Bone by Bone
Edith Miller sat on the floor of the bedroom that belonged to her son, David. The sun slanted in from the one window to pool on the bare pine floor, and in that light, her thick legs tucked under her, Edith arranged piles of folded pants.
She laid each pair of pants in a stack according to its type: jeans, khakis, sweatpants. David had been dead for a year and five months, but he still inhabited his room. Edith could feel him so strongly here that she had avoided walking past his door since his father had packed up David’s things from the apartment he’d shared with his girlfriend, Megan, and trucked them home to Long Island in a U-haul. Dave Senior had not, in his grief, forgotten the way home. Edith gave him credit for that.
Nobody entered David’s room until a few weeks after the one-year anniversary, when Edith cracked the door and stuck her head in briefly, just to see if everything was in the same place. After a while, she would come all the way in and stand just inside the door, in silence in the presence of her son’s things. But the gravity of the room slowly drew her into the center, and once there, Edith took a look around at the hastily stored remains of her son’s life and saw a room that had gone too long without a good scrubbing. All right, David, she had said this morning, firmly. You’ve had your way too long. It’s time.
Megan knelt at the bottom of a foot-deep hole on an isolated slope in County Cork, Ireland. Dirt stained the knees of her overalls, and a blue kerchief tied back her dark hair. She held in her hand an old shaving brush, and with it she was dusting the dirt from a partially-exposed corner of a stone carving.
Columbia University had been digging up this ninth-century monastery for about six months, but Megan and the other graduate students had only been there about three weeks, and they had already found so much. The southern part of the chapel. The cells where the monks had slept. A granary. Jars of wine from France — they’d sent residue from the bottom of a jar home to the lab to analyze. Pottery and stoneware. A rare piece of stained glass. Evidence of commerce with Viking traders. Norse knives. Megan’s favorite find was a near-toothless comb from the remains of a garbage heap outside one of the homes. It had been well-used; you could still see the imprint of a hand, five fingers, worn into the reindeer handle.
Megan was working now at digging up a large stone cross. It lay flat as if it had been knocked over, and only the bottom three feet had been excavated. They believed it would be a Celtic cross when it finally came out of the ground — the intricate carvings told the story. When Christianity was first being introduced to Ireland, the circle was a Pagan symbol. Christian missionaries had incorporated it into their own imagery by inventing the Celtic cross: a cross with a halo, a circle where the bars intersected. Megan loved this one; she’d found it herself in an unbelievably lucky test pit three days earlier. Every exposed inch was covered in carvings of elaborate spirals and mythical animals, fresh and unweathered. The circle and crossbar were still underground, and while she worked Megan imagined this part, the carvings, the arms of the cross reaching out beyond the circle like a sun’s rays. She crouched in her hole and thought deliberately of nothing, not the humidity or the gnats or the soreness of her shoulder and arm from using the brush for hours on end, nothing but her find, this stone body she was returning by increments to the world
After folding the pants, Edith began on her son’s closet. She cleared out his running shoes, his loafers, his extra pair of interview shoes. His best pair was missing; buried or up in flames, she did not know which. She cleared out his sweaters. David liked big cable-knit sweaters that hung around his shoulders like loose hugs. She unfolded some old T-shirts he’d left behind since high school. There were messages on them, nonsensical communications sent to her from the teenager David had been: This Body Climbed Mt. Washington. 1999 NYC Race for the Cure. Metallica. Edith went through an entire shoebox of photographs. David’s pictures from his year abroad in Italy. The Coliseum. The Aqueduct. David and Megan at Niagara Falls. David and Megan at a formal dance. Megan wore a black dress, high at the neck, with her curly hair upswept. Megan was a strange girl, who’d rather spend time at the bottom of some dirty hole than in a restaurant or a store, like a normal girl, but here she looked put-together for once. David was in a suit. It was the first year of their courtship. David was twenty in the picture, and Edith noticed how at-home her son looked wearing formal clothes. Not like other boys his age. David and Megan in Central Park. Their cheeks were pressed close, and one had held up the camera and snapped a picture. Their faces were blurry, off-center, happy.
Joshua was Megan’s dig partner. He was a doctoral candidate in biological anthropology, and he had been at the dig about a month. Joshua had blond hair and eyes that were very pale blue. Megan was afraid of the thrill she got from his pale eyes. He touched the back of her hand lightly sometimes when they talked, to illustrate a point. Megan was very aware of these touches.
Megan believed she was drawn to Joshua because of his knowledge of bones. The bones the group had excavated from the monastery’s graveyard were kept laid out on folding tables in a big tent on the outskirts of the dig. The bones told their stories to Joshua, who repeated them to Megan. This one here had arthritis. You can see the disfigurement of the joints. Here, and here. This one had a break. You can see where the bone healed, here where this knob is. This one died of syphilis. He pointed out things by touching the bones lightly, the way he touched the back of her hand.
After work one day, Joshua and Megan took some sandwiches and climbed the hill that loomed over the dig site, where an Iron Age hill fort was said to be. The hill was steep and round, a sudden elevation in this place of gentle rises and falls, with an oddly flat top. There was a low raised ring on top of the hill, surrounded by a shallow ditch — the last remains of the fort’s earthworks, the wooden structure itself having long since disintegrated.
“They say in England somewhere there’s one of these forts made of stone,“ Joshua said into the silence between them, standing in the ditch and looking up at Megan. “You can see rings of stone blocks where there used to be walls. There’s only one in the whole British Isles.”
You could tell where the entrance had been. The ditch and earthworks didn’t go all the way around; there was an opening where the ground was level, wide enough for two horse-drawn carts to go through side-by-side. Megan stood with her back to the doorway, looking west toward the sea. Joshua climbed out of the ditch behind her, scuffing his feet against the ground. “These walls were thick. They were afraid of something.”
“Vikings,” Megan said. The thought made her shiver slightly. She had written her undergraduate thesis on the Vikings. She knew that when they came they were like any other storm that rose up from the sea. They came and they took and they left the land changed.
Joshua shrugged. His shrugs were like geological movements, a slow shifting of mountains over time. It wasn’t so much that his shoulders were big as that he looked like he was carrying something heavy. “You think the University will excavate anything like this someday?”
Megan was quiet after that. Joshua shifted his feet in the silence. “I’m hungry,” he said at last. They sat down on top of the ditch on the wet ground and unwrapped the sandwiches. They were smoked native salmon, made the way the Irish ate it, on thin wheat bread with unsalted butter. They ate without talking, looking out at the sea.
After a while, Joshua looked over at Megan. At first she didn’t notice his eyes on her; she was lost in the view of the brilliant green fields, the heavy grey of the sea, and the luminescent grey-white of the sky. The fields were peppered with brown cows, nosing at the grass in drystone wall enclosures. In one of the fields she could see the ruins of a church, its bones poking out of the grass. It was probably the only thing different from the view seen by the Celts who had lived here once, patrolling the walkways on top of their thick wooden walls, on the lookout for pirates.
“Tell me something about yourself, Megan,” Joshua said. “We dig together all day and I still know nothing about you.”
Megan looked over at him. He was beautiful as any Viking. “Sometimes I feel more of a connection to the people who lived here centuries ago than I do to people I know today,” she said after a while. She allowed herself to meet those unnerving eyes. Deliberately she imagined herself beneath dark Irish dirt, the dirt of centuries, opaque to all sight.
“That’s not much,” Joshua said good-humoredly, not taking the hint. He grinned at her with his eyes. “You’d better watch out. Digging’s what I do.” He leaned closer, laid a hand on her shoulder. “I like you, Megan,” he said, his voice quiet. “If you didn’t know before, I figured you should.”
Megan stiffened and pulled away from him, and to her fury, she felt tears rising up in her eyes. “I . . . I can’t,” she said, looking determinedly down. “It’s not . . . It’s not that I don’t like you back. I just can’t.”
“Do you like me?” he asked, and something in his voice made Megan, for an instant, unafraid. She looked up at him then, and he saw the tears still standing in her eyes, and frowned. “Are you crying? What’s wrong?” He reached toward her face.
“Nothing.” Megan evaded his hand sharply and stood up, wiping furiously at her eyes with her sleeve. “I need to go back.”
“I’ll come with you.” Joshua started to stand.
“No. Just stay there. Just — stay there,” Joshua was standing now, his hands at his sides. Megan started walking down the hill.
“You’re going to trip,” he called after her.
“Stay there, Joshua,” she yelled back. She could hear David’s voice on the answering machine. They’re sending helicopters. Don’t worry. I love you, Meg. She was running now, having lost the road. The hill was steep and slippery, and the tears were coming so fast now she could hardly see. Halfway down, she looked back. Joshua was still standing at the top of the hill, his hands in his pockets, shoulders hunched helplessly against the wind.
That evening, Megan lay awake long after the other students had left for the bars. Their hostel was a mile from the dig site. It was mostly dorms, but Megan had, by some fluke, one of the only two singles to herself. It was hardly more than a closet, with space for a single metal bed and a few shelves. She welcomed the solitude; she didn’t have to explain, lying awake in the dark and recalling the dejected set of Joshua’s shoulders, the obvious hurt. She did not know if he would speak to her again, or if he would write her off in his heart. He should. It was what she wanted him to do. But then she remembered the sharp cut of his cheekbones, the harsh blue of his eyes, his golden hair. The heat of his hand on her. Such heat. Intense pleasure washed over her at the thought, followed immediately by the weight of a thousand atmospheres. She curled up under it and pressed her knees to her chest, shivering under the thin blanket. David is dead, she thought to herself. How could you?
Sleep came hard to Edith. She often lay awake most of the night, thinking of David. She tried to fight off the urge to imagine his final moments by remembering him in diapers, returning in her mind to his particularly ill-natured toddlerhood, his love of microscopes, his hatred of her meatloaf. The battles exhausted her. She dug deep into her memories of his childhood and held them before her through the night, like shields.
Sometimes when Edith tried to picture David’s last minutes, she wondered if he had tried to escape. If he had time. If maybe he had almost gotten out, almost gotten away, but had gone back in to help somebody else. That would have been like him. She tortured herself sometimes by wondering if he had been caught in a falling tomb of steel and cement, or if he had gone out a window and fallen through clear air, or if he had been burned. Edith had been on intimate terms with the circumstances of her son’s birth, his entry into the world. But his death was a mystery to her.
In the morning, she started on David’s drawers. All of his undershirts were neatly folded. She took them out, opened them up and refolded them on the floor. She made piles of the white cotton shirts, many so old their fabric had torn under the arms or at the throat. She ran her hands over them, letting the nerves in her fingertips pick up their textures, inferring their age by their level of wear. They were intimate garments, the shirts that had been closest to her son’s skin. They were infinitely precious. Edith sorted them into piles, counted the old and worn ones, counted the newer ones, and began to cry. David had had so few new undershirts. He had been living with that girl who hadn’t had the sense to make him get new ones. He’d probably died wearing a holey undershirt underneath his interview suit. Edith pressed her face into one of David’s shirts and sobbed.
“I had a teacher in fifth grade who looked like this,” Joshua said.
They were in the bone tent eating lunch. Joshua was holding a yellowed skull up to his face. Megan did not look up from her sandwich.
“Had terrible dental hygiene, too,” Joshua remarked. Megan ignored him. He had been acting strange all day. She hadn’t expected his aggressive humor.
“Look, Meg,” Joshua said, “I’m Hamlet! Alas, poor Yorrick! I knew him well, Horatio — ”
“Put that back,” Megan growled. “That’s somebody’s head.”
“You’re a hypocrite.” Joshua put the skull carefully back on the table where it belonged. “If you really felt like that, why would you want to dig these things out of their graves in the first place?”
“So we can learn from them. Not treat them like a joke.” She frowned around a bite of sandwich.
“Jeez. Just trying to make you laugh.” Joshua opened his lunch bag and came and sat next to her. “You haven’t scared me off yet,” he said pointedly. “Not quite yet.”
Megan froze. He was too close. “Okay,” she said. “I’m taking a walk. Later.” She got up. Joshua’s brow descended over his eyes as she walked past, but he didn’t try to stop her.
Away from Joshua, Megan felt the tension in her shoulders and neck dissipate a little. Most of the students were taking lunch breaks, sitting in clumps on the grass or in some of the tents where the artifacts were kept. Megan kept away from them, following the line of the fence at the perimeter of the site instead.
The entire site was surrounded by chain-link fence nine feet high, topped with razor wire. They needed the wire. They hadn’t had it a month or two ago, and at night thieves had climbed the fence and stolen some of the artifacts — a few jugs, mainly, beautifully wrought, and the skull from one of the skeletons in the bone tent. Megan found herself unexpectedly grieved by the theft. It hurt her to think these people had been brought out of their graves only to disappear again, before they could tell the world anything.
By the time she got back, the lunch break was long over. A crowd of people had gathered at one of the smaller pits containing what was believed to be one of the monastery’s kitchens. Megan saw Joshua on the outskirts of the crowd, and she went around to the other side. She wanted as many bodies between them as possible.
Dr. McKinley, the professor in charge, was standing in the pit. He was a tall, lanky man with a ring of hair fringing the bald top of his head. There was an excitement about him today, sparking off his fingers and eyelashes and hair. The electricity of discovery.
“This is not supposed to be here,” he was saying to the students crowded around him. “We’ve found a lot of these on the west side of the site, where the cemetery was. But this one’s out behind the kitchen, essentially on the midden heap. That’s where everybody threw their animal bones, their waste, their compost. Why throw a human body out with the trash?”
Megan’s stomach clenched. She tried to elbow her way closer.
“Anyone?” Professor McKinley said.
“Plague?” somebody guessed.
“Could be plague,” Professor McKinley said. “Could very well be. We’ll have to get the bones out and look at them. But with plague, they didn’t like to leave the bodies out like this. They liked them burned or buried. Even with most of the population decimated, the survivors will try to get rid of the bodies, because they’re afraid of catching it themselves.” He knelt down. “See this here?” He pointed at the wall of the pit near the floor. The earth there was very pale, lighter than the surrounding soil, forming an almost white stripe across the wall of the pit. Megan could barely see the stripe; she could not see what was in the bottom of the pit. “This is ash,” the professor said. “A layer of ash approximately two feet down. We see it here, we saw it in pit four where the chapel is, we saw it in pit six. It’s everywhere at the same level.” He stood up. “This place was burned to the ground.”
Megan shifted her feet on the green grass. Fire and death.
Professor McKinley looked around. “It wouldn’t have been the English, not at this point,” he said in response to a question from someone in the crowd. “It was very likely the Vikings, and I’ll tell you why.” He pointed in the direction of the sea, about a mile west. “That was the superhighway of the ninth century,” he said. “You’d have loads of people going up and down the coast trading, raiding, catching slaves. This place was close, convenient, and rich. A big monastery like this was sure to be full of gold at some point. We haven’t found any so far, and that’s probably because the Vikings didn’t leave much behind.”
Megan felt tears fighting their way up to her eyes. Violence had leveled this place. There had been fire and death here.
Later that afternoon, while Joshua worked silently above her, Megan unearthed the rest of the Celtic cross. The top arm and the right crossbar had been broken off completely, and part of the circle between them was missing, as though the cross had been knocked down and smashed. Megan brushed the dirt from the jagged breaks carefully, as if the wounds were still fresh.
The evidence was coming up out of the ground.
I can bring them back, Megan thought to herself as she worked. I can bring them all back.
After a while, Edith put David’s shirt down. She opened one of the top drawers of David’s bureau and stuck her hand in, not looking. Socks. She pulled out all the neatly folded pairs and laid them on the floor. She counted them. Ten pairs. Edith unfolded each pair and checked the toes for holes. After a while she stuck her hand back in the drawer to make sure it was empty. Her hand bumped against something. Not a sock. Something solid and small. She brought it out and held it in her palm. A small black velvet box.
It was late, and most of the students had left for the bars. Megan stayed in her room to wait for her parents’ phone call. Tonight, her mother told her they’d found another body at the site. Up until a few months ago they had been pulling the bodies out of the pits at a rate of about one a day, but the rate had slowed. They were getting desperate now. They were scraping DNA off I-beams. About a third of the victims had been identified, but not David. It had been over a year, but Megan remembered that David smelled like cinnamon, tasted like rough salt. Megan remembered his one chipped tooth, his square-nailed hands. She remembered how his laugh always made her laugh, even if she didn’t know what was funny.
She didn’t understand how all of him could just be gone. She sat on her bed, leaned against the wall and hugged her knees to her chest. The sorrow in her was gigantic and violent. When Joshua came into her room, she reached for him in part to escape that sorrow, to drive it out and replace it with anything else she could get inside her.
Megan had never slept with anyone but David. David had been a big man. Broad across the shoulders. Joshua was lean and unexpectedly slender. David had had a patch of dark hair on his chest that had climbed up to the hollow at his throat. Megan had loved that patch of hair — a hint of chaos waiting to bust through his neat sweaters. Joshua’s chest was smooth. He kissed her neck and entered into her on the narrow bed. As he did it, David came into the room without opening the door. He sat down on the edge of the bed next to them. His eyes were shadowed. Go away, Megan thought at him. She flung the thought toward him over Joshua’s naked shoulder, a sharp spinning blade of a thought, and David dissipated into the dark.
A diamond ring. The stone was oval, multi-faceted, and shining. Edith took it out and let it rest in her palm, the circle bisected by her life and health lines. It was so small and so significant. She turned the diamond toward the light, watched it flicker. She hadn’t known. The room was very still, breathless, as though David himself were watching anxiously for her reaction. She wanted to swallow the ring, to lose it in the folds and bowels of herself. She turned it over in her hands. She tried to picture David hiding it here, who knows how long ago, moving his socks around to cover it, shutting the drawer. Knowing that, until the right moment came, it would be safe in the house where he had grown up. She felt a sudden fierce gratitude that he had hidden it here, in her house, and out of that gratitude came a desire to tell. She wanted to call Megan.
She rummaged through David’s desk until she found his address book. Megan’s parents’ phone number was there, written in David’s exact hand. She went out into the hallway outside David’s room. It was late, but she picked up the telephone anyway and dialed. A man picked up. Megan’s father.
“Hello?” he said. His voice was deep, deeper than Dave Senior’s had been.
“This is — this is Edith Miller,” she said. “David’s mother.”
His name hung on the line between them for an instant, something alive. Megan’s father hesitated before he spoke. David’s name stuck in his mouth.
“How . . . how are things?” he said.
“Fine. We’re fine.” Edith didn’t know what she meant by we. But she could hear in Megan’s father’s voice the knowledge that his daughter had lived and her son had not. She could hear the potent mix of guilt and elation; his voice was sick with it. In the face of that, she wanted him to think that she still had a we.
“I was calling because I’m going through some of David’s things,” Edith said. “I found something that I thought Megan might like to keep. Do you know how I can get in touch with her?”
“Oh. Sure. Sure, hang on.” Edith heard him breathe heavily as he tucked the phone between his cheek and shoulder. She heard paper being moved. “I have it here.” He took care to read her the number slowly. Edith wrote it down. “Maybe . . . maybe we should keep in touch,” Megan’s father said. “In case you need anything.”
“I don’t need anything,” Edith said, too sharply. She thanked him and then hung up, the ring burning a hole into her palm.
In Megan’s dream, she put a shovel into the earth and uncovered David’s bones. She dreamed she cleaned all the dirt off him with her toothbrush, working with infinite care. The slightest mark or scratch would obscure the message his body kept. It took a year and five months and eleven days. Around her the sun rose and set, and the rain fell and the snow fell and the sun came out again and shone, and through it Megan kept digging, kept cleaning. She dreamed that she brushed the dirt from his bones until they gleamed, each scratch and wound clean and pure. Then, when they were both ready, she gathered him up in her arms and carried him to the bone tent. Joshua was waiting for her. She laid David’s bones at his feet. Tell me what happened to him, she said.
He had been on the ninety-third floor of the first tower, and when the machine picked up at the apartment they’d shared, he told her not to worry. They’re sending helicopters. We’ll be fine. I love you, Meg. The background had sounded strangely calm — no running, no screaming, no burning. Megan had thought later that this was wrong, that there should have been more noise. She did not know how to deal with the silence behind David’s voice, that calm of smoke and glass. She had rushed home after seeing the towers fall on the news. She had been too late; her knees had given out partway through his message, and she had listened to the end of it on the floor, trying to hold in a scream she felt would destroy her in the coming out.
Edith sat on the floor next to the phone for a long time. She gripped the ring in one fist, and the scrap of paper on which she’d written Megan’s overseas number in the other. Tell me what I should do, she whispered. Just tell me if you want her to know, and I’ll tell. Just tell me what you want. She prayed to David with everything she had.
The hallway was silent. The whole house was silent. The silence seemed to weigh on her, to grow unimaginably, to fill the whole world. Edith sat still for a long time, until she thought she couldn’t bear it anymore, and then, after a long while, it seemed to her that David was in the silence. And the answer came to her.
They brought the skeleton out of the pit in the morning. Rain clouds bunched ominously behind the hills. They had catalogued each bone the night before, recording the position of every scrap of what remained. Next they removed it bone by bone, each fragment carefully labeled. Megan saw it for the first time before they removed it, a tiny tangle of a human being, the curve of the ribcage, an extended thigh.
Dr. McKinley handed her a small knot of bone, a piece of the spinal cord. It was labeled with a small circle of paper marked 74c. As she walked to the bone tent, her fingers curled around the bone, traced its strange knobs, its porous brittle surface, and she thought she felt the warmth of the living woman, the skin covering over this little island of the body, claiming it back. She got to the tent and saw the crowd there, students gathered in knots around the table, arranging the bones into the shape of a body. Joshua was there, helping the students line up the bones of the spinal cord in the correct order. He looked up; his eyes met hers. For a moment Megan imagined she was running away from them, from all of it, just her and this little piece of bone. She imagined herself running out of the tent and past the pits, past the surprised faces of students, their eyes and mouths round and open to the rain.
Joshua was beckoning, his eyes turning back to the activity in the bone tent even as his hand still reached out to her. She started forward then, her steps careful, mindful of the ghosts that reached out to her from the earth. But she slipped the bone into her pocket as she went, and wrapped her fist firmly around it, squeezing to make sure it was real and solid in her hand — the only thing left that she could keep.
Jennifer Williamson grew up in Vermont. She went to college in upstate New York, and has been living in Philadelphia for the past few years. She’s had her work featured in Interact Theatre’s “Writing Aloud” series, and has won prizes for poetry from the Academy for American Poets and NPR. She is a freelance copywriter by day, and by night can be found at open readings and theatre auditions throughout the Philadelphia area.