The Skeleton In The Closet by Tamara Breuer

Isabela has always struggled to fit in with her family, but things come to a head when she discovers a skeleton among her father's possessions. 

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Three years after moving into her father's home in Asunción, Isabela found the skeleton in his closet. The wooden crate containing the bones had been lying in the same spot since she began her caretaking duties, and yet she had never thought to open it. The crate looked so innocent from the outside, hidden under an assortment of lone socks missing their other half, with no lock to suggest clandestine contents. Its dimensions reminded Isabela of the magic box her son had used to store his tricks when he was younger and obsessed with El Mago Pop.

Isabela knew immediately that they were human remains. Not because she had ever seen a real skeleton before, but because of the cold fear that gripped her stomach and didn't let go. Their discovery confirmed a dormant suspicion that her father was a complete stranger to her. She had pushed this thought aside over the past years, as she was the one looking after the most intimate details of his daily life: monitoring his food and water intake, making sure he did the exercises prescribed to him by his physical therapist, and waiting outside the bathroom in case he needed any assistance. And yet, in the frequent moments when his gaze drifted to the horizon, she wondered what kind of thoughts occupied his mind.

It hadn't been her intention to snoop around. The truth was, she had been stalling. Her siblings were in town, and currently sitting in the living room; she had been trying to delay the inevitable moment where she would have to join them. Moments before, her father rang the bell they had agreed he would only use in the case of emergencies and yelled at her to come down.

"I'll be down in a bit, I'm tidying up!"

"Let Maria do it!" her father called out, referring to his empleada.

"You know you don't like her going through your things!" she yelled back, hoping that Maria wasn't around to hear. Living with her father was turning her into a version of herself that she didn't like.

But she had found herself a loophole, hadn't she? The more time she spent cleaning, the less time she had to spend with her siblings. Who knew, she might even find a way to make the cleaning last all day! The thought made her laugh softly as she absently rubbed the black tourmaline crystal hanging from her neck, since it was so similar to the rebellion tactics she would employ as a child. She and her father had settled into a semi-peaceful rhythm when it was just the two of them, but as soon as her siblings entered into the picture, their old family dynamics sprung up again.

She had always been the oddball of the family. Her siblings had followed in their father's footsteps: Daniel, the eldest at fifty-four, was a general practitioner, like their father; Patricia, fifty-one, was a psychiatrist, and the twins, Marco and Rodrigo at forty-eight, were a cardiologist and an ophthalmologist, respectively. Isabela, the "surprise," now thirty-six, had studied literature for a year before getting pregnant and married to her husband (in that order).

The most obvious reason for Isabela's divide from her siblings was their large age gap. But it was more than that - their brains were foreign to her. It was like the years before she was born had synched them onto a specific rhythm that she was unable to program herself to, no matter how hard she tried. While her siblings had been perfectly content to spend hours studying, she couldn't sit still for more than a few minutes before sneaking into the garden to forage for wild herbs. Her father would often find her in the late hours of the night sitting with the empleada in the kitchen, listening to her recount legends from Guaraní mythology, like the story of the elf Kaa-Pora who punished greedy humans that polluted river water and killed animals.

Now that she had become her father's caretaker, the divide between her and her siblings was even greater. While she never consciously chose to commit to her child-like scheme of wasting time, she found herself wiping individual hangers. And although she normally only dusted around the edges of the wooden box, today she decided to open it.

Gaspar and his children were sitting in the living room when they heard the scream coming from upstairs. The siblings exchanged furtive glances.

"I'll go," Patricia said and climbed up the stairs to investigate.

Patricia found Isabela shaking in her father's room.

"What's the matter?" Patricia asked.

"Patri, Papa killed someone," Isabela said hoarsely, showing her the contents of the wooden box.

Patricia burst out laughing. "Don't be ridiculous. Come on down, we'll explain."

The sound of Patricia and Isabela arguing reached the men in the living room moments before the women appeared.

"I don't understand why you're not reacting to this!" Isabela exclaimed. Her face was bright red and her shoulders were hiked towards her ears. It reminded Gaspar of how she had looked as a child right before throwing a tantrum.

Patricia, on the other hand, looked weary. She turned to the rest of her family. "Isa found the skeleton."

A look of understanding washed over their faces.

"You all knew about this?" Isabela said.

"Pa got it for us to practice anatomy when we were younger," Rodrigo shrugged.

"Practice what, exactly?" Her frown lines cut deeply into her face.

"Isa, querida, doctors need to be able to identify bony landmarks," Gaspar said.

"You couldn't have done that with a fake skeleton?"

"Those are more expensive."

Gaspar explained that he had bought the skeleton for a little over 35,000 guaraníes at the local morgue, where the remains lay unclaimed. He had no idea what the details of the death were or the identity of the person involved, but given the size and frame of the skeleton, it most likely belonged to a young campesina woman.

"What's her name?" Isa asked.

"I told you, I don't have more information," Gaspar said.

"No, I mean the name you gave her."

The siblings exchanged amused glances.

"We didn't give her a name," Daniel said.

Isabela put her face in her hands. Gaspar felt a discomfort tugging at his insides. What had been a perfectly reasonable educational activity had suddenly become twisted under his daughter's gaze. Surely, if she were a doctor, she would have understood.

"Would you like to name her?" Gaspar asked tentatively.

Isabela's hands fell to her sides. "I'm going to bury her. She deserves a Christian funeral. No one should end up in a closet like that."

A week later, the family held a funeral for Evangelina Maria Caceres Ortiz. Not only had Isabela insisted on giving the girl their last names, but her coffin was to be buried in the family mausoleum, next to the coffins of their mother and Isabela's husband. Gaspar had ordered that the whole family be present for the ceremony, and so the siblings begrudgingly showed up. While they would never challenge their father's commands to his face, behind his back they murmured that he had grown soft since Isa began living with him.

Rodrigo and Marco sat next to their wives and adult children in the third row. Isabela stood in the back with her son, and when Rodrigo turned to look at her, he was stunned to see tears flowing down her cheeks.

What on earth could she be crying about? Was it some transferred grief over her husband's death? Could she truly be mourning the life of this stranger? Or were the tears a product of her embarrassment over their involvement with the skeleton - sorry, with Evangelina?

Rodrigo leaned in towards Marco. "Is it weird that we would have sword fights with the femurs when we were kids?"

Marco rolled his eyes. "No weirder than attending a funeral for a bag of bones."

Rodrigo nudged Marco playfully. "Careful, she's part of the family now."

As the priest droned on, Rodrigo felt the room grow increasingly stuffy. He massaged his temples, which were pulsing with the beginnings of a migraine. He excused himself and went to the bathroom.

The air continued to press down on him. He loosened his tie and splashed some water on his face. Rodrigo's reflection revealed how gaunt his skin had become, and he struggled to claim each inhale.

A blurry shape started to form in the reflection behind him. He thought it might be his vision playing tricks on him, but the rest of the room remained stable. As the shape became more defined, the shadows filling out, Rodrigo saw that it was a dark-skinned girl in a flowing dress drenched in blood.

He gasped and looked behind him - there was no one there. Clearly the ophthalmologist needed to get his eyes checked.

He turned back to the mirror and there she was again, standing behind him. His shock seemed to please her, and she placed a finger on her lips.

Rodrigo stumbled back into the church right as Isa was finishing her speech. The priest stepped towards the podium to make his closing remarks.

"I'd like to say something."

The words came from Rodrigo's mouth. Everyone turned to look at him, the expression on their faces mirroring his own surprise.

His feet walked towards the altar. His body moved behind the podium and his lips began speaking in Guaraní. Although everyone in the room spoke the indigenous language, the funeral had been conducted in Spanish up until that point, like all Catholic masses.

Rodrigo heard the words leaving his lips but he wasn't the one controlling his speech - the words were flowing through him.

"I was murdered and you killed me every day after that. How many hands must beat on my bones before they burst? How many times must I die before I ascend? How many names must I answer to before I belong to myself?"

The air grew steadily heavier until it became a steel fist that clamped down on his muscles. Searing pain invaded every inch of his body and he thought that surely his skin was about to burst, leaving nothing more than a pile of bones. But when he glanced down at his hands, the skin was still intact. In the pews, his father and three of his siblings began to tremble, and Rodrigo knew that the same thing was happening to them.

Memories flooded back from his childhood, of running his hands clumsily over the femur - Evangelina's thighs - until he reached the head - Evangelina's groin. That's where he would screw his hand into a fist to prepare for the swordfight, where the distal femur - Evangelina's knee - made contact with Marco's femur - Evangelina's leg.

There was the year that Daniel couldn't differentiate between the tarsal bones - the sole of Evangelina's foot - and he threw the calcaneus - Evangelina's heel - at the wall in frustration. Patricia stole three teeth - Evangelina's smile - to put under her pillow in exchange for a few coins. Gaspar had convinced the owner of the morgue to sell him the skeleton - Evangelina's body - before waiting the customary week for the remains to be claimed by family - Evangelina's home.

The only person in the room that didn't look alarmed by Rodrigo's speech was Isabela. There had always been something off about her - when she was younger, they called her the bruja of the family. Now her tears had dried, and a peaceful smile danced upon her lips.


  1. A very interesting, layered story in the same slightly magical realism vein of many South American writers - many of whom I enjoy reading very much. I liked the intertwining ideas in this one with the family differences, the references to legend / folklore and all wrapped within the, in this case, very literal 'skeleton in the closet' concept.

  2. I agree with everything Paul K. said.
    I loved this story! It had a psychological hyper-realism…for example, “ Isabela knew immediately that they were human remains. Not because she had ever seen a real skeleton before, but because of the cold fear that gripped her stomach and didn't let go.” There is the sense that we are in all of their minds, and yet I am never disoriented. The image of the dead woman talking was chilling in a delicious way. The story has balance. Wonderful!

  3. This is an excellent piece.
    Third person omniscient seems less common these days, you use it masterfully.
    The story reminds me so much of Isabel Allender’s The House of Spirits by way of texture, plot and setting.
    Did you name the protagonist “Isabel” as an homage?


  4. A good story with family dynamics, secrets, and the consequences of past actions. Isabela's struggle to fit in with her accomplished siblings and her discovery of the skeleton add depth to her character. I also thought the Guaraní mythology and language added richness to the story and helped to ground it in a unique cultural context. The surprise ending was both tragic and somewhat uplifting … at least for “Evangelina” … may she finally rest in peace.
    —David Henson

  5. A very intriguing fiction about the omnipresent and everlasting memory of all creatures. Although Evangelina may have been dead for many years, her consciousness lived on, if only in the guilt of those who had disrespected her as children. I found it amusing that the one sibling of Gaspar’s clan who was uneducated – Isabela – should be prescient with “special knowledge” of what the departed Evangelina needed. It’s rather risible that she would assume her father killed someone when she found the skeleton, particularly in light of her father’s medical career. She evinces the rather annoying singlemindedness of the Roman Catholic zealot that I’ve seen anecdotally during my life. At the end of the story, where Tamara writes of the “peaceful smile” playing upon Isabela’s lips, I believe that it reveals the zealot’s smug complacency that she was right all along. Good story, Tamara.

  6. What an intriguing plot! Nicely done.