This sentence, which comes about halfway through the story, was when "In Metal, In Bone" fully grabbed my attention:
"I thought—" Benine started, and realized he didn't know what he'd thought.
It's an unprepossessing few words. What makes them notable is their context.
"In Metal, In Bone" (Eclipse Online, March 22nd, 2013) is a war story, but one in which the war is over the horizon, and the tone is cool and contained. This strikes me as respectful to the potency of the subject matter—a grinding civil war, mass slaughter, and mass graves—but it makes our protagonist, Benine, a slightly distant figure. We know from early on that he is unworldly, not naturally at home in a military camp, but we don't know that much more about him; a few details about his family, that's all. What defines him is the work he does, the work central to the story, of sorting through bones and using his psychic talent to identify the dead. So we don't necessarily see beneath his surface. What the above sentence confirms, however, is that neither does he, until he has to. So you could say that "In Metal, In Bone" is a story about excavation in more ways than one, about recognizing and examining—or not—your reactions to a situation much larger than any individual.
Reading the story for a second time, and more closely, it's obvious that the scene around the sentence foregrounds Benine's self-contained nature. He is talking to Alvarez, "one of the international people"—outsiders, and note how the label makes them seem somehow diffuse, lacking attachment—who help with the dead. They're discussing Benine's ability "to listen in on the memories of things." Alvarez asks him what he feels, when he relives the memories from bones. He dodges the question, focuses on the surface: "I see places they were . . . little bits of their lives." She doesn't call him on it, perhaps because she's really more concerned with her own reaction, and presumes that is universal. When he reciprocates the question, she tells him that she sees "the same that anyone else sees, I think . . . Tragedy."
Many of the story's readers will no doubt nod in recognition here, but for Benine the word is "foreign and ill-fitting." He thinks that a more apt description—and this for me is a phrase which encapsulates the ache that runs through the story—would be to say it is "like a chronic disease." The predictable next note here, perhaps, would be for the two views to clash, but Benine does not give voice to his sentiment. He's not as confident in his analysis as is Alvarez; his self-diagnosis is hesitant. (Hers may be superficial.) He doesn't know what he thinks. It feels like a big moment, to hear him admit that.
This is how the story starts:
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.
It's a confident but careful paragraph, all the more impressive for its economy. "That was the year" strikes a tone that is authoritative but belated: an explicit signal that this story is memory, that it has passed, for good or ill we do not yet know. What follows sketches an outline that evokes that t-word Benine will later disavow, in a context that risks cliché. Two things kept me reading: the clear note of disapproval of the outsider-view in "took notice"; and the fact that, via the repetition of the opening clause, Benine's story is elevated, establishing the war as background, not foreground. That second choice, for me, is also what makes the fictional setting work. I find that fictional settings can be a tough needle for an author to thread, sometimes; last year, for instance, I felt that G. Willow Wilson's Alif the Unseen suffered from not naming its state, that the general societal statements it aspired to make were too heavy for a fiction to bear. Here—and admittedly at much shorter length—I think the fictionalization works because it helps to keep our focus on Benine, on the individual. We don't spend time trying to firmly place the story. Indeed we're never given the information that would allow us to do so; the details of Mortova and the motives behind its conflict remain shadowed.
What we do learn is that Benine has been appointed to the camp by a superstitious president who believes in "pacifying the dead" by acknowledging their passing; the pragmatic Colonel Gabriel is less convinced, and the same is true for the only other soldier we meet, Sergeant Conte, assigned as Benine's aide. Much of the rest of the story is notable for how little actually happens. Benine has been given a big job, and it takes time. Scenes do not open in dramatic fashion, but with ennui. "The season went on," the story tells us. Or: "It rained." Even when the war is mentioned, it's remote and generic, lacking specifics. "The rebels took a city. The rebels took a bridge." After a few months, Alvarez and Benine are processing bones "as though they were items over the counter of a store," their macabre task reduced to monotony. This is in part, we suspect, a coping strategy for Benine. There's one moment where we see how traumatic unguarded memories can be, when Conte throws Benine a watch that's been looted from the dead. He catches it for "just long enough to smell blood and gunpowder and feel a knife slammed into his chest"; the only moment of overt violence in the story. Routine guards against such moments, perhaps, makes the pain manageable. A chronic disease, indeed.
This isn't the first time Owomoyela has written about projection into others. In "Swanskin Song" (Expanded Horizons, 2012), a swan lets a young girl borrow its skin, and she experiences the transformation as a joy, a release. In "All That Touches the Air" (Lightspeed Magazine, 2011), it's aliens who enter into and possess careless humans who stray beyond their environmentally controlled colony, an act that is perceived as threat and aggression. And in "Portage" (Apex Magazine, 2010), a daughter drinks her father's soul, after his death, and begins to experience a more complex and ambiguous transformation. In each of these cases, however, the projection is an exceptional event; it is only with "In Metal, In Bone" that it becomes numbingly repetitive.
But it still has a more dramatic cost, slipped in casually, early on: during his first bone vision, we are told that Benine "nudged the man in the memory just enough to shift his gaze." It's a moment that raises all sorts of questions about the parameters of Benine's talent, but they aren't addressed—or even acknowledged—until quite a lot later, when Benine is in conversation with Colonel Gabriel:
"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."
It feels like a logical rule, a sound extrapolation from the premise: if you can form that sort of intimate connection with a past event, then yes, it makes a strange sense that the boundary between rememberer and remembered gets a little fuzzy. It's also immediately chilling, for reasons Gabriel clearly recognizes instantly, but which are spelled out only obliquely, when Benine's turn in the conversation comes around and he asks about the colonel's dog tags. "How does it feel," Benine wants to know, "to have something on your chest that you know means you're expected to die?"
From that point on, we are waiting for someone to walk over Benine's grave. We watch the pieces fall into place. The rebels draw closer, and are winning "this iteration" of the war. Alvarez is sent away. Benine is given a set of dog tags of his own. Benine identifies the last of the bones. The story thickens with tension. And then, three paragraphs from the end, Benine finds himself holding his dog tags without having consciously thought to do so:
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, or not. Then he pulled the tags free of his shirt and turned them to the light.
The very last paragraph, after this, seems nearly redundant. (Although the final clause, "surrendering his name to the eyes"—not his eyes—is beautifully turned.) This is the moment of self-confrontation, and the moment of confronting the work he has been doing: the moment that links metal and bone, that asserts the humanity and individuality of the dead. Most elegantly of all, while Benine resolves his own moment of equipoise, he does not, cannot, resolve ours. We don't know what happens to him; whether anything happens to him. We don't know what he means. In thinking about that I found myself forced inwards; forced to confront my own distance from the story, to examine my reactions, to ask the question. Do I know what I think?