The old woman bent over her cauldron, the gnarled knobs on her hands dropping flecks of spice into the brew. The eye of newt, the ear of mole, all of the essentials were in it already. The recipe was well under way.
Outside, in the field beyond the heath, the earth stirred, the dirt cracked and when the dust had settled, there stood a menacing figure, thin and creaking and still wrapped in its shroud, the only wall between it and the elements. Not even flesh encased it; what lurked under the shroud was not bone-white but bone itself, divorced from even sinew, and yet it moved, crept skulking towards the small house on the moor.
The old woman poured herself some potion. It had been bad the last few days, but the warmth of it soothed her soul as much as its other properties worked on her body. With a sure, steady foot, she navigated the tightness of her hovel away from the fireplace at last and towards her bedroom when all at once her good ear pricked up at the sound of creaking at the door.
Was it her imagination? she found herself wondering. Or was the hour upon her at last?
Her suspicions were confirmed not by the fact of the knock on her door, but by its quality. She had no knocker on the eave, but here she could tell there could be no soft tissue muffling the rattle of bone on wood.
Choice was not a question in this venture. She changed course and set down her goblet on the organ on the way. Arriving at the foyer, she turned the handle and met the sight that awaited her.
“Well?” the old woman asked the skeleton, “are you going to stand out there in the rain, or would you like to come inside?”
Despite the nature of their depiction in art, there were no smaller bones in the face on the skull that could draw together or drift apart to create expression. The white shadow of a face gave no expression. Yet there was something unmistakable in its posture as it drew itself back in bemusement before graciously bowing its head.
“I know you can’t catch cold anymore,” the old woman remarked, “but I still have flesh and it’s not getting any less weak in this weather. Now get in here.” She made a path for the skeleton to pass her.
And pass her the skeleton did.
With stilted, creaking movements, the human remains approached and pulled up a chair and the old woman circled around the other side of her hoarded detritus, collecting the still-standing goblet on the way.
The skeleton reared itself up slightly before dropping back down—whether this was the affectation of a sigh by one who had no lungs or an attempt to pop an ill-used spine was beyond the crone’s ken. “I’d offer you a cup,” she assured the visitor, “but I doubt it would do you any good.”
One bony hand came up in a gesture of grateful refusal, but then paused and went back to the throat, as if suddenly remembering the unmistakable lack of vocal cords.
“Oh dear,” said the old woman, whereupon she put down her cup and made a series of hand-gestures, to which she received a response in the same medium.
“Do you remember how to talk like this?” her gestures said.
“Oh, yes!” was the reply. “Isn’t it lucky we learned this in our youth.”
“Yes, very lucky,” said the old woman aloud. Soon, she had setled down and picked up two long, sharp needles attached to a piece of children’s clothing. “Speaking of which, how are mother and father?”
The Skeleton nodded its skull and slowed, trying to decide how to phrase the response: “They have needed some time to adjust to one another after being apart so long, but they have found their way again at last.”
“Oh! Of course!” said the old woman in revelation. “What must have happened between mother and her first husband? And then father showing up to find her with a man who’d died before they ever met!”
“They are all fine now,” the skeleton assured her. “They have decided on an arrangement that is nothing short of modern, all marital bonds having dissolved at the point of death.”
“Oh, good!” the old woman exclaimed. “One oughtn’t fear a scandal in the AfterLife, it is what I have always heard said. Would not you agree?”
The skeleton nodded most emphatically, but then the nodding slowed as it drifted off into contemplation of its own loneliness.
The old woman soon realized what she’d stepped in and went back to her knitting, allowing the silence to seep into the space between them. Comfortably.
And soon the skeleton pushed back the hood of her shroud and nestled into the frame of the chair, leaning her head back into the soft shadow of the hearth and thinking how happy she was to be home for the holidays.