My first thought on seeing this was, ‘Aha, I’ve been meaning to read more by the author of The Tourist.‘ My next thought realized that Richard Parks was not the same as Paul Park. But after reading the story, Parks has joined the list with Park of authors I want to read more.
Jarak carves skulls. This is his position in the town. He takes the newly deceased and inscribes on them prayers, tableaux from their life, that sort of thing. The skull is then placed on a dais in the House of Skulls, where anyone can come in and see. The more beautifully carved a skull is, the more people visit it and venerate the deceased. And Jarak is legendarily good at his carving.
In fact, this is his first line: “I married your mother for her skull.” Much of the story is about Jarak describing his courtship, intermixed with watching a funeral ceremony in the present day. His target of affection, Letis, had a beautiful face as well as a beautiful skull, and she had many competing suitors to choose from. So far she had turned down all offers of marriage, promises more than Jarak could ever fulfill.
Then Jarak noticed that whenever Letis was in the House of Skulls, she would invariably stare most often at the skull of her great-great grandmother, whose skull had been exquisitely carved by a master. At that point he realized how he could win her:
I went up to your mother, and I said that her grandmother’s skull was the most beautiful in Trepa, and she agreed that this was so. Then I said ‘I love you, Letis. Marry me and when the time comes I will make of your skull a work to eclipse even that of Laersa. Folk will look at you as you look at her now, and none will surpass you. Your name and your memory will live forever.’ You see, I offered your mother immortality, and that’s the one thing I had to give her that no other could.”
And if it sounds like I’ve just revealed the end of the story, trust me, the best is still to come.
I love stories that convince me of a wholly different system of morality. It details a memorable yet believable society, and the ending plays off this so well that it transforms what would be horrific in any other story into something honorable and loving.
The Man who Carved Skulls by Richard Parks
Availability: free online, print
Word count: 4,300
First published: Weird Tales, April-May 2007
Where to find it: It has been published online in Lightspeed magazine here
Weird Tales: The Twenty-First Century, Volume One, edited by Sean Wallace & Stephen H. Segal, 2007, Prime Books
On the Banks of the River of Heaven, collection, 2010, Prime Books