The trees were full of crows and the woods were full of madmen. The pit was full of bones and her hands were full of wires.
Her fingers bled where the wire ends cut her. The earliest cuts were no longer bleeding, but the edges had gone red and hot, with angry streaks running backward over her skin. The tips of her fingers were becoming puffy and less nimble.
Marra was aware that this was not a good thing, but the odds of living long enough for infection to kill her were so small that she could not feel much concern.
She picked up a bone, a long, thin one, from the legs, and wrapped the ends with wire. It fit alongside another long bone—not from the same animal, but close enough—and she bound them together and fit them into the framework she was creating.
The charnel pit was full, but she did not need to dig too deeply. She could track the progression of starvation backward through the layers. They had eaten deer and they had eaten cattle. When the cattle ran out and the deer were gone, they ate the horses, and when the horses were gone, they ate the dogs.
When the dogs were gone, they ate each other.
It was the dogs she wanted. Perhaps she might have built a man out of bones, but she had no great love of men any longer.
Dogs, though … dogs were always true.
“He made harp pegs of her fingers fair,” Marra sang softly, tunelessly, under her breath. “And strung the bones with her golden hair…”
The crows called to each other from the trees in solemn voices. She wondered about the harper in the song, and what he had thought when he was building the harp of a dead woman’s bones. He was probably the only person in the world who would understand what she was doing.
Assuming he even existed in the first place. And if he did, what kind of life do you lead where you find yourself building a harp out of corpses?
For that matter, what kind of life do you lead where you find yourself building a dog out of bones?
Many of the bones had been cracked open for marrow. If she could find two that went together, she could bind them back to wholeness, but often the breaks were jagged. She had to splint them together with the wires, leaving bloody fingerprints across the surface of the bones.
That was fine. That was part of the magic.
Besides, when the great hero Mordecai slew the poisoned worm, did he complain about his fingers hurting? No, of course not.
At least, not where anyone could hear him and write it down.
“The only song the harp would play,” she crooned, “was O! The dreadful wind and rain…”
She was fully aware of how wild she sounded. Part of her recoiled from it. Another, larger part said that she was kneeling on the edge of a pit full of bones, in a land so bloated with horrors that her feet sank into the earth as if she were walking on the surface of a gigantic blister. A little wildness would not be out of place at all.
The skulls were easy. She had found a fine, broad one, with powerful jaws and soulful eye sockets. She could have had dozens, but she could only use one.
It hurt her in a way that she had not expected. The joy of finding one was crushed easily under the sorrow of so many that would go unused.
I could sit here for the rest of my life, with my hands full of wire, building dogs out of bone. And then the crows will eat me and I will fall into the pit and we shall all be bones together …
A sob caught in her throat and she had to stop. She fumbled in her pack for her waterskin and took a sip.
The bone dog was half-completed. She had the skull and the beautiful sweep of vertebrae, two legs and the long, elegant ribs. There would be at least a dozen dogs in this one, truly—but the skull was the important thing.
Marra caressed the hollow orbits, delicately winged in wire. Everyone said that the heart was where the soul lived, but she no longer believed it. She was building from the skull downward. She had discarded several bones already because they did not seem to fit with the skull. The long, impossibly fine ankles of gazehounds would not serve to carry her skull forward. She needed something stronger and more solid, boarhounds or elkhounds, something with weight.
There was a jump rope rhyme about a bone dog, wasn’t there? Where had she heard it? Not in the palace, certainly. Princesses did not jump rope. It must have been later, in the village near the convent. How did it go? Bone dog, stone dog …
The crows called a warning.
She looked up. The crows yammered in the trees to her left. Something was coming, blundering through the trees.
She pulled the hood of her cloak up over her head and slid partway down into the pit, cradling the dog skeleton to her chest.
Her cloak was made of owlcloth tatters and spun-nettle cord. The magic was imperfect, but it was the best she had been able to make in the time that she had been given.
From dawn to dusk and back again, with an awl made of thorns—yes, I’d like to see anyone do better. Even the dust-wife said that I had done well, and she hands out praise like water in a dry land.
The cloak of tatters left long gaps bare, but she had found that this did not matter. It broke up her outline so that people looked through her. If they found some of the bands of light and shadow lay a little strangely, they never stayed long enough to puzzle out why.
People were remarkably willing to dismiss their own sight. Marra thought perhaps that the world was so strange and vision so flawed that you soon realized that anything and everything could be a trick of the light.
The man came out of the trees. She heard him muttering but could not make out the words. She only knew it was a man because his voice was so deep, and even that was guesswork.
Most of the people of the blistered land were harmless. They had eaten the wrong flesh and been punished for it. Some saw things that were not there. Some of them could not walk and their fellows helped them. Two had shared a fire with her, some nights ago, although she was careful not to eat their food, even though they offered.
It was a cruel spirit that would punish starving people for what they had been forced to eat, but the spirits had never pretended to be kind.
Copyright © 2022 by Ursula Vernon