“House of Bones” collage © Janet Ruth


Houses of Bones

Fifteen thousand years ago
middle of the Ice Age
near what is now Kyiv, Ukraine—
houses of bones.
Remains of more than one hundred
      wooly mammoths
foundations—rings of mammoth skulls
ivory domes—tusks arc to form a roof
the walls—pelvic bones, shoulder blades,
      jaw bones, leg bones
the skins that covered them—
      long gone.
Within, what’s left of bonfires—
      bones burned for fuel
bone and ivory tools
a mammoth skull painted
      with red ochre dots and lines
a map—inscribed upon a bone.
Carrying heavy mammoth bones
hunter-gatherers on the vast tundra
      before history      before civilization
built homes—
      now piles of bones
      studied by archeologists.

Today in Ukraine
houses in rubble
arcs of missiles
      trace the dome of heaven
someone tries to redraw
      a map—erase lines carved in bone
bombs ignite new bonfires.
Resurrection of a war so cold—
      a new Ice Age.
Whose bones will be carried?
What heavy price
      to rebuild homes now?
Who will study these bones?
What will they tell us?


– – In 1965, a farmer in Mezhyrich, a village in central Ukraine, dug up the lower jawbone of a mammoth. Excavations over the years revealed four prehistoric huts, constructed of the bones of 149 wooly mammoths. Some large mammoth bones can weigh more than a hundred pounds.

Janet Ruth is a New Mexico ornithologist whose writing focuses on connections to the natural world. She loves it when her friends and neighbors ask her to help identify mystery birds at their backyard feeders and her license plate is BIRDNRD. She has recently been elected the chair of the Albuquerque Chapter of the NM State Poetry Society and is a member of a local writing group called The Prickly Peers.