"Long Cold Day" by Elizabeth Bear: An Appreciation by Haddayr Copley-Woods
Has she ever hugged you? I only ask because she is not stingy with the hugs, and there's a good chance she has. I am a vague, dim acquaintance of hers she has seen a few times at cons, and she's hugged even me.
To be hugged by a bear is an astounding thing. A genial bear, of course--a happy bear, an all-encompassing radiant Sun Bear--one feels embraced by Wildness Herself--thrilled, happier, yet also deeply grateful to have ribs intact.
I got the feeling, all wrapped up in Bear, that her benevolence could turn at any moment, should I threaten anyone she holds dear. Bear could be very dangerous.
Which is why I found "Long Cold Day" so uniquely fascinating--her women, although equally dangerous, are anti-Bears: thin, angular, skeletal hounds with slathering fangs and talons.
As comfortable as Elizabeth Bear seems to be in her own skin, sinew, and flesh, these aliens are uncomfortable: miserable in the envelopes of meat they wear in order to hunt their quarry and serve their master: "She shuffled through the crowd, trying not to brush up against too many of the slimy-soft, grub-squirmy humans. The restroom was crowded with females fixing their makeup and inhaling narcotics. She didn't blame them for wanting to distance themselves from their flesh. Raw, greasy flesh. Meat for worms."
These are thin flesh envelopes which show their stark, thin angles: "She was small, slight to boniness, her little titties poking sharp triangles through her sweater and her jeans slung off hip bones you could cut yourself on. Her elbows and knees and shoulder blades were all angles, and her eyes--green and amber in the light over the bar--were luminescent, huge. Some trick of the dimness made her pupils look weird, lens-shaped like an alligator's."
Our hero Christian Whittaker is uncomfortable in his own body, too: ". . . jowls and a double chin that fell over his throat and collar and two thick cushions on either side of his spine below his ears, like the hams on a hog. He wore a wedding ring because his hands were spongy with retained fluid; he could never take it off." His clothes are ill-fitting, his physical discomfort in who he is so enormous that he cannot even fit behind the wheel of a car he has briefly considers stealing. He doesn't seem particularly surprised by this.
Adding to everyone's discomfort is the constant, numbing, agonizing cold that envelops everyone painfully. Each person or alien who encounters it feels slapped across the soul with the misery of cold, cold, cold. And even the reason for the damaging and unnatural cold--a son's love for and inability to let go of his mother--is a wonderful surprising contrast in itself.
Our hero: lumpy, drunk, bumbling--saves his son and saves the day, which is of course heartwarming and I'm a sucker for that sort of thing. But that's not why I chose to appreciate this particular piece. It's because it made me really wonder, which I don't often do: what was going through her head when she wrote this?
I wonder if Bear meant it--to create antagonists who were quite specifically the polar opposites of her? One thing these jutting, angular mantis-like hounds made this reader long for: a firm, happy, radiant warmth to hold on to. Much like, well, a bear.
Or a magical blanket, or even the horrible mess of a father's awkward and stumbling love for his son.
So that's why I love this story: I found the juxtapositions between Bear's being and the beings in the story utterly delicious.
As delicious as a fresh-caught, river-chilled salmon.
Link to story.