The bone-flutes are restless this morning. There is no wind yet, and the reeds stand unmoving amid the dark silty water; but the flutes shift where they hang beneath the thick sheaf of the eaves, rippling with mournful notes. They’ve faded from pink to yellow as they dried – though I watered them every day with tears, at first – to white. They’re almost translucent now, and their music is gentle. More beautiful with each passing winter. I whistle softly at them until they fall silent.
Amber mist cloaks the rising sun. The same mist tickles my bare ankles, but it’s colourless down here by the water, like the steam from my chipped old cup, rose-hip-scented, warming my chilled face.
A bird calls, far off amid the dense prickling bushes that guard the edge of the marsh. Lonely, mayhap. The bleached planks of the deck creak, some shifting a little underfoot. I chose a dry-ish spot to sit and lower myself down. My knees creak too, but I’m still able to fold my legs and tuck my bare toes under my thighs to keep them warm.
Ma always scolded me for wandering the marsh with no shoes on.
‘Them eels’l be ticklin’ your bones with their teeth, girlie, mark my words! Don’t come a-cryin’ to me when you end up with no toes!’
I lean back against the wall of the hut and sip my tea, savouring the way the sweet-bitter brew makes my mouth water. It’ll be warmer soon. The sun is starting to burn the mist off. A hot copper-penny sizzling in the clouds.
I rub absently at the old, round knot of scarring on the back of my left hand. Some days I must remind myself that I chose it. I could have smoothed the mark away with one of my salves, if I had wanted, after the wound healed and the infection was gone. Faded it from pink to yellow to white. But I chose to remember instead.
The far-off bird calls again. Another answers and for a moment their songs entwine. A happy ending?
I enjoy the quiet along with another sip of tea. They’ll start to arrive soon: seekers, travellers from the villages and the towns beyond the hills. They stream into the marshes like the black rivulets that raise up through the reed beds at high tide. Everyone wants healing, remedies or advice these days. A salve, a potion. A whispered fortune. Broken hearts and broken bones mended. Business is brisk. Everyone wants to see me just once, while I’m still alive, still working. There’s a good thirty years of life left in me yet – I can feel that in my bones, the way Ma used to be able to tell, with a touch, when death was rooted in someone – but I look ancient to them. In truth, I am something ancient. The last Cunning Woman of the marshes.
Ma always warned me about this, too.
‘You’ll end up all alone out here at this rate, girlie, mark my words!’
But I never did my duty, even though Ma tried everything she could to make me – kept on trying, right until the very end.
I never went out there with flowers braided into my hair, holding up a smile before my fear and determination like a mask. Never laid down beneath a man for as many nights as it took, enduring, then stole away in the dark to return to the marshes when I knew my belly would swell. Never broke anyone’s heart. Nor broke the spirit of any children. Or their bones.
And I still have all my toes.
It’s not my bones – the thick, strong thigh bone, the elegant ulna, the filigree of the long, gnarled fingers – that hang from the eaves of my hut now, disturbing the air with their plaintive notes, tying the wind into knots as it passes through the tiny holes I carved into their lengths.
When they were new, the flutes had a harsher music. Shrill and sharp, like corvids fighting over carrion. They were never silent, never still. Oh, it was a hard winter that year. I was a woman grown, but I felt like a child, tiny and fragile and afraid as I crept around the newly quiet house, learning everything afresh, every squeak of every plank underfoot, every knot and stitch of every blanket, the chipped rim of every jar, the papery dry smells of the herbs in each basket. The frosts were as thick as snow, and set over the water with a crust like iron. Icicles sprouted from the bone-flutes then, and I flinched from their song. It followed me into my nightmares. There were times when I didn’t think I would survive, especially with my bad hand and the fever of infection that seemed to go on and on and on.
But the spring came. The swifts and swallows returned, drawing the warmth of the sun behind them like a promise. My hand healed. When I wove yellow iris and bittercress and the white stars of bogbean into my hair that summer, it was for myself, myself, myself only, and I laughed as I danced through the reed beds, barefoot. I laughed.
Time flows as smoothly as water in a life without fear. And the bone-flutes really don’t sound anything like Ma anymore.
The bird calls a final time, its trill spinning out over the misty reeds and water. This time there is no reply. Some creatures are happier alone, mayhap.
The author masterfully drops the reader into an unfamiliar world. I was impressed by the use of the natural environment, the seasons, and the overall world-building here.Patricia Q. Bidar
I love the character building here, and the voice, done in a lovely, nuanced way, this healer or witch by the marsh, who has never been in love and always been alone, and prefers it that way, with her mother her only close companion. The story took me away to another time and place altogether. I interpreted that the bone flutes were her mother’s bones, still talking to her, sharing a sort of lovely pathos with her. I love the imagery, and the metaphors—the eel, the birds calling. The harsh winter when she was on her own without her mother, that she barely survived, but then the spring came and renewed her faith in herself, and the penultimate line “Some creatures are happier alone, mayhap,” all bravely point to a life alone worth living.Eliot Li
An accomplished tale, one painting the dark hinterland of the central character’s experience. Mysterious and memorable.Rachel Edwards