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Fiction

The Man Who Carved Skulls

“I married your mother for her skull. It’s no secret.”

Jarak put aside his rasps and gouges for the moment, resting his eyes and mind from the precise, exacting work his trade demanded. He didn’t mind his son’s persistent questions at such times. Akan was at an age when he should be curious and, if curiosity was a duty, Akan was a dedicated boy. It wasn’t as though Purlo the Baker, whose skull rested patiently on Jarak’s workbench, was in a hurry.

Akan nodded. “Mother is pretty,” he said. “Often men of the village speak about what a fortunate man Jarak the Skullcarver is.”

“Letis is indeed the most beautiful woman in Trepa and for seven leagues around. But that’s not the same thing. The ugliest man alive during your grandfather’s time turned out to have a skull of exquisite beauty, as your grandfather knew all along. With time and practice and the aesthetic sense that might come with them, perhaps you’ll understand and be able to see the difference for yourself. I hope so, if you’re to take over for me some day.”

“I hope so too, Father,” Akan said very seriously.

The trumpet call echoed faintly from the south side of the village, opposite the temple of Somna the Dreamer. As a chance to satisfy his son’s curiosity, it seemed a perfect opportunity. “They’ve started,” Jarak said. “Let’s go see, and maybe I’ll tell you how I won your mother.”

They walked out of the workshop, around Letis’ herb garden, and out through the gate onto Trepa’s main street. Other folk were stirring now as the trumpet sounded again, gathering in small groups that slowly grew and spread out until the entire cobbled street was lined with smiling people.

“Here they come!”

Three young girls led the procession, dropping daisy petals from willow baskets as they came. They all looked very solemn in their white muslin gowns and red ribbons. Jarak pointed to the dark-haired little girl in the middle. “That’s Melyt, Theran’s granddaughter. Your mother thinks she’d be a good wife for you. Isn’t she pretty?”

Akan stuck out his tongue. “I’m not getting married, ever.”

“You’ll change your mind. And when you do, best not to leave the choosing of your bride to chance. That gives the Forces of Gahon too much room to play.”

“You weren’t betrothed to Mother,” Akan pointed out. “She told me.”

Jarak smiled. “Nonetheless . . . oh, there’s Theran now.”

At least, what was left of him. Four priests of Somna carried the skull on a raised dais. Jarak had decided to go with an historical motif for that skull; considering Theran’s full and rich life, it had seemed more than fitting. The scenes of the old man’s life were played out in bas-reliefs carved in a spiral that started at the top of his skull and ended just where the spine had once joined its base. They were too far away to see properly, but Jarak named them to Akan one by one.

Here was Theran traveling with the Wind People on the Great Grass Sea, smuggling weapons to Ly Ossia under the noses of the Watchers; here was Theran visiting the ruins of the Temple of the Dreamer in Darsa and bringing back the piece of the original altar that now resided in the local Temple. Here was Theran as all had known him, surrounded by his wife and children and grandchildren. Whether any of his stories were really true didn’t matter; they were true now and would remain so as long as the House of Skulls stood.

Theran’s widow Karta and his family came last. They did not grieve; grief was over and done long before. Now it was time for Theran to take his place in the House of Skulls. Now it was time for celebration. Karta beat a small drum and her steps were close to a dance; her daughters followed wearing small bells on straps about their wrists. Between the trumpets of the flanking priests and the din from Theran’s family, Jarak was sure every Ancestor in that sacred place knew of Theran’s coming. He said as much.

“They can’t hear anything,” Akan said solemnly.

Jarak raised an eyebrow. “Oh? And why not? Because they’re dead?”

Akan shook his head and then hugged himself, nearly doubled over giggling. “No ears!”

Jarak put his arm around his son’s shoulders. “Come on, you rogue. Let’s follow.”

Jarak and Akan fell into step behind the procession with the rest of the villagers, sharing the joy of Theran’s family and adding to it as well. They came to the entrance to the Temple of the Dreamer, passing by the wooden statue and shrine that Jarak’s father had carved years before. They did not stop at the shrine or the temple. Soon after Theran’s death, his proper funeral had been held at the temple and offerings made at the shrine, and that had been the time for tears. Now it was Theran’s Homecoming, and the procession did not pause until they reached the House of Skulls.

The procession broke apart; Theran’s family went first into the stone building. Next season the masons would be summoned and another large room would be added to the House, and then again when that one filled. For now, there was still room in the main hall. Jarak and Akan followed the others into the echoing chamber, with rows and rows of intricately carved skulls staring down at them from niches evenly spaced in the walls.

“Theran Molka’s Son, Beloved of Somna, has come home,” said the senior priest. He carefully lifted the skull and handed it to Karta, who placed it in the niche on the far wall that had been prepared for it, beside the small skull of his sister who died in childhood, beneath the skulls of their parents Molka and Derasee. Farther along the wall, the masons had already begun work on the niche for Purlo the Baker, for when his time came.

“Our father has come home,” said each of Theran’s children as they approached the skull in turn and paid their respects.

“Our grandfather has come home.” Each of the grandchildren repeated the ritual, each looking very grave and serious, though Melyt was clearly trying not to giggle. The ritual was repeated by all who had known Theran best or felt the desire to honor him; even Jarak took his turn.

“My friend has come home.”

Then, finally, all was done. People broke apart into small groups and chatted; others drew apart to pay respects to the older residents of the House of Skulls. Jarak took Akan’s hand and led him to a central column that was also full of niches like little doorways. Jarak pointed to one particular skull residing there.

“Do you know who that is?” Jarak asked.

Akan nodded somberly. “It’s Great-Grandmother Laersa.”

Jarak smiled. “You asked about how your mother and I got married—it’s because of Laersa.”

Akan’s eyes got very big. “Did she tell you to get married?” he asked. “Weren’t you frightened?”

“It wasn’t like that. Your mother was the only daughter of the High Priest of Somna, and I no more than a skull-carver’s apprentice. She had suitors from all over the village and far away, all well-favored young men of good family and prospects.”

“Mother loves you,” Akan said proudly.

Jaran grunted. “Not then, she didn’t. I think she does now, but it was some time coming. I always loved her, of course. How could I not? But I had no chance, at least not until the Homecoming of her Aunt Telesa.”

“What did you do?”

“I watched her. After most of the others had gone, she stayed. She came and stood about where you’re standing now, looking at her Grandmother Laersa.”

Great-Grandmother Laersa,” corrected Akan, looking as prim as Bol the Schoolmaster.

Her Grandmother Laersa,” said Jarak. “Your great-grandmother. So. She was alone, which almost never happened in those days. I could speak to her, but what would I say? So I watched her, and I noticed something. Something important.”

“What was it?”

“It was the way she looked at Laersa. Not in grief, or even fond memory. The look on your mother’s face was pure envy. You see, Laersa’s skull was carved by a master, and he outdid himself. It is simply marvelous work.”

Akan nodded. “Marvelous,” he said, trying on the new word for size. “It’s a very nice skull. But wasn’t it wrong of Mother to envy someone?”

“Perhaps, but just then I thought it was a very endearing quality, because it gave me an idea. I went up to your mother, and I said that her grandmother’s skull was the most beautiful in Trepa, and she agreed that this was so. Then I said ‘I love you, Letis. Marry me and when the time comes I will make of your skull a work to eclipse even that of Laersa. Folk will look at you as you look at her now, and none will surpass you. Your name and your memory will live forever.’ You see, I offered your mother immortality, and that’s the one thing I had to give her that no other could.”

“And she said ‘yes’!” Akan clapped his hands in delight.

Jarak laughed. “Actually, she called me a presumptuous fool and stormed out. But, deep down, she believed I meant what I said. She held her suitors at bay, delaying her choice until she had time to see my apprentice work and even to speak, once, to my old master Boreth concerning me.” Jarak winked. “She thinks I didn’t know about that. Then, when the choice could be delayed no longer, she chose me.”

“I’ll offer to carve Melyt’s skull,” Akan said, grinning. “Will she like me then?”

Jarak snorted. “She’ll more than likely box your ears. Every woman and every man has their own tale to unravel. If the Dreamer means for you and Melyt to share one, you’ll have to untangle it yourselves.”

***

“It’s not such a bad thing,” Letis said. “Beyond our island, I hear people actually bury their dead.”

Akan looked at his mother. He knew she had aged, in the fifteen years since Theran’s Homecoming, but the change had been so gradual that, to him, it was no change at all. Her hair was still the same rich shade of red-gold; the streaks of white were barely noticeable. Her eyes were still clear and bright, her face unlined and lovely.

The change that had come about in his father was quite different. Jarak was older than his years; the weakness in his heart had not been quite so gradual or so gently building. Jarak and Akan and Letis had long known the truth—Jarak would die first, and his promise to Letis would be unfulfilled. Letis was the first to speak of it. It was like a wall coming down.

Akan shook his head. “Why build a tomb when you can grow a garden? It makes no sense to me. The bone meal is good for the fields, the House of Skulls takes up far less room than a necropolis.”

“At least the buried dead would never be seen . . . Akan, your mother is a vain woman. Jarak won me by that vanity, for all that I love him. But sometimes I think this is harder on him than me. He wants to fulfill his promise at least as much as I want him to.” Letis sighed. “It is perhaps the Will of the Dreamer that both of us shall be . . . disappointed.”

Akan looked grim. “Perhaps,” he said, “the fulfillment of my father’s promise will fall to me.”

Letis looked up from her sewing, then reached up and patted his cheek. “You’re a good son, and an excellent carver. But you are not your father. Where is he, by the way?”

Akan shrugged. “In his workshop, of course. And I know your meaning—I have not his skill.”

Letis put the needle aside. “My ‘meaning’ is that your father’s promise dies with your father. If my skull does come to you in time, I know I’ll not disgrace my place in the House. It’s wrong to want more than that.”

“But you do want more.”

“Yes, son. I do.” Letis looked thoughtful. “I guess I just don’t want it enough.”

Akan stared at her, now afraid that he didn’t understand her meaning, but more afraid that he did. “You would not—”

Letis smiled sadly. “I would.” She showed her wrists and the faint red lines that marked them. “But I could not. Barely a scratch is all I managed. I’m a coward. I don’t deserve immortality.”

***

Jarak was a sick man, but his grip on the gouge was still strong, his skill with the chisel still fine. The new skull was almost ready.

“I could finish that for you,” Akan said.

His father shook his head. “It’s not as if I’ll have many more chances. This is what I love, Akan. This is what I’ve always wanted to do. You know that.”

“I think you should speak to Mother,” Akan said.

Jarak put his tools away for a moment. “Why? The sight of me adds to her suffering more than my words could assuage. Leave it be, Akan. There’s nothing for it.”

“She tried to kill herself.”

Jarak nodded. “She failed. We failed. She wants to die in order to live forever, but she wants to live to be with me for as long as I have. She begged me to hold the knife myself, did she tell you that?” Akan shook his head, feeling numb. Jarak continued, “It’s true. I could not. I’d sooner kill myself. And yet I always thought she would die first. We planned our lives around it, but we can’t do the one thing necessary to make it happen. It’s almost funny. I’m sure the Prince of Nightmares would appreciate the joke.”

“It would be wrong,” Akan said.

“I suppose so,” Jarak said. “As excuses go, that one will have to do.”

“Father—”

Jarak shook his head, and Akan fell silent. “Go find Melyt,” Jarak said. “She’ll be waiting for you.”

***

Melyt had grown into a lovely young woman, also so gradually that it was a long time before Akan noticed. By then he didn’t need his parents wishes to push him in her direction. Melyt, sensible girl that she was, hadn’t quite made up her mind about the matter yet, but she was perfectly willing to discuss it. Akan found her underneath a trailing willow on a bluff overlooking the river.

“You’re late,” she said.

“I’m sorry. I was delayed at home.”

He sat down on the blanket Melyt had spread out there. She’d brought a willow basket for a picnic, and she began to unpack the food. “I’m sorry about your father’s illness, Akan. He’s a good man.”

Akan sighed. “I just wish there was something I could do. There are . . . other problems between my mother and father now. I hate to see them like this.”

Melyt handed him a meat pie and a bit of bread. “Have you consulted the Temple?”

Akan frowned. “What could they do? The only Temple Dreamers I know of are in Ly Ossia, and I’d need them for a proper oracle. Assuming I could make the journey and raise the gold I’d need for their fee, my father would be dead before I returned. I don’t think he has very long.”

“Then what about an improper oracle?” she asked. Akan just stared at her, and she went on, “Whenever I have a problem, I fast and then pray at the Temple. It soothes me. Sometimes I sleep on the Temple grounds, and the dreams are always useful, or at least strengthening. Your mother is related to the High Priest; I’m surprised she hasn’t done that herself.”

Akan thought of the times her mother had disappeared for long periods in the evening, and his father had said nothing of it. Akan’s imagination had played with this knowledge with rather unsettling results, but once Melyt had spoken he knew that this is precisely what his mother had done. “Perhaps she has. Nothing has changed.”

“It’s not about ‘changing,’ Akan. It’s about understanding. Try it; at least there’s no harm in that.”

Somna’s presence in the world—since the world was, in fact, Somna’s Dream—was something everyone just took for granted. Maybe it was time to see what meaning there was in that one fact. Akan considered.

“I think I will,” he said, then added, “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Now try not to think about it for a bit. Your attention is required elsewhere.”

Akan smiled and reached for her hand.

***

The next evening Akan fasted, and then made a bed under the stars near the shrine of Somna the Dreamer. He dreamed, but it was not Somna who answered his dream. The creature was like a man and was not. It was part shadow, part pain, and all hunger, and the visage was the one carved in the base of the statue of Somna and painted on the temple walls.

Gahon the Destroyer. Gahon, Prince of Nightmares.

Akan tried to run, but there was nowhere to go, no part of the dream he could run to that did not also contain Gahon’s shadow. Akan wanted to wake up, but he could not. Gahon waited, not threatening, not smiling, expressionless. He waited until Akan gave up and sat, trembling on the featureless floor of the nightstage.

“Mercy,” Akan said.

“Too rare a thing,” the demon said. “I’d like some for my own; can I get it? No. What else do you want of me, Akan Jarak’s Son?”

“Want . . . ?”

“Certainly. You must want something. But will I give it? Ah, there’s the question lying in ambush. Are you ready?”

“I don’t know. I sought an oracle dream from Somna.”

“Which you are now having, though you may be too thick to realize it. Don’t you know who I am?”

“Gahon,” Akan said. “Demon, Destroyer, the one who crouches on Somna’s breast in the form of nightmare and disturbs her dream. You shouldn’t be here . . .”

“Nonsense. You dreamed me. It’s the only way I can walk Somna’s dream in my true form. Now . . . what is there about you that seeks the image of Somna and instead finds me?” Gahon poked Akan’s ribs. His fingers were long and his fingernails like needles. “Eh? Think about it. You’ll understand.”

Akan did understand. In his heart, he had already decided what he was going to do. And Gahon clearly knew his heart. “Dreamer Forgive Me . . .”

Gahon shrugged. “She will. She’s like that. Will you forgive yourself? Another pesky question. But if you ask my advice—and you did by virtue of being here—I’d say do it.”

Akan shook his head. “It is sinful. Such evil would disturb the Dream—”

“How do you know that?” Gahon asked.

“You’re trying to trick me; it won’t work. I would cause much unhappiness to do as you suggest. And is not unhappiness poison to Somna’s Dream? Does not the burden of sorrow carried in the Dream disturb her sleep?”

Gahon grinned, showing teeth like a shark’s. “It is. It does. So tell me—how much poison is coursing through the veins of your mother and father even as we speak? How much unhappiness is there between them, and how long will it last with your mother and then you to carry it on? How much damage to the Dream you prize so much? Oh, yes. It’s spreading to you even now. Will you deny that?”

Akan shook his head. “No.”

“Just so. Lancing a boil hurts, boy. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done.”

“Why would you help me? Why would the Sculptor of Lies speak truth? You seek to end the Dream!”

“I do. And why? Because Somna has spent too long in this one little world; her affection for her creation clouds her judgment. She could create much grander places than this. She could even forgo the Divine Sleep for a bit and spare a moment and a smile for one who loves her.”

Akan just stared. “You?”

Gahon smiled again. “I am what I am, and you simple manifestations of Somna’s will don’t know the smallest part of it. I want Somna to wake, yes. But I want the shock to be brief, the hurt fleeting. I would not chisel away at the dream piece by wretched piece, given a choice. We all serve Somna in our own way, Akan. We all sacrifice for what we want. You speak of poisons and unhappiness, but do you really know what it is to be happy?”

Akan shook his head, slowly. “No.”

“Then I’ll tell you.” Gahon leaned close. “Sometimes,” he said, “it’s merely knowing what you can bear and what you cannot bear and living your life tailored to that understanding. You have to decide what you will do. The Dream continues or it does not. So do I, and as I plot and scheme I weigh Somna’s pain in the balance with my own, always.”

Akan sobbed. “What must I do?”

“What you already know to do. The only thing left is that you decide to act. Or not. Time is running out, either way.”

Gahon the Destroyer held up a nearly-empty hourglass in his hands, and just when the last grains fell Akan awoke, cold and alone, by the statue of Somna the Dreamer.

***

The following afternoon, Akan found Letis his mother, knife in hand, standing under the willow tree by the river. She stared at the knife she held in disgust. She did not hear Akan approach until he spoke.

“Mother, if it is your will, I will hold the knife.”

She looked at him. Akan was prepared for anything he saw there: rage, pain, contempt. He was not prepared for the love, the pure mad joy he saw in her eyes. “You love me as much as that?”

Akan took the knife from her. “Even more.”

Two months later, Letis came home to the House of Skulls. She was a masterpiece, as Jarak had promised, easily outshining all who had gone before. Even Laersa. Jarak took to his bed soon after; his own Homecoming followed quickly.

***

No one called what Akan had done murder, once Jarak had spoken for him, but understanding only went so far. Akan did not marry Melyt; that was impossible now. In time she married a fine young man from Tolbas and everyone thought that best, and Akan agreed. It was just one regret that he had to bear. Another was that he was not allowed to take his father’s place as carver for Trepa, with only one exception—when Jarak died, Akan was the one who prepared the skull for Homecoming. It was Jarak’s last request. The skull Akan did was fine work, his best up to that point. Not so fine as Jarak’s, but still showing promise for what might have been.

Afterwards Akan’s freedom was given over to the Temple, and he was shackled with silver chains. Every morning till the day he died, Akan was led to the House of Skulls, there to watch the Homecomings in silence and then to tell his tale of vanity and selfish pride to any visitor who cared to listen.

Akan did not think of it as punishment; rather, he saw it as just another step in helping to secure his father’s promise. He told the story with great feeling, and, with the skill of long practice, the tale became a wonder in itself and spread far and wide like some ancient legend that everyone knew. Akan never wearied of the telling, and every day he looked up at the remembered faces of his parents with great pride and love.

There were dark hours, of course. There always are. Yet even when such times forced Akan to place all his regrets in the scale against his one great joy, for him the balance remained true.

© 2007 by Richard Parks.
Originally published in Weird Tales.
Reprinted by permission of the author.

Richard Parks

Richard Parks

Richard Parks’ work has appeared in Asimov’s SF, Realms of Fantasy, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and several Year’s Best anthologies and has been nominated for both the World Fantasy Award and the Mythopoeic Award for Adult Literature. The third book in his Yamada Monogatari series, The War God’s Son, was published in October 2015 by Prime Books. He blogs at “Den of Ego and Iniquity Annex #3”, also known as: richard-parks.com.