Volume 23, Number 4

The Story of Bone

Ken Poyner

Old man Bone is dead today. He was climbing against his mass of shells, ascending the confabulation he had constructed to hold the great burbage of shells he had earned, when the struts and pegs of his supports gave way and down came the weight of his wealth to bury him several feet deep in his own opulence.

His two wives were none too quick to dig him out. At the crash and slither of shells they ran out of the house gasping like freshly caught fish. Young and inexperienced, they immediately offered three shells each—far too much for unskilled labor—to anyone who would carry shells into the safety of the Bone house, while they stood guard at the unstable pile.

Everyone knows all four of old man Bone’s children look like other men and not in the least like he. They are straight and strong and quiet enough to have not come of the thin stream of joy he might muster, but must be formed of the glory of any younger man’s angry pulse. Marry women half your age and you can count on it. I do not think it mattered to old man Bone.

Old man Bone was beyond feathers and hat dances the richest man in our village. He had a head for dire circumstances, for understanding just what the limits of need might be in the squeezable crises of others. Over the years he collected many shells, loaned them to others with a return speculated at far more than he loaned. Then, he would use his remaining wealth to alter circumstances, to lend his loans to others, to adjust the village supply of shells by hoarding or spending; he would manipulate expectations and buy back his own loans at a profit. He would seed business, then strangle the flow of capital or of workers or of customers or incite legal action and subterfuge, create rivals and shadow threats, all to end up owning the delta between performance, outcome, and prediction.

He had a predator’s heart, and the collecting of shells became his passion, wiping his face clear of anything else, leaving solely the tick of his heart going calciferous.

I do not know what he wanted with so many shells. Like everyone of imagined character, I say I only want enough shells to serve my needs; but, to be honest, I want more. I want to see my needs met, to see my vices met, to have the means to expand into new vices, to be generous to my children, to be generous to my grandchildren, to be generous to my neighbors’ wives.

Such may take a lot of shells, but only so many. There is an end to the practicality of shells. One can stack one’s shells in the back bedroom, having confidence they will last a leathery hedonist’s lifetime, leaving enough to serenely corrupt one’s children and grandchildren and even those children who look like you, sitting vaguely out of place at the neighbors’ dinner tables.

Old man Bone passed that level of wealth years ago. He filled his back bedroom with shells, gave the shells most of his dining hall and eventually his bedchamber. He would make love to his wives with the terrible, ineffective force of his domineering passion on a bed of shells and the entire village would hear the wives’ howls and the next day see the horrible marks where the lips of shells had pinched their skin purple, dented what had been the village’s smoothest thighs.

When his house was full, it was then that he thought of creating the bin out back. By that time, his thoughts were the curvature and heft of shells alone, with his wealth multiplying as though alive and grinding out shell to shell new shells: stacks of shells loitering about like works of art or subjects of worship. Mounds of shells would fall out of his home’s dreary, paneless windows, and the excess leaning there below the sill looked almost lustful, as though a boy might have his first stunted sex with one of the piles or a girl be fondled by the curious wealth as she went by.

So he came up with a plan. A massive bin, strut-to-strut, support-to-support, braces front, side and back. He could climb to the top—four stories or more—and drop in a shell and it would rattle and clatter and limp to the bottom. The shells would stack, foot after foot, bursting past stories, in an accumulation of wealth no one within knowing had ever had the feathers to imagine. He could seal in the sides for security, mesh the bottom for drainage. All the village would see the wealth of old man Bone and hear at night the great flock of shells settling, shouldering each other, like a living mass that might yet gather flesh to itself and sing old man Bone’s praises.

Until the staggering numbers reached the top, he could not pull his shells out. But his wealth was such that he did not need to withdraw his shells. His liquidity he kept in his back bedroom, with a little for sudden opportunity stitched under the bed. His wives would walk past the door to this internal treasury and rub the healing marks on their thighs, imagine the taste of talc on their tongues. Their lives were the thoughts of one day this, one day that, one day.

But the bin filled quickly. Not even he knew how fast his plans and counterbalances were calling in shells, and he was exhausting himself carrying bushels of shells up the cheaply built ladder, pouring them out of his collection sacks. The contraption began to bulge and bugle with the weight and old man Bone would say, “It will hold! It will hold!” as though believing a thing with enough force would make the thing so.

One morning, with a sound like the last of dawn being pried from the edge of the sea, it cracked, tearing down the ladder and sweeping old man Bone himself into the pile. Shells seek their own level. They have their own physics, and a man as frail and unforgiving as old man Bone can only be pushed undriving ahead of the gravities and geometries of shells. No matter how thorough or covetous or precise a man’s heart might be, he cannot fight the order of it. A man can contain shells in only so many ways. And now he has left his wives with more shells to square than two or twenty women can corral. They now pay boys more than boys are worth to ferry wealth to where it will not fit—the very house the abundance of shells chased themselves out of—and soon they will pay for someone to think of a better place for these legions of wealth to wait.

This is not a lesson unlearned by us. We have seen the predicament and the end of old man Bone. We know a thing or two. And so the best of our minds have absorbed the lesson of old man Bone and his glorious bin and his abused wives: we must experience a bank.