Jay Lake (jaylake) wrote,
Jay Lake

[fiction] "Arrange the Bones"

I'm continuing to post reprints of my fiction here on this blog. Watch for the tag "fiction," as in http://jaylake.livejournal.com/tag/fiction.

The current installment in this series is the original short story "Arrange the Bones". At 1,000 words, this originally appeared in Say...Was that a Kiss? back in 2002, then reprinted by Prime Books in my 2004 collection, Dogs in the Moonlight Powell's | Amazon ]. If you like the story, please consider supporting Fortress of Words and their Say... zine, as well as Prime Books.

Arrange the Bones

by Jay Lake

Little ever changed for Elise. Over the years the kitchen's pressed tin ceiling sagged, the ceaseless high plains wind found new passages through the walls, and generations of field mice and feral cats fought across the shattered linoleum. She only wanted to go outside, plant her feet in the red clay soil, and touch the sky. But she couldn't leave her bones, and they couldn't leave the old wood-fired stove where Henry had baked her dry that hot summer day in 1937.

Until the raven came scrabbling down her chimney, found its way into her pile of bone and ash, and thrashed in such panic that the stove door fell open for the first time in almost a century. Rushing through the newly-unblocked chimney, the wind touched her with a hint of freedom.

"Calm in the kitchen," the bird shrieked, voice rustier than the stove's old hinges. "Caught a chance, I did, for quiet." It sighed.

Elise had long ago surrendered her voice to the wind, so it was from the wind that she stole it back. "Hey," she whispered.

"Criminey." The raven hopped around on the stove lids, one beady eye cocked for seeds, "can't catch a clue from this coop. What could cause such cacophony?"

Elise tried her voice again, steering the wind to a little corner of her will. "You can hear me, bird."

"Pretty bird," spat the raven. "Crams my craw, clumsy casting of stereotype. Call me Cause."

"Cause," whispered Elise. Her voice was getting easier to use. Was strength returning to her ashy old bones? "Cause is reason. Did you come for me, Cause?"

"Cause," the raven said in an unexpectedly normal voice. It dug for mites in one wing, an ordinary bird for a moment, before dragging its black beak out and staring around Elise's kitchen. "Catch who cackling at me?"

"Me," said Elise. Her voice was the creaking timbers of the house, the flap of the last few shingles on the roof, the rustle of the Johnson grass folded against the tarpaper outside. "Call me a ghost."

The bird tapped its beak against the stove lid. "Can't catch a ghost in my claws. Not real."

"No such thing as talking birds, either," said Elise.

"Miracles and wonder. Catch a genome in your hand. Create a cantankerous pet and let it go. Criminey, hand of man made me. Cause is effect." The bird choked off a bitter cackle that might have been laughter.

Elise remembered the blows of her husband's axe, the heat of the fire he built in the stove beneath her fresh-cut bones before he'd walked whistling out into the endless llano winds, not even bothering to shut her kitchen door behind him. "Hand of man made me, too," she said in a voice of rattling glass and the snap of old electric wiring. Memories echoed for Elise: the slap of Papa's belly against Mama's to make her be, Elise's aunt slapping her bottom to make her cry, Henry slapping her face to make her stop. Hand of man, indeed.

The bird peered at the stove some more. "Could be old ghost, caught so close."

"Old as the wind, Cause." Elise's voice was the doorknobs rattling. "And twice as tired."

The bird flew around the kitchen in a shuddering explosion of feathers, careening away from the window over the sink, avoiding the open door with its nest of wisteria canes, before settling on the stove again.

"Cause is tired, too," it said. "Can't keep constantly a-wing. Want to be a bird, no more, no less. Creators continue to come for me. No escape."

"And I want to lie beneath the sky," said Elise, the wind down the stove chimney stirring her ashes and carrying tiny pieces of her across the kitchen. "Can you bring me to the sky, Cause?"

The bird hopped up and down. "Can't carry the ghost to the sky. Try to carry the sky to the ghost."

Elise had heard nothing so sweet since she was a little girl. If she still had eyes, she would have wept her joy. "But why?"

"Cause knows being caught forever. Find a way, now." The bird peered around the kitchen, then fluttered over to the counter, hopping among the old tins arrayed there.

"The tall tin," Elise said suddenly, fighting back memories of flame.

The bird knocked the tin over, worried at the lid for a while, then squawked satisfaction. "Cause has caught the way," it said as it picked up a long, splintered match.

"Will you fly away afterwards," Elise whispered in the settling of the foundation, "or will you stay with me?"

"Cause can't carry on forever." The bird flew to the stove, landing precariously on the opened door for a moment. Cause dropped the ancient match on the metal before hopping back inside to gently nudge the bones.

"That tickles," Elise said in the voice of the earth beneath the house. The cats sleeping between the cedar posts of the foundation whined within their dreams.

"Comfort for the ghost," the bird said, brushing tenderly through the ashes, each peck as gentle as a kiss. "Arrange the bones. Respect for the living, respect for the dead."

Back outside the stove, Cause struck the match against the rust-roughened cast iron, then cocked its head to allow the little flame to prosper. The bird took off, flying around the kitchen to set fire to scraps of wallpaper, horsehair insulation, the peeled paint of the pantry door. The raven flew in circles, a tiny, avenging angel carrying fire until the kitchen was a swirling, spiraling torch. The ceiling caught in the hot summer wind, then the roof exploded, a century of dry rot surrendering at once to the flames.

Elise rose into the Texas sky, carried on a column of ash, escorted toward heaven by a burning raven that sung in a rusted voice to match the very choirs of angels.

◊ ◊ ◊

© 2002, 2004, 2008, Joseph E. Lake Jr.

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.
Tags: fiction, stories

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