Bones for the Telling

by | Sep 12, 2019 | Creative Nonfiction

Bones for the TellingThe pale blue sky over our heads turned brown where blue bowed down to meet the dusty North Dakota horizon with its black dirt fields and ever-blowing winds. Here were the geologic beginnings of our stories, and I will tell them, but first you should know one thing: a glacier does not move like a bulldozer; it does not push rock and debris ahead of it, unaffected; no. A glacier gathers as it moves, debris, sediment, boulders, and the tiniest

of rocks, bone, and seeds, these the glacier freezes to her belly, carries them along on her long lonely journey, until finally she cannot carry them anymore. She melts and lets go her treasures, arctic boulders, fossils, sediments and rich soil for future flowers. And so, our story: out under this pale blue sky, in the glacially carved North Dakota fields, we would play by ourselves, my little sister and me, on our 1970’s blue and white metal striped swing set, too rickety, maybe, the side triangle posts lifting up and plopping down

again back and forth as we pumped our swings higher and higher, our tiny calloused hands careful to avoid the rusting bolts and the pinching swing chains. We were adept at skunk drills; our parents had warned us: “if you see a skunk in the daytime, run! It has rabies. It will chase you and get you.” And oh lord, we believed! The adrenaline rush—we believed the skunks were coming! We did drills, military fashion, running like Loretta Swit in the opening M*A*S*H montage, sticks for weapons, my little sister yelling “SKUNK!” and both of us running full bore from our starting place on the porch

and out to the swing set, scrambling all the way up to straddle the very top bar. Eight feet up, our legs dangling down, our bare feet swinging, toes wiggling with dirt packed tight under our nails. Eight feet up, and we could see the whole wide world: miles of open prairie as far as the eye could see: flax fields and corn, sunflowers, squawking pheasants, our giant sacred boulder, dropped, our geologist father told us, too many years ago to count, by a glacier moving epically slowly across our landscape, until there, down the brown prairie hill she couldn’t carry

the sacred boulder anymore, and left it there, perhaps for us. Our father, the geologist, saw time differently from how everyone else does. When you live in geologic time, the small things don’t seem that important; time slows down. He carried a pickaxe so he could study what he found out in the badlands as he slowly, quietly examined fossils and core samples, placing the special ones in his pocket for our collections back home. Meanwhile, as we sat at the top of the swing set peering out over the prairie for those white-striped devil skunks, wielding our sticks, little Snoopy

our wire-haired dachshund, bred for hunting, our prince, our protector, barked from below, skunk hunter, savior of little girls, his royal barking urging the wind to blow harder through the metal swing set tubes like those long kingly golden trumpets. Nothing haunted us in those moments balancing high up and safe, our skin burned brownish red, our hair bleached white as the bones and shells carried by the glaciers, the pale blue sky overhead; nothing mattered except we were together and free, spinning stories with skunk villains and dachshund princes, singing “Hard Day’s Night” from our parents’ Beatles album… “It’s been a hard day’s night, and I’ve been workin’ like a dog…” and we two

the only princesses in the world, wearing tutus, wielding birch branches, surveying our lands, the promise of our father coming home with more treasures, red-tailed hawks soaring overhead, the mythical giant boulder left, we thought, just for us. We were pink prairie roses, fossil hunters, gatherers of glacial losses large and small. We stood at the beginnings of our stories, collecting our sediments, our debris, our sacred fragments, and we had the bones for the tellings, passed down to us from our father, whispered from the glacier: gather your precious rocks, your people, your animals, your sediments. Hold them close

until you can’t hold them anymore; let go if you can or if you must, and you will survive, you will thrive, you will gather more treasures and lose them again, turning the soil, sowing your seeds. You will teach the years to slow down and be still, knowing that time and sediment are medicine, and what is lost will return as a flax flower, a tree for the handle of your new pickaxe, a small gift stone that fits perfectly in the hand of a child you meet in the street, her pockets full of pebbles, her first collection.

Photo used under CC.

About The Author


Signe E. Land earned an MFA in Writing from the University of Minnesota and a JD from William Mitchell College of Law, graduating class valedictorian. Ms. Land taught creative writing at St. Olaf College and at the University of Minnesota and practiced law in Minneapolis. Now retired, Ms. Land lives in Minnesota and Arkansas, and her work has appeared in the William Mitchell Law Review, CatheXis Northwest Press, Manifest-Station, Bookends Review, Red Bridge Press’s Rivet: The Journal of Writing That Risks, and others. Ms. Land writes poetry and non-fiction, and is currently writing a memoir about the challenges she faced in work and life as an undiagnosed autistic woman. This year, Ms. Land won third place in the Willamette Writers Kay Snow Poetry Competition.