Sharyn McCrumb

Lovely In Her Bones

The second book in the Elizabeth MacPherson series, 1985


Although this is a work of fiction, about an imaginary Indian tribe, I have tried to be as faithful as I could to the reality of Appalachia and to the science of forensic anthropology. I would like to thank the scholars who helped me in my research, and to absolve them of any blame for liberties I have taken with the information provided. Thanks to Dr. David Glassman, for graciously allowing me to audit his forensic anthropology course at Virginia Tech; Dr. David Oxley, Roanoke medical examiner; Officer Mike Meredith, Virginia Tech police department; Dr. Jean Haskell Speer, Appalachian Studies Program; and to the following naturalists for help with plant lore: Clyde Kessler, Janet Rock Alton, Elizabeth L. Roberts, and Clarence “Catfish” Gray.

The Cullowhees are based on several groups of “racial isolates” in Appalachia and elsewhere, and their social and political situation is consistent with the actual experiences of some of these groups.

To my father,

for my roots in Appalachia

I knew a woman, lovely in her bones…

– Theodore Roethke


“I KNOW it’s my turn to cook,” Bill MacPherson informed his roommate. “I’ll fry a chicken on one condition.”

“What’s that?” asked Milo, absently collecting his scattered papers from the kitchen table.

“You have to promise not to tell me which leg of the chicken I’m eating. And I’m not interested in its age or gender either!”

“Sorry,” grinned Milo. “Reflex action. You show me a bone and I analyze it automatically. Did you know I can approximate the height of the bird from a drumstick?”

“Well, don’t! It’s a bad habit. People don’t want to get that intimately acquainted with their dinners. I know you live and breathe forensic anthropology, but you don’t have to think about it constantly. Do I talk about law all the time?”

“Okay, man. I promise. No autopsy on the fried chicken. I’ll go study in the living room.”

“All right,” grumbled Bill. “You’ve got about an hour.”

Milo padded off to the living room with an armful of notes and a human-origins text, which he proceeded to spread out on the coffee table in front of the window. Bill shook his head and began to cut up the chicken. Milo was a little overzealous in his archaeological studies, but he was a decent guy. He didn’t let mold grow on his laundry like the last roommate, and he wasn’t a selfish swine like the one before that, who used to bring girls home unannounced at midnight and had expected Bill to go off and sleep in the law library. Bill had laid down the law about that the day Milo came to look at the apartment, and Milo had replied cheerfully: “Don’t worry! If I bring home any girls, they’ll be dead!”

It turned out that he was a research assistant to Dr. Lerche, the university’s forensic anthropologist. Milo acted as lab instructor for Dr. Lerche’s classes in archaeology and human origins and assisted him on cases for the state medical examiner. Lerche and Milo were called out to find bone fragments after house fires or to identify bodies too far gone for recognition or fingerprints. To Bill’s great relief, Milo didn’t bring any of his casework home, but he did haul in a few lab specimens from time to time, to reattach a mandible to a fragile skull or to prepare some samples for the undergrads to study.

Bill had grown so used to Milo’s bizarre form of clutter that he hardly noticed it any more, but Milo’s habit of treating fried chicken as a lab exercise still grated on his nerves. He put the wet chicken into a plastic bag containing flour and assorted spices (old family recipe) and shook vigorously. Now what came after that? He peered at the recipe card propped against the saltshaker. He had remembered to dip the pieces in butter and egg this time. His family still laughed about his first attempt at frying chicken, when he’d had to call long-distance for instructions, making it one of the most expensive home-cooked meals he’d ever prepared. Well, he could hardly be expected to clutter his mind with recipes, considering all the trivia he was expected to memorize in law school. Another couple of months of it and he’d be reduced to writing his phone number on his hand for lack of brain space.

“Now here’s an interesting specimen!” yelled Milo from the living room.

“Oh, really?” called Bill politely as he dipped a drumstick in hot oil. He decided to humor the zealot. “How so?”

“Bipedal, orthognathous… pyramidal-shaped mastoid process… foramen magnum facing directly down…”

“Neanderthal?” guessed Bill, mispronouncing the word.

“No. Your sister. She’s coming up the walk.”

Bill came to the kitchen doorway and saw that Milo was looking out the front window instead of at his anthropology notes. Elizabeth was coming up the walkway toward the building. “I suppose she’ll want to be fed,” he grumbled, doing a quick mental tally of chicken pieces.

“I hope she doesn’t want to cook!” said Milo. “She’s got her herb bag with her.”

“I’ll be firm,” Bill assured him. “I’m not drinking any more of that concoction of weeds that she calls tea.”

“What was it last time? Fennel and rosehips?” Milo shuddered. “Does she really know what she’s doing? She’s only been in that wretched course for three weeks.”

Bill shrugged. “I taped the rescue squad number to the side of the phone.”

“Well,” sighed Milo, “if she poisons us, give me to Dr. Lerche for the lab.”

The doorbell rang.

Bill’s younger sister, Elizabeth, who had just graduated from the university in June, had-after a brief adventure at a family wedding-returned to the university to take summer courses while she tried to decide what to do with her degree in sociology. (“What’s it gonna be, Elizabeth? Burger King or grad school?” Bill would say.) She was presently enrolled in an Appalachian studies course in folk medicine, and she was developing an alarming tendency to try out her brews on Bill and his roommates.

“You’re just in time for dinner,” Milo was saying as he ushered her in the door. “But I warn you right now: if you make us drink any of your herbal swill, I intend to do an autopsy on the chicken.”

Elizabeth made a face at him. “It isn’t swill!” she retorted. “Herbal tea contains no caffeine, no additives, and aids in digestion. In Scotland they-”

Milo took a deep breath. “The epiphysis of the avian femur-”

“But I didn’t come here to make tea!” she continued loudly, drowning him out.

“Safe!” muttered Bill from the kitchen.

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