“Where are we going, Daddy?”
David could not look at her. Her eyes were watery blue, brimming with questions. He concentrated on starting the car while he searched for an answer that was not a lie, and he jumped when the wipers came on, sweeping away a season’s dead leaves. Weak November sunlight washed the interior, highlighting the pallor of her face. Her skin had taken on that stretched translucency, a blue vein pulsing gently, snaking up under her thin blond hair. Sophie buckled her seat belt as he had shown her. She did this slowly as if her hands inside her mittens were painful, and then looked up at him expectantly.
David was conscious of the urge to hug her to him, this fragile splinter of a child wrapped in coats and blankets on the seat beside him, but his fear of her condition overwhelmed it. Instead he forced the rusty gear shift into first, released the handbrake and eased the vehicle out into the street. In his rear view mirror Anne McGivern was standing, arms folded around an old 12-gauge, grasping it tightly to her body against the cold wind and the failure of his resolve. Her eyes were hard with determination, masking the sorrow he knew she felt. She was still standing like that, as if frozen, when the car crested the hill on the north road out of town and he lost sight of her.
Sophie asked again, “Where are we going?” This time an edge of anxiety to her voice. “Is Mum coming too?”
Lisa had not come. David reckoned there was not much left to be said anyway. Better this way.
“No sweetheart, Mum’s not coming. It’s just you and me.” His voice sounded strange, thin and hard; brittle as ice, brittle as his daughter’s life.
Grey fields stretched either side of the road, hard earth neglected for so long now, turned to scrub. David drove slowly. The sun was low, sullen; its light hard and baleful. He had to squint around the visor to see the road. Not that there was any danger from other traffic, of course, but he had not driven for some time. It was best to be careful.
Sophie was tired and her breathing deepened, becoming easier, less wheezy as she drifted into sleep. Her head, noticeably swollen, lolled on her shoulder. Listening to her he could almost believe that she was well, that they were both back safe in the arms of the community, back home with Lisa, and that this journey had never been necessary.
Sophie woke as they passed through what had once been a fairly large village, now deserted. She doubled up in a fit of thin coughs. It was all he could do to resist the urge to comfort her, keep his hands on the wheel, keep driving. He was pretty sure the place was deserted but he was not going to stop and find out. Anyone left here would certainly try to kill them once they laid eyes on Sophie.
“There’s a bottle of water on the floor by your feet, sweetheart.” He watched and almost felt the pain etched on her face as she fumbled off her mittens and tried to manipulate the bottle top with those rigid claws that were what had become of her fingers. She managed to gulp a little down but most of it slopped out of her mouth, overspill from her constricted oesophagus.
How long had it been? He counted back two weeks to that day and night when Sophie had gone missing. He remembered spending the entire night holding Lisa close, by turns comforting her and restraining her from leaving the community to look for their child. Not that the others would have let her of course. It was one of the first rules. No one enters, no one leaves. Stay away, stay awake.
They had seemed impressed by his calmness, his composure, the way he held himself together. It was relatively easy once Lisa had eventually succumbed to sleep for him to slip unseen to the car pool. By the time they heard the engine it was too late.
When he returned he got as far as the edge of town before they stopped him. Four shotguns followed him as he slowly climbed out of the car. He could see Lisa. She was weeping and struggling to reach him and Sophie. Anne and Bobby were holding her firmly by the arms.
He appealed to them. He had found Sophie less than a quarter of a mile out of town, fast asleep in a farmhouse. There was no danger, surely. She said she had seen something in the sky, followed it and got lost. That’s all. She had made no contact at all during that time. He didn’t tell them about the delicate doll he had found cradled in the child’s arms. A stylized figure carved from bone, bleached white, light and insubstantial; a featherweight thing. He had crushed it to powdered fragments under the heel of his boot while she slept. She had just found it, she said.
He watched as they conferred. Some were adamant, some were swayed by pity. People he had thought were friends said no, looked away. Others he barely got on with pleaded his case with passion, he guessed for the sake of the child. Eventually they were granted quarantine. Eight weeks. If the symptoms had not shown by then, they could rejoin the community. Eleven days later in his converted police cell they told him that Sophie had begun to complain of headaches and stiff joints. David did not cry then. The loss had been inside him since the night she had disappeared, the tears shed over a mess of bone fragments while his child slept on in her innocence.
In the next cell his daughter was waiting to die, a grotesque and agonized end when it came. He was grateful that she had not been told. Alone in his own cell he waited for the stiffness to creep over him as well; the cancer pervading his marrow, fusing his joints, squeezing the life out of him day by day. He knew it was coming. He had been waiting for it for twelve years.
They had moved out of the city early. He could not have stayed there any longer, waking up every morning certain he could feel it in his legs, in his lungs; then realising that he had been granted one more day’s reprieve. Lisa had called him paranoid but she had assented all the same. That was just the first move of many. Each time they moved further north, became more remote from the population. Lost contact. Towns were becoming more insular, more suspicious of strangers bringing the disease from the south. They had only been adopted into this community because Lisa was pregnant with Sophie by that time. Five years ago.
Having been accepted, they were told the rules. The community was completely self-sufficient in everything: food, water, fuel. There was no necessity for any of them ever to leave. If you did, you did not come back. The only exception was sometimes when someone died. Then volunteers took the body away in one of the cars to be buried a safe distance from the living. They accepted the risks, the enforced quarantine, because every life seemed significant now, precious. This way was more dignified and personal than a cremation; and besides, there were sometimes fragments left after a burning.
To begin with Lisa was there every day talking, crying, just sitting on the other side of the door, being there. She took turns between Sophie and David although she spent most of her time with the child. Sometimes Anne came with her. Anne was really the only person in the community they could call a close friend, especially this last year since Kim died.
During the days before Sophie started showing symptoms, Lisa spent less time with David. The times she did sit with him, were spent in mostly one-sided argument.
“There’s nothing we can do, Lise. It’s the rules.”
“But there’s obviously nothing wrong with you. You’re both clear. They’d know by now if you weren’t. Normal incubation period, seven days, right? Why don’t you make them see that? How can you just sit there and not even try? How can you be so fucking passive?”
“Because I don’t know I’m clear. I don’t know Sophie is. Not for sure. I feel okay, but we have to wait it out. The full eight weeks. I can cope with that.”
“Well how the hell do you think I feel? I just want you back.”
David stopped the car at a fork in the road, trying to remember the direction to take. He had driven this road only once previously in the last five years. It had been night then and they’d had directions. He remembered that journey in the dark. They had seemed to be heading downhill all the way before they reached their destination. He looked out at the contours of the countryside. To the left, the land swept down into a wide glen. David gunned the accelerator and eased the car in that direction.
“Daddy look!” Sophie’s cry was sharp, so unexpected in the long silence that David reacted, stamping the brake pedal, bring the car to an abrupt halt. He looked out of her window, following the line of her crooked finger pointing to the sky above the valley. At first he could not see what she had seen but then it banked away from them and he caught full view of the triangular red sail scudding though the air. It banked full circle and then passed low over the valley floor, vibrant against the drab background. David suddenly understood what Sophie had seen in the sky that day. From a distance she would not have seen the man dangling under the wing, would not have known it was dangerous. She could not know what a hanglider was.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it Sophe?”
“Yes Daddy, it’s pretty.”
Sophie was entranced. They sat in silence watching as the hanglider banked again, a high arc. Then they lost it in the sun. Disappointment lined his daughter’s face as she strained and stretched to find it again, but it was gone. She seemed to shrink back into herself, disappear into the blankets as David started the car once more, ready to move on. Then the hanglider was swooping low over the road. The red material rippled as the contraption turned exposing for a second the skeletal framework and the shape of a man hanging underneath, before it was arrowing away to the left back over the valley again and disappeared.
Sophie had seen the figure, a stranger, triggering the familiar children’s litany. A whispered iteration, “Stay away. Stay awake. Not another soul to take.”
After Sophie had first showed symptoms her health had deteriorated quickly. David had been able to hear her during the night. He had lain awake listening to the coughing and the laboured breathing, feeling frustrated by his isolation and guilty because he was still clear. They were taking less care with him now. Actually coming into the room to deliver his food, staying and talking for longer than necessary. Treating him as if everything were all right. He hated them for it.
Sophie, on the other hand, was a definite risk. They were talking about how to proceed. They told him how much pain she would suffer in the weeks to come; how the illness would change her, deform her; how long she might have left. They told him that the food allocation would be tight enough this winter. Sophie could last as long as March. It would be kinder. It was one of their rules.
Lisa came the day after Sophie was diagnosed. He watched her through the tiny cell window. She looked terrible. Her face was drawn, eyes puffy red smears. She was nervous and distracted, only able to meet his gaze for seconds at a time. She paced back and forward and stammered when she spoke, her voice small as if it came from a long way off.
“You knew, didn’t you? When you found her. You knew then and you didn’t tell me.”
He could only mumble apologies. It was true. He had known it was a real possibility, had resigned himself to it, to his own death as well. But he could have been wrong, couldn’t he? Lisa had had so much hope. How could he have deprived her of that?
After that Lisa stopped coming. Anne came and told him that she was coping very badly with the situation. Her face was wet when she told him that Lisa had consented to let them end it for Sophie. David wept with her. It had been the same for Kim.
Two days later Anne arranged for David to escape into exile with his daughter. She had told Lisa, given her the opportunity to join them, but…
The sculpture was eight feet high. A pale human form, a dancer preparing to leap. It stood alone in the centre of an empty field, too far away to see in detail. It was made entirely of bone.
“It’s like the dolly I found,” said Sophie in awe.
David said nothing, but drove on.
More sculptures became visible as the road wound its way down toward the valley floor. Some were far in the distance, others loomed over the road so close that the definition of the carving was lost.
They rounded a corner on the hillside and David stopped the car. The valley floor spread out in front of them. A wide bowl split by the path of a lazy snaking river. Mostly it had been farmland, now gone wild. Here and there clusters of trees stood naked and exposed in the aftermath of autumn. David reckoned he could see for maybe a mile and a half down the valley from here. The road continued to wind its way among the hills on this side of the valley, ending in the distance at what looked to be a town of some size. They would not be going that far though.
The sight that took his breath away was the sculptures. There were maybe a couple of hundred of them fanning out in all directions over the fields of the valley floor. A pallid delta sweeping down from a focal point which was hidden by the curve of the hillside, but which he knew lay somewhere along this road.
Sophie was also enraptured, more so even than she had been when they had seen the first of the statues. She gazed down over the scene, drinking it all in with wide eyes. David had hoped she would find it beautiful. Anne had suggested it. A place to be at the end.
The scene had the same impact on him the first time. It had been night then, the moon lending its own ghostly sheen to the parade of figures. There was a great stillness but also a strange sense of the potential of animation. He and Anne had sat for hours in silence, the scene bleeding the last of their courage away, robbing them of words and action. Eventually, moved by the slow shift of light heralding the dawn, they had lain Kim’s body by the roadside. They should have taken him all the way but this spot had to be close enough for him to be found.
David reached over into the back and opened up the bundle Anne had hidden in the footwell. Food, not much: bread, cheese and the last of the autumn fruits. An envelope of folded paper containing what he guessed were painkillers, again not many. More blankets were wrapped around binoculars in a leather case, a small knife and a large polythene tub of drinking water. And last, a heavy thing wrapped in cloth. He hid this away under the seat. It would be loaded he knew. Just in case the pain was too much for her, or for him. Just in case he saw things their way after all.
David cut the fruit into small pieces, watching Sophie swallow painfully, and helped her drink some water. Then he opened the binocular case and set the focus for the middle distance. He showed Sophie how to look into them. She held them awkwardly as if they were too heavy. He found himself able to smile at the wonder she expressed at seeing the bone giants up close. He sat back listening to her describing the shapes she saw, enjoying the sound of her voice, enjoying too the tranquillity of the place, and wondering how long they would have here; how long this respite would last.
A sharp rapping broke through layers of sleep, hauled him back to consciousness. Sophie screamed. A face, a man’s, bearded, solemn and wild eyed was pressed up close to David’s window. He jumped, slammed his hand down on the door lock, reached over and did the same on Sophie’s side and drew his daughter to him. The man backed away hands held open in front of him. His expression remained intently serious.
Clinging to him, Sophie calmed down some. They sat like that watching the man who had moved back about fifteen feet. David noticed his mouth was moving like he was saying something. With caution he wound down the window a crack.
“How many days?”
“How many days has she had it?”
Cautiously David answered, “Seventeen. What concern is it of yours?”
The bearded face looked pained.
“It might not be too late. Why don’t you bring her down to my home and I’ll see what I can do?”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ll make her better,” he said, taking a step towards them.
David barked a harsh disbelieving laugh,
“You can’t be talking about a cure. That’s impossible. It’s sick. Get out of here and leave us alone.”
The man did not move but his large frame seemed to sag as if under some unseen weight.
“I shall see her when it’s all over anyway, but it doesn’t have to be that way.” It finally dawned on David who this was. He felt a crawling uneasiness. They called him the Bone Farmer. No one he knew had ever spoken to him, but everyone at the community knew him. It was the Bone Farmer that took care of the dead. They said he was crazy, dangerous. He didn’t look dangerous. He looked lost, exhausted, sad.
The man continued, “Look it’s getting late. At the very least I can offer you both food and warmth for the night. If you want you can leave and spend tomorrow alone together. And the next day, and the next. You’ll have that long at least.”
He was right, David knew. At least they would be able to save on supplies. But he still was not sure. Sophie began to shiver at his side.
“I don’t know.”
The big man sighed again.
“What have you got to lose?”
The Bone Farmer’s place was about half a mile further down the road. The route had taken a sharp turn back into the hillside to navigate a gully. There was a bright stream hurrying down a channel through the scree. They crossed it via a sideless single width bridge. Coming out round the hill once more, the road passed a church, a brooding grey shape clinging to a rocky promontory which jutted out over the valley. The walls, dark and imposing, appeared to be built of the same stone which made up the hillside, giving the impression that the church had been grown rather than built. The leaded windows were high and narrow and the main double doors were solid wood; both of these reinforcing the impression that the church was a natural part of the hill. To one side there was a walled graveyard which sloped steeply away behind the building. The outline of a large tree loomed there, obscured from view by the spire.
The next corner took them back into the hill and steeply downwards. The village to which the church belonged appeared ahead of them, a thin line of buildings extending along both sides of the road. The house closest to them was a little apart from the rest, closer to the church, and was a little higher up the hill. Like the rest of them it was built of the same dark stone as the church, giving it an air of austerity but this one at least showed signs of habitation.
At the man’s instruction David stopped the car beside the manse and with Sophie in his arms he followed him into the building. The man showed him to an upstairs bedroom, cold and musty from disuse, and then left them alone. Sophie was worn out from the journey and without protest allowed her father to lay her on the bed and wrap her under the duvet. The man reappeared then with a glass containing a small quantity of a syrupy liquid and a mug of soup.
“Give her this first,” he said, proffering the glass, “It’s a sedative. And the soup will warm her. I’ll be down in the kitchen.”
Sophie’s eyes, red and sore, were already half shut. David had to shake her gently to wake her enough to drink from the glass he held to her lips. She made a face but swallowed without protest. Sophie was asleep before David had managed even to offer her the soup. He tucked her in and went downstairs.
In the kitchen the Bone Farmer was standing at a black iron range stirring a large pot of soup. A warm meaty smell mingled with wood smoke.
“Want some of this yourself?”
David nodded and sat at the table. The man brought over two bowls and they ate in silence. Finally there was room for conversation.
“Thanks,” said David. “That was good.”
The man just looked at him, grunted. That same intense expression on his face. “Where you from?”
David looked away, examining the surface of the table, the empty soup bowls, wondering how much it was safe to tell the stranger about their community. But he felt the need for suspicion draining out of him. He was tired, he wanted to trust someone.
“Village called Invergourlay. About twenty two miles south west of here on the other side of the ridge.”
“I know it. You got many souls left there?”
“Twenty nine. Not counting Sophe and me.”
Surprise lifted the heavy eyebrows. “That’s quite a few. For round here. How’s your harvest been this year?”
“Not as good as last year. None of us are farmers really, a lot is down to luck. We always find it hard this time of year.”
The bearded head nodded slow agreement.
David asked him, “What about you? How do you manage?”
“I’ve got a few sheep, some chickens, a vegetable garden. I do all right.”
“You’re alone here then?”
“Yes.” Simply put. Not, Yes, everyone else moved on but I stayed behind. The implication was that everyone who had lived here was dead.
Softly David asked, “Did you bury them all?”
The man was no longer looking at him and David could see the weariness showing at the corners of his eyes as if the stern mask had cracked around the edges.
“I bury everyone.”
“How come…” David’s voice tailed off, aware he was delving too deeply into the man’s sorrow. The Bone Farmer already knew the question, however.
“How come I’m not dead as well?” He looked up again at last and his gaze had lost its intensity, his eyes soft bruises. “Would you believe I’m immune?”
In response to David’s reaction, the man’s face stretched into a thin smile.
“Ironic isn’t it? How isolated everyone has become. No-one talks to anyone else. They just struggle along on their own and send their dead to me. No-one takes chances with the sick. Sometimes they throw them out as soon as the headaches start, sometimes they shoot them on the spot. One of the outcasts found his own way here once, looking for somewhere to die. I shared my blood with him and he stayed with me until he realised he wasn’t going to die after all.”
“That’s incredible. And crazy. You can’t just give someone an open transfusion like that. Christ you were lucky. What about blood poisoning? Compatibility? I mean what equipment did you use?”
The man’s expression remained implacable, “It worked, didn’t it? The guy lived here for six months after that.”
“Shit.” Possibilities were blossoming in David’s mind. “What happened to him?”
The intensity was back in the man’s eyes, his voice carried a raw edge.
“He went home to spread the good news. Within a week he was back, dumped at the side of the road. With a bullet hole in his head.”
David felt outrage and amazement well up within him. Too loud, he blurted,
“If you are immune there must be some way to make them listen. You can’t just sit here feeling sorry for yourself, you have to keep trying.”
The man’s eyes flashed angrily for a second, but it faded quickly.
“Maybe you weren’t on sentry duty the last time I tried to tell your town,” he said wearily. He unbuttoned his shirt, opening it fully to show a livid scar which creased the left side of his lower abdomen. “I got this for my trouble. Wasn’t the first time I’ve been hit but if I can help it, it sure as hell’s going to be the last.”
David could only shake his head, “No, look, I’m sorry. If we’d only known…”
The man’s laugh was short and harsh. “Story of my life. Believe me I still try, but what can I do? If I let myself get killed, what then?”
David sat silently absorbing all this. Finally, warily he said, “What about Sophe?”
The man spread his hands before him.
“I meant what I said. I can cure her. I’m no medical man, but I know it works, somehow. She is still young, still growing. The deformities in the bone won’t disappear but they won’t get any worse either. Probably she’ll look better as she gets older. I don’t know. I’m just guessing. Maybe she’ll always move a bit stiffly, find her breathing difficult, but she’s got a better chance than most at a decent life.”
Quietly David said, “I still don’t know. I’ll have to think about it.”
Without replying, David got up and went outside. He was scared about the extent to which he was putting his trust in this stranger, wanting so badly to believe him. Deep in thought he made his way up the curving road towards the church. Evening was coming on, spilling shadows among the hills. The west facing wall of the church glowed in the deepening light like the inside of a kiln, the leaded windows shimmering warmly.
Approaching the church, he walked out onto the rocky promontory, bringing most of the valley into view. To the east the town at the head of the valley was becoming harder to make out, painted out by a wash of twilight. He made his way down the path which led around the church towards the graveyard. As he rounded the corner, he stopped.
The graveyard was a square of ground, thirty yards to a side, surrounded by a crumbling two foot high dry stone wall. Because of the lie of the land it sloped steeply downhill and was bordered at its farthest boundary by what had once been a field. The plots were arranged in regular rows. Closest to the church the grave stones were ancient, worn smooth. More recent stones were further away, and at the very back, simple wooden crosses. The neat rows of crosses continued into the field below the stone wall, spreading out to the sides, curving around the hillside. There had to be at least two hundred plots but David could not see their full extent. They were obscured by the towering shape of the tree.
The tree seemed to have originated at the far end of the original yard, but had long since outgrown it and had in places reduced sizeable portions of the boundary wall to rubble. Its colour, on the whole was pale, yellowy white, tinted pink by the setting sun. Rather than a trunk as such, the main body appeared to be a collection of entwined boles which bifurcated and branched, reaching thirty feet at least into the air, and then split and split again into the slenderest of stems, sweeping down to the ground in the manner of a willow. The roots, a tortured white tangle, twisted and spilled into the earth all around it.
As he got closer, David could see that the roots reached out into the field beyond and then it dawned on him what he was seeing. What he had taken for a tree was in fact an impossible growth of bone, seeded in the graves, rising through the hard earth, turning, shaping it seemed at random, fusing together into the semblance of a trunk and branches, and then splitting off and bending low to the earth again to be absorbed back into the body of the whole. Still closer he began to resolve the vast central mass into a more complex snarl of bizarre shapes: ridges, fans, curving plates and knobs jutting out at all angles.
In many places large sections, some as long as twelve feet, had been hacked away only to be replaced by virgin material. Moving around the tree, David found a large band saw propped against it beside a fresh four foot by three foot gash. Reaching the bottom wall, he saw that the tree was straddling what was left of it. In truth, it seemed more that the mass of roots was in the process of absorbing the chiselled stonework.
From here David could see beyond the tree and down into the valley below. The field beyond contained more plots than he had at first thought, all linked to the tree by ribbons of white snaking through the soil. But his gaze was immediately drawn to the parade beyond. Seeing the figures much closer now than before David was awed by their variety and simplicity, their pale, motionless beauty. Each was a sketch in the simplest of lines shaped from a rough hunk of bone, the semblance of a figure in the act of one of a myriad human functions: a tennis player; a woman ironing; a child playing peek-a-boo; a straining figure struggling in a fierce wind with an umbrella blown inside out; a lollipop lady holding up non-existent traffic; a man with his head cocked as if listening to something, perhaps a joke; an old woman curled up in a foetal position, arms crossed over her head; a couple, limbs and torsos entwined, indistinguishable in an act of love; a young man tearing his dreadlocks, screaming. A catalogue of human activity, row upon row of stances and postures stretching down the hillside and fanning out along the valley floor. They were too numerous to count but there had to be at least as many as there were graves.
Those nearest, crowding the graves like funeral mourners, appeared to be less clear than the others. At first David assumed this was because they were the oldest ones and had succumbed to weathering. But further study revealed that they were losing definition not because material was being worn away but rather because it was still being deposited, overlaid, still growing. These were figures in metamorphosis, taking on a new form. Less and less human, more and more… the word which sprang instantly to mind was natural.
David’s eyes drank them in, flitting from one, lingering on the next. He felt a chill breeze against his cheek as he studied the Bone Farmer’s work. Behind him the wind teased a hollow multi-timbral tune from the tree’s thinnest branches. It was a natural sound. Not creepy, he thought, merely melancholic. As the breeze grew in strength, ruffling through his hair, David began to pick out a low wavering ostinato from somewhere within the crowd of figures, a sorrowful counterpoint to the tinkling song of the tree. He hugged himself for warmth as the wind tugged harder at his coat and trousers. More voices, elicited from white, porous mouths, joined the first. Soaring discords, swelling to become a choir, simultaneously weaving complex, atonal fugues.
Why had he come here? For Sophie, he told himself; but also, he realised, for selfish reasons. He had waited all these years to be taken by the plague, listening nervously with his body for sounds of growth within him. He had accepted the inevitability long ago, but it had never come. It had destroyed his daughter instead. At that moment he would have given anything to take her place in this field. All that was left was to stay with her until the end and then maybe linger a while and watch what her bones became in the hands of the sculptor. He owed her that at least. Remotely David felt as if he should feel repulsed at that idea, but standing here, watching and listening, his only thought was that it seemed fitting. Only there was hope wasn’t there? If the Bone Farmer was telling the truth. But how could you believe a man who spent all his time in this desperate place. How could anyone stay sane here?
He hugged himself harder, feeling raw emotion welling up inside him. He wanted to sing too, to join in. He thought about Sophe and Lise as they had been only weeks ago and he wanted to cry. He thought about everyone else he knew, had ever known, had met years ago in a swing park, at a cinema, on a trip to the seaside during one of those sticky hot August weeks he only remembered from childhood. The wave reached his throat and broke, coming out finally a gasping half-sob. David rubbed his damp eyes with the heels of his hands, turned and walked back to the manse.
He had not realised how dark it had become and approaching the house from above he saw for the first time that there was a conservatory round the back in which lights were burning. As he neared he could see the figure of the man inside. He was working around a new block of bone, chipping and sanding, forming and smoothing, although the final design was at this stage impossible to guess. David watched as he walked toward the back door and did not see the tarpaulin until he tripped over it. Picking himself up he saw that he had stumbled over the hanglider: the tubular framework around a small petrol motor and the red sail folded away under the waterproof wrap. He found the back door and went in.
In the conservatory the man was smoothing the top of the chunk into the shape of a head. Without looking up, he said, “I once took the glider down as far as the city. Only once, mind. Once was more than enough.”
David’s face was tight, and when he spoke it was in a small, hot voice, “She followed you that day. It’s your fault.”
The man continued as if he had not heard, “You know what the city was like, David? It was the worst thing. A whole new architecture.”
“She found a doll. One of yours. Jesus. It’s all because of you.” David was shouting now. At last the man straightened and turned to face him, his chisel forgotten in his hand. His features were rigid with suppressed pain.
“How do you think I feel, knowing that? I made the doll when I was laid up with a shotgun wound. How was I to know a child would find it?” He suddenly whipped his arm around and slashed the chisel across the unformed head. “I do all I can, because only I can. I bury the dead and at the same time try to let people know it doesn’t have to be this way. And I make the witnesses. Every death, a new witness.”
The man took a step forward, seizing David by the shoulders, forcing his face up close so that David could see the true wildness in his eyes. “Did you see the witnesses? Did you hear their song? Do you know what it means? It means that it’s all over. God has given up on us.” His grip tightened, “But I still have to try, don’t I? I still have to let them know I can save them all. I still have to give my blood to the sick. They do get better, you’ll see.”
David found the strength to throw the man off, barked, “Just leave Sophie alone you crazy bastard.”
The man took a step backward, looking genuinely surprised. “But how can you not want… I mean, I already did. When you were outside.”
A perfect full moon picked out the car at the side of the road looking down into the valley. Sophie was asleep again. David listened to her breathing as he gazed down along the valley floor. It could almost have been the sound of any child asleep. He knew he would have to start the car and move on soon, before she woke, but he did not know where they could go. Moonlight reflected brightly off the figures. From this distance he could almost believe the parade of witnesses was alive, marching down the valley.
Captured, watching the statues, listening to his daughter’s life, an effortless constant, in and out. Listening real hard he was sure that Sophie’s breath was lighter, less constricted tonight. Or perhaps he was just hearing the wind bearing a distant sorrowful song.
“The Bone Farmer” was first published in Albedo One, issue 21 (2000).
Copyright © 2000 by Neil Williamson.