In one hand, Jesse Breedlove holds a bottle of Cuervo Gold—or what’s left of it—in the other, the shovel with which he has just unearthed the bones of a small girl buried in the cellar of a Catholic church in Omaha, Nebraska. So begins Breedlove’s odyssey across the literal and mythical landscapes of America, bearing the finely articulated body he has uncovered, bones that would neither rest nor, in their restless eloquence, let him remain silent. Through the heart of the United States, this mover of bones encounters people who live on the geographical and emotional margins and who find that his presence and his plight summon their voices. Rumors surface and reports multiply as the lonely, the addicted, the isolated, the damned, the pure of heart, and the holy sane speak. From the dark and distant edges of society, they bear witness—sometimes directly, sometimes obliquely—to what the mover of bones and his burden mean.
Defiler, redeemer, sinner, or saint—Breedlove is the stuff myths are made of, and The Mover of Bones, the first of the Tall Grass Trilogy of novels by Robert Vivian, evokes a collective dream of the heartland.
About the Author
Robert Vivian is a professor of English and creative writing at Alma College in Michigan and a core faculty member in the low-residency MFA program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is the author of, most recently, The Least Cricket of Evening, and of the Tall Grass Trilogy, which includes Lamb Bright Saviors and Another Burning Kingdom, all available from the University of Nebraska Press.
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The Mover of Bones
By Robert Vivian
University of Nebraska Press
Copyright © 2006
University of Nebraska Press
All right reserved.
Das Lied von der Erde
The night Jesse Breedlove found the bones it was raining and he was
drunk. They were the bones of a small girl, perfectly intact, under
three feet of hard clay in a church cellar in Omaha. The clay was covered
with fine silt, like an outermost membrane of dust.
He had wandered down there wildly, careening back and forth on
the drafty stone steps, the rain sweeping behind him like a veil and
the swinging metal door clanging in the lashing wind, sending him
downward, cursing and laughing in the rage of his isolation. He threw
his jacket down in the corner. He shuffled around, making a half-circle,
looking for a place to start digging, muttering to himself.
In one hand he held the shovel, in the other a bottle of Cuervo Gold.
He put the bottle down hard on the rough edge of the worktable, making
the amber liquid swing in its cradle like the eye of a lantern. Then
he set to work.
Sweetie pie, come down to die, come down to die-
He worked his fury into the end of the pointed spade; it bit and bit, its
rounded edge digging up half-moons of clay.
A stone gallery of statues watched him dig: the Virgin Mary incarnated
into a dozen different shapes, sizes, and ages, with complexions
white as eggs or darkas Mexican girls'; St. Joseph with his flock of ceramic
birds and sheep that lay coiled and grazing in a pasture far away.
They watched him from against the damp walls, looking through him
with stony, iris-less eyes. One Mary was a young woman, her palms
open to him, waiting to embrace him, her face so elegiac he sometimes
came down just to look at her; he would stroke the rough edges of her
eyelids, petting her like a stone cat. Her petrified lips were painted an
obscene red, brighter than cherries, while the rest of her remained unpainted
stone. Those lips centered his gaze, and one night he had kissed
them, moving his tongue over the grainy surface. When he pulled away
a cool breeze came down his back though the cellar door was closed; he
turned around and saw no opening or crevice where the breeze could
have come from. He did not kiss her again.
He dug and dug, pausing only to lift the tequila bottle to his lips and
drink. The liquor spilled over his chin and down his ragged front. He
took a spadeful of dirt and dumped it carefully over the head of one of
the ceramic sheep; it settled there briefly, like a friar's wig, before disintegrating
into falling grains. He laughed. He dug again and started
to bury St. Joseph, who pleaded, from the waist up, arms outstretched,
to bring down the forces of heaven, as if the very earth were slowly
devouring him. The bottle of Cuervo was empty now, and he broke it
against a leaning wall and held the jagged neck upright in the threadbare
light; he wrote into the wall
Sweetie pie, come down here to die,
come down here to die,
I will never leave you
dry your eyes, dry your eyes
He stood back from his words to see how the stick-like letters looked
on the wall and thought of Father O'Dowd and the priest's penchant
for ripe strawberries dipped in whipped cream, how he dipped them
one afternoon in the classroom he was sweeping. The letters looked
like shards of glass, splinters from a broken vase, and Father O'Dowd's
voice came back to him, nervous, skittish, high-pitched: "Like them in
cream, too, but don't tell Father Kastell." He had a comma of cream
near his mouth; he used his left pinkie and licked it, smiling at Jesse.
He sat down Indian-style, throwing the bottleneck behind him. It
made a tinkling sound against the soft earthen wall. On one side of
him was the mound of freshly dug soil exhaling its long-held breath,
like the breathing of a new world. He leaned against it, a natural pillow,
and closed his eyes, resting there amid the pious stony faces, breathing
in the cool dark humus like the private place between a woman's legs.
They looked on as if they were waiting for him to change into one of
them and join their eternal pity; even with his eyes closed he could
imagine fissures beginning to form on their torsos and faces, small
rivers that would break their bodies down, one delicate seam at a time.
The dirt felt cool on his head, settling into his hair like smooth sludge
or shit that would bury him whole. After a long interval, in which he
heard only the sounds of his own drunken breathing and the rain beating
against the cellar door, he got up and resumed his digging.
He thought of fireflies and the sea smell of a woman's clitoris and
the way the soft flesh parted there like the innards of a fish dissolving
into water and he thought of being chained to a dog kennel in the
backyard as he howled with the hounds in the stink of newspapers
that crackled like cool fire and the moon made blurry by summer mist
and the taste of sugar at the peak of a snow cone stained with cherry
flavoring and of his father beating his arms and legs with a mop handle
behind the toolshed-and he thought of the myriad keys that dangled
on his hip like broken stars, and all the rooms he locked and unlocked
in the course of a day, and a septic tank by a river smelling of urine
with long weeds growing around it, of its rusted belly and underside,
and the vague apprehension of violence around the lake, and grasshoppers
covered with white chalk pogoing away from his bare feet on
a gravel road and disappearing into a desert of powdered rocks, and of
his mother cooing softly with a drunk wetback and the knife he held
to his chest in the closet as he watched the Mexican take his mother
like a dog, and the little girl in his dreams who did not see him as he
tried to break through the transparent screen that divided them and
Father Kastell, and the bronze chalice catching stained-glass sun, and
the smell of pencil erasers and the small buds of girls' bodies and the
half-opened tin of tuna he left at his table, the stone Marys a circle of
frozen women who could not love him and the claw hammer he kept
under his cot-all of these had led to his digging.
When he finally hit bone his wrist jolted back, sending a shiver up his
arms and shoulders; it was bone on bone, hard, adamantine, his shovel
the conductor between two abrupt surfaces that set his teeth on edge.
He lowered himself into the small grave, got on all fours, and started
to scoop out the clay with his hands. Slowly, tenderly he brushed away
the dirt from a bone that seemed to grow in length and brightness with
each brush of his hand, shining from out of the clay like the gleaming
tooth of a prehistoric beast. The bone began to curve slightly, a delicate
bow no fuller than the slant of iridescent light that sometimes came
through the slatted blinds he cleaned in the schoolrooms.
He talked to the bone quietly, telling it that it was all right. The femur
led to the shallow bowl of the pelvis, full-shape lines that pulled
at his loins, and its cracked remains led to the bird-like rib cage that
arched out of the dirt in sloping curves of blinding white. He visualized
the stack of vertebrae he knew connected everything, his gentle
brushing like the unearthing of a miniature city that led to the vision
of all temples. He was straddling the bones now, a knee on each side so
as not to crush their hollow shards, and as he brushed away at the dirt
where he knew her face would be-if she had a face-he was no different
than any lover at any time in the world who was brushing the hair
away from the forehead of his beloved, a gesture so tender and tide-like
in its graze that it could have been a breeze over the slow sweeping of
grass that ran all the way to the horizon. His long hair dangled like
strands of mud a few inches above the buried skull as he tried to see
through the earth to the head he knew should be there. As he brushed
and watched the first few specks of jaw begin to appear, he began to
whimper and stammer and cry, moved by the picture of a face that
had disintegrated long ago and the anguish that had led him to this
place. Where the nose would be he imagined a copper ridge of freckles;
where the eyes, two pools of blue water dappled by sunlight; where the
mouth, two perfect halves of a deep ripe fruit.
As he brushed away the dirt from the top of her forehead he discovered
first the sweep of her long blond hair, unaffected by burial and
decay; the more he dug, the more hair he discovered, until his heart
began to hammer wildly in his chest as her hair took up the whole
underearth of the cellar, extending like a flood of dark water unfurling
in the pit. He jumped to the side and started to dig above the exposed
bone of her head in a radius three feet away in a dirt halo; as he dug
he discovered again the golden loom that shone out of the ground like
wheat burnished by the sun. He scurried out of the grave agitated, and
started digging a hole next to the one where she lay; he dug straight
down, glancing up from time to time to see if the skeleton was still
there, throwing the dirt over his shoulder.
The audience of stone virgins and saints grew taller as they leaned
over the widening pit as if they would fall in. Soon he was panting
and out of breath, working harder than before, a creature half-man
and half-mud digging a small room of earth. Now he had two holes
nearly equal in depth. He crawled out of the one hole to peer into the
one where her hair began; he went back to his new hole and dug more
carefully. When he thought they were nearly the same depth, he got
on his hands and knees again and started scraping with the broken
bottleneck. In a few moments he found the glistening chestnut hair
and yelped out of fear and astonishment; there was no end to it, this
river like bright water that undergirded the whole cellar in a subterranean
current of thread; wherever he dug he found her long, golden
hair disencumbered of earth.
He pulled her hair out of the ground like a man in a boat reeling in
his lines. Her bones took on an incandescent brightness that shone up
out of the earth; the amphitheater of stone watchers began to glow until
everything in the cellar, hard and exposed, grew forth with light and
he felt like he was pulling in more than bones, harvesting the meaning
of years gone by and bodies who had known only outrage and pain.
The stone figures, for so long enigmas to him that yielded only the
futility of gestures frozen in time, began to relax their countenances
until he thought they might step forward or sag and crumple into dust.
The river of hair did not abate. He gathered it around himself in a
vast shawl, pulling and pulling, gathering in her reigns, when the rain
stopped and he heard only the steady fabric of his reeling and a slow
drip-drop somewhere above the stairs. When he reached the last of
it he rolled it gently into one gigantic furl poised at the back of her
broken skull like a grain stack; then he took off his belt and shirt and
looped the belt around the shining hair and placed his shirt gently under
the arc of her bones carefully, then slowly staggered to his feet.
Her bones were light in his arms as he stood in the grave, waist-high
in contemplation and awe, the slow drip-drop above counting
off the seconds and the minutes of his precious find. The stone figures
took up space in the cellar like figures bent on keeping so still that the
whole earth would stop turning, and with it the birds and the wind in
the trees coming to rest like a great net over the branches. The cellar
was no longer a dream chamber closing in all around him, but a new
place of light coming up out of the ground. He spoke to the girl as the
statues watched him:
I know you came here after a lot of pain
and I'm gonna take care of you.
The stone figures crept forward, tipping imperceptibly so that they
moved downhill toward him, and the light in his eyes grew brighter
until the cellar was no longer dank and dark but bright and dry like a
white sail in the wind.
He stepped out of the grave he had dug and the stone figures tipped
back in their places against the shining walls. He laid her carefully in
a tarp he found in the cellar and started to ascend the damp stairs.
It started raining again. At the top of the stairs he looked out of the
smeared window that showed the streets misted over with fog and then
he stepped out into the night, carrying the bones of the girl like the
revelation of all his dreams.
I don't know what made me stop, but I did. You can't know about
these things. I saw a truck and I pulled up ahead of it, about fifty
yards or so off of I-80. Looked like he'd skidded off. I seen it before:
car wrecks mostly, people walking around in a daze, holding a Kleenex
up to the their nose. I once seen a woman holding her baby in a motel
towel with "Double-Dealer" on the lace side of it, stolen from the
place she was staying at, crying because she lost control and her station
wagon slid off the road. But she was all right; they usually are, dazed
and what-have-you, but still in one piece. I get calm when I see them;
it don't bother me much until later, when I've had a few days to chew
on it. Then it comes back like a bad dream and I'm right in the middle
of it, asking questions nobody can answer.
I seen maybe eight, ten of these in forty-odd years of driving, most
of them just scrapes and bad driving, but once in a while a few nasty
ones where there's blood all over and they just lay there helpless and
bleeding; one of them even died while I held her in my arms. The life
just kinda drained from her eyes, like something falling down a dark
dry well. I held her hand and watched her die-and I heard the wind
in the aspens and a bird calling out. "Too late," I said to the paramedics,
and then I spit on to the shoulder of the highway. I mean, what the
hell else could I do? I didn't even know her. But I remember her eyes,
and I remember what she said to me alone in the middle of nowhere: "I
don't have any secrets to tell." And that was it. Then she died. So when I
come up to this truck, I think to myself, Hell, another poor son of a bitch
pulling at my conscience.
I had two days to make up because I had an axle problem down in
New Mexico, and here I was slowing down for some jackass in a beat-up
Chevy who skidded off for some goddamn reason. I had been driving
twenty, thirty hours straight-I lost count somewhere near Leadville-and
was dead tired, so sick of looking at my own red-rimmed
eyes that sometimes I just closed my eyes. You do that sometimes. Defy
So I pulled up ahead, cranking it down and letting it idle. I looked
out my side view to see if he was there. But all I saw in the reflection
was his truck akimbo from the highway, and I thought, even as I was
thinking it, What the hell made me stop? but before I finished thinking
it, I got down from the cab and started to come over-and you know
that feeling you get sometimes, when you start moving in a certain direction
and nothing can make you stop, you feel pulled somehow-so
I just kept walking toward the truck and called out "Anybody there?
Anybody there?" with no answer, the engine still running. But something
was wrong-anyone could see that straightaway. I kept going
closer and when I got close enough I noticed a small wiggle in the
back, like maybe there was something rocking back and forth there
but gentle-like, 'cause you couldn't notice the rocking unless you were
up close to it. And right then and there I should have turned heel, but
did I? No, I didn't. And me, without so much as a pocketknife on me,
walking toward the end of that goddamned truck, when I heard a small
pitched moan or sigh, like an animal whining in its cage, and I got
kinda still, I paused for a moment: it was either two teenagers fucking
in the back or something else. I hoped it was fucking. But as I got closer
I knew it wasn't no teenagers, and the rocking grew more steady, as if
under the tarp something was building toward a climax.
Then I saw him: he come out of the woods buck naked and wild-eyed,
carrying the longest goddamned knife I ever saw, the blade flashing
in the sun, like some ghoul straight out of hell-and he had scars
on his arms and a crucifix etched into his goddamned chest, and I
thought, What the fuck, and if I was not a dead man I did not know
it then, 'cause I ain't no sprinter at 260 with shit-kickers on, and he
was hightailing it out of the woods like a goddamned ape, and even
if I would've wanted to run I couldn't, and even if I could've said his
name or appeased the crazed motherfucker, I was a dead man and a
goddamned fool for stopping at all. And he run straight at me, past the
rocking whatever-it-was in the back, and I thought Holy shit, Holy shit,
and when he almost reached me he raised the knife in his hand and
then I heard that moan turn into a song such as I have never heard,
coming out of the flatbed like dawn colors, and we were eyeball to
eyeball, but he wasn't looking at me anymore, just beyond me toward
something only he could see.
Excerpted from The Mover of Bones
by Robert Vivian
Copyright © 2006 by University of Nebraska Press .
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Das Lied von der Erde
Mrs. Clyde J. Parker
Moffut Townsend of Miami, Oklahoma
Missy Sanders, One of the Lost
Marian Keyes Wanders into the Night
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Janitor Jesse Breedlove digs up the bones of a murdered girl in the basement of a church. Why is he doing it? Is he going to find the murderer? Will he find her family? These would be the questions answered in an ordinary novel but “The Mover of Bones”, thankfully, is no ordinary novel. Instead Breedlove gently puts the bones in the back of his pickup truck and goes on what one character calls “a rock-n-roll tour” traveling across the country where he encounters a variety of people, many living on the edge of society who seem destined to meet Breedlove and his mysterious cargo: bones “excavated so that others could feel the shock of her purity.” The novel is told through the voices of the 16 people who are touched, soothed, helped, and healed as a result of their Breedlove experience. Inspired by Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), author Robert Vivian succeeds in creating a symphonic feel to the novel. Indeed the very sound running throughout the book is the high-pitched tone of the girl’s bones “singing”. Each chapter or “movement” features a character in some frame of longing/loss/disappointment/desire. Some of these voices (John Clearwater, Joshua Tidbowl) have the urgent thump of an insistent bass, determined to make us hear his message. Other voices (Mrs. Clyde J. Parker, Lizzie Vicek, Missy Sanders) are hauntingly ethereal, both comforting and heartbreaking at the same time. All are written with shining, masterful prose and a well-observed vulnerability that will make the reader see that we carry each of these characters, in some form, within all of us. Many times the writing brought tears to my eyes. “If I could show them how much I love them and how much their love means to me,” Missy says in her chapter, “they could not hear it with human ears or see it with their eyes, but I stand in the middle of their suffering anyway and they do not know that I am here.” I highly recommend this book but with one note of warning: this is a book that will challenge you. Several of Vivian’s characters take hard looks at the world, describing what may very well be the experience of your own everyday existence, and they ask, “What the f*** are we doing here?” If you recognize that question, if you realize what these characters are talking about is within you, how in the world will you answer it for yourself?