Moon and Bones and Birds
On their seventh day along that road, the sky darkened earlier than usual. At first they made no mention of a bloody sun lowering itself down the sky of a cloudless afternoon. However, they did notice how their shadows lengthened. Remy was the first to mention this. He was studying the way his rotund shadow seemed to bump against that of his colleague, Octavo. Their shadows seemed to spar.
“Day is done,” Remy said. “And, without due satisfaction.”
Octavo listened silently and then spat dust from his mouth. He lifted his own arms and let them drop. He noticed how his own shadow seemed to want for flight. But he was too heavy. He flapped, to no avail. Remy began flapping his own arms. They continued like this until it was dark along the road. They stopped and made a fire. Later, they slept, dreaming of lizards, the carnivorous kind.
By the next afternoon, the air became very humid. Both men sweated profusely. On either side of the road, so overgrown that at times the road was little more than a hunch, grew enormous ferns that spread out across the damp earth. Sunlight seemed pressed out by the looming foliage.
“Maybe we should start dropping bread crumbs,” Remy said, a low rumble of a laugh coming from inside him.
“You would do me the injustice to speak of food,” Octavo whined. “I’m starving.”
Octavo had been thinking of, and counting on his chubby fingers, the number of meals they had missed so far on the mission. One of goodwill, it was called, to take a census. They were to spend three weeks traipsing through a rain forest and a desert, then return home with their tally. How many villages, how many people. That done, the relief, food and blankets, would be delivered. On paper, the mission was simple.
But so were previous missions, seven total, all lost. Disappeared. No census had ever been delivered to the Agency. No food or blankets had gone trekking.
“Food and blankets, that’s what we’re about,” Remy said.
“In this heat, I’d welcome death before a blanket,” Octavo said.
Swamp gloom gathered around them now, and they began to notice how the ground beneath them seemed to disappear. In its place were thick, curling roots, the shade of albino. They took care not to trip. Watching his steps, Octavo imagined himself crossing a wide platter of linguine. He did not share this fantasy with Remy, who would only have taunted him. Like your Rossini, he would say, wanting nothing more than to feed your big belly.
That night, as they slept, Remy dreamed about blind, albino snakes, ball after ball of them. He had to step gingerly as the balls rolled toward him on the road. Octavo dreamed he was being smothered by a hundred blankets, each of them on fire.
In his dream, Octavo burned to death, but his mind, as it will, kept on. Kept on. Not long after he died, he came across Remy’s corpse. His friend’s body was covered with snakebites. As Octavo bent over the cadaver, Remy opened his eyes. They were milky from the venom that filled his body. But Octavo could see something else in those yellowed eyes. The tarnished ivory color reminded him of a particular moon he knew.
“Is that you, Octavo?”
Now, with Remy speaking in a voice hoarse from screaming, Octavo decided to keep the knowledge of that moon to himself.
“It’s me, friend,” he replied.
“I can’t rest until I know something for certain,” Remy said. “When the birds come, will they peck out our eyes?”
Octavo nodded gravely. He knew that the eyes were the first to go. Eyes were like buttons. Birds began with them, undressing the body down to the soul. But never finding a soul, the birds pecked until there was nothing left but bones. Then they moved on, maybe discouraged, to look for another pair of eyes.
“Don’t worry, Remy. By the time the birds come, we’ll be asleep. The dead are always asleep.”
“Thank you, Octavo, my friend.”
They had not seen another person in a long time. In the village of Huzuni, they had counted nothing by empty huts. Then, after leaving Huzuni, the bone business began. Smelling rank and covered with ants, the bones came in piles and batches every few steps. It appeared that many had died while trying to flee.
Initially they pretended that they were stepping over the bones of animals. After a few miles, this wore thin. Remy suggested that some odd kind of slaughter had taken place.
“Oh, don’t you think most slaughters are odd?” Octavo asked.
“I strive to be impartial,” Remy said. “I am a census taker. I have no traffic with politics.”
Politics or not, Remy concluded that something was terribly the matter in this place. It bothered him greatly. Living or dead, people needed to be counted. Yet the Agency had no guidelines for the counting of bones, no matter how great their number. Octavo and Remy sat down to rest beside piles of bones to consider the failed census.
“I count you as a friend.”
“No less than I count you, Octavo.”
“Good, then. But I must tell you that something is bothering me. It has to do with where we go from here. Once we leave the jungle.”
“The desert. Isn’t that what you mean?”
“That’s the end of our trek, friend. Once we pass through the desert, we cross the border. We’ll be on our way home. Are you unsure about it? Here, look at this map.”
“I know the map, Remy. But, this road. What about this road?”
“What about it?”
“Let me be frank. Will they send another census team? To look for us?”
“If something should happen to us?”
“They sent us, didn’t they? Hasn’t the Agency always been good about sending teams?”
“Losing them is more like it. Isn’t the point that we are the last team? That they’re won’t be anymore?”
“That’s so, yes. Let’s not dwell on it. Why, someday, Octavo, a school or a library might be named after you. Or a fountain. Imagine, Octavo, coins being thrown in a fountain with your name on the rim. And each coin a wish.”
“Well, when you put it that way.”
“That’s better, isn’t it? For now, the desert is waiting.”
By the next evening they were done with the bones, and with the curling, white roots. Happy to have all that behind them, they stopped to make a fire. Another five days, Remy said, of spinning sand cartwheels in their wake, would see them across the border. Octavo said he would be thankful for that, and for all the good food that awaited them.
They became quiet and watched the thin column of smoke rising from the fire. It rose into the sky, where their next problem waited.
“Tell me, Remy. Do you know a moon like that?” Octavo asked.
“Not a pretty sight, is it? Where I come from, we call it a ghost moon. The ghost of a one eyed God. Staring.”
“Yes, I’ve heard that before.”
“But my father tells me that a moon like that is really a sore. A bedsore, Octavo, on the body of God, pressing through.”
“I thought your father died. While taking this same census.”
“He did. But he still talks to me in my dreams. He says he’s hungry. And very cold. He comes in my sleep, begging for a blanket.”
“I see. Tell me, Remy, have you noticed how cold it’s gotten?”
“I have, Octavo. I have.”
“Yes. So cold. So very, very cold.”
Christopher Woods is the author of a prose collection, Under a Riverbed Sky. His play, Moonbirds, about doomed census takers at work in an uninhabited desert country, was produced in