Mr. Water Bones and His Wife
Tarak worked day and night, his limbs falling off one by one. He would have to stop for a moment, stop and re-attach a finger or an arm, or a toe or a leg. Sometimes he would spend an hour, completely submerged in his work, only to come out and notice his ear was gone and would need to be sewn back on.
Only so much longer, he thought.
I need to get my immortality chamber finished.
He went over his plans yet again, calculating and recalculating each one. He wanted this to be perfect. Precise. He wanted not a single error in his calculation. One false equation and his bones would fall apart, releasing his soul into the blackness beyond death.
He checked the thickness of the fluid, the taste of the fluid, the consistency of the fluid. It needed to be of perfect texture, the exact properties to grant him an immortal existence.
After finishing the recipe for the mixture, he opened a jar on his table and poured a good few liters in. He then took the skeleton of a bird and thrust it into the fluid. He screwed the lid back on and waited.
After an hour the bird's head moved and looked at his.
Its beak opened, then shut.
Slowly, slowly, it swam through the fluid.
The soul trapped in the bones.
"Eureeka!" He shouted, "It works!"
And then proceeded to do a happy little jig.
Tarak had fifteen assistants in all, but only three of them were really worth noting. The first was Lady Ebbe, his wife-in-training and the woman who would keep him company after the preservation process had been completed. The other two were Mook and Ooka. Mook and Ooka used to be brilliant scientists, genius mathematicians.
One day, they pissed off Tarak.
He had their brains removed and replaced with insects.
Mook had a grasshopper in his skull.
Ooka had a cockroach in his.
Strangely enough, they could still function and carry out Tarak's commands. Even though their speech capabilities were somewhat slow, and the grasshopper in Mook's head suffered from night terrors, they were still a cut above the rest and Tarak's favorite employees.
The other assistants were not of any real note.
Mostly kitchen staff and labor workers.
Nothing special, nothing important.
Just the usual.
Well, except for Zoom.
He has his own problems.
Some days Tarak wished that Mook and Ooka were more like Zoom. That they could hold it together and do what he needed of them without all the hassle. Other days, he thought about putting their brains back into their heads, just so that he could have a normal conversation with them. Like last Friday, when they were helping him mix some of the fluid.
Mook kept drinking it.
And Ooka kept setting himself on fire, and then saying things like "Nnnngggg! Nngggngn! Yououyouhou!" and "Yyyy! Yyy!"
And then Tarak would have to put him out, and the process would start all over again. Tarak was also surprised that Mook was still alive after drinking some of that fluid. Those mixtures were deadly and poisonous. They would make even the strongest of intestines whirl around and fall apart.
The lady Ebbe spent her days preparing for service to Tarak. She would practice dancing with a large glass tube. She definitely wanted them to go out dancing—even if he were stuck inside some icky fluid. Then she would practice feeding him, mixing the right components of the different chemicals so that the food of the dead would congeal to the bones.
She also practiced ways of making love—of trying out different positions so that it might be possible that she could even become pregnant. It was possible, she thought, stranger things happen. Her sister, the lady Belbithbongbon married a liche, and they have seven kids now. All with flaming hair and skeletal bodies, and the ability to suck out the minds of lesser beings.
If her sister could have liche babies, then she could damn well have undead skeleton babies. Else, the world wasn't fair. And she knew otherwise. The world most certainly was fair. It's why all the rich people had money and all the poor people ate dirt and beat their cats with spoons.
It's 'cause they all deserved it.
The sky rained when Tarak finally died, making it a good day for the elaborate funeral he had planned out in every detail. The air smelled like wet dog, and the earth was muddy and dark. Lady Ebbe wept, while Ooka and Mook read poetry out loud.
"Ooj! Oadsfi! Dsaoin! Asidh!"
Tarak's death was slow and painful, his body flailing as it fell apart, piece by piece. Soon, all that was left was a pile of skin and meat, ready for the preservation process.
Lady Ebbe went upstairs and read some romance novels to herself, not wanting to be anywhere near the process. It hurt her too much to see her dear, beloved Tarak being melted down and made ready for eternal life. And she just couldn't stomach that. She only liked happy things. Like butterflies. Or puppies.
Death was just too depressing.
Even if it ended in eternal life.
Ooka and Mook scraped the skin off the body, while the rest of the assistants prepared the giant glass tube itself. They got all of the dials set correctly and arranged the correct mixture and density of the fluid. They poured the fluid in as Ooka and Mook finished scraping the last bits of meat from bone.
They then reassembled the bones, using a map Tarak had left out for them before he died. It was a long, painstaking process. By dawn, they had him properly assembled and ready for the tank. When the light of the morning sun rose, they plunged his skeleton, skull and all, into the fluid and turned the machine on.
Shocking waves of light slunk through the fluid.
The skull turned and looked at them.
He opened his mouth, closed it, moved his hands.
Zoom yawned, unimpressed.
The first time Lady Ebbe saw what had become of her husband, she felt faint. Just to see his fleshskin missing, his boney limbs suspended in golden water, floating and staring at her, it unsettled her. She wondered if it were really him after all, or if his soul had been lost to the aether, and another soul was trapped instead.
She walked up and put the psychic amplifier to the top of the jar he was suspended in. She turned it on, the glass tubes sparking and fluttering, the rubber hoses pumping psychic fluid. A large cone at the base projected his voice from the psychic field, using his soulwaves to gather what he wanted to say.
Without tongue, without lips, without lungs, this was the only way he could talk. When his voice came out of it, he sounded faraway and distant. This was the static of the dead, corrupting his psychic waves with the dissonance of the afterlife.
"Hey, Honey," he said, "What's for dinner?"
She laughed and put her hand against the cool of the glass. It was him, after all. Trapped inside of there. "Like you can eat anymore."
The skull glanced around the room and saw Ooka and Mook sitting in the corner, playing the smack-each-other-with-a-hammer-until-you-scream game. "I know I can't eat anymore. But I'm always hungry. I guess it's the curse of death."
He lost the game.
Lady Ebbe kissed the glass, her tongue tingling.
"Sounds like the curse of being alive, too."
One of Lady Ebbe's chores was to wash Tarak's glass. She hated doing it, the smarmy look he got on his face while she scrubbed it and made sure it was shiny and sparkly. He acted like she was some servant to him, that it was her entire purpose in life to clean his glass and fondle his bones.
Sometimes she looked at how fragile his life was and thought, One stray stone, one single crack, and he would be done for. The water would pour out of the glass, his bones would fall into a pile, and his soul would rise up into the afterlife.
The only thing that kept her hands away from stray rocks was the competition between her and her sister. She always felt a day behind somehow—without kids or a castle that flew in the sky. Yes, she had her own room, three times the size of her sister's, and yes she had every single unicorn horn from this country.
But she wanted more.
She needed more.
And that kept her from murdering him.
Because he always promised more.
And she believed him.
Why wouldn't she?
He escaped death, he could certainly do mundane things like make the castle fly or give her a son. It wasn't much she asked for—just the little things in life.
Zoom was never content to just do his chores, earn his keep and take care of Tarak. Nope, not Zoom. He's got his own frame of mind, his own ambitions. He's going to be somebody, see. He's going to be some great, tall somebody, shaking hands with all those important other somebodys in the world.
And he's got a dream.
It's a Zoom dream for sure, so it doesn't always make sense. But in the right parts, it feels like it works, so it makes everything okay in the end. Just as long as some parts connect.
Zoom has laid his plans down.
Put his actions to paper.
He has drawn up schematics.
A simple thing, really.
A summoning spell.
And after a few deals, he could get everything he wanted and more. All it takes is some wheeling and dealing, and giving up some stuff he never used anyway. Who needs a soul? Certainly not Zoom.
Another month and Lady Ebbe still wasn't pregnant. Her sister made fun of her, and her sister's stupid liche husband would float their castle overhead and make lewd gestures.
And still, still no floating castle either.
She was getting sick of cleaning up his chamber. Sick of draining the fluids and refilling them. Sick of whipping Ooka and Mook just so they would do a lick of work around the house. Sick of making food for him, for doing everything for him and getting nothing in return.
No floating castle.
She started calling him Mr. Soggy Skull and Mr. Water Bones behind his back. She started imitating him, cupping her hand around her mouth to make it sound distant and ghostly, and would mock his long and boring speeches on the quantum physics of death.
Zoom found it hysterical.
Ooka and Mook would howl in gibberish and throw radishes at her head. The other twelve assistants would just sigh and ignore her.
Zoom spent a good day or two preparing his ritual. When it came time to actually perform it, he was nervous yet ready to go. With a shaking hand, he drew a pentagram in goat's blood. With a nervous voice, he chanted out all the names of the Dark One.
In a plume of red smoke, the devil appeared. He was much shorter than Zoom expected. About the size of a monkey. And he had little horns and purple skin, the color of bruises.
"The devil is out. Causing plagues and stuff. I'm his assistant, Grabass. Whaddaya want?"
Zoom was naked, and kneeling, his arms out to his sides. He looked up, confused. "I, um, do you have authority to grant me what I wish?"
"I can do whatever you need me to, Turnip Head."
Zoom scratched his day's growth of stubble.
"My name is Zoom. I thought you guys knew everyone's name?"
Grabass walked over to him, hoofed feet tapping on the stones. "I do, I do, messir Turnip Head. Zoom's the name your idiot mother gave ya. We know the real one, the one behind the skin. And you are Turnip Head, no doubt about it."
"Ok, then. Oh mighty and great and powerful Grabass! Oh, grant me my wish!"
Grabass tapped him on the forehead, leaving a smear of soot. "Tell me what you want. And I'll give you the price."
Turnip Head nodded.
"I want to be huge! I want to be somebody! I want to be rich and fantastic and have all the women in the world! I want a monkey that speaks Spanish and sings my praises! I want the world!"
Grabass laughed at him.
"A Turnip Head? Like You? Wanting that? Who do you think you are? You are destined for failure. Here, let me read your future."
Grabass grabbed Turnip Head's palm, rolled his eyes into the back of his head, and started chanting "Kikikiki" in a fast and multifaceted voice.
"You will, kikiki, get laid, kikiki, eat a hamburger, kikiki, and then go on being nobody. Kikiki. Then you'll die. Kikiki. The End."
He let go of Turnip Head's palm, which was now covered in an inch of soot that smelled like rotten eggs. "But," Turnip Head said, "I will give you my soul! Please! Change my destiny! Give me all I desire."
Grabass shook his head no.
"We already got your soul."
And then Grabass disappeared in a red puff.
After so much disappointment from Tarak, Lady Ebbe decided to get a little bit of revenge of her own. She started sleeping around with Turnip Head, having sex with him in the oddest places. Like squished between two statues in the garden. Or on the floor of Tarak's old laboratory. It was small rebellions such as this, or spitting in his food, that gave her the impetus to keep going on with her day-to-day life.
And besides, she thought, I might even be able to get pregnant with Turnip Head's kid. Wouldn't that really piss off old Mister Soggy Bones? Wouldn't that just chafe his clavicle?
Mook and Ooka were getting fed up with Tarak as well. Always bossing orders at them, always treating them like idiots. It wasn't their fault that he removed their brains! He was the one to blame for all their problems.
So they sat in the kitchen well after dark, planning their revenge little by little. "Nnn?" said Ooka.
"Nn. Aiaiaia. Nn?" replied Mook.
"Stb! Stb!" agreed Ooka.
And so it was settled.
They started to collect rocks and fungus and other related debris, the insects in their heads chattering and fluttering about their brain cages. They had a rebellion in their hearts.
Turnip Head has been very depressed lately. He felt empty inside and realized that he missed his soul. He had no idea when Grabass or the devil took it, but now that it was gone, he wanted it back. And he was also very depressed about his lot in life. His destiny to be Turnip Head and nothing else, not ever.
Even Ooka and Mook had more interesting lives than he. Oh well, he thought, at least I get to have sex with Lady Ebbe. Maybe she will leave Tarak for me.
But, Turnip Head thought, that would mean I was somebody, and I'm never going to be somebody.
He drank a lot in those days.
And muttered to himself.
Especially when Lady Ebbe was out of the room.
Lady Ebbe was sick of Tarak.
He was whining, his boney self rocking in his slick fluid. "When will you clean me? The water is so dirty," he would whine, "And those calculations, have you checked them? I need to make sure they are exact. Or else the King of Goinboijasdfi'a'a'a will want his money back for his death ray."
She would huff and tell him later, later.
On days when she felt really upset with him, she would tell him to do it himself. She stopped sleeping with him altogether, and this just made him even more whiney. And if she dared bring up the floating castle or children, he would command Ooka and Mook to beat her.
Of course, they wouldn't. They were getting sick of Mister Immortality themselves. It didn't take long before everyone was tired, worn out, and sick of listening to him prattle on about nothing.
Lady Ebbe was thinking of leaving. Going far away, and taking Turnip Head with her. She didn't mind that he was schlub. She thought it was endearing, even a little cute sometimes.
She just had to figure out how she was going to break it to the old ball-and-chain. She should find a replacement wife at least. Maybe one of the servants? Petal is cute, and pretty stupid. She would do anything for money. Maybe Petal, then.
She made a mental note to ask Petal about that later. For now, she had to find Turnip Head and let him know of her plan.
Turnip Head had a plan of his own.
He wasn't going to let the devil or Grabass get him down anymore. He was going to prove his worth, and maybe even get his soul back in the end. No use letting things lie like they are. If he wanted to be somebody, he had to reach up and grab it. Couldn't let some stinky meat demon tell him what's what.
The first thing he did was stop drinking.
He poured out all of the alcohol he could find.
Then he stopped calling himself Turnip Head. Or Zoom. Now he was Steel Bulletcock, and he made sure everyone called him that. Especially Lady Ebbe. She thought it was cute, and somewhat adorable, so she humored him.
Then he started working out. He got bigger, and bigger, until he was twice the size of his old self, with muscles brimming over muscles. His voice dropped several octaves, and he started shaving his entire body.
Ooka and Mook ran out of the laboratory, giggling and shouting gibberish as Lady Ebbe walked passed them. She had just talked to Steel Bulletcock, and he agreed to run away with her. She was going to say goodbye to Tarak one last time, to give him one last chance to amend for all the mistakes throughout the years.
She knew that she couldn't make things right, knew that she couldn't forgive him for all his wet and boney neglect. But she could give him a chance. After all this time together, life and afterlife, she owed him at least that.
She wasn't ready for what she saw.
She wasn't ready for how it would make her feel.
There, in the corner of the laboratory, lit only by the sparkling light of the Tesla Coils, was the broken chamber. Tarak's bones were scattered across the floor, and piled on top of them were stones, rocks, and fungus. It looked like someone had even urinated on his skull after they had broken the chamber open.
She walked over to the mess, broken glass crinkling under her sandals. She wasn't expecting to feel sad. Wasn't expecting to feel loss. She leaned over and touched his bones, and felt a sadness.
He may have been a jackass, she thought, but we loved each other at one point.
She cleaned it all up, getting the body ready for a proper burial. Later that day she fired Ooka and Mook. They cried. She decided to carry on the business of her ex, working in his stead on all the complicated mad science that made them famous.
She told Turnip Head to buzz off as well, firing him too. He left screaming at her, telling her his name was Steel Bulletcock, but she was beyond listening to him. To her, he would always be Turnip Head. A comfort in the night, but a distraction from the truth.
And now, now she faced the truth.
Paul Jessup has been published in many magazines, including Apex Digest, Fantasy Magazine,
Farrago's Wainscot, Post Scripts, Electric Velocipede, Psuedopod,
Flashing Swords, Nanobison, Journals of Experimental Fiction, Jacob's Ladder and
The Harrow. He is also the recipient of the 2000 Kent State University Virginia Perryman Award.
He currently is a content writer for whatitcosts.com
and editor for Behind the Wainscot. He also works as a book reviewer
for Apex Digest Online and a slush reader for Apex Digest (print).
copyright © 2008, Paul Jessup
—Identified: Musings (Attributed to Mardun T.)
TOIYA KRISTEN FINLEY
—Mr. Water Bones and His Wife
—The Writing's on the Wall
—Praise and Criticism for M. Rekling's The Bottle
ALEX DALLY MACFARLANE
—Between the Lines
NANETTE RAYMAN RIVERA
—The Birth of Bluebeard
—Bluebeard Searches for a Bottle
—Interview: Duncan MacLean
—A Self Help Guide for the Last Few Zero Years