Story Sundays: “Marrying the Sun” by Rachel Swirsky

Rachel Swirsky

“Bridget stared down at the blurred reflections of halogen bulbs in the water, submerged and insignificant suns. Everything can be overwhelmed, she thought. Everything can be drowned.

If you are an uncommon girl, or a boy who cultivates beyond-the-border thoughts, odds are you’ve already fancied yourself the bride/groom of someone… quite literally out of this world. What happens, however, when an unsought-for allegiance pairs you romantically with celestial bodies? How do you navigate the power dynamic, the extra-terrestrial tensions — the date nights? Can you ever really enjoy Instagram-worthy wedded bliss with a deity or demigod whose very nature ensures that they’ll outshine you in each photograph?

Rachel Swirsky’s unassuming heroine, Bridget, finds herself bereft of any reassurances on the day meant to mark a triumphant entrance into married life. When we meet her nude before the altar, her betrothed has glowed slightly too radiantly, scorching Bridget’s wedding dress from her body in the process. If this is the payoff for partnership with Helios, the god of the sun, Bridget begins to think that it’s a deal-breaker, after all — despite Helios’ several, um, glowing references. Helios, still consumed by slow-burning grief for the death of his son, Phaeton, and the subsequent loss of his daughters, is unsure of when the moratorium on mourning begins. All he knows is that he’s haunted by amber, and reluctant to face the beginning, or ending, of a day where Bridget’s not marking his progress across the skies.

What works best in this piece is a subtle, sweet thing — it’s Swirsky’s consistent melding of the severe to the effervescent. Easily, this story could have run each funereal bell of discontent possible; nothing spells tragic fiction more swiftly than a disastrous break-up. Few scenarios are as ripe for humour as an almost-wedding, either. The author pulls no punches in showcasing pathos — Helios’ contemplation on an amber gem, and the memories it summons, works as a shining example of how a lifetime of old hurts can be encapsulated within a few lines.

“Helios examined the gem. It was set in a simple silver oval. Rich, warm colors swirled through its heart: drifts of sienna, umber, burnt orange and carmine suspended like haze in a yellow sky. A bee hung in its center, wings trapped mid-flutter. Helios thought of all the grief that that had been poured into making this chaotic, vibrant thing, all the sorrow his daughters wept out when Phaeton’s chariot fell. Their solidified grief was incandescent as the sun. It burned him.”

Images such as this, of sorrow so potent it singes a Sun Lord to the core, are stacked side by side with mirth and playfulness. Helios’ immortal best man, Apollo, and the latter’s platinum-haired plaything, provide situational humour worthy of any primetime sitcom. Thoughtful, tiny details of setting and characterization can prompt our giggling, too — such as the fact that Helios’ bar side meal includes pepper vodka and pudding enflambé. Those who read closely will savour these telling treasures as the signposts of Swirsky’s storytelling charm; those who read for gist will probably miss them (and should probably not be reading short fiction, anyway.)

As in some of the best brief tales, characters are imbued with multiple meaning, and take on a variety of roles. Apollo and his tow-headed bedmate aren’t merely used for antics; their relationship stands in sharp contrast to Bridget and Helios, evidence of the distinct ways in which these celestial and terrestrial explorations are conducted. Eilethyia, goddess of childbirth and matchmaker for divine/mortal unions, does more than console Bridget over a meal of sumptuous dolmathakia me kima — she hints at the bitter endings that have accompanied countless other romances, trysts and assignations. The principal players themselves are more than a bare-skinned bride and a glinting groom. Their opening rift has them consider their pairing from a post-euphoric perspective, in so doing re-shaping the former wonderland of their courtship into something more sober, but no less electrifying to ponder.

What I loved about “Marrying the Sun” seems by turns simple and intricate — this ability to indulge your most fanciful romantic daydreams without the burning stamp of adult shame. Wedding tablescapes and after-dinner party tricks that might otherwise be thought of as gaudily anachronistic are a pure delight in this piece. If you’re feeling decidedly indulgent, there’s no finer fantastical fic-recommendation I could conjure up tonight. It’s intoxicating, frankly, to think that Bridget’s wooing could be ours: why, just picture it, and you will get some sense of the moon-burnt, sunbeam-seared appeal of this short story. The thing you most adore — that to which you devote aching hours of study, for which you forsake communion with others, beneath whose otherworldly gaze you consecrate your fiercest ambitions: that very holy (or profane) entity might knock on your door and beseech you, please, to be its bride.

You can read “Marrying the Sun” by Rachel Swirsky here. (Fantasy Magazine)

Story Sundays was created by Fat Books and Thin Women as a way to share appreciation for this undervalued fiction form. All stories discussed are available to read free, online. Here’s Fat Books and Thin Women’s Story Sunday archive, and here’s mine. Want to start up Story Sundays on your blog? Yay! Email for details.

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