The Bone Mother

The Bone Mother

by David Demchuk


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For two hundred years, the Grazyn porcelain factory built its reputation on its magnificent thimbles. It is said that even the Czarina Anastasia Romanova had received one in her trousseau. The workers come from the three neighboring villages on the border of Romania and Ukraine. Nourished, dressed and educated, they are the envy of all at a time when a famine programmed by Stalin sweeps the countryside and cannibalism rages from city to town to farm. But what is the secret of this factory and why does the Grazyn family protect its employees so scrupulously?

The Bone Mother revives the great figures of Slavic mythology on the eve of the Second World War, from rusalka and Baba Yaga—The Bone Mother herself—to the golem. The existence of mortals is intimately linked to that of witches and vampires, in a universe where strigois rub shoulders with mermaids, ghosts and seers...and all are in peril from the Nichni Politsiyi, the Night Police, which wish to eradicate them.

'A master of bowel-loosening terror' The Globe and Mail

‘Demchuk gracefully pieces together a dark and shining mosaic of a story with unforgettable imagery and elegant, evocative prose.’ Publishers Weekly (starred review)

‘This is a book that bends genres, using the monsters of imagination as a back door to understanding the monsters of the real.’ Nino Ricci

Award-winning author David Demchuk was born and raised in Winnipeg and now lives in Toronto. He has been writing for print, stage, digital and other media for nearly 40 years. The Bone Mother is his first novel.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781771484213
Publisher: ChiZine Publications
Publication date: 07/18/2017
Pages: 300
Sales rank: 653,579
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




My brother Sergyi and I were married in a small ceremony in our village church. Such things were possible then that now are not. This was in the years before the war, during the movchanya, what some call the silence, or the blight. We were farmers, our families too poor for us to be considered by the very few women our age. And we were good companions, and had been intimate since we were children. And so our bond was blessed.

Shortly after, we received the notice, and Sergyi left our farm to work at the thimble factory, as our father had when we were very small. Seventeen months later, Sergyi fell ill from pneumonia and died. The car from the factory arrived to take us to the funeral, but Mother refused to go. She instead asked that we hold a remembrance in town. The factory could not deny us this, but of course would not provide the body. He would be buried in the small graveyard just outside the factory gates. No matter. We held our own memorial. Our mother sat with me at the service, an arm's length from where Sergyi and I had stood before the priest.

She reached over and squeezed my hand. "You may pass slowly through a valley dark and drenched with tears, but you must not rest there," she said. "These things happen."

Within two days, I received word from the thimble factory that I was to come and fulfill Sergyi's five-year contract, which had three years and seven months remaining. This dismayed my mother, who would be left to tend our farm with her aged sister, whose entire being had curled into the shape of a claw. But it was an inevitability. My mother pleaded with me to stay with the farm, and offered to send herself in my place. This would not be accepted, as we both knew. The work was difficult and arduous, and unsuited to an elderly woman. I offered to send her money to hire a hand but she refused. She would have no other man on the farm but me.

We sat and ate our supper, a pale broth of cabbage and potato with scattered shreds of mutton drifting through it. I feared the meal would be our last together. The next morning, letter in one hand, a pasteboard valise in the other, I hired a driver to take me out into the countryside and up to the factory gate.

While the Grazyn Porcelain Factory also produced fine china for homes, hotels, and restaurants, near and far, it was celebrated the world over — as we in the village were frequently told — for the exquisite porcelain thimbles that had been manufactured for centuries using closely guarded techniques developed by the Grazyn family. Every tsaritsa since Anastasia Romanovna had received a priceless Grazyn thimble as part of her wedding trousseau. The factory produced only three hundred and thirty thimbles a year, each painstakingly formed from a special paste, then glazed and fired by hand. The workers lived there, ate there, slept there, for the duration of their contracts, and were then sent home with lifelong pensions — enough to clothe and house and feed their now-estranged families.

I recalled as I rang the bell that I had known many such workers over the years, but that none had ever spoken of their time there. Even our father was silent on the matter, and we learned early on not to raise the subject.

After a moment, the door opened, and I was ushered inside. My belongings were taken from me, and I was led to a locker room where I was handed a pair of grey overalls, a fine-fitting pair of lambskin gloves, a kerchief for my hair and a cotton mask for my face. I changed and was taken to the factory floor, given a curt cursory tour of the front of the factory, where the thimbles emerged from the kiln, ready to be glazed and fired. Then, wordlessly, I was taken into the back of the factory. It was filled with boxes and crates and bins of human bones, boiled and scrubbed and gleaming.

Across the room, two men shovelled the bones into a huge metal grinder where giant stone burrs crushed them into coarse powder. The powder was sent through a series of furnaces, sifted and combed and ground between each, until what emerged at the end was a trickle of fine white ash.

The Grazyn family had provided our livestock and produce, chosen our grains, paid for our doctors and medicine, built and repaired our housing. They had given us our schooling, our training, our church, our cemetery. And not just for our village, but two others besides.

We all had been raised and fed and nurtured to become these bones.

"Sergyi was with the shovellers," my guide said to me in a dry, distant voice. "We need three, or we fall behind. You must take his post. Can you do the job?"

"I can," I said. I reached for the shovel hanging on a nearby hook — his shovel, I realized — and took my station, and went to work.


I come from a line of seven mothers who were healers, mudri materi — women who detected and treated illnesses among the healthy, who ministered to the sick and the dying. Running our hands over the body, we could feel minuscule tumours, clots in the bloodstream, swollen or atrophied organs, irregular pregnancies, diseases in the glands and muscles and tissues and nerves and the brain. Some we could heal with touch, others with rough medicines, and a few with precise but painful surgeries. The rest we would recognize and respect as inevitable, inescapable afflictions to which one must gracefully surrender. These are old skills, invested with old knowledge, passed down through the centuries. And they come with a cost.

It is our tradition to assist all who ask, with no compensation expected. Still, the villagers have been generous over the years, and have given money, food, livestock — even the land and the house in which we have lived. They are not our kind, and they know our ways are not their own. They trust us, and fear us, without understanding us. Tsyplyata, my mother called them, which of course means chickens, and is not very polite.

One farmer brought us a goat because we had helped his wife through a difficult birth. My mother said, "You would take gifts from a chicken?" and I had to apologize to him because he had heard every word.

As for my own kind, well. Those of us who are descended from the old bloodlines, we have unusual anatomies and physical challenges. We can only seek help from our own.

The night that I was born, our house was struck by lightning. Our weather vane took all the shock; you could see a black halo in the grass where the charge went into the ground. The elder women saw it as a sign — they watched me closely for talents that I would need help in managing, they took me on visits and showed me the difference between one infection and another, between lumps that were harmless and those that were lethal. My mother saw that I was learning faster than she had, and she fed my appetite for knowledge even as she resented it.

I knew instinctively to conserve my talents, to watch the others and reveal less of myself. There were some people I knew I could not help, and others who needed little except common sense and compassion. My mother and grandmother could see so much in others, and yet I was opaque to them. They did not know what I knew, what I could do. I knew everything about them, and I struggled with that knowledge.

As was required by the tradition, neither I nor my mothers before me could marry — for any man who wed one of us would be cursed, as would be the marriage itself. My great-grandmother had defied the tradition — had met a young soldier, run away from the village, and married in secret. She became pregnant that night and the next day he was called into battle. She came back to her family, and everyone worried that the husband would be killed in the war. But it was worse. He came back alone, in the night, mauled and infected by a strigoi, not from among us but from somewhere in the north. Her husband was left monstrous and ravenous and incurable, and he could only be killed by a silver knife slashing his throat and genitals, held by his wife. She loved his kochet, and kept it in a jar and fondled it many times over the years. Its flesh lived while she lived, and died when she died. She never knew another man, and she never had another child.

When my turn came to bear a child, I visited the oldest man in the village, Yevgeny, who was very happy to see me. He was ninety-two, and while he had loved his life, he was ready to die.

"I have lived too long," he said to me, taking my hands in his. "What must I do?"

"Come with me," I told him, then led him to his bedroom, undressed him, let him undress me. Despite his age, he grew hard and thick in my mouth. I reclined with him on the bed, grasped him, helped him to enter me. He moaned, his wetness quickly flooded me. "What must I do?"

"Tell me you love me," I breathed as I held him close, "that you will make me your wife."

"I love you, I — I will make —" Then nothing, a whisper of breath. He was dead. And my daughter was soon to be born.


I do not remember this. I cannot say what is true. A year after she and my father married, my mother lost her first child and was told there would be no other. This was hard as you can imagine, and my mother told my father to go and find another wife who could bear him a boy. My father loved my mother and remained. But their dead son was a shadow between them that even strangers could see.

The story she told: One day, just as winter was turning to spring, my father was helping a neighbour repair his barn while my mother stayed at home sewing. She heard a cry from the forest behind the farmhouse and, rather than wait for him to return, she went out to see what it was. Just beyond the line of the trees, still in sight of the house, she found me lying in the fresh- fallen snow, a baby, naked and shivering and close to death. No footprints anywhere. I had white hair and pale eyes. She thought I was her first son's ghost. She named me after him, nursed me as if she had borne me and, when no one came to claim me, she and my father made me their own.

But there were wolves in those woods, sometimes heard but seldom seen. They howled, but did not come near. One evening, my father was out back with me, near the berry bushes. He looked up and saw a pack of dark hunched figures, with glittering eyes, watching from within the trees. He bundled me up, startling me into tears, and he hurried me into the house. He had a gun, his father's hunting rifle, but he had never killed with it, and my mother had never touched it. He took it down from the back closet shelf, stepped out the door and raised it. The dark figures and their shining eyes were already gone.

A few mornings later, my mother awoke to feel a cool breeze curling around her toes, the scent of fresh grasses filling the bedroom. She looked out into the hall to see the back door into the kitchen was open, sunlight bursting into the house. She gasped, jumped from the bed, checked my crib. I was gone. She screamed, waking my father, and pulling her clothes around herself she ran into the sunshine, blinded, shouting and crying, into the forest. She stopped just where the leaves cast their shade on the ground, and she stood and she looked and she listened. And my father stopped and stood beside her, holding the rifle.

It was quiet and still. Quiet as no forest should be.

"We will need help to search," he whispered. "We will need ten, maybe fifteen men."

"No," she hissed. "I will not leave. We must find him now."

She looked to the right, where a small rise was crowned with a trio of beech trees. She moved slowly towards it while my father watched — then stopped, listened again. A high light whine, and then gentle panting. She motioned for my father to come in closer; then she carefully crept to the source of the sound. In a den on the other side of the rise, a white wolf was nestled on a pile of rags, nursing her young: three tiny white pups, and me — the warm wolf milk smeared around my hungry mouth.

My father raised the gun — and my mother stopped him. "No," she said. And as the word spilled from her mouth, three other wolves emerged from among the trees. He lowered the barrel, and he and she moved backward slowly as the animals stared intently. Once out of the forest, my father turned and asked, "What will we do?"

"We will wait," my mother said. "I will wait. They will not harm him, or they would have done so." Then she turned to my father and said, "She saw my face, and I saw hers."

"They are animals," he spat. "Our son, is he also an animal?"

"We are all animals," she answered. "I will wait."

The next evening, my mother was in the kitchen making supper, talking to my father in the other room when she realized she was alone. He had slipped out the door behind her. Suddenly she heard one shot, and then another. She rushed out to see him stagger out of the woods, and fall to the ground. She screamed and ran to him — his face and neck had been mauled, and he shuddered furiously, the blood coursing out of him and then slowing to a trickle. The convulsions slowed and stopped. He was dead.

A howl tore through the forest behind her. She turned and ran to the den to find a woman who was not a woman, a woman with long white hair and eight teats, shot in the shoulder, her pups bewildered and mewling around her, and around me. She saw my mother and pulled the rags over herself, which my mother saw were her blouse and skirt.

My mother went to her, knelt with her, tore her own skirt to clean and dress the wound. She fed the pups warmed goat milk. She went and fetched water and food as the three wolves watched and waited. She stayed through the night with the woman, came back with me day after day, until one day the den was empty. The wolves had moved on.

I do not remember. I cannot say what is true. But I do know this: when my mother died many years later, I knelt beside her bed and cried, and the wolves in the woods, they cried along with me.


Mine was an ordinary childhood, until I was thirteen years old. As the chill of autumn crept over us and the first frosts wreathed the windowpanes, I discovered almost by accident that I had grown unaccountably strong, as strong as a man twice my size.

It was late afternoon, the air sharp with the promise of snow, and I was walking past the side road leading to the Malyks, two farms over. Their sons were on the side road kicking around an old leather ball. The older one, Lukas, two years older than me, he kicked the ball hard as I passed, perhaps to catch my eye and impress me as boys sometimes do. The ball soared towards me and without thinking I dropped my books and reached up and caught it. Their eyes went wide and I felt a hot rush of blood rise to my face. I had never seen a girl do this, and clearly neither had they.

The ball suddenly felt repugnant in my hands and I threw it too hard to get rid of it, sent it flying back at Lukas and knocked him down with it. The ball burst along one of its decrepit seams, spilling buckwheat everywhere. It's not my fault, I instantly thought. The wind grabbed it and pushed it into him. And of course it burst, horrible old thing, the laces were already rotten, I could smell it when I threw it.

But still.

Lukas stood up, rubbing his shoulder where he had been struck. He and his brother stared at me, then turned and ran home, the younger one clutching the ball to his chest like a mutilated animal.

When I came home, I said nothing, but went to the room that I shared with my five-year-old brother. I closed the door. "Sit on the bed," I told him. He did so. I stood at the foot, grabbed the old iron frame with both hands, and easily lifted it up over my head, nearly tipping him into the wall. Slowly and carefully, I lowered it back down till it touched the floor with only a creak.

"Don't tell anyone," I said sternly, and he nodded nervously.

Both the Malyks' farm and ours were well outside of town, and our families kept to themselves. Even so, as my parents and brother and I arrived at the village church on Sunday morning, it was clear that word of the incident with the ball had spread. The Malyk boys stayed well away from me, but some older boys came over to make a point of taunting me. "You should come play football with us, Roxana," one of them teased. "Our team might actually win a game for once."

"What's this about?" my father asked. "You playing games with boys?"

I realized he would hear about it anyway, so I told him as blandly as I could. "Lukas tossed his ball to me. I threw it back and knocked him down. It was nothing, an accident. I expect I injured his pride as well as his shoulder."


Excerpted from "The Bone Mother"
by .
Copyright © 2017 David Demchuk.
Excerpted by permission of ChiZine Publications.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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