Of Human Skulls
A Short Story by Nicole Krueger
Written using the suggestion "War"
Originally featured on 11-29-2009
As part of our series "The Words That Seem to Justify Anything"

I never knew you, but I cannot bear the thought of you languishing in the dark, doomed to stare forever at rotting things and the dust of what you were. Down in that stale place, beneath the clink of my shovel, you shed your cocoon of wet muscle and emerged something else, a luminous pearl inside a coffin shell, left for the worms to admire. You were not meant to be shut away like this, forgotten or wished out of existence, the vitality of you too much for most to look on comfortably.

Within your sockets I see the blackness of the grave, as if it leached in after your eyelids fell away and took residence there, to be carried out with you into daylight along with the putrid air in which you steeped. Were I to light a candle in you, let it flicker and dance from your hollows, it would not banish the shadows that cling there. The things you have seen, the mysteries—you are smug with them. I cannot look away, hoping some small trace of that blackness will leap from your eyes into mine.

I run my fingers over your cool topography, your cracks and ridges, the indentations behind your jawbone. These are the silent maps of your history, your formation in layers that fused and hardened like the calcium secretions of a clam. I feel the bumps of your teeth, splayed across your face in an upward-curving row. I will not call it a smile. A smile is an act of will, requiring the manipulation of at least a dozen facial muscles. Ah, the facial muscles, those tiny vehicles of expression that can be twisted into some 5,000 different acts of war, all for the ostensible purpose of letting the inner self show through. Yet it is only without them that you are able to show yourself with such clarity, to display the subtleties of expression that play across your face at each new angle.

Do you miss them, those webs of muscle that clothed you, hid you? Your nose cavity now is spread open to every olfactory assault; your teeth no longer held in by lips rely solely on their roots for purchase. You are naked, stripped of artifice, yet you show no modesty, like a brazen woman unashamed of exposure, her eyes proclaiming, This is me. This is who I really am.

I turn you over in my hand, and the crown of you, your protective dome, inverts into a perfect bowl. It had a purpose once, that dome, to couch tissue so delicate it required the hardest of shells to guard it. But it, too, has shriveled and shrunk away, robbing you of function, hollowing you into a receptacle that cries to be filled.

You were meant to be filled, so I fill you, staining your yellow-white with a deep red rivulet.

Blood, cranial fluid, grave dust, the slime of underground things, all these particles that have lodged in your fibers soak loose and mix with the wine that swirls lazily against bone. I put my lips to the rough edge of you, and your surface bumps the cushion of my chin, recognizes the hard shape underneath. I tip you back, let my throat convulse. Your heady scent washes me, and I feel in my bones that I am one step closer.

Read More By Nicole Krueger

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Portland Fiction Project

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