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Once, upon a lime, there was a frog.

This frog was the most handsome in all the land, the only frog able to balance his thin green body upon the fat round fruits that fell from Salima Sultan Begum's handsome lime trees. He pressed his candy-yellow toes firmly into the green skins and rolled to and fro and fro and to, all the while chirruping, because the empress also loved the sounds of her garden. This he knew as he was a gentleman frog, and it was important to know the likes and dislikes of one's empress. He, being the only frog, put on a certain show.


Here we are - only the second Short Business post of 2015 - and I've already got to talk about I don't quite get a short story. I've read E. Catherine Tobler's "Once, Upon a Lime" twice now, and I'm still not really clear what it means to give to the reader and what it expects back. Oh well, I suppose there's nothing for it but to forge on and hope someone pops up in the comments with a bit more knowledge than me.

While I'm sure the different forms of short writing must have different artistic aims, just as different forms of novels do, when it comes to short stories I often don't really understand what the relation between form and effect is supposed to be. Although flash fiction is one of my favourite forms of fanfiction, is a bit of mystery to me when it comes to stories like "Once, Upon a Line" which are set in an original universe. If "Once, Upon a Lime" provides a vividly written snapshot scene, but contains no wider plot or character detail is that a failing or is it just how flash fiction works? Is the purpose of flash fiction entirely different from that of a longer short story, and does any sense of readerly dissatisfaction I feel come from being more at home with novels? Qualms and questions often attend my short fiction reading.

Ana and I talked about these readerly insecurities when we reviewed "The Sleeper", and I decided that in order to engage with short fiction I needed to believe in myself a bit more. It's useful for a reviewer to examine their biases and history but, when that reviewer gets tied up in knots of insecurity, over-driven self-examination can start to frustrate their discussions. This year, I'm going to work on declaring my biases without letting that stop me from moving forward and forming an opinion about short fiction. So, once again - I love longform writing and novels, and I don't have a lot of experience with the short form which may mean sometimes I unfairly judge short stories by novelistic standards. Feel free to nudge me towards other opinions in the comments!

In "Once, Upon a Lime" a frog follows his nose into a garden and meets Salim Sultan Begum, the Empress of his country. Taking a frog's eye view, this short piece creates a vivid picture of the frog, the garden and the Empress. The story is light and softly funny, tenderly rendering a short moment in time. The frog and the Empress spend just three months together before she dies and is buried in the garden.

And that's the whole substance of "Once, Upon a Lime" as far as I can see. It's an aesthete's story that draws the reader into a beautiful world and influences their feelings towards the characters by creating a peaceful and calm aura. When I finished this story I felt incredibly relaxed, and quite satisfied, if a little melancholy - almost as if I'd been sitting in the Empresses garden, surrounded by the pungent odours and the nightly serenades of the frog.
After a little more distance from the story I'm confused. It's so simple that I suspect it of hiding a deep and subtextual nature from me; something that goes beyond a beautiful and soothing exterior. Is that my own insecurity and ill-nature or am I missing something?

Maybe I'd have a better grip on this story if I knew more about Salima Sultan Begum, the real life Mughal Empress. Just looking at her Wikipedia entry, I can see that the story uses the real month of her death and that the setting for this story is a fictional recreation of the garden where she was buried. Perhaps I'm missing the heart of this story by not knowing this historical lady better. Or maybe this story is simply an SFF tribute to a historical woman that the author is fond of? The Empress was a writer and a chronicler so perhaps Tobler has found of connection or resonance with Salima, and that made Tobler want to bring this lady alive in her writing. Perhaps the frog is just a device for telling this story; a way for Tobler to talk about Salim Sultan Begum and her garden.

Or could it be that the deeper side of this story is all about fairy tales? The playful pun of the title, and the inclusion of a sentient frog, suggests that this story is commenting on fairy tales. However, the comment is either very slight or just too subtle for me to grasp. Is Tobler playing with the reader - introducing a sentient 'gentleman frog' and a royal lady, but refusing to give the reader the traditional happy ever after sealed with a kiss? Is the story suggesting that Salim Sultan Begum will be reincarnated as a frog and the two will hop peacefully around this garden she designed? Or is it simply hinting at the gap in even a sentient frog's understanding about death; the gap between fairy tale and reality? I feel like there's something of the fairy tale about this story, but can't quite see it clearly.

Is there anything wrong with a story that is just about the writing and an attempt to create a descriptive lushness? Does "Once, Upon a Lime" need to be anything more than a beguiling, pretty story that produced a strong mood effect on me? No, it doesn't, but sometimes the brain just can't stop digging for more.

Once, Upon a Lime is available for free at Strange Horizons.

Supplementary Materials
Podcast: "Once, Upon a Lime" read by Anaea Lay

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