Zahir: Unforgettable Tales #3, Spring 2004

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"A Maid on the Shore" by Sonya Taaffe
"Down to Earth" by Laura Taylor Lambros
"Madeline" by Jim Westerholm
"Rock, Paper, Scissors" by Marissa K. Lingen
"When the Blues Get You Down" by H. H. Morris
"Staring Game" by J. M Shiloh
"To Madagascar!" by Andrew Cohen
"The Clothing Store" by Lenora K. Rogers
"The Dartboard Girl" by Martin Treanor

"A Maid on the Shore" by Sonya Taaffe
"Shivering, he pulled his jacket around his shoulders and kicked at the rain-glossed stones, raised his voice once more into the wind and heard the words fall away unspoken behind his teeth. Come back. I love you. Are you there? Please."

The unnamed narrator met and made love to a selchie–a sea spirit able to transform back and forth between human and seal form–an act that forever estranges him from the community of normal men, leaving him to haunt the tides and rocks of his coastal community.

"Maid" is a study in character, unanswerable longing made text. The prose is poetic and suited for this emotional moment from the past remembered. Often dense, I found myself occasionally confused as to where I was in time. Although the details were beautifully painted with a poetic brush, I was surprised to find the effect distanced me from the emotional question. The evocation of the culture of this coastal village is exceptional.

"Maid" reminds me of Charles deLint's work, in which those who have been touched by the paranormal can never fully return to their regularly scheduled lives. Sonya's investment in her characters and world make her a talent worth paying attention to as her work matures.

"Down to Earth" by Laura Taylor Lambros
"She was thirteen when she began to float. At first it was barely noticeable, waking after a strange dream, looking up at the Mickey Mouse clock and then, falling slightly, gently, back into the bed."

Kate floats at night. Something of a tomboy, she has difficulty fitting into the group of boys she plays with. The tides of the onset of maturity also pull at her and her friends, upsetting her relationships. Sometimes Kate has disturbing dreams. She tries a number of stratagems for adding weight and controlling her floating, including, on one occasion, the futile consumption of marbles.

On her fourteenth birthday, Kate throws a party. Bobby, who has been the most perceptive and understanding of her peers, gives her a present of marbles and her nights of floating are at an end.

Overall, I would say this is a quirk–floating–in search of a story. While the floating itself doesn't invoke my disbelief, a number of the weight stratagems did. I found it hard to believe that someone would swallow a large number of marbles; I was even more pressed to believe that an intelligent thirteen year old would consider makeup to be a significant enhancement to her mass, especially given the heavier alternatives tried and failed; I was unable to accept the idea that Kate could tie herself to the bedpost, float to the ceiling with enough force to bring the bedpost along with her, yet remain both asleep and uninjured.

The narrative is interspersed with dreams filled with violent imagery and foreboding. They felt at odds with the rest of the story which has a wonderful flavor of the awkward vulnerability and tenderness of the young teen. I am at a loss to explain how these dreams affect Kate, my understanding of her situation or the outcome of the story. I felt like they belonged to a different story.

If floating is a metaphor, it was too subtle for me. But I did enjoy these liquid days of fantasy out of Kate's life. They bring to mind some of the non-linear reality of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "Leaf Storm."

"Madeline" by Jim Westerholm

"Dr. Payton's watch started glowing, turning red, orange, then white hot. Madeline watched, interested, but not surprised.
"I want to go home."
The watch caught fire but Dr. Payton ignored it. "Soon. We need to get to know you better before we can make any decisions. What are you looking at?"
Dr. Payton's watch was a lump of ash. "Nothing."

Madeline is a young girl in Catholic school when she starts seeing things. She is sent to a mental health facility where she has interesting delusions and meets fascinating inmates.

I'm not a fan of tales of insanity, especially in genre, and "Madeline" is a good illustration of the pitfalls. Madeline's story comes across as a variant on the "then she woke up and it was all a dream:" I don't know what is real and what isn't. I'm not even certain of what is real to Madeline. I don't know what is meaningful to the character who anchors me in the fictive realm and I had difficulty maintaining interest. When the clown with black hand is introduced as a sinister element in the last few pages, is he a real threat? Does he exist in this world or only in Madeline's mind?

Any story in which the reader is in doubt of what is important to the main character will present challenges. When the condition is fundamental to the nature of the character, the demands on the author are doubled.

The story is too long for the minor zing that Madeline is pursued through her dreams by a sinister black hand. We have no reliable external observation of the power of the black hand. It's a threat declared but not supported in the text. Overall, I felt the core of this story was still awaiting discovery.

On the other hand, clear, evocative prose make "Madeline" an easy, pleasing read. Where I didn't find the destination to be powerfully realized, I certainly enjoyed the journey. Madeline is an engaging character: I enjoyed sharing her world. Her visions are detailed and fascinating. Madeline's mother–briefly on stage–faces a compelling and interesting dilemma: should she allow her daughter to be placed on medication? "Madeline" offered a number of tantalizing hints as to where it could go, if only it would choose a direction.

"Rock, Paper, Scissors" by Marissa K. Lingen
"Her skin was like paper, not wrinkled so much as crumpled with pain. I knew that she slept only because of the juice of the poppy, that otherwise she would be awake still, screaming or moaning or just white lipped with pain."

The narrator's little sister–referred to as the little bird–fell in love with a magical person. When he left, she took it hard and attempted suicide by swallowing stones. Dee, the older sister, attempts surgery with her scissors but the life of the younger sister still hangs in the balance.

The magical being returns with power sufficient to cure the dying "little bird." However, due to his power, he is alienated enough from human mores to lack the sympathy necessary to save "little bird" from death. However, he will engage the narrator in a game of wits and skill, the child's game "rock, paper, scissors" of the title.

The unnamed, enigmatic magical being was the most interesting. The other characters I didn't get much sense of. Tales of powerful beings, whether the gods of the ancients or the putative omniscient AI of the near future, relate to our place in the universe, who we are as individuals, a different telling of the "how will you act when confronted with death?" I don't feel this situation–rather the resolution–enlightens me about the human characters. They, as all characters must be, are cryptic at the beginning but unfortunately remain so at the end.

"Rock" was well written, proceeded promptly and cleanly to the point. If the story is not one that I am likely to harken back to, it was still executed with skill and attention to craft.

"When the Blues Get You Down" by H. H. Morris
"When an expedition ends in disaster, the survivors analyze what went wrong. Ours had been doomed the day DCSI appointed Simmons and Quick."

An expedition to determine if a planet is suitable for colonization goes wrong when the leaders–Captain Simmons and Chaplain Quick–decide they can be gods to the low tech natives and live in comfort for the rest of their lives.

I enjoyed David's voice. He was an easy and enjoyable character to see the story from, enough of a rascal that I could really like him. The basic tale of a culture with a higher technology level and its presumptions about indigenous people is a strong one.

Several aspects of the setting cause me problems. The issue of everything being blue–so blue the explorers require lenses to distinguish anything–takes up a lot of space trying to explain it and justify it when 1) I didn't buy it (everything would be required to have the same tonal shade of blue which I find hard to countenance outside of some massive genetic engineering project AND you would have to have weird lighting so that neither distance nor shadow would provide visually defined edges); 2) it didn't contribute meaningfully to the overall story for me–if I remove the blue aspect, the story hangs together just fine, thanks, and 3) gets page space which I would rather see devoted to the characters David and Lupe and their situation with regard to both the aliens and their fellow explorers.

I had trouble with the mechanism by which the crew goes mad. I'm a hard sell here: the planet is sufficiently appealing these neo-Cortez's intend to live here for the rest of their lives. So I'm a little tough to move to "paradise itself causes madness." I'm happy for them to go mad. I note that I don't see a need for it–it doesn't change the basic thread: Will Cortez be re-enacted–and I have trouble with this particular mechanism. Once again, I feel like the pages devoted to explaining and justifying this story event could have been better spent exploring the characters and their basic situation.

I'll note that David and Lupe are conveniently spared the tough decision: do they alert their companions to the approaching ambush? It's a shame because that's what this story is really about. They story denies David and Lupe any direct input as Quick and Simmons play out their fantasy of Tenochtitlan. The question of the story could easily have been: if it really comes down to us or them, which way will David jump? Whether to shut down the beacon or not is a pale substitute.

David is an interesting engaging character and his situation as helper to small minded, neo-Conquistadors is a painful one.

"Staring Game" by J. M Shiloh
"Other than the obvious shared streak of stubbornness, Martha and John were polar opposites. She was yin and he was yang. She collected Hello Kitty; he collected hangovers. She adored Mozart, he favored musicians more likely to employ howitzers than flutes."

Martha and John are engaged in the staring contest to end all staring contests. When their struggle is abruptly interrupted, each ends up with aspects of the personality of the other. Friends and relatives are distressed. Finally, help is sought from Dr. Lingering.

Despite the unusual and intractable nature of their ailment, Dr. Lingering is able to successfully restore aspects to the proper person. One might wonder if Dr. Lingering's success might be more than coincidence.

The style used to describe Methuselem University is wonderful. The characterizations of John and Martha aren't particularly deep but they are funny and show a nice eye for detail. We start the story with John and Martha and their youthful contest. We are left wondering if Dr. Lingering is right about his paranoia. I did not make the shift from sympathy with John + Martha to identifying with Dr. Lingering successfully enough to give the end much zing. I was surprised, but it didn't matter in a way that brought the story home for me. It was as if a new story was started mere pages from the end, without enough time to really delve into it.

"To Madagascar!" by Andrew Cohen
"A blob of lunch cart chili fell from Lewis' spoon onto the Metro section of the newspaper, splattering glistening orange sauce next to a hairy face hiding under a leaf."

Lewis is a loser. After a day in which what little hasn't yet gone wrong with his life finally does so, Lewis is bitten by a lemur at the zoo. His spirit enters the lemur's body and soon he'll be shipped off with the other lemurs to paradise in Madagascar.

Frankly, the conclusion of the story doesn't work for me. There is no way for Lewis to know in advance the bite of the lemur will transform him; nor, in the course of the story, does he acquire the knowledge; yet he acts with the certainty that seizing the lemur and forcing it to bite him will allow him to become a lemur and escape to paradise.

All art may be artifice but too much of this story felt contrived to the convenience of the author. The deck of Lewis' virtual life is so heavily stacked against him as to attain unintentional hilarity. The effect was to destroy what little sympathy I had for Lewis. He comes across as a construct, the butt of the narrative, rather than a character. Without sympathy for Lewis, the ending loses much of its payoff. I don't care about Lewis. Therefore I don't care whether he has a shot at paradise or not.

Instead, the continually convenient coincidences that plague Lewis make it hard to believe the conclusion: it's inconsistent with the rest of the story. Everything is so screwed up in Lewis' world, his bid for paradise ought to fail as well, leaving him to become the one lemur singled out for neutering before being sent to a petting zoo.

I think this was supposed to be a surprising or shocking ending. The distance from which I could guess the ending greatly detracted from the potential shock value. This story would be most suited to a reader who would be attracted to by the novelty of the idea that someone would prefer to be an animal than a human.

"The Clothing Store" by Lenora K. Rogers
"Whittenheimer, in all of his time spent on the island, never observed a single Swallingian remove his or her tunic, either for sleeping or bathing or any other activity. Indeed there did not appear to be any extra clothing available to anyone in the tribe."

A tribe of primitive people appear to wear one garment called the beso. The same, identical item their whole lives. When an entrepreneur attempts to improve their lot by establishing an emporium with besos enough for everyone, the village becomes despondent and walks off a cliff en mass.

"Store" is a tale of cultural misunderstanding with unintended and unfortunate consequences. "Store" is a bit one dimensional–the payoff is largely the shock of a lemming like suicide–but the tone nicely captures the travelogue style of Victorian stories of adventure.

"The Dartboard Girl" by Martin Treanor
"It had been one of the particularly bad days and old man Bushmills and me had decided to go down to McMahon's and pay a visit on another of my best friends, who I neglected to mention, Mr. Guiness. Unlike many of them you would see pouring out into the street at closing time, I wasn't an angry drunk, you would have liked me, and I wasn't a fool either. Two of the main scapegoats, I used to delude myself, when confirming to myself that I didn'[t have a problem."

A man in the thrall of alcoholism is redeemed when a mysterious girl–the dartboard girl of the title–sings. The beauty of her song reunites him with what is truly worthwhile in life.

This is a nice, quiet, peaceful story of a man rediscovering hope and, with it, a renewed sense that he, too, is a worthwhile feature of the world. It makes climbing on the wagon seem so easy as to border on disrespectful but the story is not really about recovering from alcoholism: its about the the epiphany that we are all worthy which I can accept as the kind of radical change possible in a brief encounter.

My reviewers license requires me to point out that "Dartboard" is not a story, strictly speaking, but an emotional moment. There is no obstacle, no struggle, no action on the part of the unnamed main character. The main character may have struggled with his life and his alcoholism up to this very moment and alcoholism may no longer be part of his life but that's just the background within which this moment of deep emotional vulnerability and awareness occurs.

It's also not genre. There is an unspoken appeal to the wonder and mystery of the Universe but the visible speculative element –only the narrator seems to remember the dartboard girl–isn't strong enough to distinguish "Dartboard" from mainstream popular literature.

This pleasant story could easily have been a genre story. Don't get me wrong. I enjoyed it and thought it belonged in this collection.

The conventions of genre are intended to be constructive limitations in much the same way the requirements of rhyme and meter of poetry often stimulate the creative process. What happens when you add elements of magic, space, science, gods, legends, monsters or myth? It is my expectation that you get something new, different and that could not happen in any other field of literature.

If the addition of genre elements would leave the story essentially unchanged (or, may the patrons of writers and readers alike forfend, encumbered the telling), by all means they should be excluded. But I am left wondering what this story would have been like.

This is only issue three of Zahir: Unforgettable Tales and the editorial vision is consistent and delicious. Encountering new finds like this is what makes reviewing for Tangent Online a joy and pleasure. Zahir offers a spectrum of styles and approaches unified by a coherent aesthetic. This magazine will appeal most to readers who enjoy their genre with a light touch. You're more likely to find slipstream than hard-core dragons, dwarves and elves, but the stories are quite well written. I would have no problem recommending Zahir to even the most rabid hack and slash fantasy fan.

The cover art—"Are We Lost Yet?" by Lynne Jamneck—was striking. This issue has 76 pages of fiction in a very professional format.

I'd love to see some New Wave style SF in Zahir. The emphasis on the internal landscape would fit right in. I also think some fantasy a la Tanith Lee, where explicit sword and sorcery elements such as demons, fighters and thieves are used to create thoughtful stories that revisit and redefine the boundaries of genre.

Zahir appears three times a year. Subscriptions are currently $12.00 USD and comes highly recommended.