This is the fourth of nine installments of "The Bones," the serialized novella which acclaimed novelist and short-story writer Henning Koch has made available exclusively to The Quivering Pen. "The Bones" is a story about America's decline into a wasteland where crude oil serves as currency and violence rules the landscape. Koch calls the novella "an oil-based scenario of future social decay" and it's easy to see the frightening trend he predicts for our society. Just read the daily headlines. Click these links to read the earlier installments of "The Bones": Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.
The next thing she heard was a sharp, scraping sound, metal against metal. And feet swaddled in skin shuffling across a packed-mud floor. Also wind-blasted sand against the plank walls, trickling through in places.
These sounds were clearer to her, because she couldn’t see anything.
She realised her eyes were closed, but she took a deep breath before opening them, because she could feel she was naked, which had to mean something had gone badly wrong.
What she saw, when she opened her eyes and wiped away the rheum, was the blackened bottom of Arty Simpleton’s button-down long-johns, sticking out as he bent over a tap fixed onto a length of crude, dented pipe that came through a rough hole in the wall.
He was wearing a pair of sheepskin slippers, and his belly in his morning get-up looked like a big piece of fat strapped to the front of his chest.
As soon as she moved in the bed he peered across, and said, with a leery grin, “Oh my darling, you were wild last night.” And then turned the tap and filled a bucket with stinking oil.
She lay back for a second, until she noticed the filth on the sheets and pillow-case, even the tiny sand-fleas bouncing all round her head. At that point she sat bolt upright.
Arty put down the bucket. “What’s happening here is you’re a woman and I’m a man and last night we proved it.”
Henrietta was never quite able to explain what happened next. What gave her the ferocity? Inside she felt a ball of pain, a small energy-charged thing bouncing from her liver to her pancreas to her lungs, pummeling her organs and occasionally shooting up into her brain like a tiny ice-pick into the gap between her lobes, grazing the fragile skin of her emotion.
But on the outside she was a paragon of stillness. She sat up and pulled on her underwear. “I guess I’d be a fool if I was surprised.”
When she stood up and put on her blouse, Arty Simpleton turned away and fetched another empty bucket. “I figured you were a tough one and I wasn’t wrong,” he said, turning the tap again and resuming his work. “That’s why I spiked your vodka, to keep you in line.”
She pushed her feet into her sneakers and then walked up to him, gently reaching out to put her palms against either side of his temples. “Arty Simpleton,” she said with a sharp smile, “you’re a real dog…”
Arty Simpleton was genuinely surprised, and he was too dumb to read her emotions, which he would anyway have viewed as deeply flawed. To Arty and his kind, there is nothing in the world that cannot be justified in the name of one’s own requirements.
“Shit, I didn’t think you’d take it so well, but I have to say I think a lot more of you now I see you got some common sense.”
She nodded at the buckets on the floor. “What’s this?”
“Just a local guy, needs twenty buckets’ worth for his boiler. Peanuts.” When Arty Simpleton looked down, proudly turning his fat-brimming eyes on the besmirched fruits of his wealth, Henrietta dug the points of her nails into the tops of his ears and ripped hard, neatly tearing them like sheets of paper down to his ear-holes.
The effect was dramatic: a deluge of rich blood pouring over his throat and shirt. She pushed him back and he fell like a skittle and lay writhing and yelling on the floor.
“Listen,” she said. “You shouldn’t let other people get your kicks for you. Did you ever hear the man sing that?”
And before Arty managed to recompose himself and get back on his feet, she aimed a kick at his wide-open cakehole, breaking a couple of his teeth; then casually trod on his head and bounced up and down a few times before making her way to the door.
Ten minutes later she was outside Wyre’s house, and he let her in.
“I heard…” he said.
“You heard what?
“He spiked your drink.”
She paced across the floor. “I ripped his ears off.”
Wyre’s face registered a mixture of surprise and delight. “You did what?”
She showed her hands, blood-flecked and filthy.
The shower in Wyre’s house was at least built into a fragrant juniper booth, and there were sea-shells to scrape off any globules of oil that came out, and good soap to rub oneself with.
When she came out she threw her clothes in the bin and borrowed a set of sack-like garments which, he informed her, had once belonged to his mother. “I think I’ll call the police now,” she said, “I want to put Mr. Simpleton behind bars.”
“You can call them. Why not? They’ll make a report.” Wyre looked at her, nodding apologetically at what he was saying. “Call ’em today and you might see ’em next week, or the week after that. But Arty Simpleton will take his gun to you, if it’s true you stripped him of his ears.”
“Well, then.” He handed her a cold bottle of cola. “Drink this.”
She slumped in the sofa, lit a cigar and sighed loudly. “This place is sick.”
“It’s sick, yeah. But it shows its sickness, which makes it honest.”
“You defend the place as well, do you? Arty was giving me the same bullshit last night. The place is a dump but he loves it, sort of thing…”
Wyre tightened his mouth. “I’m glad you gave him a beating, Henrietta. I’m just disappointed you didn’t finish the job and drop a ton of lignite on his head.” They sat quietly watching the smoke of her cigar throwing a great pall of a shadow against the cracked ceiling. “I think we should probably leave. I was kind of expecting you. Last night when I heard, I packed the jeep. We can survive out there a while, maybe a month or more if we can find water, which I doubt.”
“And do you know where we’re going?”
“I think if we don’t go now we won’t be going anywhere,” said Wyre.
People say the desert is the final outpost and they’re not wrong. After humans have swarmed and fought and fucked and dug and built and manacled everything they believe in, the desert will emerge: the underlying truth. The desert is the full stop, the desert is the bedrock. And humans can’t live in it, humans can only die there and leave their bones.
As they drove west across the dunes, avoiding the road and leaving the shacks and bobbing wells of Oil Town behind them, Henrietta had a feeling that she was leaving her old self behind. This decision to escape justice, as if she were the criminal, would have serious repercussions, no doubt about it.
Back home, the plants in her window would be wilting. Her editor at the newspaper would be wondering where she was by now.
But nothing would change, the litter would still blow through the street outside her front door; the beggars would still congregate on the corner by the subway, their hands reaching out to her for silver and gold, neither of which were common currency any more. People only carried plastic cards; these could be switched off at any time, particularly if there was any suggestion that a law had been broken.
Henrietta was certain that as soon as Arty Simpleton went to the police to report her assault, the authorities would turn off her cards and wait for her to come in.
Going into the desert had been her ultimate gesture, her farewell. She had stepped out of her skin and left it like a dirty pile of clothes on the floor. Everything behind her was consumed and blistered, her life in the city no more than passé imperfect.
“Where are we going..?” she said, shocked at the absurdity of her own question: “…and when we get there, what will we do?”
“You better let go of that,” said Wyre. “There is no ‘where’ any more...”
“I’m not so sure. How far does the desert stretch?”
Wyre grinned. “You’re funny. All you need to know is it goes further than we’ll ever get.”
There was a complexity in the way Wyre related to Henrietta, and he was fully aware of it. Why is it that some pills, however well we understand our need of them, cannot be accepted as a necessary cure?
For years Wyre had thought about making this journey into the desert. Gradually as their cemeteries had been ransacked and harvested for their bones, and as the Oilers implicitly accepted that the desert had a secret although they did their best to deny it to the outside world, Wyre had endured the Oilers’ jibes as he foddered his camels and exercised them on the dunes.
Oil Town was synonymous with the thorny presence of Arty Simpleton and his amateur militiamen – as good a reason as any for shutting up his house and heading out. How many times had Wyre dreamed of taking his shotgun to Arty, converting his flaccid body into a pile of stinking meat? He’d made it clear to Arty that if they strayed onto his land he’d open fire on 'em, treat 'em as trespassers. There was a state of undeclared war, ever since he’d fired over their heads one time as they drew too close to his boundary.
Only after Henrietta’s arrival had he finally packed his vehicle, loaded his camels into the trailer and actually cleared out. He could not possibly admit to her that she had been the catalyst.
Now he had less than a week to find the mountains; but at least they were big things, visible from afar and hard to miss. And for this reason Wyre spoke little on that first day, merely kept his hands on the wheel and his eyes on the horizon and did not tell her that they only had fuel to keep them going for days, not weeks. After that, they’d have to switch to camels, the very same camels that he’d loaded up in the trailer, which they had to stop to feed and water in the evenings.
Of course Henrietta was not stupid, she was quite capable of calculating their predicament. On that first evening when Wyre parked and let out the camels and hobbled their front legs so they wouldn’t go too far, she was pleased to see them foraging and finding the odd bit of vegetation to eat. The desert was not quite as dead as one thought at first.
They made their campfire under a flowering tree of some sort, a wonderful emanation of color in that sea of pale emptiness.
She sat by their fire, watching Wyre cooking porridge and baking chapatti bread on a hot iron. The camels were outlined against the red sky, standing on a sandy ridge littered with sharp boulders and scree; the animals were pushing their noses between the rocks, finding tiny sprouting plants in the crevices.
Henrietta stopped chewing, and looked at Wyre. “If we find the bone people, what will we do? Are they friendly? We haven’t thought about that. Maybe they’ll kill us?”
“You said it. If we find them. We’ll deal with that problem if we do…”
“I’m not convinced.”
Wyre put down his fork and wiped his mouth. “I’ll tell them I’ve come for my ancestors’ bones.”
He shrugged. “Not really, but it sounds good.”
“What have you come for, then?”
“I’m a Miserable, Henrietta, nothing ever pleases me; you could put me in Paradise, I still wouldn’t be dancing the samba, you know. But one thing I can’t stand…” He spooned in some more porridge and kept his eyes fixedly on the camels, which were just disappearing over the ridge. He stood up, and she called out to him as he headed off in their direction.
“What can’t you stand, Wyre?”
He stopped and looked at the ground, his feet sinking into the sand. “I can’t stand ugliness. I can’t stand the sight of an Oiler who can’t see his shoes ’cuz his stomach’s too big, who spends his days eating imported shit ’cuz he’s ruined his own land. I can’t stand the sight of dead plants. I miss birds singing in the trees, Henrietta.”
“Well you won’t hear any birds here,” said Henrietta.
Later, she woke in her tent in the night. A traumatic memory was playing inside her, like a film that’s frozen, with the image stuttering,:the image of Arty in his shed, with his stained singlet and mozzarella stomach; Arty’s lips dribbling with saliva. She felt sick to her core, but she must not think about it. Must not!
There was a bird singing somewhere; harsh and not very melodious, but a bird nonetheless. You stupid woman, she told herself. You always think you have the smart answer, the quick answer. And you do. You have the quick answer, but it’s wrong.
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