Loss, Fear, and Guilt in ‘Gnarled Bones and Other Stories’ by Tam May

Genre: Psychological fiction
Date Published: January 19, 2017

Gnarled Bones and Other Stories explores five tales of loss, fear, and guilt where strange and spooky events impact people’s lives in ways that are profound and unchangeable.

In “Mother of Mischief”, a newly divorced woman goes back to school to begin a new chapter in her life only to find herself circling back to where she started. In “Bracelets”, childhood nostalgia mingles with brutal fear during a circus outing for a mailroom secretary and her friends. In “A First Saturday Outing”*, a lonely woman ventures out of her isolated apartment one quiet Saturday afternoon to an art exhibit that leaves an eerie impression on her psyche*. In “Broken Bows”, a middle-aged violinist reveals the mystery behind his declining artistic powers to a lonely woman on a train. And the title story, “Gnarled Bones”, paints a portrait of the complex bond between an orphaned sister and brother through journal entries and first-person narrative. For these characters, the past leaves its shadow on the present and future.

* This story was featured on Whimsy Gardener’s Storytime With Whimsey and can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PW9mgw4qhuA


Loss, Fear, and Guilt in Gnarled Bones and Other Stories

Guest Post by Author Tam May


The tagline for my short story collection, Gnarled Bones and Other Stories is “five tales of loss, fear, and guilt”. These three emotions run through the five stories in the collection, though not all are present in each story.

The first story, “Mother of Mischief”, is about a middle-aged woman who takes her life into her own hands after leaving an oppressive family and marriage. She does what many women in her situation do – she goes back to college to get her degree, to educate herself, moving away from her stagnated past. The title of the story refers to a nickname her younger brothers gave her when she became the maternal figure in their lives as children. Loss comes into the story with Henry, the new roommate Marie and her companions choose to share their off-campus apartment. Henry is young but wise from watching his mother work her fingers to the bone to save money for his college studies. When he enters school, he is still grieving his mother’s death a year earlier. That grief propels his nightly wanderings, pulling Marie back into her role as Mother of Mischief.

Fear plays a huge role in the next story, “Bracelets”. Five friends visit a circus where one of the lions, nicknamed “The White Demon”, gets loose and injures a child. The nightmare is perhaps one of the most prevalent associated with circuses and zoos. The nightmare becomes real for Isabelle, the main character, and her friends and they seek comfort in one another.

The flash fiction piece, “A First Saturday Outing”, has a twist of fear at the end of the story. Helena, on her own in San Francisco for the first time, is determined to get out of her shell and see all the fabulous sites the city offers. After weeks of staying in her apartment, she ventures out one Saturday afternoon to a small museum exhibiting the works of an obscure woman sculptress. The story follows Helena through the exhibition and her growing realization that the woman artist is speaking to her.

“Broken Bows” embodies guilt and loss in the character of Blaze, a former child protégée who, now in his fifties, has lost his musical touch. He carries the shadow of the father who pushed him to sensationalistic violin performances that gave him his earlier popularity (encouraging him even to break violin bows on stage with his intense playing) and he is haunted by the guilt of having disappointed him and at the same time, of not having followed his own heart as a violinist. His short but potent encounter with Anne, a woman moving from one caged life into another, releases both of them from their anxiety and sadness.

The final story, “Gnarled Bones”, begins and ends with loss. Two children, Em and Denny, are left orphaned in an isolated and silent world of their own. Their godmother provides them with a warm and maternal home but Em wants to remain in the safe space of their little world. Her brother, Denny, on the other hand, wants to get out into the world or, rather, bring the world into their little home. He goes out and invites Priscilla into the house. Denny’s obsession with Priscilla becomes one more loss in Em’s life and in her journal entries, we feel her pain, anger and jealousy. The story ends with loss again but does have a positive note.

We usually think of loss in terms of death but loss can also be about someone whom we love and trusted no longer being a part of our lives or betraying us. They say guilt is a wasted emotion but sometimes we can’t run away from guilt when we hurt someone or aren’t there for someone. My stories bring these ideas into the strange lives of the characters as “a-ha!” moments they can’t anticipate and aren’t always prepared for.


About the Author

Tam May was born in Israel but grew up in the United States. She earned her B.A in English before returning to the States. She also has a Master’s degree and worked as an English instructor and EFL teacher before she became a full-time writer. She started writing when she was 14 and writing became her voice. She writes psychological fiction, exploring emotional realities informed by past experiences, dreams, feelings, fantasies, nightmares, imagination, and self-analysis. She currently lives in Texas but calls the San Francisco Bay Area home. When she’s not writing, she’s reading classic literature and watching classic films.


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  • Tam May

    Thanks, Darcia!!!


    • My pleasure, Tam! You’re welcome here anytime. 🙂