I saw your skull in the Smithsonian today. Emmie warned me, she said I’d see you everywhere: hear you on the radio, spot you in the café, smell you on the sheets I washed a dozen times since you left. She and Luke have been trying to take care of me and I’ve been trying to let them. We’ve been exploring places I’ve never seen, tossing pennies and making wishes in the reflecting pool, climbing every step to the top of the National Monument. Up there above everything, I’m reminded how tiny every person can be, how they can disappear completely if you step away from it all.
We wandered, almost-dreaming, into the Natural History Museum at opening. It smelled like a day that hadn’t unfolded yet: cleaning products and the powder-and-milk scent of babies. There were lots of people, but I didn’t see them. There was a lot to learn, but I didn’t listen.
We stayed for hours, aimless and without a guide. Did you know they found the Giant Squid, and it’s not as giant as you’d think? Did you know the Hope Diamond looks like the costume jewelry we found tangled under your mother’s bed after the funeral? We threw it away with boxes and boxes of her lifetime, do you remember? I turned to tell you these things, but you weren’t there. I couldn’t stop searching for you in every corner, down every hallway as if you’d hopped a plane and decided you couldn’t live without seeing this. Emmie pulled me along by the elbow, wishing she could stop me from holding on.
She brought me to the Ocean Hall and pointed to a cartoonish picture of a naval ship sailing on endless waves of the sea.
“I was never afraid of the ocean ‘til I saw this,” she said. There was a Blue Whale drawn to scale, gigantic and overwhelming beneath the ship.
“Fear of the unknown,” I nodded.
Emmie shook her head, biting her lip and tracing the whale with her long piano fingers.
“I finally realized how monstrous the world can be.”
We visited the “Written in Bone: Forensic Files of the 17th-Century” exhibit, which I imagined to be a cavernous, grand room with bones that told stories. I imagined forensic historians had discovered how to read skeletons under high-powered microscopes. They learned that we’ve all got millions of tiny words written inside our skulls, our brains chiseling our deepest thoughts. Novels along clavicles, words around rib cages, written all the way down to the tiniest toe bones revealing the deepest secrets of humanity.
It wasn’t like that, of course. There was a holographic cutout of a man in period clothing that transformed into a skeleton wearing a three-cornered hat as we walked past him. He was blissfully unaware that he was alive then dead, alive then dead, alive then dead. The room was dim and crowded with families pressing their foreheads and palms to glass, breath from lungs crawling up cases.
I recognized your skull right away. It was alone on dark velvet in the corner, almost forgotten. Broad cranial vault, flared nasal opening (heart-shaped), rounded eye orbits. These details, the tiny plaque read, are characteristic of individuals with Native American ancestry.
You were so proud of your Cherokee descent, native blood embedded back in both sides of your family. Somehow your parents found their way to each other – something inside them, an inexplicable sameness that never faded even after years and years. I tried to understand what that must feel like, to be so connected to the intangible, to be a part of something outside yourself.
“It’s just a skull,” Luke said when I pointed to it, a ring of fog circling my finger as I pressed it to glass.
I imagined a world where your body was laid out in front of me, without skin or blood or muscles or fingernails, without our tangerine-and-tobacco smell. Bones bare and bleached, the parts of you I could never quite see, the parts I could’ve loved more than anything. I would touch them, taste them, curl up inside them.
Lay my body out in that same world, and people will see the ribs I cracked once, they’ll see my fractured radius, childhood mistakes. But they’ll see the quiet nights, too, when you and I rested our heads together and told stories by lamplight, the smooth parts of our skulls finding the perfect gentle slopes to fit into. They’ll see our rhythms ebbing along our marrow. We didn’t know it, but we were melding together then.
We are alive now, hearts beating and blood flowing and maybe no one will ever see our bones. Maybe we’ll be buried down in the earth or charred to a powder or sink deep into the ocean. In the museum I rubbed the sides of my head just above my temples. I felt the smooth skull beneath my fingertips and searched for the divots we created together in our sleep. I’m afraid that we’ll forget each other someday. Or maybe I’m afraid we never will.
I looked down at your skull one last time. Luke and Emmie were waiting for me, waving me forward. In my last glance, I saw that the skull was a replica: polyurethane and plaster expertly formed over metal framing, a trick or an echo of the real thing. It was never yours. It was created under a stranger’s hand in a place I’ve never seen, in a place we’ll never be.
Beth Ann Miller holds an MFA in Writing from the University of New Hampshire. She is a native New Englander and believes you can find stories anywhere. Professionally, she is an editor, reporter, and teacher. She is the recipient of the Lex Allen Literary Festival Fiction Prize and a Glimmer Train Honorable Mention recipient. She is new to the publishing-her-stories game and is perpetually at work on new creative projects.