His Pretty Bones
He likes the woods. The ferns are like spines. The bare branches overhead like curled finger bones trying to catch the glittering sun. There is no one always asking, What are you doing? What are you thinking? Who are you?
Once after school he’d come home to his mother sitting on the floor of his room. Drawers stood open and empty, papers looked like they’d fluttered and landed.
His notebook lay splayed open in front of her, his black words in careful lists making one long rib cage poem: phalange, patella, mandible. She pointed to the tiny skull on his bookcase.
“Are you a serial killer?” she asked.
“What? Mom, no.” He knew she had to rant: how much she loved him. How she’d read that killing animals was a sign. How she never could tell what he was thinking.
“I’m not killing mice,” he reassured her. “I’m not killing anything.”
He’d found it in the woods. If you were patient, you could find a lot of things. He’d taken some of her clear nail polish and carefully painted all along those lines to make them shiny. He liked to trace his finger along it, outlining it. Each of those lines were boundaries. This was a tooth and not a vertebrae. This was an eye socket, not a cheek. It was like a drawing you could feel. Like a boundary line. This is a mouse. This is not a mouse. This is you. This is not you.
In the end she let him keep the skull and keep his lists, though she said she didn’t understand it. He kept going to the woods, kept adding to his collection. He’d found a tiny jawbone from a raccoon or maybe a cat. They felt like something delicate and forgotten. Something that needed caring for.
She used to tell him that at night she would watch him sleep and check to see if he was breathing. She would lay a hand on his wing bones, scars of ancient flight. She would feel for the rise and fall, making sure he was still there.
“It’s what mothers do,” she said. He didn’t know. He’d only ever had this one.
He knows she still comes in some nights though she no longer lays a hand on him. The door creaks open and the light on the floor is a slender triangle, its point nearly reaching him. He hears her but also knows she comes in unheard to watch his bones expand, collapse. She is trying to unpuzzle him. And those nights he’s awake he feels the unpuzzling in the dark even though she’s just a shadow, just an outline.
He is not an outline. He is solid. It would be easier if he were just bones, if she could see the spaces between his ribs, the spaces where he connects. Instead she watches the rise, the fall and he listens to her watching.
About the Author: Linda Niehoff's short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in TriQuarterly, Necessary Fiction, New South, and elsewhere. She's a part time portrait photographer and a full time homeschooling mom. Find her on Twitter: @lindaniehoff