It was a children’s nature book, published in the twenties, that suggested the idea that no children’s book would suggest today, he imagined. This was the same book that, the previous summer, had shown him step-by-step how to build a pooter. The parts for which he sourced from his parents’ idling cider brewing equipment in the shed. Glass tubes and an enormous rubber bung forced into a jam jar. He held the nozzle over a rose-leaf and drew the barest breath, only half wanting to abduct the greenfly at all, his throat closing automatically against eating the insect it felt like he was sucking through a straw. It disappeared so suddenly he thought it had fled the contraption bearing down on it, but after a moment’s confusion he found it wandering the expanse of the jar floor, unconcerned or too alienly concerned for him to discern it.
The killing jar was found in the washroom, and was too big for the purpose, or the greenfly too small (he had the good sense not to call attention when the jar showed up on the kitchen table filled with cumin seeds some weeks later). It took fully two days for the bug to stop moving, a harrowing ordeal he survived only in the name of science. He had chosen the greenfly for its tininess, figuring that this would make it an easier prey, but he had reduced the dot to a green smear before he managed to get the pin through its thorax. Nevertheless he conscientiously labeled it Macrosiphum Rosae in neat capitals and mounted the card in its tiny frame, where it drew confused comment from observant visitors to his bedroom throughout his formative years and beyond.
“For a fun zoological experiment,” said the nature book, “bury your dead hamster for six to eight weeks in active soil, then dig him up and assemble the skeleton!” An illustration of the mounted pet was helpfully provided. He owned no hamster, and balked at the idea in any case, but the possibility was filed for its strangeness. When the family cat dropped a cleanly killed mouse on the kitchen step the next month, it seemed not such a huge step to mark with a bamboo rod where he buried it behind the laurel.
Eight weeks later (he couldn’t bear the possibilities of six) he dug a trowel through the soft spring soil until, a foot or so down, white flashed that finally wasn’t a root or seed. Wearing the thin plastic gloves purchased specially for the occasion, he cupped his hands under the estimated spread of the bones and lifted out a loaf of soil. This he deposited into a lunchbox and moved to a desk in the garage, where his mother had banished him after wind of his plan.
He excavated carefully, relying on the position of the bones for their identification as much as their shape and size. They were minute and soft, and utterly clean; the mouse swallowed by a thousand devouring insects, then run through by a hundred earthworms. Using tweezers he dipped each fragment into a cup of bleach, then laid them on brown paper in relative order. The construction took hours, using superglue and the skills and patience garnered from dozens of model airplanes. By dinner he had a complete standing mouse skeleton, minus a few toes and one or two tail segments lost in the excavation or the dusty garage floor. Even his mother was impressed.
He was fascinated by bones ever after. He watched the hands and arms and unshod feet of his family, picturing the near identical framework within each body. When he hugged his grandmother hello his hands touched the ribs in her back, which he compared later to the ribs in his own, and felt warmer towards the old woman than he ever had before. He pinched and squeezed every part of himself, in particular the joints where fat and flesh gave way, then tried to draw what he felt under the surface. He could not feel the tendons in his thumbs, and yet his thumbs magically moved almost before he bade them.
That winter he was introduced to his newborn cousin, and they were mutually unimpressed until his aunt explained the delicacy of the infant’s head. She allowed him to run his fingertips with exaggerated care over the soft crownless crown of the baby’s fontanelle. It felt more like a belly than a bonnet, and the boy shuddered at the open chasm hinted at. By way of reassurance, he rapped smartly on his own hard skull and whispered, self-consciously, “You’ll have this soon, don’t worry!” His cousin yawned toothlessly at him, caring not at all, and took hold of the boy’s finger with a fat, boneless fist. Later the boy’s concern expressed itself in mild irritation that any species would let its young drop into the world half-formed like this. Half-ready.
When the family cat deposited another corpse on the kitchen step that spring, this time its own, the boy marked the grave with bamboo as before, imagining a second, more ambitious project. He left it four months this time, in consideration of the animal’s larger bulk. Then another two weeks, then another two more. By that time he decided the soil had grown too hard to dig without breaking the bones, so the plan was abandoned until March at the earliest. He was quietly relieved when he noticed, the following June, that his father had disappeared the bamboo rod while turning over the flowerbeds.
Bones retreated from him as he entered his teens, quite possibly because of their intrusion into the school curriculum. At first the lessons bored him, he who knew the name of every segment of the human hand. Later he found himself somehow behind after skiving through too many Tuesday afternoons of Biology. Two notable exceptions in those years: The death of his grandmother who, finally laid out, had skin like parchment through which he could see, he thought, the ivory of her zygomatics and phalanges. The second instance, much more benign, much happier, was the car that passed him one frosty morning as he ran for the bus. The man driving had the distracted air of an academic, and in the passenger seat sat a fully formed skeleton, grinning at the boy through the windshield. They were gone in a moment, and the boy could never explain them, nor wanted to.
In quick time his interest flipped neatly from hard structures to the soft parts supported by them. His growing obsession with the one boneless extension of his own anatomy was matched only by his new appreciation for the soft, fleshy mysteries guarded by the girls around him. Yet when, at fifteen, an impostor in his own life, he found himself buried to the third knuckle in a sighing schoolmate, he was disappointed by the lack of features there. Nothing but warm, giving folds and a roof like his mouth’s palate. He withdrew his hand and rubbed a callus over her prominent hipbone. She sighed again, as loud. She sighed wherever he touched her.
It would be satisfying, I suppose, had the boy turned this fascination for our scaffolds into a career. A life to lead. Zoologist, archaeologist. Forensic scientist. Instead he became an estate agent. Every childhood contains a hundred such false leads. He was left with nothing from that time but a particular appreciation for nuzzling his wife’s ribs. And later, rueful exasperation at the ludicrous helplessness of his wide-eyed daughter as he cradled her spongy head above three inches of bathwater. The secret concerns of one who knows the value of a good set of bones.