The Roseate Tern Skull
i. Discovery (Dana speaks to Garrett)
I was so excited I nearly leapt from my crevice and did a little dance, but I didn’t want to scare the birds I was studying.
The skull was dirty and had a few tiny feathers clinging to a bit of rotted flesh near the back. I poured water over it from one of my water bottle and scraped the crud off with my nail. I wiped it gently with a bit of paper towel. It was a roseate tern skull, Sterna dougallii. I identified it by the pattern of red and black on the beak, still amazingly brilliant and saturated, perhaps because it had lain in the shade of the deep crack instead of in the bleaching sun.
I examined it, marveling at how light it was, like holding nothing at all. I barely felt the contact points on my palm. I rejoiced over the black-tipped red beak, the huge eye sockets, the smooth, round brain cavity, bone so thin it was almost like paper. I admired the delicate hinge between the skull and the lower beak and wondered if man’s first hinges were influenced by those on skulls and bones.
Such treasure! It will be useful for my paper, a souvenir from my trip to Maine, and an addition to my growing skull collection. I intended to protect it. I wrapped it in a paper towel from my lunch and put it into one of my spare water bottles, after emptying the water, first into my mouth, and then down into the crevice below me. The water bottle is a glass sauerkraut jar wrapped with duct tape to help protect it from breaking, glass because I’m ridiculously sensitive to the chemicals that outgas from plastic. I wrapped the jar in my spare T-shirt and shoved it into my backpack, hoping to keep it safe all the way home to Baldwinsville, New York.
As I sat there, jotting notes on the terns, making sketches and taking hundreds of images through my long lens, I pictured the skull inside the paper towel, inside the jar inside the shirt inside the backpack, glowing as if it were incandescent, and I imagined it forming in one of the eggs I’d been watching. I remembered the chicken eggs that had been opened at the New York State Fair in Syracuse, so that fairgoers could see the still living (but doomed) embryo forming its various stages, the pulsing heart, the bright and dark red blood vessels, the egg yolk shrinking into the fetal bird’s belly. The terns, though rarer and more exotic than chickens, must have a similar development, and I watched a mental video of the developing tern embryo that became my living roseate tern, and then the skull. How had it died? In a storm? Of old age? Predation? Most predators would have taken the bird with them, would have broken open the skull to eat the brains.
It occurred to me to wonder if the tern skull could love me, the way I loved it. Silly, I know. Terns are not fond of people. But the skull . . . perhaps it could sense my pleasure and love for it. I do love my skulls, all of them. I know it seems ironic for a person who so loves life to also love what’s left in death.
ii. Garrett Reacts
“Love you? You want to be loved by something dead? How can the dead love?”
“My grandmother is dead, and she still loves me.”
“Ridiculous!” he says, rolling his eyes. “The skull of a bird you never met in life?”
I smile, because it is ridiculous. Crazy. And that’s okay with me.
I reach the jar out toward Garrett. He opens the jar and removes the skull. He handles it gently and turns it in his hand. But his expression is more one of disgust and perhaps fear than of the wonder and pleasure I hoped for, expected. And he holds it as if it were hot or covered with germs, which, in fact, it very well might be.
“How can you collect skulls?” he asks, his eyebrows drawing together, his lips turning down. “Skulls make me think of death. They’re scary, gross and icky. I can’t believe you have a whole collection of them, doesn’t it freak you out? Like at night, especially?”
“No, not at all,” I say. “I mean, they’re dead. It’s not like they can hurt me, it’s not like they have zombie spirits that will come out and attack me at night. They are harmless.” I do notice the absurdity and hypocrisy of our conflicting statements about dead things, but just smile inwardly.
“I don’t think you should have this,” he says, “or anything else that will further your research here. You should go back home.” He reaches toward me, holding the jar out. I stretch to take it. It slips from his hand, or he drops it, I can’t tell which. I’m not usually a screamer, but I shriek as the sauerkraut jar plummets into the crevice, lands on one of the few untaped parts and shatters. I bend double to try to extricate the skull from the glass fragments and cut myself. Blood spews out and I yank my hand up, spattering Garrett with my blood. He yells and scrambles out of the crevice, setting the birds to pandemonium.
I wrap a paper towel around the cut and, using a stick this time, carefully lift the broken but taped jar up by the tape. I am gratified to find the skull intact. I dump out a second sauerkraut jar water bottle and replace the skull in its multiple wrappings and into my backpack again. Garrett has his shirt off and seems to be scrubbing it. “Out, out, damned spot,” I say, but too quietly for him to hear. And then I cover my mouth and slide down into the crevice, because I am laughing, and don’t want to offend him.
iii. A Knowing
Garrett returns, his shirt bearing faint blood stains and twist marks in the fabric. He apologizes, saying it was an accident. But then he asks me to give him the skull.
“You shouldn’t have it,” he says. “You don’t deserve it. You’re an intruder here. You should go home.”
I take the skull back out of my backpack, out of its jar and toss it into the air between us. We both stand and reach for it as it falls toward us, teetering on our precarious ledges in the crevice. I leap slightly, and scoop it out of the air. My hand is the mouth of a bird dog, soft as cotton. It follows the downward arc of the skull to break its impact. Then open my fingers. The skull rests, intact on my open palm.
“Once, when I was camping in Colorado,” I say, “I found a fabulous elk skull with spreading antlers. I was thrilled and imagined taking it home. But the skull spoke to me. It wanted to stay, so I carried it away from the campsite where I found it and put it where the elk told me to leave it, in a hidden and protected spot. I know, I know, it’s a crazy thing for a scientist to do. (Not that I’m a real scientist, or anything.) But I had to; the skull spoke, inside my head. I am still sad about it. Luckily, my roseate skull says no such thing.”
“Baloney!” Garrett says. “Bull poop!”
“And I know this,” I add, rewrapping the skull, “the tern skull wants to come with me, wants my love, and will come with me, no matter what. And I am glad.”
% % % %
I am taking the free Iowa Writer's Program mooc which is just starting and these are my first three assignments. click here if interested in joining.
the image has nothing to do with the story.