BONE MOTHER
By Torah Cottrill

 

Bone Mother was tired. The hut caught a deer in the night, and the doe’s shrieks and the crunching of bones kept the old woman awake long after the last of the hot blood seeped into the yard. Years ago, when the world was younger and her heart was, too, she tried to pry the forest’s wanderers out of the hut’s ivory-toothed maw. It was never any use. The deer, the rabbits, even the men that slipped through the hut’s ragged fence always paid with their lives. She put their skulls on the fence posts, to discourage others.

She threw off the covers and rose, lighting the candles with a reed kindled in the fireplace. Bone Mother wrapped herself in one of the blankets she wove from the soft fur of the goats the hut let her keep in the yard. It was time to draw water from the well. No matter the day, no matter the season, she always knew when it was time to raise the iron-banded bucket and fill the clay cup.

Outside, her breath frosted in the dawn air. Bone Mother hauled on the rope, pulling the full bucket to the lip of the well. She filled the cup and placed the bucket on the ground at her feet. Then she waited. Her wet fingers grew numb in the morning cold.

As the sun crested the far-off hills, Bone Mother heard hoofbeats. One moment, the yard was empty. The next, a rider loomed above her in a swirl of cloak and a stamping of hooves. Bone Mother waited while the rider brought the black horse to a halt.

“Greetings of the night to you, guardian,” spoke the rider, hidden in the shadows of a black cloak.

“And also to you, rider,” she replied. “Refresh yourself after your labors.”

The rider drained the cup while the horse drank deeply from the bucket. The rider returned the cup and pulled at the horse’s dripping head, and with no further word kneed the horse into motion. In a moment, they were gone from the yard as imperceptibly as they’d entered. Bone Mother returned the cup to its shelf and poured the rest of the water into the garden.

Bone Mother fed the chickens, gathered the morning’s eggs, and milked the goats. She patted the warm flank of her favorite, a mottled tan and white nanny with a broken horn.

“Ah, Tsvesti. It’s starting to get cold again, isn’t it?” Bone Mother finished the milking and checked the bramble for late blackberries before returning to the warmth of the hut for her breakfast.

She was drowsing before the fire, feeling winter’s approach in her aching joints, when a shout startled her awake.

“Old Witch, come and let me in!” a man’s voice boomed.

Bone Mother peered through the crooked gate. “What brings you to my house?”

The man beyond the gate was in ripe middle age, white linen and rich velvet stretched across a generous girth. “Soothsayer,” he boomed, speaking as if for an audience, although the forest around them was empty. “I need the answer to a question. Advise me well, and I’ll reward you well!”

Bone Mother snorted. Tsvesti ambled over and poked her nose into Bone Mother’s hand. “If the fool knew enough about me to come here, he knows the nature of my advice,” she muttered to the goat, scratching absently between the long ears.

“Stranger,” she said more loudly, “my guidance is what you make it. My words bring rewards to the pure of heart. If you are not, they bring ruin. Only you can choose.”

She waited. Many who came with previously urgent questions left after this warning. Bone Mother guessed that this one would stay...

 
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Torah Cottrill lived and traveled all over the world, including a stint as a Foreign Service Officer in Saudi Arabia and Jordan, before settling in the Pacific Northwest with a fixed number of children and a variable number of pets. By day she’s an editor; in the evenings, she ties on her dark mask and prowls the rooftops, moonlighting as a writer.

 

 
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