“The Bone Lands” by Vanessa Fogg

I sought you on a plain of whistling bones. I walked through towers made of giants’ femurs, and under the great curved arches of a leviathan’s ribs. A fence strung of vertebrae clacked in the wind. The skulls of unknown animals grinned. In the twilight, the bone cities gleamed an old yellow, and wind sang through the gaps between ribs, sighed through the spaces where tendons once joined and flesh once covered. Wind keened through holes and fissures cracked by time and worn by blasting sand. The grit-laden wind blew through me and took my voice; it numbed my hands and froze my heart as I walked.

But I still remember your face. I wear the warmth of memories on my chest, and my heart thaws just a little. I’m still walking, and I’ll keep going until I find you.

My love, I’ve come to bring you back. I’ve come to take you home.

* * *

“Do you ever think of our future together?” I asked. We were cuddling in bed, the morning sun streaming in through your bedroom window. Classic jazz played softly on your stereo. We’d known each other only two months. I was mortified when the words left my mouth.

“Of course, I think about it,” you said, surprised, as though considering a future with me was an obvious thing for a man to do.

“What do you think about?” Myself, I’d been slotting you into a pre-conceived timeline: finishing grad school, then marriage; a house, career, and children. Two children, spaced two years apart. I was wavering between the names “Olivia” or “Audrey” for a girl.

You looked at me, and the tender openness in your eyes silenced my whirling thoughts, my embarrassment, all my pre-conceived plans.

“I just think,” you said slowly, holding my eyes, “of how it would be like to wake up every morning beside you.”

* * *

The world is riddled with holes, portals through which we might fall. Underworlds, otherworlds—pulsing all around us. It’s too easy for some of us to slip through.

Under the hydrangea leaf, down the dark path tunneling through trees. Hidden in a stand of weeds beside the road. Take a wrong turn, ignore the directions of your car’s GPS system. Drive off the map. Stumble through tall grasses and into a marsh. The otherworlds are there. Beware the ice on the pond: it’s too thin for your weight. If you look through that ice, you’ll see the shadows of another world moving beneath. I’ve felt the otherworlds pooling in the silence between words; I’ve sensed their presence under our daily, sunlit life. The earth’s crust is always in motion. Sometimes it splits unexpectedly, and someone falls through.

I thought that if anyone fell, it would be me. I didn’t expect it to be you, my love. I didn’t count on having to be the one to save you, to track you down and pull you back through the abyss.

* * *

The doctor’s face was still. “I’d like to run some more tests,” he said.

And then everything moved both fast and slow. A few days later we were sitting in a different doctor’s office, talking about surgery.

Yes, I nodded in a daze as it was all explained. Yes, go ahead, cut it out. Cut it all out. Do whatever you need to do.

I just wanted to live.

It was only later, recovering at home, that it truly hit me. What it was that I’d lost. Both ovaries, my fallopian tubes, my womb. My innards scooped out along with the ovarian cancer. Our babies that would now never be: the little girl or girls named Olivia and Audrey. Our unnamed little boy. All gone.

My life was what mattered, you said. You held me at night as I cried, and I knew you meant it when you said that I was your world. But I still couldn’t stop crying.

My love, I know what it’s like to fall.

* * *

Storms gather in the distance. Black walls of dust and sand billow on the horizon, under an eternal twilight sky. I come upon another buried bone city. Half-hidden in sand, skeletal remains rise from the desert, broken and reassembled into fantastical structures. The spines of unknown behemoths spiral into staircases; a giant rib cage forms a vault open to the sky. I walk through the doorway of a whale’s jawbone and down a row of tusks. I run my hand over a wall of clavicles, and wonder if you’ve been this way. I wonder if your hands have touched these same bones.

The air turns dark; the sandstorm is here. I retreat into a cathedral constructed of giant shin bones and ribs. There’s nothing to keep out the blowing sand. It pours through the gaps between bones, and I cough and cover my face. I crouch down against a wall. The world becomes a dense, blinding cloud of swirling grit. Sand stings my skin and fills my hair; it tries to pour down my throat and fill my lungs. It wants to fill up my hollowed insides.

The wind is roaring, and the bones around me start to vibrate. Above the wind’s cry, the bones begin their own song: thin and high and keening. It’s a sound without melody, without coherence; a formless cry that just goes on and on and on.

* * *

They told me to give you up. They said that there was nothing they or I could do. No way to find and retrieve someone who’s gone so far, who’s taken the darkest paths and fallen straight through the world.

But you didn’t give up on me. I think I remember that.

I remember lying in bed, unable to move for exhaustion, and the otherworlds pulsing so close that I could feel them on my skin. I remember that one day you managed to coax me from bed, and we walked to the pond by our house. It was early spring: geese calling overhead, the sky pale blue. Near shore, the ice on the pond had thinned and was almost gone. I remember standing out on the boardwalk, staring into the slush and mud, and thinking that I wanted nothing so much as to sink into that darkness, forever.

I remember that you grabbed me as though you knew my thoughts. You held me close. I remember your skin against mine, the press of your stubble on my cheek.

I didn’t give in. We didn’t give in. We can’t.

* * *

This is how I followed you to the Bone Lands, to the darkest of the otherworlds.

First, I armed myself with light and life. I gathered up every good memory I had: the softness of a kitten’s fur; the glitter of dew on grass; the wind on my face as a child when I rode my bike downhill. The first perfect snowfall of winter; hot chocolate on my tongue; the first spring tulips in bloom. I took memories from childhood, memories of family and school friends not seen in years; I took memories from my time as a woman on my own before I’d met you. Last of all, I gathered the memories I had of you.

The memory of the light that was once in your eyes. The little-boy mischief in your laugh. The warmth of your hand in mine and the warmth of your hands upon me, strong and sure. The adventures that you talked me into—the impromptu road trips, the times we ducked into obscure new bars and restaurants and went to see new bands. The sound of rain tapping on the window as we made love. The feel of you in me as we moved together and gasped. The time we were driving to my cousin’s wedding and you insisted that we stop off at a roadside attraction featuring the World’s Largest Rabbit. It was this crazy statue of a rabbit, three stories high, a painted structure like a cartoon Easter Bunny standing on its hind legs. It was hollow, and of course you could climb stairs inside it to a platform on top of its head. We climbed and looked out over rolling hills and fields bathed in the afternoon sun. At the statue’s base real rabbits, small and brown, were hopping about like a page from Beatrix Potter. You bought me a stuffed rabbit from the gift shop, and then that night you charmed my cousin at her rehearsal dinner and made my parents fall in love with you all over again. At the next day’s wedding we danced on a patio strung with lights, and I knew it was only a matter of time before we danced at our own wedding.

I gathered the memories of every good thing I could find. Every happiness we’ve shared, each joy that you’ve brought me. I polished those moments to a sheen and pressed them to my heart. I wore them on my skin like jewels.

You need light if you are to make your way out of the Bone Lands. You need light to survive in that desert, to not wither away to dust.

I need light to make it back out. I armored myself as best I could with my shining memories, and then I went to bring you back.

* * *

“You can’t,” my mother warned.

“You can’t,” my friends said.

“You can’t bring them back,” a woman in my support group said tearfully. “I tried. I never found her. It’s too dangerous.”

But I couldn’t leave you there on your own. I couldn’t.

My love, it’s my fault that you fell to the Bone Lands.

I was so wrapped up in myself that I didn’t see the signs. I let you drift away. The silence built between us and I did nothing to break it.

And when through my own fog I glimpsed the depths of your unhappiness—when I saw you slipping so close to the edge—still I denied it. I grew angry. I shouted at you for withdrawing from me. For shutting me out.

My love, I am not proud.

In a different story, we would have always been strong together. In a different story, my cancer and its aftermath made us forever close, forever grateful for life and love. That brush with death, that permanent loss—it should have shielded us, inoculated us against all further hardships.

But in truth, the trials of life never stop.

My love, these things happen: the humiliations of mid-life, of broken expectations. Your father’s death. Job layoffs, and the loss of a business you founded, a business that you loved and tried so hard to save. Debt that bled our savings dry.

These things happen: a wife who is scared and worried and absorbed in herself. Two people who turn away from one another, even after facing so much together.

This happens: a grayness that falls over your sight. A pull toward the darkness. A thinning of worlds.

Everyone falls differently. You insisted that you were fine. You, who had once been so open. You, who I had once thought transparent, your thoughts and emotions brimming so near the surface—shared fearlessly with me and the world.

You stopped talking. Your eyes no longer saw me. You couldn’t sleep. When I woke to your sobbing in the night, I finally panicked.

There are talismans that can be bought, special spells to protect us. There are locks one can buy for the portals lurking closest to home; there are spells to seal the gates shut. But still we sometimes fall through.

I couldn’t always be with you. The protection spells weren’t enough. I wasn’t enough.

I came home from work and you were simply gone. I stood rooted in our empty bedroom, feeling the vibration of the invisible rift through which you’d passed.

* * *

A jewel of memory glows in my hand. It’s the memory of your scent, and I hold it tight. So much else has already been lost.

I no longer remember the day we met. I can’t remember the sound or feel of rain.

This desert devours memories, one by one.

I do know that it was not easy to track you here, to force myself through the portal and into your world. It wasn’t as easy as falling, after all.

I had to give blood for the knife I used to slash my way through. I cut my own heart as I cut open the gate. Once through, I met the stone guardsmen at the inner walls and paid the first of the memory-tolls: the memory of my tenth birthday, my favorite song, the taste of strawberry ice cream. I had to cross a great river, and to do it I flayed off the outermost layer of my skin for a raft. Finally, I came to this place of skeletons and sand.

And I still haven’t found you. There’s nothing here. Just these abandoned bone cities, slowly crumbling to dust. Just the cold of the desert, and the singing of wind and bone. There are no stars or moon in the twilight sky. Only the dim, even light of an opaque blue dusk.

How long have we been here, my love? How long have we both wandered these lands? Do you walk somewhere before me at the horizon’s edge, footsteps too light to leave a trace? Do the passing sandstorms veil you from me? Or do you walk somewhere behind? Are you hiding from me in one of these fortresses of bone?

I think: We are both wandering in circles, trapped.

I think: You don’t want me to find you.

They say that the Bone Lands are infinite, so I imagine this world as an infinite sphere. Within such a sphere, isn’t any point the center? If you are at the center of this world, then you are anywhere. If I need to reach this world’s core to find you, then I’m already there.

I sink to the ground. Wind stirs the dust at my feet.

My love, my dear, we should have never hidden from one another. We should never hide. I will look at you now. I swear that I’ll look at you, all of you, without flinching. As you once did for me. I won’t leave.

Wind strengthens. Curtains of black dust and sand rise. I close my eyes. I feel the sand pelting my face, hear the shrill notes blown through hollow towers of bone. Dust pours through the canyons of this empty bone city. Dust and sand fill the world, and broken skeletons sing.

And then the wind stops.

I open my eyes. I see you before me, just across a narrow alley. You’re sitting on the ground with your feet straight out before you, your back against a flat bone wall—the same position that I’m sitting in. You look just the same as the last time I saw you. Your beautiful face, too thin and pale. Your eyes staring sightlessly ahead.

I crawl forward.

* * *

I just want to wake up every morning beside you, you once told me.

I raged when you left. I asked myself over and over, Why? But despite all that’s passed between us, despite the times of bitterness and silence, despite your leaving—I know that you meant what you said. You wanted to be with me. It wasn’t a lie.

* * *

You don’t recognize me now. Your eyes pass over me without emotion, without even a flicker of curiosity. Your face is blank as the open desert, as the unchanging sky.

I take your hands between mine. You don’t resist. You’re pliable as a child in deep sleep. I squeeze your hands, but I can’t warm them. I’m too cold myself.

“Here,” I whisper, and slip a memory into your hands.

Remember this: sunlight in the garden. The tulips you planted. Hydrangeas blooming as the season turns to summer. Remember this: August tomatoes bursting their skins with ripeness. I cut them for a salad—do you remember? Dinner on the patio, red wine and steaks and salad with tomatoes grown from your hands.

Your face doesn’t change. I press another memory into your palms.

Remember this: leaves red and gold with autumn. Light shimmering on the pond. We’re walking on the path by our house. And it’s nothing special, just an ordinary fall day, but it’s special after all because your hand is in mine, and the sky is breathtakingly clear, and we’re together and happy.

The memory glows between us. You don’t blink.

I take out more, the store that I’ve saved, all I have left, what hasn’t yet died; I heap them up between us and they fill our laps.

Remember this: the day you asked me to marry you. Remember this: our graduation days. You finished business school and I defended my dissertation. Remember how joyous we were, how filled with accomplishment, how sure that we were destined for great things. Look: your little nieces on our wedding day, crowns of flowers in their hair. Look: the view from a hotel room, the luminous blue of the Caribbean Sea filling the window. Jazz music plays on a stereo. The smell of fresh-roasted coffee. And then your arm is curved lightly around my waist as we dance on a soft summer night; family and friends surround us, and the patio is strung with golden lights.

Look, my love; look at yourself as I and others see you: a man who’s brave and strong and kind and good. That’s who you are. It’s true.

Look at us both: so young and brave. Brave enough to declare our love. Brave enough to dare. Can’t we be that brave again?

The memories slip from your motionless hands; they fall from your lap. They tumble and glitter briefly like jewels, like flashes of fire, as they fall.

And now I’m sobbing, dry-eyed. Here now are memories mixed with pain, scenes and feelings I didn’t mean to bring but which now tear their way free. Making love with you fiercely, in the dark, in grief. The two of us holding one another in tears. The beating of your heart against mine. An acknowledgement: five years free of cancer. An acknowledgement: life with nieces and nephews, with students I mentor and teach, but without children of our own. An ache that dulls but never quite fades. Pain that flares again. Darkness that recurs. Your anger and fear as your business began to fail, that slow, terrible slide. But there are also cocktails on the deck, and sunlight, and years of fulfilling work and friends and travel. A trip to the mountains and then to an ocean so blue that it looks unreal. And you’re lying next to me, the length of your side pressed against mine, your breath and touch and scent the last thing I know as I fall asleep; and then we wake and reach for each other again.

This. This is what we have, a life we’ve built.

I say aloud the words I’ve come to say, words I should have said much earlier. Words that you once spoke to me.

“I’m sorry. I love you. I’m here.”

I say it again: a plea, a charm, a spell to bring you back. I’m sorry. I love you. I’m here.

And there’s nothing. Nothing stirs in your eyes. Your face stays slack.

You can’t bring them back, people told me. It doesn’t work. Those who fall to the otherlands—even if you find them, they won’t follow you. They can’t hear.

But I’m here. I fought my way to the heart of this desolate world; I bled and burned and froze. I crossed the gate and walls and river; I found my way to the otherworld that called you. I found you in the shadow of broken bones like shattered hopes, deformed skeletons like twisted dreams. I’ve come to say that I love you and that I’m taking you back. You think that you’ve failed in work and life; I’ve come to say that’s not true. You think you’re not worthy—it’s not true. You are loved. And you deserve to be in the upper world of light—even if you choose not to have me there at your side.

It takes a long time to tell you all this. Memories dim between us as I speak. You never move. Your hand is cold and limp in mine. Your lips are blue. Your eyes empty as the starless sky.

I finish speaking and there’s no sound at all, not even a sigh of wind.

“Okay, then,” I whisper.

I lean forward. I take your still face between my hands.

“I’m not leaving you,” I say. “I’m here. I’m staying.”

Your face is cold to the touch. I watch the last of my memories fall and dim. The wind picks up again.

* * *

I’ve been here a long time, I think. I don’t know how long.

I don’t know the man kneeling before me. He holds light in his hands, golden and warm. In that light I see his brown eyes glowing with their own warmth: loving and concerned.

“I’ve come back,” he tells me. “I had to go away but I’ve come back again. I’m here.”

His hands are warm on my face, in my hair. His voice shakes.

He calls me a name. Tara, he says.

“Tara, I can’t stay too long. We’ve both tried that; we know what happens. But I’m here now, and I’ll be waiting for you above. I’ll wait for as long as it takes. Even when I’m not here, I’m still with you—can you understand?”

I don’t. What are these jeweled lights that he tries to press into my hands?

I love you, he tells me. I’m sorry. I’m here.

His kiss is soft on my mouth.

* * *

In flashes I remember the journey to this otherworld. I remember falling.

I remember sunlight. A garden. And pain. Pain that carved my chest open, that cracked my ribs, that left me unable to breathe. Pain as I was held by another—pain even as I knew that he was there with me, that he shared in it.

I don’t want to go back—

But memory glows, and the far horizon brightens. A white band in the sky. And now there’s burning in my hands and limbs as feeling returns.

I remember you. I know that you’re waiting. That we have waited for each other, again and again.

You can’t bring them back, everyone says.

My love, it’s too easy for some of us to fall to the otherworlds. I don’t know why. I don’t know why these terrible places exist. We make the journey to these places, and then back to life, on our own.

But I remember you now, and I take the first step home.

Vanessa Fogg dreams of selkies, dragons, and gritty cyberpunk futures from her home in western Michigan. She spent years as a research scientist in molecular cell biology and now works as a freelance medical writer. Her fiction has appeared in Liminal Stories, Daily Science Fiction, GigaNotoSaurus, Bracken, and more. She is fueled by green tea. For a complete bibliography and more, visit her website at www.vanessafogg.com.
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