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Ballast

WildBoots

Don’t underestimate seeds.
Pronouns
She/Her
Partners
  1. custom/moka-mark
  2. solrock
Summary: “Saint Bonapisa’s good luck for trainers,” Cass told me once. Maybe she should’ve kept some of that luck for herself. The drifblim was still following me, but if Lake Valor was what Cass wanted, then I’d find a way to get her there.

Content warning: off-screen death, a funeral, homophobia and transphobia. None of it goes beyond a PG level of detail, but you might want to make sure you're in the right mindset for it.

Wordcount: 9k

This was my entry for the Friends and Partners Contest.
🏆 3rd Place 🏆

8/2/21 - Changed the ending and cleaned up a few confusing bits.

I hope you enjoy!


Ballast

I was on the last bus down Mt. Hokulani when I found out about Cass. Mom had called hours earlier, but there hadn't been cellphone service on the mountain. I listened to the voicemail once, then immediately played it again, mashing the phone to my ear as if the happy chatter of tourists was the problem. It wasn't. I'd heard—I just couldn't understand.

When I stumbled off the bus, I finally noticed that I was pressing my still-wet canvas to my chest like a security blanket. Through the hairpins turns all down Route 10, I'd been careful to hold it stiff-armed away from myself, despite the surrounding crush of bodies. Now the canvas stuck fast to me. I peeled it back, leaving behind a dark stain, shirt and painting both ruined. For a moment, I stared at the Prussian blue smear that cut through my landscape, obliterating the skarmory I had delicately picked out from the sky, but there wasn't much to do about it: I had to pack for the funeral.

The next available flight out of Malie City was a red-eye. The passengers on either side of me slept, lolling on neck pillows, but I couldn't make myself close my eyes. Instead, I watched the sunrise slide from shades of indigo and aubergine to coral and vermillion.

As I thought about how I'd mix each color, I rolled Luci's ball between my palms. She'd be sulky when I let her out again; she hadn't seen the inside of her pokeball in at least a year, used to having free run of the apartment. I didn't let my thoughts move beyond the ball in my hands and the view out the tiny window—not to where I was headed, and not to what waited there.

Gray, days-old snow shrouded Hearthome City when we landed. Home sweet home.

My parents picked me up from the airport. I hefted my suitcase and moved for the car door, but Mom was already climbing out. "It's okay, I got it," I told her.

She threw her arms around me so tightly I barely managed to set my suitcase back down. "I'm so sorry, Jenna," she said against my neck.

And at that, I finally cried.



Mourners trickled from the parking lot to the cathedral steps, their heads lowered. As Dad pulled into a parking spot, I craned my neck to watch the procession, anxiety fluttering in my chest. I'd been to Cass's church a few times—the price of sleeping over at her house—but never for a funeral.

No one who approached the church had a pokemon at their side; several mourners recalled their partners as they stepped out of their cars, careful to shut the door quietly. However, a sleepy-eyed bibarel hunched at the threshold, facing a priest in ultramarine robes. The priest sprinkled the passing supplicants with water from an ornate urn that the bibarel occasionally topped off.

But my eye was drawn to the second priest, who stood to one side, atop one of the balustrades, his cyan robes fluttering. His chin was tipped to the sky, and I followed his gaze toward the steeple, where a staravia circled. It was chasing something, sending it spinning with gusts of wind. A garbage bag, maybe? But why would—

I sucked in a breath and scrambled out of the car.

"Jenna?"

"That's Bonapisa," I said, gesturing towards the drifblim floating above the church. "One of hers." The last and only time I'd seen it, Bonapisa had only been a drifloon, one stringy leg wrapped firmly around Cass's arm. This drifblim could've just as easily blown down from the mountains or escaped some other trainer, but I knew it was Cass's with as much certainty as I knew my own face in the mirror.

Before Mom or Dad could say anything else, I cut across the lot. Edging into the flower bed to get closer, I called up to the priest, "Excuse me, um,"—I faltered, unsure of the correct title—"Father?"

He glanced my way and smiled briefly. His eyes were a shade lighter than his robes, ice blue. "Don't worry. The creature can't get inside the Lord's house, and it'll be far away before the rites begin."

Above, the drifblim hunched at the base of the steeple, arms hooked around the buttresses. But the staravia brought its wings together, and the burst of wind ripped the drifblim off the roof and into open air. It keened, a sound like wind howling on a stormy night, and I couldn't help shuddering. It had been creepy as a drifloon, and it was creepier now.

But it was hers.

"No, you don't understand," I pressed. "It's—it was one of Cass's pokemon. I'm positive. It should stay."

The priest's expression soured. "My son—" He paused and squinted, realizing his mistake. Then he cleared his throat, and the uncertainty left his face. "If that creature stayed, it would snatch her soul away. She could never be reborn."

Behind me, Mom called out warningly, "Jenna …."

The priest slipped into a kindly but distant smile. "I know this is a difficult day. But all things are made right in Arceus' arms. Go well, my child."

Then Mom's hand was on my arm. For a moment, I strained against her grasp, scanning the sky for Bonapisa. The drifblim had already shrunk to a gray dot in the distance. As she steered me toward the steps, a cold breeze touched the back of my neck, but I didn't raise my head again.



The coffin dominated the center aisle. She's really in there, I told myself. That's what's left. It still didn't feel true. Thankfully the lid was closed, draped in a white cloth bordered with golden infinity symbols. A few mourners touched the cloth and made the looping sign of Arceus over themselves, but I shrank away and kept my hands in my pockets.

My parents flanked me as I lay our flowers on the altar with the others. Three framed images stood among the bundles of lilies and chrysanthemums: a purugly, a floatzel, and a roserade. I didn't recognize them—Cass started her journey after I left Sinnoh—but they must've been her team. She'd been really doing it. I felt like we were mourning the pokemon, too, though I didn't think any of them had died in the accident. I suddenly wanted to know where the rest of her team had ended up, but I couldn't imagine asking. It didn't matter now.

There was no image of the drifblim.

Smiling down from the center of the altar was Cass. Sort of. Her family had chosen a photo of her wearing a dress, pink satin and tulle. Her hair was teased into ringlets and pinned behind one ear with a jeweled flower. Prom, maybe. I almost didn't recognize her.

The Cass I knew wore oversized t-shirts, her topknot always coming partway undone. Remembering the way the escaped strands of hair had curled at the nape of her neck was what got me: that girl was gone, really gone, and forever out of reach. A sob burst out of me before I could stop it. Mom's arm tightened around my waist, and I sagged against her. We hobbled down the stairs together like competitors in a three-legged race.

Shortly after we took our seats, the requiem began. The sixteen priests formed a loose circle around the bishop, distinct in his white robes trimmed with gold. He intoned, "We have gathered here today to celebrate the life of Cassandra Anne Greer, beloved daughter, sister, and friend."

The doll-like girl in the photo looked like a Cassandra Anne. Maybe that was how her parents had seen her.

"None of us can claim to understand the divine plan or why the Original One calls home some souls sooner than others, but we can take comfort in the knowledge that she is safe in the arms of the Infinite, free from suffering, soon to be reborn."

Then he read from an enormous tome on a pedestal of interlinked gold rings. I took my cues from the row ahead of us, kneeling when they knelt and standing when they stood, even though my limbs were heavy and stiff. Mrs. Greer's quiet crying punctuated the pauses. She sat many rows away, but her sniffles echoed until I felt surrounded by them. Too intimate. Too exposed.

The air was so thick with incense, flowers, and dust that my head swam. I longed to slip outside for fresh air, where my thoughts could be my own—but I would have to shimmy past the entire row of people and then down the aisle where Arceus and all his worshippers would see me. Picturing it, I flinched.

I didn't belong here. Why had I even come? For Cass, I supposed. But she's dead, Jenna.

The bishop's voice rang out, sudden and loud. "Lord, You are in all things, and all things move through Your will."

"Amen," the crowd said as one.

A bell chimed, and then the space filled with the rustling of a hundred people turning pages all at once. Dad leaned to point out the passage for Mom and me, and I was grateful for her hand closing around mine.

The crowd read aloud together, "From nothing came One. From One came one thousand." I picked out Dad's voice among the others, steady and sure. Mom's was faltering, but of course she was polite enough to try. I moved my mouth but didn't make a sound. "One thousand rivers may split one thousand times, but all empty into one sea."

"The Lord in His mercy offers us the bounty of His blessings." The bishop gestured towards the far left wall. "We honor the moon with its brightness."

The mourners replied, "The brightness of the moon is the brightness of the Lord."

A priest in peach robes glided to the leftmost alcove and lit a candle within. Above the lintel, a gold-lacquered figure with a togetic on his shoulder smiled blandly—some saint. If they'd been alive today, the Arcean saints might've just been gym leaders. In this room, they were the Thousand Voices of the Almighty.

"We honor the snow with its whiteness."

Again, the congregation answered, "The whiteness of the snow is the whiteness of the Lord." The priest in gray lit his candle.

We honored the mind with its lightness, the body with all the strength it hath, and the lightning with its rapid wrath. Despite everything else, I liked the rhythm of the chant, all the colors. I found myself looking ahead to the red-robed priest who would light a candle for fire, for Luci, who still waited on my belt. The ritual reminded me of the Island Challenge, all those bright shards to gather up. I reached automatically to finger the remaining empty grooves of my z-ring, forgetting I'd left it at home.

The next blessing was for the wind with swiftness along its path. As the priest in cyan bent to his candle, I realized I knew the saint above that alcove: Bonapisa, patron saint of flying-types, messengers, and travelers. Cass had once given me a string bracelet with a pewter charm embossed with her image.

Thanks, I'd said, but I'm not really big on … you know, saints and stuff.

She'd only smiled. Bonapisa's good luck for trainers. She might come in handy.

Maybe Cass should've kept some of that luck for herself.

The blessings flowed on: the sea with its deepness, the rocks with their steepness, the earth with its starkness, the night with its darkness ….

Over and over, the day I'd left Sinnoh replayed in my mind: how I'd hesitated next to the trash can in the airport terminal. How I'd finally opened my fist and let the bracelet fall. How Saint Bonapisa had clinked as she hit the bottom. Now I wished I could return to that moment, dig the bracelet out, and have that little piece of Cass back.

The fire as it flowers, the steel as it towers, the drake with its glower, the swarm with its many, the thorn with its potency ….

I knew it was irrational, but I couldn't help thinking that maybe if I hadn't thrown her luck away, Cass would still be alive.

And then, with the fields and their plenty, the semi-circle of sixteen candles around the room was complete.

The bishop chimed the bell again and chanted, "By these we know the many faces of the One and come to rest in the arms of Infinity."

"Amen."

Casting his arms wide, the bishop called up to the ceiling, "O Lord of the Infinite, we entreat You to welcome the soul of Your beloved daughter Cassandra Greer, who You lifted out of the void and, in Your wisdom and grace, gave form on this living earth. May You grant her shelter from the Infinite Abyss that her soul may one day rejoin the living."

I imagined Cass in an empty airport terminal, feet propped on her backpack, gazing out a window onto deep space. Final boarding call for Infinite Void. People had to take comfort in something … but I couldn't buy the Arcean story of rebirth. Cass was headed someplace much further than Alola, and I didn't think she'd be back.

"Grant us the wisdom, Lord," the bishop continued, "to recognize her in all things as we recognize You in all things." He drew an infinity symbol in the air, putting his whole body into it. Then he lowered his head. "And now let us pray."

All around, mourners knelt or bent their heads over clasped hands. I dropped my gaze, but didn't close my eyes. I didn't have anything to say to Arceus. If he cared what I did, I'd never seen any sign of it. If he even existed at all, I'd guess he was just another pokemon, a creature of flesh and bone like the rest of us.

Like the Tapus. They were real—people caught glimpses of them all the time—but they came and went as they liked. When the crops grew well and the seas were calm, people called it a blessing. When storms and tsunamis beat upon the islands, the Alolan people brought conciliatory offerings of fruit, rice, and okolehao to the Tapus. For a righteous Arcean, worshipping a Tapu would be as hollow as worshipping a starly or a stone. But I'd seen a bowl of rice do more than words whispered into the air.

So instead, I watched the candlelight flicker on the polished wood floors, tinted every color of the rainbow from the stained glass windows. Finally, I did close my eyes; I didn't want to picture Cass here in this dark, foreboding space. I wanted to think of her somewhere bright and warm, throwing her head back in laughter.

I'd spent almost as much time sitting on her bed as my own, watching movies, doing homework, or simply talking. A prism dangled in her window, and when the light was just right, it kissed her shoulder with refracted rainbows. I'd learned eventually that the prism was an Arcean thing, but I still thought it was a little magical.

"You can keep a secret, right?"

With a shy smile, she'd presented the drifloon: a little deflated, puckering at the edges, cooing. "Her name is Bonapisa."

"Your parents are gonna kill you if they find out."

"I know." Cass frowned but lifted her chin. "But she was hurt—caught in the eaves. I couldn't just leave her."

"So you're keeping it?"

She squeezed the fluff atop Bonapisa's head—it sprang back like a sponge—and the drifloon nuzzled her arm. "Wouldn't hurt to get a head start on my team before I set out, right? And look at this cutie!"

It inflated and deflated as it breathed, like a living lung.

Not wanting to hurt Cass's feelings, I pivoted. "What is it with your family and ghosts anyway?"

I guessed it had something to do with the gym leader. I liked that Fantina didn't seem to care what other people thought about what she wore or how she spoke—she did what she wanted. But whenever she appeared on TV at the Greer house, Mrs. Greer clicked away, saying, His mother must be ashamed. It made sense that Fantina's pokemon would be banned, too.

But Cass said, "It's not my family. It's the whole church. They're … it's hard to explain. You know how Arceus made the world and everything in it?"

Arceus talk immediately made my stomach shrivel, but I nodded for her benefit, watching her mouth as she spoke.

"Well, everything that's not the world is the void—the opposite of life. And that's what Giratina wants more of. So it sends ghosts into the world to lead souls away into the nothingness, to unravel the fabric of life itself. Or, if your soul gets lost, you could even become a ghost." She paused, toying with the drifloon's feet. "That can't be true, though, can it? I mean, if Arceus created everything, then he created ghosts too, right?"

"Maybe?"

With a nervous laugh, Cass said, "Just something I've been thinking about. Sorry if that's too weird … but I can't really talk to anyone about it but you."

When she met my eyes and smiled, I almost could have told her everything, let my own secret unfold like a flower. If her church was wrong about ghosts, maybe it was wrong about other things, too.

Then Mrs. Greer called outside the door, "Girls, dinner!"

And I clenched my words tight and small and safe.



Cousins and uncles I'd never met milled around the Greer's living room, speaking in low voices and half-heartedly nibbling at the sandwiches and stuffed eggs. The room was overcrowded, not just with funeral-goers but with memories. The last time I'd been in this room, I'd thought it would be the last time.

As I carried the store-bought cookies to the table, I caught sight of Cass's parents across the room. Mrs. Greer's hair was pulled back, which made her look strikingly like her daughter, only older, shoulders slumped. She turned and registered my face with a look of surprise so obvious it made my insides squirm.

She knew. Was she upset that I'd come?

But she motioned me over with a watery smile.

"I'm so sorry for your loss," I managed to squeeze out through the lump in my throat.

Mr. Greer nodded in acknowledgement, and Mrs. Greer pulled me into a hug. "I'm so glad you made it, Jenna. She would've wanted you to be here."

I swallowed hard, not wanting to cry in front of them.

When Mrs. Greer pulled away, she said, "But, honey, what happened to your pretty curls?"

"Oh." I ran a hand over the back of my head and looked away. "The long hair kinda got in the way."

An expression I couldn't name flickered across her face. "It's not easy being out on the road, is it?"

I hadn't been on the road in months, not in the way she was imagining. I hardly left Malie City except for day trips up Mt. Hokulani to paint, traveling by highway and trails with concrete steps and handrails. Luci and I had completed a few trials, but it didn't take long for me to decide that what I'd really wanted wasn't an adventure but just to get away. So I settled into an apartment above a malasada shop and a life of selling paintings to tourists and let that be enough.

My hair wasn't for the road. It was for me.

But there was a hint of earnestness and longing in Mrs. Greer's voice. Maybe she wanted to believe I was still united with her daughter in this, still carrying the torch. Maybe she was hoping I would reaffirm the dangers of traveling the wild routes. What happened to Cass could've happened to anyone.

Letting her come to her own conclusions was easier than finding words to explain who I was, so I agreed, "No, it's not easy."

Mrs. Greer grabbed onto her husband's arm, and I wondered if that had been the wrong thing to say after all.

"Cassandra was never content to take the easy path," Mr. Greer said, speaking up for the first time. His eyes were doleful as an Arcean saint's.

"She was so …." I drew in a slow breath. "She always did what she thought was right."

Mrs. Greer nodded and fidgeted with a string of rainbow-colored prayer beads. I sensed she was waiting for me to say more, to bring Cass to life again with words, but I could only think of her giving shelter to the wind-battered drifloon. Probably better not to mention that now. In every other way, she'd been the daughter they wanted.

"Jenna … I think you should go."

I smiled politely down at my shoes.

"Thank you for coming, Jenna," Mrs. Greer finally said. "Our home is open to you anytime,"

Then she didn't know after all.

When another woman from the church clasped her shoulder and the Greers turned away, I was relieved to step back into the crowd.

I circled back towards the food table, partly looking for my parents and partly to have something to occupy myself. I recognized a few of Cass's friends from school, but no one I knew well enough to want to talk to. I wondered about Tim, her little brother, but hadn't seen him anywhere yet. By the time I'd plated a couple of stuffed eggs, I spotted my parents waiting to talk to Mr. and Mrs. Greer, so I slipped into the kitchen to wait where it was quieter.

The kitchen windows looked out on the back deck, and my heart somersaulted at the sight of the wooden porch swing. Of course it's still there, I scolded myself. What did you expect?

Cass and I had sat there together the last time we spoke. It felt like a lifetime ago. It felt like five minutes ago.

I remembered rocking from heel to toe, nervous at her sudden quiet. Her feet were planted firmly, so only my end of the bench wiggled. "Are you upset?" I asked.

"No, I'm happy for you! It's just …." She twirled a loose strand of hair around her finger. "It won't be the same here without you."

"Yeah, it's gonna be weird." I stopped rocking.

She nudged my leg with her knee. "Why are you moping?"

I thought for a minute and said, "I haven't told my parents I was accepted yet. I don't have to go."

"Oh my goodness, yes you do, Jenna," she burst out. "You worked so hard."

Only a handful of non-residents were admitted to the Island Challenge each year, and come fall, I'd be one of them.

"I mean, not right away. I could delay a year." My stomach fluttered, but I pushed past it. "I could … start when you start. We could do it together. Wouldn't that be great?"

Cass's smile snuck through before a frown took over. "I could never go that far from my parents. They'd be crushed if I left Sinnoh." She suddenly sounded so tired and small.

I hated the thought of her alone in this city.

I'd been dreaming of beaches and sun, a place without winter, but I offered, "I could stay …."

She laid a hand on my arm, her grip surprisingly firm. "You deserve to be happy, Jenna."

Her smile was so tender it warmed me from my belly to the tips of my toes. I wanted to carry her away from here. I wanted to bring her the sun—that would make me happy. I didn't allow myself to think: I leaned forward and kissed her. For a moment, there was only the smell of her soap, her hand on my arm, and the softness of her mouth.

And then she jerked away.

"I'm sorry," I blurted as my heart crashed into my stomach. My entire face throbbed with heat. "I shouldn't have …."

The instant before Cass turned away, hand over her mouth, her eyes were wide with fear. I'd made her afraid of me. "Jenna … I think you should go."

So I jammed on my sneakers without another word and without pausing to put on my socks, balling them up in my pocket instead. And I walked home.

I wondered, at first, if I should call her, apologize again, but I never mustered the nerve. Clearly, she didn't want to talk. One week bled into another—and then summer was over, and I was on the plane for Alola.

And now she was gone.

I looked down at the plate of eggs in my hand and felt nauseated at the thought of eating anything. Luci would like them though, and she deserved a treat after being stuck in her ball for so long. I was afraid to release her inside the house—I didn't know if it would be somehow offensive—but the deck should be okay. Five minutes in the cold wouldn't hurt either of us.

I was reaching for the doorknob when someone called my name behind me. Tim stood in the kitchen doorway. Cass's little brother wasn't so little anymore: he was still skinny as a sudowoodo but taller than me. He had to be, what, seventeen now? Pretty soon, he'd be setting out on his own jour—no, maybe not anymore.

"Taking a break?" he asked.

"Sort of. Wanted to give Luci some fresh air." I felt a spark of spiteful glee at moving among these church folks with a pokemon named Lucifer. I swiftly stuffed down my amusement and added, "I'm sorry for your loss."

"You too."

He said it with such perfect sincerity that I wanted to throw my arms around him. I'd forgotten what a sweet kid he could be. But we'd never been that kind of friends, so I smiled for him instead.

"I brought something for you."

"What? Tim, you don't have to—"

He was already reaching into his jacket pocket for an envelope. "It's yours already." Sure enough, my name was written on the front.

"What is it?" I asked. But I recognized the handwriting.

"I didn't open it. She wrote it for you."

I turned the envelope over in my hands. It had been stamped in red ink, Return to sender: insufficient postage. My stomach lurched at the postmark date: last month. Why had Cass tried to send me something now? We hadn't spoken in over a year.

Tim watched with undisguised curiosity, maybe even envy, and his earnestness made me nervous. Good or bad, this letter wouldn't be inconsequential—I couldn't read it in front of him. With a fast-beating heart, I pocketed the envelope and choked out, "Thanks, Tim."

Then something else occurred to me. "She must've asked Mom for my address."

"Probably."

"Why didn't she just call?"

Tim was quiet for a moment. I hadn't expected an answer, but he said, "It was hard for her here, after you left." I wasn't sure whether or not I was imagining the accusation in his tone.

I answered carefully. "I guess things must be pretty hard now."

The grain of sternness I thought I'd seen in him melted. He put his hands in his pockets and looked down. "Today sucked."

"Yeah. I bet."

He took a deep breath and let it out. "But I think it'll be a little better now that someone is taking Adjuto. One less thing to worry about." The name sounded like another saint, but I wasn't sure. Seeing the look on my face, Tim clarified, "Her floatzel. I guess he'll have a different name now."

"Your parents didn't want to keep him?"

"A pokemon that size is a lot to take care of," Tim said bitterly, clearly repeating someone else's words. "They both have to work, and I have school, so … they all need new homes."

"Oh."

"Adjuto's going to someone in Unova. They'd better be good to him—that's all I can say." Tim pushed ahead as if he couldn't stop himself until he'd said it all. He must have been holding it all in for a while. "The League said Gertie can safely return to the wild—the rangers came by to get her earlier this week—and Ms. Duncan is taking Fiacre, since she needs the company. So then there's just … the other one."

Bonapisa.

"I think I saw it at the church," I said slowly.

Tim shivered. "It keeps hanging around the house. I hear it at night sometimes, this awful sound like the roof is going to come off. We released it, but it won't go." He gave a violent shake of its head and added, "I hate it. I don't know what she was thinking."

"Maybe—" I cut myself off. He wouldn't want to hear that the drifblim might only be hungry, drawn to the family's grief. "Maybe it'll lose interest when things settle down."

Tim drew his shoulders up, making himself small.

I tried again. "Maybe you could stay at a friend's house until …."

He shook his head and said, "It's Cass I'm worried about."

She's already dead. But I bit it back. "What do you mean?"

Tim warily eyed my face. "Well, this is when her soul is most vulnerable."

"Oh," I said, realizing. "Her ashes?" The coffin was probably burning as we spoke.

He nodded. "We can't wait, not with that thing hovering around, watching us. But there's no way Dad can make it to Lake Valor when the weather's like this. He's got bad knees."

Tim looked like he could come apart at the slightest breath, like a dandelion clock. Poor kid. He was carrying so much.

This shouldn't be your responsibility to worry about, I wanted to tell him. But he clearly wanted to talk about it, so I asked, "Lake Valor?"

"It's traditional," he said a little sharply.

"Right."

"Mom and Dad were talking about Route 208. It feels weird, but at least there's the falls and … all rivers lead to one ocean, right?" He didn't sound entirely sure.

"You couldn't have one of her trainer friends take, um … take her to Lake Valor?"

He scrunched his face. "Like who?"

Fair point. In the living room, there had been few people between the ages of eight and forty-eight, and fewer with balls on their belts. It made a kind of sense: if I were journeying through Sinnoh when winter was coming on, I imagined I might find a cozy place to stay put until the weather got better. The price of a plane ticket didn't help either. I'd gotten Mom and Dad's help paying for mine, but not every trainer had that option. Or maybe, I thought, remembering my own brief stint of camping across Alola, maybe one day had run into the next until Cass's trainer friends had lost track of the date. Maybe they'd forgotten.

"What about one of the priests?" I tried. "Don't they have pokemon?"

Tim looked horrified. "They can't leave the city for something like that. Especially not so soon before Solstice."

Of course, the Thousand Hands of Arceus had more important things to do.

"Uncle Carlisle was going to travel from Floaroma to do it, but he wouldn't be able to cross the mountains until at least next week, so …."

Even in death, she couldn't escape Hearthome or the shadow of the church steeple. It didn't matter, I told myself, not really. The ash would blow everywhere no matter where it was dumped out—it couldn't be contained. Plus, the part of her that would care about that kind of thing was long gone.

But it still bothered me.

"I could do it."

Tim jerked his head up. "Jenna, is that … safe?"

"The southern route shouldn't be bad. There's never much snow that way, and it's mostly flat. And I've got a fire-type." Luci was only a Litten, but still. He didn't need to know that. Luci and I had summited Ten Karat Hill and crossed the Haina Desert together—we could handle a few days of hiking.

"Are you sure?"

I touched the envelope in my pocket. "It's what she would've wanted, right?



Bonapisa was following me.

I noticed her from the top of a gentle rise when we stopped to rest. Luci had already rolled in the snow, gotten bored of it, and started stalking the starlies in the thicket along the path. As I sipped from my water bottle, I mentally carved the field into parcels of light and shadow and considered digging out my sketchbook.

But in the valley below, the drifblim floated like a low-lying cloud, slowly winding between the trees. No sketchbook, then—time to go. As conditions of being allowed to deliver Cass's ashes to Lake Valor, the church had prayed over me and tied a copper infinity symbol to my backpack, but I had no illusions about how effectively their blessings would protect me from a real threat.

Probably just hungry, I reminded myself, though that seemed less likely now: more grief to go around back in Hearthome.

At first, I checked over my shoulder every few minutes, catching a glimpse of Bonapisa more often than not. Finally, I crunched to a stop and called out with all the fire I could muster, "So I guess you're coming, too?"

I turned just in time to catch it ducking behind a tree, not at all hidden. I softened, a little. "Well?"

The drifblim shrank as small as it could, pulling in its arms, but was still clearly visible on either side of the tree trunk. I waited a few moments, but it made no move to flee nor to come closer.

So I started down the path again. When I peeked a moment later, the drifblim was bumbling along behind me, keeping its distance but never quite out of sight.

I'd seen enough of Fantina's battles on TV to know that Bonapisa definitely could move faster; if it wanted to hurt me, it would've tried already. So I stopped looking over my shoulder and focused instead on where I was putting my feet. Let the drifblim do what it wanted.

The hike wasn't bad. I'd expected the trail to be a slick mess, but the ground held firm beneath me, undisturbed by foot traffic, even where the snow had thawed to mud. I couldn't believe the stillness, a level beyond the muffling effect of the snow. It had been months since I'd been out of earshot of traffic noise. The sun was only a fuzzy halo through gauzy clouds, but walking kept me warm and sweating under my borrowed coat: the cold couldn't touch me.

Luci bounded at my side, scattering snow each time she leapt at a starly. She wasn't quick enough to catch them, but … I hadn't noticed until then how big she was getting. Maybe even close to evolving. I wasn't sure what I'd do if that happened. A litten in a studio apartment was one thing, but a torracat? When the snow began to soak into Luci's fur and she refused to walk farther, I was almost relieved to recall her, even though it was too quiet afterward.

"Just you and me," I called over my shoulder to Bonapisa. "Best friends."

I made camp well before sundown, just in case: I hadn't pitched a tent in a long time. When the campfire was crackling, Luci curled on a tarp at my feet, I finally took out Cass's letter. I weighed the envelope in my hands, trying to guess how many pages might be inside. With a deep breath, I slid my finger along the flap and opened it.

Dear Jenna, the letter began, You probably weren't expecting to hear from me. I hope—

The letter whipped out of my hands before I registered the whistle of wind. I leapt up and grabbed wildly, but my fingers closed on nothing. The sheet of paper spiraled up and up, pale and luminous against the twilight sky, before tumbling back down.

Hissing and cursing, I dove for the letter. I nearly had it when a second, smaller gust swept the paper out from under my fingers and sent it skittering into the mud. With a cry of frustration, I made a running snatch at the letter—and promptly slid off my feet. Cold seeped through my pants, but I had the letter, spotted with muddy fingerprints but otherwise dry.

As I climbed to my feet, I caught sight of Bonapisa. I'd never seen it come so close. Luci had skittered off the tarp to face it, her hackles raised. The drifblim's sides heaved in and out, each gust rippling the fire.

Rage surged through me so suddenly that for a moment I couldn't speak. "What is wrong with you!" I screamed.

The drifblim hovered in place, pulsating. At this distance, I could see its veins, the sucking flap of its mouth like a tear across its body.

My stomach churned with revulsion and anger. "What do you want?!"

I stepped forward, and Bonapisa finally drew back, arms pumping. "Don't you get it? You're too late!"

Whether because of my shout or simply because its retreat made it look like prey, Luci finally pounced. She missed—Bonapisa easily rose up and out of reach—but it was enough to drive the drifblim out of the circle of firelight.

"Where were you when she actually needed you?" I shouted at Bonapisa's receding form. I didn't care what I was saying or whether the drifblim understood. "It was your job to protect her!"

The drifblim vanished into the shadows, and there there was only a low, nearly human moan through the trees. Then even that was gone.

Puffing for breath, I clutched Cass's letter to my chest in one hand and leaned forward with the other on my knee. I couldn't hear anything but my own breathing.

Until Luci growled. She batted at something on the ground, and that was when I noticed the sound like dry leaves. Or an ekans rattle.

Maybe Luci hadn't been attacking Bonapisa at all.

She swatted again, and I cried, "No, Lu, get back! Don't touch it! Use fire!"

The ekans' head snapped forward, but I didn't see whether its fangs connected. Then a burst of fire swallowed it up. Within the flames, the snake was a pretzeling, writhing silhouette for an instant before it flung itself out, away from us and into the night.

Luci switched her tail and turned her nose up.

"Let me see. Did it get you?"

She didn't give me much of a chance to inspect her paws before she sprang away to perch atop the rock where I'd been sitting. With a brief pause to skewer me with a glare, she set about grooming her fur.

"Yeah, you're fine." I let out a breath. "That was lucky."

It wasn't luck, though: it was Bonapisa. She had noticed the ekans first and taken action. A snake was the last thing I'd thought to worry about on the icy trail. Maybe it had been the heat of the campfire that had brought it out, or maybe I'd accidentally disturbed its resting spot when I made camp. Either way, if I'd stayed where I'd been sitting …. I shivered, even though the fire was already drying my muddy pants to a hard crust.

I tucked Cass's letter into my backpack, flat between my sketchbook and the box containing her ashes, and decided to save it for a better moment. I couldn't risk losing it out here.

Later, tucked in my sleeping bag with the flashlight, I reached again for the letter, knowing I should read it now before something else happened to it. But I couldn't make myself slide it from the envelope. I'd never get to read it for the first time again, never be able to un-know what it said, and then that would be it. There would never be new words from her ever again.

As I waited for sleep to take me, I heard the wind in the trees ... but if that was Bonapisa, it was the only sign of her presence.

I didn't catch sight of her again the next day or the day after. I felt bad for yelling at her, but I decided it was probably for the best that she'd gone her own way. Before long, I'd be back on a plane to Alola, and Bonapisa was just one more ghost I'd be leaving behind.



With Luci tucked against my chest, her legs thrown over my arm, I kept as warm as I'd ever been in our apartment above the malasada shop. But that didn't mean sleep came easily. I was out of practice sleeping on hard ground; even during my brief tour of Alola, I'd camped on sand as often as not. If I didn't wake up to change positions, then Luci woke me instead, yowling to be let out of the tent, then to be let back in, and then just to be petted.

The night before I expected to arrive at Lake Valor, I woke to yipping and howling outside. Lights flickered through the tent wall. Even half-asleep, I knew what it was: at the Pastoria pokecenter, the man at the desk had warned me about a pack of wild houndour prowling the area.

Normally, their numbers stayed small, but a while back, some idiot had illegally released a houndoom; like a warlord calling bannermen, it had drawn together several smaller bands of dogs from across south Sinnoh. By the light of day, the news hadn't worried me. I'd camped before in rockruff and growlithe territory and had never been bothered. This time, though, Luci was outside the tent by herself.

Throwing on my coat and boots, I grabbed Luci's ball, and scrambled out.

I knew by their growls that the pack was close, even before I picked out the yellow eyes in a semi-circle around the tent, at least ten pairs. The houndoom hung behind the others. Most of its shape was lost to shadow, but the gleam of bone and horn under the half-moon revealed how large it was—its shoulder would be level with my chest, and it was at least four times the size of my litten. I couldn't make Luci out at all until the houndoom tipped its head back and spat fire. Even with her fur on end and her paws spread wide, she looked terribly small.

I wasn't sure if recalling her would diffuse the situation or if the pack would take it as a sign of weakness, an excuse to attack. There were so many. If more than one of them came at her, I might not be able to catch her in the recall beam. So far, they'd held off, and that made me optimistic about keeping her out. I decided to try something else.

"Hey!" I shouted at the top of my lungs, stretching my arms wide to appear taller. "Go away!"

The houndoom snarled, its teeth backlit with smoky orange.

Luci hissed and arched her back, inspiring a fresh wave of growls from the pack.

Maybe not, then.

"Come on, Luci," I said softly, taking a step away. My palms were sweating despite the cold. "Let's go."

For a moment, I was afraid she was going to ignore me and do something stupid: she swished her tail like she did when she was about to breathe fire. But she finally took one delicate step back—

In a blur from the left, one of the houndour lunged at her. I recalled Luci a split-second before the houndour's teeth would've closed on her neck. Instead, the houndour bit the air and stumbled. It whipped around to glare at me, growling. The pack crept forward.

I nearly choked on dread as I scanned the ground for a large rock or branch—anything.

A wind rose, first a moan and then a howl. Flying ice and dirt hissed against the tent and the hood of my coat. One of the smaller houndour tumbled onto its side like it had been pushed over. The houndoom turned its face out of the wind, ears flattened to its head.

And then something lifted me up by the armpits. My hands flew up to grab whatever had grabbed me, and my fingers met with flesh: suede-soft, stretchy, and clammy with cold. I tipped my head back and found myself staring up into the drifblim's cavernous body. By then, my feet had already left the ground.

Panic ripped through me. I kicked my legs, but Bonapisa held on tight. We continued to rise. Below, the tent shrank to the size of a photo frame and then a matchbook; I dug my fingers into the drifblim's arms in fear that she would let me go. Her grip held firm, though, surprisingly gentle.

Bit by bit, my pulse slowed, my shoulders went slack, and I gave in at last to weightlessness. What else could I do?

The houndoom's pack howled, but the sound was tinny and faint. I couldn't tell how long they paced and circled beneath us, but my fear had evaporated. It felt like watching a campsite that belonged to another girl from another time. Eventually, they slunk off down the hill, and even their cries faded away.

As the dawn's first blush spread from the horizon, Bonapisa began to lower us back down. To the right, Lake Valor was a patch of lingering night, indigo blue among the pink trees. Even as the lake sank out of sight behind the pines, my heart lifted. It wasn't much further now.

Bonapisa set me down lightly enough that I landed like a dancer. I barely felt her slide her arms away. By the time I looked around for her, she'd already withdrawn to a safe distance, half turned towards the trees.

"Bonapisa …." I trailed off, unsure of what to say.

At the sound of her name, the drifblim soundlessly waved all four arms.

I croaked, "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have yelled at you. I'm sure you … you must miss her too, right?"

She inched closer, puttering like a box fan.

"You understand everything, don't you."

When she stopped, she was nearly close enough to touch, but I didn't try. Instead, I tipped my face towards the rising sun; from down on the ground, it was only a line of fuchsia seeping between dark trees. There was no point in going back to sleep now. "Think we can beat the sun?"

Bonapisa hovered nearby while I broke down the tent and stuffed it all back into my bag, arranging the box of Cass's ashes on top. That's all that was left: five pounds of dust. And a drifblim. I sat back on my heels and caught Bonapisa's unblinking gaze. "Well, this is it," I told her. She only bobbed in place until I took my first step towards the trees, and then she drifted after.

My backpack was no lighter than before, but I hardly felt its weight. I moved with the lightness of a dream. The starlies were quieter that morning, as if someone had turned the volume down. Bonapisa, I noticed for the first time, wooshed softly as she moved through the air, off-beat from my breathing but maybe not so different. I found myself humming along to her rhythm. I was a few bars in when I realized where it was from: the moon with its brightness, the snow with its whiteness, the wind with swiftness along its path ….

Sure, Arceus, I decided, you can come along, too. You can all come.

The lake appeared like a magic trick, one moment hidden behind the weave of branches and the next laid open, luminous. The sight gave me a burst of energy; within minutes, I stood where water lapped at the muddy ledge, out of breath but smiling.

When I turned, Bonapisa was already at my side, her arms swaying. "Thank you. I wouldn't have made it here without you."

She glided towards the lakeshore—expectantly, I thought.

"You're right. We have a job to do."

I shrugged off my backpack, knelt beside it at the water's edge, and pulled the box of ashes into my lap. It could have just as easily been a box of tea or soap or any other small, ordinary thing except for the infinity symbol sealing it shut.

Cass's family would've had a prayer for this moment. The priests had whispered and chanted over me before I'd left Hearthome, but now I couldn't remember a single word they'd said.

Of course, they would also start by chasing off Bonapisa. That showed what they knew.

"I still don't really know how to pray," I said down to the box. "I hope you're not too disappointed. So I guess all that's left to say is … goodbye."

The words hung in the air for a few moments before I reached into my bag for my palette knife and sliced through the seal. Inside was a thick plastic bag of gray powder. It reminded me of dry paint pigment, except that it had no color at all. With some effort, I managed to stab through the plastic and pull open a hole the size of my fist. But I balked at the thought of putting a hand in: it felt too casual, like reaching into a bowl of popcorn. There was no one for miles to see or care, but still. I couldn't do it.

I didn't realize that Bonapisa had crept closer until there came a sound like a sharp intake of breath right next to me. And then, with wind rattling in the dry branches, she swept forward.

If you had asked me before that morning how it would feel for a ghost to pass through you, I would've guessed cold. Goosebumps. Nausea. Maybe for another ghost at another time, those things would've been true. But Bonapisa broke over me like a memory. I smelled airport carpet and church dust, and I could almost, almost swear I heard Cass's laughter. Then, in slow motion, the bag tipped out of my hands, and its contents sprayed out into the water.

Lightheaded, I tumbled backward onto my elbows. Bonapisa scudded out across the water, spreading ashes with each flick of her arms. The wind sang over stone and through the trees. Part of me wanted to sing along, and another part wanted to laugh: the Arceans should have just sent Bonapisa from the beginning.

I wondered suddenly if Bonapisa would come with me if I asked. I didn't know what I'd do with a drifblim—I certainly couldn't keep her indoors—but we could figure that out later. It could be worth a try.

For a while, I watched her glide back and forth. The lake was so clear that there appeared to be two Bonapisas, one above and one below. The water mirrored trees and a sky whose color I couldn't quite name. Maybe someday I'd meet Cass again, there in that other world. What would we say to each other?

Heart trilling, I remembered the letter. If this wasn't the right time for Cass's words, then what would be?

I took up the letter with trembling fingers and smoothed the paper out on my lap. Then with a deep breath, I read.

Dear Jenna,

You probably weren't expecting to hear from me. I hope it's okay that I'm writing to you now. I should've done it sooner, and I'm sorry. I'm sorry for all of it.

That night on the porch swing … I was scared. That sounds so stupid now. That doesn't make it okay and it's not an excuse, but it's the truth. I wish I'd been as brave as you then, that I could take back what I said or that I'd said something after, but I think I'm learning now. I'm finally figuring out who I am.

I don't want to be small anymore. I want to be exactly what Arceus created me to be, even if that doesn't look like the life everyone else has or the life my parents think I should have. I don't know what I'll tell them. I love them, but they aren't going to change, and I guess I'm not either. Lord knows I've tried.

I'm explaining everything all wrong.

What I'm really trying to say is … I'll be home for Solstice, and it would mean a lot to me if we could meet up and talk. Or maybe I could visit you! You probably don't want to deal with the cold and all the holiday stuff. But I think it would be easier to explain how I feel in person.

And if you don't want to see me ever again … I wouldn't blame you. Even if you don't want to meet, I feel better knowing that I tried to tell you … that I miss you and still think about you all the time. That I remember the porch swing.

I hope you're kicking butt out there, wherever you are.

Always,

Cass


The words ran blurry with my tears, and I had to stop reading to dry my face before I could continue. I read her letter a second time, then a third, and an image leapt to my mind: Cass scampering down the slopes of Mt. Coronet with her scarf flapping behind her, quick-footed because she had to get home in time for Solstice, because there might be a letter from Alola waiting. And maybe that was why her feet had slipped on that treacherous path.

It wasn't fair. One more week, just one, and she would've been home, wanting to talk to me. We could've …. I didn't even know what. No one would ever know now.

I crushed the letter to my chest, desperately wishing it would've made it to me in Alola. But would it have mattered? I could have agreed to meet and talk, could have apologized or made demands or promised any number of things, and she still might have tumbled off the path on her way to meet me. I couldn't undo what had already happened.

As I moved to wipe my nose on my sleeve, I realized with a start that Bonapisa had drifted up above the trees on the other side of the lake. Scrambling to my feet, I called, "Bonapisa! Wait!"

She slowed and half-turned toward me … but she didn't stop.

I watched her go until the tears ran too thickly for me to make out her shrinking shape, and then I sank to the black dirt. I howled and sobbed like I hadn't allowed myself to in the church, like it was Cass herself who had flown away. Then, at last, I was too wrung out to do anything but lay listening to the forest wake up.

When I finally sat up, the lake surface was still, not even the reflection of a cloud cutting through the blue. The ashes had completely dissolved into the reflected sky. Gone, forever.

Bonapisa was never going to belong to me, I realized. Like Cass, she deserved to be free.

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Pen

the cat is mightier than the pen
Staff
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I think some of your best work is about grief. The opening scenes through the funeral flowed wonderfully, and the backstory was entwined in just the right amount for the beats to land. I loved your depiction of Jenna's discomfort with the church, the kindly smiles and ice blue eyes, but how she also ultimately finds some comfort in the sound and rhythm of the chants. The premise is very Lyra and Gen, except everyone is a lot nicer. I liked the awkward moment with Cass' parents where for Jenna to communicate what was great about Cass would mean challenging their image of Cass, and the conversation between Cass and Tim felt very real and tender. I feel like I got a strong sense of who Cass was--someone kind, but who prefers to go with the flow and not make waves. Her one act of rebellion is an act of quiet compassion. She seems to worry about expectations--in contrast to Jenna, who really doesn't. Point in case, that she's given up on the island trials and doesn't feel at all self-conscious about it or identify as a failure. She's satisfied with her choices--perhaps all her choices except ditching Cass' charm. In a story about grief and ghosts, she actually feels quite centered as a narrator and her narrative voice is a confident one.

I see you had a lot of fun with the Arcean chants! I really liked the motiff of thousands, and I think splitting the rhyme was a good choice--more effective then presenting it all together. The church's opposition to Bonapisa felt coherent and realistic, and I liked that it was tied to something more concrete than 'ghosts bad'--ghosts are dangerous servants of Giratina who steal souls!

The ending sat less well with me. It felt somewhat rushed and almost like a bow was being tied over the story. I was surprised that the upshot of the letter for the narrator was just joy. Her internal monologue there didn't ring true to me. Obviously it's great that Cass doesn't hate her and wanted to break away from her family and all, but the fact that she was about to do all that and dies compounds the tragedy, doesn't it? If Jenna had gotten her letter, if they had met up at the Solstice--there's so many might have beens that it seems would flood in at that moment. I also wasn't sure where the suicide implications fit in, and whether the letter's meant to lay them to rest or not. Cass didn't get the letter, but if she had, would it have changed anything? The ending line about Cass managing to bring her home makes it sound like that was somehow Cass' objective, but that's a kind of odd thought. Cass wanted to see her, not abstractly bring her home. In fact, Cass had decided to leave home behind, so I'm not sure why bringing Jenna home would rank high in her wants. And I'm not sure what to make of the idea that Cass is "home" now. She wanted her ashes spread over Lake Valor, but does that make it home? Is death home? Jenna also characterizes Cass as finally being ready to fly far-away simultaneously with characterizing her as being on Mt Coronet, which seems fairly distant? I think if the Solstice is important, it would be good to drop some references to it earlier, because I felt fairly adrift regarding the timing, when the Solstice happened, etc.

Bonapisa was lovely and I want to give her a cuddle. You characterized her physicality so well, from a living lung to a dancer. Even though it's a bit a given that Bonapisa won't be malevolent, you did a nice job setting her up as a creepy and adversarial presence initially, and slowly puncturing that as she saves Jenna. I did feel like Bonapisa drops out at the end. Spreading ashes is a very human thing, and so I wondered what kind of closure Bonapisa was seeking by following Cass' ashes. (It would be kind of interesting if the Arceans were sort of right--if Bonapisa was able to do something like birth a drifloon from Cass' ashes--but that's probably too fantastic for your style of story.)

Prose was on point throughout, see gushing below. And don't think I didn't notice that the story features a girl with a very good black cat.

For a moment, I stared at the Payne's gray smear that cut through my landscape, obliterating the skarmory I had delicately picked out from the sky, but there wasn't much to do about it: I had to pack for the funeral.
I like her non-reaction here a lot. Smushing your painting is the kind of thing that would normally make a person curse or exclaim, but it's entirely trivial compared to the news she got, and that makes the gravity of death hit home.

(I have no idea what "Payne's" gray smear means?)

As I thought about how I'd mix each color, I rolled Luci's ball between my palms. She'd be sulky when I let her out again; she hadn't seen the inside of her pokeball in at least a year, used to having free run of the apartment. I didn't let my thoughts move beyond the ball in my hands and the view out the tiny window—not to where I was headed, and not to what waited there.
Appreciating how you ground each leg of the journey with an object--first the painting, now the pokeball.

Three framed images stood among the bundles of lilies and chrysanthemums: a purugly, a floatzel, and a roserade. I didn't recognize them—Cass started her journey after I left Sinnoh—but they must've been her team. She'd been really doing it. I felt like we were mourning the pokemon, too, though I didn't think any of them had died in the accident.
There's something quite creepy about depicting the living pokemon in that way, as if they've died. Sad that they're not allowed to attend the funeral, even the ones that aren't considered soul-stealers.

Mom's arm tightened around my waist, and I sagged against her. We hobbled down the stairs together like competitors in a three-legged race.
Love how supportive Mom is.

The doll-like girl in the photo looked like a Cassandra Anne. Maybe that was how her parents had seen her.
Mmm. That kind of discrepancy really comes out at funerals. Using Cassandra Anne/Cass is a nice shorthand for it.

The crowd read aloud together, "From nothing came One. From One came one thousand." I picked out Dad's voice among the others, steady and sure. Mom's was faltering, but of course she was polite enough to try. I moved my mouth but didn't make a sound. "One thousand rivers may split one thousand times, but all empty into one sea."
Really nice way to characterize each member of the family's relationship to religion.

Over and over, the day I'd left Sinnoh replayed in my mind: how I'd hesitated next to the trash can in the airport terminal. How I'd finally opened my fist and let the bracelet fall. How Saint Bonapisa had clinked as she hit the bottom. Now I wished I could return to that moment, dig the bracelet out, and have that little piece of Cass back.
Oof.

With a shy smile, she'd presented the drifloon: a little deflated, puckering at the edges, cooing. "Her name is Bonapisa."
I love Bonapisa already.

It inflated and deflated as it breathed, like a living lung.
Love this. Both incredibly vivid and captures the narrator's disgust.

When she met my eyes and smiled, I almost could have told her everything, let my own secret unfold like a flower. If her church was wrong about ghosts, maybe it was wrong about other things, too.
This unfolds really nicely.

Cass and I had sat there together the last time we spoke. It felt like a lifetime ago. It felt like five minutes ago.
I like the parallelism of the last two lines a lot. It makes lifetime and five minutes feel like equivalents.

I felt a spark of spiteful glee at moving among these church folks with a pokemon named Lucifer.
Not really sure how Lucifer would fit in here. It sounds like Giratina fills this role in their mythos and I don't think Giratina would ever get the epithet Light Bringer?

I didn't expect an answer, but he said, "It was hard for her here, after you left." I wasn't sure whether or not I was imagining the accusation in his tone.
I thought her guilt would be more of a thread but it seems to disappear towards the end.

I answered carefully. "I guess things must be pretty hard now."

The grain of sternness I thought I'd seen in him melted. He put his hands in his pockets and looked down. "Today sucked."

"Yeah. I bet."
So nice to have her extending empathy here.

"But I think it'll be a little better now that someone is taking Adjuto. One less thing to worry about." The name sounded like another saint, but I wasn't sure. Seeing the look on my face, Tim clarified, "Her floatzel. I guess he'll have a different name now."

"Your parents didn't want to keep them? Not even the purugly?"
Not sure how the narrator comes to that conclusion from what Tim says. His statement only establishes that they're giving away the floatzel, and one less thing to worry about could mean plenty of things other than not keeping all the pokemon.

He wouldn't want to hear that the drifblim might only be hungry, drawn to the family's grief.
A nicely cynical reason. One I was surprised didn't come up later when it follows her, if only for her to reject the idea on the grounds that if Bonapisa was after yummy grief, Cass' family would be the better target.

Tim looked like he could come apart at the slightest touch, like a dandelion clock.
I wonder if breath would be better than touch? Lovely simile, though.

"She made Mom promise, if something ever happened to her."

Alarm shot up my spine. "You think …?"

The unspoken words sat heavily between us. You think it might not have been an accident.
Welp. This thread didn't seem to go anywhere, though? I feel like accident vs suicude changes a lot.

Bonapisa was following me.

I noticed her from the top of a gentle rise when we stopped to rest. Luci had already rolled in the snow, gotten bored of it, and had begun stalking the starlies in the thicket along the path. As I sipped from my water bottle, I mentally carved the field into parcels of light and shadow and considered digging out my sketchbook.

In the valley below, the drifblim floated like a low-lying cloud, slowly winding between the trees.
Gorgeous sequence.

The letter whipped out of my hands before I registered the whistle of wind. I leapt up and grabbed wildly, but my fingers closed on nothing. The sheet of paper spiraled up and up, pale and luminous against the twilight sky, before tumbling back down.

Hissing and cursing, I dove for the letter. I nearly had it when a second, smaller gust swept the paper out from under my fingers and sent it skittering into the mud. With a cry of frustration, I made a running snatch at the letter—and promptly slid off my feet. Cold seeped through my pants, but I had the letter, spotted with muddy fingerprints but otherwise dry.
Another great sequence. It does stretch my suspension of disbelief a little that she'd not read it after that--I feel like seeing how easily the letter could be damaged and Cass' words lost would be an incentive to read it sooner rather than later.

Normally, their numbers stayed small, but a while back, some idiot had illegally released a houndoom; like a warlord calling bannermen, it had drawn together several smaller bands of dogs from across south Sinnoh. By the light of day, the news hadn't worried me. I'd camped before in rockruff and growlithe territory and had never been bothered. This time, though, Luci was outside the tent by herself.
Love the houndoom as warlord idea and the casual 'wilderness shit is dangerous' Boots vibes.

The starlies were quieter that morning, as if someone had turned the volume down.
mmm

I was a few bars in when I realized where it was from: the moon with its brightness, the snow with its whiteness, the wind with swiftness along its path ….

Sure, Arceus, I decided, you can come along, too. You can all come.

The lake appeared like a magic trick, one moment hidden behind the weave of branches and the next laid open, luminous.
There's a lovely, gauzy sort of mood here.

But Bonapisa broke over me like a memory. I smelled airport carpet and church dust, and I could almost, almost swear I heard Cass's laughter. Then, in slow motion, the bag tipped out of my hands, its contents spraying out into the water.
Gorgeous.
 

WildBoots

Don’t underestimate seeds.
Pronouns
She/Her
Partners
  1. custom/moka-mark
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The premise is very Lyra and Gen, except everyone is a lot nicer.
Yeah, shoutout to Persephone on this one. I'be had major gay girl envy. This time I was gonna make it gay or so help me god ... And then I immediately killed one of them, oops. Sorry, Cass.

The ending sat less well with me.
Haha, ooooooops. Better just keep writing one-shots until I learn to stick the ending! Or! I never learn and just end up writing multiple drafts always, honestly. That's not the worst thing. That's the point of writing instead of performing--you can go back, fix it, and get it right. Redemption arc.

Anyway, I'll work on this.

I was surprised that the upshot of the letter for the narrator was just joy. Her internal monologue there didn't ring true to me. Obviously it's great that Cass doesn't hate her and wanted to break away from her family and all, but the fact that she was about to do all that and dies compounds the tragedy, doesn't it? If Jenna had gotten her letter, if they had met up at the Solstice--there's so many might have beens that it seems would flood in at that moment.
That is an incredibly good point! I think maybe I was projecting onto Jenna. Easy enough for me to be "over it" when my loss was literally 15 years ago, but hers was hours ago. I can definitely plug this in ... and that immediately takes those ending lines somewhere different, doesn't it! Not sure where that's going yet, and I guess we'll see.

I also wasn't sure where the suicide implications fit in, and whether the letter's meant to lay them to rest or not.
So, this one I don't think I *can* clear up completely. I don't think there's a good way for the human characters to know for sure--Cass is dead and they can't ask her. (And I'm not convinced that drifblim is the right candidate to communicate with the beyond or that it would be a satisfying beat for me anyway.) No matter what Cass said in her letter, I think there would be some doubt about what she did after. That said, *my* word-of-god assumption is that it really was an accident.

I think if the Solstice is important, it would be good to drop some references to it earlier, because I felt fairly adrift regarding the timing, when the Solstice happened, etc.
You know, that's a good point. I think *I'm* a little muddy about it, too, which ... yeah, that would be why you felt adrift about it! Lol. If I'm adjusting the ending anyway, it's probably a little easier for it to be a week into the future or something, make this whole thing a pre-Christmas tragedy. And then Jenna can weigh whether she should go do holiday things in Hearthome for Cass's sake aaaand opt to do the exact opposite for Cass's sake. Unsure.

I did feel like Bonapisa drops out at the end. Spreading ashes is a very human thing, and so I wondered what kind of closure Bonapisa was seeking by following Cass' ashes. (It would be kind of interesting if the Arceans were sort of right--if Bonapisa was able to do something like birth a drifloon from Cass' ashes--but that's probably too fantastic for your style of story.)
I'm not entirely sure what to do about this part. My thinking was that part of Bonapisa's distress is that she wants to lay Cass to rest in the way that she wanted, that she was attuned to what Cass/Cass's spirit wanted by virtue of being a ghost. But I can obviously appreciate that "conveniently, the pokemon wanted exactly what the human wanted!" isn't satisfying from a character perspective. Or maybe even an ethical one. I think you're right that baby drifloon from the ashes would be more fantastical than what this story wants. (That is a neat visual, though, and I'm a sucker for cycles of life from death.) I'll think about what else it might be instead.

(I have no idea what "Payne's" gray smear means?)
Payne's Gray is just a shade of dark blue-gray I really like that I thought Jenna might've used in her painting. But if it's confusing, might be best to replace it with something else. Probably could've done more with Jenna-as-painter, TBH, but here we are.

Not really sure how Lucifer would fit in here. It sounds like Giratina fills this role in their mythos and I don't think Giratina would ever get the epithet Light Bringer?
🙃 Yeaaaaah. This one was for me because I like that the fur baby is Luci-fur. It doesn't make sense in-Universe, and I know it. I'm probably gonna leave it, though. Choosing to be self-indulgent on this front.

The only other name I considered was Tini (short for Giratina) but didn't like the idea of naming a pokemon for a different pokemon. Too confusing.

I thought her guilt would be more of a thread but it seems to disappear towards the end.
Oops, I forgot. You're right. That should come back, especially when she's reading the letter.

So nice to have her extending empathy here.
Yeah, Jenna's not a coffee asshole.

Not sure how the narrator comes to that conclusion from what Tim says. His statement only establishes that they're giving away the floatzel, and one less thing to worry about could mean plenty of things other than not keeping all the pokemon.
Ooh, you're right. That's a slip-up. Thankfully an easy fix, though. (In fact, I've already fixed it, but I'm gonna wait to update until I figure out some answers to the other problems you've pointed out.)

A nicely cynical reason. One I was surprised didn't come up later when it follows her, if only for her to reject the idea on the grounds that if Bonapisa was after yummy grief, Cass' family would be the better target.
Oops, I forgot, a sequel. You're right, and that one is easy enough to add back in with a sentence or two.

Welp. This thread didn't seem to go anywhere, though? I feel like accident vs suicude changes a lot.
So, this particular moment (when Tim and Jenna are talking) is why this thread is even here. It's definitely because I needed a reason for them all to be certain that it had to be Lake Valor more than it is a character reason oops oops oops.

It does stretch my suspension of disbelief a little that she'd not read it after that--I feel like seeing how easily the letter could be damaged and Cass' words lost would be an incentive to read it sooner rather than later.
Do you think it would help if she starts to read it in the space between the ekans episode and the houndoom? (^ Could be a moment to wrestle with whether or not it was an accident. That doesn't sound like Cass, but ... [guilt about leaving her in Sinnoh with All the Shit.]) Start to read it, decides she's not ready.

There's a lovely, gauzy sort of mood here.
:D Gauzy might actually be exactly the word I was aiming for, TBH. That's a success, and I'll take it.
 
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TheCouchEffect

Bug Catcher
Pronouns
He/His
This was an amazingly good story! From start to finish, I was hooked and waiting to see where this would go. You really managed to evoke grief and anger at the right times with your writing. Jenna and her history with Cass was interesting to learn about. Same with the differing religions your story features with Arceus and the Tapu's. What interests me most, though, is the dichotomy between how the people of this world view Ghost types - evil spirits bent on stealing souls - with how they actually are. Drifblim was a joy to read about when it joined the scenes.

As far as the letter at the end goes, overall I'm conflicted. The letter itself was well-written, but there seems to be a disconnect between how Jenna should be feeling with how she does feel with the story. It seems a bit too soon for her to feel joy when Cass's funeral wasn't that long ago. Overall, though, it doesn't detract from the story.
 

WildBoots

Don’t underestimate seeds.
Pronouns
She/Her
Partners
  1. custom/moka-mark
  2. solrock
Thanks so much, @TheCouchEffect ! Glad you liked it. I agree about the ending! I've made some changes to address that, but I'm sitting on em for a while so I can look at the text with fresh eyes before I post updates.
 

WildBoots

Don’t underestimate seeds.
Pronouns
She/Her
Partners
  1. custom/moka-mark
  2. solrock

slamdunkrai

ask me about the Lunar Duo
Pronouns
they/them
I'm admittedly less familiar with your overall body of work than Pen is, but I have to say, I concur with their comment about your knack for writing about grief. Like, there's a lot of layers to this story that I picked up on -- the odd, conservative ways of a church who doesn't seem to care so much about understanding people as much as it does its own bizarre conventions (even when that means shunning "evil, soul-stealing ghosts" clearly dear to those it mourns); that funny feeling of looking back on young, dumb romance that just doesn't end up working out, thanks in part to those odd conventions; leaving home (and those childhood memories), then coming back years later to mourn. A lot of them are ultimately tied to grief, I realise as I've typed that out!

But, like, I think this story had a lot to say about moving on. I... didn't get to read the story before the edits to the ending were made, but! The ending was my favourite thing about this for that reason; Cass's death was, ultimately, unsatisfying -- and that's just how life is sometimes. Things were left unsaid after the note things ended on, and if only things had played out differently (which, fwiw -- even though I do agree with your comment on it likely being accidental, I do like that we never find out what happened; I think that's impactful, and I think makes it a little more universally relatable?), Jenna would be able to catch up with her -- and Cass would really be able to live the life she wanted. And it sucks that she didn't get that chance! It's something that's sat with me since I first read this, this morning. It's far, far more bitter than sweet. But this story does a lovely job with its subjects, and I'm glad we got chance to find out about her, at least.

I also have to say that I adore Bonapisa. Just a great ghostly friend, really, and the "living lung" description really stuck with me because it's... kinda sweet, honestly? And I appreciate that she gets the chance to move on too, just as Cass and Jenna do. The closing line was really magnificent, and I think my favourite thing about both the stories of yours that I've read is your ability to give life to pokémon and make them wonderfully believable characters without dialogue. It's a great skill to have when you're telling stories about them.

Anyway, tl;dr: really, really loved this one! Certain elements of it (more aesthetically than thematically, but still!) reminded me a little of Ghost Town, one of my very favourite fics that I've ever read; like that story, it sat with me for hours after I finished reading it for the first time. Cheers for writing this! I can tell I'll be revisiting it from time-to-time. :>
 

kibigo

Delinquent
Location
Inland Northwest, United States
Pronouns
she/her
I read this a few days ago and can’t sleep (again) and think I might have it in me to do a wee bit of thematic analysis. I hope you don’t mind. I really enjoyed this story and look forward to any future work you do along these lines!!

This is going to be a very non‐linear review so bear with me here……

☠️ The Death​

Because a significant part of this fic takes place at a funeral, and because Cass spends the entire time… deceased… for the most part the only view you have into her life is through other people. Jenna most significantly, but also Cass’s family… the church… her pokémon… And none of these people are going to be reliable narrators. They’re going to remember the parts of Cass that they want to, which bring them comfort.

The one time Cass isn’t around other people, really, is when she dies—and that’s also the one moment of her life which nobody can ignore. So I think you may have missed an opportunity here to build tension between the ways that the various individuals in the story see Cass… and the way she actually was. Make them grapple harder with the fact that Cass was her own person, doing what she wanted, and not following the script any of them set before her.

Stories along the lines of “what if we missed our chance?” or “what if things had been different, and now we would be together, and instead you are gone” are as old as time, so it’s kind of pointless to point out the cliché. But they play a dangerous game. The more you focus on the pathos of the “what if” and humour Jenna in imagining how things might have been, the more you overwrite Cass with an illusory version of herself, one which exists only in Jenna’s mind.

The reader isn’t interested in the romance between Jenna and the Cass which lives in her head: They want to understand the romance between Jenna and the Cass which lived in real life. So as author I think it’s helpful to resist letting Jenna’s thoughts control the narrative, and to throw in stumbling blocks, so to speak, to give the real Cass more room to breathe. There is a way in which Cass’s death here introduces a sort of plausible deniability for Jenna where maybe everything could have been alright, and personally I would have liked to see it challenge her a bit more instead, and force her to grapple with the unknown, and the magnitude of the entirety of the person she is trying to mourn.

⚰️ The Funeral​

Stellar job, nothing much to say here. This scene is thick with tension, produced by the fact that Jenna and everyone else are effectively mourning two different Casses, and I love the melancholia that it produces. This is effectively a story about a woman who is unable to publicly mourn her lover, because everybody else saw them as friends, and you’re able to strike at those feelings without needing to make it especially overt. Super relatable stuff.

🎈 Bonapisa​

From the beginning, I saw Bonapisa as a metaphor for Cass and Jenna’s love, especially with the very pointed way it was chased away from the funeral and disavowed by Cass’s family. Consequently, it felt a little incongruous to me that Jenna would be so outwardly hostile towards it earlier in her journey. The scene with the Houndoom felt contrived to resolve a problem which I didn’t understand in the first place—it felt too blatant for something which I felt should be subtle.

That said, there were some aspects of this tension which I really enjoyed. « "Where were you when she actually needed you?" I shouted at Bonapisa's receding form. I didn't care what I was saying or whether the drifblim understood. "It was your job to protect her!" » was a great moment, for example. And the parallels between Jenna accepting Bonapisa and Jenna accepting the contents of Cass’s letter are of course important to the overall flow of the piece.

💌 The Letter​

I quite liked the scene at the porch swing. I understand that the purpose of the letter is to delay Jenna’s knowledge of Cass’s (eventual) reciprocated feelings until the end of the story. There’s really no good way of handling that without using something a little bit contrived or cliché.

I wonder a bit what the utility of this delay is. Cass’s death would have been just as painful—maybe more—if Jenna was aware of her reciprocated feelings. The funeral would have been just as awkward, maybe more·so. The tension with Bonapisa would have been a little different—but possibly even more powerful. The only thing having Jenna not know seems to offer is making her feel very alone and out‐of‐place and misunderstood for most of the story, and IDK. I wonder if she really deserves that 😂.

Of course, the letter does serve another purpose, which is to give the story structure. Having Cass’s feelings be a mystery which are finally revealed provides a natural arc and reason for the reader to keep going / reason to feel satisfied at the end. In this sense, it’s basically a form of insurance in case the Jenna/Bonapisa plotline wasn’t enough for some readers 🤣.

But, I mean, we all knew what it was going to say.
 

WildBoots

Don’t underestimate seeds.
Pronouns
She/Her
Partners
  1. custom/moka-mark
  2. solrock
More review replies! So nice that this story has been getting some unexpected attention lately. Thanks, y'all.

I'm admittedly less familiar with your overall body of work than Pen is, but I have to say, I concur with their comment about your knack for writing about grief.
Thank you! It's a theme that comes up a lot in my work, especially in Spring (unfinished chaptered work). The main character is heavily motivated by grief for his late father and a desire to step into Dad's shoes. Basic Mineral Components (one-shot) also deals with grief, the inverse of this situation because it's about a pokemon dealing with the death of a trainer. It's something I've got on my mind a lot, I suppose.

the "living lung" description really stuck with me because it's... kinda sweet, honestly?
Fascinating! I guess lungs are pretty tender little body parts. And maybe comparing it to any body part is less alien than understanding it as itself: hard to think of anything more alien than a sentient hot air balloon, and hard to think of anything more intimate than what's inside your body.

And I appreciate that she gets the chance to move on too, just as Cass and Jenna do.
I'm not sure I agree that Cass has moved on! She's certainly passed on, but her life was cut short before she got to say what was in her heart. Jenna is starting to move on by the end. Definitely on her way. Bonapisa might actually be the only one who gets to truly move on ... as far as we can see. Hard to say what's going on with her internally.

I think my favourite thing about both the stories of yours that I've read is your ability to give life to pokémon and make them wonderfully believable characters without dialogue.
That's very generous of you to say, hahaha. I feel like my pokemon characters are rarely very developed compared to the humans, but I'm really happy to hear you've been enjoying them.

Certain elements of it (more aesthetically than thematically, but still!) reminded me a little of Ghost Town, one of my very favourite fics that I've ever read; like that story, it sat with me for hours after I finished reading it for the first time.
Did you just compare me to girl-like-substance? 😳:love: What an honor.

Thanks for stopping by! I've really appreciated you checking out my work, now for at least the second time! I plan to swing by and return the favor at some point but I've been busy lately ack ack ack sorry. I look forward to it!

Ah, another person I've been meaning to review! I've had your chapter up on my phone for a little while but haven't read all the way through yet. Hopefully I'll be able to return the favor and get back at you with some thoughts ... soon?

In the meantime,

I read this a few days ago and can’t sleep (again)
MOOD.

I really enjoyed this story and look forward to any future work you do along these lines!!
I'm glad you enjoyed the read overall! Although grief is a reoccurring theme in my work and this is pretty emblematic of my style, Ballast is the only one I've got right now that centers on a queer relationship. I've got a plot bunny for another you'd probably like that's the inverse of this one—a pokemon funeral, this time exploring bisexuality and jealousy and when should you stay in a relationship anyway? But right now it's just a pile of notes. Maybe sometime soon. :)

That said, it seems like we wanted pretty different things from this story! You seem to have wanted an expanded love story, whereas I was aiming for a story about grief and letting go. Which is totally fine. It was interesting to hear your take, and I'll certainly reflect a bit and see if there's anywhere else I can tweak things. Like, it's true that Cass isn't a character with much depth or agency in this draft.

For now, here are some of my immediate responses:

So I think you may have missed an opportunity here to build tension between the ways that the various individuals in the story see Cass… and the way she actually was. Make them grapple harder with the fact that Cass was her own person, doing what she wanted, and not following the script any of them set before her.
The more you focus on the pathos of the “what if” and humour Jenna in imagining how things might have been, the more you overwrite Cass with an illusory version of herself, one which exists only in Jenna’s mind.
I think this is part of the point! Cass is gone. The only version that's left is the one in Jenna's memories, which are, of course, unreliable.

They want to understand the romance between Jenna and the Cass which lived in real life.
Similarly, there wasn't really a romance in real life. They were friends, and Jenna had a crush on her. What could've been and what Jenna hoped for ... those were all in her mind, hovering over the friendship but totally intangible. That doesn't mean it wasn't valid per se. We know that Cass reciprocated, belatedly at least, but her what if's and wishes were never realized in real life either. I think a lot of what Jenna is holding onto and mourning are those what if's. She obviously misses Cass, but all those dreams and possibilities died with her, too.

From the beginning, I saw Bonapisa as a metaphor for Cass and Jenna’s love, especially with the very pointed way it was chased away from the funeral and disavowed by Cass’s family. Consequently, it felt a little incongruous to me that Jenna would be so outwardly hostile towards it earlier in her journey.
Huh, that's interesting. That's not something I ever intended, but I suppose you could draw that comparison, sure. If you want Bonapisa to symbolize their relationship, I think the revulsion still makes sense: it's internalized homophobia and shame.

Though, I had intended Bonapisa first and foremost as a literal pokemon; I wanted to tell a story about a reunion between a human and a pokemon who didn't click with each other but worked together on a shared goal. Beyond that, I'd argue that Bonapisa represents Jenna's idealized version of Cass, the one enshrined in her memories. She admired Cass's kindness, but still found parts of her alien, inaccessible, and even threatening, like her dedication to the church. She loved her but could never claim her. Cass was always a bit of a ghost for Jenna, I think.

I understand that the purpose of the letter is to delay Jenna’s knowledge of Cass’s (eventual) reciprocated feelings until the end of the story.
For me, the purpose of the letter was that I thought it was a good representation of where Jenna's head was at: not ready to let go of her idea of who Cass was and replace it with something else, not ready to move forward, not ready to reach the end of Cass's words, still wanting one more what if in the form of an unopened envelope. Once she reads it, there's no more what if, only what was and what never will be. Waiting to open the letter was the response to grief that, to me, felt most true for this character.

I know you're not the only one who strained to believe that Jenna wouldn't open it right away, though. I'll take another look and see if I can find places to make that come through more strongly.

Thanks again for taking the time to share your thoughts! I can tell you put a lot of thought into it. I also love the little headers with emojis—fun way to keep things organized.

If you haven't already, you should definitely check out girl-like-substance. They pretty much always write trans characters and w4w relationships. Persephone's longfic, Broken Things, also has major trans and lesbian characters, plus all the camping logistics you didn't know you needed. There are definitely others kicking around TR, but they're my two personal faves.

🍻
 

kibigo

Delinquent
Location
Inland Northwest, United States
Pronouns
she/her
That said, it seems like we wanted pretty different things from this story! You seem to have wanted an expanded love story, whereas I was aiming for a story about grief and letting go.
I feel like I need to say more about this, because I think maybe the wrong message got across. I’m not sure I can fully explain where I’m writing from without taking a dip into some theory, but I’ll try, and then include the more theoretical analysis at the end (so you can skip it, in case Judith Butler isn’t your cup of tea).

In short, no, I definitely wanted a story about grief. But for me the two are not so inseparable. You don’t fly halfway around the world to attend the funeral of somebody you don’t care about, after all. Love and attachment and desire is what underpins feelings of grief and loss and melancholia, and the reason I focused so much on the former in my review isn’t because I wanted more of a love story, but because I think understanding what was “had” would make the “loss” feel heavier and more real. (You’re very good at writing about grief otherwise, as other commenters have noticed, so feel free to take my emphasis on this aspect of it as a compliment 😊.)

I’m sure “romance” is not quite the right word for this, and I think you interpreted it a bit stronger than I intended. At the same time, I think it is important that Jenna and Cass are more than just friends. This story would have a very different feel if it were simply about a straight woman mourning her childhood companion. So I don’t think I’m wrong for taking a queer analytic lens to it, although I acknowledge that it maybe wasn’t exactly what was intended 😜.



🔗 The Theory​

The question regarding the relationship between love/desire and grief/melancholia has been explored to a great extent in queer theoretical literature, for what are probably obvious reasons, especially considering the aftermath of HIV/AIDS. To give you an early take, here is Judith Butler in “Critically Queer” (1993), one of the foundational texts for the discipline :—

To the extent that homosexual attachments remain unacknowledged within normative heterosexuality, they are not merely constituted as desires that emerge and subsequently become prohibited. Rather, these are desires that are proscribed from the start. And when they do emerge on the far side of the censor, they may well carry that mark of impossibility with them, performing, as it were, as the impossible within the possible. As such, they will not be attachments that can be openly grieved. This is, then, less the refusal to grieve (a formulation that accents the choice involved) than a preemption of grief performed by the absence of cultural conventions for avowing the loss of homosexual love. And it is this absence that produces a culture of heterosexual melancholy, one that can be read in the hyperbolic identifications by which mundane heterosexual masculinity and femininity confirm themselves. The straight man becomes (mimes, cites, appropriates, assumes the status of) the man he “never” loved and “never” grieved; the straight woman becomes the woman she “never” loved and “never” grieved. It is in this sense, then, that what is most apparently performed as gender is the sign and symptom of a pervasive disavowal.

Moreover, it is precisely to counter this pervasive cultural risk of gay melancholia (what the newspapers generalize as “depression”) that there has been an insistent publicization and politicization of grief over those who have died from AIDS; the NAMES Project Quilt is exemplary, ritualizing and repeating the name itself as a way of publicly avowing the limitless loss.

Insofar as the grief remains unspeakable, the rage over the loss can redouble by virtue of remaining unavowed. And if that very rage over loss is publicly proscribed, the melancholic effects of such a proscription can achieve suicidal proportions. The emergence of collective institutions for grieving is thus crucial to survival, to the reassembling of community, the reworking of kinshhip, the reweaving of sustaining relations. And insofar as they involve the publicization and dramatization of death, they call to be read as life‐affirming rejoinders to the dire psychic consequences of a grieving process culturally thwarted and proscribed.

There is… a lot in this quote, but what I want to emphasize is the way in which « desires that are proscribed from the start », with « the absence of cultural conventions for avowing the loss of homosexual love » is exactly how I read the beginning of Ballast, in particular in relation to the funeral scene. « [T]he hyperbolic identifications by which mundane heterosexual masculinity and femininity confirm themselves » can be read in the over‐the‐top designation of Cass as Cassandra, her almost‐unrecognizable doll‐like appearance in the photo, &cetera, made all the more violent by the fact that these are not identifications Cass took upon herself, but rather projections imposed upon her by her family.

« [T]he publicization and dramatization of death, […] read as life‐affirming rejoinders to the dire psychic consequences of a grieving process culturally thwarted and proscribed » is possibly what I wish this fic would dip a little deeper into 😅.

Sara Ahmed, in “Queer Feelings” (from The Cultural Politics of Emotion, 2004) :—

Queer grief​

The debate about whether queer relationships should be recognised by law acquires a crucial significance at times of loss. Queer histories tell us of inescapable injustices, for example, when gay or lesbian mourners are not recognised as mourners in hospitals, by families, in law courts. In this section, I want to clarify how the recognition of queer lives might work in a way that avoids assimilation by examining the role of grief within queer politics. There has already been a strong case made for how grief supports, or even forms, the heterosexuality of the normative subject. For example, Judith Butler argues that the heterosexual subject must “give up” the potential of queer love, but this loss cannot be grieved, and is foreclosed or barred permanently from the subject (Butler 1997a: 135). As such, homosexuality becomes an “ungrievable loss”, which returns to haunt the heterosexual subject through its melancholic identification with that which has been permanently cast out. For Butler, this ungrievable loss gets displaced: heterosexual culture, having given up its capacity to grieve its own lost queerness, cannot grieve the loss of queer lives; it cannot admit that queer lives are lives that could be lost.

Simply put, queer lives have to be recognised as lives in order to be grieved. In a way, it is not that queer lives exist as “ungrievable loss”, but that queer losses cannot “be admitted” as forms of loss in the first place, as queer lives are not recognised as lives “to be lost”. One has to recognise oneself as having something before one can recognise oneself as losing something. Of course, loss does not simply imply having something that has been taken away. The meanings of loss slide from “ceasing to have”, to suffering, and being deprived. Loss implies the acknowledgement of the desirability of what was once had: one may have to love in order to lose. As such, the failure to recognise queer loss as loss is also a failure to recognise queer relationships as significant bonds, or that queer lives are lives worth living, or that queers are more than failed heterosexuals, heterosexuals who have failed “to be”. Given that queer becomes read as a form of “non‐life”—with the death implied by being seen as non‐reproductive—then queers are perhaps even already dead and cannot die. As Jeff Nunokawa suggests, heteronormative culture implies queer death, “from the start” (Nunokawa 1991: 319). Queer loss may not count because it precedes a relation of having.

More on this later. But Ahmed puts it quite simply :— « [O]ne may have to love in order to lose ». This is the reason why I have kept underscoring love in my analysis: The recognition of love is inseparable from the recognition of loss (and the recognition of queer love, perhaps, especially so for queer loss. And vice versa!).

Ahmed’s analysis of Freud with respect to mourning and melancholia gets, I think, very close to what you seem to posit as the “message” of your piece :—

[…] We have already registered the psychic and social costs of unrecognised loss. The challenge for queer politics becomes finding a different way of grieving, and responding to the grief of others. In order to think differently about the ethics and politics of queer grief, I want to reconsider the complexity of grief as a psycho‐social process of coming to terms with loss.

Freud’s distinction between mourning and melancholia might help us here. For Freud, mourning is a healthy response to loss, as it is about “letting go” of the lost object, which may include a loved person or an abstraction which has taken the place of one (Freud 1934: 153). Melancholia is pathological: the ego refuses to let go of the object, and preserves the object “inside itself” (Freud 1934: 153). In the former “the world becomes poor and empty”, while in the latter, “it is the ego itself” (Freud 1934: 155). Melancholia involves assimilation: the object persists, but only insofar as it is taken within the subject, as a kind of ghostly death. The central assumption behind Freud’s distinction is that it is good or healthy to “let go” of the lost object (to “let go” of what is already “gone”). Letting go of the lost object may seem an ethical as well as “healthy” response to the alterity of the other.

You chart Jenna’s trajectory as a melancholic subject learning to “let go” of « a loved person or an abstraction which has taken the place of one », and you use this as your justification for Cass’s portrayal being what it is. But Ahmed also writes :—

Eng and Kazanjian, for example, accept Freud’s distinction between mourning and melancholia, but argue that melancholia is preferable as a way of responding to loss. Mourning enables gradual withdrawal from the object and hence denies the other through forgetting its trace. In contrast, melancholia is “an enduring devotion on the part of the ego to the lost object”, and is a way of keeping the other, and with it the past, alive in the present (Eng and Kazanjian 2003: 3). In this model, keeping the past alive, even as that which has been lost, is ethical: the object is not severed from history, or encrypted, but can acquire new meanings and possibilities in the present. To let go might even be to kill again (see Eng and Han 2003: 365).

Eng and Han’s work points to an ethical duty to keep the dead other alive. The question of how to respond to loss requires us to rethink what it means to live with death. In Freud’s critique of melancholia, the emphasis is on a lost external object, that which is other to me, being preserved by becoming internal to the ego. As Judith Butler puts it, the object is not abandoned, but transferred from the external to the internal (Butler 1997a: 134). However, the passage in grief is not simply about what is “outside” being “taken in”. For the object to be lost, it must already have existed within the subject. It would be too narrow to see this “insideness” only in terms of past assimilation (“taking in” as “the making of likeness”), although assimilation remains crucial to love as well as grief, as I have already suggested. We can also think of this “insideness” as an effect of the “withness” of intimacy, which involves the process of being affected by others.

Although the journey of Jenna is one of “letting go”, I think it is important to recognize the ways in which the story itself serves as a form of « keep[ing] the dead other alive » through narrative. Every time I reread it, Cass appears to me again; she again rescues the Drifloon; she again rejects Jenna at the porch swing. Why is this story being told, if not, after a fashion, to keep Cass, or Cass’s relationship with Jenna, or the aftermath of Cass’s relationship with Jenna, alive? This is, perhaps, part of the impetus behind me wanting to ensure she gets a just portrayal. But then again :—

It is because of the refusal to recognise queer loss (let alone queer grief), that it is important to find ways of sharing queer grief with others. As Nancy A. Naples shows us in her intimate and moving ethnography of her father’s death, feeling pushed out by her family during her father’s funeral made support from her queer family of carers even more important (Naples 2001: 31). To support others as grievers—not by grieving for them but allowing them the space and time to grieve—becomes even more important when those others are excluded from the everyday networks of legitimation and support. The ongoing work of grief helps to keep alive the memories of those who have gone, provide care for those who are grieving, and allow the impressions of others to touch the surface of queer communities.

—: in case there remained any doubt how completely and utterly behind any story about grief and loss (and especially queer grief and queer loss) I might be.

To return, finally, to Butler, with “Violence, Mourning, Politics” (in Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, 2004) :—

I am not sure I know when mourning is successful, or when one has fully mourned another human being. Freud changed his mind on this subject: he suggested that successful mourning meant being able to exchange one object for another; he later claimed that incorporation, originally associated with melancholia, was essential to the task of mourning. Freud’s early hope that an attachment might be withdrawn and then given anew implied a certain interchangeability of objects as a sign of hopefulness, as if the prospect of entering life anew made use of a kind of promiscuity of libidinal aim. That might be true, but I do not think that successful grieving implies that one has forgotten another person or that something else has come along to take its place, as if full substitutability were something for which we might strive.

Perhaps, rather, one mourns when one accepts that by the loss one undergoes one will be changed, possibly for ever. Perhaps mourning has to do with agreeing to undergo a transformation (perhaps one should say submitting to a transformation) the full result of which one cannot know in advance. There is losing, as we know, but there is also the transformative effect of loss, and this latter cannot be charted or planned. One can try to choose it, but it may be that this experience of transformation deconstitutes choice at some level. I do not think, for instance, that one can invoke the Protestant ethic when it comes to loss. One cannot say, “Oh, I’ll go through loss this way, and that will be the result, and I’ll apply myself to the task, and I’ll endeavor to achieve the resolution of grief that is before me.” I think one is hit by waves, and that one starts out the day with an aim, a project, a plan, and one finds oneself foiled. One finds oneself fallen. One is exhausted but does not know why. Something is larger than one’s own deliberate plan, one’s own project, one’s own knowing and choosing.

Something takes hold of you: where does it come from? What sense does it make? What claims us at such moments, such that we are not the masters of ourselves? To what are we tied? And by what are we seized? Freud reminded us that when we lose someone, we do not always know what it is in that person that has been lost. So when one loses, one is also faced with something enigmatic: something is hiding in the loss, something is lost within the recesses of loss. If mourning involves knowing what one has lost (and melancholia originally meant, to a certain extent, not knowing), then mourning would be maintained by its enigmatic dimension, by the experience of not knowing incited by losing what we cannot fully fathom.

When we lose certain people, or when we are dispossessed from a place, or a community, we may simply feel that we are undergoing something temporary, that mourning will be over and some restoration of prior order will be achieved. But maybe when we undergo what we do, something about who we are is revealed, something that delineates the ties we have to others, that shows us that these ties constitute what we are, ties or bonds that compose us. It is not as if an “I” exists independently over here and then simply loses a “you” over there, especially if the attachment to “you” is part of what composes who “I” am. If I lose you, under these conditions, then I not only mourn the loss, but I become inscrutable to myself. Who “am” I, without you? When we lose some of these ties by which we are constituted, we do not know who we are or what to do. On one level, I think I have lost “you” only to discover that “I” have gone missing as well. At another level, perhaps what I have lost “in” you, that for which I have no ready vocabulary, is a relationality that is composed neither exclusively of myself nor you, but is to be conceived as the tie by which those terms are differentiated and related.

If there is an element of grief and mourning which I think is absent in your fic, it is this transformative aspect. Certainly, the relationship between Cass and Jenna changes, from one of alienated potential to one of foreclosed possibility. And the loss is certainly enigmatic for Jenna at first; certainly there is some ambiguity about what exactly it is “in” Cass she has lost (an enemy? a friend? a lover?). But I think what I meant by my comments regarding the death, and the letter, is that this ambiguity is, to me, too neatly resolved; Jenna is simply told what she has lost and then she decides to let go. I am not sure the mourning process ever works so straightforwardly in real life.

A consequential grammatical quandry follows. In the effort to explain these relations, I might be said to “have” them, but what does “having” imply? I might sit back and try to enumerate them to you. I might explain what this friendship means, what that lover meant or means to me. I would be constituting myself in such an instance as a detached narrator of my relations. Dramatizing my detachment, I might perhaps only be showing that the form of attachment I am demonstrating is trying to minimize its own relationality, is invoking it as an option, as something that does not touch on the question of what sustains me fundamentally.

What grief displays, in contrast, is the thrall in which our relations with others holds us, in ways that we cannot always recount or explain, in ways that often interrupt the self‐conscious account of ourselves we might try to provide, in ways that challenge the very notion of ourselves as autonomous and in control. I might try to tell a story here about what I am feeling, but it would have to be a story in which the very “I” who seeks to tell the story is stopped in the midst of the telling; the very “I” is called into question by its relation to the Other, a relation which does not precisely reduce me to speechlessness, but does nevertheless clutter my speech with signs of its undoing. I tell a story about the relations I choose, only to expose, somewhere along the way, the way I am gripped and undone by these very relations. My narrative falters, as it must.

Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something.

This seems so clearly the case with grief, but it can be so only because it was already the case with desire. One does not always stay intact.
One may want to, or manage to for a while, but despite one’s best efforts, one is undone, in the face of the other, by the touch, by the scent, by the feel, by the prospect of the touch, by the memory of the feel. And so, when we speak about “my sexuality” or “my gender,” as we do and as we must, we nevertheless mean something complicated that is partially concealed by our usage. As a mode of relation, neither gender nor sexuality is precisely a possession, but, rather, is a mode of being dispossessed, a way of being for another or by virtue of another. It won’t even do to say that I am promoting a relational view of the self over an autonomous one or trying to redescribe autonomy in terms of relationality. Despite my affinity for the term relationality, we may need other language to approach the issue that concerns us, a way of thinking about how we are not only constituted by our relations but also dispossessed by them as well.

We tend to narrate the history of the feminist and lesbian/gay movement, for instance, in such a way that ecstacy figured prominently in the sixties and seventies and midway through the eighties. But maybe ecstasy is more persistent than that; maybe it is with us all along. To be ec‐static means, literally, to be outside oneself, and thus can have several meanings: to be transported beyond oneself by a passion, but also to be beside oneself with rage or grief. I think that if I can still address a “we,” or include myself within its terms, I am speaking to those of us who are living in certain ways beside ourselves, whether in sexual passion, or emotional grief, or political rage.

There it is again. Everything I have said about grief, about mourning; all of the theory above; it holds true only insofar as it is first true for love. There·in lies my interest in romance regarding this fic—perhaps, in Romance with a capital R—the structure and meaning of human attachments, and the way they grip us, even, and perhaps especially, in moments of loss.

I am certain you didn’t set out writing this piece intending to make a statement on psychoanalytic conceptions of grief or melancholia, or expecting it to be critiqued through a queer analytic lens. But hopefully the above quotes help to give you a better sense of the critical perspective I was working from when I wrote my initial comments. Perhaps also, why this issue is important to me; “the personal is political”, as they say.

This isn’t intended as a straightforward recommendation; indeed, if anything is demonstrated by the above, it is that saying “you should go about grief in such‐and‐such a way” is a misguided task. I’m not saying “ah, but if you simply describe Cass as X, or make Jenna’s arc Y, then that will solve every problem”. Instead, I’m trying to shed light on some problems which might remain insoluble. And maybe… some which ought to be.
 
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