Skin Beetles

Rosaleen Lynch

Mam boils the skull until flesh falls off, and scrapes the rest, but fat melts into bone, leaving it a greasy yellow, and I tell my brother, sitting in our quilt and broom pyramid, how we should get skin beetles for her, only enough for a mouse’s skull, but enough to show how skeletonization leaves the bone a milky white, like Mr. Todd’s first mount, an acorn woodpecker, that once hung up in our hall, and I tear the photo from the library book and promise my brother that I’ll put it back, but I’ve seen a tongue glued into a jaw where it doesn’t belong, so I’m not sure how, and I explain that we need a picture to check the insects we pick are right, because we’ve had infestations before, ones that we had to leave behind because they wouldn’t go and now we live, more years than anywhere, three blocks from Mr. Todd’s Taxidermy, the door of which is always open, because the smell’s too much to be closed inside and a place like this, that gives other kids the creeps, is not one that needs to worry about locking doors, and so I leave my brother standing guard, as I make my way to the stink, this time not butchered in the sink, but a bear’s skull in a glass case, black hairs stirring as skin beetles scavenge, and I wish I had the time to watch the slow-motion movement of flesh devoured but I must find where the skin beetles are kept, to help Mam learn her funerary art, and so I pull open colony drawers, with metal screeching and flipping lids, and I check their stripes against the beetle photo, this beetle bigger than my hand, bigger than all the drawer beetles, unless maybe if they were to link legs and make a mesh, join forces, and sit on the page, on the back of this giant beetle, make him rise and explain, it’s not just about a beetle on a page or in a drawer or in a box, the box, or any box, no one cares about the beetle, and I tip some from each drawer, just the ones that cling to each other, so Mr. Todd won’t know they’re gone, into the green-eyed Woody Woodpecker lunch-box he gave me, before Mam first wore her mourning ring, that started out as a locket with my first baby curl, and when the chain broke became a brooch with the hair twisted with a lock from my last night before my age of reason and then she made a ring and braided a strand from the morning I got my first period, and though I ask her, she will not tell me why, when I’m alive she mourns me, and why she has so many memento mori for the living when it’s supposed to be for the dead, and at the open door, I find Mr. Todd standing, telling my brother he’s looking well and that I’m doing a good job taking care of him, and I nod, wondering if Mam has a lock of Mr. Todd’s hair too, and when Mr. Todd says he’s missed my brother, stroking the top of my brother’s head, that he’s one of his best pieces, I wait for him to touch me the same way too, to say how much he misses Mam and me, and when he doesn’t, I pick my brother up and take him home, skin beetles rattling as I walk, and dream that night of the skeletonization of Mr. Todd’s head, turning his skull bones a milky white and next morning when I give my mother the beetles, she knows where they are from, and tells me to remember that we all must die, and I ask her to teach me how to turn our memento mori into memento vivere, so we can learn to be like skin beetles, and remember that first we all must live.

Rosaleen Lynch is an Irish youth and community worker and writer in the East End of London with words in many journals, anthologies, and other publications, shortlisted by Bath and the Bridport Prize, a winner of the HISSAC Flash Fiction Competition and the Oxford Flash Fiction Prize, with a collection/workbook forthcoming from Ad Hoc Fiction and can be found at