Bones in the Other World
I detested muses, the skeletal support systems of the arts, old blonde goddesses who always urged people to write about dead springtimes and calyxes viewed through superficial lenses. I hated the gaudy love poets affected for them. They changed the centers of their inspiration into mere prostitutes, and it seemed to me that muses, and characters, the children of muses, were the all too real imaginary friends of freaks who thought they were gods and geniuses. So why write? And why write about a potent magical place I had visited as a child, a magic world whose citizens, trees and cows lived life so grandly it made me ashamed to be human? Why write about the people I knew, who had now passed on, if writing meant doing what I hated, shaking up corpses, bugging them when they wanted to rest? I dare not read such an essay, and perform the ritual of poking the living with rattles made of the bones of the dead. “Place essay,” my assignment sheet said. My gracious!
I had messed up. I hadn’t heard him say that there was homework the first day of school. “Shannon got mad!” everybody cried. “Shannon who is usually so quiet.” Well, maybe I had used certain tones with Dr. Scott, but obviously, if only two people heard him announce the homework on the first day of school, clearly the fault wasn’t with me. I bet he had already labeled me a bad student. I’d show him that I wasn’t one to mess with. I’d score higher than anyone else on the rest of my projects.
Two days later, I lay across my parents’ bed, as they waited impatiently for me to finish writing so we could go to a restaurant. Fifteen-minute exercise on fruit. I never write the full fifteen minutes, but today I’m trying something. In the years since age thirteen, when I read my first Toni Morrison book, I was initiated into the world of a writer, who, when I read her words, made me see abstract pictures, made me hear songs. I’d always been a reader, but I never thought about writing, except this effect was something that I’d like to try. Fruit essay: my Cajun grandfather’s produce store/Cajun restaurant. His French accent circling mangoes. His pink hands on their red bellies. “I believe in mangoes,” I declared in the essay. When I got it back, Dr. Scott pulled me aside and told me one word, “Good.” Not fabulous or something like that, but the “good” was important. I wanted another good.
So I got to the essay on a photo, where I found my mean, coal-black great-grandmother holding my baby sister. Well, she wasn’t exactly mean, even though she used to call me Nigger and Heifer, but the photo made her look especially gentle and vulnerable, laying her head against that of my yellow, purple-lipped sister. I wrote down that my great-grandmother and sister were like constellations and the camera was my telescope. How all of their actions lay about them like piles of stardust, and the picture I held in my hand was the recording of one rare ecliptic day, a soft-hearted day of my great-grandmother. The comments Dr. Scott made on this essay touched me, so I was ready to wake the dead or anyone else, muse, horoscope, whatever it took to impress him. I didn’t realize that by upping the ante, I was upping the stakes.
Now, the good grade on the paper didn’t matter. I had stolen my family for the purposes of a story. Their voices, their words, their eyelashes, their souls, all of them I had taken for my essay. Wherever I was, I saw in the trees the dismantled body parts of my beloveds. A beige forearm, muscled and strong, lay curled upon a branch. A ruddy ankle perched delicately in the boughs. A brown mouth sucked a leaf. Ebony toes studded the bark on the trunks. It was time to come clean. I had to go to the ones whose lives I had pirated for A’s and let them know what I had done. But how could I confess I told strangers about my great-grandmother’s foul profanity. How would my mom react when she realized I had described her as a “faithless bird?” I didn’t want to read to them what had earned me good grades, but each day they demanded, like cold pangs poking into my ribcage, to know what I was writing about.
Assembled before me, a spectrum of skin like a factory worker surrounded by newly minted crayons, the hollow sugarspun forms waited for me to return to them the parts that I had stolen from them to decorate forests worth of paper with confiscated experiences. I read to them. I wondered what would happen as I gave them back their bones transcribed with inky runes and hieroglyphs on them. Changed toenails and locks of hair were distributed to them with each word. As I reached my conclusion paragraph, I finally gave them freshly tie-dyed tongues to critique me with.
Shivers of shock ran from my phalanges to my plexus with their comments. They felt I had drawn their tendons the way they would like to draw them had they the time. They felt I had removed cataracts from their irises and massaged their feet. They said my words were the necessary slings for their bones. Ah, relief. After that, I’ve been aware that your muses will demand back what they have given to you, and if you have not treated their bodies respectfully, storms will arise; but the flesh that is honored in the ink upon paper will only lead to joy. Since then, I have performed more pieces from my family, and I don’t get scared too much, I just try to remember, as I read, the nuances of aligning vertebrae.