“Professor?” Cora calls up from a deep pit, holding a pickaxe. “Can we go swimming before dinner?”
I stand on the edge of our excavation site, on dry dirt, hovering over her. My student is drenched in sweat, caught between jagged, white stones where walls used to be. “Of course,” I say, crossing my arms to hide the sweat stains under my breasts. “That sounds lovely. Of course.”
“So you’ll come, too?!”
“Not a chance.”
Cora swiftly returns her attention to her pickaxe.
We are in Paros, a Greek island in the Aegean Sea. Across from where I’m standing, only a few hundred feet away, I look out at the most beautiful body of water: the Aegean is a clear, bright blue color that the New Jersey shore has never shown me.
This summer, thirty undergraduate students from American universities have been sent to help with the excavation. (These kids are paying two thousand dollars to be put to work for two weeks.) Cora is the only student of mine. She speaks for everyone. The others are too timid, as if they’re afraid the experts will bury them in the rubble.
Eleven colleagues—seasoned archaeologists—have joined us on the dig. They each brought with them a student or a group of students for training: you know, those promising kids who might actually go into our field, the nerdy Classicist students who read ancient texts for fun.
While the majority of my colleagues are admirable advisors to their students, one of them is an absolute idiot: Dr. Wyatt Zabarri, a young man with a smile that screams, I studied Latin at age five. I’ve worked with him three times before, over the span of five years. He can’t focus for more than an hour at a time. It’s a wonder that he ever finished a PhD program.
Today, Dr. Zabarri has gone offsite to bring back a “surprise.” But, if you ask me, I think he just doesn’t want to work.
“Professor?” Cora calls again. She begins every conversation with my title in the form of a question. It’s cute. Cora is one of those round-faced, wide-eyed students who is very easy to like.
“I think I found something.”
“Okay,” I say. “Let’s see!”
I adjust my gloves, walking down the ramp into the trenches. I join her to examine the soil. From the pocket of ground, a bone protrudes. A tiny bone. We work around it, slowly brushing a layer of earth away. Another professor brings smaller tools over to help reveal it clearly: two hands, two wrists, two arms. A bashed-in skull, head tilted down. And a mini ribcage, fully intact, with all twelve rows.
The bones are like twigs. These are the remains of a newborn baby.
“Oh my god,” Cora says excitedly. “It’s an infant in an amphora!” She brushes away more residue.
“Careful,” I say.
I help her unveil the broken pot that the baby was buried in. The retrieval includes the painstaking process of whisking the dirt off. As we crouch together, over the soil, I can taste my student’s sweat. Soon, every shard of the pot and every bone we find is promptly sent to be cleaned and sorted.
I look at Cora, and I realize her excitement about the infant has worn off.
An infant buried in a vase is hardly surprising. The ancient Greeks believed they were returning their children to the Earth. They believed their descendants were sprung from the ground, thus to the ground should they return. Throughout my career, I’ve found dozens of infants in amphorae.
It’s interesting—when I speak of the bones I find, or of the tombs that I discover, people outside my profession are often grossed out. Some of them are angry. They ask, “How can you invade a grave?” But I don’t see it that way. When I find a body, no matter how old the bones are, I know they are the remains of a real person. There’s a story there. There’s history there. I see my work as uncovering the past to immortalize the dead.
This baby. I’m remembering the life she didn’t get to live. I’m asking, How did this baby die? At birth? In her first week? I’m imagining this baby of the Aegean Sea, who and what she could have been. I’m constructing the image of her mother praying, of her father practicing for battle. I’m caring for this baby, for the loss of this baby. I’m honoring this baby. I’m loving her.
“Professor?” Cora says.
I’m preparing myself for my student’s questions when we’re interrupted by stomping footsteps and a pompous voice.
The idiot, Dr. Zabarri, has returned with his surprise.
“Hiya, kids!” he chirps, skipping into the site. He stands by the ramp, presenting a cardboard carton of red apples. “Whooo’s hungry?!”
Before I can stop him, Dr. Zabarri tosses an apple at his student, Kean. Kean drops the shovel he’s holding and scrambles to catch the fruit with filthy gloves. Kean isn’t quick enough, so the apple falls to the ground.
I scream, “What are you doing?”
“Woah, calm down.”
“You could have hit something!”
Dr. Zabarri laughs. “Relax, Dr. Everleigh. Lighten up.”
I look at the other professors. The lines in between their eyebrows are not as deep as mine. I wonder if the corners of their lips are twitching at all.
Dr. Zabarri bears his fruit box like a swaddled baby. He has no respect for the bones, for the lives, for the history of where we are. He has no sense of urgency, no sense of pride in caring for the dead. Would he toss an apple at a funeral? At a wake? In a cemetery?
I’m about to explode. And I think he knows that.
“All right, kids,” Dr. Zabarri says. “Great work! Let’s break for lunch.”
When everyone is eating, I step into the conservation lab alone. The “lab” is an old, one-story house that’s been transformed into a large storage unit. The walls are too white, but that seems to be the standard for real estate around here. At least the tables in the house are made of metal, and what used to be the master bedroom is lined with green crates.
From a crate labeled “pottery” I find the amphora from earlier. I put on a pair of plastic gloves to examine the pieces under better light. I pick up a thin, reddish-brown shard. On the cusp of its broken edge, there is a painted Greek letter Θ: the letter “Theta,” pronounced as, “Th…”
What name might have been written? Theseus, after the hero? Thetis, after the goddess? What name was it? Male or female? And if a name was, in fact, written on this piece of pottery, who had written it? Why? When? Was it the work of a painter who wanted to show his favorite myth? Did it have to do with the baby’s family and what they valued?
History is often a coloring book. We have the outline, but not the crayons.
My chest begins to tighten. I imagine my death here, on this island, smothered in the Earth. I imagine my flesh decomposing under the sun, and I can’t breathe. I can’t pretend I’m fine. My tears won’t stop.
I’m lonely. I’m alone. I have no kids. I have no wife. Some people don’t even know that I’m a lesbian. I’m scared. I have no one. I don’t matter. Like Socrates says, “I know that I know nothing.” If I die by myself, right here, or anywhere, it might take weeks for someone to notice…
Instructions are written in my will: I want my gravestone to include a picture. But, if I die as an old woman, I want the image of a younger me. Yes, I have it documented, though I don’t know who will read it. I don’t know who will care enough to read it.
My mother. She used to tell me, “Dress like you might die. What you’re wearing will be your ghost outfit.” But, God, I hope she’s wrong. My mother died a month ago, at 72 years old. She fell in the shower and hit her head. She was naked.
My mother. She also used to tell me, “Your scars don’t matter, Vivienne.” She said, when you die, your wounds melt into dust. It’s a nice thought, isn’t it? Disappearing pain.” She isn’t right, though. Not really, no. Bones reveal injury. Bones reveal the story of someone’s past. We can see, from bones, how a person lived, how she was treated.
Once, on a dig in southern Italy, I uncovered the remains of a woman from the sixth century. She had awkwardly healed cranial fractures and prior breaks on her arms and legs. There was no doubt in my mind: she had been abused. She had been a victim of repeated violence, perhaps domestic violence. Her scars mattered, even if I couldn’t see them. I knew she had scars, and that mattered.
I think of the abused woman often, though I don’t know who she is. I feel connected to her. I feel a responsibility toward her. I may not know her story, but I care about her story. I want her to be remembered. So I remember her.
And the baby from today…
The poor baby, skull crushed from post-mortem impact. The little ribs, the tiny ribs, the ribs that never got to grow. The ribs that once hugged a set of lungs that disintegrated. This baby. Who might she have become?
I decide to name the baby Ana, after my mother. With the piece of pottery between my fingers, I whisper, “I’m sorry…”
I jump. I didn’t hear my student come in.
“Sorry,” she says. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“Aren’t you hungry?”
“I wanted some peace and quiet.”
Cora doesn’t move. She watches me, like a puppy waiting for a walk.
I ask, “Do you need something?”
“Oh. No! I’m fine. I just…don’t think you are.”
I roll my shoulders back and return the shard to its crate. I don’t know how to say that I’m not okay, that she’s right. I don’t know how to say that I’m having some sort of breakdown, probably because I miss my mother. I don’t know how to tell her that I’ve worked around death for decades, yet my fear of dying still gets to me from time to time. I don’t know how to express that I’m terrified of being alone, and I’m not sure if my existence—or Cora’s—is even real. How can I say that to my student? I can’t say that to my student.
Before my mother died, I pushed the thought of death out. I didn’t believe in God. And it didn’t bother me that I didn’t believe in God—until I lost the only person I’ve ever loved. Now I only wish I could believe in an afterlife. I wish I could believe my mother lives on. But I don’t believe that. I believe she is gone. I believe her “soul” died with her body.
I hear my colleague’s voice, what he said to me earlier, when I had my angry outburst in the field: Relax, Dr. Everleigh. Lighten up. How can I lighten up?
“Professor?” Cora says.
I look at my student, her cute sense of worry. “It’s okay,” I say. “I’m all right.”
Cora steps closer. “You know something, Professor? There’s a place on the edge of the beach. It’s, like, by these huge stones. It’s so cool! You can jump from the stones into the water.”
I break a smile. “That’s called a cove.”
“Oh. Right. Okay.” She looks up hopefully.
“Did you…want to go now?”
“Will you go, too?”
My gut reaction is to stay here, to stay with the bones and pottery, to think with the bones and pottery, to obsess over the artifacts. I have a bathing suit, I always bring it, but I never put it on. Because there’s work to be done. With the bones and pottery. There are questions. About the bones and pottery.
“Come on,” she coaxes. “It’ll be fun.”
Her expression is earnest, too earnest, like a kid with Santa Claus. I find myself caving because I don’t want to disappoint her.
“Sure,” I say, before I can change my mind. “Okay. Sure. I’ll go with you.”
“Professor!” Cora calls, from the top of the tallest rock. “Jump in with me!”
I join her on the top of the cove, accepting my stretch marks and unshaved legs. Cora beams, as if I’m her most favorite person. (She says I am.) I imagine she’s my daughter and I return the same kind of look. We count to three—hand and hand—and then we leap.
Submerged in water, in the stillness of the cool, I count the beats of my pulse:
I hear Cora’s muffled laugh before I pull myself to the surface. For a moment, breathing in the summer air, all I can think is how perfect the bay feels.
Some of the other students have caught on to the swimming plan. They run up the sculpted rocks and scream as they jump off. They tease each other, wading in the water, shining like demigods.
“Hiya, kids!” Dr. Zabarri says. He comes to the edge of the bay, chomping on an apple. “I didn’t bring my bathing suit.”
“Who cares?” I say. “Jump in anyway.”
Dr. Zabarri tilts his head. “Dr. Everleigh!” He drops his apple. “Have you been possessed? Blink twice if you’re in danger. Really! I’m concerned.”
Rather than answering him, I swim to the edge and splash water on his legs. The students cheer. They gasp. They yell. Dr. Zabarri pretends to be mad. He takes his shoes off and, without hesitation, he dives into the cove.
The fresh smell of the water puts a bubble in my stomach. Cora’s smile makes me want to cry. What I’m feeling…
Is this happiness? Maybe.
Does it matter?
This moment, odd and comfortable. A few decades from now, no one will remember. Once we’re all gone, the memory will vanish into the sand.
There is something tragically ordinary about being forgotten. We just are who we are, while we are, and while we are remembered.
“Pro-fess-or!” Cora exclaims. “I can’t believe you splashed him!”
I swim back and splash her, too.
The cove erupts in boisterous noise, with cackles and splatters and shrieks. The kids toss apples back and forth, like they’re playing catch with baseballs. When an apple hits me on the arm, I choose to laugh about it.
“Professor,” Cora says. “Thank you.”
“Thank you for being my mentor.”
Cora hugs me in the clear, bright blue water, and I’m reminded that I’ve never really been alone.