PseudoPod 779: Trowel, Brush, Bones

Show Notes

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Trowel, Brush, Bones

By Audrey R. Hollis

We arrive at the compound outside Huanca just after midnight. We are tired and hungry and altitude sick and irritated by the spotty signal. We keep refreshing our phones, which had guaranteed service, even in the mountains. 

We pile out things on our beds, claiming the top bunk, claiming the bottom bunk, claiming the place by the window. One of us shuts the door. One of us puts her bag on the bed and asks, have we heard? 

We have not heard. We have heard and had hoped it was not true. We have been hearing for years but those sorts of rumors go around about every professor and anyway, our boyfriend likes him. We have heard but we need the credits. We have heard, we know the girl (one of the girls), but we are going to be so careful. 

We are going to discuss it more but Dr. Price is already here. 

He is tall, handsome. He has a nose so oddly and perfectly formed that you can’t take your eyes off of it. A silver fox – we can picture him stealing from hen houses. We are doubly resolved, half as resolved, to be careful. 

He welcomes us, each by name. There are so few of us, compared to our science classes of hundreds. We chose this class for the small size. For the one-on-one interaction. For future letters of recommendation. He introduces Josh, the graduate student, a hand on his shoulder. They have worked together all year. He is judging Josh’s thesis. He is so proud. 

“He’s here to make sure I behave,” the doctor says, and winks. 

We laugh but not because we think it is funny. Some of us are nervous. Others are exasperated. Others don’t want to be the only ones not laughing. 

 Our first stop the next day is unscheduled, a point of interest on the way to the site. The professor has not yet joined us. We are piling out of the bus, all long legs and puffy sweatshirts and battered tennis shoes stirring up the dust which coats the field of bones. We are jetlagged, hungry, desperate for air. We are half a continent from our university in New England and further – in most cases – from home. 

Josh is older than us, scruffy, a man who must have invested in his Indiana Jones wardrobe the minute he was accepted to graduate school. He has a wonderful surprise for us, he says on the bus. We are so lucky. 

We cluster at the edge of the graveyard. The ground had been mauled, torn up, strewn with bones that lay in white shards amid clumps of dirt. These are not the bones of our university classes. They are not to be photographed and cataloged and carefully, carefully tagged and bagged and stored. 

“Looters,” Josh explains with a world-weary handwave. “They often get here before us.” He plucks a skull from the dirt, small and nearly intact. It fits in the palm of his hand. “Who would like to find the jawbone?”

We are restless, bored, hungry for extra credit. We are looking amid the dark clumps for flashes of white. We are stepping carefully; we are disregarding femurs and fingerbones. Something, somewhere, snaps. 

“There is more to find, for anyone willing to dig, but of course – “ Josh says, trailing off with a shrug. We understand the warning. We do not have a permit to be here. We will not take pictures; we will not tell our friends.  

We spread out. We are a field of bright colors, turquoise and coral and ochre. We are looking for a very, very small jaw. Josh is still talking. He is saying that the small skull was buried with ceremony, once, before people came, before they messed it up, before they raided the graves and meanwhile, we search the ground, leaving footprints, snapping bones. 

One bumpy bus ride later – across a scarily steep dry stream bed and halfway up the mountain – we halt by a grey-brown peak that looks exactly like the expanse of grey-brown peaks on either side of it. 

Dr. Price stands at the top of the peak, like he is personally examining all that lies below. The sun is nearly at its height. Even under our floppy hats, our faces have begun to heat. The air is thin up here, even thinner than it was in Lima, and the peaks and valleys spread out before us, as dead and clear as an aerial map. 

Dr. Price lifts his hand to the landscape. The wind seems intent on stealing his words but nonetheless, he begins his oral overview of the history of the people who once lived here. Josh keeps inserting comments, trying to steer the lecture towards the field of his research.

At last, as the sun reaches its peak, Dr. Price hands out shot glasses, filling them from a flask. 

“We will give them something,” he says. “We cannot just take.” Dr. Price lifts his shot glass towards the sun and then pours it out onto the ground. Hitting, the liquid seems almost to smoke. After a moment of hesitation, we do the same, fourteen shots hitting the soil, one after another. 

Later, when the lights have grown dim, Dr. Price will tell us of the spirits he placated, the witches that used to live on this mountain. They filled the sky when they flew, like bats emerging from a cave, turning the twilight to darkness. Their covens could blot out the sun.

“The last group who didn’t placate them didn’t all come back,” Dr. Price says. “They only found their trowels.” He lowers his voice and we all lean in, eyes wide in lantern light. We are frightened, we are tingly, we are imagining ourselves as witches, endlessly powerful, casually terrifying. 

“There was only one box left,” he continues. “It was sitting in the center of this room, just where you’re sitting. And when they went to open it, they peeled back the cardboard, and the witches came OUT –” He raises his voice on the last word, almost shouting, and starts forward, grabbing one of us by the shoulders. 

We all jump back with little screams and Dr. Price and Josh erupt into laughter. But he still has one of us and we wait for him to let go, we wait for him to let go. 

The glamour of archaeology is calculated to hide the discipline’s tediousness. While Dr. Price lectures, we watch Josh divide our area into squares sectioned off by white thread. Each section will be photographed and hand-drawn in our dusty notebooks before we dig even an inch into the soil. Everything we remove will be sieved by local workers to ensure nothing is overlooked. Then, the process will begin again. 

Ninety percent of every site is just plain dirt, Dr. Price warns us. Still, we hope.  

Dr. Price sets up his own square in the central and most promising location while Josh supervises. We are each assigned a section. Dr. Price points out the slight color differential outside the partitioned area, the stripe of decay where once there was wood. Straight lines speak of inhabitation. We are digging – we assume – inside a house or family compound. A living area a thousand years uninhabited.

We each have a trowel. We each begin the slow process of transferring dirt from one place to another. We use brushes to sweep, gently, when it looks like we might have found something. One of us gasps. She traces a sharp, dark line, a hard object, barely the size of a fingernail, too smooth to be rock. 

“Might be pottery or a bone shard,” Josh says. He crouches, bringing his face into view, intense in its concentration. “Try the tongue test?”

We scrunch up our faces. We look at our gloved hands. We laugh, full of bravado. One of us brings the object to her mouth and tastes. We shudder. 

This is the tongue test: bone will not fall out of your mouth. When you taste bone, it sticks to your tongue. Which is to say, bone remembers us. 

We look on. One of us spits the thing back into her hand. Some of us cringe. Some of us lean forward. Some of us feel a sharp, sour sensation in the back of our mouths, like vomit.

Josh says, soft and clear, “Bone, then.”

In some countries, human remains require an observer from the people who left the remains. An ancestor, though distant. In other countries, veterans of the colonizers, no one other than the citizens are allowed to dig. But brick and ivory universities have large pots of money. Ask for long enough and eventually someone will say yes, especially if the site is old, especially if the country is poor, especially if the university is prestigious. We all know these things.  

Some of us heard that Dr. Price had family here. Some of us heard that they were influential – that the farmers to whom this mountain belonged may not have chosen freely. But who among us gets to choose freely? 

Either way, the remains were ours to clean, to box, to display. Josh delivered orders to the local workers to sift three times to ensure no shard escaped. We wondered, some of us, what they were being paid. We decided, some of us, not to ask. 

“What does it mean,” Dr. Price says, “when remains are found inside a living area?”

“Protection?” One of us guesses, though we do not specify if it is for the bones or for the family. 

“Closeness?” Another asks. 

“Veneration,” one of us says, quiet and sure. We have buried our pets in our backyards, our relatives in the graveyard. We have ashes on our mantles, have scattered ashes into the sea. We are comfortable, uncomfortable, unfamiliar, with the idea of the dead inside our houses. 

Dr. Price nods. “There will be a lecture later. For now, we dig.”

We return to the compound that night exhausted. We flop into bed. We don’t stay awake long. We stay awake hours, looking at the stars. We’ve never seen stars like these before. We haven’t seen stars like these since we moved to the city. We get caught up looking at the milky way. We, all of us, miss home. 

The compound comes with a dog. He is unfriendly but resigned to our presence. He lives outside and has declined every scrap, every pet, and every high-pitched compliment, even from those of us who are most persistent. 

The compound has high walls of packed mortar, topped with shards of broken glass. We bought guidebooks and talked to friends and googled the area and inquired with our families. We are still not quite sure what the school is protecting us from, unless it is the fact that we have money, or that we are young, or that us (mostly) American girls have a reputation in other countries. Unless they fear what it is we might do. Unless it is the fact that if they lose even one of us, there will be a lawsuit. 

Nobody can enter the compound. We are not allowed outside after sunset. We are not allowed to go anywhere alone. The only private place is the shower, which does not have hot water. When we heard privation, we had thought of camping, not confinement. 

The program has assured us that we will go into town on the weekends but Dr. Price has said that we are busy. Our phones still do not work. They have only intermittent signal. We are messaging: we are here, we are safe, here is a picture. After hours pass, these messages might go through. 

Some of us have family in Lima but they are not allowed to visit us on-site. Some of us speak the language but we have nobody to speak it to. We so rarely interact with anyone outside the class. There seems to be resentment between the locals and the project but we don’t have enough time to unravel it. We wonder, again, whose house we are staying in. There is nobody to answer any of our questions.  

It starts like this. Too much eye contact. Standing a hair too close. Nothing you can complain about or put on a form. A feeling – and we deal in facts. The escalation is familiar enough to be boring, only it’s tense, every time, because we are hoping desperately that we are making it up. Josh does not notice. There are so few of us and he does not notice. The doctor is his thesis advisor and we think he cannot notice. 

It is not all of us. Only two, one quiet, the other loud in intervals, with boisterous emotions and a sharp laugh. It is enough. 

There is a story archaeologists tell. A very old story. You’ve heard it, in one form or another. You dig somewhere remote. And maybe you were warned. Or maybe you didn’t hear the warning. But you dig deeper than anyone and at the bottom, there is something that has been buried on purpose, a predator that was once restrained and is now released. Or a curse, a witch, an alien, a monster, a thing. 

It works like that at work, too. Or at school. Or in any group. There’s always one old monster, protected by a layer of dirt. 

Anyway, we’re ambitious. Anyway, we want to see the world. We want to make the grades and get the jobs. We want to dig. 

Dr. Price stands too close to us and the hairs on the backs of our necks rise. He guides our hands when we brush dirt from delicate bone, tucks a piece of hair behind our ears. He cracks jokes and entertains us at dinner. He offers letters of recommendation. He lingers in our door at night. He invites us out to watch the stars. 

He is so kind and we think that we must be making it up, that we are being too sensitive, that we need to calm down. Still, we wait. 

Dirt recedes, inch by inch. Our squares are proper holes now, five inches down, and our backs hurt as we bend into them. We spend the evenings cataloging and collating. The people who lived here traded – many of the stones come from over the mountains. The people who lived here used pottery to store substances. The labs will tell us more, will perhaps detect traces of oils, the remains of wine or fermented liquor. If we were to return to the project next year, we would know so much more. The people who lived here buried their dead inside their houses, in a special corner, and we do not know what that signifies yet. 

“There’s a paper in this,” Josh keeps saying and maybe it’s a hint but we’re not sure that we will write a paper. It isn’t required. We, as undergraduates, do not have to publish. 

Instead, at night, we wonder about the things we cannot know. What recipes were used in over the open fires? Were they happy, the people who lived there? What did the stars look like then? Were they plagued by witches or did they love them or did they just call them women? 

One of us comes back to the room, furious, trembling, still quiet but unrelenting. We sprawl across our beds, brushing our hair and putting on moisturizer and listening intently. We keep our voices soft and watch the doorknob, waiting for it to turn. 

But nobody comes. One of us felt his hand on her knee. One of us startled and made excuses. One of us escaped back to the dorm room. 

We are uneasy. We don’t know what to do. We don’t know who we can ask. We count the weeks we have left. We wonder if it was an accident. We wonder if we are overreacting. We wish, softly, that there were witches. That we were witches. 

At breakfast, when we are all blearily drinking sugary tea, shivering in the predawn cold, we begin to talk about our dreams. Offhand, one of us mentions a dream where she was digging but the dirt was skin and she was uncovering bone through flesh, each brush dissipating a bit more of her substance. 

“And then I saw her,” one of us says. “The witch. She didn’t like us digging here. She told me that we needed to stop or there would be consequences.”

One of us gasps. Josh isn’t listening but then, it would not behoove him to listen too closely to us. Who knows what he might have to know if he did? Dr. Price spoons more marmalade on his toast. 

We mutter among ourselves. As we speak, we begin to believe it, feeling with a certainty that somebody doesn’t want us here. 

Witches is an approximation, as is stove, or house, or religion, or women. These concepts are not static. We can rebuild the houses of the past, map their floors, but the ideas, the ideology – these parts of the distant past are as unknowable as the future. 

Here is how folklore begins: there are only a few of you and you are afraid. There are only a few of us and we are afraid. And when we are unobserved, we talk, talk, talk to each other. We do not sleep enough. We are always exhausted, always together, always seeing things. 

We wish for intercession. 

Our plots grow deeper, until we must squat in them to uncover bits of dirt. When the course ends, we will fill the holes in with the backfill, to protect the history that is yet to be uncovered. 

“The paradox of archaeology,” Dr. Price says, one morning before we begin, “is that excavation destroys the historical record. All archaeological information comes from context. To dig is to destroy that context, to jumble things out of their natural order.”

We nod. Each of us has a secret litany of destroyed history – Troy was annihilated by a man who dug straight through the city while looking for it. We think: the Maya Codices. The city of Chang’an. Boštanj Castle. The Great Dam of Marib.

“And we know that in the future, they will have better tools. Tools that will record more, that will be able to find more. So why do we dig?”

“To develop those tools?” One of us says. 

He nods. “We try to only take part of each site. To leave it for those in the future, who will know better than us. In the meantime, we record all that we can and hope it is enough.” 

After the lecture, we bend to work, our feet planted in dirt which hasn’t been disturbed in a thousand years. We find more bone shards, all distributed in the corner of the house. We speculate. We wonder why the bones are smashed and if they were hidden or displayed and if they were protection or a curse or a secret. Josh encourages us, calling it a wonderful class discussion. 

That night, Dr. Price returns from stargazing to find a scattering of dirt across his sheets and in the center, a constellation of bones. 

There are so many types of monsters. The monster that was once human. The monster that was never human. The monster that waits for you specifically and the monster than consumes everything before it. Monsters that stalk and monsters that indiscriminately take. 

Most monster stories have more than one monster. 

Josh’s thesis is on early religion as interpreted through material objects at Huanca, Peru, 600?1100 CE. Some of us study hard enough to know that any analysis that goes that far back is just guessing. And guessing is always constrained by what the guesser believes is possible, their interpretation of the Way the World Works. 

His thesis is supposed to mean he knows a lot about the monsters that people used to believe in. 

The day after Dr. Price discovers the bones, we cradle a small stone in our hands, passing it from one to another. Obsidian doesn’t occur naturally in these mountains and it bears the marks of human hands from over a thousand years ago. The strange shape has no obvious purpose, which could mean it’s religious or could just mean we haven’t been clever enough to figure it out yet. It is the most beautiful thing that some of us have ever seen. 

Josh makes a guess and that guess might one day be written on a label under a glass case in the museum (in our university, not here, of course not here) where the object is displayed. So easily it becomes truth. 

“Deeply disrespectful, of course. But all in good fun,” Dr. Price winks at us. 

“I didn’t – I would never – “ Josh starts.

“Right, right, of course,” Dr. Price says. “We all need to let off steam sometimes.”

“I didn’t do it!” Josh protests.

“Oh, was it the witches?” Dr. Price asks. 

“Look,” Josh says. “Whoever it was that was buried there deserves better than to – “ 

“Don’t blame the girls,” Dr. Price says indulgently. “It’s unbecoming. Don’t worry, I won’t tell.”

It’s a different sort of anthropology to watch the way pacts are so quickly formed among men. We are all learning so many things. 

Josh waits until the doctor leaves to gather us in the living room. He folds his hands and meets our eyes, each of us. “I don’t know who did that,” he says. “It is incredibly disrespectful to the work, to the people who used to live here, to the people who live here now. I am so disappointed in each and every one of you.” He pauses. “Do any of you have anything to say for yourselves?”

There is a long silence. Some of us don’t know who did it. Some of us know. Some of us are horrified, some are apathetic, some are desperately sad, some of us wonder, what if it was our grandfather or our mother, what if years from now – One of us lifted the bones out of the crates which we were to take home, one of us scooped the dirt from the yard and spread smears across his bed, one of us was so – 

Nobody speaks.

At last, Josh said, “And the witches aren’t real. It’s just a ghost story. There’s nothing in the historical record about witches so I want you all to cut it out.” He adds, “Your grade depends on it.”

Things that are not in the historical record: organic materials such as wood or plants or people, which decay quickly; stories which do not support existing power structures; objects in moist or oxygen rich environments; languages of the people who have lost wars; pillow talk; secrets; structures made of animal hide or other ephemeral materials; the interior lives of the poor or oppressed; most dreams; several genders; religions that were practiced covertly; childhood promises; and many other unknowable omissions. We cannot grasp all we have lost.

Some of us want to call the school about the desecration of the bones. Some of us want to call the school about Dr. Price. Some of us want to keep it quiet – it is only a couple more weeks, we plead to one another but we are divided, all of us. 

We bend our heads over our work. We brush dirt from pottery shards. We say that we are too tired to look at the stars at night. 

Dr. Price insists. There is a meteor shower tonight. There is a planet, just showing. There are a few constellations – he wants to tell us the stories people used to tell about the stars. And it is so hard to say no (there are so few no’s in the historical record). 

Half of us are lying on our backs on a blanket, looking at the stars, bright and clear and piercing. The weeks have taught us the shapes, strange and angular. The constellations do not look like the things for which they were named. (The names of the stars before recorded history is lost to historical record. We trace the shapes that might have been ours, if someone had been able to note them down.)

Dr. Price’s lecture trails off. It’s cold in this altitude but we’re all dressed warmly enough that we’re still getting sleepy. The weeks have strengthened us but our limbs still ache. A meteor streaks across the sky. Most of us make silent wishes. 

A few of us straggle inside. But others are caught up in the night sky. Others are not fast enough. Others miss it as the doctor shifts closer. He is not looking at the stars. He takes one of us by the shoulder, the way he did the first day, pulls one of us closer to point out a star, their heads close enough to touch, his hands warm, his breath thick. He smells of old dirt and dried sweat.

He tries to kiss one of us and one of us screams. One of us screams and more of us scream. The unfriendly dog wakes up from where he had been curled in the corner by the wall and starts to bark at nothing and everything and us. One of us pounds on Josh’s door. Anger, once restrained and now released, spreads from one to another, until we all are awake, until we are all raising our voices. 

We are making demands. We are talking, talking, talking. We are ready to lay out our findings. We have dug too deep and nobody will like what has been uncovered. One by one, the lights in the compound come on and they will not go off this night. We are, all of us, ready to strip flesh from bone.

About the Author

Audrey R. Hollis

Audrey R. Hollis

Audrey R. Hollis is an MFA candidate at Purdue University and an alumni of Clarion 2018. Her fiction has appeared in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Strange Horizons, and Catapult, among other places. She was a winner of the AWP Intro Journals award and the Kneale Award for Creative Writing. She lives in Lafayette, Indiana with her spouse and cat.

Find more by Audrey R. Hollis

Audrey R. Hollis

About the Narrator

Ibba Armancas

Ibba Armancas is an award winning writer/director based in Los Angeles available for audio or cinematic projects across the board. She still hasn’t found time to build a website and encourages listeners to shame her about it on instagram or twitter.

Find more by Ibba Armancas