There isn’t much to say about how the man with the bone dice wins the soul off of Ágota’s brother. It is a quick sideshow of a game, while lazy passers-by pause to glance at the man’s shrewd hands. Ágota’s brother sits on an overturned bucket, and the man rolls onto a crusty pile of newspapers. The dice are tooth-yellow and worn dim. Instead of dots they have small concentric circles with spots, like puncture marks or spirit eyes. The man wins, as he is used to. Ágota sees her brother’s vacant eyes following the marks, she sees the drool brim over the corner of his mouth, and suddenly she knows. The man’s hand falls swift to gather the dice, the spirit eyes wink once and disappear. The tall man pats the boy’s shoulder, smiles, and then he’s gone. Ágota throws her brother’s arm over her shoulder, heaves his unresisting body, and carries him home.
The boy works off his debts at butcher shops and pig farms. The farmer kicks him around and laughs at him, the way the pigs always outsmart him and run off. Ágota walks him home, washes and feeds him, pushing the bread back into his mouth as he chews listlessly and bits fall out. He sleeps with his eyes open. One night Ágota wakes up and finds their mother bent over him in the dark. She’s crying and she has her knife against his throat. Her brother wakes up, stares at her, and falls back into sleep. The knife draws blood and then retreats. Ágota gets up, binds the wound, gathers their things and takes him away. She leaves her mother shaking on the empty bed.
The healer woman tells Ágota that cursed dice is man-business, book-business, and that she can do nothing for her. She sends her to the monks, who laugh at her. One of them promises to save her brother if she comes to him and stays all night, but when they are alone in his cell he begins to vomit and tremble all over, and he sends her away. She stumbles through the orchard, sits under an almond tree, and thinks about the spirit eyes. The gatekeeper finds her in the morning with blue lips and tears frozen on her cheeks. He takes pity on her and tells her that bone dice were bones before they were dice. Go looking for those bones, he says.
Ágota has searched for a long time until she hears of a ghost in a house not far away, the house where the tall man with the bone dice had stopped and eaten once. The grandmother claims the ghost eats up her birds, and she offers money for its capture. Ágota finds the house, scoops ash from the hearth and throws a handful wide in every room until the ghost is revealed. It is a tired, shimmering old man. He does not seem to hear them but when Ágota speaks to him he turns, strewing ash on the carpet, and leads her out towards the pond. There is a mound of upturned earth under the willow. She sinks her arms into the ground until she tastes the soil, sweet and damp. Her fingers close around the comb of a ribcage. Help me, she tells the old man, but the ghost shakes its insubstantial head. You help me, he says, and points at the knuckles of his left hand. Ágota digs out a frail thighbone and snaps it over her knee. The old man winces, and averts his eyes in shame. She snaps another bone. Look for my right hand, he says at last, and find a whetstone.
It is some time until the tall man comes back into town. It’s been a good harvest, the men have full pockets and they are itching for a game. They don’t care if they are cheated as long as they get a fair tumble out of it. The tall man is patient. He smiles. Now he rolls onto a porch’s floorboards, surrounded by empty bottles, and the losers stumble down the steps with glazed eyes. Ágota waits until they’re gone, until the tall man leans back and sighs in weary satisfaction. She sits across him. He smiles, and tells her to place her bet. Ágota takes out her own bone dice, still new and sharp. If I win I get my brother, she says. There is no winning, he laughs. You’ll see.
Ágota walks home. Her pocket weighs the coin the tall man gave her as a token of her winnings. It is strange, angular and smooth. When she sits by her brother’s bed she sees his blank gaze, the spit bubbling on his lips. She puts her finger on the scar that mother left. No winning, the man had said. She clutches her coin, remembering how the tall man lost, how he crumbled in a heap of festering skin and rags, how his dice cracked open like eggs. She runs her fingers through the boy’s hair. I’ll find you a soul. She takes out her dice, strokes and kisses them one by one. They’re warm, and salty to her mouth. Even if it won’t be your own.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Clio Velentza is a writer from Athens, Greece. She is a winner of Best Microfiction, Wigleaf’s Top 50 and The Best Small Fictions, and a Pushcart Prize nominee. She writes prose and plays, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in several literary journals. You can find her on twitter at @clio_v