The water was clear enough to see the skeletons lurking at the bottom. The boy, fifteen and skinny, did not look at them. His arms ached and his hands had begun to blister, but he rowed the little wooden boat on, facing the way it was going. The sound of the oars cutting through the water echoed between ancient sandstone buildings.
“I wonder who lived in that window,” the little girl who sat in front of him said, pointing at the round balcony of a half-collapsed house, held up by a single remaining pillar. The gaping hole of what had presumably been the front door was almost entirely submerged in the water. “I bet it was someone with really long hair.”
“Why would you think that?” the boy said.
“I dunno, just seems like a waste of a balcony if you don’t have long hair.”
The boy rowed on, and the sun shone mercilessly on them. They passed through a stone arch into an alleyway narrow enough for the oars to scrape against the mosaic-covered walls. The patterns were cracked and faded, and many pieces were missing, but you could still make out the figures of women heavy-laden with jewellery, winged beasts with horrifying faces and warriors holding spears and chains. The pictures continued below the water level, where long black strands of seaweed danced around a huge, decaying spine and got tangled up in the boy’s oars.
“I wish we had things like this back home.”
The boy glanced at the wall, then went back to rowing. “We have the temples.”
“That’s not the same, they’re just old. It’d look so pretty on Miriam’s walls, can you imagine?” The girl leaned dangerously far out to touch the wall.
“Hey, stop it!”
The boy grabbed hold of the girl’s shirt to pull her back into the boat, but the girl leaned further out, until her fingers reached the mosaic and pried a piece loose. She sat back down in the boat, triumphantly holding up the faded green stone as the boat rocked from side to side.
The boy dropped his oars into his lap and slapped the stone out of the girl’s hand. It disappeared into the water.
“You can’t go around taking stuff!”
The girl clutched her hand to her chest. “Why not?”
“You just can’t.”
The girl pursed her lips, crossed her arms and stared him down. The boy picked up his oars.
“Well, if you’re not going to tell me…” She reached for the wall again.
“Okay fine, fine! Look, it’s just not like the ruins back home. You and your little friends can do whatever you want there. Here, you have to give them something greater in return.
The girl scoffed. “Who, the dragons?”
But the boy refused to say anything else on the subject, and eventually the girl turned around to the front of the boat, to more exciting sights. The mosaics turned into narrow windows with glimpses of abandoned homes inside – a dusty goblet lying on the floor, a table with game pieces scattered across it, a silver hairbrush fading in a fireplace, rotting wooden cupboards with their doors hanging askew.
The boat approached another archway, twin to the one they had passed through earlier, with bleak carvings of flowers, and crumbling dragon heads mounted on the walls on either side. Once, they might have held torches in their teeth. The arch was narrow, and the boy’s oars landed at an awkward angle so that he struggled to push the boat forward. Under the boy’s watchful eyes, the girl reached up and grabbed hold of the arch to pull them through.
Beyond, the street was wider, and the water grew steadily deeper until the seaweed at the bottom became nothing but vague shadows. Half-collapsed rooftops with scorched tiles lined the street, a rusty red against the turquoise waters. The boy concentrated firmly on his rowing, but the girl gazed into the waters with a distant curiosity.
“I think there are human skeletons too down there. Or maybe a baby dragon.” She turned to the boy. “Hey, did I ever tell you what me and Miriam found last time we went to the temples?” They passed by a row of scorched statues of owls perched on the edge of a roof. The girl reached out her hand as if to touch one, but then pulled it back. “She took me up to the roof of the really big one, you know, the one with the stairs on the side? I nearly fell into one of the cracks. I never thought I’d be allowed to go there but Miriam said I’m big enough now. Anyway, she caught me and just told me to be careful. Then on the roof she found this weird white stick, all prickly and yellowish, and guess what it was? A real-life bone, a thigh bone Miriam said. It’s in my room now.”
The boy’s oar slipped and almost fell out of its socket. With an annoyed grunt, he secured it again. “How exciting.”
“Miriam also told me this story about a lion who refused to eat little girls. It was really cool.”
“Can we stop talking about Miriam?”
“You’re just jealous. Miriam said so.”
The boy shot her a murderous look.
“She’s your mama,” the girl said.
“I am aware.”
The girl rolled her eyes and turned forward to look out over the waters, past the rooftops where mountains bordered the city to the East. Once, their sides would have been covered with flourishing grapevines, but now the vineyards were dead and long overgrown with weeds and thorns. “I’d give anything to have a mama like that.”
“You practically do at this point.”
The girl whirled around. “It’s not my fault she doesn’t like you anymore.”
One of the oars banged against the side of the boat. The boy adjusted his grip while keeping his gaze firmly away from the girl.
“You were fine with everything. Miriam asked you before I moved in and you were fine – you know what my father did –”
“Yes, yes, we all know! You think you’re the only one who’s ever had problems?”
The girl fell quiet. The boy rowed on furiously.
“I don’t want to be here anymore,” the girl said finally, “turn around or I’ll swim back.”
The girl shrugged, tied her hair back at her neck, and despite the boy’s protests, stood up and stepped over the side of the boat. The boy tried to grab at her, but she disappeared under the surface, the boat swaying violently above her. A moment passed, two, and the girl did not resurface, though the boy could see her moving around in the waters.
She emerged a few feet away, gasping and sputtering and splashing water everywhere as she swam clumsily back to the boat. “There’s something in the water – I swear I saw, I felt it!” She grabbed hold of the side of the boat and tried to pull herself up.
“You’re going to make the whole boat tip over!”
“So, help me already! It’s coming after me, you’ve got to –” She pulled and kicked her legs and banged against the boat but could not haul herself up. The boy looked out over the water behind her. There was nothing there, only something softly disturbing the surface, but that could have been the girl. She struggled before him, lost her grip and fell back into the water, then reached back onto the boat ledge, wide-eyed and panicked. The boy hesitated.
“What are you doing, just help me up!”
A slight shadow, or the shadow of a shadow, moved closer underneath the surface.
Stiffly, the boy grabbed the girl’s arm and pulled her, kicking, into the boat, where she fell panting onto the floor. The shadow departed into the depths and vanished. The boy watched it go.
“What’s wrong with you? What was that?” the girl said, voice hoarse.
“I’m – sorry, that was –” The boy tore his eyes away. “Let’s just keep going.”
Slowly, the girl sat up on the bench opposite the boy. Her clothes were soaked with seawater, which dripped into a puddle at her feet. “Fine.”
They rowed on in silence. The girl sat stiff with her hands tucked under her legs, watching the water warily. It grew shallower as the houses became more damaged. Only a few now had fragments of walls sticking up above the surface. Underneath the boat, great heads mocked the boat with their leering teeth. When some time had passed, and there seemed to be nothing more than sleeping skeletons in the water, the girl relaxed slightly. She turned forward to study the ruins as they passed, though she was careful not to lean too close to the water.
A single intact house cast a long shadow over the little boat. The building was tall and square, with many windows climbing up from the water. Like the others, it was built of sandstone, but it had been painted an aggressive, albeit fading, shade of blue. Cracked paintings of colourful animals littered the walls and crawled around the windows.
The boy let the boat drift for a moment, gazing at the building’s slanted roof, before asking if the girl wanted to go inside.
The girl turned around. “Really?”
“It’ll be fun,” the boy said.
He rowed closer to the house and put his hand against the wall to stop the boat next to a window surrounded by bright green ferrets. Water spilled into the gloom inside, turning from bright blue to smoky brown.
They climbed in through the window and tied the boat to a rusty nail in the wall with a tattered piece of rope from home. An inch-deep layer of dusty water covered the floor and lapped against their bare feet, and the ceiling was so low the boy could only just stand upright.
The girl walked straight across the room to a carving of animals shaped into arrows. All of them pointed inwards, towards some unintelligible ancient letters. She ran her fingers over the stone, along what could have been a horse with horrific fangs.
“Stop it!” The boy hurried over with water splashing about his legs.
The girl snatched her hand back. “I wasn’t taking anything.”
The boy rubbed his temples. “Just please, please don’t. You promised you’d do as I say if you came with me here.”
“And you promised this was going to be fun. You’re the one who’s been here before.”
The boy gave her an annoyed look. The girl ignored it.
“How did you even come here last time? Didn’t anyone notice you weren’t on the fields?” she said.
“I’m not on the fields every day.”
“No, but then you’re off selling stuff and they couldn’t live without those coins.”
The boy moved the water around with his feet. “I just snuck away. Baba’s not exactly the most observant.”
“No, but you’re definitely not sneaky enough to get past Miriam.”
The boy took a breath. “Do you want to go upstairs?”
The boy nodded to the corner behind the girl, where there was a square hole in the ceiling. A ladder of blackened wood leaned against the wall underneath it.
When the girl tried to step on the ladder, however, it collapsed underneath her, and she fell backwards onto the floor. The boy stifled a laugh at her sour look but helped her up without comment. The back of her already damp shirt and trousers were soaked with grey water. He cupped his hands and helped the girl clamber up through the hole, and then hauled himself up, wincing at the gravel and sand cutting into his blisters.
It took a few moments for their eyes to adjust to the gloom. The only light came from cracks between the ceiling and walls, and from the hole in the floor. A persistent smell of dust and damp thickened the air – an old, stale odour.
Figures appeared in the dark. A glimmering golden sceptre, extravagant necklaces with dusty gemstones, a half-destroyed sculpture of a dragon-headed beast. And everywhere, everywhere, human skeletons. Ribcages and skulls, arms and legs, some still wearing the remains of rotten burgundy robes. The girl swallowed.
“This is so much cooler than the temples,” she breathed, walking tentatively closer to the skeletons. “I can’t believe you’ve never taken me here before.”
A big rusty headpiece fell to the floor with a deafening clatter. The boy shrieked. One breathless moment, then the boy bolted for the hole in the floor and scrambled down. The girl followed close behind and clumsily dropped onto the floor below. By then the boy was already halfway out the house. He stumbled into the boat and would have completely forgotten about the rope had the girl not untied it as she climbed into the boat.
The boy struggled to get the boat moving again, but the moment he did, they both burst out laughing. Wheezing, the girl pointed at the boy and tried to mimic his shriek, and her colossal failure resulted in even more eruptions of laughter. Whenever it died out, they’d catch each other’s eyes and start all over again.
“How do you even know about this place?” the girl finally said.
“Just…stories. Has seriously no one ever told you –”
The girl raised her eyebrows. “What stories?”
“No, of course not. Baba used to tell them. There was this guy with about nine children, and they were really poor. He was desperate and searched far and wide for a way to provide for his family, and he found this place.” He paused. “But he couldn’t find anything and finally he just turned back and told his children the story and they were happy.”
“That’s a terrible story.”
“It’s the way Baba told it.”
“No, it’s not.”
“Yes, it is.”
“You’re a terrible liar. Miriam said so too.”
The boy turned serious and put greater force into his rowing. Houses grew up out of the water again. Soon the streets were edged with buildings that must once have been marble exhibitions of wealth but were now yellowed and crumbling and overgrown with weeds and bird’s nests, although the birds stayed out of sight. The water turned shallower. Underneath the boat, fish nibbled at dragon teeth and cracked fountains.
“Do you think there was a dancing hall in there?” the girl asked, looking into the marble entrance of a grand, pillared house.
The boy smirked, though his eyes were somewhere behind the girl’s head. “Maybe. Do you want to take a look? Dance?”
“I would rather die.”
“It’d be good practice.”
The girl scrunched up her nose. “I don’t know why they make us do it. It’s not like we’re ever getting near one.”
The boy wiped the sweat out of his forehead with the sleeve of his shirt. “But you have to become civilised people.”
“You never had to.”
“Ah, but they didn’t care about the sophistication of their children back then. We’re just the workforce.”
“If you say so.”
The girl groaned. “It’s just jumping around and flapping your arms and rolling around on the ground looking stupid! I’d rather play the drums.”
“That’s for old people though.” The boy cast a glance ahead, where the end of the street was approaching.
The boy opened his mouth to retort, but then closed it again. The street opened up into a huge square, cobblestoned in faded nuances of yellow and red and blue which looked strange and distorted in the water. Dragon heads and wings cradled old market stands of stone. Grand houses in the same cracked colours, with many pillars and archways and balconies, loomed over the square. The girl ran her fingers through the water, her attention entirely consumed by the bones underneath.
“Sarai,” the boy said, an edge of uneasiness in his voice. He wiped the sweat from his brow.
The girl turned around and lifted her gaze. A little gasp escaped her lips. On the opposite end of the square stood the grandest building of them all, as cracked and decaying as the rest, but with a massive red dome and still-intricate patterns carved into its walls and pillars. A set of wide stairs led up from the water to its entrance, high and wide enough to dwarf kings and emperors, though the doors themselves had long ago fallen off its hinges and lay crooked and crumbling in their arches.
“Is that it?”
“Yes.” The boy sat still, gripping the oars tightly in his lap. They drifted.
“Are we not going in? Is something wrong?”
Stiffly, the boy came back to himself. He started rowing again, then picked up the pace.
The little wooden boat hit the stairs with a thud. With some labour the boy and the girl dragged the boat up to a landing a couple of steps from the water edge. They worked in silence. Though the girl tried to catch the boy’s eyes, he would not speak or look at her. Above them, the sky was a blazing blue. Even in the shadow of the building the air was relentlessly hot. Both their shirts were damp, and the girl’s hair hung limp down her back.
They ascended the stairs, leaving sloppy wet footsteps on the scorching stone, and paused a moment before the gaping entrance. Even though the doors lay on their sides, they were taller than both the girl and the boy. The girl reached for the boy’s hand. He shrugged it away. But when she reached for it a second time, he reluctantly took it, and they entered wordlessly into the gloom beyond, their bare feet hardly making any sound.
Hand in hand, they walked through an echoing entrance hall, and then through silent marble corridors. One had arched windows looking across an alleyway to another building, another was lined with a series of shut or rotten doors. The girl tried to look into the rooms they passed, but the boy wouldn’t stop, and something in his demeanour made the girl hesitate to make him.
They came into a high, domed chamber, littered with chests of varying sizes, some shut and some revealing dusty treasures of gold and silver. A round hole in the ceiling let in a tired beam of light. It landed on a pile of chains and a set of manacles rusting on the floor.
The girl shook off the boy’s hand.
“Don’t –” the boy began, but the girl approached the centre of the room without paying him any heed. She knelt before a chest full of faded silver coins, picked up a few and let them slip through her fingers. They clinked back into the chest. The sound echoed through the chamber.
“Are these the same ones you brought home?” the girl said. Any trace of the childish inquisitiveness from earlier was gone from her voice.
“Sarai, listen –”
“Did you take some before?”
Slowly, the boy came nearer. Something wild came into the girl’s eyes.
She dug her hands into the chest of silver, picked up handfuls of coins and threw them at the boy. He winced as he picked up the chains, rusty with old blood. Frantically, the girl threw a handful at his head, another at his chest, hitting the walls and floor as much as the boy. She got to her feet, but with a few quick steps, the boy grabbed hold of her hands above her head. Silver clattered to the floor. The girl shook her head and pulled against the boy’s grip, but the boy, though he was both weary and skinny, was determined. The manacles closed around her wrists.
“What are you doing?” The girl yanked at the manacles, rattling the chains, but they held fast.
“Look, I’m sorry,” the boy said, eyes down, “I only took a little at first, just thirty silver coins. It was for my family. You know – I had to – and it was fine at first but then they demanded blood.”
The boy walked away.
“Who’s they?” The girl ran after him, bent down to pick something up to throw at him, but tripped over a metal box of bejewelled necklaces and fell onto her elbows. The boy disappeared out the door. The girl pushed herself back onto her feet, gathered the chains as best she could and ran into the corridor, gasping and shouting after him, her voice shattering against the dry marble walls. The boy covered his ears and walked faster. The girl dragged the chains behind her as she ran and stumbled, falling and scraping her knees when they got stuck around corners. She paid her throbbing bones no heed, but threw herself through the corridors, tugging at the chains and screaming, lungs raw, hair in mouth, for the boy to stop.
Underneath the grand entrance, the chains reached their limit, and the girl stumbled to the ground, squinting against the sun.
The boy pushed the boat into the water. It was considerably easier than pulling up had been.
“Don’t leave me!”
The boy did not look back, did not hesitate in his steps when he climbed back into the boat, but his hands shook ever so slightly when he took up his oars. He rowed, facing the way he was going.
“Luka!” the girl screamed, but the boy was already far away.
In the water, the bones began to rattle and move.
The boy rowed faster.
Caroline Söderlund is a Swedish-Estonian writer currently in her third year of studying English and Creative Writing full time at Royal Holloway University of London. Her poetry has previously appeared in The Founder, and has recently focused on folktales, roots and displacement through the lens of multilingualism. She is a big fan of authors like Margaret Atwood and Peter S. Beagle and loves writing whimsical and dark fantasy fiction.
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