Throughout the novel, there are three distinct but functionally similar symbols that reflect one of the novel’s major themes: motherhood and violence. Skeetah’s fighting dog China, the Greek mythological figure Medea, and the catastrophic Category 5 storm Hurricane Katrina all come to symbolize a violent kind of mothering that stands in sharp contrast against more traditional ideals of mothers as nurturers, providers, and instructors. The “mothers” in this novel maim when they should nurture, take when they should provide, and confuse when they should instruct, reflecting Esch’s lack of maternal care and her own impending role as a mother to a child she does not necessarily want.
Esch, who is the only girl in a landscape populated almost entirely by males, finds herself frequently retreating into her imagination to escape her poverty-stricken circumstances and crushing loneliness. Esch is fascinated by the Greek myths she’s studying in school—primarily the myth of Jason and Medea. Medea sold out her family and gave up everything to marry the heroic Jason, but when he betrayed her through infidelity, she murdered their two children in retaliation, absconding from the scene of the crime in a chariot driven by her uncle, the sun-god Helios. Medea’s cruel, ruthless killing of her own children preoccupies Esch’s thoughts, and contrasts the way in which Esch’s own mother left the world: in childbirth, bringing her youngest child Junior—a surprise—into the world seven years ago. Esch has been raised largely without a mother, and as she considers the myth of Medea and this violent model of motherhood, she seeks to understand what being a mother will mean to her as she wrestles with the newfound knowledge that she is pregnant.
China, a fighting dog who is alternately sweet and vicious, gives birth to her first litter of puppies in the novel’s opening pages. The birth itself is violent, and in the days that follow, China, a first-time mother, maims, devours, and deprives several of her puppies, revealing that motherhood is not always benevolent. China’s animalistic, survivalist approach to raising her litter culminates in her losing them when the floodwaters of Katrina wash the last three puppies away. In a reversal of the myth of Medea, China’s puppies are murdered by the storm and taken away from her, and she pursues them into the woods at her own peril, the opposite action of Medea’s abandonment of her children’s lifeless corpses in order to avoid punishment. As Esch witnesses China’s journey as a mother, she finds her notions of motherhood as a burden both confirmed and challenged; though a violent mother herself, China ultimately subverts the Medea myth, and thus shows Esch a way of looking at motherhood. At the novel’s end, Esch is hopeful that China will come back, so that China will at last recognize Esch as a fellow mother; China, then, seems to be for Esch the paragon of motherhood, greater even than Medea or Katrina.
The third, final, and perhaps strangest “mother” in the novel is the storm Hurricane Katrina. A notoriously destructive hurricane that claimed the lives of nearly two thousand people and brought to light serious issues in local, state, and federal governments, crisis response and relief organizations, and in the very bones of contemporary American society, Katrina seems at first glance to oppose the idea of what constitutes a mother in every way. After Katrina hits, though, and devastates her family’s home, land, and community, Esch finds herself thinking of Katrina as yet another “murderous mother.” Esch says that Katrina “left us naked and bewildered as wrinkled newborn babies, as blind puppies […] She left us to learn to crawl. She left us to salvage. Katrina is the mother we will remember until the next mother with large, merciless hands, committed to blood, comes.” Katrina has devastated Bois Sauvage, but to Esch and her family, who have struggled with poverty and neglect all their lives, there is something familiar in the way Katrina has struck them. Motherhood, perhaps, is not benevolent or evil; perhaps motherhood, like the world more broadly, is indifferent, and in that way, a teacher. Though Katrina was “merciless” and “committed to blood,” she has brought as much instruction as destruction, and has forced Esch and her family to start anew in many ways. Esch’s confused concept of motherhood is further complicated by Katrina’s swift destruction—but in a way, this complication opens Esch’s eyes to the full range of what motherhood can do, and thus Katrina expands Esch’s world even further even as she appears to shrink and weaken it.
Medea, China, and Hurricane Katrina Quotes in Salvage the Bones
The puppy is pure white. She is her mother in miniature. But while her mother moans, she is silent. Skeetah bends over her. The other puppies are opening their jaws, twitching legs. We're all sweating so badly we look like we just ran into the shed from a hard, heavy summer rain. But Skeet is shaking his head, and I don't know if it's all sweat or if he's crying. He blinks. He scrapes his pointer over the pure white skull, down the puppy's chest and her belly. Her mouth opens and her belly inflates. She is her mother’s daughter. She is a fighter. She breathes.
In Mythology, I am still reading about Medea and the quest for the Golden Fleece. Here is someone that I recognize. When Medea falls in love with Jason, it grabs me by my throat. I can see her. Medea sneaks Jason things to help him: ointments to make him invincible, secrets in rocks. She has magic, could bend the natural to the unnatural. But even with all her power, Jason bends her like a young pine in a hard wind; he makes her double in two. I know her.
"You giving China a floor?" Daddy had started on our house once he and Mama got married. Hearing the stories about him and Papa Joseph when I was growing up, I always thought it was something a man did for a woman when they married: build her something to live in.
"No, Esch." Skeetah slices at the underside of the next tile with one of Daddy's rusty box cutters. "I'm saving them puppies. China's strong and old enough to where the parvo won’t kill her." He yanked. "They’re money."
"I ain’t saying [she] weak." Manny still hasn't looked at me. "But you know China ain’t as boss as she used to be."
"What?" Skeetah's tendons are showing.
“Any dog give birth like that is less strong after. Even if you don’t think it. Take a lot out of an animal to nurse and nurture like that. Price of being female." Finally Manny glances at me. It slides over me like I'm glass.
Skeetah laughs. It sounds as if it's hacking its way out of him.
"You serious? That's when they come into they strength. They got something to protect." He glances at me, too, but I feel it even after he looks away. "That's power."
China is licking Skeetah's hand like she licks the puppies. Skeetah pushes her head away but she keeps at it, and he looks away from Manny. The tendons in his neck smooth. The menace leaves him; if he were a dog, his hair would flatten.
"To give life"—Skeetah bends down to China, feels her from neck to jaw, caresses her face like he would kiss her; she flashes her tongue—"is to know what's worth fighting for. And what’s love." Skeetah rubs down her sides, feels her ribs.
Daddy has only knocked down one of the chicken coop's walls. The chickens wander drunken and bewildered around his feet, seemingly mystified that he is dismantling their house, even though they haven’t roosted in it in years. In the half-light from the bulb from the shed and Daddy's headlights, they look black. Daddy lets his hammer fall, and the chickens scatter, fluttering away like leaves in a wind.
"The storm, it has a name now. Like the worst, she's a woman. Katrina."
"There's another storm?" Randall asks.
"What you think I been talking about? I knew it was coming," Daddy says. Like the worst, l repeat. A woman. He shakes his head, frowns at the coop. "We going to try something."
“I want you to get on my tractor and I’m going to direct you to this wall right here.” Daddy points at the longer wall. “And we going to knock this damn thing over.”
"Do it," Skeetah commands China.
China's ears are fat as plastic knives laid on her head and her mouth is wet and pink as uncooked chicken, except here the bone shows. She is quivering, her muscles beset by a multitude of tics. She is shaking all over, now eye to eye with Skeetah, seemingly ignoring the dirt-red puppy rounding her bowl, waddling for milk. He is the one that is a model of the father, of Kilo; he is the fattest, the most well fed, the bully. Turgid with the promise of living. When their eyes eventually open, I think that his will be the first.
The tractor idles and the engine turns, sounds as if it going to move.
"Don't do it!" Daddy yells against his tugging, but his grunts eat the Don't, and I don't know what Randall hears, but he lets up on the brake and slips it in gear, and the tractor eases forward. "Stop!" Daddy yells. He is pulling back, his hand clenched in the wire, and he twists so hard his arm looks long and ropy.
The red puppy creeps forward, rounds China's bowl, noses her tit. China is rolling, rising. The rumble of the tractor is her growl. Her toes are pointed, her head raised. Skeetah falls back. The red puppy undulates toward her; a fat mite. China snaps forward, closes her jaw around the puppy's neck as she does when she carries him, but there is no gentleness in it. She is all white eyes. She is chewing. She is whipping him through the air like a tire eaten too short for Skeetah to grab.
The blood on Daddy’s shirt is the same color as the pulpy puppy in China's mouth. China flings it away from her. It thuds on the tin and slides. Randall comes running. Big Henry kneels with Daddy in the dirt, where what was Daddy's middle, ring, and pinkie finger on his left hand are sheared off clean as fallen tree trunks. The meat of his fingers is red and wet as China's lips.
Skeetah kneels in the dirt, feeling for the mutilated puppy; he knocks into metal drums and toolboxes and old chainsaws with his head and his shoulders.
"Why did you?" Skeetah wails.
"Why?" Daddy breathes to Randall and Big Henry standing over him, the blood sluicing down his forearm. They are gripping Daddy's wrist, trying to stop the bleeding. Skeetah is punching the metal he meets. China is bloody-mouthed and bright-eyed as Medea. If she could speak, this is what I would ask her: Is this what motherhood is?
I try to read the entire mythology book, but I can’t. I am stuck in the middle. When I put the book down and wipe my wet face and breathe in my morning breath, ripe to the afternoon under the sheet, this is where I have stopped. Medea kills her brother. In the beginning, she is known by her nephew, who tells the Argonauts about her, for having power, for helping her family, just like I tried to help Skeet on the day China first got sick from the Ivomec. But for Medea, love makes help turn wrong. The author says that there are a couple of different versions of how it happened. One says she lies to her brother and invites him onto the ship with the Argonauts as they were feeing, and that Jason ambushes him. That she watched her brother die, her own face on his being sliced open like a chicken: pink skin cut to bloody meat. The other version says that she kills her brother herself, that her brother runs away with her and the Argonauts, assuming that he is safe, and that she chops him into bits: liver, gizzard, breast and thigh, and throws each part overboard so that her father, who is chasing them, slows down to pick up each part of his son. I read it over and over again. It is like she is under the covers with me, both of us sweating to water.
I listen for the boys and the dogs somewhere out in these woods, but all I can hear is the pine trees shushing each other, the oak bristling, the magnolia leaves hard and wide so that they sound like paper plates clattering when the wind hits them, this wind snapping before Katrina somewhere out there in the Gulf coming like the quiet voice of someone talking before they walk through the doorway of a room.
A cloud passes over the sun, and it is dark under the trees. It passes, and the gold melts through the leaves, falls on bark and floor: foil coins. Soon we reach a curtain of vines, which hang from the lowest branches to the needle-carpeted earth, and we crawl. Skeetah dusts China's breasts off, waves us on. We have been walking for a long time when I hear the first tiny bark.
"You tired?" Randall asks.
"No," I say. My stomach feels full of water, hurts with it, but I will not tell him that. I push aside a branch, let it go, but it still scratches my arm. Medea's journey took her to the water, which was the highway of the ancient world, where death was as close as the waves, the sun, the wind. Where death was as many as the fish waiting in the water, fanning fins, watching the surface, shad- owing the bottom dark. China barks as if she is answering the dog.
Skeetah is squeezing China’s neck, murmuring in her ear. This time I cannot hear what he says. Skeetah is whispering so closely to China's ear I only catch half of his lips behind the red-veined white of her ear. Her breast drips blood. China licks Skeetah's cheek.
Rico stands, already smiling.
"Maybe I don't want the white [puppy]," Rico says. "Maybe I want the colored one that got more Kilo in it." He laughs.
Skeetah stands, and China, stout and white, looks up at him. "She fights," Skeetah says.
Randall pulls the stick from his shoulders, swings it around
to his front. "She's already fucked up enough," Randall says.
"Cuz, if she lost, she lost," Big Henry says, slowly, as if he is tasting the words.
"She didn’t lose," Skeetah breathes.
"It's salty. Taste like pecans. And if worse comes to worst, we can eat like China." Skeetah rubs China from her shoulders to her neck, up along her razor jaw, and holds her face, which goes wrinkly with the skin smashed forward. It looks like he is pulling her to him for a kiss. She squints. I want to kick her. Randall shoulders his box, grabs the ramen box from me, and turns to walk into the house. Junior is tying his cord around an old lawn mower now, pulling at it like he's playing tug-of-war. The sun shines, blazes like fire, funnels down in the gaps between the trees, and lights up Skeetah and China so that they glow, each kneeling before the other, eyes together. Skeetah has already forgotten the conversation, and China never heard it.
"We ain't no dogs," Randall says. “And you ain't either."
[Manny] stops in profile. His nose is like a knife.
“And?” His hair grows so fast it's already starting to curl. Sweat beads at his hairline.
Manny shakes his head. The knife cuts. The sweat rolls down his scar, is flung out onto the rotten asphalt.
"I ain’t got nothing here," he says. Manny blinks at me when he says it. Looks at me head-on, for the second time ever. "Nothing."
Nothing. For some reason I see Skeetah when I blink, Skeetah kneeling next to China, always kneeling, always stroking and loving and knowing her. Skeetah's face when he stood across from Rico, when he told China, Make them know.
I am on him like China.
I am slapping him, over and over, my hands a furry, a black blur. His face is hot and stinging as boiling water.
"Hey! Hey!" Manny yells. He blocks what he can with his elbows and forearms, but still I snake through. I slap so hard my hands hurt.
"I love you!"
"Esch!" The skin on his throat is red, his scar white.
"I loved you!" I hit his Adam's apple with the V where my thumb and pointer
finger cross. He chokes.
"I loved you!" This is Medea wielding the knife. This is Medea cutting. I rake my fingernails across his face, leave pink scratches that turn red, fill with blood.
Mama had talked back to Elaine. Talked over the storm. Pulled us in in the midst of it, kept us safe. This secret that is no longer a secret in my body: Will I keep it safe? If I could speak to this storm, spell it harmless like Medea, would this baby, the size of my fingernail, my pinkie fingernail, maybe, hear? Would speaking make it remember me once it is born, make it know me? Would it look at me with Manny’s face, with his golden skin, with my hair? Would it reach out with its fingers, pink, and grasp?
I kick, grasping at the air, but the hurricane slaps me, and I land in the water on my back, the puppies flying out of the bucket, their eyes open for the first time to slits and, I swear, judging me as they hit.
"Esch!" Randall yells, and Junior tightens his legs like a looping shoestring across Randall's waist. Randall grips Junior's shins, those legs thin as rulers. Randall cant jump in. "Swim!" he screams.
I kick my legs and palm water, but I can barely keep my head above it. It is a fanged pink open mouth, and it is swallowing me.
"Fuck!" Skeetah yells. He looks down at China, who is thrusting up and against his sling.
"Esch!" Junior screams, and the water is dragging me sideways, away from the window, out into the yard, toward the gullet of the Pit. I snatch at the puppy closest to me, the brindle, which is limp in my hand, and shove it down my shirt. The white and the black-and-white have disappeared.
"Fuck!" Skeetah screams. He grabs China’s head, whispers something to her as she scrabbles against him. Her teeth show and she jerks backward away from him. She writhes. Her torso is out of the sling he has made. Skeetah grabs China by the head and pulls and her body comes out and she is scrambling. She flies clear of him, twists in the air to splash belly first in the water. She is already swimming, fighting.
I will tie the glass and stone with string, hang the shards above my bed, so that they will flash in the dark and tell the story of Katrina, the mother that swept into the Gulf and slaughtered. Her chariot was a storm so great and black the Greeks would say it was harnessed to dragons. She was the murderous mother who cut us to the bone but left us alive, left us naked and bewildered as wrinkled newborn babies, as blind puppies, as sun-starved newly hatched baby snakes. She left us a dark Gulf and salt-burned land. She left us to learn to crawl. She left us to salvage. Katrina is the mother we will remember until the next mother with large, merciless hands, committed to blood, comes.
"She's going to come back to me," he says. "Watch.”
China. She will return, standing tall and straight, the milk burned out of her. She will look down on the circle of light we have made in the Pit, and she will know that I have kept watch, that I have fought. China will bark and call me sister. In the star-suffocated sky, there is a great waiting silence. She will know that I am a mother.