I killed my sister with my own two hands. I am not sorry for it; she lied and cheated and stole, and if it had not been her it would have been me. Blood does not mean only one thing, the same across all boundaries. For my sister it meant nothing until I spilled hers, warm and wet and surprisingly copious, up to my elbows in it. Though I loved her, I killed her; though I loved her, she did not love me.
Though I loved her, she had poisoned against me the girl I loved and sent her off into the wide world forever thinking me false, and piled worse upon worse than that, until I could bear it no more and there was my sister’s body cold at my feet.
Still, I have been prepared for this, if indirectly, by my upbringing: I know song after song. I have sung them well enough to learn from them. I knew better than to bury her bones, to give them to the stones and water, to leave them for the birds to pick clean. Others before me had slain their siblings and tried these things. Harps and lutes had been made of the bleached breastbones, that sang of the murder and incriminated the survivor. I would have none of that. No.
For my own freedom, I fed my sister’s body to the pigs in the forest.
A forest pig will eat anything. It loves truffles and acorns but also almost anything else, apples, carrots, yams, meat pies, toasted chestnuts, murdered sisters. And she was gone, and I thought no more of it. Where is your sister, Jenny. Gone away-o. Gone to stay-o. I don’t care-o.
I did not say the o parts, in case that would help. I could not change that my name was Jenny, but at least it was not pretty Peggy-o, and I began to go by my given name of Jane instead.
Jane got three years of peace without my sister’s harping voice making everything worse. Jane—I—had begun to think of myself as something other than a murderer—a weaver, a neighbor, a friend. I had let myself begin to forget. And then some of the young villagers set themselves up as musicians.
I was in the inn about to share some of the latest batch of cider with neighbors when I heard them preparing to play, the deep notes of their tuning rich and strange. “What on earth is that?” I asked.
“Oh, didn’t you know?” asked my nearest neighbor, who was a very plain Peggy-o indeed but very sweet for it, and always heard the latest gossip. “They’re so talented, they finally got their instruments from the luthier in Three Winds last week. Very strange instruments. Their harp is huge. I heard it was made from the breastbone of a wild forest boar.”
I managed not to cough on my cider. I sat very, very still, clutching my mug. I peeked across the gloomy inn at the tattered young musicians. The harp was indeed gigantic, bleached white bone and gut. The thrum of it tuning sent a shiver through me. I had had some good years, and now it would cry out and I would pay for my crimes.
They finished tuning. The drummer started up a slow, low beat that rattled my jaw and unsettled me in ways I couldn’t explain. “Oh yes,” Peggy stage whispered. “The drum is pigskin also. I think from the same boar!”
“How fascinating,” I forced myself to say.
The harpist, a narrow-nosed boy with lank floppy hair, finished tuning and struck a chord. But the harp had other plans, and its low voice spoke, startling the harpist’s hands away. “Hear, oh mortals, hear,” it moaned, its notes barely high enough to hear, rattling our skulls. The drum resonated as if by accident, but it was too deep and sure to be that.
The cider sloshed over the side of my glass, all over the table. Even stolid Peggy was too fascinated by the deep thrumming voice of the harp without its harper to notice. I wanted to run for the door, but I could not move.
“The crimes of mortals are left for the bones of the dead to tell,” it hummed, and I trembled in my seat. My head felt floaty, detached. I wondered if I would faint or perhaps wet myself.
I had done neither when I killed my sister.
“You have neglected the creatures of the woods, especially the boar herd, oh humans,” said the harp. A tap of the drum formed a deep counterpoint that drove my pulse. “You have driven us from your middens and your trash heaps. You hunt us and slay us, and you take from us the ripest of the apples and the best of the berries.”
The apples? The middens? The room around me gave one last giddy lurch but then stilled. Was it truly a reprieve? The harp was still speaking—the harp and drum had many, many thoughts on how humans could improve the lives of boars and other forest creatures—but not a word of me or my sister.
Apparently when it came to the murder of one young woman, the boar who had eaten her considered her a fortuitous meal, gone and forgotten.
Perhaps. Or perhaps the harp would tell of my fell deeds some other day, when it had grown tired of recounting ways to improve forest conditions for the porcine tribe. I relaxed a little—a little more when the harp’s deepest notes silenced and the harper laughed nervously and plucked a few strings and took up playing it like a normal instrument, a raucous tune.
My neighbors were taking no chances, but their concerns had nothing to do with me or my sister, whom they assumed to have gone to sea. They set up a committee for the better care of the forest animals, particularly the boars. Better safe than perpetually haunted by the bones of a wild pig. And the harp remained a harp, so far as we could tell.
When winter turned to spring, a newcomer moved to the village, a rare happening indeed. She was dark and curved and laughing, and her name was Molly. I tried to keep my gaze to a respectful minimum, but soon I saw her looking back at me. We began to sit together in the inn, to listen to music and share a drink and a smile. Though I thought my sister had sent love away from me forever, I discovered I had been wrong; there was in me yet a warmth stronger than blood on my hands.
And then one day, just when I thought we were about to reach an understanding, when our hands on the table were about to join, when our eyes were meeting in that special way, there was a breathy low note from the musicians, a new thread of melody through the room. Everyone stopped and looked up. But the ragged piper girl was not breathing into the new wood flute. She looked down at it in surprise but also in more resignation than someone who had not been in a band with a self-playing pig harp would do.
“Heeear,” moaned the flute. This time I was more curious than terrified: had the trees witnessed my crimes? What could trees see? Why would they care more than the pigs did? I looked around the inn.
Molly’s brown skin had gone ashy.
“Are you all right?” I whispered.
She did not appear to hear me. Peggy cocked her head and looked at us both, but the flute was still speaking.
“Hear oh mortals how you have diverted the stream from the bank where the beeches need it, how you have turned your faces away from the needs of the basswood grove,” groaned the flute.
Molly swayed and looked very confused. I put my hand on her hand. “Do you want to get some fresh air?” I whispered.
“Yes, oh yes,” she replied.
The evening outside the inn was crisp and cool, without the press of all our neighbors around us. Molly breathed more easily. “I thought—I don’t know what I thought.”
“This happened before, with their boar-bone harp,” I said. “Before you came. It’s scary, I know.”
“I’m... not sure you do.”
I looked at her. She was wide-eyed, biting her lip. The effect on me was profound. Probably she knew that, probably she was doing it on purpose. I didn’t care. I leaned in and whispered a question, and I stopped thinking about haunted tree flutes for a moment.
I forgot all about them for weeks, because Molly went home with me that night.
But the delights of new love are only partly about low cries in the night, cooking each other breakfast in the morning, spending the day getting in the way of each other’s work. They are substantially about getting to know each other. And so I could not forget about the haunted music—and the reason it had so frightened me—forever. The more I laughed with Molly, the more my laughter twisted inside me, afraid that if she knew me for what I truly was, she would no longer love me. I turned in on myself. I worried. She noticed, and stared after me.
At last one night I could bear it no longer. “Molly,” I whispered, as I lay nestled in her soft embrace. “Molly, I have to tell you, I did something dreadful.”
The way her smile turned wicked as she looked down at me made my belly go soft and warm and wet all over again. “Oh, sweet Jenny,” she said. “So did I.”
But I could not let her turn my confession to bed play. I confessed in low tones, still naked in the circle of her arms, to the murder of my sister. She looked grave but did not shrink from me as I had feared. The way my Molly held me made me feel like there was hope in the world yet.
And then it was her turn to tell me her own bloody deeds. As I heard them, I had to remind myself that Molly had not abandoned me when she heard of my sister’s death on my hands, for she was a terror, this woman I loved. The highway robber who had terrorized travelers on the forest highway, leaving dozens injured and three dead: that was my Molly. She had given up her roving ways and settled in the town, but her loot was buried in the middle of the boxwood grove.
So when the flute had begun to speak, Molly was sure that it would tell of her fell deeds and the ill-gotten gains that had stemmed from them. She knew—as I had known—that her time living on the straight and narrow was up.
And then the trees only wanted what the trees wanted. As the boars wanted.
As we wanted.
When she finished her tale, with the box of coins lying blood-stained in the tangled roots of the grove against a time of greater need, I grew silent and thoughtful. “We can do better for the trees,” I said.
“You have already done for the boars,” she said. “They have no reason to tell your secret, even if any lived who had eaten a chunk of sister meat.”
I flinched to hear her speak so blithely of it, but her face was grave. “You do not sleep easier,” I said after a long pause.
“You pace and fret.”
“It’s not the fault of the trees and the pigs.”
Molly sighed and sat up. “Damn the trees. Damn the pigs. No, it’s not.”
“Well, what are we to do about it?”
She pulled her clothes back on, which I couldn’t help but regret. “Whatever we’re doing, we have an entire chest full of treasure to do it with.”
“It will give the trees one less reason to tell my tale, Jane. And who wants to be running to dig in the woods when a crucial moment comes?”
Her use of my formal name silenced me, though I wondered why she had not had this thought about crucial moments before. She went out in the night and came back with a box, a box of blood money that she brought into my house, and I did not tell her no. It went under the bed we shared. And then she joined me in bed, where we pretended to sleep, and all our knees were in the wrong places and all our arms got pins and needles in them when we tried to hold each other.
I closed my eyes quite a lot, before dawn. I thought of my sister’s face more than I had in years. Not her face as I killed her, not her face after the blood drained out, but her face when we were children dancing on the green, her face when she had gotten the last saffron bun and was not going to share, her face when the plague took our parents and left us to settle things between ourselves.
I don’t know whose faces Molly saw, but they were probably not mine either, and from the tense twitching of her limbs, she did not sleep more than I did.
“They don’t care what we did,” she burst out. “The flute doesn’t care, the trees didn’t. The boars could give a toss, you could feed them a new relative every day of the week and they wouldn’t care.”
“They don’t,” I agreed. I swung my legs over the side of the bed. The floor was cold. There was bread to toast for breakfast, and I toasted it. Molly regarded it with disfavor, even though she liked toast, even though I had not burnt it. She ate it anyway.
“If they don’t care,” she persisted, following me as I went out to the chicken coop to feed the chickens.
I looked at her levelly, and Molly folded in on herself, sitting down on the step of the chicken coop all in a rush.
“They’ll hang us, Jane, they’ll hang us.”
I went to her, scattering chicken feed and chickens alike around my feet. I put my arms around her huddled shoulders. “No one’s hanging you.”
“Perhaps something nasty will grow out of our graves. But no, it would have grown from your sister’s, you said she was a real—”
“She didn’t have a grave, I fed her to the boars,” I said practically, and then repeated, “No one’s hanging you. We’re not confessing all in the town square.”
She sniffled and blinked at me. “Well, what, then?”
“Not hanging. We’ll think of something.”
We mulled options all day long as we went about our usual tasks and made a wreck of half of them. We were a pair of murderers, we had no intention of confessing, and we clung to each other. At the end of it, we roasted potatoes and stared into the fire, unable to face the neighbors or anything more complicated than the barest essential food.
“You’re not going to have us hanged,” Molly repeated.
“Nor are you. So what do two murderers do? When the boars and the trees have let them off the hook, and they’ve given up murdering?”
She looked at me hopefully.
“We’ve given up murdering, Molly,” I said firmly.
“The other songs,” she said. “The ones where the harp doesn’t tell on us. They end in a blaze of glory.”
“Do you want a blaze of glory?”
I ran a hand over her hair. “I want this fireside, and you.”
She snuggled her head in closer to me and poked at her potato. I gave her a sharp look, and she sighed and popped a bite of it in her mouth. “Prrshffft,” she said, and I rolled my eyes. She swallowed. “All right, all right. Perhaps. Perhaps if we... funded someone else? To hunt highwaymen? That would make up for what I did?”
“Do you think it would?”
“No,” said Molly honestly. “The king already pays for the reeve in every shire, and he ought to do.”
“So he ought,” I agreed. But something about the treasure was nagging at me.
In the morning, with only a bit more sleep, I had it. Molly didn’t like parting with the treasure, but she agreed it was the best we had for the moment, and we could do better later if we thought of it.
The musicians were baffled but overjoyed. “You’re... giving us money to travel on?” said the piper girl. “We’ve barely had money to eat.”
“My dear Molly came into an inheritance,” I said. I poked her.
“My aunt,” she muttered. It could have been an explanation rather than an objection.
“We want you to spread your music around. The traditional songs that taught us so much, and... er... the new stuff.”
“Oh, the stuff the harp does on its own!” said the lank-haired boy. “No fear, it won’t stop doing that! But don’t you want to come with us? It’s your money.”
“No, Jane here is on the council for the forest,” said Molly, recovering her voice. “We’d best just... stay here. You run along and... sing those songs far and wide I guess. That’s... that’s what we want most.”
“And we’ll tell everyone who sent us, shall we?” said the drummer.
“No!” I snapped, and then more gently, “no, that’s not necessary, we’re, ah, we’re not in it for—”
“A blaze of glory,” said Molly.
“We’re not in it for a blaze of glory, we just want people to learn... what we learned.”
“Well. Thank you very much,” said the piper, hefting a substantial bag of the money Molly had stolen.
We went home feeling odd and light and not at all certain. “Is this... is this it then?” Molly asked me.
“I don’t know. I think we try another day and then another, and find out.” I shook my head, thinking of the musicians and their travels. The boar-bone harp and the wood flute might well demand to come back, to see how we were caring for the forest and its creatures in their absence. They were full of opinions about everything. Just not the opinions I’d expected.
They were a bit like Molly that way.