Your mother begins collecting the tiny skulls as soon as the flutter of your limbs causes her heart to skip. She curates each specimen, ensuring it originates from a disparate source: A mouse carcass picked from a ravine trail; a desiccated red squirrel shipped from her sister out East; a marmot, snared in a field three hours from the village.
Some mothers hang bird skeletons from nursery walls. Yours, like the women in her family before her, has chosen rodents. She doesn’t believe they will make you skittish or timid (though she, herself, is of a nervous disposition). Rodents are quick witted, cautious and stockpile food for hard times, qualities she believes a girl must have if she is to survive.
She boils away their residual flesh; lacquers their heads. Then, hand drills small holes into their bases and strings them to a mobile above your cradle with strips of supple leather.
Eyes welled by dark circles, she watches you sleep that first night while your father joins the men at the pub for a pint. She caresses your velvet pate under the slow spin of the talisman she’s wrought. Your own skull is still in pieces, kept flexible to withstand the compression of the birth canal. There is no guarantee what kind of woman you will fuse into. She only knows that bones hold magic.
Within months you are reaching towards the mobile, babbling your own word for each preserved piece. Your mother detaches the skulls and files down their teeth so you can touch them; slip your fingers into their ocular sockets and trace their jaws. She teaches you the names of their parts: sagittal crest, maxilla, parietal bone, interspersing them in nursery rhymes along with your numbers and colours.
Their traits leak into you. You are a cautious baby; prone to freezing or crawling behind a chair. Your separation anxiety flares when she steps out of your line of vision. “A mama’s girl,” the neighbours coo at you.
“She loves her daddy most,” your mother says, keenly aware of the bulging artery in your father’s neck.
When you are old enough, she sends you to the village school with the squirrel’s skull tucked in your pocket. Her limp smile at goodbye twists your stomach. You want to play with the other children. You also want to clutch the vole’s skull strung about her neck and shield it. At four, you are heavy with the burden that you cannot do both.
In school, you stroke the squirrel’s skull, soothing yourself. The wolverine’s head mounted on your father’s door shadows you even when you are away from home.
Wolverines prey on voles.
You make a promise that first day. You will follow all of the teacher’s rules. You will be the perfect squirrel to make things easier for your mother, so your father won’t notice you both. That’s how you’ll protect her.
Most young women begin trying out new bones at thirteen. You ask at twelve. You are weary of watching the bruises fade from plum to yellow on your mother’s body. Your father has never laid a finger on you. Instead, he has used your mother’s face and limbs as a ledger, battering both of your transgressions into her flesh before locking himself in his den.
You’ve tried to protect her but nothing’s worked. She has no voice. No weight. You both could compress your bodies until you vanished and your father would still find fault. You hate him for the guilt he’s soaked into your marrow.
You hate him for making you hate your mother.
You’re most terrified of becoming her. “We are not the same,” you repeat until the words are sharp edged and your tongue is sore. You want bones that reflect the person you wish you saw in the mirror: striking and confident. Not the curled-in, awkward creature that haunts your room.
With your father’s permission, your mother takes you to a bone shop with its dark wood and glittering glass cases. The other girls your age opt for flirtatious adornments: filed fox teeth or mink skull pendants on silver chains around their necks. Their parents wave off the provocative choices as a phase. “Just some innocent fun.”
Your mother nudges you towards the sensible options.
“How about a horse for your room? Horses are beautiful and strong. Here’s a bracelet made from a mane.” What she doesn’t say is that horses are dependable. Tame. You shake your head. No horses for you. You watch her eyes linger over the cases with the muskrat then push your way over to the wild cats. You sense her heart rate rise behind you.
“Zel, I don’t think your father—”
“You didn’t even look at them.” Your anger boils over, rapid and scalding.
“I don’t have to. I know how they’ll influence you.” She’s using the same tentative tone she uses with him. It’s as if she’s picking her way across an open field trying to stay hidden from a hawk.
It makes you sick.
You march out of the store. At home you stomp to your bedroom, grab the squirrel’s skull you’ve had your entire life and smash it at her feet. It cracks in three pieces. You slam your bedroom door and listen to her scraping up the mess before your father comes home; she’s scurrying like the scared vole she’ll always be.
The next day, she takes you back to the bone shop. She’s wearing a high collared blouse in the oppressive summer heat. You try not to imagine what blooms under the neck line. You buy a leopard skull and a necklace of its claws and are surprised when your father offers to fasten the skull to the front of your bedroom door. He looks unexpectedly proud as he pats you on the head.
“I never could respect a squirrel,” he says with a smile.
You slip the circlet of crescent shaped claws around your neck and hope its feral magic bleeds into you.
Your father has never permitted your mother to walk into town alone and, in the time since you’ve clasped the leopard claws around your neck, accompanying her to market has become your weekly ritual. Your gait is now a sinuous contrast to her quick step through the cobble stone streets. You trail her, watching as she dispenses the coins your father has allotted for the week’s food from a pocket sewn inside her dress. She is deliberate. Exact. You both know how she will repay him for any shortfall in her accounting.
There has been a steep cost to your budding confidence. “Aggressive” is the word townspeople use to describe you when they think you’re out of earshot. At school, the hungry bullies you attracted as a squirrel have fallen away under the new intensity in your gaze. This barely concealed ferocity in your eyes has lost you the early childhood friends you had. They’re terrified of you, now. The newer girls you want to get to know freeze and huddle close when you stalk past. You wanted to keep yourself safe, not drive people away. You didn’t know choosing your own path would leave you so alone.
Today, at the market, your mother remains trembling in front of the cheesemonger’s fox skull decorated stall after you’ve tucked her packages in the basket you carry. Her arm is outstretched, her empty palm faced up. She looks like a beggar. A slurry of rage and shame burns up your throat when the cheesemonger ignores her. The unbidden growl that vibrates in your sinuses is bitter. It compels everyone in the stall’s vicinity to stare at you.
Your mother touches your wrist, steadying both of you. “You’ve shorted us two doublets,” she squeaks. Red-faced, the cheesemonger drops the change into her hand. She places the money in her pocket, turns on her heel and leads you out of the market.
You find her perched on her bed the next afternoon. She shifts so you can sit next to her when you linger at her door. There’s an unfamiliar box on her lap. Its corners are blunt with age. Inside, shrouded under membrane-thin sheaves of tissue, are the remains of a shattered skull you’ve never seen before.
“What was it?” you ask, picking up a tiny mandible between your thumb and forefinger and holding it up to the sunlight near the window.
“A weasel.” She smiles to herself. “I didn’t want to be like my mother either.” A shadow presses the corners of her mouth. “I was good with numbers. Too good, according to your father.”
“Did he . . . ?” The memory of you smashing the squirrel’s head calcifies the rest of the sentence in your throat.
She takes the mandible from you and squeezes it in her fist. “Not everyone can be a hunter,” she says. Her gaze is far away, as if she is trying to remember a time before she was herself. Then, she relaxes and reburies the bones in their layers of tissue. The tiny jaw has bitten a deep impression into the flesh of her palm that doesn’t fade for days.
That night, you dream a man you love breaks your left arm. You’re numb with so much rage that you pull the bloody piece of your humerus that has punctured your skin out of your flesh and hit him with it until he begs you to stop. You wake up with the taste of blood in your mouth. Shaking, you squeeze your left arm to check if it’s still there.
In the morning, before breakfast, you kiss the leopard’s skull hanging from your door and march downstairs.
You are eighteen when your ability to remain silent snaps. Your father is pummeling your mother downstairs. Her wailing ignites you. You run out to the back shed, grab a shovel and slam it on the floor when you come back inside.
He is standing over her, a fist full of hair pulled taut in his hands. He lets go when he sees you.
“Don’t touch her.” Your voice is gruff, as if you’ve been screaming your entire life.
He puts his hands up in the air. “This doesn’t concern you, Zel.” You narrow your eyes at him, catlike.
“It’s always concerned me.”
His face hardens. He looks down at your mother. “Is this what you’ve been doing? Turning her against me? You trash rat?” You look past him at her on the floor. She’s a tangle of bruises and tears.
You walk over to his study, lift the shovel above your head and bash it into the wolverine’s skull. The cracking of metal against bone breaks an ossified wall inside you and you lose sense of time and the limitations of your body. You swing the shovel over and over until you are drenched in sweat and the skull is in pieces in front of his door.
“Get out,” you tell him, gasping for breath.
His eyes are wide—sizing you up. No one’s challenged him before. Your grip on the shovel tightens as you stare him down.
He shakes his head, steps around you and barges into his study. There’s banging on the other side of the door. You don’t know whether he’s packing or destroying the room.
Your mother is still on the floor. You drop to your knees next to her and let the shovel fall. You remain still until she wipes her face and looks at you. Her mouth is swollen. A purple bruise is deepening at the outer corner of her left eye.
Your jaw goes slack when you look at her chest.
The weasel skull, glued together, glints like an ivory bead on a piece of rawhide just above her breasts. She leans towards you and touches your claws—the fearless strand she never wanted you to buy.
Your father comes out of his den with a bag under his arm and slams the front door behind him without a word. Panic floods your mother’s eyes.
You reach for the fractured skull hanging from her neck and wrap your fingers around the tiny head. You stay that way, holding on to each other until it’s dark and you are both sure he’s never coming back.