Copyright © 2017
by Robb Hoff
| The obsession to pursue the bones of the long dead for their own sake is
peculiar enough. It’s outright macabre when the pursuer transforms into a
necromancer capable of actual grave robbery.
Once I carved my way through the layers of packaging tape that crisscrossed
the Gaylord container hulking in the middle of my modest living room, I literally
came vis-á-vis with the reanimation of such disturbed pursuit.
The enclosed upturned face I uncovered in that box scared me shitless, forcing
my staggered recoil into the hallway.
I gradually recovered my wits and pulse as the initial shock morphed into
curiosity about the bizarre visage. I returned to the Gaylord and creased back its
lid before I leaned over to assess this bizarre arrival shipped to my living room.
The upturned face with blue-lace agate eyes belonged to a head with a crop of
coal black hair. The head was all that broke the surface of the Styrofoam peanuts
that filled the rest of the container.
I then noticed the orange paper taped inside of the box above the line of
Styrofoam with the following message thickly rendered in black marker:
REAL HUMAN REMAINS
I peeled away the bulging manila folder that was taped beside this notice. The
contents of the envelope started to lift some of the mystery behind the human head
and the rest of the dressed skeleton bequeathed to me. Here is how the letter from
the quirkiest neighbor I’ve ever known read:
"This is your riddle to solve, your resurrection to recite. Do this right and
you'll find delight. Do this wrong, and you’ll be gone. I will not tell you the name
of our friend here. You will have to guess. Guess right, and you’ll gain might.
Guess wrong, and your proof of life after death is gone.
"You should know that the initial attempt to recover the remains of our friend
here was made over a century ago. It failed not because of the lack of effort or
nerve. Those first illuminated ones just removed the wrong set of bones. The
identity of the skeleton they retrieved was never determined, but it was proven a
couple of decades ago that the bones were those of either a woman or
"My college friends and I were enthusiasts of his history for quite some time
before we planned our quest. Still, I couldn’t help but feel that my three
accomplices regarded my proposition to unearth him more as the ultimate in
college pranks rather than a gesture of homage to one of the greatest minds to
have ever infused its spirit upon this planet.
"All the same, the others went through with the grave robbery plan despite our
intensive commitment to our pre-med studies. We gleaned sufficient wherewithal
from our saturated minds, schedules, and financial means to rectify the botched
attempt made on his behalf so long ago.
"The pauper’s grave where he was buried had more of the trappings of a mass
grave, really, like that of a burial mound. Fortunately, we had pinpointed his
location there based upon documentation hitherto unnoticed in the special
collections library at our university. Excavation of his remains necessitated a
descent through some skeletal layers before we found the bones with the
identifiers that could only have been his based on additional documentation we
researched at the university.
"We would’ve never had the chance to recover him had he not been a natural
sciences professor at the first college west of the Allegheny Mountains. His
stature in the natural sciences there and notoriety after he left made him the
subject of sheaves of written material. We were hardly the first people to immerse
ourselves in the fascination that his life compelled.
"Fascination wasn’t enough for me, though, because I felt loss instead of joy
when I cradled his mute skull for the first time. You would think the profundity of
assembling his skeleton from the collection of his bones would have thrilled me,
but it saddened me instead. In the absence of his omniscient eyes, neither
soliloquy nor incantation seemed able to resurrect any meaning capable of
withstanding the glare of daylight.
"I think the others were more relieved that we found him than anything else,
although they were also quite proud of themselves for their unabashed criminal
trespass. However, we also felt an overall unease in our return to school because
we now actually had to decide what to do with our new friend.
"The others merely wanted to reinter him at a more suitable site and perhaps
leave a notice that he was now finally resting in proper peace, but, for me, such a
reburial merely transferred the exhumed ossification of his earthly existence to
another location where the permanence of death remained unchanged.
"I begin to understand then that I wanted much more for him.
"That is why I coordinated something more purposeful with one of my
conspirators upon our return to the university. We drilled holes in his bones and
anatomically reconnected them with twine and epoxy before we reattached his
head and glued balls of polished blue-lace agate into his eye sockets. We then
dressed him with a long-sleeved shirt and sweatpants bearing the university’s
name and logo.
"We also gloved his skeletal hands and disguised his fleshless feet in a pair of
tattered high-top sneakers. His face required some detailed work best left to my
fellow pre-med accomplice, whose medical aspirations centered upon plastic
surgery, but once my cohort had worked his magic to reconstruct a passable
facsimile of cheeks and lips and forehead flesh, I was actually quite in awe of
how lifelike our revived idol appeared.
"The finishing touch was the addition of a crop of my own black hair atop his
bulbous skull, so that by the time we finished with him, he really was more than
just an effigy to me.
"Others at school soon became aware of his astonishing presence within the
house that I shared with my fellow conspirators. Some of the faculty even visited
us and were quite amused by his perceived likeness. An administrator, however,
was not quite so lighthearted when he realized that we had used real human bones
to render our skeletal mascot. We were, in fact, privately ordered to remove him
or else face potential arrest or litigation. Had we not been pre-med students, we
may have not been given that choice.
"No one had ventured to guess that the bones we used were actually his,
though. Had they learned that, I suspect that the administration would have
confiscated him for their own purposes.
"So we decided to comply with the order to remove him, but we had to decide
what to do with him next. One of us wanted to situate him at the campus site
where the wrong bones were reinterred over 150 years ago. The other two wanted
to dump him in the woods and be rid of him forever rather than risk trouble.
"I insisted on taking him instead, which actually cost a few hundred dollars to
secure agreement from the others.
"Some decisions prove fateful. I made such a decision when I assumed custody
of his remains. As my obsession with him started to consume me, I made another
decision to quit school and move so that I could perform the resurrection I was
beginning to believe was actually possible.
"I moved to the same Ohio River town where we eventually became neighbors.
"He had remained there with me ever since then. I never showed him to you or
anyone else for that matter. I just didn’t think anyone including such an open-
minded person like you would quite understand why I had positioned a dressed
skeleton with reconstructed facial features in my walk-in closet. I had also
surrounded him with a shrine of his books. It just seemed to me that the whole
arrangement was seemingly too unsound for others to appreciate in the proper
I can’t say I would’ve understood such an obsession at that time he was my
neighbor, even though I was also quite fascinated by the historical figure behind
the skeletal remains. A few of his books are still printed by public domain
publishers. I had acquired a couple of reprints of his works, but original editions
of his books were out of my price range.
So imagine my surprise when I removed the Styrofoam peanuts of the container
to discover not only the rest of the skeleton attached to the exposed head but also
the shrine of books that my recently deceased former neighbor had acquired for
I decided to do what my neighbor had done and follow some of the instructions
that were included in the rest of his letter to me. I, too, situated the skeletal effigy
in my walk-in closet and arranged the shrine of books around it. I, too, would
enter the closet and shut the door more and more frequently so that I could ponder
aloud the tragic life of our historical friend and the diverse contributions that he
made to the study of North American natural sciences and Native American
history in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
“What could have possibly been going through your mind when you
shipwrecked on the North Atlantic coast?” I asked the silent, dressed skeleton.
“You washed ashore naked and alone without any of the possession you had
brought with you from Italy. What was it that made you decide to do what you did
I hoped that such questioning could perhaps summons some articulation from a
source other than my own, which is what my former neighbor insisted in his
correspondence had happened to him. Invariably, however, the subsequent answer
would be by own speculation based upon accounts of his personal history.
Question sessions like this did expand my knowledge of him and revive details
about his life that I had forgotten, like the fact that he had added his mother’s
maiden name to his surname after the shipwreck so that his Italian actress wife
would presume he was dead and he would never be obliged to her or their two
I enjoyed the internal dialogue in his albeit deceased presence because it
evoked that ongoing biographical recreation of him in a much more intimate way
than just by reading about him. I felt like I was beginning to connect to him in way
that I might discover a means to discern truths about his life that no one else had
uncovered. I even started to record my mock interrogations of him on my laptop in
case I did gain insight into the mysteries that shrouded his life.
But too many of those truths about him remained infuriatingly elusive, and too
much conflicting documentation existed to ever arrive at irrefutable conclusions.
Thus, I grew more aggressive in my inquiries, as though that might somehow prod
a direct response from him:
“Did your landlord in Philadelphia keep your corpse and try to sell it for
cadaver use to one of your many enemies within the scientific community just so
he could collect the back rent that you owed him?”
I remember being genuinely livid another time I addressed him:
“You were a spineless coward! You let them expel you from the university you
helped build without any fight! You were their prized professor until you ruined
your value to them through your carelessness and avarice! I guess you felt like
you were a sham deep down, nothing but a swindler without any academic degree
of your own. It wasn’t just university politics that led to that upheaval in your life,
“If it weren’t for the rules of assignment of nomenclature for species discovery,
your tenure at the school would’ve been the last that anyone ever heard about
you, and you would’ve been as entirely dead to the world then as your
marrowless bones are now!”
But such provocation did not budge him from his silence. So I tried to stir him
in a different way by revealing posthumous recognition that validated him and his
“In 1927, your identification of the Kentucky spotted bass was revived and the
name punctualtus that you supplied over one hundred years earlier was restored
to distinguish it from its black bass cousins – the largemouth and smallmouth
Furthermore, I attempted to animate him with details of prestige bestowed upon
him by those who championed his mission on behalf of natural science study in
“In the last quarter of the 20th century, two naturalists discovered a distinct
member of the darter genus and named it in honor of you. It is the only fish known
with a geographical distribution exclusive to the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Its
species name and your name will forever be the same.”
But even the kudos coursed emptily through the deafness of death.
Several months passed before I abandoned the delusion that I might fully
empathize with him, much less actually summons his skeleton to divulge the
information that I craved to acquire. The dressed remains situated amidst the
shrine of books in the walk-in closet soon gathered dust behind closed doors.
As my obsession with him withered and my livelihood as a roofer became more
intolerable for me, I decided to pursue a different vocation through re-entry into
the orbit of continuing education. Just one week after enrollment, however, the
whole macabre fascination with him usurped me once again when I stumbled upon
an open book on the floor at the community college library. I gaped mesmerized at
the only word my eyes somehow instantly found on that page – his singularly
That coincidence in and of itself might not have altered the course of my life
again, but the passage about him contained on the page of that book enthralled me
with its depiction of the single stroke of fate that ruined him during his lifetime: he
was the victim of a nefarious hoax that was perpetrated by the most renowned
naturalist painter in all of America, who he had tragically esteemed as a friend,
colleague, and – worst of all – a kindred spirit.
The account chronicled was this: while traveling in Kentucky for medical
botany research, he stopped for a stay at the very house of his supposedly
magnanimous contemporary. He was thrilled to learn that his host claimed
discovery of a dozen new genera of freshwater fish native to the Ohio River. His
imminent nemesis had already attained the reputation as a masterful illustrator of
wildlife – particularly birds – and showed him drawings of the previously
Although his soon-to-be nemesis was not an ichthyologist, he had no reason to
doubt the intentions of a colleague and kindred spirit, so after he left the house
and finished his research tour, he submitted the alleged findings to scientific
Those journals published his submissions. He would also later include them in
his own publications with all due credit for the discoveries given to his nemesis
who would thereafter disclose the cruel hoax that all of the illustrations and
descriptions were fictitious concoctions designed to discredit him and reduce him
to a laughingstock within the scientific community of his time.
As the competition among naturalists amidst the uncataloged minutia of a
developing America was fierce, his contemporaries (including his nemesis) were
delighted to see him toppled as the foremost authority of the natural sciences of
the American interior. With his removal from the field, those who despised him
had an easier path to pursue their own respective legacies.
His nemesis would, in fact, gain such widespread influence that he became
inextricably linked with naturalist studies up to the present time. The perpetrator
of the hoax against him was none other than John James Audubon.
Audubon would later indulge in further cruelty against him by portraying him
as a coward, a freak, and an imbecile, but nothing Audubon did could extinguish
his passion for knowledge about the splendor of creation and history evidenced all
around him. His body of work reflects that lust for the diversity of the natural
world, and those that followed him would recognize the dedication of a friend,
colleague, and kindred spirit in their shared labor of love.
His inevitable triumph and the admiration for his perseverance were not entirely
sufficient rewards for him in my mind, however.
I wanted him to have more, much like the previous owner of his remains wanted
him to have in the attempt to revive him somehow from his skeletal state.
My predecessor included details about some of the techniques he tried to
resurrect our stigmatized naturalist from the dead. I resorted to the arcane
literature of spiritism that my predecessor listed in his notes. I tried some of the
same techniques he tried, but I also found one unusual incantation in the literature
that he never mentioned. This technique entailed a ritual to animate the dead
specifically when in the presence of their bones if the deceased had been the
victim of heinous injustice.
This ritual required the use of a beeswax candle with nux vomica seeds within
its wax and the utterance of something so specific about the transgression
committed against the victim that the gravity of the words themselves could
conjure the force of emotional energy needed to reanimate the dead so that the
aggrieved could communicate the evil done against them.
“Devil-Jack Diamond Fish,” I blurted once I had activated the video of my
laptop, then I gaped as the Transylvania University shirt twitched and the legs of
the sweat pants with the Transylvania University logo suddenly rubbed together.
“Four-hundred pounds with scales so stony that sparks would alight from flint
scraped across them,” the voice crackled from a tongueless mouth before he
turned his eyes of gleaming blue-lace agate upon me. “And bulletproof, of course.
What a vicious liar Audubon was to me.”
I was shocked speechless.
“Devil-Jack Diamond Fish,” he then spewed in the wake of my silence. “I paid
a dear price for the amusement of that contemptible cretin.”
“But your work has lived and grown beyond your death,” I finally managed to
“So this is death, too,” a smile graced his fabricated lips. “How long have I
“Nearly two centuries now,” I informed him. “But you have been given a
glimpse of life once more so that you can rest in peace knowing that the hatred
against you during your lifetime has not prevailed. You and your work have
prevailed. No matter how sanctified the name of Audubon has become, your name
will always ring truer and your life and your work will forever inspire a boundless
fascination for those who embrace your spirit.”
“Verily?” returned his crackling voice.
“Yes!” I proclaimed. “Your work was scoffed at and often labeled as fiction by
many of your contemporaries, but they were either ignorant or jealous of your
acumen and creative aim. Others have since championed your cause in your
stead. Your proponents have proven time and time again over the years that your
amazing powers of observation and insight far exceeded those of your more
widely acclaimed fellow naturalists.”
“That is pleasing to know,” his jangled voice replied. “But has the name of
Audubon truly burgeoned so?”
“Yes,” I confirmed. “It has, but you can speak your peace now for others to
“Do you intend to document this exchange between us?” he asked.
“I will remember every word,” I said to him without mentioning the use of
video to record us.
“Memory often invents the parts that are forgotten, does it not?”
“Not this time,” I assured him. “I will record every word in my mind.”
“Very well then,” he began with the wave of his gloved skeletal hand. “I shall
take great pleasure to contribute to any scourge upon the name of Audubon, who I
rightfully identify as a creature as hideous on the inside as he was on the outside.
“Therefore I designate Audubon for posterity as a member of the family
Praevaricari, genus Purulentus, and species anus. That shall be my final addition
to the long list of discoveries I have made. From now on, Audubon will be known
by the common name Lying Pustulant Bung Hole. Are there any other matters that
require my attention?”
"I suppose that will do,” I laughed before I resumed a solemn tone. “But there
is the issue of finally settling your bones once and for all."
“Of course,” jarred his cackle. “But before that is settled, would you kindly
“Certainly,” I replied.
“Can you tell me if all of the genera and species that I documented are now
confirmed as exclusive entities of creation and not just variations of the same
“Not all of your distinctions survived the test of time,” I disclosed to him. “But
you weren’t exactly wrong in your method, either.
“You see, after your death there was Englishman naturalist named Charles
Darwin who established a theory of evolution whereby a process of natural
selection for survival gradually produces species variations in an ongoing
development of adaptation to environment.”
“Fascinating,” resonated his uttered cacophony.
“You anticipated that theory,” I continued with my explanation. “You also saw
farther into the past of Native North American people than anyone else of your
time when you wrote the Walam Olum or Red Score about the arrival of Native
Americans to this continent across the Bering Strait.”
“That appreciation of my interests gladdens me,” his vocal screech preceded
his twist of a smile. “What a peculiar odyssey life was for me despite the
notoriety and impoverishment. Pray tell, what mystery looms ahead of me, now
that I have punctured through the sheath of life once again.”
That I don’t know,” I admitted to him. “All that is in my power now is to give
your bones a more fitting burial than when you died.”
“What happened to my bones after I died?”
“You were buried in a pauper’s grave in Philadelphia,” I told him. “For many
years, it was believed that your skeleton was smuggled from that grave site and
reburied at Transylvania University. Turns out that those bones were not yours,
“Lexington, Kentucky would’ve been a much more fitting resting place for me
than a pauper’s grave in Philadelphia,” he virtually screeched. “But the Ohio
River would be even more to my liking since Ichthyologia Ohiensis was the book
of mine I enjoyed the most.”
“I’d be honored to release your bones into the Ohio River,” I said to him. “I
could weigh them down so that the physical evidence of your life is never
‘Then it is settled,” came his crackle. “The turbid serpent of the Ohio River
shall be my final resting place if it is indeed impossible for me to perpetuate this
unexpected resurrection on earth.”
His crimped lips again twisted into a smile as he stood from his perch within
the high-backed wicker chair and reached to shake my hand. I gingerly took his
hand and followed his lead in our fragile handshake.
“Of course,” he resumed once he released my hand and staggered back to his
seat. “I could always hope that I might reawaken one day in the river murk to
glimpse some species variation midstream in the process of evolving into some
“Who knows? I might even stir to life in the midst of a school of Devil-Jack
Diamond Fish. Now that I know the shadow of its haunt has been lifted forever
from the credibility of my work, I would savor nothing more than the chance to
witness the beast in actual existence. It would wonderfully enhance my own
posthumous reputation and permanently brand that scoundrel Audubon as a liar of
even his own accursed lies.”
“I doubt that there’s that much justice possible in this world,” I grinned at him.
“Only the future reveals itself,” he gasped before his skeleton slumped and his
remains returned to silence.
The wick of the beeswax candle then sizzled. A plume of smoke drifted into
the shape of wings that fluttered above me until the form dispersed against the
closet light. He was gone, but I knew I had recorded our ghostly exchange.
Or so I thought.
Only disconcerting silences followed my own voice and movements on the
playback. I felt crushed at first then bewildered. The state of my own mind
frightened me, but I refused to disbelieve the aberration that I had witnessed.
Disheartened, I spent the rest of that day recreating his part in the dialogue
between us then I proceeded to fulfill the promise I had made to him. I drove to a
nearby boat ramp on the Ohio River with my fishing boat in tow. Under the cover
of night, I disassembled his bones and placed them along with several large rocks
and flat stones into my duffel bag.
I had considered inclusion of some of his books with his bones but opted
against it. He bequeathed such a peculiar collection of literature to posterity that
the loss of even one of his books in this world seemed wrong to me. It is clear to
those who have recognized his work that his penchant for zealously fusing
objective description with inspirationally imaginative speculation about his
findings was his own species of genius.
When I lowered his bones into the slack water behind a bridge piling, I realized
they would probably be disturbed again at some point. Perhaps a femur would
surface here, a rib there, or even his oddly shaped cranium might wash ashore
alongside some bloated, lifeless specimen of fish species he had originally
identified, but the displacement of his remains does not discourage me.
Even though the construction of navigation dams on the river and flood control
dams along its tributaries has considerably tamed the Ohio, it nonetheless teems
with real current and wildlife. His bones rightfully remain as much as part of its
evolution as anything else does. His interests and research took him to many
different places, but there was a significant distinction about the Ohio River for
him: it marked his earliest and most numerous successes and it also proved to be
his worldly downfall through the agency of John James Audubon and his infernal
Devil-Jack Diamond Fish.
I quickly motored back to shore before the break of dawn, content with the
knowledge that I had released his bones into an Ohio River grave that pulsates in
everlasting underwater requiescat…this is truly the best and worst of both worlds
for Constantine Samuel Rafinesque.