Man of Bone and Fame

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.


DFLewisCutout2D. 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.