Think that you find an old, derelict building. Maybe it used to be a fortress, or a castle, or something important… but it’s fallen into disrepair and rot, neglected and used for target practice, the stones and things of value stolen or destroyed, the ground salted over and cursed by some Gypsy woman long in her grave.
And maybe in the middle of that, down a spiral staircase lined with a soot-coated silver rail and made of pitted glasslike steps that might have been ebony, or onyx, or basalt before time and vandalism wore away what made them special, there’s a small clearing. In what might have been the basement, nestled in a natural valley. Maybe there you see a well, or perhaps it’s a fountain. But no water runs from this place, nothing clean and cooling and refreshing. The ring of the well is lined with marble and silver, perhaps once arranged to resemble the gaping maw of the old draculs, but now the teeth are curved in and broken off, the silver is tarnished, and the scale motif of the well walls has become chipped, moss-eaten. The only thing that doesn’t appear to be centuries old and gone to seed are the chains, driving down into that black maw. Wrought of brass and iron, barbed with cruel spikes and locked into place with sturdy rungs of unidentifiable material that pulses a sickly green.
Maybe, because something demands you do it and, in the way of dreams, you can’t resist it, you lay hands on one of those chains and begin to pull. Somewhere below you, ancient gears begin to turn, and you hear the patter of stagnant water dripping for perhaps the first time in a thousand years. Your hands are pierced by the blades between the chain links, and your blood flows freely, staining the cobbles at your feet. Pain twists up from your palms to your shoulder blades like a horde of ants burrowing into your flesh from the open wound, and still you pull. From somewhere you hear the caw of a raven, and on the broken walls above you see dozens of corvid shapes taking roost, watching you with their black and somehow knowing eyes. Still you pull.
After a time, the bucket finally rises. You reach out and pull your find from within it. A single bone. Small, like a child’s; a shoulder blade with no spine or arm to support it. It’s covered in moss, scorched in places, chipped in others. You bring it to your face and inhale deeply. The scents of rot, age, death, dust and rancid water fill your lungs, but bring with it an image. A memory. The dusty smell… it’s not decay and powdered bone, it’s chalkdust.
In a classroom. Everyone midgets, barely two feet tall. No, not midgets. Children. Laughing. Singing. Scrawling their first disastrous attempts at their letters and giggling with glee each time the teacher pats them on the head or affixes a sticker to their papers. But one child stands away from the rest. This one isn’t giggling. This one is only watching, an expression of cold hatred gleaming in his green eyes. You come closer, and realize he can’t see you… but you can see inside him. See what’s wrong.
He’s been in that position for the better part of an hour. When asked to draw his letters, he did. All of them. Upper and lower. And the teacher looked at the paper, told him he must have cheated, and gave him a new paper to make him do it again. When he did it again, she gave him a harder paper; write words, and say and spell them. Which he did. Rather than a sticker, or a pat on the head, he was sent away from the others and told his parents will have to be talked to. He has been waiting since then.
When recess came, he wasn’t allowed to go outside. He has afflictions, they tell him, that mean he can’t run and play with the other children. His mother – or the woman he calls such, as the supposedly real thing left him long ago – is on the playground. Watching the other children. She has done it for years, and will continue to do it for years. She will hug them, pat them on the head, tell them how proud she is over each rock they turn up or each time they put the ball through the oversize hoop. But when she comes to the classroom, to examine the boy’s paper and talk about it with the teacher, she will only purse her lips and glare. Later she will take the boy to another place, where he will be poked and prodded and asked questions he doesn’t want to answer and pricked with needles and made to read and write things that will be thrown away and discarded as lies. He knows, because it’s happened before.
You’re pulled away, brought back to the courtyard and the well as the smell fades. But then you see the scorch mark, the place where someone or something must have burned the bone – or it’s owner – and you reach out to it, rubbing your finger against it for a moment, then placing the soot into your mouth. As the taste overcomes you, that flavor of death and decay burning into the roof of your mouth, you go away again.
You’re in a room; austere, with little to recommend it in the way of furniture except for a lamp and a crib. The boy is there, asleep in the crib though it’s much too small for him. Curled into the corner of it as best he can, thumb in his mouth, tear tracks on his dirty face and a bandaid with gaily dancing cartoon characters over a seeping needle mark on his forearm. Lying next to him is a stuffed animal, big and blue and strange-looking. Another figure enters the room. Smiles coldly. And pushes the uncovered lamp into the crib, resting the hot bulb against the faux blue fur. Nothing can be seen of this figure, only that it is tall, vaguely female, and wearing a nasty smile as it surveys its work. As the first tendrils of smoke come from the stuffed toy, it walks away.
You feel the heat baking your skin, cooking the tears that are yours as much as the boy’s. Feel your lungs start to close up as the cloud of burning plastic and polyester invades your nostrils and works its way down your throat.
Again you come back to the courtyard, and see one last thing that makes this bone different from the shoulderblades of any other dead thing. A gouge, running down the back of it. Deep, jagged, not quite straight. You dig your fingertip into it – it’s deep enough for that, and nearly wide enough, and you’re again somewhere else.
A living room. Brown furniture. Shag carpet. Family scene. On one couch an older couple – the ones the boy calls mother and father. On the other, a teenage girl and a boy, barely out of diapers. Sitting at the corner of the table between them, the boy is there. The tear tracks are gone, the bandaid no longer in evidence… but blisters are on his cheeks, and the angry welt of the needle is still on his arm. He is rocking, staring at the television the others are watching but not really seeing it. The urge to urinate comes over him, and he goes to rise.
The table, you see, has a jagged corner. You know the boy did that, broke it off when he was younger by running into it. That corner points at the boy’s back like an accusing finger, dangerously near to the soft place at the base of his skull each time his head rocks backwards. When he sat down, perhaps it hadn’t been so close, but the kicking of those he calls his siblings pushed it closer, or perhaps his rocking scooted him back. Regardless, when he goes to stand, that broken-off bit of old wood and plastic finds flesh… and bites.
It digs into his shoulder, but his upward momentum won’t be stopped; his shirt splits alongside his flesh, unravelling and hanging in two ragged flaps like tattered wings. The boy begins to shriek as blood begins to soak into the atrocious carpet. Time skips. The mother is behind him, cursing at the boy for being clumsy, for having an accident. The father is before him, laughing at the warm, wet spot that has formed on the boy’s jeans. More pain. Another shriek as the wings that had once been an unmarked spot of flesh are yanked back together and taped down. Liquid, burning and sizzling at the flesh, feeling like teeth chewing at the place where the skin ends and the pain begins as iodine and bactine are applied. More tape. Finally he is given a pill – the pink and white ones that make him tired, because that’s all they know to do with him – and sent back to the still-scorched crib.
He curls up – biting down further cries when the movement tugs at the tape they’ve given him instead of the stitches and real medicine he probably requires – and puts his thumb in his mouth. He pulls the blue thing – the face now mostly gone, a knot of melted plastic that reeks of it’s own destruction – closer to him. And sleeps.
You come back at last to the courtyard, and set the bone down. Part of you wants to toss it back into the well, but you know that’s not right; you bled to get this, your shoulders are still quaking with the effort of pulling the chains, and you feel a curious sense of gratitude as you lay it on the ground before the well, turning to walk away.
You found what you came for. The memory. The bone belongs to someone else.