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The skeleton of a young girl: This is the first thing to seize my eye as I enter the cemetery of the Capuchin monastery in Rome. Mounted at the vault’s center and framed by four elliptical rings of vertebrae, she holds in her right hand a scythe made of tibias and pelvic fragments; in her left hand, she holds a balance, also made of human bones. The shadowed hollows of her eye sockets, rather than conveying blindness, ceaselessly drink the late-morning sunlight that pours through the windows.

It is some time before I notice the other two child skeletons on the back wall, perched, legs dangling, on a mantle of scapulae. They are bookended by two hourglasses: counterpoised coccyx, their holes giving from a distance the impression of mottled sand. Each hourglass has a pair of scapula wings, as does the disembodied skull floating between the children.

I see these things and I do not see them. To focus on any one object takes considerable effort. My eyes are always being drawn to some new detail — a femur that seems a darker umber than the hundreds of others stacked along the walls, the wooden crosses that mark graves in the crypt’s dirt floor, the distinctive “cappuccino” brown of a monk’s habit, that same monk’s mummified flesh, his collapsed nostrils, his curled parchment lips — and to the overpowering sum of all details, this precise chaos that tempts me to close my eyes, rinse them in darkness. More… “Graffiti These Bones”

Justin Lee teaches in the Composition Department at UC Irvine, where he earned an MFA in Creative Writing in 2014. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared (or are forthcoming) in Vice, First Things, the Los Angeles Review of Books, ABC’s Religion and Ethics, Amazon’s Day One, FLAUNT Magazine, Juked, Gargoyle Magazine, Arc Digital, and elsewhere. In 2016, he received an Emerging Writers Grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation. Their generosity enabled him to complete his first novel, Lightless Lands, which is currently seeking a home.

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I went to Burma accidentally. This was almost exactly a year before the September 2007 violence against peaceful demonstrators, many of them Buddhist monks, made the country front-page news. I was traveling by ship, circumnavigating the globe as a teacher on the academic program Semester at Sea; I hadn’t chosen the itinerary. For me and the 600 other Americans on the ship, Burma was one stop on a whirlwind tour of Asia, the Middle East, and Europe.

At the time I was, like most Americans, woefully ignorant of the dire state of affairs in Burma. I learned only weeks before my arrival that tourism in Burma was controversial, and that activists, including world leaders I admired, discouraged travel to Burma. The country now officially known as Myanmar was ruled by a brutal dictatorship whose only philosophy concerned the maintenance of its own power. (They’d also “reclaimed” Myanmar — the country’s… More…