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Little Bone

  • By Heidi Julavits
  • Issue 1
  • Essential

A few summers ago I found a vertebra on a beach. Normally I don’t have a taste for bone collecting, but while on this beach and holding this bone I thought, My animal self is very happy here. I wasn’t a mess of a person, I was one of the key taxonomies, I was a member of a food chain, I had hair that registered the wind speed.

I asked my friend, also on the beach with me, and a marine biologist, “What kind of bone is this?” She told me it was a seal bone.

My animal self was even happier, because whenever I am requested to name my favorite animal, my response is, and for some decades has been, A seal.

Also, the beach where I found the seal vertebra is for sale. It is for sale for 1.2 (rounding down) million dollars. I figured—this seemed logical—that if I wore the vertebra around my neck on a cord, the spirit of whatever seal died on or near that beach would, upon witnessing my daily devotion, convince the cosmos to open up its mysterious coffers and dump on me the 1.2-rounding- down-million dollars I needed to make this beach my own.

Two years later, I have not given up. I wear the vertebra almost always, and the cord keeps fraying, and I must constantly re-knot it, and slowly the vertebra has worked its way higher and higher up my chest, so that now it hits right where I seem to have no padding left and, whenever I hug people, I am stabbed in the sternum. My passing of affection is bone-on-bone these days.

Visiting Berlin’s Stasi Museum the vertebra created for me a styling crisis. In Zagreb, too, people looked at my vertebra funny. In Switzerland, nobody cared. Here in New York my bone is occasion for distasteful jokes: Is that the spine of your ex-husband? Over a brunch of pancreases and stomachs, the waitress asked, “Is that a thoracic vertebra?” I told her the bone had once belonged to a seal. “I wouldn’t know about that,” she replied. “I study monkeys.”

Recently, I saw the marine biologist who’d been with me on the beach when I first found the seal vertebra that is now hanging around my neck. She said, as if she’d never before seen it, “What kind of bone is that?” I reminded her that she’d told me it was a seal vertebra. “Did I?” she said. “Well, I often lie.” I spent some time convincing her that, this time at least, she hadn’t been lying. The vertebra was too small for a deer, I pointed out, and too large for a mackerel or cat. I really hoped it didn’t belong to a dog (dogs are dumb). Coyotes had recently crashed our ecosystem, but I felt quite strongly that it belonged to a seal.

“Sure,” she said, happy to appear unconvinced. I suppose I could research this vertebra and find the answer. But I practice unshakeable faith in all the wrong things.