Baba would come quick after dinner, one crooked finger to her lips, and press my palm with a chicken bone. Father saw her once and told her to stop her old country witchcraft; after, she moved in secret. I wrapped the bones in cloth and hid them in my trunk, and when it was full, I buried them along the path to the forest.
Baba’s husband was a hard man who died in the mines before I was born; her nose was off-center from the time he launched his lantern at her face. Father never hit. He said there were subtler ways to influence.
“I don’t like to do this,” he would say each time he locked me in my room. “I’m a kind man.”
The kind of kind who must remind you all the time.
He was slim with a swagger, debonair and mid-smirk in his wedding photo. My mother was birdsong and honeycomb, until she grew sick and wasted away. It didn’t take father long to find a new wife. He looked at women like they were sculpted butter, fresh for him to spread as he wished, and the new wife melted under his gaze.
The week they married he sent Baba away without warning, for his bride had two apple-cheeked daughters who deserved a playroom. They were slender and flaxen, braided and bright, and fixed by a mother’s gaze that hovered somewhere between pride and jealousy. He showered them with toys and dresses, rose-red and lily-white. Me, he kept in all black, for my mourning.
“You’ll have your mother’s dresses one day,” he promised, “but I just can’t bear to look at them.”
It was then he started to lock me in for days at a time. I would suck the old bones in the closet, tongue aching for marrow, and dream of them linking their cartilage into the form of a girl, one who lived just under my skin. In the dreams, I would give her cakes and milk, and would wake feeling nourished.
Once, he left me for a week. When he let me out, bones tenting my black dress, he smiled and complimented my shape.
“It’s good for the body and soul to want,” he said.
I knew want, and I wanted what my sisters had. Their beauty taunted me, as did the tales my father would tell of their trips to the lake, of pony rides at the rink near town. Next time, if I was good, I might get to go along, he said. I tried to stay golden in his gaze, to stay quiet and light. Though there was food in abundance when I wasn’t locked up, I could tell from his eyes when I wasn’t meant to eat. I fed the bone doll instead.
One day my father left, on business in the city. My stepmother let out a long, low sigh that ended in a smile, as she stripped off the corset she always wore and set oil to simmer on the stove. We would pay for it later, she said, as she boiled potatoes and pounded dough, but tonight we would eat like queens.
That night the fog burned off in the sun of our satiety. They had been sworn to secrecy, my sisters told me, but each time I had been locked in my chamber, so had they in theirs. There was no lake, no town, beyond the dreams they were promised if they, too, behaved. My stepmother wept softly over her stew. She hated him but some food was better than none, and he told her no other man would deign to marry her, that she was lucky.
After dinner, my sisters grabbed my hands and brought me to the playroom he had made them in Baba’s old chamber, full of porcelain dolls and rocking horses and music boxes.
“We get toys as long as we stay small,” my sister explained.
Their string was gilded, but they were puppets still.
We knew he would be back, but until then we padded our skeletons and played with abandon. My sisters shared their dolls and we built castles from my bone collection. One day, when our food was running low, my stepmother sent us to town. But as we set out we came across a trail of chicken bones that beckoned us into the forest, and we followed.
The trail ended at a pair of chicken feet, foundation to a towering hut ringed with skeletal lanterns. We heard the bleating of goats and the clucking of chickens from the backyard, and herbs from the verdant garden teased our noses. My heart leapt when I looked to the doorway and spotted a crooked nose framed with wild white hair, and one bent finger beckoning us inside.
“He cast me in the woods,” Baba told us, over sausage and cheese. “But I had bones to build my hut.”
A fortress for her, like I had built inside me.
“I’ve been watching, waiting. And now you’ll watch and wait for him, and bring him to me, and you’ll never be hungry again.” She crushed herbs with her mortar and pestle, for a potion we were to bring him.
“Keep a chicken bone in your pocket, for luck.” She winked.
My stepmother took little convincing. And so, the night he returned, she showered him with her finest kiss and a final, glorious meal. We were quiet over dinner, barely touching our food as he drank his potion and we fingered our bones for luck. We would eat well soon enough. After dinner, my sisters circled father’s legs with their arms.
“Come, father,” they told him. “We’ve made you a surprise in the woods. Something to show how much we missed you, how much we need you.” Swaying on his feet already, he took my sisters’ hands as I trailed behind, giddy on the path to Baba’s ready hearth.
Some children deserve to be eaten.
S.E. Hartz (she/her) is a fiction writer and environmental scientist living in Brooklyn, New York. She has work published in Lammergeier, LandLocked Magazine, (mac)ro(mic), and others, and she can be found on Twitter at @unsilentspring.
photo by Tim Foster (via unsplash)