Marrowbone by Lana K. W. Austin

Judge's Choice, 2018 Fiction Contest


Henry thought it looked like a flower. He didn’t want to see the way the calf’s throat seemed to peel back from her spine. He didn’t want to see how the vertebrae in her neck, newly exposed, flashed white, either. He certainly didn’t want to think of the blood as blood. He only wanted to see the rose pattern it made on the floor.

“God help me,” he thought, “I’ll just do it for a second.” He had to draw. He raised his left hand up and began an outline of the flower in the air. He knew he should wake his grandfather, but he couldn’t stop himself from completing the picture he’d started. It soothed him.

When he finished the outline, he started to walk quickly back towards his grandparents’ farmhouse. He glanced down at his dog, Bobby, who walked beside him. 

“God damn it, Bobby. What kind of guard dog are you? You didn’t bark. All you did was fuckin’ whine right before I opened the door, you good-for-nothing, piece-of-shit dog.” Bobby could tell Henry wasn’t really mad at him, though, and just wagged his tail like he always did when Henry talked to him.

As Henry broke into a run, Bobby kept pace with him. They made their way up the small hill that led to the trailer where his mother was. Henry didn’t even look at the trailer, though. He just ran around it so he could get to the path that would take him to his grandparents’ little white farmhouse that was located a few hundred feet away. 

His grandfather, Jasper, had just finished making cornbread in a cast iron skillet. He crumbled some into a bowl and poured buttermilk over it, exactly the way his bride of forty-five years, Bess, liked it before he brought it to her. Bess, still using a walker after a bad fall down the porch steps two weeks before, sat with her feet propped up on the couch in the living room that was right off the kitchen. She’d just started to take a bite when Henry came in. She glanced towards Jasper, who’d returned to the kitchen, wondering if he knew why Henry was back so soon.

Jasper put the buttermilk in the refrigerator before he started to talk through the small opening between the kitchen and the living room. “Henry, you better not be distracted again. You’re seventeen and you gotta work. Ain’t no way you could’ve finished all those chores yet.”

“I’m not distracted, Grandpa. It’s Jennifer. Something ripped her throat open.”

Jasper started banging the skillet around loudly as he replied to Henry. “See there, I told you don’t be naming the calves people names and getting all acquainted. She was bound to end up being supper for someone or something.” Henry knew that his grandfather was more upset about Jennifer being killed than whether Henry had named her or not. But like Jasper always did, he didn’t talk about the thing that actually upset him.

Bess set her bowl down on the table beside the couch. “It was a wolf. I’m telling you, a wolf done it.”

Henry didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t understand why his grandfather wasn’t already heading out the door to go investigate. He started to lift his arm up in the air to re-trace the flower.

“Henry, put that hand down. I know you done been drawing ever chance you get, but this ain’t the time or the place.”

“Yes, sir.” Henry lowered his arm.

“And Bess, it ain’t a wolf.”

“Of course it’s a wolf.” Bess scrunched up her face like she’d pulled a tomato off the vine when it was still green and eaten it raw.

“Grandma, I was reading about this last year when I did a report on Kentucky wildlife. We don’t have wolves anymore, not even here in Marrowbone.”

“Maybe not the red kind, but those ol’ gray ones, sure. I done seen one just this last week, right there where our acres meet the woods.”

“How do you know it’s a wolf, Bess? And why ain’t you been telling me none about it?” Jasper had come out from the tiny kitchen and stood in the middle of the living room facing Bess. With the farmhouse being so small and Jasper still being over six feet tall, even at sixty-four, it’d only taken him a few steps to get there.

“Jasper, you always saying I’m flapping my mouth too much, especially since I’ve been laid up with this bad leg, so why would I tell you the details of ever last thing I seen?” 

Bess picked up the bowl and started to eat again until she abruptly slammed it back down on the side table. Chunks of wet cornbread bounced out of it and onto the family Bible that always sat on the table. Bess used her index finger to clean it up. She started to gesture with her hands with the buttermilk-soaked cornbread bits still on her finger. Henry watched bread fragments fall to the floor.

"And let me tell you something else, Jasper Maclean, you don’t think after all my years living in Marrowbone, on this same land with all sorts of animals coming and going, that I don’t know a gray wolf when I seen it?”

Jasper started to answer, but only got “but” out before Bess started talking again. “Do you think I’m a-lying now?”

Jasper started to rub the bridge of his nose, a gesture he usually only made at night when he was exhausted. 

“Woman, I ain’t saying you’re lying. I’m sure you thought you saw a wolf, but you ain’t no spring chicken. Your eyes is getting right near decrepit, like mine, and you need a new pair of glasses. You probably seen a gray dog. Maybe a coyote, but they’s rare, too.” 

Henry knew his grandmother, who’d gotten used to lying around during the convalescing time after her fall, was pissed because she quickly grabbed the walker that she’d kept right in front of the couch. She grunted as she stood up, but then she just stood there, the skin over her knuckles pulled so thin it looked ready to split open as she held onto the handles.

“There ain’t no gray dog as big as what I seen. It was a wolf. There ain’t just one of ‘em, either.”

Henry wanted to raise his hand and draw in the air some more. But he knew his grandfather wouldn’t like it, and Henry didn’t want to make him any more upset than hearing about Jennifer had already made him, so he took a step towards his grandmother.

“Grandma, why don’t you sit back down? Maybe you’re right. Maybe it was a wolf.”

Henry helped Bess onto the couch. Then he sat down beside her and put her feet in his lap, which he knew helped her swollen knee.

“Thank you, Henry, you’s a good boy.”

Henry didn’t know what to do then. His grandfather didn’t, either, because he was still standing in the middle of the living room.

“I can believe it was a wolf, Grandma, but I don’t know why it’d be here. It wasn’t hunting.” 

Henry could barely make out what his grandfather said next, though, because Jasper picked that moment to turn and walk towards the door. The words he said as he grabbed his coat and hat from the rack that was to the right of the door were muffled.

“What was that, Grandpa?”

Jasper turned back around, but then waited a few seconds to respond as he put his hat and coat on.

“I done asked why you’re thinking the wolf . . . damn it, Bess, now you got me thinking you’re right . . . wasn’t hunting when you said the calf’s neck was ripped open. Sounds mighty like hunting to me.”

“You mean hunting to eat, right Grandpa?”

“Yep. Sometimes, back when I was young and the wolves was still in these parts all the time, if it was a tough season for them and they was starving, they’d come out of the mountains and into the hollers.”

“But there was nothing else wrong with the calf. No bites taken out of her anywhere, just her throat torn.”

Henry, who had closed his eyes so he could see the flower again, wasn’t  looking at either of his grandparents. But he could sense them looking at each other. When he felt his grandmother start fidgeting, he asked, “What?”

Henry opened his eyes and looked at Bess. She glanced up at him for a second, but then quickly looked at Jasper, who had taken his hat off. Then Bess started looking down and furiously rubbing her knee.

Henry repeated his question. He didn’t say it any louder, but the tone changed. He was shocked to hear how hoarse he’d suddenly become. “What?”

Jasper took the hat he had in his hand, an old green Peterbilt trucker one, and put it back on the rack. He picked up a blue UK basketball one instead, adjusted the strap in the back, and put it on before he started to speak.

“Henry, there ain’t no way I’m gonna get your grandmother to stop now. But don’t you believe a word she says after this. She’s a smart woman, always has been, even with no real book learning. She knows how to help run a farm real good. But when it comes to her speaking of the old ways, you best not be believing a single thing that comes out of her mouth.”

Henry knew his grandfather was talking about the mountain stories his grandmother told. The ones with the banshees and witches and brownies. The ones in the old ballads they still sang around the fire in winter. They represented a way of thinking she’d brought with her when she first left Harlan County and Black Mountain. A way of thinking that her grandparents had brought over from Scotland and Ireland before that.

Bess raised her head up and began to speak again. Instead of sounding angry like she had before, she just sounded perturbed. “Oh, hush up now. You know you believe those things as much as I do. You may not wanna admit it, but deep down you think it’s all true. You never fought me for a single second when I wanted to paint the porch ceiling haint blue.”

“No, I didn’t. But I don’t have no time to discuss it. I gotta go clean up that barn.”

“Do you want me to come with you?” Henry started to move his grandmother’s feet from his lap.

“No, son. You’ve already seen ‘nuff of that. You eat some breakfast. I know you gotta be getting ready for school. I’ll do the rest of your morning chores, but just for today.”

After Jasper left, Henry continued to sit on the couch with his grandmother with neither one saying anything for a few minutes until Bess started pointing at her feet.

“Henry, please move my legs back down. I think I better be sitting up for a spell. Feet flat on the ground, even if it hurts like the dickens. With what’s coming our way, what’s already here, no more lazin’.”

Henry helped his grandmother get situated and then he went into the kitchen to eat the cornbread his grandfather had put out for him.

“Grandma, what is it that you think’s going on? You can talk to me about the old ways, if you want to.”

“Before I get into all that, maybe you best be checking on your mother. It’s been a while since I looked over there to see if the light was on.”

“I haven’t seen her since I brought more food over two days ago. Not that she eats much. And she asked me to keep the lights off. She kept saying they hurt her eyes. I don’t think she cares if she can see anymore or if she eats, either.” 

“No wonder you wanted to come stay with us. But you know I ain’t got no ill will towards your mama. I understand why she’s bein’ this way. Grief’ll drive good folks to the bottle.”

“She never drank like this before.” 

“I ain’t saying it’s okay, but it’s only been a couple months. I’m sure she’ll come out of it soon. Still, it might be right nice to look in on her today now that the wolves and God knows what else have come to our farm.”

Henry went back to the couch and sat next to his grandmother. He couldn’t eat anymore. He’d barely been able to force a few mouthfuls down in the first place. No matter how much he tried to focus on the rose, he kept seeing Jennifer’s throat. 

“What else could it be, Grandma, if it’s not a wolf? A coyote? They used to be rare around these parts, too, but I know the Pearsons saw one a few years ago and Jack Higgins had to shoot one just last year.”

“It’s not a coyote. It’s worse.”

Bess picked up the TV Guide that was on the side table next to the Bible and started fanning herself with it, even though it was October and already cold.

“You think a person could’ve done that?”

Bess didn’t respond to Henry’s question. She just fanned faster.

“Grandma, do you think a person did that?”

“You won’t like what I got to say, not any more than your Grandpa does. But I’m gonna say it anyway. It’s best you understand all these things. Some day soon Jasper and I will be too old to run this farm and it’ll go directly to you since…”

Henry knew she couldn’t say her son’s name or what happened to him, either, so he said it for her. “Since my dad died in the car wreck. Stuart, your son Stuart. He’s been gone for two and a half months.”

“Yes. So this place will be yours now. Next spring you’ll be eighteen, a full-grown man, and Jasper’s turning sixty-five. Retirement age. Works out real nice there, y’all’s ages like that.”

“Grandma, I don’t want to be disrespectful, but you know I can’t stay here. I love the land, but I’m not good at working it like Grandpa is. Or like my Dad was before he passed away. He told me nearly every day of his life that he had our good red dirt in his veins, not blood.”

Bess smiled as she remembered. “Yes, he surely did say that. Heavens, boy, you look more like him every day.”

“You think?” 

“You’re just as tall. Like your daddy, you got two inches on Jasper now with you sprouting up this summer. You even got your daddy’s auburn hair and green eyes, as Scots-Irish as any I seen.” 

“But I’m not him. Besides, you know what I wanna do.”

            Henry sat with his head down, looking at the purple stain on the rug that was still there from when his second cousins came and brought their kids, who’d spilled their grape Kool-Aid. He’d tried to clean it four times and the stain still wouldn’t come out. 

“Yes, and I don’t like it one bit.” Bess stopped smiling and stopped fanning herself, too. She flung the TV Guide onto the table, and turned to look right at Henry. He knew she was about to unleash a maelstrom of words.

“Henry, this land’s belonged to our family ever since they came over from Scotland. They arrived in Virginia, then on up through Cumberland Gap and across a third of Kentucky until they reached what would become Cumberland County. They founded Marrowbone. It may be an itty-bitty town, but it’s ours. Just like this farm’s our family’s and has been for years and years. You ain’t gonna be squandering that by running off to some art school.”

Henry sat with his head down, looking at the purple stain on the rug that was still there from when his second cousins came and brought their kids, who’d spilled their grape Kool-Aid. He’d tried to clean it four times and the stain still wouldn’t come out. 

Bess sighed then, which was really more of a phlegmy rattle because ever since her fall she’d been lying down too much. Her lungs seemed to be holding extra fluid all the time.


Henry kept on staring at the purple stain.

“Henry, look at me.”

Henry finally looked up at his grandmother.

“Oh, you sweet boy. Don’t you think I know that you love your art? You’re real good, too. But can’t you find a way to do it and stay here so you can help keep the farm going?”

“I would, honestly, if I could. But I believe that I’d just ruin everything. And Grandpa’s getting too old to do much more. It’d all be on me. The worst thing that could happen would be me trying to make this work, but then losing the farm anyway when I failed. Why don’t we just sell the land now when it’s still worth something, before I mess it all up?”

“And do what after that?”

“You’ve told me all my life that you’ve wanted to visit the beach, but you’ve never been able to.”

“Yep, always wanted to feel the sand between my toes.” 

“But you said either there was no money, or there was no time, what with keeping this place going. But if we sold the land, you’d have the time and the money, too. You wouldn’t have to just visit, either. You could live at the beach, and it’d be good for Mama, too!”

Bess knew the brightness that suddenly appeared on Henry’s face. Normally she loved it. It was how he looked when he talked about drawing, when they sang hymns at church, or when she made him peach cobbler. But to see his face light up at the idea of selling the farm made her so upset that she reached over and grabbed the TV Guide again so she could start fanning herself some more.

“It ain’t that simple. I can’t just go to the beach. I feel like we gotta protect this land, or die trying. Especially with what’s coming for us now.”

“What are you talking about?”

Bess kept fanning and looked straight ahead. Somehow that made it easier for her to release the words she didn’t want to say.

“I think something real bad’s after us. It’s evil.”

“You’re saying something evil killed Jennifer?”

“Yes. And it’s a wolf, but I think there’s other things, too, with it. All of ‘em evil.”


“I don’t know exactly, but I know that no regular animal killed that calf for the normal reasons. It wasn’t no starving bear. Maybe it was a wolf, an evil wolf, but it definitely wasn’t a coyote. If that was the case, it wouldn’t have just gone for her throat and left everything else. I know it ‘cause I’ve been dreaming again.”

Henry knew no good could come from what his grandmother would say next, but he realized he had no choice but to sit there and listen to it.

“You know that’s not real, what you see in those dreams.”

“It’s barely seven in the morning and you’re already sassing me! Don’t you remember when I dreamed of the Bean Nighe, when I saw her washing Susan Lynn Johnson’s dress? The Bean Nighe told me in the dream that Susan was gonna die. And the very next day that sweet lady was gone. Only thirty-seven and had herself a stroke. But I told you about my dream first.”

“That wasn’t a banshee. It was a coincidence.”

“You’re gonna sit here in the house I helped your mother birth you in, and deny that I have the sight?”

“I don’t know how to explain hardly anything, so I won’t say you don’t have the sight. But I don’t think there are banshees running around here. Not in your dreams or anywhere else. None of the evil things in the old ballads you taught me, either, are haunting this farm. That’s the part I actually do know.”

The sudden scratching at the door made both Henry and Bess jump. Bess put her hand over her heart and pushed down as if she were pressing its palpitations away. Henry took a deep breath.

“It’s just Bobby. Normally he waits for me to ask him to come inside. He hasn’t whined like that since he was a pup.

“Maybe he senses the banshees coming down from the mountains to haunt our holler.”

“No, he just wants to come in for a bit.”

Henry went over and opened the front door. He didn’t say anything to his grandmother because he didn’t want to encourage her wild thinking, but right before he opened the door, there was a second where he could feel a quickening in his chest. If he was honest, he wasn’t one hundred percent sure it was Bobby he heard clawing.

“There you are, you ol’ mutt.” 

Bess called Bobby to her. “He can stay with me since I know you gotta be going.”

Henry watched his grandmother love on Bobby. She even put down the TV Guide and wrapped both her arms around his neck. Normally she never wanted him up on the couch, so Henry knew she was spooked.

“Grandma, you know I need that academic scholarship in case my art portfolio doesn’t get me one.”

“You’ve been working mighty hard.”

“Then you know it takes a lot for me to miss school. But I gotta stay home today.”

Bess stopped petting Bobby.

“I bet seeing Jennifer like that did you in. What a ruckus.”

Henry’s grandmother was right. Seeing Jennifer’s throat ripped open was something he’d never expected. It’d made him feel sick to his stomach ever since. But he also wanted to stay home to help his grandparents. He realized that, for all their years on the farm, dealing with animals dying hadn’t gotten any easier.  Henry had a sneaking suspicion that his grandfather had loved Jennifer as much as he had, and that’s why he didn’t want her named. He thought that, no matter what his grandfather had said, he should probably go down to the barn. He’d just started to get up, when Jasper came back.

“Folks, the mystery’s done solved. Carter Stokes stopped by.”

Bess knew that Carter only went three places, his fields, the Southern States store when he needed supplies, and church on Sunday, so something bad must’ve happened.

“Out with it, Jasper. It’s been a tough morning, don’t be keeping us waiting.”

“I heard the truck pull up and went outside to see who it was. Carter got out and told me to take a look at what he had under the tarp in the truck bed. It was a huge coyote, probably the biggest I’ve ever seen, though I’ve mostly just seen pictures of ‘em. He’d shot it when he found it prowling around his farm this morning.”

Henry stood up and started pacing around the room. Instead of calming him down, somehow the news made him feel more anxious.

“So that’s what killed Jennifer.”

“Yep. I bet that’s what Bess seen, too.”

Bess harrumphed. “I said it was a wolf I seen and I won’t change that none.”

Henry stopped pacing and sat back down on the couch. “If he shot the coyote, does that mean it’s over?”

Jasper shook his head. “Naw. They travel in packs. Carter said they gotta be more. That’s why he came over, to warn us, but I told him it was too late.”

“Do we wait for them to come back, Grandpa?”

“Carter and I think we might better be hunting them down. Don’t wanna give ‘em the chance to kill anymore livestock.”

Bess shook her head in agreement. “That sounds like a fine idea to me. Hunting everything down’ll be good. But maybe you should stay out of it.”

Jasper shook his head “no” in an exaggerated way.

“Why in the world would I stay out of it?”

“I know you think I speak my mind too much. But the truth is I ain’t ever said everything I needed to say.”

Jasper didn’t know what to do, so he just kind of backed up to the door and leaned against it. With the slightest tilt of his head towards Bess he said, “Go on.”

“We ain’t gonna figure this all out today, not ‘fore Henry’s gotta go to school.”

Henry opened his mouth to protest, but his grandmother didn’t let him get a word out. She reached out and touched his shoulder as she said, “I know you wanted to skip today, but you should go. You’ll feel better there with your friends.”

Henry knew she was right. “Okay.”

Bess moved her hand from Henry’s shoulder and started to brush off cornbread crumbs from her shirt. “I know I’m stubborn ‘bout my beliefs. And I still think there’s wolves here, and maybe something much worse. But as I’ve been sitting here talking with Henry ‘bout it, some new ideas been jumping into my head.”

Jasper started to laugh. “Holy hell, woman! The last thing we need right now is you with new ideas.” It was the perfect tension breaker and Bess and Henry laughed with him.

Bess took one last hiccup-like laugh before she spoke again. “I’m not saying we’ll find an answer this morning, but do you think you could agree to one thing for me, Jasper?” 

Jasper heard the sweetness in his wife’s voice and it got to him. He sounded shy when he said ‘I ‘spose so’, like he was courting again. Then Jasper looked so directly into Bess’ eyes and she looked back in the same way, it was as if there was a tender thread of light connecting them. 

“Like I said, we don’t gotta be figuring everything out this second, but maybe Henry shouldn’t be helping ‘em, either.”

Jasper felt himself agreeing with Bess without even thinking about it, but he knew they were the right words as soon as he said them. “All righty, Bess.”

Bess started grabbing a hold of the couch with both her hands. It looked like she thought the couch might dump her off it and she was holding on for dear life.

“As long as you’s being so agreeable this morning, and this here’s the big one, but soon I think we need to start having some conversations about moving to the beach.”

Even though he’d shaved less than two hours before and his skin was smooth, Jasper rubbed his imaginary chin stubble. In response to Bess, he just said, “Hmmm…” 

Henry’s eyebrows jumped way up, as if they were in a hurry to reach the top of his head. He thought his grandmother might’ve lost her mind, going from talk of wolves and banshees and begging him to stay on the farm, to then trying to talk his grandfather into moving to the beach. But then he remembered growing up and his father saying that Bess didn’t change her mind often, but when she did, it had to be for a reason as true and strong as the mountains that surrounded them.

Bess cleared her throat in an exaggerated way. “Well, Jasper? Can we at least plan to talk ‘bout it?”

Jasper laughed again. “I haven’t lived this long by being a dumb man. Sure, sometimes it’ll take a while for me to figure things out, but I ain’t stupid. And I’d be stupid to not at least talk to you ‘bout it.”

“Thank you, honey.” Bess let go of the couch and blew Jasper a kiss. Henry loved that his grandparents could be fighting one second and loving on each other the next.

Jasper pinched his nose again.  “Just not today. Please, Bess, no talking about it today. It’s been a hard day and it’s barely seven in the morning.”

Bess and Henry both started nodding and murmuring in agreement that it had, indeed, been a hard day.

And then they all started doing what they needed to do. Jasper went outside to begin his many every-day tasks. Bess started to pull herself up on the walker so she could get to the kitchen and at least try to tidy it up a bit. And, while Henry could still see what looked like the faint afterglow of the rose in his mind, he no longer felt the need to draw it. He didn’t have time. He had to brush his teeth and grab his backpack in a hurry so he could check on his mother before he caught the bus.

Lana K. W. Austin, born and raised in rural Kentucky, is a poet and writer whose work has recently been featured in Mid-American Review, Sou’wester, The Chariton Review, Appalachian Heritage, Columbia Journal, Zone 3, and The Pinch. Her full-length poetry collection, Blood Harmony, is from Iris Press (2018). Austin, the winner in the poetry category of the 2018 Words and Music Writing Competition, is an adjunct English instructor at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. 

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