This story is by Nicole Rebentisch and was a runner-up in our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Nicole Rebentisch, a former Language Arts teacher, holds a B.A. in Creative Writing from B.S.U. She freelances as a website designer and developer while caring for her young son and daughter. She expects to finish her first novel, Crocodilian, in 2023. Her website is nicolerebentisch.com.
“The forest is haunted,” Tilly says. She holds me back but I pull from her grasp.
“Aunt Bess says you’ve never been in the woods,” I retort.
“That’s true,” she murmurs, twisting her long yellow braid in her fingers. “Because of the bone children.”
“The bone children?”
Tilly nods, her cheeks pink from the autumn air.
“They dance in the moonlight and wear crowns of thistle and larkspur.”
I fold my arms and scowl. “They don’t sound so bad.”
Tilly leans in close and whispers. “Don’t you want to know why they’re called the bone children?”
She tells me anyway. “They’re just bones. No skin, no flesh. No eyes.”
Tilly’s only six. She’ll believe anything.
“How would you know? Have you even seen them?”
Tilly stares into the woods, as if she sees them right now. I look over my shoulder, in case they’re lined up between the trees, peeking at us. All I can see are shafts of dusty light dancing between the leaves in the wind.
“I heard about them. From Jesse. His little sister went into the woods one night. She never came back. He told me he saw her a few weeks later. No skin, no nothing. Just bones and a lot of moss and flowers all over. She waved at him. Nobody believes him except me.”
“Of course not. It’s just nonsense.”
“Then why don’t they let any kids into the woods at night?”
I scratch my arm impatiently. “I’m going,” I say. “I love the woods.”
“Not these ones,” she says ominously.
She grabs for my hand, but my fingers slip away. “Corin, please!”
But I’m already running beneath the canopy of trees. The leaves whip at my face and the branches grab at my coat, and I run even faster.
When I reach a little half-frozen stream, I rest my elbows on my knees and watch the water running beneath a clear ice surface. I can just catch my reflection, short black hair standing up all over, bits of leaves caught in it.
I crack the ice crust with my sharp boot heel and watch the lines spidering out from me. I listen to the cold crack, my breath gathering into little puffs before my face. Then I go deeper into the woods to build a house for myself.
I gather branches and rushes, and stones pried from mud. I pile them up against two aspen trees, high and higher still, until I have created a little castle. It is a boy-sized fortress of moss and weeds and cold frosted earth. I huddle down inside my home. I cackle at the birds when they hop close to me and laugh as they startle away, dark flutters of feathers and fear.
Uncle Pete is angry when I come back after dark. “Tilly said you were in the woods. Is that true?”
Uncle Pete grabs my arms and shakes me a little, his face inches from mine. “Never again, Corin. You’re just a boy. Children disappear in those woods. We don’t let children in the woods anymore.”
I pretend to be cowed and shrug from his grasp. Tilly pulls my arm and whispers. “You shouldn’t have gone. The bone children might have caught you.”
I laugh and pounce at her, curling my fingers like claws. She squeals and runs to Aunt Bess, who scolds me over her shoulder as she washes dishes. “Eat, boy. Your supper is cold.”
I crook a finger and beckon to Tilly. She creeps to the table where I snap up bites of cold potatoes.
“Come with me tomorrow,” I whisper.
Tilly’s eyes are round with fear. “But the bone children . . .”
“Nonsense. I made a house, Tilly. A castle in the middle of the woods. Come see it.”
Tilly chews her lip and looks at her knuckles.
“I’ll make you a necklace of flowers, Tilly. They’re still blooming in the deep woods. You can dance with me in the fairy circles.”
She peers at me through her blonde lashes.
“Please.” I push out my lower lip and make puppy noises.
“Okay.” Tilly runs then and hides in her mother’s skirts.
I’ve waited in the woods for Tilly all day. I lied to Uncle Pete and Aunt Bess. They believed me because my parents tell them I’m a good boy. And I am. Usually.
It’s getting late now. I can feel the cold slowing my bones, encasing me in snapped bites. The air licks my eyeballs raw. My tongue darts out and tastes the frosty air, like a snake. The wind bites my cheeks until they tingle and chafe. I duck into my forest house and click my tongue. Clk, clk, clk, my tongue clacks against my teeth. A little mouse rustles the crusty leaves before my door. I snap my white teeth at it. Clk, clk, clk. The mouse scurries away. I laugh, slow and deep.
I look at my fingers curiously. They are dark, mottled at the tips. I lick my fingertips and taste the brown dirt. It is mossy, cool and bitter. I cackle again and roll my purple fingers up against my cold palm. The light is fading. I hear a distant howl. Tilly warned me about the wolves, too. “They’ll eat you up,” she insisted. Silly Tilly.
The sky bruises deep blue, then purple, then black. I rock back and forth on my heels, throw my head back, and cackle loudly into the dark. My voice is swallowed up into the night. I close my eyes and imagine myself dancing with the bone children. In my mind’s eye, I am a magical creature of the forest. I am the King of the Forest and the bone children are my children. They dance for me in fairy circles and they claw bark off the aspens. They bring me little gifts of buckwheat and bitter cherry. We feast on mushrooms—wolf’s milk and puffballs. We drink dew from tiger lilies.
A sharp gust of air startles my eyes open again. I blink against the dark. I hunker down into my castle of rock and branches to shield myself better from the wind. The cold creeps in on spidery fingers to poke at me. I slowly snap my white teeth, clk, clk, clk, as if I am taking bites out of the dark. I close my drowsy eyes. I think when Tilly comes, we will stay here in the forest forever. We will rule over the forest, and when the moonlight flashes through the branches of our castle, we will howl and howl.
The hours pass.
It has been night now for a long time. Maybe Tilly got lost on her way. But I am waiting for her still. I don’t feel the cold anymore. I curl into myself like a cat and I purr softly. Hrmm hrmm hrhmmmm. My throat rumbles as the frost crystals tickle my lashes and lips. Then I am still as the dark, silent as the stars. I exhale my last breath, but the forest magic holds me fast, and my death is suspended, twisted back on itself. I am dead, but I am still here, somehow.
A lone wolf, separated from her pack, howls and draws near. She sniffs the air and creeps to my house. She examines me. In death I cannot feel her tongue as it licks my skin and eyes. I do not feel her teeth as they tear the lifeless flesh and sinew from my bones. She laps up my blood and rips my eyes from their sockets. I wait patiently for her to finish. She was hungry. She leaves only my bones behind. She slinks away, belly full.
Now I must dress myself as I dressed my house. I rise, shaking my chattering bones. Clk, clk, clk, they clatter as I gather up leaves and mushrooms, bits of bark and blankets of moss. I fasten them to my frame with care. I discover two perfect halves of a blue robin’s egg. They will be my new eyes. They are smooth and round. I fashion a crown of purple larkspur and red thistle. I twine strands of pink currant around a sturdy branch for my scepter and top it with lacy bunches of wolf lichen. I am the King of the Forest. I lean against my house and survey my kingdom.
The other children soon arrive. They are wearing their crowns and they bow to me, reverence for my kingly presence. I nod regally to them and with my scepter I bid them dance. Their teeth chatter as they jump and twirl, their toe bones kicking up bluegrass and monkeyflower.
A bone girl, wearing a necklace of pinedrop and phantom orchid, extends her hand to me. She beckons me to join the dance. I wave her off. Tilly is coming. When she arrives, we will dance together to the nightmusic only bone children can hear.
I am waiting for her still.