Research Notes · 02/26/2016

The Singing Bone

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Beth Hahn writes about The Singing Bone from Regan Arts.


My uncle was a hippie — a 70’s hippie, with friends who came back from Viet Nam, and friends who didn’t. Once he invited us to a party — my mother, my sister and me. I wore a blue poncho with red piping. My uncle said it was a birthday party, and my sister and I, just little, yelled: We love birthday parties! Thinking punch and cake, but when we got there, it was all wine and weed, a house from the 1930s with dipping wooden floors and a square back yard where the other children threw mud balls at each other. I didn’t know how to play that way, and sat on my hands near the fire, where a pig roasted on a spit. I watched its face turn round and round over the flames.

The agencies responsible for interference with the efficiency of a cultural system are various: climatic, floral and faunal change; military defeat; political subordination; extreme pressure toward acculturation resulting in internal cultural conflict; economic distress; epidemics; and so on. (Wallace 269)

I studied the photos of the Moonie wedding in the newspaper: those rows of black tuxedos and white gowns. Running my finger over the image, I looked for someone, anyone, who broke form.

Guyana, 1978. My mother tried to turn the news off. “The babies, too?” I asked, incredulous.

Manson. Ridiculous, elfin, deadly.

Love, sacrifice, and devotion are linked together and expressed as strong emotional attachments, binding members to the group in ways that correspond to the marital commitment. Indeed, the marital practices of some new religious movements entail prohibitions against dyadic exclusivity and help to create an intense affective catharsis analogous to a group marriage of sorts. (Wright 128)


At night, my mother read us fairy tales. The wolf, dots of blood on the snow, hair as black as ebony, sweeping cinders from a hearth. I closed my eyes. If I were very good, I would grow up to be beautiful. Like the girl in the illustration, I could run through the forest with no shoes, my hair loose in the wind.

My mother gave us books about clever girls too, but the world always fought back. Bonnie Bell and Seventeen, pursed lips and boys and hormones. You shook me. Stoned on a stranger’s couch on a suburban winter evening, bathed in blue cathode ray light in a ranch house at the bottom of the cul-de-sac.

In this language of sex, monkeys represent boys, climbing a tree represents seduction, and crying for water or drinking from a river represents thirst for sexual pleasure. (Philipose 172)

We wandered the half-built suburbs, sinking into the mud of the construction sites, holding on to each other, laughing. We played in unfinished houses. This is my room; this is your room. This is where we’ll put the baby. Let’s make dinner. We were thirteen, fifteen, and couldn’t drive, but S. stole his father’s truck, and we pulled the basement door open at 3 AM, went back to the construction sites with Wild Turkey, bang snaps, cigarettes, bubble gum.


“The Two Sisters” is a form of the international tale type known as The Singing Bone (AT 780, motif E632 Reincarnation as musical instrument; Mackensen 1923), in which the supernatural revelation of the murder is the recurrent and characteristic feature. (Atkinson 5)

In folklore, narratives shift, adopt new details, and emerge with varied endings. The girls are fair or they are dark. They are older or they are younger, rich or poor. In one version, there are boats, in another, monkeys. Sometimes there is a noose, at other times, a knife. There is always water: a river, an ocean, a lake.

A reservoir.


“In literary fiction,” a graduate instructor told me, leaning back in her dark office, the snow outside. “We don’t show murder.”

“Why?” I asked.

“I suppose it’s in poor taste.”

And that spring, another instructor said: “This seems unlike you.” I’d written a short story about a man who visited a prostitute. “I’m not sure I like it.” He put the story down without looking at me.

Perhaps the stories were unfinished, poorly written, or maybe:

…Some of [the ballad’s deterioration] is certainly the effect of the American ethos, with its denial of death, its resistance to the tragic experience, its deep repression of sexuality, its overriding pieties, and its frantic emphasis on the rationalistic, the inconsequential, and the optimistic. (Hyman 239)

Once upon a time, I knew a girl who was forced into a car. Two went missing. In college, a girl lost her life while closing a shop at night, another going home on a bicycle. Something terrible happened in a field, and that strange, abbreviated story about an acquaintance’s death — drugs, a car on a road at night — the story that never made any sense, as if any of these stories made any sense at all.

In hallways and at slumber parties, we whispered the details to each other; later, in bars, at each other’s houses, over the phone, reasoning that details might keep it from happening to us.

What time was it when she left the bar?

Was it someone she knew or a stranger?

I remember it this way: that he pushed her out of the car. But no — you say it happened differently.

Head lights switch across a dark highway, glimpse over trees and brambles at the side of the road. A figure is illuminated: It’s a girl, alone, waiting to cross.

Will she make it?


Atkinson, David. “Magical Corpses: Ballads, Intertextuality, and the Discovery of Murder.” Journal of Folklore Research, V 36, No. 1. (Jan-Apr 1999), pp. 1-29. 14 January 2013.

Hyman, Stanley Edgar. “The Child Ballad in America: Some Aesthetic Criteria.” The Journal of American Folklore., Vol 70, No. 277 (Jul-Sep 1957) pp. 235-239. American Folklore Society. 17 January 2013.

Philipose, Lily. “A Santal Folktale Variant of the Ballad.” F_olklore_, Vol. 101, No. 2 (1990), pp. 167-177. Taylor & Francis, Ltd. 17 January 2013.

Wallace, Anthony F.C. “Revitalization Movements.” American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol 58, No 2. (Apr. 1956) pp 264-281. Blackwell Publishing. 17 January 2013.

Wright, Stuart A. “Reconceptualizing Cult Coercion and Withdrawal: A Comparative Analysis of Divorce and Apotsy.” Social Forces, Vol. 70, No. 1 (Sep. 1991), pp. 125-145. Oxford University Press. 16 January 2013.


Beth Hahn studied art and writing at The University of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and earned an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. She attended The Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference and the Ragdale Foundation. Her short stories have appeared in Necessary Fiction, The Hawai’i Review, The South Carolina Review, and The Emrys Journal. Beth lives in New Castle, New York, with her husband.