The Bones and the Bird
by Shannon Noel Brady
She does not call herself “witch,” though that is what she is. She has no word for “witch.” She speaks only the language of mountains, of alpenglow and meadowshiver, of leafblush and rivertumble. Of forests turned so ghostly by morning mist that each tree could be the spirit of one that came before. She has known many trees and many spirits, but she does not know of this thing called “witch,” though that is what she is.
The witch hunts for the feathers that will lend her flight. Brown feathers, or blue, or perhaps black and white-flecked as if the night sky were a wing. The witch finds the feathers and builds a fire beneath them, then steps into the flame. When the fire burns her away, burns down every muscle and vein and organ, burns down her entire body except for her bones, she emerges—winged, anew.
The witch soars over the canopy, buoyed by wind and cloud and choice. Far above, the sky is an endless welcome. She can taste rain on its breath. Far below, her mountain is a great beast, back prickly with green. When she perches on its spine she can feel the beast’s sleepy stirs, its shift and grind beneath the earth.
She does not stay this way long, for though the heights are a gift, her own body is her home. The witch belongs to her toes the same as a true bird belongs to its talons. To reclaim her human shape (though she would not call herself “human,” any more than she would call herself “witch”) she returns to the place where she left her bones, splinters them between her beak, eats every rib and femur and vertebra until none remain, and as feathers and flesh collapse around her, she emerges—limbed, anew.
One day, the witch cannot find her bones.
She has always left her remains where she will remember them, and where they will not be disturbed. Once she has changed, she will push her bones through twining caves, or into stagnant ponds, or under tangles of tree roots. On this day, she had dragged them inside an abandoned rabbit burrow.
Yet on this day, they are not there. The witch sputters her wings in frantic search, digs her claws into every nook and shadow, but her bones are gone. She does not understand. This has never happened before. No breeze or stream could have moved them. The animals she has befriended know her bones, and the animals she has not befriended know not to trifle with her. She has never forgotten a hiding place, and she is certain she has not forgotten this one. Yet the bones are not there.
Dread fills the hollows of her borrowed skeleton. The lightness of her bird body suddenly makes her feel insubstantial, vulnerable. She takes to the air, scanning the forest for a clue. A plume of smoke catches her eye. The witch flies towards it, flutters down onto a branch of pine.
At the campfire sits a hunter—a human, though she would not call him that. A human like her, except nothing like her, for he is one-bodied and short-living and ordinary, while she is the witch of these woods. The hunter had been seeking rabbits when he discovered her bones. Fond of the macabre, he had hauled them back to his camp, where he now sits inspecting her tibia. Her feathers ruffle at the sight of his dirty hands on her clean, white bones. Her bones. Hers.
With a furious shriek, she dives towards the hunter. She thrashes about his head, scratches at him with pointed claws. He guards his face with one arm and swats with the other. He misses her several times, until he doesn’t.
A grasp round her feet, the crisp click of a door opening, a push, a let-go, then her back against bars. The witch learns a new language—that of metalcold and traptight and in. The hunter laughs and locks the cage as she bashes against its sides.
For days he taunts her. He swipes the cage when he passes, toppling her off balance. He shakes it so hard her skull rings. He jabs twigs at her through the bars, though it amuses him less when she grows too weary to flap away.
One day, while the witch lies upon the cage bottom, half-starved and full-weak, the hunter approaches. He gives the cage a toss, mumbles with irritation when she doesn’t stir. The hunter wiggles a fingertip between the bars, and when it doesn’t reach her he wedges it further, past the thick, round knuckle with its thick, coarse hair: the knuckle that tastes of campfire ash when she bites him, the knuckle that gets stuck when she begins to eat.
The hunter wails in pain, pulling and pulling but the knuckle won’t come through the bars. The witch peels away the finger’s skin, muscle, and tissue, all the way down to the bone which she snaps and swallows.
With his other hand the hunter tears at the cage’s lock, grabs for her, but she squeezes past. She flutters circles around him, plunges for his eyes. The hunter screams and covers his face. He runs into the woods, blinded by four fingers, tripping over logs and ferns while the witch perches and waits.
When the last of his howls fade, the witch collects her bones from his camp. She splinters them between her beak, eats every rib and femur and vertebra until none remain; as feathers and flesh collapse around her, she emerges—limbed, anew.
Only now one finger is bigger than the rest, its knuckle thicker than the rest, its hair coarser than the rest. She keeps it for the pride. She keeps it for the new word it has taught her. She keeps it for she is the witch of these woods.
She would not call herself that, though that is what she is.
Shannon Noel Brady isn’t a bookworm; she’s a bookpython. Her work has been published in Gingerbread House Literary Magazine, Kaaterskill Basin Literary Journal, The Bohemyth, Jersey Devil Press, The J.J. Outré Review, Vandercave Quarterly, and more. She can be found at snbradywriter.wordpress.com, on Twitter @snbradywriter, or up in a tree.