Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Worlds within Worlds #2.7

My throat has been calling for moisture for a good while by the time I find the spring. It is an ornate affair, too, with a series of basins carved into the low cliff to hold the water. As I approach I can see that moss has been allowed to grow along the stone rims, and small ferns cluster above in the alcoves. But the water is fresh, and swift to pour from basin to basin. Gladly I duck my entire head in the lowest one, scrubbing hard at my bald, barely stubbled scalp before moving to a higher basin to hand-cup water to my dry lips and mouth.
Sated, I take a moment to rest. Only when I hunch down to lean my back against the cool cliff-face do I spot the bones.
He sits at the side of the avenue, just above the spring, with his spine upright and one arm draped over a crooked leg. He looks as if he fell asleep, with the side of his face resting against the cliff just as my back does. He is – entirely – bone: white bone at that, with no skin or flesh discolouring his carriage.
I take a second, slower drink before I investigate him.
When I am ready, I walk up to him slowly, checking the cliff and the avenue for marks and traps. Nothing seems out of place, so I take a few steps nearer; I have to crouch to bring my head down to his level.
The bones look good. Now I am closer, I can see that they are not entirely clean – sinews still attach across joints, and within the thin shadows there remain flecks of flesh and skin. Yet all of his offal is gone and the smile he offers me, from his eye-free skull, is pure tooth.
Sinew. Not twine.
This is not a woman's work.
But if this is not a warning, then where are the marks of the bone worms? No animal, no part of an animal, can survive unless it has been cured – preserved in some manner such as smoke or powders or balm.
One of his arms, the one that doesn't rest on his angled knee, drapes over a bag. Curious, I shuffle closer and reach out my hand to take his wrist and lift it away. The movement is enough to break his delicate balance: in a cascade of rattles he collapses, his skull taking the opportunity to roll along the cliff's skirting towards the puddles beneath the spring.
Her skull, I realise. Not his.
The bag is made of leather and, now I can see it more clearly, the swirl of the tattoos that pattern it mark it as a woman's bag, fashioned from man-skin.
No man would dare use his brother, nor his enemy, in such a humiliating manner.
I utter a curt lamentation for my brother's suffering as I take the bag in both hands and heave it into my arms. From its interior come the clinks of clay jars – many still full, I judge, given the weight of the thing.
A woman, apparently alone, with a bag full of small jars – perhaps she could be a herbalist?
A thought occurs to me: if a woman finds me near here, with this woman's bag, she will not bother asking me questions about what I have found. No, she will chase me down, with her sisters, and she will take me beyond the reach of my brothers and she will keep me breathing for a long, long while as she consumes me ...
I will not suffer that indignity again!

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