Fortnightly Fiction | Ribs by Shannen Malone

Ribs
Shannen Malone

They would not speak of it tomorrow.

Lucy thought this as she walked to work in the morning, the shiny sound of her tights rubbing together at the thighs finding her ears. She picked at a loose flap of skin at the corner of her thumb, congratulating herself for keeping her promise not to bite. She thought it again as her fingers traced patterns, somnambulant, across the keys of her computer at the office. The sounds of the copier and her colleagues, the ringing of phones barely touched her awareness, her body on autopilot as her mind wandered elsewhere. A secret smile stole twitches at the corners of her lips each time her boss leaned over her desk to enquire after something, his shirt sleeves rolled to his elbows and obliviousness trailing his footsteps like a shadow. Lucy caught eyes with Niamh across the room, in the motion of flipping her long braid over her shoulder while Cathal fought lamely for her attention. The moment was taut as their gazes snagged, two fisherwomen casting lines at the same time, only to find their thin silver hooks looped together. They both looked away, and Lucy finished out her day as though she wasn’t sparkling. The misting shower on her walk home felt baptismal, but was finished by the time she had ducked in to retrieve her tools.

The path to Lucy’s house was strewn with leaves, and she raked them back with long, sweeping motions. She drew lines in the packed earth the way she would brush the hair of someone she loved. The leaves gathered in crunching embankments of autumnal brown in ridges along the path, and Lucy hummed softly as the cold caressed her nose and throat the only way it knew how. Searing. There was nothing automatic in her gestures now. She was deeply conscious of the breeze that drew pink into her cheeks, the stretch in her arms and back as she raked. Achingly present in her body, electric but calm.

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The days were short and sharp this time of year, and the sky warned the waning, drunken sun that it was approaching last call. Lucy deposited lanterns along the path, each graced with a single, simple tealight. Fairies dancing in jars. Her basket emptied along the way, a box of matches all that remained at the bottom, only one left, rattling inside as the basket swung at her side. She returned home to her small cottage, too neat to be tumbledown, but old as her family. Ivy tickled its walls, forgoing strangulation, the front garden scattered with nettles without bite. She reached it just as the day surrendered to dark velvet, her own lights showing her the way.

A sponge soaked in a wide, flat bowl on the scuffed kitchen table, and Lucy slipped out of her clothes, leaving them on the floor. She relished in peeling out of her tights, her skin becoming new and real. The tights, empty, slithered to her feet. A shed skin.

She picked up the sponge and pressed it to the base of her throat, the cool water running along her arms and legs. A pulse pounded, low. The moonlight arced through the window and scattered her with gemstones, the water beading on her skin and collecting the light to keep for later.

Pain clenched its fist in Lucy’s belly, then released under soothing breaths. The cool water was suspended, hundreds of trapeze artists between her raised arm hairs, before sliding gracefully down her frame to mingle with the hot blood running down her thighs.

Lucy pulled the band from her hair, a touch limp from the misty rain, and shook her head gently, letting it fall between her shoulder blades. Silk whispered as she pulled on her dress, allowing it to fall down her extended arms, the way a child would. The dress was simple, like a tee shirt stretched out long, loose as a sail and as likely to catch the wind. Dove white.

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Lucy walked outside and waited, bare feet weighted to the stoop outside her cottage. She rolled a loose pebble under the soft pad of her big toe, investigated its shape without looking. The trees rustled, naked and expectant, their bark bleached silver by the moon, the night, and the season.

Voices crested the hilly path just before the heads did, high and low mixing like honey and wine. The women of Lucy’s village, all bare legged and dressed in white, approached her home, beckoned by the lights and the unknowable force they all responded to. It wasn’t monthly or yearly, but kept some secret indecipherable calendar recorded in the veins, etched as cave paintings in the chambers of the heart. The women who taught at the national school, the young woman who worked at the newsagents, the librarian, the dentist. Niamh from the office. A drove of women Lucy passed in the village every day, leaving footprints behind them in the soil that quickly dressed in fog as the night selected its companions. As they approached they grew more and more distinct, each woman in her moth wing white clothes and a silver coin in her eye, glittering as rust trickled down many, but not all, of their legs.

Edith led them, and squeezed Lucy’s hand once in greeting, smiling pearls as she did. It was a smile Lucy had known since it was riddled with gaps, had watched it change, corralled and wired in braces. Now effusive as starlight despite the coffee stains. Lucy was absorbed into the crowd, and as one they stepped lightly through her garden, out to the back gate. She swung it forward, the iron screech ripping the air as the village women cascaded through and out into the woods.

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They ran.

They ran like dancing.

Some sang as they loped, whistling tones or low moans, and some laughed, bubbles of champagne joy as they made waltzing partners of the trees or grabbed another woman to jig, skirts twirling and hiked up to the thighs. Their feet grew darker at the soles as they kicked up leaves, calves flecked in scratches from wily branches and twigs. Some screamed, wretched. Some howled, triumphant. It was not painless, it was not pretty, but it was free. The woods blew apart with the space they created, exploding atoms, peaceful destruction. They grew leaves and wrinkled bark, and the moon caught their hair and spun it in gold and silver for no one’s benefit but their own.

They bled and ran, laughed and bellowed. Lucy’s lungs burned the autumn air as fuel until they reached their destination.

The tree stood tall and with imposing menace, a welcoming word through bared teeth. It was smooth as bathroom tile, for the most part, though some branches bore deeply scored dark lines against the sweet ivory. Lucy approached it first, as was her role and right. Her mother and grandmother and the long twisting line of ghosts before her had done the same. Palm outstretched, Lucy pressed the soft pads of her fingertips to the surface. Cold. Unforgiving.

Bone.

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The tree’s arthritic fingers reached skyward to ensnare the stars as the women of Lucy’s village joined her, the smiles and laughs dissolving on their lips, slipping down their throats to freeze in the gut. Solemn quiet. Reverent and together. They pressed their hands to the bark, standing shoulder to shoulder, fingers overlapped. Each of them, Eves and sinners all, dirty with sweat and blood, silently raged against Eden. Those who bled, those who no longer did, had not yet begun or never would. They all stood at the root of the tree, and gazed up at the branches dripping icicles and suffering, clear and exquisite as the single note that split the fogged air. Crystalline.

The woman who worked in the charity shop wore a knitted white dress. Her legs were decorated in purple webs of veins and her face was deeply wrinkled. The note poured from her mouth like water into a font, but could not be matched for holiness. She had been called by the tree more times than Lucy by far, had aged alongside it, marked it in her blood before Lucy was so much as a twinkle in her mother’s eye. The woman’s eyelids slipped serenely closed. Her head tipped back, and another note joined her from the side of the tree Lucy couldn’t see. And another. They all began to pour; heartache and pain, joy and memory. Cacophonous. Lucy cackled in a voice that felt more like her own than any she had used in the last season, the last year.

Ribs indeed.

The roots below were a twisted marble echo of the branches overhead, the bone of the tree soaked in their blood. They ran thick with change. Lucy’s voice joined the others and her heart struck the moon like a hammer, sent the stars skittering away from her light. Together they cracked the sky until it provided shattered dawn.

The tree took each story for a leaf, returned strength and resilience. The power of old things and warriors. Blood for blood, isolation for bond. They would carry this with them. They would wave it like a flag, cleave to the stone of it when it all got to be too much.

They would not speak of it tomorrow.


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