Catherynne M. Valente

Bones Like Black Sugar

        Why did I ever go back?  Isn’t it enough that the eggs fry evenly in my iron pan, that the white edges crisp so prettily, like doilies, that the chimney huffs its smoke grandfather-satisfied, that the green trees stay in their civilized trim, that they will never again reach out for me as they did in those days, brackish arms a-bramble? Isn’t it enough to serve a brute-blond brother in my smooth apron, to bow a braided head before him as before a husband, and make sure his coffee had enough chicory, enough milk? I have a house of my own, of wood and stone, with violets eating earth in the shadow of an iron-hinged door, and not a sparkle of sugar in any cupboard, on any tongue.
        He told me it would be enough. With a brown hand he took up the axe in the woodpile, and built a house around me, up, up, up, a house with no windows, where I could crack my eggs like knuckles, and polish stairs until my fingers wore away. He forbade me to boil chocolate in a silver tin; he forbade me to stretch taffy between my fingers for the village children; he forbade me to comb honey from any hive. There was milk enough, and bread enough, and meat slung across the table, glistening with fat.

        And still I go back. To her, to the glen, to the ruins of her house casting shadows like spice on the grass.

        Over and over, the moon slashes windows into the black soil while he sleeps behind me, sleeps dead and sweat-pooled. My steps grin on the pine needles and I need no breadcrumbs, never needed breadcrumbs, north into the forest, the wood, the thicket of breath and branches that pricks my skull hours on hours, that tangles my lungs in sap and sweet. It is not that I remember where it is, but my feet have learned no other path than this, this crow-hung track slinking through the dark. They turn and point with the eagerness of a girl in pigtails, a girl in braids, a girl with ribbons streaming like oaths behind her.
         Between two midnights it appears, no warning, a waft of silver and sallow, blades bent over like broken flutes, a disc of grasslight whispering to itself. The ruins are classical, Athenian: charred banisters of twisted licorice and cherry-sticky stairs leading up to the star-bowels, crumble-barren. The butterscotch-and-toffee floor is half-eaten by mice and voles, its shards flashing cloud-quick—on its scalded surface, bubbles long hardened into checkered barrows, stood shattered furniture: praline fauteuils roasted into stumps, marzipan sideboards shot through with burst sugar-glass and icing-china, a molten headboard twisted into a shimmer of jellybean slag, linen-ashes of peppermint and raspberry seeds, still floating windwise after all this time. The smell is still thick as scarves: burnt candy, everywhere, the carbuncle-heart of sugar seething in its endless boil, vanished jam-mortar and confection-white rainspouts, crystalline panes crusted with sweet, peanut brittle rafters and gingerbread walls, all wheeling in their invisible cotillion, gobbling the air into syrup.

         And there is the oven.

        It is a good German oven, squat as a heart, whole and leering. Its cacao-grille gapes throat-open, and I want it to be full of ashes this time, I want it to be purified, scrubbed empty and clean as an oven ought to be. I know each time I breathe the air of that furnace that I will always taste of this house, I will taste of witch and grief, I will taste of the laughing fire even as I taste of wife and sister. The smell of flesh cooking will cling to my nose, the cloy of gold teeth melting will stick in my sleeves.
         I will never recover from this, I will never be well, I will never grow up.
         It ought to be scoured of meat and grease and burst irises—but she slumps out of it, stuck, now as all the other times, her candied pelvis caught on the broiling pan, fleshless arms stretched out in supplication, frozen in the grace of a ruined arch, the skeleton of an angel consumed, angles all wrong, ribs descending black as treble scales, femurs like cathedral columns dripping with honey-gold. Her eyes stare into the loam, gape-hollow. Her teeth have broken on the root of a snarling yew—they scatter on the wet grass like Easter eggs. Her skull has burst open where it struck a stone. There a jagged rupture where her fontanel must have been—when she was an infant, when she was pure, when her eyes were large and bright as peppermint wheels and she had a mother, somewhere far off and unimaginable, where women like her are made.

         Every time is the same.

         I gather her up into my arms, tenderly, bone by bone. I have to be careful—she falls apart so easily; her desiccated ligaments surrender without struggle. It would be poetic to carry her up the stairs, a dead bride, but there is no need, and the stairs lead to nothing but windburnt night. Instead, I bear her to the decrepit bed, its vanilla coverlet curled back like the pages of a spoiled book, the pillows cinnamon-cinders. The harlequin relic that was once a high-postered frame casts shadows of berry and blue, pools of emerald like gumdrops on the sheets. I lay her down like a princess, arrange her bones like runes, never forgetting to keep her head balanced in my hand, infant-gently, as I pull her sternum into place, her clavicle, her jaw, her delicate wrists crossing over my shoulders.

         And I put my face to her scorched cheek; I fold my body into hers, into the light of the candy-ruins.
         And I hold her to me, like the child I was, the chubby girl with lacy skirts peering out of her cage.
         And I breathe: her bones move with my breath. My pulse swims: hers rustles like a wood in winter.
         And under my arms there is flesh, there is a taste like cakes in a pretty window, there is a rush of hair darker than ovens. Under my lips there are lips like floss, and my eyelashes beat against warm skin, beading with caramel-sweat.
         She smiles at me, she smiles at me and the belly under my hands is turkish delight, she smiles as if I had never pushed her, as if I had come to her house alone and stood student-bright at the stove while she baked her new bookshelves, as if there was no smoke or flame. She smiles like erasure, she smiles like a confessor. She swells with candy like a mother, her green eyes opening and closing, and under my hands she is beautiful, beautiful, under my hands she is innocent, I am innocent, there is nothing which is not white, which is not a scald of purity, which does not flare with light.
         And she forgives me, she forgives me, her heavy arms draped over me like curtains, her demoniac mouth red and bloody at my ear. I hold out my breasts to her like an apology and I beg, I beg her to make me like her, make of my body a window or a cellar door, peach-sweet and clear as glass, grind my bones to sugar, braid my hair into bell-pulls of saltwater taffy and punish me, punish me, I ought to be punished, I ought to be burned, I ought to have gone into the oven with you, into the fire, into the red and the ash, and my blood ought to have boiled over your hands, and my marrow ought to have smelted into yours, and my skull ought to shatter on the stone where my fontanel must have been, and the shards of it, the shards of it ought to have mingled with yours when the leaves fell, ought to have been indistinguishable, ought to have, ought to have! Devour me now as you promised, swallow me, I am offering it, carve me into light and dark and I will be your obedient supper—don’t leave me, don’t look at him, don’t chose him, he does not love you, and he will taste of bracken and snails—take me up into your iron pot and I will boil for you, if you ask it, if you will stay with me and all the while call me sweet, call me sweet. You promised, my love, you promised to destroy me.

        Under my hands you are so young. Under my hands you laugh like blackbirds’ wings.

        And I put my hands to her in the sweetshop-graveyard of her house.
        And I hold her to me like a widow—she is wet with my weeping, my tears a melt of plums.
        And I breathe: there is no answer. My pulse pleads: there is no echo.
        And under my arms there is nothing, nothing but her bones like black sugar, and the chasm of her dead mouth yawning at the moon.

Catherynne M. Valente is the New York Times bestselling author of over a dozen works of fiction and poetry, including Palimpsest, the Orphan’s Tales series, Deathless, and the crowdfunded phenomenon The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. She is the winner of the Andre Norton Award, the Tiptree Award, the Mythopoeic Award, the Rhysling Award, and the Million Writers Award. She has been nominated for the Hugo, Locus, and Spectrum Awards, the Pushcart Prize, and was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award in 2007 and 2009. She lives on an island off the coast of Maine with her partner, two dogs, and enormous cat. "Bones Like Black Sugar" first appeared in Fantasy Magazine.