Salvage the Bones

by

Jesmyn Ward

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Salvage the Bones: The Third Day: Sickness in the Dirt Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Esch wakes up at seven after a sleepless night spent obsessing over the fact of her pregnancy. The moment she opens her eyes, she is sick, and runs to the bathroom and runs the water so that no one will hear her throw up. She lies down on the bathroom floor until she feels like she is about to fall asleep again. Junior and Randall call for her, after a while, to which she shouts that she is busy shaving her legs. She drinks some water from the faucet to soothe her stomach, willing herself not to vomit as she opens the door and walks past Randall towards her bedroom, where she gets into the bed and falls back asleep.
Esch’s pregnancy quickly rears its head, wracking her body with violent morning sickness that reflects physically the entwined relationship between motherhood and violence on display throughout the novel.
Themes
Motherhood and Violence Theme Icon
Esch wakes up again hours later, surprised that Daddy hasn’t woken her up yet to help with hurricane prep. Wanting to stay in bed a little longer, Esch reaches for her copy of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, and continues reading the story of Medea and Jason. Though Medea, a witch, is in possession of great powers, Jason “bends her like a young pine in a hard wind.” In this way, Esch identifies with Medea: they have both been enraptured by men against their better judgement.
Esch, feeling sick and frightened, retreats into the world of myth. Though the myths seem to bring her comfort, it is strange to consider how dark and violent they are; perhaps, though, this is why the conflicted, traumatized, put-upon Esch connects so deeply to the anger, violence, and desperation of the Greeks.
Themes
Nature and Control Theme Icon
Myth Theme Icon
Poverty and Survival Theme Icon
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After a while, Esch notices Skeetah standing at the door, looking as if he is about to cry. Esch asks him what’s wrong, but he doesn’t answer; he just walks out of the house towards China’s shed. Esch follows him. In the shed, the puppies are squirming and rolling as they nurse at China’s breast; all but one are suckling. The brown-and-white puppy is sick, and Skeetah thinks that it has parvo, a gastrointestinal virus. Skeetah worries that the disease is in the dirt of the shed, and that the rest of the puppies will get infected.
Skeetah’s distress at the puppy’s sickness is symbolic of his deeper fear of losing the puppies—and the income they stand to bring in. The idea of a blight or plague coming for one of the puppies is a darkly mythic idea, a fact which Esch surely absorbs as she surveys the tense situation in the shed.
Themes
Motherhood and Violence Theme Icon
Nature and Control Theme Icon
Myth Theme Icon
Poverty and Survival Theme Icon
Skeetah picks the puppy up and places him at China’s breast, but she lowers her head and growls. Skeetah urges China to feed the puppy, but she only barks and lashes; her teeth graze the puppy. Skeetah pulls it away from her, calling China a “bitch.” Once the puppy is out of the way, China relaxes, and Esch thinks she looks like a “weary goddess” as she nurses her litter.
China’s refusal to feed the pup signifies a deep-seated natural instinct to protect herself—and the rest of her brood—from the threat of a puppy weakened by disease. The alternating ways Esch and Skeetah see China—as a “goddess” and a “bitch,” respectively—reflect their competing ideals of what motherhood does to a female.
Themes
Motherhood and Violence Theme Icon
Nature and Control Theme Icon
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Esch speculates that China is simply trying to protect the rest of the litter. Skeetah, with the puppy in the front of his t-shirt, agrees that she must be. He decides to separate the puppy from the rest of the dogs and keep it comfortable until it dies. Esch’s stomach flutters with the realization that she will have to watch her brother kill one of “his own.”
Survival is a dirty business out on the Pit—the uncomfortable realization that for Skeetah’s pack to survive, one of them must die does not affect him tremendously, as he’s used to dealing with painful choices and realities such as this.
Themes
Motherhood and Violence Theme Icon
Nature and Control Theme Icon
Poverty and Survival Theme Icon
Inside, Esch struggles to eat some breakfast while Skeetah raids the cabinets for food so that he and his friends can have a get-together in the woods later that night. He wants to take one of the large jugs from under the porch for water, but Esch worries that their father will notice it’s missing. Skeetah says he’ll get Randall to lie for them and invites Esch along on the adventure, oblivious to the fact that she is miserable because of the baby growing inside of her.
Despite Esch’s condition, she’s still expected to participate in the demanding—and very male—world around her, helping Skeetah sneak around with his friends while ignoring her own discomfort.
Themes
Motherhood and Violence Theme Icon
Esch and Skeetah head back out to the shed, walking past Junior in the yard. Junior is piling wood planks on Daddy’s orders, but he stops when he sees them coming and follows them inside. As Skeetah pulls a bucket down from a high shelf and places the sick puppy inside, he orders Junior to leave. Junior listens, but as he goes calls that he is going to find Randall and tell him that Skeetah is doing “something bad” to the puppies.
Junior is a very curious observer of his older siblings’ actions—but as the youngest, he’s also deeply sensitive, suspicious, and desperate for attention.
Themes
Nature and Control Theme Icon
Poverty and Survival Theme Icon
Skeetah puts the bucket—with the puppy inside—back up on a shelf where China can’t reach it. She growls, seemingly knowing what’s going on, but Skeetah tells her to “shut up.” Skeetah goes off to wash his hands while Esch sits on the steps of the house. Randall approaches with Junior in tow, and asks what Skeetah is doing to the puppies. Skeetah approaches with the bucket and a BB gun, and Randall tells Junior to go away. Junior listens to Randall and runs off. Randall tells Skeetah to spare the puppy’s life, suggesting he can cure it with medicine. Skeetah insists, though, that puppies never recover from parvo, and begins walking off towards the woods. Esch follows him. Skeetah calls for Randall to join them, but he won’t; he stays behind. 
Skeetah is in a difficult position with the discovery of a sick puppy, and this passage shows him trying to navigate the cruel reality of what he must do with his siblings’ desperate, judgmental bids to save the puppy’s life (though possibly to the detriment of the rest of the litter). Skeetah’s practicality is ruthless, but he is doing what he needs to do to survive.
Themes
Nature and Control Theme Icon
Poverty and Survival Theme Icon
Out in the woods, Skeetah cocks the BB gun; he is going to hunt squirrels. In just two shots, he fells a large squirrel, and as he picks it up blood spurts out of its chest. As Skeetah begins cleaning the squirrel, he asks Esch about her attraction to Manny, but Esch will not answer him. They make their way towards a makeshift barbeque pit, and Esch watches as Skeetah cleans and guts the squirrel. Overwhelmed by the smell, Esch runs off into the bushes to throw up.
Skeetah knows something is up with his sister, but his attempt to ask her about what’s going backfires. Though Esch tries to deny that there’s something happening with her, her body betrays her—she cannot control the natural reflexes her “condition” creates within her.
Themes
Motherhood and Violence Theme Icon
Nature and Control Theme Icon
By the time the squirrel meat is done cooking, Marquise and Big Henry have arrived. Skeetah makes sandwiches of the meat with bread and hot sauce, and Esch reluctantly eats hers. She is not hungry, but her stomach feels better when there is food in it. She is afraid that if she throws up again she’ll draw attention to herself, and wills herself to keep the food down in front of the boys.
Esch does not want to expose her condition to the boys around her—to do so would be admit to her femaleness in a way she never has before, having always been the only girl on the Pit. She is trying to control her body—and the violence it is doing to her lately.
Themes
Motherhood and Violence Theme Icon
Nature and Control Theme Icon
Poverty and Survival Theme Icon
Esch asks Skeetah if the puppy has a name; he admits that it doesn’t, but offers Esch the chance to name the puppy. Though Esch doesn’t see the logic in naming the puppy just before it dies, she decides to call it Nella.
This passage shows the reluctant but present tenderness both Esch and Skeetah feel for the puppy—they have been conditioned to look at things practically and in terms of survival, but here they surrender to emotion.
Themes
Nature and Control Theme Icon
Poverty and Survival Theme Icon
Randall and Manny arrive, and Randall tells everyone that Manny’s cousin Rico lost his last dog to parvo. Manny tells Skeetah he should kill the puppy quickly—every second he doesn’t, he’s just torturing it. Manny asks if Skeetah’s planning on shooting the puppy with his BB gun, but Skeetah says he has something else in mind—he is going to break its neck, the way his mother used to break the necks of chickens when their family needed to eat.
The boys have conflicting, competing ideas about violence and mercy. So much of their lives is calibrated by violence—the violence of poverty, the violence of dogfighting, the violence of male-dominated spaces—and yet when it comes to a violence this intimate, even these tough boys are squeamish.
Themes
Motherhood and Violence Theme Icon
Nature and Control Theme Icon
Poverty and Survival Theme Icon
Skeetah lifts the puppy out of the bucket. Esch reaches out to touch it, but Skeetah tells her not to, to avoid the parvo germs. He takes the whimpering puppy out past the tree line, and Esch can just barely make him out as he breaks the puppy’s neck in the moonlight.
Skeetah uses a method of violence taught to him by his late mother to end the puppy’s life.
Themes
Motherhood and Violence Theme Icon
Skeetah comes back a while later, having buried the puppy, and begins stripping and throwing his clothes into the fire—they are all, he says, contaminated. He takes a bottle of dish soap he’s stolen from the house and wades into the dirty pond nearby to wash himself; all the boys join him, and soon Esch wades in, too, fully clothed. Marquise, Manny, and Big Henry get in as well.
Skeetah’s desire to wash himself—like so many of Skeetah’s actions—functions on both a practical and symbolic level. He wants to get rid of the germs, but also “wash away” the trauma and “dirtiness” of having killed the puppy.
Themes
Nature and Control Theme Icon
Poverty and Survival Theme Icon
Manny asks Esch why she is in the water in all her clothes; beneath the water, he grabs her hand and places it on his penis. Esch wonders why Manny will never kiss her during sex. She uses her other hand to try to touch Manny’s chest above the water, but he pulls away from her, asking if she’s “crazy.” He tells her things between them “ain’t like that,” and Esch feels her heart break a little. Manny swims away from Esch, and Esch wonders what will happen when she finally tells him her “secret.” She knows that he is dating another girl named Shaliyah—but she has loved him for a long time. She wonders if the way she feels about Manny is the way Medea felt about Jason. Esch thinks of the baby growing inside her as a group of bats flies swiftly overhead.
Manny is okay coming onto Esch and taking advantage of her when no one else can see. The idea of the intimacy that exists between them being glimpsed by anyone else, though, is repulsive to Manny, even though it is what Esch wants more than anything else in the world. Esch knows that Manny is the father of her child, and sees their lives as intertwined by violence—just like Jason and Medea.
Themes
Motherhood and Violence Theme Icon
Myth Theme Icon