“A Calenture of the Jungle” by Steve Berman from Red Caps: New Fairy Tales for Out of the Ordinary Readers (Lethe Press, 2014).
There’s a lot going on in this story about a girl named Amelia who believes she has no imagination. Does she really, or is it simply the case that there’s no need for her to develop an imagination of her own because the world she lives in constantly clamors to do the work for her? “A box of Legos” used to mean a container filled with a variety of building blocks a child could use to build anything, to play at being anything, over and over and over for years. Over time it came to mean a stand alone kit for a specialized adventure. Most recently it’s meant the cartridge of a video game, children being guided through a saga with only a few possible variations. Next it will mean the Blue-ray disc of the movie, which (I’m assuming) has no variable component at all.
So does Amelia truly have no imagination, or has it atrophied from disuse? As the song says, “Here we are now, entertain us.”
Amelia is already primed to be someone else’s audience by the time she gets to high school and meets Stephanie, a girl with imagination to spare. There’s also chemistry at work here, drawing the two together.
My only criticism of the piece is that I didn’t get the correct read on the time in which the story is set until I was well into it. Partly that’s my fault; my eye drifted over a reference to a movie being watched on DVD without my brain processing that information. Partly it’s that there wasn’t another good indicator for a long while. Many of the movie and song references are ones from my own teenage years. Other references—and all of the illustrations, which are gorgeous—hearken back to an even earlier time period. Encountering a reference to Wikipedia very late in the game was jarring, and I had to go back and start over and re-think everything.
In spite of that, I enjoyed this story immensely, probably because I could identify with so much of it. A good bit of the interaction between Amelia and Stephanie (transformed by Stephanie’s imagination into Amelia Earhart and Suka, Guardian of the Jungle, respectively) reminds me of times I spent with my best friend. We hailed from middle class, two-parent homes with stay-at-home moms. Between us we owned every Barbie-sized doll imaginable (Cher, Ace Frehley, Jeff from Lassie) and I also had a town’s worth of Fisher-Price Adventure People. On top of that one-quarter of our basement was devoted to a train set, the tracks of which were almost crowded out by buildings and figures my mother hand-painted so that every one was an individual. This story has an outdoor adventuring theme, though, and we had fenced yards, a city park at the end of the sidewalk, a vacant lot we called “The Junkyard”, and of course binoculars, canteens, compasses, and a tent. But more than anything else, we had stacks and stacks of books and library cards to boot. The only difference I can see between our friendship and Amelia and Stephanie’s is the sexual tension between those two. But fast forward a few years. I married a role-playing game DM. (Who, not coincidentally, had almost the same childhood.)
This story is much more than a simple trip down memory lane. Amelia gets bitten by a tick and suddenly it’s a cautionary tale about the need to distinguish fantasy from reality. Is it just because she’s young that Stephanie doesn’t recognize the danger facing them? She never breaks character, and that has real consequences. For awhile it’s fun to watch Amelia’s point of view transform, to see her imagination blossom, and to experience the rush she gets from world-building. It’s affirming to see her pursue it at the expense of all else. It’s not so fun, though, to watch it get away from her. There’s a commentary here on the line between creativity and madness. As you might expect, the ending unsettles.