This is the sixth 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--sort of like Mad Max: The OPEC Saga. 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. Click these links to read the earlier installments of "The Bones": Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.
Oil Town had first been created by the very best efforts of the people who lived there. And these people woke up in the mornings, took deep breaths of dust and told themselves that everything had been for the good.
It was with a similar feeling of goodness that Arty returned to his old farm, Navel Grange, located more or less at the heart of Oil Town, if there was any heart at all, though it has to be said that even snakes have hearts.
Navel Grange had the oldest oil well in the region. Here the oil had first seeped from the ground of its own accord, ruining the crops – it was the cheapest land money could buy. The first of the Simpletons, a hare-lipped Norwegian named Lobsterhelmet, had stepped off a ship filled with starving peasants from Oslo, and as soon as he laid eyes on Navel Grange he pulled out his wallet and bought it for hard-earned cash. He spent fifty years breaking his back on that land, clearing trees and fencing, living on black bread boiled in broth, chucking in the odd onion or beet and barely managing to stave off hunger and raise eleven children – but managing nonetheless. His oldest son hit the jackpot once he realised that the bane of his father’s life would be the making of his own: Fredrik Lobsterhelmet never did much more than sitting on the veranda drinking hooch and taking shots at his wormers’ tin chamber-pots, which they used to put outside their cabins to dry in the morning sun. But Fredrik had been a good man too, a man who prided himself on his sense of humor.
Times had changed, of course. Things had modernized. Arty had eighteen bobbing pump jacks on his land, all manned by an assortment of workers dribbling up from the south. Latinos to a man. Sometimes they brought women too, and Arty was all for it, it kept the men quiet and stopped ’em drinking too much. Women had a mighty effect on men and produced kids to keep the operation running smoothly in the long term. The little ’uns were useful too, their fathers trained ’em to fish for crap that fell down the well or help out in other ways. As long as they were ten or eleven and knew how to handle themselves, Arty made no objection; he thought it a good thing that kids learned a trade, what the hell else were they supposed to do with their fucking time. Starve?
He liked the extraneous origins of his men, liked the fact that he had no language in common with ’em. “I got a use for a worm, but I sure don’t hire him for his conversation skills,” he used to say, beaming with conviction about his wit and charm. Self-adoration was a trait that had been passed down in a ram-rod straight line from Fredrik and on.
Arty’s main guy, his foreman, was a ruddy Scot with arms so densely covered in red fur that they looked more than anything like fox pelt. “Scot” was entrusted with travelling north now and then to buy a couple of beef carcasses, which they kept hanging in one of the out-houses equipped with a refrigeration unit. At feeding time Scot went in with a machete and a wheel-barrow. Few culinary skills were practiced at Navel Grange, but there was a belief in plenty, and that included root beer to wash it down with.
“Navel Grange might not be a party,” Arty told the men when they arrived, even though he knew they could not understand him. “But I’ll give you beef and no bull…” At least he knew they’d get the point when they saw their plates of beef, potatoes and beans.
Arty prided himself on growing enough food to keep his workers in carbohydrates. It was a tradition at Navel Grange; he believed in tradition when it served his requirements. He’d covered a couple of acres in poly-tunnels, which he kept watered from a stagnated aquifer directly under Oil Town. There was almost no recharge, that was the trouble. Fucking weather had let them down, and all them environmentalists blamed it on the desert. But in spite of all their griping there was still water under Navel Grange, even if a bit contaminated. Arty brought in ten tons of fresh topsoil every other year and he still managed to grow enough beets and potatoes and beans to serve his needs.
People made such a goddamn fuss. There was no problem, everything was fucking fine the way it was.
Walking round his property that afternoon, he could still see the pillar of smoke rising from Wyre’s land. It gave him a sense of quiet satisfaction to know that he had finally torched the cunt, imposed the law on him and God help him if he came back for revenge. Or if he came back at all.
“There’s a natural way,” he told himself. “And I’m part of it, I do what I have to do preserve my way of life.”
No doubt about it, if he saw Wyre again he’d finish the job. The police wouldn’t concern themselves, the police wouldn’t even ask. They knew about the natural way, they were decent guys; they could appreciate the problem of having a cunt like Wyre in your midst.
To celebrate, Arty went into a caravan where one of the wives lived. Her name was Carmen and she had a body like a well-fed sow and an appetite for whatever came her way, and a disinclination for making complications where there weren’t none. Arty didn’t like to exert himself too much, and afterwards he’d always leave a hundred bucks on the table and no one ever said a word about it.
It was the natural way.
When evening came, as Arty had predicted, there was a quiet consensus in the bar that Wyre had got his due.
The applause was silent; but he heard it as he walked in, saw it in the hunched backs of the Oilers sitting over their drinks.
He eased his buttocks onto his stool and waited for his hot chocolate.
“You got any idea where he got to?” said the barman.
“Who?” said Arty, playing indifferent.
“You know who.” The barman smiled, tickled. “He brought his camels along for the ride. I went down to have a look myself. You left the critter-house standing.”
Arty sneered. “That’s the mark of the man, I guess. He had himself some good land down there, could have been rich. But in the end he’ll lay down to die with his camels…”
“He could have had it all, could have had a Carmencita too!” someone said, with a chuckle. “Right, Arty?”
“That’s one thing he couldn’t have, and I made sure of it!” said Arty with a grin, then looked up and addressed everyone in the room. “You know, guys, we don’t get any sport any more, we should pack up a couple of crates and get out there and find ’em and lay ’em to rest.”
There was a long silence and then someone piped up from the back: “Why the fucking bother? Just let the desert do it…”
And as soon as Arty heard this, he knew it was something personal that made him want to go out there and find Wyre. The other guys were right: better to let the desert do it. Why raise an arm when there was no need for it?
As he walked home, sedated, bloated by the chocolate and whipped cream, Arty knew that he had to go out and find the only man who had ever put a thistle-head under his skin.
Even though his house was burned down and Wyre was a refugee in the most arid place on earth, Arty Simpleton wasn’t quite satisfied; ’cuz all the most important truths had to be told in blood.
By the time the sixth day came along, Henrietta and Wyre knew each other better than either had bargained for.
Wyre knew she was reassured about his being a harmless eunuch. It annoyed him that his deformation should be a solace to her.
Henrietta, with a tendency to be pedantic, had picked out a quality in him that she found objectionable, a quality she had also discerned in the denizens of Oil Town. They were like boulders slowly rolling down a muddy stream. They scrabbled, they rolled and changed direction in a higgledy-piggledy fashion; sometimes they spent a hundred years in a slimy pot-hole; but the bottom line was they couldn’t change direction.
Oilers had an intractable reluctance when it came to change. Fatalists! What will be will be. That was their endless truth.
To Henrietta, who had studied philosophy at one of the few remaining universities still offering the course in those days, there was something fascinating about the moral inversion at work here. You took good human qualities: steadfastness, determination, conviction. But when you applied these same qualities to some dirty Oiler sitting like a parasite by his oil well, something happened.
To put it bluntly, the good started working for bad.
The years had passed and the Oilers had never done anything but sit there looking at the nodding pump jacks saying “yes” to their indolence, “yes” to the drought and dirt and famine, “yes” to indifference.
If only pump jacks could learn to shake their heads and say “no;” but they couldn’t.
And Wyre was no different. The man had set himself against his neighbors and friends. At the same time he had spent his life lazily wallowing in the grimy dollars brought in by his drilling and pumping.
But all the time, he’d been longing for a reason to get out. Henrietta knew that she had been his exit sign, and she vaguely resented it. You shouldn’t let other people get your kicks for you. No, you shouldn’t…
The mountains had loomed up two days earlier.
As they drew closer, they were surprised to find quite large numbers of wild camel approaching their camp. One of Wyre’s camels was in heat, which attracted the rampant attentions of a large bull with a dangling, enflamed member between its hind legs. Only when Wyre flung a large rock, hitting it square in the forehead, did it turn round and gallop off with huge strides. In the olden days he would have caught it and brought it home for breeding purposes. Wyre had a love of these animals; but he had never seen them in such abundance. Most Oilers had never even seen their tracks.
So, on that sixth day as they made their fire in a rocky gully, Wyre sat worrying about how to get his camels up the slopes; or, if not, where to leave them.
The vehicle would have to be parked up and camouflaged; for he knew there was a good chance they’d be followed. This was one of the things he had not told Henrietta, one of the many things he had not told her. She was from a more disengaged world, where violence was random and meaningless. Out here in the desert, human beings had a taste for revenge that lay far beyond her scope of comprehension.
They slurped their dehydrated soup and rice as the sun went down. Oddly enough, there were also a few mosquitoes, and they swatted them with a sense of wonder.
Henrietta, aware of his disquiet, grew impatient with his silence. “Just spit it out!” she said. “Don’t stew on it.”
“I don’t waste my words,” he said.
“If you treat me like a human being, we might be able to come up with a good answer. I’m not stupid; I may not know the desert like you do but I have a brain, I’m capable of deduction, if you see what I mean. I can see the problem here. We can’t bring camels into the mountains, I’m aware of that. We haven’t brought ropes or climbing gear and neither of us are Alpinists. I’m aware of that too. You see..?”
He met her gaze, and reflected on how he preferred her now that her rosy skin, her creamed-up fragrant skin, had turned brown and filthy like his own.
Henrietta was almost beginning to look like an Oiler’s wife.
Wyre let his eyes linger on the shoulders of the mountains, painted brown and grey in the last few rays of the sun hanging onto the horizon. He even saw a few bats flitting over the slopes, and again he marveled at the wealth of the wildlife in this place.
Then he took a deep breath and addressed her; while somehow regretting that he was not alone to enjoy the magical evening. “Okay. You got it. That’s it. So what’s to discuss?”
“Well, there’s the small matter of a decision!” said Henrietta. “First you define the problem, then you draw a conclusion about the way to deal with it.”
“If you want to know,” said Wyre, “I’m not a big believer in discussion. I like things to settle. They do if you let ’em, if you don’t talk ’em to bits.”
Henrietta, just for once, decided to let it rest.
She was tired, the day had been long and filled with overbearing heat.
Wyre’s answer disappointed her; she had hoped he would be someone to talk to and respect. Never before had she met someone so determined not to share anything.
But as soon as the sun slipped below the horizon, and a cold wind swept up all the debris from the surface of the desert and channeled it up into the gullies of the old, patient mountain, she wrapped herself in her blanket and said:
“Well, if you want to know what I think…”
“I don’t,” he said.
“…We take a couple of packs, maybe thirty or forty kilos each; we hobble the camels, there’s enough grazing here to keep them going a couple of days. If we don’t find the bone people we’ll come back.”
“If we don’t find the bone people there’s nothing to come back to,” said Wyre. “They’re living on something…and we have to hope we can eat what they eat, sleep where they sleep.”
High-altitude cirrus blew in, burnished pink; like seaweed floating on a current of water.
Higher up the slope, they heard the yelp of an animal, but it was drowned out by the whistling sound of the wind; the plains lay pining before them, great swathes of flat land veined with dry riverbeds, untidily piled-up rocks and breathlessly graceful dunes, almost like shapes invented on a computer screen: sweeping, smooth lines rising up against the darkening skies.
“You know, Wyre, the purpose of all this is that someone should come along and put it into language. Otherwise humans have nothing to do on this earth. Language is all we’ve got. We have to learn to do something good with it.”
He guffawed. “Yeah right…”
“I thought you admired your ancestor, Jeremiah…the bookish man?”
“I like him pretty well, but he talked too much. People always talk too much, and that’s why I’m done with ’em.”
She sniffed that fatalism she’d noticed before. “I’m not like you, you know,” she said, her hackles rising just slightly. “It’s not the end for me. I have a life to go back to.”
She listened to her own words; they seemed to hang in the air for a while, before the wind caught them and blew them away.
Wyre shook his head, slightly impatient with her obtuseness; but he made his voice as gentle as he could and he addressed her by name. “Henry… I don’t think you have anything to go back to any more than I do…”
And, when Henrietta reflected on Wyre’s cautious reproof, she knew there was truth in it. Obviously she could go back to her life in the city. She’d only have to navigate back to the road, ten or twenty miles away from Oil Town, and send someone to pick up her van. And then drive home – bingo, problem over.
But now more than ever she knew it would be little more than a temporary solution to a problem as yet undefined. She would sit in her two rooms with a view for a few months, would decamp in the mornings to the office; then, before you knew it, the itch would be back, the itch of wondering whether this was really the best thing she could be doing with her life. And then it would start all over again: the break-out schemes.
Her editor, luckily for her, had been patient with her; but his patience would run out. Flats could not really be sold at a good price these days; only land had value. And jobs had value. If she walked out on hers, she would turn herself loose into a world where she had nothing. Her parents were dead, and they had only left her debts and a small house on the outskirts of Baltimore, which had recently been declared unfit for human habitation, on account of constant flooding. It would not take long before she was marooned in some godforsaken settlement more or less like Oil Town.
Her sleep was intermittent until dawn, when she woke with an aching back, opened her eyes and saw a man on the other side of the gulley. The blood rushed to her head, she thought it was Arty Simpleton; until she realised this was a tall, very slender man, balancing on one leg with his other foot resting against the side of his knee, making a perfect triangle in the air like a Sri Lankan fisherman. He had a long bow slung over one shoulder, and his skin was covered in what looked like ash and soil.
She sat up abruptly, smacking her head against a boulder she’d been sleeping under. By the time she refocused on the spot, the bone man had gone.
When she turned towards Wyre, on the other side of their extinguished fire, he was not there; his things were gone, his sleeping bag and backpack.
And in that moment she heard an engine from the bottom of the slope and she saw the four-wheel drive and trailer bumping along, with the two camels in tow by long leashes.
Henrietta sat down hard and crossed her legs and thought to herself that this was it, even Wyre the Eunuch had failed her, had some obscure reason for hating her, for abandoning her to die in this place, without possible cause, without anything but the inexplicable cruelty of life as the yardstick.
She decided not to move, to sit here and wait for nothing to arrive.
Waiting for nothing…would seem to be the one thing she had never tried.
Twenty minutes later Wyre came tramping up the hill and retrieved his backpack from behind a rock. “Sorry,” he said, “I decided to hide it better, the vehicle I mean. I found a canyon and drove it in and put some camouflage netting over it.”
“What are you so afraid of?” she said, feeling herself hostile.
“I’m not afraid, I’m cautious,” said Wyre, and as he spoke the words she noticed he was carrying a rifle.
“I’m not going into these mountains with you carrying a weapon!”
There was a stand-off. He’d never heard such a thing! “We always bring our guns,” he said.
“Oh, it’s we now is it? We the Oilers. Me and my brothers…?”
He paused, slightly crestfallen. “No, I’m not an Oiler.”
“Well actually you are, Wyre. You’re a born and bred Oiler and you never did a stroke of work your whole life except turn a tap and sell what came out of the ground, sell what was not yours to sell.”
“If it wasn’t mine, whose was it?” he said with a tiny bit of heat.
“Things don’t have to belong to people,” she said. “This mountain doesn’t belong to anyone, does it?”
“Only ’cuz no one wants it.”
“Oh but I’m sure someone would want it if they could sell it. There’d be a town here and lots of stupid little fucks like you getting up with their chisels and hammers, hammering away like proper little foremen every day…and then they’d get some fucking big machines and flatten the whole thing…”
“What the hell’s the matter with you?”
“I’m just tired of people putting value on the wrong things,”said Henrietta. “And no, I’m not going into these mountains with you carrying a gun.”
“Why the hell not?”
Her lip trembled. She didn’t want to tell him, didn’t want to divulge what she had seen – the slender, graceful bone man – because some notions are crazy and cannot be shared, they can only be stuck to and believed until the bitter end, when their truth emerges.
“Because guns are for shooting people. And we’re not here to shoot people – are we, Wyre?”
“What about food? You’ll be glad of the gun if I get lucky and find some game. We might see some wild goats!”
“Wild goats, oh come on!” she said, on the point of bursting into exasperated laughter. “If there were wild goats here you and your fat pals would have shot them all years ago. It’s a wonder there are camels here. I guess it’s only because the big-deal oil men are too lazy to travel this far. There’s nothing left, Wyre, no trees or plants or flowers or water or birds…or goats. Nothing! You took it all…Now leave your fucking gun or I’m not walking another step!”
She sat down.
Wyre was dumbfounded…until he realised that if he did see some wild game he could always come back for the gun later.
“Well okay, then,” he said. He’d always prided himself on his sparse use of language, and he wanted to accommodate her, after all she’d been through. Because she stood for a point of principle, and, although Wyre didn’t have much use for people, he did understand principles.
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