FICTION: Bone Calculus

Chemistry of emptiness. Every cloud-free sky presents an irksome hollowness, an enormous gassiness just waiting to be filled. By what? By prose, by chemistry, by mind. Each thought that emanates from any brain comes out larger than its organ of origin; in fact, in order to populate the sky, a single brain may suffice.

Location of the reptilian. There are those with a certain smallness or viciousness of mind, a downward dripping of corrosive animal acid. This despite constant persuasions to the contrary. Wisdom and experience lead our minds to a distancing of themselves from those of the beasts, whose actions may include frequent bloodlettings. Such tendencies are generated in the limbic system, they say, but the limbic is not so much a system as a substance, fossilized through constant use. At their center, certain souls erode, even crumble. We might call it limbic chalk. When we skewed sideways into our current hominid shape (an arbitrariness), we carried the crumbly substance with us. The next task was to give this force a form, and name it Murder.

He had difficulty breathing. What is what it will be? Just this: to inhabit the self so carefully, so gradually. Lock the doors, close the windows, then expand cubically to exactly fill the room. Commit no murders. If the house is filled with smaller containers, such as music boxes, vases, buffets, pencil cases, and so on, vacuum can occur, and these little vaults might also think of thoughts that they themselves would like to have.

House of charades. Why the dejection of those who age at no faster pace than ever? Here is one such subject, and before him sits an old sewing box, Shaker joinery, all precision in its craft but never filled, more a dream box than real. It whispers to him: give me an inner life, an intelligence. His name is Blair and his head is too large to fit inside the box, even the dream box. Emptiness has multiplied him out. But, well, Blair finds he can wear the dream box as a dream hat, but too small, too silly.

Experience is one Master. Once before that, on Lincoln’s birthday, he put on a stovepipe, not a hat but the actual stovepipe, then took it off: there was too much space inside, too many heads required to fill it up. Lincoln’s birthday was not a factor. In fact Blair in general felt a snide and satisfying contempt for masquerades, Halloween balls, cosplay, dress-up occasions of all types. A visual allergy, that was the way he put it.

Familiarity breeding affection. Nicky and Blair got married.

The spousal, espousal. One day Nicky found a bleached little lizard skull on a hike in the hills and its two nice rows of teeth inspired her to clip it, using a rubber band, in her hair, a kind of natural barrette. A little gross thought Blair at first, but there was no trace of skin on the outside of the bone, no tidbit of brain on the inside. No, he concluded, it was cool. The skull provoked some laughter and stares as the two of them strolled downtown that first night. When one guy yelled out “Hey, bonehead,” she whirled around and bared her own teeth—rounded, human, slightly yellowed—in outrage. Mock outrage. To Nicky, everything was a joke.

Human. Blair had always had a similar impulse to hide honesty behind humor. His hands moved into his pockets like shovels into dirt. All too human. The ground constantly begs us to lie down on it, in it. There’s immolation, but fire is just a more nervous version of life. Ashes mix with clay to make bone china. Funny.

How people in the future will feel about their own future. Nicky was loose limbed, and needed no excuse to express herself physically, extravagantly. Arms that wheeled in space! Hands reaching, sometimes, toward the infinite. Blair’s own hands were still in his pockets, in dirt. Yes, he thought, her lizard-skull barrette suited her very nicely, but his reflex (comedy versus ego) was to take her down a few notches and so, using his fingernail, he scratched some grooves into her little lizard skull while she slept with it somewhat askew in her hair. Can’t there ever have been a time when, hatching out of our egg, we saw everything clearly? Coldly?

Presentiment of the saurian. Blair wanted something larger than his own smallness. Something as old as the universe, maybe. “I believe in God,” he’d said years before, falling or rather pretending to fall out of his chair, but belief turned out to have nothing to do with age or size. Modern wisdom tells us to exalt each other the best we can, a goal that comes a little bit harder without religion, but the secret is to first see oneself as one step above the ancient hominids, or at least the early mammals. This was too recent for Blair: he chose reptiles, specifically the crocodilians. “I’m more thoughtful than them,” he told himself, but failed immediately at one level of insight in that the crocodile he pictured was in fact the shrewd cartoon kind. Jaunty tail. Ironic wink. Diamond scales. Smile a set of steak knives.

Another hat for the head. “I wonder why there are no traveling salesmen anymore,” said Blair, out of the blue. Yet, just as he made that observation, a knock was heard at the door.

Religion without religion. Two women in the supermarket were chatting in Spanish, gazing down at snapshots of a newborn. “Tiene el nombre de Dios,” she said. The two moved on and Blair wondered what name she meant. More than anything, it was startling to reflect on names. What if he, Blair, were named Zeus. Jesus Zeus. Ray Croc.

As below, so above. Once, in a moment of intimacy, Nicky came up with a funny name for him: Chimpoodle, like the famous signing-while-hamming-it-up chimp. Blair wondered if maybe she was in this way making fun of his extra-long arms, but she only meant to draw attention to the way he sometimes used little hand signals during sex to suggest new positions. Or, did she mean that, like Chimpoodle’s signing, their positions were always limited, always predictable? Or was it more like Clever Hans’ arithmetic answers, tapped out with one hoof only when watching his trainer’s tiny cues? In any case, the result for her on such occasions was a quick evaporation of libido.

If life were lived at a faster clip. Some men carry boxes of hats for men and women from door to door. Thousands of doors leading to thousands of door. There are stores that carry goods for those who find it frightening to open the door to a stranger, but Blair was not one of those.

“I’d like a hat with some bone inserts,” Blair confided to the salesman on his threshold, thinking of a magazine advertisement he’d seen. Bone strips in the brim guarantee stiffness! Pubic bones is what the ad didn’t say, but what it had brought to mind.

We are all well preserved. Nicky also once joked, harmlessly, that, because of his age (only somewhat more than hers) Blair should be classified as a living fossil.

“Like the coelacanth,” she said.

Again, too sensitive, he felt that her comparison implied that, like the coelacanth, he was unpleasantly spongy, razor-boned, flesh dotted with little deposits of albumen and tar. Evolution, after all, points backward toward knuckle-sized vertebrae, twisty limbs, organs greased with bile. That’s when we, as a species, were missing the neo-cortex and therefore unfamiliar with the kind of moments Nicky was in fact frequently prone to, such as whispering I love your skeleton while resting her fingers teasingly on his floating, bottommost rib.

Indelible as tar. Nicky worked at a multinational corporation, and she knew, from certain documents, that it was guilty of gross environmental violations.

“And look at me,” she said. “By working there I’m guilty too.”

“You don’t have to despise yourself for it,” he answered.

“Oh, I’ll only despise myself for eight hours a day,” she smiled. “Jekyll and Hyde style. Drinking a morning potion that turns me into a moral beast. At least every night I come home to you, my dear antidote. If you run out on me, like you once implied you would, what then? Permanent beast?”

Every inch the fool. Blair’s image of his future was full of peculiar mirages. Every step forward was bought at great cost. At least try to be a saint, he told himself. One night he unboxed the hat the door-to-door salesman had eventually brought by and put it on for the first time. Not a fedora, not a bowler—something more like what you’d wear during a war. An artillery man’s cadet cap. Sadly, the salesman had neglected or forgotten about the idea of stiffening inserts, and, after washing, the brim came out warped, which made the hat look impossibly foolish. Checking it out in the mirror, his reflection sneered at him, as if to say, watch how a man in a clown hat sneers, and imitate me.

Some thickening of the skull. “Is not indeed everything we see,” Blair read in Novalis, his preferred philosopher at the time, “a rape of heaven, a desolation of former glories, the remnant of a hideous feast?”

There is nothing to laugh at. When the hat salesman knocked again, weeks later, Blair showed him the ruined brim.

“Bone, I told you last time. Bone, man!”

At first the salesman seemed puzzled, but then promised to bring along a better product at no charge.

Evolution. The limbic brain is the hat of the reptilian brain. The neocortex is the hat of the limbic brain. The skull is the hat of the neocortex. The hair is the hat of the skull. The hat is the hat of the hair.

Higher consciousness? In the course of her ethically sapping job, Nicky not only became convinced of the evil of her employers, but, eventually, of the central and fatal flaw of science.

“Space and time,” she read to Blair from Ouspensky, her preferred philosopher at the time, “do not represent properties of the world, but just properties of our knowledge of the world gained through our senses. The world has neither extension in space nor existence in time. These are properties which we add to it.”

Disappointment in society. When the hat salesman knocked again, Blair opened the door to find him awkwardly cradling a very large and unidentifiable object against his chest.

“The skull of a crocodile,” he grinned. “The largest I could find. I figured you for a guy wanting a total make-over.”

Blair accepted the free gift, sent the salesman on his way, then locked himself in the bathroom and sat naked in the tub with the crocodile skull in his lap.

No less real for being imaginary. There was no question of simply popping the thing over his head. If the skull were in fact to be worn, as he believed he understood the salesman’s intention, it would have to be donned with deliberation and ceremony. A crowning! Certain oaths would have to be sworn, intentions revealed. In that spirit he stayed motionless in the tub until night had fallen. Then, with the bathroom in complete darkness, he lifted the heavy object onto the top of his hair, and left it there for a long while, considering carefully what he was doing, why he was doing it. When the time came, Blair gathered his strength, muttered a few words in a vaguely incantatory style, then found, to his relief, that he was able to inch his head entirely inside in such a way that his whole human cranium became largely subsumed within the flatter but sufficiently expansive reptilian cranium.

The opposite of intellect. The minute it was seated securely, though uncomfortably, a story began to form itself in Blair’s brain, as if a button had been pushed, the lid of a jar unscrewed: In this story, there was a very young and wax-complexioned spirit who had a way of flying to one’s assistance, though only in the dark.

“What could you want with me,” Blair inquired, “since I have no need of help.”

“Just this,” the spirit answered. “To bring you a second message from Novalis. ‘Thought,’ he wants you to know, ‘is only a dream of feeling, a dead feeling, a pale-gray feeble life.’”

We diminish as we enlarge. Later, Blair, still wearing the skull, managed to lift himself straight up out of the tub, step in front of the mirror, and awkwardly nudge up the light switch with one shoulder. And there, once he lowered the thing’s jaw a tad, he could see himself as he was. In splendor. Yes, monarchical. Even angelic, if the crocodile dentition might be seen as a kind of halo. Meanwhile water was streaming deliciously down the length of his nakedness, and what struck him as most delightful was that below the neck his body appeared to be all legs, as if the skull were balanced atop two flesh-upholstered and sexy sticks. In any case, thoughts and observations rotated idly without the substance of insight. Or so it seemed for a moment. Then there were dozens of probing discoveries, but it was unclear if they had their origin in his own head, or in the newly donned and creaking outer head. The human self is either enlarged or diminished by the addition of new layers, literal or imagined. The process of being, always being, has nothing to do with bathroom mirrors, exactly, but definitely with reflections—reflections that tremulously bound and rebound within a series of vaulted confines. The interior of the human skull, he understood with a little shout of poetic discovery, is a grotto or sea cave where a homunculus of pure limbic soul rests on an ivory divan, baring its teeth.

Permanent beast. No metamorphosis ever entirely succeeds, mythology notwithstanding. We are all part saurian but only in idiosyncratic areas. Blair’s croc skull, for a moment, had the effect of making his oh-so-modern neocortex feel both mighty and hideous, a state no better than that of—and here was another cartoon—a caveman dragging a woman by the hair. As he stared at himself in the mirror, dancing a bit and slightly swinging his arms, he felt for a moment as if evolution, or aging, had jerked backward, but then over-accelerated, and that now he represented a distant prospect, a time hundreds of thousands of years in the future when all humans would need skulls of great size in order to house their mega brains, their post-modern cortices. This tremendous increase in gray matter: what would it suggest? Unimaginable mental acuity in calculus, music, languages,? Or an unimaginable honing of the art of murder?

The uselessness of measure. Nicky at that point burst into the bathroom with a hammer. She’d been outside, had walked past the bathroom window, witnessed her husband’s absurd new get-up, reacted with disbelief. Now, with something less than brute force, and maybe misinterpreting Blair’s shouts and primitive arm movements as pleas for help, she swung the hammer—actually a small sledgehammer plucked from the tool cabinet in the garage—directly into the side of his newly acquired exo-skull, shattering it neatly into five or six pieces that fell away from his head and hit the bathroom floor with a noise that was astonishing to both of them. Blair froze. He was aghast but free. As if for the first time, his posture was perfect, his skin fresh and somewhat glistening, but his head was ringing and echoing in some degree of self-evaluation or rage.

Key after key. What keeps most of us from resorting to violent outbursts is our self-conscious knowledge of not just the banality but more especially the tawdriness and done-to-death familiarity of evil. Blair touched his hands to his human skull and liked the nutty, slightly oily feel of the skin that tightly stretched around it, as well as the strange weightlessness of intelligence balanced perfectly atop his vertebrae. This, he concluded, was the skull of someone whose thoughts, whenever they might lean toward revenge, as they had for a millisecond after the destruction of the skull, would be instantly and always canceled by the brain’s layer of mockery. The croc skull had represented such a layer, just more visible than most. How to transcend the urge to even the score? Pose, clownishly, as the one most likely to strike out. And to that end he sneered, lifting one corner of his upper lip in a burlesque of malevolence, baring his teeth just as he’d seen Nicky do some time ago on their walk.

Each of us is guilty of each others’ crimes. One day, not long after the incident, Nicky called Blair from work to say that their marriage was over. That she hoped he wouldn’t be too hurt but that she had fallen in love with someone at the office. That this someone shared her enthusiasm for Ouspensky as well as her yearning for a more ethically responsible job. That they were planning to quit and to find a way to sabotage the very corporation they had worked for. That Blair was, after all, though she hated to say it, bad luck and all, a little too old for her. There was a pause.

“You,” breathed Blair at last, “have got to be kidding.”

“C’mon, moron, of course I’m kidding,” she hissed. “It’s revenge.”

“Revenge for what?”

“You pretended the other day to be something other, something not what you are. Well it kind of shattered me there for a sec. So now I do the same to you. So you know how to feel.”

Blair quickly understood and forgave. But his largesse wasn’t as satisfying as he expected. Her trick broke his moral concentration. Now that Nicky had articulated a possibly alternate version of herself, a sharper one than his, he couldn’t seem to locate her accurately anymore. Did she in fact still live with him, he wondered? Even when standing near, lying near, it was as if, through no fault of her own, she were somewhere else. One day, when having to fill out an online form that needed information about the two of them, he found himself unable to remember even her name. A moment later, though, he did recall her age and entered it into the proper field.

“I am a bit older than you, actually,” he called out from across the room, expecting no reply.

“Well I guess you don’t remember,” she said, though her answer took a long time to reach him, “the time you said that age couldn’t matter, because in one way we’re both thirteen billion years old.”

“Oh, Nicky, I do remember,” he said, his voice brightening a little at this rediscovery of her. “As in the age of the universe.”

Rod Val Moore's first novel, A History of Hands, won the 2013 Juniper Prize for Fiction, and is published by the University of Massachusetts Press. His second novel, Brittle Star, published by L.A.'s What Books Press, was selected by Foreword Reviews magazine as the best science fiction novel of the year, and later nominated for the 2015 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. He lives with his wife, the artist Lisa Bloomfield, in Los Angeles. web:



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