by Jad Josey
We started digging for bones in the winter, long before the ground thawed. We used spoons and forks at first, then rusty trowels and the broken handle of a rake. We dug until the blisters on our hands tore, palms scrawled with red half-moons. Sometimes there were three of us. Sometimes five. Always at least two, because it wasn’t safe to dig alone.
We collected the bones in a burlap sack that once contained coffee beans from somewhere south of here. Neither of those things mattered anymore: the south or the beans. When the ambiguous day darkened, we dragged the bag down the hill into a small wooden pumphouse. The windows were broken out, and it was too small for anyone to lay down. The adults who passed on the road didn’t give it much more than a glance before plodding on.
We boiled the bones in water from the creek using wick fuel a girl had found outside the convenience store in town. We kept two lighters in an old matchbox buried behind the pumphouse. One night we didn’t cook the bones long enough. A boy’s stomach swelled until the skin turned purple. We buried him where the others could find his bones later.
The nights were quiet like a smoldering fire, like coals withering to ash. As soon as the darkness brightened, we started digging again. Sometimes in the fickle light before dawn, we ate congealed broth from the night before, spooning rancid hunks into our mouths and swallowing them down hard. The ones who vomited usually ended up in the bone fields. Once it started, it was hard to stop.
Days turned beneath the same sky. There was no snow, no rain. Sometimes there was morning dew moist enough to scoop drops of water from wide leaves. There were fewer and fewer wide leaves. We forgot what our faces looked like, but we saw ourselves in each other. Knotted hair and sunken eyes, all pupil. Sometimes we pretended to read the bones, to measure how they touched, divining magic in their marrow. We did this in a broad, yearning silence. Vocal folds went fallow. When we laughed, it was through our noses, and it was not often.
It seemed the bones would disappear. Every time we unearthed a new tomb, it felt like we were harvesting the last of a dying crop. We made and renewed an unspoken pact with furtive glances. We interned the dead into the earth and reaped the clean bones of those long gone.
We took turns humming as we worked. We could not sing, and we did not want to. The girl with a broken tooth buzzed a rolling seven-note scale, up the majors and down. We listened to her for minutes and hours and days. She was our touchstone while we dug. When she started coughing, one of the others began humming. A different bird, a new song. We buried the touchstone and rubbed mud on our arms to keep the flies away. We listened to the notes rise into the air and disappear. While the pot boiled, we remembered things from then. Some of us thought of dolls dressed in nightgowns. The rustling of newspaper. Water with the turn of a knob. She hummed and we listened.
We listened in silence as two adults dragged her from the riverbank to the road, the scrabble of her heels wheeling in the gravel, the wet thud of her quiet. We did not make a sound. We could not spare the tears. If she had been left behind, we would have buried her deep. She was not left behind.
We will hum again when we find the strength, the wave of sound spooling out into the bleak sunlight. The ashes that drift from the sky will guide our voices to the ground. Our bodies will follow into those barren fields.
Sometimes we look to the strafing clouds and allow ourselves to hope. Maybe one day a nuthatch will be lucky enough to gobble up a seed and shit it out near the place where our bones are buried. The spring might feel less like winter, gunpowder-gray breaking into cobalt and all the people gone. Maybe the rain will find the seed and cleave open its coat, root pressing toward our bones, life shooting skyward. The seasons might calibrate and find themselves again, wind and sun and rain and snow roping across the land. Maybe one day some warm thing will sit beneath the shade of our tree and stare into the protein sky, eyes fluttering closed while our bones rest below, undug, the ghosts of our songs shuttered into earned, grateful silence. But for now, we bury our hope amongst the bones, and we dig until our blisters turn to calluses.
Jad Josey is a writer from the central coast of California. His stories have appeared in Glimmer Train, Little Fiction, Palooka, Pithead Chapel, Longleaf Review, and elsewhere. He has been nominated for Best of the Net and Best Small Fictions awards, and his work was long-listed in the Wigleaf Top 50. Find him on Twitter @jadjosey or visit his website at www.jadjosey.com.