When Bones Grow
Nonfiction by Nancy Au
The jawbone is the only bone in your head that moves; it opens and closes and lets you talk and chew food. When people say something is jaw-dropping, it usually means that it’s unexpected or shocking, and when something as jaw-dropping as death happens, people usually say their eyes get big. But eyes don’t actually get bigger, nor do the holes in your skull where your eyes sit, it’s the skin flaps covering them that stretch.
How heavy is your head?
Your head is pretty heavy. Brain, nose, eardrum (the smallest bone in the body), hair, eyeballs, eye flaps (blink blink), gums, teeth, tongue, a pound of bacon grease skin, and your mind too, but no-one knows what that weighs. You often carry plastic and cotton and platinum and glass and gum, you are a grocery store. And still you can hold your head up high.
You start with more bones when you are born, and end up with less. But your meat doesn’t change much. You still have a piggy-bump nose. Still flat as sliced salami. Still medium-rare.
You have two more siblings than when you were born. Middle sister, the Pretty One. Baby sister, the Smart One. Eventually you will have two less parents. When people say someone has backbone, it means they’re courageous. Bones in your back give you the power to sit up, stand, walk. You like to do these things. You like to pat yourself on the back, to reach around and feel the tiny bumps on your spine, think about how camels don’t actually have hump bones.
Some thin kids can see their ribs right through their skin. You are not this kid. But, if you straighten, breathe deeply, run your fingers along the side of your body, your bones grow. Ribs come in pairs, the left side exactly the same as the right. When Dad dies, your ribs are like a cage around your chest and you suffocate in your brother’s hug. Older brother, the Rational One. You are not a hugging family. Mom is one less without Dad.
In your shoulder, the round end of one bone fits into the small cup-like area of another bone, and allows for movement in every direction. When you are eighteen and angry and no one will let you see Dad’s dead body, you try swinging your arms all over the place. You yell at nurses, doctors. Let your grief be spectacularly jaw-dropping.
Later, you listen to a religious person talk to Mom in the hospital waiting room about the meaning of heart attacks, and his ideas about ghosts. About the ways they hoot and holler if you listen hard enough. You don’t believe in ghosts. Ghosts don’t have bones.
Everyone stops growing. By the time you are twenty-four, your bones are as big as they will ever be. And, Mom is as old as she will ever be. Someone steals your car radio, and cancer eats up Mom’s organs and makes her shit blood and shit-shit-shit until she weighs nothing more than her bones. You leave work after the diagnosis. You go home, fighting and fighting, someone slapping someone. People say houses have good bones. But walls don’t remember like you do, everything. Your brother punches a hole in the wall, breaks down your bedroom door. Mom rationalizes that you are all too big for your bones. She points at the hole, says, This proves it. She makes you promise with every bone in your body, to not dream big when she’s gone. And she tells you that it takes real backbone to be in pain and not make a peep.
Thoughts like these make a heavy head heavier. Memories too.
Still now, you remember the white hallway, the hospital orderly saying, Hurry. You remember shouting in Mom’s ear to Wake up, loud enough to break her smallest bone. You didn’t want to be what she had asked of you; you remember she asked for you. You remember fighting for Mom to get the biggest room, wanting to sleep there in a cot. If you have a backbone, you know what to ask for when it counts. You remember listening to Mom mumble and mumble, running your fingers along her cheekbones, your head bowing from all that extra weight. You remember your bones, aching, inhaling every inch of growth, willing her eyes to open, for her mind to reawaken, watching her take her last.
© Nancy Au
[This piece was selected by Amelia Loulli. Read Nancy’s interview]
Nancy Au’s stories appear or are forthcoming in Beloit Fiction Journal, SmokeLong Quarterly, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Word Riot, Liminal Stories, Foglifter, Midnight Breakfast, Flapperhouse, Typehouse Literary Magazine, Necessary Fiction, Fiction Southeast, among others. She was awarded the Spring Creek Project collaborative residency (Oregon State University), which is dedicated to writers inspired by nature and science. She is an MFA candidate at San Francisco State University where she taught creative writing. She teaches creative writing at California State University Stanislaus. Her flash fiction is nominated for The Best Small Fictions 2017 anthology.