The skull’s dome is covered in old, dried mud. Behind the cracks, you can see the pale bone. Tanned pieces of ghost-sheepskin hang suspended over the two eye sockets—our windows and doors. Someone before us carved those out entirely, made them into two gaping holes where the light comes in. It’s the darkest hour now, moments after the moon has set and minutes before the sun rises. I secure my tufek—my trustiest mate—on my hip and climb through caked mud up to the skull’s left eye socket.
The graveyard is vast; the bones as big as armies. Our ghost-sheep, huddled inside their vertebra pen, are waiting for us. I jump down and inside the nose cavity; slide between rotten teeth. While I take the sheep out, Who Tames Lions emerges from the right eye socket like a human worm. Together we set off on our journey for another day’s work.
We are the only ones left to herd the ghost-sheep. Our parents disappeared a long time ago. They headed eastwards, to the Deep Night. No one fully alive knows what lies there. One day, we too shall discover it.
The sheep are scrawnier than ever. I can count every rib on the male ones, but we try to keep the ewes well fed. Blue-black ghost-grass sprouts between the mud and bones—the only thing ghost-sheep can eat. Father called it “widow’s weed”; the shoots of necromantic blasphemy. Every day, we walk the graveyard grounds, back and forth, in search of this cursed grass. Mother used to say the graveyard is as big as a continent that only gets bigger; that we have to cross oceans of sand and swamp only to find new ghost-grass. This year it rained only twice, and Who Tames Lions and I walk farther and farther as our sheep grow weaker and weaker.
We keep a small portion of the ghost-milk in two tightly sealed caskets inside the skull’s shadiest place. We drink a spoonful of it in the morning—it gives us the strength we need to do our daily travel. The rest, we trade for food, tools, and ammunition with the merchants who travel between Hell’s Breath and Deep Night. Odd fellows, those merchants. Not entirely in the world of the living, otherwise they wouldn’t go to Deep Night and come back. People say that the merchants don’t want the ghost-sheep milk for nourishment. I hear it’s popular with necromancers who feed it to their dolls stitched out of dead men’s parts and make them come to life. They fight a war using those dolls, raising soldiers from the dead, sending them to die over and over again.
Scary lot, but I don’t think about them. My only fear is the coyote, and I keep that one well away with my tufek.
My mother, Of Blood On Stone, warned us about the coyote several times. “Ghosts will try to take you,” they said, “but the coyote will want the sheep. Always protect the sheep. They feed you.” They were a child of the graveyard, descendant of ghost-sheep herders. What mattered was always the flock. Even though they could see ghosts, like Who Tames Lions, the sheep were always more important—that’s what I think too. When my father found them, my mother was all alone, as we are now; parents long gone.
“Father said it’s men we should fear, not the coyote,” Who Tames Lions says. We’re sitting on the concave part of a hipbone, watching the sheep and their lazy pace. I’m munching on mutton jerky, and it hurts my teeth.
I doubt if Who Tames Lions remembers Father at all. My own memory of our parents is vague—the skull numbs everything inside my head. When they were still here, they used to say the skull had its own thoughts and that it whispered. I’ve never heard anything. Like mother told me, I’m dense, but the skull still fogs my memories sometimes. It keeps the ghosts and the coyote away: that’s all I need to know.
“No man ever comes near the graveyard,” I say, “except the merchants. No need to fear.”
“What about the ghosts?” Who Tames Lions says. “Men want the milk. The coyote wants the sheep. But the ghosts—the ghosts want us.” Their eyes shine, grey-black against the dying sunlight, as they’re watching something way past me, way past the sheep. “Look.” They point a finger toward the horizon.
I turn to find the coyote at a safe distance, watching us, still as stone. I grab my tufek, but Who Tames Lions puts a cool hand on my arm. “He’s not coming. There’s a ghost there, keeping him away. See, even the coyote is afraid of them.”
I relax but don’t let my guard down. Who Tames Lions always knows when ghosts are near—I doubt if I could have survived without them. I start to make the sign of protection, chant the songs our mother taught us to keep spirits away when we’re not inside the skull. Who Tames Lions sits still. They smile to me with a smile that makes them look wiser than their years. “The ghost is waiting. It’s waiting for us,” they whisper. “It looks like a wild beast, so much larger than the coyote. Its teeth are dyed blood-red.”
I grind my own teeth and whistle to my flock. The sun has painted the whole sky orange—it’s time to go. “Forget the ghost,” I say. “We herd the sheep, remember? The sheep feed us.”
“You can’t wish a ghost away.” Their tone reminds me of our mother. This memory of Mother’s warm voice tightens inside my chest.
“I will keep it away. For as long as I can.”
They smile. “For as long as you can,” they repeat.
Our mother chose our names according to the graveyard’s tradition. They said Who Tames Lions has no herder’s soul. That wild things, like ghosts and predators, chose them long before we did.
“I won’t be sleeping inside the skull anymore,” they announce, “nor inside any other bone.” We’re pushing the flock inside and make sure to lock the bone door. Who Tames Lions avoids my eyes. “It messes with my head,” they add as hasty explanation.
“The coyote will maul you,” I say coldly.
They laugh. “Didn’t you say the coyote is after the flock? It won’t bother itself with me.” I can hear the scoff in the words. Day by day, a distance is widening between us, like the widening desert. I’m on one side and they’re on the other.
I seek their eyes. “Aren’t we part of the flock? Aren’t we flesh and bone? Shouldn’t we protect ourselves? What about your ghosts? You said they were the worst. Are you happy to have them coming after you?”
They shake their head. “To the coyote, no, we’re not of flesh and bone. Not anymore. Maybe when we were babies. But we belong to the graveyard now. That’s why to the ghosts we are delicious, yes. But I’d rather have ghosts coming after me than listen to the giant’s thoughts.”
I am left to watch in awe. It seems that I might never understand Who Tames Lions after all. They go on.
“They, too, are wild and scared, like animals. Like...like us. They are too much like us. Too familiar.” Large eyes shining like the rain. At the thought of the giant, their light darkens. “But the giant is like a man. Angry. And cruel. The ghosts only want to feed, like your coyote. The giant wants blood, wants pain and suffering. The giant wants revenge, you see. Haven’t you heard him? I’m coming, I’m coming, He says. His footsteps thump in the desert.”
I say I haven’t. I can’t hear a thing the giant says, so I don’t care. I have more important problems.
At night they camp outside; I watch them from the eye socket. When the greenish glow of the firefly lantern fades inside the tent, I climb down the skull in light footsteps. With my belt knife, I draw a circle around the ghost-sheepskin tent, whispering my mother’s incantations the whole time. This will keep ghosts away, I think, but I’m not sure anymore. In the distance, I can hear the coyote’s cry.
I climb the skull back, sit inside the nose cavity, and stand watch. I pull the bolt of my tufek, load another round, and wait. All night, I watch the tent and wait. Coyotes, ghosts, or giants, I’m taking them all down.
I’m back in the skull—the merchant who bought all of our ghost-milk said the war is at its peak—but I can’t find Who Tames Lions. They left the sheep unattended; several are missing too. I secure the flock quickly inside the vertebra pen, then grab the lantern to seek them.
Fireflies light my way in the desert, make the bones glow with a sickly green color. I walk eastwards toward the Deep Night. Beyond the graveyard dunes, the earth is still wet with blood. My feet plunge between sticky, damp leaves and earthy sinew. With my every step I crush and bruise tangles of aerial roots and vast, throbbing flesh. I cannot stop. Something tells me Who Tames Lions followed our parents’ trail. Something tells me I’ll end up walking the same path too.
I am not mistaken. There, in the swamp, I find them talking to no one. I jump into the foul water, spattering mud as I scream their name. For a second, their eyes dart towards me; they have lost eye contact with whatever they were talking to. For a second, I see the silver curls of claws over their head, with tips so sharp, almost invisible. The claws of a ghost—I know it’s the same ghost they saw that day. Tips soaked in blood.
I load and shoot. The bullet ends up nowhere, muffled by the mud. I shoot again, whispering incantations the whole time, but Who Tames Lions doesn’t move. Quietly, they look at their ghost, then look at me again, their gaze lingering on me as if I’m but a memory now.
“Who Goes Against A Waste Of Waters,” they speak my name. “I found the way. To not go mad by his thoughts. Mother made it too. Father did not.”
“Come back!” I cry. “You’ll die!”
“And then become a ghost,” they say with a smile. They put a finger over their lips. “Mother is waiting for us. No need to fear.”
They disappear inside a darkness where firefly light can’t reach.
I know they’re not coming back.
Maybe they truly are a ghost now. Maybe the ghost that took them was indeed our mother. And where has my father gone? Did they reach Deep Night? What lies beyond? Will I end up there too?
But I can’t hear the giant’s thoughts in the skull. I have no reason to go mad or run away from it, to lose myself beyond Deep Night. I hear nothing, except the sheep’s faint bleating and the coyote’s distant howls.
Graveyard tradition says that when the name your parents gave you comes true, you take another.
Alone, I’m in the skull. On my back, I watch the dome covered in mud, the bone behind the cracks. The coyote took a sheep today; two more died of hunger yesterday. I can’t keep the ghosts away anymore, not without Who Tames Lions telling me where they are. “Ghosts are wild and scared,” they said, “like animals.” They too are hungry like the coyote, like myself. I hide inside the skull, where ghosts and the coyote won’t reach, where the giant’s thoughts are keeping them away.
This morning, I sold my last batch of ghost-milk for two sacks of rice, and I’m left with the two half-empty caskets we used to keep for ourselves. “You said you drink the milk?” the merchant asked me. Their faces are covered with veils dark like the night, stitched in tiny sequins of swirling starlight. No one knows what kind of face is watching from behind them. “It’s not good for the living. Puts you with one foot into the realm of the dead.”
I said we’re used to it, because we’re graveyard-born, but he wasn’t convinced. “Leave this place,” he warned me. “The graveyard grows. Wars make graveyards grow. It’ll swallow you.” I laughed and told him I had nowhere else to go.
I close my eyes and think of Who Tames Lions. Through the skull’s haze, I hope to recall their face, their eyes, but one memory melts into the other and I’m not sure what they looked like anymore; I’m not sure if they ever looked like anything at all.
“What lies beyond Deep Night?” I asked that merchant.
He hesitated but gave me some advice. “For you, not much. Try to not end up there.”
Outside the skull, the ghosts are waiting.
Something speaks with Who Tames Lion’s voice—with mother’s voice, maybe with father’s voice. Their memories all sound the same now. Footsteps thump like a thunderstorm in the desert. An army is coming my way, an army with each soldier as big as a tower, a tower made out of many parts long dead.
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” the voice says, the army says.
Slowly, I load my tufek. I speak my mother’s prayers. I wait.
The giant speaks, but I can’t exorcise thoughts. I can’t shoot words.
“I’m coming to take back my bones.”