The Bone Reader

I sit in the dust. Hot sun beats my shoulders. Sounds bubble around me, a rushing torrent; traders call, animals speak their own rough music, babel reborn.

To my left my father’s shop. He trades in medicinals; oils and ointments. Herbs dry bunched above the open window, the strong, wood shutters set aside for the day. In the cool of the awning a merchant’s wife enquires for a remedy.

My brother is apprenticed here. In the afternoons he labours in the workshop; steaming, chopping, bottling. He learns the ingredients, their names and effects, how combined they may bring calm or calamity. Father makes him touch the baneful herbs to his lip, the soft skin scorching briefly to death’s kiss. In the mornings he walks to the tower in the town square. He learns there from the mage, studying stars and first-stage sorcery, understanding elemental powers and the scribes’ secrets.

I begged to go too. I am older after all. First-born. Until I bled father would allow me into the workshop, I dealt with the basic herbs, grinding them up to fragrant powder, finer than sand. Once my blood came it was different. A day of shame and celebration. Sent into the women’s rooms behind the courtyard, I learned to fix the linen and master domestic arts; the proper way to serve tea and smile at a husband.

I stifle there. My skin itches with sitting still, my heart strangling with required order. Head aches, ears pounding; I have fainted more than once. Mother fears I am ailing, some malady without a name, moon madness.

Released into the air, which they whisper is good for my delicate disposition, I am at once well. I take with me a bag, velvet and tied with silken cord.

Here I am then, in the dust. My head covered in black to hide me from the sun’s gaze, girl in the street, invisible. I tip the bag’s treasure before me and begin. This one like a butterfly with outstretched wings, this one like the trunk of a tree, this one delicate and nobbled at each end. I watch where they fall, noticing how they lie within the sphere of my gaze, where they touch. Images swim before me, shifting and remaking themselves as my eyes adjust.

I have gathered these tools from kitchen scraps, from the city’s ditches and gutters, when fresh I leave them on the roof for the crows to pick clean. Scoured by wind, bleached in the sun, marble smooth I let my fingers know them, learning each one, a trusted friend.

Already a figure approaches, he is a trader, feet bare and dirty, he offers a copper coin, small, a fortune for him. I shake my head and suggest one of the fruit he carries from the yoke on this shoulders. The deal struck he squats in the dirt. I scoop up the bones, release them, an ossiary offering. Here is a house, a cloud, a bird. Go home, I say. You are needed, be swift.

He is up and gone, nodding thanks, dissappearing into the crowd.

In years to come I will remember these early days, the way I studied and waited, watched and listened. Hiding in plain sight, gathering from the household scraps, my schoolroom the kitchen, my teachers the servants and their stories.

I will remember the day I took my store of tiny coins from behind a brick in my bedroom wall, wrapped them in a silken bride’s veil and crept out across the rooftops to find my own place, far away. I will remember the tiny refuge I found, tucked against the wall of a foreign city, where others would come to seek counsel.

I will remember that not all that is known can come from books and the teachings of wise men.

That there is wisdom in the bones; older than time, felt in the body, known in the blood.

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