Quetzal showed up yesterday (I don’t know why) with a skull we found years ago somewhere on the farm. I remembered later that I had written about it, had posted it on some rendition of this blog, went digging to see if I still had the writing, found it, and so here it is, its second life.
A skull turned up one morning at our house during an extended Sunday brunch we were hosting for our neighbors. Dave, who lives on the next farm over, had taken the kids for a walk in the woods, and when they returned, they had a skull, a medium-sized, off-white, animal skull that, while broken distinctly into three pieces (cranium, mandible, and single tooth), fit together perfectly.
For awhile the skull was the kids’ thing. They chased each with the point of the tooth; they tricked it out in my new Tingly hat; they pretended to make the jaw bone talk; they bickered over basic holding rights.
But soon enough we adults also got involved, the draw being the mystery of identity. It was a skull of course, but of what animal? There was the evidence of size to consider, and, to a lesser extent, the description of the site where the skull was found. But nothing more. So after a time of much speculation, we deferred to Google and a free-form tour of skull images running bear, bobcat, fisher, deer, raccoon, skunk, and opossum, the skull moving back and forth between us, occasionally being thrust forward to the computer screen for quick comparison. But Googling simply compounded the ambiguity. We still didn’t know.
It was later and after interest had waned a bit, that my daughter, Quetzal, got involved. Acting on a comment from someone that the animal could just as well have been domesticated as not, and having gotten hold of the cranium for close-up study, she came running up to me and tugged my arm. She had a hypothesis.
“It’s a pig,” she whispered. “A boy pig. See it? The tusks?”
And turning the piece upside down, she pointed them out for me, two small, equally-sized, slightly-curved appendages that showed from the vicinity of the throat. When I suggested that both girl and boy pigs grow tusks and that tusks emerge from the area directly around the snout, not the throat, she shook her head. “Touch them,” she said. “It’s tusks.”
So I touched them, and that contact having settled the case fully in her favor, she immediately skipped off and spent the next ten minutes parading on and off the deck and around the kitchen, a skull piece in each hand, announcing to whomever would listen that the skull was indeed a pig’s, a boy pig at that, and proving it multiple times with a quick touch of her finger to each tusk.
The next morning, buoyed perhaps by her success with a home crowd, Quetzal asked if she could take the skull to school for show-and-tell. Absolutely, we said. A great idea. And so the skull was bagged and stowed next to her lunch inside her pink backpack for the twenty-minute commute to the Montessori school, the backpack sharing space between Quetzal in her car seat on the left and a boy named Max in his seat on the right. I was driving.
Max was a good kid, I remember. He was big, often loud, occasionally puzzled, a boy with the habit of peppering many of his sentences with the words stinky, poopy, and pee. It took Max mere seconds to figure out that Quetzal was secreting something inside her backpack. When he asked about it, she said he needed to wait. It was for show-and-tell. But Max, being five and not predisposed to wait, and Quetzal, being four and absolutely predisposed to tell, it wasn’t long before the skull appeared, the only hitch being that Max had to promise several times to close his eyes and to keep them closed tight.
(I watched all of this, by the way, in the rearview mirror, Max grimacing in pain as he squeezed his eyes, and Quetzal, coy, elf-like with one eye on Max, carefully fitting together the skull.)
And what happened when Quetzal finally announced, “Okay, Max,” and he opened his eyes? Well, know that it was a singular moment in osteology. Because Max, who had no talent whatsoever for quietude or sustained concentration, instantly mustered both. He didn’t gasp outright, but he did gape. His head pushed out and forward, his entire person and spirit pushed forward.
“What’s that?” he whispered.
“A pig. A boy pig,” Quetzal said. And balancing the skull’s principle halves together on both knees, she removed the white tooth, held it out, showed off its point, and then reinserted it.
Max gulped. He reached his hand out. But then he paused and asked two pointed questions, undoubtedly his first-ever philosophical musing. Why, he wanted to know, was it a skull? And why was it dead?
“Because,” said Quetzal. “Because it’s a skull is why it’s dead.”
Max nodded knowingly, and then he asked to hold the tooth.
“It’s not for you, Max,” Quetzal said. “This tooth is for show-and-tell only.” But she handed over the tooth anyway, and Max, immediately opening his mouth wide, pretended to insert it inside. When next she handed him the lower jaw and he held it under his chin and said something silly, they both laughed hysterically, Max’s voice booming now, the car overfull with sound and hurting my ears.
Then he quieted. Sticking his thumb fully inside one of the skull’s eye sockets, he asked again why the pig had died. Quetzal’s response, in method at least, mirrored exactly a certain kind of response she often made when she was four, especially when an adult asked her a question she wasn’t sure how to answer. She gave a little toss of her hands, sighed in feigned exacerbation, and said, “Don’t you know anything, silly. Everyone does it. Pigs live for awhile, they die for awhile. That’s just how the world happens.”
Max nodded knowingly as before, and then, sitting erect in his seat, he balanced the cranium on the top of his head. When it tumbled and bounced against his thigh, he guffawed crazily and struck the seatback repeatedly with his elbows. Then, grabbing the jaw up and twirling it like a wan, he held it directly under Quetzal’s ear and shouted, “This little piggy…this little piggy went pee pee pee all the way home!”