The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

The Bone-Fire

bonfire at night


Tonight is the night of the bone-fire.

When the days shorten and sharpen, and the nights go long and hard, we slaughter our cows and pigs and sheep, and salt the meat to dry, and tan the hides to wear.

But the animal bones we burn in a bone-fire, to feed our fields so that next year’s crops grow tall.

That’s how we did when I were a walker-baby. That bone-fire were a happy time, save for the one or two foolish childs all sad for the pig or lamb he named and loved.

I were that child, once.

But now I have nine years, so that counts six years since the Death has been on our people, since God has grown to hate and murder us. He hates the most the poorest ones, for we have the most suffered, and the most died. But in every house lies one or two or more whose flesh is turning in on itself and sprouting fiery wounds.

In every house or hut or hole, are piles of the dead.

In our hut, I have my own dear pile. My pa who went first, who is now stretched straight and rigid on his straw, and the rats run over him. My baby sister, who on the last day no longer looked a human creature, her flesh twisted by the swollen sores.

Now she lies still in the arms of my ma, who died the day after, holding her close.

The smell of our hut, now, the smell of it. I have slept with the cow three nights now, in the cold shed, on the dirty straw.

I am not dead. I think I am not dead.

Maybe I am part dead; maybe have caught some of the deadness from my pile.

I wait in the road until the men with the dead-cart come. I point to our house. They toss my small pile onto their huge one, three more purple bodies bloated and broken. My ma, my pa, the baby.

And I walk behind the groaning cart and the staggering horses. We wind through the village, doubling like a snake, twisting and turning, to confuse the spirits of the dead, so that they won’t come back.

We know the dead are angry to be dead, and we do not want them to find their way home.

On the other side of the village, just away from the houses, is the bone-fire.

I saw my pa die with eyes and mouth open in pain. I saw my ma die in madness, singing to my dead sister in her arms. I saw my pile of dead turn to fearful colors and sick smells.

But even for my eyes, this new kind of bone-fire, this towering blaze of hair and curling fingers and wide eyes, is a terrible thing to see.

But I stay, for the fire is warm, and I have not felt warm since my pa died and our fire went out. And the village is here, and men are drunk and singing, and women are shouting and weeping, and someone may drop a crust or bit of cheese or meat. They might.

And too I stay for to say goodbye to my dear pile of dead. I sit on the ground, my cold feet pulled up under some sacking, and watch them throw the bodies on the wild and roaring flames.

A little ways from me stands a girl who is not not shouting, not weeping. Not drunk.

Her face and dress are dirt-caked, her brown hair wild as a madwoman’s, but I know her. It’s Alice Button. Her father keeps pigs and her mother sells remedies. She’s 13, almost grown, and she was to marry apple-cheeked Oliver Molehouse at Christmas.

Oh: but it’s Oliver Molehouse they’re unloading from the cart right now.

Alice walks straight up to the fire, where Oliver lies, upside down, right up to his hanging face and its still-dripping sores. Her face is pale and strange in the wild orange light, and her eyes as mad as her hair.

Still Alice does not weep or shout.

She reaches under her apron and pulls out a little cloth remedy bag. She opens the bag, takes out a handful of something.

What are you doing, Alice Button?

She throws her handful — powders, I think, and dried herbs, and maybe some worse things, things that seem still half-alive and writhing—she throws them onto Oliver’s body.

At least, I think, I think she meant to throw the remedy on Oliver. But the wind is hot and wild around a bone-fire, hotter and wilder the bigger the fire, and this is the biggest of all.

So the powders and herbs and writhers are caught in an updraft, and blown high up into the air above the bone-fire.

Ah now she screams, now she is wild, as the powders and herbs and worse are held in night above the bone-fire for three moments, four, five.

Then Alice’s remedy falls, falls, falls, scattering all across the bone-fire.

For a moment, it’s as if the flames pause, hold just still, but for scattered sparks.

Then the roaring flames, taller than two men—somehow, in the next moment, the flames disappear. It’s as if some great breath below has sucked the fire into itself.

And then I see. It is the bodies themselves have sucked in the flames. Instead of devouring the bones, the flames now live inside the bones, and give them life, and make them move.

For now the great pile stirs. The bodies are moving.

Oliver is among the first to free himself. He slips down and staggers to his feet. His flesh is burnt and bubbling, and one eye is hanging down, but he sees Alice, where she stands shaking, and from his peeling lips comes a terrible hoarse sound.

The dead are angry, so angry.

He reaches for her, and she should run, why does she not run? But she sees what she loved, not what he is, and the sight holds her fast until he snaps her neck with one blow.

The whole pile seethes like a nest of maggots. An arm thrusts out, and reaches, and grabs. A leg kicks towards me.

And the sound, the sound of rage from the torn and burnt and diseased throats, from every throat, as they come for their revenge.

All is havoc around me, a few running away, but most like fools running toward their angry dead with their fire-for-bones.

And now I see my pa, the fire has loosened his limbs, but his eyes and mouth are still wide open in pain, he staggers toward me.

I am not a fool. And I am no more than part dead.

I run.

Running, I see Oliver walking past, dragging Alice by her broken neck, his bones glowing with fire from within.

Running, I see other bright-boned dead staggering, limping, leaping toward the ones they loved and lived with in this life.

Running, I hear my pa’s feet behind me, and hear the baby’s tiny hoarse cry of rage.

Now the villagers are fighting back. They run at their dead with hatchets or burning brands, but these don’t help, I could have said they would not work, for fire does not put out fire, and the anger of the dead is the bone-fire’s endless fuel.

So I run, I run, to the center of the village, in the black night lit only by the fiery bones of our raging dead.
But even in the dark, I find it. I stagger in, knee deep, waist deep. The icy water of the village pond freezes my thin and living bones.

Are they coming?

I open my mouth for the softest call, a whisper-call, which is all the breath I have. Ma, I call. Mama. Pa.

I must have got some water on my face, for my face is wet now, and my voice shakes, but that must be with the cold.

They heard. At the edge of the pond, I hear that tiny, raging cry. They are here.

Now they stagger in, splashing. I can smell their terrible, ruined flesh. My pile, my dear dead pile, my family.

Their hoarse cries change, become high and keening. Their bone-fires are going out.

They stagger. They sink. They sink deep beneath the black water.

My sister’s tiny arms reaching for me.

My mother’s wet face.

They are gone. The water has put out the fire that gave them life.

I stand alone in the black and freezing water, listening to the distant screams of the angry dead.

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3 Responses to “The Bone-Fire”

  1. r says:

    oooooh. nice.* thx!
    *maybe “vivid”‘s the better word…still. Nice.

  2. Lucia says:

    I’ve been a bit busy lately, but the two most recent stories are great! I would say that these stories are blood-chilling, but that would be inappropriate to the theme… : ) Keep up the good work.

  3. Katherine Catmull Katherine Catmull says:

    Ha! Thank you so much. Chilling you guys with fire was definitely our intent. Fire is unexpectedly extra-creepy it seems to me, and I can’t wait to see what Claire & Stefan do with it.

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