By Paige Duke
Talitha walked among rows of bones, sorted and tagged by the students, until she came to what must have been the skulls. She bent and gently picked one up with her gloved hand. She turned it, examining the dingy surface with barely disguised fascination. Who were you? she wondered. What sort of life did you have in this place? She looked out across the unfamiliar terrain, the cracked clay that stretched for miles until it rippled into brown and orange striated foothills. What sort of people could flourish in so unforgiving a place?
“This is such a waste of time,” Ronell whined from behind her. Talitha turned to find the other woman looking bored; it was clear she hadn’t even started recording any of the remains. Under different circumstances—back home, steeped in the comforts of their modern lives—she liked Ronell, but the woman did not share her appreciation for the lost histories. Few did.
“Oh?” Talitha asked innocently.
“They’ll never see the outside of a lab,” she said, motioning to the minefield of bones the kids had dug up. “And how much can they really tell without a proper record anyway?”
Talitha shrugged, trying to mirror Ronell’s disinterest.
The other woman fanned herself with the webbing of her open palm, “Ugh. How many more of these godforsaken planets do we have left?”
Talitha gently replaced the skull in its row and opened the flap of her biopouch, careful not to let her treasures jingle against one another, and pulled out a thin spindle. With a swipe of her fingerpad, she pulled up the B Class Archeological Survey itinerary. “Only two more after this one.”
“That’s two too many, I say. This is the last time I chaperone,” Ronell said, shaking her head. Sweat glistening on her flawless blue skin in the glare of the planet’s single sun. “You know, the only reason I agreed in the first place was I thought we’d hear more about the Terraforming. I think it’s just amazing! The way they can take these useless old planets and repurpose them.”
Looking down to hide her dismay, Talitha nodded. She couldn’t very well argue for historical preservation when technology promised the end of their desperate troubles.
“Oh thank Oleith, I think they’ve finished.”
Talitha followed Ronell’s gaze to see the class packing up their gear and Caelith skipping excitedly toward them.
“Your boy seems like he’s really into this,” said Ronell. “All the others were bored by the third planet. Can’t say I blame them. Bones all start to look the same after a while, no matter how ingeniously they’re arranged.”
Caelith slowed, breathing hard and nodded to Ronell, “Hello, Mistress.” In one hand, he carried his overloaded toolkit and the other—Talitha saw, with a little thrill—was tucked firmly into the pocket of his robe. She reached out to smooth his feathery hair.
“Nice work today, young sir,” said Ronell with feigned enthusiasm and a stiff pat on his arm. “Well, I’m going to get out of this heat. I’ll see you two back on board,” she said, leaving mother and son alone.
Talitha waited a moment before whispering, “What have brought me this time, boy?”
Caelith smiled and pulled his hand from his pocket, looking around to be sure no one was watching, and placed a small, perfectly round disc into her palm. “Found a pile of these in a pouch. Used to be some sort of picture on it that’s worn away now, but I thought you’d like the runes.”
They exchanged a look of wonder and Talitha smiled, her heart squeezing with affection for this child who could share and keep her secret.
Caelith reached out to squeeze her fist, “I’m going to clean up. Meet you back in our quarters.”
Waiting until he was behind her and the sound of the class’s banter began to fade, she looked down at the trinket her son had salvaged for her. The disc was made of thin metal and its face was smeared with dirt where he had smudged the dust. She wiped it clean the best she could to reveal the outline of an image worn away by time and the elements. She found the runes Caelith mentioned and turned the disc until her retinal translator could make sense of them: IN GOD WE TRUST. What did it mean?
Talitha closed her fingers around her newest treasure, still warm from its earthen grave. She took one last look across the alien terrain, a piece of living history soon to be remade. She turned then to make her way back to the ship, dropping the disc into her biopouch among the other detritus of lost worlds.
The Bone Locket
By Dani Nicole
They called her Bag of Bones. A less than civil name for the witch who came to town, carrying a velvet purse that rattled when she walked.
“A dime for a femur, a nickel for a knee,” she’d sing in a voice that sounded like a hawk’s screech. She never talked of anything but bones. She never asked for anything but coins.
“Why does she want coins for bones?” a little boy asked.
His mother shushed him as if she could erase his curiosity with her firmly placed index finger. “We will not talk about the witches.”
“I want to be a witch, mommy,” said the curious boy’s sister. “I want to buy a bone.”
“You will do none of those things.”
The little girl was not satiated. “But no one ever buys her bones mother. How shall we know what they do?”
“They are bones. They are meant to be in the ground.”
The woman hurried her children along but the witch continued singing, “A dime for a femur, a nickel for a knee,” because though the curiosity of the children had stirred curiosity in the witch, she still had a job to do.
I met the witch when I was hungry, standing outside the bakery. The smell of freshly baked bread perfumed the air, and she came sing-songing down the street. “Two dimes for a femur, two nickels for a knee.”
“Excuse me, miss, but I must ask,” she stopped walking at the sound of my voice, “But why are the bones twice as much today?”
She smiled revealing black and gray teeth, she smiled revealing her soul. “Because you need them twice as much, of course, than you did any other day.”
She walked away from the freshly baked bread, down the street into an alleyway. My mind followed her, but my stomach protested, sounding off for a pastry.
I purchased my delicacy, but I was distracted and kept searching for the witch who’d disappeared. What kind of witch sells bones, I wondered. What kind of witch needs coins?
I walked to where her robes disappeared, into an alleyway– a narrow sliver, almost too small for one man. I stopped for a moment, then turned sideways, shoving myself towards the Badlands. There were overcast skies and naked trees, and cracked earth prickled by plants.
“There are bones in the Badlands,” said a creaky voice. I turned to see Bag of Bones on my right.
“Why do I need the bones?” I asked.
“We all need the bones, or rather, what’s inside.”
She shook her head. “I know what you lost, someone you loved. I know many things.”
“I thought you were a witch.”
“Of sorts,” she said, reaching into her bag.
“No, I don’t want to—“
“If you see, you’ll understand.” She removed a flat, round locket and handed it to me. I touched the milky-white surface.
“Is this made of—“
“Bone,” she said, as if that were a normal thing.
“What is it?”
“It is a way to release what the world needs from bones.”
I opened the locket which revealed two words. On the left it said life; on the right it said death.
“What do these words mean?”
She took the locket and looked toward the Badlands. “There are bones in my purse. There are bones in the Badlands. There are bones in our bodies. But what do these bones mean? They do not mean we are alive, because our bones are here when we die. They do not mean we are dead, because we are born with bones.”
“Perhaps they mean that we existed.”
“Precisely.” She paused. “Bones are given to us when we are born and we give them back when we die. The one you lost is gone, but not her bones.” She opened her bag and peeked in. “These bones belonged to mothers, fathers, daughters and sons. These people were loved and now they are missed. When you love someone, that love does not leave. It stays buried in their bones.”
I stare at her. “Can the bones bring back the lost?”
“What has perished has perished, but the love remains. With my locket you can release that love. It will continue into the world, a new baby receives, and perhaps she will grow to love. Perhaps she will lose, the way we all do, and release more love from more bones.”
“Your locket, it seems, can recycle love.”
I closed my eyes and remembered her, swirled in beauty and grace. I pulled the coins in my pocket and said, “Tell me what I must do.”
“Purchase the bones, bury them near the lake. When you are done you are free.” She took a step forward, put her face near my ear. “But if perhaps, you want to help, you can bring me more bones from the Badlands.”
“And what do you do with the coins?” I asked.
She smiled, secretly, and I knew she would not say. “I buy more velvet bags.”
I gave her my coins; she gave me three bones. She smiled and turned on her feet. Her velvet bag rattled, the bone locket clanked, and Bag of Bones walked away.