The third time I see the bones is on the day all is lost.
We sit around the big oak table, the other women and I, unsure of ourselves. We lost the war. That’s what the young soldier tells us. He looks miserable and emaciated. There is dirt under his nails and on his ragged clothes, as if he’s been digging his way out of his grave. Unfortunately, he is not from our village. He is no one’s lost son, or brother, not a lover either. He is just a messenger.
Our land does not belong to us any longer. We look at each other like scared animals ready to burrow under the earth. In the midst of it all stands the jar with the pickled bones.
I am the youngest woman in the village, or the oldest girl. I am neither. I am lost like the rest. I observe the bones. I greet them silently, like I would an old friend and, in a way, they greet me back. There are so many of them, some large, others very small. All of them are human. Our ancestor’s bones. They float in alcohol which has taken a reddish tint, like thinned blood.
Grandma Maneevah sits at the head of the table. Her skin seems like oak bark, like part of the old table, full of ridges and gullies. She smokes a pipe, and the scent makes the room smell like church. But we don’t go to church anymore. There is no priest there for us.
Only my grandma, my Nana.
She gives the young man a place to sit and a good sip of whatever spirit we still have. He takes it, thankful. His body barely keeps him upright.
“We stay,” Grandma says at last. Her voice carries around the room like the smoke.
“How can we?” the women ask her. Some of us look at the pitiful soldier. “We have no soldiers. We have no weapons.”
“These are our weapons.” She rests her hand on the jug. The bones swim inside the liquid, dancing to a long-forgotten song.
From the bottom of the well that is my childhood memories, I know that song.
The first time I saw the bones, it was summer, and I was seven years old.
My mother worked in the fields with my father and the others. The harvest had been good, but their faces were sullen and tight. War was coming, they said. They worked all day and sometimes overnight to fill the granaries with seeds.
I didn’t understand then what war meant. My only thought was to steal inside Grandma’s room when everyone was asleep and listen to her stories.
But my grandma had plans of her own. One day, before the sun reached the horizon, she woke me up.
“Raeh,” she said. “We are going on an adventure.”
I rubbed the sleep from my eyes.
“What about school?” I asked, my stomach twisted with excitement.
Grandma brought a finger to her lips, and I knew then that this was going to be our secret.
She had a pickax and a shovel in a wooden cart and some bread and cheese for us to eat later. We took the road that led out of the village and to the hills that surrounded us, heading to the old cemetery.
On the way, I whistled children’s songs and kicked stones. I was afraid of cemeteries. Sometimes when I lingered in bed, I tried to imagine how it would feel to be silent and unmoving under the earth forever. It seemed impossible to me.
As if she had sensed my fear, my grandma began singing a song of her own. It was a strange song, a war song. It talked about women warriors who rose like giants in times of need. With flaming eyes, they would chase our enemies, who would scatter like mice on the hillside. Their torsos had the length of cypresses; their legs opened craters in the ground. It was oddly uplifting for a war song, and my grandma sang in a sonorous voice, like the one she used in the church.
It was beautiful.
“Is war beautiful?” I asked. That stopped her dead in her tracks.
Her face twisted in a way I could not explain.
“No,” she said, “it is not. War is the most awful thing. That’s why the songs we make about it are beautiful. To give us hope for the future.”
I hesitated at first, but then I joined in, and the song carried us through the steep paths all the way up to a plateau. The ground was hard as rock. Nobody had ever planted anything but people in this field. The stacked stones marked where the bodies of our ancestors lay.
“This is not a cemetery, it’s a bone garden,” Nana said. “Don’t let the stones fool you. These were added later by priests and nuns who didn’t know any better.” She spat on the hard ground as if the stone were an affront to her and grabbed her pickax. “The dead don’t rest here. They are only waiting.”
She started breaking up the ground with the pickax. The song never left her lips. Every time she dug up a bone, I picked it and put it in our cart, whispering thanks to the dead as she had instructed. When the sun began to set, we had gathered our own seeds from the earth. The bones were gray and dusty, but clean of flesh.
“Raeh.” She turned to me, her forehead dripping with sweat, her breath labored. “These are the bones of those women in our song. One day they will show us the way. Never forget that.”
I nodded. I was not afraid anymore. I was relieved that these women were aboveground now, amongst us. Free.
The young soldier, between sobs, explains about the treaty and the refugees loaded onto carriages headed for the mainland. Us. Soon the enemies will come to claim what’s ours.
Quiet settles on the table, but then my mother stands up. She agrees with the man; hopelessness lines her face. It was early in the war when my father joined the army and never came back. She keeps his last belongings in his pack, unopened.
“Maneevah,” she says to Grandma. “We must leave while we still can. Protect the children.” The last part she says while looking at me.
I clench my fists and bite my tongue. It’s not my time to speak.
I wish for the strength of those women from long ago. I wish for a clear sign or simply the courage to stand up and speak.
With the army defeated, the Eastern borders are defenseless against the enemy’s soldiers.
And they will have to go through us.
In a corner of the room, next to our farming tools, is all the food we have managed to gather. If we are to leave, we must start tonight, so we can have a day’s advantage.
“But where shall we go?” I ask Mother. “We can’t run forever.”
Her eyes are full of fear when she looks at me. Maybe I remind her of Father.
“Ealeah, listen to the girl,” my grandma starts.
“They are just bones!” yells Mother.
The second time I saw the bones, the soldiers had come to our village. I was twelve. By then I had seen the terrible face of war, but there were still much more to come. Father had already been lost to the war, but a few men lingered, the ones too old or too young still. It was winter, and food was scarce. The rations were barely enough to feed all of us, but here arrived these soldiers, our soldiers, emaciated and all eyes.
They were just passing though. Their horses had died a long time ago, and the soldiers had eaten them. The officer said they would keep moving east until they reached the border. Not far away from here. They needed help, he said. Anything we could spare was valuable to them.
We gave them what we could, what we could afford and more. My mother covered the men with blankets to warm them up for the brief time they would stay here. Her eyes had sunk too deep inside her face. Hunger and worry did that to people.
I stole glances at the soldiers’ muskets. If they died, I thought, what would happen to their weapons? How far would they be by then? I thought of the warrior women and wondered what they fought with. In my head, I sang Nana’s song.
With their bare hands, they fought. And not even swords could stop their fury.
Don’t bow your head, only dig deeper, soon it will be time to reap.
“Raeh,” Mother called, and I rushed to her side.
“I think I have some alcohol out back. Can you fetch it for me?”
I put on my coat and ran into the warehouse. The food was stored on one side of the room. The tools on the other. I rummaged through the bottles, vases, and crates. I found nothing. A glassy shine caught my eye under a hastily thrown blanket, on the other side of the room. I came closer. These were not bottles. There were a half dozen jars; a dark liquid sloshed inside them. I approached and opened one. The bones were floating white. I dipped my finger inside and tried the liquid. It tasted like alcohol, herbs, and dust.
Suddenly, the door swung open. The officer, along with some soldiers, barged in. I heard my mother’s screams in the distance.
“Move away, little girl,” he croaked. “We need those things.”
The officer approached the jars, and my heart skipped a beat. I looked at his scabbard at the saber nestled inside it. I tensed. My hand was so close, I was sure I could snatch it fast. But then? Then what?
That’s when he turned around and said, “Leave those. They are only bones.”
He didn’t try to hide the disgust on his face. But at least the bones would stay.
The soldiers took everything from our warehouse that night. All the supplies they could carry with them. They took the last of the fighting men too. We never saw them again.
The weakest among us died of hunger. It was a cold and dark winter.
The young soldier has fallen silent. He has closed his eyes, exhausted, trying to shake off one nightmare with another.
The women talk in the half-light of the candles. I listen. I listen as the bones dance around the alcohol. I can taste their tanginess on my tongue; I feel their crispiness under the weight of my teeth.
Until I can’t listen anymore.
I stand up and reach for the jug. Everybody stops and looks at me, their faces waxen under the yellow light. I unscrew the lid and reach my skinny hand deep inside. The bones welcome my touch, whisper to me of old battles. I choose a small bone, because that’s how they see me. The stapes, an ear bone, so that they will listen to me. I toss it in my mouth.
“Raeh!” My mother tries to stop me. But my grandma nods in approval.
“They chose her,” Nana says. “She will guide us now.”
I stare at my mother’s eyes as I close my mouth, envelop the bone. It is hard only on the surface. It yields under the strength of my jaws and dissolves in my mouth. It tastes like dust. It connects with something buried deep inside, guiding me. I take the scythe that rests against the wall.
“We fight,” I say firmly.
The women stand up, and for a moment I fear their scorn, their disapproval. But then every woman takes a bone. To Nana I give a cranial bone. She is the head of this village. For my mother I leave a sharp rib, because she, like them, protects us.
We silently feast on our ancestors; we feast on their courage, and by morning we are changed. We are transformed into giants. We are warriors with hammers and pickaxes, with rakes and scythes. Even with just our bare hands.
We take to the woods and the plains, and when the enemies come, we are ready. We are tall and strong like cypresses, the planes echo with our cries of war. And those who we fight call us monsters and call us gods. But we are neither. We are only the children of our ancestors.
Many of us perish, but we win the fight. We chase them away.
I listen to the remaining soldiers’ cries fading in the distance. I hope they stay away, or else our sacrifice was for nothing.
My mother is among the dead.
She was cornered by a group of soldiers behind a cluster of trees before I could reach her. When she was about to fall, she screamed with all the air left in her bullet-riddled lungs and took as many with her as her towering body could reach. And then it was too late to do anything.
All around, women and children grieve for the loss of their own, and some of them even dare to hope.
I grieve for them and for myself.
My mother’s body is at my feet, but not the warrior she was moments ago. She is changed again. She is the small woman she always was. I look at my own body. I have the limbs of a girl again, barely an adult. I never felt the change back to my old self, and I start wondering if it was all a dream born out of our own desperation. Or perhaps the alcohol in that jar did something to our minds. But the broken bodies of our enemies speak for themselves.
I feel Nana’s hand on my shoulder, warm and bloodstained, but not by her own blood.
“Raeh, it is time to sow,” my grandmother’s voice shakes me, even though it’s barely a whisper. I know she is grieving, too. My mother was her last living child. Now she will be our seed for the future. A seed in our bone garden.
I bend down and grab my mother’s feet while Nana grabs the shoulders. A boy with a bruised face runs to us and offers his help. We let him help us. Someone behind me murmurs a part of the old war song.
This is the time for the sowing, there will come a time to reap.
The old warriors will rise again, with the harvest of their bones.
Where the ghosts hover now, giants will take up arms.
We bury them in the battlefield beside the woods. Away from the old place and the stones of the priests. The ground is ripe with blood and sweat, the soil upturned from the weight of our gigantic footsteps.
And then we wait. We wait for more soldiers to come, and when they don’t, we rebuild our lives and we work. Some of us leave the village, new people come. We die and we have children. All the while, the soil gets hard again. And later, new priests come to the unmarked graves and raise stones.
The first time I see the bones of my old comrades, I am as old as time. The season is turning again. There are rumors of conflicts, flames burning all around us, ready to join into a fire. Like my long-gone Nana, I have come prepared.
My grandchildren flock around me, looking, waiting. They have brought pickaxes and shovels, or just their bare hands.
“That’s not a cemetery. It’s our bone garden, ripe and ready,” I tell them.
My vision fills with the flickering spirits of giants, hovering over the fruits of our resistance. I take their little hands in mine and start a song. “Time to harvest.”
Eugenia Triantafyllou is a Greek author and artist with a flair for dark things. Her work has been nominated for the Ignyte, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards, and she is a graduate of Clarion West Writers Workshop. You can find her stories in Uncanny, Strange Horizons, Apex and other venues. She currently lives in Athens with a boy and a dog. Find her on Twitter @foxesandroses or her website https://eugeniatriantafyllou.wordpress.com