We were the only kids in the neighborhood with a real human skeleton in our house. Every year on Halloween, Dad carried it up from the basement to stand by the front door, just inside. We’d run home from school to put on our gypsy bangles and pirate capes, and the skeleton would be there. “Mr. Bones!”
There were plenty of hats to dress up in, but Mr. Bones could never wear one. A stainless steel hook came up through the bare skull, by which he hung from the skeleton stand. So instead of a hat, Dad tied a red bandana around the neck, over the shoulder blades in back, the clavicles in front. It looked quite casual. Then he inserted the stem of a white chrysanthemum between Mr. Bones’s teeth.
The rest of the year, Mr. Bones stayed in the basement, next to the roaring furnace. He belonged to that world down there in the rooms where Dad worked, with microscopes and the cameras with black accordion bellows, film hanging from clothes lines, drawing tables piled with papers, brushes, pens, and over the windows, shelves filled with specimens in jars.
Up in my room at night, it was not Mr. Bones who haunted me. It was the fetus I saw one time, white as milk, floating in one of those jars. Through a thin amniotic veil, I saw tiny human fingers, and eyes like small black beads.
Most of the jars held things only Dad could name, tissues turned in on themselves or stretched and pinned like a patch of cloth. In one big crock was a stomach, wrinkled and pale as an antique silk from great Grandmother’s attic trunk. When Dad wasn’t home, we charged a nickel to let the neighbor kids see the stomach. They peered into the shadows too, where the skeleton stood. Then we ran back upstairs.
Mr. Bones was always there, though he might be in pieces. Dad often took him apart. With a fine saw he cut through the skull, leaving the cranial dome intact. Then he cut down through the nose and jaw, and opened the face like a book. He could read the intricate hollows inside. He knew them from years of medical school, and years bent over in surgery, cutting, clamping and stitching. But he loved drawing and painting even more.
This was our bond, Dad’s and mine. I loved drawing and painting too. I’d come downstairs and stand by the slanted desk, watching him work while a cigarette burned in the ashtray and Glen Miller tunes played on his radio. With the model of bones beside him, he’d make a careful drawing. Then he would paint not only the bones but all the soft tissues, in layers of shaded color. He’d dip a fine brush in white tempera, dab it just so, and the painted tissues looked moist, translucent, shining. He made the horror of an open skull with all the mysteries inside it a thing of beauty.
When he was done, Dad put the bones together again with wire, and wing nuts on slender bolts. If you asked, he’d tell you the name of any bone in the skeleton and how it fit with the rest. He’d tell you how everything grew in the embryo when cells became brain and blood and beating heart. He let you in on the marvels, the treasures of his own amazement. The more he learned and the more he knew, he said, the more he saw the order of the universe, alive in every detail of the body. My Dad loved this order, the vast intelligence behind it. He didn’t call it God, a name too badly scarred by brimstone and fire shot from the pulpits of his childhood. But the way he spoke, I knew what my Dad saw in the bones was holy.
Then one summer, home from my first year at college, I saw it too, for myself. All year in the art school I had been drawing. I didn’t want to stop. One hot day, I took my big pad of paper and drawing pencils down into the coolness of Dad’s workroom.
“Dad, can I borrow a bone?”
“Sure, sweetie,” he said. He gave me a tibia, I think it was. One of the long leg bones.
My hand had learned to follow my eye while my eye followed the contours of things, as if to touch by seeing. So with hand and eye and the point of a 6B pencil, I searched out the contour of that bone on the empty white paper. It was the only bone in the world. I explored the full length of its shape, discovering subtle curves and ridges. Then all at once, I saw its sheer grace.
This was more than sculpture. Every nuance of form in the bone had grown just so for a purpose, for the root of a muscle, the motion of a joint, the life of a living whole. Dad might have handed me any bone in the skeleton, a rib, a vertebra, any one of them would have shown me its own particular grace. And then, to think of each bone finding its shape from a few cells in every embryo that grows into a human being, a bird, a dog, a horse, a fish¾the genius of it all was too immense. I began to cry.
Dad came to my side. “What’s wrong?”
I shook my head and picked up the bone, to hold this one human tibia in my hands until I could speak.
“It’s so perfect. So beautiful.”
He only nodded, and laid his hand on my shoulder. The revelation was sealed for me by that warm hand, the weight of it resting there, then the gentle pat, pat and his voice saying softly, “Carry on.”
* * *
I kept on drawing, and painting, through the rest of my college years and beyond. I learned there are times when no revelation happens. The pencil or brush is dead in my hand. Vision seems to be utterly lost, swallowed up in some inner dark. Then all I have is longing. Before there is even a vague shape floating in the mind like tissue in a glass, there is only the longing. I never knew anyone, not even Dad, who could say where it comes from, or why.
He did say, “Well, we just have to create. Human beings seem to be made that way.”
It helped to regard the ache of longing itself as a sign of something so basic, primordial as a seed in the earth.
“Dad,” I said one day, “could I please borrow Mr. Bones? There’s a painting I need to do.”
“Sure,” he said.
By that time, Dad was retired. No more deadlines or medical journals, he did his art for himself. Mr. Bones was retired too, in a closet.
“Take him home to your studio. Keep him as long as you like.”
So, padded with blankets, Mr. Bones came home with me in the back of my station wagon. Legs and arms rattled and swung to life when I hoisted the heavy skeleton stand and staggered into my studio. Same old bones. Same old saw-cuts held together with wire, wing nuts and bolts. Ah, here you are. My old friend. Why did we still call him Mr. Bones? He was actually a woman. Dad had even said so himself long ago, “You can tell by the pelvis.” This woman was very small, from Asia he thought. Yet I never did wonder about her, who she was, her life, her death, who she’d left behind. The naked fact of her bones was always enough. Sister Bones, human bones, woman or man she was universal.
Now she stood in the corner, a silent model. I piled a few books under the hanging feet, to approximate a standing pose, even a contraposto. I stretched a tall canvas and primed it with sanded white. Day by day, a drawing grew on the canvas. Then a painting grew on the drawing. I dabbed and scumbled and glazed, shaded the curves and colors of bone, faintly gold like old ivory, the spaces between and around the bones a humus of deep umbers. Day by day, in layers of paint, a vine grew up between the skeleton’s feet. Glowing with soft, dry-brushed light, sprouting leaves as it went, the vine wound its way up through the open spaces of pelvis and ribs, up through the whole figure of bones standing there in the earthen dark. Four buds were just beginning to bloom around the skull. After a day of work, before bed, I’d come back into the studio, to the solitude and smells of paint and whatever light filtered in from the moon. The shadowy bones on the easel were a comfort. I came simply to sit and gaze, take root in the emerging vision, lean into the axis of my life before I lay down to sleep.
You live with a painting inside and out, and it grows into a kind of mirror. It comes into being by the work of your own hands and yet this image, a new life, looks back at you with more than you know. What I see there is always more than myself.
So it was, some time later, walking one day in the city. I thought of my own bones. In my mind’s eye I saw the skull balancing on the spine, vertebrae holding me up, femurs and tibias swinging, metatarsals bearing my weight. Then I imagined the bones of those all around me, people rushing to cross the streets, striding along with briefcases and bags. Under umbrellas, jackets and coats, we all carried our sorrows and dreams on the same slender bones. We weren’t much bigger than birds in the roar between tall buildings, under the sky. Some crushing fate could fall onto any one of us. Tenderness swept over me in a wave. How strange, how strong, how fragile we are.
Even the ring of a telephone can rip the night open. Dad had a heart attack. I rushed to meet the aid car, and saw his body leap into the air when they shocked his heart back to life. A few years later, they found a cancer in his throat. A surgeon cut the larynx out, and Dad’s voice with it. Now he spoke with a battery-driven buzz pressed to his throat. Somehow, the true tone of him still came through. Then, he lost the vision in one eye. Slowly that eye grew blank as a clouded moon. He kept it hidden most of the time behind a black lens in his glasses. Then before long, the vision dimmed in his other eye. He stepped with the searching gait of an old man. Yet still he climbed up and down the stairs to his workroom, to feel his way among the familiar tools, to work at his own art.
One day, the doctors found the cancer again. In his lung. In the bone of his spine.
“Well,” he said, “this is it.”
He wanted to die at home. So we moved a hospital bed into the living room. Mom, my sister, my brother and I did our best to nurse him, pouring our love into any small thing, a straw to his mouth, a pillow turned, while every day he sank further into the bed. His eyes deepened into their orbits, one a dull moon, the other still bright, but he could not see even the vague shapes and shadows of us bending over the bed. He began to see something else. It was clear, he said, like the sunlit air of a spring day. “So clear, I can see every twig.”
It was December, cold outside and dark. He lifted a tremulous finger to point out into the room.
“Look at that light coming in.” The drapes were closed. It didn’t matter. “Gold, golden light, like that painter, who is it?”
I thought… “Rembrandt?”
“Yes. Like Rembrandt’s light. It’s everywhere.”
The very atoms of him must have been moving apart, leaving greater space between. He was porous to something more. Growing transparent.
“This is very interesting,” he said, but he could not tell us more. There were too many tremors, too much pain, and the buzzing metal cylinder dropped from his hand.
We woke to a large stillness, two mornings later. No more breath. Only a silence rising up through the house, arching over and embracing us, invisible and somehow, radiant at the same time. The silence lingered around us, even while expanding out beyond the walls.
* * *
I still wait for a whisper in my inner ear, carry on… I still wish for the one warm hand to rest on my shoulder.
The only bodily presence left was in a small box from the funeral home. I imagined the roar of a furnace I never saw, the fierce alchemy that turned my Dad’s bones into dust. The box had weight, more than ash from a fire of wood. Every day Mom laid her hand on the box, and five years went by before it was time to give the dust back to the earth, or to the sea.
On a fine September day, we all sailed out in a boat. Mom, my aunt, my sister and brother, a few cousins, a few friends, and a man in a kilt with a bagpipe under his arm, we sailed out to raise a final toast to Dad, and to scatter his ashes over Puget Sound. The tossed gray dust and bits of bone caught the sunlight as they fell. None of us expected that, the way the ashes sparkled as they sank into the green depth below. Then we scattered red and yellow dahlias, roses, daisies, and watched the flowers float serenely away.
Today, Sister Bones and I are alone in my studio once more. She stands in the corner, dear old friend. A large sheet of paper waits on the easel, pinned to a board. It has been there for weeks. One stroke of sunlight brushes across it, brighter than white, but leaves no mark. I have not been able to work¾there is only the longing. Bouquets of pencils and brushes wait. Tubes of color wait, color in jars and color in sticks, trays of them laid out and waiting.
But now there is a whisper, a sigh in my inner ear. I don’t know if it’s Dad I hear or the breath of my own mind. “Go into the marrow. Go into the marrow.”
With aching arms I lift Sister Bones down from the hook of the skeleton stand. Her bones rattle gently, hollow wooden chimes in a wind. I lay her down on the floor. Then I stretch out beside her.
We are the same size. Bone for bone we are alike, from the heels up to the pelvic brim, along the spine through the cage of ribs. Her arm touches mine. I take her finger bones in my hand. We lie here together, the floor holding us up and below it, the earth. Clouds swim over the skylight above. Theirs is a noble pace, slow as grief. The blue of their ocean stretches on and on completely at ease. I breathe it in. Then turn my head. Sister Bones is looking into my eyes.
Her two hollow orbits mirror my own. She sees through me, deep under the skin where vines of intricate vessels and nerves weave this life around my bones. I close my eyes. I feel my lungs empty, and fill again with a deeper breath. I feel the heat of a tear leaving the corner of one eye, running down past my ear. I feel my heart beating here in the dark, faithful and soft under the breast bone. And inside the bone, I sense a light, a core of light in all the bones, flowing like a sap with a will to bloom. There is still time. Soon, soon now I will stand up. Soon, I will begin.
Image credit: Adapted from Sue Clark (Flickr: pg 192 Human Skeleton), public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Essay ©2001 Barbara Helen Berger