Old Bones Knows The Way

Before we left Kazan, he insisted on visiting the mausoleum which stood roughly a mile outside the town. Since I had now abandoned all hope of a swift return to Persia - and because I did not trust him out of my sight for two minutes! - I was forced to accompany him through the dank, ill-smelling catacombs to admire the bones of those who had died three centuries ago at the Siege of Kazan.

Human remains made me nervous and I was horrified when he began to collect the relics of an entire skeleton, placing it patiently, bone by bone, into a bag

"What do you want with that?" I demanded uneasily. "You're surely not going to bring it away with you."

"But of course," he replied calmly. "I have rarely seen such a perfectly preserved specimen. Look ... it is possible to see where the knife chipped the rib-bone on penetration."

"How can you tell it was a knife?"

"I have dissected sufficient corpses who died of knife wounds to know that the signs are unmistakable."

"Dissected!" I stared at him aghast. "You have performed dissections?"

"From time to time. It is the only way to reach any true understanding of the human body. I have an academic interest in the physiology of homo sapiens ... a certain curiosity, you understand."

-Erik and Nadir, 'Phantom' by Susan Kay

Erik left the mausoleum and walked on ahead of the rest of the caravan. He slung the bag containing the skeleton easily across his back. The bones were light and his horses were already carrying enough of his belongings to burden them with this macabre choice of souvenir. He could not say exactly why he had taken the bones from their resting place. Perhaps when they arrived in Persia, he could resume his laboratory of scientific and medical study. It would make an excellent display and example of the human form to study from.

Nadir wished to camp, but considering the delay it cost them by stopping there to admire the ruins, they kept pressing on. They would simply make a late camp. Nadir did not particularly wish to camp near the graves.

Erik continued to wander far ahead of the rest of the men. He did this quite often and would sometimes wander off for a day or two at a time and find them later along the sparsely used road that ran along the riverbanks of the Kazan.

The moon was high in the sky over the tundra and Erik looked up, searching for signs of the caravan's fires. No doubt they would have stopped to camp by now. His eyes scanned the bare horizon but did not see any sign of their camp. He would have to find them tomorrow.

Erik settled down, made his own fire, and began to eat the few provisions he had in his knapsack. The night was very quiet and the sky was clear. At least there would be no rain to make his stay away from the camp uncomfortable.

He was very close to dozing off when he heard someone whisper to him.

"Thank you."

Erik shot up off his blanket and drew his knife. He expected to see one of the men from the camp standing over him or perhaps even a lonely thief or murderer who saw his fire and came near. There was no one there.

Erik shrugged. Perhaps he had dreamed the voice. It had been a long and weary day. He settled back down on his palette to go back to sleep.

His eyes had just closed when he heard someone humming.

Erik lay very still, willing the person to come closer and dare to attack him. He clutched his knife to his chest and lay still pretending to sleep.

The humming continued for a minute more, and then stopped. The night went very silent. Erik waited to hear footsteps crunching softly in the brush, but did not.

Then the whispered voice came again, "You're lost, aren't you?"

Erik stood up quickly, his head turning around searching in the darkness. "Who are you?" he yelled into the night.

Silence.

"I said who are you? I demand that you show yourself, you coward!" he bellowed, threatening the knife at the unseen voice.

"I am not a coward. You are the one who has hidden me away," it laughed.

Erik's mind scrambled for comprehension. Was he dreaming this? Had he lost his mind? There was nobody for miles.

"Where are you?" Erik demanded.

Silence.

"I'm by your feet," it replied simply.

Erik turned around and looked at the ground by his feet. There lay the bag. Erik knew what was in the bag. He had to be dreaming.

He scrambled away tripping on his blanket. "Skeletons can't talk. They're dead," he said, but lacking the voice to convince even himself.

"Suit yourself. Believe what you want," it replied.

Erik sat back down a distance away and stared into the fire. He did his best to ignore the bag, but his eyes kept locking onto it; willing it to speak once again, and yet dreading it. He wanted to ask it questions, but dared not. It would only confirm that he was truly mad.

"I had said 'thank you'," the voice came suddenly.

Erik jolted up, "I didn't say anything!"

"Ah, no, but you were thinking it. You wanted to ask me what I had first said to you when you thought me to be someone else," it replied calmly. "I do wish you would remove me from this bag, it's so dreadfully stuffy in here."

Erik stared at the bag, listening to the voice coming out of it. He finally found his voice, "Thank you for what?" he asked.

The voice laughed softly, "Why, for taking me from that horrible place. You see, the others there… they are not so talkative."

"Others?" Erik repeated dully.

The voice sighed exasperatedly, "The other dead. As you can imagine, being dead, they do not have much to say."

"But you seem to," Erik replied. He was now growing curious. "Are you a ghost?"

"I do not know what I am. I am a body, or what is left of it."

Erik nodded.

"Please take me out of this bag," it asked once more.

Erik made no move toward the bag, nor did he reply to the request.

It knew he was not going to.

"You're lost aren't you?" it asked.

"How would you know that?"

"I heard your thoughts. You say you are lost," it replied smugly

"I have merely gone off the path, and I shall find my way back when it is light," Erik argued.

"Do you know where you are at now?"

"I am sitting in the middle of a brush field off the Kazan River, and I'm talking to a skeleton. According to you, I must be lost, and mad," Erik sarcastically replied.

The voice laughed rattling the bones in the sack, "I do not think you are mad."

"And why is that?"

"Because most people who are lost in the middle of nowhere, will talk to themselves, as where you are talking to someone else," it said simply.

"How do I know I am not just hearing your voice in my head?" Erik said.

"Because your head cannot answer you back. Take me out of this bag and I'll prove it to you."

Erik was growing very irritated with the whole situation. "This is stupid. I don't need proof to know that I'm not crazy!" Erik stood up and walked toward the bag.

"Why do you wear that mask," it asked suddenly.

Erik stopped where he was, a little shocked by the question, "Because I'm very ugly and I scare people. You could say we share some resemblance."

"Really! How very interesting! I should like to see how you look underneath it," it answered back.

"No, you wouldn't!"

"Sure! You must be pretty scary-looking to have to wear a mask like that. At least I have an excuse; I'm dead."

"How dare you..." Erik started towards the crumpled bag angrily.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you!" the voice yelled at him, stopping him where he stood.

"Do what?" Erik replied angrily.

"If you kick this bag, then you will break me and your perfect specimen will be ruined, you crazy person!" it yelled at him.

"I am not crazy!" Erik screamed back.

"No? You're arguing with a skeleton! I'd say that sounds pretty crazy to me!"

"What? You just said that it wasn't insane to be talking to…." Erik's frustration grew and he picked up the bag and heaved it far away from him into the night. "There!" he sighed.

Erik shook off his dusty blanket and laid it back down by the fire, slumping down upon it, now too angry to sleep.

Off in the distance he heard the mocking call, "You'll be sorry!"

The next morning, Erik woke up groggy and kicked dirt on the remaining smoldering ashes of his fire. Then he remembered the night before. Had it all been a horrible dream? Perhaps some foreign insect had bitten him and given him a fever.

He packed up his belongings in his knapsack and turned to leave.

The bag containing the skeleton was still where it had landed. Erik shook his head. Better to leave it where it is.

Curiosity, however, got the best of him before he got very far and he turned back. He stood over the bag, now covered in dirt. Could it have really been talking to him? Tentatively he reached out with his foot and lightly kicked it.

When nothing happened he started to walk away.

"Ouch."

Erik's eye went wide and he slowly pivoted around.

"That hurt," it said.

Erik just stood there. He hadn't been dreaming and this was no hallucination.

"Aren't you going to take me with you?" it asked.

"No," Erik said.

"I don't believe you. Besides, it would be in your best interest to take me with you. I can help you find your way back," it replied.

"How?" Erik asked.

"I can help you find your way. Just take me out of the bag. Besides, why would you want to leave me here? You went through all that trouble of packing me up carefully."

Erik looked around him. He had gotten disoriented during the night when he wandered off. He was almost positive he knew the direct of the river, but was not going to get himself even more lost. With a grumbled swear he picked up the bag and slung it on his back, heading off in a quick walk.

"You're going the wrong way."

"Shut up," Erik quipped.

For most of the morning, it was blessedly quiet. Erik once again began to question his sanity. He stopped by a stream for some water and set the bag down on the sandy bank.

He looked at it curiously, "Are you still there?"

It replied sarcastically, "Of course, I can't very well get up and walk away?"

Erik snorted derisively, "Then why have you been so quiet?"

"You told me to shut up. I did."

Erik gave a loud, frustrated sigh, "You know, for someone dead, you're quite annoying!"

"I don't think that I'm annoying. I think that it is merely your growing frustration at not being able to find the rest of your people. Like I've told you before, if you let me out of here I can help you."

"Not likely," Erik said, picking up the bag again, "How can you see? You don't have any eyes."

"Good point, but I'd still like to get out of the bag."

"Why should I trust you? You could lead me further away from where I want to be and let me die there."

"Why should you not trust me?" it asked, "Just because I'm dead doesn't mean I can't be trusted."

"You've been dead for a few hundred years, things sort of change in that much time," Erik snapped back at it.

Erik started back along the way he had been going before, once again questioning his location. "I honestly don't think that taking you out of the bag would help. Would you start moving around or remain inanimate bones that talk? If it's the latter, then what's the point of taking you out of the bag?" Erik reasoned.

"How should I know? I'm dead, remember?"

"Yes, I know. You're dead," Erik said. "Now I just need to find the river from this stream."

Erik continued following the stream. It kept getting wider so he knew he was getting close. It really didn't feel like he had wandered off so very far last night.

He walked until the sun was no longer lighting the sky. He had the sneaking suspicion that he had started in the wrong direction that morning and that the stream had led him to a different fork of the river than he intended. When it was too dark to safely see, he made camp on the riverbank.

He sat, eating the last of his food when it spoke to him.

"Go ahead and see. I can't hurt you can I?" it said.

"What?"

"You've been asking yourself what would happen if you take me out of the bag all day, so why don't you just do it? Are you afraid of me?"

"No!" Erik replied indignantly.

"Then do it. I'd like to be out of here. It's hot and cramped in here."

Erik stood and walked over toward the bag that glowed in the firelight.

He hesitantly pulled the drawstrings and let them fall. He took a nervous breath before opening the bag then reached in and laid his hand on the smooth skull.

Nadir and his men got an early start. If they didn't find Erik soon, then the Shah would have then all hunted down and put to death for failing to bring him to the court.

Nadir called his men to hurry when he saw the smoke from a small fire up ahead on the riverbank. He slowed to a trot when he saw that Erik was still sitting by his fire. But something was amiss.

Erik had his back turned toward them and did not turn around when they approached. He was hitting something with a large stone.

Nadir looked around where he sat and he saw fragments of splintered bone all around him. Erik continued to pound on what looked like it had once been the skull of the Kazan corpse he had taken two days prior.

"Erik? What are you doing? Are you alright?" Nadir asked. "Erik, can you hear me?"

Erik sat rocking back and forth, pounding on the fragments of skull with the rock, mumbling something under his breath.

"Erik?" Nadir leaned in closer, still being wary of Erik's lethal reflexes, lest he should jump up and strike him down with his knife.

"You're dead… Please let me out… it's so cramped in here… I promise not to annoy you… I'm in the bag… my face is his and I'm in the bag…" Erik mumbled softly, pounding away at what was left of the skull. "He's dead… I'm dead… please take me out of the bag…"

"What do you mean, Erik?"

"Dead… and I can still hear him."