Ask the Next Question: stories + images inspired by Theodore Sturgeon - Arkady Martine
"Thunder and Roses" has haunted me since I was a teenager, stumbling over it in a long-closed Borders where I'd camped out to read my way through an entire omnibus of Sturgeon short stories. As a writer, I have found that radiation sickness, nuclear warfare, and slow bad deaths are preoccupations, nagging obsessions like raw sores in the mouth, things to be tongued even though they hurt. "Thunder and Roses" was a vector of infection for me, an entrance-place where my long engagement with the nuclear end of the world crept in. Of course I would choose this story to respond to. But rereading it, in 2018, as a grown woman who is also an artist with ambition, I could see what was missing: Starr Anthim, herself, as herself, as opposed to as an avatar of humanity's better nature. I wanted to hold her up like a mirror, and see my own face, and hope I would be so brave; and hold her up to the audience, too, a challenge and a goad. This story is meant to be read aloud; it is as much a spoken-word monologue as a piece of written fiction.
With Roses I Won The Right
“Hello – you.” Behind the gold-flecked blue of her eyes there is an intelligence, and somewhere distant inside that intelligence is a pain which has gone so deep as to begin to be sweet. “May I sing a song? It’s an old one, and one of the best.” She breathes, deep from the diaphragm like she always has, breathes in preparation and the cracked and weeping flesh of her burnt side oozes a wet red she can feel, a wet red that she hopes will stay hidden beneath her bandages and her dress, just this one last time.
She gets through it. Of course she does; what is left to her but getting through? Her voice. Thunder and roses, a thorn of reminder and a balm afterward. A promise, a plea. A challenge. Oh, remember me. And in your remembering, let something of humanity survive, stand in abeyance just long enough –
Later, someone will ask her, who are you working for? What a ridiculous question. She’s herself; there’s nothing left but her voice and what power remains to it.
Think, for a moment, of what it was like to be Starr Anthim: a voice and a performance, a golden honeysoaked blaze around a still white throat. Starr Anthim, before. Starr Anthim, institution, just as Pete Mawser remembered her: as American as anything. White, of course. Where’s she from? Philly, maybe, since she as good as died there – city of brotherly love with its cracked Liberty Bell, that’s origin enough for an institution. Or somewhere smaller, homier, easier. Institutions don’t need birthplaces, not when they’ve got origin stories. Starr Anthim’s from your town, or could have been; Starr Anthim’s from anywhere still intoxicated with the old poison dream of America – the factory job, the charming Main Street, pearls and heels in the kitchen and manifest destiny on the radio. Does it really matter exactly where?
Starr’s not even her name, that woman who could hold a nation on her tongue, spell the world to ecstasy with a song. She’s learned to think of herself that way, though. She’s been doing it long enough to be an institution, after all, and it might have been easier to forget who she was before she was herself. It often is. Even before, even when there wasn’t so much to forget.
Still, she starts the same way every time. Hello, you. As if she could be known, as if each watcher is a beloved come home again, utterly understood, completely seen and completely seeing. A performer’s trick. She’s known how to do it since she was old enough to look up at the proprietor of the corner store and get a cream soda for a smile. Maybe earlier. It works. It works now. (She hopes it works now, singing into the camera, singing the world was a place of light and seeing behind her eyes the killing flash of thermonuclear explosions, the white and the blue with its terrible hum. Oh, the world’s a place of light all right --)
But you don’t want to know what she thought, do you? That institution; the song is enough, the message enough. It was enough for Pete Mawser, wasn’t it? Starr Anthim, sacrifice. Enough to decide to let the rest of the world live if they could bear to.
Try, though. What it was like to be Starr Anthim, after Philadelphia, awake in the ruins, already dead. Already cooked. To know your dying will be slow, like the dying of the country. To be a woman clever enough to have become an institution, canny enough and brutal enough to stay one. To dream up an answer to what now that isn’t just closing those gold-blue eyes and lying down in the dust and waiting.
When did she come up with the scheme, do you think? Was it then, dazzled by afterimages, sheetrock and glass in her hair, thinking I have to make this stop? Was it the next week, or the next, as the scientists and the politicians and the generals came slowly around to the realization of what they had done? Imagine being Starr Anthim, businesswoman, analyst. Imagine seeing the shape of death and believing you could place the weight of your honeyed tongue on the wheel, and slow it just enough. To brush the glass from your hair and wrap up your red-seeping side and hire yourself a pilot and a plane. Philadelphia to California to the Berkshires to Chicago and on and on and on, everywhere there was anyone left to listen, on until the pilot is your friend Feldman, just in time for him to die, on until you come at last to this base, this camera. Some man, as good as any other, to see you out into the night.
Hello – you. This ending.
ARKADY MARTINE is a speculative fiction writer and, as Dr. AnnaLinden Weller, a historian of the Byzantine Empire and a city planner. Under both names she writes about border politics, rhetoric, propaganda, and the edges of the world. Arkady grew up in New York City and, after some time in Turkey, Canada, and Sweden, lives in Baltimore with her wife, the author Vivian Shaw. Find her online at arkadymartine.net or on Twitter as @ArkadyMartine.