Studies in Anatomy
One must first clean the bones. Before the beetles, I tried boiling. A bird found in the alley. Feathers floating on the bubbling putrid water. Most of the bones too small, like grains of rice.
The beetles are much better. They do not have bones. They are archaeologists. They are carnivores.
Removing extra flesh first speeds the process. A raccoon, soon reduced to its foundation. Fractures from the impact with the car. This will not do.
The phone rings. Machine beeps. Mom again.
Time for a new specimen. Call Art. He is Art in name and form. Tonight he will come, Art says. They have a fox.
A pink body packed in Styrofoam delivered to my door. I try to pay. No, he says.
His eyes are brown. His hands are rough from the chemicals. Scarred from the tools he uses to strip the skin. I look at my hands. Chapped fingers.
In the kitchen, I shave the muscles and open the belly. Remove the excess. The beetles do this better than I can. This one will be better than the other. Unbroken, no pieces lost. Cleaned while I sleep. So, I sleep.
At work, I sort tea, brew tea, pour tea. The leaves are dried and boiled down to their essence. Amber liquid sipped down like oxygen.
Green, black, oolong, rooibos. Add jasmine flowers, orange peels, rosebuds.
I should take college courses, Mom says.
But I study anatomy.
The shop is quiet. I sip Egyptian licorice.
I think about time. Six months now. Since graduation, leaving, since Portland, my own apartment, since this job.
At home, I check the beetles. Still working. This one will take longer.
The answering machine blinks red. Mom again.
"Get a cell phone," she says.
"How are you?" she says.
I am fine. I am busy.
Broken femur. The raccoon. Cracked pelvis. Glue will help, but not fix. I try anyway. My stomach grumbles. Outside is dark. How late? I sip lemongrass chamomile. Sleep comes reluctantly.
In the morning, Art calls. He has squirrels. Too small. He will let me know what else comes. He has a coyote. I don't have space. I would love a coyote.
"The fur is softer than it looks," he says. He works with the fur. Tans and shapes the pelt. A facsimile of what it was. Safe and rot free.
I don't bother with fur. I want the bones.
In the bathroom mirror, I am flesh. Soft around the middle. Too much. Too soft. Thighs press together. Heavy breasts. In the shower I imagine them washing away.
On the bus, I sip peach green from a travel mug. I bite a blueberry scone. It is chalky in my mouth. I give it to a homeless woman. She smiles dark holes at me.
Cartilage, ligaments, tendons. Without these the bones individualize. But these are soft, imprecise. The beetles take these, and I replace them with glue, wire, pins.
At home, the phone rings.
"I've been calling."
"I know Mom."
"I was worried."
"I'm fine Mom."
"You need to get a cell phone," she says.
"I've sent college brochures," she says.
"I'm fine. Work is fine. Portland is fine."
She wants to hold me. I don't want to be held. I hold myself. Suspended like bones.
Two states away is not far enough.
I sip Darjeeling. Check the beetles. The skull is last to finish. A few more days.
Art has an opossum. Once the beetles finish the fox, then he can bring it.
Who taxidermies an opossum?
The customer wants it hanging from a branch. Not the animal, just its skin over Styrofoam.
The raccoon leers. Snarling mandible held by wires. The repaired femur is ready. Not repaired. Augmented. The drill smells like burning hair. Tiny wire laced through tiny holes. A lower body restored. Clean, simple. Precise in the way only bones can be.
Art brings the opossum. Still frozen. He opens the carton, places it on the counter to thaw. The beetles cannot work on frozen meat. He is tall. I sip elderberry herbal. Now he does too. At my worktable, his rough fingers touch bone. The fox's spine.
"How long have you done this?"
I count, "six days."
"No, I mean the skeletons. How long have you done this work, putting them together?"
"Back together," I say.
I count again. Days, weeks, months "7 months."
"Wow," he says, "you're really good."
He is an oak leaning over my worktable. Black hair like crows.
"You're amazing," he says.
In the morning, the opossum is thawed. I remove the excess, give the offering to the beetles. I sip chai on the walk to the bus.
At work, I pour hot water over a bud that blooms into a white flower. The shop is slow. I wipe the counter. I don't like mess.
A man asks for oolong. I am wiping, I do not hear. He asks again. I look up. Brown eyes. Art, in name and form. He smiles. White teeth. Teeth are not bones, but they are close. I serve him at a table by the window.
"Sit with me," he says.
"I'm the only one here," he says.
"So this is where you work?"
I nod. I have seen his work. He is a taxidermist at his father's shop. I asked for the unwanted bodies. Since then, he brings them.
"It's really coming down out there," he says. Water beads on his coat. His hair is wet.
A couple enters, and I serve them. Earl gray, peppermint. Art gets up to leave. I hand him the umbrella kept behind the counter.
"Won't you need it?"
I shake my head.
At seven, I lock the shop door. Night outside. I sip lemon ginger on the way to the bus stop. Still raining. Rain collects in my collar. Runs down my spine. A car horn. Art's truck. He wipes steam from the window, waves. Inside the truck cab smells like cedar, chemicals, animals.
Art drives me home. Comes inside. I put the kettle on to boil. He asks to see the beetles. I show him. The opossum is unfinished.
"They are hungry bugs," he says.
They are hungry in the way I am not. I do not say this.
I steep orange spice. Hand Art a mug. We sip, standing in the kitchen. He watches me. I watch my cup. He sets his on the counter. Takes mine, sets it next to his. He kisses me. Kissing is messy. It is a digesting of another. I let him digest me.
In my room, he is thin and bare like winter trees. He touches my flesh, and I flinch. I want to hide my excess. Wish the beetles could clean me.
"Is this ok?" He asks.
I touch ribs through his paper skin. His thinness is clean. Precise. Maybe he can clean me. I nod.
In the morning, the fox's spine is nearly complete. No work at the tea shop today. My time can be spent at my worktable. I sip English Breakfast.
At noon, the tail is ready. My stomach growls. I put on the kettle. Tea does not add flesh. Phone rings. Answering machine. Mom again. I brew yerba mate.
"Get a cell phone," she says.
"I'm worried about you," she says.
"Your cousin Judy says hello," she says.
Holding my breath, I dab glue on the delicate bones of the feet.
In the night, winter comes. A sheath of snow and ice. Bone white. An exoskeleton.
In the mirror, new shadows at my clavicle. Bones more visible as flesh disappears. How many pounds so far? I smile. Tea stained teeth. This will not do. I sip hydrogen peroxide and swish. Spit.
At work, I wipe the counter. Wash my hands. Carpals, metacarpals, phalanges. Flesh separating them. I do not like mess. There is a bell on the door. Art again.
"Hey there," he says. He orders wintergreen.
"Are the vegan cookies any good?" He says.
I bring his mug and cookie to his table.
I know he wants me to sit. I sit. He talks, asks. I nod, smile.
Love is a feast and I am not hungry. But his form is beautiful, skeletal. He is research.
After work, Art is there again. His truck is small. I smell cedar sap. We move slow on dark, slushy streets. A fire truck passes. Blaring siren. Noise can be messy. My ears ring. Snow dapples the windshield. A fresh coat on the city.
Between snowflakes, I see smoke. More as we get closer.
Art parks in front of my building. Red fire trucks. Black smoke. My tea spills in my lap.
At home, charcoal stained walls. Art waits at the door. Talks with a man. The building manager. I check the beetles. They are safe. The opossum is finished.
"It was a unit on the first floor," he says.
I try to rub gray off fox bones.
"Someone left the oven on," he says.
I try to force the windows. Art helps. Icy air. Not enough.
"It will be ok," he says.
"Do you need a place to stay?"
"No," I say, "I need a new specimen."
At the laundromat, I watch my bed sheets tumble.
I use the pay phone outside.
Art has a rabbit. He will bring it tomorrow. I call my boss.
"Oh dear," she says.
"That's horrible," she says.
I need the rest of the week.
She hesitates, agrees. I hang up.
At home it is cold. The odor almost frozen still. I brew oolong. Sip.
On my knees, I scrub the floor. Inch by inch. Kitchen, hallway, bathroom, living room, bedroom. Cold vinyl gleams wet. I start on the walls.
In the morning, Art comes. The rabbit is small. I remove the excess. The beetles are ready. I take away the opossum bones. Give them the new rabbit.
"It's freezing in here," Art says. He tries to close a window.
"No," I say. I need this cold.
Tea occupies restless hands. He sips, I sip. His mouth is thirsty. His eyes are hungry. His bones push against me. I let him digest me.
In the evening, I start on the counters. Kitchen, bathroom. I clean. The beetles clean. It is precision.
Phone rings. Mom again. Another message. I sip apple cinnamon. It tastes like Lysol.
Now the skeletons. Toothbrush bristles gently rub away soot. Scapula, vertebrae, pelvis. The fox, soon clean again. On to the raccoon. Light through open window hits my retinas. It is morning. I scrub.
White washcloths turned carbon gray. We are all carbon. Even bones. But not this kind. This is the loose, messy kind.
The phone rings. It sounds like sirens.
My fingertips are stained. Skin feels like ashes.
I sip ginger root. The toothbrush is black. The raccoon almost white again.
The phone rings. Art's voice on the answering machine. He went by the shop, he says. He is worried. Call him, he says. I check the beetles.
In the afternoon, the rabbit is ready. I haven't started the opossum. It makes me think of fire. I collect the bones in a box. Put them in a drawer. Harvest the rabbit.
I lay out the new bones. Clean bones, no ash. Time for a new specimen. Call Art.
"Are you ok?" he says.
"I don't have anything right now," he says.
"I want to see you," he says.
I don't have time. The rabbit is waiting.
At night, I prepare the rabbit's forearms. Cut thin wire. The head of the humerus. The drill smells like ash. Too much. Too quick. A snap. Ruined bone dusts my table. The drill, heaved against the wall. A dent in the sheetrock. I should have used glue.
I fill the kettle, but do not light the stove. There's been too much fire already. The cold is cleansing. Ashes scattered leave nothing left. I pour the water in the sink.
In the mirror, my hair is tangled. Morning light filters in. My pelvis smiles up at me. I touch ribs through paper skin. More new bones. How many pounds now?
I should shower. I pull on my robe.
The phone rings.
In the afternoon, I stare at the rabbit on my table. Fragmented. Fractured.
My back against the floor. I stand again. The phone rings.
At night, I watch the beetles. They are hungry. No new specimen. I feed them raw hamburger. They are carnivores. The beetles do not sleep. I do not sleep.
In the morning, it is snowing. Flakes speckle the floor. Melt. My skin is Braille under my robe. Fingers stiff. I lift the empty kettle. Set it down again. The cold is cleansing. Precise.
Time splinters. On my knees now. I stand again. Time is fragmented. Fractured.
In the evening, the snow still falls. I watch from my worktable. The rabbit skull watches me.
The phone rings. He is worried, Art says. He will come by tomorrow to check on me, he says. Message ends. The red light blinks.
Out the window, streetlights show the snow has stopped.
At night, I watch the beetles.
In the morning, the phone rings. He's coming over now, he says.
I should make tea. I fill the kettle.
My eyes flutter open. Cheek resting on the floor. Beneath the stove, a stray beetle crawls. The kettle lolls on its side. Cold water pools under me.
There is knocking on the door. Phone rings. I stand. Go to the door.
My robe. Loose and wet. I pull it tight against my bones. The cold is necessary.
The door is heavy.
Art in name and form. Brown eyes. Furrowed brows. His mouth opens. No words.
"The beetles are hungry," I say.
The phone rings again. It sounds like smoke.
I push hair from my face. His hands are empty.
"I don't have any tea made," I say,
My bones shake.
He reaches for me.
The phone rings.
Jessica VanDevanter is an emerging writer living in San Diego, California. She is currently enrolled in the Creative Writing Certificate program at University of California San Diego Extension.