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The Hollowing of Her Bones

Faye says she doesn’t believe in coincidence, but the day she burns the last of the cows, two women hurl themselves from dizzying heights like deadweight dropped into the sea.

In the autumnal air, clotted yellow with ash, Faye claims a sudden lightness—a tug of going as sharp and instant as an umbrella yanked in the wind.

Her sisters grasp at the hem of her skirt, chant incantations of keeping, but Faye wrenches free from their hands. She slips her mother’s locket around her neck and flies.

What remains of the farm—fields pocked with rain and sucking mud and charred embers —pulls away in Faye’s sight, smaller and farther, as she rises. The surrounding woods—smoldering snake tails. The long gravel drive, black and buried.

The place she knew as a girl was gone. Half the houses, vacant or ruined. Half the plants, too. Even the animals, scant and skittish, understood; no one wanted to stay.

This would be her escape—by feather.

She would fly, turning slowly in the wind. The coins in her pocket would fall, spinning metallic glints.

The sky breathes Faye in. Voices, heavy with need and obligation, call to her. Doubt flickers through her, and fear. She hesitates there, on the cusp of her escape, caught between sky and charred earth. Below, she sees a rooftop, gray shingles blackened and curled at the edges. The skeleton of a burned oak reaches for her. 

Then the others begin to sing. Her sisters and the two women who jumped, yes, but now there are more. Women, feathered creatures rising from the smoking debris of lives spent, firebirds singing a song of flight.

Faye can’t say how she knows the rhythm of this music, but it is there, inside her, a memory reignited. She turns from her earthbound burdens, circles higher with the hollowing of her bones, welcomes the breath of the sky in her wings.

Aloft on the warm current that bears her west, she spies an airborne sister falter and fall, the ghost-calling of her old world’s false promises too strong to resist. Faye sheds a feather in pity and tribute, and surges on. The only way out is up.

And here they are. A massive V, still forming, welcoming all who swoop in to the safety of its tailing ends. This V of victors and voices and no-longer-victims flies toward shards of lightning amidst swirling clouds that obscure the distant view. No matter. They vow that their strength, united, can outrun the devastation left behind and overcome the challenges that surely await them.

High above the rooftops, she wants to stop for nothing and no one, but a sharp glimmer from the west catches her eye. She lifts her wing and signals to the flock a turn to the burnished bronze sun’s fading light. There again, as if back from the dead, the roof of the house where Faye was borne from trauma’s ashes. Jagged edges and cracked sides hide the heart of a hateful man. The roof sinks as the sisters land and Faye knows what they are asking her to do: Remove the last vestige of captivity. 

Faye flutters down from the roof to the ledge of his large bedroom window, motions for her sisters to wait for her signal. Her wings ache. They nod, reaffirming their trust in her—the same innocent trust they had in their mother when she screamed for them to run, saving their lives. Faye strains her neck to peer in through the rain-spotted glass. Beyond the heavy velvet curtain, he sits in that expansive leather recliner, the entrails of his pipe smoke lifting up. The sweet smell of the apple-laden tobacco reminds Faye that not everything was horrible under his roof, in his yard. But she cannot forget how viciously he brought about her mother’s death.

Faye shakes her head to clear her thoughts.  Her eyes can no longer make sense of stone, flesh, or earth. She reels, backward, into an old world: wings clipped, feet untethered. Once-defined shapes bleeding together as one. The roof’s right angles swimming towards wormy earth, fruity pipe smoke curling into a blade of stiff grass, knotty tree trunks leaping from a pillowy sky. Even the well-worn leather of his chair, the darkening eyes of her sisters, the scent of sour skin, her mother’s smile in a memory—all of it made up of the same tiny particles, molecules in millions inextricably linked. And then, too, a new sense came upon her—knowing. That which brought her to this wet window on this slippery roof to seek retribution—all of this anger, hate, and fear—was also what had killed her mother.

Her mother jumped from this window on an overcast day. They say a stream of scarlet flowed from her cracked skull into the roots of the rose bush. The red roses with bright yellow centers nod to her, and Faye presses her locket against her heart. She reads the poem inside: the hurt of her father’s perfidies and her mother’s heartbreaks burnt onto the page. Faye pecks at the earth under the rosebush, buries the poem.

She lifts her powerful wings, following the song of the fully-fledged flock of women ahead, and soars. 

Written by: MM Bailey Myna Chang Sara Siddiqui Chansarkar Marcy Dilworth Sara Hills Ariel M. Goldenthal Meagan Johanson Ellen Weeren

A Note about the Process:

Our writing group, which has been meeting virtually since August 2020, approached this exquisite corpse as an exercise in creativity and collaboration. Writers selected the order in which they wanted to write and then each writer was given 3-4 days to write their section, which was to be about 125 words long. We created a spreadsheet of nouns, adjectives, and tone descriptors that we wanted to employ throughout our piece (e.g. scorned, metallic). Our first writer used the spreadsheet to prompt her writing and other writers used it to keep the pieces thematically linked. In order to keep the spirit of the exquisite corpse game, each writer was only permitted to view the work of the person who wrote the section immediately before her in the piece. Only after all eight writers completed their sections were they able to read the full version. We met on Zoom to edit the final draft, making sure that we hadn’t accidentally changed character names, verb tense, or other details that would distract the reader. Finally, we all proposed possible titles and then voted to choose the one that best suited the theme and tone of our work: The Hollowing of Her Bones. During this process, our Corpse Master, Ariel, tracked the group’s process (she was cc-ed each time a writer sent her section to the next person), created the schedule, compiled the final draft, and managed the title-voting. 

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