The bell tolls; their vigil ends, my workday is upon me. I peek through the curtains – drawing them lets in too much dawn – and I squint. It snowed, it snowed a lot. The family are gathered at the doors, mourning and weary faces are pale against the black outfits. The little one is with them, she yawns and holds onto her mother’s sleeve. The community slowly starts to crawl into the church. Cold hands are patted, handkerchiefs dabbed at the corners of dry eyes. I brush crumbs off the front of my sweater and clasp my hands around the warm mug. I walk out and the thick carpet of snow crunches under my boots. The cold is good, I suppose. For the flesh. The cold wakes me up, bites my skin, but it won’t wake up the dead. I’ll listen to the ceremony from here. Nobody wants the bonesmith around for their last goodbyes.
I dip my fingertips into the tea, I can’t let them go numb. The bell tolls again; the ceremony is over, the church empties itself out into the winter morning. I leave the mug on the windowsill. I can’t exactly be too casual with the family, but I figure that if they see I drink tea, just like them, maybe I’ll be that bit more of a human, in their eyes.
The family trail behind the two men who carry the small casket. I stand in front of my door, straight as a cross. The mother’s eyes cross mine and we exchange a nod, she sniffs bravely and steps up to open the narrow gate for the men; they don’t proceed right away. They pause, spare the family no mind. It takes but a moment. A kiss on the polished wood, a fond caress, smiles. They clutch their ancestors, their bone jewelry, they are ready. The men move forward. I didn’t sweep the snow off the little paved path that leads to my door, so their feet sink and don’t slip, they march on safely. I open the door and step aside, they know full well where to carry the casket.
I wait for them outside, the family linger by the gate, relieved and wary faces looking up to me. I am taking the burden off their shoulders, but it is taking, still. The mother nudges the little one forward, my heart clenches. She’s so small, she rubs her eyes as she wobbles through the snow. Does she realize, does she even know? Maybe I should have swept it, after all. I don’t move. She reaches me and holds out an envelope. I take it, should I smile? She looks at me with big eyes, as tired as they are.
“Promise to make her pretty?”
Now I smile, and nod. She smiles, too, mouths a ‘see you soon’, and makes her way back to other pained but smiling faces. She hugs her mother’s leg, the mother rubs her back. Without looking at her. The men exit, carrying a lighter casket, my workday begins.
I look down at this little one, who just looks so much like the one who handed me the envelope.
“It won’t hurt…”
I would like to work fast, faster, so she would get home sooner, but I hardly can. This is sacred. I light candles, so she won’t be scared; I burn incense, so I won’t smell like iron.
There are scars around her knees, on her shins, likely mirrored on her twin, there is past pain and fond memories, they don’t belong to me, they are not for me to immortalize, there’s no such thing. There are moles and freckles, games of connect-the-dots, constellations, they are not for me to trace, they are not for me either. I do not concern myself with the ephemeral.
I slice through layers upon layers of flesh, nothing bleeds, nothing hurts. All is cold.
I discard the strips of her, her features, her figure, the shape of her are not for me to remember.
I am not a carrion bird, I am a digger. I dig, I discover, I strip the bones; they must be bare.
Without the blue of the skin, the red of the flesh, after much peeling, much cleaning, there they are. White, white as china.
Time can hurt her no more. There is calcium, there is carbon, stardust and earth; there is soul in the marrow, there is her.
I wrap the bones in her clothes. She’s little, she and I met too soon; but her ribcage is large enough to hold the nests of birds, her skull their morning tea, or a houseplant. They’ll make crosses and walking canes with her femurs, humeri and tibias, necklaces with her vertebrae, phalanges, teeth, a wedding crown with her pelvis. The bones that held her up, the bones that hold her in; she’ll be with them, in different shapes.
I find comfort in knowing the family won’t see her wither. I find relief in sending the bird to summon them, so that they may return their little one home. It’s only been a day, I worked through the night – my own vigil – because the little one said ‘see you soon’. I brew tea, I know they likely will not share it with me.
The family hesitantly hover at the narrow gate. Their cheeks are rosy, their eyes vivid, their clothes whiter than the melting snow. I step aside, I don’t have to say anything. The little one rushes forward, dragging her mother along, they all follow. None greet me.
They settle around my coffee table, with their hands on their laps and their eyes on the bundle, not the kettle. The tea can wait. I unfold the clothes the way one draws the sheets from a still sleeping child. They all lean forward, though not towards me – I think maybe I do smell like death. The little one softly gasps. She looks at me, I smile, I nod. She takes the skull in her tiny hands, her big eyes gazing into the big sockets. She beams, there are cries of joy and wonder. The little one hugs her sister. She won’t let go, but she asks if she can have honey with her tea.
Astrid Vallet (she/they) is an English graduate from France, currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Cultural Studies. Their work is featured in Sonder Magazine, The Shoutflower and Hecate Magazine among others; it usually revolves around queer, neurodivergent women like her, and she’s decided that that’s okay. They tweet at @astriddoeswrite.
photo by Anne Nygård, Priscilla Du Preez, Alexandru Acea and Annie Spratt (via unsplash)