The Girl and The Skulls

I hadn’t specifically planned to post this on Easter Sunday, but seeing that it worked out that way, it seems extremely (in)appropriate. Also, as seems advisable to mention in the current context, no generative AI (language models or otherwise) was used in the production of this story. We’ve even got a little badge at the bottom to declare that!

The first Mother to notice the skulls was her Monday Mother, Mother Agnes. On that night, the girl had had just five skulls, medium-sized ones, lined up on the shelf above the head of her ancient bed.

“Child, what are those?” Mother Agnes had bleated as she tucked her in, but the girl hadn’t bothered to reply. Mother Agnes was afraid of her, and the girl always ignored much of what she said. Mother Agnes had only shaken her head, pulled the soft cover up around the girl’s neck, and left with a silent empty kiss on her forehead.

Now there were many more skulls in her room, small skulls and larger ones, clean white fresh-looking ones and brown ones darkened with the stains of age. The shelf above her bed was crowded with them, and they sat arranged in lines on the floor and along the bases of the walls. Her most special skulls were on the wide sill of the big window that looked out on the moonlit lawns of the house.

Her Thursday Mother, Mother Farless, who was brisk and efficient and had a high voice like a chirping bird, had clicked her tongue at the proliferation of skulls, and said “We should get rid of these horrible things! I am going to speak to your father.” But the girl knew that Mother Farless would not do that; none of the Mothers spoke to Father any more.

The girl’s seven Mothers did not know that they were seven; each one thought of herself, in her own individually vague and annoying way, as the girl’s only Mother. All of them were ensorcelled to sleep six days of each week, and to be her Mother for the seventh.  Long ago, Father had established the weeks in this way, and the girl was happy enough with the arrangement. She thought that having the same Mother every day would be even more tiresome.

“Where do you find all of these bones, dear?” Mother Serenity, her Wednesday Mother, had asked. The girl had smiled beatifically, and said that they had been brought by angels. Mother Serenity had not argued; Mother Serenity never argued, only sat near the window glowing with a soft light that the girl found soothing, and bringing golden fruits and nectar for her meals.

In fact, the skulls came from underneath the floorboards of the house, from wide dusty spaces smelling of wood and time, that the girl had discovered one midnight, lying on her stomach on the floor, moving her arms and legs up and down, feeling the coolness of the boards through her cotton nightgown. An uneven place between two boards had caught hold of her sleeve, and she had snarled at it and torn at it with her fingernails until it yielded unexpectedly, and the treasure was revealed.

Her Thursday Mother could not come into the house to see the skulls, because she was a rainstorm. The girl took her umbrella and one of the larger and paler skulls out into the smaller garden, where her Thursday Mother rained down gently on them. She placed the skull on a low wall and stepped back so that it was not covered by the umbrella.

Drops from her Mother fell onto the skull, quickly wetting the smooth white upper surface and running in drops down into the eye and the nostril holes. The girl watched each moment, losing herself in the watching, becoming all awareness of the drops falling and merging, running into parts of the skull that had been dry, splashing off of the skull back into the air. She began to cry, and her tears ran down her face in just the same way. 

Putting the umbrella aside, she let her Mother’s drops fall on her hair and face, mixing with her tears, wetting the skin that covered the flesh that covered her own skull. She thought of her skull as she cried, thought of it as warm and pink inside of her, as the white skull on the wall was cold and pale. She cried until she could cry no more, and then went back to her room, cold and exhausted.

That night she shivered in bed with fever, moaning and twisting under the covers. Just after midnight her gentle Friday Mother slid silently into her room and stroked her face with a cool cloth.

“Sssh,” her Mother said, a whisper like silence in the dark room, “Sssh, my darling.”

The girl felt the coolness of the cloth on her cheeks and her forehead, even as in a fever dream she danced among whirling skulls under a cracked white dome, ecstatic with terror. Her Friday Mother piled heavy blankets onto her, and held her in gentle arms all night.

When her fever broke, the girl opened her eyes on a new world. The air on her face and shoulders was new, the skulls crowding the room, the moonlight through the windows, were all fresh and sweet with newness. She herself was hollow and light, and she sprang from her bed, staggering only a little, and went from one skull to another, kissing a dozen of them in welcome. Her Mother looked in on her around the door, and then brought fried duck eggs and warm bread for her breakfast.

On the next Monday, her Father visited her, as a tall man with spreading antlers, his powerful body covered in fine nut-brown fur. He allowed her to nuzzle for a moment into his arms, and she pressed her face against the fur of his chest, breathing his rich fragrance and feeling the strong bones beneath his flesh.

As the girl had known he would, her Father admired the careful arrays of skulls in her room. He held one of the largest in his huge hand, turning its hollow eyes to his own, a low sound deep in his throat.

“It is good to be with the past,” he said, and raised his wide deep gaze to meet hers, “with the ancestors.” She fell into his rich wild eyes, feeling herself deep within him, feeling the source of her own life in his, in all of those before him, in the tangled streams of the past, the skulls and bones of her family.

There were, in the dry shadowed places under the floors of the house, other bones scattered among the skulls. Not as many as the skulls, not nearly enough to populate a full skeleton for every beautiful skull, but a fair number. She had taken up some of them, held in her small hand a long thigh bone or a delicate finger bone, brought an enigmatic textured plate up to her nose to sniff. But they were not meant for her room, the way that the skulls were, and she left them down there under the floor, dreaming that they moved at night, arranging themselves in partial memories of the living shapes they had once inhabited.

Father stayed at the house for some time, loping off into the surrounding forest with his men, returning with bloody game for the kitchen. The Mothers and the unseen staff prepared savory meals, and the front of the girl’s dress became colored by the juices that ran down her chin when she ate. Her Thursday Mother tutted at the stains, and threw the dress into the fire, where it sizzled and sparked and finally burned, the girl watching the flames in hungry contentment.

The night that Father left again, they all stood on the balcony overlooking the front of the house as the staff blew the trumpets. It was a Tuesday, and her Mother Frances in her elegant gown only waved a lace kerchief at Father and his men as they disappeared into the silver moonlight. The girl clung to Mother Frances’ skirts, sobbing until her eyes were red, letting misery and loneliness wash through her in delicious waves.

When the house had settled back into the quieter duller patterns of Father’s absence, the girl returned to her room and squirmed under her bed, resting there in the close and slightly dusty space (even Father’s staff could not keep pristine the underside of a bed this old and vast), thinking of the skulls and where the rest of their bones might be. She imagined all of the skulls singing together a slow and mournful song, just for her.

It seemed to her now that she had always heard that song, even before she first clawed the floor open and found the first skull, domed and dusty in its resting place. The song filled the air, and went in and out of the windows in the darkness. It was a song about the deep woods, the game animals with their hot innocent blood and bones, about her and her Father and her seven Mothers and her one True Mother, her ancestors stretching back into the endless beginningless past.

“When did you first meet Father?” the girl had once asked Mother Frances, sitting in her lap before bedtime, her head on her Mother’s elegant shoulder.

“It was in Paris,” her Mother had answered, “at the opera. He was such a gentleman, so strong and handsome, but refined and gentle. He won my heart at once.” The girl wondered if “Paris” and “opera” were real things, somewhere in the world, or if they were part of Father’s sorcery in making Mother Frances into her Tuesday Mother.

“I was so young then,” Mother said, “young and innocent and full of dreams.” The girl thought she caught an uncertain something in her Mother’s voice then, as though her thoughts had wavered for a moment. But then she sat up straighter, and said in a cheerful voice, “And now look at me! The proudest mother in the world.” And she had kissed the girl’s cheek and tucked her into bed.

On another Wednesday, while her Mother Serenity sat glowing in the parlor, the girl wedged up a new section of the floor in the hallway just outside of her room, and found for the first time a nearly-complete skeleton, the bones arranged neatly under the skull between the floor beams, as though their owner had reclined there and then allowed the skin and flesh to melt away. They were clean and white, without the clinging scraps that some of her skulls nurtured.

She knelt by the bones and stretched herself out over them, imagining that it was she who had lain there, slowly restfully melting away. She moved her gaze from the toes upward, saving the skull for last. And when she looked at the skull, she saw the jagged hole in its dome.

“Look at you,” she whispered to the skull, softly running her forefinger around the edge of the hole, “Look at what has happened to you.”

The girl scooped the skull up carefully in her pink hand, and turned it around in the moonlight. The jagged hole was the only damage evident; otherwise, this skull was as perfect as all of her others, firm and intact, undecayed, only oxidized here and there, rusted with the patina of time. She made a place for it in the center of the sill under the big window, placed it carefully, and lay back on her bed, propped up on her pillows, looking into the tender sockets of its eyes.

“You are my first Mother,” she said to the skull, “before Father brought the Seven Mothers, before the first Monday.” The skull did not reply, but she knew it was listening.

“It was from you that I emerged into the world,” she said. And this felt to her as though it mattered. “And then your skull was broken open, and your life escaped.”

She wondered who had broken open the beautiful dome of that skull, and why they had done it. Had there been anger, or kindness, or boredom?  Had the same person neatly arranged the body under the floorboards? Had there been blood, like the blood of the game animals that her father brought back from the forest? 

The girl thought that surely there had been no blood, just the gradual fading away of skin and flesh, leaving the bones behind as they should be. The hole in the skull might have been the final perfecting of the bones, the last thing needed to complete everything. “You are perfect, aren’t you?” she said to the skull. Thickening clouds moved across the moon, and the darkness of her room deepened, only the palest and whitest of skulls showing in the black. Slowly the girl let herself slip into dreams.

She spent the next two days in her bed, dreaming of skulls and of her first Mother, and the jagged hole in the skull that watched over her with all the others. Her Thursday Mother Farless and her gentle nameless Friday Mother brought her meals and spoke words to her, but she was far away, dancing with her dream skulls and learning from her dream Father.

Her Saturday Mother, the Enchantress Niviène, sent to her a small glittering swan which circled above her bed, singing a song too beautiful to ignore, and the girl returned to the ordinary reality of her room and the unmoving skulls.

“Hello, my dear one,” the swan sang in her Mother’s voice. The girl thought again how powerful her Father’s sorcery must be, to bind Niviène as one of her seven Mothers. But she also suspected that perhaps this particular Mother was not as deeply ensorcelled as those earlier in the week.

The small swan glided around the room on diamond wings, lighting daintily on the broken dome of the skull on the window sill, and dipped its bright beak into the dark opening.

“You have found your Father’s magic, I see,” the swan sang, “and none too soon.”

“What do you mean, Mother?” the girl said, sitting up in her bed, feeling somehow the excitement and fear of infinite possibility.

The swan’s song was full of laughter. “Tomorrow,” her Mother’s voice said, “perhaps tomorrow.”

After this, the swan glided out through the window, and the girl rose eagerly from bed, dressing herself in leather and bright calico. She bowed to the broken skull, ignoring the others, and tucked it under one arm and went out into the night.

For many hours, the girl conducted the rituals of her family at the old holy place in the forest, and the beasts of the forest growled and whined all around her. The perfect broken skull presided from the highest point of the altar, and the song of the other skulls poured out of the sky and entered the skull’s jagged starry hole. This is what she had dreamed about, this is what had been whispered to her in her sleep.

Finally, the rituals complete, the girl slumped to the forest earth, and the beasts nuzzled and licked at her clothing and her limp body.

She was carried back to the house, tenderly changed into her nightgown and gently tucked into her bed. Voices spoke quietly, and a soft breeze blew, and she slept deeply and without dreams.

The next day was Sunday, a day that the girl always spent in the quiet dimness under her bed, or down in the mazy passages beneath the house. Of all of her seven Mothers, she loved and hated Lucinda, her Sunday Mother, the most intensely, because she was all light, and glory, and judgment.

But on this Sunday, the girl slept long from the night’s rituals, and was still asleep when her Mother Lucinda flung open the door and entered her bedroom, clad in white and gold, like a demanding flame. Her light gleamed from the skulls as she turned back the girl’s bed, and unseen hands helped her upright and dressed her in a severe white gown of her own.

“What are we doing, Mother?” she groaned, squinting against the light as the unrelenting Sun separated itself from the treetops of the eastern Forest.

“Going to the chapel, silly girl!” her Mother trumpeted, as the invisible hands tugged her gown here and there, and pulled a white lace veil up over her head. “Have you forgotten what day it is?”

The girl sighed. Being awake only one day in seven, her Mothers all had odd notions of times and dates. The old chapel had been in ruins as long as she could remember; it might be interesting to see what Mother Lucinda expected to do with it.

Out on the lawn, taking the path that led from the big oaken doors to the chapel, her eyes slowly adapted to the brightness of the Sun and of her Mother. She wished her Thursday Mother would come with her thick clouds and cooling rain, but it was Sunday, and a terrible searing Sunday at that.

As she and her Sunday Mother walked, the girl saw that others were moving in the same direction; people from the village in their poor finery, and also many others, dim vague figures somehow shadowy even in the omnipresent light. Both groups, the mortal and the shadow, gave a wide berth to the two of them from the house.

Her Mother seemed to ignore them, but the girl regarded them with interest as they walked, especially the shadows. Some of them limped or shambled, some held an arm tightly against the body, some walked together, unsteadily supporting each other. All seemed to one degree or another in distress, but their faces, those that had faces, seemed happy, happier she imagined than her own, as though they were eager to reach some destination.

As more joined them, the girl saw that although the shadows came from all directions, the largest stream came from the direction of the road that led to the village, and another stream from one particular part of the forest. She wondered what might be in that direction, and then she remembered, and smiled.

Looking back, toward the big house, she noticed that behind them on that path walked a tall woman, who held her head tilted to one side, perhaps owing to the spike or short metal pole protruding from it. This, she knew, was her true mother, with a perfect hole in her skull, and the girl’s heart was filled with love. Then she had to turn again to the front, hurrying to keep up with Mother Lucinda, and the shadow of her true Mother was lost among the others.

When they finally reached the chapel, the girl was slightly surprised to see that the old building was not ruined, but stood intact and immaculate in the sunlight, doors wide open on a spacious bright interior. Here the streams split, the shadows taking a pair of stairways leading down into dimmer places, and the less numerous others entering the chapel proper, seating themselves in the long pews.

Her Sunday Mother strode to the very front rank of the nave, the others in the chapel quick to get out of her way, and the girl hurrying along behind her. They settled down in the front pew by themselves, facing the chancel where the figure of the Hanging Man looked down from the wall. In the all-too-bright light of the chapel, the Hanging Man seemed to the girl to be the only point of ease and sympathy. His hands and feet were affixed to wooden beams by thick nails, and streams of blood dripped down his pale skin. He wore a crown made of thorny vines on his head, and the girl wished that he would look up at her, so she could see his eyes.

A man in a black cassock and white surplice came out of a door to one side of the Hanging Man, and stepped up behind the wooden lectern. He looked blandly out over the crowd, and began to speak. The girl let his words flow into her head and around and out again, one by one. She watched the carven animals on the lectern chase each other around the carven plants, playing and hunting and mating. She looked at the body of the Hanging Man, and saw that he had a wound in his side, from which blood also dripped. She thought that the red blood against his thin white skin was very beautiful.

Just as the man at the lectern addressed his Father, who was in Heaven, the Hanging Man did raise his head, and his gaze met the girl’s gaze, and she saw that the Hanging Man was her Father, nailed to the heavy beams of wood, and she was filled with joy.

The girl stood, as the man at the lectern continued speaking, and slowly climbed the steps leading up from the nave. She felt the judgment of her Mother Lucinda, puzzled murmuring of the crowd of villagers, and the searing light of the Sun, all pulling at her, obstructing her. But she had done the rituals well, and she entered the altar, and approached the Hanging Man, her Father, who smiled at her now from his place on the wall.

Poised on the knife-edge of Time, she rose up, and pressed her lips to her Father’s lips, and the skin of his body began to fall away. There were gasps and then screams from behind her, and her Mother Lucinda’s voice rising in agony or bliss. She held herself against her Father as all of his skin, his loincloth and crown of thorns, and finally his flesh melted and flowed away, and only his beautiful bones hung there on the wall of the chapel.

He slipped his purified hands and feet easily off of their nails, and held the girl in his arms as he descended from the wall. Comforting shadows pushed out from them, and from her true Mother, who rose up from the crypt, through the floor of the chapel, and was gathered also in her Father’s skeletal embrace. The screams of the villagers were cut off, or faded away into the distance, as the three of them walked out of the chapel, which was already falling back into its proper ruin behind them.

Outside the chapel all seven of her false Mothers waited to greet them, finally drawn together by her Father’s will. The clouds of her Thursday Mother hid the unwelcome Sun, and cooled them all with a gentle mist. Mother Agnes, Mother Frances, and her gentle Friday mother stood with their heads bowed. Even her Sunday Mother Lucinda, dimmer now and her white and gold raiment torn to ribbons, stood humbly, hand-in-hand with her Mother Serenity and the smiling Enchantress Niviène, and paid homage to the girl and her parents.

Her Father put her down gently. She looked up at him, at the clean jointed bones of him, and then at the shade of her true Mother, who looked at her with infinite tenderness from the shrouded eyes of her broken head.

With a small smile, the girl made a slight gesture with her fingers. Her parents, comprehending, exchanged a glance and then went to stand, heads bowed, with the others.

The girl stood there, feeling herself, feeling everything, in a flawless moment. The sound of the chapel crumbling behind her, the mist of her Thursday Mother on her skin, the heads finally bowed in obeisance to her, and farther away the big house and her skulls, all under a rapidly darkening sky. Everything exactly as it ought to be.

And now, she thought happily, the sun will never rise again.


2 Comments to “The Girl and The Skulls”

  1. The carven plants and animals were my favorites.

    Liked by 1 person


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