Speaking to Skull Kings
by Emily B. Cataneo
When Bird with his crown of black roses disappears from the clearing, Genevieve knows she and Joseph won’t be safe anymore. At night, while Joseph sleeps, she sorts the walnuts and lingonberries that Bird gathered for them to eat, counting fewer each time. Her stomach aches and she flinches at the rustle of the skull kings in the ghost forest beyond the clearing.
Sometimes, she clambers up trees, her boots slipping on bark, straining to hear the rustle of Bird’s wings, the growl of his caw.
Night after night, Bird doesn’t return.
Night after night, the skull kings crunch through the undergrowth, closer and closer.
Bird always protected them, as long as Genevieve can remember, since she and Joseph picked bittercress in the clearing as children. Then, Bird loomed taller than both of them. In summer, he plucked fruits and nuts from the trees’ highest branches, and in winter, he draped them in his glossy black feathers, sheltering them against whipping ice.
He protected them the first time the skull kings attacked. Small skull kings, the skulls of mice and voles, had always chattered in the weeds that ringed the clearing, and once or twice larger skull kings had flashed among the translucent trees of the ghost forest. But on that day–an autumn day, when Joseph sat drawing beneath an elm tree and Genevieve swung from its lowest branch–a scream tore through the clearing, and a wall of bone materialized out of the hazy ghost forest. A skull king, the skull of a giant raptor or dinosaur, hurtled towards them. It swerved on treaded tires through the weeds that rimmed their clearing, looming over Genevieve.
She screamed. She threw her arms around Joseph and pressed his head against her shoulder.
But Bird leapt into the air, flapping immense black wings, squawking in a language that Genevieve didn’t know. The skull king screamed back, a sound that came from its mouth even though its long-dead jaw didn’t move. Decaying plants swayed in its eye sockets, scraped against the inside of its cranium.
Bird squawked again, and the thin autumn sun caught the velvet petals, the thistle and thorn, of his black rose crown.
The skull king growled, but it reversed, retreating towards the ghost forest.
Bird landed among the ferns and flowers, wrapped Genevieve and her brother in his wings and crooned you’re safe, little children, you’re safe.
Genevieve snuggled against his downy feathers, knowing she would never come to harm.
“We have to find him.” Genevieve gathers crooked sticks out of the bed of moss and decaying leaves on the clearing floor.
“What are you going to do about the skull kings? Tap them to death?” Joseph strokes the thin stubble on his hollow cheeks. “Genius.”
“We’ll leave during the day, so the dangers in the ghost forest won’t be quite as bold.”
“Gen.” Joseph runs his fingers along an oak’s trunk. “I don’t think we’re…. I don’t think he wants to be found.”
Genevieve feels for a second as though she’s floating and about to fall. She cranes her neck at the cerulean sky above the rustling leaves, forces in a breath. Then she breaks off an oak branch. The snap echoes through the clearing and Joseph jumps.
“We’re going to find Bird,” Genevieve snarls. “He told me about other clearings in this forest, other safe havens. He must have gone to another one of those, and we’re going to find him. That’s the last I want to hear about it.”
“Don’t know why you’re so fixated on finding Bird,” Joseph mutters.
“Who’s going to keep us warm when winter comes? Gather food for us?” Genevieve jabs a finger towards their meager collection of walnuts and berries sheltered in the roots of an elm tree. “Who’s going to protect us from the skull kings?”
Joseph presses his hands against his stomach. “But if we go into the forest, there’s no way we’ll avoid the skull kings.”
Genevieve ignores him and stacks her weapons.
Throughout Genevieve’s childhood, Bird told her stories: how Genevieve and Joseph had come from far-off forests called cities, where food and safety are in short supply. How parents from those places sometimes decided they couldn’t care for their children, so they swaddled them in blankets and brought them to the forest and found bird-protectors to promise to watch after them.
“What happens if parents can’t find a bird-protector?” Joseph would ask, looking up from his sketchbook. And Bird would quickly launch into another story, perhaps about how he had become a protector by gathering the black roses of his crown from the rot-stinking undergrowth of the ghost forest. How you needed three roses to create a crown, how the crown conferred magic onto him so the skull kings shrank away.
And Joseph would throw down his pencil and ask, “Why can you speak to the skull kings, Bird?”
“You and your questions,” Genevieve would say, smacking her brother on the shoulder. “Don’t interrupt Bird’s story.”
But as the years passed, Joseph’s blunt questions gnawed at Genevieve, as the skull kings chomped at the weeds at the edge of her haven and Bird, their protector, shrieked in a language she didn’t know.
One night, last summer, she watched Bird as he sat at the edge of the clearing, his wings folded tight and his eyes glinting as they stared into the dark.
“Bird,” she said. “Why do you speak the skull kings’ language?”
Bird didn’t look at her. “Because going into the forest to gather black roses bears consequences.”
On a bright day in mid-autumn, Genevieve steps out of the clearing for the first time, slipping between two oaks into the ring of weeds between the clearing and the ghost forest.
“Come on,” she hisses at Joseph, who’s teetering behind her, and she strikes out through the waist-high weeds. Something rustles a few feet to her left.
“Joseph,” she calls. Her brother appears behind her, she grabs his clammy hand, and they race forward, until the weeds dwindle away.
Genevieve rubs her arms as she steps into the ghost forest. She cranes her neck at the gnarled trees, with their heavy translucent leaves and hulking branches. She has never seen trees like this, so different from the straight proud oaks and birches of their clearing.
“I hate this,” Joseph mutters. “Do you hear that sound? What is that sound?”
The forest breathes, a humid sticky breath, emanating from the trees, from the loam beneath their boots.
“Let’s hurry.” Genevieve strikes off due north–Bird told her that the nearest clearing is a three-week journey north of them–and her feet crunch against the jet-black tangle of spiked and thorny plants on the forest floor.
As they wend their way north and the light dwindles, the hairs stand on Genevieve’s neck and she jumps at the crunch of her own footsteps. She’s wondering when they should stop for the night when something flickers through the fog.
The whine of wheels skidding on soil, and then it hurtles towards them, the white of the skull flashing from trunk to trunk.
Genevieve’s stomach leaps as Joseph whimpers behind her. She wants to scream for Bird, but instead she hurls a stick. It skitters and falls on the undergrowth nearby.
“Leave us alone,” Genevieve shouts, then throws another stick. This one slices through the trunk of one of the ghost trees, disappearing in the dusk.
The wheels grind towards them, and Genevieve and Joseph run. Genevieve’s breath tears in her chest, but they sprint until they no longer hear wheels behind them, until, for now, they have outstripped the skull king, survived another day without Bird to cradle them in his soft wings.
That night, they find a patch of forest floor with few thorns and spikes, and they huddle in the flat white light of the dead trees around them.
Genevieve rummages in her coat pockets, extracts a handful of berries and two walnuts. After they gobble their meager supper, Genevieve listens for the rustle of skull kings while Joseph sketches the translucent trees. He keeps scrubbing his eraser against the page, and finally, he sets his pencil down.
“What do the skull kings do to you, do you think?” His voice quavers.
“They eat us, don’t they?” She clenches the stack of branches she gathered in their clearing.
“Why, I…of course, of course that’s what they do.” Didn’t they? Isn’t that what Bird told her? He must have said so, at some point.
Joseph bends to his sketchbook. “If you say so.”
Genevieve frowns. She examines the plants next to her, brushes aside a few crinkled bits of burned paper, and prods a thorn. The thorn crumbles away, and something glints underneath: black velvet petals, a black stem, five prickly sepals beneath the cup of the flower.
Genevieve plucks it out of the loamy ground, and Bird’s absence floods her, as though the black rose in her fingers is poison. Nearly a full season has passed since his feathers and roses gleamed in the crisp clear air in their clearing. Every fiber of her aches for him to pad through the ghost forest towards her.
She allows herself to acknowledge that Bird is not her father or mother–those mysterious creatures who abandoned her and Joseph long ago–and not just her friend. For a second, she’s suspended, her breath stolen by the thought of all she wants Bird to be.
Then she forces a breath into her chest. There’s no use thinking about it. She’ll reach the other clearing, she will, she’ll throw sticks at the skull kings and protect herself and Joseph, and then she’ll find Bird, waiting for her.
Joseph watches Genevieve’s serious face in this forest’s sinister light. Hunger claws at his stomach. He shoves it down and in its place rises worry about his sister. She’s so brave about journeying through the forest to find Bird, and yet so blind about questions that seem obvious to Joseph: what do the skull kings do to a person? Why is she so sure Bird’s in the other clearing?
And, most importantly: why does she think Bird wants to be found?
Joseph loved their childhood too: in his memory, their youth in the clearing plays like a lullaby. But the night Bird left, Joseph saw him slink out of the clearing. Bird’s glassy indifferent eyes fell on Joseph, and Joseph knew: Bird didn’t want to protect them anymore. It was over.
They would have been better off staying in their clearing and building a life without Bird.
But Joseph has never been able to persuade his sister of anything.
Genevieve and Joseph trudge through the ghost forest as its breath grows cold, as leaves drop onto Genevieve’s hair then melt away like mist, as the skull kings’ shrieks slice through the night and Genevieve clutches her black rose.
One day, they climb an incline in the forest and before them spread trees of hoarfrost, with needles made of thin slivers of ice and snow plump around the bases.
Genevieve clenches the black rose that’s pinned into her hair. She shivers and longs for Bird to drape his black wings around her like a blanket.
As she and Joseph crunch through the snow, a carcass looms behind the hoarfrost trees. It’s made of rusty metal, with four rubber tires, and no roof, and snow drifting over leather seats.
As Genevieve edges forward, wings rustle. Her stomach leaps at the sight of feathers, of a beady eye–
But the bird that rises from the metal carcass is tawny, with short prickly feathers and a dilapidated crown of wilting black flowers. This bird cocks his head at them. One of his eyes is milky and floats in its socket.
“Children,” he wheezes. “Whatever are you doing here?”
“We’re looking for a bird, a black bird, with a black rose crown.” Genevieve’s voice sounds small in the snow-muffled forest, and she clears her throat and says louder, “He’s left for some reason, and we’re going to find him.”
Not-bird’s good eye roves over the leather seats of the metal carcass. “I had children, once.”
“What happened to them?” Genevieve says.
“They left you, didn’t they?” Joseph says.
Genevieve frowns. “Why would they leave him? He was their protector.”
“It’s a big world.” Not-bird scrapes his wing against the snow that’s accumulated on the carcass’ metal rim. “Beyond the ghost forest there’s another forest, of glass and steel, called a city, and still other forests of salt water beyond that. I suppose…I suppose they wanted to see the glass and steel forest. I told them that’s where they came from, and they began asking so many questions.”
Why would those children leave? Why would they forego safety and brave the skull kings to journey to this glass and steel city forest?
Had they grown weary of the same seasons marching by, year after year after year? Had they wanted to know why their mothers and fathers abandoned them?
As Genevieve ponders this, tires screech in the snow.
A skull king veers towards the metal carcass. Gray moss flaps from its eyes, from its gaping mouth.
It cackles as it careens towards them.
Genevieve swivels towards Not-bird, who rises from the carcass, emits a weak caw, flaps crooked wings.
The skull king is only five paces away from them.
Genevieve snatches her black rose from her hair. Her rucksack tumbles from her shoulder and flops into the snow. Her fingertips tingle as she thrusts the rose in front of her. “Stay away from us,” she shouts.
The skull king veers to the left, wheels skidding, then corrects course, heading for them. Genevieve flings herself in front of Joseph, knowing one rose isn’t enough, the skull king is going to crunch her, eat her, destroy her…
“I know,” Not-bird shouts, rising out of the carcass, and then he shrieks and spits in the skull king’s language. The skull king screams back, and as it reverses into the forest, its tires crunch over Genevieve’s rucksack.
As the skull king vanishes, Genevieve falls to her knees at the rucksack and paws at the fabric with trembling fingers. But the berries are crushed, juice stains Joseph’s sketchbook and most of the walnuts are broken. As Genevieve picks pieces of their meat from shattered shells, she aches for Bird to return so she can shake him and scream you left us, you left us to starve, the people who were supposed to be our mother and father asked you to protect us and you failed….
“What are we going to do?” Joseph says. “Gen, we’re going to be so hungry. We’re going to…to…”
“We’ll manage.” Genevieve wants to scream at him too, because of course she knows they’re going to be hungry, and she can’t watch Joseph’s cheeks grow gaunter.
“You’re a protector,” Not-bird says, good eye roving over Genevieve. “You, with your black rose.”
“No, I’m not,” Genevieve says.
“I wish I could offer you food, lost children,” he wheezes. “I have none. But I must give you something else.”
He plucks a shriveled black rose from his crown.
“I have four of them,” he says. “You need it more than I do.”
Genevieve accepts the rose from Not-bird’s wing, her fingers tingling. “Thank you,” she says. “But I’m not a protector. I just want to find Bird.”
Not-bird avoids her gaze.
“What did you mean, when you shouted at the skull king that you knew?” Joseph says.
Not-bird flutters his thin wings. “When the skull kings speak, it’s painful, little children. What they know…it hurts my heart.”
“What do they know?” Joseph asks. But Genevieve grabs his hand, thanks Not-bird again, and pulls her brother north, deeper into winter, her pockets weighed with their last remaining bits of walnut.
The night Bird disappeared, summer mosquitoes buzzed around Genevieve’s neck and ankles. She stood beneath the clearing’s tallest oak, staring at a branch three feet above her head. She’d been trying to climb this tree all summer, and she ran her fingers over the bark, searching for a pattern of footholds.
“Genevieve.” Bird rustled next to her and Genevieve’s stomach leapt. “Why aren’t you sleeping?”
“You’re not the sort to fall asleep easily.” Bird’s wing fell against the back of her hand. Genevieve’s skin prickled. “You’ll sort out a way to climb it. You always do.”
Genevieve felt a smile spreading her mouth, the kind of smile you can’t control.
But then Bird said, as though the thought had just dawned on him: “You’re going to run out of trees to climb in this clearing eventually.”
“What are you talking about?”
His beady eyes roved towards the ghost forest. In the dark, his eyes reminded her of the skull kings’ eye sockets. And the question tumbled out.
“Bird, why can you speak to them? You never told Joseph.”
Bird didn’t answer. A mosquito landed on her ankle and she ignored it. The air between her and Bird was too thick, and her cheeks burned. Was it ordinary, for a girl to feel this way about a bird? She didn’t know. No one had ever told her.
Bird shifted, and then a pinch on her ear: his beak closed around the soft skin there. She bit back a gasp, and then Bird shrank away, his eyes not meeting hers. He padded into the clearing’s shadows, until his black feathers blended into shadow and she couldn’t tell where he ended and the night began.
Genevieve and Joseph reach the new clearing after three weeks and five days in the ghost forest, a week after the skull king trampled their rucksack.
The trim oak trees, the slender birches, the bare-branched maples, all resemble their clearing. And high above their heads hang glowing winterberries, the last overripe walnuts, the bounty of early-winter food that Bird once gathered for them.
But Bird is not there.
Genevieve stands beneath the trees, snow plopping off their branches into her hair.
What would he say, if he could see her here? Her ear has healed, but her boots are broken. Her ribs protrude against her coat. She is so small, in this clearing so empty of Bird.
Joseph’s hand lands on her shoulder. “Gen, I’m sorry. I knew…he didn’t want to be found. He left us, all right? I know it’s…”
He left them. Bird left them. He left me. He doesn’t love me.
The truth settles on Genevieve’s shoulders like the snow blanketing the forest.
He left me. And now there’s no one to keep us safe.
Except for the black roses blooming in her hair.
She drops Joseph’s hand. She stumbles into the ghost forest, ignoring Joseph’s shouts.
Bird left them, with his black rose crown.
He left. He’s gone.
Genevieve kicks at the snow. She scrapes it away, down to the dirt beneath, her fingers scrabbling against thorns. No soft stems or velvet petals curl from the frozen earth.
She stands and runs on, farther from the clearing, ignoring Joseph’s shouts, searching for the last black rose she needs to become their protector.
The skull king watches the girl zigzag through the forest, tears freezing on her pale cheeks. The skull king’s gray moss trembles and it senses something else: a crust growing over this girl’s fragile heart, like ice freezing over snow. Something soft seeping away from her, forever.
The skull king started out its life much as this girl did. Its parents brought it to the ghost forest, searched for a bird protector to take it off their hands.
But unlike this dark-haired girl, this girl who grew up cosseted and loved in a bright clearing, this child’s parents gave up before they found a bird protector, and they left it at the base of a ghost-tree and disappeared. Starving hurt, but thirst choked the child first, and after all that was done with, the child curled beneath a tree, and watched an animal skull roll by on a simple set of wagon wheels.
“Help me tell everyone,” whispered a voice from inside the skull. “Help me tell everyone how they left us.”
And so the once-child floated into an abandoned beast’s skull that nestled in the soft soil. Burning with truths about the hearts of humans and birds, it rolled itself onto tire treads and set out through the forest, to tell everyone.
The skull king has seen girls like this so many times, and it knows that its work will be easy. So easy. How many lessons has it taught to birds, to boys and girls, in all those years? Yes, two black roses glow in this girl’s tangled hair, but black rose crowns are flimsy bulwarks against the skull king’s dangling moss. Temporary, fleeting measures.
They blame me, but I only tell them the truth.
The skull king creaks forward, waiting.
Genevieve paws through snow and dirt, her fingers purple. She knocks aside a bundle of thorns, and then something glimmers.
Genevieve yanks the rose out of the earth. Bird’s betrayal hits her again as her fingers clench around this last addition she needs for her crown.
Something rumbles. Genevieve’s eyes rise from the black rose, to a wall of white bone. She cranes her neck up.
The skull king’s nose arcs over her head like a sword. Its eyes are dark, and its fangs bare in a deadly grin.
Genevieve doesn’t have time to raise the black rose.
Tendrils of stinking moss snake from the skull king’s eye sockets and loop around Genevieve’s arms and burn through her coat and she doesn’t let herself scream. The moss raises her to her feet, her boots scrabbling against the frozen ground. The moss tightens and the skull king shrieks, a piercing shriek that rips through Genevieve’s eardrums and shivers her spine.
And Genevieve understands what the skull king says: someone always leaves, in the end.
Genevieve’s first thought: I know.
But she snarls, in the same spitting language as the skull king, You’re wrong. Not everyone is like Bird.
You’ll see, shrieks the skull king. Black roses wilt. Girls begin to dream of other forests and boys decide their stubborn sisters aren’t worth the trouble. No one stays, in the end.
Genevieve rips at the moss. She raises her right hand. The black rose glows and the skull king shrieks. The moss springs from her arms and she stumbles through the forest, cradling the third black rose in her hands, until she reaches the clearing.
“Gen.” Joseph lunges towards her. “Are you…”
She pulls the other two black roses from her hair.
“I’ll protect us,” she says. “I will, Joseph. I will.”
Joseph grins and Genevieve concentrates on her brother’s face, trying to ignore the far-off shriek of a skull king, in the language that she now understands all too well.
Genevieve crouches in the snow, weaving the stem of her third black rose into a nest of thorn and sapling branch. She adjusts the roses so they lie in a straight line, then settles the crown onto her head. She shudders as its vines and thorns scoop up strands of her hair and weave through it. She blinks in the glow of the roses above her eyes.
Her heart aches for Bird but her fingers tingle hot with her new power.
She leaps towards an oak tree and climbs, her boots finding the right footholds in the bark, her arms barely straining as she pulls herself up. She reaches a clump of berries and rips them down, then circles the tree and pulls down a handful of walnuts.
When she returns to the ground with overflowing pockets, she and Joseph sit cross-legged and stuff their mouths, and then when they are finished Genevieve wraps Joseph’s cold fingers in her newly warm ones.
“I’m sorry about Bird,” Joseph says softly. “I truly am. But now…this is better. Now you wear the black rose crown, and you’re not going anywhere.” Joseph smiles, hopefully.
She says nothing.
Someone always leaves, in the end.
The skull kings are not the true danger. They only echo truths, truths about Bird, truths about her.
“Gen? You’re…you’re not going to leave me, are you?”
No. She is not their parents. She is not Bird. She tells herself that she will be different. She lunges forward and embraces her brother, her hot fingers digging into his shoulderblades. “I’ll never leave you,” she whispers, and she squeezes him tighter.
But as she holds him, snug against her heart, she’s already dreaming of the other forests.
About the Author
Emily B. Cataneo is a writer and journalist. Her short stories have appeared in or are forthcoming from magazines such as Lightspeed, Nightmare, SmokeLong Quarterly, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, The Dark, and Interzone. She was long-listed for John Joseph Adams’ Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy in 2016, and her debut collection was released in May 2017. Common motifs in her stories include female protagonists and feminism, the Victorian occult, mysterious animals, strange museums, early twentieth century Europe and the aesthetic of fairytales.
As a journalist, Emily started her career reporting full time on local issues for the Boston Globe and seven other newspapers in the Greater Boston area. Since becoming a freelancer, she has reported on stories on three different continents for publications such as The Financial Times, NPR, Slate, Atlas Obscura, The Baffler, and Roads & Kingdoms. Her specialty is the eclectic profile: a story of someone who’s doing something intriguing with his or her life.
Emily holds a B.A. and a B.S. from Boston University, and is a 2013 graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop in Manchester, N.H. and a 2016 graduate of the Clarion Writers Workshop in San Diego. She is currently pursuing her MFA at North Carolina State University.
About the Narrators
Jeremy has produced audio for the Dunesteef Audio Fiction magazine, Far Fetched Fables, the Journey Into podcast and StarshipSofa in addition to Cast of Wonders. By day, he teaches physics and maths in the beautiful Peak District. He is a husband, father, photographer, cook and very occasional runner.
Katherine Inskip is assistant editor for Cast of Wonders. She teaches astrophysics for a living and spends her spare time populating the universe with worlds of her own. You can find more of her stories at Motherboard, Cast of Wonders, the Dunesteef and Luna Station Quarterly, and forthcoming from Abyss & Apex.
About the Artist
Barry is a game developer based in Bournemouth, England making freemium games for clients such LEGO and the BBC. His latest game is breaking all records on iOS, not surprising with a title like L”. It’s for younger kids, but if you fancy blasting alien brains check out LEGO Hero Factory Brain Attack.
All this game developing has meant that Barry hasn’t been as active in the podcasting and fiction world as he used to be. He still does the occasional narration for other shows, such as The Drabblecast, and appears on Cast of Wonders from time to time.