Late last Friday night I was sent the prompts for the final round of the NYC Midnight short story competition. I had 24 hours to write a 1500-word story. The genre was left open (I chose Fairy Tale) and the prompts were A Sunrise and An Undertaker. The winners will be announced in early June.
Here is what I came up with:
Bravery and the Marrow Man
There once lived a girl called Bravery. She was born in the middling of the morning, as the first green flash of sun lanced over the tall mountains that enclosed the gorge village of Hark. The dark hour that preceded sunrise was an unsettling time in Hark Gorge, for that is when Azimuth the Marrow Man wandered the streets in search of bodies.
Each night Azimuth journeyed down from his mountainside cottage in darkness, barrow in tow. Fright-laden children would lay awake in the predawn dim, listening for his footfalls echoing down the lane. If any villagers had met their maker, in a manner timely or otherwise, they were gathered into Azimuth’s barrow and taken back up the mountain.
What happened on that mountainside was a wondery, and the subject of many a yarn. The elders told that in his youth, Azimuth was hired by the village as graver. To gather the dead and place them in narrow pine boxes fashioned from the trees surrounding his cottage, before delivering them to the kirk. But the children called him the Marrow Man, and said he slurped the core from the bones of the dead, prolonging his life and imbuing him with the blackest of magiks.
Don’t get caught by the Marrow Man
Run and scream as fast as ye can
Tis yer bones he wants
Tis yer marrow he craves
Afore you descend to the deep dark grave
A girl born at such an inauspicious time—with the Marrow Man shuffling past the birthing room door, the superstitious folks whispered, as they made the sign of Helios across their foreheads—needed a strong name.
“Bravery,” her wizened grandmother said.
So Bravery she became.
But she grew into a timid girl who kept close to home and spoke nary a word to visitors. When Bravery was in the summer of her seventh year, her grandmother fell ill. She was frightened by the thought of losing her grandmother, and did not stray from the bedside for many days. On the elderwoman’s dying day, Bravery woke to the sound of crying. Her mother, in tears, instructed Bravery to bid farewell to her grandmother.
But Bravery was frozen in dread and terror, so deep was the love for her elder.
“Come, girl, come,” croaked her grandmother, waving a swollen-knuckled hand.
Bravery could not move.
“Come, girl, come,” croaked her grandmother. “Before I move on, I would give you the secret of your name.”
Curiosity—perhaps a more fitting name for her than Bravery—won out and the girl crept toward the bedside. The elder’s breathing became labored.
“True…” she gasped as the light went out of her eyes.
That was the last word spoken by Theia the Elder, Mother to Belenos and Grandmother to Bravery.
The girl had waited too long, and would never hear the secret from the lips of her namegiver.
The family began preparations. Long-rayed suns were drawn on the elder’s eyelids with kohl and her fingertips and toetips were dipped in golden pigment. Bravery laid a brass medallion atop her chest and folded her hands upon it. Lastly, the old woman was wrapped in an ascension blanket and placed outside the front door where the Marrow Man would find her before the morrow’s dawning.
All the rest of the death day, Bravery pondered the unspoken secret of her name. She had not been named according to tradition; she did not bear the name of an ancient one, as did the rest of the villagers. Her elderwoman, in wisdom and protection, had chosen Bravery.
As the sun dipped below the western mountain crest late in the afternoon and Bravery prepared for her nightly rest, an idea resolved itself within her and she snuck outside to whisper in the ear of her elderwoman.
“Auld one, I will not leave your side until you reveal the secret of my name. You died with it upon your lips, and I would have it from you.”
Bravery mimed slumber, enough to satisfy the watchful gaze of her parents, and then snuck outside to wait for the Marrow Man. Hidden in shadow, she watched as the Marrow Man carefully laid her grandmother in his barrow, and continued on. Bravery followed.
She watched as he gathered a second body, and continued on. Bravery followed.
The path up the mountain was long and steep. When they reached the cottage, Azimuth rested his barrow near the front door, and carried the unknown elder inside.
Bravery crept closer, standing on the handle of the barrow so that she could peer into the front window.
“Hello again grandmother,” she whispered to the bundle next to her. “I will not leave your side until you reveal the secret of my name. You died with it upon your lips, and I would have it from you.” All the while her eyes never left the scene inside the cottage.
The room was split by a long, sturdy table, upon which lay the elder, head exposed. It was a man, Bravery saw in the candlelight, the fishmonger from the village market. The bald one who peddled the tastiest elvers. Azimuth was turned away, conjuring at a low table in the crook of the room.
The darkness shifted, and all at once sunrise was upon Hark. As Bravery watched, the first beams of morning light crested the mountains and shot straight toward the Marrow Man’s cottage, passing through its high eastern window and pooling directly onto the dead fishmonger’s head. He was suffused with golden life, although he remained still as a stone.
Azimuth held a length of parchment and a candle black as pitch, which burned with an eerie green flame. He placed the parchment on the man’s chest and held the candle over him, making a slow circle around the table. As he rounded the head, he tilted the candle and thrice splashed wax on the man’s forehead, using it to plant the candle in third eye position. Bathed in sunlight, the flame flared red.
Then the Marrow Man did the strangest thing of all. He emptied his lungs and bent over the table, his lips hovering above the fishmonger’s nose and mouth. For many long ticks of the clock, he drew in one long breath. Wisps of pink smoke curled out of the dead fish peddler and were inhaled by the Marrow Man. Soon he was full, his middle goodly puffed like a ruffled rook. Then he turned to the blank parchment. With great control, Azimuth whistled the pink marrow out of his pursed lips onto the parchment, where it swirled and settled into ornate letters.
When Azimuth finished, he hung the parchment over the hearth and rewrapped the fishmonger’s head. Then he slung the man over his shoulder and took him out the back door and into a waiting coffin. Beside it sat a second coffin, and Bravery knew the Marrow Man would soon be returning for her grandmother.
She hid behind the wood pile, then returned to the window to see her grandmother placed in the pool of sunlight and given a pineal candle. The Marrow Man made quick work of her grandmother’s parchment. Only three short lines appeared.
The parchment was hung and the Marrow Man took her grandmother to the waiting coffin before disappearing into the woods with his axe.
Bravery, her body all atremble, crept toward her elder’s coffin and laid a hand atop it in farewell before hurrying inside. The sunrise beam had shifted and was no longer illuminating the table, but there was still light enough for what she sought.
When she was three footfalls away from her grandmother’s parchment, the back door crashed open, and there stood the Marrow Man with an armful of pine, his eyes like twin flames.
Bravery was momentarily struck dumb, but she curled her tiny hands into fists and spoke the words she had come to say.
“My grandmother died with the secret of my name upon her lips, and you have taken it. I would have it from you.”
The Marrow Man considered her silently, then tipped his head toward the parchment.
Bravery drew closer on jellied legs and read the words upon it.
True courage is reserved for those who persevere in the face of fear.
You fear deeply, and yet you persist.
That is why you are called Bravery.
Tears came to her then and she turned to the Marrow Man, in gratitude instead of fear.
“May I keep it?” she asked, her fingertips grasping the corner of her grandmother’s secret.
The Marrow Man shook his head and retrieved the lengths of parchment. He carried them to his conjuring table, where he secreted them away inside a battered leather binder. Secreta et mortuus est was burned into the cover.
Bravery left him holding the secrets of the dead and returned home. She clasped Theia the Elder’s secret to her heart, and there it burned for all her long life, guiding her far and wide through many adventures.