The Bonekeepers’ Union
“One thing I will never understand about the world is how afraid we are of each other.”
Ragged skin stuck to the grainy asphalt along with blood that glimmered in the daylight. The bicycle lay with a bent frame and its front wheel twisted, still spinning. The rusty truck that had struck it was stopped. Its driver chose not to run. Witnesses ran to flag down the city guardians and physicians.
Tara had jumped off her own bike on impulse and had run to where her younger sister lay. She’d heard before that injured people should not be moved from the place where they fell except by medical professionals. Tara did not care. She acted on pure big-sister instinct and lifted Clara into her arms. The little girl moaned in pain and hissed as the fabric of Tara’s clothes brushed her raw scrapes.
Clara looked up at Tara’s face and smiled.
“You’re gonna be okay,” Tara assured. “Doctors are coming. You’re going to be okay.”
“No, I’m not,” Clara said softly, “but I’m glad you’re here. Her smile was serene. As Tara shivered and felt the world turn gray, young Clara’s gaze turned skyward, her eyes almost-but-not-quite rolling into the back of her head.
“I see light,” the girl said.
“Huh?” her big sister asked.
“It doesn’t hurt anymore,” Clara whispered. “Everything is shining. There’s a bright white light all around us and it’s so warm! I have to go now. I’m sorry.”
Tara was sure that there was nothing but sky above them – red that day as it often was over Flynn.
“Stay with me, please? Clara?”
“She didn’t stay,” Tara stone related to Joe Murrika. “We had been racing each other on our bikes. The man who hit her stayed and faced my family and paid what he could to us. He was braver than many would have been in that situation. I never rode my bicycle again. I can ride and still do if I need to borrow a bike to get anywhere – but that particular bike: never again.”
Murrika listened quietly as he and Stone stood before a particular section of the Wall.
“I suppose I’ve learned a lot about courage since then,” Stone said, licking the dry bottom of her lip. “I still would rather have my sister back. I’ve also learned a lot about fear, as in how much some people can fear the powerless. For a while, I dealt with people – perfect strangers, though some were once ‘friends,’ who feared a dead little girl.”
“How so?” Murrika asked.
“It all has to do with what she told me she saw as she died. Others who saw the accident and were around heard it. On one hand, it was a beautiful vision and I couldn’t ask for better than for her have gone in peace as she did. On the other hand, I wish, for my sake, that she’d kept it to herself.
“There were bystanders that heard her mutterings. I also spoke to some people about it, trying to make sense of it all. My fellow Bonekeepers were supportive of me in my grief, as to be expected. Tony was probably the best of them all back then. I’ve come to think that maybe those that hurt the most, especially those that keep their pain in secret places – they may be the best of all of us in regards to having open hearts.”
“I’ve known people who’ve suffered things that are anything but bitter about them,” Murrika said.
“That’s not to say that people in pain can’t be jerks, not by a long-shot,” Stone said, giving him a small smile and a gentle shake of the head. “It’s just…Empathy and compassion are the cast shadows of pain. Not everyone gets it. Some people use suffering as an excuse to stew in anger and to hate others or to take some kind of revenge even on people who were uninvolved in their lives, but I think there is always the potential for empathy. I’m sad to say that I’m not sure human beings would connect with each other very well without sadness. Or, at least, I, myself, feel like I’m better at commiserating than I am at celebrating. I don’t understand people who flaunt their constant good luck in life very well.”
Tara Stone sat down on a crust rise of earth and drew her knees up to her chest, resting her elbows upon them. She gazed out, dully and longingly, her mind lost in recollection.
“The Bonekeepers used their pain well enough to help me deal with mine,” she said. “Others in Flynn, however… Yeah…There were some people who held that since Clara saw something that didn’t make sense that she must have had no sense. They took it as a mark that she had a lesser brain, I guess, the way they talked about it – even at the investigative hearing with me in the room.”
“Terrible,” Murrika muttered.
“I’m glad you agree,” Stone said with a sort of bright bitterness. “I was treated even worse by some people – and I say worse because I was alive to deal with it and because the salt in my wounds came from people I thought I could trust. I confided in a friend who wasn’t one of the Bonekeepers, someone whom I’d known from the tail end of my school days. I am ready to talk about it now: I’d see Clara sometimes – at night and in the empty places out in the desert. The haunting stopped years ago. I do not know if it was really her trying to tell me that she was safe and well in one state of being or another or if I was merely experiencing hallucinations in my profound grief – but the people in my life who learned of it treated me like I was crazy. They didn’t treat me in the ‘good’ manner of treating the ill – they shunned me and started further rumors.
“I was called irrational and other epithets. I didn’t even claim that I was sure what I was going through was real, nor did I expect them to start seeing her or anything, but it didn’t matter. One ex-friend who learned of my predicament from the other, someone who had already distanced himself from me upon my formally taking up the family business… he told that a brain like mine should not be and that it would do Flynn and the world some good if I were to join my sister. I did not ask anyone to believe me, only to help me make sense of things. At the very best, I was treated like a child – a small, particularly stupid child. When people said ‘there, there’ to me and started speaking to me in slow, deliberate sentences, I took to smacking their hands away. It took all of my self-control not to actually spit on them. I thought about it more than once.”
Stone plucked a long piece of stray wheat that was next to her in the earth and held it between her fingers, playing with it. “I was seeing things I did not understand,” she continued. “I wasn’t a drooling idiot. I don’t recall acting like I was the sudden recipient of a traumatic brain-injury. Sometimes, I think our brains just don’t know how to parse each other. Something goes ‘duh’ in people and they don’t know how to react to something new and strange. You could say that I’ve decided that cultivating a sense of adaptability is important for this very reason. I don’t want to ‘duh’ – out if something interesting comes my way.
“My job was never in danger as you may have well guessed. However, I learned that even the lowliest can get lower. A few folks from the Temple thought that I was seeing a deceptive demon of some sort and that something must be wrong with me on that account – that I was somehow inviting some manner of spiritual danger, not that my visions had ever come invited. At least they didn’t label me ‘crazy,’ like the others. I’ve learned that being labeled ‘nuts’ is worse than being rumored to be immoral. Too many people falsely equate crazy with stupid. I’d rather be thought of as wicked than dumb.
“The visions stopped when I told the ghost that I could not see her anymore. I would remember Clara, but I had a life to live. Telling whatever I was seeing – whether it was ‘real’ or ‘just in my head’ pretty much worked.
“As for other losses in my life – I am glad that Anthony has been polite enough not to bother me. Either I’ve gotten control of my brain or he knows that I am not to be bothered. Of course, there is always the fear that he is trapped somewhere he does not deserve to be.”
“I would hope not,” Murrika said, trying to be assuring.
“Maybe he’s somewhere better, if anywhere. Despite the control I’ve gained, I know that there remain those who see me as having an inferior brain. No amount of change or settlement can appease them. I suppose they’d better hope they are rational enough to fade out the way they want to right up into the last moments before they’re ready for the Wall. Otherwise, maybe they’ll find out that my sister’s crazy brain, mine and theirs aren’t so different.”
“I feel privileged that you chose to share this with me,” Murrika answered with a nod. “It must be a difficult thing to share.”
“Not really, not with you,” Stone assured him.
“I try my best to be easy to talk to… given my profession.”
“It’s not that.”
“You aren’t a citizen of Flynn,” she explained bluntly. “You aren’t planning on staying with us for the rest of your life, or of becoming a part of our Sacred Wall. You were not born and raised here and I assume that you have no plans to die here. You have no family-roots here, or any other kind of roots. You are a traveler, come to collect tales – no more, no less. You are easy to talk to, I’ll give you that, but the reason why I have the courage to talk with you about things I have come to learn are not worth the trouble I get for sharing in my own hometown is because you are not of my hometown. You will be gone from this place soon enough.”
“Wow, that is…” Joe Murrika said, quite flustered, “is rather harsh. I was hoping that I had gained some friendship among you and your compatriots.”
“You have,” Tara Stone said flatly. “But we have allowed you that friendship because we have a low expectation of you betraying our trust. Although some of us have family and friends that have left to other cities and even to your land, we can’t say we care too much about what others think. It is those who stay and live in our own city who will give us grief – or joy – depending on the circumstances and our luck. If the people who will one day read what you have written about us in your own city think of my colleagues, friends and I as a bunch of gruesome fools, so be it. It is doubtful any of them will venture here to bother us.”
“I don’t think most people will think that,” Murrika said. “At least, if I get the prose right. One can never have total control over what others think and those that think they do become the subjects of improbable dystopian novels. Now, if I think like an advertiser, perhaps I can sell a positive image to a majority… I really want to put the Bonekeepers in the best light possible. Your work has a grisliness to it, particularly in coming from a culture where the inevitable is handled differently, but I find it fascinating.”
“Perfume, flowers and ashes.” Tara Stone muttered.
“Come again?” her interviewer asked.
“It is how you handle the dead, right?” Stone continued. “Boxes and markers and people’s shells filled with all kinds of preservatives to make what’s not pretty look pretty one last time.”
“Uh…y-yeah,” Murrika answered hesitantly.
“We each have our ways,” Stone said, pointing at the bones forming patterns in the wall before her. “Maybe we are just more honest. Maybe we aren’t and are still desperately clinging to the past. We can still visit our loved ones in-body as well as those we never knew. They existed. The Wall is testament to that. Everyone can see that they existed in our flash-made fossils. We are desperate to keep it that way.”
“It’s very human,” Murrika answered.
Tara Stone gave him a quizzical look and a kind smile. “Human?”
“I find what you do and… more importantly, who you are as I’ve met with all of you so far… Your mission, even if you’re pushed to the margins and made to do it… It’s all very human.”
Stone chewed her piece of grass, mulling it around as if it were a cigarette – the half-dried stalk being a replacement for one who did not smoke but needed something for the lips to play with, something to gently gnaw. “Some believe,” she said, “That someday all the bones will dance off the wall and that the wall will crumble. Even though it will undo my life’s work, it’s a nice story. I hope it happens.”
“A local legend?”
“One of those things I ought to ask Mr. Guile about?”
“Yep,” Stone said, pulling the grass from her teeth and tossing it aside. “The Darklands, the Light-Country and the gray place in-between that is our world of walls, rock and bones… Beliefs, stories and the local mythology fall under his domain, mainly.”
“I’ve researched some of it,” Joe Murrika explained. “It is… more personal, more authentic to hear it from those that live with it as a part of their fabric.”
“I don’t care about where I’m going,” Stone said, her gaze traveling up the Sacred Wall, resting long on one small skeleton with its arms outstretched with abstract designs evoking wind and water flanking it. “I can come to nothing and if the going-into it is peaceful, I’d be fine with that. I could go to the Darklands and be okay with that. What I want more than anything is something better than those fates for other people. I do not want a ‘heaven’ because I am ‘afraid of the dark.’ I just want more life for those who never had enough. I want justice for those who never saw any – for those for whom it is too late in our gray world. I want something better for the people I love. I don’t care what happens to me. Does that make any sense?”
“I think it does,” Murrika said softly. He gazed at the same portion of the Wall that Stone’s watch was fixed on. He wore a small sad smile.
“That kind of thing is exactly why Guile is a part of the Temple. I am not formally, but I understand what some would call an odd devotion. He’s not in it for himself. I’m not in it for myself. The Darklands may be our fate according to its teachings, but doesn’t care that he has no good destiny, nor do I. What we want is something better for everyone else, as many as possible. Fear has nothing to do with it.”
“Perhaps you see enough of what everyone fears that some of it erodes away?”
“Nah,” Stone replied, getting up. “It’s just love. Enough of it casts away fear.”