Read The Darkness of Bones Online
Authors: Sam Millar
The Darkness of Bones
to the Millen family:
Margaret, Marcella and Paul
A person could not ask for better friends.
“… the very dead of winter.”
T.S. Eliot, ‘Journey of the Magi’
“The hand of the LORD was upon me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, ‘Son of man, can these bones live?’”
the gruesome object less than a mile from his home, in Barton’s Forest, on the outskirts of Belfast, where snow-covered trees knitted together in infinite numbers, their immensity stretching beyond the ceiling of clouds.
He should have been at school on the morning of the find, studying for an important science test, but he had taken Friday off—without permission—and had ventured into the snowy woodland because it was conveniently close to home, and could camouflage him from the prying eyes of nosy neighbours. That’s all he needed: one of them squealing on him, telling his father.
Not that his father seemed to care much, these days …
The object protruding from the frost-covered ground resembled a grubby finger, beckoning him towards it. A beard of iced leaves hung from an old tree gone to rot, shading it from a saucer of winter sun.
Thinking at first that is was nothing more than a piece of tree root, he ignored it. But succumbing to his curiosity, he bent to inspect it further and was both startled and fascinated as he realised what it truly could be.
“A bone …?”
With his fingers making contact, a spidery feeling touched his spine, alerting him to something wonderfully dark. He hoped it was some sort of fossil, but realistically believed it to be from the local butcher’s, left by some scraggy mutt from town. Adrian could picture the dog digging, digging, digging, its hairy neck craning suspiciously all about as it deposited the bone in the dirty hole of earth. It probably pissed on the ground afterwards, marking its territory, fending off inquisitive, hungry adversaries.
With the heel of his shoe, he hacked determinedly at the frosted ground, fragmenting the hardened soil until the clay loosened into puckered mounds. A few minutes later, the ground grudgingly released the bone into his custody, and where the bone had rested there was now a small hollow in the earth, gaping outwards like an empty eye socket.
Studying the clay-encased bone, Adrian could see hardened blood and bluish spots of decayed meat hugging the dull paleness. “So much for you being a fossil. Probably a cow’s bone.” His lips curled with distaste, but still his fingers clung to the bone, resisting the urge to drop it.
Tapping it firmly against a tree, he managed to loosen as much of the stubborn clay as possible. Finally, unzipping himself, he pissed all over it, like a fireman dousing a flame, watching as his steaming urine splattered then held course, removing the last remnants of clay, blood and decomposed meat, all the while congratulating himself on his aim.
No sooner had he zipped himself up than—without warning—something hit him full force on the side of the face, knocking him off balance, forcing him to stagger, slightly.
A large crow, black and slick as oil, landed on the snowy ground beside him, thrashing its great wings, flopping on its belly. It couldn’t stand and Adrian saw, for the first time, that it had only one leg. The other was gone, newly ripped from its place, possibly by a predator, leaving a mess of wet redness attached to its feathered stomach. The wetness was the only colour the bird possessed.
Instinctively raising his hand, Adrian gingerly touched his face. It was wet. Blood. Some of the crow’s blood had entered his mouth. It tasted like iron on his tongue. He spat on the whitened ground, causing an inkblot of blood to discolour it a pinkish black.
Adrian wondered if the crow had been feasting on the bone, only to be ambushed by a fox. Crows were intelligent, but intelligence always paled against cunning. What if the bone was the crow’s missing leg? Once again, his lips curled with distaste, yet his fingers still grasped the bone, refusing to let go.
Shaken by the eerie bird’s intrusion, he shouted angrily, hoping to chase it away. “Get! Go on!” He made a movement with his hands, but the bird managed to hobble only a few inches, its energy sapped from trying to fly back to the tree for safety, its beak opening pathetically slowly, desperate for an intake of air.
“Wings are busted …” Remorse quickly replaced anger. Adrian considered capturing the wounded bird to bring it back home and call the animal shelter. But that would lead to questions, and he didn’t need that. He wondered what his father would do in this situation. Probably put the bird out of
its misery by wringing its neck.
That particular thought was unappealing—though had he brought one of his father’s guns, he would have had no qualms about shooting the unfortunate creature.
Approaching the bird cautiously, Adrian tried coaxing it with his words. “It’s okay; I’m not going to hurt you.”
The bird remained motionless. Only when he gently touched it with his boot did he understand that it was now dying, its last effort—to seek safety—too big a strain on its heart.
Stooping slightly, he reached to roll the crow over, but its ribcage collapsed, shifting the bones grotesquely. The bird’s head went lax, melting back into its feathered body.
Adrian now felt loneliness engulfing the forest. He could hear other crows cawing, nesting in the gnarled boughs of trees; he could hear the hardened snow cracking from its seams.
To his left, a small thorn tree was partially visible beneath the fattening snow. Tunnelling an opening with his hands, he placed the dying bird in, remembering how his mother always said that every creature deserved a decent burial.
Hoping that the crow’s death wasn’t an omen, Adrian bent and retrieved a solo black feather resting on the page of snow like an exclamation mark.
“You’re a beauty. Not a blemish, despite the wound.” It awed him, the feather’s power and grace, its gift of flight to birds and Greek heroes. A person would sell his soul to the devil, for such …
A movement to his left distracted him from his thoughts. It was white—as white as the snow thickly falling all about him. Rubbing snow from his eyes, he blinked. Nothing. He glanced in every direction. Nothing, only the sly wind sounding, gathering momentum. He listened intently to the wind soughing through
the trees, convinced it was whispering a name.
Michael? Michaellllll …?
“Spook yourself, you idiot, why don’t you?” he said out loud, the sound of his voice giving him some comfort.
Quickly pocketing the feather, Adrian returned to the task of the bone, drying it with withered leaves, rubbing it almost lovingly, as if calling a sleeping genie from a magic lamp.
Satisfied, he held the bone up to the splintered light slicing through the trees, inspecting it before placing a hollow part to his ear, listening intently to the hum it made. The sound forced the hairs on his neck to prickle, and his spine to cat-scratch. He could hear the bone hiss, like a seashell; thought he could hear the sea echoing in it. Thought he could hear something else, like a sweet voice whispering dark words he couldn’t understand.
“Of a thousand shavers, two do not shave so much alike as not to be distinguished.”
Samuel Johnson, Boswell’s
Life of Samuel Johnson,
HAT’S HER, ISN’T
it?” asked Joe Harris, the local barber, holding a cut-throat razor in one hand and a copy of Friday’s
in the other. “That’s Nancy McTier, the little girl who’d come in here, every now and again with her grandfather. Isn’t it?” Harris mumbled the questions to himself, nudging his glasses with a knuckle to peer at the little girl’s photograph stationed in the centre of the page. She was smiling and wearing a billowy dress. Ribbons rested in her hair. A toy of some sort—possibly a doll—dangled from her hand.
While studying the article, Harris neglected his third customer of the day, who sat, looking ridiculous, with only the upper lip of his face shaven.
Three years since Nancy’s disappearance. No arrests. No clues. No suspects
, read the tiny headline, right below the little girl’s image. The article was on page thirteen of the newspaper. Three years ago, it had made page two, but time had lessened its importance. Three years from now, it probably wouldn’t warrant a line.
Despite the waiting customer, it was near impossible for Harris to resist looking at the remaining random blurbs inked on the paper.
walked from her home in Lancaster Street … the mother had given her money to buy something nice, in one of the shops in York Street … last seen in North Queen Street
Using the endless angles afforded in the barber’s shop’s mirrors, the customer watched Harris, slightly concerned about the quality of the shave. But he kept quiet—for now—as if sensing the importance of the newspaper in the barber’s hand.
Delving deeper into his memories of the girl, Harris conjured up sporadic images. She sometimes wore a bright yellow dress, when she came into the shop. Red butterflies attached themselves to it. The painted insects looked so real you expected them to fly away. It was a nice change, a girl, because mostly boys and men came in.
As Harris continued scanning the article, he felt the weight of the razor in his hand alerting him to his unfinished task and knew, for business’ sake, he’d need to do a good job. Another one of those unisex places had recently opened a few streets away, and even though the barber’s shop still managed to retain most of its loyal customers, at the back of Harris’ mind was always the question as to how long they would remain loyal. Belfast was quickly becoming as bad as Dublin and London: a scarcity of traditional barbers.
The unisex shop was closed for a death in the family—hence the extra customers—and it was now up to the traditional barber’s shop to take advantage of this unfortunate event.
“Sorry, sir, about that,” Harris said, nodding at the article. “I remember that little girl. Terrible.” He tapped the newspaper with his razor.
“I really am in a hurry,” said the man, becoming slightly agitated, his partly shaven face resembling a soapy horseshoe.
Across from Harris stood Jeremiah Grazier, the other barber and owner of the shop. Grazier glared at Harris to get on with the job, satisfy the customer, and stop distracting himself with newspapers.
Grazier’s body was thin and withered with time, prematurely bowed by the burden of a face deemed repulsive. He had entered this world screaming when the midwife—slightly intoxicated and inexperienced—accidentally stuck the forceps in his right eye, blinding it. The doctor casually informed Jeremiah’s mother that he was lucky he hadn’t lost sight in both, and recommended the placement of a glass eye, once adulthood was reached. Sometimes, when his skin got irritated, Jeremiah would be forced to wear a patch over the glass eye—though he tried to make sure this was done after working hours, kids being kids.
Grazier was preparing the hairy head of a customer, his long bony fingers massaging tonic into the hair, softening it for the scissors. The customer—a teenager—was describing the cut he wanted. Jeremiah ignored the words. There was only one hairstyle in the shop for
. If they wanted something
, they’d better go to one of those
salons with their
Yet, despite their reluctance to change, the barbers tried as best they could to cater for all ages, and the proof was there for all to witness: homemade sweets—wrapped in a spirally red
design—were harboured in jars lining the shelves; towers of comic books were piled haphazardly, waiting to collapse; shrunken, rubber heads—meant to fascinate the younger clientele—dangled ghoulishly from the nicotined ceiling; while religious paraphernalia, consisting of old Bibles from Grazier’s
colporteur days, sat incongruously with magazines of half-naked women, decapitated corpses and Mafia rub-outs—appropriately enough—in barber chairs.
But if the sweets and comics were an enticement for the younger clientele, a balanced deterrent attached itself to the far wall in the curved shape of an old cane. “This Cane is Able”, proclaimed the maxim beneath it, a warning to would-be trouble makers—those youngsters with the audacity to complain about the passé haircut carved on their hairy, reluctant heads.
It wasn’t unusual to see Grazier chase an ungrateful boy out of the shop, the thin cane narrowly missing the head of the intended target, all the while quotes from the Bible trafficking from his aging mouth. “He that spareth the rod hateth his son! Proverbs 13–24.”
If the fact of their sons’ being chased by a Bible-quoting barber with a swinging cane offended the parents, they did not complain. Secretly, some of them were grateful for the old man’s avenging discipline upon unruly sons—sons whom most of them found increasingly difficult to control.
“It could do with a bit more off the top, sir,” said the teenager to Grazier, with respect that contradicted the barber’s opinion of youth.
“Next!” shouted Grazier, ignoring the teenager’s honest words.
Slithering from the chair, the teenager gingerly handed payment to the barber. In exchange, Grazier placed a perfectly wrapped sweet into the young customer’s empty hand, while his words pushed him out of the shop. “Shut that door behind you, gently. Keep the heat in.”
It was nearing one o’clock when the last customer finally
left, granting the barbers a chance to close shop, have lunch and then clean up, ready for the two o’clock opening.
“You remember her, Jeremiah?” asked Harris, easing into one of the big fat chairs, accompanied by his newspaper, getting slowly comfortable.
“Remember who?” asked Grazier, scraping particles of hair from his clipper blades, meticulously flossing their metal teeth with his fingernails.
“That little girl—the one who disappeared? Nancy McTier. Doctor McTier’s granddaughter. I know you have the worst memory in the world, but surely you remember her?”
Grazier continued his flossing, almost as if he hadn’t heard Harris.
“Don’t you remember her?” persisted Harris.
“Can’t you see I’m busy trying to get everything in order for the two o’clock opening?” replied Grazier, sounding slightly annoyed.
Never one to listen, Harris tapped the newspaper with his finger before leaning towards the other barber. “Take a look.”
Reluctantly, Grazier removed the newspaper from Harris’ fingers before reading the tabloid with his good eye, like a jeweller studying the perfection of a gem.
His eye scanned the monochrome photo of the little girl before studying the words; but no matter how he tried, the photo pulled the eye back towards it, magnetically.
“Here,” said Grazier, handing the newspaper back to Harris. “Disgusting stories. Don’t know why you buy such trash. They only report death and destruction, making tidy profits from it, into the bargain.”
Harris, well used to Grazier’s sullen mood swings, simply grinned. “I remember the time when you used to go door to
door with your soap, Bibles and quotes. Clean the body as well as the soul! Hallelujah! The Lord and Lard. Remember? Death and destruction? That was all I heard from you, Jeremiah. And even then you were talking about
.” Harris couldn’t help but grin at the watered pun. “The sweetest-smelling Bibles known to man or
, you used to tell all those old spinsters, you sly fox. Sold quite a few, too, didn’t you?” Harris winked.
Grazier ignored the remarks, allowing Harris to return to his newspaper, while he went to the sink, eager to scrub the newspaper ink staining his skin. It made him feel strangely unclean.
Scrubbing thoroughly, he almost wounded his skin raw.
“What? What’s wrong, Jeremiah? Don’t tell me you went and nicked yourself, an old pro like you?” joked Harris, never taking his eyes from the newspaper, scanning the betting pages for his daily fix from the horses. “Here’s a superstitious bet, if ever I saw one. Close Shave, running at Beechmount. Seven to one. What do you think, Jeremiah? Can I entice you?”
The ink was barely fading, resisting all his efforts. He could still make out the tiny newspaper blurbs in the palm of his hand.
An insistent tapping sound from the outside window caught both Grazier’s and Harris’ attention, simultaneously.
“Can’t they read the ‘Closed for Lunch’ sign? They must think we’re robots,” said Harris, easing from the chair.
Grazier moved quickly to intercept him.
“It’s okay, Joe. You go back to your reading. I’ll see who it is.”
Shrugging his shoulders, Harris slipped back into his chair and returned to his newspaper.
Peeping through a side curtain, Grazier could see a young man, his face badly scarred with acne. The young man peered back, and then winked.
Reluctantly opening the door, slightly, Jeremiah hissed, “What are you doing here, in broad daylight? You were instructed to always come at night. What if someone saw you, informed the police?”
“Keep your knickers on, grandda. Just doing my job. I’m away for a couple of weeks. Your missus ordered this, yesterday. You don’t want her not getting her
, do you?” His
hand contained a small brown package.
An angry blood-rush pounded Jeremiah’s skull. A vision entered his head, of scissors embedded in the sneering young man’s mouth.
“You don’t look too good, grandda. Perhaps you haven’t been taking
“Don’t ever come to the shop at this time again,” warned Jeremiah.
“Whatever you say, grandda. Just make sure you tell your missus that. See what
says. We all know who wears the
in your house.” The sneer became thinner, sharper.
Speedily, Grazier took the package, squirreling it away immediately in his overcoat hanging near the entrance to the shop.
“For heaven’s sake, Jeremiah. Anyone would think that was a bomb you’re hiding,” laughed Harris, climbing back into the comfort of the chair. “One of these days, I’m going to open that wee mystery package, Jeremiah, uncover your secret.”
Without answering, Grazier stared icily at Harris. The stare was disconcerting, even to Harris.
“Joke,” said Harris, quickly. “It was a joke. What’s wrong
with you, this weather, Jeremiah?”
For a few seconds more, Grazier continued staring before speaking. “I don’t like jokes. You more than anyone should know that.”
He went back to cleaning his hands.