So a couple of years ago, artist Lorena Carrington and I met at the Bendigo Writers’ Festival. We got on well, I sent her some books and she sent me some glorious art. One of those pieces of art was called “The Bone Lantern” … and I’ve carried that title around in my head ever since, thinking it must be a story in my Sourdough world.
I finished writing The Tallow-Wife and Other Tales a couple of weeks ago. I had been planning to put “The Bone Lantern” in there, but it wasn’t interested. It wants to be a tale all on its own. So, I said “Fine. You’ll be a novella. Wait your turn.”
It will deal with Selke, who’s featured in other stories of mine. Artwork to the right by Kathleen Jennings – Selke’s wanted poster from the novella Of Sorrow and Such.
But then Juliet Marillier posted this wonderful article this morning by Sarbina Orah Mark “Fuck the Bread. The Bread Is Over” – go and read it, it’s magnificent.
And there’s a wonderful line in there about a fairytale girl being given ashes with which to make a rope … and that sparked a story to go within the larger story of “The Bone Lantern”. So, that’s below, and I’ve started scribbling notes …
“The Bone Lantern”
by Angela Slatter
Once upon a time, there was girl who was traded to a mage by her parents. They didn’t consider themselves bad parents – who ever does? – and they had six other mouths to feed and the price of the oldest girl would keep the family afloat for a good year. After that, surely their fortunes would have turned around – and if not, there were always more children.
But back to the once-upon-a-time girl.
The mage, who was awful and knew himself to be so – they say monsters don’t know they’re monsters but that is, quite frankly, bullshit – put the girl in a room. The room was at the top of a tower and there was nothing in it except ash. Not really piles, because ash doesn’t lie that way, it’s too light and fragile, it builds in tentative layers, and flies at the slightest breeze. As there was an open window, there was plenty of opportunity for the ash to take wing and the air of the room was filled with grey-black shards of things-that-no-longer-were. The mage told the once-upon-a-time girl that if she could make a rope of the ash, then she could escape the tower.
And then he left, safe in the knowledge that she was a stupid village girl and she’d still be there in the morning.
But the girl was different.
She’d learned things from the old wood wife who lived out in the forest. Whenever the girl was sent to gather sticks and twigs for the fire, berries and mushrooms for the table, she would visit the tumbledown cottage and talk. She learned things that her mother did not know – but let’s be honest, the lessons our mothers teach us never really sink in until year later, when we’re older and find her pain growing in the very soil of our being – and so, she knew what to do.
She pulled three dark hairs from her head and curled them onto the windowsill. Then she gathered a small, shivering covey of ashes and balanced them on top of the hair. Next, she cut her palm with the little knife she always carried deep in the pockets of her skirt, and sprinkled the droplets over the top.
She whispered to it, secret words that made the ashes and hair and blood dance and twist and twine together. Soon enough she had a length of dark red rope. The once-upon-a-time girl tied it tightly to the hook in the wall by the window, hitched her skirts up between her legs and tucked them into her belt, then clambered over the sill.
But before she went, she cut off a piece and coaxed it into a noose, which she hung from the wooden beam above. She whispered to it a wish that the mage would find it irrestiable.