By Shane Stilson
His body lay on the cradle of concrete; the flesh stripped away, the spaces between the bones made more poignant by the absence of the organs that should have been there. No longer did the mottled flesh stretch across emaciated bones, he had been restored to a state of beautiful by crematorium fire.
While still alive, the cancer had eaten his mind and body until I no longer recognized the man I’d grown to love. But, here he was! In the mountains of central Japan, in the region he had lived for over fifty years. Here he was on the concrete slab, in the city crematorium, next to the municipal garbage dump.
His pure white bones screamed at me. “I’m here, Shane. Do you hear me? Take care of your wife, my daughter. Take care of my grandchildren, the last surviving memory of me on earth.”
They had exhumed his slab the same way it had gone in. None had touched his sacred remains since my wife pushed the button to release the cleansing fire. An hour later, she huddled at my side, weeping, her father’s delicate skeleton before us.
A man, dressed in the clean but simple jumpsuit of a recycling plant worker took up a pair of massive chopsticks from a small pedestal situated to the side, but still on top of the concrete cradle. He motioned for each of us to take up a pair of our own and removed the lid from one of two urns beside the chopsticks.
“I did not get to see my last grandchild before I died,” the bones said. I stared back in shock. “It is your responsibility to remember me to him.”
The man in the jumpsuit continued as though he hadn’t heard or found talking bones to be common place. He used his chopsticks to pull a small bone near the skull from the surrounding ash. “This bone is one that makes up the inner ear,” he said.
My wife and I took the piece together and placed it in the smaller urn. The piece broke as it fell, revealing the soft tan of baked marrow inside. The process continued, a fragment of eye socket, the final link in the right index finger, a segment from around the nose, all were deposited inside.
The partially erect skull, half buried in ash, stared up at me. “Do you remember that time at the base of Mount Fuji?” At the restaurant? When I told you it wasn’t you who was funny?” it asked.
“I remember,” I whispered.
“I’m not sorry,” it said.
“I know. It’s not in your nature to be sorry.”
The bone emancipator held up a tooth. The open doors let in a cool breeze of mountain air, but it failed to stir the palette of white and gray hues beneath him. “Your father had amazing teeth. Most teeth of people this age don’t survive the fire.
“I loved my teeth,” the crusty white incisor confirmed. A breathless pause followed and let in the rustling of bamboo of the forest outside. “Do you forgive me?” it asked. The man holding the tooth placed it on the pedestal. My wife picked it up and put it into the small jar. The man locked the tooth away, along with the other bits as he placed the lid atop the urn.
“Yes,” I said.
The jump-suited man took both chop sticks in one hand, placed them against the balled neck of the right femur and broke off the ball by pushing at the top of his instruments of dissection. He placed the dislocated joint on the pedestal and my wife transferred it to the now uncovered larger urn.
“Thank you for finding my high school yearbook,” the spherical piece echoed from the bottom of the container.
“It took forever to clean out that shed.” I smiled. “There was fifty year old junk buried beneath thirty year old crap with worthless ten year old trinkets stacked on top of that. It was like excavating for the lost city of Tanis.”
“You’ve always been too wordy,” the jar resonated at me.
“I know, it’s in my nature,” I said.
Something shifted and I looked down. A piece of rib had broken off on its own accord. “Does she love me?” it asked.
“Does she love you?” I tested the words with my tongue. The man in the jumpsuit had followed my gaze and immediately relocated the fragmented rib to the pedestal.
“Does she love me?” it asked again from its new position. It was not an easy relationship my wife had endured with her father; not with the drinking, or the long hours at work, or the fact that they were both so headstrong a boulder would break if it came against their will.
My wife’s chopsticks reached across the void and gently lifted the frail bone from the stone. Tears streaked her face. Her other hand shot out to catch the treasured cargo in a moment of doubt, in case it should fall, but her transport of it remained true. She placed it in the urn and stared at the jar as though it was her heart she had put inside.
“She loves you,” I said.
“I know,” the rib called, its voice muffled inside of the container. “She just told me.”
The last urn was filled and the lid returned to its proper position. The man packaged the jars in a black satin box with a white cross on the front and presented it to my wife with a bow.
We left the crematorium and my wife turned to me as we drove away. “I can’t believe you asked me if you could take a picture.”
“He was so beautiful. I want to always remember him like that. I could feel his presence there.”
My wife looked at me as I negotiated a hair pin corner through the cave of bamboo trees around us. “Well, I guess you’ll just have to write a story about it then.”
For more information about Shane Stilson, please check out his author site or book.