The bones existed far before the humans ever did. Far before the Great Basin bristlecone pine was formed in the substrate of Nevada, and even further before the vertebrates learned of movement, and even further still, before the precambrian jellyfish stalked seas all of their own.
The bones, all 206 of them and human when humanity was a thing of a far future wrapped in cosmos and carbon, were never found neatly stacked in intentional piles nor were they ever found heaped in unintentional poses reminiscent of a verifiable death. Dehydrated fingers never stretched toward lakes and femurs were never found broken at the bottom of a crevasse in treacherous tundras. The bones, soon to be known as the wandering bones, did not claw themselves together, desperate to be understood or to be identified. Instead, it was as if the bones were repelled by each other, that whatever cleaved them apart did so with such conviction that to be reunited would be blasphemous, heretical to their very nature.
The wandering bones were so determined to be discarded and disparate that it’s possible their association with each other would never have even been guessed if it weren’t for their one shared, unmistakable characteristic: any time a trauma was inflicted upon the bones, in the form of primordial erosion, animal bites, cataclysmic rains and fire, and so forth, gold would grow in the indentation left behind, the most luxurious rot. Rather than decay, the wandering bones glistened and gleamed, a blight on the very notion of death.
Well, the gold veins were one way of identifying the bones. The fact that they also were almost impossible to be destroyed was another. They remained, steadfast and opulently weathered, impossible as it were. And they remained to haunt history, impossible bones in impossible places. Known by the curses invoked in their name, the superstitions hallowed around them, the sermons written in worship, the wandering bones persisted before we could speak their name and will persist after the universe forgets to speak ours.
Until then, let us catalogue all that we know of the bones, a reification of the old wives’ tales that brought us here in the first place, a story of human bones from before there were humans and where those bones like to wander. This catalogue is not just an attempt to preserve or document, but also to eulogize—for it is not known who is hunting the wandering bones, but hunted they are. And if these nearly indestructible bones quake from fear then that is a lesson that should be learnt by all.
The collarbone, in a humid tropical forest, before agriculture but not before the mushrooms of the region tunnelled and created their own life
Found in fields of velvety and voracious plants, partially kicked under dirt, larvae wrapping around the golden-laced collarbone like ornamental carrion. Somehow always moist, fresh marrow seeping like sweat from non-existent skin.
The collarbone should, under no circumstance, ever be touched by mammalian flesh. There are curses associated with the collarbone, curses of ruin, of isolation, of betrayal. Never of physical harm, but if the wandering bones know one thing it’s this: wounds are not the only path to torment.
The innominate bone, the only bone whose destruction has been verified
While the wandering bones are known to be almost indestructible, the fact of the innominate bone exists as a testament to their mortal nature. They are human bones and human bones can be reduced to ash. But because of the bones’ Midas-response to trauma, their destruction is not easy and thought to be impossible—that is, until the innominate bone.
There are two identifiable and worrisome wounds on this such bone: bite marks (source unidentified and the potential culprit cannot be confirmed due to the fact of total destruction), and a deep slash, a gash made of such blunt and precise force as to completely shatter the innominate bone.
The innominate bone was destroyed so long ago that its destruction is a superstition even to the wandering bones. The bones whisper of this bone’s fate, warnings of the boogeyman that can destroy their matter faster than their gold can cauterize. The innominate bone proves two things. One, the wandering bones can be destroyed. And two, the bones are scared.
The sternum, drowned and lost
Perhaps the most well-known of the wandering bones, the sternum was last seen, notably, in a seashell off the coast of Atlantis. While not seen since before Plato professed the existence of the sunken city, the sternum is the most popular of the wandering bones because it is said that the gold scar tissue of the sternum is delicately wrapped in a gilded spiral, a shadow of long-decayed seaweed that presumably fastened the sternum to a rock in Atlantis when the city drowned. The sternum is considered a prisoner by charlatan tongues, and voyages to rescue the sternum from the lost watery civilization have resulted in nothing but death and warnings for sailors and explorers alike.
It is said if you owe a debt or need to get rid of a body, then telling them of the existence and whereabouts of the sternum is the surest way to absolve yourself of the situation.
Left phalanges of the foot, found in a civilization lost to either war or environmental disaster
Found in the clotted canals of Angkor, the left phalanges of the foot are the most pristine of all the wandering bones. Almost unmarked and unmarred, a slight row of nearly imperceptible crescents dot the circumference of each digit. The sliver of gold in those lateral lacerations is almost too precise, so as to appear ornamental. The left phalanges were once considered to be imitations sold by thieves. None of the wandering bones bear this little damage, so it was audacious to assume that these nearly unmarred bones belonged to the same set as the collarbone or the sternum. Fakes or fraudulent fragments formed by festering minds that did not want money or popularity, but instead desired a more ruinous state, a desecration of hallowedness and a refutation of a history, we cannot explain. The left phalanges of the foot must be imitations and they were believed so for centuries, almost millenia.
That is, until The Teeth were found.
The Teeth, found in a farming town of no significance
Mandible dislodged from skull, with stubborn teeth like glue, The Teeth were found on a small Romanian farm of no consequence in an unremarkable time. The Teeth, pure gold in a jaw of polished bone, cackled secrets of meals once consumed. Its bite, erroneously believed by long-dead humans to reverse rotten fruit and to sanitize contaminated meat, matches perfectly the crescent circumference dotting each digit of the left phalanges.
While the wandering bones are auspicious, symbols of endurance and a pre-eminence to humanity we cannot understand but revere nonetheless, The Teeth are exempt from this worship. Partially because The Teeth refuse to be domesticated and partially because The Teeth are considered treacherous, foul rot. Perhaps this is why the skull ripped the mandible from itself, so as not to be connected with the contamination The Teeth are believed to contain.
The rib cage, found in a petrified city of smoke and ash
The rib cage, true to name and form, is understood to be a bit of a hoarder. Found in long-dead civilizations, the rib cage is never alone. Its curved bones are pure white on the outside, but fully gilded on the inside, smooth gold built up by traces of fingernails and claws trying to scratch their way out of the enamel cage some would find themselves trapped within. Ill intent is usually not prescribed to the rib cage. Coupled with its proclivity for doomed cities in their most perilous moment of reckoning, the rib cage is instead believed to be trying to protect and preserve, perhaps hoping to extend its own indestructibility to whatever it houses within its ossein cathedral. As is well known by this point, though, the glossy and gilded interior bones betray what the reality would have been like for those desired damsels turned doomed prisoners.
Unlike the sternum, which presumably did not choose to be forever fed to the sunken city, the rib cage actively seeks out civilizations on the brink. Whether they initially began these horrific rescue attempts together is unknown to us, but one particular urban legend suggests the sternum would not be held prisoner to undercurrents and debris if not for the rib cage’s saviour complex. But what was the rib cage trying to save the sternum from?
The femur, found in the swamp after an ice age
Putrid and pompous both, the femur reigns in its fetid swamp of mosquitoes and crocodiles. Bound by vines in a suspended throne, the femur beckons as a glint of gold in the sparse sunlight, a beacon and a warning to travellers of its murky waters. It is the most straightforward of all the wandering bones. Should those travellers pass underway with a nod, a prayer, a supplication of either reverence or terror, safe passage is granted. But for those with greedy fingers, hoping for a souvenir or to become a deity themselves, and who try to dislodge the femur from its overgrown airborne throne, well, those fingers join a new set of bones, ones sunken and not wandering, festering at the bottom of the swamp after an ill-fated tussle with a croc.
Even the femur, proud in its sovereignty of swamp and mangroves, is known to move when rumours of The Teeth’s whereabouts begin to inch ever closer and closer.
Both sets of hands, found in a lesser-known Ourea
The hands, it is said, do not like to be apart and are always found linked and locked, bound together in intricate traps and designs of their own making. The hands like to give false or labyrinthine directions, mischievously misdirecting all who would look to them for guidance. It is for this reason the hands do not like to wander much. Like the femur, the hands enjoy their dominion and their folkloric role in testing and tempting creatures and humanity alike. But unlike the femur, the hands do not fear The Teeth. Rather, The Teeth fear the hands, since it was the hands and the skull that worked together to break bone and dislodge The Teeth and their mandible from the skull all those millenia ago.
The skull, found in a cataclysmic crater
The skull (minus the injurious mandible that is home to The Teeth) likes to tell jokes. Half-cackling and fully boastful, it is most often found in the Chicxulub crater, its bone defiantly ivory despite the coating of asteroid dust. Gold is to be found on the skull, though sparsely. Gold veins dot the jagged fractures of the missing mandible, clarifying the horrific severing that occurred there. Gold also delicately details both orbital bones, the only remnants of forgotten fragments of history bound to be forever unseen.
The scaphoid, the one covered in white blooms that no longer chooses to wander
In between cold craggy rocks on hardened permafrost, the scaphoid is always found nestled in a growth of white dryas, fully gold and fixed to its spot. What damage was wrought on the tiny bone was total, like being dipped in acid and left to dry in the frigid Arctic winds. Back when the wandering bones still had flesh encasing them (rotting, festering flesh that was sloughing off the bones as victim to a prehistoric disease), the scaphoid was swallowed, crunched and chewed and forced to live in the churning acidic bile of the stomach. The scaphoid was not destroyed this way and when all viscera finally rotted off the pristine bones and the organs liquified, the scaphoid was freed of its corpuscles-esque prison.
It was the first bone to separate from itself and the first to begin wandering. Once it found its soft home in an isolated dryas patch on a road to nowhere on an Arctic island, it refused to ever wander again. While this is known of the scaphoid, finding it is impossible—the scaphoid does not want to be found.
The talus, found underwater in the stomach of a hydrozoan
In the deep sea, in the pit of the stomach of a punctilious jellyfish, lives the talus. The talus exists in a constant state of destruction. Stomach acids erode its enamel near constantly, but not at a rate faster than the gold grows (and not as pervasive as the trauma the scaphoid endured all those starless nights ago, luckily and thankfully). So inside the stomach of the ancient jellyfish, this wandering talus bone grows gilded, cancerous armour. So too does its host grow, the eternal jellyfish already inclined toward gigantism, and doing so now to accommodate its passenger. And wander they both do, through blackened seas, far from sunlight and the land.
If one could remove layers of gold that entomb the talus, one would find the same crescent gold indents as on the left phalanges of the foot and now known to belong to The Teeth. Perhaps the talus and the scaphoid have more in common than initially thought.
The scapula, the only one found covered in blood
Previously, we knew The Teeth to be a malicious sort, their marks of harm upon other wandering bones verifiable and understood. The Teeth brandish their wickedness proudly, prizing only what they can consume and nothing else.
But the scapula should be considered with equal measure. Heralded by hunters, gladiators, predators, and pernicious carnivores of all stripes alike, the scapula is always found covered in blood. While not wielded by any of the aforementioned worshippers—none would be so foolish—the scapula nevertheless bears the markings of a practised and precise weapon. Its smooth plate is seared with lightning bolts of gold, its flat, chiselled edges similarly lined with gold as if by design. Every edge of the scapula betrays bludgeoning, lacerations, imprecise incisions, hints of mutilation and, naturally, murder.
The lines of gold on the sharpest edge of the scapula (a sharpness deliberately ground into the bone, becoming hardened and more efficient by the gold scar tissue that nestled in its place) are dotted with tiny grooves, bearing witness to two urban legends long told. Is the scapula to blame for the innominate bone’s destruction? And, is it also to blame for the cervical vertebrae’s disappearance?
The cervical vertebrae, found nowhere
The cervical vertebrae is the only wandering bone to not yet be found. Noiseless and determined, the cervical vertebrae is the keeper of the wandering bones’ most desired secrets (or so it is said). While none have seen it in eons, the cervical vertebrae is rumoured to float on a boat in the North Atlantic ocean, marked with small flecks of gold by wind and salt. The speckled gold dotting of bone is even more pronounced against the deep garish gash of gold traced perfectly horizontal across its centre, a throat slit to make sure it keeps its secrets. Unverified, of course, for the cervical vertebrae cannot share its thoughts or history, a black hole compared to its otherwise quite chatty counterparts.
The tibia and fibula, used in the creation of a bridge
The tibia and fibula accidentally became lodged in the building of a bridge over a creek in a prairie that will not be named for at least another three centuries. Nestled between rocks and stones and nearly pristine, the tibia and fibula feel safe, guarded by trolls in both story and reality.
But a certainty has shaken the tibia and fibula’s fairy tale happiness. As sure as they know the pressure of a horse’s hoof versus a wheel made of wood, the tibia and the fibula know they are the bones most fervently being hunted right now. They hope their hiding place in a fairy tale will guard them, but only time will tell.
The ulna and radius, always wandering
Like the hands and the leg bones, the ulna and the radius like to be together. But where the hands are joined in mischief and the leg bones are joined in fear, the ulna and the radius are joined in delirium. They sometimes are known to follow the scapula or The Teeth, chattering away like wind chimes warning of a tornado. Currently, they follow The Teeth, rattling and quaking, shrieking mad prophecies in a language like thunder and a voice like clouds.
Fully gilded and of no rationality, the ulna and the radius have no allegiance but rather are harbingers, screaming to the winds and the waves, proclaiming when the hunt is afoot. Currently, the ulna and the radius are chiming their dangerous song.
The Teeth, unknown
As of the writing of this cursed atlas of wandering bones, a new whisper has taken root along battered coastal lines and distempered winds:
The Teeth have moved.
Story copyright © 2022 by Kaitlin Tremblay
Artwork copyright © 2022 by P. Emerson Williams
Kaitlin Tremblay is a writer and game developer. They are the author of Ain’t No Place for a Hero: Borderlands (ECW Press, 2017), and they co-edited the Shirley Jackson Award-nominated anthology Those Who Make Us: Canadian Creature, Myth, and Monster Stories (Exile Editions, 2016). Kaitlin’s writing (fiction and nonfiction) has appeared in a variety of places, such as Playboy, Rue Morgue, Broken Pencil, and Vice.
P. Emerson Williams is a multi-media artist delving in music, art, writing, and video. More people listen to the sounds of P. Emerson Williams every day than realize, for many of them are embedded in extensive associated pseudonymous projects past, present, and ongoing. A visionary artist and illustrator, his projects span physical and digital media, genres, and modes of performance to strange realms.