Short Fiction Review: Singing Like a Hundred Dug-up Bones by Alex Dally MacFarlane

screen-captureTitle: Singing Like a Hundred Dug-up Bones

Author: Alex Dally MacFarlane

Publisher: Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue 121

Date: May 16, 2013


Spring is approaching a small island community when a young woman, Knowe, ventures to one of the several mounds among the grassy pastures where sheep graze. The contents inside the mounds have remained secret for generations until a cliff rock falls, giving Knowe passage into a secret tomb. Inside, Knowe finds bones and garments among the dirt and is filled with a desire to learn the history of the lives that once occupied the island.

The mound becomes a sanctuary for Knowe. She spends time alone, singing. She only knows parts of the verses, but her song is enough to pique the interest of one of the tomb’s inhabitants, a ghost woman named Tolnait. Of course, this frightens Knowe and she escapes the mound only to return later to satisfy her curiosity. She develops a relationship with the ghost woman, sharing songs and stories.

Outside, near her home, Knowe sings one of Tolnait’s songs and is humiliated by her father as he passes by. The comfort she has gained inside the mound is not provided by the outside world. She is filled with the history and beauty of generations past, but now feels discouraged from sharing it. She is even reticent to tell her story to Bess, the woman who had taught her the first song she learned.

Singing Like a Hundred Dug-up Bones has a poetic style of prose (how appropriate) and succeeds on many accounts. Knowe, who was nicknamed for her inquisitiveness, is the self-conscious artist, convinced that her gifts and stories are so laughable that she is crippled from sharing them. The mound, while being an external reality, reflects her innermost passions — to understand the history of the world she inhabits. In order for her to be truly fulfilled, she must overcome her fears of rejection and reach out to the woman who taught her to sing in the first place. Even if it means suffering humiliation.

This story was an enjoyable read, full of vivid imagery and written with a lyrical voice. The language used to describe the landscape and food gave the island a foreign — almost fantastical — milieu. The setting also provided a sense of timelessness that spanned hundreds of years. I do not have much to lend in the way of criticism. Maybe if the stakes were a little higher. Maybe if Knowe’s character depth was a little greater. But overall, the story provided an intimate portrayal of a woman finding the courage to share what she has been blessed with. Definitely a read worth savoring.

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