Storytime: The Eensiest Mandible.

July 1st, 2015

The coats came off. The lights went out. And the lab was closed.
And up on the shelves, up in the boxes, the whispers started regular as clockwork.
You get bored when you haven’t had a chance to talk to the rest of your skeleton in decades. It makes you hungry for gossip. Even if back in the fleshy days you would’ve gladly eaten your neighbour, now you’ve got more in common than not. Including a lack of meat to chew.
Imagine sixteen shelves for mandibles alone. Imagine all those bones nattering away to themselves, slapping against invisible maxillae. Imagine all that bustle, the clack of jaws, the chatter of teeth freed from gums. Imagine the voices and sounds.
All of them, bar one. A mandible all alone in a little box on a small place in a short shelf with only one word to describe it: ‘unidentified.’ A mandible whose species was as unknown as its confidence. A mandible for whom the term ‘tiny’ seemed too big to fit.
The eensiest mandible gazed up at the high shelves and the deep boxes and the happy bustle of all those others, and it felt lonely. This was not a new sensation, but something about this day – it could’ve been any day, really – cut it deep. And it decided to try and solve its problem.
Getting out of a box is very easy for a single bone. It just requires a bit of time and patience, but it IS a secret, so you won’t learn it here. All you need to know is that soon the eensiest mandible struggled its way up two shelves over and one shelf across and was surrounded by happy hubbub that died immediately.
“What are YOU doing here?” demanded a mandible labeled [Vulpes vulpes, red fox].
“I-” said the eensiest mandible.
“This isn’t your place,” harrumphed a second mandible ([Lynx canadensis, Canada lynx].
“Er-” said the eensiest mandible.
“You are far too timid and small,” growled a third voice deep enough to shudder the shelf and everyone on it. The eensiest mandible gazed up, up, up at the huge bone. A tiny scribble on its side proclaimed it [Ursus maritimus, polar bear]. “Why, the cracks on my condyle are bigger than you are! Go find yourself another shelf. This shelf is for the carnivora.”
The eensiest mandible was, in fact, far too timid to protest this ultimatum, and left with a heavier heart than could be expected from a single piece of a skeleton. But at length it pulled itself together and clambered higher, ready to try again.
This shelf was quieter. Quieter, but not calmer. As the eensiest mandible hauled itself over the edge, all movement ceased so quickly that it almost though it had never been there at all. If it hadn’t known better, it would’ve thought itself surrounded by insensate, inanimate bone.
“Hello?” asked the eensiest mandible.
The mandible nearest to it ([Sylvilagus floridanus, eastern cottontail]) sagged. “Shh. ThoughtyouwereapredatornowSHHHoldhabitsdiehard. Shhhhh.”
“We like the quiet,” whispered another, much larger jaw ([Odocoileus virginianus, white-tailed deer]). “And who are you to disturb it? You’re no carnivore, but you’re so small and frail. Moss could best you.”
“Bu-” said the eensiest mandible.
“Grass would thrash you,” added a third ([Castor canadensis, North American beaver]). “Goodness knows what a tree would do.”
“You are so frail, so thin,” said the largest of them all, a solid brick of bone with [Bison bison athabascae, wood bison] stamped firmly upon its jutting frame. “I have ground my teeth down to stubs on plants that would eat YOU. You are small and weak and will attract predators. Go away and die alone. Again.”
The eensiest mandible’s (still-absent) heart welled up with bitter sadness at these cruel words, but it merely turned and left because it wasn’t suicidal. Very. And so it fled, higher and higher on the shelves, faster and faster as if it could outrun the horrible thoughts filling its (also absent) head until at last it came to the highest shelf and there was nowhere to go and many strange voices.
“Aiyk! Aiyk! Tiny clumsy thing!” cackled a thin thing without teeth emblazoned [Larus cachinnans, Caspian gull]. “Go ‘way! Go ‘way!”
“T-” and the eensiest mandible’s words were cut off before even a full syllable, so fast were the words.
“Not here, not here!” warbled [Turdus migratorius, American robin]. “You’re slow you’re stuck you’re down from below.”
“ ” attempted the eensiest mandible.
“SoLowSoSlow” shrieked [Falco peregrinus, peregrine falcon].
The eensiest mandible’s next word didn’t even finish existing as a thoug
“Go back to the ground where you belong,” said [Bubo virginianus, great horned owl].
“Yes,” said a great, slow, long voice that was quite unlike the others, issuing from a beak of endless proportions inscribed [Diomedea exulans, wandering albatross]. Each syllable was a sigh. “You are too heavy inside to be here. I would wager you would fit inside a single one of my air-cavities, yet you weigh nearly as much as I do. Sink down back into the dark.”
That did it. Overcome with shame and loneliness, the eensiest mandible did as it was bid. Very quickly.
Down, down, down to the floor it clattered, and there it lay, sobbing in its guilt, when it felt a curious hissing tickle at its sides.
“What’s that?” inquired a cockroach.
“Don’t know,” replied its friend (cockroaches do not have friends).
“Not edible, that’s for sure,” sighed the first.
“Sad tale, that.”
“Seems sad, too.”
“What’re you sad for, unfood?”
“Nobody knows what I am and nobody wants me and they all told me to go away and I should and I’m worthless and I should stay here forever,” cried the eensiest mandible incoherently.
The cockroaches failed to understand this, but they were used to that. Being confused comes naturally to a cockroach outside of matters of food and making more cockroaches. They save their focus for the important things.
“Think we can help?” asked the first.
“Eh,” said the second. “But I think I know who can.”
So the cockroaches picked up the eensiest mandible, who was too filled with despair to protest this, and carried it away down strange aisles and onto alien shelves and placed it in front of a large glass tank, neatly labeled in black-on-white: [Dermestes maculatus, skin beetle].
“Hello,” said a chorus of tiny, depressed voices from within the tank. “Who have you brought us?”
“Dunno,” said the first cockroach. “But it’s pretty down. Thought you two would get along? Maybe. Dunno.”
“Nobody likes me because I’m bad at everything and I don’t belong,” said the eensiest mandible wretchedly.
“Ah, we see,” said the tank. “We can understand that. Why, we have only one job in this whole laboratory: eat dead things. And you know what? We can’t even do that right. We are failures and we cannot fix our failures and every week we are given fresh food to fail at eating. We deserve to be set on fire.”
“Oh,” said the eensiest mandible. “But how have you failed?”
“Bone!” cried the tank of beetles. “Bone defeats us! We can chew through flesh like nothing at all, consume cartilage, eat innards, but bone, oh bone, you confound our efforts! So many untidy leftovers! So much ruin and wasted space! The walls here would be bare, if only, if only we were a little better! But we are not, and so these shelves are filled with our many shames. Oh how they mock us every night with their chattering!”
The eensiest mandible felt sorry to see the beetles say such things of themselves, and then it thought of something.
“Set on fire? Perhaps better to be boiled. Slower and more painful for us.”
The eensiest mandible tried again. “Yo-”
“Or eaten alive! Chewed one by one by a predator, as we have FAILED to chew!”
“Or perhaps we should just smash our tiny brains out against the glass, and end this-”
“I HAVE A PLAN THAT CAN HELP YOU,” said the Eensiest Mandible. “And we can do it right now!”
And with that it leapt the walls of the glass tank in that strange way bones do when nobody is looking, and it gathered up all the beetles to it and they crawled over its surface and clung on to one another until it had grown more than six times its size in beetles, and ten times in weight.
“It takes a bone to chew a bone,” said the Eensiest Mandible, “and now you can do it!”
“This is a strange, fine thing you are doing for us,” said the beetles. “But some of those bones are fearsome large. How will we chew them?”
“Oh, them,” said the Eensiest Mandible contemptuously. “They already told me all their weak spots. The bear has cracked condyles we can split wide open, the bison’s teeth are nubs we can pluck straight from their sockets, and the albatross is so light we can just chuck him off the shelf and pick up the pieces. Now let’s get cracking!”

What happened afterwards was doubtlessly painful and startling on many levels. Bones in the wild, as it were, are accustomed to a certain level of predation, but even then it tends to be a sort of gradual recycling progress, barring occasional shatterings for marrow. This was consumption, plain and simple, and its targets went down neither quietly, easily, nor fearlessly. The nightly racket took it up four notches then broke the measuring stick. And when the lab was opened up again Monday morning, why, such a ruckus you’d never seen. Shelves collapsed, boxes torn open, the tank of flesh-eating beetles overturned… An almost total disaster zone.
Almost total, that is, save for the Eensiest Mandible, resting neatly in its place.
Neatly, and just a trifle smug.

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