As one of the three people on the internet who didn’t much care for Christopher Barzak’s 2005 story “The Language of Moths” — it was the combination of a magic autistic girl and lashings of sentiment that did it for me — I approached his entry in Salon Fantastique with a certain amount of wariness. There are a couple of superficial similarities between the two stories, in that both are about families, and in particular about a brother watching something magical happen to a sister, and both feel like they come from the soil of America. But “The Guardian of the Egg” is a bit more restrained, and a good bit more peculiar, and both of those things work in its favour.
The brother in question is Stephen, and the peculiarity is one of those daft premises that are easy to think up but much harder to make into satisfying stories. In its up-front matter-of-factness, “The Guardian of the Egg” reminded me slightly of Joe Hill’s wonderful “Pop Art”, whose opening sentences introduce us to the inflateable Art Roth with an almost completely straight face in much the same way that Barzak here introduces us to Stephen’s sister Hester: a girl neither popular nor remarkable, who becomes somewhat more remarkable and somewhat less popular when a tree starts growing out of her head.
To make this work, the story has to walk a fine line between seriousness and wonder. If, for example, we started laughing at the story when Hester’s doctor tells her parents that “She’s coping quite well”; or if the absurdity of the clothes Hester’s mother makes her rapidly-growing daughter outweighed the pathos of the situation; or if we ever thought too hard about the fact that apparently the whole story has been made into a TV movie called Wild Things; then it would all fall apart. On the other hand, if the story ignored such practical considerations as doctors and clothes (the TV movie is clearly more optional) then the magic of the situation, the ongoing transformation of Hester, would be too untethered from human experience, and would likely fall flat. Or, as Stephen puts it, when it becomes apparent that his sister’s transformation is starting to affect the family house:
Ferns should not be growing in bedrooms, unless they are potted. Vines should not grow over mailboxes, unless the mailbox is in a jungle outpost. Tiger lilies should not grow in place of a girl’s eyelashes. There are rules in this world.
Sometimes you just have to go with it: Hester’s schoolfriends teasing her in exactly the same way (you sense) that they teased her for getting braces stretches credulity somewhat. But there are rules in this world, and they hold — not our rules, but internally consistent ones. So even though we know, on some level, that it wouldn’t really happen this way, we never quite admit it to ourselves. Instead we are seduced: by the gentle warmth of the catalysed sibling friendship, and the rush as their whole town succumbs to spring, becoming a riot of nature rediscovered. And we leave the story smiling.