Oct/Nov 2012  •   Fiction


by Hunter Liguore

She found summer in the bones. Natalie liked to say that to her students the first time they identified pollen embedded in a fossilized bone. She sat at a picnic table scraping off dried matter from a mandible she hoped to later reconnect to the skull. The pollen was deep, plentiful, scattered around the molars. She could tell a lot about the old woman from the pollen, like her diet, location, the time of year she died. Natalie felt like the old woman's caretaker across time, and she worked with impeccable care to salvage the remains.

Summer was evident in the sweet air fragranced by the magnolias, or the green lawns reaching to her neighbors' houses, the lethargic way her husband rocked in the hammock reading, or the adventurous spirit her daughter took to the woods. It was present in the bird song and cricket chat, the butterflies and ice cream truck appearing in the afternoons, or even in the ease with which Natalie approached her work without a deadline—a summer very unlike her ancient companion's.

Most likely a peasant, her tenth century Japanese counterpart would've known hard labor in the fields. She'd have had little if any education, and she would've experienced brutality at the hand of her husband or lord, all which Natalie discerned from her bones. And there was more. The old woman would've given birth to children in succession and been subjected to famine and malnutrition. A hard life right up until the summer she died.

But Natalie sought the human side of the woman's bones, the part for which there was no testimony. She regarded the fragment in her hand belonging to a mother, one who loved her children, or who cried when they grew up, married, and moved away. A hard worker who put the cares of her family first. Here was a woman who would shield her children from rain or swords. But there was no proof. If only she could see memories between the calcified cracks.

The day felt lazy, devoid of agendas, lectures, emails, or even conversation. The silence between her and her husband, besides being healthy, told her she could just be present in the moment. Later they would discuss their observations, their philosophies of understanding life a little more, her through bones, he through books. Their daughter, Cleo, would also bring her fortune of experience, her whimsical enterprise through treetops and brambles. The exchange of thought would blossom like the magnolias, and she'd feel prosperous in a way others might laugh at.

Caught up in the splendor of her work, the tranquility of the day looking like a poem in motion all about her, Natalie nearly missed the sound of the train. It was such an odd sound, a whistle above the birdsong and hum of insects, it didn't register. A faded remark passed through her thoughts: she'd never heard the train whistle before, so what caused it to do so now? A mental image flickered: steel bars like rib-bones moving in a straight line at the edge of her property, a lifetime away it seemed from her picnic table.

The train whistle grew more frantic. It whined red and screamed urgent over the tops of the maples and oaks, over the sweeping branches of willow and the blackberry vines climbing into the evergreens. Something stirred in Natalie like an automatic switch. A sense of worry slashed through her wall of peace. Before she could say a word, her husband untangled like a butterfly from the hammock and raced into the woods.

A reflex, like vomiting or shaking someone's hand when it's offered, pressed her to follow. As her footprints made pancakes in the soft mud, she could hear the train screeching to a halt—metal rubbing metal, the sound of a hundred thousand cars colliding together. It blocked out the voice of her daughter's screams, the breaking of her bones. Then the big machine smacked into stillness.

Next, the dream dimension set in. Natalie was now a witness to an otherworldly life, although still her own, where her husband's movement towards her looked more like a movie reel. In his arms he carried the crumpled angel, the daughter who got straight As, named all her pets Galileo, spit her gum out the window at passing cars. The image evoked in Natalie a terror she couldn't name. Here was a moment the bones could not record. Not even the staggering of footprints, the discordant beating of sneakers upon a well-worn path, would tell the history of her terror.

The doctors said Cleo was made of bone china, a fine clay mixed with ash, that couldn't stand up to the train's impact, nor could the village bonesetter weave her back together with spells or potions or nails.