2016-08-21 10:00 fiction short-story


Inside the tin were very little bones. It was a nice tin. From the late forties. It said "Dickinson's Coffee" on the front, with the image of a cup and a black bird. As much sense as that makes. But it was full of little bones. Little people bones.

They'd found it in a junk shop. A whole box of stuff. A crate really, a wooden crate that had faded images of orange trees and oversized juicy oranges on the side.

There were other things in the crate too. Something looked like an old TV remote control, the super old type with two big toggle buttons, each a different shade of beige, and made of what felt like a brittle antique plastic, or bakelite, or whatever it was back then.

They'd wondered when it was from. There were no televisions much less remote controls until the fifties... were there? Maybe the stuff in the box spanned a period of time. Or maybe it wasn't a TV remote control at all, one of them suggested.

But the bones. Of course they first assumed these were mouse bones. For a few minutes. Tentatively. But the little rib-cages and skulls were unmistakable.

They didn't really know what to say about it. They realized, at the same time, then simply looked at one another. They looked down again, then back at one another.

"Well. There has to be some rational explanation."

"Gotta be, sure."

There were also some Christmas ornaments in the box. What looked like Christmas tree ornaments. But they were glossy black. And they had a slight top, a kind of peak. Otherwise perfectly round. Looking at them you assumed they were made of glass. But they were the wrong weight to be made of glass. Slightly too heavy. Maybe these days someone would have ornaments like this, but who back then would have black bobbles? Goth was still a very long way away.

There was other, disposable, miscellany in the box. Paper fasteners, the weird old things before normal paper clips. A few stubby pencils. A cloth, heavy, extremely soft, perhaps used to shine the ornaments. The ornaments seemed to pick up finger prints almost as if they were super cold. Assorted keys. Lots of these were rusty.

There was a slide rule. It had Japanese writing on a dented, scratched hard case. Looked well used. This was the first slide rule they'd ever seen, outside of old cartoons. They had no idea how to use it.

A pair of glasses, black and thick rimmed, like men wore then, and kids wear again. Hip, cool, now. The lenses however did not seem corrective in any way. Maybe they were safety glasses.

There were a few other things. But at the bottom of the crate, almost adhered to the wood with age, yellow, were two envelopes.

One of the envelopes, opened and empty with a ragged top, was addressed to "Theodore Osmius, PO Box 1663, Los Alamos, New Mexico". The address was typewritten rather than handwritten. And the return address was "William S. Osmius, 515 5th Ave, Manhattan". The other envelope was unopened, addressed to "Dr. Ted Osmius, 175 Belden Street, City Island, New York". The return was "Science Fiction Book Club, 1745 Broadway, New York, New York". Also typewritten.

Of course they opened the second envelope. It was an account cancellation letter, dated May 2nd, 1954.

"We regret you find, so strongly, our selection of monthly titles in any way unsuitable or as a misrepresentation of the esteemed field of nuclear science. However, as fiction, these titles have been selected for their entertainment rather than accuracy. Thank you for your patronage and consider your account with Science Fiction Book Club closed (with no outstanding balance) upon receipt of this letter."

They googled around. William Osmius was a notable lawyer in New York City, from a long line of high society and old money. They made an assumption that Ted was his son.

"Holy crap. PO Box 1663. That was the mailing address for something called Project Y... otherwise known as the Manhattan Project."

They believed the City Island address was subsequent, since the Science Fiction Book Club hadn't been created until 1953.

They had a box of things. Questions about the bones, the Manhattan project. They began referencing it at inopportune times, as an interruptive non sequitur. They'd be eating, having a conversation, at least saying words that maintained the pleasant hum of those who have known one another for a long time, and then discordantly, jolting, "what if the bones are amazing models, like, from a diorama, or you know like those funny tiny coins they had when we were kids, you remember those?"

This began infrequently, but as time went on, it became troublesome. It became a burden.

Something strange happened.

In a moment of casual Sunday afternoon ennui, he took that old TV remote from the box, he pointed it at their wide hi-def flat screen. And he toggled the big flat beige button absentmindedly, with a big antique CLUNK, the flat screen turned off.

He paused and thought about this for a few minutes.

OK -- he thought -- there are a couple problems here. First, I dunno even what kind of batteries this thing uses, I mean, it doesn't look like I can even open it, or that it even would take batteries. If it did, if there were any battery inside, from sometime in the 50s, they would've gone dead days later. Old batteries sucked. He knew that much. He knew they didn't last 65 years.

Also -- he took a deep breath -- modern TVs don't work like this. There are, like, remote control codes and stuff. Or, there is at least a level of knowledge and basic electronics needed to turn off a modern TV remotely that someone in the early 50s didn't have.

So, that was weird.

He briefly tried to pry the thing open with a flat head screwdriver. It was really solid, the more he looked the more he was amazed at how precise the seams were. There was nothing he could do to it without destroying it. And while he was curious, he knew he probably wouldn't understand what he was looking at even if he did get it open.

One night when she got home from work she hurriedly threw off her jacket and said "we have to watch this". She handed him a DVD, a cheap discount DVD, not quite the kind you find on a blanket in the subway, laying out obscenely almost naked among obvious pirated discs and ripoffs, but a cheap discount bin DVD, the things still sold at the front of grocery stores, or stacked in huge boxes in appropriately named box stores as the world shed its need for them at all.

It was black and white, called "The Puppet People", and it was made in 1957.

The movie was terrible. A nature of bad that they could enjoy disliking innocently, without fear of cultural retribution, or any grudging half-honest note of respect. It was all ridiculous and poorly done, the sets poorly done, the acting atrocious, the writing worse. There was no modern penalty for laughing at it, it was a relic, immune from shame.

However ridiculous the plot, what there was of it, they found a few things interesting.

Fundamentally, the story revolved around a mad scientist on Long Island. This scientist had developed, through his time working on the atomic bomb (however they didn't say "Manhattan Project" once), a miraculous ray that could shrink people, or anything else evidently. Most importantly, people.

When it was over they didn't say much. She handled the tin, feeling its sharp edges. She held the tin and gave it a small shake, the contents inside, the skulls and ribcages, rattling, while she looked at him with a frown. Shake. Shake.

They thought they should go out to City Island. They didn't know why exactly. Something of a marker. Or a tick on a checklist. They had no idea what it would accomplish.

"Osmius must've died years ago." They found no article about it. But then, they knew, not everything from before-the-web had become digital yet. "We could go to the library and look." He said. "Where would we start? What newspaper, what year?" They suggested just looking. But they didn't know if libraries even still had old newspapers, in whatever form. "As detectives I guess we kinda suck" he said.

"Just a dumb movie. It's ... tangential. How could anything like that really happen?" She asked. Shake. Shake.

They thought about calling someone. But they didn't know who. There was no government agency that dealt with mad scientist crimes and reparations, that they knew of.

"It's like an emergency or disaster has happened and we don't know who to notify. I mean, it's not like we'd go to the police with a tin of little bones."

They enacted the response, a hilarious borough district response, in appropriately exaggerated city accents.

The months went by. The crate which had been in the living room got moved by inches backwards, into the back room, then a closet.

Once, he'd taken the remote control with him to a pub and from under the table he turned off all of the TVs. It also turned off all the point-of-sale consoles and all the handsets people had out, their faces buried in glowing rectangles, then flickered, then darkness. There was more panic than he expected. It quickly became not very funny, a mixture of tragic and revealing, so he never did it again.

One night she woke up, sweaty, with a single sharp scream.

"What's wrong?"

"A dream. Jesus. Awful dream. I was there in the tin, with them. He'd shrunk us, and kept us there. Awful."

She tried to brush it off in the morning, but he brought it up and said he thought they needed to do something.

But what?

Put them to rest, he suggested. "What, like a funeral?" she said. "I guess", he said.

They would need the correct sized coffins. They would need to make them or find them or have someone make them. "It's harder than you'd think", she said after looking around a bit.

They scoured online. They went to a couple of hobby shops. "Those model train people, this is the sort of thing they do." They found odd little remolded stacks of caskets, but too small, purely decorative. She asked the store owner for caskets, but you know, functional? He gave her a confused look, then quickly recovered and said simply "no". Finally, they ended up on a site called "Petsy" where people sold handmade things for other people's pets. "Victorian budgie casket" was a search term they'd agreed upon, in the usual search term construction negotiations. Perhaps not surprisingly there were several sellers.

"Not cheap."

"Come on, they're handmade. And this one even has a budgie skull painted on it."

But how many did they need.

They laid out a black cloth. Carefully, with maybe a respect avoided until now, because it cemented a reality of the situation, they placed the bones on the cloth and began to sort them. Skulls were easy. Miniature tibias, femurs and clavicles, more challenging.

They had an old anatomy book they consulted. It had acetate overlays for each system of the body. Skeletal, muscular, circulatory, etc. And a magnifying glass.

"How do you think they died? There's nothing else here in the tin." She said. This was not something either of them could have said a month ago. But now, sorting things up, the suppositions began to surface.

"That anatomy book give us enough info about how to tell gender?"

"It's the pelvis of course... does it matter?"


"I don't think we know enough to get all the right bones with the right person. Know what I mean?"

"Suppose the best we can do is get them into sets at least."

They sorted for hours. They put them out. They had seven complete skeletons. They guessed three women, four men. There were a couple of leftover bones.

"Just put them with the first guy, we probably screwed up somehow. There isn't an entire eighth person."

"Think we get a discount if we're buying more than three budgie coffins?" Eye rolling.

The first seller only had four on hand, they got the other three from the next. These all arrived the same day.

They believed they had to bury them with respect, in a proper funeral, a kind of closure, a final action.

"We don't know what happened. This could be like, cold war Mengele shit. They deserve more."

They needed somebody to preside over the funeral. "We don't know if they were Christian, Jewish, Muslim, whatever."

They agreed it should be a universal service. Maybe they died for their country. They should do a service like that.

"We need a chaplain, like, an army chaplain."

"Looks like we'd need a form... DD Form 214 evidently."

"OK I guess we need an out of work, discredited army chaplain."

"Ha, well, there's got to be a bunch of those around."

"We don't even know if they were military, they could've been victims."

She said it in a way that they now thought of these people as people, subjected to something horrible.

"They were victims no matter what."

What had begun as an oddity and then had been avoided, now had the air of tragedy, and the weight of it colored everything. It leaked into everything.

They found somebody who would did funerals for pets. The person had a sort of vague mail-order qualification. But he wrote sensitively about the ceremonies, and his website had glowing testimonials. Some of these reviewers may have been relatives, they weren't really sure.

They emailed back and forth. "Our beloved seven budgies" was the subject line. "We want a non-denominational ceremony, say, the sort of thing the military might do" they wrote. The response was guarded. They offered more money. This approach seemed to be effective.

They had a date, and a place upstate. A friend of a friend bought a plot of land cheaply, and perhaps arbitrarily, after the financial landfall of working in a purchased startup. They said they wanted to bury their dear old cat. The owner said he didn't care, "there was probably already a bunch of stuff buried up there anyways".

That morning was weird. Awkward. What should they wear? They didn't really even know these people. She had a very small American flag. The kind on a stick you wave on the Fourth. They looked up instructions about how to fold a flag properly, but gave up on the idea quickly. They were neither patriotic enough or certain enough about the origins of these seven to do such a thing.

They drove in silence.

They didn't know what to call him, chaplain, clergyman, was exactly as they'd imagined. He looked like an ex-biker who'd done prodigious amounts of weed and self-help, and was likely a person who'd dug himself out of some deeply troubling shit, and was now evangelical. But without fire and brimstone, more with karma and schmaltz. He'd driven up in a pickup truck, the back covered with bumper stickers. One saying "SIT HAPPENS" with the iconic image of Shakyamuni Buddha.

They put out the little coffins in a line. She'd been carrying them in a tote bag, stacked up ontop one another. They arranged them, deliberately, alternatingly, by the different makes, one being more squat and embellished by small brass pins, the other totally black.

The karma chaplain flipped through a ratty spiral bound notebook, contemplating.

They dug seven small holes.

"You think that's deep enough?"

"Yeah I think so."

Karma chaplain cleared his throat. They nodded at him.

"Friends," he read from the spiral bound, "thank you for coming. It is an unfortunate but inevitable task that we have before us. To put to rest the beloved pets that brought your family so much joy and happiness over these last many years. As we are born, so too must we depart. In a cycle of birth, all around us." He then took a plastic bottle of water, uncapped it. "Impermanent alas are formations, subject to rise and fall. Having arisen, they cease. Their subsiding is bliss." And he poured some of the water, a steady stream, so that it hit the ground with a "spluk spluk spluk". And he said "as water raining on a hill flows down to the valley, even so does what is given here benefit the dead." The water snaked its way into a couple of the freshly dug holes.

And then the karma chaplain was staring at them and they just knew it was time to put the caskets in the graves. They carefully put each one in the ground then scooped dirt over the holes with a cheap plastic spade they bought at a gas station on the way up and patted it down.

"Let us take a moment and reflect, silently, on all those things these beloved creatures meant to us, and also in doing that be present in the moment and aware how much you mean to one another as we bid our final goodbyes to these... budgies."

Then it was silent and they all stared down at the little caskets, extremely, painfully, aware of one another. Of breathing. Of a sudden itch. Of the minute shuffling that happens, always, when one believes they are actually being still. This seemed to last forever.

"Amen," she said. She had no idea why she said it, maybe other than to break the silence, because she wasn't religious at all. She flushed.

"And that concludes the service." They snapped out of their tense focus with immediate relief, and a surge of guilty pleasure.

"So... I can take cash or check, whatever is easiest for you."


For several years they left the crate in the back, covered with a couple of bags of unused clothes, a translucent plastic organizer bin full of old drapes. Eventually they moved, and it was put in a pile of things for "1-800-JUNKGUYS" to pick up and recycle.

Except the tin, the tin, empty, they had on a bookshelf. One night they had a very successful dinner party and someone said how interesting it looked.