Little Relics

Mark Wagenaar

They say anything becomes normal after a while, but even after six months working in this vault in a city built on a vast necropolis, I had to brace myself to open the mail: a crate of white envelopes mailed from across the globe, each with a relic of a recently exhumed candidate—was candidate the right word?—for canonization. It was my job to catalogue them and send them along either to the lab or to the metal shelves and cages of the Archive. The rest of the day I combed the relics that were hived in the vault, adding names and parts to a burgeoning database. Before I started the job, I anticipated an antiseptic-tinged mortuary, but with all the envelopes and vials and glass-housed bones, it was more like a giant-sized version of the coin store I frequented in my youth.

Today there were several from a priest in Detroit—exhumed twice, poor bastard—distal metacarpal 3, a calcaneus like a polished off-white stone, and a rarity, the mandible, a half-grin in a Ziploc bag.

I thought for a moment of the thousands of blessings it must have breathed out. The names that had passed through its teeth. Had it gone easy on the souls that had confessed their deepest wrongs?

I fitted the attributed miracles to the bones. This tibia consumed nothing but one consecrated Host a day for twenty years. This rib restored eyesight to a little blind girl. This metatarsal suffered stigmata on successive Good Fridays.

Given the environment, I expected quiet hymns, but Jerry, who was training me because he was leaving, bumped Public Enemy and Run DMC in the background.

What’s going on, I said once as I returned from lunch.

Rappening is what’s happening, he replied.

Two voices laughed from the boombox as they described a series of tortures they would carry out if either man crossed the other.

Torture, he said. Kind of describes last decade’s U.S. foreign policy, no?

I was too absorbed in the language of bones to say much to him. I fitted the names to other things in the world. Parietal, fifth burn line of Troy. Talus, the horse that died when I was a child. Vomer, last passenger pigeon, dying in captivity. Lunate, ghost ship drifting port to port forever. Incus, first vowel pressed to clay. Clavicle, the last place he kissed before the positive pregnancy test.

Why do you think it’s called a skeleton key, the man in the bowler hat says in the dream. He pushes the key half an inch into my bloodless fingertip and turns it open. He peers inside, and twists it back to me: can you see it? he asks. All this time you’ve been blaming yourself for a child who died before she was even born.

Died inside me, I say.

This dream once or twice a week.

What is the scapula, bowler hat asks when he visits my lost thoughts.

Featherless wing, I say. One of two shells of a vanished sea, if the sea was named Thirst.

What is the ribcage?

A month of rain.

Hipbone? Femur?

I don’t answer.

Ankle bones?

A cairn of small stones, I say, for a life that never got the chance to begin.

I’m into spooky shit, Jerry said on his last day. I need to know there’s something—he turned his palm up—beyond this world. This arcade of surfaces. Why I took the job maybe. Maybe get at one of the secrets in those Archives.

I took the job to get away from a secret, I didn’t say.

That sounds silly, I know, he said.

Makes you no different from anyone else, I shrugged. Like ghosts? Aliens?

Anything, he replied. Miracles, what have you.

Listen to me, I said, at one point, I was looking down at the operating table. At myself. My body.

Did that surprise you?

That’s all I remember from that night, I said. Not the blood on the hotel floor, not the ride to the hospital, not the bed or the machines or the doctors.

I don’t say: What has us listening for harmonies beyond the audible? What has us dreaming of God? What will the resurrection look like? Will those never born be at the gates to greet us?

I even had a name for her, I didn’t say, before she died.

He took something out of his pocket. It’s my last day, he said, I need to stop carrying it around. An ossicle. Some of the smallest bones in the body. Part of the jaw, as an embryo, then it migrates to the inner ear.

Reminds me of how we live, he said. The migrations into the selves we become.

I nodded.

Broken into three parts at last, he said. A trinity.

We’re searched on the way out, I said. How did you take it out? Who—who is it?

Aliens, he replied, and pressed it into my hand. I looked closer: a little bone stirrup. A wishbone.

I don’t think we’ll find them, he continued. He turned to the door. I think we’ll find mounds of ashes that were cities once.

One day, as I was about to be searched, I realized I was clutching Jerry’s little relic in my hand. I panicked, then placed it on my tongue, as I faked a cough, and smiled at the guard, who checked my pockets and went through my things.

Buonanotte, he said.

I smiled again, the small bone pressed to the roof of my mouth.

A rib down my pants two weeks later.

And now? Eleven bones. A mandible.

Maybe I started taking them because of the years that had passed before I knew it. Maybe I needed totems to clutch because I still said her name. Maybe, like Jerry’s ossicle, I was broken into a greater receptivity. Broken towards a horizon made of the want by which it was broken. Until I reach it, these little relics will accompany me, fellow pilgrims. Until I reach somewhere that feels like forgiveness.

Soon, you’ll be talking, I tell the grinning man, my soon-to-be saint. The man in the bowler hat has not been back since I began to assemble him. One hundred and ninety-five bones to go.