Jeanne Wilkinson shares her love of rocks and bones through a riveting tale of finding a skeleton in Australia.
My Brooklyn apartment is full of rocks. Along with sticks, shells, feathers, and even bits of plant matter like old flowers and leaves. They lie on windowsills, radiators, and shelves, each of them holding a different memory and recording a different piece of my life. Their surfaces seem open and permeable to me, as if I can peer past opaque exteriors where molecules bump and grind, and even deeper into where electrons spin around their nuclei in all that empty atomic space, which is where, I believe, they store my history.
I read somewhere that you should ask a shell if it wants to be taken from its home territory, and after reading this, I began to think that other earthly objects probably felt the same way. So, I started to ask them, and some said no. I put them back. It’s a subtle thing, this querying of rocks and things, but I believe that I’ve done the right thing by most of them — maybe I haven’t done right by all.
Case in point: Like me, my sister is also a maniac for rocks, shells, and sticks, but on a recent trip to Australia, it was old bones that called to us. We were walking up from a pumice rock beach in the astonishingly beautiful Yeppoon coastal area north of Brisbane, and, shockingly, a skeleton jumped out right in front of us! Well, okay, maybe it wasn’t the stuff of horror movies, but there was a ribcage sticking out of the sandy hill that flanked our path. Its bare, sandy bones must have originated from some kind of Australian creature that, via erosive weathering processes, had become exposed.
We were very excited, because what was it? Not human, certainly? Maybe a koala? Hmmm, more likely, a kangaroo? Or a dingo? Wombat? Giant, extinct lizard? No, probably a ’roo. Whatever it was, what better authentic piece of Australia to take home with us!
But I don’t think we asked for its permission, which, to be honest, may or may not have been an innocent omission because I really wanted those bones. To me, they spoke of connections to the land beneath our feet and to the ancient rituals where animals fell under our hunter-gatherer hands; after we cut away the the ruby treasure and hauled it off, we left only whitened stick figures behind to
mark the animal’s sacrifice.
While my sister and I may be gatherers to some degree, we are definitely not hunters. We didn’t shoot the arrow or throw the deadly kill-stone. We didn’t crack and wrench the bones apart to cut out the still-beating heart to hold up to our companions, calling out a blessing to the animal spirits who gave us life that we might live. No. We did none of that. These bones were literally falling off the skeleton, right into our laps, offering themselves up without any effort on our part, except, perhaps, for the extreme travel that we had done to get to Australia in the first place. So, I took two bones, not very big, one curved and one straight. My sister also took two smallish bones. We weren’t greedy.
Then, as we walked a few steps away from the bones, I lost my balance for some unknown reason and veered into my sister, causing her to slowly tilt over into the hillside. It wasn’t falling, exactly, but more like we had been pulled over into the sandy, loose land by some mysterious earth magnet. Neither of us was hurt, but the hand she used to break her fall had been holding her brand new camera, which took on a load of sand and stopped working, just like that. It had, of course, recorded images of the skeleton, which were forever unavailable to us.
We couldn’t help but feel a small frisson of dread. Was the demise of one camera our penalty for taking the bones? Or, would worse happen down the road? Our fears didn’t stop us from putting the bones into our respective suitcases. Although, I do remember wondering if my sister’s camera settled our mutual debt. This concern came back to haunt me a few months later when the iPhone that I had used in Australia was mistakenly immersed in the waters of Lake Superior and stopped working, apparently forever. I hadn’t taken any skeleton shots, but was there a kind of blunt-instrument curse on both of our picture-taking devices, and mine just took longer to manifest? And, more importantly, is the debt now settled? Crikey!
These are questions I’ve added to my daily worry quota — questions that emerge when I contemplate those two bones currently residing on top of a large, flat Atlantic-Ocean rock on my living-room radiator, overlooking a large oak tree. The bones seem happy enough, enjoying their very special status as the only non-rocks in an otherwise stone-filled area. At least, I’m not hearing any complaints. …
But you know what? Next time, I’ll ask.