Hello! Fantasy and Science Fiction has given me permission to post “Little Girls in Bone Museums” for a short time. This story originally appeared in the March/April 2015 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Buy the issue here, subscribe to F&SF here.
This was C.C. Finlay‘s first officially helmed (that’s an awkward way to say it) issue and I’m extremely excited to be a part of it. If you’re curious about what else you can find in the issue, Paul Berger’s story “The Mantis Tattoo” is posted on his website.
Enough jabbering from me. The story follows and I hope you enjoy it. Read the PDF version.
“Little Girls in Bone Museums” F&SF March/April 2015
By Sadie Bruce
The exhibit was housed in a nondescript building with sliding glass doors. The block letters on the doors read: Bone Museum.
In the back of the museum, beyond the more popular bones of the mastodon and the saber-tooth, there were three twisted human skeletons posed in elegant and writhen shapes. The first skeleton curled like the inner parts of a rose, twisting at the ribcage and wrapping her arms with the twist in a frozen hug; the femurs and tibias of each leg were crossed and lifted over the head. Another bent backward with her skull near her pelvis and her left hand reaching its thin, knobby finger bones toward the glass. The skeleton on the far right was from a slightly earlier time than the other two. Her right femur pointed downward, as if she were kneeling, and the other leg stuck arrow-straight out to her left. She bent sideways at the waist, arm slung over her head to grip the arch of the outstretched foot. The left arm had once been used for balance but now dangled uselessly. They hung together, shellacked in the display, suspended lifeless and lifelike by fishing wire. Their bones wavered in the flow of temperature-controlled air. The display’s plaque detailed the lives of the women who tied themselves and drifted among the regular population like dandelions carried on a breeze, delightful, fragile, and seasonal.
In the beginning of the atrophy, the pain was unrecognizable, a twinge, a moment of eye-widening gasps dissolving away, leaving Piedra wondering if the shock had actually happened or if she’d imagined it. She had heard stories about the anticipation of the torment arriving days before the real thing and torturing the prospective knot with anxiety. The agony started in her foot, which curved like a sickle moon. She was surprised to find it there, having assumed it would begin in a larger muscle set like the thighs or the back. Her arch spasmed and she almost lost her balance, her concentration. Using every ounce of strength she had, she kept her pose with only a small cry escaping. Her instructor, a small dragonfly of a woman, frowned. She had invested more than a year in Piedra. You are worth this extra time, the instructor assured her. Piedra could not fail. Piedra raised one eyebrow, the only movement she was allowed, to communicate she was fine. She could continue.
The atrophy was a delicate time. One slip and she would be finished and left crippled for life. The cramping sensation radiated out of her foot, up her ankle, and along her leg.
Piedra had been bound in an intricate knot months earlier. Her right leg stretched upward and bent back over her spine, where the big toe perched on her shoulder. Her left arm reached over her head for the right toes but instead of grabbing her foot, she kept her fingers in a delicate extension, as if waiting for a bird to perch. The right arm crossed behind her back and she twisted her wrist in order to clutch her right calf. Her left leg was bent at an angle to the front and lifted so her left toes kissed the right. Now all she had to do was wait until her muscles lost their definition and hardened in place. Once that happened, the ties could be undone and she would remain forever locked in position.
And so, the pain. The staff fed her intravenously and encouraged her to blink. An apprentice wiped the sweat from Piedra’s armpits while another one changed the bag and catheter attached to her hip. Piedra could smell her waste but, thankfully, wasn’t able to see anything. Another bag was clipped in and as Piedra bore the uncomfortable sensation of draining fluids without relief, she tried to remind herself that soon enough she wouldn’t need the catheter. At some point, her body would consume every last drop of her feedings. She would be as pristine as a mounted sculpture, free of dampness and stench.
The instructor gave Piedra techniques for coping: breath, call on a memory, focus on the future, but all Piedra could experience was the lightning-hot hurt of her muscles collapsing and hardening. She was sure she glimpsed madness at the far reaches of her mind, beckoning her to tumble down and live out her life in the peaceful prison of a disabled body and twisted sanity. That prospect was more terrifying than the atrophy, and so she forced herself to ride the pain until her exhausted body couldn’t take any more and she passed out.
As she descended into the blessed blackout, she heard her instructor’s voice pushing through the fog. “It will end, some day. It will end.”
Piedra didn’t believe her.
The girl with the braids took in the twisted skeletons. She sat cross-legged on the floor with her gaze unbroken and her mouth slack. Her grandmother bent down, touched her shoulder, and the girl rose out of her thoughts.
“You’ve been here for hours, sweetheart. It’s time to go home.”
“Grandma, I want to do that,” the girl said, pointing to the bone-knot skeletons.
The grandmother ignored her aching hips and knelt beside her granddaughter. “It is painful.”
“But it’s gorgeous.”
The sparse room was bright and filled with sunlight. Piedra was placed on a pillow but she couldn’t feel the fabric or the stuffing. She couldn’t feel her body, either, not beyond a dull ache. A small happiness tugged at her and flew into joy when her instructor entered the room. Piedra opened her mouth to speak but all she managed was a strangled gargle.
“Hush now. Your voice will return soon enough. Be gentle. The atrophy is over.” The instructor clapped and a flurry of women burst through the door, ready to attend to the new knot. The instructor untied the ropes helping keep Piedra in her contortion. The women bathed her, brushed her hair, and fed her melted chocolate, poking their plump fingers into her dry mouth and rubbing the sweetness along her gums.
The anguish and trauma of the atrophy faded with time. Piedra practiced her poetry. She read books and composed essays on topics of interest, like butterfly migration. It was important to be well rounded.
The rest of the month blurred into costume stitching, hair braiding, makeup application, and bleaching Piedra’s roots until her scalp burned. They dressed her in the debut costume, a green sequined sheath covering her body with slits leaving her breasts and thighs exposed when the sheath shifted. Crystal leaves adorned her hair and gold twigs were tucked into the crook of her thumb. Piedra was confident she would have no trouble finding a suitable Baron. The Baron would give her a home, take care of her, and there would be parties.
The evening before her debut, she rested on her pillow, twisted, frozen, impossible, and complete.
A bone knot.
“I think I would enjoy being a bone knot,” the girl said. “I imagine I would be good at it and I would love it.”
“I imagine you are partly right,” her grandmother said.
The girl sighed in exasperation. “Grandma, what does that mean?”
The Baron lived in a round mansion five stories tall. He filled the lower ballroom with his friends, their wives, and their knots. He did this every other weekend, feeling a party every weekend was too gaudy and Piedra needed time to rest. Piedra disagreed. She would invite a party every night if she could. Without a party, the house was empty and the Baron was dull.
At Piedra’s fourth party with the Baron, they strung her along the silk strands of a swing hanging from the ceiling. When the wind rushed through the French doors, she swung, and the movement was intoxicating. It had been so long since she moved without the help of the Baron’s thick hands, she’d forgotten how nice it felt. Her voice had returned some time before and she opened up, talking to the men below, the curve of their ears all seemingly hungry for what she had to say. The men laughed in unison. Their furry mustaches twisted up at the ends and their white teeth sparkled in her direction. No one ever stopped looking at her, not at the parties, anyway. Even the women would stare. The party spun madly. A woman tried to get her dance partner to tear his gaze away from Piedra. When he refused, Piedra’s delicate insides fluttered. She couldn’t imagine ever being unhappy.
For Piedra, the attention was a drug, though she wouldn’t describe it that way. She would simply say, “What a night. What fun.”
The Baron called up to her. He beamed and she blinked. She willed the breeze to blow harder and let the joy sweep her away. As is the way of short-lived moments, Piedra was sure it would last forever.
“It means you have no idea what you’re talking about,” the grandmother said, somewhat harshly and more sharply than she meant to. But she couldn’t help it. What was with the young? Making all the same mistakes their parents did?
The girl pouted. “Yes, I do. I’ve studied them.”
“Then you know they don’t live very long.”
“They live well,” the child countered.
“What is well?” asked her grandmother.
“Parties. Pictures. Money.” The girl counted the luxuries off on her fingers, sure her grandmother could see the point. She was a plain schoolgirl and wasn’t destined for anything – at least, that was how she saw it. Becoming a bone knot would offer her a path.
A local magazine requested an interview. The Baron laid Piedra against the couch. He dressed her in a flowing chenille gown that buttoned up the back and gathered at her ankles. He swept her hair away from her cheeks, brushing his lips across them. She was glad she couldn’t shudder. Instead, revulsion rippled through her silently. She couldn’t quite remember when the Baron had become unattractive. Somewhere around the tenth party, perhaps. When she had seen others with his same status and less girth. But he owned her. She was his and she had to remind herself to be grateful. Still, perhaps this interview would give her opportunities she’d heard offered to other knots. A chance to travel or meet other people. She could never leave her Baron, of course, but perhaps she could…expand her reach.
“Are you ready, darling?” he asked.
“Of course I’m ready,” she said.
The interview was brief. A while later, the Baron brought her the magazine and she pored over the picture. He tipped wine down her throat.
“You are breathtaking,” he told her.
“I am powerful,” she explained.
“Like I said, breathtaking.” He traced his finger along her arm.
The girl stretched her legs out in front of her. Her patent leather shoes were scuffed from playtime and her knees stuck out like oranges. Her grandmother took note of these things, finding a lot of beauty in childhood, but she knew, having been a child, that the only beauty the girl could focus on was the future and growing up.
“So,” the grandmother continued, talking to the girl like the adult she wanted to be, “it’s about power? What kind of power?”
“Oh Granny, not power. It’s about being beautiful.”
“And what about being beautiful appeals to you? Will you look at yourself in the mirror all the time?”
The girl laughed. “No, silly. But I would like other people to look at me.”
The girl flushed. Her grandmother took note of that as well. She thought the child was too young for these feelings and yet there they were, and of course she remembered them herself, the quick rush of being noticed and how good a gaze could feel. Almost a physical sensation of being touched, gently and everywhere. The right look used to send shivers along her back.
We all want to be the prettiest thing in the room, the grandmother thought, but it wasn’t something she could say aloud. No one said it aloud, not even the bone knots, whose entire lives were spent on display.
Instead she said, “The bone knot isn’t sustainable. She’s locked in her body. She can’t change.”
“Why would she want to?” the little girl asked.
Piedra sat on a bench with the Baron at her side. An emerald carpet rolled out along the narrow street. Ribbons were flung from rooftops, flapping to the ground and getting caught in Piedra’s twisted limbs. Normally, the Baron would remove the ribbons or weave them into her hair. Today, he ignored them, leaning forward on his elbows and watching the end of the street, one leg jiggling in anticipation. Piedra felt anxious, too, though he would never know by looking at her. Her body, elegant and delicate, was the same as it ever had been and he wasn’t paying attention anyway. She told herself to calm down, admonishing her inner thoughts for being so flighty. She’d been to several of these events and this was the first time she’d felt so nervous.
People in cafes sipped wine and cheered. A new knot was ready for her debut and Piedra willed it not to happen.
Men in suits paraded the new knot down the line. She was borne aloft on a slab of ice carved to resemble a hummingbird in flight. Piedra had to admit the knot’s pose was breathtaking. The new knot held herself up on her forearms, her head and neck craned at a near-breaking angle to look up into the eyes of whomever looked down at her. Her back curved like a swan’s neck and her legs curled over until her toes nipped her chin.
And there it was — panic like a madman gnawing Piedra’s pulse, her trapped mind whirling away, chasing the thought, I’m not enough anymore and there’s nothing I can do. Tell the Baron. Get him to look at me. No yelling. No betrayal of your feelings, just…get him to look.
Piedra glanced over at the Baron. He stroked his right ear and tugged on the lobe. She said his name but his hooked nose stayed pointing straight ahead. The new knot drew closer, the applause grew louder, and Piedra’s anxiety peaked. The Baron stood up and cheered while Piedra’s mind did what her body could not and thrashed about, bumping up against raw fear and sadness. As the new knot passed by, drops of ice water landed on Piedra’s forehead, but she barely felt them.
A week after Piedra went mad on the street, the sunlight filtered through the curtains. A china teacup balanced on the edge of a table. The Baron stepped outside to get some fresh air and bring up his friends. Piedra sat on the couch, happy for a change of scenery. He’d been leaving her in her room for days at a time. She began to wonder what was in the other rooms of his mansion. More than one knot wasn’t legally allowed, and yet.… To keep herself from going crazy one more time, because it wasn’t a sensation she particularly enjoyed, she ignored her intuition. Instead, she focused on what fun a visit from his friends would be. She focused on being charming.
She heard them in the hall and the door opened. The Baron’s friend, a man she couldn’t ever remember meeting, trailed behind a woman and the Baron. Piedra focused her gaze on the friend. The Baron had described him as intelligent and flexible, and this intrigued her. She had never seen a man be flexible, wasn’t even sure it was possible. She wondered if he could put his foot underneath his chin or tuck it behind his large ear. He pulled a cart upon which his knot rested against a high-backed chair. Her pose was lovely. Wound up like a ball of yarn, her arms and legs appeared to stretch around her several times. From beneath a smooth armpit, one sky-blue eye blinked out.
Piedra felt an unusual jolt of surprise as she realized, in order to make the pose, some of the knot’s bones must have been broken first. She reminded herself that it was none of her concern and lapsed back into apathy. Her mouth twitched into a small smile. The effort of the simple movement hurt. She was beginning to deteriorate. The Baron, his friend, and the woman admired the knots. The woman asked Piedra what music she liked and the Baron’s friend asked if she preferred silk to satin.
The afternoon sun peaked and dragged across the remainder of the day like an anchor on the seafloor. As the Baron’s friend stood up to leave, bracing himself on the other knot, Piedra summoned her courage to ask, “Baron tells me you’re flexible. Can you put your leg behind your head?”
The room erupted. The Baron turned red even as he laughed. His embarrassment translated to Piedra’s embarrassment.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “did I say something wrong?”
“Not at all, my dear,” the Baron’s friend replied. “I believe what the Baron meant when describing me as flexible was that I am an easy man to get along with.”
“Oh, I see.”
They left, pulling their knot behind them. The sun set. The teacup was cleared away by a maid in a small white hat. The curtains settled against the window sash and Piedra stayed awake. Men are flexible in different ways from me, she thought.
On a Thursday afternoon in April, Piedra decided she didn’t feel like talking. Not that the Baron asked her many questions, especially these days, but when he did, she stayed tight-lipped and sullen.
“No one likes a woman who pouts,” he told her, stomping out of the room with angry red cheeks, his dissatisfaction and irritation on full display like a toddler having a tantrum.
Piedra stayed silent. Anyone who bothered to look in on her would see a serene knot enjoying the breeze through the open window.
Piedra quit counting the number of days since she’d last seen the Baron. He left her in her room. Some evenings, she could make out his shadow underneath the doorframe but he never came in. His company had never been a requirement for her happiness, so why did she crave it so badly now? Her body kept disintegrating. Maids bustled in and out, carefully scrubbing her bends and creases. To amuse herself, she dictated her memoirs to the empty room. She held her breath until her lungs forced her to exhale and take another.
She watched the blossoms of an apple tree blow past the window and finally let the howling wind in her head take control.
The child was stubborn. She refused to get off the floor.
“We need to leave,” her grandmother said.
“Not ready.” The girl’s voice threatened to carry across into the next room.
The grandmother had to tread carefully or she risked having to listen to a full-blown tantrum. “You know, I once served as a nurse to a bone knot.”
The girl’s eyes widened and she gasped in delight, her mood switching from anger to wonder in blink. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“It was a long time ago and I didn’t care for her. She seemed very unhappy, at least when I knew her.” The grandmother crossed her arms.
“Hmph. Maybe she just didn’t feel like talking to you? I mean, being a nurse — ” The girl stopped, catching her grandmother’s glare. “I really don’t see how she could be sad. Look at them.”
She turned away from her grandmother, captivated once again by the skeletons in the display.
The Baron delivered the news on a Tuesday while the sunlight slanted through the shutters. Piedra would spend the rest of her days, and there weren’t many left, in a museum. She tried to frame the Baron in the doorway. Her vision was blurry. She was vaguely aware of what he was saying and how happy she was supposed to be at the news. She thought she might have managed a smile but couldn’t be sure. She couldn’t be sure of anything.
Men skirted around him. They lifted her off her chair. They were gentle even though they didn’t need to be. She hadn’t felt any physical sensation in a long time.
The museum director set her up on a wide pillow propped against a backdrop of photos of her life, scenes she could barely remember and one image she was sure came from some other knot’s debut.
Were we all the same? she wondered, before settling down to wither away.
Faces passed by the glass. Some peered in, others gazed through her, too bored to focus. Most gave her a second of half-smiling bemusement before moving on to whatever piece of biology was stored in the case next to hers.
They stopped feeding her when she insisted she was no longer hungry. Instead they gave her shots to help her sleep. Her skin sagged. A small child pressed his cotton-candy fingers to the display window, leaving tiny whirls right where Piedra’s eyeline hit, if she were bothering to look. Her skin tightened.
The crowds grew and thinned depending on the weather outside. Piedra’s heart stopped. No one noticed for three days. A worker tenderly boiled her bones and rubbed her skin away. Her skeleton was moved to a different part of the museum and added to the weekly rotation of bone-knot displays. The crowd there was tiny, perhaps couldn’t be called a crowd at all.
The girl with the braids took in the twisted skeletons one last time before standing up, brushing off her skirt, and declaring with the petulant insistence of youth that she was going to be a bone knot whether her grandmother liked it or not.
Her grandmother sighed. “I couldn’t stop you if I tried,” the old woman said.