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The Skeleton in the Bedroom Closet


My younger brother Brian, you see, wanted to be an archeologist. He knew this practically from birth, and even at the age of eight he knew all good archeologists studied bones, up close and personal. So the bedroom we shared became a sort of museum with my plastic monster models on one side and his skeletons on the other. It was a cool bedroom in the daylight, less friendly in the darkness.

Stephen King tells the story of a little boy with a dead pet turtle. The kid's heart is half broken with the loss of the thing, so his parents assuage his grief with a good Christian funeral. They wrap the thing in a handkerchief, toss in a few pieces of the turtle's favorite food -- red licorice as I remember -- place it reverently in a cigar box. They dig a nice hole in the back yard and make a cross from some sticks and twine, but just as they are placing the thing in the ground, there's a scraping sound from inside the box. The box is opened and the little pet, no worse for wear, is shuffling about inside. The boy's eyes bug open with surprise, his expression turns to dismay, then rank evil as he looks up from the turtle to his parents. "Let's kill it!" he whispers.

Things were never so gruesome at home. Our pets had full lives, died of natural causes. Some did return from the family pet cemetery, reborn as little white skeletons, wired expertly back together and posed on a wooden platform. Brian did the work himself, tossing in the occasional road kill. I remember the skeleton of a bird of some sort, a squirrel or hamster, maybe a turtle -- all glaring across the room with their empty eye sockets and yellow teeth or beaks.

And then there was the human skull. It arrived one Christmas when Brian was eight or ten. It came from Ward's Catalog, probably from the Orient, I was told. Like I said, my brother was a budding archeologist. When it came to old dead stuff, he had the calling. It was a sort of "Sixth Sense", like in that movie with the kid who sees dead people.

Except Brian, even then, sensed the past in a way I've never seen before or since. I remember sitting with him on a hillside near a lake somewhere when we were little. He leaned back, dug his fingers into the ground, and came up with a perfectly formed arrowhead. A decade or more later, when diggers had all but given up on an ancient Indian site nearby, I saw him do it again. He has this power for sensing the way early people reacted with the land. He imagines where they would feel safe, where they would hunt, find water now long gone, where they would bury their dead.

He has always been drawn toward the past. It pulls him like a hand from a grave and he goes there, digging, studying, measuring, and contemplating. Sometimes he has to draw himself, with effort so real that you can see it, forward back into the present time where his family and friends reside. And even then, in the middle of a conversation, you can see him slipping back and down into the rocks and bones and rituals of another time. He is wondering, almost always, who we all are and where we all come from. It's Brian's indoctrination, I'm sure, that has me writing all this history stuff lately.

If the bones in Newfields had come from a wealthy family, or a murder scene we'd be talking about them for a long time to come. But they were, probably like the skull in our closet, the remains of poor, forgotten people. Now they'll be forgotten again.

Death may be forever, but cemeteries change. Marking stones or sticks, if there ever were any, get lost. Maps are inaccurate. If John Paul Jones' body could get lost under the streets of Paris, it can happen here in Brentwood. Charles Brewster told us in the mid-19th century that there was a forgotten slave cemetery in the middle of Portsmouth. No one seemed in a hurry to find it. Then a few years ago, lo and behold, it was uncovered beneath a downtown street, right where Brewster said it was. The poor are often lost both in life and in death.

You know how it goes in this circle of life and death. We're all still breathing dinosaur air. The water that runs through us, making us flesh, has been around since the dawn of time. But bones, dried old bones, that's another thing. They hold a human shape that is all too familiar. With today's hermetically sealed coffins, they hold that shape a long long time.

Decades ago when my brother worked on an archeology dig in Seabrook, he showed me bones in the limestone impregnated soil that held their shape 5,000 years or more. Almost nothing was left, but a fine outline like a chalk drawing in a murder scene. To touch it would have made the image disappear.

Disappearing bones I can handle. But those bones in the closet linger. In my deepest sleep, in the rarest times, I find myself outdoors in the dark, in a hole in the Earth. I'm burying something -- I don't know what, something that belongs to someone else, something that should be underground. I have it in a box. It could be a skull. I dig frantically deeper. Then too late I feel the dirt falling. I look up from deep in the grave to see the shovels, feel the weight of the dirt falling and I realize - too late - that it's me whose time in the ground has come. Kicking and clawing, I swim to the top of the heavy soil, burst through, and wake myself with a muffled scream.

And still, the next day, we dig again. We are drawn toward dem dry old bones, both from fear and fascination. We are drawn into the dark closet where the still bones lie, wondering who they were, tapping them with our fingers, staring into the empty sockets. We stare, like a dog into a mirror, seeing something familiar, but not. Then we rise – all 205 bones of us – and move on, propelling that skeleton of ours through another living day.

Copyright © 2005 by This article first appeared here in 1999 and has been revised. All rights reserved.

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