Oracle Bones

By Joanne Yao

Bones are cool to the touch but no one told you. Secretly, you expected some warmth, some acknowledgement to your hand, as if bones should say, “I was once enmeshed inside a living body.”

You lift the ox scapula from its lumpy satin pillow. It is birch white, stone-like, beset by hairline cracks. Weighty and locked, as silent as the trapped air in this Collections vault. It turns in your hand with the whistling friction of a broken porcelain bowl. At the jagged boundary where the piece was broken, an interior of delicate grooves and intricate tunnels lay exposed. Ridges like coral where marrow had once grown are plugged up with silt. A scratch from your pinky sends fine particles of time tumbling away.

The undeniable signs of life one recognizes from a drumstick dinner – moisture, blood and carnal stench – burned away long ago when the Shang emperors attempted to divine their fates by carving questions onto these bones, neat and deep, before throwing them into pits of fire. Pleading for spirits to say something in a language of cracks. The Chinese peasants who unearthed the strange bones powdered them into milks for immortality.

For thirty centuries, they endured, beseeching discovery. By now, all remnants of the Shang people have disappeared – except for these questions, the only proof of their very existence.

You lift the bone to your nose, sniffing. But even the dirt has lost its smell.

Joanne Yao is a writer and teacher at work on her first book. Born in Shanghai and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, she relocated back to Shanghai in her early twenties and carved out her career as a food critic and lifestyle journalist. After five unforgettable years of traveling, eating, and taobao-ing, she moved to New York City to pursue her MFA in Creative Writing at Columbia University, where she taught writing workshops to undergraduates and spent a year proudly organizing Our Word: Writers of Color. She is published in CNN, Entrepreneur, and Forbes, among others. She misses Shanghai dearly and is jealous of everyone who gets to live in this most exciting city.