The Bone Prophet’, Hester J. Rook

Illustration © 2021 Valeria Vitale

She always found the things she needed to survive.

Dusk was the best time for collecting bones. They glowed in the half-light, pearlescent against the brown-green grasses and ash-tinged sky. She needed a femur, still, and a skull—the one she had found was crisp-charred and missing half the lower jaw, its mouth agape in an expression of surprise. Cassandra had laughed when she found it, the kind of hacking, desperate laugh that heaves through the body and can, within moments, turn to shuddering sobs. They never did listen to her.

She crawled out of her bunker (and no, of course she had not managed to tempt a single one of her companions to join her there, not even as the sky turned a red that was deep and marvellous and deadly, and it was obvious to even the most stubborn that everything was irrevocably wrong) and she picked her way carefully across the broken valley. This time, the event had left the land split and blackened and soot-dusted. A flurry of heat had licked the edge of the Earth before darkness shrouded the planet as the sun disappeared. But time was stirring life into the soil once more, now that the skies were clearing. A few remaining plants were beginning to creep back to profusion. Scuttling insects and reptilian eyes occasionally startled her, peering out from the new growth. She wished that, just once, someone intelligent would survive one of the vanishings. It had been years since she had spoken to another person.

The first year was easy, easy but hard, but she coped, she always coped—with single-minded determination she shouldered her pack every day and crept out under the smoke-thick sky, gathering what she needed to repair her home and find water to purify and food to eat, trying bitterly to ignore the decomposing corpses of her friends. That was the nature of her curse, you see—fated to know and overcome every catastrophe, never to be believed, and to live through the loneliness after.

There! A thorny thicket burst up against the bank of what used to be a dam. A tendril had wound its prickly way through one eye socket, but there on the ground lay a near perfect, fist-sized hadrosaur skull. With a little whoop and a hiccupping sob Cassandra tore out the brambles so fast and heedless that thorns tore through her skin. She snatched the skull from the ground, precious white treasure, and tucked it to her chest.

She searched for the remaining part for months, perhaps years, perhaps decades—it was hard to tell, her days merging into sticky sunrise after sticky sunrise, as each dawn the sky became clearer and warmer and she felt the sun heavy against her skin. She rejected the half-buried femur of what she suspected might be a deinocheirus—it was too large, so large it would be comical, and she did not know if she had the skill to put something together from so many mismatched parts. The femur of an unaysaurus was better, but hollowed out by age and neglect and, yes, those were teeth marks, that wouldn’t do. Cassandra bit her lip so hard it drew blood but reverentially placed the bone down and continued her search.

The sky was mauve, the sun crisply peering over the horizon, its last glance out over the land before it plunged the valley into gloom. The nights were becoming more temperate, reaching temperatures Cassandra had not felt since before the vanishing, and she could finally see the prick of a handful of glimmering stars. She trod icy prints across the frosted ground.

The femur was waiting for her in the dried-up remains of the creek. The long bone was the only salvageable part of the limusaurus, its skeleton set out pristine like the branches of a pale eucalypt against the sky.

She always did find the things she needed to survive.

 [ The bones first, © 2021 Valeria Vitale ] On her workbench she laid it all out. The bones first, arranged in a rough approximation. She dyed them and covered them in leaves and seed-heads and anything, really, to resemble a coating of feathers. Nothing lifelike, but perhaps sometimes she could close her eyes and hear the rustling and pretend.

She attached each component with care, tongue out, respectfully arranging each part of the whole, her fingers cold but the beat of her heart tense and frantic with hope and anticipation. Finally, the last socket was wired tight, and she flicked a switch, placed down her tools and waited.

With the tiniest, almost imperceptible, scratching sigh, her new companion twitched to a simulacrum of life. It turned its head and searched out Cassandra’s eyes with its own empty sockets.

Cassandra, tense as the sky before a storm, let out a shaky laugh and scritched the creature along its leafy back. It arched under her fingers and turned in a tight circle, before investigating the discarded tools. Cassandra could not be sure, but she felt deeply that the tiny creature was pleased.

“There, darling, there. Wait with me. Wait with me until I am no longer alone.”

The little bone-robot bared its dinosaur teeth in agreement and settled in beside its person, ready to wait out the long millennia.

© 2021 Hester J. Rook

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