Bones. Two hundred and eight of them. A whole glory turned and tooled. Lo the timbered femur all hung and strapped with beef, whose globate head nuzzles the concave underpart of the pelvis; the little carpals of the wrist faceted as jewels and as jewels named – capitate, lunate, hamate, pisiform; the phalanges, tiny kickshaws of the body, toys fantastic, worn upon the hands and feet like fans of unimagined cleverness; the porcelain pile of the vertebrae atop which rides the domed palanquin of the very brain; the vast, the slumbrous pelvis, called to wakefulness by the sweet intrusion of sex or the stirring of an impatient fetus. Out of this pelvis, endlessly rocking, drops man. I agree with those African tribes who decorate themselves with bones. It is more to my taste than diamonds, which are a cold and soulless shine. Whilst bone, ah bone, is the pit of a man after the cumbering flesh has been eaten away.
Bone is power. It is bone to which the soft parts cling, from which they are, helpless, strung and held aloft to the sun, lest man be but another slithering earth-noser. What is this tissue that has double the strength of oak? One cubic inch of which will stand a crushing force of two tons? This substance that refuses to dissolve in our body fluids, but remains intact and solid through all vicissitudes of temperature and pollution? We may be grateful for this insolubility, for it is what stands us tall. How is it that in these rigid, massive pieces is the very factory of the blood, wherein each day, one million red blood cells are made and discharged into the circulation to course their threescore-and-one days, then die?
Stony and still though it seems, bone quickens; it flows. It is never the same at any two moments. The traverse of calcium from the blood to the bone and back again is a continuous thing, which ceaseless exchange of mineral is governed by hormonal potentates from glands afar. Fluid, too, is pressed into, then extracted from, the bone in a never-ending current, yet slow as Everglade.
In bone, as in other life, there are the givers and the takers. Twin races of cells, one the Blasts, whose function is oppositely named, for they march resolutely, all the while laying down bone, spinning out the hard stuff, each one an Atlas, born to most grittily uphold the world as he sees it. Moving steadily is the army of Clasts. These are the borers who tunnel through a bed of bone like moles through a lawn. No granitic femur is impervious to their chewings. It is not to destroy that they burrow, but to cleanse. No killers they, but peppy sweeps, clearing away old cells, all the detritus of age, the debris of ill usage. Even as they drill their winding canaliculi, scoop out their cavitations, the rival Blasts rush in to line the spaces with new bone. Thus Blast and Clast engage in a race between growth and decay, yet all to the single purpose of renewal. Still it must be told that it is the Clast, the devourer, that is triumphant in old age, for his energies persist, while the Blast grows weary, his deposition slow. Thus does old bone grow porous, light, and brittle. Thus does it easily break, and but slowly knit.
Cartilage earns the title Mother-of-Bone. Strategically placed in the bones of the young are belts of cartilage which are the growth centers of the bone. During the first twenty years of life, this cartilage is replaced by bone at its margins even as the center remains a fiery pit of new cartilage. It must not be too hungrily replaced, before full growth is attained, or we are too short. At maturity all of the cartilage in these centers has been transformed, save for that which remains to pad the joints or, charmingly, to ornament and hold aloft the ears lest they flop like a spaniel’s. In these disks of cartilage are all our stature.
Break a bone, and almost at once the blood clot between the two fragments begins to carnify. Fibrous tissue and blood vessels invade it, turn it meaty. Now, with cast or screw or metal plate, immobilize the bone so that further disruption will not take place, and the jellied mass is entered by bone-forming cells, the Blasts. Calcium salts are accepted here, and in time there is a bridge of new bone between the fragments. It is the trauma itself, the fact of fracture, that triggers the restoration. It is a cellular call to arms, a furious mobilization, an act of drive and instinct. It is the wisdom of Bone.
Remove a rib, if you must, in order to enter the chest for surgery, but leave intact the periosteum, that sheath of the bone. Strip it back, and bite away only the naked rib, and that rib will grow again, fed by the lining of the sheath, until an X ray taken months later will reveal the marvel of the tissues. The thoracic arch has been shored up.
Bone can be grafted from one place to another to span the gap between two unhealed fragments or to fuse an unstable joint. This bone acts as a framework upon which the new bone is woven until all the pieces are joined in a single unbending whole.
No inert span this bone, but a fact of physical life each of whose parts holds a measure of electricity. Walk, and you change the electrical potential of your bones. Here it springs from positive to negative; there, from negative to positive. The strands of bone line up to follow the direction of force at any given time, seizing the position of greatest mechanical advantage, responding to each stress and shear and impact. So does it bend and relent; so does it not break, so are forgiven all the bangs and crashings of locomotion.
Like the flesh, bone is subject to defect and disease. Should the muscles attached to a bone cease to function, as in stroke or paralysis, almost half the bone served by those muscles is quickly resorbed, and disappears. Exceed the tensile strength of a bone, and it answers with the exclamation-fracture! Nowhere is this event more likely than in osteogenesis imperfecta, wherein the process of ossification is badly done. Instead of a continuing sheet of bone, there are only scanty nests of osteoblasts. An infant so afflicted may survive the trauma of birth but with half his bones broken. Merely to diaper such a child is to risk fracturing his thighs. In the aged, many small clots form in the nutrient vessels of the bone. The replenishing blood is here and there blocked, and the bone grows withered and fragile; it cracks, most often at the neck of the femur, there where the weight is borne. Such a hip fracture may be the harbinger of death for the old one forced to share his bed with Confusion and Pneumonia.
Ah, but there is more to the skull than helmet to the brain, to the sternum than shield to the heart, to the ribs than staves off the thorax. The rest of the flesh is transient, strung like laundry upon a lattice. To dwell upon bone is to contemplate the fate of man. Bone is the keepsake of the earth, all that remains of a man when the rest has long since melted and seeped and crumbled away. It endures for a million years and, if then dug up from the ground, suggests still to anthropologists the humps of meat that once it wore, and to poets the much that was from the little that remains. What man does not ponder the whereabouts of his skeleton-the place where it will lie? Say what you will, all sanitary and pragmatic considerations aside, these jaunty saunterers that have held us upright, have stiffened us against the grate and grind of life, are dear to us. What stands closer to a man all his days than his bones?
A savage queen contrives from the skull of her young lover a wine bowl. Years later, as she lifts the kissed and polished calvarium to her lips, her old passion shudders anew, and licking an errant drop from one socket, she smiles in wild ownership. No thank you; not for me. Far better to tumble among the unnumbered treasures of the sea.
Of higher taste were the Ottawa Indians, friends of the explorer-priest Marquette. Upon learning the whereabouts of the body of their beloved visitor, the Ottawas journeyed there, to the eastern shore of Lake Michigan.
Journeyed eastward to the lakeside,
Where beloved pale-face rested.
Dug them up, the bones of Father,
Washed and dried them,
Boxed in birch bark,
And the moon upon the waters Lay a silver path to guide them.
Paddled chanting. in procession Their canoes all draped in mourning. To the chapel at the mission,
Neath the floorboards there they laid them.
Homage to Longfellow! One now understands why he wrote this way. Once you start, you can’t stop. I myself have confronted the hard fact of bone and have been changed by it. Listen.
A man named Barney died. He was my friend who sprawled facedown upon rocks at the foot of a cliff. The impact had flattened and spread Barney, so that when I could scramble to where he crashed, he seemed to me wider, larger, than he had been. All splayed of limb he lay, downhill, with his head lower than his feet, his arms and legs reaching out to grapple the rocks to him, the rocks that became him so. Eagerly he had leaped, and eagerly landed.
“When I die,” he had said to me that morning, “take my ashes and scatter them in this woods. Add me to this place. Do it gladly or you shall be the less for it.” Barney was a hard man.
A tin can such as might be expected to hold peanuts was what the undertaker gave me, after checking the name tag. In a small clearing in the forest, where the trees leaned and interlaced above I pried off the lid, unfolded the embossed napkin, and saw … not silty ash drifting and banked, but chunks of white bone the size of almonds! Here was a groove where once had ridden the trunk of a nerve; there persisted an eminence, round and smooth, to which a muscle had attached. All together they had done some act for Barney. Raised his glass, perhaps. From the can rose the faint odor of scorch. I had been ready for ash; I was filled with dread by these staring bones. From the perpetuity of ash I could have departed in peace, but from these crusts and careless crumbs, I would take away no memory of the banquet of friendship, only a nausea of the soul. Nor am I alone in my terrors. Other anatomists have touched the bones of a fellow and felt their own burial cloths winding about them. Vesalius, driven by his passion and the interdictions of society to scavenge after public hangings, poked among subgibbetal offal to retrieve yet another tibia, one fibula more. And all the while, his own heart grown ossified in his breast.
But to the task. Quickly, as though to rid myself of incriminating evidence, I walked round and round the clearing, spilling Barney’s bones upon the oak leaves until there were no more. Then looked down to see them strewn as by some wizard who would read Event from the pattern in which they lay. Nearby was a small park with benches and tables and tall trash cans painted green to blend with the trees. Trembling, I went there to sit alone, for it is comforting to sit beside the dead and measure the distance between them and us.
All at once, there was a noise, an alive sound. Less than a thump; a scrabble perhaps. I looked behind me. There was no one, nor any creature. Only the woods where, doglike, I had dropped the bones of my friend. I sat back; again I strained toward respectful elegy. Again! A whirring. I wheeled, and … nothing. But now I am terrified. Who’s there, I called out, and the whiteness of my voice in- formed the forest of my vulnerability. I started to walk away, toward the road, backing off. I must not be seized from the rear. And then I heard it again, that soft thrashing. From the rim of my vision I saw a movement. A jiggling. It was a trash can wobbling. Once more there was the noise, and once more the jiggling of the trash can. Now I am tom by the need to run from this demonic place and the need- yes, I must-to learn what lurks and leaps within that can that is no one-pound tin but a receptacle large enough to hold a man. Back and forth I flopped between resolve and panic, from No-I-shall-run- away to Stay-for-I-must. I stayed. And, stalking, crept until I had circled and sidled that horrid can three times, and heard again and again the challenge of its rattle. At last, I must act or die, and rising from a crouch, I ran full tilt toward it, kicked it with my foot high up near the top, with all my strength redoubled by fear. Over it went, rolled half a turn, and lay still. And from its gape there slouched and snarled the thinnest slice of winter I have ever seen. A raccoon. Its ribs each one visible in its flanks; its tail hairless, ignoble. Slow, contemptuous, the creature walked from the barrel. Six paces, then stopped, and turned to glare at me with loaded eyes, and lips drawn back from mauve gums, from which hung yellow teeth like tines of the gates of Hell. As I watched, the raccoon tilted back its head and loosed from its throat a sound that I shall remember all of my days. A long hiss playing out into a pneumonic rattle. It was what is left of a sigh when the rue and regret is exhausted. I felt the rank whiff upon my skin. Abruptly then, the creature walked to the edge of the woods and disappeared in the direction of the clearing where I had not gladly, not reverently thrown down the bones of my friend. I was once again alone. Barney, Barney.
Ah, you say, and smile. Spooks and banshees-childish frights. An overheated brain undoes the solid mind. Come, come, you insist. Laugh with us. And I try to join. I think fiercely of politics, of theater, and all the stuff of daytime. But even now, years later, I start from my bed as I hear the hissing of those bones. And it does not matter what you say, or if you think that what I’ve told is true. It matters that I have been changed by it, that I am not the same as I was.
Does the haughty orthopedist swaggering by, tapping his boot with a pet ulna, does he pretend to a courage he does not own? Does he retreat by night to his closet quaking with fear, whilst all around his head the rumble of angry bones rolls and thunders? Or is it some fetish to which he is compelled, that he must see and touch again and again all those hard smooth strokables? For who could gaze hourly upon the bones of man and not shudder at the intimations of his mortality?
So, I have decided. No gourd, nor royal drinking cup, nor forest strew for me. Upon the wall of some quiet library ensconce my skull. Place oil and a wick in my brainpan. And there let me light with endless affection the pages of books for men to read.
Most commonly, bone is afflicted with that ubiquitous degeneration that is known as osteoarthritis, wherein the wear and tear of usage is expressed as the grinding down of the disks of cartilage that cap the ends of the bones like icing and that facilitate the movement of the joints. As the cartilage is worn thin, the joint undergoes inflammation, with resultant deformity and limitation of motion. Hum- mocks and spurs build upon the bony surfaces, pressing against the surrounding tissues to cause pain, and thus further immobilize until the joint itself is frozen, locked, its range a pitiful semicircle or less. Live long enough, and you will win a measure of this ailment which has, more than any other, come to be synonymous with the decay of aging. That it is most apparent in the spine and hips is no more than the wages we are made to pay for the sins of our forefathers.
Of all the imprudences dared by man in his brazen reach for ascendancy, the most arrogant was his decision to stand up, toes- chew his all-fours, and, piling his vertebrae one atop the other, to thrust himself erect. Admittedly, there were prizes to be won by this recklessness. An apple, heretofore waggling from a branch just out of reach, could now be plucked with ease. Ledges and rocks which had, up to then, walled him in could now be overpowered. Prey could be seen advancing; enemies too, long before their arrival. And rocks could be flung farther from the new height. Most exhilarating was the discovery of front-to-front copulation, a stunning innovation that ushered in the process of selection of a mate, now euphemistically called love. Prior to his standing up, man, like the others, copulated front-to-back, nor did it matter whose front, whose back. Now, laughing himself sick at kine and behemoth, Homo erectus picked and chose. This one had nice furry breasts; that one was gimpy. This one was bald; that, one-eyed. Having chosen, and wishing to keep the good parts in view, bifrontal copulation seemed but the natural sequitur. Woman, in her turn, was rewarded with orgasm, a phenomenon unknown to most other species.
It all seemed like such a good idea.
But this man who thrust himself from the earth, who wore the stars of heaven in his hair, was guilty of overweening pride. An act most audacious, he had defied nothing less than the law of gravity. He was to pay dearly for such high imposture. The vertebrae, unused to their new columnar arrangement, slipped, buckled, and wore out.
Next, the arches of the feet fell. The hip joints ground to a halt. Nor was payment extorted only from the skeletal system. The pooling of blood in the lower part of the body distended the fragile blood vessels beyond their limits. Thus bloomed the fruitage of hemorrhoids; thus are we varicose. Worse still, our soft underparts have given way. Under the sag of our guts, we bulge into hernia. We turn to soft lump.
Alas, was there no pithecantropoid Jeremiah who, horrified at the vainglory of the young, would scramble to some lofty place and cry out against this swagger? Would cry out to his fellow man, “Down, you fools. Get down, before it is too late”? So we have come to our pretty pass. Better to have maintained our low profile, con- tent to nose among the droppings of mastodons-for it is swollen, bunched, sacculent, hung down, gibbous, hummocky, knobbed, sagging, adroop, warped, tipped, and tilted that we are made to wage life, slouching toward our infernal copulations toward our eternal reward. Such is the revenge of bone