The Normal Strange
by Kathe Koja
What he carried to her he carried in a red string bag.
Life is strange. The aching break-up; the ferocious good luck that blooms from the blue; the infant’s amazing and fully expected birth; the shattering death of a loved one: when our outer and inner worlds are suddenly transformed or shaken, never to be the same, we say, This feels unreal. We say, Life is so strange.
As I write this we’re saying it about a pandemic that has ruthlessly redrawn our daily parameters, has forced us indoors or onto the front lines, to cope and survive the best we may. Ordinary things feel distant. Places we know well appear completely changed. Time is a perpetual now that only repeats. We meet without meeting, our community is scattered, we cannot envision a collective future. Life is so strange.
No transit police, no buzzbox to push, nothing to do but shine his phone in the direction of the sounds and I can see you, he called, loud, lying, voice too high, I’m recording you! And answered with nothing but a mocking silence, a metallic chuckle.
In fiction the examination of that sense of strangeness, the feeling it creates, is sometimes assigned a genre, a name—fabulism or magic realism, weird fiction, fairy tale—but none of those names are necessary: why would we need to classify what Angela Carter does, Maryse Meijer does, Shirley Jackson does? The name is not the story, its truest reality is in our experience of the story, that echoes our experience of life.
In one of my novels, a young woman finds her own circumstances mirrored by the world of bees. In another, a playwright’s life winds and circles through hundreds of years, always the same, never the same. In another, the sudden advent of performing puppets overthrows a Victorian brothel. In another, a hole in the floor of a storage room goes nowhere and destroys without touching. In the project I’m currently creating, all of reality is up for grabs, with a thrumming techno beat.
How old were you when you realized that the things that happened in stories could happen to you?
I found you, Baby, stuffed down in a big box of clothes, chiffon scarves and unraveling lace, the cut-down skirts of fancy dresses, old shirts like Army uniforms. At the bottom were all kinds of shoes, spike heels, and satin evening bags with broken clasps. At first I thought you were a kind of purse too, or a bag, all small and yellow and leathery. But then I turned you over, and I saw that you had a face.
Life is always strange, because the strange is always here, not a line to cross but the atmosphere we already inhabit. Every one of us—try it for yourself, ask people, ask yourself—we all have had experiences, large or small, sustained or fleeting, that seem, not to defy reason, but to open it like a door: to say, See this? It’s been there all along, you don’t need to look for it, it’s operating right here beside the traffic lights and the phases of the moon, not more or less remarkable. We define these moments, if we define them, as coincidence, serendipity, chance, one in a million; is it one in a million? What if it’s one in a dozen? How would that change the way we define our own experience, our own lives?
One hears tales of the saints taken from their tombs still incorrupt . . . Do you know what a miracle is, gentlemen and judges? It is a gift from God to the brain.
“Miracle” is a loaded, credulous word. Maybe it makes better sense to think in terms of proprioception, that sixth sense, and this a sister sense, that apprehension not just of our physical space and balance in the world, but of our being’s reach and balance, on every possible plane. Maybe physics has a word for it, or will.
For now we have that sense, its glimmering beginnings or its surety, or its shadow as we move through our lives, making our way through these days, strange days in this new normal, each step a hazard or a wonder or both.
And the, the vacuum, it’s what keeps them going, right? Keeps everything going?
Expanding, she said. It increases the rate of expansion.
[All selections from VELOCITIES: STORIES.]
Kathe Koja writes novels and short fiction, and creates and produces immersive fiction performances, both solo and with a rotating ensemble of artists. Her work crosses and combines genres, and her books have won awards, been translated, and optioned for film and performance. She is based in Detroit and thinks globally. Find her on Twitter at @KatheKoja.