Knucklebones is an ancient game of toss and catch mentioned by Sophocles and alluded to in the Iliad and the Odyssey. The bones come from the lower part of the ankle joint of a mammal such as a sheep, goat, or calf. But you’re probably more familiar with its modern version, the game of jacks played with a rubber ball.
The ten jacks are scattered loosely into the play area after which the player bounces the ball off the ground, picks up a certain number of jacks, and then catches the ball before it bounces for a second time. At first, the player must pick up one ("onesies"), next two ("twosies"), and so on until she misses. Then it’s the next player’s turn. A miss is when the player disturbs jacks other than the ones to be picked up.
In The Deadliest Sport, Miriam associates knucklebones with the toothless idlers in the nameless claustrophobic lanes of the Rhakotis quarter:
They’d be squatting in gutters littered with rubble. In the shifting shade of tattered garments swinging from a web of clotheslines, they’d be throwing knucklebones and drinking posca, a cheap, watered-down, sour wine. And there, the malignant stench of the canal would thicken the air, invade my nostrils, and cling to my clothes.
In The Deadliest Fever (due for release in 2018), one of the thieves explains to Miriam how he met his accomplices: We happened to meet one night over a game of knucklebones in the backroom of The Dionysus, a tavern in Ephesus. I remember its perfect location, on the east side of the Square Agora between a brothel and the latrine. Over a long night of loose talk and hard drinking, we became fast friends, recognizing in each other the same wicked deeds we’d kept hidden from the rest of the world.
Variations of the game, with or without a ball, are still played around the world, whether with pebbles, stones, wooden blocks, or colored plastic objects that resemble the knucklebones. When was the last time you played knucklebones?