The bird bones arrived on Grandma’s porch every day at dusk with no warning. There were all kinds of skeletons, each distinct: finches, crows, goldfinches, tiny barn owls, starlings, and once, a blue heron that had covered nearly the entire stoop.
Muriel sat on her grandmother’s front porch each summer night, trying to spot when it happened. She never managed to see. She’d blink, or take a breath at the wrong time, or twitch her chin to flick hair at humming insects. And in that moment, the bones would appear on the cedar boards pocked with peeling white paint.
She tried every trick she knew. She propped her eyelids open with finger and thumb, held her breath, sat as still as a girl could in the heat of July and the buzz of mosquitoes hungry for a snack. Her eyes would tear-blur or a gnat would crash into her eyelashes or the porch would creak and startle her. And then the bones were there.
“But who brings them?” Muriel asked her grandma, frustrated.
“They bring themselves,” Grandma said with shrug. She’d scoop up the maze of tiny, brittle pieces that had once been alive, carry the bones inside, and Muriel didn’t see them again.
She had no more success finding out what Grandma did with the bones, either. It was like a dream: she would follow Grandma into the pine log cabin, across the faded welcome mat, through the hallway, and then…Muriel would find herself in the kitchen with a mug of hot cocoa, or up in her loft room with a glass of cold cider, or, sometimes, in the back yard on the tire swing with a juice box forgotten in one hand.
Muriel decided to be bad.
Grandma told her never to touch the bones. But everything else she tried failed. So Muriel waited, and when the bones appeared, she touched them.
The bones belonged to a chickadee, and there was a black feather tucked against the crown of its skull like a memento.
“You’re a patient one, ain’t you,” said the chickadee skull. Its polished beak clacked and its bones shivered in the muggy air.
Muriel gasped. Was this why Grandma told her not to touch? That was unfair! She could have made friends with all the bones if she’d known.
It was late August, and when September came, she would have to go back to the city. Back to her parents who argued and stinky buses clouding the sky and the downstairs apartment neighbors who broke glass and screamed all night. No bird bones ever showed up outside her window even once she learned how to remove the screen. She saw only pigeons vying for space on light posts, or sometimes seagulls before a storm.
“Hi,” Muriel said to the chickadee. “My name is Muriel.” It seemed polite to introduce herself first. “Who are you?”
The chickadee rustled, the scrape of bone against wood soft like dry maple leaves. “If I had a name, it’s been sucked like marrow from my memory. How about you call me Chip?”
Muriel nodded. She glanced over her shoulder, worried Grandma would come and scoop up Chip’s bones and she’d never get to talk to the chickadee again. She didn’t mind not having other people her age around to play with. She didn’t really like the way other kids did gestures and words and glances. It made her tired, and she just wanted to wander back into the woods behind the school yard until she reached a road and stop signs and loud trucks.
“Why are you just bones, Chip?”
The bird laughed—a whistling sound that wasn’t so high-pitched that it hurt her ears. “I died,” Chip said. “I think I was on an important quest. Delivering a message to the Queen.”
Muriel leaned forward, elbows jutting out as she clasped her knees and rocked back and forth on the step. “The Queen of where?”
“I wish I could remember,” Chip said. The skull sighed, sounding very sad. “But death takes odd things from us.”
“I’m sorry,” Muriel said.
She felt bad for Chip. Was being dead scary? Adults seemed to believe this. Her mom didn’t want her watching TV because there was too much violence. Not seeing bad things didn’t make them disappear, though. She’d seen animals die.
Once she’d spotted a falcon divebomb another bird, scoop it up in sun-sharp talons, and fly away. She wished she could be a falcon. Soaring over the skyscrapers, eating pigeons who were too slow, never having to go to school where she got laughed at because she couldn’t read at her grade level. Words danced like shivering bones, rearranging into the shapes that skittered about to evade her fingers and brain.
Here at Grandma’s, her grandmother read to her when she asked, and never sighed in exasperation if she couldn’t read the back of a cereal box at breakfast. Grandma’s cabin was a special place. Muriel was sure that was why the bones came here, and not other houses.
“Was the message all words?” Muriel asked.
“It was a song,” Chip said. “Five bars with three grace notes in the final coda.”
“Just music?” Muriel loved music. She especially loved her soft headphones Grandma had given her, the ones that wrapped around her entire ears, and not the prickly buds that hurt.
“Well,” Chip said, “you’ve heard birdsong before, right? Human words get so…tangled up and spiky. Used against or for, to harm or to take. Sometimes to heal. But human words are not nearly as eloquent as birdsong.”
“I wish I was a bird,” Muriel said, sighing. Then she heard the creak of the floorboards behind her and knew Grandma was coming to scoop up Chip.
She flapped her hands, frustrated. She had been told never to touch the bones. They were brittle and delicate, and Grandma said they lingered of the Old Spaces, which were not meant for small girl-palms to hold.
“Where do you go now?” Muriel asked, afraid that Chip would stop talking to her as soon as the chickadee saw Grandma. “Can I come?”
“Hmmm,” Chip said. “Do you think you can remember a song?”
“That would be helpful,” Chip said. “Maybe you could take the song to someone who can fly it back to the Queen.”
“I’ll try,” Muriel said, eager to do bird-things like remember music.
“Take my feather,” Chip said, and Muriel plucked it from Chip’s skull.
It was soft and felt nice on her fingers. She rubbed it across her hands.
“Listen…” Chip said.
But then the screen door hinges squawked too loud, and Muriel spun around. She looked up at Grandma, hiding her hands behind her back.
With the feather in hand, Muriel saw a different Grandma. This Grandma wore a dark gown spun with peacock feathers and hawk feathers and swan feathers. Giant black wings hung down her back. A hood pulled over her hair was shaped like a bird skull of indeterminate species. Her hands, too, had changed: now the fingers were long and curved like talons, heavy and pale ivory. This Grandma’s eyes were round and gold like an owl’s. Bird-Grandma blinked at her, slow and serene, and in her arms, the ghostly outline of Chip’s body rested at the crook of her elbow.
Muriel gasped. She let go of Chip’s feather as she clapped her hands over her mouth.
Bird-Grandma disappeared, and there was only Muriel’s grandma again: human and old and smelling of lavender and garlic. Grandma held Chip’s bones in her hand.
“Did you touch the bones?” Grandma asked, but not in an angry-voice.
Muriel quickly scooped up the feather to show Grandma the truth, and then the bird-woman was there again. Muriel realized this was her grandmother. The way the birds saw her.
“Why do you have wings?” Muriel asked.
Grandma’s owl-eyes blinked again. “I’m a Reaper of Air,” she said. Her voice sounded the same. Warm and kind like fresh-baked brownies. “Kin come here when they pass, and I carry them to the Forever Skies.”
Muriel liked Bird-Grandma. She wasn’t scary now that Muriel knew she was a grandma to both girls and birds.
“Chip was delivering a message to the Queen, and I’m going to help,” Muriel said. “What’s the song, Grandma?”
Bird-Grandma’s wings rustled like bedsheets hung to dry in the summer breeze. “Listen.”
Muriel held Chip’s feather up to her ear. A melody filled her head: a song that had no words. Muriel gasped. It was the prettiest music she’d ever heard, better than the piano sonatas mixed with loon song she had on CD.
The song stopped and Muriel knew it was missing the last few notes. She shook the feather, but no more music fell out. “Oh no,” Muriel whispered. How was she supposed to give the Queen the message if she didn’t know all the music? “Grandma, the song isn’t fixed!”
Bird-Grandma’s eyelids half-closed, just like Grandma’s did when she was sleepy but pretending not to be asleep. “Death takes odd things from us. But they can be found again if you wish.”
Muriel wiped her face and put Chip’s feather in her pocket. She needed to find the rest of the song to take to the Queen. This is what Chip wanted, and Chip was her friend. Muriel helped her friends. She didn’t have many. They were all important.
“Where did the death take Chip’s song?”
Bird-Grandma sighed, a great flutter of feathers. “Come with me, child. You touched the bones when I told you not to do so, but that is past. I will help you.”
Muriel followed Bird-Grandma down the basement stairs into a great big room filled with windows. So many windows, Muriel couldn’t count them all. She didn’t know they were in Grandma’s basement. The windows didn’t have glass and they came in all shapes and sizes—some so small even a hummingbird would get stuck. And there was one, near the ground, that was girl-sized.
Muriel crouched and peered through the window. There was a forest outside, with multi-colored trees like crayons that had lots of arms. It made her eyes itch. She didn’t like the feel of crayon paper or wax.
“You touched the dead,” Bird-Grandma said. “Your aura pulled away the last of the music.”
Muriel wrinkled her nose. “I didn’t mean to!”
“I know, my child.” Bird-Grandma laid Chip’s bones down on a towel spread on the ground by the small window. “You are a powerful force. It is why I asked you not to touch the bones. You pull things into your orbit, a moon influencing tides.”
Muriel looked at the crayon forest and shivered. “Did I put Chip’s song in there?”
“Yes,” Bird-Grandma said. “These windows are portals to different fears. At times, the dead slip loose and must be retrieved. I carry our kin to the Forever Skies so the dead need not pass through these other lands.” She pointed up, up, up.
Muriel peered at the ceiling. There was a vault of black sky and peeking between the fluffy clouds streamed beams of sun and stars and moon: brilliant night lights so the bird bones wouldn’t get scared of the dark.
“Are you bringing Chip up there?” Muriel asked.
“Yes. But if you wish to find the song, child, you must hurry. Music fades quickly if not remembered.”
Muriel nodded fiercely. She was going to help Chip and bring the lost song to the Queen once she found the missing notes. Then Chip would be happy.
Bird-Grandma bent down and placed a long, smooth feather in Muriel’s hand. “This will bring you back to me as soon as you let it go,” she said.
Gripping the feather tight, Muriel crouched and shuffled into the window in search of Chip’s song.
Inside the crayon-forest, everything was loud and crunchy. Muriel gasped. Scratchy sounds flew around her head like bugs. The trees swayed and whooshed, paper leaves bumping together in awful crinkling waves.
“Go away!” Muriel yelled at the noise.
Instead, the swoopy, itchy sounds popped and cracked and squealed like fireworks. Echoes bounced against her hair in big purple sparkles and stung her cheeks. She swatted at the air. The bad-sounds shrieked orange and whistled pink, swirling faster around her face. Muriel started crying. It hurt! There was so much interference she couldn’t think clearly. She clapped her hands over her ears and almost lost hold of Grandma’s feather. How could she find Chip’s song in this place?
The ground was full of sevens, sharp and pokey, and bitey threes that tried to eat her toes. She kicked the numbers away. The sevens made garlic farts when they melted. Her nose felt like Rudolph’s, shiny and round and made of mean bully-laughs.
She huddled down and banged her forehead against the softer sixes that puffed up like little flowers. These were minty and didn’t sting her nose. She should have brought her headphones. But then she might not hear the song through the squishy foam and soothing soft-static.
The feather whispered in her ear, Let go and come home.
“I can’t,” Muriel told the feather. Her palms were sticky, like when candy canes melted. She rubbed her free hand on her jeans. The fabric crinkled plasticky and so yellow it scraped her brain. She gripped the feather’s stem harder. “Chip needs the music.”
Before Grandma had given her the nice headphones, one of her favorite teachers, Ms. Eugene, let her wear a soft microplush headband when the sounds in class got too big and made her hit herself.
“The fabric will sing you a song just for you,” Ms. Eugene had said, and she guided Muriel’s hands gently so her palms pressed against the softness over her ears. “Can you hear it?”
The music was really coming from Ms. Eugene’s throat, but it felt nice on Muriel’s skin and she slowly calmed down. Ms. Eugene let her keep the headband, even though it was winter and she already had a hat. She wore the microplush under her beanie, humming Ms. Eugene’s song to herself on the bus. The headband memorized the music and played it back for her right in her ears, and the rumble of the bus and the outside-voices of the other kids weren’t so bad.
Muriel remembered Ms. Eugene’s headband’s music. She hummed it to herself until her throat felt too big for her skin, like it would pop out. The esophagus, she’d learned in school, was long and round and tube-like, so of course it would roll away if it escaped. She kept her lips together.
Slowly, the forest-sounds grew dimmer. Muriel peeked, still humming. The trees shuffled together, shiny with wax and dry paper, but the swooping sounds were further away. She got to her feet.
Suddenly, the ground went sideways—all the trees were on the ceiling, waving at her with confetti-leaves, and the sevens and threes danced like wiggly string cheese in front of her eyes.
Her stomach did a flip-flop, like when she spun in circles so fast she threw up. The sky was filled with white radio noise. It was raining polka dots that didn’t have any water.
Stop it stop it STOP IT! Muriel yelled at the world, silently, because she needed her lips to hum the song. You’re being mean!
Grandma said she pulled things into her orbit. If she could attract bad sounds, why couldn’t she be a magnet for good things, like music? She shut her eyes so the crayon-trees didn’t scratch her, so the numbers would stop being green, so the sky would fold back and stop being under her feet, and began humming Chip’s song. Over and over, stopping just before the missing notes made it crash into silence.
Nothing but the crunch-whiiish of paper. The screeches kept popping against her hands and arms, sparkly fingers that made her want to scream DON’T TOUCH.
Had the ground gone back to normal? Her hair still waved around like she was sideways, but her stomach didn’t hurt anymore.
Again, Muriel hummed Chip’s song, feeling the vibrations in her throat and up into her chin. She imagined herself to be a Muriel-shaped bird, covered in the softest of soft feathers, lighter than air. She would zoom around the sky and sing with the other birds and they would be her friends.
She opened her mouth and tried to sing Chip’s birdsong the way she’d heard it from Chip’s feather. The lost notes would want to come back to their song, where they belonged. Her voice was squawky and full of missteps. She wasn’t good at singing. Not like Ms. Eugene and Chip and all the birds.
Let go and come home, Grandma’s feather whispered.
“No,” Muriel said, and took a deep breath. She sat down so her knees didn’t wobble. The ground was a weird squishy sponge now, without numbers, but it was where it belonged. She thought of Chip’s bones and the sadness of missing the notes of the song. The Queen needed to hear the music.
She rocked back and forth and tried again. Her hair stopped floating.
For her friend Chip and for Grandma and for all the birds.
This time, her voice sounded more like birdsong and closer to the melody Chip sung for her.
A quiet trill made her jump. The lost notes!
Slowly, Muriel peeked her eyelids open and looked around. There, several big steps away in a waxy bush made from ugly taupe crayon-paper, trembled the music from Chip’s song. Giant twos and zeros loomed like cartoon skyscrapers over the bush.
A huge crash-boom of pea soup thunder swirled above the little notes. Muriel gasped. The enormous sound would smash the music and break it into shrill bits. She couldn’t let the lost notes get hurt.
Muriel leapt to her feet and raced like a peregrine falcon towards the bush. Air whipped against her face and she clutched her feather until her sticky hand ached. “Hold on!”
The crash-boom swooped down, thick as moldy oatmeal, but Muriel was fast—peregrine falcons could dive faster than racecars, and raptors weren’t painfully loud. She scooped the notes up in her free hand, humming the melody like her own birdsong, and jumped away.
The sound smacked into the ground, flattening the crayon-paper bush and throwing Muriel on her back from impact. She went rolling. Muriel screamed. Her ears pounded like drums and it hurt hurt HURT
All around her, the world wobbled like Jell-O stars and it was going to squish her and she’d be stuck like a gummy bear and she didn’t want to stay here, she wanted to go home and—
She clutched the lost notes against her shirt. They shivered, almost slipping through her fingers. “Hold on,” Muriel whispered, and before the huge sound could pounce on her, she let go of the feather.
Muriel sat on the floor of Grandma’s cabin, her ears still hurting from the loudness. But here by all the windows, it was quiet. Bird-Grandma draped her favorite blanket over her shoulders, and she curled up in the snuggly fabric. And there were her headphones! She put them on, but left her right ear open just a little.
The music notes wiggled in her hand. “Are you okay?” Muriel asked them, slowly uncurling her fingers.
The music trilled again, and suddenly they vanished. She sat up, grinning. “Grandma! I know Chip’s music!”
Bird-Grandma nodded solemnly. She still held the chickadee bones in her great palm.
“Sing for them,” Bird-Grandma said. “Let them take the music to the Queen of Air where they will be welcomed.”
Muriel clutched her blanket around herself and put her mouth close to Bird-Grandma’s hand. Then sang the whole song. Chip’s bones rustled.
“Thanks, friend,” Chip said.
“You’re welcome,” Muriel replied.
Bird-Grandma lifted her arm and her hand stretched like a huge wing unfolding, carrying Chip up into the vaulted sky.
Grandma and Muriel sat on the front step, drinking hot cocoa with extra marshmallows, and watched the sky twinkle with summer stars. They were nice and quiet stars, and the trees around Grandma’s house were good trees, with non-yelling leaves and plain bark. Muriel sighed, happy to be home.
“Can I help you collect songs if they get lost again?” Muriel had her headphones on, but she could always hear her grandmother’s soft, soothing voice. She was still bouncy from her adventure and happy Chip was safe, and the song for the Queen of Air was whole.
Grandma smiled. “Yes. I will teach you how to care for the bones so your touch does not pull them away.”
Muriel beamed. She swallowed the sweetness of melty chocolate and marshmallows, then leaned her head on Grandma’s shoulder. She would have to go back when the summer was over, but she would know lots of new birdsongs and would always have her friends.
© 2020 by Merc Fenn Wolfmoor
Merc Fenn Wolfmoor is a queer non-binary writer who lives in Minnesota. Merc is a Nebula Awards finalist, and their stories have appeared in Lightspeed, Fireside, Apex, Uncanny, Nightmare, and several Year’s Best anthologies. You can find Merc on Twitter @Merc_Wolfmoor or their website: http://mercfennwolfmoor.com. Their debut short story collection, SO YOU WANT TO BE A ROBOT, was published by Lethe Press.