J. Erin Sweeney

It was during the peak of the cicada’s seven-year cycle and the hottest day of the year in North Shore when the leg bone first appeared. The percussive racket of a million desperate insects strung throughout the Ohio forest as tight and thin as a hissing wire began to give way. They mated and then, one after another, content now that their kind would come again on this earth, iridescent bodies fell to the ground like rain and softened the noisy assault by dying.

The foreman stood with his clipboard as usual, gazing out over the crew near Lakewood Drive as they nosed their front-end loaders along the wall of clay beside the new road, crushing cicada bodies under the treads. Then all at once, with a small nitroglycerine explosion, there it was. A bone. Chunks of yellow clay fell away from it, leaving it suspended out over the future highway, all at once naked and accusatory, like a knobby finger. Only it was huge. It was certainly a bone, not a branch, but the workers soon agreed that it was as big around as the trunk of the biggest tree any of them had ever seen.

They scraped and gouged at the wall of sticky clay that held it, first with the loaders and then by hand, reaching up with shovels. But the great shaft of bone showed no signs of tapering off. In fact, even as they dug at it, it seemed to grow more tightly embedded than before, as if held into the ground by a complicated and ancient network of roots. It must have been incredibly long.

The foreman stood under the bone with his crew, looking up at it as they did, puzzled, thinking vaguely of the money involved, the possible losses and gains. He moved under it slowly, stepping in and out of its long shadow and scratching the back of his neck.

The foreman had heard of things like this happening before, but similar incidents had taken place only where massive amounts of earth had been moved. When the Atwood Dam had been carved out up north, for example, three square miles of dirt and limestone bedrock had been scooped out and carted away, and a giant mammoth skeleton had been unearthed in the process. An official archeological dig sponsored by the University of Ohio had been established on the spot, and the project was held up for nearly six months. Rumor had it that the crew members were given orders to quietly cover up any future bones they found, to keep the dam construction from going on forever.

But this foreman and his crew had been given no such orders. Nobody expected to find a dinosaur bone in the relatively shallow ground where Lakewood drive would be connecting to route 183.

That night the foreman went home in consternation and slept, dreaming of primordial swamps with hanging vines and giant insects that buzzed and swooped like gliders. When he arrived back on the site the next day, he was almost surprised to find the bone still there, unmoved, unchanged, as real as it had been the day before. It glistened in the damp morning. A spider had crafted an elaborate web underneath it, where the dew collected.

By noon he called the head contractor, but representatives of the Mineral City Archeological Society had already arrived at the site, flashing temporary injunctions. They were climbing around under the bone, measuring it with tape. They took notes and photographs and made sketches while the foreman hovered anxiously.

Sweat darkened his shirt under the arms. Maybe bones like this were common. He hoped so. Maybe the back rooms of museums were full of them. Dozens of them propped up like the pillars of some ruin, museum workers moving silently among them like small animals in the dusk. Maybe this wasn’t a dinosaur bone at all, but an accident, or a hoax.

But no, it was a bone. And worse, the archeologists had no idea what kind of bone it was. They had never seen anything like it. Local news reporters began showing up before three o clock. The foreman swore softly to himself as he watched them climb out of a gaily painted van and pick their way over the rough ground in suits and high heels.

By the end of the day, the archeological society had called the head contractor and announced its authority, based on a now official injunction from the state government, to postpone the road project for at least two weeks. During this time they hoped to assemble the funds they needed to start digging.

Two weeks. The foreman swore again as he hung up his cellular phone, louder this time.


Within twenty four hours, The foreman watched the town of North Shore divide into bone-related factions. There were those who found this fourteen day protective measure insufficient, who flooded the head contractor’s office with angry, worried letters about the value of unimpeded scientific inquiry. There were also those who felt that nothing should stand in the way of progress, and the road must go on and be built at any cost. A few felt that the bone should be covered over again and not disturbed, that everything happened for a reason, and some truths were best left unrevealed. But everyone knew that the nearest large town was Mineral City, twenty miles away by the current road, and that the connecting highway would shorten this distance considerably.

And so they debated. Over backyard fences, at the beauty salon, at the checkout counter of the farm and fleet, the bone dominated every conversation, reminding the people of North Shore who their neighbors were while it kept them, for fourteen more days at least, isolated from the rest of the world by a twenty-mile drive.

Every morning for the first seven days, the foreman drove out to the abandoned site. He would have a cup of coffee with his wife before she left for work, and then he would take his hard hat off its hook, lock the door behind him, and drive out there to stand, calculating, under his motionless machines that loomed up from the aggravated soil like giant muddy insects.

The foreman was a sturdily built man, tidy and bald. After dropping out of college to work in construction, he had married young, and he and his wife had a happy, if quiet, life together. He had been a foreman for twelve years now. He was a pragmatist, and though he knew that the project would probably cease to be profitable, he still came out every day with his pad and pencil to think about what still needed to be done, how long it would take, and who he could call to get the machines moving again.

After a short time, unlike the rest of the people of North Shore, The foreman hardly noticed the bone anymore. It became a fixture in his landscape and his eyes moved over it in the morning the same way they did over the cornfields he carved through every day to build the road. As far as he was concerned, it hadn’t changed at all since the night they locked up the cabins of the bulldozers and earth movers and left it there, crusted with dried mud, hanging silently against the blue evening sky.

But on Wednesday, finished with his morning routine and not quite ready to go home again to the empty house, he found himself gazing over each of its rough knobs. Museums, the foreman knew, were more or less collections of every milestone leading up to the present moment. But every milestone, in order to get to the museum, had to be dug out of the ground. It needed to be brought down from an attic, or taken from the hands of a collector. It had to be rediscovered. After going out into the world for a while and drifting, lost, accumulating value, it was re-found, carried in, and placed carefully under glass forever after, with a plaque beside it displaying its previously unknown contribution to this day, this moment. But what took place in the interval? What did history do while the milestones hid and slept and collected dust? How do we know what happened during that time?

The foreman never went to museums. They were kid places, especially dinosaur ones, and he hadn't been to a single one since he had started thinking of himself as an adult. Besides, it had taken three years for he and his wife to accept that they would never have children of their own to take to museums, or anything else for that matter. His grief over this had made him feel foolish, at the time. After all they hadn't lost anything. No one had died. But still he got a strange giddy clench in the back of his throat now and then and had learned to avoid the places that brought it on—the park on Saturday, for example. Also zoos. Dinosaur museums never entered his mind.

The foreman decided to go home. The hottest part of the afternoon was approaching, and he had things to do—a faucet to fix in the kitchen, and errands to run. He reached up and touched the bone before heading back to his truck. It felt like rough porcelain, cold and traced with faint cracks underneath the mud.

Though he had no way of knowing for sure, the foreman wondered if the owner of the bone had reproduced before it died. If it had, and its young had, and the lineage remained unbroken, then somewhere right now on this earth, its direct descendant (some kind of lizard maybe, or a bird-- he had seen something on TV about that) skittered across the ground, feeling warm sun on its skin. What had happened in between? What had the bone slept through?


As the waiting period progressed, the controversy in North Shore raged on. On the seventh day, the newspaper printed an interview with a prominent expert on the late Cenozoic era, the epoch in which the owner of the bone most likely lived. It was difficult to conclude very much about it, said the expert. But it was possibly a larger relative of the brachiosaur, tentatively named ‘enormousaurus’, because of its inconceivable length, which may have spanned five city blocks from head to tail. A few supposed enormousaurus ankle bones were on display in a museum in New York City.

But the following day, the interview was refuted by another expert, who claimed it was a carnivore, related to the ovoraptid family. Referring to size charts printed beside the article, this expert claimed that it stood on two legs and was no taller than, roughly, a seven story building.

The Mineral City Archeological Society still did not have the funding to sponsor a dig.

“Read this,” The foreman’s wife said to him one afternoon, handing him a letter. He took it from her gently and laid it on the table. It was a letter of resignation from a member of his crew. Maureen, a surveyor.

“… What are we teaching our children?” the letter said. “This just isn’t right. This isn't just some patch of wetlands, it’s a priceless artifact. I just wanted to apologize. I have to do what’s right.”

The foreman wondered why she felt the need to apologize to him. He didn’t have any say in the issue. What did he know about right? And besides, he didn’t even have any children.


In the end, in spite of her convictions, Maureen and those who sided with her had to face defeat. By Friday of the second week, the head contractor and the anti-bone lobbyists had convinced the State of Ohio to allow the road project to continue.

It was decided that the crew would return to work on Monday, bone or no bone. The foreman found out about this before the newspapers did, when the head contractor called him at home on Friday night.

“They buckled,” she said. “The crew will be happy. Six of them have already found other jobs. This is good for business,” she said. “Very good.”

The foreman assured her that it was good. But as they restarted work on the road, they would need to shatter, with dynamite, all the cubic yards of soil and rock that the bone happened to rest in.

Asleep in his bed that night the foreman had a dream. With his wife lying in the dark beside him, the foreman dreamed that he was sitting cross legged on the floor of a cave, surrounded by pots and jars of earth colored paint. Outside curtains of rain fell, gathering mud and gravel that washed in a torrent down the mountainside. Dry and warm inside the cave, he painted lines and dark smudges on the wall in front of him that in time became familiar. They were people he knew, and places and things he remembered. Scenes from his life, drawn in pictographs. He appeared as a stick figure against one crude backdrop after another. He recognized other stick figures, too. His parents, his first best friend, his wife, his grandfather, his boss.

Everything he had learned, everything he had seen, he painted on the wall in warm shades of yellow, red and brown. Yellow trees, red dogs. Brown earth, yellow bulldozers. One scene after another he painted, immortalizing it, making it permanent, turning it into art.

On Monday morning, after fourteen days, the foreman and the remaining members of his crew went back to work. They carved and blasted out the road ahead, just as they had before, leveling the surface and smoothing it, carrying soil and rocks away in dump trucks like heavy jowled bulldogs. All day the yellow wound they scratched into the ground reached out from Lakewood to 183, crawling through foothills and across former soybean fields, stretching and lengthening.

At around noon, the foreman drove out to the site where crewmembers were placing blasting caps in the earth around the bone. He watched, from a distance, as they clamored underneath it and over it like ants.

The bone looked like nothing more than a big, lumpy, muddy protrusion from where he stood. It was hard to account for all the talk it had inspired. Someone had hung a sign from it that read “Support North Shore Archeology."

The foreman imagined the owner of this leg — one hundred twenty million years ago at the latest estimate (now the last) — wading through a swamp with no idea that someday its limb would jut out over a highway holding up a dusty sign that drifted back and forth in the hot, still air.

He turned and looked down the half-formed stretch of road. It occurred to him that someday this living ground, in its restless formation of layers, would cover over everything he saw, exactly the way it had covered over the bone. The backhoes, the asphalt mixers, and all the people would be rolled over and swallowed by the fat lap of the earth. Then someday, maybe, they would be pulled out again, and honored for what they had been, the forgotten link they had formed in a long unbroken chain. But the bone? Nobody would haul that out. Nobody knew what it was, and now they never would. What they did now could never be undone. What if it proved to be a mistake?

It didn't matter. It wasn't really his business. But the foreman couldn't help wondering what it would take at this point to stop it from happening. At this point he would probably have to jump into one of the bulldozers and drive it between the bone and the workers. Maybe he wouldn't stop there. Maybe he would bulldoze them away from it, and when it was safe, he would drive the bulldozer around the site, crashing into the other bulldozers, destroying them. He would smash the surveying equipment, he would dent up the steamrollers, he would knock over the giant cranes and drive into everything, smashing and toppling, until nothing remained that threatened the bone in any way.

When he and his wife had first learned that they couldn’t have kids, the foreman remembered how for one second he had wanted to do something expensive or extreme — cry, adopt, hire a surrogate, have a petri dish baby, whatever. He found himself for a brief moment willing to do anything, anything at all to circumvent a universe whose actions weren’t personal, weren’t a punishment or a curse or a lesson, but were in fact a simple, heartless, meaningless matter of statistics.

He realized, of course, that he couldn’t do any of that. He realized it within the time it took the doctor to complete her sentence and pause before saying ‘I’m sorry.’ It must have been three quarters of a second. And then his hand was lying on his wife’s arm, and he heard her saying something, thanking the doctor, and his life fell back into place again. Of course they couldn’t do any of that. They didn’t have the means, and had already decided that they weren’t willing to take the risks involved. They were prepared to accept it. They had, in fact, already accepted it. They drove home talking about other things. Nobody knew, even now, about that one moment of secret impracticality, those three quarters of a second when the foreman had been capable of anything.

Strange though. After all this time, he suddenly felt it again. The foreman looked around. Then he began to run.

The rough ground didn’t slow him as much as he though it would, and inside the cab he found the keys already in the ignition, attached to a muddy oak-tag key chain and looking familiar and friendly, as if he knew they would be there. The confused crew members watched him without moving. With his hand squared on the gear shift, the foreman heard voices outside the cabin, quiet at first, and then louder, cursing and threatening then screaming as they leaped out of his path.

And as he watched them scramble in all directions, thwarted in their efforts to propel North Shore into a brighter, less isolated future, he imagined how good it would feel to protect something. To risk everything he had in order to feel underneath him the crunch of metal bodies whose hearts weren’t big enough for the double bladed joy of being alive.

J. Erin Sweeney's

. . . work has appeared most recently in Hayden's Ferry Review, Cimarron Review and Confrontation. She is a graduate of the MFA program of the University of Utah and the ink is drying on the first draft of her first novel. Wish her luck in getting it published.