by Aubrey Hirsch
When he wasn’t doing farm chores or listening to the slaves sing, Zachary Taylor spent his boyhood collecting bones in the Skeleton Forest outside of Louisville, Kentucky. Before Zachary was born, the Ohio river sent so much floodwater into Louisville that all you could see to suggest there had ever been land was the very tops of the trees. When the water went down, the branches were filled with bodies: cows, horses, possums, even some Indians whose tribes never returned for them. By the time the Taylor family moved to Louisville, the flesh was all gone, the cartilage turned to powder. Only the bones remained, picked clean by birds, grown over with moss in spring, almost like part of the forest.
Zachary would go into the forest with his brothers after a windstorm and pick up the bones that had fallen. Sometimes they would try to match them up into skeletons. Sometimes they would drill holes in them with an awl and make long necklaces of horse teeth. The boys kept a rotating display of their most impressive finds on the windowsill in their small room: the jawbone from a cow, a colt’s long femur, a whole possum ribcage with bones fine as feathers.
He remembered these harvests years later, when he gathered the bones of his friends from the dry earth of battlefields. He thought about how much easier it was to pick up a single femur than to lift an entire body. When the faces of his soldiers stared up at him with open eyes, he tried to focus on the shapes of their skulls, and not think about what their teeth would look like in the dim light of morning coming in through his bedroom window.
He thought of them when his wife broke her hip delivering him a fifth daughter in as many years. He could feel the lump of fractured bone beneath the pregnancy weight. It was just like a hip bone he’d once found that cracked on one side when it hit the ground. You’ll be okay, he told her. Her sweat soaked the sheets, her face was purple and puffy. She didn’t look like the woman he’d fallen in love with. We’ll just try one more time. The next one will be a son. I know it.
And when he fell ill after his first Fourth of July as president, he let the doctors blister and bleed him, cutting him to the bone. His youngest child, a son, asked if he would be okay. Of course I will, he replied, but already he could feel himself slipping away. He could see, so clearly, the shape of his body in the ground.
It would be an undignified end for a president, he knew, but if he had his way, he’d rather his bones be hung in a tree. Placed deep in the Skeleton Forest, outside of Louisville, in the only place that had always felt like home.
Aubrey Hirsch’s work has appeared widely in journals like Third Coast, American Short Fiction, PANK and Hobart. Her first book, Why We Never Talk About Sugar, is forthcoming from Braddock Avenue Books. You can learn more about her at www.aubreyhirsch.com. Read the next story, MILLARD FILLMORE, here.
* thanks to Amber Sparks and Brian Carr for their editorial work on this project.