This is the eighth 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 Exxon Years. 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, Part 6, Part 7.
After her first sighting she did not see them any more. The bone men, or people, or whatever she should call them, kept out of view and did not give themselves away.
As they climbed into the mountain, more mountains came into view, and she realised this must be a whole chain, a system of peaks and troughs and valleys.
They walked up a dry river-bed; camped in it, slept; continued. As they went, they noticed more and more grass, bushes, cacti.
Wyre was clenched and tense, constantly regretting leaving his gun behind. That gun could have been an important survival tool.
And when they suddenly heard running water and went round a bend and saw bushes and even a few trees growing alongside a spring that came gushing out of the ground, he turned to Henrietta and said: “I told you there’d be game.”
She ignored him and ran forward, submerging her face in the cold water and drinking!
Without quickening his steps he joined her, sinking to his knees and cupping his hands in the clear water.
He stood up, touched one of the leaves on the trees, a certain wonder evident in his voice. “Alder!” he said. “Good wood.”
They continued, and as they went round the next bend they both stopped in amazement. The river-valley was steep and narrow, but the entire floor was covered in trees and vegetation.
After all their exertions and thirst and loneliness in the huge wasteland, they grabbed each other’s arms and stood there overwhelmed on the threshold. That’s when they saw the bone people all round them; tall, slender, motionless. Their bodies were decorated with beads and shells and wooden seeds. The men were at the front, with spears and bows. The women stood behind them, their breasts hanging free; some held children in their arms or in slings on their backs.
Henrietta looked at their faces: some were gnarled and old and haunted. Some were young and fresh and ready for childbirth. Some were hard, some were soft.
The bone people were people, just like Oilers or anyone else.
But none of them moved. None of them betrayed the slightest intention of any kind. She did not know if they wanted to embrace or feed her, kill or starve her.
And then it dawned on her that they had not decided.
As Arty drove, and the desert took him into its bosom, his spirits rose; he realised that in fact he was seeking out Wyre not to kill him, perhaps, but clear up a few things between them, things that had built up over a lifetime. If Wyre was reasonable about it and said sorry, Arty would take it in good spirit; not bury the hatchet in his head.
Clarity was good. Oilers did not dwell on things, they said their piece and if there was anything still rankling, did what had to be done.
If you had to resort to violence, so be it. There was no room for remorse, certain things just had to be done.
The constant grinding up and sliding down the sand dunes cleared his mind, and he told himself he was enjoying this; realizing with a jolt of annoyance that Wyre had again figured out something before he’d even thought about it. This desert, which he’d avoided all his life, was a place to come when you wanted to be free of the pernicious presence of other humans.
His vehicle was a recent acquisition. He had air conditioning in there, and a cooler between the seats, which he’d packed with Cola and beer. He was also carrying close to three hundred liters of fuel and the same amount of water – he even had a small bunk in the back, with an electric heater for the nights, so he figured whatever happened he’d be fine. He’d sleep well. And if anyone came bothering him in the hours of darkness, he also had a heavy-bore shotgun, a semi-automatic rifle, a couple of stun grenades, infra-red night vision binoculars – all locked in a gun cupboard which he’d got Scot to bolt into the wall beside his little kitchenette.
Basically, he was set up for anything other than an aerial bombardment.
And thus when he made his first camp that day, he enjoyed getting out a slab of frozen beef and putting it in the microwave, stirring up some mashed potato from a sachet of powder, and adding plenty of butter and chopped parsley.
He didn’t leave the vehicle after darkness had fallen and kept the doors closed. If there was any truth in this bone people bullshit he wasn’t going to take any chances. He slept snug as a wintering larva in his bunk, rising just before dawn and continuing on his way. Satellite navigation systems did not work anymore, things like that were all broken nowadays thanks to the world banking crisis. But at least he had the old map, which he’d glued down on a piece of stiff plasticized board; he’d taken a reading from the tracks he’d seen a few days earlier, leading away from Wyre’s house. And he had a compass on the dashboard, so that at any moment he could turn round and keep going in a straight line until he hit the road, running south-west to north-east.
Most likely he’d find no one out here.
He’d drive around for a few days, then come home, satisfied at least that he’d tried his best.
After a few weeks he’d head out again, he’d never give up until he found them, dead or alive. The most likely thing, Arty knew, was that he’d chance on their vehicle somewhere, abandoned and half-buried. And then, thirty or forty or fifty kilometers further on, a couple of mummified corpses in the sand. He’d take ’em back and put ’em in the cemetery, Wyre would be all alone there, alone in death as he’d been in life. As for the journalist…whether she deserved to have her final resting place in Oil Town was a matter for debate; some might argue that her bones should be tossed away somewhere by the side of the road.
Of course, if he found ’em alive it would be a much trickier matter. By experience, Arty knew he might be sorely tempted to dispatch them both at a distance, without any words or eye contact. His assault rifle could take out a man at eighteen hundred metres, accurately if there was no wind.
Justice should be like this, swift and instant.
A few of his workers had been dealt with in this way, on a few occasions; untrustworthy types who’d helped themselves to his things, or sold oil behind his back for personal gain.
On the third day, in the evening, Arty started seeing wild camel critters more or less at the same time as he spotted the mountains on the horizon.
He took a reading and wrote down their position, so that he’d be able to come back one day with more people and explore the place with better security.
After parking up and frying himself a steak, Arty put a folding chair in the sand and amused himself by shooting a couple of camels. He concentrated on the calves, ’cuz as everyone knows young meat is always better than old. But in practice, after hacking off a haunch of one of them, he couldn’t be bothered to skin the thing or wash off the gore, so in the end he just rinsed his hands and let the dead critters lie where they’d fallen.
The next day when he awoke he had a sense of urgency about him; and he drove without even breakfasting towards the mountains, hitting seventy-five miles an hour at one point and jumping the dunes almost as if he was driving a sand-buggy and not a three-ton truck. He slowed down after the first mighty jolt, however—he didn’t want to deal with a broken wheel-axle out here.
Before he knew it, he was driving into a gorge with steep bastions rising up on either side.
He saw Wyre’s camels grazing on some light scrub – he recognized them by their hobbled legs. Something about their long, stupid legs annoyed him, bringing back all his resentment about Wyre’s strange ways. He wasted no more time on it. Took up his rifle and put a bullet through each of the dumb animals’ skulls. They went down like fucking tree trunks – apple tree trunks! – and he knew that from now on, his mission was to hunt Wyre down and obliterate him.
As he stood there feeling his painful broken toe, he made a personal resolution to go back to Wyre’s house and demolish the foundations properly, then rake over the ground with a tractor and plant something there – cactus trees, perhaps? Something to cover up the remains of the dwelling from where so much bad shit had come.
His resolution clarified his thinking. When he found Wyre’s old rusty crate hidden under an overhang, he doused it in petrol and put a match to it. As he stepped back, Arty realised with some satisfaction that even if he did not find Wyre and the bitch, they would be stranded here with nothing to eat or drink and no transportation to get ’em back to civilization.
The car was burning really well and Arty had let his gloating get the better of him. When it blew, he was standing way too close. Even worse, the fucking prick had left his ammo inside and a couple of bullets whizzed past, one of them narrowly missing Arty’s head. Fuck!
After making his preparations, rinsing his stitched-up ears with surgical spirit and tightening the bandage on his broken toe – Arty took his rifle and a few other items and headed up the slope. Cunts like Wyre shouldn’t be allowed to live. No doubt about it, when he saw his crooked back toiling away on some godforsaken slope, heading god-knew-where to do fuck-knew what, he’d take aim and pull the trigger. The only thing bothering Arty was that after Wyre had gone, he wouldn’t be able to follow him any more – even though his revenge was incomplete and always would be. In cases where a dead man crosses over to the other side and a living man wants to stay with him and keep the conversation going, there’s a problem.
No one through the entire history of the world had ever learned how to deal with the other side.
Which bothered Arty a good deal. Because when all was said and done, Wyre was at least very good entertainment.
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