This is the final installment 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. In this shocking conclusion, Wyre, Henrietta and Arty finally come in contact with the legendary Bone People. Click these links to read the earlier chapters of "The Bones": Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8.
After they’d followed the stream around a few more bends in the valley, the mountains opened up and there was a flat plain a couple of kilometers across with agricultural land and orchards; and forested slopes.
They walked with bone men behind them, to their sides, and in front.
Everywhere they heard running water in irrigation channels; frequently they crossed little wooden bridges over dikes; sometimes children would run alongside, speaking in an odd whistling language of clicks and harsh guttural sounds.
People sat in the fields, weeding, planting, harvesting.
No one seemed to look at them. Their captors were impassive, their faces almost inhuman, their bodies hard and covered in tattoos.
Wyre was furious, calling out to her over his shoulder: “So you got what you wanted! Now you can write your article.”
“I’m not writing any goddamn article!”
Wyre snorted. “You’re damned right, ’cuz you probably won’t live out the night.”
She swallowed, and then managed to say: “Anyway, Wyre, you also wanted to find them, too. At least that’s what you said.”
“Not like this,” he said under his breath. “I wanted to come as an equal. With my gun.”
“But you’re not an equal, are you?”
They were taken to a bamboo hut, stripped of their clothes and locked up inside.
So this was her fate, Henrietta thought. Naked with a eunuch, locked up in a shed by natives.
Would there soon be drums, would she be lowered into a boiling cauldron?
Wyre started slapping his forehead: “Oh shit!” he cried. “Shit, shit, shit…Why did I do this? I could have stayed at home with my oil well and my camels and my books!”
“You know something, Wyre, you’re starting to remind me of Arty; and that’s pretty damned apt, because in the final analysis that’s what you are: a dirty old Oiler with a foul mouth…”
There was a long silence and then Wyre answered: “Yeah, that’s right. I’m not a stuck-up cunt from the city who has raw fish for dinner.”
The hours passed; night fell.
There was almost no conversation, until Wyre, who’d cooled down, reminded her that he was the one who’d had the balls to give her a chance when she came to Oil Town; he’d spent his life resisting the other Oilers, not falling in with their ways. “I’m not like them,” he said. “I’m different.”
And she responded that he was just the same as them – in fact he was the very worst kind of person, a fifth columnist waiting for someone like her to come along so he could sell them out. “In the end, Wyre, it’s not what you say that counts, it’s not what you think either. It’s what you do…That’s what makes a difference.”
“I did plenty.”
“Sure you did, you spent your dumb meaningless life feuding with an imbecile.” She stopped and her thoughts went back to Arty. “I think the only reason Arty went for me was to get at you!”
Wyre nodded in the darkness. True enough. “You reminded him of someone, I’d say.”
Later, when they heard shots ringing out, Wyre nodded again. “That’ll be Arty now,” he said in a matter-of-fact voice. “I knew he’d come for me.”
“Sometimes I think he’s the only friend you’ve ever had,” she said, and was surprised by his answer.
“He was my first friend. Pity he turned out an asshole.”
As light was breaking, the door opened and Arty – butt naked – was thrown inside. He had an ugly wound on the back of his neck and was bleeding heavily. The sound of his bloated white body was like a pig carcass hitting the ground. He groaned, then laughed when he saw them.
“I knew I’d find you,” he said.
“I knew you’d find us, too,” said Wyre. “You stupid bastard.”
Henrietta wasn’t sure, but she suspected Wyre’s eyes were filling up with tears.
Soon after, a repetitious metallic hammering sound could be heard from outside. It continued for hours, and they didn’t know what it was.
“What happened?” Wyre said.
“Oh, you know. I came up here to find you…”
“To finish us off, I suppose?” said Henrietta.
Arty gave her a slow gaze, then said: “Yeah, I figured that was the right thing. Only I ran into these damned…people…whatever they are…I shot four or five of them, I had the semi-automatic, I could have taken out the whole fucking population with no trouble if I’d brought up my grenades…Then they fired a goddamn arrow and hit me in the neck.” He chuckled maniacally. “I didn’t know fucking home-made bows could be that accurate. Remember when we were kids, Wyre, we used to make ’em from reinforcement wire? We couldn’t fucking hit a beach ball at ten yards…”
Wyre didn’t answer.
At about midday they were all brought out. The whole population of the valley was gathered—about three hundred all told, including the children. On the ground outside the hut, a group of warriors were pulverizing Arty’s rifle. They sat in a ring around it with heavy rocks in their hands, smashing at the butt, the magazine, the barrel.
Henrietta and Wyre were frogmarched up a slope on a winding path (Arty was carried on a stretcher behind); they stopped when they reached a terrace where large trees grew, their branches spreading over their heads. In the middle of a clearing stood a house built of white-grayish human bones lashed together like reeds to form four corner-posts and a roof of dark wood, lined with bones beneath. Under the roof of the open-sided building was a smoking fire – a pall of smoke rose through the bunched-up femurs, shins and all manner of other bones.
A sort of smoke-house, one might say. Of the dead.
The bone people sat down all round them, crossing their legs. They seemed reverential, somehow, and Henrietta and Wyre knew better than to say anything.
Arty was less guarded.
“You’re all fucked up!” he laughed. “Fucked, fucked up! Like a goddamn movie!”
A woman went to a ceramic pot simmering over a fire and scooped up a white, frothy liquid into two gourds. She gave one each to Henrietta and Wyre and indicated that they should drink.
“Don’t drink it!” Arty cut in. “Probably poison.”
“Well you’d know all about it!” said Henrietta.
Four strong men picked up Arty, who started hollering and squealing like a large piglet as they carried him into the bone house, where, Henrietta now noticed, there were four ropes hanging down from a pulley system, which they attached to his feet and hands, then winched him up until he was strapped flat against the grotesque ceiling and unable to move.
He hollered for a good while the gentle smoke rose up and caressed his body, sometimes entirely covering and hiding him inside.
From Arty’s perspective there wasn’t much to be seen, but sometimes when the smoke cleared he saw the people down there looking up at him as if he were a god or something.
He knew he’d been a bit of a shit. That’s when it got tricky, ’cuz then you had to deal with the fact that no one liked you and there was a good reason for it – which meant that every mouthful of air you took was a waste of oxygen, and oxygen was sweet, Jesus he knew that now; what he wouldn’t do for a mouthful of air!
In his mind he saw Navel Grange, still standing, and the thought of it filled him with pride. His nephew would come up and Scot would teach him all about drilling and pumping. The tradition wouldn’t die out just because he was passing on. The pump jacks would bob up and down there until the end of human history, and there was nothing these damned bone people could do about it.
The smoke stood round him in clouds. With his arms and legs pinioned to the bones of his fathers and mothers, he felt he was suspended over a hostile world where nothing could live for very long. He coughed and coughed and coughed until he stopped; and didn’t make another sound.
The bone people stood up in perfect silence. Henrietta felt a hand on her shoulder and almost jumped out of her skin. But the hand gently encouraged her to stand up and turned her and Wyre around and pointed at the green fields below; the profusion of greenery was almost overwhelming after the arid desert.
Then they walked down from the mountain.
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