The funeral was at dawn, the cold wind off the ocean rippling coat hems and tugging at scarves. The words were said, the blessing given, the family offered one final chance to make their farewells. When they had finished, the pallbearers picked up the edges of the thin pallet the old woman was laid on, the fresh scent of green wood from pine branches woven together bright over the mineral scent of the sea.
I sprinkled the woman’s body with the dried blooms of red asters, and spoke the ritual words: “May your soul travel with the bells, safely on the sea.”
The necessaries done, the pallbearers carried her to the ocean, and set her down, to float out with the tide. I watched the waves grab at her pallet, the sea spray splash against its sides and baptize her in salt.
“Do you think she’ll come back tonight, Rowan?” The old woman’s daughter, face puffy and red from grief.
Tonight. The last day of October. The first of the three Dead Days, where the drowned bells ring, and Far Island rises back above the waters, and our dead return to us.
“The souls choose as they will. But light a candle in each window, and close no doors in your house. That will help her know she’s welcome.”
She reached out, clutching hard at my hands. “If you see her, you’ll tell her to come home to us.”
“I will,” I promised.
That is what we do here, on Near Island. We give our dead to the waters, and once a year, the waters bring them back.
The sun eased its way below the horizon, and as that first bright flame met the dark waves, the drowned bells began to ring. Loud enough to be heard all over Near Island, even though they were still fathoms deep. Slow and mournful, so low and clear you could hear the pull of the tides, the cold darkness of the ocean, the water as salt as tears, in each chime.
I turned to the west, to where Far Island had begun its rise. I couldn’t see it, not yet, but I could feel it in my bones, closer with every breath. The wind rose, and I could feel the rising tide beneath it. Under it all—the howl of the wind and the crash of the waves—the ringing of the bells. They would ring without stopping until the Dead Days were over, and the island had sunk once again below the sea.
Far Island had sunk long enough ago that the truth of the story had transmuted into legend. There were all sorts of explanations offered about why—over the course of one day, and without warning—an entire island had fallen beneath the sea to drown itself. The explanation I preferred was the simplest: Far Island had drowned under the weight of grief.
I turned away from the waves, and the ghosts they ferried, and I walked for home.
I had set out candles, blankets, and piles of firewood before I’d left that morning. Electricity was a precarious thing during the Dead Days—spirits in the wires, ghosts in the machines. Sometimes things would work, but you couldn’t guarantee it, and I liked light and heat.
I also liked privacy, and not having ghosts in my house, as I spent enough time with them outside of it. And so I scattered a bag of ashes from last year’s fires in a circle around the house’s foundation. I took down my wind chimes, hid away anything that might ring. The souls of the dead can travel in the ringing of the bells. I painted doorways and windowpanes with rosemary oil—see, you are already remembered, no need to come in.
Through it all, the sky grew darker, and the drowned bells rang. Louder now. They would finish their rising with the dawn tide, and the island with them.
I toasted bread, melted the sharpest of cheddars on top of it, and poured myself a tumbler of red wine. Then settled in, wrapped in a blanket, watching the fire.
A wild knocking at the door, which banged open before I could even stand up.
Briony, looking like she had run all the way here, pale and trembling. “Rowan. The bone horses came in on the tide.”
My hand went in reflex to my shoulder, to the scar in the shape of a horse’s mouth I had been given when I was thirteen. The reason that I was the one that saw all the dead out to sea.
The island’s ghosts don’t always want to return across the waves and under the sea when the dead days are over. They come back, they see their home and their family, and they forget they aren’t alive anymore. But ghosts are a thing for under the waves—they aren’t meant to walk out in the air. Without the salt of the sea, they grow strange and bitter, twisted from what they were. They look for substance in the salt of blood and tears, and they grow dangerous. They will drink a person dry. So we cannot let them stay, even if we loved them once.
The bone horses gather the souls that try to linger, and carry them home. They come out every year on the third night, but only emerge on the first if they’re riderless, if the mortal that rides at their head has died.
The bone horses are creatures of the hunt, and they can be cruel. Riderless, they will harry prey through the night and across the island, driving people toward the sea and the bells, drowning them beneath the waves. Ten years ago, on the second night of the three, Briony and her older brother, Conor had been that prey.
He had tried to ride them, but he either hadn’t known or hadn’t cared to follow the necessary rituals. We were only children then, and I had never asked. But whatever the reason, he called their attention to him—one night too early for them to accept a rider—and with no way to bind them, to make them think they were tame besides. The bone horses had turned on him, sending him running across the island. Briony had tried to help him, and wound up chased and hunted as well. She knocked, terrified, on my window. I had come out to see.
Like anyone who grew up on Near Island, I knew what the horses were, and what they hunted across our sand and skies. Even now I remember the first time I saw them, when I was five years old, standing on my bed to catch a glimpse of them through the cold glass of my window. In that moment, I knew what it was like to fall in love with white bone and dark sky, held together with wildness. I have never blamed Conor for wanting to ride the bone horses, because that was the only thing I ever wanted from that first moment. And even now, I don’t blame him for that first time, when he was a child and tried to ride them without following the most important of their rules: You bind the horses with red.
Red was the color of the dead, and many on Near Island wore it during the Dead Days. That night, I’d had a red ribbon tied in my hair. I walked into that wild herd of horses, and draped it over one of the skeletal noses, holding the ends like I would hold the lead line of a halter.
It stopped. Stood. Bent its head, and allowed me to lead it back through the lit windows of the town and down to the beach, the other bone horses following in its wake. My heart pounded so hard I could feel my blood thudding against the underside of my skin.
After all the other horses had disappeared back into sea foam, as mine stood with its waves washing over its hooves, I slid the red ribbon from its nose.
I should have waited, should have held the ribbon until the horse was deeper in the water. Snake–fast, it whipped its head around and bit my shoulder, hard enough to draw blood, hard enough to scar. Only then did it, too, return to the sea.
The bite sent me reeling, stumbling back from the waves to fall upon the sand. It was Briony who brought me home—half–dragging me from the beach as blood loss and fever stole the strength from my legs.
I wasn’t at the beach that year, when the horses chose their rider. The fever from the bite burned through me until after the bone horses were bridled, after the dead sent home, after Far Island had sunk again beneath the waters.
My fever broke the moment the bells went silent. The bite was healed, and scarred over.
I had freed the horse too early, and so I wore the scar of my mistake, but because I had bound it at all, because I had only been scarred and not drowned, everyone said I would be the next rider chosen.
And I almost was.
The rider who was chosen the year I lay feverish and bleeding, Kevin, rode for eight years. Because of my scar, because he knew that no one rode forever, he taught me: the nature of the bone horses and their secrets, the binding of the dead and their bitter ghosts.
Two years ago, he did not return with the tide, and I knew that the next year, the responsibility for the horses would be mine.
But Conor had followed me to the beach last year, had hit me, after I bridled the lead horse. Hit me hard enough that I had fallen into the rising surf, the reins sliding from my hands, and he had ridden the bone horses into the night.
I knew that they had drowned him the next day, when he didn’t walk in with the tide, but Briony hadn’t wanted to believe it. She had spent this whole year not believing. Not believing, and avoiding me, because I was a reminder of what her brother had tried and failed to do.
“It means he’s dead, then, doesn’t it? Dead for sure.” Tears bright in her eyes.
“It does. I’m sorry for your loss.” I hugged her while she cried a year’s worth of tears onto my shoulder.
It meant one other thing, too. If Conor was dead, the bone horses would need a rider. Once more, I would stand on the beach, red in my hands, waiting for them.
I found a worn pair of flannel pajamas for Briony to sleep in, piled pillows and wool blankets on my couch.
“Thanks for letting me stay,” she said.
“I wouldn’t send you back out in this.” The bone horses wouldn’t search for ghosts, not tonight or the next, but they would run, and they would bring the storm with them on their course. We could already hear the wind howling, rattling my windows in their frames and plucking at my shingles.
“There wouldn’t be a this to go out in if Conor hadn’t… hadn’t….” She broke off again as tears choked her throat.
“You’re not your brother,” I said. “You’re not to blame for his actions.”
“I know, but—I’m sorry Rowan,” she said.
“So am I.” I blew out all of the candles except the one by the couch, and went to my room.
When the bone horses ran, that terrible clattering whiteness that strode across cloud and earth, they created an almost unbearable sense of terror. The kind of terror that could make a person run until they dropped dead of exhaustion, or until they stepped, unseeing, off the edge of a cliff.
The drowned bells still rang, keeping time, implacable.
I wouldn’t send anyone back out into that.
I didn’t sleep that night. My skin was hot and itchy, and my head the unceasing ringing of the bells.
I heard the hoofbeats of the bone horses in the spaces between one chime and the next. The hollow, horrible sound that bone makes when struck against rock, against storm cloud, against sky.
I heard them call to me. I would answer.
The next morning I woke, dry–mouthed and gritty–eyed, as the sun rose red against the sky. Far Island was visible now, a smudge on the horizon.
I gulped coffee, hot and bitter, that I’d boiled on the wood stove. The tide was in, high and full of ghosts, the waves carrying the dead back to say their unsaid words.
Briony came out, her own mug of coffee steaming in the cold morning. “They were here last night.” The sage and grey of late autumn’s grass had been carved and torn by hooves.
“I expected they would be.”
“Do you think Conor will come back?” She looked out, over the water.
“Not everyone does,” I said.
“I know. It’s just. I miss him. He could be a shit, I know that, but he was my brother. I’d like to tell him I love him.” Her hands, white–knuckled at her sides, fisted against her grief.
“If I see him, I’ll tell him you’re looking for him.”
“Thanks,” she said.
For Briony’s sake, I hoped Conor’s ghost would come in on the tide. For my own, I didn’t care. I didn’t have anything to say to him.
As it turned out, however, Conor had something to say to me.
There are risks, if you ride the bone horses. They are drowned things, like the bells, made to gather souls. They need a living rider, but no one can ride with death and come away unchanged.
It didn’t often happen, because they were careful in their choices, but sometimes the rider didn’t survive. So easy, in that dark and wild ride, to forget how to make your heart move the blood through your veins, how to breathe.
He hadn’t been the bone horses’ choice. He carried none of their marks. Ghosts would not obey him, and the island’s red asters wilted in his hands. Bad signs all, but he hadn’t cared about signs. He hadn’t believed any of that mattered—“A strong enough rider can ride anything,” he’d said.
And maybe they could, but they wouldn’t survive it.
I met his ghost on the path to my cottage. I could smell the sea on him, mineral and salt and deep–water green. “They’ll come for you. The third night.”
“I’d already figured that out.”
“Will you ride?” he asked. I could hear the tide in his voice, creeping ever closer.
“I would have last year.”
“I just wanted to be sure.” He eyed the mug of coffee in my hand.
“It’s empty,” I said, “and I don’t want you in my house. But we can go into town.”
“All right,” he said.
The dead couldn’t eat or drink. But they could still enjoy scents. Perhaps even more so, once they had died. The cafes were crowded with ghosts sitting with loved ones and leaning over steaming mugs of coffee and tea and chocolate. Other ghosts congregated near bakeries and florists’ shops. I ordered two mugs of coffee, set the second in front of Conor.
“I guess I should tell you that I’m sorry,” he said. It was a thing that happened a lot. Some of the dead who returned came back every year—grandparents who wanted to see grandchildren, other people who had unfinished lives, and who could bear seeing the progress that happened in their absence.
Many only came back once. There would be one particular person they needed to see, or say something to, and then they would return to Far Island, their loose ends neatly tied.
“I accept your apology.” I was still angry. Frustrated with his selfishness. We’d had a plague of bitter ghosts left on Near Island this year, haunting and hurting people because they hadn’t been properly gathered at the end of the Dead Days. I had spent most of the winter walking the island at night, binding them with salt and asters, sending the souls back to the sea. Three people had died before I had been able to bind all of the ghosts.
I was surprised he’d thought to apologize at all. But I wouldn’t refuse it and be the thing to hold him here. I could accept that he was as sorry as he was able to be, and move on. There were other things that mattered more.
“I had to do it. To ride them. You understand.”
“I don’t, actually,” I said. “And I’m not interested in your explanations. You should see Briony while you’re here. She misses you.”
He leaned over the mug of coffee one more time, then got up and walked from the table. Toward the sea. Toward the bells.
That afternoon, I took a boat to the drowned island. I had gone to Far Island before—had walked it last year—but like everything touched by the sea, it was different every time. Changed by the slow, deep tide, the cold currents. Hung with sea wrack, with starfish red as asters. It was a place of lost things. Not just the souls of the dead, but of lost objects, washed out on a tide, and gathered here. The ring that slides, unknown, from a finger, house keys dropped, abandoned books and sweaters and things even more unbelievable. A set of dishes, for twelve places, miraculously unbroken. A telescope. Three bottles of wine, rimed with barnacles.
The ground crunched as I walked—pieces of shell grinding against sand, the scree of frosted pieces of glass sliding against each other, refuse made beautiful by time and tide. The air was heavy with the scents of seaweed and tide pools, full of ghosts.
Everywhere, the ringing of the bells. Here, they were everything. The sound almost tangible in its presence, ringing out its message to the ghosts. Remember. Go forth. Come home. Over and over, in carillon, carried on wind and tide.
In the midst of the faded and drowned colors of the island, I was looking for the impossible, the unbelievable, washed and retuned by the sea: a bridle to fit a bone horse. Red leather or red ribbons—it was the color that mattered more than anything. Red for blood. For life to hold the dead. The bridle I would need to bind and claim the lead horse, to hold onto through the wild, dark ride, until I stood again on the earth.
I walked all over that island, through the remains of houses, more decayed every year, past an entire library of drowned books.
Through the stone ruins of a cathedral where bells unceasingly rang, one stained glass window intact, an image of Maria, Stella Maris.
The sun was setting, and I still hadn’t found the bridle. I should have asked Conor what he did with it. Though, he never did pay attention to the rituals. I had already put it on the horse last year—he might not even have known that it mattered.
I rowed home in the gathering darkness.
The second night was worse. It always was, but this. This was unbearable. Ghosts in the air thick as fate and the horses screaming like sorrow and everywhere the drowned bells ringing our doom down on us.
When I woke the next morning, there were red ribbons knotted in my trees. Silk, I thought. Now frayed, rotten in places, charred on the edges. A pile of disasters, but enough to make a bridle of.
“Thank you,” I whispered, to whoever, whatever, had brought them to me.
The wind, still ghost–haunted, pulled and tugged at them, trying to loose them from my hands.
I took them inside, and braided them together.
I walked the bounds of my island, scattering red aster blooms in my wake. Flowers to guard the gateways, flowers to send home the ghosts.
Not all of them would want to leave.
I heard the change in the bells, the ringing deeper and bitter with salt. Far Island had begun to sink once more. I walked to the edge of the tide.
The sky turned dark. The bone horses rose out of the waves.
White and cold as the sea foam that birthed them, as the moon that pulled them from the tide.
I stood on the shore as the first ran past me. The second.
As the third heaved itself up from the churning water, I flung the braided reins over the bones of its neck. Hooked my hands on the large bones of its scapulae, and pulled.
The bone scraped the skin from my palms, but I was up, I was astride, the reins in my hands and the horse like a storm beneath me.
The drowned bells rang, and we rode.
To ride at their head was glory: lightning on my skin and a hurricane caught in my hair. My heart beat with the great drowned bells, and the salt in my blood its own tide.
Finding the ghosts remaining on Near Island was easy—horses made of bone and wind run faster even than death. They circled the ghosts, drew tighter and tighter around them in spiral, and once the circle was unceasing, a whirlpool of bone, I bound the ghosts with red flowers, with salt from the sea, and I sent their souls to the tide.
Then. Conor. Holding the missing bridle.
Red, streaming from his fingers, so that the bone horse that passed closest to him shied. In that moment, Conor threw the bridle over the horse’s head.
“I kept it. I don’t want to drown. I want to ride.”
He pulled himself up and over the bone horse’s withers, yanked its head away from the rising tide.
The edges of the sky were beginning to pinken, and the drowned bells rang from very far away under the deep, a clock, marking the final minutes.
I threw asters at Conor, and salt. His bone horse sidestepped and tossed its head, his ghost shuddered, but it was not bound. He held the horse, bridled, and I had no other red to reclaim it.
I used my horse to corral his, to force them both into the sea, towards the fading echoes of the drowned bells. Maybe I could push them far enough out that the tide would claim them, would carry his soul away from Near Island.
I didn’t know what a hungry, bitter ghost that rode a bone horse would do if it stayed on Near Island. I was sure it was nothing good. I was sure it would mean a winter with more than three dead.
Conor laughed, and reined his horse closer to the shore. “I was strong enough to keep this—keep it from you. I have the bridle, and I ride this horse, and I won’t go back. I won’t be dead.”
My hands burned and stung on the reins as the tide washed over them. There. Red that I could bind his horse and his ghost with. I leaned over, off of my horse, my body hanging over the sea, reaching for his horse.
Too far. To reach his horse, I had to dismount mine, the reins sliding away, my feet stumbling in the surf.
I pressed my bleeding palms onto his horse’s bones, smearing red over the white. “I’m sorry,” I said. “You already were.”
It disappeared into sea foam, pulling Conor with it, his soul cast upon the tide.
The drowned bells rang one final time. My horse turned, and looked at me. I saw my death in its skeletal face. Its head reached out, not fast this time, but as slow as the tide, and its teeth fastened around my shoulder.
No pain, no blood, only enough pressure to remind me of what it could do. I reached up, and slid the bridle of red ribbons from its head. It stepped into the waves, and was gone.
Then there was only silence, and the sea.
© 2016 by Kat Howard