Santa’s Secret Pen ’21: “The Bones of Ostholstein”

[If you’re looking for the short story and don’t want to read my ramblings, feel free to scroll past these first couple of paragraphs, to where the story title appears below]

Back in November, I signed on for Santa’s Secret Pen hosted by one of my favorite people in the Twitter writing community, A.R. Frederiksen. Participating writers gave a prompt and received a short story prompt, all of them somewhat vague and all exchanged anonymously. Now, with the masterlist of short stories going live today, it’s time for the story I’ve written in response to the prompt I received.

This event was both fun and challenging. It pushed me to step outside of my comfort zone as a writer and find a unique way to write about something that I probably wouldn’t have written about otherwise. I *did* manage to incorporate some of my usual themes, but it nevertheless forced me to think outside the box and gave me a quick break from drafting longer (read: more stressful) manuscripts. Definitely keep an eye out for the event next year!

Here’s the prompt I was given:

And here is the short story I wrote in response:

The Bones of Ostholstein

It was snowing at the dig site, which would slow our excavation by at least a day. The snow had started overnight so that by the time we arrived around eight the next morning, the previous week’s progress was buried beneath a blanket of white. We only bothered coming to the site to cover it with a large blue tarp, which had already disappeared beneath the flurry. The dig itself was only distinguishable from the surrounding fields by the mounds of overturned earth. Now, we huddled on the crates and toolboxes in the back of Schwenn’s van while we debated our next move.

Professor Blake pulled his hands from the pockets of his windbreaker and rubbed them vigorously, his knuckles rosy with cold. “There’s no point continuing the dig while it’s still coming down. Might as well go somewhere warm and wait out the storm.”

“No. We have already discussed about this,” argued Heinrich Schwenn, the thick-accented archeologist they’d sent from the Institute of Pre- and Protohistoric Archeology in Kiel to oversee the excavation. His heavy brow was furrowed so hard he looked more Neanderthal than modern man. “We dig now, or it is ruined.”

“Come off it. A little snow never hurt anything. It can wait until tomorrow.”

“I am working since eighteen years doing this. The snow will freeze at night and the ground will be hard in the morning.” He shook his head fast, like a dog trying to shake off the rain. “It is too wet.”

“Have you heard the news, Miss Chapman?” Professor Blake clapped his hands on his knees, and swiveled toward me with his eyebrows raised in mock-surprise. “Water is wet.”

“Not the snow,” Schwenn grumbled without looking at either of us. His steely gaze was pointed out the back doors of the van, at the invisible dig site beyond, like he could see through the snow, into the very earth. “The dirt. The dirt is too wet.”

Perhaps it wasn’t my place to have an opinion. I was only here as an assistant after all, and even then I was lucky—when the university in Kiel had reached out to Oxford for assistance with early phases of excavation, no one imagined that the esteemed Jonathan Blake would have selected an American student on her semester abroad to join him. But for whatever reason, my application had stood out from the pile, so perhaps my opinion was worth something after all. “Mr. Schwenn’s got a point. Ice will only delay the excavation. If we dig now—”

Blake gave me a thin-lipped smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “Then we’ll be fighting a losing battle against mother nature. Anyway, this is only phase two of the dig, and the suits at Gottorf have already agreed to fund us through the end of Febru—”

Something thumped against the roof of the van. Schwenn tore his eyes from the snow outside and frowned up at the ceiling. 

Blake huffed, and it rose in a breathy fog. Schwenn had refused to so much as start the engine—much less run the heater. Too much petrol, he claimed. “What do you suppose that was?”

“A pine cone,” I suggested. That was what my usefulness had been reduced to: speculating about pine cones in the middle of a snow storm.

Schwenn made a vague gesture outside, at the sprawling farmlands we could not see. “No trees right here.”

And there it was again: a dull thump, muffled by the snow that had no doubt collected on the roof of the van by now. Schwenn braced his hands and struggled to his feet, so laboriously that I imagined I could hear his bones creaking. Or maybe bones were just fresh in my mind.

The excavation had already made headlines in the English-speaking world: LARGEST SAXON BURIAL SITE SINCE SUTTON HOO UNEARTHED IN OSTHOLSTEIN. It wasn’t particularly accurate, but in the name of sensationalism, headlines rarely were. This grave was much older. That much we knew. Still, it took something big and flashy to get the general public interested in this sort of thing. Academics were a different story—the State Archeological Museum at Schloss Gottorf had been the first to chuck their hat into the ring, agreeing to fund the excavation as well as pay the owner of the land a hefty sum for the findings.

It had been a long and surprisingly tedious few weeks of passing Professor Blake tools that looked like pie servers and paint brushes as he painstakingly removed centuries-worth of earth from coins, swords, and iron figures of long-forgotten deities.  

But the most painstaking of all had been the bones. Animals, some of them, but there were human bones, too: bones of lesser-born women who had—willingly or unwillingly—joined their lord or king or master in his grave. Whoever he was, he had been important. They had buried him like they meant for him to stay there a long time, to live out his afterlife beneath the earth, with all the gold and honeyed wine and women he ever could have wanted. They had buried him like it was important for him to stay buried, and I think that was more important than we understood.

Something thudded against the roof again, and the whole van shifted with Schwenn’s weight as he stepped down into the snow.

Blake took advantage of our newfound privacy to grab my sleeve and tug me close. “What did we talk about?”

Another thud against the roof. Then two. Three. Schwenn was saying something outside, but I couldn’t make it out. I clenched my jaw. “Undermining your authority. But I wasn’t trying to—”

“You don’t think it undermines my authority when you side with Jerry over here?” He jerked his head toward wherever Schwenn had gone.

“I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.”

The thudding was replaced by a rustling, like when you’re sitting in the car while someone clears the windshield after a winter storm. The whisper of snow against something hard and unyielding, and then more thudding. Blake glanced up at the ceiling, distracted.

“I’m not asking you to apologize, I’m asking you to—what’s taking so long out there?” he shouted, when the rustling started again. Schwenn’s response was muffled. Blake rose to his feet to step out of the van, but not before he pinned me under a very stern gaze, like I was an unruly child who deserved to be given detention. “We’ll continue this discussion later.”

Unsure of what else I was supposed to do with myself, I got up and followed my professor out of the van, anger and embarrassment stinging my cheeks in the cold.

A murder of crows had taken up residence atop the van, a swarm of stark black against snow. Or maybe they were too large to be crows. I never could tell the difference between them and ravens. Whichever they were, I had only ever seen this many in places where things rotted and festered: fast-food dumpsters and the landfill my dad took me to when we had to get rid of our old sofa.

Husch,” Schwenn muttered, waving his hands to shoo the birds away. Each time they would flap and caw until they were just out of reach, and then they would go to land again, and the cycle would repeat itself. “Verpisst euch!”

For a moment, Blake just stood ankle-deep in the snow, transfixed. “Very odd behavior.” When I didn’t say anything, he turned to me, as though to confirm that I was seeing the same thing he was. “Don’t you think?”

I shrugged, my hands stuffed in the pockets of my jean jacket. “I don’t know much about birds.”

“What did I tell you, Mr. Schwenn? You are fighting a losing battle against mother nature.”

If looks could kill. “Arsch mit Ohren.” Nevertheless, Schwenn gave up on shooing the birds and joined us where we were standing a few yards from the van. His cheeks were flushed with cold and effort. “We’re leaving, then. But tomorrow we’re coming back to check on everything.”

Blake clapped the archeologist on the back. “That I can agree to.”


By the middle of the night, the snow had given way to a warm front and light rain rolling in off the Baltic, and the following morning Blake was pounding on the door to my room in the local Gasthaus before seven-thirty. “Dress warm. I suspect today will be longer than yesterday.”

The drive back to the site was unusually quiet. Not that Blake and Schwenn were ever particularly chatty with one another, but most mornings they managed some small talk—discussing the dig, or the weather, or current events—and when they didn’t manage that, Schwenn often flicked on the radio, filling the silence by mumbling along to old punk tunes with lyrics only he understood.

But that morning, there was nothing. Just the rumble of the van and the slosh of mud beneath tires as we pulled off the road and onto the property, where the blue tarp was visible in the distance; the rain had washed all the snow away. We parked and I scooted out of the middle seat as soon as Blake clambered down from the passenger’s side, relieved to have my personal space back. The land was wet and the earthy smell of rain still clung to the damp gray air.

Schwenn wasted no time marching up to the tarp and peeling back a corner. Blake made more of a show of it, stretching and sucking up the air like we had just finished a very long road trip. “I told you the storm would clear, Mr. Schwenn. Right on schedule.”

  Schwenn offered up no argument, but his brow was knit in that caveman way of his, and he walked the length of the site as he removed the tarp, unveiling the fresh, black earth beneath. Pockets of snow still clung to the deepest and coolest parts of the dig—the faintest suggestion of the storm that passed through only yesterday. All the strings and stakes were exactly as we had left them. But there was something different, something that wasn’t quite the same as it had looked the day before yesterday, when we’d left the gravesite at dusk with a clear sky.

Something was wrong.

Both archeologist and professor had realized, as well. Schwenn grimaced from the other side of the excavation, his eyes meeting Blake’s. “Grave robbers.”

“Impossible,” the professor scoffed, but it lacked its usual conviction. “What sort of grave robber leaves behind the artifacts?”

“It is strange,” Schwenn conceded. “But how would you explain it?”

Blake shot him a scathing look, but didn’t argue any further. “Miss Chapman. Grab one of my stiff brushes, if you would.”

Obediently, I ducked inside the back of the van to fetch the brush, and then hurried back to his side. Blake snatched the brush and counted out squares in the grid until he came to a square just slightly off-center. There, he dropped to his knees, crawling haphazardly and patting around the earth. “The moisture and the weight of the snow yesterday most likely caused the soil to shift. We’ll have to unearth them all over—”

He stopped where the suggestion of a human form was imprinted in the soil, and there he started brushing. And brushing. And brushing. Schwenn soon joined him, and my morning was filled with Blake barking orders, swapping his tool for this one or that. But the dig was fruitless. There were half-excavated swords and rudimentary bottles and stray elbows of iron figurines jutting out of the soil, but his frantic brushing revealed nothing below. The gravesite was spent.

All the bones in the grave were gone, and they’d left behind only imprints in the damp soil—a shadow of a shadow of a life.

At the boundary of the property, where a derelict wooden fence held back an army of ash trees, black birds watched us, still and silent as the snow.

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