Last week, we brought you Jonathan Strahan's essay about finding the year's best short stories for his annual collections — now here's an excerpt from The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Volume 8: "In Metal, In Bone" by An Owomoyela.
Top image: Tanaudel/Eclipse Online.
In Metal, In Bone
An Owomoyela (pronounced "On") is a neutrois author with a background in web development, linguistics, and weaving chain maille out of stainless steel fencing wire, whose fiction has appeared in a number of venues including Clarkesworld, Asimov's, Lightspeed, and a pair of Year's Bests. An's interests range from pulsars and Cepheid variables to gender studies and nonstandard pronouns, with a plethora of stops in-between. Se graduated from the Clarion West Writers Workshop in 2008, attended the Launchpad Astronomy Workshop in 2011, and doesn't plan to stop learning as long as se can help it.
That was the year the war got so bad in Mortova that the world took notice, after twenty years of a column inch here or there on the last pages of the international section. And that was the year Benine went to the front, to the dirt camp outside Junuus where Colonel Gabriel reigned.
Colonel Gabriel met him in a circle of canvas-topped trucks, in an army jacket despite the heat of the sun. He stood a head taller than Benine, with skin as dark as peat coal, with terrible scarring on one side of his jaw. When his gloved hand shook Benine's bare one, he closed his grip and said, "What do you see?"
Benine was startled, but the call to listen in on the memories of things was ever-present in the back of his mind. It took very little to let his senses fuzz, obscured by the vision curling up from the gloves like smoke.
He saw a room in a cottage with a thatched roof, the breeze coming in with the smell of a cooking fire outside, roasted cassava, a woman singing, off-tune. He had to smile. There was too much joy in the song to mind the sharp notes. This must have been before the war; it was hard to imagine that much joy in Mortova these days.
The singing had that rich, resonant pitch of a voice heard in the owner's head, and his vision swung down, to delicate hands with a needle and thread, stitching together the fabric of the gloves. Neat, even rows, and as the glove passed between the seamstress's fingers, he could see the patterns of embroidery on the back.
Benine banished the vision and pulled his hand back. "But these are women's gloves!"
Colonel Gabriel gave him an appraising look. "So you can do something," he said. "Not just superstition and witchcraft."
Benine coughed, and smoothed down his shirt. "Of course, sir."
"The President is a believer in witchcraft," the Colonel said. "And he feels strongly about pacifying the dead of this war. Do you know why you're out here?"
"It's because I can read the history of things," Benine said, and inhaled the smell of the sun-baked dirt to chase off the last vestiges of the cottage.
"Things like bones," the Colonel said. "Mountains of bones, from mass graves the rebels have piled up from here to the coast. Are you willing to do this for your country?"
"Bones," Benine repeated.
"What did you think the President would ask you to this place for?" Colonel Gabriel asked.
The rebels hadn't made it to Junuus yet, not in this iteration of the war. They had raided it back when it was called Morole, of course, and the President's people had burnt it down once before that, back when they had been the rebels. That was the kind of war it was: both sides called the other side the rebels, and who had control of the country shifted back and forth like an angry tide. Even the President was president more by accident than design.
Junuus was safe, mostly. The government had stationed Colonel Gabriel there with as many men as they could, because petrol came through Junuus. The fortifications made it the place to send people involved in the war who didn't need to be too involved in the war, like Benine, and a woman named Alvarez.
Alvarez was one of those international people who came in to war zones for a living, Colonel Gabriel said. She had skin as pale as a cooked yam, and black hair that hung straight past her shoulders. She was also short, and plump, and had narrow eyes. From the way she bustled into the tent Benine knew that most of the people in the camp disliked her, so he made up his mind not to.
She was carrying a big plastic bin, the kind Benine's aunt stored rice in, and she set it on the card table and peered at him over it. "Have you ever handled human remains?" she asked.
Benine shook his head. That told him what was in the bin, and a shuddery, unsound feeling clung to the back of his sternum. "Never."
"They're only bones," Alvarez said. "Still, some people are afraid of them." She popped off the lid and peered into the bin, then adjusted her gloves and picked up a small plastic bag, then shook its contents out into her palm. "Here," she said. "Try this. We'll leave all the skulls for a while; those can be the hardest to touch. Hold your hands out."
Benine swallowed, cupped his hands, and held them out.
"You ready?" Alvarez asked. When Benine nodded, she placed something small and cool into his palms.
He looked at it. It was small as a pebble; could even be mistaken for one, but for the strangeness of its shape, its light weight. He held it, waiting to feel fear or revulsion, but instead felt an odd disconnect in the place those emotions should have been. "What is it?"
"A distal phalange," Alvarez said. "A fingertip bone. Are you all right?"
"I think I am," he said, and carried it to the card table, where he sat down. He breathed in, and turned the little white thing over in his palm. "I've never done this with remains before."
"You say everything else holds memory," Alvarez said. "Why not bone?"
Benine nodded. He exhaled and rested his eyes on the bone, then let them unfocus.
The bone was much more open – the reaction more immediate – than any of the old family heirlooms he had handled. Even before he had let his own vision grey out he was seeing the street of some other city, smelling the cigarette that a mixed-race hand, paler than his own, was raising to its mouth.
And then the tent flap flew open with a snap!, and Benine all but dropped the fingertip.
A man in army green walked in with a mug of coffee in one hand, a face like a foxbat, and a crazed look in his eyes. "I am Sgt. Conte," he said, and put the coffee down on the table. It was two-thirds-full. "You know, in this place, not even Colonel Gabriel has an aide-de-camp, but they sent me to work with you. Do you need anything? Cheers." He pulled a flask out of his pocket and filled up the mug of coffee to the brim; Benine hadn't drunk enough to realize from the smell that it was gin. He looked at the mug, then pushed it away.
"No, thank you."
The sergeant shrugged, then picked up the cup and drained it. His Adam's apple leapt, three, four times as he swallowed, then banged the empty mug on the table again.
"Well, go on," Conte said. "Don't let me stop you."
Benine took a breath, and tried to put the sergeant out of his mind. He closed his eyes, focused on the scrap of bone in his palms, and let himself sink into it.
The rain was as grey as the cigarette smoke, as the exhaust from the rickety cars which shouldered past each other on the mud road. The rain was cold, and the man Benine was and saw gulped down the cigarette smoke hoping to catch the warmth in his lungs. He wore a leather jacket, but the rain had run down under his collar and his shirt was clinging to his skin.
Benine sunk into the smoke a little, then nudged the man in the memory just enough to make him shift his gaze. Across the way, in the curved window of a car, he caught a glimpse of reflection: maybe thirty years old but already haggard, with crisp-cut cheekbones and several days' beard. His eyes were like a jackal's eyes. Hunted.
The vision receded a little, and Benine let it. It seemed the man was alone, in a place where he was likely to stay alone – no friend would call out his name. "He was thirty, maybe thirty-five," Benine said, letting his eyes open again on Alvarez's curious face. "A smoker, dressed like a tinkerer, a mechanic." He thought back to his hands. "Mixed, and with calluses here." He indicated the tips of his fingers and the bases, where they connected to his palm. "Does that help?"
"Every little bit helps," Alvarez said, and opened a notebook. She flipped through the pages until she found an empty line, wrote a number on the line, then wrote the number on the bone. Then, in a hand so small and neat Benine had to lean over to read it, she summarized what he had said, in shorthand.
"Are you just making it up?" Conte asked.
"Because he would come out here to sit in a stuffy tent and enjoy your company, just for play," Alvarez said.
"I could show you," Benine offered. "Tell you something about... I don't know. One of your shoes. Or that watch you wear."
Conte looked down at his wrist, where the nylon strap of his watch had stained to almost the same dirt-brown as his sleeve. Then, with a sneer, he ripped it off his wrist, the Velcro giving with the crackle of something never removed, and tossed it at Benine's face. "Here."
Benine caught it, closed his eyes just long enough to smell blood and gunpowder and feel a knife slammed into his chest, and dropped the watch as though scalded. He looked up at Conte, who reached over and snatched it back.
"So. Not entirely a fake," Conte said.
The tent flap flew open again, and all of them looked. Then Conte jumped to his feet, and Benine followed suit. Alvarez raised her eyebrows, but seemed more interested in the bin full of bones than Colonel Gabriel's arrival.
The Colonel batted the tent flap shut. "I've been on the radio," he said, looking straight at Benine. "I had more questions for you."
"Of course," Benine said.
"Your parents did not die in the war," Colonel Gabriel said.
Benine shook his head. "My father died of heart attack two years ago, sir. My mother died when I wasn't even walking."
"Your siblings? They are not all dead?"
"No, sir," Benine said. "Three of my brothers are still alive, sir. And two sisters."
"And they also have your gift?"
"Your uncle tells me he paid for you to go to school," the Colonel said. "He said you were smart enough to go to some foreign universities. The rebels haven't killed your family, burnt your home. Why are you here looking at bones for us?"
Benine shrugged. "I love my country, sir."
Colonel Gabriel watched him closely for a few seconds, then snorted. "Is that so? Not even the President loves this country." He shook his head. "Perhaps you'll live long enough to see how naive you are. I'll pray for you." He turned to go.
Benine stopped him by saying, "If I could, sir?" Colonel Gabriel turned back and met his eyes, then gave a short nod. Benine gathered his words. "Why are you fighting here?"
"Isn't it obvious?" the Colonel asked. He raised his eyebrows. Then, when Benine hadn't guessed, said, "I love my country," and ducked outside.
Sgt. Conte followed.
"What do you feel when you look into those bones?" Alvarez asked. Dusk had just rolled around on the third day, and for those three days, Alvarez had been handing him the bones without comment, as though they were items over the counter of a store. Then he would relate what sort of person he saw and was, and whether anyone said a name in the memories, and whether he had found the person in any of the other bones, and Alvarez would take notes in tiny, black figures in a flip-top book of hers. So the question came as a surprise.
"I see places they were," Benine answered. "Little bits of their lives."
"Important bits? Recent?"
Benine shook his head. "It doesn't seem to matter. Sometimes... for one of them it was the birth of her child. For another it was just walking down a dirt road, thinking nothing in particular."
Alvarez smiled. "Was that a foot bone?"
Benine had to laugh, but he shook his head. "What about you? What do you see in these bones?"
"The same that anyone else sees, I think," Alvarez said. "Tragedy."
Benine looked at the bin – one of many that had come through, that he'd gone through, that would be packed up for transport to the capital, as though the capital was a safer place for them. He was beginning to see them as bones and memories. He knew that they were dead people, that in other places people did not die and get left unburied in such numbers, and he knew that it wasn't right, but the word tragedy seemed foreign and ill-fitting. This was more like a chronic disease.
He picked up another bone.
"Why did you come out here?" he asked. "To all this tragedy?"
"It can't have been for the warm welcome," Benine said. He'd seen the way people in the camp looked at her.
"No," she agreed.
Benine chewed for a moment on his words. He wanted to use this as a connection – he'd seen the way the soldiers looked at him, too. But him, they looked at like a freak, a joke. Her, they looked at like a thief or an enemy. "Is it hard?" he asked.
She shrugged. "No. Not with most of them; I don't care about them. I wish things were different with Colonel Gabriel."
"He doesn't like me," Alvarez said, then seemed to reconsider. "No; he doesn't like the necessity of me. We get along. We drink that terrible rum of his and smoke cigarillos and play bezique. But for some foreigner to come into his country to help identify the war dead?" She clicked her tongue. "How can he bear it?"
"He does love his country," Benine realized.
Alvarez gave him a long, strange look. "You thought he didn't?"
"I thought–" Benine started, and realized he didn't know what he'd thought. "I thought he thought me naive for loving it."
Alvarez snorted. "He has yet to learn the distinction between loving one's country and believing in it," she said. "He isn't a stupid man, for all he believes himself stupid."
"Maybe he feels stupid next to you," Benine said, and looked down at the table between his hands. "You travel across the world and identify the dead."
"Doesn't make me any wiser," she said. "All I know? I've been to thirteen different countries, and they're all different. But the sun shines on all of them, and everywhere, people bleed red. And they all leave their bones when they go." She brought out a long, broken white bone from the bin and unwrapped it – by now, Benine could recognise it as a femur. "Tell me about this one."
The season went on with the sun pouring down on the dying grass, the sky bluer than the ocean yet offering no relief, and rumors of the rebels taking another band of cities, boys pressed into service, old men with their eyes put out, young girls with their hands bayonetted through and their mouths stuffed with dust. All the usual atrocities one became numb to, in war.
Benine came out of the tent one afternoon. Sgt. Conte was sitting on one of a trio of buckets probably filled with peanuts or rice, a radio in his hand. The man on the radio was talking about how the rebels had taken a city not far to the west of the camp, and Conte's face was uncharacteristically grim. At the end of the report, he shut the radio off and looked to Benine.
"I wanted to take a rest," Benine said. He wondered if Conte would mind him sitting down on the bucket next to him. Conte snorted.
"Is it all getting too much for you, city boy?" he asked. "What did you see?"
"I saw Montchacal," Benine answered. "Burning."
Conte huffed on his cigarette. "So, ten years ago. Nine? Who can remember." He spat a glob of yellow spit into the dirt. "A man, a woman?"
"A man," Benine said. "A soldier."
"That must have been easy, then."
"To give the man a name," Conte said.
Benine shook his head. "Why do you think so?"
Conte turned and stared at him for a long moment, then reached inside his shirt and brought out the chain he wore around his neck and the two flattened tags dangling from it. He jerked the chain forward, shaking the tags into Benine's face.
"A soldier, you stupid rat," he said. "We all wear these."
This was the easy part, and to Benine's unease, it got easier. More and more of the bones belonged to soldiers. And more and more of those who weren't wore dogtags, too.
Growing up in the corner of the country, where people might still sneak over the border to trade before running back as though the war would nip at their heels – growing up there, far from the capital and the front, tags hadn't been so important. But Benine remembered a childhood friend running up to his house, grinning, proud of the tags he'd bought which jangled against his chest.
Benine's father, while he was alive, hated the idea of dogtags in their village. But his uncle, when he'd taken stewardship of Benine and his siblings, had been more than willing to buy them for any of the children who asked.
Out in the camp near Junuus this was the second month, and Benine could see the difference in the bones. No one had time to clean them, now; they came in covered with dirt that might once have been blood, and there was less distinction between the bones and Benine's skin. But the dogtags in their memories were a constant. They were all different shapes and materials, stamped in leather or aluminum or in flattened-out coins, ready to buy a way into the underworld. All the bones these days came with names.
Many of the bones came with memories of blood.
Benine picked up a lower rib and crashed into a man's death by bayonet, an abdominal wound, a deep stab and a long tear. The pain in his gut was enough to make him retch, but he could feel his gut leaking already, vomiting out his side, and all that came out of his mouth was spit and a dribble of blood and bile. Each ragged breath tugged the wound, an angry red pain that Benine couldn't see through. Buried in it was the certainty that the rebels would take his tags, cut off his head, his hands, and no one would know he had died here, no one would know his bones were his.
Benine came out of the memory with a gasp. For a moment everything looked wrong, the olive-drab tent walls and the camp-lantern light, the dirt floor and the cheap table and the bins, and he dove back in, his hand scrambling for the tags.
He couldn't change anything. He wanted to reassure the man, the man's fingers running across and across his tags, but it seemed to the man like obsession, and the thought went round and round: They will never know. They'll never know.
A noise sounded from outside, and Benine jumped, thinking it a gunshot. But it was followed by the splutter of an engine and a string of curses: the old jeep had backfired.
Benine put the bone down on the table, put his head in his hands, and took long, deep breaths until he no longer wanted to cry.
"Sometimes I worry that when I think of Mortova, I'll remember nothing but war," Colonel Gabriel said. He was sitting at a table in the mess, and Benine had come in to drink coffee with him. The coffee was bad, very bad – reused grounds, Benine thought – but it was something. "I'll forget that we have markets and schools and theatres and nephews with birthday parties and fizzy drinks," Colonel Gabriel said. "I am going to forget that there are little girls in blue dresses, and newspapers, and satellite phones. I am going to forget that I danced at my wedding."
Benine looked at him. He had never suspected that Colonel Gabriel was a man who'd had a normal life. But he was perhaps fifty or sixty, so he would have had an adult life even before the war. "You're married?"
"I may forget that I was married," Colonel Gabriel said.
Benine had nothing to say to that.
After a while, Colonel Gabriel said, "The soldiers have a rumor that you can control a person when you look back through their bones."
Benine jumped. "I can't," he said. Then, "Not much. I can look at something, sometimes. Maybe pick up an object. Only when they aren't thinking."
"Benine," Colonel Gabriel said.
"If they think about what they're doing, I can't do anything," Benine said. "It's only those little things, like if you pick up a pen and forget what you were doing with it."
The Colonel was shaking his head. "I don't know, sometimes."
Benine looked at him, afraid of something he couldn't name. "What?"
"Whether it was God or Lucifer who gave you that gift," Colonel Gabriel said. He drank the bad, old coffee, and his eyes were distant. Benine swallowed, and drank, too.
"How does it feel," Benine asked suddenly, "to be wearing your tags all the time? To have something on your chest that you know means you're expected to die? Or that people expect that you could."
Colonel Gabriel didn't move at all. If thinking of the tags in that light bothered him, it didn't show. Maybe it was the same way he'd always thought of them.
"It felt pointless, for a time," the Colonel said. "When all the bodies have been chopped up or pushed over into mass graves. But now you've come along, so it doesn't seem as pointless any more. Maybe it should." He turned an appraising eye on Benine. "Do you know how many have died in this war?"
Benine lowered his head. "Tens of thousands," he said. "More. Yes, I know."
The Colonel regarded him with eyes that had long ago gone yellow around the edges. "Do you intend to identify all of them?"
Benine had no answer for that, either, and after a while, the Colonel took his coffee and walked away.
The rebels took a city. The rebels took a bridge.
The rebels took a field and fouled it with blood and burned it to ash, and Benine sat in a tent outside the petrol port of Junuus and read the histories of dead men from their bones.
One night, the tent flap opened, and a person came in. "Benine."
Benine looked up to see Sgt. Conte standing over the table. Conte had a drawn-out expression, like he'd been drinking and going nights without sleep.
"What is it?" Benine asked. "What's wrong?"
Conte looked down at his hands. "It's only," he started, and one hand went to his chest. "I find," he said.
"Conte," Benine said, unsure of what was to come.
Conte's hand fisted in his shirt, and Benine could see the chain around his neck beneath the fabric. "I find myself checking my tags these days," Conte said, and looked into Benine's eyes. "You said it runs in your family, this... thing, of yours?"
"My little sister," Benine said, and imagined her: her bright eyes, hair in neat braided rows. Like him, she had never lived in a time outside this war. "She's better at it than me," he said. "My brothers are not as good. But we all have it. So did my mother and my aunts and uncles, and my grandmother–"
Conte waved a hand, impatient and troubled. "Will any of them come to the front?" he asked, and then seemed to decide against the question. He backed up. "Never mind. Never mind. A man can die at any time, right? Even years from now." His back hit the tent flap, and his hand opened it. "Forget I came in."
This was the third month, and the bones were drying up. The foreigners searching for them were being evacuated because truces and talks had made no difference, because the rebels had the smell of government blood in their nostrils, and wouldn't be called off the kill. Benine spent more of his days with the army, filling bags with dirt and making them into walls. At night, he read the bones by the camp lantern. The smell of smoke joined the dust in the air, these days, carried from somewhere far off but coming closer.
One night, Alvarez put down one of the rare bins and looked at Benine over it. "They're sending me away," she said. "They won't let me stay. They say the front is no place for a woman."
Benine swallowed. Besides Alvarez, the only women he had seen from outside Junuus were wounded walking up the road, their bodies wracked with bullet holes, scored by machetes. And there had been one he had glimpsed across the camp one night, following a soldier into a tent, head down, feet shuffling as though drunk. "It is no place–" he began.
"It's no place for a decent young man like you, either," Alvarez said. "It's no place for any of these men, any thinking, feeling human being." Her eyes were angry, but Benine thought he could see tears, stinging them. "The things Colonel Gabriel is afraid of for me – rape and murder. They've done that to Colonels, too, to humiliate them. And to boys like you. And there's a city here, still."
Benine didn't say that people in Junuus, people in Mortova, knew this was their lot. Foreigners like Alvarez could run from the war.
Alvarez shook her head. "You don't have a choice, either," she said. "They'll keep you here whether or not you want to be."
"I want to be," Benine said.
Alvarez looked hard and sharp like a bayonet. "So do I."
Benine was silent.
"I had something made for you," Alvarez said, and Benine held out his hand by habit. For an instant he felt slapped in the chest, afraid he was becoming ungrateful, but Alvarez slipped the package into his palm and closed his fingers around it so quickly that it seemed she understood. This was a time to say what needed to be said, not to practice politeness. "Wear them," Alvarez said.
Benine pulled his hand back and opened his fingers, and found a pair of dogtags.
"But I hope you never need them," Alvarez said.
Colonel Gabriel came in, after Alvarez had been put on the truck and sent south toward Port Gold. "Have you ever fired a gun?"
"No, sir," Benine said. His father had raised him to call men Sir, but the word had a different taste, these days.
"You should learn," Colonel Gabriel said. He nodded to the bins. "How many bones are left?"
"A few dozen, maybe," Benine said.
Benine nodded. "Yes, sir."
Colonel Gabriel left the tent, but as he did, he paused in the entrance to say, "I'm sorry."
Benine worked on. On.
He didn't want to stop until the bones were done, so the next day would dawn and he could turn his attention to the approaching front. He went through the memories, the good days and grey days and battle days and tags, and put the name and the date of identification on the line by the batch number, the site found, the date of discovery. And then, after not too many pages, he reached into the bin for the next bone and found it empty.
For so long, it had been one bone after another, like a bridge he could walk on from one day to the next. Now that there were no more bones, there was only the front, coming to find him.
His throat closed and he touched the plastic bin, breathing in the memory. After so long handling bones the vision was distant and muted, but the memory was there: Alvarez and a team of strangers, sweating under the hot sun and the hot blue sky, digging side by side with some army men in a dry gully rimmed with trees. Far from assuaging his loneliness it seemed to underscore how large the country was, how far these bones had come, how far the rebels were marching to find them and kill them, how far Alvarez had been sent away. He pulled back his hand.
Night was coming round toward morning, but he didn't want to sleep, for all his fatigue. "Conte!" he called. He was in the mood to accept one of the man's concoctions of coffee and cheap alcohol. Perhaps to talk about when the rebels would arrive. "Conte, are you still awake?"
No answer. Benine leaned back and stretched his arms behind his head. Under his shirt, the unfamiliar weight of the tags shifted on his chest.
His hand went to them.
He hesitated a moment, eyes on the indistinct darkness on the other side of the lantern. He wanted to stay there, suspended in the moment between impulse and action. Neither thinking of them, nor not. Then he pulled the tags free of his shirt and turned them to the light.
The tags Alvarez had given him were such small things, the shine of their metal not yet dulled. His name was stamped there, in one sense indelibly: because here it was, if anyone chose that moment to look for them. Stamped in his sight, in his memories, his bones, the raised letters catching shadows, surrendering his name to the eyes.