A Querulous Flute of Bone
by Cat Rambo
Wherever, whenever wealth accumulates enough to create the idle, one finds those who collect things.
Such collections vary. Some catalog every cast off bit of flesh or chitin they shed. Others look outside themselves for art, or titillation, or an oblivion in which they can forget everyday life.
Collections may consist of the most mundane objects: string, or chewed up paper, or broken teacups, for example. Or they can take on outré forms: dioramas made of nihlex bone (considered contraband in certain areas), or squares of cloth exposed to the Smog, prized for the oracular patterns of dirt left deposited on the fabric, or the tiny aluminum snowflakes said to have fallen into the world during an Opening over a century ago.
Aaben was such a collector. S/he was one of the geniod, whose gender varies according to mood, location, and other private considerations, and who are known, in the face of great trauma, to forget who they are and become entirely different personalities, their old selves never to be resumed or spoken of. Some races adulate them for this, while others mock them. Such excesses of reaction have driven the geniod to keep to themselves, not by law, but preference.
Aaben was an oddity in its own preferences, for it was willing to travel, to go farther than most of its race, driven by the desire to augment its collection, choosing to focus only on its quest.
The items it sought, ranging up and down the Tube in expeditions funded by two sets of indulgent grandparents and a much less indulgent set of parents, were things that could be considered metaphors for the world and the state of those in it. In this pursuit, it followed the strictures of the philosopher-king Nackle, who described the emotions that such objects evoked in the beholder in one five hundred page monograph, and the intellectual effect of such exposure in a second, even longer work, followed by a six volume set of explanatory footnotes and addendums.
Aaben had studied at the knee of an ancient human who had himself been instructed by an uncle who had read thoroughly in the works of Nackle. The teaching had impressed it with a gravity and depth of the sort that scores the soul and directs all its movements in later years. Its search was a tribute to Nackle’s ideas, for it looked for the things that Nackle posited existed, which could only be discovered by matching the emotion they evoked with that described in Nackle’s pages, a task that required the laborious memorization of all of the philosopher’s works.
Nackle’s theory, insofar as such a thing can be simplified, was this: Twenty one types of emotion exist in the world. Certain artifacts create emotions in the viewer, emotions unaffected by the viewer’s history or idiosyncrasies of personality, but which are basic to the existence of all intelligent creatures. There are literally hundreds of sub-emotions, ranging from a soul’s regret when it wishes to sing but cannot, to the joy of carrying on one’s ancestral line in the face of tremendous adversity or the anticipatory worry that one might not fully recall an upcoming oracular dream.
The perception of these emotions required deep study and meditation. To find the artifacts that replicated the base emotion, the one from which all the smaller sub-emotions sprang, one must move through a progression of refinement of the senses, created by the search for and exposure to artifacts exemplifying the emotions Nackle described.
Most of Nackle’s followers would object to this simplification. They would point to subtleties of one kind or another, but truth be told, the theory was relatively uncomplicated. It was the lengthy cataloging of emotions that gave the philosophy intellectual density, rather than any complex thought.
As such, it was easy to follow, or at least came with a set of guidelines clearer than those provided by many choices in life. Aaben felt this existence demanded a certain purity of thought, an asceticism and willingness not to mire oneself in the petty details of life. This life suited Aaben well, even though at times it felt a little lonely in the superiority of its perceptions. It eschewed most pleasures, and had never moved beyond the simplest gender, the one that everyone has, the basic it.”
As is often the way in this world (or any other), Aaben had a rival in its ambitions, Corint, another geniod who had studied at the same philosopher’s knee. The rivalry had begun in their earliest days and continued throughout years of schooling. By the time they were both considered adults, the rivalry had steeped until it was bitter as tomb-wine, as bright as the Sunstrip at its most fervid mid-day heat.
They thwarted each other whenever they could, until the action became second nature, unquestionable. Aaben would search for the horn that had inspired melancholy for traditions that had faded into the past, only to find Corint there first, tucking it away in its pouch with a smile as greasy as the black oil that seeps near the rocks on which the iron and gears of the city of Indrus are perched. Or Corint would arrive at the Watershed shop rumored to hold the kaleidoscopic marble of joy in complexity of color and see Aaben standing in the doorway, balancing it in a palm, watching hues roil in its depths.
They had chased each other downward this time, a journey through nest villages and bridge towns and basket farms. While in a cavern city’s tavern chamber, Aaben overheard a scrap of conversation indicating a trail leading to an artifact in a category that had previously proved frustrating with its elusiveness: appreciation.
This artifact might, Aaben thought, actually lead its perception to spring along the ladder more than a few rungs. It was supposed to induce the appreciation of a thing’s innate qualities. Rumor held that those capable of mastering it learned to make wonderful things: paper masks that spoke, stews that made the eater capable of dancing all day and night, or clothing that masked a wearer’s every defect so they seemed so noble and upright in appearance that populaces flocked to elect them mayor or ruler or demagogue or whatever form of leadership they practiced.
Paradoxically, the trail led Aaben upward and back to a geniod village, Halahalka the Minor. Aaben barely remembered a childhood visit, in days when it was a child so small that it had barely learned to walk on its own feet. The village was famed for its hot springs, and the baths that had been carved out of the rock in order to allow visitors to take the waters, some of which smelled of sulfur, others of copper, and others of harder to identify minerals. Aaben remembered the scented moisture of the air, and the trouble that its occupants had to take to scrub the black mold off their doorsteps and walls and other surfaces, lest it grow so shaggy and furry that it overran the place until it became one of the ghost towns that sometimes can be found along the Tube, places where one problem or another has ousted the inhabitants: plague or parasites or over-eager bandits.
It left in the time before dawn, trusting that Corint would still be sleeping. When day came and it woke, the rival would interrogate the innkeeper and be given the false story that Aaben had planted, that Aaben had taken the basket lift downward, headed to the savage tunnel jungle said to lurk only a few leagues down. Walking the upward spiral in the chilly darkness, it laughed to think of Corint, bewildered, searching in vain among fruitless dangers. It did not wish the other dead, but discomfited, perhaps even to a physical extent, was not unwelcome.
It occurred to Aaben that perhaps such vengeful contemplation was unworthy, would act to derange the perceptions, making them incapable of appreciating nuance. As it walked upward to the next settlement, it sorted through the objects that it carried about its person, the heart of its collection: twenty-one objects, each representing advancement along a separate line of comprehension, toward perfect knowledge of the original emotion. It took each out in turn and looked at it, refreshing its knowledge of the object’s essence and helping sway its soul away from any possible sullying of its evolving nature, walking and ascending while the Sunstrip slowly woke.
When Aaben arrived at Halahalka the Minor, it matched childhood memories. The village was located inside a series of caverns, each with its own set of springs and a clever alignment of mirrors reflecting light from the Sunstrip into its depths. It smelled the same, an acid wet smell that crept inside the lungs and lingered there, moistly caressing the tissues until they burned.
The inn’s sign was marked with the characters for wind and stay,and another Aaben didn’t recognize. The walk had eaten the whole of the day and some of the night. It was after second dinner that Aaben arrived and so it drank a sour mug of beer and ate a heel of graybread and went to sleep with that.
Built of stone, the inn, unlike most, had several stories, due to the permissive height of the cavern. When Aaben roused in the morning, it lay in its third floor room listening to the sounds of the village and the inn, the sort of sounds that are pleasant when lingering in bed, conscious of no deadline. It drowsed and planned the day. The search would begin immediately after breakfast. It wondered what the object would look like. All there was to go by was the description of the emotions it evoked.
Aaben was coming down the stairs when it saw her and was slammed into something entirely new and utterly unexpected: love.
He stopped, dead still, on the third step, to the dismay of the servant following him, a geniod, with a load of linens in its arms. It collided with him with a whoof, the force throwing the fabric up into the air until for a moment Aaben was suspended as though in white clouds, able only to see the thing that had caught his attention.
Little use to describe what distinguishes a geniod’s sense of beauty when it comes to their own species: a certain evenness of features, a nose that slanted rather than curved, a particular curl to a fanged eyetooth.
Suffice it to say that she was beautiful to Aaben. He could feel changes deep in his body as he responded to her.
Ignoring the sputtering of the servant as it gathered up the cloth, he stared.
On her part, she took no notice, though it was unclear whether this was due to obliviousness or disdain, vanishing through a doorway that he thought might lead to the kitchen.
Once she had gone through that door, the spell that had imprisoned him, allowing him only to look and breathe and hear the hammering of his heart, was broken. He could move again. He knelt to help the maid with the last of the linens, but it only glowered, and did not thank him for the assistance.
He took a khilain coin from his pocket and held it up, letting its light waver over its features, which smoothed into a mask as it eyed the promise and waited for him to speak.
“The person who just went through that door,” he said, pointing. “Who is she?”
“That be the child of this household,” the maid said. “The only heir and well-loved. When you eat here, you be eating the food that comes from her pots. She’s famous for it.” It puffed with pride but said nothing more, eyes fixed on the coin in his hand.
He spun it in his fingers, let it roll over his knuckles and dance back into his hand. He felt the weight of the moment on his shoulders; it squeezed the words out of him, “And her name?”
“Trice,” the maid said, and snatched the coin before it fell. The syllables echoed in his ears like singing bells until he could think of nothing else.
He did not go search for his artifact that day. Instead he lingered over his breakfast, trying to find traces of Trice’s hand in the excellent soup, the limpid beer, the sausages as fat and feisty as fighting pups. Sometimes she came out, bringing a dish to the sideboard, and he tried to be the first to reach it, to lay his fingers where hers had touched, as though he could absorb knowledge of her through his skin.
Finally they cleared away. He kept sitting there in the common room, waiting. After near to an hour, she emerged, her apron put aside, and a basket on her arm.
Springing to his feet, he approached, asking if she were going forth to pick mushrooms. When she nodded, he introduced himself and volunteered to carry her basket.
For a moment, he thought she would refuse him. The shy blush that rode her cheeks only made her all the more entrancing to him, for it is a known thing that the entity that proves elusive is ever more alluring than that which comes readily to the hand. But in the end, she assented, and he followed at her heels, the basket in his hand.
Little conversation passed between them, and when he asked her questions, her answers were short and brief of detail. But he didn’t mind, because every sound from her mouth made him tingle from his mouth to his toes.
When they returned, he was horrified to see Corint at the common fire, giving him a sardonic look as it noted his newly-donned masculinity. But he comforted himself with the thought that his rival would go after the artifact, rather than this new treasure that Aaben had found. In fact, he decided, he would give the rival all the information he had, and let Corint have the joy of its discovery.
He took care, though, to give Trice the coldest of nods as they parted. There was no sense in giving Corint any unnecessary clue what was happening.
When he went upstairs, he took his pack out from under the bed and spread out its contents. He took up his most recent acquisition, a querulous flute of bone, its origin unknown. Fine cracks spiderwebbed its surface.
Nackle said that one of the main emotions was fear, but that all fears came from a particular type, the fear of the world lest it hurt one.
Aaben put his lips to the mouthpiece and blew, soft as a baby’s first breath. The sound that emerged was sad and scared and resolute, but he could not narrow it down, because it was fear, he was sure of that, but the nuances in it were unfamiliar to him.
It occurred to him that love would no doubt blunt his perceptions, undo all the careful work that he had undertaken to fine-tune his consciousness and make him the exceptionalartifact hunter he had become.
But it didn’t matter. He had a new purpose now.
He would write to his parents, tell them he had decided to settle in Halahalka the Minor. He would study to become a merchant, for what better way could there be to employ all the knowledge he had gathered in his wide-ranging quest? He was better traveled than the vast majority of his race. He might as well use the fruits of that travel to earn a living that would make him a desirable partner. His parents would be bewildered but pleased; his grandparents less so of either, but equally ready to send him tokens of affectionate well-wishes in his new home: a blanket of knotted fungal fiber and ceramic jars of fermented pickled cabbage.
He listened to the sounds of the inn all around. Someone in the room below him was walking back and forth, an impatient, thinking pace, and Aaben wondered what might concern them. Downstairs was the noise of revelry and the beginnings of dinner smells, wafts of scent that crept under his door curtain to speak to him of cinnamon and sage and browned butter with fragments of garlic sizzling in it.
He could scarcely wait for dinner, but he bided his time, went down only when he heard other footsteps descending.
The food was unimaginably good. Roots broke open to send up steam, their insides flecked with pepper, and a tangy, pickley sauce overlaid the fresh greens. The meat was unfamiliar, but another diner said it was a bird newly come to this level, migrated from somewhere down below.
“They say it means an Opening is coming soon,” Aaben’s fellow diner said, nodding wisely. “There are always signs and portents before the actual event.”
Aaben forked another bite of meat and ate it. It was delicious, soaked in a sauce unexpectedly sweet and almost sour all in the same mouthful. The savor thrilled through him. He closed his eyes, trying to pick out every nuance of the spices.
When he opened them, he saw Corint and Trice together, talking.
Fear clamped his legs and arms, a sense of panic that ran through him like electricity, made him as unable to move as an abandoned puppet. And even as he stared across the room, helpless, Corint’s eyes met his and his rival smiled, her eyes bright with malice, even as Trice’s shone in the light from the torches guttering on the damp walls.
He did not want to talk to her, but he had to. Surely Corint could be warned off, or appealed to, or bought off? Trice was not an artifact, after all.
But, as it turned out, Corint had other suspicions regarding her and artifacts.
“The food’s the clue,” she said to Aaben over too much wine, hearty swallows of it following slivers of cheese. “Is that how you found her too?”
Aaben had learned, long ago, that silence often elicited more information than you thought it would. To other people, it often implied that you knew much much more than you were saying.
This proved the case with Corint. “Of course it was,” she said before Aaben could fill in anything else. “How could anyone produce such food unless they had learned to appreciate the ingredients, to gather them together in a jigsaw of tastes that fit so smoothly together that you cannot tell where one leaves off and the next begins?” She sighed, breath rippling across the surface of the carved stone cup before her. “Imagine that such a pretty young woman could hold the key to such a thing! She must have found it somewhere. Ofcourse I became female, it’s clearly the best way to gain her trust. You’ll find your strategy much less effective.”
Relief washed through Aaben. Corint wanted the artifact she thought Trice must have, not Trice herself. Now that Aaben considered it, of course that would be why the food at the inn was so extraordinary. In contemplating the artifact, Trice must have absorbed its lesson well, in order to create such dishes.
Despite all their past difficulties, the happiness that surged through Aabenat this realization made him regard Corint, good old Corint, always reliable, always there, differently. He decided that honesty would be the best policy. He would be a new, changed being now, one who spoke the truth in a way worthy of the woman he adored.
“I will help you find the artifact,” he said earnestly. “All I want is Trice.” He felt a pang at the thought of an artifact in Corint’s hands, he couldn’t help that, it was old habit, but he pushed it aside. What he soughtwas much better.
Corint regarded him with a trace of suspicion that faded at the sincerity evident in Aaben’s face.
“Very well,” she said. “Help me with that, and I will help you in turn.”
True to his word, Aaben broached the word of the artifact the next day while he and Trice were gathering pallid watercress from the river that spilled into the Tube near the entrance to the village. He did so delicately. He didn’t want her to think that he attributed her skill at cookery to some force outside herself. He must let her know that he acknowledged it as part of herself, intrinsic.
But when he edged towardthe subject, she skittered away, sought refuge in all manner of topics: the mating habits of crawdads, the sounds of dying unicorns, the secret name of the nihlexqueenand whether that entity remained the same person from year to year.
At length he gave up. She seemed relieved.
That night, listening to the sounds of the village through the open window of his room, hearing distant snores and stony echoes, Aaben thought about less than a week ago, when all his heart had been given to artifact hunting.
Those days seemed as distant as though they had fallen down the Tube like an addled suicide, leaving only their confused and water-colored ghosts behind. He remembered the fever of finding an object that completed a series, the glossy joy that could color days on end, at least until the itch for some other part of the chain drove him elsewhere. Should he give what he had collected already, what he carried with him, to Corint? Corint was one of the few who could appreciate the nuances of some of the objects. To do anything else was to waste them, surely, and if Aaben kept his collection, wouldn’t it just nag at him to go back to it, like the wine kept for sickness and cooking eats at an alcoholic through mere knowledge of its location?
He would wait. He would see.
He played his flute long into the night.
As the days wore on, he began to think Trice was some sort of Guardian; whatever artifact inspired her cooking also her hereditary charge. Such things were not unknown. Many of the artifacts that Nackle described had guardians of one kind or another.
If this were the case, to get the object and persuade his rival away, he must ask her to betray her order. He agonized over the ethics of the situation. What would Nackle have done? Under what emotion would this worry have been placed? And what sort of artifact could possibly evoke it, other than the living one that was Trice, built of sinew and bone, of blood and hair and hands and eyes?
She knew he was wooing her, she acknowledged it, and let him speak of love and what he had to offer. But let the slightest syllable close to “artifact”cross his lips and she was on to other subjects, grown cold and distant one time, flurried and a mass of distraction the next.
He put on weight, eating deep of her dishes every morning, every evening. His pants were tight, and he discarded his belt entirely, then went to the tailor and ordered two new sets of clothes for everyday. He studied at the merchant’s guild, working toward his license, and continued to stay at the village inn, despite the lack of economy the choice represented, since he could have rented a room in someone’s house—was offered the chance to, more than once.
Corint also confessed herself unable to elicit any information from Trice about the artifact that allowed her to cook so well, despite many conversations with her and offers to assist her in the kitchen during the day, peeling roots, washing greens, and engaging in a myriad more chores that were, she told Aaben, designed to find a chance to snoop and discover where Trice had hidden the artifact. Aaben often heard them nattering in the kitchen, Trice telling Corint all the little tales of her life, while Corint listened, sifting them for clues.
It seemed to Aaben that as time wore on, the girl’s parents regarded him with a certain sympathy. Sometimes they waved aside the payment for an evening meal, saying it was on the house since he was such a faithful customer. It unnerved him, the look in their eyes, it made all will ooze from his veins.
He tried to stop playing the flute at night, but it soothed him. It let him sleep. Unless he played it, he found himself waking throughout the night, every time there was a footfall or a distant conversation. The inn was in the cavern closest to the Tube and sometimes he could even hear the wind rushing there, a sound almost as sad and lonely as the flute’s.
This had gone on for three weeks when he ran, by chance, into another artifact hunter, one who had not studied with the same tutor as Corint and Aaben, thereby enabling an ease of interchange not always possible among fellow students. This was a human hunter, who lacked in senses but possessed the ability to make great leaps of logic. Indeed, after inviting him to a meal, she divined the circumstances in the space of time between appetizer and entrée and got him to admit to them in a series of pointed questions.
Her look, when the interrogation was over, was pitying in a way that reminded him of Trice’s parents. The feeling sharpened when she tactfully steered away from discussion of his old obsession, as though it were a former lover whose new relationship might have saddened or infuriated him. The look was on his mind when he returned to the inn, determined to have it out once and for all with Trice. He would bare his heart to her, would explain all that he was thinking and feeling and hoping and perhaps in return she would embrace him or perhaps she would spurn him, but either would be better than this aimless existence, this void of not knowing what to do or say in order to gain what he so desperately wanted.
At the inn, one of Trice’s parents stood feeding the little bats in the courtyard. The creatures flittered back and forth in unsteady flight, snatching morsels from their fingertips. The bats’ squeaks filled the air, just on the edge of hearing, audible enough to be annoying and yet still out of range.
Aaben said as he approached, “Is Trice in the kitchen? I must speak to her.”
The parent blinked and said, “She’s gone to be married.”
Aaben gaped. “Married? To whom?”
Aaben stood in silence for a moment, his lips parted but not breathing. His face twitched, just below the left eye, a persistent, maddened twitch of nerves pushed past their limit.
At length, he said, “Well. I suppose that’s one way to gain her artifact.”
The parent set the pan of grubs down and clasped him on the shoulder. “Ah, lad, Corint told us of your odd obsession.”
“My ‘odd obsession’?” Aaben said, not moving, his tone as bland as unsullied paper.
“These artifacts, the ones you seized on due to brain fever and too much studying. You must realize they are imaginary, my good fellow. Corint explained it all to us.”
“Then Trice had no artifact,” Aaben said.
The parent gawped at him in turn. “Why would you believe such a thing?”
“You thought her cooking was due to some magical object?” The parent laughed. Someone inside the common room echoed it as someone else there made their own joke. “Lad, she’s been cooking since she was able to lift a wooden spoon, and cooking not just for her family, but for an inn’s worth of critics every time. It is a more demanding school for a cook than any academy.”
“Corint told Trice of my…odd obsession as well?”
“Aye, and she was hard pressed to keep you from the topic sometimes, she said. But she knew that if you were allowed to talk at length about them, you would fall prey to one of the fits that Corint described. Trice is a tender soul. She did not want to see you fall prey to such circumstances.”
Aaben stood for a while longer as though absorbing all of these things a morsel at a time, letting the meaning seep into him until he could comprehend it. His face gave nothing away, shuttered as a cliff-face window.
When he spoke to Corint, he said, “How did you know?”
Where once his rival might have exulted or scorned, her voice was soft, edged with a lacework of pity. “I listened instead of speaking,” she said. “That was ever more important in wooing than any trick you or I could play on each other.”
In later years Aaben went back to artifact hunting, though never with the same relish. It did not travel as far as it once had, and it never returned to the village where Trice and Corint lived.
It carried a packful of artifacts. On the day that it had learned of Trice’s marriage, it had smashed the querulous flute of bone. But it reconstructed the thing, albeit in a different shape.
Heart-shaped now, hollow tubes running through it until it was empty and as light as though it was a thought and not an actual object. Prone to turn in the hand, slicing bone-deep if you were not careful how you touched it.
Sometimes Aaben held it. It evoked a set of emotions as deep and true as any ever experienced, a set that Nackle had described in the category of loss, which outweighed any fear of hurt. Indeed, that fear seemed as unimportant as the scars on Aaben’s hands where the artifact had bitten time and time again, writing its own addendum to Nackle’s final text.
Cat Rambo’s writings are “works of urban mythopoeia” — her stories take place in a universe where chickens aid the lovelorn, Death is just another face on the train, and Bigfoot gives interviews to the media on a daily basis. Among the places in which her stories have appeared are ASIMOV’S, WEIRD TALES, CLARKESWORLD, and STRANGE HORIZONS, and her work has consistently garnered mentions and appearances in year’s best of anthologies. Her collection, EYES LIKE SKY AND COAL AND MOONLIGHT was an Endeavour Award finalist in 2010 and followed her collaboration with Jeff VanderMeer, THE SURGEON’S TALE AND OTHER STORIES.