Bones of the World20 min read
Maggie was sitting on an old packing crate by the docks, having tea with a lobster she had named Miss Snips, when Father O’Grady approached her. She heard the light, smart click of his heels first. He wore fine black shoes always polished to a high shine, so unlike the dull, work-worn boots of the dockworkers. Or the moldering boots of her father somewhere out under the gray sea. At night she dreamed of her father’s boots growing barnacles, and little crabs moving into them.
Father O’Grady’s shoes didn’t seem to be the type to grow barnacles. She imagined that if he ever drowned at sea, his shoes would keep on shining under the waves, like treasure from a pirate ship.
He stopped by her crate, examining the lobster and the ceramic tea set laid out in front of her through small, round spectacles. “Good morning, Miss Brennan,” he said.
“Good morning, Father O’Grady,” she said, as she’d been taught.
“How are you and your mother doing, then?” He spoke softly, as if her ears were made of fragile china. It was the same grave, gentle tone everyone had been using since her father’s ship went down. She wondered if she should cry. But she was no good at crying, so she made her mouth into a little frown instead. Because that was what people did when they were sad.
“We’re doing well, Father,” she said. “Though, we do miss him so.”
He nodded. “We all do. Your father was a good, brave man.” He was silent for a moment, tapping his fingertips restlessly against his thigh. “Miss Brennan, have you seen Sister Mary Theresa about?”
Father O’Grady waited, but she added nothing. He said, “So she spoke to you?”
“Do you know where she went afterwards?”
Maggie made a small, polite smile. She was proud of her smile; she had gotten it down after lots of practice and thought of it as an important accomplishment. “She went for tea, Father.”
“Ah.” He pushed his spectacles up his nose, digesting this. “You wouldn’t happen to know with whom?”
“She didn’t say, Father.”
“Ah. Very well. Thank you, Miss Brennan. If you see her, would you mind letting her know I was looking for her?”
“And give my best to your mother.”
“Of course, Father.”
He nodded absently and walked away, a solitary black-clad figure in the shifting crowd of gray and brown, beneath a sky heavy and flat as lead. Maggie watched him go, then turned her face to the horizon. A little voice in her bones whispered that another storm would come soon.
She settled herself on the crate and turned to her tea companion. “Father O’Grady’s looking for you, Miss Snips,” she said.
The lobster, who could no longer speak, wiggled her antennae in response. Maggie imagined that Miss Snips had said something witty, and laughed. She was quite proud of her laugh, too. It could fool anyone.
Maggie’s life was dreadfully dull. In the morning, she would get up and help her mother take care of the goats and chickens and their one old donkey. Then she would bike to school and sit in a row with her classmates and practice her letters in her copy book. She had learned her letters perfectly the first day of school, but since her schoolmates appeared to struggle, she pretended to struggle, too. She imagined that there was a second alphabet, like the first but cloudy and shaky, and over the weeks and months, she moved slowly from one to the other—lines getting straighter, loops closing off properly.
The most interesting day she’d ever had at school was the day after her father died. Her classmates gave her gifts, for herself and for her mother. Fiona gave her an afghan from her nana, Noel left a sweet tart on her desk, the Boyle girls gave her a bundle of flowers, and Tom handed her a large cottage pie still in the pan, and told her to tell her mum that “if she ever wants company, there’s always room at our table.”
Out of all the gifts, she liked Noel’s the most because it was delicious, and he had made it himself, just for her. Sometimes he looked at her during class and smiled. It was a shy, earnest smile, and he made it look so effortless. His eyes were remarkable, too: tawny brown, almost gold, and intense like the eyes of a hawk. She wondered sometimes if he had fairy blood, to have such eyes. She could stare at them all day.
The day after he gave her the tart, she came to him after school. “I want to do something for you,” she said. “For the tart.”
Both his eyebrows lifted. “Thanks, but you don’t have to do that, Maggie.”
She didn’t smile. This was serious. The voice in her bones told her that this sort of gift needed to be repaid. It was the same voice that told her when bad storms were coming, or when people were about to die.
The pie and the afghan were tributes for the dead, and she had dutifully passed them on to her mother. For the Boyle girls’ flowers, she had gone to their house in secret and ordered the roses there to bloom endlessly, even in the winter. But for Noel, the hawk-eyed boy with the earnest smile, she wanted to do something special. She wanted to grant him a boon.
“But I want to,” she repeated. Why did people have to be so thick sometimes? How could they not know such basic things as the rules for gifting?
His sun-darkened cheeks turned ruddy, like roses were blooming under his skin. “Well, that’s sweet of you, Maggie, but I don’t need anything right now. We’re doing all right.”
She looked him in the eyes and nodded. Without another word, she hopped on her bike and started for home. She would repay him another time.
Two days after Sister Mary Theresa disappeared, Maggie saw Noel down by the docks, talking to his father. Noel’s father had hands thick and callused and hard as wooden paddles, and most of his face was hidden behind a beard. Noel looked small and fragile next to him, a bird standing next to a bear. He was trying to help his father mend a net, but his fingers lacked the old man’s expert grace.
The sky at the horizon was the color of iron now. The storm was getting closer. There would be at least one death. Maggie could not only feel it in her bones by now but smell it in the breeze.
“What do you think Noel is talking to his da about?” she asked Miss Snips, whose claw, bound with twine, was fumbling with the handle of the tea cup in front of her. If it had been filled with proper tea, she would have spilled it all over the crate, which would have been terribly bad manners. But the tea was imaginary, so she indulgently forgave the lobster.
“Do you think he’s talking about me?” she asked, in a low, conspiratorial whisper.
Miss Snips said nothing. Her eye-stalks swayed back and forth.
Maggie liked the nun better this way. The crabby, sharp armor and the unwieldy claws suited her. She had said this to Miss Snips after she’d changed her. How lovely you look, Miss Snips, she’d said. Is that a new dress? How well the color looks on you!
“H’lo, Maggie,” said Noel’s voice from behind her.
She looked up and smiled. “Hello, Noel,” she said. “Pull up a crate, you’re just in time for tea.”
Noel gave the lobster a strange look, but obediently sat down and doffed his cap. She pulled another cup from her case and mimed pouring him some tea.
“Thank you,” he said, picking up the cup and pretending to sip. “I’m surprised your mum lets you cart this to the docks.”
“It’s mine to do with as I please,” she said, which was true. Her father had brought the set up from Dublin as a Christmas gift. She was very careful with it.
“Ah,” said Noel. He looked around the docks. “Aren’t you worried to be out and away from home lately?”
“No,” she said. “Nobody bothers me here. Not since father died.”
“Oh.” His hawk eyes darted back and forth. Then, lowering his voice, “I mean, what with Sister Mary Theresa disappearing. People are worried. Some say she might have gotten into an accident outside of town, with no one to help her. But others think …” His cheeks warmed again.
He looked at his knees. “That she was murdered,” he mumbled.
No, she wasn’t murdered. That would have been too kind a punishment, Maggie thought.
“What do you think?” Noel asked her abruptly, lifting his brilliant eyes to hers.
A strange warmth fluttered in her chest, a sensation her bones had no word for. She felt along its edges, tried to sense its shape. But when that yielded no insight, she carefully bundled it up and set it aside for later inquiry. “Why are you asking me?” she asked, picking up her tea cup and pretending to drink, fearing that her own cheeks were blooming pink now. She wondered why she was worrying over the color of her cheeks. “I wouldn’t have murdered her.”
He seemed startled by this comment. “I know,” he said. “I wasn’t accusing you or anythin’. I was just—well, everyone in town says you were the last person who saw her alive. So I just, you know—ah, I’m fumbling this bad, en’t I?”
She frowned. She didn’t like him looking so lost. She sifted through her memory for words that people found comforting. “Father O’Grady says that in the end, the wicked are punished and the good rewarded. I think that’s true. It all works out.”
This seemed to work because Noel nodded. “You’re right, you’re right,” he said. “Still, en’t you a little scared that there might be a murderer running around?”
“I’m not afraid,” she said.
“No doubt! You must be one of the bravest girls I know.”
She smiled, and it was almost genuine.
“Still, you’ll be careful, won’t you?” he went on. “Think of your mum, if anything happened to you.”
She thought about it. She supposed her mum might cry for a while, but she did not see why that was important. Still, Noel was gazing at her intently, so she said, “I’ll be careful.”
He smiled. She stared at the contours of his lips, wondering how he pulled it off so easily.
“I still want to do something for you,” she said.
Noel shrugged. “You tell me that every day at school.”
She sniffed. “Isn’t there anything you want?”
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. After a minute, he shook his head. “The only thing I can think of that I want, you couldn’t give me anyway.”
She leaned forward. “You could ask anyway,” she said.
He shrugged, glancing over his shoulder. “It’s my da,” he said. “He’s going out on the next tide, but I’m worried about this storm.” He shook his head. “Gram says it’ll be a big one, she can feel it in her bones. Even Mum’s asking him to stay in, but he’s stubborn as a Scotsman.”
“He should listen to your gram,” said Maggie. “Bones never lie.”
“He won’t listen.” Noel tapped his feet, nervous. “Maybe, when you go to bed tonight, could you say a prayer for him? For my sake?”
She nodded. But she already planned to do him one better.
Long after Noel had left, she put Miss Snips back in her barrel, the one marked “Property of P. Brennan” and packed up her tea set with care. The gray sky began to take on a dirty greenish tinge. She walked up and down the docks, pushing out her awareness into the boats around her.
First she had to weigh all of the boats in her mind. The unlucky ones felt thin, ghostly. If she squinted, she could almost see the yet-to-be cracks in their hulls, the breaks in the masts, the bony shadows of doomed sailors moving back and forth over the decks. But the lucky boats were heavy with fortune, as if their bellies were weighed down with gold. Their painted planks seemed gilded with sunlight.
She imagined that must be what it was like to meet one of the Little Folk. She imagined them heavy with luck, more shining and more real than the world around them.
Noel’s father worked on a ship called the Water Queen. She liked that name.
She stayed at the docks till twilight. That was the best time for such things, when the sun was just sinking into the sea, moving from one world to another. She pressed her hand against the hull of the Water Queen’s nearest neighbor, a shining old boat called Dancin’ Tom, and let its luck flow out into her. When she was so full of luck she thought her bones might turn to gold, she walked over to the Water Queen and poured the luck into its hull.
She looked over her work. The Dancin’ Tom bobbed silently in the water, a pale gray ghost next to its softly-glowing neighbor. The dark water lapped hungrily at a phantom gash in its hull. Satisfied, she went to the next lucky boat down the line, and stripped it bare for the sake of the Queen.
She had done little things with luck since she was small. Keeping dinner from burning in the pot-oven, enchanting the wheels of her bike so she wouldn’t hit a rock and flip over the handlebars. But she had never worked so large a lucking before. By the fifth boat, every inch of her felt sore, and her bones burned so badly she was surprised that they weren’t glowing through her skin. But she kept at it, because this was what she could do for Noel. She let the luck flow into her and out of her, in and out, like the tide of her own sea, and the sea grew louder and louder till she began to hear voices inside it. Like the voice in her bones, only coming from the bones of the world.
When she had stripped all the luck from every boat that had any, the Water Queen was so solid and shining in her sight that it seemed fit to sail straight out of the world and into a fairy story. She smiled, pleased with her work, because smiling was what people did when they were pleased.
Noel’s gram was right; the storm that struck them was something not seen in a generation. It battered the docks and set the iron-gray sea churning. Trees were uprooted and streams flooded and shutters were torn off their windows.
The Water Queen was the only ship in town to survive. Maggie smiled when she learned this, pleased with the undisputable thoroughness of her work. It was only proper: a legendary ship to survive a legendary storm.
Every other ship at sea went down with all hands. Even the ships safe at dock were torn up and tossed about and broken upon the pilings.
The next day, everyone still alive packed into the little stone church for a special memorial mass. It was a black sea of bodies, its collected sobs rising and falling like waves. Maggie kept her head down, her face pressed into her mother’s side because everyone in church was crying and she was no good at that.
Father O’Grady spoke at length about the fleeting nature of life, which she agreed with. But he also spoke of its ineffability, its unpredictable nature. About how they didn’t have the perspective to see how it all worked out in the divine plan. Maggie disagreed.
She could hear it all in the bones of the world now. The rules and the patterns, the power that guided everything. Maybe a few people, like Noel’s gram, could hear a little something. But most of them were deaf to it. She may as well have been deaf herself, catching only fragments of it here and there, until she’d let a sea of power flow into her.
Now, when she went down to the docks, she felt the ghosts of the downed ships sailing out there still, joining the ship that had gone down with her father aboard. But the bones of the world told her other things, too. Things she had almost known, things on the tip of her tongue, almost real but not quite.
Sister Mary Theresa had been right about her.
After the storm, school was even more dull and subdued than usual. Even Noel wouldn’t look at her, which bothered her. She didn’t know why he was sad, since his father was alive and well.
She approached him after school, but one look at his pale, devastated face, and the warm fluttering in her chest started to hurt, as if her heart was being squeezed. She tried to bundle up the feeling and put it aside as she had done once before, but she couldn’t. It was too big, and it hurt her, and she didn’t know what to make of it. So she cried out and stomped her foot in the school yard.
Everyone turned to look at her. She turned away from them, grabbed the handlebars of her bike, and swiftly pedaled away, trusting to her luck to keep the wheels steady when her hands were shaking.
She kept peddling long past her own house, ignoring the querying shout from her mother as she passed. The voice in the earth was pulling her, and she followed, a bobbing figure on the end of a string, blinded with salt-water tears. She didn’t stop till she reached its source, a small fairy mound glowing with power in the wooded hills. She threw her bike aside and flung herself onto the damp ground. The smell of crushed grass and roses filled her nostrils.
“I want him,” she sobbed, surprising herself. “I want him, I want him!” She pounded the earth with her fists, tore up the grass. When the pain didn’t go away, she rolled over onto her back and pressed her clenched fists over where her heart was, hoping to push the pain back in. But it only flowed outwards with all the more urgency, spreading through her body from her hair to the tips of her toes.
She sobbed until she fell asleep. Far away, the sun slowly sank into the sea.
She dreamed of her mother that night. Her real mother, cloaked in shimmering black and green, a shadow at the bottom of the sea. Her face was pale as moonlight and her eyes were dark tide pools, full of small and skittering shapes.
She dreamed of ships gilded in gold and silver, heavy with luck, as real as the Water Queen and more real, even, than that. Majestic galleons plied the waters of Avalon, elf-ships made by fairies and ghost-ships once made by man. She dreamed of towers spiraling out of the woods, courts and castles and wild hunts, a land where life and happiness were without bound.
Her mother didn’t speak to her. She stood on the shore by a silver sea and gave her a red rose tied with a red string. Then she held out the reins of two horses. The horses were to be Maggie’s when she finally came home. One for her, a black mare with silvery fittings, like her bicycle. And one for someone else, a bold chestnut stallion with startling gold eyes.
Her mother smiled, because that was what people did when they were pleased. And Maggie heard her mother’s voice in her bones.
You know what to do.
When she woke, she found the rose with the red string nestled amid a clump of wild rose bushes on the far side of the fairy mound. She plucked it, wrapped it carefully in her handkerchief, and set it in the basket of her bike. Then she combed the grass out of her hair and straightened her jumper, removing the last signs of wildness before returning home. She must be presentable. She must fit in, just a little longer.
The next day at school, she handed Noel the rose. He couldn’t see the string, its one end wound around the stem, the other tied at her pinky. She smiled. “For you.”
“Thank you,” he said, blushing up to his ears.
She kept her smile pasted on. “Keep it with you. For me.”
He looked away, turning even redder. But he slipped the flower’s stem into his buttonhole.
Then the teacher rapped on her desk for attention, and they all sat down for another day of lessons. But Maggie only watched Noel, making certain that he kept the rose on him.
After school, she rode her bike straight to the fairy mound and waited. The sun set and the moon rose fat and full over the trees. She began to tug on the red string, and the life bobbing on the far end of it. She smiled, thinking of when her father used to take her fishing, and the sight of him reeling in something strong and beautiful for dinner.
It took patience, and persistence, but Noel stumbled at last into the clearing. His usually sharp eyes were dulled with enchantment, but they sought out Maggie’s face and stayed there, expectantly.
“Hello, Noel,” she said.
“H’lo, Maggie,” he replied.
Moonlight filled the clearing. The skin separating her from the world beneath the mound grew thinner. She could feel the power of that world running beneath her feet, eager and waiting. She tugged the string, and Noel came closer, until he, too, was standing on the mound with her.
She leaned forward and kissed him. His mouth was warm and sweet.
“Come with me,” she said.
“Under the hill?” he mumbled.
“Yes.” She stroked his cheek. “Where everything is beautiful and golden, and we will never grow old.”
His eyelids fluttered closed. His fingers sought out the rose and found the red string, which had become heavy and real in the moonlight.
He opened his eyes and stepped back. His mouth dropped open. “People think you’re just daft,” he said. “But you’re not daft. You’re a changeling, en’t you?”
She gave him her biggest, widest smile. The power beneath her feet made her skin prickle, made her hair stand on end. Without a sound, the door in the mound slid open. A fresh breeze, smelling of strange flowers, blew over them both. “Come,” she said, giving the string a tug.
Noel was awake and alert now, fumbling at the rose, but he could not remove it from his buttonhole. “You did something to Sister Mary Theresa, didn’t you? You did something to the boats, too. It was all you!” He was pale, his lips quivering. “Gram said—Gram kept saying, but I didn’t want to—” Tears spilled down his cheeks. He thrashed like a fish at the end of the string as she dragged him back to her.
Maggie’s smile didn’t falter. “Your gram is smart,” she said. “She knows how to listen. And what if I did fix the Sister? She called me nasty things and threatened to beat the devil out of me. That’s not—very—nice!” She stomped her foot in emphasis. “But in the end, it all works out. The wicked are punished and the good rewarded.”
Noel shook his head. He was moving his lips, but she couldn’t hear what he was saying over the roar of power thrumming through her bones.
“Don’t be so stubborn, you silly boy! You were kind to me, and this is your reward. You’ll get to live forever and have grand adventures, and be loved by a fairy girl. Now, doesn’t that sound very fine?”
“—in the name of Christ Jesus, amen!”
The string snapped. Noel tumbled back, landing on his rear. He stared at Maggie, wide-eyed, for just an instant. Then he was gone, running through the woods. The rose fell to the ground, turned black, and crumpled in on itself.
She stopped smiling. The small, budding thing inside her twisted and wrung itself like a dishcloth.
She bent down, grabbed the edge of the door, and flung it open as wide as she could. The power flowed out, gushing like water from a spring. She stuck her hand in and let it fill her, the whole sea of it, till her bones turned to gold.
Then she carried it with her into town.
Noel couldn’t hide from her. She could smell him, hear his breath on the wind. He had stopped at the first house he’d reached on the road, Fiona’s house. He had begged to be let in and asked Fiona to shut the window.
But Maggie could hear him, even still.
“Maggie Brennan is a changeling! She made Sister Mary disappear, and she made the boats sink, and she just tried to pull me under a hill!”
“What?” came Fiona’s voice. She followed this with a nervous laugh. “You can’t be serious, Noel! Sure she’s a bit funny, but she’s not … well …”
“She’s mad, Fiona! And I think she’s after me, and—”
“Easy, Noel, you’re safe in here. Just sit you down, and I’ll have Mum make some tea, and you can tell me everything, how’s that?”
There was a pause. Maggie crept towards the window, inhaling Noel’s rich scent.
“Thank you,” he said at last.
Another pause. Fiona did not leave the room to find her mother. She took a deep breath. “You know you’re safe in here, right? I’ll not let anybody hurt you, changeling or no.”
Maggie opened the window, just as Fiona leaned forward and kissed Noel on the lips.
It was an instant, impulsive act, the girl’s heart electrified by the wild magic that Maggie carried with her.
Maggie frowned. Noel and Fiona shrieked and fell away from each other. Fiona grabbed at her head and ran screaming out the door, her hair twisting and writhing, changing to brambles. And Noel, beautiful Noel whom Maggie loved, his shriek was fierce and defiant and regal, the cry of a hawk. His new form was so lovely that she let him beat the air a few times above Fiona’s bed, glaring at her with golden eyes. Then she launched herself forward and grabbed him by his talons. A length of her hair became jesses to bind his legs, and an acorn became a hood which she set down over his eyes. He flapped his wings for balance, and then he settled in her grip.
“—and now I will simply have to wait until the next full moon to go back,” said Maggie, pouring more tea into Miss Snips’ cup. The liquid shimmered like silver and smelled like the sea. “Which is terribly inconvenient, you know. But I will be patient.” She took a sip from her own cup and sighed.
It was a lovely service she had now. Old china, painted with roses and spiderwebbed with cracks, pulled from a wreckage at the bottom of the sea just for her.
From his perch at the makeshift table, Regal Eye turned his head to watch the ghost ships sailing into harbor, returning with their holds full of treasure plundered from the depths of the sea. The lowering gray sky had a dirty green tinge to it. There would be another storm soon. Maggie stroked his feathered head to soothe him. Ghosts unsettled him, but he would get used to it.
She was still irritated at having to be stuck in town for another few weeks. But it was more bearable than usual, now that she had Noel to herself and the town was flooded with the magic she’d brought with her. Anyone could see the ghost ships, now—that is, if they’d bother to leave the over-crowded church. Father O’Grady had been at the altar praying non-stop for days now, the church grounds a tiny island in a town submerged with magic, and many people were afraid to leave it.
She supposed it was better than his first reaction, which was trying to pray over her and throwing holy water about. She had had to turn her six largest schoolmates into wolfhounds to keep him and everyone else away. They prowled about her in a circle now, growling at the approach of anything suspicious.
It wouldn’t matter after the next full moon. The door in the mound would swing open, and the magic would flow back in like water down a drain. And she would go home proudly with her princely hawk on her shoulder and her six wolfhounds at her side, and with plundered gold as a gift for her true mother.
Thunder grumbled in the distance. She carefully packed up her tea set as the sky darkened, and when she was done, she picked up Miss Snips and threw her into the sea.
Regal Eye cried softly, a single querying note. She pretended he had said something witty, and laughed.
“Come,” she said, and held out a gloved hand. He flew to her and she stroked his wings, smiling under the stormy sky. Because smiling was what people did when they were pleased.