We’re such amateurs—our closets never big enough
for all our skeletons—a femur under the couch, phalanges
tossed in the junk drawer with doorless keys, old batteries,
medical wristbands from miscarriages. But in the countryside
near Prague, their bone house merits World-Heritage renown,
so a year into our marriage, just days after 9-11,
we take the early train to the pyramids of bones,
to see how the experts do it. The Czech discern our weary gait—
as they’re Iron-Curtain trained in living with terror—
the echo beneath our American accents proof of a loss
of density. They refuse to charge the entry fee.
We’re disturbed with the vaulted Jenga of 40,000 bodies
heaped by the plague and holy war, then glossed through the brail
of a half-blind Cistercian monk into squat pyramids. We’re awed
by centuries of cross-boned skulls strung into garlands
cobwebbing walls and ceilings—petals of sacrum and ilium
budding into orchids from the unlit chandelier,
the coat-of-arms, the two large chalices that could cradle infants
in their wide-blooming mouths. But every ossuary
needs maintenance—specialists in preservation, damage repair.
And all these years later, we’re still looking to experts,
jotting down notes on what it takes to care for bones, how to clean them
with soft brushes and lime—place them in less fragile wholes
than their human configurations. In the countryside near Prague,
they’re dismantling and rebuilding a church of bones
aided by computer models and video maps. We’re assured
that the bright skeletons will be restored and remain
accessible—that not one ossicle will rest in the wrong place.
Dawn Manning is the author of Postcards from the Dead Letter Office. She has been awarded Beullah Rose Poetry Prize and the San Miguel Writers’ Poetry Prize. Her poems have appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Ecotone and Fairy Tale Review among others. She lives in the Greater Philadelphia area.