Wednesday, March 28, 2012

"The Bones" by Henning Koch (Pt. 1)

Today, The Quivering Pen begins an exclusive 9-part serialization of a novella by acclaimed short-story writer and novelist Henning Koch.  "The Bones" is a funny, frightening vision of an unspecified future in which America is a wasteland society whose currency is oil.  Some would argue it's not much different from the current state of the nation.  I'll let you draw your own parallels, but let's just say I think Mad Max would be right at home in Koch's neo-Western Apocalypse.  We'll be back with Part 2 of the series next week.

The Bones


Oil Town was not a town at all, it was a long road skirted on both sides by corridors of buildings the colour of dust, ochre paint caked onto corrugated iron and left to peel away, like some rebellious canvas by a pop artist; except here there was no art--only graffiti, which seemed an after-thought; words scribbled down by someone drunk or angry. The place didn’t even have a name, at least no one had marked a name on a map because there was no proper end to the town and no beginning, just that long wavering road, a vein seeking its way through cities, suburbs, across vast wastelands and eventually looping round on itself once it reached the desert. Oil Town was a rudimentary shelter for those who slept in grimy beds and then rose to tap off the night’s haul, fill the barrels one by one. Oil black and priceless surged from the ground like a dark, smooth snake.

The way it had all begun is clear enough. We all know the story, yet like so many things, once we lift the lid there is a whole world beneath, smothered by familiarity.

Oil Town was once a green sleepy valley famous for its cantaloupes and orchards. When the locals started realizing there was oil down there, great underground lakes simmering under rock, they began to drill. Some had a hundred acres and some had less, but the land was not relevant any more, it was what lay underneath that counted. Overnight, the proprietor of a cabbage patch might be richer than a farmer with five hundred acres.

As they drilled and grew wealthy, they cut down more trees, built labyrinthine connecting roads for the trucks, knocked up an army of corrugated sheds, imported more foreign slaves.

And the town sprouted, the town that was not a town; the town with no civic buildings and no court house--the court house was the desert.

A few centuries had passed since the first pumps went up; and now the sands stretched to the horizon, making it near impossible to cultivate food, which did not matter, as there were always cars and trucks to bring it in from other places – streams of traders coming in to buy; they knew there was cheap oil to be had in Oil Town, where it still oozed out of the ground.

The people in Oil Town had long since grown lazy. They had entered into folklore and were proud of it; they were the “Oilers”, they drank and smoked and were even unconcerned with sex. The era of sex had lasted a century more or less, until they abandoned the topless bars and bordellos, which fell into disuse. But titillation remained as a relic of days past: photographs of mirthless women gyrating their plucked groins.

Oilers were not known for their migratory habits either; they liked to sit, possibly under a single surviving bush or on a lone green patch of grass watered by some sub-soil system into which they’d sunk a share of their considerable wealth. But such things were rare; for the most part the Oilers had dispensed with nature altogether, there was no use for it.

Once or twice some robbers from afar had tried their luck, riding in with sawn-off shotguns to raid the place – empty the coffers of Oil Town. But Oilers kept money locked up in safe deposit boxes and were intractable to say the least about giving up the combinations. Three Oilers were shot dead in the first raid. The robbers, as one might deduce, were not gentle types and their machismo could not bear the snub of these fat, singlet-wearing, cigar-smoking grubs who would not hand over their spondoolies and preferred to die than give up their money, ’cuz if someone takes your money, what the hell are you? That was local reasoning. What are you if you can’t show up a thick wad, wet your grubby thumb and peel off enough to pick up a car or two or a couple of exotic dancers? And why spend your life struggling for it, if some lazy bum with a gun can just come along and get it off you?

After that, the Oilers took full-page advertisements in the local press, announcing to any would-be robbers out there that if they decided to come back to Oil Town, they should bring plenty of ammo – because the Oilers had brought in a consignment of semi-automatic guns and this time they’d fight back; they didn’t give a shit about living or dying. It’s about the spondoolies. If someone tries to take your spondoolies you give up the ghost if you have to. You take a bullet for the sake of principle.

But then there was the unmentionable problem of the desert pressing in, maybe also the oil running dry underground, and it was not difficult finding certain half-drunk individuals muttering in some bar that the desert was what we had made; the desert was coming back for us, would blow through our windows and under our doors. While burning with alcohol, sodden to their very brain-nodes, the Oilers sometimes tacitly admitted that all their drilling and cutting and building and mucking had created the most perfect wilderness known, where really nothing could live now except clever, specialized things: snakes and lizards and beetles and burrowing ants. Rats also, rats with long ears and thick white fur. And spiders that rolled up their legs and bounced like hairy balls down the night-cool dunes.

But what the hell is a man supposed to do? – that was the catchphrase. Society sure don’t give a shit about us! That’s why we keep pumping that shit out of the ground! ’Cuz you want us to do it! See this hand, see this skin all smudged and black? I was born this way, and I won’t change till the day I die!  

Deserts are crackling hot by day and, by night, cold with nothing but the stars overhead. There were still stars in this world, palely blinking up there, cold as bottled hydrogen and wistful as diamonds free of their underground penury.  

Oil Town has no history and everything is commonplace. Even a man cut in two by a falling winch, his brains left spattered across the ground like sobrasada will not give cause for any great outcry; quietly they’ll take him away and throw him in a scoop in the ground. 

For all these reasons (and more) it was slightly ominous to the Oilers when a camper van drove into town one day and parked right outside the bar. A journalist got out, a tall, good-looking woman with cowboy boots and a leather bandanna across her head and a liking for good cigars, it seemed.

Her name was Henrietta – an old-world name which had doomed her to a life of being thought clever (she was) and also slightly sexless (who knows?) – but for the most part people just called her Henry, which seemed a favourable compromise though not to her.

Henry kept her neck straight (some would just say it was stiff) and spoke incisively in a way that occasionally made male colleagues feel diminished in her presence. She was also groomed, had intensely blue eyes with something like passion glowing in there, and kept her hair clean.

These were unusual traits in Oil Town.

The Oilers had their own theories. A woman like Henrietta doesn’t come to Oil Town at all. Certainly she doesn’t show up in a wide-rimmed hat and sunglasses and well-cut leather boots.

She doesn’t walk into the bar and say: “I’m doing a story on the bone people.” She doesn’t do that!

In other words, the mere presence of Henrietta had upset the world picture of the Oilers. The way she walked in with such confidence and ordered herself a cranberry vodka and sipped it with something like relish; then spoke very politely but at the same time invasively to some men standing there at the bar, who weren’t so uncouth that they couldn’t hold down a conversation with a woman like her, but were still buggered by her somehow, buggered about her being physically there, living proof that there was something beyond their town.

“I’m doing some research on them; would you be willing to make a statement? Did they take your family’s bones?”

What a damned question! 

People shrugged and explained to her that there were no bone people, it was a made-up story.

But she persisted.

And after a few days of waiting, snooping, sitting in the bar, making enquiries, the Oilers began to see her camper van with its satellite dish and glowing lights as a weird force of premonition.

Something was bound to be learned from this development. It seemed written in the stars this lady would not leave until she had found what she was looking for.

Henrietta was not, in fact, so relaxed about parking idly for four whole days without getting anything done. But she knew the Oilers were turgid people; she knew only rank cunning and incredible patience would wear them out.

So she sat in a collapsible deck-chair outside her camper van every evening, drinking cups of tea and occasionally smoking the odd cigar.

This fascinated them.

On the fifth day a small weaselly man named Wyre knocked on Henrietta’s door.

It was towards sunset, and there were churning starlings swarming somewhere, out of sight. And moths fluttering in the cooling air.

Henrietta opened the door.


As soon as she saw him standing there, bow-legged with a wadded long coat, she knew her wait had not been a complete waste.

“I know what you’re looking for. My name is Wyre.”

The two sentences did not seem connected, and Henry thought to herself: either this guy is a misfit or he just likes to get to the point.

“Hi, I’m Henry…” she said, but there was a questioning note in her voice; she didn’t want to be rude, but she was reluctant to invite him in.

“I know what you need.” Seems unlikely, she thought – but an attractive concept nonetheless. “The bone people, they’re out there, they exist. In the desert.”

Henrietta looked at him. “And how would I find them?”

He grinned, and she noted with relief that he had good teeth – there’s something shiftless about men with bad teeth.

“You wouldn’t”, he said. “No one would. Unless they got very lucky.”

“Well let’s hope I am lucky then”, she said.

Wyre looked at her and he said: “You could be.”

“And you, Wyre. Are you lucky?”

“I never have been up until now, but things change.”

Henning Koch's writing started with screenplays.  Between 2002 and 2007, he worked as a translator and dramaturge for Yellow Bird Films, makers of Henning Mankell's Wallander series for television/cinema in Scandinavia, Germany and the UK.  In 2005, Koch moved to Sardinia, off the coast of Italy, where he spent three years writing the short story collection Love Doesn't Work and the novel The Maggot People (forthcoming in September from Dzanc Books).  Follow him on Twitter: @henningkoch

1 comment:

  1. Great start—made me want more. Also has a distinct old-world feel to it (not just "Henrietta"). My favorite bit concerns this masterful characterization of the place: «While burning with alcohol, sodden to their very brain-nodes, the Oilers sometimes tacitly admitted that all their drilling and cutting and building and mucking had created the most perfect wilderness known, where really nothing could live now except clever, specialized things: snakes and lizards and beetles and burrowing ants. Rats also, rats with long ears and thick white fur. And spiders that rolled up their legs and bounced like hairy balls down the night-cool dunes.»