The Bone Mother

The Bone Mother

by David Demchuk


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The Bone Mother by David Demchuk






Three neighbouring villages on the Ukrainian/Romanian border are the final refuge for the last of the mythical creatures of Eastern Europe. Now, on the eve of the war that may eradicate their kind—and with the ruthless Night Police descending upon their sanctuary—they tell their stories and confront their destinies:

  • The Rusalka, the beautiful vengeful water spirit who lives in lakes and ponds and lures men and children to their deaths;
  • The Vovkulaka, who changes from her human form into that of a wolf and hides with her kind deep in the densest forests;
  • The Strigoi, a revenant who feasts on blood and twists the minds of those who love, serve and shelter him;
  • The Dvoynik, an apparition that impersonates its victim and draws him into a web of evil in order to free itself;
  • And the Bone Mother, a skeletal crone with iron teeth who lurks in her house in the heart of the woods, and cooks and eats those who fail her vexing challenges.

    Eerie and unsettling like the best fairy tales, these incisor-sharp portraits of ghosts, witches, sirens, and seers—and the mortals who live at their side and in their thrall—will chill your marrow and tear at your heart.

    “Demchuk gracefully pieces together a dark and shining mosaic of a story with unforgettable imagery and elegant, evocative prose. These stories read like beautiful and brutal nightmares, sharply disquieting, and are made all the more terrifying by the history in which they’re grounded.”

    Publishers Weekly (STARRED REVIEW)

  • Product Details

    ISBN-13: 9781771484213
    Publisher: ChiZine Publications
    Publication date: 07/18/2017
    Pages: 300
    Sales rank: 350,801
    Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)

    About the Author

    David Demchuk was born and raised in Winnipeg and now lives in Toronto. He has been writing for theatre, film, television, radio and other media for more than thirty years. His publications include the short-fiction cycle Seven Dreams and the Lewis Carroll adaptation Alice in Cyberspace , and appearances in the anthologies Making, Out!, Outspoken and Canadian Brash. His reviews, essays, interviews and columns have appeared in such magazines as Toronto Life, Xtra, What! Magazine , and Prairie Fire , as well as the Toronto Star. Most recently he has been a contributing writer for the digital magazine Torontoist. The Bone Mother is his first novel. It was recently long-listed for the prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize, as well as shortlisted for the Amazon Canada First Novel Award, and is a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award.

    Read an Excerpt


    from The Bone Mother by David Demchuk

    When I was thirteen, shortly after the end of the war, my mother and sister and I moved from the eastern village all the way to Krakow, where my Aunt Polina lived. Both my father and Polina’s husband had been killed in recent battles, and Polina had found a house where we, the widows and children, could live together. While she and my mother had never been close, they were lonely and afraid now and faced an uncertain future. Polina, in particular, feared retaliation for her German husband’s Nazi ties, had apparently removed her rings, destroyed her wedding certificate and had returned to her maiden name. My mother hoped that a new home would be a new start, and that we could support each other in whatever challenges we faced.

    And yet: even though her driver met us at the train station and brought us to her home, Polina rushed to the door in a panic as if she’d forgotten we were coming. She pushed the key to the new house into my mother’s hand, stammered something about unexpected guests, and then had the driver take us away without her. We drove off in uneasy silence, weaving through the streets until we pulled up in front of an unassuming house on Ulica Szeroka. As the driver brought our cases up the steps, he assured us that Polina was preparing to join us, and would do so at her earliest opportunity.

    She never did. Later that night, perhaps when the driver turned the key in the lock, or when my sisters and I pulled the dust cloths from the worn but elegant antique furniture, or when my mother tucked us into our freshly changed beds, Aunt Polina fell down her cellar stairs shrieking and tearing at herself, had a heart attack, and died.

    A few days after the funeral, my mother was upstairs bathing my sister and I was sitting alone in the kitchen, when I heard a strange sound coming from the basement. As if an animal had somehow gotten trapped and was whining to be freed. In our previous house, a fox came into the cellar through a loose window and smashed some jars of my mother’s beets and sauerkraut. I called out for her but she couldn’t hear me. I decided to be brave and go downstairs to see if it was a fox, and perhaps I could release it. I knew it might be rabid, so I put my gloves on just in case.

    The staircase down was narrow, with pantry shelves along one side, stocked with canned goods. Nothing behind them. The animal sound was coming from farther down, somewhere behind the stairs. I reached the floor, put my hand out towards the centre of the room, feeling for the beaded chain of the ceiling light. I found it, pulled it, splashed the room with harsh white light. In the corner behind the stairs was a new-looking coal furnace. Could something have come down the chimney? As I moved closer, my gloved hands ready for the capture, I realized the sound was of someone sobbing. Someone beside or behind the furnace. Someone I couldn’t see. I drew closer still, looked one way and then another. No one was there, I was alone, but still I could hear it—coming, it seemed, from within the wall.
    The rest of the basement was lined with stone, but this corner was built over with brick. I leaned in towards those on the staircase wall, as this was where the sound was the loudest—and suddenly one brick fell out, was pushed out, and then another, and I could see in, and what I saw was a hand. A large, thick-fingered hand, gloved perhaps like mine. And then the fingers moved.

    I flew up the stairs and crashed into my mother, almost knocking her down. I could barely form words, I was so frightened. My mother told my sister, still wet and wrapped in her towel, to go back upstairs and wait while we investigated. Normally she would have protested but she could see the fear in my face, and went back up to our bedroom.

    I shushed my mother as we crept down the stairs, brought her around and pointed at the bricks, at the hole in the wall. She moved slowly with me, and then closer to the hole, peered into it. “See?” I asked. “See the fingers?” She nodded—then reached in, touched the hand.

    “Clay,” she said. “It’s made of clay.”

    “I saw it move!” I said. “I heard it crying!”

    She gave me a stern look and was about to scold me—when the sobbing began once more. She looked at the wall, and then looked at me. “I know what this is,” she said. “And I know who we must call.” She ushered me back towards the stairs. I reached for the chain but she stopped me. “Leave the light on,” she said. “And be careful on the steps.”

    Two days later, very early in the morning, my mother answered a knock at the door and welcomed in an old woman, older than any I had ever known or seen. I never knew where she came from, or what her name was. The way she moved and spoke made me think of our village home but I did not remember ever meeting her. My mother handed her a small cloth bag which she tucked into her coat pocket, and then she walked directly to the kitchen and down into the basement. None of us followed.

    My legs ached from standing by the time she returned, though she could only have been gone a few minutes. She did not even try to take my mother aside—she addressed her directly in front of us, and this is what she said.

    “You must leave, before nightfall if at all possible. You can come back to the borderlands with me, if you wish. This is a stolen house, as is every chair and table and bed and bucket within its walls, stolen and now cursed. It belongs to the Yevrei, and the creature downstairs is a Golem—formed of clay by a master of the Kabbalah to protect the wife and child who lived here before you. The husband was taken by soldiers and executed; it is his soul which inhabits the monstrosity, and it is his heart that breaks with grief. For his wife and child were taken before he could possess the statue, and now they too are dead. He is trapped here, filled with rage and despair. You are in peril if you stay.”

    “You say this house is stolen,” said my mother, “but my sister Polina bought this house, she bought it for us to live in together.”

    “Your sister bought it from a thief, and she knew she was doing so. She knew the house, she came to see it while the family still lived here. She was the first victim of the Golem, and the thief who arranged the sale was the next. The Golem bears you no ill will, but he cannot let you stay.”

    “But you must be able to undo this,” my mother said. “Release his spirit, send him away.”

    “I cannot,” the old woman answered. “This is not our work, and it is not ours to undo. You would need to find the Kabbalist who conjured him. That of course is impossible now. Millions of the Yevrei are dead, and those that are not have escaped to other lands. He is condemned to live here forever, alone.”

    After a long silence, her eyes cast downward, my mother spoke. “I will pack our things,” she said. “We will leave with you.”

    “I must tell you,” the old woman sighed, “that the creature wants to see your boy. He will not be harmed. It should only take a moment.” She looked at me, reached out to take my hand.

    “Have you gone mad?” my mother exclaimed. “Leave that monster alone with my child?”

    “It is a monster with the soul of a man. Or, if you prefer, a man with the capabilities of a monster. Either way: It is a request that you cannot deny.”
    I took the old woman’s hand and went with her down the stairs, slowly and carefully, to face the creature in the wall.

    The bricks had now all fallen away, and I could see him fully from head to toe. He was terrifying in his stature, yet imbued with a strange beauty and created with obvious care. The old woman led me to stand at his feet, and he trembled all over. I was afraid he might shake himself apart. His tears had dug deep grooves from the corners of his eyes down his cheeks to his jaw.

    “You were a good man,” I told him, as if speaking to my own father. “You must forgive yourself.”

    The old woman reached across to him, pulled a piece of clay from the tip of the smallest finger on his left hand. She formed it into a ball, and handed it to me.
    “This clay will always be alive,” she said. “It will never dry or crack. And its spirit will always be with you. Take this, and always remember.”

    It has been many years. My mother is long dead. I have married, as has my sister. She has two daughters, and I have a son. We live in different cities now, all of us. I still have the ball of clay. It has neither dried nor cracked, and when I hold it, I still feel the life inside.

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