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Old Bones

  • Berwyn Powell
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They carried me home. Three of my brothers and sisters supporting my broken body between them. Alongside us, the others dragged the carcass of the auroch that had ruined my earthly shell. The hunt had been a success. My people would eat well this night. But I would walk no more.

When we returned our father fussed over me. His voice a monotonous chant as he asked the spirits for guidance. There was none they could give him, and when he stepped back my people began a great wailing. They formed a ring around me. A slow dance as they chanted, imploring the ancestors to welcome me, their favoured son.

In the morning they took my body up, onto the top of the hill, where brother crow and sister raven could eat their fill. Nothing would be wasted, and for a time I flew with them; soaring above the valleys and forests, swooping along the course of the great river as it twisted through the grass. The crows talked to me, telling me of life on the winds, the joy of the sun on your wings, and the thrill of surfing on a storm. In return I told them of my life on the ground, the feel of the grass beneath your feet, and the stories we told one another around the fire at night.

But it did not last. When my bones were picked clean, and bleached white in the sun, my people came back for me. They gathered me up, and with solemn chanting they carried me into a new hill that they had raised above the valley. They laid me down, telling me that this was my house. They had built it for me, and they would always come back to tell me of life below.

Then they left. I walked to the doorway of my house and gazed out at the country around. Already the leaves seemed to be turning the brown of autumn, and before my eyes I saw them fall and snow cover the ground. I felt no hunger, nor need of sleep. Content, I watched the sun wheel overhead, and the stars sprint across the heavens.

Before long the snows had melted, and with the first flowers of the year my people were back. They crowded into my house, their chattering voices eager to tell me of all that had happened while they had been away. Newborns were brought forward to meet me, and stories told of those others who had joined the ancestors. They asked my advice on when to plant their crops, and begged that I might intercede with the rain spirits on their behalf. They brought me food and gifts, and they sang songs in my honour.

Eventually they left, and all was again quiet in my house. I went outside, and talked to the birds and trees.

Time passed. Spring rolled into Summer, and the fields became golden with the corn. I watched the rains and the winds. I watched the other animals building their nests and raising their young. I saw the flowers craning their necks to follow the sun and I saw the bats flit across the moon.

Before I realised it another year had gone, and my people were once again climbing the hill to visit me. My sister led them, her face down-cast and her shoulders heavy. They camped outside my home for a whole passage of the sun. The noise from their celebrations loud to scare away the eaters of the dead.

They brought me wine and they brought me beads of jet. They shouted my name and toasted my memory. Long into the night they told of their lives and their struggles, and in the morning they started to build another house next to my own.

My heart lifted to see my family, but despite my love for my people I am still downcast, for my father was not amongst them.

Up here each day seems to pass in a heartbeat, the turning of the seasons in a blur. I have watched the river slowly change its course, and the stars creep out of their alignments. I have seen the forests recede as my people have spread, and the grasslands turn into fields. Each year they come to visit me, as promised, but no longer are there any that I recognise from when I walked amongst them.

I have grown distant from them, more a part of the earth than I ever was before. They too have changed. The gifts they bring me are strange, bronze and iron instead of flint. But still they feast in my name and listen intently for my answers. Still they tell me of each year's events, and bring up their babes for my blessings.

My hill too has changed, for no longer is my house the only one atop its summit. What was once a night of feasting has become a moon, as my people move from house to house and celebrate the dwellers therein. I am joyous when my children come to visit, but when we are apart my mind beings to wander; for it seems that when no one is here to tell us our names, we begin to forget who we are.

Something has changed in the valley below. A new people have arrived, ones clad in scarlet scales and bearing shining weapons. I watched them snake across the landscape and drive my people before them. Those that stayed they have subdued. They have built mighty villages surrounded by high walls, and the remnants of my people bring them grain and animals.

Each year I receive less visitors. Each year those that come seem stranger, more wary. They no longer know the songs of old, and their tales are of a way of life alien to me.

I am adrift on the currents of life's passing.

The time of the bright strangers who subdued my people passed in the blinking of an eye. Others came to take their place, and like the tide ebbing and flowing, they too receded in turn. I have seen mighty armies snake across the land like rivers, the blood spilled in their wake soaking into the ground like rain, and I have seen my descendants scrabbling in the mud of their passing.

The valley below is unrecognisable from when I was first carried up here on the arms of my family, the villages swollen and linked together with rivers of stone. Gone are the forests of old, in their place seas of wheat, their faces golden beneath the sun.

No more do my children come to feast with me. They have forgotten the old ways, and for the most part they avoid the houses of their ancestors; afraid of the ghosts of an earlier people that might haunt the places beneath the earth.

Those that do come, come alone or in small groups, talking in strange tongues, whispering in awe of disturbing my rest. They perform their rituals in hushed voices, speaking of the connections they feel to the past, chattering to one another of the gods and heroes who must lie buried beneath the earth.

But the past they seek is a myth, one that they have spun for themselves. A story they tell to try and mask the pain that they have forgotten. For they have been raised on tales of conquest, and having heard it repeated oft enough they believe that they are a different people from over the seas, and that those they displaced have left phantoms behind to haunt them in the old places.

I know better, because I was there, and it pains me to watch my children fearing their own parents.

It has been so long now that I hardly remember my own name. I have had no visitors in an age. Once, many seasons ago, I tried to leave my house, to walk down the valleys and seek my people. But my spirit can not stray far from my old bones, and each step pulled at me as if I was held by cords to the hill.

Eventually I could fight it no more and I turned back. Back to the dark and loneliness.

Now I wait as I have waited before. I talk to the moles and to the worms of the earth, but each day I find I have less to say.

I have been uprooted.

For the first time in an eternity some visitors came into my house, and marvelled over my bones. The words they spoke were alien, but there was a respect and interest there which I have not heard for an age. With the utmost care and affection they fussed over my remains, delicately cleaning them before lifting me up and taking me outside.

Oh how long it has been since my limbs felt the sun! In the before times my people would take me out, and with pride parade me around my house for all to see. But since the coming of the bright strangers so long ago, none have dared to thus disturb my sleep.

Outside there were no gifts bestowed upon me, but my children seemed to be welcoming me back nonetheless.

Then I was carried. Taken far from the house which I had inhabited for so long. They brought me down from the hill, back down into the valley of my people. They brought me to a new house, one with walls of crystal so my children can gaze in upon me.

They have left me gifts, offerings arrayed upon tables around me. The tools and implements of my past life, finely polished.

For several moons now I have dwelt here. I miss the birds and the trees, I miss the cold air of the mountains, but I am again amongst my people.

My children have forgotten my name, and they no longer know the old rites, but now they come to visit me every day.