Apex Magazine Issue #23, April 2011 by David Hebblethwaite
This issue contains two original stories and two reprints. Michael J. Deluca tells a tale from the early days of language, and considers the relative merits of life with or without words. Eugie Foster writes of a girl dealing with difficult circumstances, who may have to put herself first whatever the cost to herself or others. Mike Allen‘s story features a storekeeper with an unusual collection of buttons, and the man searching for him, who has a secret of his own. Jennifer Pelland tells of a ghost haunting the site of the World Trade Center, who needs to find a way to make sense of her continued existence.
In “The Eater,” Michael J. Deluca takes us back to the dawn of civilization, scant generations after the development of human language. The particular tribe on which DeLuca focuses has an Eater who ventures beyond the confines the village to see what can be found there, and a Speaker who names what the Eater finds. Meki, a boy of the tribe, believes that the Speaker’s roles is the most important; but for his sister (our narrator, whose name we do not learn), it’s the Eater’s work which matters, and she wants to be his apprentice. She follows the Eater on one of his journeys, but did not bargain for what she discovers. Deluca evokes a world in which reality is mutable because the mental frameworks for interpreting it are still being formed, and something can be a threat simply because the words don’t exist to describe it. The characters of the narrator and Meki may be seen as representing opposing views of whether to value intellectual or sensual experience more highly, or of whether or not it’s best to look for the truth and risk the consequences. Both approaches are shown to have their virtues and flaws in a thought-provoking tale.
The title of Eugie Foster’s story, “Biba Jibun,” means “viva the self,” and the tale tells of a girl learning to put herself first, with mixed consequences. When Rinako’s mother leaves, and her father drowns, she is sent from the countryside to live with her aunt, uncle, and cousin in Tokyo. It’s not an easy transition, as Rinako is shunned by pretty much everyone in her new home and school, apart from her uncle. Then she meets a girl Yumi, who has a sideline working as an enjo kosai, a “compensated date,” accompanying a salaryman to dinner in exchange for a hefty chunk of money. Rinako becomes drawn more and more into Yumi’s lifestyle and way of thinking, while the mysterious figure of a rabbit goads Rinako on in her dreams (“Where do good manners get us? Skinned, salted, and laughed at, that’s what.”) Foster’s portrait of Rinako’s development as a character is well drawn, showing the attraction of Yumi’s world to her, but also how she remains ambivalent towards it when her new selfish focus gets her into trouble—and what it finally takes to push Rinako into making a definitive choice. My reservation, however, is that Foster deploys the supernatural in a way that diminishes the importance of her characterization, which is where I think the story’s real power lies.
The first of the issue’s two reprints, Mike Allen’s “The Button Bin” (reproduced from a 2007 issue of Helix), is disquieting in both its style and content. Searching for his missing niece, Allen’s unnamed protagonist tracks down Lenahan, the owner of a craft store, who (Billy Willett tells him) took Denise. Willett was Denise’s boyfriend, who lost his eyes and legs after what the authorities believe to have been a hit-and-run, the same incident in which Denise disappeared. But Willett tells Denise’s uncle something different—about how Lenahan “put us both deep under but he only kept what he wanted from me. Denise, he kept all of her.” The narrator confronts Lenahan at his shop, and discovers the man’s strange container of buttons, which are far more than they seem. Allen’s second-person narration brings us uncomfortably close to his protagonist, which works to great effect with the imagery of what happens in the story’s closing stages, and also in the shocking way the piece turns on its narrator to reveal that he’s not the man we had been led to believe.
“Ghosts of New York” by Jennifer Pelland (first published in Maurice Broaddus’ and Jerry L. Gordon’s 2010 anthology Dark Faith) begins with a woman jumping to her death from the burning World Trade Center, only to find herself experiencing the fall (and the pain on landing) over and over again. Over time, the woman forgets everything about her life before jumping, and discovers the ghosts of other jumpers from disasters throughout New York history; she can’t talk to her fellow ghosts of the Twin Towers, but can speak to others, and even move about to an extent—but she’s always pulled back to that fall in the end. Pelland’s tale is quietly written, yet atmospherically so: the condition of the jumpers, with the living not being able to see them, becomes a very concrete metaphor for how people such as the protagonist may come to be forgotten; but the woman’s story also becomes one of coming to terms with loss, and the possible consequences of not doing so.
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