without much more than her memories and her grief. And yet there’s this internal hope, which feels much more real to me than the idea of colonizing space ever did.

Catherine: This is so interesting. And I think, you know, again, the way that the field needs to, must, and will continue to have conversations about…. [Laughs.] You know, this world or other worlds? Right? Do we place our hope in this world or other worlds? And that conversation has been going on for a long time. It’s achieving nuance, achieving new information sets, new factors all the time. I do wonder—you know, I think you could argue that some of this is still about race, and whether the color of your skin has anything to do with how much you feel is left to recuperate. You know, environmentally, psychologically on earth. So I’m thinking here about Sofia Samatar’s fiction, and in particular I’m thinking about her short story “Request for an Extension on the Clarity“—

Michael: Ah, yeah.

Catherine: —which is in her collection Tender, and I think it first appeared in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet

Michael: Yes, that was my guest issue, I bought that story, so proud!

Catherine: Oh, did you, did you? It’s such an incredible story.

Michael: Yes!

Catherine: And that, to me, that’s a story I read and I was like, “oh, shit!” [Laughs.] You know?

Michael: Yeah.

Catherine: Here’s something I, comparatively affluent cisgender white woman, had never thought about before. So this is where a nonwhite protagonist can’t bring herself to return to earth, but also isn’t fully ready to throw away her relationship to the planet, and so for the time being—and this is sort of the always time of the rest of the sequel of the story, I mean as far as you know she’s just going to stay where she is which is on a space station, an in-between space of contemplation between these really difficult, different options. And so I can’t remember all the fine particulars of that incredible story, but I remember that essential and deliberate positioning that Samatar really wanted us to think about. So—the conversation will continue. And it was so incredibly exciting to have an editorial seat at this particular iteration. And a tremendous amount of affection, I would say, for the experience and the undertaking is what I’ve been left with.

Michael: That is a reasonable stopping point?

Catherine: Yes.

Michael: I sure would love to talk—you know, each of these pieces—there are things for us to squee about. But we need not squee about every single one of them.

Catherine: Yep, yep. [Laughing.]

Michael: So I’ll say, thank you very much, Catherine. This was a lot of fun—

Catherine: Oh, yeah, yeah.

Michael: —and I hope what we have talked about excites those of your who are listening to go read the rest and get excited about that too.

Catherine: Yes, exactly. Please read these wonderful works.

Michael: Also, please come to the launch party! That’s on Sunday, March 19th at 8PM EST/GMT-5, and you’ll get a chance to hear some of the work we’ve talked about here from the authors in their own voices, and also maybe win a copy of the issue. Admission is free, but we need your info to include you in the drawings (and to prevent spammers) so please RSVP, which you can do by going to Thank you very much for listening, and I hope to see you then!