I walk through a stand of trees, gauging as to where a good place would be to set a tree blind next year. The woods are chilly from a passing cold front, the air violent and raw, snow piled on the ground, with only small bits of green able to come up for air. I savor the crispness of the air, the breeze surging through the woods, its floor littered with fallen branches and the footprints of unseen deer, soft white shelter from the outside world.
I'm probably the only one out here. I see, there in the soil around an old tree stump, the remains of a small animal. A raccoon, from the shape of the skull.
How long had it lay here? Long enough for the bones to bleach to soft white, the flesh now part of the earth, the eyes, dark orbs of history. The shape was benign as if the creature simply stopped quietly and died, unlike other bones one finds in the wild, the animals of the tar pits, trapped in the primordial ooze in the posture of shock. Other animals dropped while running, the bones scattered by predators til the remaining pieces are simply laid out in a question mark.
These bones were in the shape of quiet sleep, as if the animal did simply lay down after a life fully lived, waiting for death to close the distance between them.
It only takes a few days for an animal to decompose during the summer months, likely when this creature took its last breath. Why I've seen hunters lose good game, simply because in the occasional hot temperatures of an Indian summer, a kill left too long can turn quickly. Only a few days to return to bone, to the simplest components of life, carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, sulfur. Only bones left, pressing into the soft welcoming earth, the soil a rich bed of late summer.
Sometimes all I find are bones, laid bare to the elements, or burned clean. With the right temperature all things will burn, yet bone itself stubbornly resists all but the hottest of fires. Even when all the carbon is burned from it, bone will still retain it's shape. An insubstantial ghost of itself, it crumbles easily, the last bastion of the person's being transformed into ash. Yet in that ash remain large pieces, calcined and with the consistency of pumice, yet when held in the hand, almost seeming to posses a trace of warmth from within their core.
But even if they can not speak to me, sometimes what is left gives us a clue. Who was this person? In what manner of violence was their end? It's a world few wish to visit, yet it drives me, the mystery, the puzzle . . . . perhaps because I realize that the final mystery is ourselves.
The use of physical evidence to build a theoretical model of a given crime or accident scene involves a number of sciences, the chemistry of death, and the engineering of the body. Even in the cold quiet of the wood, I stop and survey the scene, making mental notes in my head. How long had it been laying here? Bones, especially ones that have burned, do not give up a time of death. For that you need to trace the extent of decomposition in volatile fatty acids, in muscle proteins and amino acids, all which are normally destroyed in a hot fire. Even in the woods, simply surveying my environment, my brain sifts through ideas, time lines and theory based on simple white bone.
I walk among the dead, sometimes without cause and sometimes for reason. Treading carefully on the small broken artifacts of life, part pathology, part engineering, going beyond either. For after the mechanics of motion have stopped, after human physiology has broken down, and what once was animated life, a heart that loved, a soul that dreamed, is reduced to flesh or ash, decay or dried bone, the dead will still bear witness.
They can tell me a story.
I look quietly at the remains, as I listen to the audible, celestial stillness of stars coming out. I stop for a moment, perfectly still in the quiet, watching the ink seep from the sky overhead while in the east, the sky is all blood and fiery sky. I see a hawk dive down black and clean as a shadow. It's wings cleaved the shimmering air and the rising air was the pristine lift that moved it forward, the perfect stream in which it swam, and dwindled and vanished, having killed not for hate or profit, but simply to eat, taking not any more than it needed.
Time to leave the woods, to get back to reports that wait. Back to bones that wait to tell me their story in front of the night fire, as my own heart, beaten and darkened by soot, contains in its core, one small piece untouched, that has the capability to smolder back into life. I leave the woods as the moon comes up, there standing at the shore a heron, its reflection the only thing moving on the rippling surface. It waits and waits, in defiant countenance. Waiting for what? Dinner, or simply the water to respond to his presence. Maybe it waits because fate does not wait for him.
I hurry back to the house, there waiting in the dark. The night doesn't frighten me. What is night but short space when the dark dims so soon, and the echo of a owl's wings brush against the windowsill? Just a short interlude in the sun's dance. Despite the bitter cold am home out in these trees, in evenings that draw up into warm folds of dark cloth against my cold legs. Always looking, aware of all around me, as I am trained to be I watch the trees, a few stubborn leaves still attached, a brace of tattered flags against ancient wood, branches a canopy of familiar order.
We will all die, but we will not all truly live. In the studies that I chose, I do my part to see that perhaps just one person inherits more than the wind and the dark. And in that, though I sometimes walk home with the night surrounding me, I live fuller, breathe deeper, and see well, my place in the order of things.
For I'm aware that even in these words there is danger, a falling tree branch, a fall of your own, there out in the cold that would kill before dawn, with temperatures at the minus level. Life doesn't always go out in a burst of brilliant light or a blaze of glory, sometimes you are simply looking up at the sun when fate reaches out to bite you in the behind. You expect death to arrive with fanfare, but instead it usually comes in the most ordinary of circumstances. The Roman goddess Fortuna grabs the remote and changes the channel. Click.
Nothing left but thought and bone.
So I continue to walk these woods, walk through this life, taking great risks and getting bruised in the process. It's a sense of communion with the infinite, where for a moment anyway, the world has that sense of equilibrium, the ordered composure of life and death, of which we all play our part.
The sound of a car, and a flash of headlights, illuminates my form, startling the heron into flight. A neighbors teenager, racing around the corner of a rural road, not always wise on an ice slicked surface. I stay back until he is well past, then wander in, some coroner reports to study, other reminders of risk not won. Back behind me in the woods the bones of a small animal lay gently on the ground, while snow falls like tears outside of its earthen tomb, falling with the weight of astonishing clarity.
Be careful out there, for there are lines, that you should never cross, for once you do, when you go over, you can not come back.