“We shall not all sleep
But we shall all be changed.”
My dad and uncle found the bone in the shale that folded around their land as if the hills grew from the earth to take possession of it. A parcel they’d gone in on together in 1978. Meant to start a ranch and build a home for themselves.
Not much of a thing, the bone. Not when looking it over. My uncle kept it in his glove compartment buried under his registration, carry piece, cop scanner, and hip bottle of Heaven Hill, wrapped in an oil rag and brown butcher paper. He’d put it in there, like laying it down for a rest, in ‘89. Stayed there until my dad passed, about twenty years later.
Why he’d put it there, he never said. There wasn’t much preamble to him showing me the bone. I guess the only excuse he needed was my dad’s passing. I was in from Arizona, where I’d been settled, for the funeral. This wasn’t more than a handful of years back, but even then the shale hills were still tall enough to cut the sun off a good ten minutes before it should have properly set. Nowadays I go out for a smoke break at the club or to head back after a day shift for a shower and a good round of compartmentalizing, and the sun’s red and angry over the strip malls and blacktop and little, nub teeth of the hills well past eight or eight thirty, even in early winter.
But back then, when my dad died, the shale wasn’t so bone-picked. The first surveyors' trucks were just creeping in. The big skeletal drills they used hadn’t yet set across the ridgeline like crickets out of purgatory.
Just my dad in his urn and his brother and me out in the Chevy, on the bench seat, eyes dried out and raw from too much refusal to cry and from the heater’s dumb insistence that winter sat outside the truck’s fogged windows.
I’d been gone most of three years. Eight or nine not counting the gap when I’d come back to tend to Mom during the chemo.
Mostly I’d been away long enough to forget the twilight here. How night comes in like a hand reaching out to take. White Butte and the basins and hills and every bolted down human thing curling under its fingers. Never understood how such a ghostly thing got such a hold on the world. Not until the bleary lights of town holler across fields for you to come inside, the sun dipping away frantic and mute, and the night digs in.
Feels like you’re standing in a palm big enough to crush creation; removed enough not to care.
That’s the time of day my uncle pulled the package out of the glove box. Butcher paper crunched under an oily towel, like teeth grinding. Like what you might imagine the noise time could make if we could listen in on its inner workings. Like you could put a stethoscope up against its chest and hear old lungs running out of breath.
My uncle hadn’t even put the bone to his lips and I was ready to shit myself.
He flicked on the dome light, even though it wasn’t yet full dark. Flood light from the VA community hall and the blue dusk threw this sort of underground, top-of-the-world light in through the steamed and frosted windows. Like we were suddenly in a place between or apart. A place where you’d meet your dead father leaning against a split rail fence waiting to whisper something devastating to you.
The dome light chased away that line of thinking. Me and my uncle and the bone he’d unwrapped drab and unmoving on the bench seat between us.
He kept looking down at it. Not saying anything, just glancing down then back at me. On my lap, wrapped in clear plastic, was this big tray of vegetables and dip. Broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, celery, cherry tomatoes all tumbled together like a clear cut forest.
He kept staring at the bone like he could nudge it across the bench to me with his unease. I can’t say what he was thinking. Any distaste he had for the bone was lost in the knit and tangle of his grief.
Then he said, like he’d just heaved a shoveful on dirt down onto his favorite dead dog, “No story starts unless you get to telling it,” and he told me how he and my father found the bone in the shale hills behind the 425 acres they’d gone in on together, plus the grazing lease, back in the seventies and not even the kit-built corrugated shed had been put up and all the land was good for was imagining what it might be good for and burying deep all the pain it might equally bring with it.
He said, “Finding the bone wasn’t anything worth describing except to say we found it and it’s the most terrible, precious thing he and I ever shared. And we shared blood and everything that comes with it.”
They looked alike. In that light, under the weight of the bone and his story, my father’s ashes in the urn between my boots, I couldn’t conjure much difference between his face and his dead brother’s.
That twilight he was a living double wondering whether he’d be left walking the ghost for the rest of his life.
It was the thing itself, that bone, which made finding it potent. A shortcut down the shale hill from back in the plot where they’d spent the day walking their dreams out across the acreage and drinking. A scramble straight down. Not so steep and not so easy an angle either. We all did it as kids. Still would if we came across another shale drop and the spirit snuck up on us.
Sidewinding and skittering on bootheels, palms bloody and blackened with slivers of shale, the ass-side of their jeans peppered with little spikes. Him and dad neck-and-neck. Goading one another toward recklessness. Take this patch on your heels, standing up. Aim for that stump, try and leap it, and not tumble ass and elbows into a broken neck.
Dad took the fall first. My uncle, shortly thereafter, but worse.
Fell down more than half the hill. Ended up all knotted in pain at its foot, shale pinning every square inch of skin. Dad spitting rock and cursing. Uncle half-buried under a slide of stone.
In the grass, in twilight, was the bone, jutting, unearthed from stone and the tattered old canvas wrapping, pale as ragged light.
Look at the bone and there isn’t much to see. Half-foot long, notched in a dozen places, some purposeful, some not. Bright as the day it slipped out of whatever skin once claimed it. Flared at one end like a fan, with two parallel holes at one end, cutting through and out the other side.
Put it up to your eye and you might expect to see daylight playing through the far end. It’s the first thing I did after taking a good look at it from every angle. But there isn’t any light on the other side. And the hollows aren’t stopped up and the bone doesn’t bend enough to obstruct your view.
My uncle passed me a foot long length of baling wire soon as I took the bone from my eye. Wire clipped neatly at either end, straight, thin enough not to scrape up against the interior of the bone. Something he had prepared, like he knew the first test I’d put the bone to. Because that’s the first thing he did, he and my father, after they’d gotten the bone inside.
I passed just about twelve inches of wire into both of those holes. Threaded it into the half-foot length and not a lick of it came out the other end.
My uncle sat there in the truck, watching me watch the bone the same as he and my dad had done forty-five years before.
They’d searched the base of the hill, looking for the rest of the body. They’d even taken picks and spades up in the days after. Figured their fall dislodged what rain and time loosened up.
They tossed around words like “burial ground,” “murder,” and “missing person,” before settling on “cattle” and “wolves.”
An unsaid agreement that any doubt they voiced at all would lead to investigation, excavation, and frustration. So Dad wrapped up the bone in his bandana and helped my uncle limp back to his trailer for a drink and some iodine.
I can’t blame him and don’t. Lost bones are usually lost for one reason or another. The whole world’s a graveyard. Seven billion people living today. I looked that figure up. Getting larger, too. Meant to settle my mind, but it doesn’t. So many ghosts trailing us like lures.
They didn’t forget about the bone. Wasn’t any way to forget. They only built a life over top of it.
My uncle doesn’t remember who put it to their lips first.
The house had been constructed by then, the sheds, pens, corrals, countless feet of fencing and gates. The bone had gone from truck to a desk drawer to a shoe box underneath the workbench to a toolbox in the shed.
Not once did they take it off the land. Barely took it a hundred feet from where they’d torn it from the shale. The night one of them put the bone to their lips and blew, my dad and uncle had been celebrating.
My dad was moving across the plot. He’d gotten married. Now with two people crowding his life, he’d grown too big to live in a kit-built home with his brother. He had to move even though it hurt him to. The joy hurt too, as much if not more than the ache of leaving. My uncle never married.
“Joy-drunk and four quarts of beer and three fourths of a handle of blended whiskey deep we got stupid and let memory get the best of us,” my uncle said. He had his hand on the side window, cutting lines in condensation, making maps of nowhere out of nothing, pointing in no direction. Maps memory might use.
“Found ourselves with our pop’s old iron toolbox, a fresh bottle of cheap whiskey, and a field guide, shivering our skinny asses off at the foot of the shale hill, our backs to the new split rail pine fence we’d put up.
“Your dad was going on about how he’d be leaving with Loretta in a few weeks, just to the other end of the plot. He kept saying that. ‘Just to the other end,’ over and over. Clapping me on the back.
“Then we were up, staggering across frosty grass and petrified dirt. It was so cold the earth was puckered. Our faces were chapped and my fingers could barely move to unscrew the cap of that whiskey.
“We sat down at the base of those shale hills. Just at the edge, all that shattered stone crawling and receding in the night like a tide or something. He had the toolbox on the ground in front of him. The season was spoiling faster than we could track it. The box hurt to the touch, like a million icy nettles.
“Above us those hills ate up the sky with their bulk, blackening the time of night, as the sun clung to the horizon’s coat sleeve.
“He asks me, ‘What kind you suppose it is?’ And I haven’t the slightest what he’s on about. Partly the drinking (he’d always been better than me in that pursuit) and partly because it’d been so damn long since we’d looked at the bone. So he says again, ‘I bet vulture.’ And I say, ‘What are you betting?’ And he offers up his new sheepskin coat. I’m still a bit behind on what we’re playing at, but I say alright anyhow.
“Your dad snatches the field guide from my pocket and opens the box all in one motion. Like a man possessed, maybe, and I get what he’s at. The hills seem to grow then. Larger and larger. Muscling out the sky and the stars until there isn’t anything but cracked, shadowy shale. Swelling up like ticks fat with blood. Larger and darker and darker.
“We make a game of it. Betting bigger and bigger. Vulture turns to fox turns to eagle turns to hound dog turns to whitetail doe turns to Russian boar turns to black bear and on and on, each bet transforming that bone into animals unheard of: beetles big as mountainsides, or an undersea spider crawled to land millions of years ago, or an angel’s leg bone. We’re lit up by then, by the cold, the whiskey, the blood running our veins ragged. There’s no light but the kitchen bulb and porch spotter. But we don’t care, we’re warm and bright enough in our game, in each other’s company, in the presence of those shale hills.
“Then he looks me dead on and says, ‘Human.’ We go quiet at that. Feeling its weight. What we kept quiet and all that could come out of that silence.
“Your dad put it up to his lips and blew. I’m sure of that now. Couldn’t have been me, I was chugging down the last of that whiskey to keep myself from saying something stupid. I was trying to get to my feet when he blew a note through that bone.
“It was like he put new breath into dead lungs. Set a dead thing to rattling when it should have stayed dead.
“Long and keening, not quite a mourning call. Hard to hang a human or animal notion on it. It was a note that settled immediately into the roots of your skin. Bone calling to bone.”
My uncle kept silent for a while. Through his wet, empty handprints on the truck window, the VA’s floodlights blinked out.
“You ever hear the hills groan?”
I laid the bone down in its cloth and paper.
“We blew a note so black and deep there wasn’t any way the world could contain it. It was like the hills cracked open new mouths and responded.”
He didn’t speak after that. Just put the truck in gear and drove me out to my dad’s place at the south end of the plot. The fences had sunk into disrepair years back, when Dad got sick after Mom passed. Now the land once tidied by borders split wide. Orange notices pinned to lone posts reminded me of the tracts we’d sold to developers and gas interests.
My uncle climbed out of the truck, into the cold, helped me unload leftovers and old photos and my father from the truck. We embraced briefly on the porch, winter barely kept back by our bodies.
His taillights crawled down into the belly of night and I turned to the house and what there was yet to do. On the table, between the urn and a container of potato salad, lay a package of brown butcher paper. In it the bone, a half-foot in length, two hollows running through it end to end, no root cause or origin.
I wondered if I’d ever heard the hills groan. Maybe deep in the night. When I was a child. When I thought my dad was sleeping too, next to my mom, and not out in the winter under the shale hills, waking them. I wondered what they might sound like now, unfettered by dream and memory, defanged as they were by ANFO and greed, and lifted the bone to my lips.
C. Samuel Rees is a Pushcart-nominated, Austin-based educator and writer who subsists on a steady diet of horror movies, sci-fi, & books on ecology. His work has appeared in Bat City Review, The Fairy Tale Review, EcoTheo, The Account, The Matador Review, Phantom Drift, and elsewhere. He has recently been anthologized in The Dead Animal Handbook (University of Hell Press) & Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk & Eco-Speculation (Upper Rubber Boot Books).