by Jason Kapalka

I found the first, the skull I mean, in the backyard garden. I'm not much of a gardener myself, I was just turning the dirt over a bit for Lauren, for when she came out to plant her seeds and whatever -- and there it was, staring up from in between my feet. There was something about it, like something I heard once, that there are certain images in the brain you're born with. You never learn them, they're just there, like a baby knowing what a person looks like though it's never seen one before. A skull is the same way, I think, like you could be driving down the road at a hundred miles an hour and if there was a skull off in the ditch you'd still see it.

Anyway I guess I shouted, though I didn't scream like Lauren thought when she came running out of the house, like I'd chopped off a hand or a foot or something. We both stared down at the skull. I sure didn't like the look of the thing, but Lauren picked it up like it was a toy. She just seemed happily surprised, not worried that there was some kind of dead thing in the garden.

It wasn't a human skull, that much was obvious even to me. It was about the same size, but sort of stretched out, with these long oval eye sockets. Lauren said it looked old. I wasn't so sure. It was brown and yellow and kind of cracked, but what does that prove?

I didn't think much of letting her keep it, I just remember it didn't seem worthwhile to argue about it. She washed it off and put it in a box downstairs. Why? I asked, and she just said she was curious about it. Well, okay, I said.

When she came in and showed me the next thing, it must have been two or three days later, naturally I wanted to know where she'd found it, just a normal question, no reason for her to lie about it. But how could it have been in the flower bed which I remember her digging and planting just a few weeks ago? I mean, obviously it had come from the garden again, and that was what I resented really, not her wanting to keep the second bone, just her not telling me the truth.

She got angry when I confronted her about it, but as usual didn't come out and admit it, instead getting very calm and insisting that yes, it had been in the flower bed out front, and what reason could she possibly have to lie about such a thing? But anyway, the thing, the second bone, looked like a boomerang, about two feet long with a funny curve in the middle. It made me nervous on account of thinking, what kind of animal did that come from? But she wanted to keep that one too.

I've put up with worse from Lauren, so I thought I'd just ride it out, wait till she forgot about her backyard archaeology and then throw the damn things out. Seemed the easiest thing to do, but then one night when Phil and his wife came over for a barbecue I realized she wasn't forgetting at all. Me and Phil were just standing around, talking about whether or not Andy was going to get the boot from the plant where we work, when Lauren comes out of the house with that box.

Oh come on, I said. She said she wanted to show it to Phil's wife who had studied paleontology or anthropology or something in college. Great, just the thing to get our appetites up, I said, but she went ahead anyway. Phil's wife mustn't have studied the right ology, though, because she didn't have any better idea than me what kind of animal the bones were from, though she tried to cover up her ignorance with some jabber about strange phyla, or something like that. I guess it would have blown over and not gotten embarrassing, except that when we went over to the little firepit in the back yard, sure enough, what does Phil pick up? Another weird bone, about the size and shape of a matchbook. You would have thought it was a fragment from a bigger piece except it was all smooth, with funny little ridges running around it. Got a regular ancient Indian burial site here, don't you, he laughed.

Well, there were a lot of the sort of stupid jokes you'd expect then, Agatha Christie plots etc. etc., and they all seemed to find it pretty funny. Of course Lauren didn't realize they were laughing at us, not the stupid bones. Hey, you ever see Poltergeist? Yeah, ha ha.

I don't understand why you're getting so upset about this, she said after. I wasn't getting upset. I said, I just wonder why someone had to bring out a bunch of filthy dead things during dinner, I wonder why they went and did that? She said, I can't talk to you, I can see you're in your stupid mood today.

Well, I guess with me that'll pass, won't it, I said.

Things were a little strained for the next while with me and Lauren so I volunteered for some overtime shifts at the plant. I enjoyed it more than I would have squabbling with Lauren, anyway.

But of course as with anything you ignore, the problem didn't go away, it just got worse. I looked in the box one day and there weren't three bones in there, there were six. The new ones were just as strange as the others. There was a curve that might have been a rib except it went almost all the way around, like a hoop with a bite out of it. Then there was a straight solid bone like a tube, and this pyramid thing with little round dimples.

Lauren when asked was evasive, as usual these days. Flower bed again, I said. No, I found two of them in the garden when I was planting seeds, she said. That's impossible, I told her, I dug up the whole thing and I didn't see anything like that. Well, that's where they were. Well, what about the other one then? She said, I found that one in the basement.

We argued for a while but later when she was calmer I got the story she insisted on, that she was cleaning up some junk down there and found the bitten-hoop bone behind our old TV set. Well, where do you think it came from, I said, and she said she didn't know, but that part of the wall down there was crumbling a little and maybe that's where.

The walls are crumbling, I said. Are they.

I don't know, maybe I was being unfair to her but it seemed somehow it couldn't be unconnected. Didn't she think it was funny how all these bones start turning up just when she's having an obsession with dead things? Calm again, no, she said, I don't think there's any causal relation there, but if you do I guess it's you that's got the obsession.

All right, I told her, I guess I do, I guess I have an obsession with the fact that there are weird rotting old bones under and in the house I put down a year's salary on, and, oh yeah, the walls are crumbling too, I guess you're right, yeah I must have some kind of obsession all right.

I can't talk to you right now.

Oh, I must be having a stupid mood again.

So then she gave up on the calm act.

Eventually she stomped off to the bedroom and I went out, thought about going to a movie, thought about going to a friend's place, but it didn't seem worth the effort so I just drove around watching the scenery go away. There's a tree, there's a house, there's a boy walking his dog, but at thirty miles an hour they're there and they're gone, you don't have to stare them in the face for years on end.

But I came back and Lauren calmed down, for real, and I tried to put it out of my mind. We avoided talking about the bones, but I did have someone come in to look at the basement wall. It's an older house, he told me, what can you expect? I'm not sure what I expected, I said, but it sure wasn't this.

In August it started to rain a lot and then it got worse, everything. I went outside and stepped in a puddle and felt something crunch, looked down and it looked like a chicken bone but it wasn't. Lauren found what looked like a miniature human ribcage in the wash-off under the water spout, or at least she said she found it there. Towards the end of the month another section of the basement wall fell in, and in and around the wet concrete there were bits of cracked yellow-brown bone.

I called the insurance company, but the guy just asked me if the bones had been there in the house when I bought it. I didn't see them, I said. But could they have been there already? I guessed they could have been. Well then, he said, you see the problem?

I couldn't sleep. How could I when the house was falling apart around me. Can't sell it, who'd buy after taking one look? The mortgage was hanging around my neck for the next twenty-three years. Lauren was no use, she said it would be all right and we'd do some repairs ourselves in the spring, but really what did she care? It wasn't her paycheck that got swallowed every month.

I started to screw up at work because of it all. Lauren couldn't grasp the kind of pressures I was under and insisted on annoying me in little ways. Her obsession with the bones was becoming psychotic and things seemed to happen because of it. I went into the washroom and when I turned the faucet there was no water, just a gurgling and rattling sound. A second later brown sludge starts coughing out of it, the mesh pops out, and there are little pings as these tiny bones, they look like teeth, hit the porcelain and go down the drain.

I called the plumber and they said two days, so I get to go to work stinking and unshaved. I'm not stupid, I tell them when they finally call me into the office, I'm just having a few problems at home right now, okay? But they're more supportive than critical, and eventually we decide together I should take a week vacation to straighten things out. Supportive, yeah, but there's that humorous look they have when they say straighten things out, and suddenly I'm sure Phil's been talking around since that barbecue. But I have to smile and take it like I don't know.

I get home and Lauren in this quiet scaredy-mouse way that she knows will annoy me tells me that the rain must be seeping into the walls, there's a whole section in our bedroom going wet and soft. And this just happened naturally? I said. This just had to happen while I was away? I don't know what you're talking about, she said in that little fake mousy voice. Oh no? I went into the bedroom and started punching and tearing at the soggy drywall, and when it falls apart a tangle of slimy bones collapses into the room. There are a couple more long corkscrew skulls in the mess. Here's a few extra for your collection, I said. This isn't my fault, she told me, I didn't do anything. No of course not, it must just be your lucky day.

Next day another section of wall fell in, in the living room, and there was what looked like a whole skeleton glistening on the carpet, all disjointed. There were rods and tubes and things that I knew didn't come from a human skeleton, but still there was an eerie resemblance.

The basement flooded later on. There were things floating in it brown and yellow. More teeth came out of the faucet despite the plumber's huge bill and this time I saved them from going down the drain.

Lauren finally stopped pretending to cry and hugged me and said she was sorry for whatever she'd done, and why didn't we just go to a hotel, send for people to come have a look at the house and see what was wrong. Call the museum or university about the bones, maybe, see if they knew anything. Oh yeah, I said, that's great, let's turn the place into a goddam sideshow, yeah, honey, that's a swell idea. That's fucking brilliant.

She kept arguing and, you know, I guess I got a bit mad. I guess I maybe got out of hand for a minute there, not like it wasn't provoked, not like I didn't have reasons, but all the same maybe I got a bit carried away for a minute or two.

Lauren ran off then but I didn't really care. I collected all the bones. There were shoals of them drifting around in the basement, more of them sticking up out of the grass in the front yard, and I brought them all into the living room and put them on the carpet which was ruined by then anyway. I started thinking how they could go together, how this piece would fit onto this other piece, and then I got some masking tape and contact cement and tried it. After a while I had something, I wasn't sure if it was how they had gone together in the first place, but it was possible, it looked solid, sturdy enough to withstand centuries of age and weather, it looked a little bit like me. I took my shirt and pants off and put them on it and they fit okay. I picked it up and it was light but held together, and I went into the bedroom and was surprised to see Lauren in there sleeping. She must have come back in earlier without my noticing. I was, I admit, I was distracted. I felt guilty about leaving her alone so I put the thing on my side of the bed. She always said I was bony anyway.

I didn't want to wake her up so I went out into the living room and fell asleep on the couch in my shorts, having moved all the bones into a big heap on the carpet.

I was woken up in the morning when Lauren shrieked and came running out of the bedroom, making this weird blubbering sound. I couldn't help it, I started laughing. She just looked so funny standing there in her underwear like that.

She got hysterical and started crying and ran out of the house with nothing but her purse and her coat, and it was still raining, so I guess she must have been cold. But I didn't see her again after that so I can't say for sure.

Anyway there was more work to do in the living room and I got started. Here I had something that might have been a dog with one eye and three legs, but it looked good on the coffee table. Lauren always wanted a dog, but I just told her I was allergic. I brought the other thing out of the bedroom, and it looked like it wanted to watch TV, so I put it on the couch and crossed what might have been its legs. And here was its baby boy or girl with its long snouted skull that I had to glue on, and it wanted to sit beside father and watch TV too.

I keep thinking the rain will stop, but it just seems to keep on and on. In the flooded basement there are always more bones floating up, and sometimes I think that sooner or later I'll have them all and I'll be able to figure out where they came from, what they are, dinosaurs or something, but at other times I don't think I ever will. I don't think I ever will know. The water downstairs must be getting into the wiring, because once in a while the power goes, and upstairs where we're watching TV it gets dark, sometimes for a few seconds, sometimes for almost an hour, and then I just sit there beside the other two and listen to the rain.

I wish Lauren would come back. I've started to look at some of the bones, thinking, this curve reminds me of her back, this reminds me of her leg just above the knee, and how they might fit together, and sooner or later I'm afraid I'll try it. I'm scared of what'll happen then. When they're all done I'm scared they won't need me any more and when the lights and TV go off for good I'll just sit here beside them, watching the blue light from the window shining off the tops of their heads. Watching them smiling. As if they could do anything else. And their hands linked together on the couch.

Copyright © 1996
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