This post will be disturbing, especially for my family members. I am going to talk about suicide and violent death.
I used to collect skulls and bones and odd little things that I’d find on my walks around the property. One time I spotted a coyote on the side of the road, roadkill. It was a busy rural highway with no shoulder, but I devised a plan to collect its corpse to bring home and set out in the yard for the fire ants to clean up for me so I’d have a nice skeleton to add to my stash. I had a biology professor who would do the same thing, because she was working on a study of carrion insects at different levels of decay. I tried to reassure myself that this wasn’t that weird, thinking of her bold project, as jacked up trucks flew by me on the highway, their drivers craning their necks to see why I was maneuvering a stinky roadside corpse into a plastic bag. I had done this before with stinkier things.
I pieced together old, disintegrating cow bones from the fields and delighted in the tiny, fragile little skulls of mice and rats that I’d sometimes find, perfectly intact, on one of my walking trails. At times, my sweet husband would even collect freshly roadkilled oddities for me, a barred owl, a black snake, a baby oppossum. If we left them outside for less than a week, the fire ants cleaned them to the bones. I’d find dried lizards, dried up frogs, and perfectly preserved shells of insects that all became part of my menagerie. It wasn’t for witchcraft, but for science– that’s how I justified my curious habit.
The skulls were the most fascinating. I had a cat skull that I sold on Etsy to an artist. It was an angry looking thing with a deformed eye socket– the bones didn’t fully fuse together to make the orbit of the eye. The raccoon and oppossum skulls were similar in many ways, except where the brain was housed. The oppossum’s cranium was a compact little bulb of dense bone, and the raccoon’s looked unrealistically inflated by comparison– with swollen, thinned cranial bones, as if it was a balloon pumped full of air and stretched taut.
After my son grew older, the habit wore off and I had to tuck away my little creatures, or what was left of them, so that they wouldn’t get broken and lost. The last set of bones I added were the bones of my dad’s old German Shepherd, Jake. I took my girls (dogs), Ginny and Bitsy, on a walk through the woods one evening and they came home delighted that they had plundered his relatively fresh burial site. Ginny is Jake’s sister, and the enthusiasm with which she crunched on his bones irked me. I snatched a hip bone away from her. He had bad hip dysplasia by the time he died, and his bones told the story of it. The hip sockets looked melted, worn away, with bubbly deposits of bone erupting nearby. It wasn’t like osteoporosis, where the bone was just weaker, but it was a disease process that removed bone where it should have been and built bone up where it shouldn’t be. No wonder he had so much trouble. Poor thing.
This fall, I reluctantly decided to take some courses toward a nursing degree. I’ve always wanted to be a nurse, but I’ve always avoided it. It’s a long story. In Anatomy and Physiology we are studying bones and muscles. To most people bones are probably boring. I’ve seen pre-nursing students complain about it. They are dry and hard, a lot like rocks. But if you’ve ever studied rocks, geology specifically, then you must know that the chemical history of rock is very fascinating. I’ve noticed the same thing with bones. Bones go through an incredible process of building, tearing down and rebuilding. They are constructed by these little bone-building cells that excrete minerals until they end up locked in a little pocket within the bone, surrounded by their own waste (the calcium — hydroxyapatite– that makes up the hard mineral bone.) Other cells are activated to resorb bone and release the calcium into the bloodstream, where it performs necessary functions of life, like causing muscle contractions. Building, disintegrating, rebuilding. Living bones are very different from dead, dried bones.
At first I was not prepared to spend hours looking at human skulls. Even more than cadavers, skulls have an ominous reputation. I remember a friend of mine, when were in high school, telling me about an older woman she knew who claimed to be a practicing Satanist and had a human skull in her house, but it was supposed to be a secret. People who have skulls lying around are weirdos or criminals (or both). Unless they are scientists.