To Balance the Weight of Khalem by R.B. Lemberg

Welcome to Short Fiction Friday! Every Friday, Black Forest Basilisks will be shining a spotlight on a new short story, novelette, or flash fic in addition to our regular posts. These stories will usually be available for free online, but occasionally stories from published anthologies will also be featured. 

This story is available online for free at: Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Click through to read!

I lost the first knife in the dormitories, but the knife I hold is dearer even. Why did my father send it? Because he thought me his son, even though I said nothing; to inherit his knife and my grandfather’s, or because he thought I should inherit them as a daughter? What was I? Neither this nor that, a person who was brought to Khalem and left it, a person always looking back to the sea? Did it truly matter why my father sent me the knife? It is of Raigan make. I hold it, the handle warm with my touch and older than my life, older than all the wars I have known. It has traveled from Raiga to Khalem and then out of Khalem oversea, like I did.

Fair warning: this is less of a review and more of a ramble. This, apparently, is what you get from my blog during quarantine. Nevertheless, I hope that it may speak to some of you. 

My review of R. B. Lemberg’s novella, The Four Profound Weaves, can be read here.

Every culture has their folklore and in it their culture is reflected. It makes me so unhappy that so many people never get to see themselves in the fiction we read back when we were all in school – especially when I read a story that would have been just perfect. I think of those years of uncertainty and unhappiness. It could have been avoided. In isolation these past four weeks, these feelings are amplified. The missed opportunities for human connection and understanding feel all the more bittersweet. Why couldn’t we have had this story earlier? Why couldn’t we share it amongst ourselves and understand ourselves early? It seems a tragedy.

I have been lucky in many ways. Although deep down inside, I have never had a sense of my own gender, it’s easy enough for me to socially perform womanhood. I have lived a woman’s experience, and in some ways that is enough. In other ways, I wish I’d had the option to opt out of it altogether. I sometimes think about doing so now, but frankly, I’m not so sure I have the energy required to do so. And given that I do love many aspects of womanhood, would it be worth it? Would it be worth being doubted? Would it be worth having people ask why I bother saying I’m agender as I wear summer dresses and flowers and makeup and ballet flats? When I bake bread and drink tea with my cats and tailor my own clothes? What are these things if not “woman”? What would it be like to live in a world where these things I like could be divorced from performing womanhood?

And how does that balance with claiming womanhood when I speak as a woman from having lived a woman’s experience to issues such as sexual assault, discrimination and harassment? Am I “allowed” to claim both, one through experience and one through what is me? So, at this time, I do not do these things. I tell people that she/her is just as fine as they/them, which is true. Womanhood is a part of me because it has had to be. And yet, I am also more than that. And less. Woman is what I live, but is it what I am? Is there a difference?

Day to day, I don’t have to think on it much. It is simple, in the moment, until you go to dig deep and look at thoughts, feelings, and experience all in one cohesive unit. Where does one end and another begin? I do not know. 

I think to myself again – I am lucky. I was given a path forward that never rocked the boat. I was able to float along. I was able to discover the layers of my soul gradually and on my own time. Others, however, were not so lucky. I think of my friends from high school who have transitioned. I think of those who suffered in ways that I did not have to. And I think about what it would have meant to them if they’d read a story like To Balance the Weight of Khalem back when we were in English class. I think about what it would have meant to me. We could have discussed as a group, having had empathy for one another and thinking on experiences that weren’t our own. 

On this ship, people are pressed together, but it does not feel as desperate. Children are crying here too, but grandmothers do not; I see an old woman stirring a soup in a pot. She looks so ordinary, her back stooped, her hair gathered and bound in a garish flowering kerchief, that I almost call out to her in the language of Raiga. She turns, and the greeting is swallowed on my mouth. She looks from under a forest of brows. Her eyes are sunken and dark. She is not translucent—rooted into the planks of the ship like a stubborn ancient tree. Her lips leaf through daughterson, and settle on child.

It is something wonderful to see a character in a story who isn’t entire sure where their identity begins and ends. I’m not really sure where mine does – I know that some things do not feel like me. Unlike the narrator, I don’t feel that I could ever be a boy. I only have two things inside me – my experience and life as a woman, and the core inside of me that has no gender at all. Both are valid, but neither has a connection to manhood. 

Usually by now I would have discussed the actual story R B Lemberg has written, but this has all been about me. But really – isn’t a story like this meant to be about its readers? This story resonated, and it became a reflection, a reverberation, of what is in my own heart. So, perhaps, if this speaks to you as a reader of my blog, so too will the story speak to you.

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Past featured short stories can be viewed here.

Have you read this story? What did you think? Do you have any questions about it?

Let me know in the comments below!