THE BONES by Corey Farrenkopf
WE FOLLOWED THE SAME PATH as always, the bare earth worn raw by coyote paw and deer hoof. Spearmint and holly sprigs pushed through layers of moldering leaves, lending their scent to the decay of late fall. Did either of us think these walks would save our relationship? Silence in nature was basically the same as silence on the living room couch. Jill didn’t talk as she bent down to take a picture of a ravaged rabbit carcass, ribs exposed through skin. Photography was the last refuge of her wasted archaeology degree: as a sixth grade teacher’s assistant, the only artifacts she encountered were standardized testing pamphlets from the nineties. So Jill captured the skeletons of local wildlife with her camera as the New England landscape slowly devoured them: seagull wings sticking out of sand, foxes finally succumb to the rash of rabies broadcast on local news. I stood over her as she snapped away, her neat braid of black hair slung over one shoulder, shoots of silver standing out like comets in a night sky.
“How long before the whole thing’s picked clean?” I asked.
“I’d give it a week,” she said without looking up. She scrolled through images on the viewfinder, analyzing angles and exposure times. Then we continued down the path. A bluejay barked overhead. The wind jostled pine trees. I asked Jill if there was any excavation site she could have been on throughout history, which one would she choose? She said Machu Picchu. No further explanation.
The trail dipped, humpback roots breaching the sand beneath our feet. A week back, I slipped on one of the protrusions and sprained my wrist. This time I picked my way down the incline more carefully. The ground cover gradually gave way to veins of clay and mud running along the valley floor. It was a weird shift in the center of the forest. Jill was five feet ahead, the path narrowing, restricting our side-by-side stroll. She jogged the last steps of the incline, momentum carrying her forward.
Jill had a track scholarship during college. I was also on the team, throwing javelins as she clocked miles. Competition wasn’t as fierce for me. Most people didn’t play with spears. We traveled on the same bus to meets. After the first month, we shared a seat. After our first semester, she moved into my off-campus apartment. I was cool with her relocation. I wasn’t waking up alone. Seeing her mess of hair on our shared pillow filled the empty space inside my chest with something other than muscle soreness from my regimented workouts.
Jill stopped short by the side of the path.
“What do you think that is?” she asked, her finger pointing to a rift in the ground. I couldn’t tell if it was coyote dug or naturally exposed by erosion. The opening was carved from thick gray clay. A mess of bones lay half exposed in the sediment: curved ribs, thin fin protrusions, an array of sharp teeth disappearing into the forest floor. A single femur stood above the rest like a watchtower. They were scattered in a way that suggested some biological assembly, but I couldn’t tell what species. It had limbs that didn’t belong, fish and mammalian appendages more akin to fantasy novels than Darwinian theories. Jill had her camera out and was snapping away, leaning in close to capture the grain of the bone.
“Should we tell someone about this?” I asked, concerned.
“This is the first unique thing I’ve seen out here. Why would we let someone else figure it out?” she leaned forward, running her fingers along the bleached femur, gently needling the mud from its edge. The damp sediment slouched away, freeing surface space. I expected her to be more gentle. Clumps of the gray-brown clay pyramided at her feet. She worked on the teeth. Another row, reminiscent of a shark’s. She ignored the fin-like phalanges, all the tiny bones in their scattered arrangement. Instead, she focused on the larger ones, exposing more as the hillside ravine crumbled away.
“Okay, so I’m cool with keeping this a secret, but shouldn’t we get your tools? Aren’t bones fragile?” I asked.
Jill’s dirt-crusted fingers froze. “That would be smart,” she replied, looking over her hands as if she hadn’t noticed what they were doing. “Can you run home and get them, Flynn? I don’t want to leave this.”
“Yeah.” I hadn’t seen that look on her face in years. Real excitement, desire. I could jog the half mile back to our apartment with ease as long as it would keep that look in place.
“And the bike tarp,” she called after me as I took to the hill.
The tool roll was a remainder from senior year. Her class was supposed to return them at the end of the semester, but Jill was “sick” that day. I ran my finger over the silver steel instruments, checking that each was tightly bound against the canvas roll. Trowels and squares, different measuring implements, a dozen angled picks that looked more like dentistry tools than like anything else. There were shovels of varying sizes, fine brushes to sweep away sediment. I rolled the canvas, tucking it beneath my arm, locking the front door on my way out.
Running down the path, I thought about the early days of our relationship, how Jill would bring me to the dry riverbed behind my apartment and teach me how to “dig.” Our conversations seemed endless, drifting from biology and fossil identification to famous finds and the job market. I worried she would get commissioned to go on an expedition in South America or Greece. The jobs usually came with one ticket, not two. But she didn’t get hired. It seemed like no one was. Some of her friends were working at the mall or for their parents’ carpentry companies; most still scrolled through want ads. We were never far apart.
After giving her the tools, we spent the rest of the morning in the woods. I was the designated lookout, making sure no one stumbled down the path.
No one came.
I knew few people used the paths behind our house, but I was surprised by how empty it was. I watched Jill work. The skeleton sprawled at least twelve feet long. The bones brought to mind horses and fish, fox, sharks, whales, iguanas: some in-between species, mammalian yet reptile.
“Do you have any idea how old this is?” she asked over her shoulder.
“Negative,” I replied, leaning against the gray bark of an oak.
“Could be hundreds of years, thousands maybe.”
“What’s the plan when we’ve got it uncovered?”
“Take the pictures to someone at Harvard. Figure out what it is, then get them to promise a spot in their museum for it. Maybe get funding to do those grad classes we talked about.”
Beyond the bones, I found our conversations drifting back to talks of youth. Reminiscences of dorm days, skipping classes, the warmth of my narrow bed, and the smell of rarely-laundered sheets. Nostalgia hung heavy in the air. It was as if we gazed through a curtain in time, peering down on our young bodies, barely clothed, laughing at jokes about ridiculous taxonomic names.
In the middle of the day, I left to make lunch. It was the only time we were separated until sunset cast shadows through the surrounding trees. Their black shapes rose around us, striping the bones, making it hard for Jill to navigate intricate indentations.
“Help me with the tarp,” she said, rising from her crouched position.
Together, we pulled the synthetic material over the chimera of bone, easing rocks into place to hold it down. Then Jill scattered leaves over the black material, camouflaging it to look like another section of the hillside. It wasn’t perfect, but mountain bikers wouldn’t notice as they sped past.
Over the next two weeks, whenever work allowed, Jill slipped off to the bones, removing the tarp, digging into the clay. Mud encrusted boots marred our welcome mat; her palms and fingers stained orange from the clay. Each day when I finished patching fiberglass hulls and mending crushed rudders at the boatyard, I returned home to find a new photograph hanging on the wall of more recently unearthed bones. I was tempted to organize them into a flip book of sorts, shuffling the glossy images to show the deceased beast slowly emerging from hibernation. Still, neither of us could identify the creature. The legs/fins debate trailed on late into the evening, long after we usually found ourselves on opposite sides of the bed.
“Maybe it’s an ancient sea creature?” I asked one night.
She laughed, saying it would be much less developed if that were the case. “With advanced joints and developed fingers? No way.”
When time permitted, I swung by the library to pick up books on the topic of cryptozoology, osteology, local folklore, and heavy biology encyclopedias. They arrived from distant college libraries, smelling of dust and inactivity. We scanned through pages by firelight, the house heavy with woodsmoke and the scent of stew bubbling beside the flames. We stopped on pages vaguely resembling the chimera, one with fins, another with eight legs jointed like a giant spider. She read the description out loud, laughed at the absurdity of the mythology.
“Could it be a Pudgewuckie?” I asked.
“Not enough spines. Not close enough to a graveyard.” She replied, twining her fingers through mine as we sprawled out on our sagging couch.
I noticed that, when looking through the photographs or bent down to the dirt, Jill never mentioned her students. This was unusual. In a way, she had taken to mothering her special education kids, most only there due to lackluster parenting and ADHD. I could name them, list their traits and ticks. She stopped talking about Tommy’s basketball games or how Jayleen was progressing in geography. I let each kid fade, their silhouettes becoming ghosts.
We never took the tests to determine which of us was infertile, neither wanting to know whose fault it was. Where to place blame. But the bones filled that space.
“I think it’s this guy,” I said, opening the book beside the skeleton, trying to find the right angle to make the connection.
It rained the night before. Jill was hurriedly scraping washed-out dirt from the bones, not wanting to lose progress. It was cold. December lingered on the periphery of the calendar. The trees surrounding our glade were leafless, all except the shunted evergreens and scrub pines. The day before, Jill came home worried about coyote tracks in the sand nearby.
“What if they carry off the femur, or the skull?” she asked.
I told her they wouldn’t. There was no meat left. The marrow rotted out years ago, leaving hollow cores. What interest would a scavenger have if there was nothing to scavenge?
“I mean, maybe,” Jill replied looking at the book. She had moved from the brush to the thin metal hook, gently digging into what we assumed was a thigh bone. “But how do you explain the hooves? The second spine?”
“It could have been in the creature’s stomach,” I replied, flashing the picture of the Nothosaurus with its long, curved neck, webbed feet, and massive jaw sprouting countless teeth. “These things were the same size. It’s got the legs, the fins, the teeth. Honestly, I think it’s the closest we’ve got.”
She shrugged and went back to scraping.
“Did you read the section about their habitat and range?” she asked, the faint whine of metal against bone accompanying her words.
“They found their bones in Europe. Who’s to say they never made it here? Latitudes line up,” I replied.
She shrugged. I moved to a tree stump I used as a seat, book in hand. The moss-strewn cut was cold against my pants, the wood’s flesh damp from the night before. I watched her fingers work intricate motions over the bones. Her spine was rigid, as if the slightest ease would crush the specimen. Jill was certain the bones belonged to something new. A creature passed over by myth, illusive and unseen. The bones weren’t deep enough in the Earth’s strata to be ancient. She abandoned extinction texts for encyclopedias of mythic beasts: from the kraken to Cthulhu, minotaurs and dragons. I told myself it had something to do with working with children, their fantasies seeping in.
“Do you think they’ll name it after me?” she asked out of the silence.
“Well, if it’s really something new, then yeah, I’d imagine so,” I replied, looking up from my book.
“Do you think it’s time for me to show someone?”
“I’d wait until everything’s exposed. How much more is covered?”
“I don’t know. Maybe another week’s worth.”
“That’s not long.”
“I’m worried someone will find it. Someone who doesn’t understand the importance of this,” she replied.
“But we haven’t seen a single person out here. Deer, yes. People, no,” I said.
“Doesn’t mean there won’t be,” Jill replied.
She couldn’t sleep. Every five minutes, she adjusted her position on the mattress, forcing me to move this way and that. The heat from our comforter was oppressive, mixing with the agitation that billowed off Jill’s skin. I felt like I was in Florida. Humid Everglades soaking every inch of my body in sweat. As my fingers began to fall asleep, Jill rolled over again. We were face to face. Her thin nose and pale blue eyes were backlit by a slip of moonlight evading our curtains. She brushed a tangle of hair out of her face.
“Do you think I’m crazy, Flynn?” she asked.
“About what?” I yawned.
“The thing in the woods. The fact I think it’s something new. There’re so many stories about monsters in the forest, why can’t one be right?”
I propped my head up.
“If one is going to be right, I’m sure it’s this one,” I said.
“I just worry. I don’t want to waste our time.”
“Nothing’s wasted, regardless of how this turns out.”
“I know,” she replied, leaning forward, kissing me. Then she lay on her back, pulling the comforter down around her waist. The cool breath of our house fell along my body, raising gooseflesh. Jill was wearing her long sleeve waffle shirt. The change didn’t bother her. I felt her fingers wriggle into mine, five tiny digits worming their way into my grasp. We lay there, staring at the ceiling.
Over the past week, I drafted a story in my mind. The creature was the last of its species. After wandering too far inland, it gave up its diet of fish and squid, preferring raccoon and deer. Discovering its trail torn through the mud, settlers avoided that section of woodland, fearing what lay hidden beneath the pines. They blamed it for missing children, livestock deaths, drownings at sea and in ponds. I let the story build inside me until I had the ending, muttering lines quietly under my breath. I turned to Jill, ready to tell her the final chapter, but her eyes were closed, lids fluttering beneath their surface. I’d save it for the morning, over coffee, before our weekend dig.
I woke to an empty bed. Her tool roll was gone, her muddied boots missing from the hall. I grabbed a bagel from the counter and ate as I walked through the door, clad in my plaid pajama pants and the ski jacket that never made it to the slopes. I wasn’t surprised she couldn’t wait. With the end so near, anticipation must have thrummed in her blood, mind winnowed down to a single point of focus. I brushed away encroaching vines as I walked down the path. I rehearsed my story, refining details, the descriptions of the concerned townspeople and their monster.
Then the reverberation of a gunshot cut through the forest, echoing off trees. It came from the direction of the skeleton, from where I knew Jill knelt in the mud, scraping away the last bit of sediment. I slipped on the raised roots crisscrossing the path, colliding with a tree trunk. I felt sick, heart erratic, a throb at my collar, a bruise rising to the surface. My feet carried me forward as my mind wallowed. I stumbled into the glade, finding Jill furiously waving her arms over her head, staring off into the forest. I had stopped moving, but the sounds of booted feet continued, cracking twigs and vines. I followed her eyes to where a dark figure parted the remaining foliage up the hill. I moved to her side, placing myself between her and whatever monster crawled through time to meet us there.
When the figure stepped into sunlight, I saw it was a heavy set elderly man. He was wearing a fluorescent orange hunting vest and a ball cap pulled down over his face. A bushy white beard frothed about his neck. A rifle jostled in a shoulder strap.
“It’s deer season,” the man stammered as he brushed away the last vines blocking his entrance into the clearing. “You can’t be out here without something reflective on. That white hat of yours looked like a tail from a distance. I could have shot you dead right here.”
The man was huffing, cheeks red, face slick with sweat. “I mean, I’m sorry. You must be scared as hell. I thought you were a deer,” the man said, confronted with our silence. His eyes moved from us to the half-tarped skeleton, taking in ridges of bone, ribs and teeth, a question building on his lips. “That’s strange.”
“It’s not human.” I began to say, my voice louder than intended.
The hunter raised a hand, silencing me. “I know. If you wouldn’t mind, could you unfold the rest of the tarp?”
Jill nodded, dropping to her knees, hurrying to unveil the remaining bones. I didn’t know whether she thought he was going to shoot us if she didn’t comply, but it seemed like the fear hadn’t left. The leaves used to cover the tarp swirled around us as she flung the covering away, the flap of polyethylene breaking in the wind. The bones were bare, the prehistoric reptile/whale/horse lying naked in the dark clay, only the length of a leg still entombed. The man moved closer, adjusting the rifle. He bent at the waist, examining the spine, muttering under his breath.
“Do you know what it is?” I asked.
The old man laughed a little.
“Well, there’s quite a few things here, I’d say,” he replied. “You know Red River used to run all the way out here, continued until it met some pond out that way.”
The hunter pointed deeper into the forest.
“When I was a kid, you’d see all sorts of weird stuff get stuck out here, but I never imagined a shark would get so far up river.”
“But how do you explain the legs? All those other body parts?” Jill stammered.
“Easy. This must have been one of the estuaries where the waters got caught. See, this here’s part of a deer and a fox. That narrow skull belongs to an opossum. Creepy little things when all the skins off.”
“So it’s not a monster?” Jill asked.
“Well, that shark’s pretty big. Don’t think I’d want to meet him out in the water,” the hunter replied.
“Oh,” Jill said, looking down at the bones, staring across the month we spent loitering in the clearing, guessing at what the beast had once been. I could see something dark shiver across the surface of her eye. The bones were the only thing that snapped us out of our lethargy, the only thing freeing our tongues from their dormant sleep. I didn’t want things to go back to the year before, that quiet existence we lived in an apartment too small for two people. I could feel the sting of tears waver at the edge of my eyes. Then they fell and I was sobbing in front of my wife and the stranger.
Through blurred vision, I saw the hunter take a step back, concern lining his face.
“You okay?” he asked.
To my surprise, Jill filled in the words I couldn’t.
“Yeah, he’ll be fine. We invested a lot in this. It’s a little disappointing, you know, considering it’s just a bunch of bones. Nothing new,” she said.
“Sorry to rain on your parade,” the hunter replied, “and for almost shooting you. It’s still pretty neat though. It’s not everyday you find something like this in the woods.”
“No, you’re right, you don’t,” Jill replied.
The hunter took out a camera phone, snapping a few pictures before saying goodbye, warning us again to wear bright colors. He climbed up the incline in the opposite direction, snapping branches and leaves as he went. I couldn’t stop crying. The way she spoke to him, my projected emotions, I could feel the joy of the past month slip away from me. It felt like my muscles were slowly separating from bone, like my body was unwinding, devolving. Then Jill wrapped an arm around my shoulder, pulling me to her. I could smell the damp mud on her fingers, the green tea on her breath.
“You want to tell me that story you were mumbling last night?” she asked, her voice right in my ear.
“You heard that?” I asked, the choke lodged in my throat loosening.
“I couldn’t sleep,” she said. “I was a little disappointed you didn’t get to the ending.”
I thought she had been asleep, that silence was a sign of slumber. I couldn’t remember where I left off. Jill led me to my stump, helping me sit down as if I were one of her students.
“Just start over from the beginning and we’ll see where we get. I liked what I heard,” she said. As I began with the villagers’ fears of the wandering beast, she took out her camera and photographed the bones once more. She moved the lens along their length, snapping away as my words moved farther down the path to our current moment. She crouched there, knees in the mud, face obscured by the black camera body. The click of the shutter sped ahead of my voice. In the distance we heard a single rifle shot, the bullet plunging into unseen prey with a resonant thud.
COREY FARRENKOPF lives on Cape Cod with his partner, Gabrielle, and works as a librarian and landscaper. His fiction has been published or is forthcoming in Catapult, Lunch Ticket, JMWW, Blue Earth Review, Hawaii Pacific Review, Gravel, Literary Orphans Journal, The Molotov Cocktail, and elsewhere. He is represented by Marie Lamba of the Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency. To learn more, follow him on twitter @CoreyFarrenkopf or on the web at CoreyFarrenkopf.com