Bone to Bleeding Bone

When I was old enough to bleed, my step-sister pushed me out the window of a tall tower. Except, I was the step-sister, not her. I was the sneer-mouthed child who came under her portcullis in a vermillion carriage to sleep under new covers, in someone else’s bed. She was the dimple-faced daughter who only wanted to mourn her mother and cry under the wisteria arbors.

I pitied Nourie when I first saw her, her face blotched in red and white with silent tears still dripping down her cheeks – as if she’d forgotten how to stop crying. “No more black,” my mother said when introductions were over, instead of an easier how do you do? “Don’t wear it anymore.”

Nourie curtsied and cried harder. I leaned down to pick the purple bell vine from the well and wound it around my wrist like a bracelet.

“No more crying either,” my mother said.

The bracelet fell off when we went inside and I twisted my heel on the flower to paint the threshold lilac. I wasn’t surprised by what my mother had said, but my new sister looked back at us like we were ghouls. She looked at us no more fondly when, that night, Mother told the story of the old king who died on his throne and gave commands until his lips rotted away.

In the morning Nourie wore a white kirtle, sewn with pearls. I think she wore it so she could tell us how much she hated pearls. “They’re like tongues or hearts, stripped out of a cracked body.” She shivered when she touched them, as if they were still slimy with decaying muscle and saltwater.

Mother cut her strawberries into halves. “Cutting out a heart is more difficult than snapping an oyster. But you can eat a heart and gain something from its owner.”

Nourie made a horrible face.

I examined our new dishes, which were lightly painted with a pink rose garden, and asked what di Rosaio meant. I looked at my sister because it was, after all, her name. I’d only been given it yesterday. But she huffed and twisted in her chair until I couldn’t see her face.

“It means ‘of the rose tree,’” my mother said, pulling my hand away as I tried to uncover one of the painted roses that had been drowned in a sheen of blueberry juice.

“Is there a rose tree here?”

“There are rose trees everywhere,” Nourie broke in. “What else would you have in a garden?”

“Thistles and dandelions.” I grinned and snuck a drop of blueberry juice onto my finger and into my mouth.

“You don’t know anything.” Nourie hopped off her chair and refused to be called back.

Mother stood and kept pace behind the girl, holding her gold and white embroidered skirt off the floor. I wondered if she was going to make sure Nourie didn’t throw herself down somewhere to sob. When I cried, Mother said, “I expect more of you.” She said it again and kept saying it until I could take a deep breath and say it back.

“I expect more of myself. I expect more of myself.”

With no one to watch me, I slipped from my chair and went to find the garden.

Out a back door and past the wall, I found the Queen’s Garden. It was filled with copses of rose trees, standing like rings of mourners clad in silk. The roses hung heavy as bee-stung lips, achingly red and pale white as a stretched neck. Beneath the dead Queen’s window, the roses were the dull pink of an atrium. They were beautiful and wonderful and I wished I were as pretty.

I snapped a rose from its woody branch and put it in my mouth. Its strings caught in my teeth and it tasted bitter. I sucked the thorny stem and caught the blood with my knuckles.

When Mother found me, she told me not to stain my clothes. Nourie, sucking in breaths so deep she looked like she would faint, twisted her face. But she couldn’t glare without risking tears again.

That evening she said she wouldn’t share her roses. “Don’t you know they were my mother’s?” she shouted.

She tore the pearls from her dress and threw them at me, wrenching the rose from my mouth so it cut into my tongue. I hit her hard across the face.

I was sorry as she fell. I wanted to tell her the roses were beautiful and I needed them too. I wanted her to smile and say she understood, and would I like to share them with her? Instead I caught the blood with my cupped hands and ran to Mother, who tucked a kerchief under my chin until I stopped spitting red. All the while I huffed and gasped and didn’t cry.

***

In the hallway beneath a window, I found the pearls, gathered like rainwater in the corner. I picked one up and put it in my mouth. It tasted of lye water.

Mother found me that afternoon, spitting the opalescent rocks at Nourie in the Garden. They left dark spots on her dress, trails of spit like snail slime. I stopped when I saw Mother, begrudgingly guilty, but Nourie still fled into her arms, squirming and twitching. Mother caught her thoughtlessly. I kicked a dead rose head, the petals bursting like a paper heart around my foot. Mother smiled and told me the pearls were perfect.

When a prince in cobalt regalia and milky trim came courting, Mother made me hide a pearl under my tongue, to let slip later, as if some virtue between my lungs and liver expressed itself most keenly through productions of virginal-white stones. She smiled big as a behemoth when my greeting was punctuated by the pearl falling into the prince’s hand. I think the only reason he didn’t propose a match that instant was because Mother promised I wouldn’t marry until I bled.

Though, watching him clutch the pearl, close-lipped smiling like a little boy, I couldn’t remember why it had been important for Mother to make that promise. Especially when he decided even a pearl-mouth wasn’t worth the wait and packed his retinue like bolts of silk and lace. I watched him leave with crossed arms, hoping the road would split and swallow him up.

Mother decided after that to cast my sister as the saucier of us. Nourie began pinching her lips red and taking rubies under her tongue. Her suitors did make eyes at her when, during a particularly crystalline ballad, she let the ruby fall between her silk slippers. She was particularly apt at dropping them upon a man’s shoe, so he had to kneel before her to retrieve it. They thought it was like a kiss between them, secret and sweet and with a little teeth. But she thought it was stupid.

For a while, Nourie and I made friends over deciding that Mother was completely ridiculous. I might like being called a Rose Tree Sister, as if I had the sort of beauty that could be compared to roses and pearls. I might even sometimes enjoy how a minister or chamberlain turned up his eyebrows at me as they had never done before the pearls, but it was impossible not to be embarrassed too. Nourie didn’t need the rubies to make people look at her like that.

One night Nourie crept into my bed, tugging on my hair until I sat up and snapped, “What?”

She lay with her hair spread across my pillow, the moonlight lighting up her eyes like stars. “There’s a king coming tomorrow. He lives in a black castle and his garden is full of hemlock and nightshade. He wants to meet you.”

“Everyone who comes to San Viano wants to meet one of us.”

“You should pretend to choke on the pearl and then spit it horribly onto his jacket sleeve.” She grinned.

“He’ll be angry.”

“It’ll be funny. Please. I want to see you do it.”

So I did.

Nourie nearly rolled off her seat when I vomited the pearl and a glob of mucus into the king’s hair while he was kissing the back of my hand. I’d eaten duck that night and I imagine it smelled of stomach bile and duck oil. The king started like a rabbit drawn out of the bush by hounds and looked at me in disgust. I wanted desperately to tell him I was sorry.

I tried to tell Mother later that I had just about swallowed that nasty rock. But I’ve never been a good liar.

To make me feel better, Nourie lined her mouth in rubies and when she smiled at the next prince, she looked like a monster. “I thought if one ruby was charming, five would be simply dazzling,” she told Mother.

“Dazzling indeed,” Mother said. But Nourie was much more convincing than me. So it was me who was slapped on the wrist and fed rye bread and old applesauce for a week. Our shared crime made me giddy and I grinned fiercely when Nourie praised my part in it. But I felt like a dog in my room and I wished Nourie had asked me to do something pretty.

Nourie quickly fell in love with her ruby teeth – or, perhaps, it would be better to say she fell in love with the way that prince tumbled over himself and refused to stay in San Viano another moment. But she couldn’t quite live up to them. She made faces at dukes and earls, until they asked if she was feeling quite alright. She tried to scare servants by jumping out of corners at night, until they asked if she was still a child. I once found her howling out her window, into the apple orchards and rose garden, and I laughed so hard she slapped me. I didn’t mean to make her angry. But she sounded more like a startled grouse than a wolf.

“How do you think you’ll scare anyone?” I told her. “You’re too pretty. People aren’t afraid of pretty girls.”

She beat her fist against the stone wall until her knuckles bruised. “I’m not. I’m not too pretty.”

I knew she believed me, even as she spit out the window. She braided white roses into her hair and hung fresh buds off her wrist. She smiled impulsively and smelled of rosewater. When she cried, which happened less and less with the passing years, she always ended up in the arms of whoever was closest. Some pig-headed prince once told Nourie he wasn’t surprised she’d stopped mourning her mother so quickly – the woman had been a hideous ghoul. For his callousness, he found a princess wrapped up in his arms, sobbing against his chest and blubbering too much to call him a stinking dog. I would have, if he’d not left before Nourie would tell me what had brought her to my room with red eyes. “Don’t tell Mother,” she said as she tried to hide the blotches.

But I was a step-sister. I was born to snarl, to have too-ruddy cheeks, to know just how to make Nourie feel like she was stupid and completely unimportant. When she snuck away from lessons to spend an afternoon with Mother, I was sure to follow after and take up Mother’s time. It wasn’t Mother’s fault. She tried to be fair to both of us, but I was her flesh and blood and when I took her hands, she had no eyes for Nourie. I was sure, too, to often ask after cutting out hearts and then never look repulsed. Such things still made Nourie squirm.

Nourie cupped her hand as it turned purple and black, her back to me. “You have to teach me how to howl, then.”

I thought of saying no, so she could not have all of my things. But I wanted more to be part of her schemes, whatever they might be, and so I said yes.

***

When Nourie began to bleed, she decided to bring San Viano to its knees. She asked me to do it, because even though I’d taught her how to howl, she could never do it like me. And I did, because she wanted me to, even if I didn’t.

I cut open the tips of my fingers and smeared blood on bottle-glass windows, crystal goblets, and across Mother’s dress like a ghoul. I spoke to strangers in gibberish tongues until a stable boy insisted I show him my mouth to prove I wasn’t a tongue-less beast. I licked my lips and grinned with all my teeth. In the autumn, as the roads ran red with falling leaves, I shredded roses across the carpets. Soon Mother confined me to my room, locked away from dances and dinners and visitors.

With the years I grew, hungry and lean, boney shoulders pressed against the ceiling as I cracked my nails upon the floor.

I filled up the castle with my absence as Nourie never could. I heard them whispering through the walls. I saw them looking over their shoulder, like I was the ghost around the corner. I spit blood from my window and if it stained someone’s skin, they fled San Viano, casting charms and prayers over their shoulders. I did it because I was good at it, but the terrified looks made me cower.

When Nourie visited, I laughed at her. She’d told me to be a monster and I didn’t know how to stop. I called her sweet and honey and darling. I told her she was just a rose bud. I told her her mother had been born an apple blossom, pink and already dying. Over time, she stopped visiting. I saw no one and I chewed at the walls, waiting for them to crack.

Mother visited and shook her head. “I taught you better than this. People are scared of you. You can’t do anything if people are scared of you.”

I didn’t know what else to do. Nourie had forgotten how to cry, as I had never learned to do. She didn’t wear black and she was beautiful. She could creep up men’s spines and wrap her fingers around their throats as though it were a sign of love. No one would let me do that.

“You told me not to cry and no one would know if I meant to slit their throat or curl up in their arms.”

“Everyone knows you want to slit their throat.”

I waited for Nourie to tell me I could stop, so we might once again sit down as sisters and giggle over the virility of visiting nobles and mock Mother’s passion for blood and jewels. I waited for her to come and teach me how to be good at something else, like smiling or wearing roses in my hair. But while I waited for her, she became jealous of me.

When she understood how I had caged the castle up with my fingers as she couldn’t, she stole Mother’s key and let me out. She took me by the hand and up we went, up and up so I thought we would reach the clouds before we reached the top. I stared at her rose-bound hair and waited breathlessly for her smile. But when she looked back at me, I could see in the way her eyes grew wide that she still wanted her sister to be monstrous and gaping.

In that pinnacle of rooms, Nourie showed me a mirror. It hung heavy against the wall, cracking the stone fixing.

Her fingers wrung my wrist until it burned. I stared at her through the mirror and I thought she would reach into my throat and tear my heart from its nest of skin and bone. She stood taller than me and I shriveled like a rotted apple.

“Sister,” she said, looking at the sweaty flush across my neck. “Who between us is fairest of them all? Do you think you are more beautiful than me?”

She pulled her fingers across my cheek, hard enough to strip away the skin. Her nails chafed my jaw and the sweat of her palms was thick with rosewater. I didn’t know what she wanted to hear. I think I was supposed to hug her like a rose vine and tell her I would teach her to speak in gibberish and spit blood.

But I saw how she was trying to shame me, with that one thing she’d always had and I never would. After I had been her monster for so many years.

“I am.” My breath rasped against my lips, creaking and dry. In the mirror I saw the faint scars on my lips where I’d sucked rose stems. I saw the ends of my teeth that were stained with boar gristle and blood. All of my body snarled and keened against the mirror. “I am more beautiful than you.”

With her rose-cut ruby ring piercing my back, she pushed me from the window into the river down below.

***

I fell through a sea of rose petals and apple blossoms, a milky ocean above a river of ink. I gasped as the river buried me, running through me like a thorn. Upon rocks and river banks, among pearlwort and rushes, the river threw me. It pushed itself into my throat and ripped it full of holes. I bled until I thought I would run dry.

When the sun set, I washed up at the edge of Mother’s kingdom. The rose trees gathered around me, waiting for me to die. Petals fell across my fingers. I looked back at San Viano and shrieked. The rose trees trembled, waxy leaves gusting away on the wind. I wanted to drag myself on my belly to the citadel and show Nourie my bleeding mouth and ruined throat. I dug my hands through the petals as if I could make her break by ripping the roses along their veins. The sky ran red as blood in water and I couldn’t come to my feet.

I struggled and slipped and screamed in the mud. I raged against Nourie and blamed her for everything. If her mother hadn’t died, this wouldn’t have happened. If she hadn’t wanted me to be a monster, I could have snuck away under a prince’s cloak and learned what else you grew in a garden. I had sneered and pinched and called her names. But she never thought I was good enough.

I lurched towards a rose tree, and fell. I cracked my skull upon a rock and out fell seven beautiful pearls – white as bone. They lay among the blossoms, wet with dark blood.

There on the river bank, I would have crowned my pearl-children with apple crowns and rose lips. Then they might be princess too, beautiful, laughing children that ran through the orchards in lacey gowns and never knew what it meant to scream into an empty sky.

But my lungs were filled with mud and the rot of fish and water birds. I tasted skin and heartstrings. Onto my pearl-children I coughed mucus and clots of black blood. They smelled of bile and the butcher’s block.

I sank into the mud, among alder roots and oyster mushrooms, breathing so hard I thought I would faint.

***

“Pretty feathers, do you think you’re more beautiful than me?” I asked the birds, grey-tailed herons and ruby-eyed mallards. They flapped their wings and honked among the buzz of flies. They tossed oily water across their backs and ate the jewelweed under the water.

“You aren’t. You’re only birds. You’re muscle and feather and ugly squawks.” But as I watched a heron strike its wings against the water, sending up drops of blue water, even the heron was more beautiful than me. I turned my head and blood spilled across my eyes. Bottle flies buzzed up and then resettled on my legs.

“Come here so I can cut a hole in your chest and skewer your heart on my nails. If I eat a bird heart whole, it will make me slender and bright-eyed.” My eyes stung. “Maybe that’s what monsters do, but if I eat a dove heart, at least I will be fair and kind as well.”

My children found me first. They came at night like wolves, carrying milk snakes and musk turtles in their mouths. They scratched long nails through the apple trees and tore up the wet ground. They gathered to laugh, pointing at the scar cut deep into my skull where the hair had fallen away. “The river didn’t want your ugly skeleton. It retched you up. You’re slimy with its sick.”

I caught the river bank in my hand and my fingers bled on rocks and fish teeth. I wanted to shout something back at them that would prove them wrong. But my body ached and I had drained all my blame on Nourie.

“Covered in blood. Covered in blood.” They chattered and sang and howled at the Milk Moon. “Dead. Dead. Dead.”

“Night-ghouls,” I called them, though my heart wasn’t in it. “Rot guts. River-stained.”

They crept forward and put their fingers through the holes in my skull. They hooted at the cold and bit the blood off their palms, spitting it into the grass. “Mother.” They cracked each other’s arms as they pounded on the ground. “Monster.” I retched at the old smell of fish. “Who threw you down and picked you up? Who filled you up with holes? Princess?” They struck each other’s heads.

I shoved them away and wrapped my fingers around my temple. “At least I’m not so hideous as you. Come closer and I will crack your pearl hearts with my teeth.”

They shrieked and pulled on their lips. “Good luck, good luck. They’re buried deep. Deeper than your heart.” They pranced forward and poked at the purple skin filled with pooling blood until I snatched at them and they rolled away.

“We went to the castle today. We knocked at the door, but they wouldn’t let us in. They looked at us and gagged, covering their eyes and plugging their noses. They poured hot oil onto our heads and we squealed.” They parted the burned hair at their scalp and the skin under it was red and bleeding, falling away under their fingers. “‘Nourie, Nourie,’ we called. ‘Come out and put rubies in our mouths. We will spit pearls into yours and show you how to be a monster.’ Have you heard, mother dear? Do you know? She’s to be married. She’ll ride away on a rose-colored mare and teach her husband the secret of her rubies. She’ll be a queen then and queens and monsters alike eat hearts.”

I grew silent.

“She whispered down, as if she thought we wouldn’t hear, ‘Where is my sister? Can I still find her and speak to her? Tell me what happened.’ ‘You did!’ we told her. We threw oyster shells at her and they shattered against her walls.”

“Fine.” I didn’t want to hear about Nourie. I’d already screamed and pounded my fists against the ground and spit all my anger across her petals. If my children wanted to be monsters, they could do it away from my hearing. I didn’t need to hear any more of the world or what it thought of me. I only wanted to be a rose tree, with roses red as a blush and leaves as prettily bound as Nourie’s hair.

They screeched up at the sky and fled, leaving me among the muck and swollen water. I stared after them and their stretched, black eyes. I was glad for the silence. But I thought too, if I had teeth the length of theirs, I would have run them along Nourie’s walls too.

***

My sister found me second. I lay between arrow-petaled laurels and papery dying reeds, swollen milky white and sticky with the liquid that had spilled from my ears and mouth. She strode through the olive ferns and dying rose trees and stood over me as beautifully as a Queen. She looked at me as though she had never known me. I tried to show her the same contempt, but I smelled the rosewater and wine cellars, the sun-dusty halls and smoky fire and I remembered how we had once been princesses, so grand that we filled up the hallways with our reaching arms and greedy mouth. I wanted to touch her, but my body had gone stiff in the night.

In her finely polished fingers she held an apple, as red as a rose. “There are monsters in the Garden,” she said. “They shriek up at the stone walls and send themselves into a frenzy, tearing up rose bushes and apple trees. Yesterday, they ate a herd of sheep and beheaded a great-horned goat.” She knotted her skirts prettily at her knee and crouched beside me. The earth, damp with my blood, seeped into her shoes.

“They came calling for me.” Her lip quivered and she blinked several times, tilting her chin up at the sky. “Is it stupid, I thought it was that king—my husband? My husband now. He has a loud voice; he can bellow through the whole castle. I thought he’d come to visit. I ran to the window, past the guards. And then I heard the cackling and screaming. They were laid out in the oil, screeching as they melted.” She put out a hand like she meant to cup my cheek and then pulled back, putting her thumb to the corner of her mouth. “Do you know I’m a Queen now?”

“I’ve heard queens are monsters,” I said.

“I’ve heard step-sisters are too.” She touched my smallest finger bone, bleached white as a pearl.

“If you wait long enough my children will come back and eat you whole.”

She looked over her shoulder and it may have been worry or envy. “My husband is fond of the rubies. Every now and again I must surprise him with a ruby clattering on the floor like a bone. I stare at them and wonder why I ever found them silly. He and Mother insisted on it at the marriage. I was going to kiss him and drop it into his mouth. It would have been cute. Maybe even beautiful. But I cut my tongue on the stupid thing during the vows. I could feel the blood welling up in my mouth, and I kissed him anyway. By the end of it there was blood on both of our faces. I wish you’d been there to laugh at it. But it was just horrible.” She picked up the end of my finger where the ligaments had just begun to rot away and snapped free the bone.

“He doesn’t have roses around his palace. It’s cloaked in nightshade and hemlock and it’s so dark. Do you remember him? He came for you before. You would have known what to do with him and his Garden. You would tear the flowers with your teeth and strip them with your nails until they were too afraid to hurt you. But I think it’s going to eat me. Or kill me.” She tightened her hands desperately together, clutching my finger bone to her breast. “Mother said you gain something from a person, if you eat their heart.” Her mouth pulled taunt and she nodded sharply.

She took a knife from her sleeve and cut open my chest, from neck to hip. I squealed like a pig on a butcher’s block, a ghoul under a knight’s dagger. Meticulously she peeled away the skin and laid it out across the water and mud.

Out of the cavity of my body, she tore my heart. I bled for her. I bled red and ochre and mauve until her hands were slick and hot. All the veins and muscles between my ribs spilled across her knees. My stomach broke open and the whole of me cracked in two.

“What would you do with a heart anyway?” she said as it leaked blood across her sleeves. “You never used it.” She squeezed her eyes shut. “But I have another for you.” Into the debris of broken ribs at the center of my chest, she nestled the apple and covered it over with sinew and black, fatty muscle.

And then she left me there, fleeing with the smells of San Viano. I screamed after her and river water fell in streams from my eyes.

***

My children returned that night, snuffling like pigs in search of truffles. I could feel the apple already rotting inside me, the flesh falling into pieces under the slow trickle of my blood.

“You must be dead,” they said. “There are too many pieces for you to be alive.”

They muttered between each other and shuffled towards me. They pawed at my flesh, picking up pieces of skin and bone. “You’ve no heart at all. An apple tossed between your ribs to root you to the earth and fill you with poison.”

“At least it is of a shape and color with a heart. Your hearts might be pretty, but they’re stained in rot and bile.” My gut ached and I felt as sore as the first night I lay on the river bank.

“How much is your heart worth? We’ve seen the market walls and the shepherds entering the cities. We’ve smelled the muck of chopped hooves hung to dry and the autumn harvest spilled on the ground in seeds and apple juices. Is a heart worth as much as a pearl?”

“Your pearls are black and ugly. Anything would be worth more than them. I hope when Nourie eats my heart, her face falls off her bones. I hope it bloats her with such bright red blood that her womb splits open and she bleeds out down her thighs. She can’t fill up the castle; only monsters make castles clamor with noise – the noise of swords and spears and questing.” Hot tears ran down my sagging flesh.

“Can you fill a castle?” It was the first time I heard them lower their voices. They spoke with wonder, almost longing. They gathered around me, bruised hands folded across their filthy laps. “Can you break the rose trees and scatter the petals? Will you burst the apples and rot the blossoms?”

I looked at my children, their skin putrid and crawling with maggots. They grinned wide at me with broken teeth and red gums. “Yes. I can.” And I wanted to. I wanted to destroy the Garden and rake claws across the rose trees until they withered and died. I had no care any more about the ways of the world.

***

Three poisoned seeds lay beneath my rotted muscle. They took to the dirt of me and by spring a sapling had grown up from my chest. By the end of summer, it stood tall as I once had, sick buds drooping from the branches.

The maggots left my rotted flesh and I became mushroom-grown and bark-swollen. Alder roots grew through my knuckles and orange-capped swamp beacons swelled on my cheek. The cellophane mushrooms gathered in my brittle hair and led like a deadly path away into the glassy water.

I watched the leaves and sunk into the ground. The apple tree’s roots grew through my ribs and bound me bone to bone like capillaries. My roots stretched out through the Garden and gripped the trees. Around me the yellow and red roses drooped, the petals curling grey as ash. The air smelled of apples, sweet and tart.

I burst the apples and rotted the leaves. I sucked in the air and replaced it with my breath. I raked through the Garden until I had bound all of it with my roots and filled it with the sound of my apple tree shaking in the wind. But though I hissed bitter regrets and wished a thousand curses on Nourie, I couldn’t break the rose trees. The buds grew sick and dark, but they wouldn’t die.

***

The prince found me third.

When the apples grew sweet, he came on a bristled boar with battle carved into its tusks. How prettily those scrimshaws of silent soldiers hung above me, scale-armored men casting themselves into death for another man’s pleasure. They stood like pillars among my damp and heady breath, those two graceful knaves. They glistened with condensation and sweated me out. How loftily the boar held its head, so it might not look at anything beneath its opalescent tusks.

He came looking for monsters, with his sword drawn and the hilt well-worn with his hand. He heaved and hawed at the wet bank, cutting down dead trees and blackeyed-susans. The Garden had been abandoned for years and the roses left were a deep and terrible red. My children ran freely through it and left the mark of their claws upon the ground and the dying bark.

“Traveler,” I called, so that he started and hewed an apple tree in half, “what news of the Queen of Nightshade and Hemlock?”

He looked about him, gripping the sword as he sweated. His boar snuffled through the grass until it found my corpse, buried under leaves and the rot of apples. The prince didn’t lower his sword when his beast cleared the muck from what remained of my face and severed chest, split skin grown about the apple trunk.

“It’s said she ate her mother whole,” he said. “The King found her cackling in her room, smeared from lip to knee in blood. When she saw him, she only smiled wider and said she’d learned a few poisons of her own. She planted a new garden of bloodroot and foxglove under the Harvest Moon. There’s rumors now about her sister, who was said to have died many years ago from tripping into the river.”

My bones rattled and ground against each other, but I smiled too. “Do they call her monster yet?”

“It’s certainly you who are the monster.”

“And you are certainly a prince. What have you to do but kill monsters and kiss princesses? I think you cannot kill me, so I must be a princess and you must kiss me. Come, sir knight of the battle-carved boar. Kiss my lips and see if I awaken. Take me home and lay me in your bed. I’m no virgin and my children may eat you whole, but I am white as snow, black as a crow’s wing, and red as blood. There’s enough blood in me left that I might spit the rest of me upon you and perhaps your eyes will burn and your tongue fall out. And if you run, I will spit after your heels for severing my trees and tie a witch’s curse about your ankles.”

“If you are a princess, you can be no monster with curses on her tongue.” He looked at me as if I might really be an apple-princess, hidden under some easily broken spell.

I grinned in return. “Has no princess ever screamed and sobbed from her heart and been called whore and witch? Has she never wandered in a garden and called so the trees shook and the servants trembled? Has none ever showed you her tongue to prove she can speak more than the garbled language of ghouls? I am the wailing beast and the mother of monsters and I grow my own poison.” I rasped and swelled, so my belly-tree shook and the apples fell down upon the prince and his boar.

When he picked up his sword, my children came crashing through the mint and yarrow. They chattered after him and perhaps they tore him down into the water and drowned him while he bled red as me.

“Monster,” they said when they returned. “Monster.” They said it giddily, clapping their hands and stumbling into each other. “Monster, monster.”

The apples shriveled with winter, grey and streaked in yellow and black. Seeds fell into my mouth and I cracked them between my teeth, gushing poison. The apple stems broke and apples landed in my skeletal fingers, between my thighs, and into my apple-rot cavity.

***

I saw once a pale and ghostly remnant walking on the shore. It came at twilight, along the lavender reflection of the water, trailing a midnight skin of toxin.

Nourie was old by then, with wispy hair and wrinkled hands.

She came slowly, looking under every apple tree and kneeling on arthritic knees to search among the grass and dandelions. At my tree, she dug blind, for the moon was behind the clouds, until the dirt was swept from my skeleton, heady with the scent of apples and fish.

“The monsters have gone quiet,” she said, her voice dry and rich, her fingers searching the shape of my skull. “They’ve left the sheep, and the goats wander in the fields again. But they say Mother – or whoever it is — lives here now. She’s dead now, isn’t she? I’ve seen little of the world the last decade. Does anyone live here beside you? Well, they say her orchard’s gone to rot. They say the apples are too poisonous to eat.” She grinned up at my apples. “They said I ate her, and you too. They would say such things about us, wouldn’t they? As if they never thought about eating their sister’s hearts.” She opened her hands and set down the finger bone she’d taken so long ago. It gleamed white beside me, well-polished and neatly kept. “I didn’t cry or wear black. Mother told me not to. It was much better to smile at them until they tore at their own eyes.”

She put her forehead to my skull and her finger in my eye socket. “When I heard how the Garden was dying, I called into the night and hoped you would hear me. Did you? I never could howl like you. And now I’m too old to cast poison petals across bedsheets. I can’t even kill a man with a kiss anymore.” Her voice went low. “Can I lie beside you? Can I tie my veins to your ribs and grow roots into the rose trees?” She looked up at the roses, still refusing to die, and held me tight. “We should have done it when we were alive. But I can do it now. Your heart blood is still in my belly and if it bursts, it will run over your bones.”

She clutched my ribs, apple rot encasing her hand. “Let me turn the roses black as ink until they bleed with my blood.”

I couldn’t answer. I had no lips. My toe bones clattered and I remembered how I had fallen, how the river had torn through me. I remember how no one punished her and she thought still to come back for my heart. She was the reason I destroyed the trees and learned how to cry.

I wanted to tell her that while she smiled at princes, I disobeyed Mother and cried as hard as Nourie once had. My body rotted and I screamed until I learned how to murder the trees and brew poison. But there’d been no one to speak to. I’d wanted to lay my head into the crook of someone’s chin and collar. But there wasn’t even an arrogant prince to fall into. My children only touched to tear and break.

I felt the Garden that I had stretched my fingers and knees into, the pulsing rose trees and sour apples, the crabapple tree where the fruit fell and rotted into grass-grown skulls. I ached to know how it would feel to wind myself with another body and burst together through the rose petals.

She lay down beside me and pushed her hands deeper into my ribs. The glut of apple skins stained her sleeves and we lay beneath the Milk Moon.

In the morning, apple blossoms fell into her hair and mouth. She shivered and the wind hummed against her teeth. My roots cradled her as she died, though I wrenched them away when they would have grown into her eyes and around her toes. When the autumn leaves were come and gone, the apples fell between her elbows and knees, caught in the crevices of her body.

The resistance in me broke with her skin. As the ice froze the dead leaves, I ran with blood again. My long-devoured heart-blood spilled from her stomach and stained my ribs. It poured past my teeth and I bound my roots through my sister’s breast, her veins kissing my bones. When the trees bloomed again with summer, the trees wilted and the roses bled above us.