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1. Photograph, Woman with Bones
To trace my own fateline backward, and identify where my path started its trajectory west, I simply need to recall the day the photograph you've labeled "Woman with Bones, Philadelphia" was taken in the library of the Academy. I have a weathered copy of that photograph in my own personal collection, but there are images from that day that will remain with me always: the empty, cavernous space with its sweet lingering scent of leather and wax; the light falling in hot, dusty patches from the windows high along one wall; the smoothly polished floor marked by dulled pathways where the shelving once stood. I remember, too, how I removed my spectacles, and how the sunlight caught the edge of one of the lenses and refracted into a fleeting rainbow of light.
The photograph does not adequately capture the roomful of bones I was documenting for the Academy, but instead focuses directly on the woman I once was: no longer young, never particularly beautiful, immodestly staring into the camera without concern for what it revealed, much the way Augustus taught me to look directly at him while he worked. It was at the photographer's request that I have pushed back onto my haunches and quieted my hands, but as usual my shirtsleeves are rolled to the elbow and my apron is covered with dust and dark splotches of paint. My hair, already showing signs of gray, flames out around my head in a way that Augustus would have represented as a halo or a wild garland of weeds, but to me simply appears unruly. And, as you have noted in your citation, I am surrounded by very large bones. I was working on the Academy's hadrosaur at the time.
Although they do not appear in the photograph, I would soon discover that two men were standing in the doorway, silently watching as I scrambled from one end of the expansive space to the other, placing each rib bone in descending order, trying to estimate, from the femur to the metatarsals, where and how to position the bones of the legs. This aspect of my work was always a bit like assembling an enormous puzzle, with each bone creating a picture of the beast, albeit a two-dimensional one, as if the creature had been pressed, like something fragile as a flower, for display under glass.
As I arranged and rearranged the position of the bones, I tried to imagine how the creature might have lived and moved and should therefore be represented. It was amazing to me then, as it still is to me now, that science can discover everything it needs to know from the bones, but only if the men working on them are open to seeing what these relics in fact reveal. It is amazing, too, that it does not matter much if the bones once belonged to a man or a beast, since once the skin and flesh are stripped away, we are all more similar than unique in almost every single way. Darwin's work should not have come as a surprise in that regard.
It was hot that day in the Academy, with the sun beating down on the emptying building, baking the cavernous library space like a kiln. I pushed at my damp hair and wiped my brow with my sleeve, and then reached out to adjust the location of a dorsal vertebra. Only then did I notice the two men intently studying me in much the same way that I was studying the bones.
One man, the younger of the two, I had met before since he often visited the Academy, checking on the status of the fossils and inquiring after my work. This gentleman, who never told me his name although he made it clear he was from Yale College, presented himself one day in my small Academy workspace, and proceeded to handle the large tibia I was documenting, comparing it to the illustrations in my book.
"This is excellent work," he told me at the time. "The Captain will be most pleased." He smoothed his hand over the bone.
He had the look of a scholar, this man from Yale, with thin black hair combed straight back from his forehead, and pale, translucent skin suggesting not enough time interacting with the living, and too much time working with the skeletons of the dead. He wore a long black woolen coat and a gray silk scarf at his throat, even though the spring days were growing longer, hotter, and, as summer approached, more humid. And he was preternaturally still, slipping in and out of my workshop like a phantasm, his white hands soft and pliable, like the wax used to reconstruct and display the dead. I soon came to expect his visits, although I did not look forward to them.
The other man who entered the library that day was a stranger, older than his friend, with a complexion suggesting years spent at sea. Unlike his long, lean companion, this second man was red-faced, short, and stocky, with a bushy brown beard and mustache and casual yet gentlemanly dress. This second man joined his friend and lifted one of the heavy fibulas, turning the leg bone carved from clay until it shimmered momentarily and then was lost again in the library's oblique light.
"I like it," he exclaimed to his pale companion. The man's voice echoed through the empty library. "Excellent work. Well done. Well done."
The man ran a thick finger over the bone and placed it carefully against the adjoining tibia to ascertain whether or not the bone had a proper fit. With great concentration, he rocked the tibia back and forth in the air.
"A perfect articulation," he boomed again. "Very nice indeed."
I began to thank him but quickly realized he was speaking not to me, but to his companion, the man in black, who managed a thin, weary smile as the other man continued to handle the large, stiff bone. I replaced my spectacles, satisfied that my employment at the Academy was about to reach a successful conclusion since even these gentlemen from Yale College appeared to be pleased with the quality of my work. As I prepared to remove myself from the room, the man with the beard bellowed again.
"Now, this is interesting." He drew his companion's attention to the animal's foot. "It's missing a metatarsal," he declared. "Didn't my Claosaurus have a fourth metatarsal? What happened to the fourth metatarsal?" he demanded to know.
His friend raised his eyebrows as if to say he hadn't seen it, but by then the gentleman with the beard had turned his attention to the curve of pubis I had smoothed out and appended to what had once been no more than a broken piece of bone.
"Ah, but will you look at this," he said. "Excellent work. Excellent indeed."
The man was practically shouting at his friend but since he was still not speaking to me, I started to retreat, stopping only long enough to remove my journal. Before I could reach it, however, he scooped it from the floor.
"I need that," the bearded man announced. Roughly he riffled the pages.
"Look," he said, speaking again to his companion as if I were inhabiting an invisible world. "See how she sizes those vertebrae, comparing the cervical to the dorsal to the caudal? Quite lovely. I'm very impressed. This is exactly what I need. My uncle would be most pleased." He flipped through a few more illustrations. "Where did she receive her training?"
The man in black started to explain my brief career as an assistant to Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins in New York and how, with no formal training, I had learned my craft working as an illustrator for the leading artist in the world of science, but his companion cut him short.
"Yes, yes, that was a shame what happened to that project," the older man declared. "But what can you expect, dabbling with the politics of that city while trying to appease the curiosity of the masses? Have you seen the drawings of the creatures they were planning to construct? Pure flights of fancy, I can assure you. Those beasts are probably still buried out there somewhere in Central Park. Best to stay clear of all of that, would have been my advice. Still," he added thoughtfully, "she has a certain talent, there's no denying it. Feminine intuition, I suppose."
Again, he turned his attention to the bones.
"Forgive me," I said, inching toward the man with the beard, "but may I please have my journal? I am certain it will be of no interest to you."
At these words, the man in black grew paler by the second, his eyes burrowing even deeper into his skull. But the other man, the red-faced one, was not in the least bit deterred.
"Forgive me," the man blustered. "It is I who have been rude. Call me the Captain," he said. "Please. Accept my hand. And my apologies."
The Captain reached his free hand across the skeleton, still holding my journal folded tightly to his chest. As he leaned toward me, I could feel myself pulling away, my head turning slightly, my body readying itself for retreat. But then, focusing on the apparent generosity of the man's offered hand, I, too, reached out, my fingers touching his.
"How much do they pay you here?" the Captain demanded to know.
"What is your salary?" he asked. Before I could respond, he added, "Can't be much, since even the Academy knows there is little value in these futile attempts at public displays." He said this with undisguised contempt.
I understood the question but still I hesitated, uncertain about the nature of what he really wanted to know. Apparently the man took my confusion as reticence to negotiate, so he blustered right past my reserve.
"It doesn't matter," the man announced. "Whatever it is, I'll double it. I have too much to worry about right now without adding quibbling about salaries to my list."
At this proclamation, the Captain's slim companion sidled up to him and whispered something about the fact that I had only been hired to help with the Centennial Exhibition and then to document this skeleton in preparation for the Academy's move. Surely he must realize that I was not a regular employee of the Academy, but nothing more than a day laborer.
"Doesn't matter," the Captain boomed. "I want her. I need her. Actually," he continued, pausing to compose his thoughts, "it is Patrick who needs her. Or he may never make it home."
At this bit of news the young gentleman from Yale raised his chin ever so slightly and let out an almost silent "Ahhh" of understanding. Then he pointed that thin, reptilian smile of his in my direction.
"I believe, Misssss..." The man in black hesitated. "Forgive me. I do not recall your name. It is Miss, is it not?"
"Peterson," I told him.
"Yes. Peterson, then. I believe you are being offered employment. Extremely well paying employment, I might add. Not the sort of day work you have been doing for the Academy, although it will certainly require the same sort of skills. If, that is, you are interested in working at Yale College." He said this as if I might have missed the point of what was being offered.
As the man in black explained to me the conditions of my employ, and of the travel to the Territories initially involved, the Captain examined the repairs I had made to the animal's mandible. He grunted an approval, and then hoisted the large hadrosaur skull over his head and smiled warmly at the toothy piece of bone.
"'Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well,'" he said.
And then the Captain's booming laugh echoed through the cavernous library, empty except for the two men, me, and the bones.
from Pictures from an Expedition by Diane Smith, Copyright © September 2002, Viking Press, a member of Penguin Putnam, Inc., used by permission.
Meet the Author
Diane Smith's first novel, Letters from Yellowstone, won the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Book Award.
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