Bone Town

Matthew Hughes (From The Ugly Duckling)

The Martians had built their towns mostly out of stone and metal, crystal and glass. They had run water through channels in the floors – to cool the rooms and, Mather hypothesized, their slender feet – and grown fruit hydroponically from the walls. But in some parts of the planet, there had once been a fashion – perhaps it was a ritual requirement – for building in bone.

Martian architects had designed houses walled and floored in this sheets of ossiferous material that must have been peeled like veneer from the huge bones of gigantic sea creatures. Sometimes, the great ribs and femurs were used whole as structural members, trimmed and squared or rounded to the needed dimensions, often ornately carved into pillars and lintels. Still more of the stuff had been crushed into powder, then bound together with burnt lime to make a durable concrete for roads and doorsteps.

Building in bone made for houses that were filled with a diffuse and airy light that threw no shadows. The material was also porous, so the rooms breathed even though the windows were narrow and sealed with bronze shutters. The walls also had the quality of absorbing rather than reflecting sound ; Mather imagined that conversations in Martian rooms must have been muted, even the shouts and tumults of the aureus-eyed children softened and calmed.

He chose houses at random traversing hallways and peering into chambers. The places were empty, the inhabitants having packed up in no apparent hurry. Occasionally, he found items of abandoned furniture – more bone, a couple of metal frames, the less durable wooden parts long since turned to dust.

In a corner of one upstairs room, he found a bone table on which rested a scatter of Martian books…

The town sloped gradually from the landward end to the place where the sea had been, the finger of rock on which it was built also narrowing as it neared the vanished waves. At the very tip, the Martians had laid out a wide plaza, this one without a fountain. The pavement was fashioned from thousands of small tiles, their original bright colors now sun-fades to pale pastels, arranged in a border of stylized waves and sailing ships, blue against bronze, surrounding a great sinuous sea creature with huge eyes and triangular flukes.

A broad flight of bone-concrete steps led down from the open space to the former harbor, where two curved moles enclosed a sheltered basin with a seaward opening only wide enough for two of the slim, burnished craft to pass an once.

The buildings that stood at the edge of the open space were grander than the houses he had entered so far. Their entrances were wide metal doors between carved pillars of bone. The surfaces of the doors were worked in raised snake-script in bas relief. Unlike the mouths of the houses, these were all closed.

The plaza held only one object of note. At the center of the open space that surrounded him was a substantial circular structure, four ascending, concentric rings of white material that would probably turn out to be bone – there was a reason why the dead town as called the bone city.

Mather could see a bronze pipe standing up from the smallest, highest circle. From it would have flowed water to fill the first round of the four, to trickle over the sides and fill the others in turn.

Mather … approached the nearest building. Its door was ajar, but he had to push it all the way open to squeeze through the narrow entry. He found himself in a circular foyer, its bone walls decorated with lines of copper – once gleaming, now a dull green - that had been inset into incision in the white hardness.

Some of the lines were curved, some straight. They met at odd angles and somehow contrived to draw Mather’s gaze into what seemed to be three-dimensional shapes.

bone town

Bone Town. Illustration : Megan Jorgensen

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