From Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine, August/September issue
By A.W. Marshall
The short story, Belly, by Haddayr Copley-Woods, featured in the July/August issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction fascinates, disgusts, and digs into the brain of itself, conjuring magic within its own spinning yarn. With a hive of witches and an unsuspecting girl, Copley-Woods clearly uses fairytales as inspiration for Belly, but that’s simply a model for her larger themes: abuse and personal destiny. After I read Belly, I forced it into my writer friends’ hands, excited, hopeful, distracted and envious of what they would experience for the first time. Rarely does it feel like a crime to have something so remarkable not freely available for everyone to read.
Goya, The Spell
In typical fairytale fashion, the story begins with a witch who devours a young girl as punishment for stealing a piece of bread. In fact, the first six pages of the story take place in the witch’s belly where the girl lives for three years. While down in this dark, smelly cavern, the witch devises horrible and disgusting punishments to torture the girl by what she eats. Between live goats and shit (and I’m leaving out the richer aspects), the reader is equally revolted and disturbed. Copley-Woods pushes the envelope, so we are in the gritty reality of what fairytales don’t tell: the true horror behind what have become clichés.
Central to the story is abuse, particularly the abuse between mothers and their children, and how that abuse makes the victim feel shame. The witch says to the girl, “You made me do this…It was all your fault.” And the girl continually states, “I still blamed myself,” believing the simple theft of bread requires such cruel retribution. For the reader, the abuse gathers into putrid bunches, infecting us into confusion, until we completely understand and accept the girl had no choice but to become, as she says herself, “some kind of monster.” And when the girl finally fights back against the witch, matching violence with violence, she yells, “You made me do this. This was all your fault.” What’s at play here is the cycle of generational abuse, how we carry the incantations of brutality with us—stitched into our tongues, infused into our fists—handing it off to our children, watching them hand it to theirs. Sometimes the chain is slightly altered, calling a child a “mistake” instead of beating them with a spoon—passionately apologizing for a violent rampage instead of pretending it never happened—but what is truly needed is for the chain to be broken completely—for an abuser to contain all they’ve been taught to lash out with.
Parallel to this is how Copley-Woods uses hunger as a peculiar distraction, as the thing that not only draws the girl into this cycle but also back to the witch, back to the source of her self-hatred. It’s a wonderful metaphor, the deep, dry hunger that cannot be satisfied by anything other than becoming that which you hate.
Copley-Woods offers many surprises along the way (I’ve done my best to give few away), but the best part is they are also surprises of context, where the expectations of the reader aren’t simply jarred by plot but by the layers added.
However, Copley-Woods has much more in store for the reader, pulling out constant shockers in both action and theme, twisting our ideas of fairytales and story expectation. Every time you think you understand where Belly might be going, and what the characters’ are about, Copley-Woods unveils another darker and more profound mystery that turns the story from a relatively simple fairytale into an epic about abuse—all the while the leading up to its largest deduction: we are destined toward a fate and it hurts to change it.
Destiny is a bitch, and in this case a witch. Many of us face similar fates, if less obvious, and it often feels like age is the drain slowly turning us in circles—how long can your arms swim against the sucking black hole made for you? Deciding to be better is easy, being better is harder, and staying that way, fighting apathy and what you learned deep and young while you become old, much harder still.