by Pari Noskin Taichert

I spent most of my  elementary school education in the cloak room — a dark space at the back of the classroom — where free thinkers and rule mockers sulked until the final bell jangled each day. That, combined with ditching two weeks in fifth grade, landed me in a private school located in the middle of nowhere.

P1010103Actually, it was Albuquerque’s north side. But in 1969, especially for a hostile 11-year-old kid, it could have been Mars — without the possibility of water. (If anyone has seen or read HOLES, think Camp Green Lake.)

Set on ungenerous, dusty land, where tumbleweeds grew and cacti pricked, Sandia School was my version of hell. When the winds came up, grit coated our teeth — no matter how tightly we clamped our lips together. Playing field hockey (remember that, girls?) on the patchy grass usually netted more thorns in our white bobby socks than goals through the holey nets.

Sandia School also stank because it admitted only girls. The student body was so small that people noticed when I didn’t show up for class. And, the teachers made me work. Damn them!

Az_centipede1Unwilling to succumb to these horrors without a fight, I’d hang out with another rabble rouser during free periods. Our preferred locations for rebellion were an underused bathroom where we could smoke, um, something . . . and at the edges of the undeveloped, and prohibited, acreage surrounding the school. There, we’d find the most amazing things. Turning over trash and complaining about how miserable EVERYONE ELSE was making us, we discovered a true desert centipede that was orange and about four inches long. We spotted coiled bullsnakes, round and plump horney toads, too many lizards to count, stink bugs with their butts pointed skyward, and, once, a $5 bill.

After a particularly irritating class my first fall at the school, my friend and I sought the refuge of our open space haven. Near a chain link fence — one we felt was designed to imprison us forever — a white stick caught our attention. We searched further and discovered another, curvy with holes, and then, yet another, as straight as an ice pick. Sun-bleached clean, these treasures reminded us of the fake skeleton that hung in our science lab, but we both surmised that our finds came from a cow or other wild animal; we’d seen carcasses out there before.

Still, we couldn’t keep our glee to ourselves. This booty deserved a wider audience. Though knowing we’d get into trouble, we brought the bones back to our favorite — or least detested — teacher.

Mrs. Gustafson, the 6th grade science maven, took one look at them. Her pink, cherubic face blanched. "Where did you find these?"

Shuffle. Shift foot-to-foot. Look at that crack in the floor . . . study it. "On the field."

"Where, exactly?" she said, taking our hands and leading us to the headmaster’s office.

That was it. We were going to be expelled. Our parents would kill us. Our bright futures would be snuffed out right there. It just went to show that NO ONE over 15 could be trusted.

Instead, the headmaster picked up the telephone and called the police.

Great. We’d be arrested.

Not quite.

During the next few hours, we got to skip all kinds of annoying classes. A wonderful reward. We spoke to uniformed officers and anthropologists from the University of New Mexico. I had more excitement educationally than I’d ever experienced before that day. In light of Louise’s beautiful post last Tuesday, this week I went back emotionally to that moment, the realization that these bones had been a person, to see what I felt. No nobility of spirit there. I wish I could say that those bones inspired me to become a mystery writer, but it’d be a stretch. Frankly, at 11, it just seemed incredibly cool–a Nancy Drew moment of sheer luck and adventure.

Hummm. On second thought, it may have influenced me more than I realize . . .

It turned out that the femur, pelvic bone, and humerus were from a female Pueblo Indian who’d died about 100 years before. Apparently a small portion of my school’s property unintentionally had been built on a burial ground.

Fast forward more than 30 years. In an odd twist of fate, one of my children will be attending a local private school here this fall. For this kid, it’s a joyous and wonderful proposition. Unlike Mommy-dearest, this child loves academics, lives for homework and thinks teachers are gods incarnate.

Guess what? An ancient pueblo was discovered on the new school’s land this year. My child will have the experience of working on a real archeological site. That just astounds me.

I often contend that New Mexico is wondrous and that being raised here is part of the reason I’ve chosen this literary path. When you live in a place where human influence is dwarfed by untouched land, where ancient history abuts contemporary life, where daily you’re astonished by the natural world . . . sensing mystery in each moment becomes a way of life.

14 thoughts on “Bones

  1. pari

    Billie,You’re welcome anytime.

    I know you live on a horse farm, away from a major urban center, but wonder if all that green in your part of the country cuts down on this incredible sense of possibility.

    Truly, I grew up being able to see 30-40 miles in just about any direction. My worldview was formed with the certain knowledge that behind each hill, or off just past that visible horizon, could be ANYTHING.

  2. billie

    It’s absolutely true – the green here is almost jungle-like in the summer months, and it’s beautiful, but there’s a density about it that blends with the humidity to make everything feel weighted and heavy and shadowed. I have often said the southern gothic writing comes out of this atmosphere.

    I went to graduate school in Austin, TX, and the most amazing thing to me was the wide open sky and the horizon that stretched so far you couldn’t even imagine that much distance.

    Funny (not really..:) that this comes up today, as I’m deep in the rewrite of the Virginia/Texas/New Mexico novel, and realizing as I read your comment that my main character leaves VA for Texas and then NM in search of exactly that – possibility.


  3. pari

    Billie,Some way, some how, we’ve got to meet.

    One pointer for someone who comes from the green to the SW: many people think of our state (and AZ) as just being brown. They also react horridly to all this open space; it’s a visceral response of discomfort — the opposite, but just as unpleasant, as claustrophobia.

    The people who love it and thrive here are those that can see all the earth tones (browns, reds, rusts, ochres, lavenders), the tremendous varieties of blue in the sky, and have an abiding love of life’s struggle to overcome odds. And those who view open space as a balm rather than something to be conquered.

    Can’t wait to read your book, m’dear.

  4. billie

    In addition to everything you said about all the colors and the open space, there was also something quite mystical about New Mexico, for me. Everywhere we went I felt it, whether we were in the cities or on some farm road in the middle of nowhere. New Mexico is the one state we visited as a family that we ALL couldn’t get enough of. We wanted to go through every single square mile and see what we could see.

    Maybe I’ll ask you for a blurb. :))

  5. Louise Ure

    What a great post, Pari. And you’ve shown me a whole new side of you — a wild child I didn’t know was there.

    I’ve always thought the desert southwest was like a moonscape — with great treasures to be found. You’ve proved it.

  6. pari

    Louise,I was definitely NOT a sweet, demure child. It’s difficult to believe, I know. Especially with how adorable I am now. .

    Billie,Our state saying isn’t a mistake: “The Land of Enchantment.” It’s true. I defy anyone to disagree.

  7. JT Ellison

    Pari, I love to hear stories from your past. You are truly an eclectic woman.

    Actually, I’m realizing more and more that all of my favorite women writers have this incredible subtlety, a depth that gets tapped and shows in their books. And sometimes shared here at Murderati.xo

  8. Starley


    Lovely post. After growing up in Texas, spending a hefty chunk of life in Colorado, and now happy in Albuquerque, I sometimes feel submerged by all the green when I visit the eastern US.

    Reminds me of a Tony Hillerman story. Years ago, he was on a train traveling in New Mexico. Across from him were a couple of yacking East Coast businessmen. When the train topped a rise, a magnificent western vista opened before them. Pastel mesas, moody shadows, actinic blue sky, and a hundred-mile view. The two businessmen stared, finally silenced by the scene. Then one said, “God, what horrible desolation!”

    And yes, let’s hear about ThrillerFest. Virginia and I weren’t able to go this year. We want juicy details, murderatites. — Starley

  9. billie

    Yes, I did read it – amazing. My thought at a similar sight was my god – what a magnificent expanse of light and color and space. The perfect work of art.

  10. Fran

    I don’t miss the centipedes and the scorpions and the cockroaches that hunted in pairs in New Mexico. Or that gritty dust. Sand EVERYWHERE.

    But oh I do miss those skies that are such a deep, rich blue that I’ve never seen anywhere else. Or the lovely colors in the rock formations (we took lots of photos when we were there a year and a half ago, the colors still knock us out), the smell of the sagebrush and manzanita after the rain.

    I love it here in the Pacific Northwest, but there are times when I miss the vistas and the sheer raw possibiliites of New Mexico. Thank you, Pari.


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