Bones: A Letter to Walt Whitman
By Margaret Emma Brandl
Walt Whitman, I ate lunch among other people and I didn’t want to. I pulled out a book so they wouldn’t try to converse with me but I was reading about a forensic anthropologist working at the World Trade Center site and I realized I couldn’t sit eating lunch while I read about her heels crunching over debris and what appeared to be pieces of bone, about the bits of men and women recovered that were mostly small enough to fit in a two-gallon Ziploc bag. How does one write about September 11, Walt Whitman? I have done it a few times, maybe once well, and I am haunted by the movie we watched. We were on a “fine bus hurtling through space,” Walt Whitman, and my Latin teacher stood in front of us fifty-two high school students and read your “Song of the Open Road.” I took notes in my blue and brown diary and dreamed of you and the road and D.C. and New York and the boy I loved. I have talked about this before, Walt Whitman, but it always comes back to me. I went to Ground Zero, Walt Whitman. I went to a little museum where everyone cried some and then on a guided tour. There was one woman who talked most of the time because her husband was a firefighter and had been killed. At the end of the tour we were in a clean, bright building with hard surfaces and big plate glass windows and I was squinting against the sun to see the woman who was speaking with it as her backdrop. She was older. Her son was a firefighter, and he had died going back to save people. He had urged the other firefighters with him to go on ahead. The mother said that at his funeral the father of one of the other men came up to her and said he had his son that day because of hers, and by then we were all crying, Walt Whitman, all of us dry and cold and warm and squinting and coughing and stuffy and restless and full of dreams and anticipation—we were all crying but we didn’t touch each other. We each cried alone except my Calculus teacher who got up and gave the woman a hug as the tears streamed down her face and as we left there was a place where water dripped from the ceiling into a still basin and it was something about tears, Walt Whitman, and I wrote that I wanted to tell everyone I knew that I loved them.
I went to a building, Walt Whitman, where the halls were sterile and shiny and bright new labs were around every corner, bright new sterile labs housing old bones. We talked about the novel in a small nondescript classroom with maps of Alabama on the wall. There were boxes in the corner, stacked up on a rolling cart, and within minutes they were on our tables. “These are real bones, real people,” our professor said, “so treat them with respect.” We opened the lids. “Take out the skull.”
The girls I was working with were squeamish, Walt Whitman. One thought she’d get a disease from breathing the dust of bones; the other complained about the smell. She said it was like old books that have sat in a box and gotten musty times ten. I smelled it too, Walt Whitman, but I wasn’t sickened. It was dusty and dry and faintly sweet, like cinnamon, and some bones were dry and brown and cracked so you saw the pores in the marrow and some were darker and oily and I was afraid to touch them, thinking perhaps some of the flesh lingered. We all had men, Walt Whitman, and we looked at their bones for their ages and arthritis and the ways we could have determined they were men. There were skulls in a box at the front, too, and pelvises mounted on a piece of wood. And I touched the bones slowly, running my finger over them, tapping once or twice with my fingernail. It’s a consistency I don’t understand, Walt Whitman. I asked myself, Are these bones? Is this what’s under my flesh? Under the flesh of everyone here? I imagined us all in the room as skeletons, Walt Whitman, the empty eyeholes in our skulls staring at each other as we listened and learned. My hands were shaking, Walt Whitman, and I didn’t want to touch anything, as if something had rubbed off on me. I wasn’t thinking of disease or germs; of that much I am certain. What it might have been I don’t know. What can rub off of bones? Mortality, death, fragility? Or was it the shock of being in the presence of someone who had at one time been just like us, and was now reduced to this, to a box of bones on a classroom table, a small orange jar of teeth that my partners opened and examined before I, swallowing and looking away, asked could we put the teeth back in the box please. By the end of class I was about ready to throw up, Walt Whitman; our teacher showed us a tibia that had been shot and not treated. It had healed on its own in a horrible-looking way, uneven and cracked and bubbling up as if no good could come of it. “A woman shot him in the leg and he didn’t die, so then she killed him again,” our professor said. Mentally I was examining the humor in the fact that he had said “she killed him again,” since he had first off been alive and, second off, if he’d been dead, she couldn’t have actually killed him any more than he had already been killed. And then the professor pulled a bone out of the box and announced, “So then she tried to chop him up.” It is a femur, the longest bone in the body, and it is full of deep chop marks. “They were postmortem,” he is answering the question of another group but I cannot get over the fact that we all laughed when he brought it out. We laughed, Walt Whitman, at a man who had been shot, murdered, and then chopped up in someone’s poor efforts to actually separate him into several pieces. We were staring, fascinated, and joking about the woman’s sanity and pleading for details of the case—he wasn’t allowed to say, he replied, and a few determined students pressed for more information, which he did not give—
It was so much, Walt Whitman.
I read “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” to an empty room until my roommate came in. I asked her permission and continued, my voice was low and urgent and hurried and I wasn’t moving around or gesturing with one hand but it sounded right. I touched bones today, Walt Whitman, I saw the squiggled places where the plates in our skulls grow together and rubbed my finger inside somebody’s eyesocket, held the bone of a jaw in one hand and a rib in another, examined the porous marrow dried and cracking in yellow and brown and yellow-brown and brown-yellow and red-brown and red-yellow-brown and never white, Walt Whitman, except the skull of the old woman who had lost her teeth, and the white had to have been unnatural or her bones were new. And my hands were shaking, Walt Whitman, my fingers were tingling after I turned the skull to point out to my tablemates the notch at the back or the brow ridge. I rubbed my hands clean with strong-smelling clear sanitizer, shaking off the sting of the alcohol in my cracked skin, but I still wasn’t clean.
And now you say to me, Death, death, death, death, death.
Margaret Emma Brandl has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Notre Dame. Her work has appeared in Specter andSundog Lit, among others. She was a junior at The University of Alabama when she started writing letters to Walt Whitman. He doesn't tend to answer directly.
(Updated Jun. 2014)