The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 8, No. 2

The Skull Gatherer

by Rick Bass

Skull Gatherer

His first wife was gone fifty years ago, and his second wife gone forty years; the two children, a son and a daughter from the first marriage, gone, too, moved to California likewise fifty years ago; and like some wry capstone, it had not ended there—even when he had nothing left to lose, he had lost, giving up his left leg to diabetes ten years ago. It seemed to him sometimes that his entire life had gone by like—Herbert Mix laughed, looking at the sprawl of desert all around him—sand through the hourglass.
           The first wife, Marie, he had not thought about in many years, choosing instead—when he chose to consider such things, which was not often—to remember the second wife, Ann, who had demanded less of him, though they had lasted only a fraction of the eight years he and Marie had carved out of time’s hold. Better, however, to consider neither of the failures. His triumphs tended to be much easier to quantify, and, in his opinion, were more durable than the vagaries of love and the vulnerability of those invisible connections.
           The proof lay in his museum, on the outskirts of the West Texas town of Odessa. For decades, he had spent his days wandering out into the desert, searching the sandhills for artifacts. Initially his searches had been for the various purported caches of gold; though as the years passed and he found none, a transition had occurred, one in which he had gradually become content with the artifacts themselves; and from that contentment, a new passion had blossomed, one that had, in the narrowness and constriction of his newer, lonelier life, soon grown into full-blown, unadulterated obsession.
           Old knife blades, wagon wheels, clay pots, human skeletons: anything and everything was fair game for his collection, his hunger became nondirectional and unquenchable, and he hauled it all home. And when his museum—an old sheet-metal Quonset hut, with no cooling or insulation—ran overfull, still he continued to collect, stowing his fragments, his treasures, in abandoned little adobe warehouses scattered around town: pockets and stores of memories, or if not quite memory—for who knew what windblown, bygone dusty memories attended, like the thin sloughing residue of old skin, to each item, now?—then little stores and pockets of imagination, barely glimmering now, wherein Mix and Mix alone stirred those faint coals with his own musings.
           On three-by-five index cards, using an ancient typewriter, he would catalogue each item, no matter how mundane, and would type up some imagined history, some romantic provenance for each and every one, in an attempt to give it even greater value than what it already did (or did not) possess. Some of the items and their descriptions he had not looked at in over thirty years, but they were all still there, stacked in their hot little huts, not going anywhere, and, if anything—or so he imagined—accruing value, rather than deteriorating, with Time the Revelator for once a benign force, rather than a malignant destroyer, an obscurer.
           Even before he lost his leg, Mix had opened up the museum. He arranged his mementos on long display tables in the abandoned garage and charged fifty cents per head for a passer-through to walk in and take refuge from the bright heat of the day (the eternal wind slinging sand against the curved metal roof of the garage, which had the shape and cavernous sounds of an airplane hangar), and a dollar to touch the items.
           Some of the more common items were for sale—horse skulls (possibly though not guaranteed for certain to be one of the mounts, or perhaps from the same bloodlines as one of the mounts, ridden by the Catholic priests in the 1700s, or Quantrill’s Raiders, or the James Gang; or perhaps the skull was from a horse that had belonged to a Comanche war chief—notice how worn down the molars were, despite the relative youth of the rest of the bone structure, the tooth-wear indicative of a life’s diet of the saltbrush and bitterweed that still lined the banks of the wild and desolate river . . .), square nails, old coffee cans, other refuse from the hundreds of treasure searchers earlier in the century: nothing was sacred, and though Mix was unwilling to part with any of the hundreds of human skulls he’d accumulated over the decades, he was not above selling various lesser body parts—a vertebra, a phalange, or even a pelvic bone—to a motivated buyer.
           Always, the skulls were what intrigued him the most. In the earlier days of his obsession, he had been enamored with the entire skeletal carriage; but as he aged, and then even more so as he shed one of his own legs, it became only the skulls that held true interest for him. His favorite part was the upper, smooth, boulder-rounded curve of sutured cranium, repository of an infinity of gone-by senses, sparkling cells of memory now dried to dust and blown glittering and forgotten back into the world, leaving behind only the curious whorls of geometry: the empty skull as smooth and lifeless as the inner sweep of a wave-polished, long-vacant conch shell or some other calcified vessel, such as the specimens one held up to an ear in childhood in order to hear the echo of the sea’s roar.
           The skulls were the thing. Even the way they fit the curve of his hand seemed predisposed to the world. Before the physical limitations of his age and his condition caught up with him, he’d rented a great balloon-tired tractor, and with a custom-built deep-toothed iron harrow would comb the troughs between the dunes relentlessly, with the patience of a deep-sea fisherman, keenly attuned beyond the throttled tremblings of the tractor to the dull snag and clink of iron tooth finding rounded bone. When he felt or sensed such interruption, he would throw the tractor into neutral and hop down and trot out through the warm sand to gather up his discovery, examining it eagerly, searching for clues of the wounds of battle. Despite the intensity of his hoarding, his remained always an amateur’s knowledge, and he was never able to ascertain any ethnicity of the skulls, nor sex, nor age. He simply gathered them, like pumpkins, and dropped each one into a burlap bag that he kept hanging from the rear fender of the tractor.
           Other times he would not feel the harrow’s tug, but would ride for unknown stretches of time as if hypnotized by some lulling combination of the tractor’s idle and purr, and by the sight of the dunes all around him like waves, and by the heat, and by the brightness. Sometimes crossing-over seagulls, traveling from the Gulf Coast to some inland lake, would see the tractor trawling below, and from habit would veer and follow it for a while, as they did with the shrimpers’ boats at sea or the threshers tilling the wheat fields farther north, churning up worms and insects; but there was nothing for them below but dry sand and the occasional skull or arm bone (the radius or ulna sometimes crooking up in the position of a swimmer executing a perfect crawl stroke, as if having labored all this time to come back up from the sandy depths); and seeing nothing of use or importance, the seagulls would flare away and continue their journey toward or from more productive lands; and Herbert Mix would toil on, often never noticing the birds themselves nor even their quick shadows as they crossed between his back and the sun—fast shadows fleeing across the sand at oblique angles, looking perhaps like the departing, escaping souls of those bodies that had previously been entombed beneath.

It was a good time for dreaming, and in those dreams, Herbert Mix—safely ensconced, amidst the surreal heat, far from any threat of the future or even the present—would occasionally remember snips and vignettes of his own distant and ruined past—the first wife, Marie, who had pressured him incessantly about never making any time for either her or the young children, and the second wife, Ann, with whom there had been no children, and no responsibility; but still, no love either.
           Mix had a peculiar deficiency. When he tried to recall either wife’s face or figure, it was a near-total blank in his memory, had become an almost complete absence, in that regard. Such deficiency was of no consequence to him at first, though it came to bother him, if merely for the challenge of trying to remember the physical details he must have once noticed. For a while, when engaging in this challenge—musing, recollecting, trying his best to remember—the more he fixated upon their blank visages, the more they seemed to consume everything surrounding them as well—those other, already diminished memories overexposed in the reflected light of his singular focus, worn smoother and smaller by the grasping. At this, he had become frightened and had stepped back from the attempts, as if away from a precipice, had given up trying.
           In that failed remembering, there was the patina of bitterness, his own chronic re-creation of how he was both blameless and guileless in the failure—in both failures, in all failures—but sometimes, particularly in the baking heat, he would find himself unable to avoid past moments of sweetness, which threatened to momentarily disempower his righteousness, and which surprised him with their sudden and unrequested intrusions; and though part of him sought to dismiss these as dangerous temptations, romantic fabrications or fantasies, rather than the truth, there was another part of him that sometimes yielded, and he pondered, for a moment or two, various of these gratifying and extraordinarily fragmented remembrances.
           His son and daughter—how many ages ago?—had, like Mix himself, enjoyed excavations; for much of one year, the three of them had labored to build a rail fence of split juniper around their lot in town. They had erected each post, one by one, sinking it deep into the caliche hardpan upon which the town was settled, and then into the softness of the sand below. To wedge each post as tight as possible, they had poured loose stones from riverbeds and the rubble of concrete down into each hole and tamped the stones tight with the butt end of the shovel. It had been hard work under the fierce sun, the fiercest, but strangely, none of them had minded it, and at the end of the day, spent and dehydrated, having returned to the air-conditioning of their home and a full dinner with cool tinkling glasses of iced tea gritty with sugar, there had been deeply felt amongst the three of them a shared and almost overwhelming feeling of peace, and if they had advanced only three or four posts that afternoon, no matter.
           Where had that year gone, and that time? Where were those children?
           And the wives: a moment in church one day, April sun slanting through the stained glass, the yellow and purple prism of sunlight warm upon his knee, beneath the heavy material of his wool suit, and Marie next to him in a white dress with her false pearl necklace and white shoes. He could remember looking beyond his own leg to the throw of light on her ankle, on her flesh-colored hose—red, yellow, green, ocher. It must have been Easter, for her to be dressed that way; he sat transfixed, staring down at her bare leg.
           Slipping off her shoe, she had twined her leg around his like a caduceus, right there in church, beneath the pew: her right leg, color-gilded, and his left, clad in the suit, but also inflamed, highlighted, by the vibrant stained-glass light, and by the warmth, the heat, of that light. The church still and quiet, as the preacher incanted somnolently. Her toes lifting the cuff of his trousers, her foot massaging his bare calf below the pew, below the knee, in that wild gold and orange and pink and crimson light. The words uttered up at the altar so faint and faraway as to be from another century, and the blood draining from Mix’s face and brain, the moment of now inflating to such a density and state of innervation as to seem about to explode.
           Stalking the memory like a hunter, he paused, enraptured. As if standing before the tracks of his quarry—imprints that were not fifty years ancient, but laid down only moments ago, alive, still, in the rarity of his remembering—he eased in closer to the memory, careful not to startle it, daring to map, from that one recollecting, her entire person.
           Up the leg, then, slowly, following the swell of her calf—the pores and glow of young skin, the bulb of muscle—he attempted to conjure a knee, though here the tracks faded—and rushing, he skittered higher, to regain a thigh, but there was nothing, all faded, even the generative sunstruck calf itself, so that he was left holding nothing, gripping nothing, his mind encircling only a vast and empty space.
           Retreating as if for his life, he grasped quickly for anything. Had they in fact been in church? He tried to recall the shape of the church—pitch of ceiling, arch of doorway, the blocks of sidewalk outside, an oak tree shading a lawn—but it was all suspect. It was false.
           He rode on, sitting the tractor as if it were a horse, and canted a parasol to deflect the cruelest and most direct of the sun’s rays. Rotating the parasol, he would travel on for some great distance, until a stray thought or image finally awakened him; and he would look back and see, in the long furrowed row behind him, a wealth of risen skulls, shining like melons in the sunlight; and again he would shut his tractor off, throw the burlap bag over his shoulder, and wander back into the desert to gather the harvest, retracing the furrows of his path.
           The bag would grow heavy as he wandered that long furrow, and he would sometimes be made briefly uneasy by the thought and then the belief, as the heft of the bag grew greater and the skulls clanked and rattled, that he was not so much walking on sand as he was on skulls; that were the teeth of his harrow longer, they would find even more skulls; that the desert was nothing but skulls, and a tangle of skeletons, all the way down—that even the mountains themselves were but a thin patina of earth, drawn taut across that tangled assemblage—and if this were so, then what might his true burden be, how much might he ultimately be called upon to remember, or imagine, from each of those empty globes?—and when he turned to look back at his tractor, as if for reassurance that he was still in this world, buoyed by the mechanical logics of order and reason, he would be further discomforted by the distance he had traveled from it without having realized it, and without having been able to milk from those globes a single memory.
           The tractor would be only a shining glint in the faraway blending of haze and dune, no longer identifiable as a tractor, and barely even as an artifact of man; and Mix would be overcome with loneliness and confusion, sensing a previously unacknowledged emptiness in the world, an oppression, an estrangement, that was palpable, even personal. But still, he would turn around and press on, harvesting his skulls, for it was less frightening for him to pretend that the feeling was not real than to acknowledge it, and in that fear and loneliness to hurry back to the tractor. Like a coward and a stoic, he pushed on. Ravenous. A slight pain, even then, in his leg, twenty years before the fact of that loss, as he wandered the bone fields.

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