By Brenda Anderson
Tenbe pushed open the gate outside the Master’s shell-dwelling, wishing she could turn and run. Ever since he’d taken possession of this vacant lot, villagers avoided the street. Coiled into elaborate swirls that changed color, the shell’s hard, glittery surface housed a creature no one wanted as a neighbor.
The shell flushed pale green. Good. That meant he hadn’t fully woken yet. Today would run its course. The Master would order her to collect certain objects; Tenbe would obey and in the evening return to her private hidey-hole.
Only then would she count her own special objects: finger bones. Every night she touched them, counted them, found comfort in them.
In spite of herself, she still shuddered at the glutinous sound of his voice. Perhaps he sucked air through mucous pooled somewhere inside that large shell.
“Here, Master.” She’d learned to give short answers. Listen, and obey. Every day she handed over the objects she’d scavenged for him. He paid her, of course. While every other household in the village had to pay tribute in return for his protection, she received it free.
“Get me dead fish and a child-size, broken bowl. Understand?”
“Yes.” Tenbe scurried off.
Once, instead of going home after her day’s work, she’d climbed the tree opposite his shell-dwelling and waited for darkness to fall. The village had gone quiet. People were afraid to leave their homes at night, fearful of the Master. Rumors had spread. Some claimed to have seen him lurching forward, like some disjointed insect continually losing its balance. Long legs and bleached skin, they’d said. Others swore he had no legs but rolled down the main street, curved like a strip of apple peel.
As she watched late that night something long, white, and slug-like had nosed its way out of the shell-dwelling, twisted right and left, then reared up. Two pale probing fingers had emerged from the slug’s head and stretched toward the tree she clung to. Impossibly, the fingers lengthened and almost reached her. Tenbe dropped to the ground and fled. The next day the Master had asked if she’d slept well. She’d managed to lie, assuring him that she had an excellent night’s sleep. After that, she’d given up spying.
The village itself found ways to endure. The Master emerged long after midnight to make his rounds, and left a telltale smear on certain front doors. Villagers who paid were permitted to live. Villagers who withheld payment died. As simple as that.
Dead fish and a broken, child-size bowl. Tenbe set off. Outside the village, she took a shortcut through the forest.
The pungent aroma of rotting leaves and undergrowth greeted her as she followed the small worn path. Not long now. Tenbe wished she’d been able to play here, like the village children. She couldn’t remember her parents. In fact, she had no memory of her childhood, except the day when strangers seized her and chopped away her eleventh finger. She could still smell the heated blade and feel the sudden pain. Blood had run down her newly-pruned right hand. Four years old, defenseless. Someone had patted her on her shoulder, to comfort her. Afterwards, they’d abandoned her. She wound up in this village, where the Master had claimed her as his servant. She never worked out how he found her. The hunting instinct, perhaps.
After a while Tenbe pushed her way free of the scrub and stepped onto sand. Sunlight glinted off the river that snaked past. She scanned the riverbank. Sometimes, exposed tree roots at the floodwater mark held fish skeletons. She picked her way through the sand and fingered the curtain of roots.
Wedged between riverbank and roots, she saw the bones of some large animal, its ribcage exposed to the air. A skull stared blindly at her, its teeth fastened on a dried fish skeleton. Tenbe exhaled. The Master would be pleased. With great care she wriggled into the tiny cavity behind the curtain of roots and reached for the fish skeleton. As she eased it from the creature’s jaws the air stirred and Tenbe looked round.
It seemed to her that the curtain of roots shifted a fraction, and a long white tendril snaked down. She gasped. The Master? Surely not. She blinked and saw only roots. With great care she dislodged enough soil to expose the front legs of the creature and snapped off its paw bones, which she slipped into her pocket. Good pickings. Only then did Tenbe bag the dried fish, turn, and flee.
She took her time walking to the village dump. When finally she reached the small mountain of rubbish, she heard a footstep. Turning, she saw an ancient, bent, whiskered man, and relaxed. Old Dog claimed to be one hundred years old and looked it. Under scruffy eyebrows his pale, unclouded eyes inspected her.
“Collecting?” Some days, his voice sounded more like a growl.
Tenbe nodded. The whole village knew what she did. No one opposed her.
Sometimes she saw pity in the eyes of those hurrying past her.
“Master’s good and mad, today.” Old Dog smacked his lips together. A fly buzzed past and settled on his threadbare jacket. His dirty, tattered trousers and sandals always seemed at odds with such watchful eyes.
Tenbe waited for more. Old Dog’s ramblings sometimes enclosed a kernel of truth, sometimes not. Once he invited her to join him while he watched a fire die down. One man seated in a circle of dogs, watching the embers grow cold while the dogs studied her. Then he suddenly rose and disappeared into the night, followed by his retinue. Tenbe hadn’t minded.
Though publicly the villagers avoided Old Dog, they sought his help to heal their injured dogs and muttered complaints against him afterward. A nuisance. Dirty. Up to no good.
“Be sure and get exactly what he wants, girl. Don’t worry. Bad first, good riddance,” Old Dog said. With an uncharacteristically friendly wave, he shuffled away. Tenbe called after him but he didn’t look back. An unpleasant feeling settled in the pit of her stomach. In the unseen world that held her fast, something had tilted, but not necessarily in her favor. Bad first, good riddance? What did that mean?
She shivered, and tried to guess what might connect fish bones and a broken child’s bowl. Death? The Master might be planning some new terror. Old Dog was up to something, too, but at least he seemed to be on her side.
It was all too hard. Do the work, she told herself. A broken bowl shouldn’t be hard to find. She circled the rubbish piles and saw the long, pointed nose of a dead dog sticking out at eye level. Tenbe sighed and kicked the pile. The dog had belonged to one of the village girls.
A thought hit her. That particular young girl had a younger sister. She grabbed a stick and prodded the rubbish. At last it hit something hard. With a grimace she reached in and drew out half of a child-size bowl. Well, well. She wiped dirt from its grimy surface. It had obviously lain there for a while.
The glazed eyes of the dead dog seemed to rest on her, and Old Dog’s words came back to her. Bad first, good riddance. On an impulse she prodded the nearby rubbish again, harder, but found nothing. A fly buzzed past her. Already the afternoon was drawing on. By the time she got back to the Master, it would be evening. With a backward glance at the dog, she slipped the broken bowl into her bag and almost stumbled over something.
Small, fragile bones, the size of a small animal, or perhaps a small child. Tenbe knelt down. The longer bones lay half covered in dirt. She scuffed the soil and gave a start. Child-size bones. She reached down, smoothed the dirt away, and snapped off the finger bones, dropping them in her pocket.
She kicked back the soil and smoothed it over with the tip of her shoe. Good pickings today.
Tenbe ran back to the village and pushed open the Master’s gate.
“You’re back.” The glutinous voice sounded suspicious.
As answer, Tenbe laid the fish and bowl on the ground before her. The Master’s shell-dwelling flushed a dark red that quickly faded to rose-red, normally a sign of his appreciation. Good. She could go now.
“Wait. The rest, too.”
Tenbe’s heart constricted. Was he following her, spying on her? Did he pay someone to spy on her? Anger rose in her throat. “I brought you what you asked.” It wasn’t fair. Her collection of bones didn’t belong to him. Suddenly, Old Dog’s words came back to her: Be sure and get exactly what he wants.
Maybe he knew about her collection and wanted it, too.
She gasped and ran, using short cuts to get back to her hidey-hole as fast as she could. Trembling, she snatched up her bag of bones, tied a knot, and slung the coarse hessian bag over her shoulders. She’d have to make a run for it.
Something moved. At the entrance of the cave, a long slender white tendril swung down from somewhere above. Her blood ran cold.
“Come out.” It was the Master’s voice. Tenbe froze. Had he followed her here, in no time at all? If so, his powers exceeded anything she imagined. Maybe she should hide. Useless. He’d find her easily. She’d have to brave it. Her life was barely worth living anyway. What did it matter?
“If I come out, show yourself.” Tenbe forced her voice to sound normal, even firm.
“You really want to see me?”
No. Not really. But I’ll fight for those bones. I’ve spent years collecting them. They’re mine! Out aloud, she said, “I collect horrible things for you. I’m not afraid. Show yourself.”
“First, the bones.”
Tenbe gave herself up for lost. “No.”
“I’ll reach in and take them.”
Tenbe felt around for a long, sharp blade she kept beside her makeshift mattress. “No!”
Two long white fingers probed the entrance of her hidey-hole and immediately withdrew. So, she thought, his fingers are also eyes. She looked outside. A shapeless white mass hugged the dirt several feet from her entrance.
“Little girl,” the Master gurgled, “I possess another bone to add to your collection: your own. That’s why you were named Tenbe, wasn’t it? Those villagers knew that eleven fingers should be ten so they cut off the extra one, didn’t they … Tenbe? I was there. I watched, and I collected. Give me the other bones, and I’ll return yours.”
Tenbe held up her right hand. Her remaining five fingers served her well, but the gap between the index and middle finger had never closed.
The voice started again. “I have time. I’ll starve you out. Give me the bones, and I’ll let you go. I want them. I need them.”
“Why?” At last, the question was out in the open.
“I—” But he let the word hang in the air.
Tenbe opened her hessian bag. For years she’d spent every free moment stringing them together, tying each bone into lengths that, stitched together at the top, stretched across her doorway. Without them, she felt exposed, naked, defenseless. Her bone curtain clacked in a reassuring way. She almost smiled. Like the warm blanket she imagined them to be, her bones would protect her. They had power. Why else would the Master want them?
“Go on, then.” She kept her voice steady.
“You’re inviting me inside?” He sounded waspish, short-tempered.
“No.” Her heart skipped a beat. “First, toss me that finger bone. Then I’ll know if it’s mine. Maybe you’re making the whole thing up.”
He’s lying. Tenbe closed her eyes. Bones, hear me. Defend me. Please. She shook out the bone curtain, stood up, and hooked both ends onto sticks she’d driven into soil on either side of the cave entrance. The bones clacked softly as they settled into place.
“Nice display.” The Master’s voice was taut. “Now, give them to me.”
“Why? Because you don’t have any of your own?” Tenbe bit her lip. There. She’d said it out loud. Every time she collected her finger bones, she wondered about the Master. In her mind’s eye, she added bones to those long, probing slug fingers of his. Instantly she tried to bury the image. Such a creature didn’t deserve bones. She touched the small human ones in her pocket.
“Is that what you think?” His voice sounded like a fishing line hitting the wave, a faint swish barbed with death.
She shuddered. Did he read minds, too? “I’m right, aren’t I?”
After a moment’s silence he gave a disgusting gurgle. “To walk, I need … support.”
The bone curtain clacked softly, as if unseen fingers stirred it.
Tenbe shivered. So she was right. He who never left his dwelling had followed her here and now waited outside, exposed as any newborn baby. He wanted bones. She tried to imagine him walking upright, like a man. The unseen world tilted again.
Something touched her cheek, as if a dog brushed by her, and she heard a long, piercing whistle. Old Dog. How many times had she heard him, over the years? She leaned forward. The old man emerged from the forest and stepped into the clearing outside her hidey-hole. He cupped his hands, as if urging something forward. From nowhere dogs appeared, formed a circle and advanced on the white shape.
Tenbe held her breath. Old Dog pointed and snapped his fingers. Slobbering, growling, and whining, the dogs rushed forward. With a long thin wail the white shape gathered itself and tapered into something resembling a human body. With liquid ease it extruded two arms and lunged at the dogs. They whimpered and scampered off.
The unseen world teetered.
If only she had a lever so that, for once, things could go her way. Of course! Trembling, Tenbe pulled out the child’s bones from her pocket and flung them at the white shape with all her strength. Gloop, it formed a mouth, squish, swallowed them and unhhh, fleshed out again.
Enough. This whole ridiculous game was going to end right here, right now. Tenbe parted the bone curtain and stepped outside. The white shape reared. She marched up. It slithered back.
Tenbe reached for it, flexing her fingers. “You want my bones? Here! Feel them, test their strength!”
She grabbed, dug her fingers in and twisted, hard. The damp skin felt disgusting, like rotting flesh. She twisted harder. The flesh writhed, convulsed, and suddenly went limp. Tenbe gagged and stepped back. In the distance, Old Dog whistled. Out of nowhere, the dogs raced up and pounced, all teeth and jaws. In seconds they tore the Master to pieces, then grinned and drooled.
“Oi! Spit that out now!” Old Dog yelled. “Get down to the river, drink, fast. Probably poison! Git!”
The dogs fled. Tenbe’s legs buckled under her. Old Dog limped up and looked down at her. Tenbe propped herself up. She’d never felt so soiled. She rubbed her hands in the dirt, and felt better.
Old Dog spat. “Guess he got what he wanted, after all. Good riddance.” He cleared his throat and surveyed her bone curtain. “I’d hate to think of him getting his hands on that. Pretty thing. It‘ll fetch a good price in the markets, I bet.”
Tenbe frowned. “I’ll never sell it. I’ll clean, sweep, do anything. I’ll find a way to live. I can do lots of things, now.” She peered at him. “You followed me here?”
Old Dog bared his two good strong teeth in a gummy smile. “Yeah. Hard work keeping up. ‘Course, I had help. Dead or alive, dogs are my eyes.” He chortled. “Little girl, get outta here. You don’t belong here. You’re smart. Leave and don’t come back.”
She nodded, her thoughts elsewhere. “I worked for him.”
“But … how did he get here so fast? He’s never been this far from his shell.”
Old Dog looked reflective. “Got desperate, I guess.”
Tenbe grimaced. “For what? We’re all bones in the end. He didn’t need them, but he wanted them. To walk, he said.” She struggled to put her thoughts into words. “All he got was death.”
“Yeah.” He gummed another grin. “You done real good, little girl. Now, git going.”
Tenbe got to her feet. Up close, Old Dug stunk. She reached forward to shake his hand, but he flinched.
“Nah. Some dogs bite. Some’re mad, or dead. You don’t wanna get bit. Git, now.”
For the first time in her life, Tenbe laughed. “I might come back. Visit, maybe.”
Old Dog pursed his lips. “Like the plague?”
Tenbe gasped and hiccupped, as if a long-trapped bubble had finally escaped. The unseen world had strong, warm arms. “I’ll find you. Nearest rubbish heap.”
“Yeah? Try.” Old Dog gummed a grin.
Tenbe smiled, grabbed her bone curtain, and walked away.
Brenda Anderson’s fiction has appeared in places like Andromeda Spaceways, A Cappella Zoo, Penumbra and Defenestration. She lives with her family in Adelaide, South Australia, and loves the offbeat.