Aaron Elkins: Old Bones

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Aaron Elkins Old Bones
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    Old Bones
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Old Bones

Aaron Elkins


So still and silent was the fog-wreathed form that it might have been an angular, black boulder. But there are no boulders, angular or otherwise, to mar the immense, flat tidal plain that is Mont St. Michel Bay. When the tide is out there is only sand, more than a hundred square miles of it. And when the tide is in, the plain becomes a vast, rolling ocean from which the great abbey-citadel of Mont St. Michel itself-St. Michael’s Mount-rears like some stupendous, God-made thing of dark and gloomy granite, all narrow Gothic arches and stark, medieval perpendiculars.

The mist eddied, then shifted, and the figure was revealed to be a lean, elderly man in a fur hat and a heavy, well-tailored black overcoat, kneeling in the sand and hunched over a limpet shell in his leather-gloved left hand. But though his head was appropriately inclined, the old man was not looking at the shell.

He stared without seeing, his thoughts far away. His right hand was thrust deeply into the pocket of the overcoat. For many minutes he remained so, unmoving, lost in reflection, and then he tensed suddenly. His head jerked up, then cocked to one side, the better to listen. The wide, aristocratic forehead was inquisitively wrinkled, the thick, white eyebrows arched. A terrible, white scar that began at the left corner of his mouth and disappeared under a black satin eye patch seemed to tighten, so that his thin mouth was jerked out of line. His right eye, gray and clear, held a look of strained disbelief.

The old man, who never spoke to himself, spoke to himself.

"The tide?" he whispered, and again: "The tide!"

He dropped the mollusk and rose stiffly to his feet. He bent again to fumble with one hand for the woven-straw mat on which he’d been kneeling to protect the knees of his dark-gray trousers, but then he flung that away too, turned, and made grimly for the Mont, more than a kilometer away, which was visible only dimly and intermittently through the mist. The man moved quickly but jerkily, his crippled leg throwing his balance off, his left hand energetically swinging, his right immobile in its pocket.

The tide! How could he have lost track of time so completely? It hardly seemed possible, but there was no mistaking the sound of it, nor the rush of cool, salt-laden air that streamed before it. "With the roar of thunder," went the old Breton nursery song, "and the speed of a galloping horse, comes the tide to Mont St. Michel."

He did not require the aid of metaphor to understand his predicament. The speed of the incoming tide was not quite that of a galloping horse, but it was fast enough-a gleaming skin of water rolling smoothly into the bay at nearly twenty-five kilometers an hour, its face endlessly collapsing and tumbling in on itself. It was no towering tidal wave of death, he knew that; but a seeping, stealthy flood that was not there one moment, sloshed at one’s ankles the next, then at one’s hips…

The wind had brought with it an icy squall of sleet, and already the man’s wool coat was wet, the rims of his ears burning. The thin fog shredded before the wind, wrapping the spires and turrets of the Mont with otherworldly filaments of silver, tinged pink by the pale and dying sun. On the rampart of the north tower he could see a few people, tourists, waving him earnestly on; shouting too, he thought. Simpletons. Couldn’t they see that he was moving as quickly as he could? That he was an old man and lame? Why didn’t they come down and help him instead of jumping uselessly about?

Even as he asked it, he knew it was a foolish question. Although the tour du nord was at the base of the walls surrounding the abbey buildings themselves, it hung high up on the rock, over fifty meters above the tidal plain, and the path down was rocky and uneven. They could never reach him in time. And why should they risk their lives in the treacherous sands to help him?

He didn’t let himself think about whether he could outrun the water, but limped on, his warmly booted feet dragging through the sand. The water was not yet visible behind him; there was only the thrumming. That and the rush of moist air. His chest heaved, and inside it hot needles twisted in his scarred lungs. The old wounds in his leg and foot burned. Still, he was advancing on the Mont. He was close enough to hear an occasional shout now. Perhaps, after all, there was a chance-

He stopped abruptly. There was water in front of him. He stared, blinking, at the shallow, mauve-tinged rivulet that ran from left to right across his path twenty or thirty steps ahead. He understood perfectly what it was and what it meant. The tide did not advance with a solid front, but threw out long tendrils-how beautiful they looked from up on the Mont-in sweeping, almost circular curves that first isolated, then encroached upon, and finally engulfed great bays of the yellow sand.

While he looked at it, the long finger of water became an arm of the sea, spreading and deepening before him. He spun about, expecting to see the main body of water close behind, but except for a few tentative feelers, it was still far away, perhaps a hundred meters. He had a chance yet, by the good Lord!

He plunged ahead into the ankle-deep water, knowing he ran the risk of stepping into a submerged stream or a patch of quicksand, but knowing too that he had no choice. His calf-high boots kept the wetness and cold from his feet, but they seemed to pull him down, as if they were lined with lead and not with wool, and each step was an exhausting effort that puffed out his lean cheeks. The furrowed scar pulled at the satin-covered socket of his empty eye now, so that his entire face felt awry.

"Vite!" they shouted from the north tower. "Vite!" As if they thought he was taking his time!

With dismay the old man watched the arm of water through which he plodded swell and send out tendrils of its own. It was almost up to his calves now, and the leading edge rolled onward, pulling maddeningly away from him as he dragged himself towards it. His heart pounded with each lurching step through the sucking sand, and he was hot and fearfully cold at the same time. Icy water began slopping onto the tops of his boots, weighing him down still more and setting his limbs to convulsive shivering.

The boots, he thought. If he could get them off…But he knew he couldn’t afford to stop in the rising water, and he knew he didn’t have the strength to do it; not with only one good hand. In growing confusion he tore off his fur hat instead and threw it away. The chilling blast of sleet on the back of his neck made him cry out and tremble so convulsively that he could barely see. Still, with the water sloshing in his boots and his breath like knives in his throat, he managed three more blind steps before he finally stumbled into the quicksand.

The infamous sable mouvant of Mont St. Michel Bay is not quicksand, strictly speaking, not a slippery, shifting mass of smooth-grained sand and upward-percolating water; it is a phenomenon unique to this colossal tidal flat: deep pockets filled with water and covered with a layer of sand that somehow floats on top of them. From the battlements of the north tower they are invisible, and to the small, avid crowd gathered there it seemed as if the legs of the staggering man on the darkening plain below suddenly disappeared. A woman screamed and locked her fingers over her mouth. The others watched in rapt, shocked silence. Below, the tiny figure struggled, flailing at the still-shallow water with one arm and sinking all the more rapidly for it.

Until the very instant it closed smoothly over his head he was wriggling so desperately it seemed he must come up again, but the surface remained unbroken except for an innocuous dimple that marked the place he had been. And within a few seconds it was as if he had never been there at all.

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