Wednesday, April 4, 2012

"The Bones" by Henning Koch (Pt. 2)

The Quivering Pen continues the 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.  Mad Max would be right at home in Koch's neo-Western Apocalypse.  Read Part 1 here.

The Bones


The Oilers were shocked when they heard that Wyre had gone to the foreign journalist to spill himself. It was like him, of course, he was a turncoat and loser whose family had never played by the book, which admittedly was hard in Oil Town because there was no book. The most effective laws, the Oilers knew tacitly, were those that had never been written down, and therefore lodged in the system like an evil solvent, building up in people’s fleshy gizzards. Those things weren’t really laws, they were principles. Most of the Oilers believed that Wyre’s origins were cussed from the very start – Oil Town was obsessed by bad genes, a more popular topic than the weather or football scores.

His great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Jeremiah, a freed slave, had been given a small freehold by a grateful employer, whose daughter he’d saved from drowning. On this patch of land he built with his own two strong arms a solid wooden cabin with two rooms on the bottom and one on top under the slanted roof-beams; and good windows with carved splash-boards and a pretty efficient-looking roof with copper drainpipes that still worked fine. He also extended an already fairly decent apple-orchard, and was known for his fizzy cider which he sold in earthenware pots.  

But he kept himself to himself, sat around smoking his pipe and reading books. Books! He worked less and less, of course, they all did. Once the oil boom started up and he drilled in his hay meadow and found rock like tarred sponge, he had enough to keep him in food, clothes, candles, books and anything else he wanted.

The apple trees grew tall and bushy, then dry and diseased. Finally, a hundred years later, they were felled by his great-grandson Richard, who was a keen wood-carver. The house was still filled with his sculptures of eagles, foxes and wash-bears.  

Wyre was just the same as his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather – the same obstinacy, the same dogged reluctance to belong. His beard fluttered in the breeze like trailing lichens. He always had a cigar in his mouth, and where the smoke rose there was a brown streak of nicotine that had dyed his facial hair from the corner of his mouth across his cheek.

Wyre did not shower very much, none of the Oilers did. The water had largely dried up and most of it was contaminated with oil. You came out of the bathroom filthier than when you went in.  

To be honest, Henrietta hadn’t been too taken with Wyre either, when he first showed up.

The dirt on him was mythical in proportion, even the smell had scared itself away. His skin lay folded like yellow leather over his misshapen skeleton.

When he came back the following morning she liked him better, reminding herself that most truly unpleasant people make a very good first impression – unless they’re thugs. Wyre was not unpleasant and not a thug either. He was just bloody ugly. But his eyes were alive and darting, with a whiff of humor.

He waited outside without knocking; it must have been about nine thirty in the morning, which is a civil hour. She was making a cup of tea when she felt the rich smell of a really good Havana coming in through the window.

It made her happy. Henrietta was a lover of the brown weed, and she was glad someone else was too.

“Morning.” She stuck her head out of the door, and the moment hit her; the moment when her undertaking crystallized. “So you came back, I wasn’t sure you would.”

“You smoke.” It wasn’t a question. He offered her a hand-rolled magic wand, encapsulated forest, sun and rain.  

“Thanks.” She sat down and lit it. “So..?”

“You asked about the bone people.”

“And you know where I can find them?” she said, continuing last night’s conversation where it left off.

Wyre looked flustered, and his way of showing it was a flurry of puffing on the cigar. Finally he sank back in his deckchair. “That’s what I came to tell you. No one knows where to find them. But I know they are there, that’s what I came to tell you. I know they are there.”


His smile was like someone who has lost everything, and was now reconciled to his wistful soul. “Yes, where?”

Henrietta was not impressed. “That’s all you know?”

Wyre pointed indistinctly at the rolling sands. “I can tell you they’re out there…somewhere. And that’s all I know.”

“You don’t know a lot, then.”

“No. I don’t know a lot. Do you?”

Henrietta thought about it. “I don’t know a damned thing…”

A few weeks earlier she had woken as always in her metal bed by the window, and parted the curtains to look out at the city waking up, the flatulent buses, the intensifying streets, an ant-hill stirred with a stick; ruminating clouds hanging motionless above.  

She had felt tired of the view; of the perspective, in fact.

This was also the slant she put on it when she spoke to Andy, her editor at the newspaper. “I need to see something new,” she told him. “I can’t just hang about here all the time.”

“It’s what everyone else does, Henry,” Andy told her, standing wide-legged before her, fiddling with his colorful braces. 

“Yeah but I’m not like them,” Henrietta said. “I can’t make a life out of trying a new Chinese restaurant, or…you know…going for a blind date with a well-hung Ukrainian.”

Andy grinned. “So what’s your big idea this time?” He sat down in his revolving chair and put his feet on his desk, because that was what newspaper editors did, apparently to demonstrate their complete disregard for hygienic recommendations.

“I want to go out to the Oil Basin.”

Now Andy was looking perplexed. “There’s nothing going on out there. I thought you had something interesting in mind.”

She walked up to the big plate glass window and looked down twenty-three storeys to street level, as always with a flashing image in her mind of an aircraft flying right into them, forcing her to jump, flailing her arms and falling, falling…

She recomposed herself. “I’ve heard rumors of natives out there, in the desert. Bone people, they call them.”

“Oh give me a break! Give me an honest story, Henry, go to Scotland, drink lots of Scotch and write me a piece on the Loch Ness Monster.” 

“They come into the towns at night and dig up the graves.” She turned round and glared at him. “They take the bones.”

“Even if it’s true…so what?”

“I don’t know if it’s true,” said Henrietta.

Andy shrugged, and then, knowing there was no changing her mind and anyway Henry was the best reporter he’d ever had, added: “When are you leaving?”

She checked her watch, spun round and on the way out called over her shoulder: “I’m already gone.”

The only sort of job Henrietta could hold down was one you could walk out of – anytime you liked.

After they had finished their cigars and drunk two more cups of coffee and eaten a couple of blueberry muffins which she’d brought in a tin from the city, Wyre showed her the cemetery.

There wasn’t much to see, just a ragged line of razor wire partially buried under a bank of sand, which had built up along the fence-posts.

Inside, on account of the sand, they did not use headstones any more, and anyway – at least the way Henrietta saw it – the idea of putting those people’s names there seemed vainglorious. Once they died you were better off forgetting them; all they’d ever done was ooze argumentatively in their chairs, chomping on their burgers and filling the air with intestinal gas whilst issuing their stinking words, usually something to the effect of how such and such a person should be shot and another strung up; occasionally if a politician threatened to raise the taxes they’d howl in protest. Such people were best thrown into the ground and covered up, like landfill.  

To mark the graves, the sexton or whoever did the job, drove long pieces of metal into the ground – old pieces of railway track, for the trains had long since gone, just like the trees. And metal was cheaper than wood.    

Wyre stopped and lit another cigar. “The only advantage of the desert,” he said with a wink, “is you can’t set fire to it.”

Henrietta was already bored by the cemetery, which was non-descript to the point of derision. “There’s nothing here.”

“Yeah. That’s the whole point,” said Wyre. “Someone dug up the bodies and took them away.” He pointed to a recently erected mound, planted with a few wilting bushes. “They left the heads, the feet and the hands in a pile. We put a guard on the place. But whoever came here only came once and made sure they took what they needed. If you’re going to break the law, do it once. Don’t be a recidivist.”

Henrietta reacted to his use of that word, recidivist, and looked at him with curiosity. “Where did you go to school, Wyre?”

“We don’t have schools here, we have a building with a teacher and some students sitting there, but they make sure no one learns anything. I stayed at home and read books.”

They stood in silence, gazing at the bleak scene, buffeted by a blast-furnace wind.   

“They must have come up here in the night when it was stormy, so no one heard them. We figure they left with no less than two hundred skeletons and corpses,” said Wyre, with a mischievous grin.

“Why would they do that? Who are they?” Her eyes narrowed analytically, but they collided with his fuzzed, yellow pupils, which seemed almost na├»ve in their simplicity. 

“Now you’re asking me things. Lots of people ask things but there ain’t no point if you don’t have answers.” He puffed, keeping his eyes on her. “That’s what people do. They ask. But they never bother finding out.”


There’s only so much you can do in a cemetery. You kick through the leaves on the ground, except here there were no leaves, not even any twigs.

From time to time Henrietta stopped and perused some dusty bunch of plastic flowers. The custom here seemed to be to tie a couple of pastel-coloured roses to the iron posts, where they dangled in the wind and wore themselves ragged.

For the most part, there were only pieces of frayed plastic left.

Oblivion dwelled out there in the desert, it blew in and filled people’s minds, drove them not to madness but insignificance. 

Wyre followed her at a discreet distance and eventually, when he felt she had finished snooping about, spoke out: “That’s my house you see down there.” He pointed.

She saw a roof scarcely visible across the dunes. Like all the other Oilers, Wyre kept a bulldozer parked outside, to clear the sand after a blow.

Lazy people had steep dunes round their houses; they didn’t bother to flatten out the sand, just pushed it away until it started building up. Once every few months they paid a heavy-duty guy to bring a big machine and do the job. That was why, in the local dialect, a “sand-topper” was someone who did no work.  

Wyre’s garden was reasonably clear, owing, he explained, to a rise in the ground onto the prevailing wind, which diverted the sand. As they walked up to the house, Henrietta noticed a few skeletal tree trunks, flanking the path in straight rows. They made an eerie impression on her. “Apple trees,” he told her, “at least that’s what they used to be…planted by my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather…I should cut them down, but I like to remember things, even things I never saw.”   

When they stood before the sunken, wooden house with its grey, sun-bleached timbered walls and carved gables, she looked at him and said: “Are you the kind of guy who invites women back to his house and rapes them?” As soon as the words came out of her mouth she wondered at herself, wondered why she always had to be such a crazy bitch? Wyre didn’t take offence, in fact he hardly blinked. “I’m not, but some of the others might. You can’t rely on people here.”

“So why the hell should I trust you, then?”

He shrugged. “If you don’t want to, don’t.” Then went inside.

She followed him, of course, because once you pick up a piece of string you have to figure out how long it is and where it ends. And as soon as she stepped over the threshold she was reassured by his house, which was far neater and more homely, somehow, than the man himself.

There were plants everywhere, plants carefully tended and scarcely alive in spite of it, half-wilted and shriveled.

“These could do with some water.”

“Yeah.” He rolled his eyes. “Thanks, I know. I do what I can for them but it’s never enough. People like to drink oil, but plants don’t.”

They sat down in the main room, which was lined with deformed paperbacks, all at least a hundred and many two hundred years old.

Wyre tossed her a can of beer and collapsed into a leather armchair that formed itself comfortably round his body.

“Okay, time to come clean,” he said, snapping his beer open and sipping it with a grimace, and adding under his breath “Shit! I hate beer!”

“Clean about what?”

“I guess you came here to unpack yourself?”

She laughed. “Unpack? In what sense?”

“In the only sense. You must have had something you was carrying.”

“Don’t we all?”

“No one carries anything round here. I don’t either. You’re in a majority of one.”


“You exist. We don’t.” He drank again, grimacing and repeating to himself: “Shit I really do hate beer.”

“What do you care who I am?” she said. “All you need to know is I’m after information, and my newspaper will pay you if you help me get it.”

“Pay me!” said Wyre with a twisted face. “How you going to pay me? I have money and I don’t want nothing.”

“You must want something?”

“No. All I want is to know who you are,” said Wyre, getting off the difficult subject of himself and moving onto far more fertile ground: the analysis of someone else. He’d have liked to tell Henrietta that he hadn’t spoken to anyone the way he was speaking to her – not in twenty years. But he knew it might be counterproductive to tell her. She might clam up, that’s what people usually did when you told them you liked them.

“I’ll tell you what I see,” he said. “I see a tall, handsome man. A big-shot. Good car, good clothes, always ready to flash his Visa card. But never sharing his time, never giving you what you want. And I see you having hopes of things working out…He’s the kind of man who wants a woman on his arm to make him look good, but he’d like to hang her up in his wardrobe with his coat when he has no use for her. Someone who makes promises, and they’re so damned sweet, the woman ends up thinking there’s something good in him, and it’s going to mature like a barrel of whisky. But when you tap it off in the end, it’s gone sour.”

“You seem to know all about it,” said Henrietta, unnerved about the accuracy of Wyre’s description. “You should have been a woman.”

“I practically am a woman,” said Wyre. “That’s why I almost laughed when you said that thing about raping you. I couldn’t rape you if I tried…”

He stopped and she waited, then finally said, “Why not?”

“’Cuz I don’t have my privates no more. I had an accident when I was a kid. I had a friend who drove a car into a wall and a piece of metal went through me. It sort of finished me off down there. I never touched a woman.”

She waited.

“But you know…what is a man?” he said. “In the village they call me the dickless wonder…”

“That’s not nice.”

“The one who drove the car used to be my friend at school, he’s called Arty Simpleton. Outsiders laugh about his name, but the Simpletons are a big family round here. Arty finds it funny now, what happened to me; he felt bad about it in the beginning, I guess. I mean, he was tanked up on booze when he drove into that metal spike. But now he’s turned it around. He tells people I had it coming to me.” Wyre looked at her, with a slight air of warning. “If you go into the bar you’ll see him. He’s a six-foot tub of white fat topped off with a shaved head and a pair of pig’s eyes so close-set you’ll think you’re cross-eyed when you look at him – people tell me it’s a sign of stupidity and I believe them. Arty reckons he’s a bit of a gentleman, which means he wants to give women the benefit of his attention. Until he gets bored of it, he gets bored pretty fast, and then he goes back to the bar.”

“You’re very charming,” said Henrietta.

“I am, yeah, but he’s not, so just avoid him if you run into him.”

There was a long silence. Grains of sand rattled against the window panes and the wind whined round the gables like an itinerant child.  

Henrietta steeled herself and then said: “Look, I need a four-wheel vehicle and I need a guide. I’m going into the desert. Are you willing to do it?”

“Oh, you know…everyone wants the desert.”

“Meaning what?”

“It’s the ultimate, everyone wants the ultimate. In theory they do; they like the idea of it. But in practice they prefer to do nothing.”

“Listen Wyre, you seem like a man with a thing or two on your mind, and that’s fine with me. But I didn’t come here to talk, I am not here for your story. I’m here to go into the desert and find the bone people.”

Wyre’s eyes filled with anger. He eased back in his chair. “No, you listen,” he said. “I don’t give a shit about your Enlightenment ideals. There’s not going to be any progress here, you are not going back to your home on earth…or reaching your destination…or improving yourself…or achieving the revolution. The Revolution Will Not be Televised, okay? This is not a project, I’m not the means for you to do what you wanted…I’m…”

She cut him off. “Like I said, I’m looking for a guide and all I need is a yes or no.”

“I’m not prepared to say more than maybe,” said Wyre. “I never do anything with people who are a pain in the ass.”

“Neither do I,” said Henrietta.

“You know, I was waiting for someone like you to get me going,” said Wyre. “Now that you’re here, I realize I don’t need you.”

“I’m starting to feel the same way.”  

Wyre seemed pleased with her; something about her alacrity. “I hope you don’t try and make me like you, it won’t work…” he said.

“Don’t worry yourself about that…”

“Because I really don’t like you much.”

Henrietta decided to play his game. “Don’t worry, I don’t like you much either. I find you sanctimonious…” Putting on her coat and focusing on the practicalities, she dropped her voice and said forcefully: “How long do you need to make up your mind? And when would you be able to leave?”

“I don’t know,” said Wyre. “It depends on you.”    

She walked out without saying goodbye but she left the door open, and heard the wind slam it behind her.

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

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