The Storyteller: Shrunken Skulls and Broken Bones

The doctor burst into the St. Helena emergency waiting room, the silver metal of his stethoscope swinging rhythmically from his neck, its stiffness consistent with his expression. In his hand he held sheets of black and gray X-rays.

“His leg is broken in two spots,” he said. “The bone has splintered.”

Earlier that day my family and I had been readying to leave after a week’s vacation at a cabin on the shores of Lake Tahoe. We’d spent time swimming in the icy lake and exploring the region, visiting nearby ghost towns and abandoned gold mines.

For me, as an 8-year-old, the conjoined words “ghost” and “town” had the magnetic lure the words “Las Vegas” might have for a newly divorced 40-year-old man with limited prospects.

For a month prior to the trip I’d pictured what a town with ghosts might look like. I imagined a whole city full of haunted houses, each one a Disney-like ride.

What I came to learn was that ghost towns were just abandoned settlements, many originating after California’s gold rush.

Although disappointed by the lack of paranormal activity, I found solace in the dusty streets and dilapidated buildings rife with rusty nails and tumble weeds. I was also consoled by a sleepy gift shop on the outskirts of one of the towns. Begging our parents, my brother and I raced into the shop. Around us were shelves of untouched piles of stones and trinkets, rows of faded T-shirts and boxes overflowing with cap guns and their accompanying rolls of explosive red tape. But what caught my eye was a cluster of tiny shrunken skulls that hung from the ceiling in the corner.

I stared up at the emaciated heads, each hanging from strands of black hair jutting from their disfigured craniums.

“Mom, can I please have one of those?” I asked, pointing.

“Absolutely not,” she said.

I figured that’s what she’d say, but like most children I was a patient and persistent negotiator.

Minutes later I had worn down my mother’s will and held the prize in my hand: a plastic skull, about the size of my father’s fist, which was heavier than I imagined. Its hard-plastic skin was as wrinkled as a sun-dried apple, and its sunken cheeks and eyes created black holes that contrasted sharply with the green, sickly hues surrounding them. Strands of stringy black hair poked from the top of its skull in doll-like clumps. I was mesmerized.

“You know those are bad-luck charms,” my brother chided as we drove back to the cabin. “But this,” he said, holding up a nugget of the fool’s gold he’d bought at the shop, “this is pure luck.”

“How do you know?” I asked, trying to hide my concern.

“Everyone knows shrunken heads are bad luck,” he said, turning his nugget so that it sparkled in the sunlight.

Back at the cabin we readied to depart. In a few hours we’d be home where I could share my stories and my new toy with my friends.

I leaned on the deck railing and gazed out over the lake. The water’s surface reflected the deep blue of a cloudless sky. Fifteen feet below an enormous expanse of granite sparkled in the sun, itself appearing waterlike. I climbed up onto the railing to get a better view.

Dangling my shrunken head from its hair and squinting made it seem like the withered skull floated in the haze between the lake and the stone below. The dour expression of the skull seemed to shift slightly. A smile perhaps?

My foot slipped, and seconds later I was on the ground, flat on my back.

“Where’s my shrunken head?” I asked the faces that blocked the sun above me. My voice was oddly hoarse.

Without answering my father examined me, feeling my legs and arms.

“I think he’ll be fine,” he said, his voice hopeful. “Probably just a bad sprain.”

My mother made no indication she’d heard him.

“Can you walk?” my brother asked.

“I think so,” I said. But as I tried to struggle up, but the pain was too much and I fell back to the ground.

“We’ll carry him to the back of the truck so that he can lie down flat on the way home,” my dad said.

Minutes later, as we bumped along, the pain morphed into a dull queasiness and I faded in and out from a fitful sleep, waking when a bump in the road or a quick turn resulted in a shooting pain up my leg.

“You hungry?” my dad asked when they stopped for dinner.

I kept my eyes closed and just shook my head.

About halfway through dinner my brother came out.

“I brought you this,” he said and handed me the shrunken skull.

“Thank you,” I said, trying not to move.

“We’re almost home,” he said, “and Mom and Dad are talking about taking you to the hospital.”

I opened my eyes.

“OK,” I said and closed my eyes, hoping for sleep.

Two weeks later, when I had a heavy plaster cast around my leg, my friends and I conducted a ceremony that we hoped would reverse the bad luck of the shrunken skull. Needless to say, it didn’t go as planned, but of course that’s another story.


Originally published in the St. Helena Star, July 2016