The Skeleton Harp–A “The Twa Sisters” short story

I have come to you today with a short story retelling a English/Scottish ballad! There are tons of versions of this, some showing up in places as far away as Sweden or Norway. And it shows up in other places in Northern Europe, too. Basically, it’s an old story that has had time to spread around.

It seems like posting a story once a month has sort of become a bit of a thing for me lately. I haven’t been writing much this month (I’ve begun to get started again, but I’m still sort of trying to find my groove), but I’d written this one last month. So! Here you go.

Variants of the ballad may be found here; a version put into song may be found here; and my Pinterest board (yes, of course I made a Pinterest board) may be found here.

There had been silence in the castle ever since their sister Isobel had fallen into the river by the mill, and right now it hung over the great hall, feeling tangible. Even the knights and servants were quiet as they ate, the only sounds an occasional clink of metal or a murmur as someone whispered something. The silence surrounded them all and cloaked them like a funeral shroud, and Jane felt smothered and choked by it. “The river has flooded,” Jane said softly, just to say something. She leaned into her older sister Ellen and listened to the rain begin to sprinkle down in the courtyard. “William said so when he came in.” William was the only person who would listen to her speak now, the only one who’d listen as she babbled some nothing as she embroidered, the only one who told her the gossip from the town. She was in a sorry state when the only person who would talk to her was a man she despised.

Jane huddled into her cloak, but the cold still bit into her. William was her father’s knight and her sisters’ lover—both her sisters. He had courted Ellen, giving her all kinds of gifts, but that hadn’t stopped him from kissing Isobel when no one else was there. Except Jane. Because she kept walking in on them by accident. Jane had hated them both, and hated the smile on Ellen’s face whenever William walked in the room. She’d kept quiet, until William began to talk to her father of marriage. Then she’d finally broke and told Ellen. Ellen had listened, her lips tight, but her only change was her treatment of Isobel, and she never sent William away. Jane wasn’t sure what she had expected to happen. Isobel had drowned a month later, walking along the river strand. Ellen had cried herself to sleep for months afterwards, and she’d barely had an appetite since it happened. She was too thin.

Jane scraped her chicken onto Ellen’s plate with a smile. The knife scratched loudly against her plate, earning her a look from her father. Ellen looked at it and pushed it away. Jane’s smile faded into a bitter grimace, her hands clutching the cold wood of her chair. There was an emptiness to this castle that could not be chased away, no matter how many nice things she did. It had always been there. But now it tightened around their necks like the noose.

A loud crack of thunder pealed, and the rain began in earnest, pelting the stone. The doors of the hall were thrown open with a crash, and a dead woman walked through them, her skin stretched tight over her body and a skeleton smile on her face. Jane’s father sprang to his feet with a loud curse, the only life this hall had seen in months. Ellen did nothing except watch the woman with a fanatic expression almost as dead as hers.

The only living thing the woman had was her golden hair, bright and gleaming and falling down past her waist. There was something horribly familiar about her hair, but Jane would not think why. “I come bringing a miracle and a curse,” the woman said in a rich, resounding voice. “But this place will no longer hold miracles, and so I deliver only the curse.”

 “What devil dares impersonate my daughter?” her mother whispered. The cold dread that had been coming over Jane washed over her in a flood, nearly bringing her to her knees. So her mother had noticed, too. “Begone from this place.”

“I am no devil,” said Isobel, with a smile that sent a shiver through Jane. “I am nothing but the river.” She waited for a response, but none came. She shrugged and brought out a harp from behind her. Jane did not realize at first what it was made of until it hit her in a horrible realization. She clapped a hand to her mouth, trying to push down the vomit rising in her. This was a nightmare. “A harper found my body and cut my breast-bone for his harp and took my hair for his strings,” Isobel said with a laugh. “He thought he could make a fortune with the magic, but the magic sung him to madness and took his soul. He clawed out his own eyes,” she added happily. Someone had desecrated her sister’s body? Or…She couldn’t process it anymore. “But it was magic, and dark magic, too.” She stepped back, and the harp began to sing, and this was Isobel’s voice, high and clear.

Farewell, my father and mother dear, and another song intertwined with it to sing of a sister who pushed the younger in as they were walking along the river strand,

By the bonny mill-dams of Binnorie,

Farewell to William my sweetheart,

Binnorie, O, Binnorie,

And woe to my sister who drowned me,

By the bonny mill-dams of Binnorie.

The harp broke with a loud crack that sounded through the room. “Sister?” said Isobel to Ellen, holding out her hand.

“Of course,” Ellen whispered viciously, walking over to her. She took the hand, and Isobel began to lead Ellen out of the room.

“No!” Jane screamed, running toward them. “No, leave her!” Her parents did nothing. She clawed at Isobel’s hand, but both her sisters shoved her to the floor.

“A life for a life,” Ellen said. “That is what you desire, isn’t it, river?”

She tossed a smile over her shoulder at Ellen. “It is possible.” Jane jumped back to her feet, pulling at Ellen and trying to tear her away from this spirit, but she couldn’t break Isobel’s grip. She fell down, feeling as if all the strength were gone from her body. She tried to push herself up, and found she couldn’t.

“Take me,” she pleaded. “Take me instead.”

“No, Jane,” Isobel said. “You have no part in this. Leave this place and find a home.” And she led Ellen out the doors and into the misty rain.

I feel like that was unusually dark even for me. Wow.

The number of sisters varies from version to version. Most of the ballads only have two sisters, but a few have three, and I opted to tell it from the point of view of the third sister because, frankly, she is the only sister who comes out of this ballad looking okay. I don’t know that there are any versions where the ghost (or…whatever she was) of the sister comes to the castle rather than the harper, but hey, artistic license.

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