When Trette was thirty, she gave her skull to the Ossuary, which was exactly the sort of thing she would do. I’m not angry—no, yes, I’m angry about it, but I want to tell it all, how it went. I don’t know who I want to tell, who I’m writing this for. For memory, I guess. For ghosts. So: let the ghosts hear.
She was always showy. Everything she did, she had to go just that bit farther than anyone else. Even the first time she gave to the town, it was like that. We were born twins and made our bone-pledge together, with the rest of our cohort, the summer we were fifteen. We talked about it for months beforehand, of course, the same as everybody.
“What’s wrong with a toe?” our friend and tagalong Yebell asked us one day, kicking her heel aimlessly against the seawall where the three of us sat, warm in the double sunlight. Below us, boats bobbed at their moorings or scudded across the harbor, blue sails for the town, flags of all colors for everyone else. It was a Rule, the blue sails, like the placement of buildings in the town and the way foreigners couldn’t come past the outer docks, and ten thousand other things besides, so we didn’t give it much thought at the time.
“It’s just so ordinary,” Trette said, wrinkling her nose. “It’s like you’re saying, I’ll never do anything interesting, I’ll never stand out. Toes. Bleh.”
“Ma and Pa both gave toes,” I said mildly. “Maybe I’m saying I appreciated the goodness of their lives and wanted to be like them.”
That was disingenuous and we both knew it even as I said it, because while I did appreciate our parents very much and was grateful for all they’d given us, I thought their lives were generally very dull. Pa worked in the customs house, where he dealt with the goods and problems of foreigners; and Ma worked in the Ossuary, where she made glass. Trette knew I wouldn’t last a month in either place without going mad and glared at me. “You’re seriously thinking of a toe then?”
“Maybe a finger joint,” I admitted. “Tip of the left fourth wouldn’t be so bad. I don’t really need that finger for the flute, except for trills.”
“You’d still be able to use it,” Trette pointed out.
“Yes, but—” I didn’t finish; I knew she knew what I meant. Ghost-flesh isn’t like born-flesh. Some of what it does is unpredictable. We’d all heard stories of people giving one of their legs and then being set on journeys they’d never have taken, and of ghost hands writing terrible things while their bodies slept, and all that. Mostly that was only stories we told each other—there were a few people in the town with significant ghost parts and I’d never known anything really dangerous to happen to them—but still. It would be a risk, and therefore a worthy sacrifice, but that year I’d just started to feel I was coming into my music, and I didn’t know if I wanted to chance compromising it.
“Maybe all you’d be saying with a toe is ‘I’ve got toes I don’t need,’” Yebell suggested. “Not everything has to have some deep significance.”
“In which case, why bother making the sacrifice at all?” I asked.
“Because I want to move out of my parents’ house,” Yebell answered with a grin. “It’s fine for the two of you, but I have three younger brothers. Taroque Boatbuilder’s going to let me live on his boat for the summer, as soon as I’m an adult.”
I punched her shoulder, grinning back, and she retaliated with equal enthusiasm, nearly knocking me off the wall. “Taroque. Good for you! Full apprentice?”
“If it works out. He’ll take me on as boatbuilder-trainee for three months and then put my name in the shop book in the fall if I do all right. I might be making my second sacrifice before either of you. Yebell Boatbuilder, how about that!” She laughed. “Good thing I have plenty of toes.”
In the end, she really did offer a toe, and didn’t seem to care that about half our cohort did the same. I went back and forth for a long while, dithering like I generally do on anything important, and eventually pledged the finger joint, the left fourth, like I’d said. I just wouldn’t use it, I decided, if the ghost-flesh turned out strange.
I wasn’t the only one; finger joints or whole fingers were the next most popular choice after toes. One girl gave her entire right thumb, which we all privately agreed was ridiculous. We were much more impressed by a boy named Kleid, who offered a rib, which was both daring and sensible. Although he did spoil it somewhat afterwards by going about all summer with his shirt off so the stripe of ghost-flesh showed, even indoors.
Thinking it over, I guess what Trette did wasn’t exactly showy, as such. Kleid’s rib was showy. Trette didn’t end up with any visible ghost-flesh at all; but we all saw it happen, so we all knew.
There were eighteen of us crowded into the first chamber of the Ossuary, the first time we’d been allowed past the great doors, plus two dedicants and Ma with her tray of little glass knives. She did the best glasswork, everyone said so. When the dedicant took my finger it hardly hurt at all, the knife was so sharp.
That’s a lie, actually. I told myself I wasn’t going to change things, writing this down. It’s for remembrance, to get things straight in my own mind, and it has to be right.
The cutting hurt worse than anything that ever happened to me before that. I didn’t exactly scream but I wasn’t silent either. Yebell had been, and I wanted to be too, but I just couldn’t. But the knife was sharp and it was very quick, one stroke to take the fingertip off at the first knuckle and no more than three or four to strip it of flesh. Then the other dedicant held my hand to stop it bleeding while the one officiating cut the letters into the freshly flensed bone.
They walked me forward to the center of the room where the ceiling was open, and I was glad then that I hadn’t chosen a toe, because the ones before me who had, had to take those steps limping and leaning on the dedicant beside them. I was much more dignified and stood straight as they smashed the glass knife and lifted the bone-offering and my cut hand together into the shaft of pale sunlight.
I didn’t see the ghost-flesh appear; it was just there, not suddenly but inevitably, the way trees in spring seem to bud while you’re looking away for a moment. Between one breath and the next my finger was whole again, no different from the rest of my fingers other than a kind of shimmering, except that when I stepped back out of the shaft of pale light the tip was gone and the shortened finger capped with a white scar of born-flesh as though the injury had happened years ago. That was how it would look in lamplight or the light of the bright sun, but the pale sun would show what was really there.
Three others came after, one of them the girl with the thumb, and then it was Trette’s turn. The dedicant checked his book and said something in a low voice to her, as if for confirmation. She didn’t answer but laid her head down on the cutting slab.
It turns out ears have bones in them. I had no idea, before that; I thought they were flesh all through. But the knife came down and the blood sprayed, and Trette screamed and flung herself against the hands of the dedicant holding her in place while the other dug inward with the knifepoint and after a long terrible time brought out the tiniest of bones.
When they broke the knife the bleeding didn’t stop right away. I figured out later that they’d had to cut through some flesh that was too far from the excised bone to turn ghost, so it didn’t heal when they dragged her half-conscious into the pale sunlight. At the time, though, all I could think was that she’d been rejected somehow, that the Ossuary didn’t want her and she wasn’t going to be ghosted at all.
The two dedicants angled Trette’s head this way and that to catch the light and argued in fierce whispers, while blood seeped steadily down her neck and into the yoke of her dress. Then they told Ma to watch us and hauled Trette away into the recesses of the building. Eventually another pair of dedicants came out and resumed the ceremony with the rest of the candidates. The whole time, Ma’s face might have been a skull for all the expression she showed, and her hands as she passed the knives over were steady. I’d have found her calmness comforting—Ma had worked in the Ossuary since before Trette and I were born and surely knew what was happening in those forbidding depths—but I knew Ma, as well as any child can know their parents, and knew the reverence in which she held the mysteries of the town. She’d carry out her duties even if Trette or Pa or I were bleeding to death in front of her.
Even once we were home, it wasn’t different. The Ossuary kept Trette three days. During that time, Ma and Pa went about with eyes like barricaded doors, saying almost nothing. Being newly adult, I was supposed to take myself out of the house and stay away for a week, showing myself able to live appropriately without my parents’ guidance. Most new adults in the town lived in tents on the beach for that period, celebrating, cooking fish over fires and showing off their new ghost-flesh to each other before being welcomed back into the community at the high-summer festival. It was what Trette and I had planned—we’d made our tent in the winter, stitching the canvas together beside the stove. But now we’d never get to use it, because she’d been selfish and ruined everything.
Instead I went to Yebell and begged her to let me join her on Taroque’s houseboat. I couldn’t stand to stay in our waiting house, but joining the merriment on the beach, pretending everything was fine, was too much effort for me. Yebell, I could tell, didn’t wholly understand, but she went to Taroque and petitioned him on my behalf and came back with word that he’d agreed. I moved my few belongings aboard that same hour.
I’d never had the remotest interest in boatbuilding, but Taroque made it clear he expected me to work for my keep. He showed me where to stow my things and then directed me to the straking shed, and for the rest of the day I tended the coals and kept the water-level constant in the steaming box, as one of the apprentices supervised the tension of the boards that were being slowly bent into the curve of a new hull. It was dull, sweaty work, but it was at least different from our parents’ house, and the monotonous whistle of the steam tanks made a kind of slow, blurry music that suggested new melodies to me.
When Trette came home I heard about it third-hand, from some foreigner who pulled his boat alongside Taroque’s mooring to complain in a heavy nasal accent about the inefficiency of the customs house. “Just closed down and left, no explanation,” he was growling when I came on deck, “and me with half my goods lying unsealed and three more ships behind me, and what’s your prentice doing?”
Taroque looked at me, and I looked at him, and then I realized the foreigner meant me. My left hand was pointing onshore, fourth finger glimmering as the pale sun rose over the hills. I felt light and urgent, as though I could bound across the water and never so much as wet my ankles. “Go,” Taroque told me kindly and I ran home.
Trette was on the roof, where we often slept in summer. Ma met me at the ladder. “She’s well,” was all she said. “Be gentle with her, though. It was—”
“A worthy sacrifice?” I finished, greatly daring. That was what the dedicants always said, and by and large they were not mocked. I wouldn’t have dared to be irreverent if Trette had still been at the Ossuary, but I’d seen her feet dangling over the roof’s edge as I approached the house.
Ma made as if to swat my head, then thought better of it, perhaps remembering that I was adult now. “Just be gentle,” she said instead.
I climbed up and plunked myself down beside Trette, studying her frankly. The side of her head looked normal. Where we sat was in the bright sun’s shade, our walnut tree’s leaves turning its light to lace, but the pale sun hung right before us. I should have seen what there was to see, if there was anything.
“Don’t bother,” Trette said. “It didn’t work.”
“What were you doing?” I burst out, which wasn’t at all what I’d intended to say. “How stupid could you be? Where did you even find out about ear bones? What did—what were—” With difficulty, I stopped myself, breathing hard. “Trette,” I managed. “Don’t ever do something like this again.” I punched her shoulder for emphasis, hard, and she staggered off-balance as she never would have before, and I realized that she wasn’t fully healed after all, that her injury was an injury still.
“I wouldn’t,” Trette assured me. She caught my expression. “Really, I wouldn’t. It didn’t work. I’m not that stupid.” She glanced down at my ghost finger. “You had the right idea. How’s the music?”
“Haven’t tried yet.” I didn’t want to tell her about pointing my way home. It was her right to know, but suddenly I had no idea how to talk to her. One adult to another, and one of us maimed—that wasn’t a relationship I knew how to be easy in. “What are you going to do next?” I asked instead.
Trette shrugged. “Find work. Find something. Ma says I can learn glasswork if I like.”
“In the Ossuary?” I said stupidly.
“Here, for now. There’s more to glassmaking than sacred knives. I can do profane work.” She looked uncomfortable. “I could do a lot of it sitting down, I wouldn’t have to worry about falling. There aren’t a lot of people who’d take a prentice who’s dizzy all the time.”
“Trette Glassworker.” I tasted the name. It was odd but not bitter. I poked her in the ribs, but gently this time so as not to unbalance her. “You just make sure you give a toe for your second!” She laughed, albeit unwillingly, and things between us were all right for awhile.
It was only later, thinking back on it in the rocking darkness of Taroque’s forward cabin, that I realized it was my ghost finger I’d touched her with.
That was summer. In late fall we grounded most of the boats, and Taroque and Yebell and I and the rest of the shore people went to live in the workshop and plan the next year’s boatbuilding. No new keels could be laid while the large space was being used for living in, so we made ropes and mended tools and carved small intricate pieces of hardware. I found I had a knack for knifework, and soon I was carving porthole frames and oarlocks and other small pieces in complicated sprays of fish and flowers. Yebell was made full prentice, and two months later so was I; so she matched her other foot to her first, and I took another joint from my finger. I didn’t notice much difference.
My flute went unplayed for days at a time, it being hard to find a quiet moment in the crowded confines of the boatbuilding shed once the deep snow came. I wondered why we couldn’t have another building for living in—one of the ones belonging to the masons, say, whose numbers really didn’t warrant the three they were allotted by Rule. Or even why we couldn’t build a new building, as Pa had told me foreigners sometimes did; but upsetting the symmetry of the town, if symmetry it could be called, was not a thing one proposed aloud, even if one was fully adult and had Boatbuilder-apprentice affixed to one’s name. The town was the town, with its intricate nested geometries and the Ossuary at its heart. And I don’t know that I’d have wanted to play anyway; I still hadn’t yet tried using the ghost finger on the flute, and was reluctant to do so when it had demonstrated so clearly and quickly that it could tell me things whether I meant it to or not.
Winter lightened and spring began to come in, and our year-fellow Kleid who had given a rib for his adulthood pledge managed to overturn a sledgeload of firewood on himself, trying to shift a balky horse. His arm and shoulder were crushed, and by the time he staggered white-faced back to town they were beyond healing. Trette told me later that the dedicants used every one of Ma’s stockpiled knives and were still two short for all the bones they had to do, so that Kleid’s new ghost arm was missing two fingerbones they hadn’t been able to incise.
“He was lucky he got back to town so quickly,” she said as we walked slowly along one of the town’s many piers. Now that the ice was breaking up it was my task as the newest prentice to check for winter damage to the docking slips, before the boats were launched again. “If the arm had started to die, there wouldn’t have been anything they could do.”
“What do you know about it?” I asked, more rudely than I’d really meant to. I was in a black mood, restless and irritable with the long winter confinement and a little resentful of Trette’s presence. I’d hoped this day’s task, cold and dull as it was, would at least be a chance for some badly needed solitude, but Ma was shut up in the Ossuary making a new batch of knives and Trette wasn’t skilled enough yet to help, and so she’d invited herself along with me. Her slow steps, the clack of her stick on the pier, the fact that she knew more gossip than I did, were all getting under my skin.
“I know enough,” Trette said. She didn’t sound offended but I could tell she was. “I listen to Ma. I pick up things.”
“Things the dedicants say. Things other people say.” She tapped her stick for emphasis. She didn’t really need it for walking, just for balance. “Ma lets me go as far in as the third bone chamber, since I was there before anyway, and I hear what they say to each other sometimes.”
“They?” I repeated uneasily.
“The dedicants,” Trette clarified, frowning at my obtuseness. I didn’t tell her I’d thought she meant the bones. She was wholly deaf on her left side now, but sometimes she looked as though she were listening. I’d asked her right out, once, if she could hear ghost things, and she’d denied it laughing, but still I sometimes wondered. It wasn’t a thing I’d used to wonder, whether Trette would lie to me.
“So what do they say?” I asked, pausing to examine a split board at our feet. It would need to be replaced; I knelt and marked it with a line of yellow paint I carried. “What kind of secrets are you learning?”
“Don’t be like that,” Trette snapped. “Nobody made you be a boatbuilder.”
“I like my work,” I retorted. Her words stung. I was good at the work, but it wasn’t what I’d expected to be doing. “At least I chose it on my own. I didn’t let myself get forced into it because no-one else would have me.”
She didn’t answer, and when I looked up her face was white with fury. She opened her mouth as though to speak, and then abruptly snapped it shut again and whirled and fled stumbling back toward the town.
My ghost finger was drawing in the setting paint, parallel curves that met each other over and over, mimicking the roads around the Ossuary. I swiped them away with my paintbrush and resolutely returned to my task.
Trette started keeping company with Kleid after that, and by midsummer it was generally known that they were courting. I didn’t take much notice. We’d been mostly ignoring each other since our fight on the pier, and besides I’d been coming to an understanding with Yebell and most of our free time was spent together. I’d wondered if she resented me tagging after her to Taroque’s boat, but the fact was she was better at boatbuilding than I was (other than the carving work), having aimed toward it for much longer. So she didn’t mind me being there too. We’d talked about it, not in those words of course, but we had; but mostly we just accepted things as being the way they were.
That was also the summer of the bad storm. I don’t want to write about that; but I will, because of what Trette did. Showy is still the wrong word for it. I don’t know why I wrote showy earlier. But I don’t know what to call it otherwise.
We had half a day’s warning of the storm, the clouds building black towers over the water through the morning. All the town boats were in by the time the clouds were close enough for us to see lightning flickering between them. Everyone was twitchy, uneasy, and doing more ghost things at the same time than anyone had seen in years. I found myself digging through my trunk on Taroque’s boat to find my flute, which I hadn’t touched in months—the coming storm hurt my hand, it hurt my throat like I’d swallowed glass, and I wanted to play wild songs I’d never heard.
When I came up on deck, the sky was black, the bright sun gone, the pale sun blazing. My ghost finger twitched violently and I had to grip my wrist with my other hand to hold it still as I crossed to the ladder. Waves slapped the dock like whales’ tails, and the salt spray stung my lips; I realized I’d been biting them bloody.
I ran up the beach and across the sward to the town. There had been three foreigner ships at the customs dock that morning, but they’d been warned off as soon as we’d seen the storm coming, so they’d had plenty of time to get clear. No foreigners were allowed even at the outer docks at a time like this. It was a Rule.
The door of the boatbuilding workshop was wedged open, and Yebell met me on the stoop with a fierce embrace in the spill of warm yellow light. “You’re last,” she told me, and pulled me inside and shut the door. It was crowded: Taroque and his workers, a wife and two husbands belonging to them, Yebell and me and the other two prentices, and a clutch of children, boatbuilders’ and not, who had likely just been closest to this building when the storm rose.
Rain drummed on the roof and spattered hissing down the tin chimney and into the firebox. The other two prentices were going around the room checking the latches on the shutters; everyone else was sitting still and quiet, even the children, on the floor or perched on the workbenches and upturned hulls. Yebell and I wedged ourselves into a corner under one of the oil lamps and waited.
The rain sounds stopped. As one, we all turned our gazes upward toward where we knew the pale sun was, unseen beyond the roof. Yebell’s bare feet tapped against my legs; my hand tapped the same rhythm on her shoulder. The lamps went out all at once, and there was a muted clang from the firebox as the tin housing contracted, the coals gone suddenly cold.
We couldn’t see what was happening outside, of course, but we could feel it: the curved roads through the town making channels for the Ossuary’s power, the buildings marking focal points and junctions to block and release it, in ways that the dedicants alone could articulate but that every adult in the town knew inside our skins. The children watched us, fretfully silent, as I’d watched the adults around me in all previous storms. Only ghost-flesh moved. Far away beyond the town, I knew, the storm raged, the wind screamed, the ocean tore at the shore; but we were safe, our homes and our boats and our families were safe. If I had ever resented the Ossuary and what it had done to our family (and I had, oh, I had) there was nothing but gratitude in my mind now.
I don’t know how long we sat there, caught in the eddies and backcurrents of power, gazing at the unseen pale sun. Hours, certainly. Too long. By the time we emerged, it was far too late.
Trette, I learned later, had been in the customs house with Pa when the storm broke and so had seen the foreign ship returning. They’d been warned, of course, told that they had to stay past the breakwater at all costs, but foreigners don’t always understand the inflexibility of the Rules, and the foreign captain hadn’t taken the warning seriously, or else had panicked when she saw the black wall of cloud bearing down on her vessel, and she’d turned about and tried to make for the dock again. By then it was too late, of course, the Ossuary was awake, and as the ship passed the boundary of the town’s power it was simply ripped apart.
I wondered afterwards—I still wonder—if Trette was trying to prove something to me, if she did it to refute the last thing I’d said to her. There was no good reason for her even to have had the knife. She’d been allowed to start making glass knives a few months before, I’d heard from Ma, but they were never supposed to be taken out of the Ossuary. She shouldn’t have known what to do with it, either, but of course she’d seen more of the dedicants’ work than anyone not pledged to the Ossuary usually did. No dedicant would have tried to ghost a foreigner, even a dying one, not ever; but Trette wasn’t constrained by any oath or mystery not to try what she did.
We heard the screaming as we came out into the open. The foreigner was still alive, horribly alive. The wave that had flung him out of the water must have smashed him right against the stone wall of the customs house for Trette to have gotten to him quickly enough, and she must have run outside a soon as she heard the impact. The dedicants counted that as mitigation, I heard afterwards; that she couldn’t possibly have had time to think the whole thing through. (But she had the knife. I still wonder.)
I could see her kneeling on the pier, hair stiff with blood and salt, the foreigner’s hands clenched around her upper arms as he screamed and screamed. Glass shards glittered on both their skins, and where his throat and collarbone had been there was—something—not ghost-flesh, not properly anything I’d ever seen, but there was enough of something there that he was not dead. Trette was weeping; I could barely hear her over the foreigner’s howls, but it stabbed my heart to see her face.
Yebell, more practical than me, realized at once what had happened and went running for the Ossuary. I ran toward Trette instead, less sensibly. I don’t know what anyone else did. The foreigner shrieked and thrashed in her lap, his nails hooked into her skin, and I tried to pull them apart without looking at him. As soon as my ghost finger touched him, Trette’s sobs turned to screams, and she clapped her hand to her ear. I don’t know what she heard. At the time, I couldn’t even guess. I can now.
Two senior dedicants came running down the beach at Yebell’s heels, yellow coats flapping, and hauled the three of us apart. I didn’t watch after that. Eventually the screams stopped.
So Pa and I went home, to my parents’ quiet house, and Trette disappeared again into the Ossuary. It was six days this time that she was gone. Ma followed her through the great doors as soon as Pa told her the news but was back home again by evening, walking on ghost feet. I’d never heard of someone pledging both feet before, and I was frightened then like I hadn’t been even on the beach, because Ma knew the Ossuary like no-one else we knew, and if she thought it needed her feet to influence or atone, then just how grievous was Trette’s sin?
I lay awake in my attic room those nights, writing songs in my head that I didn’t dare try to play. Somewhere close by, I thought, they were torturing Trette for what she’d tried to do. Or they’d saved the foreigner after all and given Trette to him as punishment. Or they’d exiled her, severed her from the town and driven her away, and she was already gone and they weren’t going to tell anyone.
Or they’d done worse, were doing worse, and how could I even imagine it, because I didn’t go sneaking around after the dedicants trying to learn things I had no business knowing? And learning them wrong, to boot. That was what made me angriest, I thought: that Trette wasn’t just a sneak, but an incompetent sneak. If she’d been cleverer, she’d—well, she’d still be in serious trouble, with a ghost-fleshed foreigner to account for, but it would be different trouble.
I honed my anger to a fine edge, those nights awake, those days waiting. Pa went back to work, dealing with the other foreign ship that came to fetch the bodies and sift through the wreckage, explaining to them over and over that they couldn’t be allowed to come into the town. Ma glided around her workshop on ghost feet and made bottles and lamp-globes. She made no knives while Trette was gone.
I stayed in my room and waited. Yebell came twice to the house, and Taroque once, but I refused to see them, and they went away. I wasn’t angry at them, but I couldn’t talk to them. It was as though I had a ghost tongue, out of my control. That was an impossible thing, I thought, tongues being boneless and wholly human, but I couldn’t get those last moments out of my head, the foreigner trying to speak, Trette seeming to hear. Ghost-flesh gave signs, it gave warnings, it acted—but it didn’t speak, not ever.
On the seventh day they brought her out, pale and subdued, in the yellow-white coat of a new dedicant. I should maybe have guessed; if they weren’t going to kill her, it was the only thing they could safely do to her, now that she’d shown she knew as much as she did. I went running to meet her, on the steps of the Ossuary, ready to forgive everything and beg to be forgiven. She was alive, she was safe. I think I loved my sister more in that moment than I ever would again.
She saw me and stepped away from the others attending her. Her mouth formed my name silently. I stopped just beyond arm’s reach, somehow unable to take those last few steps. The air around us was lambent, the pale sun washed away by the bright, but there was such a strangeness around her that I thought I felt whole ghosts thronging. “Trette!” I cried in sudden agony. “What have you given up?”
She shook her head slowly, her eyes fixed on me. “Go back to your boats,” she said. “Go back to Yebell and the rest. Live your life. I don’t think I want to see you anymore.”
“That’s it? By what right—you— I don’t believe you! How can you be so, so arrogant—to—” The words choked me. Trette’s eyes were shadowed. Was it only exhaustion, or had they always been that color, like skull-sockets? Mine weren’t. I didn’t think they were.
“Go back,” she repeated. There was no warmth in her tone. I had been blaming myself, my last words to her, for what she’d done, but it truly hadn’t occurred to me until that moment that she might blame me too. Somehow, that thought turned all my self-recrimination into anger. What right had she to blame me? She’d put herself on this path. Fine; let her walk it then.
“Fine,” I said aloud, and turned my back on her, and walked away.
I didn’t see her again for ten years.
People didn’t leave the town much—almost never, really. It wasn’t a Rule, but it nearly was. Maybe it was Trette’s having done what she did that gave me the courage to go. Somehow none of the town’s customs seemed to have that much force anymore, now that I’d seen a foreigner die covered in blood and glass, and seen Trette rewarded for it, if that was what had happened. If no-one had stopped her in time, or punished her afterward for everyone’s fear, for Pa’s silence and Ma’s ghost feet, then—well. Then no-one was going to stop me either.
No-one did. I walked onto the deck of the foreigner ship, stepping around the canvas-shrouded bodies, and told the foreigner with the most complicated coat that I could do carpentry and make barrels and was unafraid of the sea. The bright sun and the pale were both high overhead, and I don’t know whether as a foreigner she could see my ghost finger or not; but there were other sailors with wounds and scars, and when the ship left I was on board.
There isn’t much point talking about the world beyond the town. It’s just a place. Three days out, the pale sun disappeared over the horizon and didn’t come up again, and after that I was just another sailor with a missing finger and a home I didn’t talk about.
I stayed aboard the ship—the Keveti Tower—for a year and a half, as carpenter’s mate and then as head carpenter, and then I got drunk one night in Bandermouth and woke up in the Drecetic Navy. Most of what I saw of the Sundown War was blockade duty off Shenmeke, and then after the King Odros burned I drew a shore posting in the shipyards in Drece itself. I stayed there through two harsh Drecetic winters, decided a third would be too much, and skipped town on a Calvian privateer and with them cheerfully plundered Morid supply ships (and Drecetic ones, when no-one was near to see us) for quite some time. Then one morning I woke in my cabin, which I’d rated since my promotion to Angel of Kire’s second mate, and the pale sun was shining through the porthole and my hand was whole again.
I hadn’t known we were near the town of my birth, not really. It doesn’t show up properly on maps. Once in Drece I’d tried to draw a nested spiral where I thought it was, on a coastal chart we had in the shipyard, a spiral since the parallel lines I drew refused to meet; but it didn’t seem to like that and kept wandering away, and eventually disappeared off the edge of the chart altogether. But now here we were, suddenly, and I walked off Angel of Kire’s deck and back into my old life as easily as I’d left it.
Pa was still working at the customs house, grey and silent, and Ma still made glass, though for the town only; she’d done no work for the Ossuary since that day. Yebell was chief boatbuilder and by Taroque’s death a widow. She welcomed me back without fuss. Some boarder had been sleeping in my attic room, and two prentices in Taroque’s boat’s forward cabin; but both places were empty by the time I went to them. I could feel the town closing like a warm sea over my head.
Trette didn’t come out to meet me. I don’t know why I’d thought she might. At first I thought I’d stay away; then I decided that was petty and spiteful, and a little too close to how I’d acted when I’d run away in the first place. I wasn’t exactly ashamed, but—well. Anyway, I was the only person my age in the town with just two bone-pledges made, and I decided another finger-joint would do well to mark my safe return.
I presented myself at the Ossuary. It was the middle of spring and I waited outside in one of the receiving gardens amid familiar flowers, under an arch of bones. Because it wasn’t a scheduled ceremony, I was alone, but after awhile someone came out to meet me. Not a dedicant: Kleid.
“I hoped you’d come when you heard,” he said without preamble. “Maybe you can talk her out of it. She won’t listen to me.”
“Trette?” I asked, stupidly. Of course Trette. “What, exactly?”
“It’s like she’s gone deaf in her other ear,” he continued, pacing back and forth along the border of the garden, as though continuing a conversation from the day before, or from ten years ago. “No, it’s like she’s listening to ghosts with both ears now. She’s been talking about it for days, and yesterday she said it was time, and then you came back, and I thought, it’s fate, you can convince her not to try it, she won’t listen to me.”
“What about Ma and Pa?” I asked, still entirely in the dark.
Kleid grimaced. “Your Pa won’t get involved. Says it’s dedicants’ business and he won’t interfere with that. His own daughter. And your Ma can’t listen—I mean can’t. Any time I try to see her about it, her feet just carry her away. She shouldn’t have given both. Your whole family’s mad.”
I grabbed his arm to stop him pacing. “Kleid. What’s Trette doing?”
He told me.
Ghost feet walking Ma away, ghost finger drawing me home, pale sun over the harbor, Trette being, as always, Trette—I could see the Ossuary’s arm in all of it, but not the pattern it was tracing. It was plain it wanted this, though, because I waited in the garden for hours, till both suns set, and the great doors never opened, and no-one else came.
They announced it the next day, publicly, crying the town the way they did for the high-summer and deep-winter ceremonies: four dedicants in formal coats, their wrists and throats tied with red ribbons, walking the roads of the town from the Ossuary around the spiral and back, shouting the proclamation each place the roads crossed. Showy isn’t the word, not even close; she’d gone well beyond that. No-one had ever given a skull. Not even pieces of one. It would never have occurred to anyone that you could.
Trette, though—Trette thought of things, she always had, always took that one step further. And she’d had the ghost bones in her ear all those years, letting her hear who knew what. But that wasn’t to blame, because after all it was Trette who’d thought of doing that—Trette herself who said: why can’t we give ear bones, if they’re there? What happens if I do? Why can’t a person be saved with ghost-flesh if they aren’t from the town? What happens if I try? In other places, other countries, I’d heard of alchemists who asked questions like that, and made potions and wonders; and of wizards who asked other questions, and made wonders of other kinds. But the town was no place for either, and the Ossuary wasn’t something to question. I listened to the call of the dedicants and the rising murmur of my neighbors, and I feared for her.
It was that evening, with the bright sun just resting on the horizon and the pale sun, whose rising and setting were never charted in the town, perched just above the Ossuary’s great dome. Everyone was there—how could they not be? The dedicants, all of them, stood in solemn rows before the cutting slab they’d brought outside, and waited.
Trette came out, pale and proud, her head shaved and the back of her neck inked for the knife. Here and there, in the crowd, people tried to speak and were slapped silent by ghost hands over their mouths, their neighbors’ or their own. Seeing that, I didn’t try to say anything but only stared at her, willing her to back away. It wasn’t too late, even then, and I’d never been sure what she could hear. Secret things, maybe. Quiet secrets like me wishing my sister would come home.
She laid her head on the stone and said something very quiet to the dedicant holding the chest of knives. Last words, or as near as, and no-one heard them but him. I’m trying not to be angry about that.
Everyone heard the next words, though, and this is the part I’m not sure I can write. The knife, all right, I’ve seen blood. I’ve seen killing, seen people die, and it’s probably true Trette hadn’t, but even so. They caught her head as it fell and stripped the skin so easily I wondered if they’d practiced, and if so, on what. The one who’d severed her spine took the cleaned bones and incised them with rapid precision, skull, jaw, uppermost vertebrae, tiny ear bones from the side that had them—all while two others held her body lolling upright against the stone, and the pale sun burned, and the silence went on and on—
Then abruptly it was dark; the bright sun had set, and in the afterlight we could see the ghost-flesh forming. It was Trette, it was her face. I think I was almost proud of her then. She’d done it after all, the thing no-one else had ever thought of doing.
And then she spoke.
I can’t write this part.
We went mad for awhile, I think, all of us. Part of the town as we are, acclimated as we are to ghost things, there’s a point past which living people simply cannot go. The—words, call them that, that came from Trette’s solidifying mouth—
I can’t write it. It’s not my ghost finger stopping me, that’s all done with; it’s the rest of me.
We surged forward, the crowd, all at once, rushing toward the altar. Ghost limbs tried to stop people here and there, and were fought aside; I saw Ma shoved to the ground, saw Kleid frantically smashing at his shoulder with a rock to stop his ghost arm working—all in flashes, as I charged ahead with the rest.
They grabbed Trette, five or six of them, Yebell among them who had been her friend for always, and hauling her with us we crashed through the ranks of dedicants, who mostly stood stunned and cowering. The great doors behind them gaped open, and inside we ran.
The corridors of the Ossuary are spiraled like the roads of the town, geometries of bafflement, but in our madness all paths were straight. Bones fell to bar our way and we trampled them underfoot. Walls shifted and we crashed through them, and they turned out to be brittle and fell to dust. There were vaults and pits and secret places there, where the bodies of the town’s dead had always been taken for their final mysteries, and it was into one of these that we cast her, a narrow deep well reeking of old blood, and we dragged the stone cover over, and we fled.
Let the dead listen to her, we cried to each other, running.
Let the ghosts listen.
It’s dark as I write this. I think this is the second night after. The third? I’m not sure. We haven’t exactly been comparing our reflections, and there’s only the one sun now.
I wanted to write it all down now, here in my attic room, before memory begins to trick me. It already fades. I try to picture the pale sun, the look of ghost-flesh, and my imagination fails. It was the same way for me all those years over the horizon. The town is part of the rest of the world, now.
We still don’t know why. The dedicants, those few that live, refuse to guess. Did we disturb something, destroy something, blundering through the sacred places that way? Did whatever spirit animated the Ossuary and the pale sun realize there was a limit beyond which we couldn’t be taken, even acclimated to its presence as we were, and give up on us and leave? Or was Trette, what Trette became, its ultimate objective, some pure synthesis between it and us, and once it had her it didn’t need the rest of us anymore? Are we some discarded husk left behind, some split seedpod abandoned on the ground, and where has the seed now gone?
Now we creep through what remains of the town, and we wonder. Some of us have gone, on foreign ships or their own boats, or on foot up the coast. Yebell and her son are gone with Taroque’s boat and most of her workers. I could likely take Yebell’s place as head boatbuilder, if I want to stay. With so many boats fled there’s a lot of work for a boatbuilder to do, and fewer hands to do it than there were, even among those that stayed, now that all the ghost-flesh is vanished.
I imagine my finger twitching at the thought, but it doesn’t. Ma sits in her chair downstairs with a blanket over her missing feet and stares at nothing. Since she was trampled in the crowd that day she hasn’t spoken or seemed to know me. Pa has learned new kinds of silence, and won’t speak of it, except to tell me I won’t be welcome in their house again if I mention Trette’s name. There’s a place for me here, of sorts, but I’m not sure I want it.
I started writing this to remember, and to decide. I was angry when I began, at Trette, at everything. I’m not now. She and I hurt each other, and ourselves, and sometimes we meant to and sometimes we didn’t, and maybe this time we’re past forgiveness or return. Alive or dead or ghost or gone, Trette’s wherever she is, and I’m here.
When the bright sun rises—the only sun—I’ll go back to where the Ossuary was. The bones are crumbling fast, most of them gone to dust already, exposing the building’s foundations, scars in the dark earth. People go around, trampling new paths in the common grass. Already we can see where the new roads are going to be, when people have walked them for awhile. Already the nested patterns of the old roads are sprouting green weeds in their dust. They don’t seem to lead anywhere, or start anywhere, anymore. A few people have talked about new buildings, now that that’s possible, now that the Rules are shattered past mending—more work I could do, having seen how they build elsewhere. I don’t know.
I’ll go in the morning to where we buried her. Let the ghosts listen, we said, and so I’ll take my flute and play for her, there in the sunlight among the bones. No way to know if she’ll hear me, wherever she is; but it’s a way to say goodbye, the only way I can think of. I thought I was free of this town when I left ten years ago, but it was only that my anchor chain was longer than I thought. Now I float untethered, only this one last thread holding me. Tomorrow I’ll say goodbye to her, and break it, and then decide in freedom whether to stay or go.
I love you, Trette.
Let the ghosts hear.