Science Fiction & Fantasy

Beren & Luthien by J.R.R. Tolkien

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Fiction

A Word Shaped Like Bones

A Word Shaped Like Bones by Kris Millering

The dead man sits in the corner of the chamber enclosed by spaceship on all sides. He takes up a lot of space. He has been there for three days.

Maureen fears the dead man. Not because of anything he has done. Because he is there, and she cannot make him go, no matter how much she rubs her eyes.

He is lumpy, the dead man. He puts off a faint odor of putrescence. His head lolls to the side and his eyes are open and his skin is a ghastly color now, mottled. He was a big man, before he was dead.

Maureen cannot sleep for watching him.

Maureen cannot make him go away.

• • •

Maureen works on her sculptures, trying to ignore the dead man. “I was supposed to be alone,” she says to the pliant material in her hands. It’s a model, only a model; it will be cast and perfected when she reaches the planet that humans call Hippocrene. She makes the model out of a lightweight foam clay; it stays flexible for only a few hours once extruded, so she must work quickly and work small. The foam clay is not her favorite medium, but she is in space. There must be no fumes, nothing that crumbles easily, nothing that must be fired or melted. It would not do to put anything poisonous in the air that she might breathe. She usually works in materials much less forgiving, lunar basalt and glass.

A stunt, her critics said before she left. She holds her ears and buzzes her tongue against her teeth to block the voices out as she has been taught. It is not a stunt. It is a fellowship. Won, by the merit of her work. There are people who understand her work. The universe is not filled with critics!

She thinks the dead man in the corner might be a critic.

Maureen has done nothing interesting in the last few years other than win the fellowship that placed her on this small spaceship. Her sculptures sell, this is true; but selling is nothing, some of the greatest artists of the 23rd century have never sold anything. Commercialism is out of fashion. She longs for the 22nd century, when you couldn’t tell the difference between any of the genders without asking, people dressed like people, and you were only successful if you sold.

She could have been something, in 2165.

Instead she is hopelessly banal, striving for beauty in form. She sculpts the shapes she finds in her mind, all smooth curves and edges that catch at the fingertips, demanding attention. Her work does not feature a thousand flickering holograms each reciting a passage from On Hills of Steel; it does not assault anyone with the smells of the lunar landscape or the taste of needles. She regards the Synasthete movement as crass sensationalism. She never wanted to know what yellow sounds like. Yet she does, and it is something she cannot un-know.

Oh sweet breath of the divine, there is a dead man in the corner and she cannot un-know that, either.

She works. She continues to work. She is always working.

The dead man decays at her in what she feels is a possibly reproachful fashion.

• • •

It would be better if she could come up with an origin for the dead man. Knowing where he came from, Maureen is certain, would point the way to a possible future in which she is not trapped on a tiny automated spaceship with a man. Who is dead. She thinks he is a man, anyway. He has—had?—a beard, which is generally a dead giveaway. Fashionable, right now, to give oneself away. In so many different ways.

She wishes he were alive so he could tell her if he identifies as male, or cis-male, or female, or transformed, or which of the infinite varieties of gender he chooses to be. You only know when someone tells you. Sometimes it changes.

It seems like it was so much easier in the old days, when you couldn’t tell and nobody cared.

Her sculpture is misshapen and lumpy. It is beginning to look like the dead man. His coveralls are stained; the fabric is nanoweave. Cheap. It wrinkles where his thighs meet his hips. His stomach is smooth and round. His mouth gapes and gapes and his eyes hang at half-mast. There is no blood.

It is good that there is no blood. Maureen can stand anything except blood.

She rests her eyes by requesting another bit of briefing on the people who live on Hippocrene. They are a people with a great love of the individual, the unique, the sentimental. They appreciate art they can feel, that they can run their long tongues over and truly experience. The Hippocrenes have language, but it is a horrifically incomprehensible thing. Maureen only dimly understands that there is some problem with how they perceive causality that prevents their language from being accessible to the human mind. They do not speak in sound; the appendage that Maureen has so carelessly termed a tongue is an organ of communication and perception. It does emerge from their feeding-orifice, and is bright pink; thus, a tongue. They wrap their tongues together when they wish to communicate. They are blind. No organs for sight, not even to differentiate light from darkness.

To her great fortune, Maureen will not be required to attempt communication. The spaceship will deal with that. When she speaks to the ship, she will keep her words and sentences simple, avoid implying causality as much as possible. The ship will extend a tongue of friendship and communicate with the Hippocrene ship. It has all been planned.

The ship is a tiny thing that bends mathematics around itself, and Maureen fears she will do something that will break it. That is the reason why she does not dispose of the dead man; the delivery cradle will not function at this speed, there is no door she would even want to open from this side, and the recycler unit is not designed to take a body. Or parts of a body.

The Hippocrenes will take her foam clay sculpture and they will cast it in a resin that they secrete from their genital-equivalents. At least, that is what she has been told. They will take the pieces she has made and put them together. Perhaps all out of order. Then they will make it permanent.

This is how things would have gone, had all gone well.

After a time, the artificial gravity fails.

• • •

The dead man is on her, bloated arms pinwheeling comically. Maureen is fighting—the smell, oh hand that evolves and extincts, the smell, the horrible horrible smell and the feel of the body as she shoves it, soft with hard things like stone inside the coveralls. She finally shoves the dead man away and watches him pinwheel in the flat white light of this one tiny room.

She fights not to vomit; vomiting would be irreparable right now. She breathes through her mouth. The dead man bounces gently off the—floor, she guesses, it’s the floor, the table is planted in it so it’s the floor—and comes back at her. This time she has one hand on a metal brace, placed there for just an occasion such as this. It anchors her to the wall of the spaceship. She can feel the engine thrumming softly in her fingers.

Maureen catches the dead man’s coveralls and slows his momentum. There follows a series of terrible moments, one of which involves the dead man’s head wobbling off his neck and floating free. She pinches the neck of the coveralls shut and uses a clip that would usually be used to keep bags of foam clay fresh to keep the rest of the dead man’s body in his coveralls, and wraps tape around the wrists and ankles of his suit. She tries not to think about what she saw in the remains of his neck. Humans are very ugly on the inside, especially when they have started to rot.

She clears out one of the nets that holds her sculpting tools, and shoves the dead man’s head in. “There,” she tells him, with a feeling of satisfaction. “Stay.”

Then she retrieves the bits of her sculpture that are bouncing all over the place. She likes the way having no gravity makes certain arrangements possible; things that cruel gravity would break, weightlessness holds together. It takes some time for her to get used to existing without gravity, and when she moves too quickly her stomach rebels.

Eventually, she gathers her sculpture together and crosses her legs, holding it and spinning a little, letting inertia do with her as it will. She is gestating a new configuration in her mind. It is there, it will be born.

The dead man’s body moves where she has attached it to the wall. His boots bump the floor. He approves and is applauding in the only way he can manage. His head, on the other side of the room, carries a considering expression. His brown beard poufs out and wraps around the elastic netting.

He will love her work. He has no choice in the matter.

• • •

Other things break down as Maureen and the dead man travel.

As he decays, as the air scrubbers throb to keep up, the atmosphere becomes congenial. Even festive. When the dead man’s slouchy body loses all its cohesion and makes squashy noises as air currents and inertia press on the outside of the coveralls, she spends time bouncing ideas off him. She likes the sound the pieces of the sculpture make when they impact the cheap fabric of his clothing. The walls have turned from white to a greasy brown-grey, darker where the dead man’s coveralls rub against them. Everything sports that layer of slickness, the dead man’s body escaping and coating everything, everything, including Maureen.

The shower no longer folds out of the wall. Likely a blessing, since she was shown vid after vid of what to do in case of gravity failure. Showering had not been on the list of things that it was considered wise to do. The toilet is a free-g model, and works no matter the gravity. She blesses the designers, wishing nothing but happiness and soft pleasant things for them.

There are red lights on what passes for a control panel, over the niches that food and water emerge from. They look like blood, and they make her queasy in a way that the weightlessness does not. She demands that the spaceship tell her what is wrong. She does not understand the answer.

“Is there anything I can do to fix you?” she asks. Her voice is shockingly loud.

Contains no user serviceable parts. Service will be called. The computer’s voice thrums. She dislikes the way it tickles the bones just below her ear, the joint of her jaw.

“Service? Are you serious?”

Please rephrase.

“. . . will service arrive in the near future?”

We will rendezvous with service in approximately one thousand six hundred and four days subjective time, plus or minus fourteen point four days.

Maureen cuts the bottoms off of her spare pants and tapes the fabric to cover all of the red lights. She doesn’t need to bathe anyway. After all, the one person who might smell her is dead and no rose himself.

• • •

Bits of the dead man’s face are coming off. These are small enough to put into the waste disposal unit, which recycles them. Recycle them into what, she does not want to know. The food that the spaceship suggests she eat at regular intervals has gone from prefabbed meals that rotate between flavors to a grey mush that tastes like nothing much at all. At least, when it escapes the bowl, it floats in one sticky blob that is easily recaptured.

Maureen has completed three sculptures and placed them into the receptacles where finished works rest, cradled. When her ship meets with the Hippocrene ship, both vessels will extend and entangle proboscis. Her sculptures will go to them, and she will receive whatever the Hippocrene consider a-gift-for-a-giver. She will sell. If she were living in the last century, she would be the most successful artist of her generation, the sculptor that sold to aliens.

She likes the idea of the ships meeting and mating midair (mid-space? mid-orbit?), like insects do in old vids. “Are you excited to meet your soul mate?” she asks the ship. “Or is it more like chemicals, ho hum, time to mate?”

Please rephrase.

The dead man’s head waggles in the netting. The hole where his nose once was is a reproach edged in white. “I know, it’s no use talking to him,” she admits to the dead man. “He never understands me.”

Please rephrase.

“Eat shit and die.”

The computer falls silent. It understands insults.

• • •

Maureen has fed most of the dead man’s body into the recycler. The foul liquid is almost gone; when it leaked from the coveralls, things got very bad. At least the recycler, unlike almost everything else on the ship, is holding up. The air scrubbers were another story. The liquid that had once been the dead man’s body made them stop working for a little while. Maureen curled up in her little cubby of a bunk and pulled the blanket over her head and begged for the horror to stop. Then she got up and followed the spaceship’s insistent instructions about how to clear the filters she could reach.

It appears to have worked. The scrubbers are working again.

She uses the rest of her spare pair of pants to rub down the bones of the dead man. Each bone is inescapably elegant—those curves! The unbearable straightness of the thigh! Why has she never realized the lovely things that ugly human meat covers?

Now that she has seen his bones, she feels a great affection for the dead man. Maureen can barely remember a time when she did not love his bones. She feared him, but why? She makes the computer tell her the name of each bone. Now that he is transmuted, transformed, she runs the names of his bones across her teeth and tongue, savoring each one. Scapula, clavicle, sacrum, tibia! Such bliss! She counts the subtle bones of his wrists, scaphoid, lunate, triquetral, pisiform, capitate, hamate, trapezium, trapezoid.

She holds his delicate hyoid bone in her hand and works her throat, trying to feel her own hyoid. Her mind bubbles with ideas. She calls for more foam clay.

The dead man’s empty eye sockets are open, forever sleepless. “I love you,” Maureen murmurs as she shapes the foam around his hyoid. “I hope you know that. I hope—anyway, I hope. You’re going to be beautiful. You’re going to be the most wonderful gift.”

The computer mutters a request for clarification. She ignores it.

Not even the computer’s throbbing drone can ruin her mood. This was why they gave her the fellowship, why she was chosen from all of the artists who’d applied to go into space, to fly to Hippocrene (what was the shape of the world’s true name, she wondered, was it shaped like a bone, like a shirt), to hurtle in a speck of a starship that bent vacuum and numbers around itself (and she knew the shape of that, little room fourteen by twenty by sixteen, it didn’t really matter which way was up), to bring to the long-tongued people all the shapes that her soul could hold.

She uses each bone from the small to the large, except for the tiny ones the computer claims were in each ear. She thinks that perhaps they went missing when the meat inside the dead man’s head became liquid and oozed out of the net. The liquid clung like a foul cloud around the skull before she vacuumed it away. She hadn’t loved the dead man’s bones, then, she hadn’t been so careful.

At the back of the dead man’s skull is a depression. The edges of the depression are cracks, and baby cracks run away from those big cracks. She fingers the edges; they nudge sharply at her fingertips. She feels something fluttering at the edge of her mind. Something is trying to get in.

The dead man was a big man, before he was dead. Maureen clings to that. She carries his skull to the worktable that is the center of the chamber inside the ship that holds and sustains her life, her beating heart, the fluid that whooshes through her ears.

She covers the depression in the dead man’s skull with beauty.

• • •

She wakes when the computer throbs into her jaw, Deceleration complete. Orbit around Hippocrene established.

Maureen sits straight up and whacks her head on the ceiling of her cubby. “Ow! Is someone—I mean, has there been any contact from the planet?”

No.

“What now?”

Analysis commencing.

She rubs her head where it hurts. The dead man’s embellished skull is fastened to her worktable with unraveled netting, and she goes to release him from his bonds. The ridges of his bones are covered in foam clay, swirling in colors of green and gold. Maureen runs her hands over the dead man’s skull, closing her eyes. The embellishments are not just decorations; there are universes of meaning in how the cheekbones are built up, how the dots are arranged on the jaw.

She secures the sculpture into the last cradle, so the ship can deliver him along with the rest of its payload. Her best work, hers and the dead man’s. “It was a cooperative effort,” she imagines herself saying at the awards ceremony. Ceremonies. Surely there will be many of them.

She imagines Hippocrene hanging below her—above her?—like a swollen ornament. It was yellow and red, she remembers from the pictures. Yellow and red and blue patched like she remembers the dead man’s skin being before it went to liquid. Swirled together. She wishes there were a window.

She returns again and again to open the cradle and caress the dead man’s skull. Anxiety gnaws at her throat, trying to find her hyoid bone. They will hate it. They will reject her and the dead man. Why is she here? She is a fraud, an imposter—

Analysis complete. Changes in the spectrum of the star XC-233540 Aleph-Fourteen, also known as Seraph Minor, indicate that objective time has passed more quickly relative to subjective time than originally anticipated.

“What?”

We are late.

“Shit.” Maureen’s stomach twists. She flexes her legs and sends herself tumbling to the floor; she bounces and snags a wall brace thoughtfully. “Have you been able to contact anyone?”

There is no response to my hail. The surface of the planet appears to have been rearranged. It is possible that the government of Hippocrene that we were originally contacted by is no longer intact.

How can that possibly be?

She asks. Yet again, she does not understand the answer. She retrieves the dead man’s skull from its cradle and presses the curve of his cranium against her abdomen. The ridges of the embellishments press against her navel; protrusion meets indentation and all is well for a single moment.

Maureen floats, wrapped around the skull. After a time, she is followed around the chamber by round drops of glittering water, eddying in her wake.

• • •

He was a big man, before he was dead. You can tell by the width and breadth of his thighbone, the heaviness of his pelvis. Not fat, just big. Muscular. Athletic. All of those words shaped like strength.

Maureen is a small woman. Smaller now than she was two subjective years ago. A little wasted. She only came up to the dead man’s armpit, when he was alive. She is not shaped like strength; she is shaped like a little delicate bone, her skin hangs loose. She orbits Hippocrene in her tiny automated spaceship that tells her that her aliens, her buyers, have apparently lost interest in space flight and communicating with the galaxy.

They do not want the dead man! How could they not want the dead man when she so lovingly crafted him for them, so they could learn the shape of the human soul? How could they evince no interest in this thing she could teach them?

She fastens the dead man’s skull into the cradle. She opens all the other cradles, views one by one the bones fastened together with clay foam. They are words, sentences, saying all the things her mouth has always been too clumsy to say. The sculptures are in the shape of an apology.

Then she closes the panel and says, “Deliver them.”

She hears rumbles and pings as the spaceship’s proboscis extends. It will be gentle. The sculptures will float in orbit behind and below the ship; they will run into debris, they will break apart, they will crack, and the dead man’s final resting place will be around the planet that rejected him and Maureen both. Perhaps his orbit will decay like the rest of him already has, and he will fall and burn.

Perhaps the dead man will be a falling star; perhaps one of the Hippocrene below will taste his ashes in their eternal tongue-probing for wisdom. Perhaps they will build the dead man anew from the things they find in his cinders.

All these things are possible, in their way.

The dead man was once not a falling star, not a sculpture, and not dead. He was once someone that Maureen loved very much. She remembers this now. He was angry at her, for leaving. For going to the stars. She was going away forever. Forever, for him, meant beyond the time when his body would fail him and when his eyes would close and he would be burned and then slotted into a wall, in the old style. He had come to the Moon with her. He had come with her to try to talk her out of going out to the stars, to Hippocrene where they sculpt with resin from their mating-places.

Maureen, you have to come to your senses. You can’t do this. Don’t leave me. The big man shook her, and shook her.

You can’t be here, she screamed at him. You have to go. They’re about to close the doors.

She was a small woman, and not strong, but when she shoved him away he stumbled and lost his balance. He fell. His head cracked against the wall.

If she had called for help, if she had opened up the radio and said, my husband has had an accident, they would have stopped the launch. The universe of mathematics is unforgiving, and the launch window was narrow. If she had missed it, the next window was thirty years away, and she would have been too old.

She would have been too old to go to the stars and have aliens appreciate her for her work the way humans never had.

The ship bends the bones of space around itself and breaks orbit. They are returning to the Moon, to Earth, to a sweet yellow star they call Sol; to histories that already have her name in them, to ceremonies that have taken place without her, to new forms of art that she will not understand.

The engines of her ship grumble and bump and falter and recover. Maureen is hurtling now. She knows what shape this journey has taken, knows all the secret names and shapes of her bones. She does penance in her hermitage, alone. Her breaths become shallow, and shallower still.

When she arrives, she will show everyone the shape of the word, the word shaped like bones, the bones shaped like apologies, the apologies shaped like the world.

Kris Millering

Kris MilleringKris Millering is a linguist by training, a content manager by trade, and a writer and photographer by avocation. Her fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies and The Colored Lens, and she attended Clarion West in 2009. Currently, she is working on a novel and an open-source roleplaying setting, as well as managing communications for Clarion West. A native Californian, she spent four years in Iowa and now lives between two mountains in the foothills of the Cascades in Washington State. Her obsessions include osteology, forensic pathology, storytelling with video games, and dragons. You can find out more at www.krismillering.com.