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Rags & Bones

Melissa Marr

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  — M. M.



  — T. P.


  The editors’ lives had overlaps before we knew each other. Tim studied creative writing in North Carolina and then went on to edit and write; Melissa studied literature at another North Carolina university, and then went on to be a university literature teacher for twelve years before writing. By the time Melissa began to write, she had found Tim’s short stories; he also published her first story. Along the way, they became friends with a mutual love of short stories, literature, and science fiction and fantasy. This anthology was born from that mutual love—and a strange retelling of Heart of Darkness in the form of a children’s cartoon that Tim wrote.

  The anthology also sprung from remarks Neil Gaiman made one night in New York about retelling tales, in particular about retelling a specific fairy tale. Whether he remembers that the tale in question was the same one he retold in this collection, we don’t know. One of us sort of hopes it was all a grand coincidence. That’s what happens with writers: the art we encounter swirls and combines and evolves inside our minds. Those of us who love literature, old tales, folk tales, fairy tales, and half-remembered stories keep them all in some strange simmering pot and ladle out bits into our own new stories. We return again and again to old loves and old obsessions, or wrestle with the troubling and problematic aspects of stories we adored when we were young.

  The two of us thought it would be fun to ask some of our favorite writers to return to those best-beloved old stories, intentionally this time rather than in the usual subconscious ways. We asked them to choose stories that had moved them, influenced them, and fascinated them, boil those stories down to the rags and bones, and make something new from their fundamental essences. The results are wonderful. You don’t need to be familiar with the original sources of inspiration to appreciate these tales, but if these stories send you in search of their literary ancestors, you aren’t likely to be disappointed by what you find.

  In a story that grew far beyond anyone’s expectations, Rick Yancey takes Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birth-Mark” into a distant future where our fear of science and the mystery of love mingle in fabulously disturbing ways. Carrie Ryan leads us into a different future—one where we have gone underground and rely on technology even more than we do in the real world. Kelley Armstrong also takes on the future, but in her hands, it is not technology but magic that drives the story—magic and brotherly love. In all three—both horror and science fiction—human foibles are the true heart of the stories.

  But not only do the stories in Rags & Bones reflect the literary influences of the authors, they also reflect personal interests and influence. Margaret Stohl drafted her tale while on the set of the film adaptation of her co-authored series—and tied her tale into an area she visits for her writing. Beautiful Creatures co-author Kami Garcia crafted a story that makes use of her background as a fighter and as a teacher in underfunded areas. Both stories reflect the authors’ stores of knowledge and experience, but develop in delightfully dark and unexpected ways.

  The structures and styles chosen for the stories offer interesting variety as well. Garth Nix offers an unreliable narrator who tells his own story—or a version of it—inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s overly ambitious characters. Holly Black imagines the vampire Carmilla from the eponymous story by Sheridan Le Fanu as an immortal, but still modern, teenager fighting her own nature, written in the form of a desperate confessional outpouring. Saladin Ahmed gives a voice to the maligned and caricatured Saracens from The Faerie Queene, harnessing the imagery and rhythms of that proto-epic-fantasy for his own purposes. Gene Wolfe looks beyond the end of a William B. Seabrook tale of savagery and inhumanity to speculate on the disturbing consequences. Several of the other authors tried narrative styles different from their normal approaches, and in every case, the resulting story is one we are thrilled to share with you.

  The editors also included stories of their own in the collection. Without telling the other, both turned to the American South in their stories: North Carolina native Tim Pratt adds a touch of Southern lit to a Henry James story and Melissa Marr takes a story from traditional Southern lit and tangles it in a Scottish/Orcadian influence.

  We hope you enjoy the results.

  —Melissa Marr and Tim Pratt

  That the Machine May Progress Eternally


  It isn’t until he’s nearing the bottom of the ladder that Tavil realizes his sister hasn’t followed him. He stares up the narrow tunnel to the surface expecting to see her there, but instead he finds nothing except darkness capped by a wash of stars.

  “Pria!” When he calls her name, his voice echoes unnaturally from the metal walls surrounding him. He isn’t used to this claustrophobic nature of sound; where he lives there’s space for noises to unfold and stretch.

  His sister doesn’t respond. Doesn’t even pop her head over the lip of the tunnel to taunt him or let him see her face. Tavil hesitates, wondering if he should go back or if Pria’s merely lost her nerve. He glances down. Not far below him a harsh light glows, illuminating where his feet curl around the lowest rung. Only a small drop and he will be fully inside the Underneath. A humming sort of buzz reverberates everywhere until it seems to settle within his bones, rattling even the individual corpuscles in his veins.

  How easily the sound lures him, the very nature of its mechanicalness entrancing. It is like a heartbeat, as if this world is itself alive and not just the components nestled within. This thought both repels and awes Tavil. By its very nature—or more aptly by its lack of nature—the underground domain of the Machine is abhorrent. This is an unquestionable fact in Tavil’s world.

  And that’s what makes it alluring. Because Tavil doesn’t believe in the unquestionable. He wants to see the Machine for himself before its inevitable demise.

  He releases the rung of the ladder and lets himself drop into the artificial light. As he does, a monster of metal screams toward him, forcing him to dive against the wall. He flattens his body and sucks in a breath. Even so, the distance between his chest and the side of the carriage is less than a hand’s width and his shirt flutters in the buffeting wind that clatters with a WHOMP WHOMP WHOMP until the thing is finally past. It roars around a curve, following a set of rails into the distance. In its wake is a kind of perfect silence broken only by the constant hum of the Machine and the pant of Tavil’s breathing.

  Tavil’s body trembles, every bit of him almost on fire from the fear. He doesn’t know when he closed his eyes, but it was after he’d seen a face peering at him. It had been through a glass window as the train sped past and it had been only a glimpse. Whether the creature had been male or female, Tavil couldn’t say, but he was pretty sure it had been a human. Its body was puffy and white, its head bald except for a few wisps of hair, and its mouth open in surprise, fleshy pink gums gleaming where teeth should have been.

  The image is enough for Tavil to feel he understands this buried wo
rld and he is ready to leave. But when he turns, the hole he’d climbed through no longer exists. In its place is a smooth expanse of white tile, a continuation of the unending pattern throughout the tunnel. The broken scraps of debris that had littered the base of the hole are gone as well.

  And this is when he feels the truth of where he is: so deep underground that the climb down made the muscles in his legs and arms quiver. There are not enough kinds of measurements for the amount of earthen weight between him and the surface. Between the stale yellow air of the Underneath and the freshness of fog. Between the constant artificial light and the shifting time of darkness.

  He is trapped. Brutally so. As if in a casket, in a grave, in a tomb. He claws at the tiles, not caring when his nails break and his fingertips smear the white walls with blood. He screams, not caring if someone hears; hoping they do and will cast him out like the Homeless.

  “Help me!” he cries. “Help!” In the space between panicked sobs he thinks he hears an echo beyond the tiles. A whisper down the hidden ventilation shaft. A call for help like his own. He pauses to listen. There is a scraping and his heart slams in his chest thinking that it is Pria come at last to rescue him.

  He is standing, staring up at where the tunnel to the surface used to be, his face sodden with tears and his body heaving with ragged breaths, when the worms arrive. He doesn’t notice them until one is wrapped around his legs, pulling tight. As he falls he catches glimpses of their long white mechanical bodies and then his head strikes the ground and there is only darkness.

  He wakes on a bed in a small room with a floor shaped like the cell of a honeycomb. A chair is pushed against one of the far walls and between it and the bed sits a square table with a gargantuan book resting on top. Tavil pushes up on his elbow and swings his legs around until he’s sitting. He stares at the cover of the book, tilting his head until he can read the title: Book of the Machine. The pages inside are thin and whispery, almost transparent, so that when he holds his face up close to one he can make out the movement of his fingers across the other side. The pages are covered with series of numbers and words so tiny that his eyes burn trying to focus.

  The light in the room isn’t bright, but neither is it dim, and Tavil searches for its source but finds nothing. The light just is. The same as the humming felt by every aspect of his body, vibrating almost from the inside out. When Tavil stands, the hairs on the very top of his head skim the ceiling, making him feel as though he should constantly duck. It takes only a few strides for him to reach the other side of the room, which has begun to feel more like a cage. Why else would its dimensions be so perfectly confining?

  He wonders if perhaps he is in a cell or some sort of jail, if this is his punishment for trespassing. If so, how long will he be trapped underground? Just like before, the thought of the weight of dirt resting between him and the surface causes his chest to tighten and his skin to prickle. He plucks frantically at his shirt and pants, neither of which are the ones he was wearing when he climbed down the ladder.

  As he spins, his eyes scouring one wall after another, all he finds are endless rows and columns of buttons except for one blank expanse, which he takes to be the door. He throws himself against it, but it will not open and the seams along the hinges are too tight for him to wedge his fingers into them. What he needs is a weapon, so he flings the book to the floor, grabs the table, and heaves it at the door.

  It isn’t enough. He tries to lift the chair, but there’s some sort of mechanical motor embedded in its base and it’s too heavy to move easily. As a last resort he reaches for the book and, in a frenzy, hurls it across the room. When it strikes the wall by the door the covers bend back and the insides explode. Delicate pages fill the air like the petals from an apple tree on a breezy spring morning.

  The door swings open and pages drift free, floating lazily through the opening into whatever lies beyond. The success shocks Tavil and makes him catch his breath in such a way that the blood returns to his hands and his heart ceases its screaming. He rises and steps forward, shoulders hunched so his hair won’t brush against the ceiling. The spine of the massive book left a mark where it struck the wall, just below a button. He rubs the hem of his shirt between his fingers, drying them of sweat, and after licking his lips he presses the button.

  The sides of the door swing together again, sealing him inside. He presses it again and the doors open, the movement creating a soft swiff of breeze that unsettles the papers scattered around his feet.

  Tavil peers outside. A tunnel stretches out in front of him, curving gently away as it veers into the distance. There is nothing particularly unique about the tunnel. Its walls are the same color as his room (white), though unlike his room they are bereft of buttons. The ceiling is a bit higher, so Tavil can stretch to his full height. The hum still throbs, and the air tastes old, as though it has been through too many lungs before entering his own.

  He crosses the threshold and begins to walk. To where he has no idea. For what purpose is simply the necessity of movement and the desire for escape. He cannot stay here where the walls are too close and there is no room to breathe. The more he thinks about the tightness surrounding him, the more frantic he becomes.

  His heart no longer listens to his command to be calm and it roars inside his chest. Likewise his mind sends out panicked signals: I am trapped. I am trapped. I am trapped. Tavil tries to override the message but his body is inconsolable: it sweats, it numbs, it shivers.

  There is only one thing for it: Tavil must get back to the surface. Now. He must see the sky, hear the silence, taste air that hasn’t been stripped apart by some machine. But as he runs, the corridor only continues to curve away, hiding any hope of a destination.

  He passes other doors set along the sides and he imagines other people trapped in buttoned-up rooms like his own. The doors are all closed, hiding their occupants, shielding them from even the existence of a world mere feet away from their own.

  Shielding them from him.

  Tavil wonders if they can hear the way he screams. The raggedness of his breathing. His fists hammering, hammering, waiting for someone to open their door and help him.

  But there is nothing until he rounds the curve and is faced not with the endless monotony of before but with the novelty of an open door. He approaches it carefully and stares across the threshold. It’s a mirror of his own but without the bed, only a chair in the middle with a table next to it, the massive book perched on top.

  It is empty. He turns to move on when something catches his eye: a mark on the wall, just inside the door, beneath a button. The mark is familiar to him. He knows it because he made it, moments ago when he threw the book at the door.

  The book that had exploded spewing paper across the floor and out into the tunnel. All of it is gone now, cleaned away. The book replaced. Nothing remains of his panicked tantrum except for the mark on the wall and the small tremors in his chest, the remnants of alarm drifting away through his system.

  Calmer now, Tavil stoops into his room but leaves the door open to give the impression of space. Of an exit to this tomb. He sits in the chair, his body almost instantly relaxing as it sinks into a plush softness that seems to wrap and hold his body in a soothing comfort.

  There are buttons arrayed along the arms and he presses one, squawking in alarm when the chair jerks forward and rolls across the room. Never in his life has Tavil moved by any means other than his own: first crawling, then walking, then running and climbing. The sensation of being carried by something that churns with a motor instead of beating with a heart feels wrong, and when he can’t find a way to stop the mechanical chair he’s forced to climb over the back of it to escape being pinned against the wall.

  Even though it has met an immovable obstacle, the little motor in the chair continues to whir, adding a new frequency of humming to the air. It grates against Tavil, causing his teeth to ache as he stands in the middle of the room clenching his jaw.

  He turns to the book
on the table, flipping open the cover so forcefully the pages flutter. He presses his hand flat against them, not caring that the sweat of his palm dampens the page, running the text together in an almost blur. Then he begins to read.

  Tavil sits in his chair in the middle of his tiny room, the door now closed. Thanks to the Book of the Machine, he has learned how to order food (delivered immediately on its own table that rises from the floor with a touch of a button); how to change the lighting (a toggle switch on the wall); how to turn on music (a separate toggle switch). He knows how to summon a tub full of hot or cold waterish liquid, a toilet, a sink, or even his bed—all of which rise from the floor with the push of the proper button.

  His chair is set to warm and cradle him as he faces one of the many walls and holds the massive book spread open on his lap. He has been reading about communication through the Machine and has turned off the isolation knob, but still the room is silent. No one knows Tavil in the Underneath. No one has need to contact him.

  And so he traces his finger along the thin pages of the book, mumbling to himself as he reads, and then he presses a button and across the far wall a round blue disk drops from the ceiling and bursts into color.

  So much has surprised Tavil in so many ways this day that even this marvel can hardly elicit a gasp of fear. Instead his blood blooms with a sort of curiosity as he sits forward, the colors resolving into images that give the appearance of looking out a window aboveground. He stands and walks slowly forward until he can trace his fingers across the flat plane, the color from the glass glowing against his flesh but dissipating the moment he removes his hand from contact.

  It is a wonder of a world perfectly wrought, and he recognizes it instantly. The dusty landscape capped by brown-black clumps of dried weeds, stretches of sharp-edged stones meandering along the surface like scars, the gray fog hovering in the distance. The stones are all that is left of a great building that once existed long ago. Tavil knows of it because he’s been told stories: of how this was the last structure to stand against an enemy—before the Underneath, before the Machine, before men attempted to defeat the sun. He has seen the ruins himself once before, when he journeyed with his sister to view the sea for the first time.