As a nurse-in-training, in physiology class, I marveled over the process of bone formation, the intricate dance between specialized cells: the osteoblasts that built up the basic calcified structures, and the osteoclasts that hollowed and carved them out with precision. Depending on the task at hand, these cells could sculpt ribs or a pelvis, the articulated chain of a cobra’s spine or a massive elephant tibia. Once I picked up a heron’s skull from a saltmarsh tidal inlet, sleek and ornate in my palm like an assassin’s dagger. So many ways our bones shape us, define us, determine how we move through the world.
Two summers ago, in the Sonoran Desert, I hiked with a group of volunteers to cache water jugs on remote paths for migrants risking the journey north from Mexico. Crossing a dry wash, we spotted a scapula, a human shoulder blade, angling up from the sunbaked hardpan, stark white and triangular like a distant sail, motionless in the heat. No other bones lay about, so it must have been scavenged by an animal and dragged from the corpse, from one of the thousands of untended final resting places of bodies who have disappeared while crossing through merciless Arizona borderlands. We left the scapula undisturbed, filing by in a brief, inadequate moment of reverence. We marked the location as precisely as we could, so the county coroner might one day retrieve the bone, with the faint hope that they could link it to a known missing person, give someone’s surviving loved ones a shred of closure. Someone whose life was built up with dreams and a journey, then carved out, leaving only this.
Robbie Gamble’s nonfiction works have appeared in Solstice, Tahoma Literary Review, Soundings East and Under the Gum Tree. He was the winner of the 2017 Carve Poetry prize. He worked for many years as a nurse practitioner caring for homeless people, and now divides his time between Boston and Vermont.