The weeds, so late in the season, had been reduced to clumps of tall spindly stalks. They reached almost to our knees as we stalked our prey across the field, tawny spikelets rasping together in the cooling October breeze.
We fanned out slowly. Each taking a few large steps forward and then sweeping one leg forward and across in a low arc, the crunch of tall grass bending and breaking underfoot, while we scanned the ground before us for any sign.
Another few steps.
Another sweep of the leg.
And again, widening our distance.
And there! A flash of white between grayish-green blades of grass. My hand thrust downward, looking for purchase, for something hard and rough wedged into the earth. And then the grip and pull against a resistance from roots above and soil below.
A few moments spent shaking the dirt away before I can properly see what I’ve found.
“Got one,” I shout to the others, “I think it’s a shoulder bone!”
“Good, now look for the rest. We’ll keep going.”
Smiling at the club-like form in my hand, I give it a couple more good shakes, dirt flying from a thousand hollow pockmarks which seem to line one flattened edge, and then I give it a gentle toss into the low grass at the edge of the field.
I make that sweeping motion with my foot again, and then again, until I see more white peeping up from below. More bones to gather, weathered and stained, from the hungry earth.
She does not easily yield that which she has been given.
Throughout my high-school years my parents and I lived next to a small cattle ranch. Its glory days long since passed, the property was held by two elderly ladies, mother and daughter, who kept their small herd more out of habit than anything else.
I fed the cattle and my father sometimes pitched in when the owners needed him for fence repairs or brush removal.
There were never more that a couple dozen head wandering the fields in those days, and there was more than ample space for them to roam and graze. As I recall, there was only one small field closed off to them: the grassy crown of a wide hill, hidden back behind the main house and the barn, surrounded by trees and left to seed.
We called it the bone yard.
From time to time, one of the herd would die, usually of age, and the owners would hire someone to throw a chain around its neck and drag it off with a tractor, into that lonesome circle.
There the bodies were transformed, by scavengers and time, into a loose collection of bones, picked clean and scattered across the area of flattened grass where the carcass once lay.
Still more time would pass and the bones, bleached by sun and rain, would begin their slow progress into the earth.
Or maybe they where dragged downward.
Certainly the roots seemed loath to give them up.
And those old bones might have vanished into the ground forever, had my father not volunteered to run the P.T.O Spook-House at my High School’s fall carnival.
Halloween in a small towns of Texas, populated as they tend to be, by the more evangelical flavors of the Christian faithful, can be a complex bit of business.
Oh the people do chatter about paganism and devil worship, and everyone is doing it, and everyone knows that everyone else is doing it, and they all pretend that they are doing something else entirely.
It’s very much the way they deal with sex, except that sometimes there are costumes involved…,
…so, I guess it’s exactly the same.
Halloween is therefore rebranded as a “Harvest Festival” or a “Fall Carnival”, which in an astonishing coincidence, includes costumes, bobbing for apples, a scavenger hunt, and a spook-house.
Oh, and a cake-walk!
And I can tell you, having participated in both, that nothing so closely resembles a poorly managed Neo-Pagan rite, than a cake-walk in small town Texas. Particularly when the participants are trying ever so desperately to avoid the appearance that they might be involved in a dance of any description.
And that might make a good topic for another day…,
…but I was trying to explain why we were out in a field gathering animal bones.
That’s no great mystery really.
If you live in the country and are looking for props to decorate a spook-house, why pour good money into a bunch of cheaply made plastic crap, when there are entire skeletons in some neighbors field that can be dressed up in spiderwebs and a blacklight.
Because bones., skeletons…, the dead…, these things are frightening.
Or so I am given to understand.
A lot of time has passed since that day spent with family, harvesting cow bones under an October sky. And in that time I have often been drawn to the fields of the dead.
In recent years have walked across hills dotted with dolmen and crouched in the heart of mighty passage tombs. These are the necropoli, the cities of the dead, built by our prehistoric ancestors to house and honor the dead.
In my college days I spent a lot of time in the special collections section of the University library. There I found old property survey maps that showed every graveyard in a five county area around my home.
Many of these I visited, when I could find them at all; so many have become forgotten, resembling little more than a weed-choked jumble of markers, the names and dates long worn away. Still others were in surprisingly good condition, considering their remote locations.
I walked these places by day, looking at the names, the dates, words love and loss and hope etched in stone and left to us – to remember, or to forget.
On rare occasions, when the whim took me, I would visit at night. And I’ll confess that on more than one of these nocturnal visits, I brought a date.
There is something primal and powerful about wandering among the graves with only the moon and a flashlight to guide you. I do not recall ever experiencing the supernatural dread which people attach to these places, but the feeling of nervous excitement they generate is, happily, both contagious and easily directed toward other ends.
In my experience, however, the dead do not linger in the places where we lay their bones, but are far more occupied with that point in space where their existence slipped from this world into that other realm which parallels our own.
Perhaps those shades would spend more time there if the living were more frequent visitors by day…,
I drive through my neighborhood and I see yards decorated with plastic skeletons and faux grave stones. We erect pretend graveyards on the lawn to inspire seasonal fear, and we avoid actual graveyards like death itself lingered there.
Is this what people are worried about, that the dead are going to suddenly spring up like skeleton warriors from the Hydra’s Teeth in an old Ray Harryhausen movie?
Did you know that in the 19th Century, cemeteries were treated like parks? People strolled the paths between the stones, they picnicked on the wide green lawns within sight of the markers of family and friends.
In the early days of the Roman Republic, the dead were buried in the homes of their family, where they could be properly honored and cared for by those who loved them most in life.
We think of ourselves as an advanced culture, sophisticated in ways that the ancients could never hope to understand. And yet as we have advanced, we have drawn ourselves further and further from the fields of the dead. Empty bones have become objects of dread and ancient feast days must be rebranded so as not to offend those with delicate sensibilities.
Say what you will about the dead, the living are just weird!