The station was still three hours away and the dinner cart was about to open its doors.
There wasn’t enough time to decipher an entire dialect.
• • •
“I’m sure they aren’t talking about you,” Alva said to the couple.
“That’s not it,” the man said, eyes moving to the box.
“I just can’t read with noise around me,” the woman added.
“Then train travel might not be your best option,” Alva said as the two exited into the hall to find another compartment.
• • •
The forest had thinned. Trees no longer reached necessary heights.
Alva gathered Larry’s body from the base of a rotting cedar, the same cedar she visited every day at exactly five-thirty am to check on her subject. She held his body, searching for breath, a subtle tremor through feather and wing, but he was still, and the species’ genetic line had come to an end.
It took less than a month for muscle and ligament to melt from the bird’s hollow bones. Alva constructed a rot cage on her deck to keep neighborhood cats at bay. She plucked the feathers to add to the archives at her university, but the skeleton belonged to The Heap. They had enough taxidermied subjects. One more wouldn’t make any difference.
Skin decayed. Varied shades of decomposition unfolded before her. The smell was only intolerable the first week while the carrion beetles did their work. She kept her windows closed through the August heat. When the skeleton lay bleached, she gathered Larry and installed him in the mahogany box her father made.
There’s only so much time, he’d said.
The beak was the only recognizable part of the bird she’d once known, three inches long, deep blue, one shade south of navy.
Alva opened the box to see if the beak was in motion, squawking through syllables unknown during life. All she found was the tiny shoulder blades and leg bones rolling about, beak tucked in the corner. The skull was on its side, one empty eye socket gazing towards the dull overhead lights, looking for familiar trees.
“Why do they do this?” Alva said, turning to her father who trained a camera on her.
“It’s a reminder,” he said. “Of what’s been lost. Of our role in things.”
The red record light flickered like candle flame before her face.
Alva hated how he was always recording. Her parents were part of a nature documentary team, chronicling the rise and fall of certain species; the wolves gone missing from Maine, the elusive nests of bald eagles. Their television show aired at six am each Saturday before cartoons bounced across screens. Education was for early-risers. Mischief and mayhem for all the rest. The episode they were filming was focused on The Heap, trying to identify the skeletons of animals they had once met in real life. The producer wanted them to find the Mexican grizzly bear or the Caspian tiger, but her father said they couldn’t promise anything. There were many bones, many skulls similar enough to confuse one species from the next.
“I’ll find the tiger,” Alva said when they reached the bone-thick shore, hesitating before stepping onto the Heap.
Her mother gasped and pulled her back.
“Oh no no. We don’t touch the bones. That’s disrespectful. We can look from a distance, use the camera to gather detail, but we have to do it from back here,” she said, straightening Alva’s hair.
“You don’t want their ghosts following you home, do you?” her father said, winking from behind the camera.
“They don’t do that… right?” Alva said, her complexion dimming.
“You never know,” her mother said. “There’s more than one reason for The Heap. You can’t be too careful with the dead.”
“They’re almost as bad as the living,” her father said with a laugh, unfolding his tripod and securing his camera on the mounting plate. He waved the sound guy to his side, gesturing to where they would film, framing the shot with his hands as Alva’s mother straightened her own hair, squinting at the bones. The skulls of primates and reptiles gazed back, a thousand hollow eyes sunken into the mountainside.
Alva tried to count them, but lost track before her father started filming.
“In no other place can you find thousands of years of life laid bare, an open grave to centuries past. Join us today as we search for our long-lost friends…” her mother continued as the camera panned away, its lens gathering up the landscape of clavicles, femurs, and mandibles stretching to the horizon.
“They said I’d find you here.” The man seated himself across from Alva without invitation.
“Who said what?” Alva’s hand moved to the box, her fingers wrapping around the edge.
“This couple in the dining cart. They said I’d find a bone-bearer down here.”
Alva didn’t consider herself a bone-bearer by contemporary standards. It was a term often used for people who were little more than armchair archeologists, those who uncovered bones on family vacations or in their yards, but never properly identified them. It had become a trend. Individuals who unearthed the bones of someone’s house cat buried in the rose bushes, and turned it into an excuse to take photos for social media at The Heap. Alva was a scientist. She knew the woodpecker at her side was the last of its kind. The bird needed to be added to the collection, for posterity, for its soul to rest. And if she was completely honest with herself, her parents’ talk of ghosts had stuck with her. Alva didn’t want Larry haunting her for the rest of her life, looming over her sushi dates and medical appointments, scowling over mistyped field notes.
“Can I see it?” he said, pointing at the box.
“I’d prefer not to open it here,” Alva said. “The bones might get tossed around.”
“You’ve probably got some squirrel with a birth defect. Or one of those two-headed snakes. People never have a final specimen these days.”
“No, this is definitely the last Gabri’s tufted woodpecker. I spent enough time with him to know.”
The man cocked an eyebrow. “You’re a biologist?”
“An ornithologist. Lar—this bird was the focus of my study, my career, his whole flock anyway.”
The man’s face sprinted through a number of emotions, settling on inquisitive awe. He went silent, staring at the box, listening to the hollow rattle within. Alva could see his mental gymnastics, scanning memories for the bird, any familiarity he might have. People often did so when she explained her work, only for Alva to swear there was little chance they’d ever seen one unless they spent a lot of time in a very specific swamp in Georgia, miles away from civilization.
“How much will you sell him for?” the man said.
“I buy skeletons. It’s a hobby. Kind of like taxidermy, only with less fur and skin,” the man said. “Smells better.”
“Are you kidding?”
“Nope. I do this all the time. You catch people heading out to The Heap with all sorts of oddities. There’s only so many trains heading north.”
“And scientists actually sell you their bones?”
“Nine times out of ten. I know how strapped you guys are. The whole funding issue. But it’s not like I do anything weird with the bones. I arrange them, put them on display, all the good stuff. None of that necro—”
“So you run a museum?” Alva cut in, not wanting the conversation to veer any further down dark paths.
“Nope again. Private collection. I don’t want random people in my house. They make things dirty.”
Alva shook her head. If Larry wasn’t going to end up on The Heap, he would be preserved in the museum at her university or that of another institution. Larry was like a child to her. She’d watch each stage of his growth: first flight, early meals, the original hole he bore into a dead pine. She could never give him to a man who’d use Larry as a mantle decoration.The thought churned her stomach.
“I appreciate your concern for my underpaid colleagues, but I’m going to pass. If you wouldn’t mind leaving, that would be great.” Alva returned to her article.
“Fifty-thousand dollars. Are you really passing that up? I’m sure you’ve got rent to pay, credit card bills piling up,” the man said.
Holy hell that is a lot of money, Alva thought. She wasn’t behind on rent, but her bank account was regularly barren. She’d practically given up on the idea of savings.
“I’m all set,” she said.
The man sighed, straightening the front of his pants as he stood. “Suit yourself. Still another two hours until we arrive at the station. When you change your mind, I’m in compartment eighty-one.”
“Enjoy the rest of your trip,” Alva said without looking up.
The man stepped out and closed the door. The bones at her side seemed to chide and cackle even louder than before. Must be old tracks, Alva told herself, underlining a poorly articulated sentence.
The dark blue beak emerged from the hole, followed by the rest of Larry’s white and black feathers, his orange eyes huge like a cartoon, comical in their odd sadness. They reminded Alva of the characters on the children’s shows she watched, those few she’d seen on her rare stretches between her parents’ assignments. They’d never spent much time in one place, addling through homeschool in the back of busses and airplanes. Math had never been easy.
Alva had pen pals, a friend here and there from brief stints in varied apartments, but no one she really considered close. Besides her mother and father and the odd classmate in her long-ago graduate program, she’d probably spent more time with Larry than anyone else.
Isolation usually didn’t weigh on her, but lately, with the lack of returned mating calls, she was beginning to dwell on missed connections, a fairly peopleless past. When she began her study fifteen years ago, she thought she would be the one to save the woodpeckers, bring them back from the brink with well executed land conservation proposals and tracking plans. But the Gabri’s were only one of a thousand birds on the endangered list, and the public’s attention turned more toward bright plumage than obscene eyes.
She made progress, but never in the right direction. On a number of fronts.
Alva leaned back in her canvas chair, quickly sketching the bird on the edge of his perch, neck inclined to the sky, high notes trilling from his throat. Larry paused after reciting several refrains. Alva could almost see him tilting his head toward the distant forest, listening, pleading with the empty air to return his call. After a moment, he thudded his beak against the tree’s trunk, rolling through the second phase of his song, the hollow ratatat swelling with repetition.
Clouds passed. The twitter of a warbler drifted from a copse of pine, but no other woodpecker replied.
• • •
Alva knew how it felt to be ignored, left behind by the world. All of her published papers seemed to go unread. Her proposals at town and state meetings met with drooping eyes and the occasional yawn. Her parents were kind people, but obsessive, wrapped up in their own work. She never liked to call their absence childhood neglect, despite what her therapist said.
Beyond that, she also knew the chances of another Gabri’s living nearby were unlikely.
Alva cupped a hand to her mouth and imitated the call, producing a shaky rendition of Larry’s vocalization.
The bird perked up at the noise, head tilting towards her call. He seemed to wait for a reiteration, confirmation that his senses weren’t lying. Alva couldn’t imitate the sound again, couldn’t show him where the noise was coming from. The action would ruin her study, and could discourage the bird.
Without a second refrain, Larry lurched off the branch before two awkward flaps carried him between neighboring trees on the hunt for the source of the call. Alva traced his path around pines with her binoculars, unsure whether she was being cruel, whether false hope sped decline. She prayed her call would have the opposite effect, but she packed up her gear anyway, not wanting to be present for Larry’s return, to see what emotions flit across his large orange eyes.
From the platform, she descended the stairs, breathing hard, the smell of her own sweat sour with each hastened step. She hadn’t been in running shape since letting her gym membership lapse two years ago, but she couldn’t allow the man to catch up. If the offer was raised, she couldn’t predict what she would do.
That money would make whatever came next in life an easier transition.
Alva shrugged off the thought.
The street leading from the station was poorly lit. Several storefronts displayed tourist attire backlit by low bulbs. T-shirts and hoodies showed depictions of The Heap, some with cartoonish smiling bones for the kids, others with postcard-like vistas for the rest. Each proclaimed the wearer’s visit to The Heap, that i played my part. Alva nearly spat on the glass as she hurried to her hotel.
The idea of playing their part, she thought, only came to most people once there was none left to play. They could save the living rather than honor the dead. They could save so much sorrow, and such a long train ride.
Over her shoulder, down the narrow street, a man’s figure stepped from beneath the station’s awning. Alva wasn’t sure if the silhouette belonged to her man, or just any man. Either way, she ducked into the hotel lobby, nearly knocking into the bellhop, a slew of apologies on her lips.
If the man from the train knew she wouldn’t take the money, Alva didn’t know what else he might offer.
“And?” Alva asked, knowing where her father’s insinuations led.
They’d taken to spending nights on the front porch of her parents’ retirement house, a renovated cabin on sixteen acres of fallow farmland. They watched swallows pick apart swarms of gnats and mosquitos over the old pastures. Alva could only make the trip every few months. She feared time away from the forest.
“You’ve always got to think what happens after,” her father said.
She became defensive. “There might not be an after. Things could change. It’s not like every woodpecker is tagged. Look at that guy with the extinct foxes under his shed. There could always be another flock up the river, or by the mountains, or…”
“We’ve seen how this usually goes,” her mother said, placing a sweating bottle of beer in her daughter’s hand, then taking the seat next to her husband. “You know why we rarely did follow up shows, right?”
Alva nodded. “Kids TV is supposed to be less depressing than reality.”
“That’s one way to put it,” her mother said. “But we’re getting a bit off topic. Are you still trying those dating sites?”
Alva sighed. “Can we not talk about this? Please?”
“You’re telling me there’s no attractive professors at the college?” he asked. “No interesting new speakers at one of your conferences?”
“Things are quiet both in the real world and on the digital front,” Alva said, sipping her beer. “I’ve been practicing my mating call though.” Then she produced a comical series of tweets and rapped her knuckle on the side of the house. “I hope you brought your binoculars. They’re going to come tearing across the field any moment.”
Both her parents laughed.
They moved away from the topic. No one wanted to sprint down dark roads any longer. The conversation drifted between her recent scholarly paper and her mother’s latest photography project, documenting the decline of abandoned barns across the countryside. She was talking about making a book, about how she preferred to see man-made structures slump into the earth rather than watch forests and other ecosystems disappear.
The sun set as the swallows moved back to their roosts, the beat of wings diminishing as stars sparked overhead.
“I made something for you,” her father said as her mother took their accumulated empties to the kitchen.
Her father lifted a wooden box from beneath his seat and passed it to Alva. She turned the box over in her hands, inspecting the hinges, the smoothed mahogany, the odd coffin-like construction. On the days he wasn’t at the recording studio narrating low budget documentaries on shellfish, he had begun making bird houses. There was no entrance hole, no mount for the box’s back.
“If you ever need it,” he said, pausing. “I seriously hope you don’t, but just in case, you don’t want to be without.”
“Thanks, Dad,” she replied, tucking it under her feet, unable to look at it for more than a second, envisioning her entire life’s work reduced to the narrow confines within.
The path entered the forest, an avenue of pine needles and dirt worn smooth from years of traffic. The forest sung around her: birds and insects, squirrels crossing tree branches, frogs hiccupping near vernal pools. The trees created a corridor, branches woven together, glimpses of the sky’s bright cathedral above.
At the path’s end, the shadow of the woods dropped off to stark, nearly blinding white. The sun embellished the huge accumulation of pale bones, washing over the dusty shoreline that circled The Heap. The mountain was vast, steeper than she remembered. Millions of dissected skeletons blotted out the forest behind its peak. All the color bled from her vision until The Heap met the sky. The day was already hot and growing warmer in the open clearing. Skulls gathered her attention, empty eyes and gaping mouths strewn between femurs and spines. Alva fought childhood inclinations to count them, to name them, to construct lives for those already gone.
A number of gray-back gulls circled overhead. Occasionally they would land and peck about great mound, searching for sinew and muscle, something not yet rotted. Alva couldn’t shoo them off without climbing over the bones, and that wasn’t going to happen. Like her father said, she didn’t want ghosts following her home.
• • •
“So this is afterward,” she said to herself, sitting down, reclining against an oak.
She undid the latch. Larry’s skull peered back at her, empty eyes gathering a last look before they were separated. She willed the beak to quiver and speak, to tell her she hadn’t wasted her time, that someone else would read her research and not make the same mistakes. Alva’s singular purpose in life was now relegated to the past, her days rearranging themselves into uncertain futures. She needed the bird’s blessing. Even a single kind squawk would do.
He’d been so chatty on the train, why not now?
There was a stillness, then the beak jostled, blue tip prodding the box’s side. The rest of the bones swirled about, driftwood caught in a strong seabound current. Startled, Alva almost dropped the miniature coffin. The coo and chortle of the bird’s call rattled through a nonexistent throat, whistling out between parted beak.
She’d thought the couple on the train had been exaggerating.
Alva rose to her feet.
As soon as she stood, her legs were swept from beneath her. A booted heel met her shoulder and sent her sprawling. Larry’s coffin tumbled away. The man from the train towered above her, smiling, suit damp about the collar, dirt smeared around the cuffs.
“That was a lot of money you passed up,” he said, pulling a knife from inside his suit.
Alva lunged at the box, but the man stepped between, heel crushing her hand into the dry earth. There was the crack of bone. Sharp pain coursed up her arm like a flood of broken glass. Alva pulled her hand in and curled herself tight, two fingers bent out of alignment.
“This is the other reason they always take the money, all your scientist buddies,” the man said, bending to scoop up the box. “I was going to get the bird one way or another. You knew that.”
“But why—why do you need him? You have so many already,” Alva gasped through clenched lips.
“If this is the last, then I must have it.” He regarded the box. “Have you ever possessed something no one else has? It’s exhilarating! Close to magic. I’ve worked very very hard to build my collection. You wouldn’t believe the number of hours it takes to get these things right.”
“But he needs to be in The Heap with the others. He won’t be able to—”
“Nope. Old wives’ tales. I’ve taken so many of these and you don’t see a single ghost harassing me. I sleep great! No nightmares.”
The man was practically vibrating, his skin flush. His hands tremored as he lifted the lid.
Alva could rush him, she could drive her shoulder through his bulk… but no, the pain in her hand wouldn’t let her.
The man in the dark suit sucked a breath through his teeth. Then he grew still, head tilted, staring into the mahogany casket. “What?” he asked no one.
The whistle of the woodpecker’s call sounded again from within, followed by the scuttle of bone against wood.
The man dropped the box. It landed open in the sand. The bird’s skeleton stepped from the confines, talons grasping hinges, beak prodding the air as if scenting direction. He took a single step on unsure feet, before testing his wings, finding lift, rising from his perch. Bone creaked against bone. He hovered for a moment, a vision of death treading air, before alighting on Alva’s shoulder.
“Less work for me. Already assembled,” the man said, eyes wide as he retrieved the box. “Just get in, little guy, and I won’t break any more of your mom’s fingers.”
Larry sang again, repeating his mating call, fast and clean.
The man stepped forward, shadow falling over Alva’s prone form, knife in hand.
Alva withdrew, inching backward, from him and the clattering noise. The sound was low at first, but built as skulls and spines pulled together, ribs leading to hips leading to legs, hooves and talons falling into place, rising in cacophony. A gale of sand and bone dust rose around the assembly, clouding The Heap in a harsh haze.
The man in the dark suit finally turned as hundreds of species stepped from the swirling sediment: ancient elk and wolves, large cats, eagles and lizards. Something akin to a dinosaur loomed over the gathering, jaw draped open, teeth the size of butcher’s knives. They approached in a horde, eyeless sockets trained on the man, metatarsals and phalanges pushing through sand.
The man glanced from the gathering to the forest path, fidgeting with his knife which now seemed more comical than threatening. He took three steps before the creatures dropped on him in a cascading wave of bone, hooves and paws rushing over the ground, jaws wide. Their defined figures collapsed, sweeping him under. His screams were lost by the resonance of skeletons coming apart, separating again into their mismatched chaos.
The surge of bones washed up against Alva’s feet as if she had been dangling her toes in the surf. The Heap had shifted several feet towards the woods. Alva searched for the punctuation of color among them, the dark suit, a splash of crimson blood, but she found nothing. Only the sea of white regaining calm, placid and unyielding.
Larry scuttled across Alva’s shoulder, nipped her ear, and fluttered down to her feet, where he perched on the tip of her shoe. She reached for him. He tilted his skull at her, empty eyes meeting her own. Then he flew off, moving over the rise of The Heap, climbing higher to the summit before his bones separated, form becoming formless.
You’ve always got to think of what happens after, she heard her father say in the back of her head.
She still had her job, her meager salary that kept the lights on, her unsuccessful dating apps. There were other species that needed attention: night parrots and crested ibis, Egyptian vultures and California condors. Unfortunately, there would never be a shortage of names on the list. She could spend the weekend at her parents’ house, following the swallows, contemplating the last paper she’d write about her time in the forest and what actually came after.
There had to be a final chapter, death and the wave of bones not solely restricted to memory. She didn’t know who’d publish something like that, what academic journals would call the work anything other than fiction. She’d worry about that later. Even if her paper went ignored like all the others, at least the writing would exist, at least she had tried. Compassion would have to come from others.
Maybe the article would be a character study, a look at modern psyches and where they failed the human species and all those around them. Superfluous desires outweighed the need for healthy ecosystems, healthy relationships in general, a never-ending divorce from reality sprawling through decades.
Alva didn’t know the paper’s final form, but she knew where to start. The words twitched in the fingers of her non-broken hand, a ghost keyboard laid out before her, playing just beyond her reach.
The first sentence came to her as rough bark wore against her shoulder blades. The number of men who prefer to horde bones rather than protect life is alarming.
Without further hesitation, she returned to the forest path, leaving the coffin with the distributed remains.
She didn’t want to miss the last train home.
Someone else would put the casket to better use.