Friday, February 10, 2017

A Short Story: Boneland

While walking the dirt roads of our homeland, it is not unusual to see desolate fields of rotting men. Bodies upon bodies drifting in a sea of orange and brown and yellow. This is a natural sight. Why, you may not even bat an eye if you squash the unattached limb of a pole bearer. You may look into the glassy eyes of a corpseman and say—well, aren’t those fantastic eyes? You may see the bloated corpses of a family strung from a tree and think—well even the corpses are better dressed than I! You may see a stream or a river flowing through a smoking battlefield and think—well my canteen is empty, I might as well drink…
I say, if you see a stream floundering through these rocky paths strewn with blood and rot—do not drink from it! The water may be clear or it may be brown, but I tell you—if you drink of a stream that cuts through a battlefield, you will drink the souls of dead men. Now, you may say—why should that matter? They’ve had their rites, have they not? These corpses are simply bodies and I am thirsty! Would you rather I die of thirst, dear disambiguated voice?
Of course—no! But please understand, I am already dead. Should you really listen to the voices swimming around in your head? Why, I may be one of the corpses strewn around like misplaced banners. In fact, I will tell you that—yes! In fact, I am! So, why listen to me, dear traveler? Am I simply a ghost trying to trick you out of your drink, or am I simply trying to help my fellow man before I drift off into the great beyond? I tell you this: these men and women have had no rites. Their souls are restless and sour, much like my own. If you drink of the streams floundering through this smoke town, you will wake a monster. A monster born of the strength and ire and sour faces of those mercilessly cut down on the battlefield.
Gachi, gachi.
Can you hear it, old man?
Gachi, gachi.
Is the sun setting already? My, shouldn’t you find an inn or a temple? You’ll need something to defend you from this.
Gachi, gachi.
Why—don’t lay down in the brush of the forest! The smoke comes from its center—right where my comrades and I died! They smell blood. Putrid old flesh that dangles from the bone. Ah, the color has drained from your wrinkled face. Are you afraid? Oh, you shake your head? This monster is only a myth, you say? Then—what is that noise? That awful, awful, rattling sound? What is that noise—oh I believe the ground is shaking!
Gachi, gachi.
Leaves tumble from the trees as rain! And all you can think of is crawling into an abandoned tree trunk and praying to the goddess of the sun? Ha—let me tell you something, old man. Gods only help those who help themselves. So, perhaps it is simply your time? What mortal in their right mind goes wandering around the forest at night? What old man in his right mind wanders near a battlefield and plans to drink the water? Yes—crawl into your tree trunk and shiver! Here it comes—here we come!
Gachi, gachi!
If you peek out through your hole there, at the bottom of the tree, you will see us. A skeletal giant with a head the size of the sun! We are thousands. Thousands of souls who have been lost, scattered to the winds like so many crumbling petals. Called to fight and die for our provinces, we’ve died. We’ve waited and no one has come for us. Is it you who will send our souls on? Is it you who will free us from this skeletal monster and allow us to whisper our final goodbyes on the wind? We are hungry. Angry. We will rip you in two if you allow us! And, of course, you will allow us because we are Gashadukuro! Have a taste of our strength—rip the forest up from its roots, men!
A woman commanding me? Says a bone.
I’m not sure where I am—am I an arm, or a leg? The femur spits.
I want to be the head! This voice murmurs from a black eye socket.
Which of you is talking to the old man? The skeleton giant’s jaw goes—gachi, gachi!
Do you laugh because we argue? Because we cannot agree with each other? I tell you, there is nothing funny about this. The afterlife cares not for your alliances in life. Enemies have become elbows. Friends have become teeth. Our body, that of the gashadukuro, is made up of all and everyone who fell in this battle. A tiny war that you have never heard of nor care about. Do you laugh because we are unsure of ourselves? Do you laugh because this gigantic skeleton body simply teeters and totters and turns on itself like a dog does against its tail? Why—we could be as uncoordinated as a child that slips through the womb with a cone head! Still, we can pick you up and rip you in two as the gashadukuro does! Shouldn’t you run, old man? Run in fear of our gigantic black eyes and towering skeleton body? Should you not run—
Stop talking, Gozen! The femur spits.
Yes—we haven’t killed in ages! Don’t steal this from us! Says a bone.
I was the hand last time—why am I a tooth? Curses one crooked tooth.
Bony white fingers rip apart the forest’s canopy of green, and you believe you are safe cowering in your tipped tree trunk. Skeletal fingers creep along the forest bed, dislodging leaves and excrement. For a moment, they are tied up. Fighting with one and other—you can almost hear the voices:
Wait—wait I know you! You ripped me from chest to navel! Says a thumb
Truly? Well, I won’t apologize. I heard your comrades were worse off after your death. The ring finger titters.
Well, old man? What will you do now? They are but inches away, and your life will end in seconds. What will you do now? Run as hundreds of others have? Plea with the head? Offer us something in exchange for—well, what? What do the dead want besides revenge? Why—we do not even need to kill you. Many of us simply want to—for satisfaction, you understand. For, in death, the only thing we feel is satisfaction. It is the only thing we can feel. And satisfaction comes from stealing. Comes from blood and hearing bones crack beneath our own. We will open you like a nut and look inside. Peering into your misshapen belly will bring great delight. But only for a few minutes. And then we will search for more errant forest dwellers like you.
What will you do, old man?
You can only stop the cycle by freeing us.
Gachi, gachi.
We reach and reach. Cower in your tree trunk—we can get inside!
The fingers are stuck! The eye socket moans.
If you’d just crush it… Says the ring finger.
You will not thwart us!
The gashadukuro’s rattling hand rises and rises—only to come down with a thundering force that splits the hollowed log in two. Birds escape from the trees. The ground trembles and shakes as the aftershock of the giant skeleton’s fist raises the hairs on the back of your neck. Cower and wait, old man. We have come for you! Here is your last chance—hold men! How will you free us? Can you free us? Break this foreboding cycle?
I have nothing to offer—”
Then we have no reason to speak!
But you offer something up in those tiny hands of yours. The broken wings of a butterfly, perhaps? Ah, they are lilac in color. Gossamer and breathy. Is it—a hairpin?
Worn by the great Tomoe Gozen.”
Oh, my.
Is that yours? Squeaks a tooth.
Why, it’s very pretty. Murmurs a rib bone.
Sometimes I forget you’re a woman. The skeleton’s jaw goes—gachi, gachi!
Why, this is mine—isn’t it? I will hold it up, old man. Ah, look how it glimmers in the dying sunlight! Why—it is almost as if the creature were truly alive! Look how it glimmers and breathes—flaps its crystalline wings on a breath of sour wind—look!
I’ve come to take your soul back.” You say.
Well, do you expect me to hop inside a hairpin?!
Gachi, gachi—goes the skeleton’s jaw as it laughs.
There is only so much one man can do.” And you clasp your hands before your chest as if you are something noble, “I hoped that that old trinket might bring you peace.”
The skeleton’s jaw drops.
Well, what a kind gesture. Says the femur.
Are we going to kill him? Rattles the jaw.
I think I’ve found out what I am! And the left arm swoops out haphazardly. It grabs the old man before I can even drop the hairpin and holds him before the sun. Gashadukuro rises and rises, standing to its full height well above the flattened forest canopy. You flail and flap out your limbs as if we will drop you. But the left hand holds you tight within its bones as the head cocks and tilts and examines you.
As it stands against the backdrop of darkening sky, the dying sun at its right, a flock of birds crowding the sky like a fog of black tar; Gashadukuro is thinking.
Gachi, gachi—goes another in the distance.
Why, there are so many of us. If we set you down, another will surely catch you. Why not sit with us awhile and tell us what you know? Begin with the story of Tomoe Gozen—
Then, Date Masamune. Says the femur.
Tell us how Oda Nobunaga fairs! The left arm says.
Has the world united, old man? Is Tokugawa Ieyasu still alive? This voice whispers from the base of the spine.
You see, we are of the world—yet no longer part of it. Tell us, have our actions been for naught? Did our deaths bring peace? Come on, old man! We’re waiting!
If you enjoyed this story, check out Winterskin. A dark fantasy available for 0.99 until April!
Thanks for reading! Check back here Friday for another free short.


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