This essay continues from Part 1, which you can read here.
At some point most evenings I would put down my pen and pull the box of bones towards me. The lid had a small brass hook which fastened to a matching brass eye on the base. I tapped the hook edgeways and, as it fell free of the eye, felt the box give, as if I’d unbuttoned a tight corset. Apart from the foot and the hand, whose bones had been wired together, the bones lay separated and higgledy-piggeldy. I might pick up whatever happened to be lying on the top, a rib perhaps, or the femur. At other times I needed to look more closely at a specific part of the body, and so I would fish around for that particular bone.
The knocking sound of bone on bone and bone on box comes back to me as I recall this. With practice I became good at fishing blind, my eyes on Gray’s Anatomy and one hand in the box, delving. The scapula is like a large empty scallop shell. The humerus and the fibula are long sticks. The humerus is thicker, and knobbled top and bottom. The fibula is more like a giant’s toothpick or knitting needle. A patella sits comfortably in the palm of the hand, and has a satisfying contoured shape, like a large limpet. I noticed, too, the patella’s heft, its stone-like solidity. Most of the rest of the bones in the box didn’t feel this way. They were very light in the hand, almost like holding sticks of chalk. Had they been buried, or cremated, of course, they would be less than chalk by now. They’d be dust. Perhaps beyond dust: loam, clay. Shakespeare has Hamlet imagine Alexander’s bones fully recycled in the earth, becoming clay to stop a bunghole. To what base uses we may return, Horatio.
To this base use? To rattle in a wooden box from student to student; to live out the afterlife in a succession of Dunedin hostels and flats; to lie higgledy piggeldy on a desk in Clyde Street, perhaps, or on a Queen Street windowsill with a view of the Green Belt and kererū and tūī swooping through the trees? I bought the box from a medical student who had pinned a For Sale message on a notice board at my hostel. I went to his flat in Albany Street. I remember that he did not invite me in. We did the transaction on the doorstep. When he opened the box to prove nothing was missing (except, of course, for the skeleton’s left half), a frisson of fascination ran through me. Real bones! Whose bones?
I exclaimed. I touched. I questioned. I was caught up and passionate. He shifted uncomfortably, let me wind down to a halt. The bones, he told me, had probably come from India, but he didn’t really know. He spoke coolly, dispassionately, a trifle disdainfully. The disdain was directed at me. I understood that I had transgressed. Ashamed of my rookie behaviour, I pushed down my natural curiosity about the skeleton’s origins. I heard how naive I sounded, how childish, sentimental and unscientific. I realised that I would have to adopt a completely new approach to the human body if I was to be successful in my chosen career. I needed to detach my self. These were just bones. We are all just bones.
I paid for the bones and the medical student handed me the box. I walked back to the hostel with “my” half skeleton in my arms. I’d like to think I was aware, even if fleetingly, of faint flipping or flapping sensations in my gut and my chest, like tiny wings, like valves: as if valves were fluttering shut deep within me. Not valves I would ever see in an anatomy atlas or on a dissection table, for which very reason it would soon become easy for me to spend many years denying their very existence. These were insubstantial, ineffable and mysterious: the portals through which the subtle intelligence flows, mind to body, body to mind. But if I did feel anything I doubt I knew what was happening. And anyway, I would have regarded it as a sign of progress. There were now two me’s: me ‘before the bones’ and me ‘after the bones’. Those valves were acting like shutters. What was shutting off was a way of seeing.
In his 1907 painting, The Head of the Medical Student, Picasso depicts a medical student with one eye open and one eye shut. The student bears medicine’s doubled vision: an eye for disassociated observation, and an eye for connection and compassion. Open: the outward-looking fact-discerning eye. Closed: the inward-directed eye of insight. An objective eye and a subjective eye. A cool eye and a warm eye. An eye for light and an eye for dark. A vigorous eye, purposeful and clear-eyed: the thinker’s eye. A lazy eye: feeling, intuitive and dreaming. An eye for the part and an eye for the whole. An eye for categorising and diagnosing, a reductive eye, an eye for solutions – the scientist’s gaze. A wondering, wandering eye: exploratory, patient, curious, unfazed by paradox, ambiguity, complexity and confusion – the storyteller’s gaze.
For the year that those bones were in my care, I refused to look at them as anything other than, well, bones. It was as if they had come into existence – abracadabra! – solely for my edification. I did not imagine whose life they had scaffolded, where that person had lived, and whether that life had been happy or sad. My daily chant was origin, insertion, nerve supply, actions, and my fingertips became as fluent on the bones as a blind person reading Braille: transverse process, vertebral body, corocoid process, sternal notch.
And yet, as I remember this, I also remember an event one day during that year which caused my other eye to fly briefly open. It was a rush of playfulness that did it, delicious, teetering, testing, curious playfulness. I won’t go so far as to say nimble. We had finished with the upper limb and were learning the legs, pelvis and spine. Ms Anatomy Wonkham-Strong stomped into the classroom, as usual, and we wilted, as usual. The first indication that things were out of order was when she bypassed the lectern, stomping instead to the corner of the classroom where the articulated skeleton was stored. She grasped the aluminium frame and hauled it to the centre of the room. The skeleton’s feet swept along, six inches off the floor, and its legs and arms rattled. Ms Anatomy Wonkham-Strong parked it next to the lectern and, with the skeleton still jiggling like a marionette, put a firm hand on the top of its skull. She gave it a twist and it pivoted neatly on the pin screwed through its cranium. Now the skeleton faced the whiteboard and we were staring at its back. Ms Anatomy Wonkham-Strong silenced and withered us with her usual pre-lecture stare. She took up her position behind the lectern. “Latissimus dorsi,” she said.
She paused. She stared into the middle distance, and seemed miles away, seeing not us, but some other scene entirely. “La-tiss-i-mus D.” She spoke tenderly, giving “Latissimus” time on her tongue and lips, as if Latissimus D. were an Italian lover, and we braced for the sarcasm that would follow. She stepped out from behind the podium. She threw the whole room a big flirtatious wink and hitched up a hip. “If you can rhumba,” she announced thunderously, “you can walk.” To our astonishment she began, very dramatically, very sensuously, to hip-hitch her way across the floor. That bosom! Those buttocks! You would swear she’d shucked off starched undergarments, popped the buttons on a straitjacket, the way she shimmied. Slowly, sexily, she rhumba-ed the width of the classroom. Whatever song was pulsing gorgeous in her memory was pulsing gorgeous now through her limbs and pelvis. Fooling around or what! When she came to a halt, there was a micro-moment of silence. Then the entire classroom exploded with laughter and applause.
She bowed and straightened up, puffing but beaming. Leaning an elbow on the lectern like a drunk in a bar, she began to tell us a story. The outer carapace we knew as Ms Anatomy Wonkham-Strong had dissolved. Someone else had emerged in our classroom. Not quite Bundlejoy Cosysweet, chosen by Tom to be his new aunt at the end of Russell Hoban’s story, but nevertheless, Ms Wonkham-Strong’s hair had almost bounced, and smiles kept breaking through on her face. Zygomaticus superior and inferior, levator labii superior, risorious – strong and vigorous, there they were!
She had worked in a polio rehabilitation centre in London during one of the post-war polio epidemics. A young woman – about our age, she said, scanning our faces, really looking at each of us – was paralysed in both legs. Ms Anatomy Wonkham-Strong reached out to touch the skeleton’s nearest femur. It swung, a pendulum weight.
“Nothing,” she said, “in the quads. Nothing in the hamstrings. No tibialis anterior, no peroneals, not a flicker in the calves. But what she did have was latissimus dorsi. Thoracodorsal nerve, C6, 7 and 8. It means ‘broad back’.”
We watched her hand trace the muscle’s wide domain, not bony landmark to bony landmark, but as if carressing the contours of someone’s skin. Spine, ribs, humerus, shoulder blades … her palm came to rest on the superior posterior crest of the pelvis. With latissimus dorsi intact, she explained, a person can learn to hitch the pelvis and swing a calipered leg forward. “The rhumba muscle.” Once again she was miles away from us, reminiscing. “So that’s how we taught Evelyn” (again she looked swiftly but intently at each of us) “to walk.”
She had said too much. The spell broke, her carapace snapped into place. Ms Anatomy Wonkham-Strong glared. She stomped to her usual position behind the lectern. She examined her lecture notes and cleared her throat. She looked at us, but not in that seeing way she had, just moments before. We were once again that silly class of callow, comfortable kids. What did we know of paralysis or pain? We’d never seen polio, and most likely we never would. We were still only playing.
“Latissimus dorsi,” she said, witheringly. “Origins, insertions, nerve supply, action.”
It would be nice to be able to say that when I returned to my hostel room that evening I picked up the skull and, looking into its eye sockets, declaimed: “… a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy… Your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar…” Naturally, I did not. I sat down after dinner with Gray’s open on the desk, studied images of the human back, dug around in the box of bones for the pelvis. It’s always been with me though, that glimpse: a young physiotherapist lit up with music and knowledge, teaching Evelyn the hip-hitch and leg-swing of calipers and crutches, dancing her out of the parallel bars and across the gymnasium floor.
Sue Wootton is co-editor of Corpus. She is a writer and former physiotherapist.
- Hoban, Russell. How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen. London: Johathon Cape, 1974.
- Verghese, Abraham. Cutting for Stone. New York: Knopf, 2016. P. 223