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Young Bones

Amanda C. Davis is an environmental professional and enthusiastic amateur baker, gardener, and horror-movie-watcher. Her work has appeared in Pseudopod, Cemetery Dance, Year's Best Weird Fiction, and others. She tweets, inadvisably, as @davisac1. You can find out more about her and read more of her work at amandacdavis.wordpress.com.
The worst of it was, after long eons, I forgot my offense. I would creep through forests and hide in caves, moaning through my hideous lips and teeth, "Why?" I hunched in bogs sifting my gems of memory in search of the pitted stone of sin that might justify the pain. So few remained. A dress, a cat, a rose, a crown. Nothing to earn me the shape of a monster.
I may have forgotten the sin, but the curse lived with me. Its scales on my skin. Its heart in my ribs. And its deep, wild hunger in my belly.
More than hunger. I craved.
I remembered a woman who could be kind or cruel, who taught me the danger of magic. "With faeries or beasts, in palaces or pits,"--I heard her where she was not--"you must never eat what you crave, or be enslaved to it forever."
But had she ever felt such a clenching of need? The want so strong it conjures taste when you salivate, and the drool slips between disgusting tusks into matted fur? The intolerable incessant desire? I obeyed her, but I was enslaved nonetheless. Oh, I craved, and for one thing alone.
I longed for young bones.
I must have realized, and heaved myself into the wilderness before the curse took full hold, because I think back--a child, a school, a dance, a pond--and oh, I could have had my fill! They surrounded me once, though I did not recall any names. I could have devoured young bones until I split. I could have been such a monster.
It would be no worse, I sometimes thought, than the crouched and muddy monster I am--but I remembered enough to be repulsed, to hide for one more day, to chain myself from seeking what tempted me day and night.
And it did tempt me every day.
And every night.
And every day.
Until....
First came the smell. Golden-blue in my snout and so rich, so sweet, it held everything I had ever wanted. I grunted in horror. They were here! Here, in my swamp, in my purgatory, the things I hid from out of all the world. So many, and so close. Such young bones.
I ran. I shuffled to a cave I knew, and hid away under a mossy overhang, and there sobbed with longing for what I could not have. But the scent didn't fade. It sharpened until it deafened me. I huddled and shook for what came ever closer--
The moss parted, and a girl (so young! So full of bones!) said, "Hello?"
I screamed--I meant to scream, "Go and leave this monster be!" but it fell out so garbled from my awful tongue, my terrible teeth, that it was only a scream. She pulled away the mossy canopy and knelt in the mouth of the cave.
"I brought you something."
She took a box from a sack and placed it between us, and opened it and--oh mercy! oh my clawing heart!--it was full of bones.
I grasped my face and moaned. Ichor and fur came away on my talons.
"They are for you," she said steadily. "My sister. She's been dead a long time. I dug her up after I heard of your... your need."
I choked on panic. "Enslaved forever," I slurred, pressing to the cave's shoddy wall, eyes locked on the box of treasures, my most desired, that I could not ever touch. Didn't she realize? If I took these young bones, I would then take her young bones, and lose all will, and take every young bone in the land until it was laid to waste and I ruled an empty hill of carnage.
She gazed at me as if she heard through the shrieks. "They are freely given," she said softly. She pushed the box closer. "I know you must ache so."
Oh, how it hurt! The piercing nearness. The hollow wanting.
"Why?" I moaned.
I think she heard what I meant to say, that time. Without a word, she took from her pack a crossbow, and loaded it, and set it beside the bones.
Hope lit my eyes.
"I came here to save you," she said. "One way or the other."
Of course, of course. I saw an ending. The end. I could have my fill and when I turned to her for more, she could stop me. I could devour and not destroy. I could crunch and gnash and splinter those young bones into my maw and then never crave again. I grunted at the crossbow and at her. She nodded. A promise.
I put my great face into the bones of her sister.
They crumbled in my teeth. They foamed on my tongue. I forgot she was there, I forgot what would come next, I crammed my terrible mouth with dry young bones, some so small they stuck in my teeth, some that went down whole, so many others that snapped and gnashed and sharded and oh the slicing of my throat, oh the sating, the fading, the calm--
Then a tearing, twisting, writhing, and pain like I had known only once before--
The mud of the cave on my skin. The darkness, like I had not remembered darkness could be. A foul pile of bloody furs below me. I skittered. Weak limbs.
I whimpered. Thin lips. Small teeth.
The girl came to me--above me--draped a blanket on me. "There you are, your majesty." She looked strained. "How do you feel?"
I felt--I felt so little. No rage. No fear. No hunger. I raised a claw to my face, but a hand touched my cheek instead. I barely knew how to use it.
I remembered, fleeting as a dream, that I should not have done what I did.
"With faeries or beasts," I croaked, lips out of practice and throat hoarse, "in palaces or pits, you must never eat what you crave, or be enslaved to it forever."
She adjusted the blanket on my shoulders. "I don't know what nonsense they teach you up in that castle," she said. "My mum says, if you're sick and you're hungry for something, you probably need to eat some."
Something else ached in me. "Why?" I said.
She gently fitted the lid onto her sister's bones. I imagined she would bury my leavings. "Why what?"
"The curse. What was my sin?"
She shrugged. "I didn't hear about any sin. Sometimes things just happen." She put her hand gently on the ossuary lid. When she looked at me, it was with kindness. I had forgotten. "Hungry?"
I licked my lips. I lay still and listened to my whole body. My whole body. Sought my unfamiliar joints and skin for any longing, any pain.
"No," I said. My voice came out of my own mouth. I twitched my fingers in front of my eyes. Every inch of me was me. Every inch of me held together with human skin, human shape. Not an inch of me mired in craving, and every inch of me braced up by my own young bones.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, October 12th, 2018

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