The Bone Waste
by Natasha Burge
It wasn’t like they said in the stories. Rat squinted into the glare and watched the fine white powder swirl in translucent knee-high eddies as far as she could see. There weren’t fang-toothed bonefish swarming the shore and the smell of decaying corpses wasn’t strong enough to make you sick. Rat felt vindicated in her hunch that the Bone Waste wasn’t made up of moldering bones like kids always said, it was just white sand.
“You can’t do it, Rat,”
Colin. Always an arse. Rat ignored him.
“My da’ said the Valley is just a fairy story for babies. There’s nothing out there,”
“Well, I’ll find out and come back and tell your da’ a thing or two about it then.”
“You shouldn’t go, Rat. Your mam will get well again.”
She turned and glared at her best friend. He was the one who had dubbed her Rat all those years ago when they were still in their nappies, scuttling down the alleyways of Crabgate, and she knew him well enough to see the lie in his eyes.
“I’m going to find the Valley. I’m going to find Mary and then I’m going to come back and tell Mam she made it. Then she can stop singing.”
The cough was swampy and deep and it had roared through Mary’s little chest like a caged animal. It filled their muggy flat with the sound of retching so loud that their neighbors on both sides thumped the walls and shouted for them to shut her
up. Mam never left the bedside as Mary panted and fought for every rattling breath.
Rat stepped over the low wall onto the shifting silt and Colin stopped trying to convince her to stay. She took a step, and then another, and the pale sand at her feet didn’t boil with a swarm of snapping jaws.
She turned and gave Colin a nod. She had planned to shout something hard and funny that he could report back to the other kids, the start of something that would lend her an aura of legend once she returned, but she found she could only think of the words of the death songs, which rattled around her head like a cloud of stirred up bone chips. She turned away from Colin, away from the snaggle-toothed jumble of the city, away from where her mother sat alone in their tiny, stinking apartment, and pinned her gaze on the dark point between the two distant hills, and began to sing.
On the fifth day of her illness, Mary was too weak to cough, too weak to take the sips of water Mam offered her; too weak to do anything but suck in ragged, wet sounding gulps of air through her blue-lipped mouth. That was when Mam began to talk about the Valley.
“The Valley came with us,” she said, sponging tepid water along Mary’s brow. “Wherever we are, it’s always there waiting for us.” She leaned down into the little girl’s sunken face. “Waiting for you. You’ll be safe there, so please don’t be afraid.”
Rat, leaning against the window, asked where the Valley was. If it came with them, even here to this planet, she wanted to know how to find it.
Her mam lifted a hand, revealing yellow stains beneath her arm, and pointed vaguely out the window, between a clutch of crowded buildings and off into the distance beyond Crabgate, toward the small sliver of desert they could see from their flat.
“There it is. The low, dark place between the hills. That’s the Valley.”
Mam turned back to rub the last of the liniment on Mary’s chest, while Rat gripped the window ledge and stared into the distance. She memorized the swell of the white hills and the depth of the shadows between them.
When Rat woke the next morning, Mary was finally silent and Mam was sitting at the kitchen table, singing.
Rat, who had spent her life in the shadows of buildings, found that the world of the Bone Waste was too big, too wide, too void of any perspective. The vacant sky stared down at her like a dead man’s eye and the hills that had seemed so near hardly seemed to have come any closer.
She had been walking and singing for hours and she was hot. She had always been hot, it was never anything but hot in this place, this god-forsaken planet, Mam always said. But this was different. She felt like she was walking across a stovetop and she was surprised her feet weren’t steaming through the laces of her boots. She had seen no sign of bonefish, not a ripple, even when she had lost her balance and fallen face first into the grit of the sand. She was beginning to feel foolish for thinking such a thing existed in the first place.
“For eleven days you sing so the soul can find it’s way to the Valley,” Mam explained with a hum in her voice as she washed Mary’s body. Rat watched as she lifted the little arms and the knobbly legs. She wanted to hug her sister, to feel again the small beat of heart that felt like the tickling flurry of a bird’s wings. But Mary looked different now. Her cheeks, red apples in life, were sunken in death, and Rat found, with a clutch of shame, that she was scared to touch her.
“You can’t let up,” Mam told Rat, singing her instructions. “You sing when you breathe, sing while you cry, sing while you eat, sing without stopping, so the words and the melody can stitch themselves together and carry the dead away to the Valley. If you stop singing, the dead will be left behind to roam the world, and then one day, when you yourself make it to the Valley, you’ll find that they never arrived and even in death you’ll still be without them.”
Mam sang as she made their tea, she sang as she brushed Rat’s hair, and she sang as she tucked Rat into bed. As she fell asleep Rat imagined the death songs filling their flat, large, low-slung creatures with bristly faces and gnarled hands, beings from the old place that were too dark and loamy for this hot, dry planet.
When she woke in the morning her mam was still singing.
Somewhere around midday, when Rat’s shadow was nothing but a tiny puddle on the white sand beneath her, she saw something poke itself up from the Waste, something tall, spindly, and sharp. She dropped to the ground, screwing up her face and cursing her glare-blind eyes. Sweat pooled behind her knees and her hands trembled against the sand.
Mam told Rat that where they were from, there would have been family, friends, and neighbors, to help the bereaved sing. There would have been such a volley of voices that the death songs would have filled every pinch of space and would have been so strong that even the living might have been carried away.
But not here. They had neighbors, but not neighbors that wanted to associate with the likes of them. “And so,” she said, “we sing alone.”
Mam sang for three days without stopping, making sure Rat knew all the words and was singing right along with her. Rat sang while washing herself, sang around mouthfuls of dry bread, and sang when her mother slumped over, nearly falling asleep at their kitchen table. She would take a nap, just a short one, her mother mumbled, crawling into her bed, just as long as you keep singing. Rat said she would, of course she would.
For a long while Rat waited and watched, the death song dark and furtive in her throat, for this new something on the horizon to make its move. But it never did.
She risked movement and cautiously straightened her legs, singing with a hiss as the blood coursed back into them. This new something still made no move toward her, so she risked a step, and then another, and resumed her lumbering walk through the sand, toward the Valley, and Mary.
Mam took a long rest, though, all through the muggy night and into the morning when greasy light filled their flat like watered down tea. And Rat’s throat was sore and the room was hot and the sound of Mam’s snores tugged her eyes down and down until sleep rose up and took her like a bonefish swallowing her whole.
The spindly black lines in the distance had resolved themselves into something resembling a tree. A tree made Rat think of shade, shade made her think of coolness, and coolness made her think of water. The words of the death song took on a deep oceanic rhythm and the words sloshed cold and wet in her dry mouth as she walked on, faster and hopeful and yearning.
Through the long afternoon Rat walked, one foot after the other, a melody always falling from her lips, while the sun slipped slowly across the faded blueness of the sky. The spindly black lines grew closer, lying directly on the path toward the darkness between the hills. Was this tree the first hint of the Valley, a sentinel of green and shade and rest? Rat imagined plunging her head into the pond she would surely find when she arrived. She imagined sitting with Mary beneath the tree, apologizing and holding her close.
When her mother woke she found Rat slumped at the window, head lolling against the grimy glass, her lips slack and silent with sleep. Her mam’s wailing cry of horror quickly became a death song sung through tears. The sound of it knocked Rat’s heart into her throat. Mam sang as she gave Rat a rough shake, sang as she yanked her into her arms for a trembling hug, she sang and sang all day and all night. Rat heard it in her sleep and when she tried to take over in the morning to let her mother rest, her mother pushed her away with a shake of the head and carried on singing.
The sun was setting in a fury of heat by the time Rat reached the tree that turned out not to be a tree at all. It was nothing water-fed, nothing alive, just a twisted, corroded spire of rebar jammed deep into the side of a dune. The death song slunk from between Rat’s cracked lips as she walked around and around the metal pole, as if she might discover a tree from another angle.
She could no longer cry but her throat managed to work itself into a lump that Rat was too exhausted to swallow away. She wanted to sit, even beneath a twist of metal that wasn’t a tree; she wanted to rest, to sleep, to close her eyes against the relentless nothingness of the waste.
But she turned and took another step toward the swelling shadow between the hills.
After three more days of singing, mam was too weak to carry Mary’s body to the burning grounds. Every stanza she sang was punctuated by great, lurching coughs and she had not gotten out of bed. On the morning of the fourth day, three scowl-faced men rapped on the door of their flat and let themselves inside. They heaved little Mary’s body into a cardboard coffin and took her away, snickering to one another about the singing. Mam watched them go, her eyes like craters where something once grew.
After that, the death song rose from Mam’s chest like a thin wisp of candle smoke. Rat brought her cups of hot black tea that went untouched; she pulled at her mam’s hand, wound her arms around her neck, and cried in the night.
As the last of the light drained from the sky, Rat thought that the dark blot on the horizon was finally growing closer. Her vision had gone a bit funny and she couldn’t make out anything more than a beckoning darkness between the dunes, but she kept squinting and straining for some sign of shaded glens and tall trees, for some sign of Mary’s face and the knowledge that all was well.
It started softly. At first it was only a vague restless shuffling sound, like something breathing through a snot-clogged nose. It filled the short silences when Rat took a breath between stanzas but she was so dazed with thirst and heat that she didn’t notice until the sound came closer and in a rush she realized something was just behind her, a clawed and fanged creature reaching for her.
She spun around, stumbling over the words of the song, checking every direction, again and again. But there was nothing. Only the dark sky and the darker hills and Rat’s footprints already sifting apart in the wind.
When Rat’s heart slipped out of her throat and settled back into her chest, she turned around to resume her walk but found that the hills were no longer where they were supposed to be. In her confusion, they had shifted and melted together, and the dark place was nowhere to be found. The death song became a wailing cry of panic as Rat stumbled through the crests and valleys of the shifting dunes, and always the breathing behind her.
It was a darkness so total Rat worried she would never see daylight again. It was interminable and unbearable and not at all quiet. In the depth of the night, the breathing was just behind her, loud and wet and always closer. Rat ran until she couldn’t breathe and then she walked until she fell and then she pulled herself along the sand, cringing every moment at the certainty and nearness of death. She was so weak all she could do was pull the words of the death song from the depths of her chest and push them in front of her and crawl slowly after them.
Rat’s lungs felt too small, like the heat had shrunken them down inside her ribs and she couldn’t catch her breath. Her arms burned like the muscles were peeling away from the bones and crawling further was becoming an impossible thought, like something that couldn’t exist in this reality. This thought made Rat want to rest, to close her eyes against the impossible darkness and let everything drop away for just a moment. And when she finally did, she found that the sand beneath her made a depression like a nest, like a lap, and the heat above felt like arms. She buried her face into the sand and sobbed the words of the death song.
As the planet spun slowly beneath her and the stars turned overhead, Rat came to know many things. She knew that she had made a mistake not saying goodbye to her mam. And she knew that she had done this to herself and to her mam and to Mary by forgetting the song, for letting it fall away, for letting little Mary wander the world lonely for the rest of forever.
And she knew another, darker thing, a knowing so strange and terrible that she could only let it sit quietly in the back of her mind like a black-eyed crow, silent and irrefutable. Rat knew that the noise that had chased her on and on through the darkness had been a death song and as she had dragged herself across the sand with shaking limbs, it had approached her. Made corporeal by the vastness of the waste, as if the sheer expanse of the emptiness had coalesced even the smallest hint of life into a living thing, it had circled her; it’s footsteps heavy and awkward on this foreign soil, its breath like a melody, fog-like and shaded in its old throat. And finally it had approached her and lifted its rough, twisted nose to her face snuffling at this strange lost creature heavy with the burdens of guilt and grief.
Rat didn’t remember closing her eyes but she found herself opening them in the dull, purple light just before sunrise. Her face was half buried in sand and she could feel grit between her teeth and caked into her nostrils. She lay there for a long while, the death song still trickling out from between her lips.
She imagined she could see it streaming down the side of the dune, like a slender thread of water heading toward a vast lake.
Rat noticed a darkness ebbing at the corner of her vision, pooling black around her eyes. With a great effort, she lifted her head from the ground, white sand drifting off her eyelashes. The darkness grew closer, sweeping across the ground and into her eyes like a vast shadow.
And with a suddenness like a thousand gusting birds, the Valley rose from the Bone Waste, vast and radiant and real. And from the wild greenness came two figures. Mary’s cheeks were fat and red again and she burbled with delight to see her sister was joining them. Because Mam was already by her side, and Rat saw that her face was soft and unlined, without a trace of bitterness or blame.
The stalking death song, the whiskery-faced darkness with the damp, cool breath and rain cloud voice, had brought her here. Mary hugged Rat, her heart the soft beat of a bird’s wings within her chest, and led her into the Valley, where the ground was dark, the trees were cathedrals of shade, and there was water, water everywhere. It was exactly like what Mam said in her stories.
Natasha Burge divides her time between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, where she and her husband are owned by an unruly herd of rescue animals. Her writing can be found, or is forthcoming, in Jersey Devil Press, Crack the Spine, Pidgeonholes, Luna Station Quarterly, and Bitterzoet, among others. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in creative writing and trying to wrestle her first novel into shape.