THE WRONG BONES BY HILARY ELDER

Gwen

Lying. Weeping. Falling. Sinking. Drying. Crumpling. Desiccating. Settling. 
     That’s how it happened, the slow slip from stoved-in head to clean white bones. And now, here I am. Waiting. It’s not even as if I seem to be doing nothing. No one sees me so I can’t seem. As far as the world is concerned I’m not here. I’m nowhere. I’m missing. I’m invisible, inert, unknown. But I know. I know I am here and I know why. And I am waiting to be found, to be investigated, validated, vindicated. Avenged.
     Every day is a day further away for her. A day closer to scot-free. What do they say? The first forty-eight hours are crucial in a murder investigation? She made sure I missed that boat! No one even reported me missing for three days. She was canny. After a year of her wringing my social life dry like a dishcloth I wasn’t meant to be anywhere until Monday morning and she did it on a Friday. By the time anyone called the police I was already sinking into the earth under the autumn leaf-mulch. 
     At first I tried to count them, the days; but without the ability to move my hand and scratch a tally on a rock it’s got to be a bit of a guesstimate by now. I think I must have been here for about ten years. At least. At first I could tell what season it was, but that faded after a while. The expression ‘cold to my bones’ – completely misguided. Bones can’t tell if it’s hot or cold.
     For what seemed like a long time it was complicated. I remembered everything and it was like being a pinball in a bagatelle machine. I’d zoom out onto the board with the thrust of the knife; the shock, pain like pain known before but not, familiar but new. Unforgettable. Then I’d deflect across to disbelief that she had done it. And then the obstacles that bounced me became things I might have done wrong. Lazy about the flat. Head in the clouds. Too trusting. Too slim and too pretty and too blonde. Too stupid to see that she might do this. All these things could be my fault, which meant that I might deserve this. And I was too soft to put up a fight.
     It took a long time to simplify, calcify; a long time. But eventually the flesh and the fat and the organs rotted away and now all that’s left are my bones, hard and dry and clean and holding my passion for justice. At last I am clear; too late because the truth is that it’s vanishingly unlikely that justice will be done. So much of the time this feels like wasting, not waiting. I have never been so helpless, not even on that Friday night when the rolling pin came down on my head. And I can’t fade away to peace. I can’t even want to. I want a proper ending. I want her found, judged and punished. That’s what keeps me awake.

*
That was me yesterday. But this morning everything’s changed. The sound of people talking, not unusual, walkers in the woods. And then something different. The walkers stop near me, and start making grunting noises, and there’s a shaking, like a tiny earthquake. Sex? Consensual? But it isn’t that. I’ve felt that enough times over the years to know. The shaking keeps coming and going in bursts and pulses and then I begin to sense light. And I hear a familiar sharp scraping. A shovel hitting rock. They are digging! Maybe they are digging for me! My heart would pound if I still had one. I tell myself, stop thinking it, it won’t be for you. But the shovel keeps getting nearer, deeper, a little to my left, and I think they may not be digging for me but they could still find me! This is it. All those other moments I never had: graduating, wedding day, becoming a mum. All those posts people put on Instagram and I never will; nothing for me beyond prom and eighteenth. But now there’ll be this. Being found. I might be past getting new followers but, man, will I trend? A shout! One of them has spotted something. And everything swerves into wrongness. Again. I realise it hasn’t got any lighter for a while now. There is no air on any of my bones. They have been digging beside me, not to me, and they have found something else. Someone else. Heather I never think of her now. I don’t bake any more; that helps, not ever picking up a rolling pin. The past is past. I’ve got a career to maintain, a life to live; I mean, if I’m not living the future I want, what was the point of doing it anyway? If you think about it that way, I owe it to her to forget her; otherwise she died for nothing. And not baking has brought other benefits. It sounds strange but as soon as it was done my life seemed to fall into place. I went vegan, lost loads of weight, started running. Exactly like I’d known, my life was not just my life any more, it was my life the way I always knew it ought to be. And people put it down to grief! When I ran my first marathon people would take me aside for a talk, worried I was taking things too far. But they had to admit it was doing me good. And it still is. I’m getting PBs well into my forties. I’m a walking advertisement for the mental and spiritual benefits of good physical health and self-care on a life scarred by tragedy! So I never think about it, so it was quite a shock when it came on the local news. Human bones found. There. There was one of those tents and the stupid tape barrier, striped like a candy cane only the wrong colours, and it was right there, right next to our tree. My heart stopped. I back-pedalled. How many beech trees are there in those woods? What are the chances? But I knew. It was our tree. I forced myself to listen to the news report. Bones had been found, and sent for DNA testing. I did nothing. It’s worked so far and I’m good at holding my nerve. A few days later it was back on the news; it was the and finally story. Turns out the bones were four thousand years old – stone age! I was so relieved I only just made it to the toilet. And then, cleaned up, teeth freshly brushed, I had to come after all. I’m not sure why but here I am. I haven’t run here for twenty years, not since that night. I used to curse myself for burying her here, because this is a good run route. Maybe now I can put it into my schedule. Maybe this is the last piece of the jigsaw falling into place. The tent is still up and the ridiculous candy cane barrier covers a wider area than it looked like on the TV. There’s a smattering of people stopping as they pass by on their runs or dog walks, watching an archaeologist talking to a reporter. Without my consent my feet bring me nearer, to where I can hear. ‘Yes, once we have found one burial it makes sense to look for more,’ the archaeologist is saying, ‘so we widened the search area in case those wonderful council workers had uncovered a cemetery.’ Blood drains to my feet as the reporter puts on a sombre face. She looks like they do when they’re trying to squeeze out a tear for the cancer patient they’re interviewing. ‘But you have found a bit more than you bargained for?’ ‘Unfortunately, yes,’ the archaeologist’s face takes a turn for the worse, too, but she’s not had the training: she just looks like she’s sucking a lemon. ‘Only feet away from our stone age woman is another woman, buried nearer the surface and much more recently. We’ve sent her to the lab but to our eyes she looked as if she can’t have been here much longer than twenty years.’ The reporter puts her hand to her mouth and her camera-made-up eyes widen as I turn and retch into a bramble thicket. Ewa It is so bright in here. I am glad I don’t have eyes any more; it would be unbearable. It is unbearable. To be exposed like this. People buzzing round, saying things in a strange tongue I can’t latch on to. Digging bits out of me and peering at them. The first people I have seen in – how long? Many, many lifetimes. But I am more alone now than I have ever been. Even under the earth there were the worms and beetles and maggots at first, and then the roots and the squirrels and foxes, nosing around me, using my bones as a nest-frame. They weren’t exactly company, but they were comforting after a while. They were something else to notice, something other than blood-lust. I’ve known for a long time that my lust will never be slaked. It’s too late for that. He will have died long ago – on the battlefield? In bed? Surrounded by his children – his other children, his children given by another woman, his children who lived? I still want to know. No, not to know; to know where and when, to have the chance to storm his place and dash his children’s heads against a rock and watch his face before I bash that in too. I thought it would fade, but it just settled, like mud on a river bank. There, but quiet. Like me. And then the other one arrived. Buried just as I had been, under cover of dark, quietly, quickly, fearfully. It was a bodge job compared to mine. Mostly she was just blanketed in leaves and though she sank a bit over the years she never really entered the earth. I don’t think she knew I was there. But I knew about her. I could feel her rage lighting up the earth between us. I wasn’t alone any more. I hated and loved the way her lust filled me and once more I became the thing we shared: thirst for vengeance. I was wild with jealousy that she would be found in time, she would get her justice when I would never have mine. But I understand her because I know. We cannot speak but I know her like I know myself. I know the one thing that she is, now, because it’s what I am too. And then they dug me up and brought me here. And I am alone again. Now I long to be back in the earth, and I’m not sure if it’s to get away from this throbbing light and the sick-sweet smell and the weird sheen of the smooth surfaces and the sharp corners, or if, really, it’s that I want to be near her again. The door opens with that grating clean sound it makes and they come in and begin to arrange bones on the slab next to mine. They talk and prod and take bits of it and at last they leave and it is just it and me. I start to wonder who it is, but already I know. Her lust curls through the room like steam from a pot. It infuses me. It smells of blood and shit and something else. Something from so long ago I had forgotten it. Keen and red as the sting of an unripe blackberry on a hungry tongue, it is hope.

Hilary was born, raised and lives in the Far North of England – though she has been to other places. She writes children’s fiction, poetry, short fiction, creative non-fiction and sermons. Historical research helps her explore questions of identity, place, belonging and connectedness. Her work has been commissioned by Hexham Book Festival and published in TheLitPlatform, Crossing the Tees anthology (twice), The Caterpillar magazine, Tyger Tyger magazine, The Dirigible Balloon (forthcoming) and Dreich (forthcoming).

Twitter: @HilaryElder

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