By David Kavanaugh
The old man grimaced. “You mean to tell me that the Scientists chose a pretty little peach like you to replace me?”
I shrugged one shoulder. “You can’t exactly hold my sex against me. After all, I was born with it.”
The old man’s oily forehead constricted, his wrinkles bunching together into squishy webs. “A joker, eh? Well, it ain’t about your sex, it’s about your scrawny arms and your pale skin. This is no easy job. Not sure a girl can handle it.”
I rolled up my sleeves, letting him see my forearms. Though thin, they were tan and anything but delicate, my muscles like taught ropes under the skin. “I’ve worked my whole life. And I’ve passed all of the Scientists’ tests. The employment is official. Today you train me; tomorrow I take over. It’s a done deal.”
He let out a long, low, wheezing sigh, rubbing at his temples with thick, filthy fingers. “Well, let’s see what you’re made of.”
He set off briskly through the undergrowth, flicking aside palm fronds and ducking under the occasional spider web. I followed without a word, stepping in his footsteps to avoid roots, stones, and scorpion dens. After a minute, he came to a staircase dug into the jungle floor, and bounded down it. He moved surprisingly fast for a man his age, though I suspect it was meant to intimidate me.
At the bottom of the stairs, the passage led to a dimly lit tunnel with a dirt floor. It took the better part of the minute to weave our way through the gloom and into the minty sunlight of a cavern.
Despite the hours I’d spent staring into my bedroom mirror, training my face to remain totally free of emotion, that first step into the cave made my eyes snap open and I released the whisper of a gasp. It was an astounding sight, two hundred feet up into the distant canopy of jungle. I had probably flown over the spot on my way here, but the cylindrical cave was completely hidden from above.
The old man seemed pleased at my momentary shock, and grinned a yellow, toothy grin.
“Hell of a place, ain’t it?”
I nodded, running my eyes in circles around the cave. Cubbyholes filled the walls, each holding a single skull. Some of the cubbies were the size of a fist, the skulls inside no bigger than a rat’s, though distinctively hominid in shape. Other cubbies were the size of small rooms. These held skulls the likes of which I had never even dreamed. They were like boulders, swollen and deformed. A few still had charred meat clinging to the sooty bone, or even mossy hair that hung lank across the curves of the skull.
I sucked in a silent breath through pursed lips, and felt my heart rate began to slow in my chest.
“Ever seen one?” asked the old man.
“A holy bone?”
“Only the videos.”
He clicked his tongue. “Not the same at all.” He leaned down, groaning a bit and favoring one leg, and picked up a scrap of what looked like red leather from the beaten dirt. “I saw one when I was a boy. Still remember the sound of my village’s cries when the Scientists stood up the cross. They found our god hiding in the bottom of a lake. When they lit Him on fire, there was this smell. It was like … mildew and honey and burning hair. It got stuck in your clothes for days.”
He tossed down the scrap. “Anyway, their airships took away the skeleton, still clinging to the cross. Far away, we guessed, though nobody knew. When I first took this job and they showed me the cave, I started looking for His skull.”
“Did you find it?”
In answer, he pointed to a cubby far above us. I could just make out a segment of soft, yellow bone, probably a jaw.
“Why do they keep them here?” I pondered aloud. “Most people assume they dispose of the bones in a laboratory somewhere. Pulverize them, or melt them down.”
He scratched at the stubble on his chin. “The bones don’t react well with those places. Bad things happen. It’s easier to dump them out, in the dirt, in the earth, hidden away.”
“Bad things? Surely, the gods don’t have any power after they’re executed and burned.”
“Oh, they have power. All in the mind, of course, but it can still do some damage. Yes, it’s best to bring them here. I take good care of them. Always have.”
I straightened up. “I’ll do my best to take care of them, too. I can promise you that.”
He gave me a stern look and snickered. “Great.”
I would have continued with my assurances, but he suddenly snatched my arm in a painful grip and yanked me to the side of the cavern.
“Whoa! Drop coming!” he barked.
“They don’t tell you ahead of time when one’s coming?”
“Not all the time. Listen. Hear that humming? That’s the airship.”
I did hear the hum, and looking up, could just make the outline of a ship above the trees. A moment later, something came crashing through the branches and plummeted into the cave. I jerked and gulped air as a huge cross crashed onto the ground in front of us. The immense skeleton that clung to it lurched and bounced, but the heavy steel hooks through its wrists and ankles restrained it from falling free.
I coughed at the dust that rose from the landing, and watched as the cross tipped backward and came to rest against the cave wall. It had to be nearly twenty feet tall, made of two tree trunks lashed together. The skeleton itself was charred black and smelled of overcooked pork. The skull had listed forward so that the empty sockets stared down woefully.
“Big sucker,” said the old man. “Well, you want to see how it’s done, don’t you? Let’s get started.”
I helped him set up a steel ladder at the foot of the cross, then took the initiative and climbed up before he had a chance to.
“Oh! Ladies first, I see,” he mocked, though his smile seemed genuine.
I tried to ignore the stench as I climbed past the bones of the blackened feet, the legs with their distended knees, the wide pelvis, a layer of simmering flesh still attached, the rib cage, the collarbones, the bent neck.
“Do I carry the skull back down the ladder?”
He laughed. “You could try. No. Just break it free and let it fall. Don’t worry. It won’t hurt it.”
I took a deep breath. Now that I was face to face with the skull, it was more daunting than I had supposed. I could barely get my arms half way around the cranium, but after several minutes of sweat and sturdy jerking, the bones crunched and gave a suctioning sound, and the huge skull fell forward past me and landed with a great thump.
I wiped at my brow and climbed down.
“What cubby are we putting it in?”
He nodded to one at the far side near the ground. It would just be big enough.
“Looks like there are still bits of a skull in there.”
He shrugged and walked over the hole. Leaning in, he tossed a few brown fragments of bone and a scoop of ash onto the floor.
“There. Problem solved.”
I nodded and walked over to the skull, looking at it from different angles and trying to decide how best to lift it.
“Want a hand?” he asked, though he crossed his arms and did not come toward me.
I rolled my eyes, bent my knees and got as firm a grip as I could. With great effort, I rose and stumbled forward for a few steps. Then the skull slipped out and crashed back down. The old man uncrossed his arms but I shot him a stern look.
The next try went a little better, and I managed to get the skull halfway to the cave wall. Finally, with the third lift, I made my way blindly to the cubby and the old man helped me shove the skull inside.
We stepped back to examine our work.
“Where’d it come from?” I asked, gazing at the hallowed skull. My voice cracked a little when I spoke. My mouth was horribly dry.
He cocked his head to one side. “They never tell me. I try to guess sometimes. The big ones are found sleeping under crumbling ziggurats. The little rodent ones come from some basement in a big city where an old gypsy woman came to live with her granddaughter. Things like that. But I really have no idea.
“Come on, let’s get the rest of the bones.”
We spent the next hour climbing up and down the ladder, disassembling the skeleton. We carried the bones in armfuls through another tunnel and into a second cavern. It was just like the first one, only skinnier and without the cubbyholes. The floor was carpeted in trampled ash and singed bits of bone.
When the last rib was tossed down, the pile was almost as big as I was. The old man lit a match and tossed it down at the base of the bones. It took a moment to catch, but soon the bonfire was roaring, and I watched with fascinated horror as the bones bent, hissed, and cracked; watched as the smoky molecules ascended like departing spirits.
“The crosses don’t come nearly as frequently as they used to,” the old man told me, sitting cross-legged before the fire and staring into the flames. “Won’t be long before they round up the last of the old gods. Not sure how long this job’ll be good for.”
I smiled. “I don’t mind. I’m still glad to have it. I mean, think of it, this is history!”
He sniffed and arched his neck to watch the smoke rise and sway. “Or the end of the history, depending on how you see it.”
I was sweating from the heat of the fire and the muggy, equatorial air, and sat, hugging my knees to my chest.
“You’ll miss this job, won’t you? Miss the bones. Miss the gods.”
“Honestly?” He looked over, lips pouting and eyes bright. “Meh?”
We sat for a long time in silence. I believe that he, like I, felt very young beside the blaze. And very small.
David Kavanaugh spends his time writing stories, changing diapers, and planting gardens (but mostly changing diapers). His fiction and poetry has appeared in magazines such as Voluted Tales, 365 Tomorrows, and Shamrock Haiku. He currently lives on the planet Earth with his wife and daughters, though they plan on relocating to Mars as soon as is convenient.