Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Short Fiction Month: A Cup of Salt Tears - Isabel Yap

For my next read in short fiction month I moved away from science fiction. A Cup of Salt Tears by Isabel Yap is a contemporary fantasy story. I know very little about the author, other than that she is from the Philippines. So far she has published twenty or so short stories of which I have only read this one. The story was originally published on and is accompanied there by a beautiful piece of artwork by Victo Ngai. I read it in The Apex Book of World SF 4, one of the two anthologies this story is included in.

When she was young, her mother taught Makino how to appease the Kappas, the demonic creatures inhabiting Japan's rivers and ponds. Many years later, Makino's husband is dying. A Kappa who claims to have met her before shows up and makes her a tempting offer, but one that comes with a price.

The Kappa is a creature from Japanese mythology and this story is filled to the brim with all sorts of references to stories about them. It pays to have at least a passing acquaintance with the legends surrounding them. Something I readily admit I don't have so I probably missed quite a few. Yap does convey the danger that lies beneath the polite manners very well though. The Kappa in her story is extremely creepy. It is disarmingly well behaved but essentially coerces her into allowing it to do as it wants. There is never outright violence, brute force or  plain blackmail but the way it tries to manipulate her is quite horrific nonetheless. I called this story a fantasy but it borders on horror.

Makino is grieving for her husband in the story in a way that shows real affection between the two. I guess that makes her involvement with the Kappa even more uncomfortable. It is a story about love and sacrifice, about how far someone is willing to go to save the ones they love. This emotional aspect is,  in my opinion, where the story falters. As we near the end of the tale, it becomes emotionally a bit flat. The relief, disappointment and guilt that the character goes through seem muted. The understated sentiments the Kappa uses to lure his victim worked well but when Makino looks back on events, she seems mostly drained. I didn't feel it was a very satisfying conclusion.

That being said, A Cup of Salt Tears is a beautifully written tale. It is worth reading for the mythological content alone. Yap leaves the complex tangle of relationships and emotions a tangle though. While this story proved to be not quite as satisfying a read as I'd hoped for, I do think Yap is an author to keep an eye on.

Story Details
Title: A Cup of Salt Tears
Author: Isabel Yap
Language: English
Originally published:, August 27th 2014
Read in: The Apex Book of World SF 4. edited by Mahvesh Murad and Lavie Tidhar (2016)
Story length: Short story, approximately 4,700 words
Awards: None
Available online:


  1. I did not like this story as much as the preceding ones. I am also a little perplexed at what to make of it. I do not agree with the moral stated in the introductory remark that precedes the story. If I follow my thread of transformation I can say that the heroine is transformed at the end but in a seemingly negative way. The kappa seems to have won and eaten her soul: "She feels just as much affection for Tetsuya as she did before, but nothing else". Affection, but no more love. Symbolically the anamnesis of a childhood trauma of nearly drowning reveals that it was at the basis of her self-sacrificial love for her husband (as she gave up Tokyo and modeling for the sake of his job). She manages to free herself from the fixation on the trauma but at the price of loss of soul, flattening of affect - or is this just a more realistic, more mature emotion?

    1. I have been reading a few other reviews of this story today. What surprised me is how so many people seem to view her relationship with the Kappa as something positive, even erotic. Frankly, it creeped me out. That she doesn't come away from it more damaged than from the near drowning surprised me.

  2. Full review here:

  3. I do not see her relation with the kappa as positive at all, as I think it represents trauma and devouring love. Nor is it particularly erotic. I felt that there was a feminist point to the story, of Maniko finally freeing herself from that negativity even if it disguised itself as positivity in her self-sacrificial love for her husband and in the kappa's amorous advances.