About Her Bones So Bleak And Bare Matthew F. Amati
The dead girl had never been a favorite of ours, and now she wouldn’t leave our yard.
I watched black birds wheel like burnt crosses over the fields. The sun fell, dragging the sky down with it until the last light shone on our freakish visitor.
Jinny saw her first, through the kitchen door. “Like a silver shadow, Pa,” she said to me. “Flitting from the shed to the silage pit.”
A trick of the dusk? But she moaned like a stricken lamb.
“Hell,” Mab spat, for my wife knew the cards our shit luck played. “It’s the Beezer brat. Hob, I told you to put this curse away.”
I flinched, as always, at Mab’s broken voice. I’d done the job, exactly as my black-eyed wife had bidden. No burial. No soil to sully her. Laid the girl’s body on the high ledge where the canyon falls from the field.
“You done it wrong, Hob. You was supposed to strow her bones for birds to take. Look!”
At first, the girl shook like a burnt stick struck by St. Vitus. Then she turned in a shaft of cloudglow, and it was little Lottie Beezer, all right. Twelve years old forever. Jaw gone where the blades had got her.
Moan, moan, and moan. The dead girl held something up in her left hand, but I couldn’t see what it was.
“What’s she doing there?” Jinny asked.
Mab’s head swiveled, black eyes on her child. “Where’s your silver pendant gone?”
Jinny didn’t answer right away. Mab scratched the slate floor with a yellow toenail.
“On my lamp-stand.” But Jinny’s shaking voice told us her pendant was not on her lamp-stand.
We heard an owl’s meal scream in a far copse. Jinny cowered like a rabbit.
My back’s bent, too, child, I thought. Both of us, living our lives in Mab’s shadow, like falling claws could snatch us any second.
Fear fades you, like sun scorches a cushion.
“You killed her, Hob,” Mab said to me, in a voice like gravel on grass. “The body was yours to lay out for birds.”
I told Mab (again) how it was an accident. “Fool girl crouched in the cornrows. In a hut made of husks. Fear froze her when the combine came.” Memory sickened me. How I hadn’t seen Lottie. How a scream pierced the engine’s roar.
(But it was Mab had told me to mow, before the corn was even ripe. “Some things,” she’d said, “you got to cut down before they get tall.”)
The girl danced closer now, to the foot of the porch stairs. She flickered like a worn old film.
Mab made a noise like chooks. “A mangled mess, that corpse. All ripped up with bits of blue blanket. Your blue blanket,” she croaked at Jinny.
“Wasn’t mine,” but Jinny’s voice gave her away.
Mab’s head jerked from side to side. Her hair was black as a well’s throat. At first I thought night was falling, but no – Mab was growing dark faster than the light failed.
“Who was Lottie Beezer waiting for in that corn-husk house? Stretched on a blue blanket? Who was she fixing to hide away with?”
“I don’t know, Ma!” But Jinny’s voice called her liar once more.
Lottie appeared sudden and close by the door, waving the thing in her hand. It was the pendant, glinting silver in the sun’s last ray. She stretched her arms towards Jinny.
“Hob, I told you. I said put the little bitch where the birds would get her,” Mab said. “You failed. Now she’s come for us.”
“I put her torn tiny body where you said to, Mab. Where the wind blew around her bones. But Mab, I don’t think a bird’s going to take a dead girl anywhere.”
Unless, I thought, it’s a bird hatched from hate. Whom fear gave beak and claws.
Ma scratched the floor with both feet – skritch-skritch-skritch. Her arms were folded into the dark of her body. Her face was long and cruel – longer than a face ought to be.
“Shows what you know. Birds take them all away. All dirty ones who hide from decent folk in the secret, sighing corn.”
“All right,” Jinny said. “She waited for me. All right? Lottie was waiting for me. It was our secret house in the corn. It was my blanket got tore up. It’s my pendant she’s got.” She turned her face to Lottie’s skittering shade and sobbed.
Twin sable sheets of night rose from my wife’s sides. Her crooked feet grabbed at Jinny.
Jinny dodged, quick as a fear-bent coney.
The door flew off its hinges. Silver arms choked Mab’s ruffled throat. Lottie shook like angry lightning, but would not let go.
Mab shrieked. She shot through the broken door, wrapped in Lottie’s writhing shadow.
My wife spread her wings. With the dead girl clinging, Mab’s monstrous shape fled to the black part of the sky where the moon should have been.
Mab was gone. Had she always been what she became? How can a person know?
Jinny and I were still here. Lottie had saved us. Now maybe we could unbend our backs. Maybe we could unfade, be vivid the way living people should be.
Not all of Mab had gone. A sooty feather lay on the kitchen stones.
“Don’t!” I said, but Jinny stooped to pick it up.
Scars bear fruit. All over Jinny’s body, black pinions grow. But Jinny’s determined; she will not be a force for darkness. Her wings will be shelter, her claws rescue to those stranded on fearsome heights. And someday, soaring through fallow skies plucked clean of stars, she will find her Lottie again.
PATREON EXCLUSIVE: BEHIND-THE-SCENES INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR MATTHEW F. AMATI
FFO: How did the idea for this story germinate?
I was reading the early Scots border ballad “The Twa Corbies” Two crows talk about a dead knight whose corpse they’re planning to pick apart. We learn that the only witnesses to the implied murder are “his hawk, his hound, and his lady fair.” (One assumes the bird and the dog aren’t guilty, but we definitely harbor suspicions about the girlfriend). It’s delicious, spare, and chilling. The ending lines are:
About his banes, so bleak an’ bare
The wind sall blaw, forevermair
Stevie Smith, reciting this poem for the BBC in her broad Northern English vowels, comments on “the terrifying universe around the edges of the poem.” That’s what I love in a flash horror piece, the implication of a terrifying universe, whose rules are only hinted at.
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