BONES by Sylvia Linsteadt

ARCHAEOLOGISTS took pieces out of three sites on Limantour Estero. Carefully they dusted the bones, the shells, these sharp pieces of other lives. Materials, this is all they can measure, materials buried now for many years under the sand. Some people say sound never dies. These pieces hold the sounds of their makers, the voices of lives now held under the sand dunes, under the oatgrass hills, under the grazing hooves of cattle.

These three sites on the Limantour Estero have names made hard out of letters and numbers, a catalog. No one knows their real names, in the human tongues that cleaned clam shells of their meat, the human tongues that blew into elder flutes, that sang and commanded and died. 4 Mrn-298 west. This is on the shore of the estuary, southwest of the inlet, blue warm salt water. Traces of Coast Miwok life are covered in sand, covered by a road built in 1960. 4 Mrn-298 east. This is northeast of the inlet, sheltered by the dunes. 4 Mrn-216. A hollow surround on three sides by dunes with their light green, sharp grasses. Open to tidal salt marsh to the north. 130 feet in diameter. The northern border floods periodically. The soil is heavy with mollusks and bones. Part of the site was damaged when the spit was bulldozed to make room for houses that were never built.

Pieces of rust orange metal are impossible to distinguish from archaeological metals. These are bomb fragments, exploded and unexploded mortar rounds, from practice bomb runs during World War II. How violence is layered.

How the earth swallows the stories walking on it. Indiscriminate. Material life lasts longer than skin, tells only some things, but not what the skins would have told.

Buried in the earth at Mrn 216, a woman. She is twenty-four inches under ground. Her skull faces southwest, toward Tomales Point, where the dead jump off. She lies on her right side, her legs flexed up against her body, her hands crossed over her face. The leg bone of a small mammal rests between her left femur and tibia. Bone to bone, in death. A big leg and a little leg, both cleaned white. A granite boulder small enough to fit in a woman’s arms rests over her head. A full set of elk antlers above her ribcage. Antlers like a ribcage, like wings pointing upward. She is not alone.

Another grave, but full of ashes. Fourteen inches underground. A full porcelain cup is buried with these ashes, porcelain from the Spanish or the English, porcelain from the wreck of the San Agustin in 1595. The trunks washed up, full of broken Ming porcelain. The ashes are buried with fragments of copper. With polished and carved bird bone, burned clay and clamshell beads. With burned and unburned redwood. With mortar and pestle pieces. The voice of the dead still reverberates gently in porcelain, copper, bone, and redwood as the earth presses their edges, slowly, into itself.

The story of a people rests in the number of their broken tools. Thirty-seven silicate flake tools at Mrn 216, sixteen at Mrn 298 east, twelve at Mrn 298 west.

Some have cores of chert or chalcedony.

Chert is made up of the quartzite skeletons of radiolarian, single-celled animals that live at the surface of the sea and sink when they die, their bodies like knitted seedpods stuck full of silver spindles. Pressed and pressed into stone, they are a deep red, a green.

Chalcedony is a dark shine of yellow.

The tools still buried, they hold the last touch of the hands that made them. No one dusts them of their stories. But no one can tell their stories, either, deep under sand now full of footprints.

Village sites, this archaeology gives you only tongues of bone, antler, fossil, stone.

The lower leg bone of a deer with a fine point like an awl, used to make holes in coiled baskets. Five at Mrn 216, three at Mrn 298 east, thirteen at Mrn 298 west.

Pins made from bird bones.

Fish bone needles, fine enough to use in basketry.

Bird rib needles, sifted out of the sand at Mrn 298 east, two from Mrn 298 west. Slender transparent bones, the tiny echoes of female voices bending over baskets.

The penis bones of sea otters or sea lions. The distal ends are broken off, the ends that life came out of, and polished to smoothness. Ten, none, two.

Forked antlers that are smoothed and chipped, whittled at the tips.

These are all tools whittled for puncture and for passage, to weave together and to break apart.

One whale vertebra, ringed like a redwood stump. One vertebra, still vibrating with the great creaking, the high, sweet echoes, of whale song.

A charm made of yellow-brown sandstone, shaped like a drop of water. There are traces of the fibers that were lashed around the top to make a cord, so it could be hung around the neck, bounce against a sternum, a nipple, a heart. From Mrn 216.

The bowl of a pipe, carved soapstone, small enough to fit in a child’s palm. There is a hole where a bone mouthpiece once sat.

Pestles made of granite and basalt, for grinding and grinding food. Eight from Mrn 216, three from Mrn 298 east, nine from Mrn 298 west. And five carbonized acorns, from the black oak. One carbonized pine nut, one manzanita seed. Crumbs of a life. And they are frozen there in those lives, they can’t die, they remain where they were dropped, petrified in the moment just after.

A pile of glass beads in burial twelve at Mrn 216. Trade beads, made on the island of Murano in Italy. They were used from the 16th to 20th centuries as trade items by the Spanish, by the English, the Russians, by the hundreds searing up through the land during the Gold Rush. Transparent gifts.

Porcelain found in graves, from the San Agustin wreck. One plate is painted with a dragonfly and a spiderweb with six-pointed stars along the borders. On another, a pond with a duck swimming through lotus blossoms and marsh grasses. One sherd, a phoenix. The same world—ducks, dragonflies, stars, ponds, spiderwebs—reflected back, new.

Some plates were shattered on purpose: unusual stones should be struck three times to kill them. Eleven sherds were flaked to the shape of clam disc beads.

An iron compass needle, a copper cone, a piece of wool cloth. Porcelain. Glass beads. These materials remain to tell of the time when Europeans disembarked. They disembarked, brandishing crosses. Bought, sold, killed, fell in love, created. Made lives on top of and around other lives.

Bird bone, elk antler, seed, stone, pestle, sherd and point. These remain and their stories are nine thousand years beyond Sir Francis Drake, beyond the San Agustin, beyond Father Santa María, beyond Mission Dolores. They sink fast into the earth, faster than iron and glass. As the ground presses them to pieces, they first break with jagged edges and sharp ends. To become smooth, this takes centuries, this is always resisted. And then they echo and echo, like the whale vertebra reverberating its once-song.

Sylvia Linsteadt received her B.A. from Brown University, where she studied Literary Arts. She lives on a foggy Bay Area ridge, where she likes to follow the tracks of animals and drink pots of tea.

Her favorite sharp thing is, at the moment, a felting needle.

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2 Responses to BONES by Sylvia Linsteadt

  1. Lale Davidson says:

    Gorgeous language cadence and invented words like “how the earth swallows stories walking on it. Indescriminate.” and “once-song.” Thank you.

  2. Paul Smith says:

    A haunting story about how bones and death unite us all. I enjoyed it.

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