Bones Like Black Sugar
By Catherynne M. Valente
did I ever go back? Wasn’t it enough that the eggs fried
evenly in my iron pan, that the white edges crisped so prettily,
like doilies, that the chimney huffed its smoke grandfather-satisfied,
that the green trees stayed in their civilized trim, that they
never again reached out for me as they did in those days, brackish
arms a-bramble? Wasn’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.
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,
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,
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 wounds on the grass.
The moon slashes windows into the black soil, and 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
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
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
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
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 breath the air
of that furnace that I will always taste of this house, I will
taste of witch and grief, I will taste of a 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
will never recover from this, I will never be well, I will never
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 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. 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.
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 as I pull her sternum, her
clavicle, her delicate wrists crossed 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.
I hold her to me, like the child I was, the chubby girl with
lacy skirts peering out of her cage.
I breathe: her bones move with my breath. My pulse swims: hers
rustles like a wood in winter.
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.
my lips there are lips like floss, and my eyelashes beat
against warm skin, beading with caramel-sweat.
smiles at me, she smiles at me and the belly under my hands is
turkish delight, she smiles as if I had never
as if I had come to her house alone and stood student-bright
stove while she baked her new bookshelves, as if there
was no smoke or flame. She smiles like erasure, she smiles
She swells with candy like a mother, her green eyes opening
and closing, and under my hands she is beautiful, beautiful,
my hands she is innocent, I am innocent, there is nothing
which is not white, which is not a scald of purity, which
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 my of my body a window
or a cellar
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
ash, and my blood ought to have boiled over your hands,
my marrow ought to have smelted into yours, and my skull
have shattered on the stone where my fontanel must have
been, and the shards of it, the shards of it ought to
when the leaves fell, ought to have been indistinguishable,
ought to have, ought to have. Devour me now as you promised,
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—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 on your tongue. 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.
I hold her to me like a widow—she is wet with my weeping,
my tears a melt of plums.
I breathe: there is no answer. My pulse pleads: there is no echo.
under my arms there is nothing, nothing but her bones like black
sugar, and the chasm of her dead mouth yawning at the moon.
M. Valente is the author of The Labyrinth and Yume
No Hon: The Book of Dreams, as well as three collections of poetry,
Music of a Proto-Suicide, Apocrypha, and Oracles:
Between novels she occasionally moonlights as a literary critic.
She currently lives in Virginia with her husband and two dogs.