The boy found the skull sitting between his mother’s rosebushes, bottom jaw stained red with mulch. He wasn’t afraid. He wasn’t anything, really, not curious, not numb, not happy or sad. He reached for the skull, and the skull was in his hands, just like that, fingers tracing a web of spidering fractures in the bone, mosquitoes and gnats enjoying the summer as much as his cat, Lolo, sunning in a pool of gold, and as much as he was, before then, before his eyes lighted on the skull’s gaping eyeholes, dark, deep wells of something unnamable lingering in cavernous hollows.
The boy hid the skull for no other reason than hiding was what he always did with his secret bits and bobs. He didn’t want his father to find the skull in the same way he didn’t want his father finding the pocket change in his jeans, or his own self, even, on nights when his father was stumbling, limbs longer than a sober man’s limbs, all gum and water, all slack-jawed and too close and high on pills and vodka. He wrapped the skull in a blanket, and then the boy wrapped himself in another. Both fuzzy items smelled of his mother—like the lost safety of some long gone nest after being pushed into open air.
The boy set the skull on the desk in his dorm room. It stared at him. At his Metallica posters. At his Austen novels. And at him, the boy who had found the skull, the boy who kept and hid and preserved the skull and was so relieved when he found out his mother was cremated on the eve of his tenth birthday, and at he who was confused because if not the woman he only remembers in watercolor dreams, then who? Who is this skull? And who is he, to keep it? Thief? Savior?
The boy made love for the first time in front of the skull. He had to get up, pull out halfway through, to turn it to the wall, away from the living glow of pale skin. He’d never felt so cold; even inside another, the shivers didn’t dissipate.
The boy took his father’s urn and threw his ashes into the ocean. The skull watched too, bird on a wire, face on a bench overlooking whalebones and sand, the whole of human existence summed up in one still life, as the boy said a short prayer in a voice only the skull could hear.
The boy bought a home. Had a family. Carried the skull in a leather bag, soft on the inside, padded and cushioned, cupping cranium, cupping that unnameable darkness in that unnameable face. He hadn’t looked at missing person posters in years. He stopped trying to estimate with his eyes the width of a woman’s forehead, the shape of a man’s mouth, the way those cheeks rose…looking back and forth between skull and skin stretched over skull. After a while, his eyes began playing tricks. The boy could no longer identify who was living and who was not.
The boy was sick. In spirt. In body. The skull stayed and watched, perhaps the canary in the coal mine, or perhaps nothing more than old bone. Hospital rooms. Slanted yellow light the color of butter. The skull on a tray, watching, or maybe that was only in his head now. The voice of his wife. His children. His son and his boyfriend. His little daughter and her groom. The skull watched it all, on high, as the light changed its tone and the clock ticked on. IV in a sore, bruised arm. Pills. Excruciating walks to the bathroom. Waking in the night, soaked in sweat, thinking of his mother and his father and Lolo and his skull. His. Or his own? He couldn’t say whose head he’d been cupping in those nightmares. But when he turned to look at the tray, when he saw the day go dark, room caressed by shadow, the skull sat there, almost pious in the dimming light, saintly, covered in rose petals and mulch and loved more than any dead head had a right to be. The boy reached for the skull again, to feel it one final time.
The boy and the skull talked to one another in a far away place now. The light was white, yet soft, not hard on the eyes, and they communed over tea as butterflies floated past, and the skull said, what took you so long?, and the boy said, a little sadly, I never did figure out who you were. The skull stared out into oblivion, tea running over bone, but spilling nowhere, and then he sighed and said, I don’t know myself. And the boy, thinking of his life, and his skull carried all over the map, a seemingly meaningless find in the dirt, said simply in a way that bespoke a longing to throw a warm blanket over them both, do any of us?