by Donna Steiner

Seven years ago, on an ambling and sad trip across the country, I studied, out the window of my overloaded car, expansive brown acres of Southwestern ranches where cows or horses had dropped dead. It was a drought year, and bones nicked the flats with bleached white regularity. The rib cages curved upward and were therefore most prominent, as though the land were flecked by endless parentheses. I was leaving a place I loved—southern Arizona—for a place I also loved— central New York. There was little reason for my sorrow. Even so, to leave a place is to feel loss, and those miles of dry ranchland made a metaphoric impression on me. I, too, felt scoured, vulnerable, and exposed under a wide and mournful sky. Those ribs seemed oddly literal, enclosures that had been cracked open, parentheses bracketing no narrative. I had a strong urge to stop the car, walk the land, poke at the bones and kneel among them. I wanted to see how they looked close up, not because I’d never seen skeletons in the wilderness before, but because I had.

I remember noticing the trees, too. In west Texas they were tilted, bent at an angle as though trying and failing to resist the force of gravity. The wind pushed them into twined, crippled postures—sometimes entire tree lines looked drunk, as if a great hand had tapped one end and, like a series of slow-motion dominoes, they had begun to tip.

Here on the shore of Lake Ontario, much is different than what I saw as I traveled west to east. It’s winter, and we have several feet of snow on the ground. The landscape feels a little less lonesome, although on our acre sometimes the composition of trees and earth and sky seems very solitary. Solitary but elegant, all vertical lines and the singular horizon. When something alters the elegance—disrupts the economy of design found when thousands of trees are juxtaposed against shrouded ground and a low white sky—the effect is startling. The red slash of a single cardinal flying from tree to tree makes me gasp. One night last week a deep orange full moon swept a path through the eastern sky; I stood in silence for ten minutes until clouds devoured it.  These interruptions are intimate surprises, like finding a still-pink rose petal on the stark black and white page of a poetry book, or discovering a splotch of ink from a lover’s pen splashed on the cuff of a crisp white shirt. 

It is like a confrontation of bones alongside a highway that stretches into nothing but undulating waves of heat rising off asphalt, cold white bones that demand, like ghosts, the double-take, the look over the shoulder, the imprint on memory. It is like driving down my own rural road, where all winter everything is covered; the season is like a six-month practicum for burial. But last week the plow uncovered what the snow had concealed: the spinal cord and ribs of a small deer or a large dog. Right on the road, exposed bone, a shaving of thin, leathery skin.  I kept worrying that they weren’t animal bones—they seemed too small. But a few years ago I walked that same stretch of road one winter and found a deer head. A full head: flat eyes, soft ears, bloody ragged collar. A hunter had lopped it off and left it. The area is posted—no hunting allowed—but those bans are ignored. All winter I hear shots, all winter I peer through binoculars into the woods down the ridge, looking for deer, looking for hunters. I’m told there’s no point in carrying a full downed deer to your vehicle once you kill it. “Field dress it,” hunters advise. That means gut it where it falls, spare yourself the effort of carrying heavy bones to your pickup.

And so I surmised that the bones belonged to a deer, or maybe a dog hit by a plow. They create a temporary landmark on my road, where snow has formed boulders and icy, waist-high curbs, where mailboxes tip at the same angle as those Texas trees. The wind hasn’t knocked the mailboxes over—although we are on intimate terms with the wind here, too—no, not the wind but the municipal snowplows which charge down our dark streets at midnight and push so much snow that the force uproots the posts and lays the receptacles low. If a multi-ton machine can rip steel posts from the ground, it can tamp the life of a bright-eyed dog set out to pee.

* * * * *

At age ten or so, I was in love with my own architecture—my collarbones, my narrow hips, my small feet and knock knees—and especially my ribs. I’d lie flat on the floor and pull up my shirt, marvel at how the bones curved, created twin-ridged mountains of my torso. I’d turn my right hand into a little body—two fingers outstretched made legs, the others tucked in like arms folded behind one’s back. I’d walk my hand-being up and down the peaks of my ribs, have it perform a happy jig when it reached the summit. I wanted my own set of bones to play with—a skeleton, one I could hang on a metal hook and poke at, whose bone names and categories I could memorize. Phalanges, tibia, patella, sternum, clavicle, scapula—the bones had beautiful names, like cloud names, and I imagined my wished-for skeleton as a potential friend, a friend made only of insides. I loved bones and desired bones, but that desire for a friend made of bones was never satisfied. Skeletons were expensive, for one thing, and no doubt my parents found my wish morbid. But I was happy to fantasize and did not lament their reluctance to indulge me.

I continued to appreciate my ribs, which I’d idly caress the way one might stroke a pet. There was nothing sexual about it, although it was comforting. I liked my shoulders, too, and I’d rub them like magic lanterns. Years later a lover would stroke my hip; she suggested it would start to shine from all her attention. And even later I became inexplicably attracted to a woman because a mutual friend informed me that she had “beautiful kneecaps.” Recently my vet proclaimed that my cat had the most beautiful ear bones she had ever seen.

* * * * *

These days my bones ache when it’s cold outside; my back has been twisted and bruised by falls, disks herniated; the joints of my fingers are arthritic and I have to remember to swallow calcium pills to counteract the loss of bone density with age. None of this is particularly serious or unusual, and as I listen to the snow melt and drip, I absent-mindedly try to rub out the ache in my hip and the crick in my neck. I think of my brother, a major in the Air Force. He’s in Iraq, six thousand miles away. He and his squadron sleep under a desert sky, in close proximity to buried, scattered bones of comrade and enemy, civilian and military, the shattered bones of men and women blown apart by landmine and grenade and mortar and artillery and ordnance and ammunition for which I’ve learned no proper names. But these words are beautiful, too. And they haunt me. 

They haunt me, but when I pass the exposed cage of ribs on our road, the deer spine or dog spine, those bones that are perhaps a casualty of some other kind of war—the commonplace war of man against beast, or machine against the elements, or the war of neglect, or the high-casualty war that age wages quietly against us all—I will rue the tolls, but will not stop.

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