The Souls of Bones
By Katherine McGowan
As she stared at the mountain of bones before her, she couldn’t decide if being a coroner made her appreciate the beauty in the macabre, or if her fixation on the beauty in the macabre lead to her career with the dead.
The structure of bones crafted to an unfathomable scale still looked raw and primal despite the meticulous polishing and placement of each individual bone as if they were carefully balanced on a series of suspended scales, delicately holding the floating life of these living-dead monoliths in the balance.
She wanted to reach out and slide her hand over a long, clawed bone drilled to the platform just a few feet in front of her. But unlike at work, touching these dead would be frowned on.
“They’re kind of creepy, huh?”
The woman turned around to see a girl in her early twenties looking at her.
The girl stood out from the rest of the onlookers at the museum. Unlike many who dressed more warmly due to the heavily over-airconditioned interior of the museum, this girl was wearing nothing more than shredded fishnet tights, black lipstick, and an oversized T-shirt adorned with caricatures from old Hollywood monster movies.
The woman fully turned around to face the girl, “Why do you think they’re creepy? I would think by your shirt, you would like that.”
The girl cocked her head to the side. “Why do you think I think the term ‘creepy’ is bad? I would think by my shirt, you would know I like that.”
The woman smiled.
She couldn’t help it. Despite her vintage goth look, she was contagiously chipper.
She extended a hand. “Naomi.”
The goth girl took her hand and awkwardly shook it. She seemed to have a hard time shaking another person’s hand with the multiple rings she had covering both of hers.
Naomi looked back up at the structure of bones. She wanted to say it was a Raptor, but she wasn’t entirely confident on that guess.
“Do you think they were conscious enough to know what hit them?” Naomi asked.
“…If you’ll pardon the phrase anyway,” she added dryly.
She could hear Susan walking up next to her, closer to the structure.
Susan stared up at the dinosaur with her. “You mean, like, were they upset?”
Susan snorted, “I mean, they were like animals, right? A type of reptile? I can’t imagine my pet iguana getting his feelings hurt. With them it’s all about instinct; it’s primal. That’s what I like about them. They’re simple: eat, mate, die. I think if humans were more like that, we wouldn’t have so many hang ups.”
“I mean, who’s to say dinosaurs didn’t experience fear, sorrow, loss…” Naomi countered, “Animals now, many species of them anyway, feel all that. What about dogs? You can scold a dog and see the guilt on his face.”
Susan opened her mouth to open a counter argument, but Naomi continued, “What I mean is, if animals now can feel some basic feelings, at least from what we can interpret, maybe the dinosaurs did too. What if they understood death was coming? What if they saw the death of their species before their eyes and felt it in their bones? Like how animals act strangely before a hurricane.”
Susan stared at her for a long moment before asking, “This means something to you, huh?”
Naomi looked back at her. Feeling a little self-conscious, she clarified, “Well…I actually work with the dead a lot, so I think about death a lot. It’s a little hard not to dwell on the bigger questions of what it all means when you’re constantly reading the last chapter in everyone else’s book.”
Susan had a quizzical look on her face. “Work with the dead?”
“I’m a coroner,” Naomi said.
Susan’s eye widened. “Oh my God! Really?”
Naomi couldn’t help but chuckle. That was everyone’s reaction.
“That’s so cool!” exclaimed Susan. She looked back and forth between Naomi and the dinosaur, “No wonder you were staring at this thing for so long. This is like—this is what you do!”
Naomi hadn’t realized she drew attention from the amount of time she had been admiring the skeleton. She didn’t like knowing that.
Susan noticed her scowl. “Oh hey, I didn’t mean anything. I just wanted to see why you were so interested in this thing. I figured you’d have an interesting reason.”
Susan rubbed the back of her neck sheepishly, “I guess I was right, huh?”
Naomi held up her hands, “No, no, you didn’t offend me or anything. I think I just spend so much time in my own head worrying about questions that don’t have answers, it just bothers me when no one else seems to know or care what I’m talking about.”
Susan smiled sympathetically. “I hear ya. I mean, I don’t exactly think about the existential side of death, but I think I’ve got the death aesthetic down.”
Susan gestured to her shirt, “I get people not getting what I think about a lot too.”
Naomi smiled back at Susan.
Once again, she couldn’t help it.
“It was really nice meeting you, you know.”
Susan smiled brightly. “You too! I figured you’d be a cool person to talk to.”
Susan glanced behind her as if she was looking for someone. “Well, I’ll leave you to it. It was nice meeting you.”
Susan turned around to walk away, but before she took a step, she glanced over her shoulder and said, “I hope you find the answers you’re looking for.”
Naomi opened her mouth to say something, but she couldn’t think of anything to say. Instead, she smiled and nodded, watching Susan disappear into the crowd.
Naomi turned back to the dinosaur. She idly wondered if anyone would marvel at her bones like this one day.
She was quickly shaken out of her thoughts though as she could hear the thundering of a crowd of footsteps behind her.
Naomi looked over her shoulder to see a crowd chattering behind a man in a tweed blazer guiding them to a corner of the display room lined with pews.
Naomi was about to turn back around until the crowd settled into their seats and she noticed a small sign on the wall in the corner: The Souls of Objects.
She tilted her head to the side and cautiously approached the now seated crowd. The man in the tweed blazer was still standing and casually walking around the pews. Naomi noticed he had a nametag with the museum’s logo.
“Excuse me,” Naomi asked, “Do you have to buy a ticket for this presentation or is it open?”
The man smiled brightly, “It’s open to all! Come on, have a seat. No ticket needed. I’m actually about to start anyway.”
As soon as Naomi sat in an empty pew, the man in the blazer walked to the front of the group where he promptly clasped his hands together enthusiastically.
“Hello everyone! Welcome to the museum. Today you guys are stuck with me to talk about the cultural beliefs of animism—the belief that even objects posses souls or an energy. My name is Zach by the way. Get comfortable because this is not an easy topic to explain.”
The crowd murmured their mild interest, but Naomi couldn’t help but glance back at the dinosaur she was staring at earlier.
Zach cleared his throat and continued, “You see, many cultures believe that objects can have, or at least imitate, what we would consider to be ‘souls’. Not the most scientific terminology, granted, but we’re going for more of a cultural education here today.”
A soft, polite laugh rippled through the small crowd.
Zach pulled a large, gold ring off of his finger and held it up for the crowd to see. “You see, if I were to die and my family kept my ring, in many time periods and cultures, my essence—or a part of my soul, would carry on or be represented in something close to me that I would leave behind, giving the ring its own unique energy.
This energy could be used for control and possession, like in darker practices of Voodoo, or it could be a symbol of attracting love and ‘good energy’ in many neo-paganist households—it all depends on the intention, culture, time period….you get it.”
Zach was young and seemed more interested in killing time than on the speech, but Naomi couldn’t help but be engrossed in the topic.
Naomi squirmed to raise her hand but stopped halfway through and put her hand back in her lap.
Zach seemed to notice and raised and eyebrow. “Um, yes? Do you have a question ma’am?”
She was about to say no, but curiosity got the best of her.
“Does this apply to all objects? Like…,” she looked back at the skeleton and couldn’t help herself, “like bones? Or something that used to literally be a person?”
The crowd around her murmured a mixture of concern and dismissive chuckling.
She immediately regretted raising her hand.
Instead of mirroring the crowd’s reaction, Zach paused for a moment in contemplation.
“Actually, yeah. I mean, the speech here today is about animism…so you know, more of a focus on object-objects, but I hear what you’re saying,” Zach said.
He turned to focus his attention to the rest of the crowd and continued, “As a matter of fact, bones tend to be sacred in almost every culture. Allegedly the European and Asian beliefs of dragons stem from finding the bones of dinosaurs and weaving a tale of monsters to fill in the gaps. Even humans will see other humans as monsters by their bones whether it’s seeing a vampire because someone didn’t decompose all the way, or making up a mythical creature to explain away the skeleton of someone with a medical condition. We as humans around the world will often see bones as something to value and bury with respect—or fear.”
He looked back at Naomi, “Weirdly enough, in Western cultures, whenever we look at our own bones, we more often than not see monsters rather than something to honor.”
“I guess the question is, when it’s our turn to die and we leave behind nothing but our bones—or objects that represent us—will future generations or future lifeforms see our remains as sacred or scary?” he asked.
Naomi turned to the crowd around her that muttered amongst themselves and exchanging confused glanced, not sure of whether to clap or not.
Naomi quickly lost interest in gauging the crowd and felt her eyes drift once again toward the dinosaur that suddenly looked ominous under the museum lights.
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Really enjoyed your story. As an amateur paleontologist I doubly appreciate it. My husband and I used to hunt fossils in Florida or any where we thought they might be in the 37 states we rockhounded and hunted fossils. You were very realistic in reactions. Your only misspelling was in the second to last sentence. "exchanging confused glanced" probably should be "glances". I make the same typos myself.
Interesting story. It definitely lent some humanity to my stereotyped view of coroners lol, and you had a very strong and engaging beginning.
Good one Kat..! And love the ending as well. :) Hope to read more from you.
Interesting way to discuss the same topic/question through different POVs. Definitely a good thought to ponder ;)
I enjoyed your story, very creative in tying it all together! Keep up the good work.