Of the Earth by Joel Coltharp

animal skull with teeth in the grassy dirt

“teeth in the grass” (image via Flickr user Jane Rahman)

He sat up in bed and listened to the coyotes howl out on those hills somewhere. Soon others joined in, and the chorus swept down through the valley and stirred up the black creek below his window. As they took to the hunt, their howls gave way to the creak of the bed across the hall—up and down, up and down. His father’s low grunts barely stifled, his mother providing the silence in between. Downstairs, in the parlor, the old woman lay dying in the large bed his father had built from scratch, her death rattle choking off into coughing fits that shook the foundation. It was only when the howls ceased altogether and his father groaned and rolled off onto his side that the boy let himself fall back asleep, dreaming of the gurgle of the poor cow’s blood soaking into the dry earth.

In the morning, he slipped out the back while his father ate breakfast and headed for the back acres. There, his father had been slow to remove the brush crowding the fence that marked the edge of their land. There, it was more likely the boy would find something hidden away than in the middle of an open field. Just last week, he had stumbled across a femur and a couple of ribs over in the corner by the road. As he jogged amidst the tall grass, the burrs clutching at his loose shirt, he heard the rumble of his father’s engine and the gravel kicking up against the tire wells. He ducked down and waited until the silence whispered that everything was fine, everything was clear.

The cattle moved in slowly, eyeing him for feed but knowing that it usually came on wheels. He kept to the fence line, soaking up the shade. The boy ran his hand along the barbed wire, eyes on the ground. He spotted it, half-buried in the soft dirt. Prying it loose from between the rocks and clay, he held the long jawbone in his upturned palms. It had been bleached white by the sun, and half the teeth were missing. It wasn’t fresh, wasn’t from the night before, but it would do. He clutched it in his right hand like a hammer, walking home along the trail.

Outside, his sister had been propped against the old wash basin which now sprouted tulips, his mother’s favorite. Staring at her, he traced the right leg where it departed the knee at the wrong angle, veering right instead of keeping straight. He heard the clatter of pots and pans being tossed around the kitchen, the coughing fits coming from the back, his mother cursing the old woman for clinging to her final days. His sister looked up at him, and he held out the jawbone for her to see. She nodded but held her tongue, still not speaking, still not healing. The robins chirped instead, fearing his presence as he lurked beneath their precious nests.

Upstairs, the boy pulled the box from under his bed and turned it over, spilling the bones onto the floor. He put them in order, the best he knew how. He admired the right hind leg, complete, and scowled at the left one, still missing its tibia. Slipping the jawbone from inside his belt, he licked his thumb and rubbed where the soil still clung to the weathered tissue. He placed it near the top, on its side. He got up and opened the curtains, letting the sunlight bathe over his work, and when a beam caught it just right the legs started to quiver, the right one searching for traction on the uneven boards, and the head raised off the floor and looked at him for reassurance. He shook his head—not yet.

The old woman’s cough grew worse, sustained, and finally his mother called out from downstairs. “It’s time,” she yelled. Lowering her voice, she told him where he could find his father. She hissed at him to hurry or else he’d end up just like his sister. He ran all the way to the head of the drive, hitching a ride on a neighbor’s flatbed. It was a long way into town, the gravel road finally giving way to the new pavement. Along the stretch of nothing just before the city limits, the boy spotted it up ahead, on the shoulder. He asked the man to pull over, then hopped out before the truck had stopped rolling and leaned over the carcass. The blood, once pooled, had dried into a crimson sunset. He prodded it gently with his toe, finding only the tail intact. Slipping the knife from his pocket, he sliced it clean off. Clutching it like a rattle, he climbed back into the flatbed. The man watched him in the rearview mirror the rest of the way.

He found the little white house that his mother had told him about. He slipped the tail into his back pocket. The boy knocked, then looked down at his shoes when his father answered the door. “The hell are you doing here?” he asked. “It’s time,” said the boy, and as his father slipped back inside and put on a shirt, grabbing his keys, the boy eyed the redhead wearing only a robe, lurking just inside the bathroom door.

They rode back in silence, kicking up a cloud of white dust behind them on the last stretch. The father parked the truck in the grass near the barn and ran inside. The boy followed, catching only the way his sister’s eyes had begun to water, but rather than head for the parlor where the old woman was gasping for air, the tremors toppling one another like dominoes, he went upstairs. In his bedroom, the bones were still laid out as he had left them. He kneeled down and placed the tail between the one-and-a-half legs, and when the eyes opened, he said, “Soon, soon.”

Joel Coltharp lives in Springfield, MO, where he is an instructor of creative writing, literature, and composition. He is also the fiction editor for Moon City Review.