Short Story: ‘The Bone Child’ by Anne Corbett

Come away, O human child!

…For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

WB Yeats

This city is built upon fragments of an older world. There’s stone down here, of course; stone and rust and all manner of broken things. They sleep soundly enough for the most part. Stone is stoic after all. For us it’s different. We’re scattered through the earth, between shards of clay and sparks of glass, our memories a shifting mass of yesterdays.

But you are human and alive, and still think that you are singular.

The stories of the city sink down, whispering a nocturne that lulls us and rocks us, making us remember that we were once part of that world. And when we remember, you remember. You don’t know you’re remembering. You give it other names, if you name it at all. It’s the brush of chill at the old hanging corner. It’s déjà-vu, a goose on your grave. It’s snatches and splinters of the old world. Never enough to give us shape.

Down here there are half-voices, things between forgotten and forever. There are places where the earth doesn’t press so tight, hollows formed by a slip of shale or the rotting of ancient wood.

And the echo of what might once have been a girl.

She doesn’t sleep well. She’s earth-cold, bone-cold. We’d comfort her if we knew how, but she’s everywhere and nowhere, and she never seems to hear us calling.

There are others like her. They lie closer to the surface, still more part of your world than ours. You know them. They’re in every story, every cautionary tale. The child who wandered too far in the woods. The girl who walked alone at night.

They make us restless. Never more so than when another joins them. That’s when we find ourselves stirring, reaching upwards towards a form we don’t quite understand.

We can’t help it. It’s what we are. Your role is to half-remember us, deep in your bones. Ours is to be half-remembered, the bones of the deep.

There’s a girl up there who may come to know us soon enough. Emily. Her name drifts down to us and we seize upon it, whispering it through the hollows of the earth. Emily.

Emily is sixteen when her sister disappears, and she will be seventeen when the body is found. In those seven days she will grow one year older, and her sister will stop growing at all.

She listens to people talking about how they knew her sister, loved her, and she doesn’t recognise the stories. But then she’s not entirely sure the world is working properly. The days stretch out and twist back on themselves, until she can’t quite remember how long her sister has been gone. Of course, no-one knows that for sure. There’s a tangled mess of last sightings and broken timelines, and their best guess makes no sense to her. She didn’t feel the first spark of unease until hours later. This seems inconceivable in hindsight, and she’s ashamed of it. When they ask her where she thought her sister was – at 5? at 6? – she lies and says at a friend’s house. The truth is she never thought anything. But she tells the lie so many times that the truth falls away. She must have known. She would have known. She will always know.

That corner of the city – Edgewater, it’s called – turns out for her sister. People she knows and people she doesn’t, although they all seem to know the missing girl. They’re divided into groups and dispatched to search the scrubland, the reservoir, the old industrial estate.

Emily takes the dog-walkers’ trail up Oddman’s Hill. She’s not supposed to be out alone, but her mother’s on her knees at home, praying to a god whose face she can’t see. She’s never believed, as far as the girl knows, but now she’s trying. She prays backwards, take this cup from me let this cup never have come to me let this cup never have been made.

Emily sits on the hillside and looks out across the city, imagining the stone and steel stripped away to reveal the contours of the land. And her sister, curled into some forgotten hollow.

And the others.

The thought comes from nowhere, but there’s a weight to it.

There must be other lost ones.

We know where the thought comes from. There’s a cold spot on that hillside, a space beneath the stones, where something old and hidden longs to be found. It has felt her footsteps, and her yearning, and it will answer. When Emily walks down the hill, she keeps glancing back, as though she can sense the unseen slip and shift of the earth, where a curved, cracked bone has begun its slow journey to the surface.

Her sister is three days gone when the rumour starts.

There’s an old man who lives down by the reservoir, in a hut made of plastic bags and bicycle wheels.

He’s seen bones.

The two girls weren’t supposed to go there. It’s over the border of Edgewater, just inside Cambrey. From where we lie, there’s not much difference between those two slices of city. They’re both grey and fraying at the edges. They both have skulking young hanging around outside boarded-up shops.

But Edgewater knows it’s better than Cambrey. Whatever happens, it has that certainty: at least we’re not like them. Cambrey is where they put the halfway house. The residents were moved on years ago, but everyone remembers. Everyone knows what they’re like in Cambrey.

This story isn’t new. Emily and her sister knew about the Rag-and-Bone-Man when they were young. But now there’s a missing girl, and all the old tales are being brushed off.

The old man is found and taken to a bare room with a plastic chair. He’s vague at first, but eventually confides that there’s a place just inside the tree-line, where a bush was upended in that storm back…when?

The policemen wait while he mutters and counts on his fingers.

Ten years ago? Twelve? It doesn’t matter. Through the lattice of root you can see something pale and broken.

He’s not supposed to be living there. That’s why he didn’t tell anyone about the girl.

The girl?

That’s the shape the bones make in his mind. They feel like a girl. Most people don’t like him, but he thinks she likes him. On windy nights he can hear her whispering. Sometimes he thinks she wants something, but most of the time she just is.

They’re looking for flesh, not bone. But they dig them up anyway, before losing interest and filing them away under unexplained. Emily thinks she can feel something, like when you catch the edge of a lost memory, just for a second.

There’s something there, a pattern, but she can’t bring it into focus.

We could tell her, if she could hear us.

On the fifth day, something’s found in Cambrey. The police don’t say what, but somehow everyone knows.

Some of them know it’s the missing girl’s scarf. Some know it’s her phone, her wallet, her blood-stained coat. It was found in an empty house, in an old storage unit, down by the railway. It’s proof she’s been done in. By some piece of Cambrey scum, by the old man, by one of those paedos.

That night there’s a candlelight vigil. Emily watches strangers cry. She does know some of the people there. Neighbours, distant cousins, the man from the corner shop.

Then there are the lads from the estate, the ones who used to shout obscenities when she and her sister walked past them. Now they’re her sister’s best friends. They stay when everyone else has gone. They have balaclavas and hoods. They’re going to Cambrey. They’ll find out what happened, or they’ll turn the place over. For her sister.

The next night the police come to see her mother. They want her to ask for calm. She asks them just one question. Have you found my girl?

There’s a pulse in the city. We feel it, even down here. But then we’re not so deep anymore. The earth is scuffing and scraping away. Another fragment has broken through, just inside the churchyard, hidden by a tangle of ivy and weeds.

We’re taking shape.

Emily can feel it. The old man can feel it. Even the lads can feel it, through the haze of blood pumping in their ears. People are looking down and remembering.

They can’t articulate what it is they fear, but they don’t let their children out after sundown, and they don’t let their daughters walk alone at night.

The bone child is stirring and they are afraid.

On the seventh day, they find the missing girl in a shallow grave in Granger’s Copse, a scrubby round of stunted oaks and nameless undergrowth by Oddman’s Hill. She’s been there less than a week, but she’s soon reworked into the reason why it’s always cold in the copse, and why dogs don’t like going in there.

The fact that she wasn’t found in Cambrey makes no difference to anyone. That story has already been written, in blood, in broken glass and shit through letter-boxes. Everyone knows what they’re like in Cambrey.

Emily doesn’t think about her sister as she was, or as she is now. She thinks about the pattern. She thinks about the girl from the reservoir, and those nameless others, whose existence pricked at her that night on the hillside. She thinks maybe there’s something bigger and older at work. Perhaps that’s why she can’t keep the days in their place, or the yesterdays separate from the tomorrows and the nevers. Maybe there’s more to this than a girl in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Yes, we think. But it’s not what you think.

For her it’s still about cause and effect, days and weeks, this person and that. We see things more clearly down here, despite the crowding earth. We were, and therefore we are, and nothing you try to believe will change that. Every time something happens to make you look down, we’ll stir and stretch towards the surface, and some of us will break through.

Months pass. They do not find the killer.

The missing girl no longer has a name. She’s been spun out into a warning, a vague fear from long ago and deep below.

She’s part of us, and we’ve taken form. You pretend you can’t see it, but you know we’re there, picked out in bone, limbs out-flung across the city, from Oddman’s Hill to the reservoir, from the railway siding to the nature reserve. We’re what everyone knows, and no-one remembers. We’re the city’s yesterdays and tomorrows. We’re the reason you’ll never sleep as soundly as you should.

They bury the girl eventually.

The church isn’t as full as Emily thought it would be. Her mother refuses to go. She’s done with God, in all his guises.

When they go out, some of the local lads are shouting in the street. A punch is thrown, and a bottle, and a car-alarm goes off.

Emily’s uncles go over and shout at the lads to have some respect.

When they hear the dead girl’s name they stare, faces blank.


Emily doesn’t go back to the funeral. Now that it’s quiet, she thinks she can hear something else, faint and cold and compelling. She walks to the gate at the end of the lane and looks up at the hillside. The sound is louder now, high and thin, wrapping her about. We know what it is, but then so does she.

She’s always known, and always will. You all do. You all will.

Out on the hillside, out across the city, the bone child is singing and the light begins to fade.


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