The Moving Skeletons
By Alan Chains
Copyright © 2016 Alan Chains.
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing from the author, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.
Cover Design by Fryto
In the misty softening of a starchy night, six skeletal figures could be spotted staggering under the monochromatic moonlight. They trekked through the mountain along an obscure trail, their scraggly teeth chattering mechanically and their unfeeling bones chipped and chafed at the joints.
“Look at our footprints, Fay,” one of them mused. “People will think these are the footprints of impossibly strange birds, won’t they?”
“Yes, and they are going to send people here to investigate. They will make a documentary about it even though the highly beguiling title and essential fabrication of it will produce the antithesis of a documentary.” These uttered words blew back through Fay’s hollow skull and into another skeleton’s nostrils.
“Series,” the skeleton behind them offered. “It could be a series of documentaries.”
“Good as dead. Good as dead,” another skeleton muttered.
A branch snapped, spooking the paranoid lot. They heard crispy cracking sounds as they turned every direction to heed the imaginary prowlers.
“ Calm yourself,” a hunchback skeleton snapped pointedly at the most frightened fellow. “There is nobody around. Why, people don’t simply pop up out of the blue, in the middle of nowhere, in the dead of the night. Get yourself together, Clifford. You are the reason we are risking our remains in this frigid place in the first place. A shadow glides by the window, and you swore you saw a person. Why, Clifford? Why would a person haunt you? What’s her name- Jane, Janice, Jamie? Why would she haunt you for this little affair that you had when you were wee little kids?”
“ Shh!” Clifford hissed, putting his index phalanges over his teeth. “Do not say her name- she could be summoned if she was to hear us. Anyway, it’s a sin. I should’ve never coveted her cookies.”
“Good as dead. Good as dead,” one of the previous skeletons stuttered.
The echoing repetition put the rest of the pack back into silence. They stayed close to each other and hiked falteringly for another mile before coming to a stop in a small open space in the forest.
“This will do. We will light a fire here,” the hunchback skeleton went by the name of Bryson commanded.
“Good, good,” just as the others thought he was going to stutter again, that particular skeleton began to make sense. “Wind is weak here, like a clear whistle that breezes through my holes each morning. We should rest here for a while before moving forward, I agree.”
The skeletons started making a bonfire together. They made a little pit with pebbles and rocks and piled dry twigs at the center. As the group scoured in the vicinity in search of logs to burn, two of them started arguing. It was Clifford again with his questions and restlessness.
“ Why, what is your problem? I’m merely picking up a piece of wood here- lengthy, firm, smooth, sustainable, perfect for our fire pit.”
“That is my femur!” Seethed Bryson between two rows of grinding teeth. “I put it there as we were getting settled down just now. It is my war femur!”
“Your what?” Clifford snorted, the blackness in his hollow orbits stared deeply into the other’s abyss. “Even if it’s not a stick, I don’t see why we can’t burn it.”
“ This is my war femur!” Bryson announced sonorously, wielding his femur like a mace. “I lost a leg in an explosion in the war, but I swooped it up as I was being evacuated. This was buried with me, and I’d lain there with it like a medieval soldier did with his sword- a token of his gallantry. When I decided to see the world again, I took the token with me.”
“Yes, but you don’t have a need for it,” Clifford retorted emphatically. “Your prosthetic leg works just fine, doesn’t it? Why don’t you let us burn your femur?”
Before a brawl went down, the two saw a large bonfire being lit in the pit and gave up their discord readily. The pack enjoyed another moment of silence at the campsite before someone picked up a previous topic.
“I thought she was awfully sweet, that girl you were talking about. She looks for you because she can’t bear to believe that you are dead, doesn’t she? Does she bring flowers to your grave?”
“Yes, she does,” Clifford admitted.
“Do you like those flowers? Are they your favorite?”
The skeletons talked some more with total openness and honesty as they found it refreshingly liberating. It turned out that “Bryson” was, in fact, an alias that was being used posthumously by a mercenary. While the group was shocked by the revelation, there was nothing they could or would do about it. They knew fully well that he had given up on all worldly pursuits, just like them, and all of them shared one goal: to march.
“As I lay there, I thought numerous times about getting out. The only thing is, I knew my old unit wouldn’t want me back, and nobody would recruit me,” Bryson began to say. “Without being able to do what I do best, I am no use to anyone. I suppose that’s what keeping most of us underground, even those who once had the strongest will to strive.”
The skeletons sitting in a circle by the bonfire all appeared to be reflecting; such was the image their look often intended to project. Shortly, one of them unhinged his jaw in agreement.
“Yes, I suppose you are right,” he said and put his lengthy fingers on a kneecap of the skeleton sitting to his right who had a massive pelvis and remained silent during the entire journey. “But Bree and I would not have left if we weren’t dead. We bought a house in a nice neighborhood not far from where we met you lot, and our minds were set on spending the rest of our lives there. It all seemed so perfect at first, then the niceties of it all began to deteriorate. First we received several reports of water contamination, but we trusted they’ve got it under control. Then Bree got sick, and it was all bad timing because our local hospital was being torn down and we convinced ourselves that we could simply drive to the hospital in the neighboring town. By the time she recovered, I had got a report saying that our house contained an overabundance of lead and termites. That further cemented our root there because it meant we couldn’t sell our house for a decent price. For the next twenty miserable years, we were keeping up a facade to deceive nobody but ourselves. At last, we were finally dead.”
“Yes, my dead dear,” Bree finally spoke, and it was ever so softly as it was wistful. “We are finally free from the house.”
“I didn’t think you would care to speak,” Fay blurted as he took a good look at her. He was convinced that she must have been a mystical woman. Even as they were warming themselves by the fire, the way she tightly wrapped herself in her dark, ethnic shawl she was buried with was enchanting, almost demure.
“I apologize,” Bree said, letting her mandible hang. “I’m never used to social situations, forgive me.”
“She’s quite self-conscious, because of her pelvis, you see,” the husband excused, comforting the skeleton by shifting closer to her.
“Oh!” A light bulb went on in Fay’s head and he continued impetuously. “You mean she was a rather large woman.”
He took a closer look. Her suggestive frame was the size of her husband, yet her shyness made her look more somber and brittle, if it was possible.
“Yes, I was,” Bree mustered all her courage to say. “I was three times the size of my husband in the flesh.”
“You don’t look it!” Fay exclaimed, eager to please. “You could be the thinnest lady I know with a large pelvis. Truthfully, you two look about the same.”
As insensitive as his remark was, it had good intention and provided minute comfort for the group. The deceased, hunchback, moody mercenary Bryson meant to scowl, but everyone misinterpreted it as a smile. As Bree, the unfortunate housewife with an abnormally large pelvis became relaxed, she began finding some of her chatty self.
“So, what is your story?” She turned to the fitful stutter.
“I haven’t a story to tell,” he sounded aloof, yet despair poured from his cavernous mouth.
“ Come on, mystery man. Tell us your story,” Bree encouraged, putting a hand on his shoulder- only to be gently swatted away.
“Fine,” he agreed bitterly but not before pausing for eternity to look at the skeletons sitting around the bonfire, the orange glimmer that highlighted the edges of their contour and sparks that flew into their sockets and vanished there. At last, he began to talk.
“ I can only tell you half of the story,” he let out a sigh. “The other half lies somewhere in these mountains. I wouldn’t have come here alone, for this is where she died- my companion, my love. We came here in our flesh, such hot young flesh and determined to conquer the mountains. We were so foolish; we brought no provision, no tent or blanket or food or water for the night. All we had were giggles and bravados that soon died with the fall of the night. And the trail grew longer the more we trekked; the summit became taller, insurmountable with every step that we gained. And suddenly I heard a thud not five feet behind me followed by a sharp scream. I reached out to grasp, but her life was yanked away. Frantic and desperate, I turned every direction, howled her name and tried to search in the dark. As I lowered my glance, a pair of terrifying red eyes rose from the ground and pierced through mine, and I was so frightened that I started to cry. So I turned around and ran. Crying, I thought about her ripped body laying on the ground waiting to be gnawed on by that wolfish beast and ran some more. Still crying, I thought about the pack that could be hunting with it and ran faster than I thought I could. By the time I saw light, I heard the beast howling back to me, triumphant or mocking, and yet another faint scream from a great distance. I slipped into frenzy, but I did not go back. I told myself- it was good as dead. Good as dead. My feet stamped my shame and terror onto the snowed ground as I walked toward the little town, but I never made it there. As far as I know, nobody found me either. The next time I woke up, the world was white as ever, but the cold had gone, and I-”
A small voice echoed weakly in disbelief, but Stutter meant to finish his half of the story.
“All I could think of was to go back and find her. But I-”
The other voice became resolute.
“This isn’t my war femur!”
The skeletons halted in the presence of an overarching Bryson and the femur in his hand.
“Good grief, show some respect!” Clifford said.
“This isn’t MY war femur!” Bryson thundered again.
Attempting to calm him, it was Bree who noticed something and began to grasp it all. She lost her shawl and seized the femur, laying it in her hands for everyone to see.
“This is a woman’s femur,” she declared.
The skeletons immediately turned to look at each other, but they could not decipher each other’s expressions. In the end, it was not at all lost on them.
“She’s here!” Stutter stood, and everyone who still sat stood. “By God, she’s here!”
And no more needed to be said. Each one drew a piece of long wood from the pit to hold up as a torch, and the pack swarmed behind Bryson as the veteran made his way to where he’d laid down his bone. He found it exactly where he’d left it and placed the two bones beside each other. Then the skeletons got to work.
They reached blindly everywhere, digging up stick-like figures as soon as they felt them in the snow. With great apprehension, they poked their hands into tree holes. They shook the white sheets off of trees and bushes, hoping a skull would fall out. There were entirely too many sticks lying around, and in these woods winter was eternal. Damning was the moonlight, working against the torchlight and concealed her whereabouts. Punishing was the wind, snuffing their fire altogether and wheezed grim warnings in their phantom ears. Consuming was the melancholy, swallowing the skeletons whole. The forest smelled of cold decay and loss. But they could sense it. Someone was here, silent but screaming.
The skeletons scattered to search some more. The moon has had enough of their travesty and began to retreat, or perhaps it was the more sympathetic sun that forced it out of the picture. In any case, the day broke early. With the first glimmer of light, the skeletons began to make out better shapes in the world. All the sudden, they heard a cry from afar, and each looked further into the horizon.
There, he found her. Missing just a femur, her frame was otherwise intact. Her head was facing sideways, and her death was final. The skeletons rushed to his side but didn’t know what to do.
“What do you want to do?”
“They took her leg first, and then finished her back here,” he said catatonically, brushing her remains softly and removing the icy powders off of her bones.
The friends waited a moment for acceptance to sink in.
“What do you want to do?”
“Is there anything more grotesque than death?” Clifford sat beside him.
“Memory.” Bree knelt, too.
“Vivid.” Her husband joined her.
“Prayer won’t help,” said Bryson, then walked off to retrieve the femurs.
And Fay waited some more.
“We agreed to not let our past shackle us anymore,” he finally bent a knee as well. “We promised ourselves to move forward. This is the other half of your story, the closure you have been looking for. Now we bury her, and we keep moving forward.”
“Please… not here. I-I-” The stuttering returned. “I can s-see the red trail she left behind. It was here. Y-you’ll see. The grass underneath is red, their roots remember. Those beasts, th-they, they. They tore the life out of her, and every fiber of her being terminated as they sank their fangs, and she shut down. Concussion, contusion, incision, avulsion, intrusion, revulsion, profusion, confusion, illusion, contortion, convulsion, exhaustion, despair, then dying. That’s why sh-she looked away.”
He picked up the skull but was shattered the moment he faced its front as if he saw her visage.
“You said you were going to climb on top of some mountains,” Fay said to him. “Let’s bury her there. On the summit.”
“Would that make you feel better?” Bree asked gently.
Stutter nodded slowly.
“Because you don’t want to be left here alone, do you?” Clifford patted on his shoulder.
“No.” Stutter said firmly and lifted his gaze from the skull. “I don’t want to be left alone.”
“You won’t. We will move forward together.”
A long pause.
“What if she wants to find us? I mean, what if one day she decides to move on?” He caressed it.
“We will leave her a note.” A voice said behind them. It was Bryson who had returned.
“Saying what?” Stutter turned to him.
“To find us in the world.”
The dewy morning further decomposed the moving skeletons as they staggered toward an undefined destination. Seclusion, corrosion, repression, reversion, depression, impulsion, emersion, evasion, elusion, confession, compassion, redemption, salvation, then living.