Triptych: Jeweled Bones, Central Panel: Bones in the Cellar
Mother shooed us into the cellar. I turned my pockets inside out and showed her my discoveries. While we waited for the storm to pass, my mother told us stories: saints’ bones preserved in crypts of faraway cathedrals; healers who told the future by throwing bones as if they were dice; and air-raid cellars in England during the war. As a little girl she had sat quietly in these cellars so no one would find and harm her.
That story reminded her of Italians who had hidden in the Catacombs during bombing raids. She said long before even airplanes were invented Catholic brothers had built a chapel underneath Rome from their ancestors’ bones.
It survived for over seven centuries as if waiting for its chance to shelter modern refugees. When the sirens sounded, citizens sought sanctuary from the strafing overhead. They entered the chapel through bone archways.
Dead bones surrounded live bones that hoped not to join the dead bones. The Catacomb refugees thanked God their bones were still surrounded by joints, ligaments, muscle, and skin. As they waited eagerly for the all-clear signal, the refugees listened to songs their blood sang circulating inside their ears and around their teeth.
As my mother told these air-raid stories, my big toe drew Catacomb ledges on the cellar floor. Every time Mother emphasized a point, I deepened the lines.
Ivory bones sprang up to bump cozily against turnips and potatoes stacked beside plum jelly and canned tomatoes. I asked Mother if she thought our dog might have buried bones in hopes of a fast snack in the root cellar someday.
Mother said our cellar had been a way station of the Underground Railroad. Slaves had sat where we now sat. On that fateful day when the underground conductors came to collect their passengers, enemies with dogs got there first.
Strong hands had bolted the trap door to block the main air passage. The youngest slave girl found a mole tunnel that funneled a trickle of life-giving air. This became their straw of hope.
The tunnel surfaced on the other side of the stone wall that supported the cellar and separated two worlds. As the girl sucked air through the small hole, she glimpsed baby moles nestling deeper into their fur-lined cradle as they nursed.
Mama mole’s back legs thrashed as babies sucked her swollen teats. Slowly, crumbs of earth piled up sealing the straw.
Spiders scurried over slave skeletons awaiting rescue. Flesh fell off femur. Time slivered bones. Moles plundered them.
Bones turned to jewels. Slaves became saints.
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