The Bonekeepers’ Union
Have I created enough beauty in you since we’ve been together? Have there been enough memories that I have left with you that I can be free to go and to explore the place beyond that fearful, sacred door? May I rest or do you still need more from me? Is there enough of me in you that you can take what you’ve been given and let me go?
Every life leaves other lives with a tender kiss and a brutal scar. If it is a successful life, it will leave the kisses upon the journey, and the scar upon departure rather than tyrant’s way, upon which the departure brings rejoicing.
I hate to leave a scar on you. Hopefully, it means I have given you many tender kisses. </i>
Joseph Murrika – Log. First Week Post- Arrival:
The sky looks like steel today. The rain is falling like bullets, each drop thick, heavy and cold. I have retreated to my suite to wait out the day. There is something strange I’ve noticed about the sky here, in Flynn and the land around it: The sky never seems to be blue here. When the sky was clear on the day I arrived, it had a reddish cast. I attributed that to the dust. The next day, it blended into an orange-cast and stayed that way beyond sunrise. Today, the sky is gray with clouds that seem as heavy as metal.
It seems appropriate weather to record some of the sadder stories of the lives of the Bonekeepers of Flynn.
From my hotel window, I can see a section of the gray inner wall. Water is pouring off it in sheets.
Anthony Stake stared at a box of unwanted things. They squeaked and mewled and pawed the edges of their cardboard confines, showing all of their instincts for being adorable and endearing themselves to greater creatures. They were cast-offs nonetheless, lives that were inconvenient to the care they were born into.
“Sir?” the little boy sitting beside the box outside the storefront said, “They’re free and they’re all pretty healthy. I’d keep them all, but Mom won’t let me.”
Stake smiled and picked up one of the kittens out of the box. He stroked its soft, fuzzy fur. He noted that it was a silver tabby as far as color went, but couldn’t place the breed, which was more than likely to be mixed. It also appeared to be a male. As he prodded and coddled it, examining its features, the kitten looked at him like he was an idiot.
It was love at first sight.
“I think I can handle a pet,” the man said. “I guess I’ll take him. I hope you find good homes for the rest.”
The child saw him off as he entered the store, trying to ignore the people in it who were glaring at him because they knew who he was and what he did for a living. He stashed the kitten in a hand-basket he grabbed from a stack. Anthony Stake had come into town to get a few basic groceries. It looked like he’d be picking up some cat-supplies, too.
He stopped by one of the work-places before heading home. It was the setup the Bonekeepers had near to the Fire Gate – one of the gates that their ancestors recorded should be built into the Sacred Wall. The relatively slow rate of progress upon the Wall meant that there were only two of these gates so far. The Dark Gate lay on the West end of the wall outside of Flynn. Although the Sacred Wall was never meant to be a fortification, there was the thought firmly planted in the minds of the populace that it may need to serve that purpose someday, should the outer “war wall” fail. The gate-doors were cast-iron and the gate arches were decorated as the rest of the walls.
Children, generally, did not like the Dark Gate. Visiting outsiders thought that it looked quite evil, more so than the rest of a grand wall created from the remains of the dead. It was flanked by a pair of ram’s skulls with long, curling horns and they had been treated with an agent that had not only strengthened them, but had turned them black. The Fire Gate had the skulls of bulls treated in a similar manner (though they took on a copper color in the sunlight), but most people thought that cattle looked far less wicked in death than sheep and goats for some reason.
John Guile said that it had to do with ancient legends, old stories that most had forgotten. “Symbols can stay in the collective psyche long after the sources have vanished,” he’d said.
The Fire Gate, of course, had a motif of flames. Stake had worked on the design himself. When a lengthy enough section of the wall was built up, it would be time to work upon the Air Gate. The Light Gate, planned for the East end, was nothing the current crop of Bonekeepers expected to begin work on in their lifetimes, to say nothing of the Earth Gate and the Water Gate.
The latest edge of the Fire Gate was being built up with random, ancestral bones – the remains of people without so much ego or concerned family that they needed to be put in the wall whole. Anthony Stake liked working with those bones. It allowed the crew to be creative. He surveyed the work as he set his shopping basket down. He did not notice when the kitten clambered out of it.
“Hey!” he called to Tara Stone, his fellow Project Head and general designer.
“Yeah?” she called back, wrapping a cloak around her body. Her hair would have been whipping around everywhere, too, if she hadn’t recently cut it. As it was, her cloak made her look like hero. Stake could have illustrated her for a book.
“Thought you were taking the day off to run errands!” she shouted past the wind.
“I was! I just wanted to come by for the company!” Stake responded. “And to show you my new little buddy!”
Stake looked down at his basket of bread, fruit and a strand of sausages, one of which was half-eaten.
“Ah, no, where did he get off to?”
“Is that him?”
Stone pointed to the large butcher-table that was a part of the group’s set-up as she wandered to a small silver-furred form upon it. To Anthony Stake’s horror, the kitten was chewing on something. The wooden table-top was slicked with new blood, hastily swabbed down with water. No amount of water took care of every stain.
“Paladin!” Stake scolded. He grabbed the cat off the table and ripped the bit of gristle it was chewing away from the animal. He did not mind this kind of thing for Crucia’s homeless dogs, but this was not for a cat in his keeping.
Tara Stone laughed as her friend took the kitten into his hands. “Don’t worry!” she said. “You know that we have no recent clients. Korrina and Sparky were handling a goat – a beloved pet. The owner demanded a swift place for her and rendered a swift payment, so onto the block she went. They’re going to tan the skin for the guy, too, make a throw-blanket.”
“As in goat stew, though that one will not be served as such. Your cat remains untainted by human – if such a thing is actually tainting. Where’d you get him?”
“The grocer’s,” Stake replied. “No, they haven’t started selling pets there. I just found a kid with a box of cast-offs.”
Stone took the kitten from him. “Cute,” she said, inspecting the feline. “He can attack your feet on lonely nights.”
“They wouldn’t be so lonely if we met a little more often.”
“I’m not ready to attack your feet…. Or anything else.”
“I know that,” Stake said, taking the cat back, “but walks through town might be nice. Or cooking you dinner every once in a while. I wouldn’t mind that, really.”
“I take it the cat has a name, since you called out one.”
Stake shaded his eyes with one hand as he cradled his pet and saw an advancing soft wall of brown enveloping the distant mountains at an alarming rate. It was not surprising that this would happen with the high winds. “Is that a wall of dust coming our way?”
Stone mimicked Stake’s gesture. “I do believe it is.”
“Nearest barn, duck and cover!”
The Bonekeepers worked with many kinds of people and saw the aftermath of many kinds of death. At least, they worked with anything that left the bones intact or broken only minimally.
Anthony Stake truly hated the suicides. He bore no ill will toward the people, themselves – their memory, he just hated the fact that they seemed to whisper to him from beyond flesh, bone, ashes and dust; “Join us.”
He contemplated the cleaned and tagged skeleton of a young woman with one cracked vertebra. Stone and he wanted to do something special with her, but had gotten no direction from her kin. At this point, it was almost as if they had forgotten her. Perhaps it was for their own good to put the pain away. The Bonekeepers might well be monstrous for bringing the bones to light. This was Flynn’s tradition, however, to honor her as they did everyone else. The skeleton was the right size for what the wall needed and this was the right time.
Anthony Stake also hated when people died at the age of sixteen – or earlier – regardless of the cause. Some families outright asked for this, that and the other thing, some were too stricken to ask for anything and this was a case of the latter. The body had gone through burial and beetles five years ago, the bones long kept in storage, according to the dated tags. Stake had not known her at all, but remembered her face when Guile and Axxel had brought her in. It was a vague remembrance.
Stake hated the suicides because they always seemed like the last people who should die early. They made him wonder why he was still around – a man with no family. If people who were well-loved and had futures took that end to their roads, what hope was there for him? If they could not be saved, could he? Keeping dark impulses in check was a fight. He didn’t need a skull silently whispering for him to follow it.
The Bonekeepers talked and sketched as they looked over the box of bones. The entire group liked the idea of giving this skeleton false wings for some reason. Stake also proposed the addition of chains to the arm-bones and the idea of making them look like they were holding down the wings. When Korrina Crucia told him that this motif struck her as cruel, he replied that he sensed that this was what the girl had probably felt during the last days of her life – chained by circumstances, chained down to the world. There was argument about simply placing the skull and the femurs into a broader design with others. Stake kept insisting that chains be involved.
The day’s design contemplation and heated debates left Anthony drained. He came to his lonely home that was now less lonely for the presence of a small cat. All the same, after feeding Paladin, he took a walk in the open desert as he often did. In the middle of the night, the full moon lit the land, painting ghosts and shadows out of the stones and scraggly trees. The heat of the day radiated off the hardpan, kissed by the cooling air.
Stake wondered if the gray land was what the Darklands that people like him were to go to after death were like. In fact, he wondered, for just a moment, if he had died and arrived there. He opened his arms and ran headlong over the hills. He welcomed the idea of being in this lonely land forever, dreaming beneath the moon. The horizon held a deeper darkness and the sky was a void. A few stars marked it, but Anthony Stake sensed the void beyond. Maybe that was his destination and he just had to keep on running to get there.
He looked back over the distant outer wall of the city of Flynn and turned back. He wasn’t ready to leave his friends and his city – not yet.
Anthony Stake had not always been a Bonekeeper. He’d started out with a rather mundane childhood, though one without a steady father. His father had died when he was around two years old, and though his mother had dated some, no relationship ever stuck. She and his older brother chose to leave Flynn when he was eighteen to see a new life somewhere in the Re-United States. He chose to stay. In hindsight, he wondered if it was a mistake every day. His mother did not force him into joining the Bonekeepers. Some families did that with their “disposable” children. On the contrary, he sought his own path and worked many interesting jobs along its way.
He’d worked for a bank once, briefly, which was why he had a habit of wearing a suit at almost all times, at least at any time he was not required to do especially messy work. Sometimes, even then, too. He’d gotten a spot of mortar on a sleeve once. Stake constantly repaired the thing, for he could not afford much in the way of new, fancy things on a Bonekeeper’s regular salary. The bonuses that came from the people that thanked them for caring for the dead were far-between and tended to go toward repairs on the home. Besides, Stake’s one suit was his bank-suit. It reminded him of better times, a fleeting period in his life when he was respected.
He never knew why he was let go from that job. He was told that there was a budget-issue and since he was the new guy, his termination had made the best sense. He suspected that it was because he’d fudged the rules a little on appointing a loan for a desperate person. Anthony Stake was often accused of letting his heart override his head.
Taking up a position as a Bonekeeper had been an act born of starvation. When his job-bids had ended in him coming home to nothing but a half-empty jar of peanut-butter and crackers in the refrigerator, he realized his desperation – especially when the refrigerator-light flickered off as the power went out. Although he had other clothes, he kept the suit and refused to sell it. And so, Tony Stake took a job that was simultaneously reviled and revered, but always open to all comers. It was steady. To become a Bonekeeper meant that one was in that position for life. The pay was paltry, but steady and tended to cover basic needs. There was even an oddball housing program: Bonekeepers were entitled to live in the houses of their predecessors, those either departed for worlds outside of the city, or those departed for other worlds entirely. Fixing things up and keeping up with what modern bits and pieces the culture of Flynn adopted, however, was entirely on the individual, but there was, at least, basic shelter.
He had more than crackers and peanut-butter in his fridge now. In fact, some of the farmers occasionally thanked the Bonekeepers’ group with a calf or a lamb that was not meant to accompany a human in the Sacred Wall. It seemed to be a Bonekeeper’s lot in life to be about the meat and the bone. Those that grew fruit around the area were not often so generous.
The man thought about it all as he put a leftover beef-shank into a stewpot on the stove to make something he could share with his cat and otherwise store up in jars. Stake was an expert at making soups and stews. He was approaching middle-age and had yet to find a wife. He’d offered invitations to dinner to Tara Stone many times. Like him, she was the introverted-type, but even more so than he was. She was older than he was by a few years, but didn’t date. She had been at the job longer than he had been and had settled into what they called the “Bonekeeper’s Apathy.” The Bonekeepers dealt so much with Death that Life inevitably started becoming a shadow. Tara was also terrified of creating children. Stake knew that she liked him, but purposefully kept him at a distance just because of that. Their kind of life would not be fair to any offspring. Tara knew this better than anyone. She was a third-generation Bonekeeper. Her own family legacy had doomed her from the start.
After setting the bone to simmer, Stake hunted up some bread, meat and mustard for himself and pulled some meat out of the refrigerator and tore a bit off for the cat. He let Paladin eat right on top of his table as he piled cloves of pickled garlic from a jar onto his sandwich. He didn’t trust the tinned food. He worried that the stuff at the grocer’s might have been made, in part, from Paladin’s own kind. It wasn’t like they got a lot of fish into a desert-city, although there was a river nearby that was more sizable than it had been historically because the ancient dams had breached.
“Hey, cat,” Anthony said while poking the kitten in the nose. “I hope I didn’t make a mistake in taking you in. You’d better turn out to be a good mouser.”
Paladin continued to gnaw at shredded roast beef, pulling it off its plate. Stake ran his finger down the kitten’s spine, eliciting a cute little arch of pleasure, but the kitten didn’t look up from his intense eating.
“Cute. But you’ll get big. You’ll grow out of cute. You stand to be right-pretty… nice fur-pattern. Say, cat, do you know answers to some of my questions? Why do we care for each other when we are constantly changing? If I take care of you right, you’ll be an old cat someday, fat as a melon and then skinny as a rail, going from purring at me to yowling at mice that only you can see, won’t you? Happened with the last cat I had. Happens to a lot of people, too – well, maybe not yowling and maybe not imaginary mice, but becoming shadows of themselves, you know what I mean.”
The cat looked up from his meal and just looked at him.
“And everyone goes to the Wall, too. I’ll set you up a nice place there. You can be a Serephiline. We need some more of those in the designs. Tell me, cat, why do we risk love when we know that each and every one of us eventually fades away?”
Paladin went back to eating.
“Eat and drink while ye may,” Tony Stake said, lifting up his sandwich. “A fine philosophy, my friend.”
The cicadas created a buzz, low and loud, rising in pitch and intensity at intervals. The gnats and mosquitoes were unbearable. Even on an overcast day, they were thick around the banks of the river. Anthony Stake wiped the sweat from his brow as he walked along in the weeds with Tara Stone.
“Why in the world did you wear that suit down here?” she asked, sweat glistening on her shoulders and soaking into the straps of her sleeveless top. “I didn’t say anything before because, technically, you can hold a fishing pole in your hands in anything, but… wow!”
Stake took a slug of water from a canteen. “I’ll be fine. I feel kind of naked without the thing, okay?”
“There’s having a look and then there’s taking it too far. You could always grow your hair out long and wear a mile-long ponytail like Korrina or strap an antler to your head like Axxel.”
Stake laughed softly. “We all have some quirks, don’t we?”
Stone shrugged, investigating a sandbar. “Trust me, darlin’, we’re probably the tamest batch of Bonekeepers that ever were, given my parents and their friends. We all cling to weird little things. We go a little mad to keep from going a lot mad in this hard old world.”
A group of children were swimming and playing in the shallows. A few of them were swimming out toward the river’s center, the pale sun glinting off their skin in various shades of brown. Most of them were boys, but there were a pair of girls, about seven kids in all. All were young and Stake and Stone looked at each other, the silent glance between them said “Where are the parents?”
A man in a straw hat with a fishing pole on the bank down-river waved from a creaky patio-chair, cans of one beverage or another in a neat pack beside him.
Stake put a piece of cheese on a fishhook as he watched one of the girls and one of the boys play keep-away with one of the other boys’ swim-trunks. There was much shrill yelling. The wind picked up and he looked upriver. The sky had been overcast all day, with ragged clouds that threatened rain, but many days were like this in and outside of Flynn. A sky pregnant with rain left the dry land unfulfilled. Something was different about the sky up ahead, though. The clouds were brushed with strokes that told the observer that the mountains were getting a downpour of epic proportions.
Stone dropped her fishing pole and looked at him. They had both heard it – a subtle roar.
“KIDS!” Stone called. “Everyone out!”
Stake watched in horror as the brown muddy wall of a flash flood came barreling down towards them, the bankside trees bending and breaking it its wake. The children were running, including the naked boy, his shorts forgotten. One little girl didn’t make it. The pounding wave swept her away.
Anthony Stake didn’t even yelp or remove his coat. He ran into the river and dove right down in just as the wave crashed. He grabbed the child and shielded her with his body. He could feel rocks dig into his back through the suit-coat. He tumbled and broke the surface, gasping for air. The girl clung to him, using his shoulders as leverage to heft herself up and take a breath. They continued to drift, water crashing over them, denying their air and filling their mouths with grit. With a trembling arm, Stake managed to grab onto a submerged boulder that he’d narrowly missed breaking a leg on. It slammed into his knee sending sparks of white-hot agony into his brain – it was then that he thought to reach out to it as a handhold.
Tara called to him as well as the gaggle of children and the old man in the straw hat. He wedged his sore knee into the mud and awkwardly passed the child in his arms onto the bank. He moved through the rushing waters, feeling as though he were a fly caught in pancake-syrup. Tara Stone helped him to pull himself onto the shore, where he rolled in the mud and coughed.
“Papi!” he heard the little girl say. She coughed a little and soon the old man was pounding her back and rubbing her shoulders.
“Are you alright?” Tara Stone asked him.
“Uh… yeah,” Stake replied. “Think I swallowed a lot of water, but I should be fine. Oh, my knee!”
He stood up shakily and then fell back down.
“We’ll get it looked at. Reckless idiot.”
Stake smiled watching the little girl hugging her Papi and the children around them both, asking multitudinous questions. The old man shouted something at him as he coughed. His teeth tasted of clay. He got back up on his feet again, the pain in his knee subsiding. He looked out over the brown river and felt the high wind sheer his bones. He was shivering and hurt, yet he was okay.
The little girl was calling to him.
He was okay.
The girl he’d rescued was named Reyna Torres. She and her grandfather visited Anthony Stake often, even after they’d learned that he was a Bonekeeper. Stake enjoyed the visits and found it interesting how the soft sadness that defined his life could fade away for small moments as he watched the girl play with his kitten. The two of them, individually and together, could make life just seem okay.
“I am unused to being a hero,” he said to the newest hire among the Bonekeepers, a young man by the name of Nick Alva, whom everyone called “Sparky.” It had been his nickname since adolescence, even though he technically was still an adolescent. He was done with his basic schooling and was shuffled off into the Bonekeepers’ Union due to his family’s inability to give him any higher schooling and “just their inability to care” – according to the boy. They’d called him “shiftless,” but Tony Stake found him quite industrious, at least when there was work to be done. He seemed uniquely suited to some of the nastier work, too.
The Project Head and the new hire spent a rare moment when the latter didn’t have ear buds plugged into his head to talk, sitting upon the edge of one of the older parts of the Sacred Wall.
“The town doesn’t look at you much different, do they?” Sparky commented.
“Not most of the town, no,” Stake replied.
“World’s full of festering assholes if you ask me,” Sparky said, popping a piece of chewing gum into his mouth. “Don’t appreciate nothin’ ‘less you forget to do it for ‘em once or twice.”
“It’s not that…”
“You can’t take too much stock in what other people think of you,” Sparky said, giving him a sincere, bright-eyed smile. “They only want what you can do for ‘em. Even some of the kindest acts someone can do are just for some kind of recognition.”
“I didn’t rescue the kid for recognition.”
“I know that.” Sparky gave Anthony a pat on the shoulder. “You just had an impulse, right?”
“Yeah. I saw that wall of water coming and the girl still in the river. I had to do something. I just didn’t even think.”
“That’s the best thing about you, Tony, I believe.”
“What? That I don’t think?”
“No,” Sparky replied, “that you have the kind of impulse in you that doesn’t care what happens to you if you can help another person.”
“Hmmm,” Stake muttered looking out over the grass-fields lit in colors by the sunset. The fall of dusk right outside of the wall around the Dark Gate was always spectacular. “It could just be that I didn’t value my own life,” he said. “Reyna is young. She has potential ahead of her. My future is written and the future in general? It may just not have a place for me.”
“What do you mean?” Sparky said, shuffling through songs on his music player. It was a rare bit of technology, one of those things imported from elsewhere. Few people had them and it was the one bit of “frivolity” the young man’s parents had allowed to him before sending him off to the job he’d have for the rest of his life and choosing not to speak to him anymore.
“You know, I’m not really sure,” Anthony Stake admitted. “Maybe it’s some of my old-fashioned hopes and fears. Maybe it’s that I feel like our wall will be broken down someday. I don’t know. I hope that there’s something more to this life than just what’s been handed to us. The world hasn’t been very fair to you, has it?”
“There you go again, thinking about me instead of yourself. The future doesn’t hold much for anyone in the end save the Wall, really… or, you know, not being in the wall. I’m sure the desert’s full of bones.” After that, perhaps sensing that he didn’t have anything helpful to offer, Sparky changed the subject completely. “Where did you get the new suit?”
“The Torres family got it for me. I still have the old one… making repairs on it.”
“Why” It’s gotta be all tore up.”
“Because it’s mine. I don’t feel comfortable in this one. It’s gray, not brown, first of all. Also, it’s not got stitches and it fits me well… I’m really not used to being looked at with the respect due a suit like this.”
“You saved someone’s life – a small someone. People are going to give you at least a little bit of respect no matter what you’re wearin’, even if you’re one who works with flesh n’ bone and dust n’ ashes.”
“Like I said, I’m just not used to it.”
The fame of the Hero of the Flood was short-lived. As Flynn got on with its every day business and with the business of living and dying, Anthony Stake received painful work.
Gabe Harper died two months after he had turned age thirteen. He had a disease that was not contagious, but serious and might have been better treated if he had not been born in Flynn. He’d slipped peacefully into his dusk in the cold light of dawn, which he’d seen outside of his hospital room window just moments before drifting to a smooth sleep that was, for a change, undisturbed by his own harsh breathing - even before stopping altogether. It happened about an hour before his parents’ daily visit to the hospital and his attending doctors were glad of it because if they had been there, they would have demanded they do the impossible and to try to keep their child alive beyond all sense of mercy.
Tony Stake and Korrina Crucia had attempted to explain to the Harpers that the way they handled children was through burial first so as to psychologically distance themselves from the subject. To do the direct butchery-cleaning of an elderly person’s bones or even the bones of a younger adult was far less disturbing to them than to do the same for the very young. The Harpers did not wish to wait a year to see their Gabe honored in the Wall. They demanded the quick method.
“You don’t understand,” Stake said when consulting the bereft couple. “We reserve what little burial space Flynn has just for cases like this.”
“Why should you care?” Mr. Harper growled at him. “You Bonekeepers are half-souled beasts, anyway! It’s not like you’ll be joining my only son in Heaven and will have to see him again! Do the only thing you demons are good for!”
“It hurts the heart too much with childr-”
“Heart?” the old man sneered. “You creatures gave them up upon signing the Bonekeepers’ contract. I will not wait a year to honor my son! You butchers are only good for one thing and you do not want me to take it up with the mayor and the Council!”
And that was how an accidental hero knew his place once more.
He and Tara Stone took on the case and he was the one to start. Thankfully, the Harpers wanted something simple as far as a design for the segment of wall that was to be their child’s memorial. However, the fact that they wanted it as soon as possible and did, indeed, have the connections necessary to squeeze away the little pay the current Bonekeepers had or to force them all into exile made things very difficult.
Korrina Crucia could handle most of the flenching work but absolutely could not deal with children. She was a tough woman, but turned into a quivering pile of pain at the thought of dealing with anyone under the age of seventeen or so. She’d never been a mother, but it did not matter. Stone and Stake were absolutely not going to let a new hire like Sparky in on it. He’d volunteered to help them take care of the case, making a show of his general misanthropy, but neither of the Project Heads would allow it. They knew that he was probably full of the bluster of youth and would find the experience as scarring as any of they did.
Crucia tended to deal with the skulls last, not being able to bear looking at someone’s face while sheering off the muscles from their limbs and so forth. As the remains of Gabe Harper lay upon the butcher-table, Anthony Stake chose to handle matters the other way around. He stared at the boy’s cold, pale skin and shaggy brown hair. He was a handsome boy; despite the emaciation his killing-illness had left him and the fact that he was a corpse.
Stake stroked the child’s cheek and kissed his cold forehead with a flourish that made Tara Stone pause as she was sharpening equipment. “Farewell,” he said before beginning a scalp.
With that kiss, Stake decided that life was pointless.
He had saved the life of one child he had not known and was bidding farewell to another child he had not known.
His future had been written for him. He would, for the rest of his life, be a Bonekeeper. He could be nothing else – a half-souled butcher who walked the gray lands between Life and Death. Of course the future was not for him, but it wasn’t much for anyone.
The Wall awaited everyone.
Joseph Murrika – Log
Mr. John Guile shared with me some of the words he’d spoken during Mr. Anthony Stake’s incorporation ceremony. The sermon had been written down by Mr. Axxel Hatcher.
This is what he said to the crowd that had gathered for it:
“What our friend Anthony Stake did was not a cowardly act. It was an act of bravery. I know most of you do not want to hear this, but it is much easier to accept if one thinks upon the varied nature of bravery. Courage is not always good. That reckless disregard for consequences that led Tony to risk his life and to risk pain to rescue young Miss Torres is just about the same kind of thing that might erase care for our greatest fear…
He disregarded the fear of death for just enough time to run headlong to it and to whatever he saw in it that was worth ignoring fear. I knew Tony and can never call him cowardly. The most I can say is that, in the end, he was reckless.
“He left his marks on us all: A tender kiss and a brutal scar.”
I was told that many more attended both the initial funeral and the incorporation than he would have likely ever expected.
A girl named Reyna Torres lights a small candle below his skeleton once a week and waits there until it burns out.
If he could tell you what had ultimately led to his decision, Anthony Stake wouldn’t be able to tell you. It seemed like it was a jumble of things that were swirling around in his head about a week after he’d dealt with the Harper case. The half-cleaned bones of the unfortunate boy fell under the keeping of the Lynches. The sense of arbitration about the problems, triumphs and flows of life had not gone away.
Taking rest from working on Wall-designs or even talking with the other Bonekeepers had only found the man apathetically plunking down food for his cat, stroking him at intervals, but not bothering to play games with the flashlight or with feathers like he usually did during the evenings. Paladin was still a welcome presence on the bed where anything small, warm and alive that was larger than a mouse was a comfort.
The imagination was a double-edged blade. It entertained and drove creation but also led to every cruel scenario. Stake sat on his couch staring intently at the wall of his small home, imagining a spectral door. He did not know what was on the other side. His friend, John Guile and the people that man kept company with outside of the job-relations believed there were other worlds behind it and that even though people like them could never aspire to the more beautiful worlds, the gray world was not so bad. Anthony Stake loved the desert at night and believed that the Darklands might be like that. Many just thought it was deep darkness that awaited one on the other side, the kind of void that even the distant stars could not dot and light, or a twilight-realm of sleeping forever.
For his part, Stake wondered if eternity consisted of standing in the doorway, under the frame, feeling whatever last pulse, listening to whatever flashbang, or feeling the sting of some last cut forever in a moment that never ends because it can’t - because perception would not allow for that. No one could perceive their own end, but perhaps the end was whatever one perceived it to be?
Would his be beautiful?
Stake imagined dogs behind him. They weren’t the cute and fluffy dogs that ran as strays around Flynn, feared for their occasional horrific diet. They weren’t the well-kept dogs that the wealthier families bred for fashionable traits that people would walk on leashes in the center of town, either. These creatures were a dark gray mass of entangled fur. Yellowish teeth gleamed like straight ivory daggers and jagged shattered stones. Their rag-skinned mouths dripped with thick saliva. Their heads held hosts of twisted horns and they looked like they were covered in shit – not something that could be described with such tame words as “dung” or “manure” – but shit.
The dogs wanted him to run through the door. They were going to tear him apart. They each had names like “Failure” and “Apathy” and “Worthless.” “Never Enough” was a particularly vocal barking beast.
Anthony Stake could shake his head free of these imaginings for a while. He did not see them as apparitions. He knew he wasn’t right in the head, but he wasn’t so far gone that his dreams were mixing into his waking life. However, the fact that he could imagine beasts nipping at his heels and felt that they represented truths was enough to make him rummage through his kitchen for a way to gain passage through the imaginary door.
If life was arbitrary, why did he stick around? Why did those with futures lose theirs? He knew that his friends would experience great ache of the soul, but he also believed that they would move on. Life always moved on. They didn’t need him anymore. Time and money did not care at all for grief. Both things ploughed it under. If there was anything a longtime Bonekeeper knew; it was that life continued, vibrant, while the Wall remained still, those in it to be remembered only at the convenience of the living. Anthony Stake did not much like the idea of giving up control – for he knew he would have no say in how others recalled his life or in what honor or dishonor they would choose to give him. All the same, he felt something pulsing within him, an urge with which he was familiar. It was a sense of self-destruction, beating him forward like a man with a whip. He considered the knives in his kitchen drawer, the ones that he kept for preparing meat. They were a bit different than the Bonekeeper’s knives, but he kept them just as sharp. Given his work, he knew how to sharpen a knife.
The arbitration would end today – that is what the drive told him. He knew that his heart should care, but it didn’t. What he did know was that he needed to choose the sharpest knife in the drawer. If he’d taken a dull knife, as soon as he’d felt it against his skin, he would back out.
Any number of things would make him back out. A knife that wasn’t sharp enough to do the job in one quick swipe… the cat meowing for attention, someone coming to the house and knocking on the door at just the right time. However, none of these fell into the favor of preserving Anthony Stake’s life.
He unlocked his front door and scrawled a simple note to put onto his refrigerator with a little magnet. It was not an explanation. Stake doubted that any would be sufficient. He simply wrote “Take care of Paladin.” He was sure that said cat was sleeping somewhere, probably in his open sock drawer again.
Stake sat down in one of the dining room chairs in the kitchen. He gently pressed the blade of the long, curved filleting knife to the skin behind his right ear. He pressed in and swiped down. For a split second, he didn’t know if he’d done anything at all. That’s when the floor came up to meet him and when caught a glimpse of his hand gripping the handle of the knife, covered in blood.
That’s the way deep cuts from a sharp blade could be sometimes – things that were not felt until seconds later. He felt the sting in that time, but more than that, Stake felt a dropping feeling and a feeling of fading. He saw the kitten pad into the kitchen, watching its tiny, soft feet approach his face. He couldn’t get up. There was red on the kitchen tile.
The cat sniffed his nose and for a moment, life was just okay.
He felt it fading. There was a split-second of fear, followed by a gray feeling. Gray, gray…gray. The colors in the kitchen remained as bright as always, especially the growing pool of blood, but emotion was blurred into a dull acceptance.
I’m sorry little kitty…
I don’t know for sure what’s…beyond…door…way…
Out of my control…
No more control… going…Letting go…
“The two of us found him, Korrina and me,” Tara Stone said as she, Korrina Crucia and Joe Murrika stood before Stake’s pillar. Stone held the half-grown Paladin in her arms. “We went by the house the next day because he had not come to meet us for breakfast. What I remember was seeing red paw prints on the living room carpet. I followed them to find the cat sitting on the dining table licking his paws and, well… him… there on the kitchen floor. He was in his suit – his old one, with the mended rips.”
“I remember coming into the house,” Crucia said, and seeing the bloody paw prints, but after that… It’s a blank. My mind turns to blackness over everything else. I remember that we found him, but I only know that as a fact. The actual scene… my mind will not draw it up.”
“And, that is how I got my cat,” Stone said to Murrika. “I still consider Paladin his, though. He will always be Tony’s cat.”