|Written by Patrick Doerksen / Artwork by Holly Eddy
Gran showed Florra the bone box when she was five. It was their secret. No one in the village knew, not even
Florra’s mother. If they found out, Gran said, they would dump the bone box in the river—along with them,
Gran first lit a mound of dried herbs on a flat shell, filling the room with a deep-green smoke that smelled like a
distant pine forest. “It keeps the spirits inside the room,” she said. “Spirits can see in the dark and in the light, but
they cannot see in smoke.”
The box came up to Florra’s knees and was made of woven reeds and bark. Inside were countless white bone
shards, each one from a different ancestor. Florra saw a fingerbone, a tooth, and a convex chip that might have
come from a skull. She wondered if there were enough bones to piece together into a whole skeleton.
“Sometimes,” Gran said, “you can hear them rattling inside. When you do, keep your eyes wide open. There will be
a message soon.” Then she looked deep into Florra with eyes that pierced through a hundred wrinkles. “When I die,
my little newbud, you make sure to put one of my bones in the box. I want to keep a special watch over you.”
That was the beginning. Gran taught Florra many other secrets after that—fragments of the old ways of the
Madahiri that could be found nowhere else. She taught Florra how to keep time using a flower called a bloomclock
that shed its pedals by a regular cycle. She taught Florra how to keep a mealworm culture going on grain husks and
rotten fruit, so that if the hunting was bad there would still be meat of a kind. “Come here, my little newbud,” she
would say. “You see that bush?” And she would tell Florra seven different uses for its leaves and roots.
So it was to Gran Florra went when strange things happened. When she thought she heard voices in the wind, or
saw patterns in the clouds, or discovered a stream she was sure flowed upwards. Each time she would begin by
saying, “Gran, has the bone box been rattling?”—as she did before Joining Day, when the stranger came.
~ * ~
The tree was near the edge of the village, burning with sunset-orange blossoms. Danmadal—that was the Madahiri
word for it. No one collected the blossoms anymore but Florra, and even she didn’t particularly like the tea they
“You’ll have to distract Gran, cheer her up,” Florra’s mother had said that morning, stressing over a spice cake that
refused to rise. “She’s always grumpy on Joining Day, lord knows why.”
Joining Day. It made not just the children but everyone in the village giddy, and all the more so this year—for
tomorrow was not the first nor the tenth but the hundredth anniversary of the Joining. This year there would be
gifts from the Ortual King. There were never gifts from the King; it was always the other way around. There would
be platters of snow-berries sweetened by a hundred different tree-saps; ice, brought by the Ortual’s own ice-
hunters on the backs of vol-horses; dream-music from the inner courts...
Not to Gran’s taste. Indeed, so little these days pleased Gran that it felt to Florra like a victory over an unknown
and distant enemy just to see those cracked lips smile. But the danmadal happened to be blooming, and though
the tea was both bitter and sour, it was “traditional,” and Gran adored things traditional.
Florra had her basket full now and sat on the lowest bow to appreciate the delicacy of its heft. That was when she
The man held a splintered staff and wore a moth-eaten cloak. His frame bordered so closely on immateriality that
Florra felt her eyes tread on him, almost break him. His skin was so pale it shone like polished silver, and his hair
was so thin and cheeks so hollow that the skull and jawbones seemed exposed. For some reason, though, what
really gave her chills was that he had not been announced.
Florra immediately ceased swinging her legs.
The man began to edge forward. He had lost a sandal and with each step scraped the big toe of his sandal-less
foot along the cobble stones. The motion stirred something in Florra—a premonition of panic, a sense of intrusion,
of puncture. All around her in the homes she sensed roasts being soaked in brine, sauces sweetened with honey,
roots boiling in oil, lake salts being ground; there were sweet, promising smells in the air, festive noises, a holiday
lull. And now here was this man, this stranger. He did not fit. Did he not know he did not fit?
Florra was leaning so far forward now a gust of wind nearly upset her balance. She fumbled but could not stop a
few blossoms drifting away.
He saw them, followed them to where Florra crouched in the branches.
His eyes gaped wide like mouths.
“The Cyken are coming to devour you,” he said. “They are only a day from here and they come to devour you.”
~ * ~
Gran always kept the window shut and on entry the staleness of the air was oppressive. Florra, breathless, went
immediately to the window to let in the cool evening air. Only one thought—urgent, throbbing with her heartbeat—
occupied her. “Even the fluxbeasts are changing,” Gran had said a bloomweek ago. “They used to feast on you with
fangs and claws. Now there’s fluxbeasts that will munch on you with darkness.”
She put a quivering hand on the heaving blankets. Gran stirred.
“Gran,” she said. “Wake up. Something’s happened.”
The villagers called it “going senile”—interrupting polite conversations with tragic memories, shouting a name no one
had heard in thirty years while buying fish at the market. Florra, however, thought of it as Gran’s second childhood,
and though the shrieking startled her, it did not perturb her.
“Gran,” she said soothingly, “it’s me.”
“Yes, it’s Scarla.” In these moments it was better to be whoever Gran chose than to correct her.
“Onta,” Gran mumbled—the Madahiri word for light.
Florra, so much in a hurry she forgot Gran’s preference, came back with a glow-gourd. A soft, green aura pushed
itself at the walls. “Not that, not that!” Gran was soon wailing, and Florra hurriedly took the gourd out of the room
and lit a beeswax candle instead.
“Glow-gourds!” Gran said, more awake now. “Gifts! Ha! I’ll give that King a gift!”
“Something’s happened,” Florra said again. “Has the bone box been rattling?”
Gran’s eyes came around with a snap to rest on her head. “Eh?”
“A stranger came. He was hurt. He says the Cyken are coming to kill us. I told mother, and now the whole village
knows, but I wanted to tell you first, I wanted you to be the first—”
“Eh? The Cyken?”
“Yes, Gran. What are they? Are they fluxbeasts? They’re fluxbeasts, aren’t they? The ones that eat you with
Gran was silent; Florra sensed her struggling with a chaos behind her eyes. Soon, however, she lost hope Gran
would win the fight, and indeed the next thing Gran did was shout, “Ah, ah, the royal guards! The Ortual wants my
sons for its war!”
Florra put a hand on Gran. “We’ll hide them,” she said.
“Yes, yes,” said Gran, and nodding slightly on her pillow. “We’ll hide them.”
Florra looked to the closet, where the bone box hid. She looked at Gran, with her eyes closed and a sly smile on
her face. Gently she removed her hand and went to the closet. One by one she removed the pelts that covered the
box; then slowly she pulled it out.
It was warm.
Cautiously, Florra put her ear to the lid.
Deep inside was a sound that seemed at the end of a thousand echoes—bones, countless bones, shifting.
~ * ~
Outside, in the early darkness the clouds had brought to the evening, Florra felt the panic. It was in the air, a
fizzing quality, a trembling, and breathing it in she contained it inside her and was fuelled by it. Within minutes she
had joined the crowd which thrummed around the dead body of the stranger.
“Mother? Mother! What’s happening? Are we leaving the village?”
Her mother grabbed her hand and together they walked home in silence. Only when she had lit a fire and had
gathered Florra’s two sisters did she speak.
“We’re not leaving. Envoy Jalip has decided.” Florra could tell her mother was trying not to bite her lip. “We are
celebrating the hundredth anniversary tomorrow.”
Florra said, “But the Cyken—”
“—are not coming.” Her mother threw up her hands, exasperated, as though she’d been over this a hundred times.
“How can we take that man at his word?”
“He died!” said Florra, as though that were proof of his sincerity.
“When did my eldest daughter forget how to think! Would you have us pack up the village and dive headlong into
the flux to be eaten by fluxbeasts? Because a dead stranger told us to?”
“We can fight!”
“All the weapons—arrows, darkfire, javelins, sharp sticks for that matter—are with our men at the war.”
Florra shook her head. “But—but we can’t just do nothing!”
“We don’t need to do anything!” said her mother, shrill now. “Nobody even knows what the Cyken are!”
Florra’s sisters shifted anxiously, and her mother drew them nearer with an arm.
The silence was long. Florra watched the point just above the flames where the smoke disappeared into the flue
and out into the night; she began to imagine hunched shapes bounding nearer the village, fangs that lashed the
night and fierce, merciless eyes that searched and hunted…
“Why haven’t you asked Gran?” Florra said suddenly.
Her mother stiffened.
“Why isn’t Gran here with us now? Why are you always shutting her in her room?”
“Gran? Ask Gran? Gran who thinks our ancestors appear to us as ghosts? Gran who thinks tree bark can cure
Florra, her face coal-red, shrieked, “At least she doesn’t think her husband still loves her or is even alive!”
“Into your room!” bellowed her mother—but Florra was already halfway there.
In her room, Florra discovered she had lost most of the danmadal blossoms in her mad rush home. There were
enough now for only one cup of tea. She looked at them angrily a moment, her chest heaving; she felt she were
about to crush them with her feet.
She didn’t. She just stared.
There was little sleep that night for Florra, only half-wakeful anxiety, a waiting made of jagged edges. Night
sounds—the hooting of owls, the far off crackle of underbrush—became portents. The darkness itself became a
portent. Florra also heard yelling, the curses of neighbours muffled by walls and distance. She thought she could
hear metallic sounds, too, but she wasn’t sure. She pictured people making weapons with their kitchen knives. And,
staring up at the ceiling, she heard again the stranger’s voice, a voice so distant it seemed to have journeyed up
from an endless throat. What flies in the Deep Caves could be at home in that throat, she thought. And she
imagined what it was like to be eaten by darkness.
~ * ~
The ceremony of the Joining began at noon and involved three parts: the Re-enactment of Contact, the Making of
the Agreement and the Re-affirmation of Fealty. These were all performed on a plateau, slopping upward from
which was an amphitheater of grass, where the villagers sat. There was no wind or sun, just unmediated sunlight
coming from blue heights. Florra hardly noticed this staggering upward dimension of the world; now it was part of
her vigil. Is it from the sky they’ll come? she wondered. From behind a cloud?
Florra sat with Gran at her left and her sisters on her right. In front of her was Anlo, a boy who had said to her
once, “Your Grandma eats maggots!” He was laughing at something. It seemed everyone was laughing at
something; certainly people were not as anxious as Florra thought they should be. Mothers bounced babes in their
arms, kids pulled up grass and flung it at each other, older siblings whittled shapes into wood, and seeing this
Florra’s sense of urgency grew. Did no one pack their things last night? she thought. Did no one stash kitchen
knives in their belts? Did no one do anything? Why is no one afraid?
But, no, that was not true. A few moments later she was noticing worried faces here and there in the crowd,
mothers glanced the tree-line at the edge of the village and looked over their shoulders at intervals.
So—others kept watch, too.
On stage now were two groups of people, the Madahiri and the Ortual men. The Madahiri were making clicking
sounds and jumping about. Every year the re-enactment was performed by a cast enthusiastic to entertain, and so
every year the traditional language grew more absurd and the costumes more ridiculous. It made Florra feel uneasy,
like watching the boys with sharpened sticks stab the frogs by the creek.
Gran stirred beside her. Florra looked and saw spittle on her cheeks.
“Here, Gran,” said Florra, and passed her a handkerchief.
“What’s that for?” she said. Underneath a puddle of wrinkles were grey hawk-eyes, which she used like a whip.
“Shh, Gran.” Heads had turned.
“Quiet?” said Gran. “My own daughter tells me to be quiet?”
“Sorry, sorry,” said Florra, her cheeks burning with embarrassment. Her mother leaned forward and gave her a
look. Desperate, Florra turned her eyes to the stage and whispered, “Let’s watch the performance”—another
mistake. Onstage the King’s men were drawing up the Agreement and the elder Madahiri, having been taught what
writing was and what signing meant, were coming forward with a long quill. Gran began to groan.
“Florra!” said her mother sharply.
In front of her she saw the edges of Anlo’s smirk. Soon the crowd began to murmur. Florra, mortified, tugged at
Gran to leave.
But then she noticed heads were not looking at her, but upwards.
A dozen Ortual vol-horses, still leagues away, had come striding the sky.
~ * ~
This marked the point, it seemed to Florra later, at which her true aloneness began. Seeing the King’s
representatives, the watchers relaxed their vigil. Thoughts turned from the Cyken to the gifts. The feast
commenced, darkness stole into the day and filled it like a gourd, the smells of Ortual spices and the King’s port
bloomed in the air, and no one could worry anymore about the stranger’s words. What was worse, it seemed to
Florra, the false warning fuelled the revelry: there was in the air a grand sense of relief, a sense of having escaped,
or having been passed over by, some great terror. Dancing was more than dancing: it was living. So it was with
everything—eating, drinking, laughing, singing…
“Go on, I said it was a new pint!” said the man.
Florra made a face as she swallowed. “Disgusting!”
The man slapped her on the back. “It’s only merriment that flavours this shite, girl—merriment!” He laughed and
joined the chorus with the musicians. At the end of the song came another toast. There had been toasts to Elyon,
the king’s god; there had been toasts to glow-gourds and hold-plows and dark port. But mostly there were toasts
to the King.
“Long may his arms reach into the flux!” the village shouted.
When it began to rain, there was no dampening of merriment. The feast hall, in true Ortual style, had been formed
by four trees made to grow inward towards each other, forming a sloping canopy that, because of its wide, waxen
leaves, kept out the elements. Florra rejoined Gran again at her table near the central hearth and watched as above
her in the branches the glow-gourds swayed like drunken stars, joining in a vague and distant way the festivity
That was when Florra caught sight of her mother at the edge of the hall, watching the dancers with a distant smile
and a wistful look in her eyes. Florra wondered at it a moment, then found her mother looking right at her. She
“Remember, Florra, I’ll switch you if you even sip that port,” she said. “Where are your sisters?”
“You can’t still be thinking about the Cyken,” said her mother. “You see how silly it would have been to leave the
Florra stared at her mother a moment, her gaze hard. Then she said, “You’re thinking about father, aren’t you.”
Her mother stiffened.
“Why can’t you just say so?”
Her mother made no reply at first. Then she said, “Gran looks like she could use another drink,” and returned to
the edge of the hall. Florra watched her a moment, fuming. Then she noticed the other mothers, some of them
dancing, others standing alone, others chatting animatedly with each other, and saw that every one of them
clutched tightly the same small package of sadness. Not one of them hadn’t brought theirs in with them into the
“Mead?” said Gran. She was staring at the line-up to the buttery, where the drinks were kept in large bottles and
sloshed into upheld goblets. “Let’s have some mead, Scarla.”
“There is no mead,” said Florra, distracted.
“Bah! What about some spiced rumikin—there’s that, I hope. Couldn’t call this a celebration without spiced rumikin!”
“No rumikin either.”
Florra snapped her eyes anxiously to Gran then. There was the confusion, the bitterness, muddying her
countenance. There was the quivering of the hands. It was coming on fast, right in the middle of this bubble of
merriment, and Florra was suddenly struck by an unbearable sadness and anger all at once. She grabbed Gran’s
thin wrist. “But Gran,” she is “there is something you like. Something nice, something traditional. Come on, let’s
get out of this blasted hall.”
~ * ~
Years ago—before he had left to fight in the King’s army—Florra’s father had started going blind. “The bugs under
his skin are making his eyes dim,” Gran said, and took Florra hunting for smokesorn leaves for a tincture that would
drive the bugs off. But Florra’s mother gave the medicine no chance. There were state doctors, men with their own
healing methods, and she trusted them more. Florra remembered Gran’s indignation, the tremor that entered her
fingers and her lips. She also remembered how Gran had snuck into her father’s room to give him the medicine
anyway, and how in the days that followed her secret satisfaction at his recovery had shown itself in her eyes.
The same change came over Gran now as she sipped the danmadal blossom tea from the gourd Florra brought her.
Slowly Gran ceased quivering; slowly she grew aware of the trees and the wind and the sounds of festivity from the
hall; slowly she came back to herself—and as it happened Florra felt a kind of union growing. It was as though they
sat together on a dark cloud, and below them was the village, so small a celebration surrounded by so much night.
And when Gran said, as though whispering a secret, “My little newbud,” Florra’s heart could have burst.
A moment later, however—as though with this new intimacy Florra now had something that might be threatened—
Florra remembered the rattling of the bone box.
The Cyken. They were coming.
Something made her sure now. It was too dark, and the darkness was growing. She pictured the night thickening
and swelling into every crack, pressing itself on her, on her eyes and in her mouth and in her lungs, and she was
suffocating, suffocating, and the darkness was eating her and all the villagers and everything in the world—
Before she could stop herself Florra grabbed Gran’s hand. “No one cares, Gran,” she said desperately, “no one
cares that the Cyken are coming and instead everyone’s just getting drunk on the King’s port and I’m scared!”
Gran looked at her, startled. “Slow down, newbud. The Cyken?”
“Yes, Gran, the Cyken are coming. What are they?”
“That’s a Madahiri word,” said Gran, “Did I not teach it to you?”
“No, Gran,” said Florra.
Gran, hearing another toast go up to the King, looked away from Florra to squint at the moving figures at the
visible rim of the hall. For a moment Florra feared Gran had lost the thread.
“It always peeved me,” said Gran, “that they never included in the Re-enactment what happened the night before.”
“The night before what?”
“The night before the Joining, newbud. One of our own came to the village. I’ll always remember him; I was just a
tiny girl then and he was a fierce man and he startled me. He had a pale face, a very pale face.” She paused. “He
came to warn us.”
“About what?” said Florra, impatient, trembling.
“The Cyken. It’s a vine that grows up trees and steals their sap and sunlight and eventually kills them. But it’s also
what we called the spreading Ortual Kingdom, and what we called King’s ambassadors when they first came to us.
Of course, we never told them what it meant—”
Gran, turning to exchange a smug glance with Florra, was startled by the look on Florra’s face. Her eyes were wide,
her posture rigid. She looked as though some great invisible jaw descended upon her.
Gran took hold of Florra’s hand. “What is it, newbud?”
In the trees was a wind that sounded like a thousand bone shards rattling. Florra listened to it a long, long time.
The last toast came, then the last stumbling dance, then the drunken search for the home threshold. Only when it
became truly quiet did Florra turn to Gran.
“Gran?” she said, bent close and whispering.
Gran’s eyes were wandering among the stars and did not respond. In such states Florra was unsure if Gran knew it
was her—her grandchild, Florra—who sat with her, and not someone else. Nonetheless, when Florra leaned in to
hug her, Gran rested her warm, trembling, blue-veined hands on Florra’s back, and sighed.
“We saw him, Gran,” Florra whispered. “The man who came when you were a girl…. We heard him again. We heard
him speak from a hundred years ago.”
Patrick Doerksen lives with his wife in Victoria, British Columbia, where
flowers bloom as early as January and it is very difficult to be
unhappy. He loves his library, unscheduled time, and most of all the
two in combination. His fiction and poetry have featured in The Bond
Street Review, Bewildering Stories, Presence, (parenthetical),
Frogpond, and Lyrical Passion, among other journals.