When Rattlebone moves, the clatter of what’s beneath her robes sounds like a grudging applause — grudging for all the wrong reasons. Cowled in knotted rags of silk, she smells faintly of oily kerosene and newly minted coins. In the corner, she holds court with cobwebs and shadows. The precursor to her voice — the sound of flea market bamboo wind chimes causes my body to release a shot of adrenaline. The skin on my neck and chest crawl; despite the tension, I speak first.
“Hello, Rattlebone,” I say. “Nice night to be about.”
“Dark and stormy — ” she says, “ — the wind howls, twigs and leaves scuffle and rattle past the house…” Her voice is deadpan. I can’t help but grin. I always forget; anxiety, vexation and malaise are her playthings, but without humor she does not exist.
“It’s been a long while,” I say. I turn off the computer monitor and look around my nest of a study. “Do tell, Pussycat, where have you been?”
“I’ve been to London to look at the queen, of course. You’ve grown,” she says.
“Fattened from easy living,” I say.
“No. You’ve grown distinct.”
Rattlebone flicks her wrist and her sleeve opens. Two bony fingers pinch the air with all the humanity of a scorpion’s chela. A hollow clacking runs through Rattlebone as she reaches for my shoulder. I flinch. My shoulder is still tender from our last tryst.
“But my gifts belong to you, as yours belong to me,” she says.
“What you take, you take,” I say and shrug her bony fingers away. I open the manuscript drawer of my desk and take out a ream of my finest twenty-pound white bond manuscript paper. I hold it up for her to see. “What if I didn’t give it to you?” I ask. “Would I really die?” I pull the manuscripts to my chest in a theatric gesture of selfishness. Rattlebone puts the fingertips of both hands to the darkness where her mouth must be. She titters unkindly.
“No, you’d grow old, tired. You’d fade. It keeps you from becoming dim, not dead.”
I consider, nod, and then present the stack of manuscripts to her. She takes them; I wait for her to turn the pages.
“They are blank,” she says without looking. “You can’t trick me, I am Rattlebone.”
“Not blank,” I say. “I unwrote it, I unwrote it all.”
A wisp of smoke appears where Rattlebone’s gray fingertips are pressed to the manuscripts. The papers smolder, but no flame appears. Then, they turn to ash and crumble and swirl in a diminutive tornado. The ashes, a slave to her whim, are directed out the open window. Then she turns her attention to me. She pulls the knotted cowl from her face. I thought Rattlebone was only bone, but her skin is so thin, opaque and taut, it appears to be a sheet of moist living paper, paper wrought with the dried stains of inky words. Clouded orbs, X’ed with red, bulge from where her eyes should be. Despite being lipless, her grin is wide and gaping; her tongue is a fleshy, sightless parasite upon its host.
“You owe a debt to me for keeping your inkwell wet and full.”
I shake my head; I wish I had the strength to conjure the pretense of humor.
“I owe nothing,” I say. “It was my own blood, sweat and semen in that well.”
“Then dim and darkened, to the grace of the grave, to the endless and indistinguishable, you are dim and darkened,” she says, and touches the bulge of my stomach, just below my navel.
I feel something bubble, then fade.
“Darker and dimmer still,” she says, and taps my stomach twice.
“Now you will return,” she says, “and become unborn to the Gone — where the uninspired amuse us with their insipid sincerity.”
I sit, but no, I am not corporeal.
“Dimmer now, and gone,” she says.
There is darkness, and now I’m a thin, dim ghost… it is true, I am gone, like the ashes, a slave to a muse’s whim.
Bosley Gravel, eclectic hack writer, was born in the Midwest, and came of age in Texas and southern New Mexico. He writes in a variety of genres. His fiction focuses on the absurdly tragic, and the tragically absurd. He likes good black coffee, nightmares, Billie Holiday, and that hour just before the sun comes up.
This story is sponsored by
Clarion West — Apply now and prepare for your professional writing career with Paul Park, Kij Johnson, Ian McDonald, Hiromi Goto, Charlie Jane Anders, and John Crowley, June 22 – August 1 in Seattle.