He was a bone man.
That was not the technical term, but his patients often called him this. They employed him to manipulate the complex interaction between their various layers of bodily structure, releasing pressure points, ensuppling crashed gears, rubbing down skewed joints, unravelling jigsaw dislocations and straightening oblique, slewed stances with the physical and metaphysical “crowbar” of his professional skill. The bones eventually knew their place and the last piece of the puzzle-tree would always fit. His fees were high but his failure rate was low.
He needed a break quite often — and, then, another passion, secondhand book-collecting, took sway. He wrote fiction, too. He thought he was a famous writer. But, then, in moments of self-doubt, he suspected there was a conspiracy manufacturing his fame, a conspiracy issuing one-off collections of his stories in finest calf; contriving that mock reviews — praising his stories — were surreptitiously inserted into magazines which he alone read; writing publisher’s acceptances on pretend letter-heading from backstreet terraced houses…
He imagined the Earth had bones in it, too, with all the pain it seemed to be suffering … according to the media.
* * *
The bone man prised the book carefully from the pile, for no other reason than it looked intriguing: History of the World’s Fate. There was no author’s name on the spine, but the publisher’s name was clearly shown as Carker, Soames and Fenugreek, with the year 1933 in gold lettering. Probably a first edition.
The bone man felt himself to be a first edition, too. He smiled. It was a good job he didn’t believe in reincarnation. He then looked around him, since he had been rummaging in the haphazard piles of a really strange secondhand bookshop — the worst example of non-categorization and mis-cataloguing he had ever seen in his many years’ experience of exploring the most obscure backwaters of distant northern towns for literary gold.
At first, he had not noticed the weathered boards of the shop called BLACK BOOKS — around the corner of a corner where he didn’t expect anything but a dead-end yard, used by builders’ merchants or such other tradesmen who need a space to lean a ladder. The chipped door-posts of BLACK BOOKS bore shelves with mounds of last-hand books, as if being given away by the dog-ear to chance passers-by. But, in the gloom which the afternoon had abruptly assumed, he saw that there was an endless parade of book castles leading him by the nose into the emporium … and here indeed he was, at a time when shopkeepers could afford to pop off for odd doings, leaving their wares untended with no fear of pilfery.
He was unsure whether there was anybody else in the place, since the maze of teetering, sometimes top-heavy towers of books, reaching from the floor to the distant ceiling, could very well have hidden, not only a gamut of other customers, but the beady eyes of the sole proprietor raising his eyebrows momentarily from his tax returns.
The building reeked of once having been a chapel or, even, cinema. Big enough for BLACK BOOKS to have been both these. But ill-situated for congregation and audience. He smiled again. Reincarnation always seemed to come back like a bad penny.
If there were some other customers carefully extracting each brick from the badly cemented walls of this crazy house of cards, they surely did it without a snuffle or irritated snort. Not even the crackle of a dust-wrapper…
He turned to look again at the book in his hand, which he had spent a good while extracting from a triangle of leaning volumes, hoping against hope that this particular one was not the vital cornerstone of the whole construction. He had at first been attracted to the black spine with thin yellow ridges striping it horizontally. The book’s got bones poking through here and there. The thought fleeted through his mind. He did not know nor wonder why.
He flicked through the whispering pages, to see what better could be known about the history of the world in 1933. Could it be that someone like Hitler had written it and this was an inconspicuous translation which had moldered here, unnoticed, in a shop called BLACK BOOKS beyond the back of the back of a corner of an obscure row of terraced houses of an uncommon downbeat provincial town? Built at a time when there were chapels or picture-houses next door to each other? The book, once thus found, had to be removed by one as careful as a brain surgeon from a self-perpetuating structure of tomes. And, if not a brain surgeon, a bone man…
He blew the dust off and nearly choked on the acrid fumes billowing up into his face. There was a sharp crack as he tentatively opened it. He felt as if he were with one of his nervous patients whose bones tended to grind together and set off spasms and quakes throughout the whole body.
He shook with excitement as he realized that was probably a real find indeed. Nothing could compare with this: even that first edition book which he discovered at a jumble sale for a penny was a second-rate bargain in comparison. That book had no author’s name to detract from its redolent anonymity. This one, too, was nameless: probably not by Hitler, but by someone who in 1933 had predicted the general course of the Second World War, with a number of evident errors, naturally, the most obvious of which was the war’s length — sixteen years. But it was uncanny how the causes and trends of the war seemed to be realistically outlined in a book published six years or so before it actually started.
He readily gathered this from simply a skimming of its pages. He was accustomed to evaluating contents of a book quickly, a necessity when exploring secondhand bookshops. It was similar to feeling the interstices of a human backbone and knowing instinctively that the patient would die.
Was there a price penciled in a corner of the flyleaf? No, but surely he could nonchalantly suggest a reasonably low price on eventually finding the shop’s proprietor … but, search as he might, he could not find anybody at all and he was beginning to despair that he would ever find the exit, too. It became real despair in due course. While he rested between two lop-sided stacks of encyclopedias, he glanced again at the dim pages of the Book of Fate and grew terribly fearful of what his browsings revealed.
When the darkness outside in the street reached as far back in the echoing shop as the bone man’s whereabouts, he actually believed he might be the only one left alive in the whole world. Then he found the exit of BLACK BOOKS, almost by mistake, and fled into the provincial town’s window-lit streets.
* * *
The lady who was his first patient upon returning from holiday asked him if he had enjoyed himself.
“It was OK, but the weather was a bit iffy,” he answered, with some degree of uncharacteristic hesitation.
“Oh, where were you then? Did you say Yorkshire?”
“Yes, somewhere near Bradford there were some good pubs…”
“Got some good books this time?”
“Not really, a few by H.G. Wells, F. Marion Crawford, you know the usual sort.”
She didn’t. And the bone man delved into her mountains of flesh to unlock the deep-seated pain. It felt as if she were made of synthetic rubber and her bones of something harder. His own hands had pins and needles. She unaccountably shivered, despite the oppressive heat.
The ground, too, shook, shuddered and halted. The bone man screeched: “Surely not yet … that can’t be right … oh, not yet!” He recalled something from that strange book. The timing was all wrong. But, of course, disasters were always at unexpected angles to real time…
His own bones cranked, each joint a sudden flower of burst splinters.
Without a thought or care, it felt as if someone’s hand had reached out and placed the last piece of the jigsaw and the picture on the box-lid was nothing like the puzzle’s own. The sky lit itself up, milk-bottles wobbled like a giant’s teardrops, fried human flesh became dense peace-puffs of acridity, bones everywhere collapsed in on themselves.
In some obscure northern backwater, the book towers shivered and toppled. Bound in fluff, they collapsed in hushed pauses. One book in particular had been leaning against the wall in a fifth corner, its leaves curling and browning one by one in a timeless moment of death and, then, inevitability.
Down south, the bone man had the slow motion sensation of his own scalded skull imploding, sliver by jagged sliver into his brain. Shards of bony shrapnel peppered his patient’s bare rump, her spine, too, writ all over with an incomprehensible oriental script of tiny poking stumps.
To feel in one’s bones … the last thought of his mind’s exoskeleton was that Fate is always ten years early … or was.
Or the frying of the world had simply been staged for his sole benefit.
He didn’t have time to guess which was the most likely scenario. But the fact it could be written down at all proved something, supposedly.
D. F. Lewis is the author of over a thousand published works of fiction from 1986 on. His first novel was published in 2011 at the age of 63. He is the creator of Nemonymous from 2001, the inventor of gestalt real-time reviewing from 2008, and a publisher of other authors.