Of Exoskeletons

by Salena Casha


He took me into his office to show me their absence on the illuminator light box because, when he told me the first time, I asked him to repeat himself. To make himself clear.

And even when he said it again, I could feel the panic rising in my breastbone, the type that percolates when you think you speak a foreign language and then don’t understand a word the other person says when they assume you’re native. And so I told him to say it slowly this time. To explain what he meant when he said that they weren’t fucking there. To not tell me to stop yelling in the office because of other patients when I didn’t understand why my daughter couldn’t hug me back.

I’d broken my arm when I was young. I’d been chasing my brother around the porch in lazy figure eights when I tripped and fell down the stairs that led to our backyard. I’d rolled and smashed and crashed and skipped over the ledges until I hit the concrete landing. I saw rather than felt the bone of my forearm snap in two. A piece of it had gleamed, whale white, out of a perforation in my skin. I’d felt cold and then hot and then nothing at all as the scene around me faded to black.

Sometimes, the arm ached when it rained.

But even before I saw the marrow, naked and exposed, before me, I knew it was there. I had pressed upon it through my skin, jarred the funny bone on odd ledges, felt the rattle of a carburetor through my feet. I knew that my skeleton would outlast the rest of me even before my mother had told me that stick and stones could break those deep-seated bones of mine.

So, standing in his office with the lights turned down low, her small body no more than the length of my forearm lit up on the screens, I saw what he meant. Beneath her muscle and fat and tissue and veins, around her beating heart, there was nothing. Just black space, like an endless hole of pitch. A chalk outline someone drew of a murder victim.

“How is that possible,” I whispered, my arms wrapping around myself, my finger joints pressing so deep into my skin I could feel the outline of my shoulder sockets.

It had a name. The thing that robbed her of her bones. A long, impregnable word I couldn’t pronounce – see mother, I told you they would hurt us eventually. It sounded like Fantasia which even now brought a spear of childish fear into my lungs. Genetic, inherited.

My fault.

It was funny because the thing I had feared the most for her was falling. I had feared for her future-self climbing a tree and breaking her neck. I had feared for her future-self tripping down a flight of stairs. I had feared for her future-self snapping her leg when someone swept her at football practice.

But now, she couldn’t even stand on her own. Couldn’t breathe on her own. The same things that I had feared she would break were also the things that would have protected her when I couldn’t.

“What can we do?” I asked, grasping, trying to wrap my head around the concept that they didn’t exist for her at all, not in the same way they did for me. Those beautiful calcified minerals that gave us structure. Form. It was like that wonderful existential saying:

I be therefore I am.­­­

When really it should have said “Bones are therefore I stand.”

If you had no bones, did you exist?

He kept talking, that man in the dark, her form electrified on the X-Ray reader and I wanted to tear it down. To pull the bones out of my body and shove them into the muscle casings that made up all of her. Give her form, show her what it was like to run, to fall, to break. To stand tall and look up at the sky with arms outstretched for rain.

I wished I could ask him, childishly, if we could regrow them. But perhaps, those long-ago readings of Harry Potter had messed with my brain. No, bones weren’t seeds. They existed before us and would after we were gone, our bodies decayed to dust, mountains of them populating the Earth after we no longer could command them.

He talked about options and treatments and I looked at her, lying on her back in the dark on that table, her arms ringed with fat baby.

No, see, she has form, I wanted to scream. She exists. My Amelia May, she is. Run the tests again, I wanted to shout. It wasn’t fair, to impose that much pain upon a being who didn’t have a choice in the matter of whether her bones grew or not. They were of their own mind, weren’t they?

I reached for her, gently, slowly, closing my eyes, the doctor’s words fading to ground powder around me as I pressed her to my chest. I held her long enough that my bones grew outside my skin, around her, the exoskeleton of me encasing us.

No, I whispered, I will protect you. I am already your flesh. I will be your bones.

Salena Casha‘s work has appeared in over fifty publications. Her fiction has been included in Wigleaf’s Top 50 Very Short Fictions and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her first three picture books are housed under the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt publishing umbrella. Visit her website at www.salenacasha.com.

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