The bone flute

by Sarah Masters

February 15, 2023

It was in one of those rare spaces where flecked mirrors gleam dully and brown bottles whisper of decay and mischief that I reached inside an old trunk and connected with something slim, solid, ancient: the flute.

It was no longer than my hand, just wider than my thumb, tobacco yellow, with five irregularly shaped holes. The ends had been smoothed but were still bone shaped. A femur, the shopkeeper agreed, probably deer. He wrapped it in a remnant of silk and handed it to me.

When I was a child, my father had a bamboo flute from China. He’d breathe into it and summon eagles, wolves, mountains from ice blue skies. I learnt to play on a boxwood flute, took exams accompanied my friend Dan on his guitar: competent, nothing special. I could live with that most days.

Back home I unwrapped my bone flute, rubbed my thumb over the holes. Each was different, one almost a star, like a wound. They’d have killed the deer themselves, I thought, skinned it and cooked it. They’d have hollowed out the femur and bored holes with a flint. I felt no sadness for the animal that had perished. As for the flautist, though, curiosity took hold.

That day I muffled the flute in its silk cloth, slid it into a drawer—gave it time to accept me.

But that night the wind lifted my bedclothes, pulled at my hair. I heard trees creaking where there were no trees. And I saw her, wrapped in a cloak that curled on the ground: my musician. Halfway old, halfway young, her hair streamed across her face as she hummed a song of love, of hunger, of loss. Then she was gone, the windows stilled, and the trees returned to distant traffic.

I got up, worked, let the everyday return, but someone had stroked a cool hand down my neck. I felt inhabited. That evening I lifted the bone flute to my mouth, worked my lips till they felt right, and blew.

The flute squealed. It screeched. It squawked. No matter how I placed my fingers, the sound was hideous. “What?” I said. “What do you want?” I returned it to the drawer.

She came to me in the night again, the flautist, alone in moss green dark, her face palely lit. Her melody was the trees, it was the peat moorland, it was her children. It was her lover.

I woke, the song inside me, but as I tried to hum it, it disappeared into smoke.

That evening I took out the flute, closed my eyes and lifted it to my lips. I thought of the woman and her loss, and I played. My fingers found the song. I kept my eyes closed, and she was there, gazing at me with an expression I didn’t understand. The music floated through my fingers and coiled above her. My eyes were wet when I opened them.

I told Dan to bring his guitar. He held out his hand for the bone flute. I passed it to him, and my fingers chilled as he took it. He pressed it against his lips and the most discordant, horrible sound emerged: screams, as of an animal tortured. He put it down on the table quickly, I picked it up, closed my eyes, and the melody returned to my fingers. I breathed the song, giving life to the peat bogs, calling to my lost loves.

“Clare!” I woke to his cry, opened my eyes to see my fingers wet and oozing with blood. But there was no pain, and my fingers washed clean under running water—not a scratch.

She was waiting for me again that night in my dream. I held out my hand, but she shook her head. Tears were falling from her eyes as she sang, and I learnt what I should have known all along.

She wasn’t the flute player.

She was the flute.

About Sarah Masters

Sarah Masters lives in York and writes tiny stories which have appeared in Paragraph Planet, Shooter Flash, National Flash Fiction Anthology 2022, FlashFlood 2022, and Pure Slush.

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