TW: relationship violence
Permineralization (n): the process of fossilization involving deposits of mineral-rich groundwater seeping into the cracks of buried organisms and solidifying
We find my fossils in Glen Rose, Texas. My team, a group composed of one geologist, two graduate students, and one paleontologist, has only just set up camp at the cusp of spring and summer, beating out the Texas heat without cracking our delicate tools on the winter-frozen earth. Our tents and trailers, housing maps and articles and marked-up theses, sit on the east bank of the Paluxy River, made famous for its prehistoric footprints and deposits of carbon-preserved bones. The last of the spring rains was meant to have passed, but in late May a storm blows in and one of the high banks collapses under the ensuing flood.
My bones creep out from the seeping soil, dwarfed even by the claws of the ancient lizards embedded in the same bank. The geologist watches the bank collapse while rain pours in curtains off the brim of her sunhat. She sees my rib jut out of the ground, swiftly washed clean in the downpour. The next day, when the sun pulls all the new moisture back into the air, the four of us gather around the trio of misplaced fossils — my rib, my radius, my mandible. The graduate students hold tarps and tools meant for massive lizard bones and wait for my instructions. “I think these are for me,” I say.
Four years ago, a grieving widow searching for meaning in the rich carbon deposits of New Jersey uncovered the bones of her recently deceased husband, perfectly preserved as if they had been caked in dirt for sixty-five million years. Eighteen months after that, two geologists found the Late Cambrian remains of their stillborn child nestled in British Columbia. Last year, a team of four burgeoning paleontologists in California found their missing fifth, the would-be leader of their expedition, buried beside the massive vertebrae of a Brachiosaurus. DNA tests are now regularly stored in every paleontological lab, though they are still hardly necessary.
My team leaves me alone with the bones, moving on to the newly revealed dinosaur fossils we have come for. I’m meant to be with them, but instead I sit staring at my rib and the three cracks beneath a blacklight. They glow whiter than the rest of the calcium, the work of crystalized minerals mistaking the old wounds for something worth fixing.
“What will you tell them?” you asked me while we waited in the emergency room lobby.
“You can’t say nothing. They’ll want an explanation.”
I looked at you, saw the fire that still simmered in your eyes. You’d tried so hard to smother it after I’d fallen over the chair, after I’d thrown my hands over my head, palms up in offering to you. “You’re fine, you’re fine,” you’d murmured as you’d helped me into the car. I was already trying to reassure you, but each “not your fault” was undercut by the pain in my chest every time I breathed.
Now the fire was back. Now that you had time to think of all the questions the doctor would ask me, all the answers I could give — your fingers curled around the car keys still clutched in your palm. “I mean,” I started, measuring each word, “that I won’t— I’ll tell them I fell.”
“You did fall.”
“I did fall.” Even when I said it, your thumb rubbed over the buttons of the car keys. I peeled my hand from where it was pressed to my ribcage, trying to hold everything inside. I raised my palm to your cheek. “I did fall.” I swept my thumb along your cheekbone to hide the way my fingers trembled.
I sat on the examination table, you in the chair by the door, while the doctor showed us the X-ray on the computer monitor. The damage: three stark lines arching through my third left rib. I stared at the pattern of cracks — two that nearly touched but never split the bone and one that broke the tip clean off. I wondered how it could possibly heal, if it would float amidst my organs for eternity.
The doctor pointed to the three cracks and handed me a prescription for pain medication that would end up crumpled and forgotten on the floor of the car. A nurse came in with an ice pack. You pressed it over the blossoming bruise that already covered nearly half my chest. I didn’t let you see me flinch away from the cold that slithered through the thin skin over my ribcage.
The fear never seems to grow stale, the cold creep of it up from my lungs even now. I remember the way you lunged at me, for the first time, fingers curling while you reached for my hair or maybe my throat — you couldn’t manage to get hold. I don’t remember the tumble backwards over the chair, how I fell so perfectly to shatter this piece of myself, but I remember the silence while the pain settled inside me. You had been so loud, a storm raging, and then you were on your knees in front of me begging forgiveness. And what could I have done then but give it to you as you helped me into the car.
I pull the radius from the bag next. My wrist aches when I lift it into the light, a dull throb I’m familiar with, but the discolored cracks across the styloid, the way this thick end of the fossil is rough and misshapen, confirm the bad heal, the neglect.
You gave me this in front of our friends — or your friends, by then. Everything that was mine quickly became ours, and then yours. The car, the house, the people. You were so charming and I was so very tired, so why shouldn’t I give everything over?
“It’s time for them to leave,” you said, leaning against the sink while I rinsed off the dinner plates.
“We’re going to play Scrabble.”
It was the sort of question you asked when you were already angry. The three of them were laughing in the living room, and I heard the rattle of wooden letters on a tabletop. I was running out of dishes, and you were reaching into the sink, and there was a knife covered in gravy and gristle and I thought you were reaching for it.
You snatched my wrist when I darted for the knife. The plate in my free hand clattered into the sink. “Wait—”
“What are you doing?”
This was also the sort of question you asked when you were angry, but it didn’t come from you this time. We both looked up. One of my coworkers, another doctoral student, stood in the walkway, staring at your hand on my wrist. Something was already broken.
You released my wrist slowly, lifting a dirty dish out of the sink instead. “Clumsy,” you said, bumping your hip against mine gently.
Her eyes held mine for a long moment, a question. I wanted her to ask it aloud, but what she said instead was, “C’mon, dishes? Now? Let’s play a game.”
You put the dirty dish back and slid your arm around my waist. Your hand was still damp and it soaked through my shirt. “I think we’re actually gonna have to say goodnight. I have an early morning.”
Your thumb rubbed a cold line against my side. Once, this would have been a line pulling me from a violent sea. Now I could feel the threat in how you pressed hard against my skin. My wrist still throbbed in the sink. “Next time,” I promised.
You took a shower after they all left, and I wrapped my swollen wrist in a dish towel packed with ice. It was only half melted when you came into the bedroom and pulled it onto your lap to examine. “Just a sprain,” you said. I’d seen enough broken bones to know you were wrong.
I pull out the mandible. This wound, at least, healed where it still sits beneath my skin. I trace the cracks at the corner of this lower jaw, pale and dusty. Once, so long ago, you touched this part of me so reverently, as if I would shatter. I remember your fingertips skirting along the line of my jaw. I remember thinking I’d discovered something entirely new in this feeling. I remember your palm pressed so softly to my cheek when you kissed me. There was a time when this was the only kind of memory I had of you.
We sat in the car on the side of the road, you always in the driver’s seat and me a passenger, half turned away from you, unmoving. The sound of the pounding rain muffled the rumble of the heater. There were cars rushing by every few minutes, high-beams flashing off when they noticed us, shaking your car on its suspension. Perhaps if I sat still enough, you would forget why you were mad. Perhaps if I was very, very quiet, the danger would pass. But I could never be quiet enough.
This fight had begun slowly, which was an anomaly itself. I often compare your rage to the energy that bursts from dying stars, instantaneous and ferocious and blinding. I’ve always been good at romanticizing the way you hurt me.
But this anger was different. It began cold when you woke to the sun shining in your eyes because I’d forgotten to pull the curtains the night before. It warmed throughout the day, each tiny thing building it, until we were sitting on the side of the road in a rainstorm and I thought maybe the heater isn’t on at all and it’s only you. “Get out of the car,” you said.
We were on our way to one of your work parties, or one of your family dinners, or maybe some of your friends had mentioned they hadn’t seen me in a while and why don’t y’all stop by for game night? And you always hated these things, you hated sharing me, you said, and I never really wanted to go to them but here we were, for me, because of me. “We can just turn around,” I murmured.
“I have to go to this thing.”
“Then I’ll get a Lyft from their house.”
The pounding on the roof was so loud I thought it might be hail. The words came out slowly, thoughtfully, as if that would soften their effect. “Baby, I can’t—”
You reached across the center console and shoved me hard against the door. “Get out.”
“It’s raining!” Petulant. Stupid. My fingertips had already gone numb with fear, but still I fought.
That’s when you grabbed my throat. I flinched away, as I had done before when you’d grabbed me this way. You would release me, as you always did. Except you didn’t this time, only tightened your grip, and I was trapped in that front seat, pinned between you and the door I refused to open. You began to crush my windpipe.
I twisted, towards my seat, towards the door, away from you. You pressed me into the crevice between my seat and the window, only my pulse pushing back against your thumb. I grabbed your wrist, pulled at it uselessly, and then dug in my nails. This must have surprised you more than anything, because you flinched away, lost your grip, and I grabbed the handle of the door. You clutched at my face as I all but fell from the car, and in that frantic struggle you struck me. I felt the break as I had felt all the others, slowly, like a spreading heat, but this one came with a blossoming of blood in my mouth. I stumbled from the car, heard you slam the door behind me, and spun to spit the mouthful of red at your tires as you pulled away.
There is a scattering of crystalized minerals along the left point of the mandible, jagged like lightning-struck earth. I had been in awe of my remade rib, the way the detached tip had reformed to its anchor. Now this: the intricacy of the break, the way it shattered and came together again.
I heard the ambulance through the storm, from my place huddled in the ditch, wishing the water would rise faster and drown me. The blaring siren and flashing lights passed me as I watched, but by the time the police cruisers followed, I had crawled from my pathetic state and hailed down one of them. I thought you had called them for me, even then, after all that.
They brought me to you and your crumpled car. I rode in the ambulance beside you. No one questioned why I was coated in mud, drenched to the bone, clutching at you with every apology I’d offered over the years. I wondered for so long if you did it on purpose, as one final punishment.
When I emerge from the tent, the unwieldy bags of your bones hugged to my chest, the rest of the field crew looks at me and then everyone looks away. There is an unspoken relief in the way they dig now: at least it wasn’t one of us, at least now we’ve found these bones we can dig without fear, we can give him space, we can forgive this interruption because at least it wasn’t us.
I overturn the bags in the river. The others watch me do this. I can feel their eyes on my shoulders as I shake out any fragments or minerals that might remain. The river, wild and frothy from the storm, swallows the bones — the fossils — hungrily. I see them spiral into the murk for a moment and then they disappear. Perhaps they’re swept up. Perhaps they settle into the riverbed to be buried again. I fold the bags and kneel beside one of the graduate students, pick up a trowel, begin to dig.