The Army of BonesChapter 17
Through the gate, on the needles, up the hill, over the cliffs, down the ravine, in the mud, across Weeper’s Run, amidst the brambles, and along the Pactolus River—the children trekked. More so, hobbled, as Esther limped her way through the Enchanted Forest on a pair of crutches Mr. Dolor had kept from a previous injury.
They left the house as soon as realizing the panther figurine was the artifact, but Esther’s injury made the journey thrice as long. The sun cocked in the mid-afternoon sky, baking their backs. And yet, none of them grew tired or frustrated. Whenever Esther slipped or stumbled, they simply stopped, helped her to her feet, and encouraged one another to continue.
The forest was a familiar home now. Birds, trees, and scurrying animals were their distant relatives. Strange noises and creepy critters reminded them of happy times, meandering through ditches and thickets, clutching Balaam’s hide and asking for his help.
They rested by the Pactolus, recalling the joy they had with Balaam, swimming and drinking the cool, refreshing water. Water gently splashed against their bare feet while they rested in the sunshine. Marian handed out snacks she stole from the kitchen, and each of them refilled their water bottles.
“How is the leg?” Herbert asked Esther.
“It’s swollen a lot,” she replied. “But the water is helping. I can make it. We need to do this.”
“For Mom and Dad,” Marian said.
“For everyone,” Aaron added.
The four gathered their belongings and continued downstream under the shade of the cedar and oak trees until turning westward through the uprooted forest. This time, they remembered to bring something to clear the debris. Aaron carried Mr. Dolor’s machete and whacked plants out of their way. After a few hot minutes, they were at the felled ficus. Aaron and Herbert stepped in first, holding branches down with their feet, and others up with their hands, until Marian helped Esther pass.
The girls emerged on the other side first, followed by the boys, huffing and puffing. They brushed leaves and debris from their face and hair to see Maushop still leaning against the spring wall. His hand had remained dipped in the water, but his frown had turned gloomier.
“Good afternoon, Maushop,” Marian greeted him.
He looked a bit surprised to see them and smiled meekly. “Dolor children,” the giant replied, “you’re back sooner than I expected. What has changed?”
“We found out we had what we needed all along,” Esther replied. “Right, Herbert?”
Herbert reached into his pocket and pulled out a bundle of cloth. He unwrapped the panther figurine.
“The artifact,” Maushop’s voice rolled like a bowling ball down the alley.
Herbert left the others beside the ficus and crossed the field in silence. Starlight hovered next to him as he approached the decrepit gravestone on the far end, opposite the waiting giant. He held up the panther figurine in his hand, but stopped just before placing it on the headstone. Staring at the figurine, he realized how much the thing had scared him before. But he never simply stopped to examine and appreciate its beauty. Its black marble patterns and gemstone eyes shimmered in the daylight. How could something that caused him so much regret and pain be so beautiful now?
He didn’t know what to expect, or even what an Army of Bones looked like, but the act of placing the figurine back where it obviously hadn’t been for hundreds of years left him with an unbearable feeling. It felt so sacred and surreal; it felt like fear. He closed his eyes and prayed. The rest of the group, still waiting under the ficus, wondered if something was wrong. Marian took a step forward, ready to help, but just then Herbert opened his eyes and shoved the eight-point star into the hole.
A raspy, clicking motion came from inside the headstone, as if the cairn were actually hollow, full of machinery. Herbert stepped back, and the earth below his feet shook. He was reminded of the forest gate opening just before the base of the headstone splintered and cracked down the middle. The panther figurine fell from the grave, and Herbert picked it up.
“Live again,” Maushop whispered, and a tear ran down his cheek.
A skeleton arm ripped out of the earth. Millipedes and earthworms wiggled through the digits, dirt dripped off the forearm, and the arm wagged about before grabbing Herbert’s sneaker. He fell to the ground and screamed. Another hand ripped up beside his head and clawed at the earth, trying to free itself from its earthly jailhouse.
“Herbert!” Marian screamed as she and Aaron ran after him.
The hand let go of Herbert’s foot. It wanted to dig out the earth instead of hold on to him. Aaron and Marian rushed to his side and helped him to his feet. All around them, dirt clods flew through the air, skeleton appendages burst from the ground, and dull moaning and groaning emitted from the earth below like a zombie anthem. The children imagined hundreds, if not thousands, of skeletons were waiting to rip through the ground.
Herbert, Marian, and Aaron raced back for Esther. She hobbled alone on her only good foot to no avail; repeatedly, losing balance from the earth’s vibration, falling over and picking herself up, only to fall over again. She felt helpless, and terror stained her face.
The group pummeled through rockets of dirt and grass hitting the sky, and skeleton digits arching left and right through the air. Enough of the dirt hurled through the air now that full skeletons were emerging from the soil and hobbling about the field. They stumbled through the grass, dug out their lost appendages, and helped others escape the soiled prison. Dirt, grass, and insects fell through their hollow insides as they staggered on their rickety legs. Herbert sprinted past a skeleton struggling to attach its lower jaw to its face. Marian noticed one using a hand it found to brush a dead grasshopper off its teeth. Aaron tripped over a femur that was being used by a legless skeleton to drag to its other extremities. He used his machete to whack away one holding its own skull in its hands like a basketball and shaking a colony of angry fire-ants off of it. The skeleton bounced away clumsily and screwed its skull to its spine. The field was alive with dead people.
The three of them united with Esther under the ficus and cowered behind one of the felled branches. Two hundred skeletons emerged from the earth, collected themselves together, and crossed the bahia field to the grave.
Herbert closed his eyes. “I’ve done it again,” he whispered. “It’s all my fault.”
Starlight tapped him on the shoulder, but he kept his eyes shut. She flew in front of his face and poked him in the eye.
“Ow!” He opened his eyes, and she pointed feverishly at the field.
He focused on the skeletons and saw muscles, tendons, and marrow form around their bones. Veins and arteries snaked their way up around the skeleton from the feet to the skull. A piece of red flesh pulsated at the center, under the sternum. It burst open, and he thought for a moment it exploded, but realized it was the heart pumping blood into the arteries and out all over the muscles and bones. Just as he feared the blood would drip out all over the grass, the skin formed and laced itself over the back, stomach, thighs, and face.
The skeletons weren’t skeletons anymore. They were fully formed people. An army of two hundred standing in the field before the grave. They looked at one another in bouts of confusion and awe, speaking an incomprehensible language. Marian covered Herbert’s eyes when she realized they were naked.
“My little people,” Maushop cried. The giant knelt before the crowd and wept. “I had lost you, my little people.” His face kissed the ground before them. “But now you are alive again.”
The crowd of newly formed people left the grave behind and approached the giant. Many were laughing and giggling as they climbed onto his back and hugged him. He stood to his feet, with many clutching hold of his shoulders and waist.
“And now I can serve you again,” his voice boomed. “Let me find a home for you to belong.” The giant strode forward and in two powerful steps stood at the fallen ficus, towering over the children. The four kids dashed out of the way, bewildered as just you and I would be by all of this.
They watched the two hundred laugh, skip, dance and sing, following their hero into the forest, down to the riverbank. One giant booming step at a time. The company teemed with joy and excitement, jumping and cheering in another language.
Just before Maushop left her view, Marian caught a glimpse of a small woman sitting on the giant’s shoulder. Her hand stroked his massive neck, and her head rested on his ear-lobe.
“Squannit is alive again,” she said, smiling.
“That’s his wife, right?” Aaron asked.
“Yes,” she replied.
“I don’t know what we just did,” Herbert said. “But I’m glad we did it.”