history lesson-


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 slower.

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 see her.

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 the kill.

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.