A Bone Picket Fence

By Kyle Matthews

In the dark woods, there stood a house raised on chicken legs.

And a little girl named Starling knelt in the yard, and laid human bones on top of each other. She was making a fence, round the garden where no flowers bloomed even in the spring and only twisted weeds and plants that killed and choked knew life. It was autumn, and the wind was cold on her young cheeks, foreshadowing of winter. A light glowed orange in the window above the porch, and a black shape made a hunched silhouette where an old woman sat by the fire.

She shivered and looked at the sky, through the black fingers of trees and past the leaves that dropped to spiral like birds in the wind, but always downwards. In day, they would be yellow, orange, brown — the colors of fall and flame. But it was never day in these woods, and they fell black as the branches, from a strange firmament where stars gazed but didn’t glitter. Starling felt cold looking at them and returned to the fence, bone after human bone. Baba Yaga hadn’t told her what it was she was wanted to keep out, only that she must build this fence or be beaten.

Sometimes Mother Baba liked to beat her. Starling had marks on her young skin, blushes on her back, her slender neck, her legs. Mother Baba was evil — that was what she was — and she liked to be cruel. But Starling didn’t hate her. She very often loved her.

Sometimes Baba Yaga could be kind, when she sat by the fire knitting shirts and scarves of human skin, and tears rolled down her wrinkled, disused cheeks. She would seem a poor thing, an ancient thing, lost in the pain of so many troubled years. She would speak softly to Starling, call her by name and murmur sweetness as a master to a much loved pet. Her cracked, yellowed nails would scratch Starling’s fair skin, sometimes bringing blood in red strings. But she would dab it away tenderly, with a cloth made of a woman’s throat, and hold Starling to her wizened chest, crooning and crying. When she did, Starling could feel the old woman’s heart beating sadly in her hollow chest and how frail her arms were as they clutched her, like a last hope, a dying dream. She would wonder then, why men feared and loathed Baba Yaga so; hung wards against her over their doors; prayed for her death at their beds. She was dying, Starling knew, and she was so delicate, so unloved.

Starling laid the last bone, a thigh, and straightened to her feet. The fence was not yet finished. She hadn’t enough bones to finish it. Mother Baba would probably beat her for that.

She drew her withered cloak — Mother Baba had woven it for her from a man’s back — and stood facing the arched shadows between the autumn trees, black eyes, black mouths, opening into the stomach of the woods. An empty stomach, hungry, wanting to feed. They watched her, whispered to her sweetly, and she was chilled. So cold when it was always night, always fall on the verge of winter. The fluid in her spine seemed to freeze and crack, hoarfrost along the line of her back. She shivered, shivered, and shivered again. Too cold for a girl of seven who had been born in the summer.

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