The skeleton, flat on his back beneath the shade of the elm tree, was where he had always been. Plants grew on him. Shoots of green grass rose around his spine and up to his ribcage where they fluttered, waving in the wind. Clumps of grey-purple lilies outlined him, appearing in his armpits and around his arms, cascading along the sides of him all the way to his feet.
Darkened by the shade, the skeleton’s teeth curved in such a way that he looked always to be smiling. From the black hollows of his eyes two solitary white asphodels grew taller than the other plants. His limbs were perfectly straight save his left foot which curved sharply inward at the ankle.
He could almost have been sleeping, surrounded by the flowers.
Clambering up the slope came a boy and a girl, both twelve years of age; the skeleton watched them climb, watched as the girl came first to the elm tree.
“Ben!” She gave a little hop and began to gesture frantically between the small boy and the clumps of flowers and gleaming pale bones. Something like delight illumined her eyes.
Ben reached the elm, yelped, and staggered back, nearly tripping, twisting his ankle on the rolling grass slope.
“Beth! That’s a. .”
“A skeleton,” Beth breathed, exhaling butterfly-wing warmth into the autumn frost. A gust of wind pressed the cream-colored rope of her hair against her cheek as she looked on with fascination. The pale bones surrounded by pale flowers, the asphodel shoots blooming within dark caverns.
The skeleton smiled up at her.
“Is it,” Ben started, then paused, slaking his thirst with the autumn air, feeling it nestle, cold in his bones. “Is it real?”
“Must be. Look for yourself.”
There was a pause, Ben stepped forward, looking on with Beth at the smiling skeleton. Quietly, he exhaled, and, as he did so, words came out.
“But what’s a skeleton doing here?” Ben sucked in the swollen-cold air as he spoke, feeling it whistle in his lungs.
“I don’t know.”
“How do you think it got here? I mean, how do you think they died?”
Beth leaned forward, peering at the peaceful looking bundle of bones -- they looked as though they had been carefully arranged. She made no reply, instead taking a small step forward.
Ben shifted his weight alternately from one foot to the other. He pressed his small hands into the pockets of his trousers.
Beth had knelt down in the same green grass that grew in an itchy crawl across the bones of the skeleton. She looked up at him, her eyes pale brown spotlights. The skeleton lay listening.
“It could be dangerous.”
Beth laughed a stertorous, uneasy laugh. “Oh, calm down, Ben. Don’t be such a wimp.”
“I mean it.” Ben’s voice dipped quiet as he spoke; he felt his face redden as he watched a pin-sized beetle wander across the skeleton’s dusty, time-tormented ribcage. “We shouldn’t disturb it.”
“And what’s going to happen, exactly?” Beth tried to inject snark into her tone, but her voice quivered slightly.
“I just have a bad feeling.”
Silently, each one felt themselves trapped. Ben looked around at the vast field, empty save the lone elm -- the skeleton’s flower bed, an island amid waves of rolling grass.
Beth knew that it was too late to back down, but Ben stalled for time.
“How do we know it’s even real?” Even he heard how ridiculous the words sounded. The pale, gleaming bones were more real than anything he had ever seen. They almost glowed, in the shade of the tree, dusted green with bits of moss and lichen.
“They’re real,” Beth answered, laconically.
“Well how did they get here?”
“Someone must have left them.”
Ben was silent, thinking, watching the white asphodel spires wave at him from inside the reposing skull.
“What if they just lay down and died? And now they’re waiting. For something. Maybe for someone, to find them, I mean.” He paused, closed his eyes, opened them. “I don’t like this, Beth. Doesn’t it look like he’s smiling? Doesn’t it? I don’t like this.”
Beth, still kneeling in the wet autumn grass, laughed quietly. “Don’t be silly.”
“Well, what do you think happened?” The cool air scratched at Ben’s skin as though it were infused with an itching dust.
Once again, Beth made no reply; she was leaning closer to the sleeping heap of pallid bone, reaching out a hand toward the skeleton.
Beth turned around, her amber eyes drained pale by the autumn sun.
Ben sucked in cold breaths, first through his nose, smelling the spiced air of the asphodels and the ancient bones, and then through his mouth, gulping in the wind like an icy liquid. When he spoke, the words sounded hollow and very quiet.
“It really could be dangerous. I don’t like it, Beth. I don’t.”
Beth let escape a laugh that was more like a cough, contorting the muscles of her jaw and face. Ben frowned. “Beth, I’m being serious. I don’t like it.” His face reddened further in the cool wind.
“Oh, calm down, Ben. It’s an old skeleton. It can’t hurt us. Look, I’m going to grab one of his bones. I’ll show you.”
Ben shook his head. His heart beat rapidly inside his chest. He said nothing.
Beth shuffled toward the sleeping bones, watching them glint pale in the sunlight reflected off of the grey-white asphodels. She reached out a small hand, leaning forward, feeling the grey-purple flowers and green grass brush against her forearm.
She grabbed hold of the skeletal hand.
The bone was cool, firm against her fingers. She pulled. The bone didn’t budge. She pulled again, harder, feeling the flowers prickle the arm that was plunged nearly elbow-deep within them. The old bones were heavy, unmoving. She smelled the death-spices of the asphodels as the pace of her breathing quickened slightly. She pulled even harder now.
The bone kept its place. Yet with the last tug the whole skeleton seemed to have moved, rattled slightly, shifted closer. The white asphodels were bent now, leering at her like extended eyeballs.
Beth yanked back, the bone fingers slipping through her flesh ones. She stumbled slightly on the grassy slope.
She stood tall and brushed off her hands, slapping them against one another and feeling the sweet-smelling pollen from the grey and white petals peel off and fall to the earth below.
“Did you grab one?” Ben uttered the words that had been frozen on his tongue.
The reposing bones watched them from the shade of the elm through dark-cavern eyes.
“I couldn’t. They were all stuck together. It was too heavy. And right when I was about to pull one free. . .”
Ben looked at Beth. Beth shuddered. The skeleton watched the both of them from its hiding place among the grass and the flowers.
“What?” Ben half whispered.
“It moved. The whole thing. It moved closer,” she paused, “On its own.”
“I felt it. I swear.” There was urgency in her eyes.
They both glanced at the heap of bones that observed them, listening, from the base of the elm tree. The wind made a slight rattling sound as a gust blew across the exposed ribcage. The curved white asphodel eyes glared at them, reflecting the misty sun like two white mirrors.
“I told you I didn’t like it.”
“I know. Let’s leave.”
Ben stood silent, watching. Beth looked into his stunned blue eyes.
“Ben? We can leave. You were right. Ben?”
Ben opened his mouth wide to speak, choked on the words, and instead pointed dumbly at the clump of grass and flowers, at the gleaming pale bones that had been laid to rest among them.
There was a high-pitched, eerie wind chime sound, like a morose harpsichord in the autumn light.
The wind that played across the skeleton’s array of bones and rustled the shimmering grass grew more fervent. The wind chime bones clattered together, and began to rise.