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Excerpt from The Privilege of the Happy Ending by Kij Johnson, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Privilege of the Happy Ending

Small, Medium, and Large Stories

by Kij Johnson

The Privilege of the Happy Ending by Kij Johnson X
The Privilege of the Happy Ending by Kij Johnson
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  • Published:
    Oct 2023, 304 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Jillian Bell
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Wastoures. Perhaps you have not heard of them, you people born a thousand years after Ada and Blanche and this runner—whose name is Hardourt, though his part in this story is nearly over: His name will not matter to you, though it matters to him. In your time they are gone, but in the twelfth century, every child knew of them, and adults as well. Wastoures: scarce larger than chickens but unfeathered and wingless, snake-necked and sharp-beaked and bright-clawed, with little arms ending in daggery talons. For long years there would be no wastoures (except in memory and dread), and then a population bloom, like duckweed choking an August pond, or locusts after a dry spring, or cicadas rising from the ground each seventh year. For reasons unknowable, they emerged in their scores of thousands from some secret cave or forgotten Roman mine, and seethed like floodwater and plague across the land. Eventually they died off, plunging heedless from cliffs or drowning in waters too deep to cross; or else autumn made them torpid, then dead—but not before they had eaten every breathing creature they encountered. They were in everyone's nightmares. Small children feared them more even than wolves or orphanhood. These were dark times, wastoure summers.

Wastoures. At the sound of the word, Blanche had fluttered into Ada's arms. The girl shivered and said, "Take us home! Please, I'm too little to run fast enough by myself."

He eyed her. "You're too big to carry. How far is it?"

"Very far," she said sadly. She had walked all morning and now it was early afternoon. If she ran home—if she could run so far—she would not get there before the midwife's cow began complaining to be milked. And Margery would not notice her absence until dusk, when there would be no one to chivvy the chickens to their coop. The wastoures would catch her before that.

"Then I can't take you," he said.

"You're too slow. They'd catch us both and eat even our bones."

Ada knew hard truths. She was raised in them. "Take Blanche, at least." Blanche clucked and tightened her feet, pinching at Ada's arms.

The boy snorted. "What, that? It's just an old hen."

Ada fired up indignantly. "She's the cleverest chicken that ever was! And she talks."

"Lying is a sin!" said the boy. "You're a crazy little girl" —though he was not so much older than she.

She freed one hand from Blanche and pointed down the road. "At least go to my aunt and my cousins and tell them? And the priest and the blacksmith. I'm sure there are many pennies there."

"Good luck." The boy took off running and did not slow nor look back. And now he is gone from this story.

Ada stood in the path-that-was-a-road, holding Blanche tightly. When the patter of running footsteps had faded, there were no sounds save the humming insects and the air soughing in the trees. She looked back the way the boy had come, but there was nothing to see yet, only trees and plants, and high above them all the towering clouds of August, uncaring about the tiny affairs of people and hens and wastoures.

"What should I do?" asked Ada aloud.

And in her light, sweet, gabbling voice, Blanche said: "We must climb the highest tree and wait 'til they're past. He told the truth. They're coming."

Did you think that Ada had lied to the boy to save Blanche? She is a very honest girl. Because no chicken has spoken within your hearing, do you assume none ever has?

Ada put down Blanche and they looked about. The old forest was dense with staunch oak and shivery beech, saplings and shrubs, coiling ferns and little low groundling plants. Everything was either too big to climb or too small to save them. Ada hopped for the nearest branch of a low-slung oak, but it was much too high.

Blanche said with decision, "Not here, but there will be Somewhere."

Excerpted from The Privilege of the Happy Ending by Kij Johnson. Copyright © 2023 by Kij Johnson. Excerpted by permission of Small Beer Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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