Singing Like a Hundred Dug-up Bones

Issue #121

Out by the mounds, the ground thaws slowly. Frost-got grass and heather crunch under Knowe’s boots. There’ll be no digging for at least another month, probably closer to two. Knowe walks alone, wrapped in winter wools and hides, but the day is mild enough that she goes un-hooded, letting the wind grasp at her long hair.

Her mound-hair: peat-dark and thick, blowing over her face that’s pale as dried-out bones after the long, dark winter.

Now the sun gleams low above the distant sea. The sky is pale blue. Birds let themselves be blown about in it. Knowe can’t name them. Sea crows? Or is it still too soon for them? She’s no good with living things, that’re still covered in their flesh.

Smiling into the sunlight, she walks to the mound she opened in last summer’s long, light nights. The mound’s entrance is protected from snow and rain by a slab of stone she found among the heather—easy for her to tilt back, to lay flat. Then, slumping her shoulders and lowering her head, Knowe walks along the tunnel to the chamber at the mound’s heart.

The chamber’s stone walls and curved ceiling are so well-built and so old, fixed in the dirt by the centuries, that Knowe doesn’t fear their collapse. She sits on the bare dirt in the centre, looking at the first of the side chambers where, in the summer, she started clearing the layered dirt and finding bones and metal and three worked, word-etched stones. When winter’s darkness crouched around her, she stopped her work, but she knows there’s still more in that first chamber, more again in the three un-opened chambers: people with close-kept histories, locked up in metal and stone, in the state of their bones—stories for Knowe to spell out in slow, small pieces. Her ancestors’ stories.

There’s peace in the mound, with only the knowledge of this history for company.

Alone in that near-dark place Knowe sits a while, enjoying the silence after the winter in her family’s small, crowded house. She hums, then sings: lines snatched from a singer, Bess, a handsome woman with knife-grey strands in her long hair. Some nights Bess is with her sheep, singing to the wind. Some nights she’s with other people. Knowe listens, occasionally.

“On the rigs two three,” she sings, remembering the opening of one song. Her fingers tap on the age-soaked dirt of the mound’s floor. “‘tween the gloup and the sea. Lint grew there...” Then her memory turns to fog. A line about the girl and her mother? No matter, because she remembers a later bit, similar to the opening: “And it’s all because of the rigs two three, where the lint grew so bonny between the gloup and the sea!” None of the other words come to her tongue. So she sings what she knows, over and over, enjoying the way the words fill the small mound-space.

There’s another voice.

Knowe falters, looking for the woman who has crawled into the mound with her. The voice—higher than Knowe’s, clearer—drops away. There’s no one but her and the dirt and the bone-filled side chambers. “Who’s there?” Nothing.

Then, “Why did you stop singing?” that high voice says, not more than a pace in front of Knowe.

Coldness crawls right over her.

A woman appears out of the air, like fog coming together, and sits on the dirt.

Knowe gasps, goes still, too shocked to scream or talk or move.

In the dim chamber, the woman glows: paler than any fresh corpse, translucent around the edges. Long white hair falls around her shoulders and arms and brushes on the ground. Colorless fabric wraps around her body like a blanket. There are a few worked metal discs attached to it. Iron? Bronze? Gold? Their fog-white hue keeps their secret.

Was that what they buried her in, countless centuries ago?

There’s a small strung bone-thing in her lap; white too. She plucks at it. The sound is like the wind screaming across a chimney top: raw and aching and wincingly loud.

“Your voice is like that,” the woman says.

Knowe’s heard worse, but it stings. It’s the first thing this woman—this ghost—has to say to her? “Well, that’s why I’m singing here. Not troubling anyone.” Fear on her tongue. “Except you. What—”

The woman’s eyes are wide. “What do you mean?”

“What?”

Knowe’s heart is writhing like a sheep that knows its slaughter. Get out, get out! “I have to—” she gasps, getting on her hands and knees.

“It was nice meeting you.” The woman moves further back into the chamber.

“And you,” Knowe gets past her fear-locked teeth—then she’s out along the tunnel, out of the mound and into the crisp afternoon, where the setting sun stretches its shadows long like strips of sinew.

“Come back and sing with me!” the ghost calls at her back.

Oh.

As Knowe hikes fast over the plain and down the heather-thick slope to the farms spread out along the low lands, she almost laughs thinking: of course a ghost is the first person to want her singing.

Knowe’s way home takes her past sheep, past crofts—with not even a token seed in them yet to begin the year’s luck—to her family’s house. The wind’s back up, lashing the island. Night’s wandering in. Getting inside is a relief: into the warmth of her family’s house, where food is cooking, where the light of the peat fire pushes out some of the night’s gloom. Where voices greet her, her family’s voices, familiar and alive: “How’s the view up there?” and “Did you have a good walk, dear?” and “You look chilled. Sit here.” Sillocks are cooking on the brandiron. The bannocks are ready—one is passed to her, already buttered. She nibbles it while the sillocks are brought down, smelling like they were fished out of the sea more recently than last harvest-time, and she takes one, splits it open with her thumb, starts eating the white, soft flesh. It’s reassuringly real to sit with the fire’s heat against her legs, eating, talking. It’s as if she imagined the ghost woman—but she didn’t. Every bit of her knows it.

All through the evening she tries to get accustomed to the idea of ghosts being more than a rarely heard tale.

As a girl, years ago, she sat on the mounds while the sheep grazed on patches of grass. She dozed on the mounds, dreaming vaguely of their contents, and asked around what people knew of them. “Trows’ homes,” her grandmother said—and her father snorted, muttered, “They were chased off the island a hundred years ago. Nothing in the mounds but soil.”

She kept asking, getting only trow-tales and fanciful rumors of gold and silver hordes—and her nickname, Knowe, which chased out the name her parents gave her at birth—until the night a chunk of cliff fell away, taking half a mound with it. Standing on the tide-bared rocks below, Knowe saw an exposed chamber. Saw bones lying among the rocks and mud at her feet.

Tales of hordes and the grandly clad skeletons of long-dead warriors grew at the island’s hearths.

When Knowe finally opened a mound, what she found was smaller, harder to tell a story from. Bones, yes, and a scrap of fabric, and bits of metal that might have been weapons or decorative. The only writing she found was on those three stones in letters none could read. The only words: mute.

All the next day, the thought builds in Knowe: the ghost woman can tell her own stories. The history in Knowe’s carefully sorted boxes needs piecing together, and there’s no way of doing that without putting something of herself into the glue, into the scrawled notes that theorize purposes, meanings, lost lives. The ghost woman’s words will be unfiltered by soil and time and modern thoughts.

Knowe goes back.

Outside the mound she hesitates. She thinks: ghosts are often sad, adrift—not malevolent. Not normally.

She pushes aside her fear and goes in.

The ghost woman is waiting, still white and translucent, undeniably dead, plucking at the edges of her blanket-garment. “Hello,” she says. “Will you sit with me?” Then she smiles, hesitant and shy, like a living woman.

“I will.”

Shaking, but only a little, Knowe sits just inside the chamber.

“I’m Tolnait,” the ghost says. “Who are you?”

“Knowe.”

“That’s a good name. Knowe.” With a name like Tolnait—a name Knowe has never once heard—what would she have called the burial mound? Knowe thinks of the stones, etched in intelligible words. “I saw you last year,” Tolnait says, still a bit shy. “Digging in here.”

“Yes.” Fear fills her. “Is that— Is it all right? Digging you up?”

Tolnait shrugs. “I don’t mind. I don’t think any of us do. What the birds left of our flesh and hair are in the dirt, now. We’re not just bones.” There are many ghosts. Knowe wants to ask—oh, as many questions as there are bones in the side chambers. That name, that strange blanket-garment, that especially large metal disc at her chest. Everything. “Will you sing again?” Tolnait asks.

“I—what?”

“I liked what you were singing last time. I don’t know it. Can you teach it to me?”

It’s the first time anyone’s asked Knowe to sing. She wishes she knew the words. “I don’t know it. Just bits.”

“That’s a shame. It was fun.” Tolnait plays with the edge of her blanket-garment again. It makes Knowe shiver, how Tolnait is so normal—and so unforgettably not. “Do you want me to teach you some of the songs I know?”

“I, um. Actually. I.” Knowe stops and wills the words to come out right. “I was wondering if you could tell me who you are. Not just your name, but how you got here, how—anything, really.”

“Oh, I died stupidly,” Tolnait says. “Fell in the sea. Washed up on the shore like wrack, all rock-battered. Made all my sisters cry so long that the tide came in higher than ever before.” Her translucent fingers still. “They made it in here eventually, the ones that weren’t married away to other islands or taken, un-married, on seafarers’ boats.” Her voice has turned dark: angry. Knowe imagines knowing a sibling’s theft—knowing the rape and distant death that follows—and not being able to lift a hand about it. “Then there was a bad winter, all ice and no reprieve, and everyone that didn’t freeze under their fleeces got on a fishing boat and set off for Mainland. I stop seeing people once they’re off the island. Then it was hundreds and hundreds of years til their descendants came back.”

Hundreds of years. That’s how we don’t know their stories.

Knowe tries to imagine all those years, stretched out like long-lines across the open sea: snapping, sinking, taking stories like fish to the sea floor.

“Can you tell me the bits of that song you do know?” Tolnait asks. “Your people so rarely linger around the mounds. I get to hear your words—” which explained how she spoke them “—but I never get to hear your songs.”

“Oh. All right.”

Knowe sings them, feeling awkward with someone listening, but Tolnait is child-rapt, smiling, and after a few repetitions asks Knowe if she knows the full story even if she’s forgotten the song’s words.

That she remembers. “It’s about a girl, a poor girl, who’s out on the shore and finds fine lint growing between the gloup and the sea, on ground that isn’t anybody’s, though it’s marked with the lines of old rigs. Your people’s, maybe,” Knowe adds, feeling a swell of wonder at that connection. “The girl gathers the lint and makes a fine dress, so fine that one day she’s out wandering the shore in it and a wealthy man sees her and thinks her fine, and it leads to her marrying the man’s son and having a better life. Hopefully.”

“When I was a girl,” Tolnait says, “a pretty girl I knew went out walking along the shore, waiting for her father and brothers to come back from the fishing. A giant fish all covered in barnacles and ugly markings suddenly appeared and snatched her away, to be its meal or bride. My mother saw it and jumped right into the sea after it, dived down, killed the fish and rescued the girl.”

Knowe feels her mouth fall open like a hooked trout’s.

No bone could tell her this. No eroded lump of metal, whether a decoration or a weapon, could hint at the story of a woman diving into the sea to fight a fish.

“My mother did lots of things like that,” Tolnait says.

“Tell me,” Knowe says. “Will you? Will you tell me all of them?”

“All right.”

Tales blow over Knowe like the wind—and in the midst of telling her memories, Tolnait starts to sing. The words are like her name, nothing Knowe has ever heard, but the strength of it comes through. The determination of whoever’s story is behind the singing.

After, Knowe sits in silence, as if the song is echoing and she’s still listening to it.

“We all sung that as girls,” Tolnait says. “It’s about a girl called Uuir who fell in the sea and got swept right out to another land, where the foxes are white and the people fish through holes in the ice. The people took her in and she grew up there, happy with her new family but always wondering what happened to her first family, always afraid they would be so devastated by her disappearance, and so she used to sit on the edge of the ice and sing—”

—and Tolnait sings, several times, the words that repeat like a warp through the song—and Knowe tries, under her breath, to sing along, though she’s sure she’s getting it wrong—

“—telling her family not to worry about her. Eventually there was a winter so cold that the whole sea froze and Uuir was able to walk right across to this island to see her family again, bringing her daughters and one of her new sisters, all of them wearing the fur of those white foxes and carrying recently caught fish, and her first family said, ‘Oh, we knew you were alive, we could hear you singing!’ and they all ate fish together until the sun started to rise again, which meant it was time for Uuir and her daughters and her sister to go back across the ice to their home.”

“That’s wonderful,” Knowe breathes.

“I loved it.” Then Tolnait adds, “But it turns out if you fall in the sea, you just drown.”

“Oh, I—”

“I still love it, though. And while Uuir got swept out to sea, I got to stay here. I got to meet so many interesting people who were buried before and after me. I got to know my daughter, too, who was only a baby when I died. And now you!”

Knowe can’t find words for how she feels to be hearing these stories: knowing bits of these long-dead women’s lives. Knowing Tolnait.  

“Do you have children?” Tolnait asks.

“No. I’m not married. I don’t really like people enough to marry one of them.” Living people, anyway. So far she likes Tolnait more than anyone she’s met.

“My family was too important for me to remain unmarried.” That doesn’t surprise Knowe, who has already guessed that Tolnait’s people didn’t give everyone the honor of a mound burial—but she hears the darkness in Tolnait’s voice and she aches for her. She knows she’s lucky to be in a family that doesn’t need to marry its daughters away. “Fortunately he died out at sea so there’s no chance of him showing up here,” Tolnait adds, brighter.

“Are there men in the mounds?”

“Some. Not many stay here, though, like I do now.”

And then she goes into the next story like a boat pushing away from the shore, sweeping Knowe into the love of two selkie women and the magic they used to make a daughter with their blood and finger-bones and slick, shining pelts.

A boat from Mainland pulls in, surprising everyone. It’s too early for boats. Some important person has died, is the guess. Died or got married or had dealings with another important person that need telling before the right season for boats comes around. Most people walk down to the harbor to hear what’s happened, but Knowe doesn’t care for crowds, doesn’t particularly care for the news of important Mainland people. To keep herself busy, she walks the croft walls, knowing some bits are due a repair before the sowing season starts.

Sure enough, near the house is a section that needs rebuilding. It’s not a bad day for the work: patchy-skied, with the wind gentle and the sporadic rain no more than drizzle, landing on Knowe like ground oats. The dried stems of last year’s nettles sway around her. She picks up stones from where the wind’s blown them and judges the best way to reassemble the wall.

Tolnait’s song creeps into her head.

With a bit of making up sounds—a lot, to be true—she can sing the repeated part: Uuir’s song for her first family. At first she’s quiet, just working and singing under her breath like many people do, but there’s a thrill going through her. She’s singing words unheard by living people for hundreds of years. She’s singing—and she’s not sure how she’ll pass on Uuir’s story without people thinking her mad or getting full of fear, but she’ll find a way. She’ll make sure Uuir is remembered among the living as well as the dead.

The words come out of her louder.

Crunching stone: someone’s nearby.

Her father walks past, howling at her like the wind. Even after she stops singing, the howl continues. Then he’s gone, chuckling, off on some bit of business, and there’s no one else around.

Knowe finishes the work in silence.

That night, she stares at her sillock, poking the scales and only remembering to eat when her mother asks what’s wrong.

“Nothing,” she says, forcing a smile.

The Mainland boat brought news of an important man’s death. One of his sons would take his position: a succession of names, as far as the islanders were concerned. “And they needed to come out now to tell us,” her father says, shaking his head. “As if we can’t bear a few months not knowing he’s died.”

Laughter around the fire, flame-bright.

Knowe doesn’t know why she’s so upset. It’s not as though it’s the first time her father—or anyone in her family—has said her singing’s bad. But I was out there alone, I wasn’t making anyone listen. She winces at a small bone in her mouth, removes it. Though it’s so slender, more like hair than any of the dark, heavy bones she found in the mound last summer, it makes her think of Tolnait. Singing with Tolnait is easy. It’s not even about the sound. And what’s wrong with bad singing? It’s about the words, about the stories not lost.

Knowe glares at her half-eaten sillock.

Conversation lingers on the Mainland boat. It’s boring—she sees her brother dozing on the floor, her cousins already curled together under blankets. Knowe is too hurt to sleep. For a while she sits by the fire, half-listening, then she gets up and goes round the back as if she’s only relieving herself and she doesn’t stop walking, up, up to the high, ghosted plain.

Clouds hang low, patchy, part-darkening the moon and flinging rain at Knowe’s face. She squints against it. There’s almost nothing to be seen, but her feet know the way: up the stony path, along years-worn sheep paths through the heather and grass to the mounds, to the open entrance. She bends and enters.

There’s a song in the tunnel, in words like the ones in Uuir’s song.

There’s not just one voice in the singing.

Knowe keeps going, right to the end of the tunnel where she stops, gaping at ghosts: seven of them, sitting in a circle, Tolnait with her strung bone-thing in her lap, accompanying the loud voices. They glow so bright together that it’s like white, cloud-filtered daylight in the chamber.

At the end of the song, they go silent and look at her. Tolnait smiles, says, “Come in!” and there are other smiles too, bright as the year’s first flowers.

“Are you Knowe?” another ghost asks. “It’s wonderful to meet you!”

“Tolnait told us about you,” says a ghost far older than the others, her translucent face wrinkled and her fingers like twisted heather-roots.

They’re all women: friendly, welcoming women. Knowe sits.

People still like to say the mounds hold warriors. Well, maybe they do. Three of the women wear fine knives: shaped sturdy for use, not decoration, judging by the translucent sheaths. The women’s arms don’t look soft. Their glowing hair is braided and bound back from their faces: practical. Like Tolnait, they wear blanket-garments, although they do not all have metal discs over their chests.

What did they fight? What—

Questions crowd at Knowe’s mouth like a family around a fire.

One woman is naked, except for a small vertebrae tied on chord around her neck. Was she buried that way? Or—there are too many unpleasant ways to die without clothes. But the woman is cheerful, smiling broad as a summer horizon, one arm slung around the shoulders of a far smaller ghost, a shyly smiling short-haired girl wrapped in what looks like a seal skin.

“Will you sing with us?” the naked ghost asks.

Sing in a circle?

“I’ve never really—”

“Doesn’t matter!” says Tolnait. “But you need our names first. This is Manath,” she says, indicating the naked ghost, “and her daughter Aniel. This is Tolorg—” the old ghost, who smiles with bare gums “—one of my sisters. And these three are Bridei and Dresnait and Gur, sisters, who lived a hundred years before me. They’re buried in the mound closest to this one.”

Knowe gasps, knowing that.

How many people will see the sisters’ knives, if they still remain, and say the bones are men’s?

“And, yes,” Tolnait says to the other ghosts, “this is Knowe, the singing woman I told you about. In summer she’ll be digging up our bones—those of us who are buried here.”

Knowe’s heart goes suddenly fast with fear, but none of them look angry. None of them look like her work is causing hurt.

“Will you share our songs with other living people?” Bridei asks.

“Yes. If that’s all right? If—”

“Songs are for sharing,” Tolorg says.

“We keep our songs here,” Gur says, “but to have them kept by the living too—that’s how it should be.”

Knowe smiles, thinks: When I dig you up, I’ll fight for the truth of you to be known.

“So will you sing with us?” Manath asks.

“We’ll teach you the songs,” Tolnait says.

“And then you can teach us yours!” Gur says.

“I don’t— I barely know any songs. My family doesn’t really sing. They didn’t teach me any.” She feels awkward, embarrassed: she should know songs, but these pieces of family and island history are lost to her. “I would like to know yours, because—because they’re far closer to lost than the ones I don’t know.” There’s Bess and plenty of other people who know songs, though Knowe’s never talked to them about that. Never thought to. Singing is something people who can sing do—Knowe has the mounds. Well, I’ll just have to have both.

Bess will want to hear the songs, won’t she? No matter how poor the voice sharing them?

It hurts to imagine Bess’s laughter.

“We’ll teach you,” Tolnait says, and there are nods and agreement around the whole circle. “Let’s start with the one I sang last time you were here. Uuir’s song.”

“Oh!” Gur exclaims, then says something to Tolnait in their language. Tolnait nods, smiling, and says something that sounds a bit like Yes.

Tolnait and Tolorg guide Knowe through the repeating part of the song: letting her mimic the tune and the words until she’s got it right, not caring that it takes her a while. And then they’re all singing, Tolnait and Tolorg and Gur singing all of the words, Knowe and the others joining them in the repeating part. The song goes on a long time—there must be more parts that Tolnait didn’t sing the first time—and gets so loud that it crashes against the chamber’s walls like a tide.

The silence afterwards is a surprise.

Then they teach Knowe the next song.

They guide her through words and words, tell her their meaning: here a song about weaving with cursed nettles, here a song to draw a man’s attention, here a song for midwives, here a song that Bridei and Dresnait and Gur used in battle to keep their courage high. Manath shares a song from the open sea, in a completely different language—selkie language—and Aniel’s voice floats high above theirs, like a seal contemplating fish.

They sing til morning sends grey light along the tunnel. Knowe wants to slow the sun’s rise—there are so many songs, so many more yet un-sung.

Knowe forces herself to leave, knowing her family will already be wondering where she spent the night. I’ll offer to mind the sheep, she thinks as she crawls along the tunnel to the day. Then I can just sleep behind the gorse. Tolnait tells her to come back soon. The others agree. “I will. I will!”

She goes whenever she can, learning old songs, old stories: a path across hundreds of years, clear and bright.

It takes Knowe almost the whole summer to get up the courage to share the songs with Bess.

She has to approach Bess among other people, talk of singing where someone might hear and laugh, or go alone when Bess sits with her sheep and be turned away—she can’t. She retreats to her days’ work and the mounds, where her digging adds to what the songs give her, adds to her knowledge of her ancestors.

She tries. She can’t get her legs to take her closer than a fishing boat’s length. Words slide away as inevitably as the tide.

Then, on a rare day when she’s up on the slope above the crofts with the sheep, she sees Bess not far away, minding her family’s flock and singing something too distant to understand.

Hours pass.

Knowe hikes over to her. “Can I sit? I thought we could—it’d be nice to share our lunch, instead of eating separately.”

“Of course!” Bess says, smiling.

They spread out bannocks and cheese and torsk caught the day before. They eat, talking of island news: good fishing, a healthy baby, rumors of important people on Mainland causing trouble among themselves. Eventually they go silent, and Knowe thinks she should get back to where she can see her sheep better—no. “There’s something, um. I wanted to talk to you.”

“Oh?”

“It’s about singing.” The words come out like a difficult lambing, but Bess is smiling. “Yes. It’s, um.” Sing. Just sing!

Knowe thinks of Tolnait, always welcoming, and Tolorg and Manath and Aniel and Gur—

Knowe starts with the repeating part of Uuir’s song—and it’s wonder on Bess’s face, not laughter. Knowe sings more. Starts telling Bess about the ghosts, when Bess asks what the unfamiliar words mean, and Bess doesn’t mock or call her mad. Her face is bright with joy. “Oh, these are wonderful. Can you sing them all? Can you—do you think I could come with you, when you next go singing with them? I would love to sing with you and Tolnait and the other women. Ghosts. Selkies.”

“Yes,” Knowe manages. “That would be fun.” Bess actually wants—

“I wonder if we could translate them, with the ghosts’ help,” Bess says, gazing at the cloud-heavy horizon. “Then we could sing them for people here.”

“That. Yes.” It gets Knowe thinking about the three word-etched stones and whether the ghosts would tell her what those say. She’s been too busy singing and digging new bones—with no marked stones—to ask. “Yes.”

“So sing another for me!”

“Yes, uh—”

She chooses a song.

The words spill from Knowe’s mouth like a hundred dug-up bones.


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Alex Dally MacFarlane is a PhD candidate at the University of Oxford, researching Alexander III of Macedon in Classical Armenian historical literature. In their spare time, Alex writes SFF; look for recent fiction in Clockwork Phoenix 5 and nonfiction in Interfictions Online and Letters to Tiptree. Follow @aghvesagirk on Twitter for more.

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Comments & Scrivenings
8 Comments on “Singing Like a Hundred Dug-up Bones”

8 Responses to “Singing Like a Hundred Dug-up Bones”

  1. Jazzlet says:

    Wonderful, just wonderful. Thank you so much!

  2. Joanna Hoyt says:

    Thank you! The whole story is one of the loveliest and most convincing short descriptions of making-whole that I’ve read.
    I’m also struck by the texture of the sentences, the way of telling the details in a slightly unexpected way that keeps grabbing the reader’s attention, slowing me down. “Birds let themselves be blown about in it…”

  3. Peter says:

    Beautiful writing. Intimate story.

    Good work.

  4. Caryn says:

    Wonderful story, wonderful writing. Thank you.

  5. Stacey says:

    This hit me on so many levels. Fabulous.

  6. […] Singing Like a Hundred Dug-Up Bones […]

  7. […] “Singing like a Hundred Dug-up Bones”, about singing and memory on an island inspired by the Orkneys, was in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Lois Tilton called it “profoundly misandristic”. I remain LOL. […]

  8. […] Dally MacFarlane – Singing Like a Hundred Dug-Up Bones (Beneath Ceaseless […]

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