Animal Bones | by John Murphy

7 mins read

We buried him out in the oilfields, where the wells thrum up and down in a steady metronomal pulse. We buried him in the clothes he wore. Into the grave we threw the gun, the sheet we wrapped him in, his passport, his collection of lepidoptera, shards of bathroom tile. Gregory stooped over and, grunting, placed two quarters on his eyelids for the Ferryman. Gregory was a romantic. We stood silently in the windy pre-dawn dark, starlight clouded over, and in our ears the sound of the oilwells plundering the earth, a sound like the lumber of ancient mechanical lizards.

On the way out there in Gregory’s pickup neither of us spoke. The headlights unfolded the dirt road. He was wrapped up in a sheet and put in the bed of the truck next to the piston rods and knots and all the other offal of machinery; tied down with bungee cord, bunched up to the median-facing wall of the truck bed, he looked like a common piece of pinewood protected from rot, something you see in a hundred truck beds. I rolled down the window and propped my elbow up and stared out into the black landscape whipping past. The opposite of a blank canvas, I thought. How many animal bones buried out there? Once they were all creatures.

My purest memory of childhood is of a sheet. A lawn, sunshine, a clothesline, a sheet, a silhouette of a woman, my mother. Hands reaching up over the line to unclasp the linen. I don’t remember it falling, I only remember the hands. And now this memory will be replaced by Gregory rolling him in a bedsheet in the bathroom while I stand in the doorway and watch.

The printer stuck out its paper tongue and I grabbed it and yanked. I had typed up a letter against his instructions, signed it with his name. It said:

I’m going away. I love you both but I have to do this. I’m sorry. Something was missing and I have to find it. Please don’t look for me. I hope one day you’ll understand. Be brave. Be strong. Love always, R.

I placed it on the kitchen table, a corner tucked under the napkin basket.

I took his butterfly collection with us.

We found him in the bathroom. It was done. Several bathroom tiles next to the exit wound had exploded off and littered his body in tiny fragments. I don’t think he intended for that to happen.

“Should’ve used rope,” Gregory said. And after a pause: “We’ll have to come back.”


“To fix this up. Clean this up.”

I called Gregory on my way there. It’s happening, I said. He lived closer by a half hour. He said he’d be over there right away.

Hands trembling. Fear acid in the stomach. Prickles on the arms, the neck. I pulled over to the side of the road next to a plowed field, got out, walked some ways into it and sat down in the dirt, forearms connecting my knees to my cheeks. The nightbloom was thick. Some animal skittered by in the dark fifteen yards ahead: large, maybe a deer. Spits of rain pockmarked the soil.

I didn’t throw up. I thought I would but I didn’t.

Gregory was expecting me. After a few minutes I stood and walked back to the car in the staccato rain.


He called me.

“Tonight,” he said, monotone.

“Tonight? Really? Are you sure you want—”

“I’ve already sent Lindsey and Izzy to their mother’s. It has to be tonight.”

I didn’t speak for a few moments.

“Are you there?” he asked.

“I’m here.”

“Get Gregory to help you. I’ve already spoken to him. He understands, he’s a good man, a bit airy-fairy but you can count on him.”



“Please don’t.”

Silence on the other line.

“Please don’t,” I repeated.


Rich and I sat on a tree stump in the pine forest, our guns on our laps. He told me his plan and what he wanted me to do, while I massaged two clean holes in the pine needle floor. He finished. I nodded. He asked me to repeat back what he had said. I did. He said, Good. We were silent.

On one side of the trees a bird twittered out a sequence of four notes, one long and three short, and in response from the other side of the forest another bird answered, a halftone higher. Their voices filled the soundscape and soared higher and higher until they rose beyond the canopy and beyond the forest and beyond the sphere of human understanding.

John Murphy lives in Virginia. He was shortlisted for the February 2018 Bath Flash Fiction Award. He has also published writing in The Vignette Review, Dragon Poets Review, Montana Mouthful, and Chicago Literati.

Photo by Sam Rupsa