BonesBy M.J. Fievre
April 21, 2010
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?”
This is beautiful, MJ. You carry us into a world of classic short stories, their atmospheres dripping in our memories. Mood, mystery, tension, tangling of personalities—-excellent work!
Thanks, Judy! I’m very glad you liked it.
What a fabulous way of telling you have.. almost dreamlike.
Beautiful descriptions – I’m so glad you are here at TNB, MJ.
Thank you, Zara. I really appreciate the warm welcome.
Geez, MJ, I didn’t know you were so creepy! Haha, just kidding. You had me hooked at the first paragraph!
(Smile) Thanks, Laura.
this one didn’t scare me.
We have a skull too.
who would know?
We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, Uche.
Short and sweet, Uche.
MJ, the Baron is the loa of the crossroads as well as the graveyard, isn’t he? Or do I have that wrong?
You got it right, Simon 😉 I really love this loa. So intriguing.
Just to give you some timely background on a couple of the older TNBers:
Uche is the smartest person in the world. Although that last comment was witty, it is not really indicative of the vast complications in his brain. He will shake you up from across the country.
Simon likes to looks really sweet and of average intelligence, but he’s way sharper than he wants you to know. Weird thing to want to hide, but that’s Simon. On the other hand, he is about the sweetest.
The other thing is that I am gobsmacked by the experiences you have had in your young life. You have already left me speechless and you just got here. Speechless is not what I’m known for. Ask around.
Indeed, MJ, Irene’s not known for speechless. We love her! She has us in thrall! She’s a witty story queen and a deep-hearted doll. She sometimes walks a few yards in polka-dotted, open-toed spikes—but that’s only to walk the dog, anybody’s dog or even hamster, so she can show off those shoes.
Aw, shucks, Irene…
I guess here goes “aw shucks” again.
Anyway, I think I only needed one word to lead to my proposed destination, so why be wasteful?
I think Hamlet Act V, Scene 1 is one of the world’s great meditations on life, death and destiny (see Amos Tutuola for another such), and MJ’s work tickled my mind of the scene, as did your rejoinder.
Any words I squandered on the turnpike to Shakespeare would seem but foolish vanity once you arrived at the destination, non? 🙂
“Brevity is the soul of wit.”
MJ, Judy is totally puffing me up.
I do walk the dogs, did so this morning at 5 AM, but in my sneakers. (One of the dads at the children’s’ hospital told me yesterday that NO ONE calls them sneakers anymore. He had some mean kicks, gold and black with the emphasis on gold. I’m talking about those ugly, comfortable shoes with spongy soles and shoe laces.) My sexy high heel shoe wearing will be limited to walking from the kitchen to the table and back again on Friday because people are coming over for dinner. I couldn’t walk two blocks in those shoes, Judy knows that, she’s just being nice. (I don’t think I’d walk a hamster unless it was a grand-hamster, then I’d have to do it.) I don’t know where Judy gets the idea that I’m talkative. I try to be succinct. It just usually takes me longer than others because my mind tends to wander tangentially and it has a hard time finding its way back.
Oh wait, Irene—-I meant you walked your long-haired guinea pig! So sorry to get the animals….and the shoes….and the walk….and the place….rather wrong. Does it qualify as fiction or as lying? Don’t answer that!
Your “succinct” reminded me of an old New Yorker cartoon in which an employer is interviewing a potential hire as his assistant. He asks her: “Do you take shorthand?” She says: “Yes, I do—but it takes longer.”
You guys are too much 😉
I love that cartoon. It’s like a cartoon just for me!
We are too much. That can be a good thing or a bad thing, but I think we’re too much in the right category.
Irene, that cartoon struck a nerve with me, too! For all of my formal training—and enjoying—Gregg shorthand, it still takes me longer to figure out what I wrote later than if I’d just’ve done bits of longhand!
For journalistic purposes a recorder’s great, but more often than not you may not have one at the ready. I was madly taking longhand-punctuated-with-shorthand notes on the airplane for what eventually became my first TNB prose piece, “Another Bad Air Day”. I hadn’t intended it for a piece, but felt compelled to get all the info down.
Do people still do shorthand?
I dunno, Irene. Probably not. Gregg shorthand’s beautiful in concept and appearance, approximately equivalent to Arabic writing.
Like keyboard typing and acting classes, I think shorthand oughta be taught in the primary grades and made available through high school.
One of my first jobs post-uni was in Chicago teaching shorthand, typing, office practices, and “business” English to female uni grads. The entire situation saddened me. These women couldn’t get the kinds of jobs that male uni grads were getting, so they trained themselves to be executive assistants.
A couple years later, I applied for a job selling heavy-lifting equipment (as in architectural materials). The rejection letter said that because I was a female I wouldn’t be “right” for the job.
For all of his many faults, President LBJ managed to get through awesomely helpful legislation for females and for black folk—-a wonderful step toward full equality in the workplace, which is often first ushered in by the national government, such as Truman’s integrating the armed forces.
The eerie atmosphere grabs instantly. Curiosity drives you to the end. Good job, MJ!
Thank you, Pat.
I got nothing to say except, COOL!
MJ—-I just noticed that Anton Chekhov is one of your favourite writers! Please tell me which of his stories you like the most and why. I haven’t read him in years, but his short stories jumped out to me more than other Russians I read (in English translation). Also, I’m bereft of knowledge about French writers; have a philosopher or two on my list but no short storiers. I recently dipped seriously into Proust’s ever-acclaimed Memories of Times Totally and Forever Past (just teasing here, as I recall a pedantic debate about the best English translation of his French title)—-anyway, I found his work ponderous and often silly. Next time I’ll read it in English. (OK, kidding again! My French could get me a cabbage or a book, but not a proper French meal.)
Time for a nap.
Hi Judy — My favorite Chekhov’s story is “The Grasshopper.” Olga is one of these characters that’ll stay with me forever. As for French literature, these are the short stories I remember enjoying the most: Alphonse Daudet’s “Les Lettres de Mon Moulin” (Letters from my Windmill), Guy de Maupassant, and Baudelaire. Many of Baudelaire’s poems (such as “The Old Woman’s Despair”) would probably pass as Flash Fiction today. Enjoy 😉
Thanks so much, MJ. I’ve such admiration for French philosophers and have lifelong’ly preferred to read non-fiction, but beautifully crafted fiction can take the top of one’s head off and reveal ourselves to ourselves in ways that non-fiction cannot. Hence, I’ll head for the library and the writers you so appreciate.
An update, MJ.
Here’s Chekhov’s “The Grasshopper” online: http://www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/UBooks/Gras.shtml
And on the recommend of an amazon.com customer, I bought (ebay $11.96) a new DVD of the b/w 1954 film version of Alphonse Daudet’s “Letters from My Windmill” (Director, Marcel Pagnol; English subtitles, Preston Sturges).
MJ, that was awesome! I loved the bit about the guy who procured your skull obliviously assuming that his own actions would be unexamined, should the attentions of the Baron come your way.
Great job of contrasting the bewilderment of Myrlene as she is forcibly punished for what she surely assumed to be as ordinary and accepted as bringing an extra toothbrush.
Witty, well written, and tastefully macabre. Nice!