The first owner was a tourist, an American kid, who was out seeing the wide world. The skull seemed to glow when he picked it up from a dusty corner of the seller’s table. The Tibetan sun was hot. He was tired. Leeches had sucked his legs earlier in the day: that was how traveling was, a coalescence of small traumas and triumphs. Finding a treasure like this was undoubtedly a triumph.
“A real skull. Can you believe someone’s brain was in here?” he told his traveling companions. They passed it from hand to hand to hand. Their eyes shone.
It was just the top of a skull—there was no mouth, no nose, no eyeholes, just the bleached cranium. Its underside was lined intricately where veins once pumped blood, and a ridge ran from the middle to the back, remnants of the forebrain. He ran his fingers up and down the concave oval, which reminded him of a topographical globe, the inside of one at least. It was somewhat slim—the person must have had a narrow brow—and inlaid with a silver and copper snake-like pattern. Adorning the base were several copper circles, each with its own bullseye.
He had never seen anything like it, not at any market throughout his travels in Brazil, Mexico, the Czech Republic, Russia. So he haggled with the seller, an old woman whose face pinched when he pulled out a calculator to show the price he wanted to pay. After an initial protest, she accepted his offer, and in that moment, he felt like he belonged to this place somehow.
A couple evenings later, drunk on Lhasa beer, he put the skull on his head. It rode atop his hair, just a bit too small to fit perfectly. He closed his eyes and concentrated as hard as he could. Maybe he could somehow see what the skull’s owner had seen; maybe he could transcend his own life and all its banality. But then somewhere down the hallway, a door slammed, and he was struck by the ridiculous nature of what he had just done. Though he was alone, he looked around, making sure no one had seen him.
During the remainder of the trip, he devoted his time to visiting several monasteries: Ganden, Drepung, Johkang. At Johkang, he saw a woman, another American, who was crying. He sat beside her silently, felt like he should touch her but didn’t.
“Are you OK?” he said finally.
“I’m just so sad,” she said. “I can’t help it. I’m just so sad. And the fact that I’m sad makes me feel guilty,” she paused. “Look where we are.” Her hand moved in an arc across the yellow and gold peaks of the building’s roof. She turned toward him, a piece of her chemically treated blond hair sticking to her lips. Thin trails of black eye makeup ran down her cheeks.
“Did you know that some monks are put out on top of a hill when they die? It’s called a sky burial. Their bodies are left outside—no casket, no grave—so that birds and the sun and the rain eat at them until there’s nothing left.” It was the first thing that came in his mind to say. But it made sense somehow. What is the point of all this? he found himself wondering. Then he felt dumb for even thinking that. It was cliché to be so existential, too ex-pat, too morose. Still the question would circle his mind for the remainder of his time overseas.
“Thank you for that,” she said after a minute. She patted his knee gently and turned her face upward. The sun hit her skin, alighting her tears. A moment later, she walked away without another word. He stared after her until she disappeared completely.
At the end of his travels, he wrapped the skull in a worn Crass t-shirt, packed it in his suitcase, and tried to forget how big the world was.
At home, he put it on a floating shelf, the glory of a white wall. At parties, his friends posed for photos under it. The couch beneath it was gold, and the colors made for a good composition. Some of these photos he hung on his refrigerator with silly magnets from the countries he had visited, magnets that became so familiar they no longer meant anything at all.
After she broke up with him, she stole the skull. She hadn’t planned on it. But did it anyway. She took it slowly off the shelf where it had sat for a long time—a prop, a very male thing—and put it into a canvas bag. He was asleep.
On the drive to her new apartment, she thought about what she’d say to him if he asked where it was. In one scenario, it crashed to the floor as though the hand of the ghost had knocked it from the wall. In another, she told him that a nearly imperceptible earthquake had occurred. Didn’t he watch the goddamn news ever? In yet another, his old bitch of a cat suddenly jumped up and swatted at it. And finally, one of his friends must have taken it. When was the last time he really noticed it being there?
It turned out he didn’t ask. He didn’t call. She didn’t call. They never spoke again.
In her new apartment, the skull sat on an expensive coffee table made of acacia. She had ordered it from a high-end store, one that advertised sustainable goods, which made her feel justified in spending so much money.
A few months after moving in, she started seeing a man from Liberia whom she met at a dance club. In Liberia, he had been a lawyer, a lawyer who once owned a house with a gate and hired help. He didn’t say too much about why he came to Minnesota, and she didn’t ask because she wanted him to tell her on his own when he was comfortable. In Brooklyn Park, he was a legal secretary, a job that had taken him considerable work to procure, though it was beneath his education and skill-level.
They often spent time at her apartment, not his, because he lived with a family, not his, and it was easier to be alone at her place. After their consummation (which happened on the couch in front of the expensive coffee table), he took notice of the skull. He picked it up and turned it around and around in his broad palms.
“Why would you have this? Why would you want something like this?”
“I took it from an ex. I just think it looks cool.”
He stood and pulled on a pair of pressed cargo shorts, no shirt. It was hot for May in the upper Midwest. Sitting back down on the edge of the couch, he leaned forward, elbows balanced on the precipice of his knees.
“Does it scare you?” she said. She felt very smart. “Are you afraid?” She poked an index finger in his side.
He slid down the couch and away from her, and when he looked at her, she knew she was being stupid. But still he smiled. He seemed mature, she realized, much more mature than she was.
“I’m not afraid of anything,” he said. “I’ve seen too much war.” He put the skull down, kissed her on the forehead, and went home shortly thereafter.
When he left, she Googled “Liberia and war.” When finally she stopped reading and watching, she lay down but could not and did not sleep.
The next day, groggy and anxious, she wrapped the skull in a pillowcase and put it in her car. She was heading to Wisconsin to visit family. He had offered to come with, but she found an excuse not to let him. The truth was that most of her family was racist in a very Midwestern way. (“That man was just so…so black,” her mother had once said after being helped at the deli counter at their local Festival Foods. “I’ve never seen him here before.”) She was embarrassed of them and had been for a long time.
Once she got to Eau Claire, she pulled up behind the apartment building she had lived in during college, and gently put the pillowcase in a dumpster on top of some resident’s stained and fraying sweater. Then she drove to her parents’ house, bombs bursting, rifles firing in her mind the whole way there.
It was spring in Wisconsin when he pulled the pillowcase from the dumpster. If you haven’t seen Wisconsin in spring, you’ll never understand. It’s life after death. It’s the unbridled speech of green. It’s plum blossoms and lilacs and dandelions. It’s a goddamn paradise. And it’s so short.
He hadn’t been dumpster diving; he was just dumping his garbage. But the clean pillowcase on top of the heap stuck out, and he took it. He had been day drinking and drinking against his doctor’s orders at that. It was spring in Wisconsin. He felt too happy not to drink.
As he felt the weight inside the pillowcase, he remembered being little. He remembered being in the forest as a boy. There was so much: kingdoms of pine, abandoned treasures, wild berries. He closed his eyes as he pulled the smooth object from the cloth. When he opened them, he was silent. He looked over both his shoulders to be sure he was alone. He was momentarily afraid someone would burst out into the parking lot and accuse him of stealing it though it had been thrown away. He was carrying a pistol in his front pocket—a little .22, his newest acquisition. He put his hand in his pocket and rubbed his fingers down the length of the gun. He had no intention of doing anything with it, but he liked being armed, just like he liked being drunk.
His ex-girlfriend showed up that afternoon, a real do-gooder but still somewhat of a drunk, still kind of like him. He brought out the skull right away. She liked weird things. That’s why they had done so well together, at first anyway.
“Whoa,” she said, her pale hands cradling the skull like one might a priceless vase.
They were listening to Lindi Ortega on the stereo, and he absently strummed along on an acoustic guitar that had a hole in the side. No one really knew how the hole had gotten there, but it still sounded fine.
“It’s so beautiful,” she said, setting the skull down gently.
He felt a surge of love for her; his pit bull Syd went to her side and licked her hand.
“Let’s take Syd for a walk. Let’s get out of the house,” she said.
On the walk, he saw her staring at his pocket, the one that held the gun. He stopped running his hand over it when he picked up on her staring, but it was too late.
“I know you’re not playing pocket pool, so what the hell do you have in there?” she said.
He pulled the butt of the gun out, just enough for her to make out what it was. The metal shone hot and bright in the sun.
“Why the fuck are you carrying that, Jack?” she asked. She stopped walking; she knelt and put her head on top of Syd’s. “And how much have you had to drink today?” She rubbed the nubs of the dog’s cropped ears.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. Then he took a drink from the bottle of purple Gatorade he was carrying, which was fortified with Phillips.
“I worry I’m going to have your skull sitting on my shelf someday,” she said, adjusting the dog’s collar so that the small bone-shaped tag hung under its neck.
“Oh Jesus, give me a break,” he said. “It’s a beautiful day.”
Back at his apartment, she took a photo of him as he lay in the grass outside. The warm ground. The spin of her over him. Then she disappeared. When he woke, it was almost Sunday night. His head was pounding, and he had to throw up three times before he could keep anything down. He’d have to go back to work at the shop again in the morning, no matter how much he didn’t want to see Rusty or Joey or any of the other guys and fix SUVs and vans for happy families.
When he set a glass of water down on the nightstand, he noticed the skull sitting there. A post-it note was stuck to its forehead: “I am Jack. Hear me snore,” it said.
The next evening after another brutal, shaking day at work, he stared at the skull for some time. The note, too.
Then he went out to buy another liter of vodka, Karkov this time, at Walgreens.
It was springtime in Wisconsin, and by fall his grieving family had discarded the skull at Goodwill along with the rest of his things no one was sure what to do with.
The skull never made it to the shelf; rather, it fell into Robbie’s hand. He caught it just before it would have hit the asbestos tile floor and undoubtedly shattered. He was at in the backroom where they sorted donations. He liked the way the skull felt in his hand. Something about it made him feel powerful. He wondered if this was what it was like when his brother pulled out the shotgun at school and started shooting. He wanted to ask his brother. But his brother had turned the gun on himself at the end.
He climbed down the ladder and looked at the skull underneath the obtrusive florescent light. The copper and silver lines shined. He knew he would take it without asking. It wasn’t the type of thing you asked for. You took it. It was almost like the skull wanted you to.
At the end of his shift, he put it in his backpack and walked out the door. His palms were sweaty until he crossed the threshold. Once outside, he began to run, and he ran all the way home. It was early fall, and the cool air felt good on his hot skin. Just after 7, darkness was falling. It was dark enough that the windows of the upstairs apartment he shared with his mother were beginning to glow. He could see her walking into the kitchen, probably mixing a 7 and 7, and then moving down the hallway like a ghost. Most nights she spent awhile in his brother’s room with the door closed. He didn’t ask her what she did in there. Maybe she was looking for answers. Maybe she just felt too bad to cry in front of him again.
Though bound by duty, he didn’t want to go into the apartment. Why couldn’t they have just moved? Why did they have to stay after it happened? He turned from the apartment and started walking away. He didn’t know where he was going, just that he wasn’t going home.
By the time darkness was full, he was at the edge of town, where the forest met the streets. He walked into the pines. The air was even cooler in there, which made him nervous, but he liked it, too. Something about the solemn nature of pines appealed to him. He found a good place to sit where he could still see the street and set down his bag. He stared at the long rows of trees, hallways of bark and green, picking up pine needles and letting them fall through his hands.
He took the skull out of his bag, traced its lines with his fingers. Then he held it up so that if it had a face, he would be staring into the eyes. Like a burst of light, a face formed in front of him. It was a face with fine features and dark eyes—eyes that were kind but impenetrable. Eyes of service, they seemed. Reflexive eyes. He felt calm when he looked into them. They were sitting there together, two men, with something between them. It would be easier to talk to this ghost than to his mother or to the high school counselors he had been mandated to see after it happened. The ghost knew more, had seen more. The ghost wouldn’t say things like, Have you thought about what you can do that’s healthy when you are feeling angry? The ghost person was beyond that.
Feeling a sense of urgency, he thought about what he wanted to say, what he wanted to ask this thing in front of him before it inevitably disappeared, the spell shattered.
A waning silver moon rose into the night sky. Its light made where he sat feel like a room, a safe, comfortable room, one he was master of. It was a rare thing now, this feeling.
“How long?” he asked. “Can you tell me? How long will this go on?”
The skull’s eyes shone like an animal’s in the darkness, and Robbie felt a stirring in his chest. A wind came up from behind him, and he looked over his shoulder as a few pine needles caught the air and spun. He took a deep breath of the fresh, cool air. When he turned back to the skull, it was just that. The eyes were gone and so was the presence. Alone again, he felt bad for himself, bad for his mother, and bad for his brother all at once. He also felt bad for the skull. Be gentle with yourself and with others, he heard Ms. Northbird, his counselor at school, say.
He turned back around to where the wind had kicked up needles and kneeled on ground. It was still soft and even a bit warm. He began to dig, moss and soil filling the space under his nails as he made an oval-shaped bed. When it was deep enough, he placed the skull in it, rubbing his fingertips over its smooth dome once more before covering it with fresh earth. He considered adding a marker to the spot, but then thought better of it. When the skull was covered so completely that the ground appeared nearly undisturbed, he gathered his things and walked home beneath the constellations of the northern sky.