by Suzanne J. Willis
Ranieri – traveller, trader, sometime storyteller – walked across the plains until the sky darkened and the moon peeked yellow over the horizon. He walked through the night until morning broke across the mountains and he saw the town in the distance, the sun shining on blindingly white church spires and domed roofs. The sight of it spurred him on and he eagerly pushed his cart of enchanted objects before him.
Walking through the town gate and past dark stone houses, he came to the town square, where all the buildings were made from human bones. So the stories are true, he thought. Long, elegant fibulas, curved spines, squat skulls laid side by side and end to end, to form towering ossuaries. Bleached white by the sun, they gleamed in the morning light. Rows of skulls framed doorways. A shield-shaped coat of arms made of tibias, clavicles and topped with a carved bone cross and crown stood in the centre of the square.
Despite the sun’s warmth, a cold chill crept down Ranieri’s neck. The town seemed deserted. He cocked his head. The air was still enough to carry sound from miles around. But he heard nothing, not even the call of morning birds. Walking slowly across the square, skirting around the terrible monument in its centre, even the wheels of his cart and his footsteps on the flagstones were muffled. As though the skeletal remains were drawing the sound, the life, out of the air.
He stopped before the church. Above the door, a single skull sat watch, a painted sign wedged in its grinning teeth – “et omnes moriemur”.
And we shall all die, he translated silently.
“Welcome to the town where the dead do not sleep,” said a voice behind him. An old man stood with his hand outstretched toward Ranieri. “We’ve been expecting you.”
“This is the strangest town I’ve seen in some time,” he replied.
The old man smiled sadly and motioned for Ranieri to take a seat on a nearby wooden bench.
“You’ve asked me to come, but I see no people. My trade is of no use without willing buyers.”
“There are buyers enough, as you’ll see. But we sleep during the daylight hours, for there’s no rest in the dark.” The man’s pale skin gleamed pearl-white and sickly. “You and your charmed objects are famed across the land. I hear you have banished ogres and called up treasures from shipwrecked coasts. But we have no need of treasure. No – we need you to…save us.”
Ranieri shifted uncomfortably at the man’s desperation. But he nodded to him. “I require payment, of course.”
The old man motioned to the buildings around him, his empty palms facing upward. “We have nothing here but bones.”
Ranieri thought for a moment. “I’ll take a story, instead.” Along with the objects in his cart, Ranieri collected stories, with which to trade and bargain. And in times of loneliness, when the howling of wolves and the stretching hours of night were his only company, he would whisper a story to the empty air, smiling as it whispered back and scared the loneliness away.
“This town is its own story, friend, a place of the dead; they are restless and prowl these streets under cover of night. It began a hundred years ago when the ghost of a young woman in a far-away city latched onto her husband’s second wife. A nasty business, for the second wife fell sick, with the dead-wife’s fingers twined ghostly about her throat. The second wife was too weak to shake it off. Determined not to be widowed a second time, the husband dug up the body and sent it far away. I was just a boy when that black-covered cart rolled across those mountains.” He looked toward the maintains, towards a past that only he could see. “He reburied the dead-wife here, on the town outskirts, and there was no way her ghost could find its way back. She started walking these streets in the dark hours.
“His new wife got well and word spread. So it wasn’t long before great parades of death-carts began arriving. Soon there were more dead than living. They sent the bones of all those disturbed spirits here.” The old man paused and squinted up at the sun.
“And the spirits followed?”
“Each and every one. They can’t accept death, see? Can’t bear to be separated from their earthly bodies.”
“Why use them for…this?” Ranieri felt his skin prickle unpleasantly – as though someone was walking over his own grave – as he looked around at the terrible buildings.
“Ran out of land to bury all the new bodies, so we opened up the old tombs. But the skeletons were whole and perfect and there was no space for the new bodies. We tried breaking them, burning them, but axes would bounce off the bones or they’d gleam palely from the flames. Nothing worked, so we built all this – thought it might settle the ghosts, having a shrine, as it were. But they didn’t settle, and still wander and moan and haunt us every night.”
“Why don’t you leave?”
The old man averted his eyes. He looked like a sneaky child caught thieving.
“We’ve tried. But their hold on us has twisted the way and any road leads us straight back here. We’re cursed to live alongside the dead, their caretakers and their prisoners. You, my friend, are our last hope.”
Ranieri felt panic bubble up inside him. “But visitors are able to leave?”
The old man shook his head. “You have three nights, until the moon begins to wane. The curse of this town won’t be banished easily. If you haven’t gotten rid of them by then, you will become one of us – immortal, unable to escape.”
Anger surged through Ranieri, heat rising in his face. “This is a vile trick!”
“There was no other way. I’m sorry, but…”
He turned from the old man and stalked across the square.
“Three nights, Ranieri.”
He tried all day to walk, to run away, but the bone-town held him fast. So as darkness fell, Ranieri walked into the church. Over the nave hung a chandelier of aged, brown skulls, each with a candle burning inside it. Slender navicular and carpal bones garlanded the ceiling, while great chalices and swords gleamed like polished ivory in the wall recesses. The altar bones were dusted in silver and gold, shimmering in the candlelight.
This is a house of dead men’s dreams, a voice whispered. It brushed past him in the flickering light, as things unknown slithered in the walls. Ranieri looked up. The church dome disappeared into the shadows above him. Small patches of darkness were drifting down around him like dark snow.
Dreams don’t die. Can you hear us, creeping through these bones? If you listen closely, stranger, you’ll hear your own sweet dreams creeping through you, too.
Ranieri shivered as the drifting darkness formed human shapes around him; some tall and thin, others the size of children. Smudged at the edges, the ghosts circled him, all bearing scars of their deaths. There was menace in their eyes.
“We will not leave” said the ghost of a young man with ligature marks on his neck. “We do not need your stories and tricks, for we are beholden to the dreams that laid themselves down in our bones. You hear them whispering, don’t you? They are the last sweetness of life that we have.”
The slithering sound of the dreams quietened, as though they were listening, too.
“Is that why all this doesn’t crumble and you remain? You’re holding onto your dreams?” Ranieri asked.
The ghost moved closer and Ranieri covered his nose against its foetid smell.
“In three nights you will be ours – it’s been a long time since we’ve had a new toy.”
They streamed out the door and into the night, moaning loud laments for lives gone by.
Through the door Ranieri watched the shadowy forms cross the square, lit by candles fixed inside rib cages hanging from tall, wooden poles. The flames shivered a little as the dead swarmed past, then stilled as the last of them dispersed.
“Not all who die leave behind haunting-ghosts. What happens to their dreams?” Ranieri wondered. A breeze blew through the church, keening against the walls.
We dreams are bound to the skeleton of the dreamer. We can go nowhere without being released from our bonds and the dead can go nowhere while we still belong to them. But when we are released, we will go back to into the world to be reimagined. Then they can move on.
The sound of the wind through the walls, a plaintive moan in the darkness, had given Ranieri an idea. He took a tiny bone flute from his pocket. “Well then, this is the sound of dreams gone on,” he said, then began to play a song. Notes echoed through the church, weaving between its spaces and nooks. The song was strange and far away, as though heard underwater. In the secret language of dreams, it sang of how, as the ghosts haunted the streets, the dreams could slip away from the bones that held them fast, to become part of the world of the living again.
“Then the dead will go onto the underworld, the bones crumbling to dust behind them.”
Sunrise turned the altar red as Ranieri finished playing. But as the light grew brighter, the dead came back through the door.
Your song can’t bewitch us. We belong to them, came the now-familiar hissing from the bones. So the first attempt had failed and the dead remained.
The next night Ranieri came to the church again, as the dead left to haunt the streets once more. They spoke in growling tones about the terrible fate that awaited him after the third night. He tried to ignore them as he called to the townspeople to him.
“The dead who haunt you can’t let go of their lives. They can’t move on while their stories remain unfinished, their dreams still glimmering and fresh. So before I begin, I ask of you all a bargain. Would you be willing to be the caretakers of those dreams, so the dead can go on? Then you would be free.” And so will I, he thought.
The people agreed. “After all,” they murmured “it can’t be any worse than this.” But their eyes betrayed them – they didn’t trust Ranieri. He didn’t know if he could trust himself. Tension stiffened his neck and shoulders, and his hand shook as he rummaged through his cart.
The cherry wood chest was smooth under his fingers, its contents rattling as he opened the lid. Inside lay the scrimshawed bones and teeth of whales, carved long ago by lonely sailors at sea. Those love notes of drowned mariners had been his payment for calling up sunken treasure. Beautiful women and mermaids, ships and old maps were etched into the hollowed ivory.
“These will be the new homes of the dreams,” he said, as all those listening lined up to take them. If it’s bones to which they are bound, Ranieri had thought, try giving them new bonds. Ones that had seen life, then death, then life again through the carved stories of long-ago sailors. Surely this was richer fodder than the skeletal remains of vengeful ghosts.
Under Ranieri’s instruction, the townspeople moved from building to building, cajoling, entreating and begging the dreams to leave the bones and curl up in the scrimshawed remnants.
The sun rose as they walked back to the church and the people looked to one another hopefully. But the dead came back through the door again, hissing and scrabbling like rats.
Sailors’ love notes can’t tempt us. We belong to them. So his second attempt had failed and the dead remained.
The people muttered to one another as they left the church and the old man who had summoned Ranieri shook his head silently. Alone again, Ranieri sat and hid his face in his hands. His ideas had failed. By tomorrow, he thought, I’ll be trapped here forever. He wondered if he could trap someone else here, if it might mean escape.
Hugging his knees to his chest, he watched as light filled the church and listened as the dead settled. A dark shadow flickered next to him, shaping itself into a small child sitting by the altar. Her face was pallid and sweet, the dark mark of a plague sore scarring one cheek.
“Our dreams won’t leave us easily. They make a person who they are, burrowed deep in their bones. I still had lots of living to do.” She touched the scar gently. “Is it true that you can make things happen with your words?”
“That was a long time ago.” He frowned, wondering what kind of story he would need to weave to save a damned place from its misery.
“Then it might work again. I think I know what you need to do,” she whispered. “But what will you give me in return?”
“What do you want?”
The plague-child smiled, then whispered in his ear. It felt like ants were creeping down his spine, but he did not pull away. She finished and he hesitated. “Those are my terms,” she said, looking petulant.
Sighing, he nodded his assent, then leaned forward again to listen to her secret. As she finished, she smiled and faded into a shadow that snaked up into the bell tower. A child’s finger bone, fragile and slender, dropped from the tower a moment later. Ranieri picked it up and stowed it in his robes before leaving.
As night fell for the third time, Ranieri seated himself in the centre of the square. The lamp-lighter lit the candles in their rib-cages. Above, thin clouds skated through the full moon’s light. With the townspeople seated around him, he watched as the dead left their charnel houses, trailing their ghastly shadows.
“I have nothing left but words,” he began. This was something he had not used since he was young. When the moon had been just so in the sky and he told a story in a certain, secret way and it had come true. Calmness settled in him.
“It was the last time the dead would leave the buildings made of their desiccated remains. For as darkness fell tonight, a dreamstealer crept into town. A nefarious shape-shifter, it feeds on the dreams and nightmares of others. It has none of its own and wanders the land, back and forth, in a constant search for sustenance.”
“What does it look like?” a stout-looking woman asked.
“It has no shape of its own, no skeleton in which dreams can lay themselves down. It can look like a beautiful maiden or the most terrible monster. It can pass by as a leaf on a breeze or a cloud in the sky. The only constant thing about it is its voice, an ancient call it uses to call to the dreams.”
The people listened carefully and tried to hear the creature calling out to them through the night. But there was only a far-away sound like someone scuffling through a pile of dead leaves.
“The dreamstealer had heard of a town made from bones, still rich with the fancies of those who had died. When it finally found it – this very place, this very night – it grew greedy. So the dreamstealer goes to each and every bone and sucks the dreaming from it, like we would suck the marrow from an ox-tail stew.
“It gorges itself, growing fat and wild. Dreams smelling like apples and berries drip down its chin and the rotten-flesh stench of nightmares seep from its skin.” The story danced around Ranieri like starlight. Eyes wide, everyone listened as sounds of sucking and feasting and the dry crackling of the dreamstealer moving from bone to bone. The sweet and foul smells drifted past on the evening breeze in turn.
“The dreams writhe and hiss, trying to escape the torment. But there is no reprieve, for it sucks dry every last one. Then, sated, it crawls away from the town and sprawls itself on the plains to wallow in the aftermath of its gluttony. In its wake, the town is silent. The night itself holds its breath, waiting for the dead to realise they have been cleaved from their dreams at last…”
The old man stepped forward, his hand held up for silence as he listened for something. There was nothing.
“It doesn’t feel any different. If this is just another empty trick, Ranieri, we will be a lot less forgiving than – “
A great gust of wind blew through the square. All shadows and fury, the dead rushed toward Ranieri, knocking aside anyone in their path. But he stood still as they swarmed around him. A tall, emaciated ghost yowled.
“WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?”
Ranieri’s fear made him speechless as the ghosts converged on him. They menaced and pummelled and swooped, crying in guttural voices for their lost treasures. His blood turned icy in his veins.
“There is one more!” His whisper rippled out among them and they stilled. Reaching inside his cloak, Ranieri pulled out the plague-child’s finger bone and held it in front of him. In the silence, the soft sound of dream snaking inside it was just audible. “One more still lives in here, one that the dreamstealer didn’t take. The child to whom this belongs has given it freely to me – “
“What good is that to us?” the tall ghost snarled.
“It will do my bidding, now. Your dreams are gone and there is nothing to be done about them. But I can ask this one,” he held the finger aloft “to take me to the place where dreams are born. Follow me and there may be some peace for you there.”
“And if there is not?”
He shook his head. “There is nothing left for you here but the empty shells of lives gone by.”
As the sun rose for the third time, Ranieri pulled the little flute from his pocket and began to walk from the town. The plague-child’s dreaming sang softly with the flute’s tune and the dead followed the bone-song in a great, shadowy mass. He turned back only once to see the old man watching as they moved along the road, up into the mountains.
For days the ghastly parade wound its way up to the highest peaks where snow always lay on the ground, then down again through the spring thaw. When Ranieri tired, the plague-child would sit with him for a while and whisper stories to him of what lay beyond the world of the living.
Late one night they came to the place where dreams are born, on a cliff high above a still sea. The light of the stars twinkled on its obsidian surface. A ship with tattered sails waited at its shore. As the finger-bone danced in his hand, Ranieri gave the dead a choice. “If, indeed, you are not yet finished with life, then from here you can be reborn as dreams – or nightmares – and go into the world once more. Or you can go on – the ship you see waits to ferry you to the underworld.”
A beautiful woman with deep, dark slashes across her pale chest stepped forward. “Into the world again, for me.”
Ranieri nodded and pointed to the edge of the cliff. “It waits for you. Go.”
She rushed over it. Her shadow hung for a moment in the starlight, shivering. In a flash of green flame it disappeared and silvery smoke curled upwards along invisible air currents. More came forward and did the same.
A few, though, held back – an old woman, small twin boys, a couple who had died in a carriage accident on their wedding day. One of the twins pointed to the ship and Ranieri nodded, motioning them to the top of an ancient staircase carved into the cliff. They descended without looking back. He watched for a long while, until the ship began to move slowly towards the open sea.
“And then there was one!” said a small voice behind him.
“Haven’t changed your mind then?” he asked the plague-child. She shook her head.
“Like I said, I still have more living to do. You promised to carry my finger with you and keep me with you always. Out into the world!”
Ranieri told his stories and traded his wares across the land, in town squares and taverns, by firelight and sunshine. People sometimes noticed a dark shadow skipping behind him or heard a child’s laugh as he walked by. But no-one ever questioned why he never seemed to age. For all had heard that he carried the dreams of a long-dead child in his cloak and, with it, the curse of immortality from a lost bone-town.
“Deadmen’s Dreaming” (© Suzanne J. Willis) was published in Issue 5 of Capricious. If you enjoyed this story, please consider subscribing to Capricious.