by Octavia Cade
They’d been marked off, all of them, in the kitchen. On the door jamb, at every birthday, and every generation the wood would be removed to the shed to be nailed up along the wall and there they were, all of them, all of their large and extended family for the better part of three hundred years.
All of them but Eli.
There was no standing for him. He’d been born with useless legs, the bones all twisted and his femurs would go to the grave with him. He’d never stand, let alone walk, and when he died, it’d be the Carnival for him.
He couldn’t deny there was pleasure in that knowledge, pleasure even in the bitterness of it. For all the flaws of his birth he was still an ocean child, born in a country of islands, in a glorious regeneration. “It’s an honourable thing, Carnival,” he heard and he knew that all who said it believed it. Every full moon his family would go out, dressed in their best to eat taro cakes and wait on the wharfs for watching. There’d be music and fireworks and the welcoming scents of fried fritters and warm cider, and finally there’d be the giant floats to take the bodies of the dead out to sea, to feed them to the fishes for ocean restoration, the ecosystem damage once nearly irreparable but ameliorating, now.
“I want mine in the shape of a marlin,” he’d said once, of the float that would one day mark his place in the funerary procession. Something sleek and strong that could move swiftly through the water. Eli was a good enough swimmer – his arms were strong even if his legs were not, and that made a difference in stroking – but the swimming was always marred by the way he’d have to beach himself at the end. The way he’d have to haul himself up into his chair, each time hoping that he’d not need someone to help him.
It wasn’t the wheelchair that bothered him. He could live with that and be grateful for it, could live with the foreknowledge of Carnival even, but what echoed in the thin bones of his chest was the certainty of his isolation, of the broken lineage of bones.
“There’ll be nothing of me to pass on, Dad,” he said. “I’ll leave no notes behind me.”
Worst, he was the only child. The disappointment, the gap in the record.
“You’re not a disappointment,” Marcus said to him. “Don’t ever think that.” But all Eli could think was that he had cousins, strong, tall men and women with beautiful bones, bones fit for calling whales. It was easy to overlook his own deficiencies when there was family to take his place.
They would take his place, too. The substitution would be total. It wouldn’t be done with pleasure – Eli knew that he was loved – but there were duties to more than him, to more than son and cousin and nephew. “If we don’t sing to them, who will?”
His bones were too twisted for song.
He’d refused to learn to play, at first. The long tedious hours of practice, the ever-present scales, were bad enough without the embarrassing realisation that his feet would never reach the pedals.
“I can’t do it,” he said, meaning won’t.
“Of course you can,” said his father. “There’s nothing wrong with your hands.” Large, nimble, the fingers limber and strangely slender. “You’ve got artist’s hands.”
“And what’s the point of that,” said Eli. His death would be an unmusical thing, leaden and reserved for fish instead of whales. None of his bones would join the instrument of his ancestors, the femurs of generations past hollowed out and banded to the rest, the entire bony bulk of them forming an enormous organ, something submerged, to be played in the ocean, a fascination for whales, a sign of friendship.
“You’re still a member of this family,” said Marcus. “And you will learn to play. Bone length, wavelength. It is our calling. You mightn’t be able to help with the first, but the notes come from long practice as well as long bones. I won’t have you make yourself incapable.”
But obligation wasn’t inspiration, and it was insufficient. “Why should I?” Eli said again, later. “There’s not going to be anything of mine in it.” None of his bones, none of his body. “It’s different for you.”
“It isn’t,” said Marcus. “My bones aren’t in it yet either. I’d like you to play them when they are. And your children, one day.”
“And their children, and theirs. I know,” said Eli, but his father wasn’t finished.
“Maybe not. Our family’s made that organ for generations, but it changes. Nothing lasts forever.”
Bones were not immortal. Even submerged, they wouldn’t last forever. Perhaps once they would have had a longer time beneath the waves but the warming ocean had effects on more than coral, on more than the deadened and bleaching reefs of neighbouring Australia. “Bones come in, bones go out,” said Marcus, and he made Eli swim out with him to the organ.
“Take a closer look when you’re down there,” he said, and Eli closed his mouth over the snorkel, swilled his mask with sea water. The organ swelled below him, white beneath the waves and rounded. There were dozens of bones, hundreds of them, bones from cousins and second cousins and third, from grandparents many times removed. Bones brought into the family from marriage pacts, those brought from births. If he were to dive down further, beyond the shallow reach of pipe to the seabed beneath he’d see the remainder scattered around, skull and scapula and the smooth scattering of carpus, and around them all the thin remains of nets.
He’d rarely been down to the organ; had never wanted the reminder. The bones were all bound up in straight lines and they’d never done anything but make him feel twisted. Yet Eli had been told to look closely, and Marcus had never been a man who spoke lightly so he swam closer, less awkward in the water than on land and when he swam, it was with one hand on the bones, one paddling through water.
The bones were smooth under his fingers, porous, though some of them were slicker than others. Eli assumed it was the action of waves, smoothing down the surfaces, scouring them with sand. He’d seen pieces of glass on the beach, their edges rounded and the glass opaque, polished to roundness and a shape that was easy on his fingers, absent of edges.
He kicked as best he could with his twisted legs, pulled himself along the bone, only briefly rising for breaths. He tried to follow the pipes along the lines of aging, the bone becoming thinner, more fragile beneath his hands until he grasped one tight and felt it give against his palm. Only a little, and his reactions were quick enough that he could loose his grip without cracking it, without destroying the length of pipe, but Eli could see that it wouldn’t be long before it cracked along its length. When he looked as closely as he could, as close as his mask would allow, he could see little spider cracks, places of fineness. The bone was disintegrating, and when it went the tone would be different, the organ altered in its sound.
It was a family practice to engrave the name of the former owner. There was an uncle who was particularly good at this, who could etch with a thin, delicate hand a band near the top of a bone, but he was too young to have marked this one, and the place where the name had been had worn away.
“Who is it, do you know?” he said upon surfacing, when Marcus had hauled him from the water and set him on the platform to dry.
His father only shrugged. “I think it was an aunt. One of mine, a great great. I never met her, of course, but by all accounts she was a skinny thing. Fine-boned.”
“There are older bones down there that aren’t so bad,” Eli said.
“Maybe she had the beginnings of osteoporosis. It makes the bones brittle. Happens more often in women, you know. Keep that in mind, if you marry, if you have daughters. Calcium supplements. They’re easier than dairy.” Eli’s mother hated milk.
“It happens to all of them, in the end,” said Marcus. “All the bones. They’re only temporary. Even if yours were suitable, they’d still go eventually.”
But they weren’t suitable, and he found little comfort in his father’s words. Eli kept up with his musical exercises, out of respect if nothing else. There was no joy in it.
Each of the notes sounded like the erosion of bones.
They were all buried in parts, his family. There was no Carnival interment for them, no return to the sea, bound about with fish frames and sinking to the ocean floor. Their memorial didn’t come with art and mimicry, it came with cauldrons and calling: the smell of boiling meat, the scooping off of fat. They’d hack the meat off bones, most of it – or as much as they could bear to take, and that would go to the ocean. It was the closest they came to Carnival, the wrapping of flesh in biodegradable netting and weighting it down to the sea floor to be eaten by crabs, by bottom crawlers and octopi.
He remembered being afraid. He’d been eight, a small eight, and his grandmother was dead. He’d been taken in to say goodbye, to kiss the cooling cheek while it was still as warm as sea water. His grandfather had the sheet pushed up and was measuring his wife’s leg. The tape shook in his hands, and Eli had shaken himself, had bent over the metal arm of his chair to curl himself into his mother’s body until he was taken away to a warm bright kitchen where he was given milk and pink wafer biscuits.
“Are we going to chop her up, Mum?” he said. “Does it have to be us?” Am I going to have to do this to you, one day?
“No, sweetheart,” Maria said. Her hands were covered in coconut and icing, making lamingtons for the wake. “Have you been worried about that?”
Eli was. The bones had to come out, had to be sloughed of flesh but how much would he have to look? How much would he have to see? They’d cover her face first, surely.
He’d hoped so much to be straight, to be big. To be normal. Now he thought he wouldn’t mind being small and twisted if he got to miss out.
“We only need the leg bones,” she said. “The femurs. You know that. We’ll get a doctor to take her legs at the hip, to remove everything below the knee. That’s all we’ll get, the thighs. You won’t even know they belonged to her at all, to look at them.”
“Won’t Grandpa know?” Eli said. They’d been married for over fifty years. He probably knew every little bit of Granny’s skinny chicken legs.
“That’s why he won’t have the making of them.” She gave him another pink wafer. Eli thought she might be feeling sorry for him, so he did his best to make his lip quiver an extra bit, and got the rest of the packet for his trouble.
“Why don’t they take the rest of her to Carnival?” he said. To be floated out with light and music, to be offered up to the ocean fishes.
“You know why,” said Maria. “It’s a good thing, Carnival. But we are for the whales, and our remains go to them. What doesn’t go to the organ lies in peace beneath it.”
“Bone length, wavelength,” Eli repeated, below his breath as an exercise for control. Mouthing the words distracted him from the desire to vomit. “Bone length, wavelength.”
Maria had left only one bone for boiling. The other was unsuitable – she’d fallen as a young girl, broken her left thigh in two places. “Shattered it, really,” she used to say. “I was in a cast for months.” Eli remembered that she used to rub the leg with manuka wax infused with arnica, with lavender oil and rosemary. As a boy he’d offered to do it for her but Maria had smiled and refused. “That’s your father’s job,” she’d said, and he was grateful for that now. Grateful that in the decades since his birth her body had become unfamiliar to him, a half-remembered thing.
It meant that what he’d been handed, the one piece of his mother not meant for the nets, could have come from anyone. It was heavier than he expected, the skin papery, a little loose with age. When he uncovered it, the flesh and joint and stink of it, he didn’t recognise it as hers.
He still knew that it was.
“I can do it,” said his cousin. Hannah’s hand on his shoulder was comforting. She’d been the first one he called, when it happened. “It’s alright. You’d do the same for me.”
Bone length, wavelength.
“I want to help,” he said.
“You are helping,” said Hannah.
“Not in any way that matters,” he said. He’d arranged the funeral, the nets and the flowers and the food, but these were superficial things. They weren’t what mattered, not to his family, and not to his mother.
Bone length, wavelength.
“You can do the boiling with me,” said Hannah. “We’ll do it together.”
“I’ll stay for the cutting too,” said Eli. He made it through her sharpening the knife, the long thin blade there to slice off the flesh before the cauldron, but when Hannah balanced his mother’s thigh on one bloody end and began to carve down the length of bone, he had to leave. Outside, he sat in his chair with dizzy vision and bent over, trying to settle his breathing, to settle his gorge.
It was easier when he put his hands over his ears. Hannah was silent at her work, but the imagining of small noises was too much. When she came out, the skin and muscle was in a large bowl, covered over neatly with a tea towel, ready for discarding. “You can take it to the nets, if you like,” she said. “While I heat up the water.” Her hands were scrubbed clean, the nails pale and without any crescents of blood.
Maria’s body was wrapped in woven flax, the leaves fresh cut and not terribly pliant. Eli couldn’t even see the gap where one leg had been, the space between hip and knee, but when he handed his uncle the bowl he could see that a flap had been made, a little pocket in the empty space between the flax, and that was where the bowl’s contents went.
He looked away when they put them inside. The net was wrapped around them, woven with flowers. There were stones tied to the edges for anchoring.
They gathered in boats to give the body to the whales. It was always something of a relief – it took time to transform bones to pipes, and the body couldn’t be contaminated with any preservative, not if it were entering the ecosystem. It was four days after her death when Maria’s family were able to fix her femur into place, make a place for it in instrument.
It was four days before her uncle could sit before the keyboard, set in place on the platform floating above the pipes, the keys connected to them, the bellows between. He played and played and from his boat Eli listened, tried to distinguish the new sound from the old, the difference made by death. Underwater microphones transmitted the sound to surface, but it had been three years since his father’s death.
“I can’t tell the difference,” he said to Hannah, over the watery strains of concerto. “I haven’t been out here enough.” He took his turn playing for the whales, they all did, but no-one said he had to listen as he played and there was wax in his ears, often, and the merest tremor of reverberation in his bones. “I didn’t want to let duty become a pleasure,” he said.
They stayed on the water while the surface cooled, listening. When the reply came, a deep rumble picked up through the microphone and travelling fast, the song of the whales returning, Maria was placed with her weights in the water and left to sink to the ocean bottom. Some flowers came loose as she sank, returned buoyant to the surface.
The family always listened for whales at funerals but it was only rarely that they saw them. “Bone length, wavelength,” Maria had told him. “That’s our family words. It doesn’t say anything about reward.” It was a lucky thing, to see them. Yet when Eli saw the shapes in the water, his hands still imprinted with the pattern of funeral nets, he could tell that they weren’t the whales who had sung in response to burial song. They were toothed whales, not baleen, their bodies smaller and more compact, full of contrast.
“Carnivores,” said Hannah, clutching his hand in hers as the orca dived beneath the surface. “They’re beautiful. Do you think they’re an omen?”
Their song could be heard above the water, a thin high-pitched whistle that femurs could not replicate, not even generations of them bound together. On the platform, his uncle had stopped playing, was watching with the rest, wide-eyed, grateful.
“Maybe,” said Eli.
They’d been a long time returning, the orca. He’d not seen them before in his lifetime. Perhaps the long years of ocean recovery had paid off: the careful management, the fertilisation of Carnival, the welcome songs. Perhaps there was a place for them now.
He felt their whistle in his bones.
Hannah died at sea, on a fishing boat. She fell from the rigging, fell into the water and it would probably have been alright if she’d entered the water conscious, but she hit her head on the way down and drowned before her shipmates could get to her.
They brought her body back at season’s end, packed gently in salt so it didn’t putrefy. “If it had been anyone else, we would have given her to the sea,” they said. “But we know your ways.”
Eli had gone to her parents, to her brothers and sisters. “I can do it,” he said. His aunt’s eyes were red with crying. “I’ll take care of her.”
Her family – their family – was grateful. It made it easier to ask. “I wonder if you would let me take her hands as well,” he said. “For the cauldron.”
“They’re too small for the organ…”
“Yes,” said Eli. “But I think they might be used for the whales regardless. I don’t ask lightly. I can’t promise anything.”
“You and Hannah were always close,” said his aunt. “She called you her favourite brother, you know.”
“I know,” said Eli, though he did his best to forget when Hannah’s legs and Hannah’s hands were delivered to him. The hands he put straight in the cauldron, without looking for they were familiar to him: the long fingers, the calluses from ropes and sails. The thighs could have come from anyone – Eli had trained himself not to stare at other people’s legs, and his family’s most of all, for there was bitterness in the sight.
“Bone length, wavelength,” said his aunt, his uncle, when they’d given him permission for their daughter’s bones. He said it to himself when carving the flesh from those bones, when putting them into the pot. He’d had it set low, a small ramp built beside for his chair so he could sit above and scoop off the last scraps of boiled flesh, of fat and grease.
It was a hot job, closed in. Eli smeared lavender oil beneath his nostrils, closed his eyes and breathed slowly, tried to impose order on his reactions, to not let his heart beat in time with bubbles.
The bones boiled in salt water, ocean water collected by Hannah’s brothers and that made it easier, as if she were there with him almost. When the boiling was over there were smooth clean lengths in the cauldron. The little finger bones, dislocated from each other, from the tendons and flesh that held the phalanges together, were small and finer than he thought.
He hollowed her femurs first: set them tight in a clamp, worked slowly with the drill and saw, sang as he worked. Fishing songs that she would have sung out on the boats. “It should have been you going to Carnival, not me,” he said, and smiled to think how she would have responded.
I might spend my days fishing, cousin, but there’s still whale song in my bones.
In yours too, I think, she would have added, though quietly. Always under her breath, so he had the excuse not to hear her, not to call her liar.
“You speak well,” she’d said to him, at his mother’s funeral, at the ending of eulogy. That was not a lie. Eli did speak well. It wasn’t that he said anything special, or that he told people what they wanted to hear. But so many years of musical education had left their mark: he spoke in rhythms, in tonal shifts. The syllables fit together with measurable beats, with alliteration, with assonance. What he said sounded pleasing.
A shame he couldn’t translate it into rhythms of a different sort. “You could try composition,” Marcus had suggested to him once, but he didn’t have the knack. No, that was untruthful – he didn’t want the knack. There seemed little point, to write songs for instruments he’d never be part of.
“Ah, you should try it,” another cousin had told him. At least, Eli thought he was a cousin – three times removed, or married to one. “There’s nothing like hearing them sing, knowing that they’re singing back.” It didn’t matter that they couldn’t understand each other; that the whales and the bone organ spoke in different notes, rippled differently through the water. The whales still came, fascinated by Bach and Brahms and the great echoing tones of newer compositions, of songs with the tones of Southern Cross and Pacific Ocean instead of stone churches and sacrifice. At least, some of them did.
“I always thought the songs were not for me,” Eli said, he who spoke so well and had resigned himself to failure with whales. Bone length, wavelength, and him on the outside. But there were whales they hadn’t called, that hadn’t yet been coaxed near to shore, that hadn’t returned for celebration and the restoration of ecosystem. The fish eaters, the flesh eaters, for the seas had been over-fished and the sharing hard to learn.
“Maybe there’s something I can play after all,” he said. Hannah’s finger bones were small, so small, and they had been hard to turn into pipes of a different sort, into tiny flutes even when he’d managed to solder the lengths together. There’d be no deep notes, no bass rumblings to surge beneath the waves. All that came from the fingers– from his fingers as they stopped the holes in hers and his breath over both of them, was whistling.
He couldn’t play it underwater. This wasn’t an organ instrument, to tether beneath the ocean surface, to press notes and pedal from a floating platform above. This was something that had to be piped again, the high haunting notes transmitted through speakers, and for many hours there was no answer.
Eli’s hands ached, his beautiful hands, his fingers nimble and straight as his legs weren’t. The fingers he could pass on, if only they were capable of producing music to call the whales, to fascinate them with sounds like their own, and yet unlike.
When the slick, smooth black and white bodies of the orca broke the sea surface before him, when their massive toothed heads breached the water to stare at him in his chair, to rest on the edge of his platform and sing back, Eli wept.
Bone length, wavelength, he thought. Bone length, black fish.
“Bone Length, Wavelength” (© Octavia Cade) was published in Issue 2 of Capricious. If you enjoyed this story, please consider subscribing to Capricious.