A Bone to Pick

by Margret Wiggins

Everyone in town knows the better the bones, the longer he’ll stay. Last year, he was gone by summer. He didn’t even last a full year. Dad says it’s because Alice Kuffman only gave her daughter’s pinky toe. That’s barely even a bone, dad says. Dad has given his right foot and four fingers, including a thumb. Mom says he left early because Old Man Peter has gotten lazy with the cleaning. It’s not hard, she says, to pick a bone dry and make it shine. It’s only dead flesh.

Either way, they both agree that the same mistakes cannot be made this year. Lucky you, Jackson says, it’s your turn to give. He grins at me and rubs the stump at the end of his left arm, causing flecks of dry skin to float down into the dirt. The skin puckers at the end, the pink flesh still tender where the cut was made. Jackson says it’s his greatest honor, but I’ve seen him reach out, forgetting there is no hand to run through his hair or wipe off on his trousers or pick up the fallen apples from the tree by the schoolyard. It is the phantom limb that scares me, not the pain. Dad knows how to sever bone and sinew with one swing of the axe. But how long does the feeling of incompleteness last?

Tomorrow people will bring their sacrifices down to the banks of the river. Some will carry the limbs wrapped in white cloth, the dark and muddy red stains soaking deeper into the fabric. Others will hold the bloody appendage in their bare hands, their fingers sinking into the rotting flesh, claiming still what was once theirs but is not anymore. We will pile our extremities on top of one another, saying a silent goodbye as we release a part of ourselves to him. Starting with his knife, Old Man Peter will begin working on the limbs. As the blade gets dull he’ll use the four fingers he has left, two pointers and two thumbs. Stripping the muscles, nails tearing at the fat and snapping tendons with his teeth.

Dad will remind us all of what happened before we gave to the Collector. The creatures that came out of this very river who snuck into houses at night and ripped apart those who slept. Little Johnny Crater’s head was bitten clean off, his mom found him with his neck still on the pillow, a pool of blood crowning at the exposed spine.

The creatures, Dad will say, took from us without consent. The Collector, now he’s something different. How fortunate it is, that he found us in our time of need. He does not harm us with his rows of jagged gray teeth and hooked spiked spine. He takes our donated gifts and protects us from the beasts. The things that would feast on our flesh and suck the marrow from our broken bones. The Collector, he keeps away those demons. We do not think it is too steep a price to pay for safety.

Next to him, her dress stopping right at the rounded end of her thigh, mom will be leaning on her cane, her one leg bearing all of her weight as she counts each piece Old Man Peter cleans, making sure every household has contributed. This time, the axe will hang at her side, in case some families decided to scrimp on what is owed. We won’t be left vulnerable again. She will remind us how blessed we are to retain such a fair benefactor.

Tomorrow, I will stand on the banks of the river and lay down my leg onto the pile. I will look on proudly as Old Man Peter scrapes away my skin, shearing off my calf muscle and ligaments until only sharp and polished bones remain. I know after each sacrifice, after each immaculate piece is inspected, we will leave the severed bones at the bank of the river, just how he likes it, and return to our homes. And in the morning the Collector will be in that same spot, licking the ground dust off his long, slender fingers, perhaps using the nub of a knuckle to pick at his teeth. If our offering is enough, for a full year he’ll sit down by the river, smacking bone dust off his lips and guarding us from evil.

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