Memento Mori II – Or, A Bone in the Streambed

When northern Utah’s spring comes and the accumulated mountain snow begins to melt, the canyon creeks swell and roar with clear churning water. Hikers beside them must shout to be heard. Tumbling rocks scuttle and scrape beneath the surging torrent. The frothing rumble of the deluge echoes against the red cliffs. Winter is swept away with a welcome violence, clawing at its last stone-shadowed hollows.

But on this February day in 2012, winter still ruled Rock Canyon. The hiking trails were silent but for the crunch of sneakers on gravel. I was wearing thin knit gloves, and a rainbow-colored scarf over my long black trench coat. While exposed to the sun, I felt a glorious warmth across my shoulders. When crossing into shade, I shivered and pulled my coat tighter across my ribs.

We had come to make experimental sound art in a dry streambed—art destined to be destroyed by the promised spring. I was present in a supportive, buddy-system capacity; the art was my companion’s concept.

My plan was to sit, and watch, and think while the art was arranged. 

When my companion had selected a suitable location, we left the trail and scampered down into the spectral creek, careful not to turn an ankle on the uneven stones. The channel was bone-dry and littered with fallen leaves, which rustled in the breeze skimming down the canyon. Tree branches arched overhead, still naked, but abundant with pale green buds.

I turned upstream and made my way to a boulder as my companion began shifting streambed rocks, the guttural crunch of stone against stone reverberating in the brittle stillness.

The boulder came to my navel, and I scrambled more than I liked as I clambered onto it, hoisting myself with both hands, swinging my right leg up, finding a deeper handhold, half-rolling to secure my left leg, twisting on my stomach, and finally coming upright on my knees. I laughed at myself—ten years before, the maneuver would’ve been graceful—and blamed my gloves, scarf, trench coat, and jeans, all of which were now streaked with chalky dust.

I crossed my legs, facing my companion, who was moving thoughtfully around the streambed, shifting stones. The whistling breeze was cold against my neck and cheeks, but not harsh. Hands splayed against the stone on either side of me, I turned my face to the wispy sky, closed my eyes, and drank the canyon air, hoping to smell the coming spring.

When I opened my eyes, I glanced down, and only then did I notice a long, slim bone mere inches from my right hand, so close to me that I could have easily believed my fairy goth-mother had laid it there for me during the moments I’d had my eyes shut.

At first I gazed at it, transfixed. It was the same warm off-white as the boulder beneath it. Sun-bleached and clean, the bone was whole, but splintered in the center, a long crack running down its length, only terminating an inch or so before each knobbed end. There was no sign of the rest of a skeleton. This piece had come to rest in a shallow dip on my boulder’s surface—perhaps late in the summer, when the creek’s flow had lessened, and the water eddied flirtatiously over the boulder before cascading to the smaller stones below, where my companion was still building.

I imagined that the rest of the skeleton—whomever it had belonged to—was strewn up and down the streambed. Perhaps some pieces had made it to the Provo River and beyond. Perhaps others had never been in the water at all. Maybe this piece had been carried away from the rest by a cougar or vulture.

Carefully, and without much conscious thought, I lifted the bone in my gloved right hand and held it against my left arm, trying to visualize my humerus. The bone was too short, and not quite the right shape. I made the same comparison against my femur (some human beings are smaller than I, after all), but this, too, was the wrong shape. 

Dread quieted. The bone was not human.

I’ve since watched several people move through the same ritual when first encountering the bone in its place of honor in my home. The nervous lift, the side-by-side comparison, the relief. When confronted with death, we search for answers. The closer to ourselves, the greater the urgency.

On my boulder, I ran through my internal list of Rock Canyon denizens, and decided the bone had probably come from a bighorn sheep. Research later proved me right: it’s a bighorn’s metacarpal bone—which is to say, the front leg’s lowest bone before the hoof. I think it likely the fissures down the bone’s length are stress fractures.

I spent the remainder of the outing turning the bone reverently over in my hands. It was lighter than it looked, but balanced heavily at the ends. I had already decided to take it home, this treasure from my fairy goth-mother. Who was I to deny the universe? Silt had accumulated in the fractures and was rattling out in clumps. My companion was still picking through the streambed stones, hefting possibilities, placing them with resonant rasps in the chilly air.

How miraculous bones are! That the body simply builds them without our asking it! A living framework, a flexing foundation—and one that endures, given the right conditions, well beyond its usefulness. How long ago had this bighorn sheep been alive—and still some evidence of its presence remained to be found? How long did it take the sun and water and dry desert air to bleach a bone this way? How many creatures had partaken of its flesh before it all, at last, was gone?

And now, here I was, the last scavenger, making plans to preserve this final precious piece.

Lucky thing I’d come along today, I thought, prodding the bone’s jagged fissures. Spring was coming. The trees knew it: they were already budding, trusting that soon they’d have all the water they could ever want, frigid runoff thundering down the canyon, carrying everything old and dry and dead away to make way for everything new and lush and living. A riot of possibility.


Have you ever found bones while out in nature? Did you keep them, or leave them where they were? Did they inspire you to research where they’d come from? Tell us in the comments below!

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