by M. Howalt
A rectangle of pale, yellow light filtered through the dust and miniscule stones whirling in midair. Centuries of sand storms had rounded the corners and obscured the irregularities of the houses, and Renn’s hand ran along the smooth surface of each building, groping for a door or a hole to disappear into, but every time he found one, there was no roof or not enough walls standing to provide the shelter he needed.
And so he went on towards the yellow beacon as the wind raged and spat a thousand tiny pebbles into his face, hoping it was not a trick of the mind created by a metallic surface catching the last rays of sun before either night or sand swallowed it.
It was a window. Renn was certain now. He let go of the wall he had clung to and forced his way into the open space which had once been a road to reach the light.
He thrust his shoulder against the door, but it didn’t budge. The sweat-soaked scarf protected him from most of the sand, but still he could not risk opening his mouth to call out. So he hammered on the door with both fists.
A moment later, he stumbled into the house, falling onto his hands and knees, panting, tearing the cloth away from his face to gulp in stale but clear air. Behind him, the door closed.
“There you are,” said a voice in an almost excited tone. “I was waiting for you.”
Renn reached out for the long stave on his back.
“Are you going to attack an old man in his own home?” The voice did indeed belong to an old man.
His skin was thin and pale, sagging in some places and taut in others, giving his face the look of a benevolent, talking skull with eyes peering out from the bottom of their sockets.
“I mean no harm,” Renn croaked. Oh, he would have attacked if the stranger had lured him with the promise of shelter only to strip him of his worldly possessions and kick him out again, but a friendly host he would never hurt. “How did you know I was coming?”
“I was watching you. Through the window.” The old man gestured at the miraculously intact pane of transparent material next to him. There was a lamp on a table by the window. “I light the way as those before me for those to come after me.”
Renn nodded, dismissing the enigmatic remark as a hermit’s folly. “Thank you. I am in your debt.”
The old man tutted and held out a metal cup to Renn.
The water was as stale as the air, but Renn drank, greedily and gratefully. “Thank you,” he said again. And then, as he stood and looked around, he asked, “Is this your home?”
“Yes, it is,” the man said. “You are a wanderer, son, are you not? Do you have a name?”
“Yes,” Renn replied, to both questions. “I am Renn.”
“And you walk alone?”
“I was separated from my people many days ago,” Renn told him. “What may I call you?”
“I am the Archivist,” said the old man. “But we have time yet to talk when you are rested.”
Sleep took him more easily than Renn expected, but exhaustion outweighed wariness. When morning came, it was not much lighter than the night. He lay on the floor wrapped in his blanket.
There was just the one unboarded window in the house, and only dying embers in a fireplace gave off any light.
The wind was still howling its destructive loneliness in the deserted city when the Archivist came to offer him a broth of vegetables. He had brought the lamp from the table by the window.
“Can you spare this?” Renn asked although his stomach growled.
The archivist smiled. “I can. There is a well outside and a small garden. But I have not brought in enough to offer you a bath before the weather changes.”
“Shelter alone would be enough,” Renn replied. “Do you live by yourself?”
“I alone live here. But I am not by myself.”
Renn wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Another riddle.
“Come. I will show you.” There was a spark of excitement in the old man’s voice now.
Renn followed the Archivist out of the room and through a corridor to the next. The lamp he carried with him where ever he went.
There was a rusty, moldy smell in this room, but it was tidy. Several long tables were arranged along the walls. When he approached them, Renn could make out rounded shapes the size of sleeping rats. As the Archivist shone his light on the nearest table, Renn saw a yellow-white skull grinning up at him.
“Why are they here?” he asked. All the shapes on the tables, at least fifty, were likely the remains of human beings.
“I told you,” the old man said solemnly, “I am the Archivist. She is the oldest one.” He reached out to run his hand over the skull in front of them. “I call her mother. She was always here. And he is her child.”
Renn glanced at the smaller skull next to the first.
“They speak to me.”
Renn searched the old man’s face for traces of dementia, either that of a madman or a weary soul.
“Not like that!” the Archivist scolded him. “They don’t need words, son. Look.” He put the lamp on the table and picked up the child skull. “He died very young. You can tell from this.” He ran a gnarly finger down the back of the skull, and Renn could not subdue the prickling sensation at the back of his own head. “He was killed. See. A projectile with great force entered here.”
Renn looked away from the hole in the side of the skull. His hand involuntarily reached out for the stave he had left in the other room. But should it come to that, he could easily overpower the Archivist. “How old are they?” he asked.
“These? They are hundreds of years old. They are from before the fall.” The Archivist carefully placed the cranium on the table and went on along the row of skulls, explaining how old they were, if they were men or women and in some cases the cause of death. One skull was in several pieces scattered around one intact chunk of jaw.
“I still don’t understand,” Renn ventured when they reached the end of the exhibition.
“It is important to keep records. Everything …” The Archivist made a sweeping gesture.
“Everything out there gets covered or destroyed. How much do you know about the past?”
Renn opened his mouth to say that he knew the legends well.
“You don’t really know anything,” the old man went on. “You only know stories. Not history. This is history.” He jabbed his finger in the direction of the closest skull. “I keep them for posterity.”
“Did you collect them?” Renn asked.
“Of course not. Only the two most recent finds. And in a way her too.” He put his hand on the third from last skull, lingering, almost lovingly. “I was like you when I came here, son. She took me in.
She taught me how to listen to the bones. And when I feel my own death approaching, I too shall lie here, and I will be preserved by another’s hand.”
Renn understood now. “I can’t stay,” he murmured as if the quietness of his voice would soften the blow. “I’m sorry.”
“You must! Don’t you see? Someone must tend to the archive.” The old man swung the lamp and shone it into Renn’s face. “You came to me out of the storm and I have fed you and treated you like an equal. What is out there for you but sand and wind and endless dead cities?”
“My people,” Renn replied.
“You will never find them.”
“I have to try.”
The sad, old eyes rested on Renn for a long moment. “At least stay until the weather changes.”
But Renn had already turned. He stumbled from the room and through the corridor, groped in the darkness and found his belongings.
The old man blocked the door when Renn found it. “Please,” he said. “I waited for you.”
Renn covered his face with his scarf and shook his head. “No. I thank you for your hospitality, but I must go. Light your window for someone else when I am gone.” He was afraid for a moment that he would have to strike the old man, but then the Archivist moved.
The elements were still wailing their song of solitude when Renn emerged. But he would continue.
He did not have the luxury to tend to the past when the future hung in the balance. He had wandered since the day he learnt to walk. And he knew only to walk in one direction.
M. Howalt once had an X-ray taken and discovered an irrational fear of bones. Physically located in Denmark, M. explores other dimensions by writing character-driven fiction taking place in the far future, fantasy worlds and alternate realities. Say hi on Twitter @mhowalt or drop by http://www.mhowalt.dk for more short stories and novels.