It is time. You have known this for a while … but time has curved, and you can’t remember as clearly as you once did. You are tired. By the end of each day your body is heavy with fatigue, and at night you find little rest. It is time. You have all the bones. It is time.
You began collecting them as soon as you were old enough to understand words. Your mother showed you pictures and told you to choose.
You pointed your chubby finger at the grey face with amber eyes and long ears.
She frowned. ‘Are you sure? Wolf bones won’t be easy for a little girl to find. You will have to be clever.’ She said, ‘Pick again.’
You set your mouth, stubborn, and again jabbed your finger at the picture. Wolf.
‘So be it,’ your mother said. ‘This is what you will need.’
She put her mouth close to your ear, and gave you a handful of words.
To begin there was a flurry of success. It turned out wolf bones were easier for a clever little girl to find than your mother imagined. You wrote letters to zoos and collectors, museums and scientists, to people who knew the places where wolves still hunted.
‘I have a school project,’ you told them. ‘I am building a wolf, bone by bone. Do you have any wolf bones you could give me?’
They came to you, wrapped up carefully in parcels, like magic. You kept them safe, in a soft silk bag, right at the back of your wardrobe.
You grew up. Different things became important and you rarely thought of your wolf bones.
There were friends, then lovers, then money and possessions. There were places to visit – you running forward all the time, but never thinking of the end. And the half full bag of bones grew dusty.
‘Don’t forget them,’ your mother warned.
‘I won’t,’ you answered, brushing her aside, and forgetting.
Not until she took up her own bag of bones, lit a fire and walked into the flames, did you remember.
By then the lovers had gone and the friends were busy with grandchildren. You were no longer a maid, and had never been a mother.
Did you think that would shield you? Let you hold on to your youth and keep the crone at bay? You could feel her; edging closer, reaching for you on the wind and the tides, coming up through the earth.
You pulled out your bag of bones, laid them out on the floor. Your wolf was half finished. There was lost time to make up, work to do.
No time to wait for the bones to come to you. You went to them; across water and sky, on trains and on foot, to find the last few pieces, to make your wolf complete.
But now you are grey-haired. Everything is behind you, and you are a long way from home. Too late to try to get back – there is an ocean of time in between.
The heat of panic and loss surges inside you.
‘More time,’ you cry to the sky and earth and trees and sea. ‘I want more time.’
‘You are a crone now,’ the sky replies. ‘Your time is up. Now all you have …’
‘…is your bag of bones,’ says the earth. ‘And the spell …’
‘… your mother taught you,’ whispers the trees. ‘Your …’
‘…time is up. Do it soon,’ urges the sea.
Old and bent, missing teeth and hair, breasts sagging, feet dragging. You are old. You are old. It must be soon.
You wait, impatient, as the year turns and starts over new.
At last it is spring, and you find the first part of the spell. A cuckoo’s egg in a dunnock’s nest, for a stolen life.
The seasons spin.
On midsummer morning you catch the first light in a broken mirror. The longest day for a longer life.
The days grow short. The leaves turn colour.
You catch the first acorn that falls, for growth.
Winter comes, and the ground is grey and hard. The air freezes your breath. You shuffle to the lake, and your hands ache with cold as you cut into the ice to carve out a circle for transformation. Liquid to solid, clear to opaque, warm to cold, moving to still.
Then you take the egg and the light and the acorn and the ice, and add them to your bag of bones. In a clearing, in a forest, you build a fire. You can only carry a few sticks at a time, so it takes a long time. There is a pain in your chest, and you have to stop often. Confused, you wonder why you are in the forest. So you stand, still and quiet, until you remember.
At last there is enough wood, and you light the fire. The flames are bright, jumping from stick to branch, blackening the bark, eating them up, turning them to sparks. And your skin shrinks close to your bones with fear.
The fire must blaze.
You add more sticks, thicker branches, until the heat of them scorches your eyes and lips, and the smoke fills your nostrils.
‘Do it quick,’ your mother had said. ‘It won’t hurt for long.’
You say the words she taught you, whisper them like a prayer, an incantation, a meditation. Holding tight to your bag of bones, you step into the fire.
It is later. The flames have died, and the pile of ash is pale and cool, lifting and floating, soft on the wind. There is nothing left of your bag of bones, or the spell you gathered.
You are gone, and wolf tracks lead into the forest.