A Secret of Birds & Bone – Kiran Millwood Hargrave

In the grounds of a ruined monastery, on the outskirts of Siena, a girl awoke in a charnel house. All about her were skeletons: by the thin shafts of light flitting in from the slits in the ribcage shutters she could see the bed about her, built from tibias and fibulas. A moon-white skull still warm from last night’s fire was cupped over her feet, for here the nights were clear and cool. Over her head draped a canopy of gold-dipped toe bones in great, gilded wreaths, and teeth were set like stars in the chinks in the walls. But the girl was not afraid. This house, built of old and golden bone, was her home – and today was her twelfth birthday. No one else was awake: her mother’s and brother’s beds along the other walls were still, and the house was silent as a tomb. Sofia lay calm in her bone bed, and smiled. Soon Corvith, their crow, would squawk for breakfast, and her brother Ermin, always tired and sleeping long into mornings, would grumble at the noise, and Mamma would rise and stoke the fire for lavender honey and milk. There would be presents, and perhaps Mamma would change her mind about letting them go to the Palio— Thump. Sofia stopped smiling. She sat up, and immediately bumped her head on the headboard. She had lately grown too tall for her bed, and Mamma hadn’t yet made it bigger. Thump. She got up more slowly, rubbing the sore spot on her crown, and turned towards the closed door that led to their mother’s workshop.

Thump. The sound came again, followed by small clinks, light as raindrops stumbling against the tiles of the patella roof. Now that her eyes were adjusted to the gloom, Sofia could see the door was slightly ajar and that her mother’s bed was empty. Heaviness flooded her body, like she hadn’t slept at all. She’d hoped these days were over. The days where Mamma seemed to float through her waking hours as though under a storm cloud, or crushed beneath an invisible sack of weighty worry. Mamma had promised they would be done, only yesterday. I’m finished, she said last night, pressing a kiss to Sofia’s forehead, no more late nights. No more days away. It ends tomorrow, and we will celebrate your birthday like a saint’s day.

Sofia clenched her teeth together until her jaw clicked. Mamma had lied to her, and on her birthday of all days. She pushed back her blanket and padded on bare, quiet feet past Ermin’s bed and Mamma’s empty sheets to the gap in the door. Corvith stirred as she passed, snug in his skull nest. ‘So?’ he squawked, but a quick rub of his feathered head sent his beady black eye closed again, and Sofia was able to peer unnoticed through the door that connected the bedroom and Mamma’s workroom. This was as far as she was allowed to go, now. The shutters here were closed too, and a lavender wax candle burned in its knucklebone holder, wafting the purple scent towards Sofia. Mamma was hunched at her broad worktable, surrounded by creamy white bone shavings. Her dark skin was streaked pale with the powdery dust that settled finely in the air about her, her black curls caught up away from her face with a finger-bone hairpin. This was the first thing Sofia had ever made, a simple design where she’d hinged the joint with bronze so it could manage Mamma’s unruly tangles.

Ermin could have made better, and it was a trinket compared to Mamma’s artistry, but still Mamma treasured it like the finest relic. Sofia knew not to be jealous of the hours Mamma spent in this room, the door pushed to or closed entirely, because Mamma had a calling, a skill, a gift, and such things were valuable and must not be ignored. Mamma was an ossuarist, a bone builder. She was the greatest in all of Italy, perhaps in all the world, though there were rumours from Central Asia of a man who crafted carts and boats. But the delicacy of Mamma’s creations was unparalleled. Ermin and Sofia watched as she wove thighbone with clavicle as though they were lace, frosted knuckles with diamonds to make hinges that would never break, made gold-dipped locks from vertebrae that could be opened only by a finger bone from the same skeleton. She specialized in reliquaries – ornate bone boxes to hold the famous relics of the cathedral. These remains of saints were believed to have the power of healing. Santa Maria’s toe bone, said to cure dancing manias, was encased in a lattice of ankle bones. Santa Peter’s jawbone, healer of toothache, was tiled in molars.

Her greatest work was for Santa Catherine’s finger bone, said to heal the sicknesses of whoever held it in their bare palm. This received a particularly fine gold-filigree box, with an especially complex lock of knuckles. Mamma also made simpler boxes for poorer customers, as well as earrings, door handles and sometimes, like their bone house, whole rooms. Mamma’s skills were celebrated, but very few knew her truest gift. Only Sofia, Ermin, and Corvith knew – and not even they were allowed to watch the process. Only they knew that their mamma was not solely a bone builder: she was a bone binder. When she made something, it was not merely beautiful. It was blessed. Blessed by the spirit of the person whose bones had been used to make it. Some might call it magic but Mamma thought that made it sound like superstition, in the realms of fairies and witches.

And this particular magic was bone-bound, earth-made, rule-tangled. So when a widow brought her husband’s rib to become a brooch worn over her heart, she would be comforted in her weeping by the double beat of a ghostly pulse worn against her chest. When a bootmaker brought her the skeleton of a beloved assistant to make into a coat rack, it was the manservant’s spirit that reached out to take their master’s worries even as his finger bones held the cloak. Even before the smallpox, Mamma took great care over the cleaning of the bones in the well before binding, and Sofia helped. Always it took place at dawn, in the orange tinge of the world coming awake, washing her mother and the bones in golden light. Then the smallpox came. Ermin fell sick with it, and for a while Sofia was worried because Mamma seemed so desperate. A doctor came, and left looking helpless. But Ermin was well again within a week, thanks to Mamma. They took him to the well one morning to make him better, and he recovered.

But after that, Mamma refused to work for anyone but herself, and Sofia and Ermin were forbidden from touching the bones. If only Mamma let her help with the work again, Sofia would be content to live just the four of them on the monastery hill – Mamma, Ermin, Corvith and she – for the rest of her days. That was until a year ago. A year ago, a stranger visited their house and Sofia finally came to understand that light must be followed by dark. That good is sometimes chased, hard and merciless as hunting dogs, by bad. S ofia had been spying that day. She and Ermin were playing on the hillside beside their house, late into the evening. Since Mamma had stopped taking commissions, their days stretched into long, unformed expanses of time, wide as the views from the top of the hill. The ruins of the monastery crouched at the base, and the olive grove grew right to the crown where their well was. The grove was planted when the monks still lived there and made olive oil, and olive bread, and olive soap, and so many things from olives Mamma called them the Order of the Olive.

Beneath the hill was a river: one of the underground rivers that criss-crossed Siena like hidden seams, none reaching the surface. They were buried so deep Sofia would not have believed they existed if the water didn’t come up from the well, cool and clear, in their bucket each day. Fed by sunlight and this hidden river, the olive trees were overgrown and knotting into each other, so close and inscrutable it made Sofia wonder if all wild things would reach for each other if only they were allowed to. Their world had shrunk to this grove. Mamma was sure that the smallpox still lingered on the streets of Siena and she had forbidden them going further than the monastery boundary, marked by an ancient, twisted tree. Sofia’s memories of the city had the quality of dreams – faded as old cloth but soft and comforting to the touch. Still, Sofia and Ermin didn’t much mind that Siena was off limits. It was magical when the silvery leaves were at their thickest, the olives hanging black and salty-sweet, and you could easily get lost in the warren of curving branches, especially in the dark. But Ermin and Sofia had grown up here, knew the routes like their own hands and could always find their way to the top, to the small well sunk into the crest. They rarely came home until long after dusk, allowing their mamma to work in peace.

That evening, Sofia’s mouth was smarting from the salt of the olives, and she had a sudden hankering for the strawberries that grew small and sweet in the bonemeal-fed soil outside their home. She left Ermin throwing olives in the air for Corvith and wove her way down to the charnel house. She emerged from the shadowy grove into the bruised navy of night, but something caught light and tossed it into her eyes. Before her, in a silver harness and with a high plume, was a white horse. It was tied to the post in front of their house, bright as the moon. Could it be possible Mamma was with a customer, at last? The horse lifted its head from the strawberry bushes and, though Sofia knew it was not possible, seemed to glare at her. She decided to let the horse have the strawberries from the bush, and instead eat the slightly soft ones they’d collected to make jam. She edged carefully around the horse, steering well clear of its powerful hind legs, and slipped quietly inside the house so as not to disturb Mamma with the visitor. The house was as cool as the grove, its moonish glow impervious to the temperature outside, be it too hot or too cold. The door of Mamma’s workshop was ajar, leaking candlelight, and Sofia kept to the wall, skirting towards the bowl of red fruit on the table.

A squawk brought her up short. She froze, wondering if Corvith had followed and was about to give her away, but then the sound came again and she could place it as coming from inside Mamma’s workshop. It was harsher than Corvith’s caw, with the edge of metal set beneath. A magpie’s caw. Her mamma’s guest must be one of the duchessa’s guards, for they alone had command of the birds that circled the city day and night. Her teeth set on edge. The magpies never seemed right to her. There was something in their eyes that was a little too sharp, a little too calculating. Almost human. They seemed to see everything, know everything.

Sofia edged closer to the door, curious to see a guard up close. Perhaps he had brought a clavicle from his dead lover to be made into a scabbard, or a finger for a key. Perhaps Mamma would at last start accepting work from the city again. Keeping her body pressed to the wall, Sofia peered inside. The first thing she saw was the magpie. It was huge and hooded in silver mesh, like a hawk, which was why it didn’t see her. Its talons were filigreed in precious metal and it perched not on the shoulder of a guard, but a woman. She was tall and turned towards Mamma, so Sofia could not see her face. She was clad in a beautiful silver cloak that shimmered like water. The stranger reached up to soothe her magpie, who obviously sensed Sofia’s presence.

‘Hush, Orsa.’ Elegant wrists showed slim against the lace of her cuffs. Her hair was hidden beneath the net of a silver veil. The magpie settled, snapping its beak. ‘As I was saying,’ said the woman, in a low voice. ‘This is less an offer, and more an order.’ ‘And if I refuse?’ Mamma’s voice was taut with something Sofia had never heard in it before. Fear. ‘Do you forget who you are talking to?’ Mamma fell silent. ‘I only mean to remind you of certain facts,’ continued the woman.

‘Perhaps your children would like to know what their mother has done – or the people of Siena . ’ ‘Please.’ Mamma swallowed. ‘I can’t.’ ‘You’re the only one who can. You will not go unrewarded.’ There was a clink, and Sofia saw a silver pouch drop on to Mamma’s worktable. ‘Tomorrow, you start.’ Deaf to Mamma’s pleas, the woman hoisted the magpie higher on her slender shoulder and turned for the door. Sofia stumbled backwards, crouching beneath the table with its coarse woven cloth.

The bone floor hard beneath her knees, she shrank down until she saw the stranger’s shoes. Peeking out from her glistening dress, they were embroidered so intricately they looked like lace on her feet. A smell, herbal and clean, like the peppermint poultices Mamma used to soothe insect bites, followed her. Sofia stayed crouched under the table until she heard Mamma fling her workshop door closed, sending bone dust drifting from the ribcage rafters. Crawling out, she regarded the door with its familiar bone hinges and handle, and wondered if she could go inside and ask Mamma outright about the visitor. But then the moment passed. Sofia went back outside, strawberries forgotten. The light was low, but still she was just in time to see moonlight dance across the silver-clad figure on a white horse, a magpie swooping overhead.

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