She didn’t come from Russia. Latvia, Belarus, Estonia, maybe. Her accent was like murky water and brush fires. It reminded me of home.
In the heat of the city, she kept to herself.
She didn’t balance skulls atop the pickets of her fence and the cottage did not run about the bayous on chicken feet. But the curtains were gray and tattered, and when the light burned in her window at dusk, I stood in the dooryard, looking out across the street and holding my doll.
“Dear,” she said from her crumbling step, beckoning me toward the gate. “Dear, you are so clever with your hands, making your daisy-chains. Perhaps you can help me.”
In my arms, the doll whispered its warning. “Do not go to her,” it said. “She devours girls, she eats their flesh. If you go into that house, you stand to lose yourself.”
The doll was wise, but I was no fool. I was a good girl—my mother advised kindness to all manner of people—and I went across the road to serve the baba.
Inside her cottage, the walls were lined with shelves, and this was where she hoarded her skulls. Real and plaster, animals and people. Here and there, other bones lay in piles, all with names like minor jewels—fibula, tibia, femur.
That first evening, I poured plaster for the baba because her hands shook. She showed me how to peel away the latex edges of the mold. It came easily, like scalded skin peels from a burn.
Later, I went nearly every day, and the doll was wrong. The tasks I performed were not difficult. I was not handing out parts of myself, but would pass tools across the workbench. I would mix plaster in a gallon bucket.
For years, the baba had worked for the county, identifying bodies. She told me of this as she poured tea into painted cups, listing the mysteries she had uncovered. They drowned face-down in tributaries and deltas. They fell from bluffs and buildings, were struck by cars. With deft fingers, she found their secrets, their misplaced lives.
From the highest shelves, the homicide skulls stared vacant and accusing. Their hurts were poems to the cruelty of the world. I came to know them like I knew arithmetic and skipping-rhymes:
White male, forty-seven. Large-caliber bullet wound to the forehead. I could slide three fingers into the hole, edges splintered and ragged. The exit wound was wider, almost wide enough for my hand.
A thirty-year-old woman had soaked in a stillwater swamp for five weeks before they found her, identified by teeth alone, her fingerprints eaten away by time and hungry fish. Her fillings were dark in the yellowed bone of her mandible.
Through it all, the doll sat still and voiceless, until the day the baba gave me a gift. It was the skull of a Mesolithic child, aged seven to ten. Its protruding teeth had already rotted, ground flat from chewing grain. I held it and felt the weight of history.
The doll, with its wisdom, said, “This is the end, then. She has devoured what little innocence there was.”
“You’re wrong,” I said. “There wasn’t any to begin with.” Which may have been a lie.
And the doll was silent.
The baba moved closer, marveling at my hands—how my fingers had grown long, my palms had broadened. She showed me pieces of the Paleo-child’s spine, a tiny structure, delicate as a bird. Already an adult, she said, touching the places where its bones had fused from hard labor and bad food.
I looked about the cottage and knew that I was too much like her. I had no more use for dolls and daisy-chains. I had grown wizened and clever with the consequence of the world, although it had not yet begun to show on my skin.
She held my hand in both of hers, pinching each knuckle, examining each finger.
She said that childhood is cultural and I asked her what she meant. She said that the age of anything is evident if you look closely at its bones.