TUESDAY: Dry Bones


This story took first place in the Adult South Simcoe Short Story Contest (November 2023). Copyright is held by the author.

IN THE afternoon, Augusta stood at her dining-room window, watching a dust cloud follow a distant motorcycle as it disappeared into the undulating purple hills north of Phoenix. Why had he come? She sipped from a coffee cup and watched a mouse dart out from a junk pile of greyed lumber and run across the yard into the garden. Sun-burnt, shriveled husks were all that remained of the vegetables. 

“That one was no-good. Best he’s gone. We don’t need his kind around here.” Arms crossed over her chest, Emma, her cook, entered the room from the kitchen. “Your dinner’s getting cold.”

“Persistent as hell, though. That’s the second time he’s been here.” Augusta brushed away a strand of white hair that had loosened from her ponytail. “Good looking, too.”

Placing a bowl of black beans and rice on the wooden table, Emma sniffed in disdain. “He’s a kid — after your money. There’s lots of locals need work. Men that aren’t still wet behind the ears.” 

“I sent him away. Told him I don’t want strangers coming here.”

The harsh desert sun filtered into the room, outlining Augusta’s profile. At 84, her mouth was thin and puckered. Her chin receded. Hours spent in the harsh sun had carved rugged lines and deposited liver spots on her cheeks and forehead. She tilted her head, squinting to see the arrangement she’d positioned in the centre of the table; the sun-bleached skull of an elk, surrounded by pieces of greyed driftwood and white roses.

To clear her blurry vision, she blinked, then reached forward, skimming the surface of the polished table with paint-splattered nails until a finger pricked against a rose thorn. The pain was sharp. A bright dab of red appeared. When she sucked it, her finger tasted of a mix of salt and blood.

She ate her dinner — spooning mouthfuls while she sorted through the mail Emma had delivered. Bills, letters from West Coast art dealers, galleries, recent sales of her landscapes. She brushed them aside. 

?Emma returned to clear away the dishes. “That’s the last of the fresh green beans. Garden’s dried up. The well’s running low. That damn plumber you hired wasted water when he fixed the taps.” 

“Los Angeles wants to do a retrospective of my paintings.”

“I’ve made a list of the other things that require doing. You need to hire someone to help.”

“It’s from the same gallery that showed Mickelson’s photos. They’re counting on the old scandal from his nudes to draw a crowd. The world thinks I’m a porn star. Ha.” Augusta took a deep breath. “They want the paintings boxed and turned over to them in a month.”

“My cousin’s clear to come by next week.” 

“I need someone with more than muscle between his ears. Those pieces have to be catalogued, prepared and delivered. Carefully.” There was a sharp tone in Augusta’s voice that implied Emma’s cousin was incapable. “Tomorrow, I need someone to drive me out into the back country. The coyotes made a kill a few nights ago. The carcass will be dry soon.”

Emma’s eyes flickered out the window, scanned the room, and settled on Augusta’s face. “Like everything else around here. Dried up. Except those…erogamous paintings of yours they want.”

Augusta winced at the mispronunciation but flushed at the implication. “All flowers have petals and stamens. That other stuff’s all in their minds.”

After dining, Augusta went to her studio and sat at her easel until sunset. Brushes and open tubes of paint were scattered around, but the large canvas was blank.

Later, Augusta undressed, climbed into bed, and gazed out the window. She studied the vast desert sky, that was lit by a tapestry of stars brighter than anything in Los Angeles. A finger-nail moon illuminated the hills and the broad stretches of cactus-dotted sand. The fragrance of sage drifted in the soft evening air. Drowsy, half-asleep, her thoughts wandered to Mickelson and their marriage.

When he was alive, he’d never understood her need to be here…where life was slow. Quiet. Beyond the reach of honking taxis and the rumble of trains. Here, where the sounds were clean and precise. The tick of the clock, the leaves in the breeze, the creak of the bed when she shifted. Then a yip! yip! yip! of coyotes. A scream from a dying animal. Rolling onto her back, she rubbed her arthritic shoulder with stiffened fingers and placed her other hand lower down, between her legs.

Night stripped the colour from her room, until it was a place of shadow and light, of hidden secrets. When the pressure in her bladder couldn’t be ignored, she felt a path to the bathroom toilet, arms outstretched, running finger tips along the pebbled adobe walls. The bedroom was stark and minimal except for a large nude portrait of Augusta that Mickelson had photographed 52 years before. 

Damn him, she thought. Dying on me. As she returned to her bed, she remembered his smile. His deep laugh. His rumpled silver hair. His warm skin. Then, how she’d posed for his camera. Those hundreds of photographs. What a time they’d had. How they’d shocked the public and snotty art world. He being so much older and married, and she was just a girl.

Arms folded behind her head, she stared at the portrait on the wall, its frame touched by moonlight. Her naked image, reduced to black and white, glorified youth, and mocked the passage of time. 


Seated at her easel in the morning, Augusta heard a Vroom! Pt! Ptta! Clack! From the studio window, she watched the motorcycle roar into the yard. The young man was back. Stepping out of a cloud of dust and gas fumes, he sauntered to the door. She opened it and studied him, the way his body filled up the low doorway entrance. 

“Like I said before Ma’am, I need work.” With a smooth hand, he rumpled his thick black hair and stroked his moustache. “I can do anything.”

“What’s your full name?”

“Jesse Hamill.”

“Can you pack art in a shipping crate?” 

Jesse looked confused and didn’t reply.

“You seem to understand the English language. Did you finish high school?”

“And college and two years of graduate school. I can do better than pack a shipping crate.”

“You probably could if you wanted to.” Augusta gestured at the toolshed, then pointed at the heaped pile of wood near the garden. “Can you pull nails? Straighten them?” 

He didn’t respond. 

She asked again, her voice sharper. “Cat got your tongue?”

He stared deep into her eyes. “Why the hell don’t you buy new ones?” 

She glared back at him. “Typical. Because I went through the depression. Unlike your generation, I appreciate the value of money and work.”

Jesse flung his hands up like a surrender. “OK. Show me what you want done.” After he found a hammer, he set to work, and she retreated to the studio. By noon, the sun was so hot the ground shimmered in the distance. Perspiration ran down Jesse’s face and soaked his shirt while he ripped nails from the boards and banged them straight. From time to time, she peeked out the window at him, appraising his physical condition. He was breathing hard and removed his sweat-stained shirt to mop his dripping forehead.

At noon, she filled a jug with water and stepped outside. The wood was neatly piled, but Jesse was missing. 

Augusta’s hands shook as she peered around the courtyard, searching for him. Following a noise, she walked around the side of her studio. Wide-stride, his bare back facing her, Jesse was there, urinating. Transfixed, she watched the stream of liquid disappear into the dry ground. He swiveled and blushed, feeling her gaze as he zipped up. Holding the jug high, she retreated to a bench by a ladder at the side of the studio. Wordlessly, he joined her. Side-by-side, they leaned against the hard-packed mud wall in a sliver of shade thrown by a gnarled cedar in the garden.

He gulped the water greedily, holding the jug with both hands.

When his thirst was slacked, he pointed at the stacked lumber.

“This afternoon, I’ll build the crates for your canvases.” 

“You’re a take-charge kind of man.” There was admiration in her tone.

“I’ve been trained to respect the material. I’m an artist myself.”

“A photographer? Painter?”

“A potter.” He leaned back and closed his eyes. “To me, clay’s a living, beautiful thing—working with it’s like playing God. Touch it, wet it, shape it in the dark. Add fire and it’s permanent. Long after I’m gone, my pots will still be here.”

She waited a moment, appraising him with a side glance.

“Is there a woman in your life?”

He shook his head. “Divorced. Left me broke.”

They sat in companionable silence. As the afternoon heat increased, life around them wilted and slowed. Then a hawk that had settled into the cedar tree fluttered down and perched on the woodpile, tilting and twisting its head as if it was listening. With a sudden burst of flapping wings, it swooped to the ground and ran, feather outstretched in a way that obscured their view of its path.

When the bird lifted in the air, something small struggled in its talons.

Jesse placed a warm hand on Augusta’s arm and pointed. “That mouse was hiding in the lumber. Amazing how he spotted it.”

She placed her hands together, as if praying, and brought them to her chin. “I’m losing my sight.” 

Jesse stiffened. When he spoke, his voice was thick. “Then, how do you paint?”

“Can’t.” She shrugged. “Out here in the open, everything’s clear and reduced to its simplest form. There’s Life and then there’s Death. Something dies—another fills its place. It’s taken me a long time, but I understand that now.”

“You’re an artist. You can’t just give up.” He shook his head. “Ever thought of trying clay? Making pottery?”

“Is it hard?”

“It takes practice. But you know how to use your hands. I could teach you . . . unless Ma’am, you’ve forgotten how to work.”

She threw her head back and laughed until tears appeared at the corner of her eyes. “You got me.”

At the end of the day, when he’d finished building the crates and had stacked them, she counted her money carefully, then folded it small and neat. After she tucked it neatly into his outstretched palm, she let her fingers linger on his wrist.

“Will you come tomorrow?” 

“I will.”

They strolled to the motorcycle, and he climbed aboard, shifting and fiddling until the engine roared and dust stirred. Above the noise, he shouted, “Want to go for a ride? Your cook said you wanted to go out to the hills and look for some old dried bones.”

Augusta held her breath a moment. “I do.” 

Jesse leaned sideways and stretched out his arm. Placing her hand in his, she clambered onto the backseat, and shook her hair free. She wrapped an arm around his waist, inhaled the scent of sweat and dirt, and lifted her clouded eyes to the open sky.


Image of Sharon Frayne

Sharon Frayne is the author of Caught Between the Walls (Bygones Publishing) and The Sound of a Rainbow (Latitude 46 Publishing). Her award winning short stories and poetry have appeared in numerous print and online journals, including Uproar, The Ekphrastic Review, Agnes and True and CommuterLit. She lives in beautiful Niagara-on-the-Lake where she writes, paints landscapes and volunteers at the amazing Shaw Festival Theatre. Find her at www.sharonfrayne.com.