Bones by Pat Murphy

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The Irish Giant – that’s what Londoners called Charlie Bryne, an enormous country lad standing 8 feet tall in his bare feet. He made his fortune by exhibiting himself, but Bryne was far more than a human oddity. He had the magical power of healing, a deep connection to the natural magic of the earth, and the blood of Irish kings in his veins. In 1782, he came to London with a single goal — to bring the Irish home to the island they had left.

John Hunter was a man of science and insatiable curiosity — a surgeon, a natural philosopher, and a tireless collector of natural oddities. With analysis and dissection, Hunter strove to understand the natural world — and he wanted to add the bones of a giant to his collection.

This novella, winner of the 1990 World Fantasy Award, examines what happens when the quest for scientific knowledge meets ancient natural magic.


London was larger than Charlie had expected. So many people, bustling here and there with their own business to attend to. He would have been lost in a minute without Joe Vance. He followed the little man down narrow winding streets, ducking to avoid the wooden signs that hung over shop doorways. Vance threaded his way through the commotion with ease, dodging coaches and hackneys, pushing past fruit sellers with baskets and barrows, sidestepping odorous puddles of offal and horse dung. Charlie was hard-pressed to keep up. He saw an Irishwoman selling oranges on the street corner, her black shawl wrapped tight about her shoulders to keep off the cold. He wanted to stop and chat with her, but Vance rushed on and Charlie feared he would lose his guide. He noticed a young Irish girl selling flowers. But he could not stop to talk; he had to hurry to follow Vance. People stared at him as he passed, called to their friends and pointed at him.

Vance turned from a narrow street into an even narrower alley. The thin strip of evening sky that showed between the tenements was gray with fog; the air was damp and cool. Laundry, strung between the buildings, hung limp in the still air. A group of boys was playing marbles at the far end of the street. Two pigs slept in a scatter of straw in the gutter. As Charlie passed, the larger animal lifted its head and sniffed the air, its small eyes regarding the giant with a dim sort of recognition.

The alley led to a small courtyard where tall buildings blocked out all but the smallest square of gray sky. Vance stepped into a hallway that reeked of varnish from the cane shop next door and called up the stairs. The woman who came down shrieked when she saw him—a cry of surprise and delight, mixed with a little bit of chiding. “Well, it’s Joe Vance, blast your eyes. Where have you been, you no-good scoundrel?”

While Vance and the woman talked, Charlie waited in the courtyard, staring up at the patch of sky. He heard them murmuring about someone named Peg, and Vance said, “God rest her soul,” in an insincere voice. But Charlie paid no attention.

He felt tired and confused. On the ship, he had begun to feel ill at ease, missing the solid warmth of Irish soil beneath his feet. When he had complained to Vance, the little man had attributed the complaint to seasickness and said that the feeling would go away when he reached solid ground again. But the sickness had remained, a hollowness in his belly, like the emptiness of hunger without the hunger pains. He wore shoes now—Vance had insisted on that when they reached Dublin—and he longed for the touch of honest soil beneath his feet.

“Charlie, come along, lad. Mary will set us up with the rooms we need,” Vance called to him.

Vance seemed familiar with the house. The woman showed them a furnished sitting room and a bedroom that attached to it. The bedroom was dark and cold, but Charlie just shrugged when Vance asked him what he thought. He barely looked at the rooms, knowing that he would not be in London for so very long. He would gather the Irish, and then be on his way. So it was not worth quibbling about the look of the rooms.

Vance engaged the rooms and then hurried Charlie along, saying that they had many things to do that day. They went to a tailor shop and Vance had Charlie measured for a suit of clothes. Then they went to the office of the Morning Herald where Vance placed an advertisement and ordered handbills to post. “Make ’em say—‘The tallest man in the world,’” Vance told the clerk. “Eighth wonder of the world.”

While Vance was talking to the clerk, Charlie stepped outside. He looked down the narrow street. In the distance, he saw the open sky and a spot of green. He left Vance behind, drawn to the greenery.

The river Thames flowed through London, bringing water to the city and carrying away the sewage and refuse. Charlie walked down the street and found himself on steps leading down to the river. A tall tree grew on the riverbank, providing a restful spot in the gray stone of the city. In the tree, a bird was singing.

Charlie sat on the stone steps. A sea gull landed beside him and cocked its head from side to side, studying him with one yellow eye and then the other. Charlie smiled at the bird, and then tilted his head back so that the sun shone on his face. The river water lapped gently against the bottom step, whispering comforting words in a language all its own. He rested there, soaking up the warmth of the sun and feeling a portion of his strength returning to him.

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