Three Quarters Wolf Moon

Frederic Remington [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A few pages into “The Pull of the Wing,” one of the stranger stories in Kiini Ibura Salaam’s very strange collection When the World Wounds, the “message-center” of the protagonist, WaLiLa, pulses, as it calculates “the risk at getting caught” trying to sneak into the chamber of the elders. The result? “Two slivers less than three-fourths moon.”

Her co-conspirator MalKai, a fellow six-armed something-that-sleeps-upside-down-in-a-cocoon-like-“sleeping shroud,” looks at her anxiously:

“Two slivers less than three-fourths moon, they motioned simultaneously.

“It’s the lowest it’s ever been, WaLiLa motioned.

“MalKai crossed his arms. We made a pact, remember. No more than a half moon of risk.”

The answers to supposedly fundamental questions — the what, the when, the why on earth — are left basically unanswered, and yet, confusion is held at bay by the fact that a story is emerging. WaLiLa and her friends want wings, and they think that the elders’ chamber might hold the key to getting them. They’re scared because it’s not as safe as they wish it was, but this might be their only shot.

Salaam’s ability to achieve a similar effect throughout When the World Wounds approaches the miraculous. The stories here are built on otherworldly conceits — she writes from the perspectives of wolves, an escaped slave who can summon hummingbirds to carry her through the air, rocks, trees — but even at their most perplexing, the sense of urgency that animates each one prevents them from foundering in the type of self-indulgence that makes many readers turn their noses up a speculative fiction.

Those who can hang on through the first few stories are richly rewarded. Soon, Salaam’s subjects become more familiar and their supernatural elements become tools for exploring the troubles of reality. “Volcano Women” is no longer than this review, a remarkably brief chronicle of a woman who flees an abusive man and finds herself in a “mess of metal to find a place to hide.” There, she discovers “an old woman sitting on a throne of twisted car fenders” who conducts her through a ritual that transforms her into a volcano woman. The next time the man finds her in the street, she erupts, leaving him “trembling and gasping.” Through magic, Salaam has transformed a scene of violence into a parable of empowerment.

The collection’s centerpiece of a novella relies on a similar device. In “Because of the Bone Man,” the titular character rescues dozens of phantasmic children from the “demolished landscape” of New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward, and then leads a parade of them into the streets on the first Mardi Gras after Katrina. The fantastical status of these children is never totally clear. A girl named Trina watches an older ghost pass her hand “straight through her neck as if she were made of air” and tries to do the same, but: “her hand would not enter her flesh. ‘I told you,’ Trina said, and stuck out her tongue. ‘I ain’t nothing like you.’”

Still, she’s not quite human, either. As the Bone Man’s parade picks up more revelers, including King Zulu, the former grandee of black New Orleans’ Carnival march, the necessity of resolving the children’s status grows. Sparks begin leaping out of their bodies, and the Bone Man can only watch as some grow “completely wet with water rolling down their bodies in tiny streams.” His only hope is Laveau, a witch who returns them to the water that took their previous forms away — whether this leaves them dead or alive, however, is hard to reckon.

Salaam writes movingly of the racial politics in New Orleans — she is a native of the city — and her understanding of what the black population there suffered during and after the storm is profound. But more moving than the overt references to these disparities or the metaphysical redemption of Katrina’s victims is the passage that Salaam writes from the perspective of the rocks in the levee that divides the Lower 9th from the neighborhoods where damage was more limited:

“Human debris did not impress the rocks. The detritus left behind by humans lacked the rocks’ own layered histories. The refuse that landed among them when the canal’s currents lapped against their facets were mute and had no depth to their silence. The rocks did not know that the objects that pinged when they fell were house keys; the objects that echoed upon contact were jointed; and the objects that shattered were glass.”

For all Salaam’s emphasis on the speculative, it’s these sections where that approach is applied more subtly that better showcase her talent. For all the imagination world-building requires, it can leave language like Salaam’s little room to flourish. When that expectation is set aside, the results are impossible to ignore. In “The Taming,” her story about a wolf’s adoption by two “tall ones” with “clawless paws,” the strange and the familiar reach an illuminating compromise. After the wolf attacks a bird, he’s “rewarded with thick wetness. Blood soaked his tongue.” After he’s eaten his fill, “everything sharp around him slouched into softness.” When he encounters a female of his species, he describes her scent as: “sweet, sharp, not known.” Though all of When the World Wounds exists beyond reality’s ken, it is when Salaam settles into this “not known” that surrounds us — rather than the impossible to know that never will — that her writing’s promise begins to be realized.

When the World Wounds by Kiini Ibura Salaam. Nashville: Third Man Books, 2016