PodCastle 761: INDIGENOUS MAGIC – The Bone Pickers

Show Notes

Rated PG

The Bone Pickers

by Kelsey Hutton


My last day picking buffalo bones, stooping and flinging and splintering tibia among the tall grass, was the day I lost the smell of freshly tanned leather.

The buffalo gave us so many gifts, but the finished hides were my favourite. Rich and musky-smelling, hair scraped off, with only the hide left — I remember one side was always slightly glossier than the other. Soft, supple, broken in. Ready for a skilled seamstress to transform into intricately embroidered moccasins, leggings, vests, a thousand beautiful things.

Or, there were the great shaggy buffalo robes my parents used to roll us children up in at night, tucked safely into our corner of the cabin to sleep. Those were large enough I could lie down in the middle, fan my arms and legs out like a great grey owl descending on its prey, and still not touch the edges. First thing in the morning, or last thing at night, I remember closing my eyes and inhaling huge swelling lungfuls of the scent left behind by the great animals, lii bufloo, who lived alongside us. Whose lives were twined so intimately with ours.

And of course, there were the herds themselves. As many as there were seeds in the spring, as there were stones in the riverbed. On the first day of the fall hunt, we could follow their smell more surely even than their hoofbeats. Kneeling beside a freshly killed cow, grown fat on sweet summer clover, I would bury my fingers deep in her shaggy ruff. Curled up in the warmth still emanating from her massive form, I breathed in my thanks.

These were the things I still let myself remember, around and in between the spitting-grease-hot memories of my parents, my brothers, my sisters. Those ones I never touched.

But that spring day, I realized I could only remember what the hides smelled like —  earthy, smoky, slightly spicy. I couldn’t feel the smell of it in my nose, couldn’t conjure up the taste of it in my mind, beyond just . . . words.

That feeling, that slip of my memory, made me stumble where I was. Just as I thought there was nothing left for them to take from me, in fact, there was.

My knee hit the scrubby ground hard and I lurched towards the great wheel of the cart beside me, tangling myself in my skirts as I threw out a hand to stop myself. The cart’s wheel normally came as high as my nose when I stood straight; now, laden with a few hundred pounds of bones, the cart rolled by an inch from the pinky on my splayed right hand. Only a narrow rut was left behind to tell the tale.

Despite all this, the world around me moved slow, like the earliest trickles of a tapped sugar tree. I could have lost a finger, maybe more. I could have lost my hand.

I repeated that to myself a few more times, trying to care. Failing to.

“Emmaline!” Rosemarie croaked out, but her own throat was too coated in dust to raise above a barked whisper.

“I’m all right, it’s all right,” I lied, although I suppose it was also the truth. Was I well enough because I was no worse off than I had been a few moments before, a week before that? No less trapped?

As quickly as I could — so, as slow as winter bear — I stood up and swiped without any real force behind it at this newest layer of mud I’d ground into my dress. It was just cheap brown muslin, anyway, barely held together with gum and spit and granny’s knots. Nothing like the brightly flowered dresses, sprigs of bluebells against leafy greens, we used to wear.

Or at least, that I remembered wearing. If that was even the same thing.

“Come on,” Rosemarie said, her stiff neck cracking as she rolled her shoulders out. The hand that gripped her hammer was just blister on blister on blister, though she never swung it any less hard. “We have to reach the next pile before  . . . ” Her hazel eyes shifted nervously over her shoulder, scanning the empty prairies around us. “Before anyone else.”

She meant before raiders came, roaming malcontented Faasblaans who might either scoop our best finds, or take our whole cart’s load if they’d had a bad enough time of it.

Rosemarie was my cousin, and only four years older than me. She was also my eldest living relative. Sometimes I thought that weighed heavier on her than anything else. Heavier even than the great buffalo skeletons that littered the Plains, the ones whose backs we broke apart with ball-peen hammers until they were small enough we could huff and chuck them into our sagging horse-drawn cart.

We were both getting old now, decades from those happy early years, even if our hair stayed mostly dark and our joints only ached when it rained. In the old days, we’d have had half-grown children by now, the littlest of their fingers hanging onto our dress pockets. Before the Faasblaans claimed a sea of grass as theirs to farm, and drove the buffalo nearly to extinction. Before the Great Terror, when families like ours . . . well.

The buffalo weren’t the only ones hunted.

“Watch your step next time,” she couldn’t help but add, throwing in a dash of vinegar to her briefly sweet concern. “I could have rolled right over your hand, and then we’d never meet our quota.” Which meant we wouldn’t eat. I knew it was an unconscious gesture, but she grabbed a fistful of her grey apron in one hand and clenched, giving my own heart similar ideas.

There wasn’t much kind to say to that, so I bit my tongue.

I knew she loved me, and I loved her. But when you’re yoked together like we are, day in and day out  . . . Words sometimes become weapons despite our best intentions to keep our knives sheathed.

We kept plodding onward, Rosemarie sneaking glances over her shoulder every two minutes for raiders looking to scoop a pair of lone women, and “half-breeds” to boot. I couldn’t muster the energy to care. The late afternoon sun was dull, as if it too had lost interest in daily life. Crickets chirped in the rough first-growth grass scratching at the line of skin above our unadorned moccasins. They were the only other creatures with the numbers to compete against the loud squealing of our wooden-axle carts, which screamed like a fox in heat.

It was late spring, but the true warmth of summer was still hiding away somewhere. I hoped somewhere safe.

“There,” Rosemarie said in relief and pointed to a particularly gopher-hole-poxxed hill. All around it was the great pile of fresh buffalo bones, still safe where we’d scouted it the day before.

These bones hadn’t yet been bleached white from summers past — they couldn’t have been older than two or three years, which was becoming increasingly rare — and the hawks and wolves had done us the favour of eating most of the meat. They were lightly sheened and so yellow they pulsed against the prairie.

We usually stuck to the old, bleached bones that freely littered the Plains. The remnants of millions of buffalo our families used to follow, from the northwest to the southeast every few years, giving us the rhythm of our lives. The Faasblaans ground old bones up to a fine meal, then spread them on their precious crops, the ones they were obsessed with clearing the prairies of every last vertebra to be able to seed and plow.

Old bones still fetched close to eight crowns a ton. Most months, it was enough.

But it took a hundred skeletons to make a ton, give or take a femur. And this month Rose had put out her back again, more than a little, which slowed her down while making her three times as fierce.

New bones, now — new bones, the Faasblaans liked best. Sometimes fetched up to a whole twenty crowns a ton. They told tall tales about taking something out of them called “calcium phosphate,” which they used to make their sugar as white as themselves.

We still needed two hundred pounds to make quota this month, which we could just about manage with what we had in our cart already. But that was just quota — nothing more for rent and porridge and the commercially prepared hides we still needed for our moccasins that smelled like dust.

Rosemarie practically dragged our old pony forward, cart wheels screeching, while I floated behind her. She pulled the cart right up to a small pile of skulls that each weighed more than I did soaking wet, with great gaping holes where kind cow’s eyes had no doubt once been. Knobby knees and shoulder blades lay in tangled heaps wherever the wolves had decided to scatter them. Long vertebrae, each piece as thick as my two wrists pressed together, still lay intact.

Waiting for us to descend.

By silent agreement, because of her back, Rosemarie started in on the lighter work with only a small wince — picking up a patella and using the hammer to knock apart the femur from the shin bone still attached. I should have started in on the vertebra, or the cow’s wide pelvis. Despite the symmetrical hollows on either side, it still took five or six good swings to get a starter crack in the thick bone girdle. Once I had a crevice, I’d have to wedge in a thick iron stake to help hammer apart one gently curving pelvic wreath from the other. Only then would they be small enough to toss across the pony into our squawking little cart.

But . . . godsend or not, skeletons as fresh as these meant some of our last remaining four-legged kin had been left to rot in the grass from disease — or state cullings. The buffalo . . . they kept us fed and fat over the winter, gave us their hides to beautify and protect us against the winds, gave us their horns to drink from, their sinew to sew with, their fat and ashes to make soap with. They gave us everything. And now . . .

Now, when I lay on my lumpy pallet at night, I imagined one long future of picking bones and fought to breathe.

I looked back at our wooden cart with its oversized wheels, half-full of thin bones poking through the sides like small hands reaching for help. A reminder of others. The ball-peen hung heavy at my side, then suddenly it was out of my hand, though I didn’t feel it slip. It hit the scrabbly grass with a muted thud.

“Remember when these carts used to be our homes, when we lived out on the hunt?” I asked out loud, to the whistling wind. And to Rosemarie, I suppose, who set her hammer down to throw in the first of the fresh bones. “When they carried our two-legged families, alive, instead of our four-legged relatives, dead?”

Her hand flashed so quickly I could barely follow it. But I did feel the hot slap of her palm hitting my cheek, and hear the sharp crack of it a few seconds later.

“Emmaline,” Rosemarie said, her crows-footed hazel eyes suddenly hard as bullets. Loose strands of her long brown hair, normally held tight in a bun, made a break for freedom. “Emmaline, you have to wake up.”

“I am . . . ” I protested, but hazily. Rosemarie had hit me?

“No, you are not. Not really,” she said, and it was as if her voice travelled the whole length of the Plains and back before it reached my ears.

I really was getting slow. Slow to move, slow to hear, slow to speak. Slow to feel.

By why hurry towards this fate when I already knew it so intimately? When my arms could already feel the ghostly swing of heaving a foreleg into the cart? When my ears were always ringing with the deadened pounding of our hammers?

She saw all that swimming in my eyes, I know she did, but she didn’t care.

Nahtōhta. You have to stop living in the past,” she whispered so fiercely the veins in her throat jumped to attention. “You didn’t die back then, with everyone else. I didn’t die either. Stop acting like we did.”

My mouth opened to answer, but this, just like everything else, was also a tired refrain. “And don’t say ‘Maybe we should have,’” Rosemarie said, cutting off my protest at the nub. “The Creator didn’t spare us for no reason. We don’t know what that is, but there is one and you know it.”

“Don’t let the priests hear you talking like that,” I said, but faintly. My words were wisps of smoke, already dying away into the air.

“Indeed, don’t,” said a younger man’s voice, as smooth as free-pouring water.

I tried to snap around, to look behind me, but it was like moving through taffy. I’m sure I looked a sight, stumbling as if my knees were entirely unacquainted with my hands and feet, but when I looked behind me, the Plains were as empty as ever. The air felt heavy and charged, as it sometimes did before a thunderstorm. The wind, whistling before, dropped. But no one was there.

The loudest sound, besides the constant whine of insects, was the heavy panting of a white-knuckled Rosemarie. She’d heard it too, I could tell, and swirled around with me. The slap was forgotten. Now she clutched my arm to the point where if I still felt pain, really, I would have yelped and prised her off.

“Who’s there?” I called, and I was distantly surprised it was me. Usually it was Rosemarie going to battle, finding us a one-bedroom shack above the butcher’s fat-rendering shop, berating him into selling us a sausage or two when he forgot that we “half-breeds,” as a mixed people, were his kin too. Now her hot breath scorched my right ear, but she said nothing.

These were the prairies. The big, wide-open grasslands of our Netānskwe mothers since time immemorial, and the adopted home of our fathers — Faasblaan men with blood too hot to settle for a dull life of parish farming — for seven generations now. While each hill and den felt insurmountable when the pony got a pebble in its hoof, we are the people who used to follow buffalo as innumerable as the stars across these plains. We did this on land so flat all you had to do was stand up in your saddle to see them all at once.

Nothing larger than a gopher or louder than a grouse can hide well on the plains.

We were alone. It seemed. Only us, and the bones.

“It always feels that way, doesn’t it,” the voice said again, this time coming from just behind my left ear.

I didn’t embarrass myself with quite as disjointed a turn as before, but Rosemarie and I did complete a circle, spinning like tops, and saw nothing but a ditch of cattails standing sentinel in an utter absence of wind.

Except —

“Pick it up, and we can stop this game of hide-and-seek,” the voice said. Not harshly, and not even a man’s . . . more like a boy’s. Around the age Rosemarie’s younger brother had been when he died. “Although I have to admit it’s amusing to watch you flop around, I’d much rather you found it fun, too. And right now you’re . . . mostly afraid.” The voice turned past amusement into sadness then, like butter churned too long.

For some reason I tasted the tang of blood. Well, then. I bit down harder on the inside of my cheek until the sharp ache cleared the fog.

That’s when I saw it.

I thought at first the bright flaunt of pink was just a lady’s slipper, the delicate petals of an orchid peeking out from a tangle of dirt and sedge grass. But it didn’t have the right texture. Then the precise lines and swirls of yellow and green leapt out at me, lovingly created in neat rows of silk stitching in patterns that were achingly familiar.

Mamãn, I said, or maybe just whispered. Maybe just screamed, inside.

Nakii — ” Rosamarie started, stop, but for the first time in who knows how long my pulse quickened at the familiar sight of embroidered buffalo hide. I quickly dug it out of the sunbaked mud, where it was twisted around and underneath an old jawbone, and revealed its sweet colours to the sun.

It was a single gauntlet, a five-fingered glove with a wide neck that was meant to tug halfway up a man’s arm. Made of home-tanned leather, it was gorgeously decorated. The light strips of hide that created a fringe at the wrist were mostly rotted away, but the juicy colours of its silk-threaded flowers shone defiantly bright.

“How could . . . ” Rosemarie breathed before her voice hitched, and I knew exactly what she meant.

The pink that caught my eye turned out to be a fireweed flower, eñ narbaazh di feu, hand stitched on the wrist guard. Its characteristic light-pink petals impishly alternated with dark-pink ones, four and four, as long and lapping as tongues. Perfectly symmetrical bouquets of bluebells guarded the fireweed on either side, with leaves so green they seemed to jump off the hide. They drew the eye down to the area that covered the back of the hand, where three smaller fireweed designs danced together.

It was a glove one of our mothers or aunties or sisters could easily have spent an entire winter embroidering. Whoever wore it would be protected by six months’ love and care sewn in among its threads — not just in thought, the old ones insisted, but in deed. It was a precious gift.

It was also the kind of thing we once did all the time, every long winter evening, sustained happily on bannock and stories and laughter and tea. We had so much creativity and love to share, the wildflower designs practically spilled out of the hands of Netānskwe women everywhere. Gloves, vests, leggings, moccasins, baby carriers, tobacco pouches, horse saddles. We embroidered everything that would take a stitch, and then some. The Faasblaans scoffed at our superstitions, but it was our magic. Our way of honouring the animals who first gifted themselves to us.

Faasblaan men who had two sets of scales for bone pickers — one for Faasblaan, and one for our people, which took more skeletons than any other scale to register a full ton — called us “half-breeds” behind our backs. But to our faces, we used to insist they call us the Flower Silkwork People.

While the embroidery itself was still in good shape, the style was old, much older than I was used to. Even if it had been new, I hadn’t actually seen an embroidered piece at all in . . . a dozen years, at least. And that had been a single moccasin top, much worn, with threads curling loose.

I couldn’t stop rubbing my thumbs against the fine, strong silkwork, still tightly anchored in place after all these years. All of a sudden my throat tightened and my mouth filled with spit, as if I physically hungered. Even my stomach clenched.

I hadn’t feasted on beauty and colour like this since the Faasblaans outlawed flower silkwork embroidery, which we used to set ourselves apart. They’d rounded up all the brightly embroidered mukluks and medicine bags and cart covers they could find — anything that proudly proclaimed us as kin with each other, and kin with the natural world around us — and doused it all with kerosene before lighting the match.

“My mother made this gauntlet for me,” the boy’s voice said, whispering onto a nearly silent prairie. “She threatened to tan my hide when I thought I’d lost it. The buffalo must have trampled it down . . . but now you can bring it back for me.”

Rosemarie sputtered, as if in disbelief. But I couldn’t help but whisper to the voice “What is . . . all this?” like a prayer.

Everything was nearly silent . . . but not quite. As if in response, I heard a far-off thrum, starting slow and building up to a steady pulse. Like the deep, round beat of a drum. Something I hadn’t heard since I was young enough to still ride in my mother’s tikinagan.

Rosemarie heard it too, judging by the way she clenched my arm. But she heard it the way Rosemarie would. “Raiders!” she guessed, and whipped her head around, searching the horizon for a foe.

The boy’s disembodied voice spoke into the air again. Was he a ghost? Or — my heart skipped a beat — an ancestor?

“To be honest, I don’t really know what this is,” he said, as if that were explanation enough, and his words were as warm and sweet as sunshine and honey. Was this what our grandfather had sounded like? Our grandfather’s grandfather? “But it all started when you picked up my glove, which I still want back. Put it on, and let’s find out.”

Put on the battered gauntlet, adorned with fireweed and bluebell designs from generations ago. Bring it back to its home.

Leaving this one behind.

I didn’t hesitate. But neither did Rosemarie.

“Emmaline!” she shouted and ripped the gauntlet out of my fumbling fingers. I couldn’t grip it fast enough, couldn’t recover from years of torpor in the one moment necessary to keep hold of my salvation.

“Give it back,” I growled. The threadbare kerchief tied around my neck chafed against my burning skin. What was I these days? What had I become?

“This stinks of bad magic,” she insisted, and held the glove aloft like it was an adder she’d caught behind the head. “We don’t know who this phantom voice is, or why this was left here for us to find, or what putting it on would do! You know what our grandmothers used to leave behind for the Faasblaans — what if we stumble into one of our own traps?”

That, reluctantly, gave me pause.

After the first Great Fire — after the Faasblaans celebrated the extinction of all but a handful of great buffalo, preserved “for posterity” on reserves — some Netānskwe grandmothers sewed curses into the creations they knew would be confiscated. Or perhaps, more appropriately, sewed the repercussions of their actions into anything stolen from us.

Ultimately, they said, the justice came from the buffalo. Our embroidery showed respect for the buffalo’s generosity. We always tried to model back that generosity as a rule of law. To the buffalo, and to each other.

Those who stole — the antithesis of a gift, freely given — broke the law. And that had to come with consequences.

“But we found it here, among the buffalo,” I argued, even believing my own words. “You remember. Hunters would throw down one of their gloves or gauntlets to mark a fresh kill as theirs. I bet this is one of those. One of our ancestors’, abandoned in the mud and left to the grasshoppers until now. Waiting for their nooshishim. For us.”

Rosemarie and I, we were both children when the last great herds died out. When the Faasblaans burned our emblems, voided our land titles and eventually, after the resistance, killed or arrested the last of the Flower Silkwork People — including my parents and Rosemarie’s mother, my mother’s sister. They were the last of the women who whipped off gloves as fine as these as though it were as simple as walking. Our uncles were the last of the men who kept the early Faasblaan farmers alive with smoked buffalo meat when their crops failed, and thought this would mean something.

Most of the Flower Silkwork People died of tuberculosis that first winter, shivering in hastily built stone jails. The ones who survived until spring were hanged, their spirits given up along with the buffalo.

Our mothers. Our fathers. Their mothers. Their fathers.

“You must act fast,” the voice not-very-helpfully piped in. It had a slight echo now, as if it rang faintly through a tin can. “My tether to your time is fading. If you don’t put it on soon . . . I can’t — ”

“Emmaline, no!” Rosemarie said again, as if speaking to a child, and again the air seemed to crackle with unspent energy. She held the gauntlet up in the air, where its frayed fringe dangled helplessly. Even the pony thought it was a bad idea; she whinnied and stomped her hooves, pulling against her harness. It was uncharacteristically assertive of her.

Then I realized the ground itself was beginning to tremor. As slight as it was, we both recognized the rumble of carriages — many of them, by the feel, and not our kind, given the lack of high-pitched screeching.

Faasblaan raiders. Coming our way.

Rosemarie hadn’t been wrong after all.

“We still have time to take the pony and cart and hide in the next glen over, but we have to leave now,” she said quickly, still holding the glove away, but darting a jealous look at the pile of fresh bones we would have to leave behind. “They’ll be too distracted here for a while to keep searching for us.” Her voice, already gravelly, pitched even lower with the biting disappointment of giving up just as we’d almost had a win. “I suppose we’ll just have to be grateful for what we’ve got.”

“And what is that, Rosemarie?” I said. “Alone in this world without our kin?”

Rosemarie’s shoulders riled up like she was fending off a blow.

“We have a place to lay our heads at night,” she spat. “We have two meals a day and stew once a week, when the hauls are good, and we carry our families’ stories where we can. Why are you so desperate to believe a mysterious voice is calling to you out of nowhere to take you away to some dream of the past? Doesn’t that seem too good to be true?” Her breath hitched. “I didn’t tell you,” she said, “because you leave everything to me, anyway. But if we don’t make quota this month, we can’t pay the butcher. Which means we’re out. Too slow to pay too many times, he says.”

Rosemarie’s whole frame shook to the background sounds of the Faasblaan carriages, getting closer. She had always been tall, taller than most Faasblaan men, but now she looked as frail as a single stalk of wheatgrass against a stampede.

This wasn’t about a curse. Not really. It was about chasing some foolhardy dream, and losing what little we — well, to be fair, she — had scratched out for us so far.

Food to eat. A place to sleep. Clothes that were gray and patched, but mostly whole.

A bare-board hovel of a room above a meat-rendering shop. Where I fought not to retch from the stench each night, and our skin never lost its film of grease.

I stopped trying to grab the gauntlet out of the air, which felt foolish anyway, and not only because Rosemarie stood half a head taller than I. Only because . . . what was the point?

“What do we have to lose, Rose? Truly?” My anger petered out, leaving only something soft and pink in its place. “A few greasy floorboards to share with the mice? Working twenty hours a day to help the Faasblaans build their farms? You’re right — this glove and its ghost may be something cursed. Something not meant for us. But isn’t this life scavenging the bodies of our closest four-legged kin for a few bags of mealy cornmeal a month not meant for us, either?”

The tremors continued through the soles of my feet. In fact, my whole body trembled. Crown to toe. As if on the edge of something terrible.

Rosemarie wet her chapped lips. “If we don’t leave now, the Faasblaan raiders will take everything we have,” she insisted.

I thought of life on the Prairies, generations ago, before the Faasblaan had even a toehold. “If we don’t leave now,” I said, “this is all we’ll ever have. Our families are gone, our relatives scattered, and there’s nothing we can do to bring it all back.”

She stayed stubbornly silent, and I did too. Pondering her words before I spoke again. A light whipped-up wind blew cold against my wet eyes.

“What if this life is the nightmare,” I said, “and this gift from our grandmothers is our way out?”

Her wrist finally lowered an inch. Then another.

I know my cousin, like it or not, chosen or not, better than I know my own self. She is a wizened nut, tough enough to break your tooth. She’s had to be, to look out for us both, when all I wanted to do was curl up on those flea-ridden pallets and dream of a different past.

But even the toughest nuts still crack.

“You really believe that, don’t you?” she croaked, voice low and rough, then pressed the embroidered glove to her chest. Clumps of stray dirt made the jump to her dishwater-grey dress.

“I want to believe it more than I can stand being stuck here, in this moment, with nothing else to hope for,” I said without any thought at all. Just from the heart.

The boy’s voice was gone, but I could sense another presence from his world, like catching sight of a shadow. It was a cow, a fat one, the kind I used to kneel beside every day during the fall hunts that fed us through winter. A beautiful earthy musk filled my nose, and I smelled it — the smell of the buffalo.

Could Rosemarie smell it too?

I couldn’t tell, any more than I could tell for certain if the dark smudge on the horizon was the raiders. If she could . . .

“But only one of us can put it on at once,” Rosemarie whispered, and a lump in my throat nearly choked me with its sudden arising.

My cousin, ever practical. Even when it came to magic.

“Who says so?” I rebuffed, blinking hard and laughing furiously. “Look at that! Large enough for our nimoshoomak to wear. Large enough for us both.”

The far-off smudge crystallized into the outline of Faasblaan carriages — no mistaking them now.

Rosemarie looked again at the skeletons of fresh, strong bones in front of us. Enough to pay the butcher and still feed us for weeks, if we were careful. Enough to bleach hundreds of pounds of sugar.

That is, if our bounty wasn’t stolen. If the weighers were honest. If she didn’t hurt her back even worse in the picking.

My stomach rolled over, and I swallowed a gag at the sight of the tangled buffalo horns. No matter what, I was done. I would never pick bones again.

But I had to hand it to her. When Rosemarie made a decision, she sliced off any hesitancy or fear with a hand so deft it made the crows jealous. “Together, then,” she said, and held her right hand out towards me.

“Together,” I agreed, with a newly awakened heart.

I slipped in my hand against hers until our palms spooned together. We spread our fingers wide, still touching, the backs of my dry, scaly fingers to the calloused fronts of hers. Rosemarie held the glove loosely in front of our joined right hands in her left, ready to slip it on when we were. My limbs buzzed with an energy I hadn’t felt in years.

She kissed my cheek then, a rough and loving peck, not even seeming to mind the mouthful of hair she got in the process. “You always bring me back,” she said. Her voice was thick and curt, in just the sort of way I knew meant her emotions had gotten the better of her.

“You always keep me safe,” I answered, and I let the burden of hoping for a better future, of trying to find a way to live in this world, drop.

“Remember us,” I said to our poor little pony. She only watched, swishing her tail against the flies, perplexed.

“What do you think we’ll find, over there?” Rosemarie asked, with only a small gnaw of doubt.

“Let’s go find out,” I said lightly.

Then, without another word, we grabbed ourselves a new future together.

The gauntlet dropped, making a soft plopping sound in the scrubby grass when it hit. The intensity of its pinks and blues faded slightly, but only as much as you might expect from a traveller who hadn’t had a proper bath in over one hundred years.

On the other side, somewhere — somewhen — two sets of eyes, one brown, one hazel, became dinner-plate circles in an effort to believe.

The sky was so blue it was almost an assault, the way an embrace can catch you off-guard before you lean in. Strange, glinting birds — were they metal? — flew miles high, and the air was heavy with the unmistakable musk of people and animals living in close proximity to one another. There were painted tipis, not too far off, but also buildings taller than any buildings had a right to be, a mix of flashing glass and dark grey panels that seemed to soak up the sun.

And there was music. Natural birdsong, but also the amplified voices of others, singing, drumming together on the downbeat.

A smiling dark-haired boy of thirteen or fourteen walked across short-stemmed grass towards them. He wore a flower-embroidered vest with a familiar pink-tongued fireweed design along each panel, combined with unfamiliar blue pants, made of some heavy material. He held a small glowing device to his ear, speaking into it as if to another person, then waved and seemed to click the machine off.

Taanishi! You brought my glove!” the boy called, with a simple laugh.

And behind it all — the far-off rumble of a herd.

Host Commentary

…aaand welcome back! That was “The Bone Pickers”, by Kelsey Hutton.

This summer I visited Canada for the first time in my life. As a European, the size of America felt overwhelming, and facing nature there was humbling.

I arrived to the country more or less at the same time as the Pope, who was visiting to apologise for the unforgivable. Among the pain that thickened the air, I encountered the beadwork of the indigenous peoples of the Lakes, and I was marveled by its beauty and brightness. I had been taught that the world on this side of the ocean was a wide and bleak range of browns, when in reality it had been lush green and full of colours.

There are two things about this story that I love. First, embroidery as magic. If magic is energy, then a piece of work that needed months or even years to be made must exhude magic. I have no doubt that this magic does exist, as it has the power to change the mood of the person that admires it.

Second, the possibility that somewhere, somewhen, an encounter between cultures did take place, but there was no violence, no destruction, no deliberate pain. It might not be the “when” where we live, but the possibility of it existing brings me some relief.

I do hope that the future holds hope too. That what can be rescued is saved, and that the pain is softened. I hope that, as Matt likes to say at the end of every Podcastle episode, we all stay safe, and be kind.

About the Author

Kelsey Hutton

Kelsey Hutton is a Métis author from Treaty 1 territory and the homeland of the Métis Nation (Winnipeg, Canada). She loves writing historical fantasy, space opera and Métis and Cree-shaped SFF for fellow Indiginerds everywhere.

Kelsey was born in an even snowier city than she lives in now (“up north,” as they say in Winnipeg). She also used to live in Brazil as a kid. She tries to appreciate the clean, cold winters, but mostly misses the beautiful wide-open lakes of summertime.

Connect with her on Twitter at @kelhuttonauthor or on Instagram at @kelseyhuttonauthor.

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About the Narrator

Laurie McDougall

Laurie McDougall is Red River Métis, born and raised in the heart of the Métis homeland. She is a beadworker seeking to live up to the legacy of her ancestors, the Flower Beadwork People, and is passionately reconnecting to the broken threads of her Indigenous culture. She lives in Winnipeg, Canada, with her spouse and two sweet cats.

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About the Artist

Cindy Fan

Cindy Fan (she/her) is an illustrator and night owl who specializes in bringing stories to life in a dreamy and thoughtful manner for print and digital media. When she’s not drawing she loves walking slowly and aimlessly admiring the textures around her. Her work can be found at www.cind.ca

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