A/N: This is just a short, speculative one-shot based on Cubone's pokédex entry.
Last edited December 2011 from its original incarnation. I've been writing Pokémon fanfiction for way too long.
All comments, critique, criticism, etc. are greatly appreciated and welcomed. Typos will be killed upon sight. We have a Caddyshack-like relationship with one another; I can never quite seem to be fully rid of them.
Dividing the Bones
By: Saffire Persian
"I am watching your chest rise and fall,
like the tides of my life,
and the rest of it all.
And your bones have been my bedframe,
and your flesh has been my pillow,
I am waiting for sleep
to offer up the deep
with both hands."
I can finally breathe again.
I inhale deeply, relief coursing through my body all the way down to the very marrow of my bones—hers and mine.
It's as if a great weight has been lifted from me. Finally, the burden I have been carrying for these many long, painful years is gone. Gone, gone at last. But in place of that great weight comes a deep, harrowing sorrow. It's the kind of sadness that leaves scars for you to remember it by, and at this point I don't think it'll ever go away. I don't understand how the others can speak so lightly of it, like it somehow doesn't matter, like it's normal and right and that everything's okay. For years, among my fellow brothers and sisters, we often joked about it like it was some sort of game we hoped to be able to win and finish quickly.
It's a game where if you win, you live; you lose, you die.
The roar of the waterfall behind me is soothing, the water clattering on the many rocks that rest below it, its groans reverberating about the slick walls of the cave. It's a peaceful place, and hardly anyone bothers to come here anymore. It's my place, my secret place—mine and hers.
I feel like I should be crying. My eyes are red and dry, and I haven't slept. But what right do we have to cry anyway?
"Al'xious?" a voice echoes off the cave's walls, almost drowned out by the waterfall. I turn my head, my eyes catching a brown shadow as it climbs up the damp stones towards me. The cubone stops feet away from me, a solid bone club clutched in his right paw. I recognize him. Jin. "Ah, I thought you'd be here."
He looks around, eyes narrowing as he scours the area, searching, but the Marowak he is looking for is no longer among the living. She has gone to join the spirits of our proud ancestors.
I think he realizes it too, but still, he asks, tilting his head and staring at me intently. "Where's Zareen? She's always with you."
He's right, Zareen was always with me, an overprotective mother that wanted nothing more than to watch her son grow up in the little time she had remaining to her. But that time had come and gone. She used to be with me, but not anymore. Only her flesh and bones remain.
I hesitate before I point to a still, prone form on my immediate right. Jin cranes his head to look around me, his coal-black eyes widening in surprise as he wanders over to Zareen's body, allowing his paw to rest against her cold, brown flesh before jerking it away. Slowly, he regains his composure, looking up at me from his place beside the body. "I guess it's finally over, huh? When did she die?"
"During the night."
"Aa." He nods his masked head. "Well, it's about time."
I flinch, paws tightening into fists. Jin doesn't act like he notices my discomfort, whirling his bone around like some of the younger cubone do with sticks. I can tell he notices though: it is not in his nature not to notice. He just likes to play pretend. It has no doubt saved him much pain over the years.
Round and round his club continues to whirl, and in a display of his dexterity he throws the bone up in the air, catching it and twirling it around expertly seconds later before he tosses the bone from paw to paw. "I mean," he continues, "what has it been? Six years? Most get it over with in three. That's a long time to put something off. You get hurt more that way."
I grimace, voice hardening. "Not everyone's like you, Jin."
"Naa..." he retorts. "It's more like not everyone's like you. And here I thought you'd end up becoming a No-Face. I was betting on it with some of the younger ones. Funny, huh? Ha ha. I lost for once."
I reel around to face him, and I can feel the muscles in my shoulders bunch up and tense and grit my teeth. "Shut up! I'd rather die than become a No-Face."
I've seen them before, the No-Faces. They are pitiful creatures, shades of the cubone they once were. They hide in the shadows where they think no one can see them, always lurking near the Boneyard, hoping to be lucky enough to seize a chance at a second life by stealing a face they have not earned the right to wear. They have no right to live beside our ancestors' bones. They disturb their peace and make light of their lives and sacrifices.
No-Faces are the ones who chose the coward's way. They are lower than the dirt they crawl on, milling about like annoying insects that refuse to die. The No-Faces are the cubone who refused to complete the task that was expected of them since birth, and yet some of them think they are worthy to mingle among us still. They have their place, but it's not alongside us. It's not fair.
There had once been a time when I had thought becoming one of them, years ago, but once I actually laid eyes on one, I vowed never to think such foolish thoughts again.
You never really forget the time when you first see a No-Face, because until then, they're really nothing more than figments in a story meant to teach the younger. Until then, they're never quite real. I know I'll never forget my first time, when I first laid eyes one: it was a skinny, wretched creature with a debilitated body and dull eyes that crawled along on all fours like a worm, hoping to escape the notice of eyes much brighter than its own. It was a tragic monster worthy of pity. And I do pity them, all of them. I pity them more than anything in the world.
I did not kill the No-Face when I saw it, like I was supposed if any of them were to approuch the Boneyard. Instead, I let it go. It was not out of kindness, nor was it out of mercy: it was out of understanding. I knew why it had chosen such a terrible path, even if I knew then that I would never follow its example. However, the Bone-Keepers were not quite so forgiving as I that day. They killed it as it as it fled across the sea of bones. Its screeching wails and cries for forgiveness as its mask-less face and body was savagely beaten and broken fell on deaf ears. The Bone-Keepers would not allow a tainted being such as itself to desecrate the Boneyard. To do so meant death. A No-Face's existence is affront enough, a disgrace to both the living and the dead.
Blood ran freely on the stone altar when night came, and the No-Face was made an example of. Its outward skinflesh was hung up on the Boneyard's north wall for all to see. Its own bloody bones lay scattered about, torn out of its body to be discarded later, for some other creature not of our species to take or the sun to bleach.
The No-Face was supposed to be an example to all of us, to show us what our fate would be if we chose that life. It would not be my choice. The coward's way would never be mine.
It would have hurt my mother more than anything.
I snap back to the present, glaring at Jin once more, shaking my head and trying to forget his little joke. He takes my fading irritation in stride, kneeling down besides Zareen's still body.
"You going to take her to the Bone-Keepers tonight, then?"
I nod. He continues to stare. "Jin?"
He looks up at me. "Eh?"
"Was it hard for you?"
"Naa," he says lightly, cheerfully, as I watch him start to pass the bone back and forth through his paws again as he stands up. "It was a cinch. Mother always told me I was always stronger than Father, so there was no contest whatsoever."
"That's not what I was talking about."
"Then I don't get what you're trying to ask, Al."
"Yes, you do."
Jin sighs. He looks at me with stone-cold eyes, his voice flowing like slow-moving water. "Like I said: not at all."
He doesn't fool me. I hiss as I take in another deep breath. "Liar."
I can only imagine that he's smiling like a Persian beneath his mask as he shrugs, eyes sparkling with some secret truth. "So maybe I lie. What of it? What's it to you? We're all liars, anyway. It's best that you learn how to do it properly, Al, 'cause when you finally get up the courage to go and face the outside world, they'll look, they'll see, and they'll ask. Count on it. And you will lie—you'll have to in order to protect yourself from those who can't understand the truth we have. The world is full of other breeds of No-Face besides our own."
Deep down, I know that he is right.
That night I watched through distant eyes as my mother burned.
I had taken her up to the Boneyard myself, my smaller body dragging her fully evolved corpse through the cave, using all the strength I had gained over the years to do so. Her body had long since stiffened with the chill of death. Her face was peaceful, though; there was no grimace or look of horror upon her face. She had died in her sleep, so even though her last breath was cut short as her neck was snapped in two, she felt no pain. For that, I was grateful. Death should be painless if it can be.
The Bone-Keepers took her from me as soon as I reached the Boneyard. They carried her toward the stone altar, laying her body gently down upon it. The marowak Bone-Master took her place at the altar's head. She breathed in, her exhale sending out a stream of hot flame flowing onto the altar. The fire surrounded my mother's body, greedily clawing at her skin as the other senior Bone-Keepers that knew how to breathe fire joined in the task. Lesser pokémon would have been reduced to nothing within minutes, but not my mother: she was strong in life, and she was still strong in death. It would take some time for her body to finally give in to the strong blaze.
Around me, the light from the streaming threads of fire played across the walls and floor and along the many stalagmites and stalactites that grew from them. The sea of bones seemed to glow then, pulsing with a life of its own.
Our ancestors were finally welcoming my mother home.
The ritual continued until all skin, flesh, and muscle melted away, leaving nothing but her skeleton as proof of her sacrifice and her honored existence. It took time, but there was never a sense of hurry. The Bone-Keepers then took her bones and divided them carefully from the ash, laying them out in a circle around the altar, with her mask-encased skull in the middle. All six of the masked figures then stood back from the altar, surrounding it like a ring of immovable stones.
It was all up to me to fulfill the last rites now.
No words were spoken as I stepped up to the altar, choosing a bone from the many that lay before me. I picked her femur—it was by far the longest and toughest bone in her body, and I would need that strength in times to come.
Then, as I had been taught, I moved to the last piece of her I would take with me: her skull. It would become my shield, my mask, and my new face. It was the proof of her sacrifice to sustain my existence and ensure my passage into adulthood. With her bone that now was my weapon, I hammered at bone mask that protected my mother's skull. I could not take her old mask and make it into my own—it wasn't mine to take—so I had to break it apart, crack it open.
When it finally gave way, her mask was then little more than shattered pieces of bone. I carefully retrieved my mother's skull out of the wreckage and began to fashion it into a mask of my own making. I tore the jaw from the rest of the skull. Larger holes were made in the eye sockets, smooth edges were made jagged; every bit was reconstructed and disfigured until the skull could no longer be called my mother's but mine.
I couldn't help but think then, as I slowly draped the finished skull over my head, about all the times my mother had helped me throughout my life.
When I was young she would play with me and put up with my annoying wails for hours at a time.
When I was sick, she would care for me, making sure that I'd gain back my strength and recover.
When I grew older, she taught me how to fight, to use my strength to overwhelm my opponents and how to refine and make the best use of my techniques. She taught me to respect the bones, and how to use them skillfully with honor and remembrance.
She also taught me what I must do to become an adult, and told me, as best she could, the terrible but beautiful and sacred ritual of my people. If I could not accomplish it, I would die, or worse: become a No-Face and live in filth and disgrace (having erased my own existence) until the Bone-Keepers took pity on me and let me die.
I realized then, that not once during those three long years did I thank her for any of it. Never once did I stop and tell her I loved her, that I appreciated everything she did for me, and that I would be saddened at her inevitable passing.
It wasn't because I didn't want to. It was because I couldn't. It was not our way. How could I—how could any of us as their children—look her in the eyes and tell her all those things when I knew that one day—whether days, months, or years from that moment—I would have to kill her? Love is a silent thing. It means wearing the bones and respecting the memories that are held inside them. It's what makes them strong.
But now I have finally completed my task and she is gone. Now my voice will join the hundreds of others that I now understand. We will cry and sing to the moon when we think no one is listening. We have no right, but we will take it anyway.
Now that I am finished reflecting, I walk away from the ash-covered altar, looking back for the last time. Thank you, I say silently. I love you, and I miss you…
The ritual's finally over, and I now I'm alone—from now, until forever.