A Music of Ribs

 For my grandfather’s ancestors, who walked the Trail of Tears, and for my grandfather, who told the story.


We were all wolves, once. But something about the way we howled and barked and ate the heads off salmon made our neighbors’ blood boil. Be civilized, they said. Our wildness caused them regret.

But we weren’t responsible for their failure to live. (Stagnation is a common response to traumatic events.) We were wild and eating the brains of salmon. We were eating the wisdom of the salmon.

The silence of the sheep is awful. Their locks are burnt and shorn and the doors have fallen open. Their defenses are down and the wolves are pouring in, ravenous, merciless.

We scavenge for what we cannot catch ourselves. We dwell in the dark places where forgotten crumbs fall. We lap them up, crack the bones. Drink the blood and the marrow. 


We were born to this place, to the broad bowl of the sky and the rolling fields of the plains, to the buffalo and wild horses, to the clouds and tall grass. We tore strips of lightning from our sides, and our ribs spread out like the wings of eagles. This is how we fly, from one end of the plain to the other, out where only birds can see.

The buffalo are gone but we are still here, guarding the future with hearts drawn. Arrows will not win this war, nor will guns or dogs or rubber bullets. But when the war comes to you, what can you do?

The soldiers came dressed in black, which doesn’t show the blood. They brought guns and dogs and mace. They told us we had to get off our land, that it wasn’t our land anymore. Some bigwig billionaire had a lot of money invested in this pipeline, they said, and we were standing in the way of progress. Illegal, they said. 

The days are long gone when battles are won with arrows or guns, when our men women children lie dead on the cold earth with their still hearts bleeding. These are the days when we have nothing left to lose.

So we are here, with our horses and our songs, with our roots deep as the cottonwood in the river soil, with our memories of rain. It is bitter cold here today, like it was at the day of our birth, and the soldiers will rain freezing water upon us, a prayer for our death.

And we? We pray for the water that brings life, whether that life is ours or another’s, a white man’s or a red man’s or a buffalo’s or a raven’s, and we pray that that life will be long on this good earth, long after our bodies are grass.


They told us to pack only what we needed. They told us with their guns.

If we had not been surprised, perhaps we would have fought.

If there hadn’t been so many of them.

If it hadn’t been for the children.

They took the things we did not need: the silver, the clocks and furs. They put them in their own bags. They marched us west in the fog.


The clouds are the old ones, the oceans older still. I was generous, once, upon my time, with my time. Time that we experience in pasts, presents, futures. They are all plural, except for me. I am singular without exception.

I am quiet here, see? But I am not broken. You can only be broken so many times before you become a stone.

If I were not a stone, I would have told you. I assume one day you will know the things that I do. The songs of bees, of fallen maple leaves, of wind in the unfallen trees.

If my fingers were prophets, I would have touched you so. I could heal with a whorl-print dream, mend with a gentle brush, burn away the scars with one hot stroke.

I was Elijah once, Elisha, spewing sternums of bread into lymph nodes of oil. The people rose up in my throat like a gorge.

Even the sparrow gets the crumbs.


I found my strength in the water. I was born there, breathing fire.

All of me is muscle. I move as one muscle through the water, riding the currents like an eagle on the wind. I feed no one before I feed myself. I eat and am eaten. I know only one way to live, and that is to consume and swim and breathe.

In the ocean, my brothers and sisters reached our full strength. We challenged, parried, sparred, and devoured. We fled before sharks and whales as we did from the trout when we were young. We hid in the blue of the sea.

In our schools, we taught whole cities of leaving: how to dive, flock, disperse, swarm, roam, careen. We danced spirals in the sea, riding cold currents into whole volcanoes of buried beasts. We ate small fry and plankton. We digested the ghosts of the deep. We chased rainbows in the sun-shaft lights.

We learned to smell the direction of stars, to heed the pull of the moon. We felt the earth rumble and spin until we couldn’t fight it anymore: the magnets in our spines, the pull inexorable, calling us back to our natal homes.


On the shortest day of the year we built the highest fire, feeding it all of our leaves, twigs, and dreams. We spoke smoke over the elders and children. Together we broke our bread.

At dusk, we saw a stag’s thick horns and powerful legs. He was hairy as a bear and twice as tall, and his eyes were black as night.

He came into the circle of the firelight, breath steaming from his nostrils. The ground shook beneath his feet, but he left no tracks.

We could hardly stand to look at him.

He passed around the fire three times. Then, he was gone.

We looked around our circle. One of our women was missing. Some said the stag carried her away.

Others saw nothing at all.


What is it about breaking? Bodies, bread. Waves and news. Rivers of tides upon moonlit shores.

What is it about sleeping? A stasis of ribs and blood, trees and leaves. A darling strait of desire plumbed clear through the depths of the sea. An untold massacre. The breaking of spirits and bones. No amulet can protect you from the desire of another to dominate consummate devour.

If we didn’t devour ourselves, someone else would do it for us. If the color of our skin is our fate then why am I burning in my blood? Why do I grind my teeth, grinding the corn between two stones?

We are flaying the hides of the desert jackals, their skins tanned in piss and baking in the sun. We long for the sweet red clay of our homeland, the crimson earth from which our foremothers came.

Atrophy: we are dry sticks and cracked riverbanks, stumps riven by lightning. The skulls of our cattle and sons whiten on the bare brown plains: ribs and cages and broken toes, blackened teeth and shriveled fingers, the lungs deflated, alveoli crumbling into dust.

This is my creation story: there is no creation without destruction, and only from death can new life arise.


In the time before stories, there was only light, light that came from heat. One flash-bang whistle in the unborn silence and we were gone, manic meteors racing toward the burdened timeline of our decay. The half-lives of stars became the whole lives of creatures that creep and fly and crawl, that swim and walk and emancipate air.

These creatures grew bones and flesh, electric dendrites in their skins. They carried the antidote to night in their hearts, a music of ribs.


I am a natural scavenger, dwelling in the darknesses of earth. My deeds are done by the midnight moon.

I do not ask for my fathers. I know that they are dead.

I wait at the cedar’s roots. I came from a cedar originally. My mother and my father were born from the hearts of cedars, a coastal wolf and a mountain wolf.

A shadow of the moon across my knees. My forefeet carry me across the fields and under fallen trees. I am scenting the sound of my prey in the darkness; mulch and manure and decay. The stench of ungulates jousting and mating, the ritual of hooves striking earth. They leave behind their flame-shaped tracks, heat in their wake.

I am smelling now the blood spilled when the bear left its kill, the elk’s soft parts already gone, tail tossed aside like the leavings of a rich man’s feast. It is there that I find the sleeping bees. They have made a nest in the ribs, and I taste their honeyed sweetness, nectar from decay.

I readily feed on the carcasses of dead animals.


Here is what you might call a high desert. We have sagebrush and grassy slopes rippling blue green purple up to the sky. We have windmills on the ridge overlooking the gap, harvesting the wind while the river churns below. We have eagles and hawks here, cows and wolves, and coyotes that school like fish and sing like whales no matter the moon.

We have stars here, and a fuzzy strip of galactic spunk you might know as the Milky Way. But it looks different here. We’re not on the same plane as you lowlanders, you spacewalkers, you mountaineers.

Here is in-between. Crossroads. Places with no signs, roads you can only know as the lines of a hand. Here is nowhere, and everywhere, because we are becoming less ourselves and more the other every day. Look at this land: how could you not self-efface in the rock wall petroglyphs painted with the ashes of millennia past, not disappear into the sagebrush cacti shale sky rising to the yellow canyon red valley moon? How could you remember anything of your former life in the dwelling place of this mighty river, its quiet dams simmering soon to be roaring down waterfall cliffs?

If you crashed your bones upon this river’s white waters, what then?


I need not write of the space between wild and tame, for you already know. The full moon on an ice-dry winter night, the crack of twig and bramble, thorn and hip of wild rose. A storm cloud of breath and dark sky twinkling.

The stars are always there. I see the brightest ones in the daytime, south of the moon, snowberries dropped by gulls in a peaceful ocean.


The sacred banality of reason is not something we were born with, nor the fear of dying.

Don’t forget that we were starving. What scraps we could find only made us hungrier, as if that near-forgotten taste had awakened the roaring carnivore in our guts and set the wrongness of everything back into motion.

It’s easy to forget food if you have none at all. Easy to lull the body into a sleepwalking disbelief.

The edges and corners of things are not taught. They are learned, hard and sharp upon waking. They leave bruises. They do not forgive.

With a loaded rifle pointed at your back head neck ribs heart horse husband kids

You learn to be compliant.

There is nothing, no, not a thing you can do to make it better or worse. So you control the only thing that is left to you, yourself, silent and obedient.

They do not know that silence is a kind of rebellion.


There are galaxies made up entirely of storm clouds. I have seen them: great cumulonimbi, their vast misty regions a fragrance of birds. The birds speak a language unlike any ever heard, trills and vibrations and shrieks of joy.

I have been to the mountain and come down bearing plates of armor with the law of love inscribed on their arms. They have beaten their swords into ploughshares and their missiles into satellites. They are listening for the bird song from the cloud at the end of the world.

The children hear it; they are always listening. 


I have been still in the south, where the island meets the water, where madrona and fir trees meet the sea. I have been still on the cliff where the Nootka roses grow, where the ruby-throated hummingbird shelters in brambles of blackberry.

I have been still in the west, in the lap of the ocean, her waves warm and cold washing over me. I have witnessed the passing of sea lions and whales, their bodies left behind to feed those who come after.

I have been still in the east, where the last stars meet the first star, Venus shining like a precious stone. I have sat among the lilacs and the walnut with a plywood guitar, singing songs to the morning with joy in my heart.

I have been still in the north, where the dancers by the fire dance the night of ancient days. I have danced with them also. And high up on the mountain I have seen a red fox, and we were not afraid.


Is this why the grave is so quiet? Our bodies rest undisturbed, making dust. We are reaping the wormwood and the oak root, the beetles of desperation.

If we did not burn or bury our dead, their spirits would linger, discontent. An ever-growing cloud of witnesses to the decay of their own flesh.

We would disturb electrons. They would be everywhere at all.

Would the dead be consumed, not by beetles or fire, but by stomach acid and intestinal fortitude? Or would they become new synapses, signaling nerves for parallel places, divine in their symptoms of tongues?

Can you imagine? The dust of the dead, sown fine like seed over the fields of the living. They breathe them in, swallow them into lungs and belly and brain.

They might take root there, resurrect and sprout, two tiny leaves in the lobe of a lung. They would have heat and moisture and air.

They might learn to grow in a place like this. 


I have come to the mountain to seek knowledge, and wisdom for which I hunger like a dying dog. The horses have carried me here, straining against the wind, billowing over rocks and prairies and swollen valleys, creeks and streams from which minerals flow as swiftly as nourishment.

I have walked upon these waters thick with mud and blood, and I have listened to you speak. You have no need of a tongue. You have taught me to speak with the tongues of my heart.


If the child had been a daughter I would have killed her with my own hands, so she would never know the pain of being a woman in the white man’s world. But it is a boy, a weak, mewling one, but a boy nonetheless, and although I fear what his future may bring, I didn’t walk all this way to bear him for nothing.

I left my father and mother behind in the rich red soil of our ancestors’ lands, coming instead to a place of dust and weeping. Does corn grow in dust? We water it with our tears.

Blood and water came from my body when the child was born, and still I flow with milk, what little I can make to feed my son. I am a river flowing with living water, remembering the green elms and rushing river of my home, the forest with its deer and elk, the rolling valleys fertile with crops.

What does it mean, now that we are here? Should we grow food from rocks, haul water from dry wells? We pray for rain but there is no answer.

Who knows, this may be the best part yet: this brink, this teetering, this blessed extinction.


Long after the sun has gone dark, I remain.

(I consume but am not consumed.)

I am the bush burning in the wilderness of space.

(I burn but am not burned.)

I am the spark palpitating the muscle of your heart.

(I bleed but am not bled.)


They all lay down under the rain. The earth was mud. The trees were bare along the edges of the field.

Beyond the field was a wall, red bricks and green moss. Mountain goats climbed on its rim. There were no birds.

The sky was gray as a Puritan’s shirt: the color of a lie. At its seams the water seeped through, cold as buried bones.

The people lay on their backs in the mud and the rain. They built no shelters, drank no water, grew no food. They opened their mouths and in fell the water that came from the sea of the sky, and the feathers of birds that were no longer there.

Even the birds had fled long ago.


What is the wavelength of a soul? From trough to crest the height and crest to crest the length. Lifted by the wind, the moon, the fragile spirits of fish bones floating on the surface.

There was a hunger for food in the deeps: a hunger of plankton and midges and fry. And there was a hunger to explore, to go where my fathers and mothers had gone before me, to plumb the great salt secrets of the sea.

They do not tell you of the hunger to go home. This hunger does not come when you are young. That is not what it is for.

Cut me open and see the rings in my flesh. Count the years of my being in the palm of your hand. My body is like ripples on a pond.

The wind blows from the west, sighing for the east, water dreaming of sky.


In the beginning was the word and the water, and the words hovered over the surface of the water. No, that’s not right… they shook, they flew, they collided, riding the waves of the water before there was light.

Before there was light, there was water, motion, word. Words before there was anyone to hear. 


As we work, we talk. No one speaks of going home. It is too sad to think about. Instead, we talk about the future– our hopes for the crops, how the children are growing, what will become of the men.

We used to be like corn in a river valley: green, tall, and many. Now, we are rare flowers blooming in the desert.

The horses are not bleached bones yet, although we can see their ribs. We can see our own bones as well. The ribs and collarbones reveal themselves first, then the knobby spines and sharp shoulder blades. Our skulls appear beneath the skin of our eyes.

But we don’t talk about these things. We must plant and scrub and carry water, even in this indignant heat. Someone must carry the children on their backs, the men in their arms. Someone must keep moving on.


I am running like a shadow in the night, the taste of blood on my lips a memory of salt. Iron in my brain, the cool earth beneath and the trees rushing by black and cold in the night. The sky is alight with the moon: now silver, blue, purple, gray, the clouds dark bodies of floating whales.

I was a whale once, and I came from the sea. My hunger was too great. The fish were there but I wanted more. So I came onto shore and grew fur and fangs. My fins became legs. I prowled the wild forest with my sisters, my brothers.

I was a human child once, suckling at my mother’s breast, wrapped in swaddling clothes and carried across the prairies under the hot white sun. I grew fat on milk and berries, on grain and the cheeks of fish. But my hunger was too great for the plains, too great for the fertile valleys and sour orchards of my mother’s breasts. I was hungry for the sky, for the deep dark of trees and the wriggling worms of earth. And so I changed.

I grew the wings of a raven and I flew high until the world was a treasure of grass beneath my taloned feet. I grew muscle and tooth, became hard and sharp. I left the home of my parents on the night of the new moon and found my sisters in the wilderness. I found my wolf sisters in the wilderness.

We went up to the rims of the far blue mountains, down into valleys dark and wet. We ate the heads of salmon on the riverbank. We hunted and ate the deer.

Blood hot-wet on my tongue and teeth, flesh from the belly of the elk. The bison, once powerful, is no more. I also eat men.

We have gone to the top of the high green hills, and down to the alders at the creek. We have crept among the tents of men, the men who encroach on our land.

We have slicked the blood from their necks at night, lapped at their hearts and their knees. We give them sweet offerings to trade for their meat. We eat from their bellies like beasts. 


We were not the first of the animals to perish, but neither were we the last. Bones and leather lined the shoulders of our hunchbacked roads, where we still drove hapless cars fueled by fossils, where we drove in circles between the boundary fences that guarded the water from those who might drink it.

What was done to us has been done to all. Now the whole world is Oklahoma. But the raven still carries the river in his beak, and the stag and the wolf drink from cold mountain streams. Salmon will fill the ocean again, and where they are going they need no stories.

LIZ KELLEBREW's fiction has been shortlisted for the Calvino Prize and her poetry book, Water Signs, is forthcoming from Unsolicited Press. Her work appears in various anthologies and journals, including About Place, Room, The Conium Review, and The Coachella Review. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College and is a member of the Academy of American Poets.