Reaching behind the baseboard heater under the bay window, sweeping my fingers between studs, I discover bones. I am scooping out plaster chunks and piles of old insulation churned into nests of mouse droppings. The new insulation can then fluff into the whole wall space, trapping baseboard heat inside the house. To this end, I excavate.
I might be starting to feel a little grumpy about it—this cloying gray dust, these insidious pink insulation fibers, mouse turds. The mess comes in waves, never fully receding. I lift crunching fistfuls from inside the walls. There’s no shortcut to doing this work right. Except that we have shortcut this project, hiring an excellent guy named Jimmy, and the walls will soon be finished.
New sheetrock, skillfully smoothed with mud, will hide this house’s secrets, discovered as we have stripped off layers. In one seemingly solid wall, a window still hung, covered by a plastic blind, then old sheetrock, then faux wood paneling, then paint. Surrounding the bay window, the studs dangled in mid-air—a floating wall, left unsupported when someone chopped a hole to add the large window. And between the studs once lived metropolitan numbers of mice.
From among tufts of insulation, I extract the skeleton. It is headless, but exquisitely intact. The spine remains whole; each caudal vertebra stacks into a long curving tail, dwindling to the last eyelash-sized bone. One leg is separated at the knee, but not broken, and each tiny digit still hinges on the complete foot. On my next cautious dip into the wall, I retrieve the skull. Curved incisors, miniature molars.
Now I arrange it in the morning light, clearing a space among tools on the bay window ledge. Breath held, I watch it curl there, a small life that passes behind a wall. How is it possible to be so fragile, yet remain nearly whole, even among the rubble?
Near where the skeleton emerged, I find a papery section of snakeskin. Another life passes through the wall, outgrowing itself, stretching and splitting open, leaving its own evidence of survival. I place the thin layer of snake beside the intricate mouse. The sun, lifting well above trees now, warms the dust around them.
Kneeling in the light, I succumb to the details for long moments. This does not complete the job very fast, but I am doing my work.
I will keep this skeleton and shard of skin to show the kids, who seem only politely interested. Later, 3-year-old Stella will announce calmly, while eating a turkey leg, “The bones are just bones.” And I will think that she is right, and finally toss both mouse and snake into the compost, to start over.