The Corpse and the Skeleton

Clark Ashton Smith

Scene: The catacombs of the ancient city of Oomal. A new corpse has been deposited along-side a skeleton, which, from its mouldiness and worm-picked appearance, seems of considerable antiquity.

The Corpse: How now, old bare-bones! What word of the worm? Methinks you have known him well, in your time.

The Skeleton: Aye, aye, and so will you: 'Tis a world of creditors, of which the tomb and the worm are the last. There is little left for the devil, when these have taken their due account. The vermin is a very Jew, and will have his last ounce of brain and marrow. 'Has spared me never a scrap of flesh nor tatter of skin against the mouldy breath of the cavern-wind, nor aught save the jaw-bone to stop the diddering of my teeth.

The Corpse: You speak so dismally: To change the theme, let us talk of our former lives.

The Skeleton: Willingly, willingly, though as for myself, I fear my memories have grown a trifle musty, from five hundred years, more or less, in an air that is rotten with the dead. However, for the dust that has settled among the bones of my throat, I bethink me that I was once a taverner, and, for capacity, was not a least of mine own puncheons. Often-sith have I thirsted for even a quart, in lieu of those former tunfuls. Time is a cheating merchant, he has given me this modicum of mould, in exchange for a noble corporosity. Death, you will find, is a dull business, and without profit despite the number of the traffickers.

The Corpse: Where, then, with their multiform splendours, are the heavens of light and hells of fire, promised unto faith by the sybils and hierophants?

The Skeleton: Ask of yonder cadaver, him whose corpulence diminishes momently, for the pampering of worms. He was once a priest, and spoke authentically of these matters, with all the delegated thunder of gods. As for myself, I have found nothing beyond this narrow charnel vault, in whose lethal night are bred the vapours of pestilence, that wander forth to swell our number with the living, and rise from the rotten earth for an incense to the very sun.

The Corpse: 'Twas the pestilence that sent me here from my marriage-bed. I was an optimate of Oomal, yet they have thrust me away to rot among the common rogues.

The Skeleton (Sympathetically, and in a tone less like the grating of bones than heretofore): Too bad, too bad! Albeit I am long beyond the flesh myself I commiserate you. The brides are bony, and the bedfellows cold, that you are like to find here, even though you lie till the death-light glimmers within your eye-sockets for the sparkling of lust.

The Corpse: Find we then, no recompense, no meed of wisdom holden unto Death, nor the secrets buried from the sun, in the deep night of charnals?

The Skeleton: We have wisdom, if you like-a dull and dusty wisdom, and I would give it all for a good draught of Chian wine. Perchance 'tis something to know that bodies are made of dust and water, the last of which is evaporable, and the former capable of dissolvement. For this is all our knowledge, in spite of much that is known and spoken of hierophant and philosopher. However, unlike the lore and wisdom of these, it can be contained without discommodation by one skull.

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