From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Malleus, Incus, Stapes

That night in his father’s yellow brick house, up the first floor staircase, wide and wooden, up the second, narrow and steep, through a low doorway in the attic bedroom with wooden walls and floor and a sloping roof, Jack lay awake and fretted about his girl. Rain battered the roof like waves striking a ship’s hull. Rain that seeped through the wooden roof and pinged in the metal wastebasket beside the bed. Jack stretched out his hand and caught the cold drops on his palm.

Lillian. Lillian by the lake in the park. Her hair like sea froth on the back of his hand. He felt like he would burst with feelings for her, that his bones would split like trees in the cold.

The wind pressed the window in his bedroom, bowing the glass, and the crumpled balls of paper on the desk rustled in the draft. Jack had been writing poems for Lillian, but they’d all come out tangled, embarrassing messes. What were words to her anyway? If he gave her something she could touch, something special that meant something to him, then things would be different.

He sat up in bed, pulled the light cord and scanned the room. His aunt had scoured the house of all of his father’s personal effects. The attic bedroom was virtually empty, but in the shadowy corner deep in the angle of the roof he found another, lower door that opened into the attic proper. He had always been small for his age, and he squeezed through easily. In the darkness and dust at the very back of the attic, he found a crate balanced across the joists. The damp wood bristled with slivers. Between the slats, his fingers encountered damp wood and paper, and then found something hard and curled and smooth. Above him, the rain rattled louder as though the skin of the roof was thinner here.

The crate was too heavy and awkward to lift so he dragged it along the joists, careful to do so slowly and quietly so as not to alert his sleeping aunt below. He had some trouble pulling it through the door into his bedroom as the dimensions of the crate were nearly those of the door and the difference didn’t allow for the skin on his knuckles.

He knelt on the floor and picked through the contents of the crate with his bleeding hands. He pulled out balls of brittle paper: newspaper printed in a language he didn’t recognize. Underneath the balls of newspaper he found an envelope bearing the name “Simon.” Simon had been his father’s name.

Jack took the envelope to his desk and snapped on the reading lamp. The envelope’s flap had been unsealed long ago. Inside was a piece of stiff, expensive writing paper. The message was written in fountain pen, and the handwriting was almost illegible. Jack had to read it a few times to make sense of it:

Simon,

I am leaving these pieces to you as you are the only one who will understand what they are and what to do with them. Remember what I taught you. You have a responsibility to acknowledge what you have learned and to use it and pass it on.

Your loving uncle,

Wally

Jack returned the card to the envelope. His hands were shaking. He frowned at them. It wasn’t as though his father had written this—just some great uncle, most likely dead too. It wasn’t even as though they were his father’s things—just things that had been left to him. Yet Jack found himself on his knees again, digging into the crate.

Amidst the crumpled paper, he found something fist-sized and spotted. It was a conch shell. Jack felt disappointed; he had one much like it, bought on a trip to Florida years ago. Though the outside had an attractive pattern, Lillian could hardly be expected to appreciate it. He set it on his desk and turned back to the crate. He found a leather-bound book embossed with what looked like ivory. Unfortunately, the book was written in a language that Jack guessed, based on the science he’d taken at school, was Latin. He set the book aside; even if the words had been in English, Lillian couldn’t have read them.

He put his hand back into the crate, and his torn knuckles grazed a hard surface. Clearing the remaining paper away he found the curved piece of wood he must have felt in the darkness of the attic. It was part of a larger object. He pulled this out with difficulty—it was heavier than it looked and rattled as he lifted it—and set it on his desk.

It was a wooden boat. After a little manipulation and a gentle shake, Jack discovered that the top of it was loose. He lifted it off and a sweet, diseased smell, like a grub-pocked apple, emanated from inside.

The boat’s interior was divided into compartments. Each compartment housed a pair of white objects. Jack picked out one from the compartment in the bow. It was a carving of a four-legged animal with a wedge-shaped head, pointed ears and green-glinting eyes. The piece was heavy, minutely carved, and it filled his palm. Ivory, he thought. The piece lying next to this one turned out to be its twin. On the underside of each piece the letters “W.W.” had been carved. Jack set them on the desk and pulled out another pair. These were squatting monkeys, staring blankly, their tusks protruding. Jack smiled. This was a gift Lillian could appreciate.

He lined up the pairs of animals on his desk like an army. He trained the desk lamp directly at them so that their eyes shone back at him.

“You will help me win her heart,” he whispered to them.

Then he picked them up and stowed them back in the boat. As he put them away, he felt an unpleasant tingling in his hands. His palms were studded with slivers from handling the crate, and his knuckles still bled from their trip through the low doorway. No wonder.

Getting caught would be worse than missing even more sleep, so he dragged the crate back through the low door into the attic and stowed the boat under his bed. Afterward, sleep wouldn’t happen, so he got up and spent the remainder of the night polishing the boat with the edge of his blanket, for Lillian. She was all he had, really. Jack’s father had died when he was only nine years old. He’d never known his mother. Some girl at school had once remarked that she’d taken one look at him when he was born and run away screaming. Well, Lillian didn’t care about his looks.

The next morning, bleary-eyed, Jack staggered downstairs with his backpack on, the boat concealed inside. He let himself out the front door, avoiding his aunt in the kitchen, got onto his bicycle, which had been his father’s, and pedaled off to the park. The bicycle wobbled a little as the weight of the boat in his pack threw his balance.

The rain puddles were drying up, but in the park the ground was muddy, especially by the edge of the lake. He sat on the park bench by the shore and waited, watching his watch, his backpack a comforting weight on his lap.

He was so eager to give her the boat that he took it out to look at it again. After all, he didn’t have to worry she’d see it and spoil the surprise.

In daylight, the wood looked different, almost like plastic. He held it up and turned it this way and that, then ran his thumbnail along the bow. The brown colour lay in uneven streaks, and underneath the boat was a yellow-white colour. Was it ivory like the figures inside? Or was it simply heavy plastic? It seemed also to be made up of different sizes and shapes of pieces, fitted together, giving it a jigsaw appearance.

#

Some hours later, Jack lay in quiet bliss beside Lillian in the shade of the willow by the lake. They were made for each other, he thought. While she slept in the cool of the evening, her arms folded over the boat, the iris of her half-open eye seemed like a ship in a milky bottle, self-contained and full of blue hope. Where her other eye should be was only a closed lid. He put his thumb on it and tried to lift it, to look behind it, but it was stuck fast, like a newborn kitten’s eye. He wondered what she saw with that closed eye—what other world. He looked up into the less welcoming blue eyes of her guide dog. A low growl bubbled in the dog’s throat. Jack withdrew his hand. After a moment, the dog stood and moved toward the boat in Lillian’s arms. Jack could hear the dog’s rapid breathing as it sniffed the boat. The dog’s ears flattened tight against its head, and its body tensed.

“Leave it alone!” said Jack.

And then Lillian woke up, which spoiled the moment.

#

That night, Jack lay dozing in his bed. He was still wrought up from the events of the day, but coming on the heels of a sleepless night, he felt exhausted too. He summoned up the memory of Lillian’s joyous reaction to his gift. . . yet he felt like a fraud; the boat wasn’t really his—someone else had made it, and he hadn’t even bought it for her, just found it. If he really loved her, he thought, he would have made something for her—if he wasn’t so pathetic and useless at that kind of thing.

His eyelids snapped open and he blinked; he’d dozed off. He felt a change in the house as though it had settled on its foundation. That, or the noise shaking the room must have woken him. He got out of bed and drew back the curtain to make sure that it wasn’t the sea making that sound. It sounded so much like crashing waves.

The night was calm and clear, the sky a deep indigo, and the tree outside his window wasn’t so much as twitching to betray a wind. He dropped the curtain. The sound was coming from below the window. He switched on the lamp.

On his desk, the conch shell he’d found in the crate was vibrating. He picked up the shell. The quality of the sound changed from a rushing of the sea to a hiss, like an ice cube fragmenting in water. He thought for a moment there must be an animal inside the shell, but there was no smell and no flesh or claw protruded from the opening. Cautiously, Jack held the shell to his ear.

He heard the sea at first. Then there was a voice—an old man’s voice. “One day, when you’re old enough,” it said, “you’ll learn how to do these things.”

Then, a younger voice, a child’s voice spoke, soft and meek, “But Uncle Wally, it isn’t right.”

“You’re frightened now, but you’ll get over that. Death isn’t frightening when you never have to say good-bye to people. Take the bird by the wing, Simon. It won’t hurt you. It’s already dead. I’ll show you what to do.”

Jack heard a muffled sobbing, then it stopped, and there was silence.

Though he had never heard the second voice speaking as a child before, Jack knew whose it was. “Dad!” he cried. The shell was silent. He shook the conch. There was no sound. He brought it to the bedside lamp and looked inside. That was when he saw the words engraved in the polished opalescent lip of the shell: Malleus, Incus, Stapes. Like an incantation. Latin again. The words seemed familiar. He curled his fingers inside the shell and felt nothing but smooth hardness.

“Dad?” said Jack. He held the conch to his ear and heard nothing but silence.

After an eternity of futile waiting, he went back to bed, putting the conch on the pillow beside him.

It didn’t make a sound that night, nor did it all the next day, each time he pulled it surreptitiously from his backpack to listen.

#

Four days later he was at Lillian’s house, the first time he had ever been there. Her parents were out for the day. Jack and Lillian went up to her bedroom, and after a time they fell asleep.

Some time later, Jack was woken abruptly with the impression of a sudden dislocation. He clambered out of bed and staggered as the blood rushed from his head.

The bedroom’s bay window was dark with early evening. The little white sculptures stood along the windowsill where he and Lillian had placed them earlier. More of the sculptures and the boat itself stood on her bedside table.

He heard a quiet, drawn-out sound. Lillian lay on her back, her white hand curled by her cheek. She breathed quietly. The sound Jack heard was coming from his backpack, beside the bed. He scrambled to open it and took out the conch.

“Dad. . .” he whispered. He pressed the conch tightly to his ear.

What he first heard, the first sound he could make out amongst the sharp rustling, was a songbird. Jack was well acquainted with birdsong, having learned a little on school field trips, and he knew within a few notes that this was not a Canadian bird. As the moments passed, the song changed from melodic to screeching. Some sort of parrot or parakeet. He could make out other birds in the background, other birds he could not identify. Then silence.

“Dad?” he whispered. “It’s Jack. Can you hear me?”

More silence from the conch. In the bedroom, he heard Lillian’s breathing rasp. He got up to go out into the hallway where it was quieter. As he passed the window he heard a sharp sound from the conch. He froze.

“Not here!” said a voice—the same old man’s voice Jack had heard the first time. “Further in. Go on.”

Then he heard another voice, a teenager’s voice, not much younger than Jack. Jack could tell from the tone that the guy was upset, but he couldn’t understand what he was saying. It took Jack a moment to realize he was speaking a foreign language.

Jack stepped toward the hallway so that he could listen out of earshot of Lillian, but as soon as he took that step, the conch went silent. Jack stepped backward and the sound rushed in again. In fact, as he moved the conch this way and that, it became louder the nearer he got to Lillian.

Jack leaned over her. Beside him on the bedside table, he caught sight of the carving of the monkey with its bared teeth and green, shining eyes. Sound virtually exploded out of the conch: the sound of breaking brush, twigs snapping, leaves rustling, harsh breathing, that young guy’s voice. His voice was now pleading, anguished, in words that almost sounded like English but weren’t. Then the boy screamed. It was not a scream of shock or fright—it was a scream of pain. Jack dropped the conch.

“Jack?” said Lillian. She reached across the bed to where he’d been lying, and her palm flattened on the emptiness there. “Where are you?”

“It’s okay,” said Jack. He didn’t move. The conch had broken at his feet. Quietly, he picked up the pieces. Under the two largest shards, he found three tiny oddly shaped yellow objects not more than few millimeters long. It was when he saw them that his memory of the words on the conch returned and he made the connection. He straightened.

“What are you doing?” said Lillian.

“I just. . . dropped something,” he said.

“Come back to bed, love.” She stretched out her hand toward him.

He went back to the bed and put the pieces of the conch into his backpack. Then he made an excuse to leave. Lied to her, basically. Because if he told her the truth, she’d think he was crazy. Maybe he was.

#

The next morning, Jack cut class and went to the library as soon as it opened. He found the book he needed and signed it out. He didn’t want to be seen reading it in public, and there was something at the house he needed to look at.

Back home, he hid his bike behind the garage and snuck upstairs. He found the crate in the attic room where he’d left it and rooted out the heavy, leather-bound book. His eyes felt dry, and his vision felt weak and faded, so although it was daylight, he snapped on the desk lamp and opened the book. It too smelled like rotten apples. The foxed paper was slick under his fingers.

Jack opened the Latin-English dictionary he’d gotten from the library. He pulled out the pieces of conch from his backpack and fitted the two largest pieces back together until he could read the words properly. The dictionary revealed that the words were, indeed, Latin.

Malleus, Incus, Stapes.

Hammer, Anvil, Stirrup.

Why did that sound familiar? Blacksmithing terms? Which had what, exactly, to do with seashells?

He pulled the conch apart and examined the inside of it, looking for a miniature tape player, something to explain what he’d heard. He sifted through the tiny pieces of shell, turning them over in his hand. One of them had been carved into the shape of a stirrup. He turned the little piece over and over in his hand as he paged through the leather-bound book. All those words—it would take him forever to translate.

Jack turned the page and stopped. In the middle of the text were three pen-and-ink line drawings. In the first, a man lay on his back while another man cut him open with a knife. In the second drawing, the man with the knife was holding a curved white thing up over his head. In the third drawing, the man with the knife was gone, and a woman lay on her back next to man who’d been cut.

He shut the book and tapped its ivory-embossed cover while he thought about what he’d seen. Stopped tapping. Looked at the ivory that didn’t feel or look quite like ivory. It was a little too gray. It had been engraved the same way the conch had: W.W., Osteomancer.

It wasn’t ivory, nor was the little stirrup-shaped thing in his hand. Nor had it been carved. The stirrup was its natural shape. He remembered now, in Biology, how they’d learned the parts of the human body, and more specifically, the three bones in the middle ear of the human skull. The smallest bones in the body, named for the objects they resembled: hammer, anvil, stirrup. He knew whose bones had been in that conch. He had been hearing sounds from a dead man’s ear.

#

Jack stood barefoot on the shore of the lake with the boat in his hands and Lillian’s reproachful sobs in his memory. You didn’t take back a gift; it was cruel. Jack knew, though she’d never told him, that this was the only gift she’d ever received from a man who wasn’t a blood relative. He couldn’t tell her why he’d taken it, either, and that was the worst part. She probably thought he didn’t love her any more.

He’d been reading the leather-bound book with the dictionary at his elbow, and he knew now that water had some sort of cleansing power. Not tamed water, as in a bathtub or a sink or from a hose, but wild water. Jack waded into the lake. He intended only to go out to his knees, but the bottom dropped off unexpectedly, and he found himself soaked up to his belly.

He lowered the boat into the water. Immediately, the boat capsized, its cargo salting the water. They bobbed to the surface like grotesque white bubbles. He tried to snatch them up, but then they sank. Within moments, he was staring in vain into murky brown water. Maybe it was for the best.

He waded out of the lake. When he reached the shore, he turned back, expecting. . . he didn’t know what. Some telltale sign on the water’s surface? A white hand emerging from the water?

But the boat and all traces of its contents were gone.

The conch, he buried in the back yard. They weren’t his father’s bones, but still, a part of him was in there, in his great-uncle’s memory. Jack flattened the earth over it and then pushed a handful of apple seeds into the dirt. Maybe one of them would grow.

Then, for the first time since he’d lost his dad, Jack cried.

#

Jack spent many nights afterward teaching himself Latin and reading the book. Jack concluded that bone magic was not an innately evil art—it depended on how it was practiced.

Lillian refused to speak to him and had her parents turn him away at their door. Jack took to spending his afternoons in the park by the lake, waiting on the off-chance that she might come back. And a month later, she did.

He sat quietly on the bench until she sat down on the other side of it. There was a slight breeze—perhaps that gave him away, but Lillian suddenly turned her head toward him.

Jack reached over and put the shell into her hands. It was the conch that he’d picked up in Florida years ago. Not as pretty as the conch in his father’s crate, but in a way, that was the point. Along the conch’s lip he had glued tiny beads in Braille code. He watched her fingers find them, move along them. Realize what they said.

Listen. Love. Live.

Her groping hand found his face, traced his cheek and then stopped when it reached the bandage over his ear.

Bone magic, like love, demanded certain sacrifices.

Sarah Totton is a wildlife veterinarian and epidemiologist. Her short fiction has appeared in Realms of Fantasy, Writers of the Future XXII and previously in Fantasy Magazine. Her short story collection, Animythical Tales, was published earlier this year by Fantastic Books.