Today sees the publication of my story "Singing like a Hundred Dug-up Bones"
in Beneath Ceaseless Skies
. It is also available in audio format
, read by Folly Blaine, for those of you who enjoy such things. It's about ghosts, singing and archaeology on a remote island.
The island is inspired by the Orkneys. Here is the heather (although here it is in flower, in early autumn, not frost-got and flowerless in the early spring of the story):
It is said of the Orkneys that you have only to take a trowel to the soil and you'll find archaeology. The people living there thousands of years ago - up to five thousand years ago - have left plenty behind. When I visited last year, I went from site to site (with a lot of walking in-between, over 10 miles a day on some islands): from the iconic Maes Howe
and Skara Brae
to the possibly-unique Dwarfie Stane
to a chambered tomb in the car park of a café, still being excavated by an archaeologist slightly possessive of it, where I crouched in the puddle-filled narrow corridor-chamber and he pointed to the side-chambers still stacked full of bones and soil and otter excrement. It is not one person per side-chamber but an accretion over years, body upon body, by now a mass of bones to be interpreted, under these mounds that dot the Orkney landscape just as they do Knowe's island.
That interpretation is one thing I am perpetually fascinated by in archaeology and history, as my poem "Thousands of Years Ago, I Made This String Skirt"
attests (and another poem currently out on submission, and another story likewise). Of course, "Singing like a Hundred Dug-up Bones" cheats: there are ghosts to tell (or sing) their stories, bridging the centuries-long gap. Knowe can hear their voices directly. In a post
written while I was writing an earlier draft of this story, I said of Patrick Wolf's "Damaris": "And yet again I find myself drawn to the stories of women that would otherwise be lost if not for a drawing out, an act of art that brings them back into wider memory." The fun of fiction is that I can make stories - and the ghosts to tell them - where the bones in our world are nearly silent.
Knowe's world, although inspired by ours, doesn't completely match it. Knowe lives at a time not many centuries before ours, perhaps the 18th or early 19th Century CE. (Knowe's name is a nickname, meaning 'hill', in the mostly-English now spoken in the Orkneys. I owe that name, some mentions of myth and the song Knowe sings in the mound to The Folklore of Orkney and Shetland by Ernest Marwick
.) The mound she's excavating is in the style of Maes Howe: a tunnel into a central chamber, from which you can access the small side-chambers where the bones of the dead were placed. Mounds such as Maes Howe are 5000 years old, yet the gap between Knowe and the mounds' inhabitants can be measured in hundreds of years, not thousands. The mounds' inhabitants - the ghosts - have Pictish names, taken in pieces from a list of kings' names
(Uuirp became Uuir, Gurum became Gur, Gurnait and Tolorg became Tolnait; others, like Tolorg, Aniel, Manath, stayed unchanged) - men's names, but those are the ones largely attested, and google turned up a blog post
(citing a piece in British Archaeology
) about the possibility of Pictish women's names being very similar to the men's, distinguished only in writing by a symbol at the end. Taking that suggestion, I carved the women's names from the men's.
It is our world, askance.
It is Knowe's own past, Knowe's own heritage; but, though I know of no ancestors who lived in the Orkneys, it's the closest I've yet come to writing about my own heritage (although, note, Scotland and the Orkneys are not the same; my cattle-thieving MacFarlanes were of a different place; in case there's any confusion, the Mainland of the story is the main island, not Scotland). It's written in my English, because that's the only one I know; but if I'd lived in Scotland, I'd know Scots, which is not what the people of the Orkneys speak. (I say it's written in my English, but of course the spelling was changed to American, sigh.) It's remote. At the same time, it's not so very. At the same time, it is.
It is also about singing, for which I owe a great deal of gratitude to Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman for leading a singing circle at Wiscon last year (how appropriate that this story is published just before this year's Wiscon), as well as everyone who joined in, Liz Argall, Rose Lemberg and more, without whom this story would never have been written. Thank you. Perhaps the people who lived in these old houses (Skara Brae) by the sea would have sung similarly.
It seems relevant to note, in a story about singing, that the songs I listened to while writing it were Loreena McKennitt's "Standing Stones" and "Ancient Pines", and Patrick Wolf's "Damaris", "Thickets" and "This Weather". (For all their prevalence in the Orkneys, there are no standing stones in this story. Perhaps in another.)
And now I kiss
I kiss the earth
Oh oh rise up, rise up, rise up now from the earth
And I smashed my fist
Into the earth
Oh oh rise up, rise up, rise up now from the earth