A Wake in Portside
Shrapnel Shell: A Special Feature with the Veterans Writing Project
Mummies of the World Exhibit with my Young Children
View from the Surface: Author Feature with Hart Hanson
I am a Person
Loving You Darkly
Silva’s lover was built of bones she scavenged from the Killing Fields. A shard of gleaming femur here, a handful of vertebrae there. She held him together with wire and glue and the most charming of ribbons. When she put his jawbone into place, he opened and shut it a few times to make sure it was working correctly. It fit nicely, and he grinned, as skeletons are wont to do. His hollow sockets glowed with something deeper than dark magic. They glowed with love.
“Thank you,” he said, and the clicking of his teeth reminded Silva of wooden puppets dancing around a stage with a fine red curtain. “I feel ever so much better.”
“You’re welcome,” she said, and her voice nearly sounded like bones itself. “I was afraid that perhaps you didn’t want to be collected. Maybe you were happier at rest where you were.”
He shook his head. “There was no rest. Only staring at the sky and being eaten by worms. Memories of a thousand lives lived by those who left me. Men and women, but now it’s mostly me.” He held out his hand, and Silva took it. “I do enjoy being simply me.”
He made himself at home in the hidden burrow where Silva lived. It was deep and dark and sheltered, and his dead eyes saw perfectly in the blackness. When Silva came back the next morning, the skeleton showed her a new dress he was making from scraps and fur.
“Is that for me?” Silva asked, her eyes shining.
“It wouldn’t do me much good, now, would it?” he asked, glancing down at his mismatched ribs and pelvis. “But a living girl? Ah, loved one, you need something to cover your sack of skin. You look so cold when you return. I would keep you warm in other ways if only I could.”
Silva smiled, but her lips quivered, and she dashed at her cheeks with the backs of her hands. The skeleton nearly remembered the purpose of water leaking from the eyes, but it was lost with the rest of his memories. He moved on instinct alone, taking a thin bone from his foot and sharpening it into a needle. He took sinew and made a staunch thread, and then he sewed, sewed, sewed—his needle darting as songs of the Old Ways fell from his mouth.
“Which part of you knows those songs?” Silva asked, and the skeleton cocked his head, thinking. “I think it is my left scapula,” he answered. “It remembers songs and stories and a bit about playing music. The fellow who left these bones was a lucky man indeed. He loved to dance. Do you love to dance, small one?”
“I did dance, once.” Her smile shook. “Before the Breeders came. We lived in a home with a great hall and my father would invite people to the finest balls. I would dance and dance until I was sent to bed, and then I would sneak out onto the staircase in my nightgown and watch the lords and ladies. It was a wonderful thing.”
“Why don’t you dance now?” the skeleton asked, and Silva looked away sharply.
“Dance here? In the burrow? It is but an animal’s burrow, and I carved it bigger day by day until a human could fit. There is barely room to sit, let alone dance. How silly.”
He watched her with his missing eyes. He could wait. He could listen.
She dug her hands into the packed earth of the burrow. “There was a time when I would give anything to dance. The sound of a flute shivered through my soul in a way I can’t even describe to you. I dreamed in pirouettes.”
“It sounds lovely,” he said. “I can imagine you twirling your way to breakfast in the morning.”
Her lips fluttered into a smile that quickly disappeared. “There was room, then. And joy. This place is so small. It’s nothing but roots and refuse.” She kicked a wall and an angry shower of earth fell upon her.
She scavenged at night and in the early morning, when the Breeders were sleeping. “Why don’t you dance then, under the moon in your too-short, tattered gray dress?”
“It was white once,” she replied. “Beautiful and white, and it fit me perfectly. I was to meet the man I should marry, and I wore my best dress.”
“And then what happened?”
Silva’s eyes were lovely. “I was in this dress, and my father was beside me. We were walking to the carriage. My shoes were made of linen and silver, and my father wore such a wonderful jacket. He had met my husband-to-be and approved. I was afraid, but he told me that I would soon fall in love with his kindness and his humor. He told me it would be okay.” A frown pulled at her mouth. “But it wasn’t okay, never again.”
Part of the skeleton’s radius, which had belonged to a gentle, wise woman, told him to put his bony arm around Silva. He did so.
“There are different levels of okay,” he said simply. “And now you are okay. You’re even comfortable. You have a companion who loves you, and you have somebody to love. You are safe while you share your story.”
Silva stilled her trembling mouth. “The ground shook. There was a sound like thunder. Noise that I couldn’t comprehend. The Breeders played horns, bugles that confused us. They rode tall beasts that dwarved our horses by comparison. They set fire to everything they could find. My father…”
Her father had gone up like a wick, his hair flaming and his legs high-stepping in his fiery coat. His skin popped and ran. He looked like a clown doing a foxtrot. Then he fell. She stared at him, watching his fine shoes char as he kicked and bucked. She remembered dancing with her handsome daddy as a little girl, standing on his shoes and holding his hands as they box-stepped and cha-chaed. He whirled her around, making her laugh, and she realized that he was laughing, too, deep and free and so utterly happy. “I hope you always dance, Little Bird,” he had told her, and she had. Oh, she had. She would dance forever if it would make him laugh like that.
But now those fine shoes were burning, singeing away to reveal his vulnerable skin, the flesh curling to reveal the white bones beneath.
Silva stared at him in horror, unable to move, only able to scream along with the hunting horns. Around her, men were chopped down like trees. Children were trampled and women stolen and tied to the beasts.
“I was able to unhook one of the horses from the carriage. I climbed on and rode until the animal was in a lather. Still, it wouldn’t stop, its eyes rolling in its head like madness itself. And quite honestly, I don’t know if I would have let it stop if it tried. We escaped, and after a few days’ walk, I found this burrow.”
“And the horse?” He knew, seeing as not all his bones were human. A small fragment of something larger had been smoothed down to create one of his arms.
“I thanked that horse, but soon I ran out of food, and he was all I had.”
“You hit him on the head with a rock, if my bones are recalling correctly.”
“Yes.” Her voice was unflinching. “And then I skinned him with another sharp rock. I ate him and you’re making me a dress with some of his skin. I used his hair to tie things together, and his bones to make tools. His jaw helped me dig out some of this burrow. Never have I loved a horse or been so grateful as I was to this one.”
The horse in the skeleton’s soul was pleased, and he told her as much. Her eyes shone when she answered.
“Thank you. For everything.”
The next night he handed her the finished hide dress, and it fit well. She kissed him on his ravaged cheek, and if he had a heart, it would have beat harder.
The skeleton began to worry when Silva began to stay out later and later in the mornings. His bones whispered to him about the horrors of the Breeders, what she would endure if she didn’t make it home before they awoke.
“You can’t be reckless,” he said. He had holes in the tips of his fingers where the needle poked and pricked. He was working on some scraps to better cover Silva’s feet. “They won’t kill you right off, but you will eventually die. It will be a horrible thing.”
“Tell me,” she said, and sat down, smoothing her soft dress over her thighs. “How much of you was killed by the Breeders?”
“I’d say nearly half, in one way or another,” he said. He kept his voice matter-of-fact, but a strange light burned in the hollows of his eyes. “I was torn apart in so many different ways. Some fast, some slow. Always in terror, though. Always alone. Even if you’re surrounded, death has a way of making you feel alone.”
She thought of her father and wondered if his fine jacket buttons had burned into his skin as he had died.
“The women, though,” he said, and his voice was haunted bastions and leaves. “The women suffered the worst.”
“Tell me,” Silva said. She knew what he was going to say, but needed to hear it. She would poke at this bruise and commit the pain to memory. It would keep her safe. It would keep her alive.
The skeleton took a breath. “The women know what pain is, and fear, and how it feels to shriek for help. They know what it is to be planted with a seed not of their own kind, and to feel it squirm and grow inside of them.” He shuddered, and continued mournfully. “Monster children, sired by hate and desperation, who kill their mothers at birth with their horns and armored plates. Males only, and the only way to carry on their race is to spread the terror, spread the pain.”
Silva’s already pale face went carcass white.
“You feel that, then?” she asked. “You feel all of that in your bones? Like it has happened to you?”
He nodded and pointed to one of his crushed ribs. “Here.” He pointed to two vertebrae. “Here and here. This one took her own life before the monster could be born. She is at peace now, at long last. She has earned it. Her child—the Breeder’s spawn—its bones were in the Killing Fields as well, next to its mother’s. It could very well have been a part of me.” He turned his dead eyes upon her. “I’m afraid if you aren’t careful, something like this could be part of you.” Silva’s stomach roiled and she turned her face to the wall of soil.
“I will be no Breeder’s sow,” Silva vowed. “I’m smart and quick. I’m only so long in the Killing Fields because I have scavenged most of the area. I need to go farther to find food. Very soon, I’m afraid, the time will come to move on.”
When she left that evening, the cold was more than she was prepared for. Her body shivered in the frost as she chuffed and rubbed her thin arms for warmth. She peered at the ground, alit in the moonlight, and saw something shining dully. She dug with her fingers in the hard earth and found a piece of copper wire. Something that looked like a broken comb. A button from a soldier’s uniform. It had most likely gleamed once.
The buttons on her father’s fine jacket had gleamed once.
She squirreled this treasure away with others in her collection and went off to the Killing Fields. Finding little to scavenge, she was there even longer than usual, and the imminent threat of having to find a new home filled her with dread. On her way back, a sudden sound made her flatten herself to the frozen ground.
It was a groan—muffled, but clearly human. She crept closer, not daring to breathe.
She saw a crumpled figure of a man. Poorly dressed and shivering, sweat dotted his face like a pox.
“You’re sick,” she whispered to the man. “I have to get you out of here before the Breeders find you,” she said. “Can you walk?”
He moaned in response. He could walk—barely, and only by leaning heavily on her thin shoulder. She dragged him over the ground, his feet hardly moving.
“We need to hurry,” she urged. “One foot in front of the other. Come on.”
The sun was starting to rise in the sky. Silva realized she was shaking, but not from the cold.
“Faster,” she said. Her voice had a pleading quality now. “The Breeders will be getting up soon. They’ll kill us if they find us!”
They’ll kill us…they’ll kill us…
She remembered stories her father told her, warnings couched in the form of fairytales. Good little girls stayed in bed at night and didn’t wander the house. They did what their fathers told them. Good little girls obeyed and were safe from the monsters whose long sharp teeth flashed in the dark. The Breeders were only harmless stories then.
“Please speed up,” she begged again, and the sunlight melting the frost and warming the earth was a terrible thing. There were no shadows to hide in, no place to find escape. She thought she heard snorting over the horizon and nearly chittered with fear.
What if she dropped him? What if she let him fall to the earth and ran and ran and ran back to the burrow, scurrying inside its womb-like safety? Her muscles started, and the man nearly fell to the ground.
“No,” he said roughly, as if he could sense her thoughts. Perhaps he could. Maybe her sweat stunk of terror and helplessness. Maybe he could read it as the old man at the end of the lane used to be able to read the weather. “Don’t leave me here. We’ve come so far.”
Yes, they had come far, but they had so much farther to go. Silva’s breath was coming out in panicked gasps, and she tried to calm herself. She turned her attention to the man, who was gritting his teeth to keep from crying out. Delirious, his head turning blindly to the left and right, he muttered to beings Silva couldn’t see. But he still fought his way forward, his pinched face determined amid the pain. She studied the bones pressing sharp against his skin, the way his lips were tinged an unhealthy blue.
It had been so long since she had seen another living person, and here one was. He had scars on his face and welts on his hands. Sweat ran into his eyes and he didn’t bother to wipe it away. He was everything perfect and broken about being human. Even in her fear, she wanted to run her hands over his arms and legs to assure herself that he truly existed, that he was really alive. She imagined that once he had been a little boy playing with sticks, and then he had been a teenager with a crush. Perhaps he had gone to dances like she had, possibly the very same ones, and they might have spun themselves dizzy under the same stars. Then that daydreaming teenager had become a man, and now he was very nearly a corpse. Her heart, usually knotted down by the grim rope of experience, lurched a bit as she wondered about this man’s childhood. She had a childhood, too. She had chased butterflies and followed her father around the yard as he showed her beautiful things—like where to find bird nests and how to sit very still so a scared animal would learn to trust her. She always wanted to be worthy of that trust.
Silva pictured her father’s gentle face and knew what she had to do. If she left this man now, he would surely die. The Breeders would find him and rip him apart, his bones snapping like sage. She would be able to hear his screams from inside her burrow as they rose higher and higher until they were finally cut off. She’d hear the Breeders feasting on the last bits of his body, chunks of flesh hanging from their jaws, and the next time she dared to scavenge, she’d find pieces of him in the moonlight. Would she recognize his face then, she wondered? Would she squat over what was left of his body, picking over his remains to find something useful?
The thought sickened her.
“Okay,” she agreed, and shielded her eyes against the dawn. “I won’t let you go. I couldn’t anyway, even if I tried. It isn’t who I am.”
She was growing weaker, her strength taxed by his large body. She heard wild bugles off in the distance.
“They’re here!” She tried to run, pulling the man with her. They were close to the burrow, but she was afraid the long-legged beasts would arrive before they could reach it. Her feet scrabbled against the earth and her breath was coming harder. “Please oh please oh please!”
He was trying, bless him. He bled heavily from a wound in his side, but he moved his exhausted muscles as fast as he could. But she was afraid it wouldn’t be enough.
Suddenly the skeleton was at their side.
“You’re cutting it close, Silva,” he said, grabbing the stranger with his mismatched hands. “It’s going to be a tight fit.”
The skeleton was surprisingly strong, his body fueled by the people and parts that comprised his body. Silva nearly wept with relief as he helped her drag the stranger down into the burrow. They pulled the pieces of wood that served as a door over the opening and hid quietly.
“I can hear them,” Silva whispered, and the skeleton put a bony finger to her lips.
“Sleep,” he commanded, and she nodded, curling herself into the smallest ball she could. The skeleton wrapped his ribbons around her, and consoled her as she wept in her sleep.
The stranger was a horse trader named Amon. He had been married. He had been happy, once.
“The Breeders?” Silva asked.
“The Breeders,” he replied. “Took everything. My wife, my son. It’s been nearly six months now, I think. Back when the sun was hot and the ground felt like fire.”
“What were you doing in the Killing Fields?” the skeleton asked. He had already stitched up Amon’s side and was now repairing Amon’s clothes as best he could. He took a ribbon from his joints and threaded it through as a belt for Amon.
“I was at the Killing Fields to kill, of course. I’m hunting the Breeders.”
Silva started, “Why would you do that? Hunt the Breeders? They cannot be killed!”
Amon stretched out his aching muscles. “They can, and they will, but only if somebody steps up. Somebody needs to fight back and show others it can be done.
“You can’t!” Silva exclaimed. “It’s suicide. It’s madness!”
“Doesn’t matter to me much,” Amon said. “I’d rather go out fighting than curl up and wait for death. Wasting away isn’t for me. Sorry, miss,” he said, and tipped an invisible hat to Silva. “Not to imply that that’s what you’re doing.”
“It is not what I’m doing,” Silva told him. Her fists were clenched so tightly her bones hurt. “I’m living. I’m surviving. And it takes strength to do it when it’s bleak, I’ll have you know. So much easier to give up and walk into your death, isn’t it?”
Then she left, up and out of the burrow, her footsteps stomping the ground above.
Amon sighed. “That one has fire.”
The skeleton shrugged, and his joints chimed together like bells. “She does. She’ll make it, you know, if she’s careful. If she doesn’t lose her temper and forget how to be cautious.”
Amon eyed him. “And you. What are you to her, exactly?”
The skeleton grinned a perfect hollow grin, and the lights in his eyes danced weirdly. “I’m all things to her. Everything she needs. She built me herself, you know. Picked up my parts and strung them together. I imagine I was time consuming. She adorned me with feathers and glass beads and the tiny beauties that she finds in the fields. So much better than being found all in one piece, a chunk of meat, don’t you think?”
Amon smiled at that, but it faded quickly. “I appreciate all you’ve done for me. I would have surely died out there if you hadn’t let me stay with you these past few weeks. But my plan doesn’t change. I need to slip into the Breeder’s tents and destroy them. Take down as many as I can before they kill me.”
“Rest up another day, then,” the skeleton advised. He pulled a bone from his ankle and handed it to Amon. “Stick this in that pot of water. We’ll build a fire. That’s a bone from a pig and there’s still some good marrow in there. The bone broth will give you and Silva strength.”
“While stealing it from you, I imagine?”
The skeleton shrugged. “It doesn’t matter much, does it? If worst comes to worst, I can always be rebuilt. This is a land of death. There’s no shortage of bones around.”
Silva came back early—before the sun even had a chance to blush the landscape. The skeleton sighed in relief. Silva smiled at him and adjusted one of his ribbons.
“Thank you,” he said. “I hardly noticed that was getting a bit loose.”
“I can’t have you falling apart on me,” she told him. “Then what would I do?”
She shifted her eyes to Amon and nervously straightened her skirts. The skeleton reached out and took her hand. She squeezed back.
“I’m sorry,” she told Amon, dropping her eyes to the ground. Her cheeks were flushed, although she couldn’t tell if it was from the outside air or from the apology. “I don’t mean to tell you what to do with your life,” she said. “I can imagine your anger at losing your family. I…think of my father every day.” She went silent, shuffling her feet uncomfortably until the skeleton’s touch encouraged her. Then she spoke quickly. “But do you have to go? We struggled so hard to survive and you’re tossing everything away. Can’t you stay? Is it really so bad here, with us?”
Amon put his hand on her cheek. His skin was warm, flowing with blood, fairly singing with life, and Silva closed her eyes and leaned into it. This was the reason, right here. Skin touching skin, sharing breath, sharing space. This togetherness, this bit of humanity was what she had clung to and fought for, and now it was being ripped away again.
The skeleton pulled his hand from Silva’s and touched his own dead cheek. There was no song, no music of the living. His eyes hungrily ate up the life that Silva and Amon shared, and he pulled himself farther away so as not to intrude. He would be there to wrap his wired bones around her when she needed him later. The dead were always patient.
“I can’t,” Amon said, and Silva’s tears were hot on his skin. This was what it was to be human, as well. Pain and feeling and tenderness. Disappointment and grief. His own eyes burned, and he leaned forward to touch his forehead against hers, as he used to do with his small son.
“Families are worth fighting for,” he whispered, and she nodded. “We shouldn’t be hiding and alone. We should be with those we love, free. I have to do something.”
“I understand,” she said, and tried to smile. Her tears betrayed her, running down her face like the disloyal things they were. She wiped them away. “I do. But oh,” she said, and she leaned against him, letting her head rest on his shoulder, “I’m going to miss you.”
He smiled his chipped grin. “And I, you. Both of you. Very much. It felt good to belong again.”
They sat this way for a long time, not saying anything, but listening to the sounds of their living bodies. Breath, flesh, heartbeats. The skeleton moved quietly, ladling bone meal broth into chipped bowls. He watched them sip, and Amon sharpened his knife with a rock until its edge was cruel and delicious.
“Tell me about life in better times,” the skeleton said. “Tell me how it will feel to fight, to dance, to die, to do all of the things that will finally make you free.”
Silva looked at him. “Do you really believe we’ll ever find freedom?”
“Death is its own kind of freedom,” he said simply, and his mismatched bones rattled.
Night came far too soon. Silva glanced at the moon and cursed its treachery.
Her friends stood beside her, otherworldly in the firelight’s strange glow. It cast the most peculiar of shadows, elongating Amon and Silva’s thin bodies while twisting the skeleton’s outline. His bones left hollow stripes of death on Amon’s face.
Silva shivered. Amon removed his worn coat and wrapped it around her.
“I won’t need it,” he said simply, and Silva shut her eyes briefly as she tried to breathe.
She tried to say “thank you,” but could only manage to hold the coat to her gaunt body. “I need to go,” Amon said. “I need to get to the Breeders’ tents while they’re still asleep. I’ll cause more damage that way.”
The night sky was full of stars, and Silva knew Amon’s soul would join them soon.
“Do I just stand here and listen to you die, then?” she asked.
“I would hope you would do something to remember me,” Amon answered. He kissed her forehead and then held her close. Skin and bone and heart and blood. Silva felt their hearts beat together, like a long-practiced dance. Amon pulled back and Silva’s heart beat alone.
Amon pulled a hide-wrapped object from his pocket and handed it to the skeleton. “This is for you to open later. Don’t forget me,” Amon said, and the skeleton grinned his unholy grin.
He turned and headed toward the Breeders’ camp without looking back. Silva watched him until he disappeared, until she was squinting so hard to see him that her head ached. In case he had second thoughts. In case he turned back, or decided that striding to his death was foolish, or realized that he should take her with him. Two can die just as gloriously as one.
“He’s gone,” the skeleton said softly. His voice was simply wind without his larynx. It was loss.
Silva stamped her feet in the cold.
“I’m going to scavenge for awhile,” she said, and disappeared into the mist.
She looked, lackadaisical, and found nothing. The earth yielded no treasures. She thought perhaps she’d never find anything of value ever again. She picked her way carefully through the Killing Fields, her feet wrapped in hides. She remembered how heavy Amon had been as she had dragged him back to her burrow, how she had almost put him down then. It was so much more difficult to let him go now. Silva almost laughed at the thought. The coat he’d given her smelled like him. It smelled alive. That’s when she finally let her tears come.
Deep within the midnight hours, her ears picked up a resonance in the darkness. It was a rhythmic, steady sound, underscored by the panicked shrieking of beasts.
The Breeders’ drums. Boom. Boom. Boom. Without thinking, she matched her pace to the rhythm, her feet coming down in slow, heavy steps. They had discovered Amon in the village. What was he doing now? She thought of him with his killing knife, so sharp that the blade would register as ice rather than pain. She took a step forward and feigned stabbing a beast. Perhaps Amon did the same thing.
The drums began playing with more urgency, faster and faster. Silva spun on one foot, kicking at the imaginary Breeder that Amon faced. She imagined the shine of his knife as it arced to its target, buried to the hilt in hide and fur and blood. The drums thrummed through her soul like the music of her childhood, and Silva matched it.
Her pace picked up. She threw a kick high in the air and felt the imaginary Breeder tumble to the ground. Her stoniness tumbled with him. The desperation to survive, the stress and hate and misery fell from her like armor. The hunting bugles broke out, a hysterical cry against the ambience of the drums, and she knew Amon was doing damage, living his revenge, hurting those who had hurt so many. She helped him. Silva swayed and danced and spun to the music, throwing her arms in the air and celebrating. She had never danced so hard before, had never felt the music deep in her bones like this before. She had never felt so free.
The bugles subsided and the drums eventually stopped. Silva paused, her breast heaving and her cheeks colored with the healthy rose of sorrow and joy. This was life. This was exactly what living felt like.
She slid down into the burrow.
“It is done,” she said, and her eyes were strangely tearless. She breathed in a lungful of air, and it felt good. “He is dead.” She took off Amon’s coat and folded it carefully. She couldn’t quite put it down, but held it in her lap, her fingers twisting in the fabric.
“Yes,” the skeleton agreed. “He is dead, and he did this dark thing for love.”
“Love is often a dark thing,” she said, and reached for his bony hand. His fingers wrapped around hers in the familiar way that nearly made everything all right.
They sat together in silence, staring at the fire. The burrow now seemed far too large.
The skeleton spoke. “There is one thing I wanted to show you. He gave me this before he left.”
“What is it?”
The skeleton unwrapped the package and showed Silva what was inside. She gasped and her hands flew to her mouth. It was a finger. “Could it really be?” she breathed.
The skeleton grinned at her as only he could. “It is. All of that knife sharpening wasn’t for the Breeders alone.” Silva’s eyes widened in horror and understanding. The skeleton patted her shoulder gently. “Let me just get it down to bone and I have the perfect place for it. I’d like it close to my heart. He will be with us, always.”
Silva reached out and held the precious gift wrapped in skins. “Can you feel anything of him yet?” she asked. “Did you…you know. When he…”
The skeleton’s grin widened.
“I felt his joy. That’s what it was, Silva. Not rage, but a certain kind of happiness. He fought to the music of the drums, and in the back of the mind he saw his wife, his child, his parents, and the girl who saved his life in the Killing Fields. He hoped he could return the favor and save her.”
Silva thought of her dance under the moon. She had only saved his life, but Amon had saved the most beautiful and wild parts of her soul.
The firelight danced on the walls of the burrow. When the skeleton patted her hand in his gentle way, his bones were warmed through. She had pieced him together, bit by bit, from refuse and remains of the dead, but he had become so much more. “When this land is picked clean and the Breeders are forced to abandon the Killing Fields, we, too, will leave for someplace better. Somewhere you can dance every day, and not just for weddings and funerals. Does that sound good to you, my Silva?”
“Yes, it does,” she answered, returning his wide smile. She pillowed Amon’s coat under her head and watched the skeleton tend to the precious sliver of bone wrapped in hides. When she fell asleep, she had only the most beautiful of dreams.