Volume 2 Number 1
My father was digging a hole for a fencepost when he struck something. It was a skeleton. The shovel blade had bitten a gouge in the skull. The bones were wrapped in a purple cloth slick with the oils of earth. I thought the cloth looked like a folded-up saddle blanket and said so. The heat of the sun was hard on us and the flies were bothersome. He told me to get my brother Andrew and clear a space in the root cellar. Our mother usually laid up parsnips, onions and taters there, so we would have to eat a lot of them for supper that night if none were to go to waste. We’d put the bones in the root cellar and decide what to do.
I left to obey. I assumed the post-hole digging was over for the day. Andrew was in the barn combing out his horse. He didn’t believe me at first, but I threatened to go get our father. Andrew knew if he was wrong he’d get a strapping. We brought a dozen cartons of parsnips, onions and taters to our mother. She made a mash of them for supper. While we sat around the table we wondered about our purple-blanketed bone man. I don’t know why we thought the skeleton was a man’s, but we did.
“Maybe he was a black, got lynched,” my father said.
“Around here?” My mother spooned up more of the mash.
“Been known to happen.”
Silence. It was a rare thing to challenge our father at supper. His fork clicked his plate and teeth repeatedly, in a cycle. Then he pushed his chair back. Andrew offered his own theory.
“Maybe he was a robber. Could have been lynched, but by townsfolk tired of his thievin’ ways.”
Our father nodded; this made reasonable sense. A black or a highwayman—it made little difference to him. Could have been a black thief, too, both things at once. No one asked my opinion.
I lay in my cot that night turning this problem over in my mind. There was a good chance, I thought, that the bone-man was some kind of royalty. His purple wrapping, for one, led me down this path. Our farm nestled in fields at the edge of hummocks. He could have been the ruler of those hummocks one or two hundred years ago. I decided this was a fact and not just an idea. With a smile on my mouth and the tiny chirps of crickets in my ears, I fell asleep.
Then in the middle of the night the hummock king got out of the cellar and came to my bedside. His hard fingertips gently stroked my forehead and he tucked my hair behind my ears. He woke me with promises.
I rose in my nightgown and went with him down the hall. We usurped my father’s authority. We put him in the hole from which we had taken the hummock king. Then we dug a hole next to it for my mother and another for Andrew. We rode my brother’s horse into the hummocks, and the air was damp and close. The stars arranged themselves in patterns I had never before seen. The hummock king explained this was in honor of my coronation.
His throne was an oak bole at the edge of a muskeg swamp. It was a strange place for a swamp, up in the hummocks. His royal bedchamber was a bed of sphagnum surrounded by long, thick-bladed grass and cattails. Giant skunk cabbages ringed the chamber; mangroves lifted their branches high and veiled us in club moss. We tied my brother’s horse to a tree. The hummock king laid me back on the bed, lifted my nightgown, and made me his queen. Afterward, I held his cold skull against my breast and kissed his spade-wound.
Above, in the branches, the round eyes of opossums bore witness. His bone-nectar swam into me and made the beginnings of a prince. He whispered that he was a thousand years old.
The next morning my brother’s horse had sunk into a bog. The reins went straight down from the tree-trunk into the slime. Fat, black beetles climbed up and down the reins all day.
People from town came looking for my father. We watched from the hummocks as they milled about the farm. They found the dirt mounds and stepped quickly away from their contents. Even from the distance, we could see them clasping their hands over their mouths. The hummock king giggled and laid his arm about my shoulders. “My little queen,” he said, an endearment he had begun to use frequently.
The townspeople organized themselves and came looking for me. They couldn’t have known that I was the hummock queen now. Finding only three dirt mounds, they would have assumed there had been an abduction. They probably thought some blacks or robbers had come along and taken me off. I laughed at this thought. When I shared this humor with my bone-husband, he sang. His voice was sweet and dry and ancient. Then the townspeople came into the swamps. We put them in the bog with my brother’s horse.
Pretty soon it came time for me to have our hummock prince. I lay down on the sphagnum bed and my bone-husband commanded his son to come forth. When the boy came out, we saw that he was half bone-man and half person. There were places on him where the bones came through and cast their own light, and other places where his skin was bright and pink. He was beautiful and perfect! We cleaned the birth fluids from him with clumps of moss and wrapped him in my hummock king’s royal purple cloth. No sooner had my bone-son come into the world than the hummock king had me under him again.
There followed several seasons. Before I knew it, there were our lovely children everywhere, hummock princes and hummock princesses. All of them were half-bone and half-people persons. We warned them often to stay away from the edges of the muskeg. Most of them did, although we lost two or three in the bog. Each time, it made me sad for a moment until I remembered that there were so many, many children, and that their bone-father and I could make more any time we wished.
Then, one terrible day, a brown bear sow, protecting her cubs I suppose, ended the reign of the hummock king. My bone-husband had been harvesting skunk cabbages and stumbled accidentally into her den. He would certainly have meant no harm to the cubs, but the sow assumed otherwise. One of our hummock princes was with his father at the time and said the sow reared up and bashed off the hummock king’s skull with one mighty swipe of her paw. His father’s skull rolled into the undergrowth like a ball. The rest of him clattered into a pile, and our son ran from the angry bear.
I wondered whether the hummock king could make himself rise again, as he had done from my family’s root cellar. I went to sleep on the sphagnum bed that night believing that he would do so. That I would wake to his touch and kindhearted promises once more. That the half-bone, half-person child in my womb would squall in its father’s arms, as had its siblings. But instead of his tender ministrations, I was wakened by the sour sounds of argument. Our two eldest hummock princes clashed over succession--the eldest and first, who had the birthright, and the next in line. They had never gotten on with one another.
Having been raised to respect their mother, my two sons sought my decision. Both promised they would abide by it. It was true: the eldest was the proper heir. But his younger brother was wiser. I had observed all of my children carefully; there was no getting around this fact. I told them to wait for my decision. Then I went off into the swamp to contemplate this puzzle and arrive at a conclusion. While I was walking and thinking, I had visions of my bone-husband. One was of the afternoon my father and I discovered him. This put me in mind of my mother and brother and our farm. I found myself weeping because all of it had passed on.
I came to a creek that ran slowly at the base of a ravine. There was a large boulder to one side of it; this I used to sit upon and think. There also was a felled pine tree. Its trunk lay across the creek before me, and I sat on the boulder and looked at the tree. The water burbled at my feet, beyond the hems of my nightgown. The sound made me look down. A small leaf slid by on the water and disappeared. When I looked up, a great gray wolf sat on the log. I asked him what to do.
The wolf showed his fangs and let his tongue loll over one side of his muzzle. His eyes sparked and I heard a thunderclap. While he summoned weather, I lifted my gown and birthed the last half-bone, half-person child. It was a tiny girl. She was as delicate as a waterskipper. Minuscule veins were visible under the paper-thin skin of her eyelids, and her small nostrils were like spores. Where her bones showed through they glittered as if flecked with precious metals.
The sweet smell of honey rose from her, and the wolf’s nose twitched. He sniffed the air and made his neck long in our direction. Lightning flashed and he exacted his price. When he had finished, soft bones and all, he spoke. His muzzle dripped my daughter’s blood as he bestowed the hummock kingdom on the younger of the two hummock princes.
“He is the wiser,” the wolf said.
“The older is headstrong, but not as bright.”
I shook my head and dismissed him. He trotted away with a full belly. I was sad about my daughter. But then I thought of her coming out of the wolf as shit and being eaten by birds. How she then would be carried into the sky on their wings. This seemed to make her loss easier. This, plus the fact that I had resolved--with the wolf’s help--my dilemma, made my spirits rise. A final pulse of thunder rolled above and the weather moved up the valley and away. I went back to our muskeg and announced my decision. I gave the wiser bone-son his father’s royal purple cloth.
It so displeased my eldest hummock prince that he fled with several of his supporters. While my new hummock king moved over me that night and I returned the gaze of opossums, I heard sounds in the swamp beyond the circle of weak light my new husband’s bones cast. While the hummock king busied himself at the source of royal souls, his brother prepared for a betrayal.
Soon there were princes clashing to my left and right, in front of me and behind me. What a terrific noise they made! And then there were wolves among us. Running and leaping, they sunk their long fangs into the flesh and bones of my children. My eldest son was in league with them!
The great wolf from the stream leapt onto my husband’s throat and tore it away. His blood spurted and soon overran the sphagnum bed. I fled while the wolf gobbled him up, then I slid into the bog and waited. In order to breathe, I kept my nose barely above the scum on its surface. Fat, black beetles walked across my face. I thought I could feel the bones of my brother’s horse against my bare feet. I imagined the fingers of the townspeople grasping at my ankles. I looked up and saw that the stars had once again collected themselves into new constellations.
When the light came up in the morning it was quiet. All the hummock children were gone. The brothers who had vied to be my new king were both piles of bones held barely together with drying sinew. Flies feasted on the last of this. There were many dead wolves as well, and I stepped around their carcasses all day as I dragged these dead and passed-on things into the bog, weeping as I did so. I recalled with an ache my days as a girl on our farm. I sobbed for the loss of simple, happy times. I longed for my mother’s embrace, for even a stern word of direction from my father’s lips.
When my tears cleared the great wolf was waiting. His grin was large and filled with intent.
“Who shall be the hummock king now?” he asked. His tail wagged once as he unsheathed himself. Where his wolf penis should have been there hung a knife-blade.
“You and only you, forever,” I said.
He nodded and stabbed me.
We have filled the swamp with werewolf children.