By Kat Howard

The island itself was made from bones.

There was a church, in another land, similarly constructed. The decayed flesh of the saints slipped from its underlying architecture, the white bones, sacred and incorruptible, incarnating the holy place. But the Kostnice Ossuary had been built. Hands that would become bones, themselves, set the pieces in place. Divinely inspired, but a mortal work.

The island had made itself.

It began, as these things do, with a woman, and a man. An unanswered question, and a death by water.

It began with the shipwrecked and the lost. Their bones were whited of excess flesh by the small and skittering denizens of the sea. The shapes were purified, rendered down to their essence, and then coral-encrusted, decorated with the care a medieval artisan would have lavished on a reliquary.

The first bone to break the surface was the iliac crest of a suicide. As the surf foamed over it, a tempest broke from the heavens.

The island grew quickly then.

From the time of its birth, there were always three women who dwelt upon the island.

Thin and wraith-like, barely enough flesh to cover their own bones, very nearly ghosts. All had long, tangled hair, woven with sea-wrack, and though they were never old, their hair was white, white as bone.

If you were to ask one of these votaresses of the bones how she came to the island, she would not speak. If you were fortunate, she might smile, and place a scaphoid or a hamate in your palm. Worn smooth by wind, polished by the sea, the bone would be the only answer your question required.

There were those who asked. There were always those who asked.

Most who did were satisfied by the small weight of someone else’s death pressed into their hand. The island holds its secrets close. This is known, and has always been.

But there are those who arrive in search of secrets of their own, who come to the island to divine runes, to read entrails, to throw the bones.

They arrived by casting themselves upon the shore, with the other flotsam and jetsam carried on the tide. They made pilgrimage from the edge of the salt-tear sea. Over bones whiter than cloud, whiter than page, whiter than death, they walked. Past bones lachrymal and parietal they quested.

Then, of a sudden, they would begin to collect: phalanges, proximal and distal. Scapula, calcaneus, and hyoid. The pilgrims would gather bones until they could articulate a complete skeleton of disparate parts.

The bone-priestesses would not hinder the gathering, but neither would they assist. They stood witness. They anticipated the miracle.

The pilgrims would take care not to choose bones that had known each other in life. Even malleus, incus, and stapes must never have heard the same sound. Otherwise, it risks the oracle speaking in a singular voice, and who consults an oracle in the hope of hearing sense?

The pilgrims could not eat while making their collections, for nothing living could grow in a field of bones, and as their flesh evaporated, they became like skeletons themselves, animate only by blood and questions.

When all the bones were found, the quest completed, the pilgrim would speak a question to the wind. In many cases, this was even the question she had come to the island to have answered. When the last echoes had vanished to the air, the pilgrim would lie down on top of the collected skeleton, with grace and care, so as not to disturb the bones so carefully assembled.

There, she would wait.

In most cases, the skeleton never spoke. The pilgrim would lie in the calcified embrace of the lover she had labored to create, and thin, until a second set of bones fell to intermingle with the first.

Sometimes, so rarely it seemed as if this were a thing more impossible than the island itself, the bones chose to answer.

When the bones spoke, it was with the voice of the island. The very place convulsed as the answer was given.

The bones spoke only at dawn, when the newly born sun streaked the sky and water with its red-gold palette, mingling blood with ambrosia on the canvas. The voices of the three women who lived on the island at its beginning, now, and ever after, would rise in a song of transformation and mourning. Thus was the miracle marked, and encouraged into being.

The song would continue until the pilgrim screamed. Once: the keening of a storm-tossed gull. Answers, true answers, like miracles, come at a cost.

The three women, the sisters of the bone, too sharp to be graces and surely too kind to be fates, would bend to lift the pilgrim off of her skeletal lover.

One bone would be removed from the pile. It would be covered over in writing: ink dark as blood, dark as night, dark as truth. The words there written would spell out the answer to the question that had been whispered on the wind.

This bone, it should be noted, was not from the collected skeleton. It was from the pilgrim.

The bones were exchanged, one for the other, question for answer. The body of the pilgrim reshaped around the speaking bone, much the same as her life would reshape itself around the answer inscribed upon its twin.

The three sisters would guide the pilgrim to an ossuary at the center of the island, where she would remain for three days–yes, ever and always, three has been the proper length of time for resurrections–while she meditated upon her miracle. While her blood bathed the bone–lunate, perhaps, or sacrum–that had translated itself beneath her skin.

At sunset on the third day, the pilgrim would place the bone that had been hers, the one now scrimshawed over with knowledge, into the walls of the ossuary. She would be met at the door by one of the bone sisters. Return, the bone woman would tell her, and kiss her once, on each eyelid, so the path might be seen.

The next of the three would meet her at the place where the pilgrim had lain in communion with her bones. Return, she would say, and would kiss the pilgrim once on the breast, so the heart might remember.

The last of the three would meet the pilgrim where the sea wept upon the shore. Return, she would say, and would kiss her once upon the mouth, so that nothing that had passed there might be spoken of.

Then the pilgrim would cast herself upon the waves, to be borne back to the land less strange, where she had formerly lived.

In time, in days, or months, or decades, the bones of the pilgrim would return to the island. They would be reverently collected, examined, spread beneath the wind and sky. The mirror bone to the one that had been placed into the ossuary would be removed and reunited with its twin. Question with answer, speech resolved into silence.

The remainder of the skeleton–no longer pilgrim now, but saint–would be scattered across the island, the architecture of future miracles, to whisper answers to those brave enough to ask.


More from Kat Howard:

Kat Howard is a former competitive fencer and current university professor. Her short fiction has previously appeared in the anthology Stories and in Weird Tales. She’s a 2008 graduate of Clarion (UCSD). Her heroes are Buffy and Joan of Arc, and she only speaks of herself in the third person when writing bios.

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