Bone Stew

by Samantha Jean Coxall

In this town, the dead outnumber the living. The number’s something like a thousand to one. We don’t have the normal tourist fodder. No big, stony mountains that look like papier-mâché when backlit by sunset on a postcard, or a ghost mansion where somebody worth something lived or died, or even a decent restaurant for people passing through to eat at. All we have are stretches and stretches of shallow hills in every direction, all pockmarked with sun-bleached cemetery stones.

The ground is full and no one bothered to think about what to do about it until it became a problem. At first, you’d just hear the gravedigger guys swap stories about digging a new grave only to find it already occupied. How it’s too much a hassle to find space six feet under for an empty plot. Now they just throw two or three bodies in the same hole. No room for glossy funerary boxes anymore. Making bone stew, they call it. 

And everything was fine, for a while at least. Until the spring sky swelled with rain and the floods swept through the hills, and with them Mr. Asimov—who died two weeks previously—came floating through town square like it was a theme park lazy river, minus the inner tube. A record year of rain. No matter how many times we buried them again, the bodies just kept slipping and sliding down from the hills, bumping into houses, getting T-boned on mailboxes. You had to check under your car before you started it, just in case a cache of the departed were caught up behind your front tires.

Then it didn’t even take rain to bring them anymore—once they knew the way. They showed up on doorsteps like old relatives. The clatter of bones against pavement at midnight. With nowhere to rest, they try to make their way home again and again.

We’re tired of digging and digging and digging. The ceremony of saying goodbye does not get easier each time but instead weighs down our hearts with new knots of scar tissue each time we dress in our mourning gowns.

And so now we make do. We find them jobs. Just little things like holding up yard sale signs on street corners and weighing down lawn furniture on a windy afternoon.

My neighbor owns the secondhand store on Main Street. It’s mostly the usual offerings: piles of clothes and stacks of ratty paperbacks and altar-like displays of lost and forgotten family heirlooms. He’s started taking loose bones, too. There’s so many of them. He says: Look—no more rocking tables. And he puts a star-shaped vertebra under a table leg. Marks it $2 with a neon sticker.

He used to sit under the store awning next to a metal rack of that day’s discounts with a construction paper sign (We Got Great Deals!) propped up between sloping stomach and thigh while he flipped through the newspaper, so close to his face you can see the damp ring of his breath seeping through it.

Now he’s got dead bodies—slouched against the window, heads rolled back—dressed in patterned sundresses and palazzo pants. You can see the clothes better that way. See, look how nice. He thumbs a sleeve.

There’s one across the street from me, propping up an umbrella on a bench with a dozen bus schedules in the front pocket of his collared shirt. I can see him from my bedroom window at night. The milky white glow of him so vibrant, I can’t help but wonder how he’s not alive.

I watch him each night before bed, waiting for movement in those bones, my own vibrating under my skin. As if calling out to a long-lost friend.

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