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“Cruel Sisters”

The harp is a gruesome thing. Long bones for the pillar; breastbone for the board; the curve of a spine for the instrument’s neck and knee. At the head sits a skull, grinning eyelessly at all who flinch away.


The song variously known as “The Cruel Sister,” “Twa Sisters,” “The Bonny Swans,” “Binnorie,” and assorted other names is relatively well-known in fantasy, and a great many singers have performed it, too. Who could pass up a tale of murder followed by the victim’s corpse being turned into a harp that proceeds to accuse her killers? Loreena McKennitt’s version, on her album The Mask and Mirror, is notable for the massive failure of continuity between the beginning and the end: it starts off “A farmer there lived in the North Country,” but by the end the harp is saying “There does sit my father the king,” which, whaaaaaat? I’ve always wondered about his sudden offstage promotion to royalty.

And then, one night as I was getting ready for bed, I came up with a different explanation for that shift. Half an hour later — because this is a flash piece — I had a draft of a story.

“Cruel Sisters” appeared in Daily Science Fiction on March 10th, 2020, and is available to read for free online.