There is a trinket in my parents’ house that was always my favorite: a cow’s knee-bone. It was the only instrument needed for a traditional Argentinian game the gauchos played. I used to hold it in my hands thinking it felt too light to be real, but it was. I held the little bone and felt overwhelmed by the fact that it once gave shape to such a big and powerful animal. Our own bones—so fragile now, so flexible when we are kids—literally hold us up. These elegant, live objects provide the structure to our lives. They hold our secrets and tell our stories when we are gone. Bones are infinitely important, and how we choose to see, write, or speak about them influences what others will make of them after we leave them behind: literary playthings or dust.
Years ago, when MTV was a main source of entertainment, I would watch the show Scarred with equal measures of love and dread. Watching people fall or hurt themselves for the most part isn’t funny to me; it caused me a certain anxiety to think about how badly this accident was going to affect their mobility. And yet I couldn’t stop. I’d sit, appalled, until an accident would come where the rupture was such that bone was exposed. I closed my eyes only then. We should never see bones; they are too intimate.
As much as real bones unnerve me, for just as long as I’ve been secretly obsessed with accidental bones, I’ve been fascinated by the description of them. Bones are worlds in themselves, tangible reminders of the multitudes we can contain. It is soothing to think that beneath everything that weighs down on us on a daily basis we have these sturdy things keeping everything up. Even if we rarely see them (ideally) whenever we are profoundly exhausted or certain of something, the sentiment is always bone-deep.
In The Godfather, Moe Green defends his honor by reminding Michael that he had “made his bones when he was dating cheerleaders.” While it is no longer necessary to actually kill someone to prove your worth, expressions like making your bones or cutting your teeth speak about learning through change. Like us, bones can be broken or molded. This scaffolding we have knows exactly how much pressure we can withstand, even if it is uncertain to the more anxious and eager part of ourselves.
When the written word tackles the issue of bones, how bodies are built, we get to see them as what they truly are: silent testimony of our lives. In The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje describes the collection of experiences that gathers in our bodies: “We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves.” Bone ekphrases are inherently elegant. The words used for the description of the individual pieces of our skeletons oftentimes involve: dry, soft, osseous, straight, bleached, pallid. Such austere but precise description of texture doesn’t come without a certain sensuality. Bones contain our stem cells and our secrets.
The truths that bones can tell about the world go beyond the romantic experiences. In Leila Guerriero’s essay “The Trace in the Bones,” she introduces us to the complex and beautiful work done by a team of self-taught forensic anthropologists in Argentina who identified and returned to their families hundreds of bodies that were murdered and disappeared during Argentina’s dictatorship. Through exhaustive investigation of the exhumed bodies found in common graves, the crimes of the past can be held accountable forever. As Clyde Snow—an American forensic anthropologist who began the project in Argentina and who testified at the trial of the Argentine junta—explained to the Argentina newspaper Página/12, “What we are doing, will make it impossible for future revisionists to deny what really happened. Every time we recover the skeleton of a young person with a bullet hole at the base of their skull, it becomes harder to make up excuses.”
Bones are too intimate; they keep messages about the lives they held up. Sofía Engaña has worked in Buenos Aires, Ciudad Juárez, and others, identifying bodies. She knows that life can be evident in the bones of the deceased: “Do you see the evidence of arthritis? What can you say about this jawbone? Touch it, pick it up. What do these teeth tell you?” Teeth, stronger but less intelligent than bones, are another window into who we are. In Valeria Luiselli’s fun and philosophical second novel, The Story of My Teeth, her main character Gustavo “Highway” Sánchez Sánchez calls himself the best auctioneer in the world due to his ability to sell not just things, but the stories that give those things value. In one case, said things happened to be his own teeth, which, according to him, used to belong to a long string of people including Marilyn Monroe and Jorge Luis Borges. What is more intimate than sharing teeth with your literary hero?
In an interview for The Paris Review, Jesmyn Ward recounts the ideas behind the title for her novel Salvage the Bones. “Salvage” becomes a tribute to the resilience and strength behind the word “Savage”; meanwhile, “bones” is simply a reminder to readers “what this family, and people like this family, are left with after tragedy strikes.” What is left. The family in Ward’s novel, as well as the people struck by Katrina, are left with just the bones of their previous life. The marrow within them can help build their life again just as much as their bareness can push away the seedlings of hope. It is because of this duality of possibilities—the very end of something, the capacity to create new things—that we must pay attention to the stories bones tell.
Image: Flickr/Joey Gannon