Bed Of Bones
by Roz Kaveney
She had no speech. She tossed her head or pointed or sighed. Some of
the others were slow to understand; others faster. She knew which ones
to trust, to share food with, to groom, to have sex with; she knew
their faces and their signs. Names did not exist.
None of them understood what came in the night, the dead things, and
she had no way of telling them. She knew, because she had seen, and,
having seen, lived and fought..
Could they really not hear the screams in the night, or did they simply
not understand what they meant? Did they not even notice who was not by
the stream to drink in the morning, or who came in the night, having
stayed away for days? Death was all around them - hyenas came and ate
children; males brought back carrion that killed those who ate it;
people grew grey and feeble and walked out into the rocky places.
Finding your bed mate drained beside you, two small holes in their neck
- did they not notice that this was something different. She tried to
point to the holes, to make the ones who woke with a corpse in their
arms understand - but they were slow and did not pay her attention and
drove her away with stones.
She danced sharp-eyed death in the night at them from a distance, and
they turned their backs on her; she dragged them to the white dead and
tried to make them stay until night and they pulled away from her, with
shrugs or blows.
She slept alone - some of the males and most of the females had tried
to share her bed, but she needed the day for sleeping and did not feel
easy with those who had stoned her. One younger female came by so often
that she let her stay and hold her, tried to take her out into the
night to watch with her, but when she saw what dead things came, she
ran screaming into the night, and was stupid, and soft, and died.
It was with a tear in her eye that she found the girl the next night,
when she walked, and did what had to be done.
After that, she matted mud in her hair and daubed clay on her face, and
crouched as much as she stood, and made loud screaming noises when
others came near. They no longer threw stones at her, and avoided her
as if they no longer had a clear idea of what she was. She needed to be
alone to do what had to be done. She was the One, unlike others.
When she first saw the dead things rise and walk, she found a piece of
wood, and chipped at it with a flint edge, and, when one came for her
wearing the face of her dead mother, she thrust at it more to fend it
off than with any hope of stopping it. She had watched the males hunt,
once, and seen what they did with their flint spears to a gazelle as it
ran from them, and she knew that the heart must be important because it
tasted so sweet and chewed for so long. When what was not her mother
dried up and blew away like the sand, she knew that this was the thing
she must do, must do every night until they went away.
The second time, when it was just one of the older hunters, she found
it easy. The dead things did not expect resistance.
Later, for a while, it grew harder - those she had tried to warn died,
and rose, and knew her. She had warned them of death and only warned
the dead things they became of their destruction. They sought her out,
and she killed them.
She waited every night in the bushes by which the others slept, and
waited for the dead things, so that she could kill them from ambush,
one at a time as they came. After a while, fewer came, because there
were fewer dead to rise again.
There was a gap of days, and no-one died; she wandered a little
further away, and found one of the old ones dead in the rocky places
with the holes. She thought she would see what came of it, and piled
rocks on the corpse to see if that held it down. When it shouldered its
way out, she was waiting for it - pushing the rocks aside made it
She piled rocks over the dead whenever she found them, and came back to
the cairns at night; she went back among the others and did the same
with any corpses she found there and after a while the others started
to do the same, and some of the younger females took to scattering
flower petals and dried leaves on the cairns.
One night, two dead things almost surprised her as she lay still
sleeping on her bed of soft dry grass. She took bones from the cairns
and piled them around where they would fall and sound and wake her.
When she slept, dreams came, and in dreams she was still killing the
dead things, in strange rocky places that men and women walked through,
men and women whose flesh was pale or sallow and whose hair was the
yellow of dried grass, or the brown of gazelle fur. The piece of wood
in her hand was always the same, and the loneliness of being the One;
and the dead things, they never changed.
In her dreams, men and women and dead things made few signs, and many
quiet repeated cries; if these had meaning, she did not know it. She
tried to dance at them and the ones that saw her looked away, would not
Sometimes, she was not herself ; sometimes she had one of the pale or sallow
bodies and grappled and kicked and leaped and thrust at the dead things
or other stranger beasts. When she awoke, she remembered the kicks and
leaps and danced them at the others. Used them to fight the dead things.
If she felled one with a kick, sometimes she could take her time with
She killed many dead things and there were always more - there were more of
the others too. Children gaped at her as she danced at them in her black
mud and white clay; old men she remembered as hunters waved her farewell
as they walked the path of starvation. Under the mud, her hair grew
grey and she thought of who would keep off the dead things when she
too became old.
She slept a greater part of each day; the dreams were stronger. She had
less time to gather food and water, and grew thinner; sometimes young
girls would bring her plants and meat and drink or sit by her on the
dry grass, among the bones, stroking her to peace when she fought and
wept in dreams. One was the daughter of the woman she had loved and
killed, a girl who sat and watched her dance and leap and kick, and
followed her at night, and sat with a flint, carving her own sticks.
In her dreams, there was often one, whom she hated as soon as she saw,
one who was two, the light and the dark, the one who slept with a dead
thing, and the one who served the great snake. There were two, and both
were the One; and both killed the dead things, danced with them a dance
she could hardly follow for its brilliance. Briefly, they danced a
culmination of love and death at each other; again briefly they were
one. Each time they pulled away from being one - it ached at her like
tears for her dead.
Once she felt herself tugged away from herself, and knew it was the
light one; she quickly killed the dead thing she was tormenting and let
herself fall away into dream. The light one had found unity, but not
with the dark, or with her dead thing; with others, with friends.
She followed them into their dreams, and stopped their breath, and
their heart, and their thinking, to free the light one to be alone or
one with the dark. The light one found her and fought her and expelled
her back into her own waking. Things had passed between them, a dance
it would take many days to understand.
She thought on the light one and the dark, and realised that what she felt
was not envy, or hatred, but lust. They could have grace, there at the
end of time, and she was trapped in the mud and clay of beginnings and
things half-done; she wanted to dance with them, and stroke them, and
sleep in their strange soft bed. And it was a forbidden thing.
It had not been her place; she did not understand. She had been in the
realm of the last, and she was the first - there was dawn and there was
sunset and they were alike and not the same - and between them the sun
travelled across the sky. If there was a last One, who was two, there
must be others, each of whom would be the One.
One night, it was her time; her bones creaked and she knew it was the
time of ending. She stood still for a dead thing and as it tore into
her neck held her mouth proudly away from the gash it offered her in
return, felt something tug away from mind and spirit and heart and hand
and womb and dart home. As her eyes closed in weakness, she watched her
girl weep and dance and kick and thrust, saw the dead thing that had
killed her pass into dust. There would always be One, until the Last.