How I came to be sitting halfway down the table at the pub where all the researchers meet is not much of a mystery – a few weeks with my lover away from her husband is worth the puzzling conversations I must pretend to be interested in. A week in, we’ve spent morning-to-night lining the tables, waiting for the local Irish government to issue the permits we need to begin digging. So far, a site nearby has yielded pottery shards and a handful of spear points, arrowheads. Sonographs of the terrain reveal the true find – six bodies, arranged in a row, facing east, each clutching a smaller bundle of bones to its navel. Six pregnant women close to term and otherwise appearing healthy in the hazy grey films returned via silent sound waves pulsated into the ground like a slow, methodic heartbeat.
So we share what we know with the researchers from Sweden and the one lone sociologist from Spain. The Brits cloister themselves in an agroturismo nearer the dig, passing time harvesting potatoes and trimming lavender. And then us Americans, a couple sociologists, a couple archeologists, and myself – an English Lit grad student with an on-again, off-again thing with my undergrad Ancient Civilization professor, a woman who claims that Ireland is not open to “girls like us.” What really concerns her is the puddle of scandal eeking nearer and nearer, threatening to swallow her academic integrity.
A pint appears before me, held at the handle by an olive-skinned hand, and Ruben slides in next to me. The oddball Spanish researcher, he quickly identified me as the oddball American and decided we should be friends. Point of fact, he believes we should be more than friends, at least here so many miles away from his girlfriend back in Madrid, and the boyfriend I let him suppose I have back in Oregon. I should be honored. The other researchers try to pin Ruben down like a rare and beautiful butterfly. He has seen burials like this himself, a group of five in the Pyrennees to which National Geographic once gave the cover story. Instead, I wish he wouldn’t sit close enough for his breath to tickle the tissuepaper-thin skin under my ear.
I thank him for the pint and raise my glass to his, then pull one of the terrain maps closer, as if it means much to me. The meadow, an oblong, oval shape, without hashes or lines implies that it is flat and dry. Our team penciled in a rectangle to indicate where the sonographs suggest the burial pit begins and ends. Four small squares, one on each end and two along the longer, east edge of the rectangle represent the tents set up by each team as a field base. We occupy the north end, the Brits the south. It looks like a soccer pitch with the Swedes and lone Spaniard playing referee.
Ruben pulls one of the sonographs toward us, then takes a piece of sheer carbon-copy paper and lays it over my terrain map. The rectangle shows through as thin grey lines, and he sketches out a handful of long oval shapes facing his and the Swedes’ tents.
He taps the pencil on these sketches. “They are lying just so,” he says, glancing from the sonograph to the map. He shows me the picture and delicately traces the bodies with the tip of the pencil, though careful not to mark one of the only images we have of those things lying below the surface. “See here,” he says and scoots closer on the bench so that our hips touch. His knee falls against mine. “This shows that the feet are deeper than the head. They are not in a standing position, but perhaps almost sitting. Like this.” He leans back, knees raised so they thud against the underside of the thick, oak table, feet extended and folded across an imaginary round belly.
I nod. “But why?” I say. “Why east? Why feet deeper? Why….”
“Pregnant? ‘Why’ is why we are here.”
A strand of my hair falls from the loose ponytail I wear, and Ruben pushes it behind my ear. He does this slowly and as I look at him, I catch the red, knee-length jacket of Holly entering the pub. I don’t look at her, but I don’t need to to know that the pale moon of her face was turned toward us.
She straddles a high stool at the corner of the bar. The barkeep’s grandson climbs up next to her and she lets him dial the many digits that connects this phone to one half a world away. Her hand lingers on his back, her eyes drink in his smallness. The sweetness of his dirty cheek and wooly smelling hair. The boy hops down to return to his crayons and she watches him go.
Then her voice greets him, unnaturally bright, as though she’s missed him. Karl. Every day at four in the afternoon. Back home, it is nine in the morning and Karl is sitting in his office in the Language Arts building, perhaps preparing for his ten o’clock Brit Lit class. Perhaps reviewing the final chapters of my dissertation.
Life is not without its messes, as I’m sure those women lying six feet under can attest to.
Though I’ve only taken a sip, the dark beer goes to my head, and a tide of sleepiness seeks to wash me under. I try not to listen to Holly getting an update on the dog, a tired, old mutt she used to bring round to my studio. They argue about putting the poor thing to sleep, but Holly insists she wants to be there, so they flog her along, Holly’s return date as hazy as the films scattered over the table. “When we’re done,” she’s always telling him, only sometimes meaning the dig.
The call ends, and the innkeeper bangs the handset on the receiver. Holly takes a seat at the end of the table, next to Dr. Hevel, and laments with him how the town is being so backward with the permits, invoking the historical societies from the surrounding areas and requesting each team to give a detailed report about what exactly it intends to unearth. “How can we know what we intend to unearth?” she says for the millionth time. Or perhaps it only seems like the millionth because she’s said the same thing every night we’ve been here, including the night before as she padded naked between the bed and bathroom while she flossed. She threw the wad of white string in the direction of the waste basket, missing entirely, not caring. She climbed into bed, her skin mottled with goose bumps and I wrapped my arms as tightly round as they would go and we rocked back and forth until the warmth made us push one another away.
Finally, my fish and chips arrive, steaming and greasy, a puddle oozing out from the red plastic basket in which they’re served. The moment the cod touches my tongue, I shoot up from the bench and dash for the stairs, one hand clamped over my mouth, the other across my stomach.
Holly comes to the room after a few minutes. “Your stomach again?” she asks, to which I nod. She sets the plate of saltines and glass of ginger ale on the side board and fetches a fresh washcloth. A remedy as good for an upset stomach as for morning sickness.
Pregnancy is not even on her radar. Not her Gold Star. Her untouched one. She wears my lack of sex-with-men like a badge she has earned. It is no secret between us that I have lived the life she might have liked to live if she hadn’t married her college boyfriend after their first year in grad school. Of course, she could not have been a Gold Star by then, too late for that. But a life with women. A life of warmth and softness. These are the things she says to me when she laments her past. When she wishes for a tunnel to appear under the timeline of her life and allow her to snake her way back. The most common refrain is “If only he’d just have an affair. Make it so much easier.”
But we are stuck, she tells me every time I urge her to leave. Stuck like the flies to the tacky yellow strip that hangs from the upper ledge of my balcony, trapping those little round bodies that circle, harmless but endlessly annoying, in the shade.
It seems to me that those who are so vehement about staying together are the ones who most want to leave.
The next morning, the permits come through and everyone races to their Land Rovers and Dusters, eager to be first on the field. Ruben pats the empty seat beside him, but I pretend not to see and climb in behind Holly in the driver’s seat of our own tan Rover. Dr. Hevel gives a thumbs up from the passenger seat of his own car, parked nose to nose with Holly’s, and we are off as though on one of those mad European cross-country races, dust and rocks spitting up onto the sidewalk of this one-street village.
The first days of a dig are always monotonous and grueling – pounding wood stakes into the ground, setting up the grid, labeling each square. In the tents, everyone argues about who will dig where, who will sift, who will record, who will extract the first body. Arguably, the Brits have the best claim but their funding is as tenuous as the Scots’, who departed miserably a few days after we arrived, handing over their sonograms like a woman placing her child into the arms of its adoptive parents. We have the best funding but the worst reputation. The Swedes seem to have mistaken themselves for Swiss and refuse to take part. And Ruben watches it all with a little smile dancing from his eyes to his lips, a smile I imagine is nearly irresistible to women who find men irresistible.
By the end of the day, we’ve laid out shovels, buckets, and screens along the perimeter of the grid. In the morning, the first blade will slice into the earth and we will dig down, inch by inch, until we find what we’ve come for.
That night, Holly turns away from me and just as I’m dozing off, I realize she is weeping. I am as awake as if I’ve been dunked into an ice bath. Weeping in bed usually means a new stream of guilt has rivered its way through her heart and I’ll not see her for many weeks.
I roll toward her and curl around her form – chest pressed to her back, knees tucked tight to her knees, even our feet pressed sole to top.
“Shhh,” I say. “Shhhh. What is it?”
“I don’t think I can look at them,” she says. “I mean, here we are, ready to dig. And I can’t stand the thought of seeing those tiny skulls.”
I pull her tight against me and hold her until my arms ache. Her weeping slows to a slight shudder and I imagine she is off to sleep, dreaming about the babies in the ground, their little round skulls and the pink skin that should have covered them and felt warm in the palm and smelled sweetly sour, like spoiled milk.
We began right after she had learned that children were no longer an option. It seemed to be the permission she needed. The infertility was no one’s fault but her own, and this seemed to lessen her grief. She was simply one of those women with a very small window. Her eggs, she said, had passed their Use By date. Karl had wanted children early – early as in during grad school – but she’d balked. She wanted a career first, had watched horrified as fellow students dropped out – always the women – with big plans to return and finish their PhD’s. Plans which developed into only so much dust to be vacuumed before the kids got home from school. By the time her career was where she wanted it to be, the having-children boat had sailed, taking with it her 2.5 kids and her love for Karl. These are her own words; this is how she explained it to me that first night when we lay on the mattress on my floor and smoked a joint.
How do you tell the infertile woman you love you’ve been knocked up by the husband she’s been cheating on with you? Again: life = messes. Encore.
My job is to carry the buckets of earth from the grid over to the table by Ruben’s tent. On the clipboard, I mark which square it came from and then dump it into a screen. Another assistant shakes the screen, examines the dirt, shakes it again, and examines it. This can go on forever. But I am back to the grid to fetch another bucket. If I were an actual sociology or archeology student, my knees would be damp and brown from the mud and I would be doing the digging. But I am not – I am a literature student who knows more about Austen than archeology – so I carry the dirt and try not to think of the time I heard my mother whispering to my aunt about my cousin’s miscarriage – how she brought it on herself by continuing to train for a triathlon. At the time, I told my mom it was ignorant and mean shit to say. Now, I can’t stop focusing inward, feeling for any little tearing or splitting apart. And confused as to whether it would be a good thing or not.
Those women, the ones lying under our feet, the ones we are slowly but surely digging down to – at the moment of their death, did they feel their children move inside them for the last time? Did they know that the babies would live on for some small amount of time before suffocating to death? Did the babies thrash about in their dead mother’s wombs, desperate for life, clawing at the soft warmth beginning to turn cold?
I run behind Ruben’s tent and sick up, careful that none of my vomit contaminates the dirt in the bucket. Ruben’s brown suede shoes appear in my vision, right next to the puddle, and I am awash in the kindness of that gesture – simply to stand near it. I sit down and lean back against his tent. He sits next to me and passes over a plastic packet with individually wrapped pink tablets. I pop out two and chew them, soothed by the peppermint.
“Drink,” he says, handing me his personal water bottle.
“I shouldn’t,” I say. “I don’t want you to catch this cold.”
He chuckles. “Right,” he says, “What you have? Is not catchable. Except the once.” His brown eyes draw mine to them, knowing and gentle.
And then I am crying. I am not a pretty crier – my sobs are loud and angry, they shake my body, and my breath comes raging down my throat like a death rattle. My face is red and puffy. But he pulls this weeping, wet mess against his shoulder. And what is sweeter, he drinks right after me, doesn’t even wipe the lip with the cuff of his sleeve.
Holly finds us there. She is embarrassed for me, and angry. She has watched Ruben and she has been jealous. Jealous but not worried. She turns on her heel and walks back out to superintend the dig with Dr. Hevel.
A story’s motion must always be forward. Keep the story moving – forward, forward, forward. Backstory is inert, moments in time frozen into place amidst the bog that comprises our lives. Those women in the ground will be interesting for what they are – pregnant and dead, not for who they were. It will be years, perhaps even decades before enough is known of this culture to understand why and who. Looking forward is how I’ve kept this thing with Holly going so long. Never looking back to see Karl standing beside a limpy, lumpy dog, surrounded by the ghosts of their children. Karl was always auxiliary damage, but so long as I kept him behind me – in that inert place I pretended was just so much of Holly’s backstory – I could continue.
Suffice it to say we both received the message it was completely, utterly, and without hope – over. I was the only one who knew there was a “both of us” and so he told me how his wife left him and I told him how my girlfriend broke it off. We got so ear-splittingly drunk, he forgot both that I was both a student and not his wife, and I that he was a man. We were simply two bodies cleaved by the same knife and trying to find a second half if only for the briefest of moments. And just as briefly, Holly couldn’t withstand either of our pain and we flooded back to her like water released from a dam.
The morning we arrive to bring up the first body looks like a scene out of a James Herriot story. Minus the sheep. Once the interns found the first body, the dig was suspended and a press release issued. The mayor in his top hat and tails; his wife in a blazingly white flower print wrap-dress that wants to ride up over the thick roundness of her rump. Reporters have ferried over from London. A small squadron of school-age boys, the Irish version of the Boy Scouts, stand at attention, lined up shortest to tallest. Even a few village women with their strollers – prams they call them – have wheeled out across the bog. Everyone is in high rubber boots, even the barkeep’s grandson in green boots that make me want to weep, so cute and tiny and new.
Holly, Dr. Hevel, Ruben, and the lead British archeologist kneel beside the mud where only the pale grey disc of a skull shows against the brown. They work side-by-side in the ground, carefully scraping back layers of mud. Cameras flash. From the bottom of the hill, tin whistles and bag pipes play a tune that I assume is meant to sound triumphant. To me, it is only so much wailing, as if the mothers had risen from their graves somewhere far away to bemoan their daughters and grandchildren.
Once the eye sockets are exposed, the media frenzy is over. Hours of digging and rinsing lie ahead before the body can be removed, but now they all have something to report on – a body, skin and hair still intact in places, and at least another’s month worth of updates.
Holly taps at my door around ten-thirty. She comes in carrying two hot toddies, and though I hate myself as I do it, I drink it all. Her hair is greasy, the golden tips browned by clumps of mud where her long hair dipped into the soil, the decomposing skin, the hair like spider webby dead hair, the proteins and enzymes and cells of the woman she had come to unearth.
I lead her to the bathroom and run a hot bath. She sinks down into the water wordlessly and I wash her hair, then her face. Then her neck. Her back. Her breasts. Her arms. Her legs. She reaches out of the water to wrap her wet arms around me, pushing her head against my abdomen, drenching my pajamas. Can she hear it?, I wonder. Would she recognize a heart-beat separate from my own? Does it call to her, sensing the mother she wanted to be.
Will she call back to it, accepting the child that breaks her heart and gives her life again?
We sleep late into the morning, waking with our love caught in our throats, propelling us out into the too-bright grey morning. We drive out to the dig, the only vehicle left in front of the inn. Still, Holly is wordless. We know what we will find when we begin the slow trek single file across that endless marsh, and sure enough, across the bog, we see the brown oval set atop Dr. Hevel’s table. Her back is to us, skin black-brown and tight. From here, the outline of each vertebrae, each rib pushes against the skin. At the shoulder, a great gash like old leather has ripped and rolled back on itself, revealing grey bone beneath.
At least she isn’t turned toward us. At least we do not have to see that skin tight as a drum over the round belly. The arms folded around it, the legs brought up as though her body could be a cocoon to protect it.
Holly continues to move toward it, each step slow but forwardly determined. Her hand reaches back and takes mine, pulling me out of the backstory, bringing me forward, forward, forward.
Amy Foster Myer lives, writes, and teaches in Portland, Oregon. She is a graduate of the Queens University of Charlotte MFA program.