I used to boil human bones on the stove to take out the gristle and other smelly cartilage that still clung to them, the steam rising on either side of me. My dark hair tied into a ponytail, eyes crinkled in happy satisfaction, I polished these bones and kept them in my study room closet.
Just like many other students, I adopted this hobby for a few months in my early twenties, as a med school freshman in Port-au-Prince. The undertaker’s assistant at the city morgue sold the pieces.
For a long time, I was missing the most important part: the skull. When no one claimed a body, the undertaker’s assistant buried the skull in the backyard of the morgue. “They’re the cages of the souls,” he would say. “They belong to the Baron.” Baron Samedi is the gatekeeper of the cemeteries.
One Sunday morning, I finally persuaded an intern to get me a cadaver’s skull in exchange for movie tickets. “Fear the Baron’s anger,” the young man warned. And for some reason, he didn’t seem to believe that the Baron would be angry at him.
The skull was from a young man who had died from pneumonia. Only two teeth remained and the bone was already covered with green powder. I placed it in a plastic bag and put it in the closet.
I remember Mother’s fury. “You don’t really need these bones to become a good doctor. C’est de la barbarie!” She sighed, a halted, ragged sound, shaking her head, strands of hair leaking into her eyes.
Bones attracted me because of my fascination with Death itself. This fascination, many people share it on some level. Why else would they walk through old cemeteries and read strangers’ headstones? Every night, when I unlocked my closet and laid my friends on the carpet to study my anatomy lessons, I felt a tingle of some restless emotion snake through my body. I felt a presence that was both captivating and appalling. And these bones and I, I’d come to believe, shared a certain sense of peculiarity, a kind of scaly oddness.
“Is that a human skull in your bag, Ma’am?”
The reporter on T.V. says it was a random check at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. In a cotton bag labeled for wild rice, they found a skull wrapped in banana leaves. Myrlene Severe was arrested on the spot this afternoon and charged with smuggling human parts into the country. I imagine her reaction—first, an expression of surprise, then a mind scrambling to absorb the situation, and finally a fierce concentration on how to save herself.
I turn on the microwave as they’re showing the suspect on the screen. The woman gazes past the camera, as if the person holding it were air or shadow or just a passing thought. She is a big Haitian woman with a big voice, a heavily powdered face and gold-trimmed front teeth. Her hair is dyed a ridiculously fake white-blonde and held back with a wide pink headband. She wears a white handkerchief bordered with purple and a wine jacket.
Myrlene is probably already in the interrogation room. I imagine that stranger sitting in a straight-backed chair, staring intently at her feet, her fingers pulling at each other. Her left hand suddenly escapes the battle and grabs the base of her throat. Chewing on her hairy lip, she drums her right fingers on the table.
The room is probably cold and tiny, with barely enough room for the scratched linoleum table and the two folding chairs. No window. The glass on the wall, next to the giant map of the United States, is a two-way mirror, and Myrlene wonders if somebody is watching her. What a mess, she thinks.
Ingrid Llera, who’s supposedly a voodoo priestess, comments on the affair. “For her, she was doing something normal,” Llera says, in a very important voice, looking sternly into the camera. “Often, what people take for granted in Haiti, they might do here without knowing it’s against the law.”
I look across the lawn to where the good dog is buried. Night throws its shadows. Curtains murmur. As the microwave beeps, an old familiar feeling comes over me, like I’ve forgotten something.
Is that a human skull in your bag, Ma’am?
These words make me ponder a bit more what it was about my old fixation with the shapes and forms of nature, and with death, and I realize that my fascination really had to do with the stories Death allows for, particularly in the Haitian culture, so rich in oral traditions. Stories of death curses and zombis, of ti bon-ange and gwo bon-ange. Stories of Baron Samedi keeping guard at the cemetery.
Inventing stories brought me a sense of power. I was a goddess. Someone had died and I not only owned a piece of them, I felt that part of their story belonged to me. Each bone came from a different subject. Each bone was reminiscent of a scattered life. I found it fascinating to imagine what the lives of these people had been like. My pelvis was a prostitute on Rue Lamartine. My clavicle was a Tonton Macoute lynched after Baby Doc’s exile. I would study my sternum in details and imagine a handsome young man who had committed suicide after strangling his unfaithful fiancée. He had swallowed a bottle of pills, died the cowardly way. He’d washed them down with Orange Fanta and slept his secrets away.
“You’re insane,” Mother would say, running her fingers through her hair, untangling knots.
As the camera focuses on police officers taking Myrlene away, I feel connected to this woman somehow and there’s a story wanting to stream out of me.
I imagine Myrlene in the Women’s Detention Center, laying on her bed, toes turned up. I wonder if she will plead insanity. Will she say that every night a strange, skeletal man steps into her cell with a smoking cigar, attired in the Baron’s black top hat and a black tuxedo? If she pretends that in the morning, the bony creature is always gone but that she can still feel his kiss, maybe the jury will rule in her favor.
“It’s Baron Samedi,” she could say, “guardians of the souls of the dead. Why would he visit if I wasn’t a deity?”