I first encountered Kij Johnson’s stories as part of an anthology that, to put it bluntly, changed my life. When I first came upon Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology (edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel), I was blown away; I had never encountered such a wealth of stories that seemed so specifically catered to my own taste. Kij Johnson’s “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” was one of those stories. Thus it’s a shame it took me so long to finally pick up At the Mouth of the River of Bees. But better late than never.
The collection starts with that old friend of mine, “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss.” A bluntly told metaphor-made-real in which directionless, depressed Aimee essentially inherits a traveling show. This show features 26 monkeys who perform tricks before disappearing into a raised bathtub. Aimee does not know how they do it. The monkeys return when the show is over, often bearing souvenirs of the places they have disappeared to. Johnson excels at these types of metaphorical stories. Aimee’s relationship with the monkeys, and with the people she encounters as a result of her show, is beautiful, and “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” is filled with a lingering bittersweetness.
“Names for Water,” on the other hand, is a story I had not encountered before this reading, and it struck home. I relate to Johnson best when she’s in this world rather than the dreamy, folk tale world of many of her other stories, which are still great tales but do not resonate as much for me personally. In “Names for Water,” Hala is a college student who, late for class one day, receives a strange phone call. No one is on the other line. At least, no person; she becomes convinced, in a whimsical, half-hearted way, that it is a body of water calling her, and if she can name it, it will speak back to her. It’s a subtle, unassuming story about finding your life’s passion that grabs you by the throat with its conclusion.
Another of Johnson’s stories that addresses the theme of a calling is the title story, “At the Mouth of the River of Bees,” another highlight for me. Linna, recently stung by a bee, becomes restless; her dog is dying; she loads him into the car, and they take off on a road trip with no end destination. She is stalled, however, when she encounters a flood; the river of bees has flooded, blocking passage over the interstate on which she has been traveling. The river of bees, she discovers, is exactly what it sounds like: a river made of bees. Curious about where the river ends and begins, she decides to follow it, her dog in tow.
“Spar” is another of Johnson’s well-known metaphor stories. A woman and an alien, stranded together in a lifeboat after a spaceship wreck “fuck endlessly, relentlessly.” This is the kind of story that is difficult to describe; Johnson is playing with gender roles, with sexual roles, and with the politics of sex in general. It’s compelling as hell, and one of my personal favorites.
Also a favorite: “The Man Who Bridged the Mist,” a more traditionally novella about an architect, Kit, hired to bridge the dangerous mist-river that separates the country and his outsider status within the community in which he is a temporary presence.