Her grandfather was the one to teach Agneta how to write the bones.
She remembered running her hands over his delicate words curling around femurs and clavicles left on the windowsill to dry. He’d liked using chisels and ink, working only under the light of day, but she preferred knives and needles and candlelight. Her writing would never be as beautiful as his, but it was hers, and it was true, and that was all that mattered in the end.
Their house was at the very edge of the Whistling, close enough for the roof and walls to be cast in black by the trees but far enough for plants to still grow in the garden. She’d been two when he said he’d found her alone on his doorstep. She’d been four when he first took her with him to unbury the bones.
They would take small spades, like those for digging out weeds and flowers, and go deep into the Whistling with the soil grabbing at their feet. It was easy to find the place where someone had been buried, for people tended to stick the tibia and fibula in the black mire over the grave. Sometimes, if the grave was old enough, the sludge would have formed delicate dark webs between the bones.
They never sought the newer ones, for sometimes people came back to check on them, to spit and piss and crush juniper berries into the muddy cloying dark soil. But the old ones were always aplenty. No matter how many times they went in.
Once unearthed, they washed the bones in the garden. There was a ditch that tilted towards the Whistling instead of the river, and that was where they dumped the water. A bucket, two, three, until the sludge left the brown bones behind. They rubbed them with hard brushes and salt, rinsed them until they no longer stuck to skin, and then washed their hands with lye until they burned. Then Agneta would sit on a stool and watch her grandfather carve beautiful words where there had only been fissures and muck before.
You don’t have to do this when I’m gone, he’d kept saying all along, you don’t have to stay. But if you do, here is how it’s done.
Agneta never got to tell him that she wanted to stay, that she never thought she wouldn’t. She hoped, however, that wherever he was now, he knew she’d stayed.
This evening, too impatient to use the ink, she rubbed coal dust into the jagged lines and blew the excess softly onto the leather mat covering the table. It was late, and her eyes stung, but if she pressed on for a couple more hours each night, maybe she would be done before hunter’s moon. She turned the half-finished rib in her stained hands, following the words.
Breathed in pearskin and poppy—
A shriek clattered through the air.
It would have been nothing, just another sound of the night, had it not been for the spots of firelight that flickered dimly in the distance beyond the window. Agneta set the bone down and took the four steps to the window.
In the middle of the night, the vast field between her house and the village should have been dark and empty. Yet there were lanterns now, a torch held in the hand of someone who did not know how to wield it, and in their shadow, there were people.
Too far away to count, too faint to guess their purpose, they were walking towards the Whistling with decisive steps, silent and grim.
Then one of them threw something, and there was another shout, and Agneta saw there was a woman running ahead of them, desperately trying to get out of their light. Her hair was wild in the night wind, her dress ragged and torn around her feet. Something else came flying from behind and caught her shoulder with a dull sound, and she fell to her knees, wailing hollowly.
Like a flock of carrion birds, the crowd drew nearer, with shouted commands and steady steps. There were barely half a dozen of them, from what Agneta could see, but they seemed to meld with the field, seemed to be made of the same dark mire that grew in the Whistling.
One of them got there before the others, and he kept trying to grab the woman’s ankles as she scrambled backwards on hands and feet. There was still a little way to go to the treeline when he caught her, or he might have hung back. As the others reached them too, her pleas were deafened by the jumble of voices around her.
There were no crows here, but Agneta could feel the way they would have sounded, circling in. The wind was carrying the words like leaves, stuck them in the cracks along her windowpanes. From so far away, the voices seemed to echo.
“My son, my son, my child—” the woman was pleading.
“You have no son,” a man growled.
The lanterns shook in angry fists, the torch tipped dangerously one way, and then the other, and Agneta only got a glimpse at the lines of the woman’s face, the dark auburn of her hair, before someone hit her over the head with a cane and she collapsed. Then a man climbed on top of her, raised a stone above his head, and bashed it down. Again and again and again, until there came a cracking sound from the grass, and lamplight glistened wetly off his skin.
The silence was as absolute as it was sudden.
As Agneta watched, they all got up and made a warding sign while gazing at the limp form on the ground. Then, as if just realising how close to the Whistling they’d come, they made another. Shifting wordlessly around the woman, they grabbed her knees and wrists and started carrying her back to the village, the torch swaying before them.
The clock above the worktable showed Agneta there were three hours left till morning.
Her eyes stayed on the place where they’d caught the woman, imagining the dark spot she’d find if she was to walk there by daylight. Already, she was thinking of the words she would write around the woman’s jaw, the way she’d have to polish each shard of broken bone. But that was years away. She wondered if she’d remember the woman’s voice when it was finally time to unbury her.
For now, she pressed her face in her hands, breathed in deeply, and left the ribs unfinished for the night as she went to wash the charcoal off her skin.
Morning came with the smell of burning. As far away from the village as Agneta’s house was, the smoke still reached it eventually.
Her grandfather used to burn resin and lavender on days like these, and then take a washcloth to their crops in the garden and brush the ash off their leaves. Wipe away the sorrow, he said. Now, Agneta tied a cloth around her nose and mouth, lit up a candle, and bowed over the unfinished bones, hoping the autumn wind would carry the smell away quickly.
The people in the village did this thing to keep the soul from finding rest after they hit and burnt and killed the body. They never stoked their kilns enough to ash the bones. They let them burn for days, smoking softly, then scraped off the charcoal flesh, threw the bones in a bag, and took them to the Whistling.
Even at her worktable, with all the doors and windows shut and locked, Agneta could still hear the tall dead trees singing behind the house. They’d been dead for a long time, their trunks white like cinders, leaves and moss and lichen long since melted into the black mire growing below, but they never fell. They just whistled.
She took last night’s rib in her hands and ran a black-tipped finger over the words.
Candlelight on fog-laden grass—
Grass which now grew frost over a congealed pool of blood. Nothing to be done. The words were already on the bone, and Agneta could only hope the image they conjured had not been replaced by the darker one she’d seen the night before. She set the bone aside and took another and tried to purge the sight out of her mind, let it dwindle away with the smoke.
They used to say the Whistling tainted people, long ago. That was why there were no paths through it. If you wanted to reach the nearest town you had to go round, three days to the east. Only the village people got any closer than that, with their shovels and bags of bones, grimly eager to bury them into the mire. To drown the wretched in the land and tie them to it better than any ropes could.
It didn’t do to feed the Whistling flesh, but bones would do.
Perhaps they’d figured that getting a bit dirty was worth making sure the dead would remain in pain. It didn’t matter that the living would be haunted, they said. That ghosts would drift out of the Whistling and down the roads of their village. What mattered was that nobody undeserving ever got any respite.
So Agneta and her grandfather had been unburying and cleansing the bones for years, then carving into them the words that would let the ghosts drift away. Find peace at last, away from the Whistling and the outskirts of this village.
Her knife skidded off a smooth piece of bone, and in her mind she heard the ringing echoes of the night before. The acrid smell of burnt flesh coated her tongue, crawled down her throat, made her head throb. Agneta leant lower over her work and didn’t stop for a long time.
It was evening when the sound of hurried steps came down the path outside, making her look up at last. When frantic knocks shuddered through the door, Agneta kept her carving knife in her hand as she went to unlock it.
A boy stumbled in, dishevelled and out of breath, scarcely younger than herself. There was something erratic in the lines on his face, an echo of a fear she had seen too often. Dread changed the soul of those it touched for too long.
Few people had ever stepped into this house, fewer since Agneta had been left alone, yet the first thing he set his gaze on was the window facing the village. Agneta locked the door as she watched the doubt then relief flood his grey eyes. The auburn of his unkempt hair was vivid like a memory, and before he even turned round to face her, Agneta knew why he’d come.
“Help me,” he said. “My mother...”
Was slowly melting in a kiln, a field away. Agneta pulled a copper mug off its nail, filled it with fresh water, and proffered it to him. She glanced out the window too, while he staggered to her grandfather’s old chair. The field was empty, the village still.
She pulled her hair in a sturdy bun, despite her headache, and sat down facing him.
“They caught her last night,” he said, after a deep gulp and a shuddering breath.
“I know,” Agneta murmured. “I saw.”
“It was all so sudden,” he went on. “We were just making dinner. Father wasn’t at home, which at first we thought was a relief, but then I saw the flame glinting off the walls, and...”
His fingers were shaking on the mug. They had nicks and cuts and scars over them, just like Agneta’s own.
“She helped me hide first, that’s why she didn’t get far enough ahead of them. We thought they were coming for me—father always threatened to cast me out, to tell them about me, but in the end I guess he hated her more...” His words petered out, and he raised his eyes to hers. “You saw...?”
Agneta didn’t duck his gaze. Guilt was something her grandfather had been very strict to coax out of her, and though figments of it sometimes surfaced in her soul, those were few and far between. Or so she told herself.
“I saw,” she said. She wondered if she ought to lie. “It was quick.”
A sob racked his frame. Narrow, too thin, ashen from too little sun and food. Past the loose collar of his shirt, she could see the gauze wrapped around his chest coming undone. There was grace in scarcity, she’d heard them say. It didn’t do to feel too comfortable in this world, lest they felt loath to leave it.
“They’re burying her the day after tomorrow,” he said. “Please help her.”
“I will,” Agneta said. “In time.”
Something seemed to crack across his face. “I can’t stand to see her trapped in that horrible wood. Please. I’ll help you, just free her sooner.”
“They always check the grave days after. Months, sometimes.”
There it was again. The woman on the ground, flickering in the torchlight. The fright on her face. The wet sound in the night. The smell of her ashes all around the house. A spark of guilt caught hold, burned on the inside of her heart, ate the air away.
“I’ll think on it.” She got up and freed her hair, tied it up again. The wavering weight of his gaze settled like snow on her shoulders. She said the words to spare him the pain of pleading. “You can stay here.”
People didn’t bother them at the edge of the Whistling. Throughout her childhood, Agneta had seen less than a dozen people approach the house. Some thought they were of the Whistling themselves, the house a wicked trap of the trees. Others thought disregard was punishment enough, treating them like they would any other ghost.
The people didn’t know and didn’t want to know. They’d seen the bone tools once and let them be. They thought the carving would only bring the souls more agony, which pleased them, in a pious way.
The few who came beseeching to the door, those that truly knew what Agneta and her grandfather were doing, were days away from judgement themselves. When she’d been younger, her grandfather used to entreat them with a handful of coins—to leave this place, to take the road east, and never return. A few did. A few others, they’d had to wipe off the crops.
Agneta looked for her grandfather’s iron chest the moment she woke up the next day. She wrenched it from underneath a floorboard, trailing dark soil on the floor, and tried seven keys until one fit the lock. There were only three coins left inside, covered in a musty film that she wiped on her apron. There was also a silver locket in the shape of a bird, which her grandfather had given her years before. She took that too, and shoved the empty chest back beneath the house.
The dead woman’s son was asleep on a pile of old blankets beside her worktable. Cale, he’d said his name was, and had seemed anxious about it as well. Agneta threw the coins and locket in the bucket of cleaning water she kept outside, then took a washcloth to her garden.
It was near midday when she heard the door open behind her, his cautious steps shuffling through dry, ash-coated leaves.
“How much does it cost? To set someone free.”
She wrapped the cloth around one last ear of corn. “We don’t do it for payment.”
A lilt in the sound, and then he was there, two steps away from her. He’d washed his face, and the tips of his hair were wet, droplets inching down over a bruise on his jaw. “How do you live, then?”
Agneta uncovered the cob, brownish-yellow beneath the ash. “We have the food we grow, and water from the river.”
She dropped the cloth in the bucket and stuck her arm in to the elbow, scraping the coins and locket from the bottom.
Willow-whistle hissed over the thatched roof, and her hand closed in a fist beneath the water. The field was vast and suffocating and too empty around them.
“I,” Agneta said, and drew to her feet. The locket, she kept for herself. The three coins, now clean, she held out to him. “Take these. Go east, there are towns there. Large enough to find a life in.”
It was as if she’d burnt him. He drew back, his face scrunched up in something that was not quite distrust.
“No,” he said, decisive, then once more. “No. I, I a-asked you, I begged you. I’m not going anywhere, not while she’s—while she’s...”
The wind turned, and the rustle of the field bled into the whistling of the wood, and more smoke blew closer. The air was bitter with it. He didn’t turn his gaze away from her. Anger. It was anger, there in its depths. She’d never had that directed at her before. Hadn’t had the chance to cause it, really.
She let the hand holding the coins drop. “Tomorrow night.”
He nodded, if a bit shakily. “Tomorrow night.”
The bones wouldn’t even have time to cool. “All right.”
Even back when it was the two of them, Agneta and her grandfather would only dig out one grave at a time. Two, at most. Her grandfather had a watch he would wind up each time they went in. Two hours and it notices you. Three hours and it sticks. When he was going to a grave farther in, he left her at home, told her to go over the words one more time in his absence. It was too late in the year for the men to walk too deeply in, but that was too small a good fortune for her to be comforted by it. Caution was gnawing at her like an animal on its deathbed. Unworded, unexplained, just the faint whiff of it, giving her another headache. There was nothing new to fear, and yet—and yet, her grandfather had never dug out a fresh grave.
Agneta spent the rest of the day writing her bones. Cale plainly wanted to be useful, so after a couple worry-tinged hours, she sent him to prepare their evening meal. Whenever she caught a glimpse of him over a vertebra on her worktable, she saw his gaze drifting to the window overlooking the village. But the field remained clear, and no one came, and the smoke became diffuse against the low-hanging clouds.
When they’d eaten and she was back at her worktable, he asked, “How does it work, what you do?”
Agneta said nothing, just dipped her fingers in charcoal powder and ran them over the bone, faint splinters of it snagging at her hardened skin. The floorboards creaked when his weight shifted.
“Right,” he said. “I shouldn’t know, anyway. The fewer people to know about it, well—” He raked a hand through his hair, growing agitated again. “Does it work, though? Always? Have you seen it happen?”
Powder spread like smoke when she blew on it, ragged lines of it remnant on yellowish bone. “They drift away, when we’re done.” He did not ask about we this time. “They’re no longer here.”
“Do they remember who they were?” His voice was thin.
“I don’t know.”
She glanced at his fretting hands, and realised she had not looked him in the eye once since that morning. His face carried with it the echo of that wet cracking sound in the dark grass. It rang in her mind as she raised her head. There was ash in his hair, on his clothes, like one last caress beyond a grave not yet dug.
“Too much fear changes people,” she said quietly. “It eats away at the soul, and the mud seeps into the hollows.” You don’t have to stay. But if you do, here is how it’s done. “We wash away what we can, and fill the rest with words.”
These people, his rough voice among the crackling fire. They’ve always been cast aside. Too little good ties them to the world, so the bad takes hold. You never knew them, but now you’re the closest thing they have to a friend. You don’t need to know a thing more to be kind.
“And what do you write?”
Think of something you’d want to share with them. Something true. Neither their suffering nor their freedom is tied to you, but you are all you have. Yourself is all you have to give.
In truth, it had always been less about the words than it was about the care. People mending what other people ruined. Agneta looked at the bone she’d been writing, a clavicle nearly broken in two. Without the charcoal, her lines were faint as a promise.
Cloth-warm hands on yours, guiding.
“Memories,” she said.
The next day started murky, and as it advanced, the fog only got thicker, swallowing the smoke and pressed down by heavy stormclouds dark as a bruise. With evening descending, Agneta watched the clouds heave from the steps of her porch, a tin mug balanced on her knees. There were buds of light swaying through the fog, too far away to count.
“That’s them, then,” Cale said.
He was holding tightly onto a porch beam, knuckles white, fear and anger a turbid mix under his skin. Agneta raised the mug to her mouth, tasted sage and bile, then set it down and went back inside.
She lent him her oilskin coat and took her grandfather’s for herself. She lent him boots as well, and a sack filled with garden spades and tins for broken bones, among which she’d hid a spare shirt, some dried food, and the coins he’d refused to take before. Only one of them would come back here by the end of this night.
While Cale put out the fire, Agneta opened the window overlooking the Whistling. The glass was smeared black and grey, an uneven, blistered coating that tore like hair when she pushed against the frame. In came the fog and the night, the dead trees’ keen rising in the wind.
Candlelight swayed with it when Agneta turned around. “They’re starting back.” She grabbed her bag, pumice stones jangling. “We should be ready, take the path behind the house.”
Cale nodded, face grim yet determined, and picked up his bag too. But Agneta stalled, looking at him. His breathing was ragged, but not just from fear. Too thin in and out.
“You’ve bound your chest too tightly,” she said. “It’ll slow you down, we’ve got a ways to go.”
The bag hit the floorboards as he turned to stare at her. He wasn’t breathing at all now. Agneta tasted bile anew. Nobody had looked afraid of her before either. It felt like gelid sludge roiling in her stomach.
“Do you want me to loosen it for you?” she asked, ignoring all of it. “I know how.”
In that flickering light, it seemed more likely he would dash out of her house and take to the woods, but after a freezing moment, he nodded. And she did, reaching blindly under his shirt and shifting the strips of cloth minimally before stepping back, gone before the warmth of his skin could even leave an imprint on her fingers.
With all the candles snuffed out but for the one Agneta slipped into her dark lantern, they made their way around the house and out of the garden, with the soil already clinging to their feet. The wind was heaving somewhere farther away, the air storm-sharp where it skittered through the fog.
Out the corner of her eye, Agneta saw the glow of the torch-bearers drifting back to the village and hoped no one had lingered behind. If the two of them were going to beat the storm to unburying the bones, even an hour could be too much. She wound up her grandfather’s watch.
Perhaps one of the oldest lies people told themselves in this corner of the world was that the Whistling was a wood. It wasn’t, but much like the people who lived near it, it was good at pretending it was something it wasn’t. Ashen trees instead of rootless, cloud-high spikes. Pious worry instead of cruelty. Dedication, Agneta thought, instead of cowardice.
The Whistling swallowed them like a nightmare. At her side, she saw Cale quiver, and she nearly reached for his hand before hooking her fingers in the sleeve of his coat. Even that sliver of concern was received with too much gratitude.
“Look for anything clean sticking out of the ground. Most of them are already soiled.” And he nodded, as if she hadn’t just told him to look for bits of his mother in the mud.
She kept the lantern hidden for most of the walk, the path engraved in the soles of her feet, and only uncovered it a bit at a time when they got closer to the place she’d seen the torches leaving from. The candlelight melded with the dwindling fog and glided over burnt trunks and glistening puddles on the ground. Their boots squelched with a near-echo in their wake.
And all around, Agneta saw graves. Graves she hadn’t got to yet, graves she’d missed, some old enough to be almost level with the ground. It might as well have been that all the mire was just foregone graves, putrefying, folding in on themselves.
When she’d been seven, Agneta had asked her grandfather if one day they would bury him in the Whistling too. He’d laughed then. Said he’d been buried long ago.
“Look, there,” Cale said, fleeting fingers on her knuckles. Agneta uncovered the lantern, and the light reached just far enough to land on an ashen fibula. “I—is that it?”
There hadn’t been any burnings in a few weeks, and anything buried before that would have already been begrimed. She checked the watch.
“Forty minutes,” she said, passing him a spade and striding ahead towards the grave.
Once they reached it, there was no more doubt. The soil smelled damp, and the air carried the lingering stench of smoke and fumes. She dropped her bag in a dry spot and started digging. A few moments later, Cale kneeled on the other side of the grave, picking out the two bones stuck above it and wrapping them in a strip of cloth.
Thunder echoed somewhere far. The wet soil gave easily under their efforts, tepid with the warmth it had sucked from the bones underneath, and it wasn’t long before their fingers brushed over a cracked skull.
Hurried as she was to brush the soil away, Agneta missed the first whimper, but when a few swipes of her hands uncovered the rest of the grave, bones in small, jagged pieces, a strangled cry made her look up. Her shoulders sagged when she saw Cale trying to muffle a sob. This time, her hand found his over the grave, skin encrusted with soil and ash but blood-warm.
“Find some twigs to stick over it when we go,” she said.
He hesitated long enough for her to squeeze his hand one more time, but then he got up on wobbly feet and walked along the trail of the lanternlight. Agneta breathed out, shook her hands, and leant over the grave.
Around her, she could hear the Whistling groan and croak, drawing closer and closer, yet she always felt a kind of peace when gathering the bones. A strange, unnatural nostalgia tied to her earliest memories, with her grandfather testing if she knew the names of each one, with his gloved hands picking each piece so gently, with their quiet hours as they washed them at home.
The dead woman’s bones were still as clean as they’d been left by the kilns, dusted with soil but not yet touched by the mire. They were the cleanest Agneta had ever gathered. She would barely have to soak them for a day.
Something greyish moved in the corner of her eye. She glanced up, expecting it to be a ghost, but her eyes caught on a ragged coat instead, moving through the trees a few paces away.
Both their bags were splayed on the ground, and she rummaged with a quiet frenzy until her fingers closed around her knife, tip already stained black by the mire near the grave. Keeping herself hidden behind the lantern’s light, she got to her feet and followed the glimpse she’d caught through the shaking trees. She glanced back to see if there were more of them, but the Whistling was only empty darkness, and all she could hear were the rattling branches and faint wisps of voices from ahead.
The wind shifted just in time for her to hear them clearly and come to a halt mere steps before colliding with the man she’d seen before. A few paces away, Cale stood frozen, looking as if he would have cowered if fear had let him move.
“I knew you’d come here, you little bitch,” the man snarled at Cale. “What, did you think I would not come looking? After all these years that you’ve made me into a laughing stock?”
As carefully as she could, Agneta drifted behind one of the wider trees and stepped around a puddle to stand almost right behind the man and in Cale’s line of sight. She couldn’t move too much without risking drawing both their attention now, so she just stared at Cale as hard as she could, until his eyes drifted almost imperceptibly to the shadows in which she stood, and some of the dread in them lessened at seeing her.
“—just like your mother,” the man was still talking. “Always walking around so, so convinced you’re in the right, that we’re all just a bunch of idiots and you know better.”
He advanced, each step shaking with anger and taking him closer to Cale. Agneta followed each one with a quiet step of her own. Her fingers had gone ice-cold on the wooden handle of the knife.
“She knew better, eh? We showed her better. You’ve got no idea what this world is like.” And with a snake-quick gesture, he grabbed Cale’s arm and squeezed so tightly Agneta thought she could hear the bones grinding together. “You think it’s hard. Others would have gutted you in the street. Tainting good people’s homes, mocking our beliefs when you think we can’t hear you. You wretches are all the same.” He spat. “Should’ve just come home, we would’ve buried you in the same trough.”
Agneta wrapped her other hand around the knife, twining her fingers like in prayer. The storm roiled above, yet her mind was quiet, night-dark. A scream flitted over the field. She saw the torches again, that auburn hair, that man-inflicted terror on the woman’s face, even when a nightmare place had been just behind her. The cracking sound of her skull caving in, again and again.
She raised the knife and sank its blackened blade in the man’s shoulder to the hilt.
It wouldn’t be enough to stop him, the mire from the blade working slowly through his body, but at least the shock of the stab made him let go of Cale’s arm with a shout. And before he could even reach behind for the knife, Agneta slipped under his arm and grabbed Cale instead, dragging him deeper into the trees.
More shouts followed as the two of them picked at a run, hardly daring to breathe.
“You think you can get away?” the man hollered after them. “I’ll put the dogs and horses on you, you won’t make it three miles!”
Still, they ran. The hollering died away the deeper they went, as the storm took its place, thundering and flashing almost directly above them now. Agneta stopped out of reach of the taller trees, in case of lightning, and grabbed hold of Cale’s shoulders as he heaved.
“You have to go,” she said, expecting it to be calm but finding her voice shaking instead. She thought back on the bag she’d prepared for him, now abandoned beside a half-emptied grave, and struggled not to swear or cry. “You need to. Tonight.”
“I— I can’t, he, he’ll—”
“Not by the road. By the Whistling. I’ll take you to the other side.” She sounded calm this time, but her mind whirled with the idea. Not even her grandfather had walked that far. “It’s the only way.”
“Alright,” Cale stammered, and grabbed hold of her wrist.
The Whistling was a long but narrow strip of land no more than a few miles across, from the few maps Agneta had seen in her lifetime. Yet the darkness felt endless as they trudged on ahead, lantern-less and shivering. In time, Cale’s hand drifted from her wrist to her palm, and, knitted together, their fingers managed to coax a morsel of warmth between them.
They didn’t pause again until the trees thinned around them and the shuddering branches gave way to falling rain. They couldn’t have possibly been in the Whistling that long, yet even in the thickening rain, bluish morning light peered over a crested horizon, bulging hills and winding dirt roads, speckled with awakening houses.
There was the whole world, exactly where she’d been told it would be.
With shaking fingers, Agneta dug in all the pockets of her coat, vest, and dress, and came up only with a single coin, a bit of coal, the locket, and that old watch. It didn’t even seem to be working any more, the raindrops distorting unmoving hands below the cracked glass.
She shook her head and thrust them all at Cale. “Take these. Go toward that town, find a carriage, go even farther. They won’t find you, they’re scared of going too far, even by road.”
“What are you going to do?” Cale stared at her, almost dropping the few items in his hands.
“I’ll find my way back.”
There was that same overwhelmed pain, fitting so neatly in the premature lines of his face. “Why would you go back there?”
You don’t have to stay. She remembered how earnest her grandfather’s eyes had been then. He’d said it time and time again, hadn’t he? Even he had left in the end.
Cale still waited for her answer, and, for a moment, she saw it right there. He wouldn’t go, not in time, not before the Whistling decided to latch onto him. Her tired mind struggled to find the one thing that would convince him. In the end, she shrugged, tried to smile.
“I still have to unbury your mother. I’ll be fine, I know the way. She won’t be stranded here.”
It was as cruel as truth could ever be. His shoulders sagged, and he nodded, but still he did not step away.
“Go,” she said. “It’s a long way.”
She didn’t step back into the trees until she saw him clear of them, the downpour and the overgrown grass of the field rinsing and wiping the black sludge off his boots and coat. Then she turned back into the Whistling, and the darkness swallowed her once more.
The ground simmered and seethed underneath her running feet as if a thousand maws were opening to feed on the rain. The morning light had disappeared as soon as Agneta had turned her back on it, like a dream of the world that this place had no connection to.
She did not know the way. By now, she knew the Whistling well enough to know that simply retracing their path there would not lead her where she wanted to go. And their footprints had been long since swallowed by the sodden earth.
The most she could do to help herself was not falter. Two hours and it notices you. Three hours and it sticks. It had been past midnight when they’d stepped inside, and they hadn’t lingered enough to dig out the grave before the father had appeared.
But Agneta could not tell how long they’d been walking before reaching the far edge. She could not tell even for how long she’d been running alone.
The trees seemed to groan more loudly when she passed by them, deafening even against the pouring rain.
Tar dripped off the hems of her coat, cloying in her boots. Ashen trunks left pale streaks on her clothes, limewater and cinders. She did not stop, did not waver.
Then she realised that at some point she’d left the rain behind. Her breaths, too loud to hear that the growing susurrus came now only from the trees. Too tired, too fearful, too late to see that what was pouring down on her was mire.
Four hours and you’re caught. She choked on it and shuddered to a halt.
It was every smoke-strewn day clotted in her throat, burning down her lungs. She could taste each bereft, terrified life that had passed before her window. Each kiln-fire a coal in her chest, on her tongue, behind her eyes. She’d never be able to wash herself clean again.
All her life, Agneta had stayed in the shadow of the Whistling. She’d never realised she’d never heard it truly whistle before. The wind through dead branches was a daydream now, as she felt its inhale within her drained lungs, its shrill exhale against her mud-coated skin.
There was tree-ash on her hands. With trembling fingers, Agneta tried writing on her skin, clumsy words with jagged edges. But the memories slipped her mind from one letter to the next, her thoughts a high-pitched clamour, each line too shallow. You are all you have. Nothing left to tie her to the world outside. She was no different from all the ghosts she’d helped pass.
She saw her own grave. Dug by the trees alone. Her own hands a headstone, brittle bones reaching out. Black gossamer between her fingers.
“Why didn’t you leave, Agna?”
There, at the edge of a pool of black water, was a figure. Slightly hunched, weathered hands hidden in deep pockets, grim eyes looking back at her.
“I always told you, you could,” her grandfather went on, with the same sad disappointment she’d almost convinced herself she’d forgotten. He looked not a day older than he’d ever been.
Buried long ago. How quietly he’d laughed, when he’d said it. The realisation didn’t rattle her, only rose slowly to the surface of her mind. She must’ve always have known, from the first moment he’d shown her a written bone. Perhaps she never would have been able to go on on her own if she’d thought him really gone.
“I never wanted to,” she heard herself say. “Never. You never asked me if I did.”
She hadn’t expected to see him grow quite so sad. “There’s an entire world out there,” he said.
It hurt her, how much she did not want to hear it.
“A whole life waiting for you, if only you’d seek it. Countless lives, as large or as small as you’d want them.”
Winding paths against a misty blue horizon. A seemingly unending stretch of hills and roads.
“Why stay in this small, miserable place?”
Why would you go back there? Morning light like balm on a bruised cheek. Her soul rocked back and forth within her.
“Why let yourself be buried under all their sorrow?”
“Because what if it isn’t?” she pushed out, the numbness melting away and leaving her shivering in pain and grief. “What if nowhere’s better? It’s enough to stay here, to see all these wretched things happening, but know that it’s just a place, that it’s better somewhere else. Because what would I do if I left and saw that the whole world is like this?”
The screams, the pleas, the echoes of a cracked skull across the field. Let others seek a better life instead. If she never saw it for herself, it could still be there. That was what she’d thought, before she’d seen her own grave flitting before her eyes.
“Hope in misery is not enough to feed a soul,” her grandfather said.
“I was doing something.” She shook her aching head. “I was helping.”
“Others will come in your place,” he said, and it was the gentleness in it that made her want to run. “I just let you be, because I hoped you’d leave on your own.”
You don’t have to stay, you don’t have to stay, again and again. Years of continuing this life on her own, just because she’d never had the courage to look the answer in the eye.
“You didn’t have to leave me.” She hated every single crack in her voice.
He grew sadder, hunched on himself more, but before he could say a thing more, the mire made her retch again, racked her whole frame with coughs that burned in and out. She’d forgotten she was dying.
Her headache ran like henbane syrup down her veins, throbbing with each rising murmur, until at last it latched on to a single thread of sound. Melodic, yet not harmonious, winding through the clamour. Whistling, still whistling, but through human lips and lungs.
Her grandfather pressed his lips back in a tight, quiet line when he caught her gaze again. “You see, you take some of it upon yourself once you’ve lived with it too long. You learn its ways. I didn’t want that to become you too.”
For a moment, perhaps the first moment of her life, Agneta only heard the quiet. It was deeper than she’d ever thought it could be.
“Where would I even go?”
“Away from here,” her grandfather said, with something like relief, and already some of the rustle started to return. “Why do you think I gave you the locket years ago? You would never have accepted coins from me. Until now, I hope.”
He took a step toward her. From the depths of his coat, identical to the one she herself was wearing, he pulled out a handful of silver coins. Leaning down, he picked the handle of the bag she’d left behind and shoved the coins inside.
“Don’t look back on us, don’t let it stick to you,” he said, held it out to her. Once she took it with numb fingers, he leant down again and held out a second one. “And try not to look as if you’re carrying human remains in your bags.”
She peered inside almost instantly. String-tied in several bundles, brushed of dust and mud, there were bones in both her bags. He smiled when she turned to stare at him.
“The muck hadn’t gotten her by the time I took the rest of her out. Bury her in a kinder place, and she’ll find peace soon enough.”
He shrugged. “Only if you want them. Get rid of some of that fear.”
Her eyes stung as she gazed at the bones, a cold weight in her arms. The rain had soaked all the remaining warmth from them. A burst of orange light made her look up, and she saw her grandfather lighting her lantern.
“For what it’s worth,” he said. “You made that place a bit brighter for me too. Gave me something else to hold onto. That, nothing can take away. Here you are.” He pulled out his watch, glass intact and hands moving. “You have two hours.”
There was little more she could do but look at him with all the gratitude she could muster and burst into a smile when he offered his own. But that had always been enough for them.
Ageless faces turned to look at her as she rushed once more into the unknown part of the Whistling, spectres and perhaps something more, something that could pick up the knives and chisels in her stead. Agneta didn’t look at them, and she didn’t think of home.
Soon enough, the rain started again, and the dead trees groaned, but she splashed through mounds and mire as if running for her life, which she was. With the lantern uncovered before her, the path they’d taken before was easier to follow, and it felt as though barely any time had passed when morning light started spilling through the trees once more and before her were again those crested hills.
She burst out of the trees like surfacing from freezing water, gasping and relieved. Crisp air and light washed over her like a veil breaking, and the Whistling didn’t stick to her as she slipped from its grip.
In the distance, she could still see Cale, a speck of auburn in the faint sunlight. Agneta gave the first shout of her life, her whole body shaking with it like awakening from a dream, and saw him turn around.