“Lenny?” I asked, laughing. “Muhammad Ishmael Shabazz the third?”
“Uh-huh.” Amusement seemed to be getting the upper hand. The gold tooth flashed briefly as he took the card back. “He says he’s not going to take a white man’s name, no slave name. He’s going to reclaim his African heritage,” he said sardonically. “All right, I say; I ask him, you gonna go round with a bone through your nose next thing? It’s not enough he’s got his hair out to here”—he gestured, fluffing his hands on either side of his own close-cropped head—“and he’s going round in a thing down to his knees, looks like his sister made it in Home Ec class. No, Lenny—excuse me, Muhammad—he’s got to be African all the way.”
Joe waved a hand out the window, at his privileged vista over the park. “I tell him, look around, man, you see any lions? This look like Africa to you?” He leaned back in his padded chair, stretching out his legs. He shook his head in resignation. “There’s no talkin’ to a boy that age.”
“True,” I said. “But what’s this ‘third’ about?”
A reluctant gleam of gold answered me. “Well, he was talking all about his ‘lost tradition’ and his ‘missing history’ and all. He says, ‘How am I going to hold my head up, face-to-face with all these guys I meet at Yale named Cadwallader IV and Sewell Lodge, Jr., and I don’t even know my own grandaddy’s name, I don’t know where I come from?’”
Joe snorted. “I told him, you want to know where you come from, kid, look in the mirror. Wasn’t the Mayflower, huh?”
He picked up the card again, a reluctant grin on his face.
“So he says, if he’s taking back his heritage, why not take it back all the way? If his grandaddy wouldn’t give him a name, he’ll give his grandaddy one. And the only trouble with that,” he said, looking up at me under a cocked brow, “is that it kind of leaves me man in the middle. Now I have to be Muhammad Ishmael Shabazz, Junior, so Lenny can be a ‘proud African-American’.” He thrust himself back from the desk, chin on his chest, staring balefully at the pale gray card.
“You’re lucky, L.J.,” he said. “At least Bree isn’t giving you grief about who her granddaddy was. All you have to worry about is will she be doing dope and getting pregnant by some draft dodger who takes off for Canada.”
I laughed, with more than a touch of irony. “That’s what you think,” I told him.
“Yeah?” He cocked an interested eyebrow at me, then took off his gold-rimmed glasses and wiped them on the end of his tie. “So how was Scotland?” he asked, eyeing me. “Bree like it?”
“She’s still there,” I said. “Looking for her history.”
Joe was opening his mouth to say something when a tentative knock on the door interrupted him.
“Dr. Abernathy?” A plump young man in a polo shirt peered doubtfully into the office, leaning over the top of a large cardboard box he held clutched to his substantial abdomen.
“Call me Ishmael,” Joe said genially.
“What?” The young man’s mouth hung slightly open, and he glanced at me in bewilderment, mingled with hope. “Are you Dr. Abernathy?”
“No,” I said, “he is, when he puts his mind to it.” I rose from the desk, brushing down my skirts. “I’ll leave you to your appointment, Joe, but if you have time later—”
“No, stay a minute, L. J.,” he interrupted, rising. He took the box from the young man, then shook his hand formally. “You’d be Mr. Thompson? John Wicklow called to tell me you’d be coming. Pleased to meet you.”
“Horace Thompson, yes,” the young man said, blinking slightly. “I brought, er, a specimen…” He waved vaguely at the cardboard box.
“Yes, that’s right. I’d be happy to look at it for you, but I think Dr. Randall here might be of assistance, too.” He glanced at me, the glint of mischief in his eyes. “I just want to see can you do it to a dead person, L. J.”
“Do what to a dead—” I began, when he reached into the opened box and carefully lifted out a skull.
“Oh, pretty,” he said in delight, turning the object gently to and fro.
“Pretty” was not the first adjective that struck me; the skull was stained and greatly discolored, the bone gone a deep streaky brown. Joe carried it to the window and held it in the light, his thumbs gently stroking the small bony ridges over the eye sockets.
“Pretty lady,” he said softly, talking as much to the skull as to me or Horace Thompson. “Full-grown, mature. Maybe late forties, middle fifties. Do you have the legs?” he asked, turning abruptly to the plump young man.
“Yeah, right here,” Horace Thompson assured him, reaching into the box. “We have the whole body, in fact.”
Horace Thompson was probably someone from the coroner’s office, I thought. Sometimes they brought bodies to Joe that had been found in the countryside, badly deteriorated, for an expert opinion as to the cause of death. This one looked considerably deteriorated.
“Here, Dr. Randall.” Joe leaned over and carefully placed the skull in my hands. “Tell me whether this lady was in good health, while I check her legs.”
“Me? I’m not a forensic scientist.” Still, I glanced automatically down. It was either an old specimen, or had been weathered extensively; the bone was smooth, with a gloss that fresh specimens never had, stained and discolored by the leaching of pigments from the earth.
“Oh, all right.” I turned the skull slowly in my hands, watching the bones, naming them each in my mind as I saw them. The smooth arch of the parietals, fused to the declivity of the temporal, with the small ridge where the jaw muscle originated, the jutting projection that meshed itself with the maxillary into the graceful curve of the squamosal arch. She had had lovely cheekbones, high and broad. The upper jaw had most of its teeth—straight and white.
Deep eyes. The scooped bone at the back of the orbits was dark with shadow; even by tilting the skull to the side, I couldn’t get light to illuminate the whole cavity. The skull felt light in my hands, the bone fragile. I stroked her brow and my hand ran upward, and down behind the occiput, my fingers seeking the dark hole at the base, the foremen magnum, where all the messages of the nervous system pass to and from the busy brain.
Then I held it close against my stomach, eyes closed, and felt the shifting sadness, filling the cavity of the skull like running water. And an odd faint sense—of surprise?
“Someone killed her,” I said. “She didn’t want to die.” I opened my eyes to find Horace Thompson staring at me, his own eyes wide in his round, pale face. I handed him the skull, very gingerly. “Where did you find her?” I asked.
Mr. Thompson exchanged glances with Joe, then looked back at me, both eyebrows still high.
“She’s from a cave in the Caribbean,” he said. “There were a lot of artifacts with her. We think she’s maybe between a hundred-fifty and two hundred years old.”
Joe was grinning broadly, enjoying his joke.
“Our friend Mr. Thompson here is from the anthropology department at Harvard,” he said. “His friend Wicklow knows me; asked me would I have a look at this skeleton, to tell them what I could about it.”
“The nerve of you!” I said indignantly. “I thought she was some unidentified body the coroner’s office dragged in.”
“Well, she’s unidentified,” Joe pointed out. “And certainly liable to stay that way.” He rooted about in the cardboard box like a terrier. The end flap said PICT-SWEET CORN.
“Now what have we got here?” he said, and very carefully drew out a plastic sack containing a jumble of vertebrae.
“She was in pieces when we got her,” Horace explained.
“Oh, de headbone connected to de…neckbone,” Joe sang softly, laying out the vertebrae along the edge of the desk. His stubby fingers darted skillfully among the bones, nudging them into alignment. “De neckbone connected to de…backbone…”
“Don’t pay any attention to him,” I told Horace. “You’ll just encourage him.”
“Now hear…de word…of de Lawd!” he finished triumphantly. “Jesus Christ, L. J., you’re somethin’ else! Look here.” Horace Thompson and I bent obediently over the line of spiky vertebral bones. The wide body of the axis had a deep gouge; the posterior zygapophysis had broken clean off, and the fracture plane went completely through the centrum of the bone.
“A broken neck?” Thompson asked, peering interestedly.
“Yeah, but more than that, I think.” Joe’s finger moved over the line of the fracture plane. “See here? The bone’s not just cracked, it’s gone right there. Somebody tried to cut this lady’s head clean off. With a dull blade,” he concluded with relish.
Horace Thompson was looking at me queerly. “How did you know she’d been killed, Dr. Randall?” he asked.
I could feel the blood rising in my face. “I don’t know,” I said. “I—she—felt like it, that’s all.”
“Really?” He blinked a few times, but didn’t press me further. “How odd.”
“She does it all the time,” Joe informed him, squinting at the femur he was measuring with a pair of calipers. “Mostly on live people, though. Best diagnostician I ever saw.” He set down the calipers and picked up a small plastic ruler. “A cave, you said?”
“We think it was a…er, secret slave burial,” Mr. Thompson explained, blushing, and I suddenly realized why he had seemed so abashed when he realized which of us was the Dr. Abernathy he had been sent to see. Joe shot him a sudden sharp glance, but then bent back to his work. He kept humming “Dem Dry Bones” faintly to himself as he measured the pelvic inlet, then went back to the legs, this time concentrating on the tibia. Finally he straightened up, shaking his head.
“Not a slave,” he said.
Horace blinked. “But she must have been,” he said. “The things we found with her…a clear African influence…”
“No,” Joe said flatly. He tapped the long femur, where it rested on his desk. His fingernail clicked on the dry bone. “She wasn’t black.”
“You can tell that? From bones?” Horace Thompson was visibly agitated. “But I thought—that paper by Jensen, I mean—theories about racial physical differences—largely exploded—” He blushed scarlet, unable to finish.
“Oh, they’re there,” said Joe, very dryly indeed. “If you want to think blacks and whites are equal under the skin, be my guest, but it ain’t scientifically so.” He turned and pulled a book from the shelf behind him. Tables of Skeletal Variance, the title read.
“Take a look at this,” Joe invited. “You can see the differences in a lot of bones, but especially in the leg bones. Blacks have a completely different femur-to-tibia ratio than whites do. And that lady”—he pointed to the skeleton on his desk—“was white. Caucasian. No question about it.”