From Issue 21: "The Hyoid" by Nat Wisehart (Fiction)

The Hyoid

Nat Wisehart

Reading Time: 2 minutes

"The Hyoid" originally appeared in Issue 21 of Tahoma Literary Review. In this work from Wisehart, we are reminded of our marrow and tissue components, along with countless physical and emotional vulnerabilities.

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Leanne Dunic
Fiction editor


How heavy is a pair of lungs, Billie would like to know. She thinks she could play a lung, tucked under one arm like a bagpipe. With warmer weather come the tourists, rolling their ankles on cobblestones, leaving wind-inverted umbrellas poking from bins, and with tourists come the kilted men who play bagpipes from street corners. The tourists slow to listen, and Billie lets her handbag knock the backs of their legs as she passes. 

In her bag is her anatomy homework––labelled bodies facing different directions, stripping from skin to muscle to bone. Billie’s favorite bone is the hyoid, the only human bone unattached to other bones. In diagrams it’s a small white horseshoe floating behind the mandible. 

In class, Billie feels for it, pressing her thumb into the soft spot under her chin. Studying bodies has made Billie more aware of hers. After a meal, she puts a hand on her stomach, trying to feel which sphincters in her digestive system are opening and closing. When she plucks her eyebrows she keeps the stray hairs to look at their follicles. On her fingertips, the little white bulbs feel cooler than she expects, and sticky.

The anatomy professor tells the class that she herself is not an organ donor, that after she dies, she doesn’t want anything leaving body. She doesn’t know a thing about being dead, she says, and doesn’t want to risk inhabiting her body, emptied. 

But what about decay, a student asks. 

The way they embalm you these days, she says, that won’t happen for a long time.

She shows the class a recording of an autopsy. It’s an old tape, the image filmy and tinted brown. Gloved hands break open the ribcage with something like hedge clippers, and when the lungs and heart are lifted out, the cavity is deep and dark.

Many of the tourists are old white men in polo shirts who have come to the coast to golf. They stay in a long brown building that’s as ugly as a shoebox from the outside, but has views of the sea and the yellow canola fields. When the old men drink too much they sometimes fall from the cliffs by the ruined cathedral––not paying enough attention to the ground underfoot, or leaning too far over the low fence, looking down at the rocks, at the worn-down things the tide has left behind, the seagulls nesting on the sheer rockface. The impact is what kills them, and the water carries their bodies from shore, then brings them back again. The bodies slump on the rocks, bloated like seals.

On the shore, tide pools form in the depressions of rocks. Billie crouches over them, shoes wet. It’s hard not to slip on the slick green growing there. There are clams, and purple urchins. Mostly there are brown snails that she likes to pull from their resting places, to watch the button of flesh draw back into the shell. 

Billie sees the anatomy professor walking the sandy stretch of beach one Saturday evening. She looks underdressed for the weather. The wind rustles in her skirt, and Billie imagines goosebumps down her legs, the arrector pili under her skin raising her hair like sails. 

The professor’s walk takes her along the shore to the cathedral, beneath the broken stone archway, and between the graves. Billie watches the professor lie flat in the body-sized sunken places. When she eventually stands to leave, her whole back is dark with damp. Once she’s gone, Billie spreads herself in the same depressed earth. She wonders what the professor does while on the ground. Cloud watching; meditating; thinking about the dead, beneath her. Billie watches the cloud shape of a fish dissolve into a flat disc, and presses her thumbs up under her chin. Tourists step around her in their bright new sneakers, bending close to the stones to photograph the winged skulls and willow trees, the beloved mothers, the dear children dead too soon.