The Bone Men
by George Edwards Murray
Stay awake for this, Beautiful One. Stay awake and listen.
I did not know Bone Men could feel pain until I killed one. He screamed the whole time: as he fell, as my spanner dug into his skull, as he twitched on the floor, the halo of oily blood oozing from his pearly dome. His neck-cloth fell away and his feeding-hole and breathing-hole wheezed and pulsated beneath his single row of exposed teeth. The lidless eyes rolled back and his sharp and pallid fingers scratched at the floor as he convulsed. He screamed and screamed until he gurgled into death, and the air was thick with his naked pain.
I had planned it for months. The simple act of swinging, of letting iron meet skull. Rehearsed the movement, tried to undo years of conditioning, tried to make my arm useful for something other than tightening rivets. Six months of preparation for a three-second act of rebellion and, Beautiful One, it felt like being born again.
All down the assembly line and on all the levels above and below, the other Bone Men ululated and swung their spears, viewed their fallen comrade through nets of chain-link fence and intertwining pipes. They grunted and howled. As they ran all together across the sweating pipes their naked feet made a sound like rushing water.
None of the other Workers looked up to watch me flee. Kept screwing and twisting and tightening as the assembler belched out hundreds of machine parts, inspecting and tuning each one before it continued down the line into darkness. Despite the rattles of the Bone Man dying in their midst, and the shrieks of those who pursued me, and the thunderous torrent of my panicked feet on the platform, they kept working.
All but you.
You, who stood with your spanner abandoned, smiling and holding out your hand, your eyes verdant and piercing beneath your sooty locks like opals suspended in plumes of smoke. We came together like something natural, like a drop of water falling from a pipe and plummeting to the floor. Inevitable and just right, just right.
We ran. Away from the line, away from the others, away from the labors assigned to us at birth. We flew into the darkness and sprinted down the catwalks suspended in the narrow tunnels, laughing, flying, each joyous footstep loosening ourselves ever more from our grim indentures. Pipes everywhere, tangled and multicolored and forming knotted walls on either side of us, some feet away from the edges of the walkway, exposing the black abyss below. But we had no fear of falling.
The Bone Men followed. Their rage echoed among the pipes. Thumping and shrieking such that the walkway vibrated. They grew louder and I realized we had nowhere to run. Where could we? The Workers’ Complex? To floors above or below? The Bone Men were there. The Bone Men were everywhere. And they would find us in seconds, wrap their sharp fingers around our necks and destroy us, as they destroy all people like us, the people who upset the Way Things Are.
I stopped us in the middle of the corridor. I looked to you, and you looked around and smiled despite the onslaught of noise, the blasts of steam and cranking and the din of machination, and the hellish cries of Bone Men.
You pointed to a shadow in the pipes. You got on the guardrail and stood on it for a moment before taking off, soaring above the abyss and grabbing onto the lattice of pipes on the other side, and the last I saw was your boot sliding into darkness before you bade me to follow.
It was you, Beautiful One, who saved us. It was you who had the courage to jump.
• • •
We crawled through the tunnel of metal, laughing, banging our knees, intoxicated with rebellion. The Bone Men bellowed in frustration. They did not know to where we had escaped. Eventually the space ahead glowed orange, and as we moved forward it grew brighter, until the tunnel opened into an enormous vertical shaft. Three gigantic red pipes ran its length, beginning somewhere in the blackness above and traveling downward until they faded from view miles below our feet. Cloaking them like a sweater were hundreds, thousands, of smaller pipes, wrapped and banding together and splitting apart. Likewise the walls of the shaft were comprised of crossing, multicolored pipes, some with gauges and lamps.
And throughout this cluster of iron revolved clanking gears, their teeth interlocking in noisy fervor. Some wider than you are tall. Others the size of my thumb. Gears and pipes and more metal walkways and platforms, dancing in the shadows of the lamps, mingling and joining and separating and whirling around each other all the way up to forever, and as high as rose the furious action, so deep it fell beneath our feet. The noise was tremendous and the air smelled of oil and smoke and our eyes watered at the acrid fumes. We climbed out of the tunnel and clung to pipes and inched sideways until we reached the nearest platform.
And we ascended, and we kept alive in our hearts the legend relayed since infancy.
• • •
At one point you asked if I knew where the Bone Men came from. All around us the gears whirled and interlocked, indifferent to us, focused on their tasks.
They have to come from somewhere, you said.
They don’t have to come from anywhere, I replied. They just are.
You said, Maybe the Bone Men have their own Complex, just like us, a wide open space in the Machine, with apartments stacked like gray blocks and each wearing a metal platform like a skirt. Only it’s for Bone Men. And their women and children.
I said, I’ve never seen a Bone Woman.
You said, They must exist. How do you think they make more Bone Men?
I cringed but I laughed. For if there were Bone Women there surely was Bone Intercourse, and Bone Infants. The consummation of Bone Marriage. And Bone Infidelity. Bone Affairs. Bone Households feuding with Bone Neighbors. Bone Dances and Bone Requiems. Bone Happiness and Bone Sorrow. We laughed at the prospect of a life made of Bone. Bone Science. Bone Art.
And you said to me, still laughing, Can you make art?
I told you I could draw, when the supplies could be foraged. I learned by illustrating missing pages from the books which made their way into our darkness.
You said, Did you ever make anyone cry?
I said my mother once cried at one of my drawings, right before they took me away from her.
And you said, Imagine this, imagine this. A Bone Man hanging Bone Art up in his apartment. A Bone Man having tears in his eyes from a picture he hangs up in his apartment.
And you clapped your hands and giggled, and I laughed, as well.
But imagine that, Beautiful One. A Bone Man with tears in his eyes.
• • •
Please, you must listen and remember.
We continued upward through the network of iron, running across platforms, scaling pipes, dancing across gears in the faint light of naked bulbs. Every so often the meager cry of a Bone Man resounded from deep within the shaft, and whenever you heard it you smiled. For all their wordless lividity and fearsomeness, they could not imagine that their captives had slipped into the fabric of the Machine itself, could not imagine their charges, trained from birth for servility, now wormed through their midst, gleeful and manic and out of control. And you laughed at the thought that somewhere a Bone Man may well have been resting his gaunt foot, his heel-toe curled around, on some winding pipe which miles away ran beneath your buttocks.
You said, They are pathetic.
And I laughed, but I want to admit to you now that I was frightened. The fever of escape had broken and as we continued to climb my stomach tightened and grew heavy. I had never spent so much time away from the assembly, not even for sleep. My fingers twitched, yearned for work. Something was upset and I felt defective, like I was malfunctioning, and as the assembly line became more and more distant my state of disrepair worsened. The Bone Men had gotten inside me, had oiled and inspected and constructed me perfectly for my task.
I can’t change, Beautiful One. The Bone Men had planned me so.
Although I wonder, Beautiful One, I wonder if the Bone Men had planned you entirely, planned on the gentle way your hair fell upon your shoulders, the way it caught the light in a corona which rendered your beauty ethereal. And I wonder if they planned the peculiar twist of your lips when you were thinking. The twitch of your eyebrows. The ripple of your taut muscles beneath your skin like water in a bath. I wonder if they planned on the softness of your hands. You have wondrous, delicate hands.
Beautiful One, no matter what they say, no part of them will ever live inside you.
• • •
We settled into routine. The hectic dash from platform to gear to pipe to platform became less frenetic, became calculated and familiar. We jumped over rails, passed from pipe to pipe, and scrambled across pulsing clots of gears and cogs with the same tedium as putting on our coveralls. The cries of the Bone Men were all but whispers. And our hearts simmered into embers, and we remained taciturn, except for when one warned the other:
The pipe is too hot.
That gear is slippery.
This walkway is unsteady.
The hazards of our journey became our conversation. What else were we to talk about? We shared everything else. The Bone Men planned it that way, I’m sure, to keep us from talking at the line. Standard-issue clothes. Standard-issue hair. Standard-issue apartments. Standard-issue life and standard-issue death. Raise all Workers identically and all conversation grows stale.
About every half-hour the metalwork would thin out and we would reach a more open space, and there would be a long platform which hung off the edge of the shaft and ran around its perimeter, and at different points along the platform the wall of pipes cleared and walkways trailed from the platform and into the darkness. I was on such a platform when I tried to steal some water from a pipe. My spanner was still stained with the Bone Man’s blood; it blotted the pipe with black dots as I unscrewed some bolts and valves. The pipe creaked and a thread of cool water sprayed from the pipe and cascaded into the abyss.
I put my mouth to the water and drank, and was about to call you over when you ran to me, grabbed my hand and pulled me down one of the corridors. It was dark and with each turn your grip convulsed with excitement. When we reached the end of the hall, you told me to crouch down, and together we peered around the corner.
The corridor led to another platform which encircled yet another giant shaft. This one likewise was comprised of tangles of piping, but otherwise was completely empty. No gears or the like. Only the yawning abyss. A few dozen Bone Men stood on the platform, spaced evenly apart, holding spears across their sunken chests and staring down into the blackness. They gurgled and squawked softly, burbling, punctuated by gentle puffs of breath. They swayed back and forth. Sunken eyes unmoving, sallow flesh radiant in the dark. Entranced. I held my breath. We were trespassers, Beautiful One. Trespassers upon some arcane rite.
Let’s go back, I said, tugging at your arm. But you would not be moved.
They’re waiting for something, you said.
We watched and waited, voyeurs of this ritual, transfixed by the primal groaning of the Bone Men. My heart beat in my throat. Any second a Bone Man could turn around, look upon us with bulging, bloodshot eyes, and alert his companions. They would leap upon us and tear us apart, peeling flesh off bone with their dexterous fingers. I pictured it again and again in my head and just as I was about to break and drag you back by force, It revealed itself.
It came first by sound. Quiet, rhythmic pounding from below. Whirs and clanks atop a muddled, unbroken roar. And then louder. The Bone Men raised their spears above their heads, growled, eyes piercing, staring down at the source of the noise. The pipes shook and the catwalk bounced up and down. The lights all along the shaft switched from dull orange to flashing red as an alarm blared in syncopated shrieks. The Bone Men screamed and the rumble exploded into an earsplitting tumult that flung us to the ground.
A bronze dome crested over the platform, rising from the center of the great abyss, barely scraping past the platform upon which the Bone Men flailed and ululated and jumped. Beneath the dome hung the body of the thing, an enormous contraption made entirely of interlocking gears, springs, levers, arms, winches, chains, and all manner of mechanical viscera, moving, clicking, beating, cogs dozens of yards wide attached to cogs half their size, and those to smaller ones, and smaller again by half until they formed great fractals which shifted in and out of Its belly. All held together as if the gears were imbued with life. Skeletal arms of chrome reached out from all sides and held onto the pipes as It rose, each moving finely and with purpose like hairs in a gust of air. It reeked of oil and smoke and heat, and as its roar reached its apex and yellow light flooded the shaft, the tail of It passed before us, dangling spastic pillars of fire and belching fumes and jets of heat.
And all along the sides of It, Beautiful One, Bone Men clutched handholds, clinging like parasites. So minute, so insignificant. Yet somehow through their attachment to It, they seemed to us divine.
It rose until it was four burning spots of light above. It left nothing in its wake save awe and reverence.
We looked at each other wordlessly. Took our splayed hands from the floor and rose from our genuflections. In the presence of such wonder, mortal affectations like words are worse than useless. They are insulting, for they assume we can grasp at meaning. And this had no meaning. Or if it did it was not meant for someone like me, Beautiful One. For its vastness stretched beyond my comprehension. Before It, I am vermin.
But this is no time to discuss It, Beautiful One. Philosophy is for the privileged. All that matters is this: The device was headed Topside, and the Bone Men rode upon it. This is important for you to remember. Lock this safely away, not in your mind but in your heart. Where resides your soul, and things dwell which have no words. Where no one can touch you, no matter what else they strip away.
Beautiful One, the Bone Men can go to the surface.
Do you understand?
The Bone Men can go to the surface.
• • •
We went back to our home shaft and continued our climb. I wondered why the Bone Men had not noticed us. Perhaps they too were dumbfounded by the miracle that passed before them. Spectacular It.
Do you think the Bone Men have a sense of wonder?
Or are they too familiar with the marvels they create?
I hope you never become familiar.
By this point in our journey, another shift had almost certainly passed. I suggested we go to sleep. You scoffed at me. As if you found it amusing that I needed sleep, after what we had just seen.
Just a little further, you said, your eyes fixated on the bleeding darkness above.
And I wanted to keep going, Beautiful One, but I shook with fatigue, and my lungs burned, and gravity and weariness played tricks with my head. You, though, were radiant. I wondered then how young you really are. In the heat of our escape, and later as we ascended in the morphing shadows of the shaft, I had taken you for someone my own age. Not old but not young, either. Beaten but not dead. But the day’s fervor had stripped the misery from your face and I found before me someone not much older than a child. Young and ebullient. And I realized then that I had become aged, and not only by the passage of time.
You must have seen my realization, for you said, Fine, we can sleep, and I thanked you, and we bounded across the cogs like we were one of their kin, and we rested on a platform secured to one of the main pipes.
You folded your arms and leaned against the guardrail. Nonchalantly picked off flecks of dry paint and watched them float downward through the clanking gears. You said, I will keep watch first. You sleep. And when you wake you will watch over me.
I closed my eyes and curled on the floor and fell asleep. I dreamt of dying, and when I reached my final destination, you were there waiting for me.
I woke up and you went to sleep. I paced the length of the platform as you tossed on the floor. The snarls of machinery all about us continued to knock and hum. I looked over the guardrail, to where beneath us yet more components toiled. Pockets of darkness and light commingled and danced. Efficient, cold, and exact. Illuminated spots of metal trailed down the pipes, passing in and out of sight as the manic workings of the machine covered and uncovered them with an almost-musical rhythm.
But something out of tempo stirred below.
It moved too freely, too organically to be machinery. I squinted. The dark was obscure and ever-shifting, but something below was definitely awry. I saw it then, bouncing between the gaps in the pieces.
And then came a wet and uneven chorus of moaning, and the snapping of a thousand bony claws.
I shook you awake. They’ve found us, I said.
We threw ourselves over the guard rail and leapt through the contraptions until we reached the edge of the shaft, affixed ourselves to the pipes and began to scramble upward. The shaft became awash with grunting, heaving, the banging of spears. The hollow pounding of ossified feet running across metal.
And their cries. Deep and trilling.
We barely touched the metal beneath our palms. Hand-over-hand like mad our feverish ascent and all around us the noise of the machinery and the Bone Men and you huffing above me and my own labored breath. Behind us they scrambled along the walls, swam through the machinery in raucous shoals. Their heads glowed: shining spheres with globular eyes. And their elongated fingers burned in the darkness like white streaks of flame. My legs shook and I sweated and slowed as each caustic breath I took set once more my lungs alight.
But Beautiful One, you never looked down. Our pursuers were beyond your fear. Beyond even contempt. You only looked up, the legend of the surface pumping beneath your skin, pulling at the fibers of your soul, its encouraging thrum supplanting the beat of your heart. As you rose I remained still, as if the Bone Men had lashed out with tendrils of fear and wrapped them around my ankles and stayed my climb.
You were almost at the next level, while I still struggled to move. You grabbed hold of the platform which encircled the shaft. And you looked down on pitiable me who quivered yards below you, my breath exploding like hot steam, flesh scalding, the shrieks of the Bone Men enveloping me, penetrating me. Undoing my joints.
Grab my hand, you said from the safety of the platform.
The shaft was saturated with howling and the rattle of claws.
I wiped the sweat from my eyes in time to see you unblemished for one last moment.
I yelled to you but you did not see until it was upon you, Beautiful One, until you half-turned and the Bone Man who had been hiding in the pipes came forth as if melting through and pierced you with his spear.
I screamed. Pushed by fear below and heartbreak above, I soared up the pipes and swung myself onto the platform as the Bone Man pulled his spear from your quivering body. You lay in blood with your hands clasped to your stomach. The Bone Man grunted and raised his spear above your head, and your eyes looked up at him bright and pleading and so radiant in the encroaching dark. I grabbed the Bone Man by the neck and we staggered across the platform, his feet scraping against metal as he made flailing kicks and flung his head back and forth and caterwauled. My hand slipped under his neckcloth and my palm brushed up against his breath-hole, which opened and closed with moist panic as I squeezed. The Bone Man tried to scream, but I wrung my hands tighter around his neck, his jawless head flailing, eyes bulging in their lidless sockets, until I brought him to the ground and grabbed his spear and rammed it so hard into his chest that it crunched through his body and rang against the metal beneath. Blood pooled around him like tarry wings. I dismounted his corpse when I stopped moving.
They coated the walls. Spread everywhere like ivory ornaments. Bleeding forth from the gears. Flying toward us.
I grabbed you and pulled your arm across my shoulders. We stumbled down the platform and turned into a corridor, you leaning ever more upon me, relying on my failing strength to hold you upright.
And you murmured, Where are we?
We are heading to the surface.
And who are you? you asked.
I just am.
You grew paler with each step, Beautiful One, and I feared I would lose you right there. The rumble of the Bone Men crescendoed behind us. Their smell flooded the hall. Decaying skin and rank fluid.
The corridor opened into a large antechamber. I laid you on the platform there. Stepping back to the corridor, I brought the spanner to each pipe I could reach, crushing the bolts in the spanner’s grip and tightening each one. Dashing back and forth, the Bone Men growing louder with each desperate twist of my arm.
I stepped back as the first pallid faces turned the corner down the hall. A swarm of ashen wraiths. Some ran on all fours, abandoning their spears, clutching the ground and propelling themselves face-first. All screaming. The pipes groaned.
Hurry, hurry, I said.
The Bone Men shook their heads as they bellowed. The pipes sputtered and twanged and shook with the oncoming pressure, as closer came the thunderous mob. Just yards away. I closed my eyes.
Hurry, I said.
The pipes burst. First one, then another, blasting steam across the corridor in a wall of turbulent clouds. The Bone Men shrieked as the steam raked over their papery flesh, split it into black sores, and they all staggered back and began to babble amongst themselves. They stood there for a long while. Every so often a Bone Man would approach the searing wall, one finger out, before yelping at the heat and leaping back. They did this a few times before half the group stomped away. The rest stood and stared through the veil of chaotic whiteness.
They would soon find another entrance. Or else release the pressure in the pipes. I turned and picked you up and looked around the room. It was boxlike; metal paneling covered the walls. Some stairs led downward, and a familiar rumble emanated from below.
I think there’s an assembly line in here, I said.
Though your eyes were half-closed and your face skeletal you smiled. Like where we started, you said.
I know. Let’s see what’s down here.
I brought you down the stairs. The floor was wet and sloshed beneath my boots. When we reached the bottom I almost dropped you to the floor.
There was an assembly line. It meandered all around the room, filling the space and leaving almost nowhere to walk. From a hole in the wall emerged the bodies of Workers. All lined up end to end. Arms and legs sticking out in all directions, soaked in blood. Some had bubbling cesspools of meat where once were faces. Others tried to hold in the entrails spilling from their abdomens. All moaned with pain. All still grotesquely alive.
At various points on the line were tunnels in which the Workers disappeared one by one. The first tunnel would click and hum and let off a cloud of steam, and then the Worker would emerge, free of injury, neat and sewn up with no scars or stitches. And after that into another machine, and there would be another series of whirs and hums and the Worker would emerge without a lower jaw. Only a gleaming row of top teeth. He would enter the next with more clicks and whirs and come out with two holes drilled into his neck. From the next he emerged with pale, hairless skin, wrapped like a cocoon. And likewise there was a machine to remove eyelids, and one to remove genitals, and one to file fingers into points.
And at the end the completed Bone Man hopped off and picked a spear from a rotating rack, and vanished into darkness. Never a hesitation. Never a refusal. The Workers became Bone Men and assumed their duties without question. Part of the larger function of the Machine, and us its gears.
I sank to my knees and set you down and vomited and wept. We became Bone Men and somewhere perhaps the Bone Men became us, as the Machine recycled us and remade us and broke our bones and rent our flesh. Endless consumption, recycling death, rebirth, transformation, for reasons beyond what our minds could comprehend.
You placed a trembling hand to my chest. Will we see the surface soon? you asked. Your voice light and cloaked in blood. Excited shrieking came from upstairs. They would come through soon.
And here, Beautiful One, is where we are.
Your breath is shallow and your skin pale. I have only one choice. I hold you over the machine. Upstairs the hiss of steam is softening. They are alleviating the pressure.
Just remember and perhaps you will not be like them. Just remember you have a choice. Remember that you can choose to be something other than a cog, a gear, a bellows, a chain.
You are not like me. You are not like anyone. You can be neither Worker nor Bone Man.
There is a gap on the belt. I undress you and set you down on it and let go. You disappear into the first machine just as the wall of steam stops hissing, and a thousand claws rattle behind me. But you have begun your transformation. They will not recognize you. You are safe.
Remember, please remember, that as they tear apart your body they cannot touch your heart, and that is where you lie. Where things dwell which have no words. Where we can make our own reasons to be.
Shrieking and footsteps and a thousand scraping fingers at my neck.
You will see the surface. Try to view it with tears in your eyes.
Copyright © 2019 by George Edwards Murray