The Tale of Skeleton Woman

Today as we enter the well, making our descent to the cavern of story, I wonder which tale awaits us. Of all the stories I’ve learned over the years, I can think of one that seems the most important. I am curious. Is that the one the Storyteller will choose for us today?

She is here waiting for us. As soon as you and I have greeted her and settled in, sitting as comfortably as we can on such a hard surface, I ask her, “What story have you chosen for us today?”

Which one would you choose? What is the story whose teaching you would most like to share with the ones who come here with you?

I do not hesitate. “I would choose the story that tells of love and the life-death-life cycle. I would choose Skeleton Woman.”

She smiles, her eyes alight with pleasure. It is one I love very much. It would have been my choice as well.

I feel pleased to have known this. Ridiculously pleased.


Shall we begin? she asks. And once more, as she does with the deepest, truest, most magical tales, she asks us to take deep, centering, relaxing breaths. She watches us, choosing her time to begin.

Then she stands, gracefully lifts the hem of her cloak, revealing silver-blue satin slippers. Ahhh! So this will be a tale told in dance.

I see you smile. It is a joy for you to watch the Storyteller dance.

I summon up my memories of the tale, for once more the task of narrating will fall to me.

The Storyteller is running, pursued by someone whom she looks at over her shoulder. She stops, a look of terror on her face, mimes a deep plunge.

Now she lies motionless. No, not quite motionless. She seems to be rocking gently, undulating.

“Her father has thrown her over a cliff,” I say. “She is lying on the floor of the sea, rocked by the water’s movement. She will lie here for thousands of years. Sea creatures will devour her flesh, her eyes. Crustaceans will lodge on her teeth, in her eye sockets, in the hollows of her bones.

Finally, eons later, an Inuit fisherman will come to that cove.”

Though the Storyteller continues to lie there, gently rocking, I see that one of her hands, with infinitesimal movements, is gesturing towards me, urging me to… what?


It takes several heartbeats for me to grasp what she is asking. I am to play a role. I am to dance the fisherman.

I walk over, close to where she lies, not looking at her. I sit down, mime the rowing of a kayak. I pause, rest the oar across the small boat, unwind an imaginary fishing line, lower it into the sea. For a long while I sit there, lowering, raising, lowering the line.

I tug, feel a weight, smile broadly. Turn to find my net. When I turn back she is standing, slowly rising out of the water.

With terror in my eyes, I look. Look away. Begin to paddle wildly, moving across the cavern as though still sitting in my kayak. I look back. She is still there! I leap out of the boat, pull it to shore. I am running, carrying the fishing rod. I turn and she turns. I slow and she slows. We are now joined by the fishing line entangled in her bones! It is a wild erratic dance. A pas de deux.

I reach my snow house, bend low, dive in on my stomach. I lie there, panting, until finally, I can sit up, then stand. I lift my hands in praise to the Holy Ones who have rescued me. I do a little dance of gratitude. Then, removing flint from my sleeve, and some hairs from my head, I mime the lighting of a small flame. I reach over to my oil lamp, setting it alight.

And then I see her. Seated across from me, a tangle of limbs and bones, all askew.

I give one start of surprise, then mime a complete change of heart. Slowly, I move towards her. Gently, with immense care, I mime untangling my fishing line from her bones. As I so this, I am humming an old sweet song the fisherman’s mother once sang to him. I rest on my heels, smile at her as she sits there now, her bones in their proper order. I go to my sleeping ledge, pick up a bearskin, wrap her gently.

Meanwhile, Skeleton Woman does not move, but sits very still, watching me.

I rewind my fishing line, wipe the pole dry. I lie down on my sleeping ledge. I sleep.

With great care, Skeleton Woman slithers across the space between us. She bends to drink the tear that slides out from my closed eyes. She drinks like one who has a millennia-long thirst. She reaches into my chest, mimes the withdrawal of my heart. She drums on that heart, and with each drumbeat, looks to her body with wonder and joy, so that you also imagine that you see the beautiful flesh and hair, eyes, breasts, all the lovely aspects of living woman reappear.  She replaces my heart, lies down next to me, holding me in an embrace of love.

After the story ends, I go back to sit beside you. I sit as still as Skeleton Woman herself, remembering. This is the tale that illumined my own learning about love – when my wounds related to love were healed by a compassionate untangling, the shedding of tears, learning how to use the heart to drum up new life.

But that is my story. You have your own.

You may want to spend time now with the gifts, the insights, this ancient story has for you. Listen to the story beneath the story, the symbols it offers you.

We are – all three of us – silent for a long while.

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