I was raking leaves from our oak trees into the street, and it occurred to me I should be burying them in the garden where they would become rich humus the following spring. The farthest corner of the garden, where the fences intersect, seemed the best place to start. When the first hole was three feet deep, the sand became cool and compacted. With a last shovelful, something at the bottom scraped. Whatever it was, it was solid and thoroughly imbedded. I lowered myself into the hole and dug around until the end of a strange object became visible. It was tan-white in color and very hard, the end of a very large ugly bone. I jumped out, startled and un-nerved, landing in the leaf pile.
What was a huge bone doing, buried in my garden? Could it be human? Was there a person actually buried in my garden? Thoughts of English who-done-its and bodies buried in gardens wouldn’t be silent. I remembered Jimmy Stewart thinking he saw a neighbor disposing of a wife’s body in a garden in the movie Rear Window. What would Agatha Christie, Sam Spade, or Charlie Chan do about this? If I called our city police department, they’d probably just laugh it off. Is there such a thing as a Missing Persons Department?
I went back to the house for a glass of lemonade and a long think. A neighbor across the street, Mark, was a police officer. Perhaps he would know what to do. My wife returned and I began explaining the mysterious find. She was less than sympathetic. “Serves you right. You shouldn’t be digging that deep, anyway.” So much for spousal support.
I crossed the street and found Mark finishing lunch. There was no way to avoid blurting, “Mark, there might be a dead body in my backyard. I was burying leaves in my garden and found what looks like a bone. Want to come over and take a look? I’m not sure what I have, and I don’t want to mess around with a potential crime scene.”
Mark assumed his dead-pan, officer-of-the-law face and, for a moment, I questioned the sanity of telling him I might have a dead body in my garden. Then he fixed his official cop-eyes on me and asked, “So, whattaya burying leaves in your garden for?” Not quite the reaction I expected. Apparently more interested in leaves than dead people, he continued, “All right, let me finish this sandwich and I’ll come over. You want a cookie? How about a turkey sandwich?”
“Um, no. I was burying leaves ‘cause they’ll compost over the winter, since our garden is mostly sand. I thought burying leaves would help make better soil. So … I’ll see you in a little while.” I went back to the garden to ponder where this was going.
Mark ambled over a half-hour later with his nine-year-old son. I thought he’d be in a uniform for the occasion but he was still in shorts and flip-flops. “Nice day, huh?” Peering into the hole, he asked, “So, whattaya got in here? He sounded like a garage mechanic inspecting a faulty transmission while the owner stands around clueless. After a minute, he said, “Well, I don’t know what it is, but it sure isn’t human. Nick, what do you think?” Maybe he was training his son to join a criminal investigation team, or he thought Nick might become an expert on mysterious large bones, but the kid inspected the hole as requested.
“I don’t know, dad. Can I help dig?” This was like the Tom Sawyer story where he tries convincing his friends to whitewash a picket fence so he wouldn’t have to do the work himself.
“Nah, Nick. Let Mr. Reed keep diggin’. We’re playin’ ball this afternoon.” He paused. “You know, the University of Michigan finds lots of wooly mammoth bones around here. Why don’t you call ‘em and see if you got a dinosaur or something? That afternoon, I pulled out a large fossilized bone and a couple of baseball-sized vertebrae.
I could hardly believe I was now an archeologist and might have a Stegosaurus in our garden. On Monday, I described my find to a real University archeologist but he said, “Fossilization means bones have become mineralized and won’t burn. If you hold a match under it and it doesn’t char, it’s a true fossil and we would be interested. But if it chars, it isn’t fossilized and we’re not interested.” After work, I lit a match under a piece and it began charring. My hopes fell. It would take thousands of years to fossilize and I didn’t think the University of Michigan would wait that long.
My wife and I left for a two day vacation the next weekend to Indiana’s Amish country. I came across a large picture of a horse skeleton on the wall of a feed and hardware store, startled to recognize a few of the bones in my garden. So that was it; someone had buried a horse near the Rouge River in what became my garden, years before a subdivision had been created. Had Native Americans or some other ancient tribe buried my horse?
The horse became Lucy, and the mystery of how it got there remains. Should I dig her up or leave it for a high school science-fair project? Nobody’s volunteered so far, because either they’ve read Tom Sawyer or there are no budding archeologists around these days. I’ve avoided digging too deep in the garden since then; one can never tell, I might find an old rider sitting on the back of Lucy the forgotten horse.