Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Magic Bone Woman

Magic Bone Woman

A short story by Alastair Reynolds

They put her down in the only open ground in the area. She had a plastic-wrapped map, night-vision goggles and a military-spec GPS receiver that was meant to function even with deep tree cover. More than that, she had knowledge. She had spent years of her life living with the indigenous societies in this part of the Amazon basin, studying language and culture.

The Tapurucuara people, the Urucara, the Cucui.

Now the organisation wanted her to speak to the Manacapuru. They knew her; she knew them. Thirty months in their company, over six years.

She reached them without difficulty. One moment she had felt herself to be alone, surrounded only by trees and plants and whatever animals had not fled at her approach. Then her immediate surroundings had undergone a sudden emerald shiver, disclosing four Manacapuru hunters. They were alike only in their bowl-shaped haircuts, body ornamentation, weapons, and such clothing as they wore. Two were brothers, the third a slightly older man, the fourth a teenager she had studied during his rite of passage, five years ago.

The child-sized men all carried bows and blowpipes; two of the blowpipes were aimed at her.

‘I’m Magic Bone Woman,’ she said, speaking the Manacapuru dialect and reinforcing her statement by touching the charm that had given her that name, worn around her neck. ‘You know me. I was here five big rains ago. Take me to Icana.’

There was a strained moment. Something was muttered between one of the brothers and the older man. The teenager spat a green wad onto the ground. Somewhere in the distance, a monkey whooped.

The blowpipes were raised to the canopy.

‘Follow us,’ the older man said.

She was drenched in sweat by the time they arrived. Out of condition, stumbling where the Manacapuru made effortless progress. As if she had never done this before.

Beyond a couple of new huts, the village hadn’t changed in her absence. She recognised faces as she was led through the outlying buildings, past the “village hall” and the stone-cordoned circle where the elders told their stories and the witch doctor did his dances. There were women and children in the village, of course. The children had grown in her absence but she could still put names to the oldest. She recognised scraps of coloured plastic jewellery on some of the boys and girls, and a soiled pink t-shirt with an animated, dancing Japanese cartoon character printed on it, being worn by a toddler.

She heard her name over and over. Magic Bone Woman. Once, a child ran up to her and reached out to grab the charm. She found herself clutching it instinctively, as if it had real value to her.

Had she really lied, when she told one of the children that the charm gave her the wings of a bird, the eyes of a snake, the power of speaking further than a bird could fly?

Not exactly.

The one thing she didn’t feel was hostility. They were a friendly, welcoming people, the Manacapuru. Even so, there was something. Maybe the fact that she wasn’t struggling under a massive backpack stuffed with clothes, provisions and medicine was the giveaway.

As if she had no plans to stay.

Icana had his own hut, which he shared with three wives. Grander than the other dwellings, raised a bit higher, but not ostentatiously so. She was ushered in, offered the customary drink, a kind of lukewarm peppery green infusion, and then found herself sitting on the floor. Icana was sitting cross-legged as well, on a kind of mattress formed from layers of woven grass, so that they were approximately level with each other. He wore red football shorts and a great assortment of totems and charms around his neck: bones, beads, jewels, bits of metal and plastic. A fifty year old digital watch on one wrist, the LCD cracked and useless. 

He was wiry and smooth and entirely hairless except for his black bowl-cut.

‘You have returned to us, Magic Bone Woman,’ he said, after giving her due consideration. ‘There will be celebrations tonight.’

‘Thank you, chief,’ she said slowly. ‘But I am afraid I do not come with good news.’

‘This I feared, when I learned of your coming.’

‘What do you know?’

She had to work hard with the language, mental gears rusty with disuse.

‘My people trade with the Urucara, and the Urucara trade with the Aripuana.’ He shifted on his mat. ‘The Aripuana do not always speak the truth, and they have made war with their neighbours. But I do not think they are lying now.’

She sipped at the infusion, trying not to snort it out back through her nose. ‘What have they said?’

‘That the machines are coming again,’ Icana said. ‘But that they are bigger this time, and moving more quickly. And that they will not stop for anything.’

‘The Aripuana are right. That’s why I’ve come back to the village. To tell you that you must move.’ She produced the plastic-wrapped map and spread it at her feet, before them. ‘Remember this?’

He studied it then gave her a hesitant nod, a gesture he had picked up from their time together.

She moved her finger across the map, tracing a monstrous rectangular swathe. ‘This … area … is what is scheduled to be cleared. Your village is here, in the middle of it. If you can get here, beyond the edge of the clearance zone, you may be safe, for now.’

‘For now,’ Icana echoed.

‘I’d rather not promise something I can’t keep.’

‘Promises have already been broken,’ the chief said sharply. ‘We were told that the machines would never come back. Was that a lie?’

‘These aren’t the same machines. In the old days, outsiders – people like me – ripped down the forest so that they could make more money, with roads and farmland. It was done of out greed and ignorance. But that’s not what’s happening now. The people that have sent these machines … they have no choice. It has to be done.’


‘It’s … a long story.’ She paused. ‘Something’s been lost. Something very, very important.’

‘Tell me,’ Icana commanded.

‘We talked about the stars once, you and I. We spoke of the planets and the moons. Well, there’s something out there.’ She held up her fist. ‘It’s a rock. A very big rock. Big enough that if it fell on the village of the Manacapuru people, it would also fall on the Urucara and Aripuana.’ She did not wait to see if he believed her that a rock could be that large, this man who had never seen a sizable boulder, let alone a mountain. ‘And it’s going to fall out of the sky, onto the Earth.’

Icana examined her shrewdly. ‘That is why we are being moved? So that the rock does not fall on us?’

‘No … ’ she said slowly. ‘Where it falls … doesn’t matter. Not when it’s this large. There will be great fires, and then great darkness.’

‘You have seen this rock?’

‘Men have. Four big rains ago. They know it will fall from the sky before the next big rain.’

Icana was a long time in responding. ‘You have never lied to me, Magic Bone Woman. So I do not think you are lying now. What I do not understand … why would tell me this thing, if nothing can be done?’

‘There is something. Or there was.’ She hesitated, struggling to formulate her thoughts. ‘Men knew that this was going to happen one day. Not this rock exactly, but one like it. They’ve known that for years. So they created this thing, to safeguard all of us. A kind of spear.’

He nodded, following her. ‘A weapon, to smash the rock.’

‘Exactly. A spear in the sky, hovering above us. It has the power to shatter the rock, or at least to push the rock away from us, so that it doesn’t hit.’ Holding up her fist again, she stabbed the finger of her other hand against it.

Icana narrowed his eyes, as if he was missing something. ‘Then … use this spear, if you have made it.’

‘That’s the problem. The spear was a powerful weapon, capable doing great harm as well as great good. If that energy was turned against us, for whatever reason … it would have been just as bad as if the rock hit us. So a decision was taken. The spear was …’ She faltered. ‘They used a kind of magic on it, so that it would only allow three great warriors to command its use. Three strong men, in three parts of the world.’ She tapped the thing around her neck. ‘This charm? The reason you call me Magic Bone Woman?’

‘Yes,’ he said patiently.

‘These three men had their own charms, their own magic bones. But we called them “memory sticks”. This is mine. Inside mine is … my life. My power.’

‘To see like a snake.’

‘Yes,’ she said, swallowing hard, wondering how long it had been since she had backed up the memory stick. Months, certainly. Maybe longer. ‘And more,’ she added.

‘What powers did the three men have?’

She could imagine his thought process. If a mere woman could fly, see in the dark, whisper across the waves … what could a man do?

‘Theirs was a different power,’ she said. ‘Their bones contained magic spells. Other men … witch doctors … had put incantations inside them, made of numbers.’


Among the Manucapuru, arithmetic went one, two, three, many.

‘Too many numbers to guess,’ she added. ‘The point being that the spear would only allow itself to be used by these three men, and no one else. One of them would have to go to a place by the sea, a place we call Guyana, and … put their magic bone into a kind of box.’ She swallowed. ‘Only then would the spear allow itself be used.’

The chief shifted on his mat. ‘Then these men must be summoned,’ he said decisively.

‘They were. And they tried to come. But there were other people who didn’t want them to succeed.’

‘I do not understand.’

‘People who believed that the rock was a judgement on us, because we had angered the gods. Or the god. It doesn’t really matter. What does is that they managed to get to two of the three men before they arrived in French Guyana. They killed them and destroyed their bones.’

‘And the third man?’

She drew a deep breath. ‘They got to him as well. But he got closer than any of the other three. He was nearly in Guyana when they set off the bomb - made a great fire- aboard his aeroplane.’

‘Aeroplanes,’ Icana said whistfully. ‘I have seen the scars they scratch against the sky.’

‘His aeroplane broke up, high over the Amazon basin. Debris was scattered over a very wide area.’ She forced herself to sip more of the salty infusion. ‘Simulations showed … wise men looked at what had happened and decided there was a chance, a good chance, that the magic bone had survived the blast.’ She tapped the map still spread between them. ‘They worked out that if it had survived at all, it was somewhere in this area … the clearance zone. That is what the machines are doing. They’re tearing down the forest, looking for that magic bone. That’s the only thing that they’re doing. And they haven’t found it yet, and two thirds of the clearance zone has already been swept.’

Turned to sawdust, she thought: along with anyone and anything that happened to be in the way when the vast threshing engines arrived. Trees, animals, people. Harvested and sifted, passed along conveyor belts, graded into finer and finer sample sizes, subjected to magnetic and X-ray imaging, looking for that one thumb-sized node of metal and plastic and semiconductors …

‘And if the bone isn’t found?’

‘The spear will destroy itself, if anyone tries to make it work without the correct command code … the correct incantation. And the rock will still come.’

After a while, Icana said: ‘Why did you not give more men these bones?’

‘We didn’t trust ourselves. If one of the bones had got into the wrong hands … a terrorist group, a rogue state.’ She trailed off. ‘We thought this was the best way.’

‘And now the world ends, because of your foolishness.’

‘We didn’t make the rock,’ She said defensively. ‘The rock was coming anyway. But if we can find the memory stick … the bone … the spear can be activated.’

‘So your world is saved. But my world will be gone, whatever happens.’

‘I wish there was some other way.’

He beckoned over her shoulder, through the way she had come into his hut. ‘My people have never known anything but this village. Some of them will not wish to move. They will face your machines, stand loyal with the trees and birds.’ The thought seemed to move him. ‘Perhaps that would be the best thing for all of us.’

‘Don’t say that,’ she urged.

‘As if you really care what happens to us.’

‘Of course I do. I spent months with you. And I came back, didn’t I?’

‘You came back because you were made to. Who else understands our tongue? Who else would we listen to?’

‘Someone had to do it.’

‘I see sadness in your eyes, Magic Bone Woman. It was there when you first came to stay with us, but slowly it went away. Now it is back again, but much stronger.’

She thought of her outsider existence, its dreary rhythms, the grinding disappointments of her academic career. How different she had felt in the rainforest, subsumed into its green magnificence. How humanly alive.

‘I can’t,’ she said. ‘I have my work, my life …’ She fingered her memory stick. Papers to finish. Grant applications to complete. Absurd that she was still thinking of these things, with the end of the world hanging over them all.

‘You must leave us now,’ Icana said gravely. ‘I will speak to the elders, and I will tell them of the rock and the machines. There will be much disagreement, I think. Bad words will come out. It would be best if there was no outsider present.’

‘My helicopter isn’t due back until tomorrow.’

He shrugged, another learned gesture, her travel arrangements were of no possible concern to him now. Then: ‘The hunters will take care of you.’

‘I’ll find you again,’ she promised.

‘If we wish to be found,’ Icana said, with surprising coldness. ‘Perhaps we will not. Has it helped us to know of this rock, these machines? I am not sure.’

‘I’d want us to part as friends.’

The chief considered this, measuring her with his ageless eyes. ‘The world will not end with a rock,’ he said eventually. ‘That is not how it is foretold. But if you wish to believe such a thing so be it.’ Then he paused. ‘You say were always honest with me.’

She stuffed the map into her pocket. ‘I never lied.’

‘Your … charm.’ He pointed at the memory stick. ‘When our children asked why you carried it with you at all times, you said your power was contained in it. Your power of flight, your power of seeing in darkness, your power of speaking across the ocean.’

Well, she thought: indirectly that was sort of true, wasn’t it? The memory stick carried her research notes, years of months and sweat. And without the publications that flowed from that work, there would be no more field work. No travel allowance. No helicopters into the basin. No technology budget, for her GPS device, her satlink telephone, her Zeiss infrared goggles.

‘It … makes me what I am,’ she offered.

‘And if I would have that power, instead of you? If I would have my own magic bone? Would I be able to fly? Would I be able to see in the dark, and speak to the dead?’

She closed her eyes. ‘It doesn’t work like that.’

‘I know.’ Icana reached into the mass of trinkets and charms around his neck, fishing through the beaded cords until he found what it was he sought. 

With care he removed one of the amulets, lifting it over his head.

‘My hunters found this,’ he explained, holding it in his palmed hand. ‘Many days walk from here, before the last rains. They recognised it immediately, of course. Another magic bone.’ And he closed his fist on it, then reopened it slowly.

She stared in wonderment. The stick was a dull silver, cased in impact and heat-resistant alloy. It was scorched in one place, scratched in another. But it did not appear badly damaged.

She could not be sure. No one could until it was taken back to the compound, treated like a holy relic. There had been three false positives already; this might be the fourth. And even if it was the right one, it might not be readable.

But still…

‘I think I know what that is,’ she said.

‘We will swap charms,’ the chief declared. ‘They will be our parting gifts, to each other. We will not see each other again; too much will have happened for that. But we will not part as enemies.’

She reached around her own neck, and lifted free her own memory stick. Nothing on it she needed now, nothing that really mattered any more.

‘Thank you,’ she said.

‘Will the machines stop now?’

‘Yes,’ she said, too hastily. ‘Yes. They will.’

‘That is good,’ Icana said.

And they would stop, she thought. But not immediately. Too much was riding on things for that. It would take time to verify that the memory stick was both authentic and readable. The machines would not stop until there was absolutely no conceivable doubt that the stick was the one they sought. And even then … well, better safe than sorry.

Until the rock was diverted, and the world was safe again … they would not stop. 

‘I should go now,’ she said.

Copyright Alastair Reynolds 2013. In 2010 Barclays Bank commissioned a book for internal publication called Consequences, which contained stories, poems, cartoons and non-fiction on the broad theme of data security. I was very lucky to be one of the contributors. We were given a number of possible topics to explore, including identity fraud, password theft and so on. Around the same time, I had heard a true story about the very small number of individuals who essentially carry memory sticks containing the "start up codes" to reboot the entire internet, in the event of some calamitous global event causing the complete shut down of the network. It got me thinking: if losing the start-up codes to the entire internet would be serious enough, what could possibly be worse? And what lengths might you go to, to recover that lost information?


  1. Thank you for this story on your blog! Most excellent. However, would you be open to me proofreading it? If not, that's fine. Thanks for what I consider a special gift to your blog-followers.

  2. E-mailed it to you. You can ignore some of the "comma" nonsense. Different writers use them differently, depending on grammar and fluency intent, it seems. Thanks for letting me do that. Hope it helps.

  3. This was really good! I enjoyed it. Thank you for sharing it with us!

  4. Thanks for posting it here! I had hoped I would be able to read it.

  5. Lovely story. Please go see the movie "Embrace of the Serpent"