These Fragile Pieces
Eleni handled the bone carefully. She turned it over in her hands, rotated it until she was satisfied, and laid it back upon the table. It was a small thing, no bigger than the mound of her thumb. One could have easily mistaken it for a pebble with its greyed tone and irregularly striated surface. But it was recognizable as a bone by its weight—few rocks were that weak.

Pelvis, she wrote on the notepad. Fragment from iliac spine, greater sciatic notch present. Angle in relation to ischial spine indicates female. Inner surface worn to level expected in the 45-60 age group. Evidence of dorsal pitting—children likely.

Eleni had once liked knowing about the lives these bones had. These stories once mattered to her, but now this woman was a specimen. To Eleni, she did not, nor did she ever, exist in any form other than the medial edge of her right ilium. Eleni photographed the fragment from each of its angles, placed it back in its bag, labeled it Jane Doe 463195 and fit it back onto its shelf. 

Two years earlier, after completing her residency and a stint at the Cheboygan coroner’s office, when Eleni had first moved to Brooklyn and began working for the Medical Examiner, she thought she was, at thirty-one, finally becoming an adult. She had her real job with its real salary in this real city, with her real, if somewhat cramped and shabby, apartment. Jeff, the concerned chief pathologist, told her she would work with him on every case he got. She was still frightened by how many cases didn’t get solved—how many bodies, after having lain in coolers for months, were shipped off to Potter’s Field—and how everyone knew that no one cared. She was beginning to understand. Last year she would have believed that one of the children who had kicked its way out from this Jane Doe’s pelvis would show up at the precinct and ask what had become of his mother’s hip. Now she knew that anything that came to her as bone was too old for anyone to care about. When he was introducing her to the city, Andrew, the man she was seeing, had told her that only here could you stay so well hidden—you needed to fight to get noticed. Eleni understood this better with each body buried in Potter’s Field. 

On the train back to her apartment Eleni saw a mother feed her son dry Cheerios from a yellow plastic container. Eleni thought maybe she would cook dinner for Andrew one night. Maybe she would cook him something Greek, but not too Greek—avoglemeno not mageritsa. He would like that. She would have to call her mother in Michigan to get the recipe.  

Andrew called her that night. She could hear the chefs yelling and the plates clamoring in the background. She could picture him—his charcoal hair and suit—standing in one of his cramped kitchens.  

“Did you eat yet?” he asked.

“No, not yet.”

“Come by. We’re not too busy. You can have some stir-fry or rolls or something.”

“Faan?” Eleni asked.  

“Yeah, take a cab—I’ll be waiting.”

Andrew owned a handful of restaurants scattered throughout the city, all of which prepared vaguely ethnic food for their gentrified patrons. There were just enough colorful lanterns, sitar music, and tin cups to compensate for the mild vindaloo at Devi, and the decoupaged walls and tea lights at Chantal made up for the second-rate cuts of steak.

He was waiting outside for her when she got there. He paid for her cab like always. They sat at the booth in the back, contained by a wall like an abacus and a pop-art image of Mao TseTung.  

“How are the dead today?” he asked.

“Today they were long dead,” Eleni said.

“You value freshness, too?”


Andrew smiled. “Look,” he said. He reached into his leather messenger bag on the seat beside him and pulled out a book.

“I got you something,” he said. He held it halfway across the table and Eleni took it from him. It was a small paperback with a black and white photo of ornate stone gates. “Green-Wood Cemetery,” it read, “history through walking tours.”

“I figured you like being around the dead,” he said. “Plus it’s in Brooklyn like you, and there’s so much history there. Those gates,” he reached across the table and tapped his finger on the book cover, “are by Richard Upjohn. They’re gorgeous up close.”

“Thanks,” Eleni said. “I’ll need to go see.” She put the book next to her in the booth. Sometimes Andrew thought he really knew her. 

“How was your day?” she asked.

“This day’s been crazy,” he told her. He had gotten brown rice, which he scooped into his basil chicken and mixed with his fork. “One of my head chefs got sick, none of the deliveries can ever get here on time, and Laura called. She wants me to go visit. Says I’m not being supportive. Her mother goes to Jersey every other weekend and helps out with the pregnancy. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do—she’s got a husband and it’s not like there’s a baby, yet.”

Andrew shoved his forkful of chicken between his lips and chewed. She stared at his jaw. Each time he bit down she saw his temporalis muscle contract and tighten at the coronoid process of his mandible. 

She smirked at him. “She’s your daughter,” she said.

He put down his fork and smiled. “It’s not that I don’t want to go,” he said, “but it’s Jersey. And I’m just so busy with the restaurants. And with you.”

She looked past his skin and saw his skull. Beneath all that skin, it wouldn’t look terribly different from her own. He would have slightly thicker browridges, perhaps, and larger mastoid processes, but nothing too discernable.  

“It’s her first child. If I were her, I’d want my dad to be around.”

“I’ll go then,” he said.  

Eleni was thirty-three, five years older than Laura, and she had decided, secretly, that she would leave Andrew when he became a grandfather.  

She had met Andrew at the Metropolitan Museum last winter. To avoid the crowds Eleni had wandered past all the popular exhibits and found quiet in the Southeast Asian gallery. Andrew was the only other person there. He wore grey slacks and a shiny pink tie. She was aware of him as she examined the intricate woodcarvings. She walked into the darkly ornate temple altar at the center of the display and knew that he would follow her. She was slender enough, and her hair long and full enough, that she had always garnered some attention, but she had never been approached so blatantly by such an established man. He told her that this Hindu altar was for icons because Hindus believed that simply looking at an image of the divine was an epiphany. She realized that she believed him whether or not he was right. They walked through the park together and he bought a soft pretzel that they shared. He called her the next day—he was fifty-six and had forgotten that he was supposed to waste time. Wear something nice, he had told her. The little girl from Michigan needs to see what New York’s all about. She had a black strapless dress that wasn’t nice enough but she wore it anyway and spent two hundred dollars on delicate underwear of handmade lace. Andrew was too old to appreciate boy shorts.

He had taken her to a gallery opening filled with shimmering people. Eleni had crossed her arms over her ribs and held her glass of blood red wine gently against her elbow. Andrew had walked her through the matte white rooms. He had commented on most of the pieces but Eleni only remembered the small rose silk purse with a reflective button tacked against the blank wall. Hand clutch, the nameplate read, silk, mirror, and pubic hair. Eleni had looked more closely at the purse and saw the golden threads curling around the button. She had enjoyed the pleasant deception. She had worn the new underwear on each of their dates until Andrew saw them.

The following day the Medical Examiner’s Office called her in early. They had found trash bags filled with body parts all over Brooklyn. The bags were opened when Eleni got to the office.  Scraps of a person lay out to be examined. They were so green they were almost black and they oozed their decaying liquid all over the metal table. She and Jeff worked their way through each piece. They were all from the same person—a child, maybe eight years old. These parts were bagged for weeks. Eleni found the hands. They were burned—sliced, they looked like roast beef. The fingerprints were gone. No one had found the head. All they knew was that the child was skinny, terribly skinny, and dead before dismembered. Jeff said the cops were working on it. They would find something and Eleni could expect to be called in early, often.  

The receptionist came in while Eleni was lining the ruler up next to a piece for Jeff to photograph. She was ordering lunch and wanted to know if they were hungry.  

“Please leave,” Jeff said. “You don’t want to see this.”

“Lunch?” she asked.  

“Not today,” Jeff said.  

Eleni thanked him, silently.

She held the child’s left hand. Its fingers barely extended beyond her own palm. The metacarpals were all fractured, a sign of self-defense, so the fingers were bent back at dangerous angles. This child had held its hands out to fend off something.  

They’d done all they could with the pieces but Eleni was afraid to put them away.  

“The pattern where the bone is severed,” she said, and showed the jagged wrist to Jeff. “It’s so rough, like it was done with just a kitchen knife.”  

“We’ve documented it,” Jeff said.  

She held on to the hand. “I still think there’s more it can tell us,” she said.

Jeff put the pieces away.

Eleni changed out of her scrubs but she could still smell the sour death of the child’s body. She knew it was in her nostrils and would stay there all night. Jeff put his hand on Eleni’s shoulder.

“You know that with this job you need to be able to forget about people,” he said.

Eleni nodded.

“But some days,” he continued, “I drive home from here and I cry in my car.” He took his hand from Eleni’s shoulder and rubbed it twice along his sparkling bald head. She was terrified. “I only cry in the car,” he said. “Today,” he said, “I have my daughter’s soccer game I need to go to.”

That night, over samosas at Devi, Eleni told Andrew she was thinking of becoming a vegetarian.  

“It’s healthier—just remember your protein. I really should do it with you. I need to get my cholesterol down.”

“Yeah,” she said.

“But you can’t possibly have high cholesterol,” he said. He reached across the table to run his thumb along her clavicle and cup her shoulder. She leaned back against the quilted, sequined booth and away from Andrew’s fingers.  

“No,” she said. “But it wouldn’t really be for health reasons.”

Eleni reached forward and dipped her samosa in tamarind sauce. She held the food above the bowl allowing the sauce to drip, and she thought about the child’s tiny, severed hands with their cooked and ragged flesh. She placed her samosa back on her plate.

“Well I bet you grew up without a lot of meat,” he said. “Parents from Greece. Not a very meat-heavy culture—you must have had a lot of cheese and olives.”

“Yeah,” she said. “But we ate meat, too.”

“Oh, I’m sure, but what I’m saying is that Greek cuisine isn’t all about meat like the northern countries are. You know, since I’ve met you I’ve been thinking of opening a Greek restaurant.” He had stopped eating and looked at her for a reaction. She imagined whitewashed walls, cerulean blue tablecloths, fragile gold-rimmed wine glasses and dill-less spanakopita. He was not real. Nothing about him was real. He was not a part of her real life, not when the bones of little children were.

“Just don’t make it too Greek,” she told him.

They had been in six trash bags though if the child were alive, Eleni thought, all its pieces could have fit inside just one. She had stayed late in the lab and was looking, once again, at what had been found of the child. A left thigh, detached from the hip; a right calf missing its foot; a right shoulder with the distal end of the clavicle cracked but attached; four thoracic vertebrae only two of which had ribs still intact; a left forearm, radius and ulna both fractured; two broken, severed hands.  She could not save the child but she could find its story in its parts.

It was three days later that Jeff sat low in his swivel chair with his elbows resting on its arms and his hands clasped together when Eleni came into his office. The room was too new to be comfortable though it tried with its moss carpeting and creamy walls. He didn’t look at Eleni as she sat in the armchair facing him. She had never seen Jeff so troubled.

“She was a little girl,” he said, still looking at his clenched hands. “Just a tiny little girl.”

Eleni’s hands itched. She rubbed her palms along the rough upholstery because she couldn’t reach across the inconvenient desk and hold Jeff’s head in her hands. He looked up at her and she realized she should say something.

“Did they find the rest of her?” Eleni asked, slowly, quietly, and as a statement.

Jeff shook his head. “Her mother went to the cops.”

He pushed himself up so he sat uncomfortably straight in his chair and he rolled himself closer to his suitable desk. He picked up a pen. They both watched him turn it over in his fingers and push its capped point into the oak.

“The stepfather did it,” he said, his voice faster now. “Beat the poor girl, chained her to a radiator, starved her.” Jeff was turning the pen so rapidly that it slipped away mid flip and skidded off his desk and onto the carpet. He placed his palm on the desk and looked suddenly at Eleni. She didn’t know how she was supposed to look. She wanted to cry but knew she wouldn’t be able to.  No case had ever made her cry; she had never allowed them to. She wanted to ask how they knew it was she—if they would find the rest of her, if they had a DNA sample to match. She wanted to have made the identification. She wanted to ask what the little girl’s name was, and she wanted to piece together every broken part of that tiny girl and let her play soccer.

Jeff stood up and his chair sprung slightly with his absence.

“Let’s go,” he said. “We have forms to sign.”

As she was leaving, Eleni found one of the detectives at the receptionist’s desk. She asked what would happen to the stepfather.  

“A lot,” the detective told her. “The mother’s testifying against him.”  

“Good,” Eleni said.  

“Sort of,” the detective said. “But that bitch let it happen—helped him dump the bags of her daughter.”  

She slept over Andrew’s that night. She wore her lace underwear and he didn’t say anything about them. She had thought she wanted to be touched and held but she rolled away from him onto the edge of the bed. She lay awake and listened to Andrew’s unsteady breaths and crackling snores. The hair on his chest was silver and sparse against his soft yellowing skin. She wondered if looking at icons was an epiphany.  

In the morning she found an article about the little girl in the paper. It was a short article, not even a full column, and towards the middle of the paper. There were no pictures to go with it.  No photos of the little girl smiling in pigtails and a school uniform, no little league team pictures, no giggling ballerina. Eleni doubted any photos of this girl had ever been taken. She showed it to Andrew. He read the title: Stepfather Brutally Kills 8-yr old Bklyn Girl.  

“One of your cases?” he asked.

She nodded.

“What a shame,” he said. “There are some sick people in this world.” He gave the paper back to Eleni.  

“Can I put that coffee in a thermos for you?” he asked. “I told Laura I’d visit this weekend and I wanted to get going before traffic.”  

Andrew went to New Jersey, and Eleni, left alone for the weekend, spent her Saturday with the guidebook Andrew had given her, walking around Green-Wood Cemetery. She walked through the divinely imposing gates and knew why ordinary people, not just ones who liked to surround themselves with the dead, would spend leisurely days here. The earth rose and fell with dramatic swoops that had been flattened elsewhere in the city. Thick, knotted tree trunks reached like church steeples to the heavens of their coarse branches, and cast shadows onto the gracefully corroding tombs beneath them.

Eleni read of the great historical figures buried here. She saw their elaborate memorials now eaten away with age. But the book also directed her to the noteworthy graves of the relatively unknown. She found a great marble canopy bed with the deceased carved asleep in it, “staring up at various scenes of his life” etched into the underside of the canopy, as the book told her. The lavish fenced shrine was for the young girl whose statue stood in it, who died on her seventeenth birthday, and the small grave marker just beyond the fence was for her devastated fiancé whose suicide placed him outside consecrated grounds.  

Eleni stopped reading the book. She wandered through the graves and read what she could from their eroded lettering about the lives of the bodies below. She imagined a grave for the little girl. It would be small, like the girl, carved of white marble, and it would have a sleeping lamb on top, like so many other children’s graves Eleni saw. She tried to think of what would be written on it but nothing seemed appropriate. 

Eleni sat on the grass in front of an eroded headstone. The earth felt soft beneath her. She looked down at her hands holding the book and pictured them burning. She could feel the flames igniting upon her fingers and eating away at her skin. The itchy sting spread up her arms and she knew she would soon be lost. Soon she would be no more than the dirt she sat upon, crushing the bones in their caskets below. She pushed her palms onto the headstone but even the cool surface did nothing. There was writing on it but she could not make it out, could not tell if it was male or female, young or old. The bones were so close to her. The body just beneath her. If she could just see it she could learn its story and make a new headstone. Her hands fell to the earth and sunk into the grass and moist dirt. She started pulling at the grass. Her hands began to cool and she ripped up entire clumps of dirt. She dug her fingers as far into the earth as she could and tore it up. It was so cool and soft beneath the surface.
Work by STEFANIE DEMAS has appeared in New York Press, Hunger Mountain and Lemondrop, and she was a finalist for the Yemassee Short Fiction Contest 2010.