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Anne Leonard is a novelist and short-story writer who lives in Northern California.

Robert gives me a key to the workroom and tells me to keep the door locked. The book I usually copy from has been replaced by a single paper with a complicated spell that will take me days to ink. The bone is a human shoulder blade, and the spell is for death.
I have inked spells for sickness, for cheating, for delayed shipments and stolen funds, but murder is going too far. "I don't want to kill anyone," I say.
"You no more kill anyone than a blacksmith who makes a sword does. But if you truly object, you can quit, with no hard feelings to you."
Robert is the assistant to our employer, Arthur Fosse, a rich industrialist. It was Robert who hired me away from the factory where I was one of a hundred women inking the same spells onto bones, over and over. A spellbone breaks when it is used; there is always demand for more. I worked for hours each day, straining my eyes and hurting my back, breathing the fumes of the cheap ink. At night I went home to a miserable dingy room where I slept on a mat and ate thin potato soup.
I see it, the room, the factory, the constant filth. The dim light. I remember my chapped hands bleeding from working in the cold. The Counters, who cut pay in half if quota wasn't met. I can't go back to that. I can't.
"All right," I say. I am only inking the spell.
The death spell takes a long time. I want it to be beautiful. My workroom is high-ceilinged, well-lit, with a window that overlooks rolling parkland and a stand of trees, bright now with spring. Since I came here I have discovered I am an artist. My spells are not just inked - they are illuminated, like old manuscripts.
At night the death spell's image dances before my closed eyes, crimson and black against white bone. Gleams of silver, stormy purple, peacock blue. A curving, graceful, intricate tangle of lines. I trace it with pencil until I get it right. My brush strokes have to be small and perfect. Robert checks my progress daily. He is encouraging, cheerful. I am a little bit in love with him, though I am too bashful to act on it.
Finally the spell is finished. Robert compares the pattern to what I've inked, then throws the paper into the cold fireplace and lights it with a match. It shrivels into ash.
"Very good work," he says. The last of my guilt eases. He touches my hand.
None of Fosse's competitors die, and by autumn I have almost entirely forgotten about the spell. Robert and I are lovers, each night a different kind of sweetness. I ink spells for health, strength, happiness. In my free time I walk through the estate or read books with crisp new pages and soft leather covers. I am full of new vitality.
Robert never stays after I fall asleep. One night I sleep very soundly and waken late to commotion in the house. When I come down, I am told by a weeping cook that Fosse has died. Unexpectedly, in his sleep.
The will is read. Fosse leaves a very large sum of money to Robert.
I retreat to my room and stare dry-eyed out the window. When Robert knocks on my door, I numbly tell him to come in.
"We can get married now," he says.
I still love him. My heart is splintered to the marrow.
"I can't," I whisper.
He stares. Then he kneels beside me and takes my hand. "You think I killed him," he says. "I didn't. I swear it."
He is impassioned, convincing. And if he killed Fosse, I inked the spell. I am complicit.
"No lies," I say.
"I can show you the bone," he says. "He never used it."
I let him take me down to Fosse's study, where he unlocks a desk drawer. Inside it, wrapped in linen, is the bone I painted. The pain goes out of me, and I collapse against him.
"How can you love me when I have such suspicion?"
"It's understandable."
I look at the bone again, remember the image that I copied. The lines and colors are not quite the same.
I think of the factory. My nights shivering under a thin blanket. The feel of my own bones against my skin. The unabating loneliness.
"I love you," I say.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, October 18th, 2022

Author Comments

The first draft of this story came from a prompt, which was Springsteen's classic "Born to Run." I love this song and its frenzied despair and need to escape. One line contains an image of bones being ripped from a person's back, and that image of bones and the working-class setting of the song combined to produce a story about exploitative assembly-line magic and someone who wanted out.

- Anne Leonard
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