by Sharon Boyle
Poking up through the leaves was a jaggedy shard of white. She tugged it free. It was longer than expected.
She held it up, feeling its weight. This is a bone. Left by some dog suddenly called to heel.
She lobbed it against a tree and watched it splinter and scatter.
This part of the wood by the hill base was the furthest she’d been from home. Too far to hear if Mama called.
Another shape. Bigger. Recognisable. A skull. Seen in encyclopaedias. She shivered. It being exposed was wrong. Mice, rabbits and voles had the decency to hide their skeletons, but not the owner of this skull, with its broken-toothed grin. It reminded her of the pumpkin heads on neighbours’ steps.
Hettie, your pumpkin is proper plump, Mama would say, spooning flesh into a bowl for soup (after three days of pumpkin soup Hettie’s stomach would grue). There was a second bowl for composting sinewy strings and a third for pips. It was Hettie’s job to lace the pips together for the birds.
She stopped smart. More bones. A leg or arm bone perhaps, one shaft thick, one shaft thin, fused at the ends. And over there, the showstopper: a macabre abacus of a ribcage. Perhaps a snuffling animal had mooched along, thinking, What a butcher’s worth of bones! and in excitement shuffled them out of alignment.
Hettie was not excited by the find. It couldn’t hurt her, unlike proper folk full of strong muscle and sharp words, but it could cause nightmares and mind frights.
A bold bit of wind flared up, causing her to glance around, alert for other unnatural happenings. A month ago a storm had pounded this way, upsetting the farm animals and flip-flapping Mama’s shed roof over the potato field. It must’ve uncovered the bones. And now that she knew the bones were owned she didn’t want to touch them. She swished up leaves with a foot trying to cover them and saw a glint of gold. She bent down, her hand automatically reaching before hesitating and hovering and finally drawing back. It was a necklace: a plain chain, broken and dulled, lying near the skull. A woman then. Hettie looked up to the swell of the hill and imagined the story of the woman in her flesh, walking along the top. Perhaps something startled her, like the squawk of a fox, and the woman tumbled, arms splayed, body cart-wheeling till poofing into the loose floor of soil, leaves pitching up and flitting over her like confetti.
Or perhaps the woman had been playing hide-and-seek, and won. Hettie was a winner at hide-and-seek too, coorying into cubby-tight nooks, staying stiff and silent. Her classmates never found her, even when she chose obvious places.
Something was in the ribcage. She found a stick and fished out the object. A twinless glove, speckled with faded brown. It was large, like her father’s. A man’s glove. Another story began to sprout in her mind. Hettie dropped the stick and stepped back.
She would go home and say nothing. If her family knew she’d interfered with these leftover pieces of a human soul she’d be housebound for weeks. Ten years old and full of simple, our Hettie, Granny Betty liked to caw.
The pip necklace would be made, the sinews would be mulched, but she would not eat the soup made of orange flesh, no matter Granny Betty’s cross words. And she would hope for snow so that the batch of bones would camouflage into the white, unfound and neglected, but still winning at hide-and-seek.
Sharon lives in East Lothian and writes around her family life and part-time job. She has had a number of short stories and flash pieces published on-line and in magazines, including Fictive Dream, Writers’ Forum and Flash500.