Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Elisha's Bones - Chapter 1

Elisha's Bones

(Bethany House March 1, 2009)


Chapter 1


KV65, The Valley of the Kings, Egypt, 2003


It's an indescribable sound when a piece of ancient stone finally gives. There's a subtle pop, like the top of an aspirin bottle coming off to reveal that annoying wad of cotton stuffed into the plastic innards. Except that, in this case, the sound is amplified by whatever magnitude is required to testify to two tons of rock wrenching away from symbiotic stone. I think what I hear is the instant equalization of air pressure—a force that can either ease or enhance whatever stresses time has built into the coupling. It's the moment when the whole event can result in either expectant silence, or in a violent redistribution of forces. And it all has to be in my imagination, because it's only a romantic notion to think that the mind could process the event in real time.

Several field technicians are trying to peer into the sarcophagus through the three-inch gap made available courtesy of the removal of the two-ton slab of red granite that hangs suspended on a precarious-looking pulley mechanism. I know the machine is rated for far greater than the stone's weight, but even that bit of professional knowledge doesn't alleviate the fear I would have about slipping my fingers into the crack. I place my hand against the stone and press against it to stop its lazy swing. At almost four thousand pounds, even an arc of a few millimeters would put a severe dent into someone's skull, and having worked with these young men and women for almost a month, I'm not certain that all of them are observant enough to stay out of striking distance.

It's stifling in here; lines of sweat run down my face and soak my collar. The burial chamber is less than six and a half meters long, and there are a dozen people in it and more machinery than should be allowed at a dig, purely on principle—not to mention the five bright fluorescent lights that make casting a shadow an impossibility. I know one of the supposed benefits of these lights is that they don't give off heat, but I'm not buying it, no matter what the brochure says.

I lean in, the stone stilled beneath my fingers, and I think that I can almost smell the cumin, thyme, and cinnamon that went into the preparation of the mummy, even through the probable two additional coffins encasing the reposing ancient. I glance around at the assembled junior members of the team, whom Jim has asked me to instruct as most of them pursue doctorates. I'm not much of a teacher—I could never hold down a professorship—yet I take pleasure in seeing the looks on the team's faces as they enjoy this unprecedented opportunity.

KV65 is one of those rare opportunities granted to someone in my profession—a find that makes careers, that puts one in every serious journal in the field for the next decade. True, this is Jim's baby, but he brought me in to handle the particulars, and that will yield almost as many peer accolades. It's virtually another Tutankhamen, even down to the post-Amarna dating.

Before I can call for a flashlight, at least four click on. The mingling beams push back the blackness of the sepulcher. Leaning in close, forgetting the earlier reluctance to place my body in harm's way, I let my eyes grow accustomed to the alternating splotches of light and shadow against the outer coffin until I can see a deep red that I recognize as ancient cypress. A few moments pass as I ponder why this is peculiar—why the sight of a wood that's perfectly appropriate for this region, and for the time period that saw this man interred, seems wrong. And when the answer waves its little hand, I find another of those teaching opportunities I so enjoy. I ignore it.

But one of my young acolytes will not see his education shortchanged.

"Dr. Hawthorne?" Brown asks. He's twenty-four, attached to the Smithsonian, earning a doctorate at Cornell, and might be the smartest person in this room. And I'm only slightly threatened by that. After all, the successful practice of archaeology involves more than knowledge; there's an equal measure of luck. And after watching Brown over the last few weeks, I'm inclined to think that's a commodity he has not stockpiled.

I straighten and motion for him to take a look, taking a step back as he crosses in front of me. I'm careful to avoid bumping his cast-encased arm.

"Interesting," he says after a moment.

"Yep." A quick glance around reveals that the other people in the room want in on the discussion, so I prompt post-grad Cornell. "Can you share with the rest of the class?"

"The outer coffin is just wood," Brown says. "There's no linen, no gold overlay. Nothing to indicate that this is anything but the burial chamber for a minor noble."

"Which is odd because...?"

"Everything we've seen to this point would indicate this is a royal tomb. It's almost spot-on Tutankhamen."

For as much as I dislike the whole teaching aspect of this assignment, at least I've caught on to one of the tricks practiced by genuine academics: allowing my most-qualified student to teach in my stead.

I'm as intrigued as is he by the incongruity of the barren outer coffin within a sepulcher—indeed an entire tomb—that is patterned after those of the pharaohs. And I have no immediate answer.

I wipe my brow, aware that I'm leaving a film of red dust under my hairline. Now that we've found something unexpected, I'm more bothered by the fact that Jim is not here. It's worse than Will's absence. At least my brother has a concrete reason for missing an event important enough to earn the presence of two National Geographic photographers. Jim wouldn't give me a reason that carried any kind of weight; he was merely insistent that the events of the morning proceed. Not that he had to do too much arm-twisting; were he here, I would still be the one walking the Scooby Gang through their paces. Even so, there's an unspoken rule that something of this magnitude should only take place under the watchful eye of the archaeologist of record. I shake my head, consoling myself with the thought that Jim's absence means the guys from National Geographic will have to put my face on the cover of their next issue.

I field a sudden urge to light a cigar and my hand moves to my breast pocket, but I let the impulse pass, the dust in the chamber making it hard enough to breathe.

Several members of the team are jockeying for position around the sepulcher, shining their small lights into the crack. For the few moments that I afford myself to watch them, I have to smile at their exuberance. I'm not much older than most of them, but at this moment they seem younger than I ever remember being.

Almost on their own, my eyes find Sarah. She's a Connecticut girl, with the superior and privileged vocal intonations to prove it. She's one of the few on the team who has halted her education with a graduate degree.

But I can tell that she loves the work. She is as attentive, detailed, and driven as any of the others working alongside her. And she's easy on the eyes. I've always been a sucker for a brunette, and Sarah has deep brown eyes to go with her lustrous locks.

As if she can sense my gaze, she looks up and, after a pause, gives me a small smile. That's another thing about northeastern women: a smile can convey a great deal.

I'm the first to look away, and Brown saves me from having to consider what that says about me.

"Dr. Hawthorne?"

The puzzlement in his voice has me at his side in an instant. I crouch and follow the beam of his flashlight as it passes back and forth over a portion of the outer coffin. All I can see is a slight curve, yet it's enough to hint that it's at least vaguely anthropoid. I'm about to ask Brown what I'm supposed to be seeing when the light flashes by a faded irregularity in the wood. I'm not certain how long it takes before I recognize the abnormality as script, but when the revelation comes, it adds another mystery to the tally.

"Coptic," I say, and Brown nods in my periphery.

The find draws me closer, until I'm breathing the stale air, squinting to make sense of the words carved into the wood. There is little that is new in excavations conducted in the Valley of the Kings; everything has a corollary. KV9 is what comes to mind, with its walls decorated with ancient graffiti in a mixture of Coptic and Lycian. But this isn't graffiti; this is something else entirely. For a brief moment Nag Hammadi passes through my mind, solely for the Coptic element, but I let the thought go before it can find purchase. Playing connect-the-dots without even the most basic evidentiary support is seldom productive.

The narrow opening and the inconstant lighting make it difficult to decipher much, but I engage in a round of serious squinting until I'm able to pull a few words from the darkness. And, in so doing, I feel a twinge of excitement creep up my spine even as a frown lodges on my face—which is what happens when the happiness of a new discovery is marred by the potential effects the find will have on the timeline of the larger work. I make a conscious decision to allow the former reaction to prevail, since the one phrase I can identify is so unusual. If I'm correct, it translates, albeit roughly, to bones of the holy man. I'd have to look at the whole of the text to verify the translation. What's more intriguing is how the writing could have appeared inside a sealed sarcophagus that, to this point, had borne every indication of having been preserved inviolate.

A kink in my back cuts my survey short and I stand and place an impatient hand on the lid of the sepulcher. I'm tempted to give it a push, a small nudge—just enough so that I can see what other surprises await me on the other side of the granite. What stops me—besides the ugly specter of archaeological protocol that mandates an incremental removal of the obstacle—is another, equally important, code which says that Jim should be present for this. I don't know his reasons for missing the opening, but I must give him the option to lead the team in investigating something so unexpected. And this isn't the kind of thing I can relay over the radio. I want to see his face when he hears the news—that whoever is interred in 65 might be some kind of Egyptian seer. I see the National Geographic guys loading film. I shake my head; Jim might wind up on the cover after all.

"Take a break, folks," I tell my plebes. The one who looks most disappointed is Brown, who was probably hoping I'd give the lid a prodigious shove. With a last glance around the burial chamber and one long look at Sarah, who has her perfect nose almost inserted into the crypt's crack, I turn and walk away.

The antechamber I enter gives me an immediate feeling of solitude, and it has the benefit of seeming some degrees cooler. Our team has already picked through this room, and we've begun a cursory study of the contents of the annex on its western side. I walk over and around chalk lines and tape, following in the path of countless footfalls through the eight-meter-long room. Leaving the antechamber, I step into a long and narrow corridor leading to the stairway that will take me topside.

I reach the stairs and start up, watching my footing on the roughhewn steps. The gloom starts to give way to natural light, and before long I am standing beneath a blazing Egyptian sun. The first thing I do is pull a cigar from my breast pocket, a Dominican. Once it's lit, I take a long and satisfying puff.

The Valley of the Kings sits in the shadow of al-Qurn and the peak, fittingly, has a pyramid shape. It's red and barren, and time-weathered in a way that makes it seem like the embodiment of age—the patriarch of the Theban Hills. In the bright sunlight of the valley, I see what the dust beneath the ground has done to my clothes. I attempt a few halfhearted brushes at my sleeves before giving up and starting for our camp. From around the other side of the hill come the sounds of my brother's team. I'm not really bothered by the fact that Will hasn't been around for the events temporarily halted somewhere beneath my feet. Had he not decided to stay the course with the bypass tunnel to the treasure room, it would have been going against form. When we were kids, Will would leave presents ignored beneath the Christmas tree if he'd opened one that caught his attention. It's a single-mindedness that can be maddening to everyone around him. I think he is scheduled to reach the tomb wall sometime this morning, and I try to set some mental Post-it Note as a reminder to be there when it happens.

Our camp consists of an RV and three pickups, which is a bit light for a dig of this size, but we're not out in the middle of nowhere. Most of the team is set up at a hotel in Luxor, where we also keep provision. As I cover the distance to the camp, though, I see another vehicle, a new BMW, parked next to one of the pickups.

I'm almost to the RV, ready to start up the steps, before I hear the voices coming from inside. On most occasions I wouldn't give it another thought; this is the command center, with people coming and going at all hours. What gives me pause now, beyond the unfamiliar car, is that the muffled noises I assume to be conversation sound decidedly unfriendly. Before I can make a decision about potential eavesdropping, the door swings open.

There is a moment when I think the first of the two men at the top of the stairs is going to fall on top of me as he brings himself to a sudden halt, unprepared to find another person blocking his exit, but that moment passes and he finds his balance. He is perhaps thirty-five, dark-haired, and too fair-skinned to call this place home. He wears a gray suit, and shoes that look far too expensive to be forced to endure this kind of environment. He stands there for as long as it takes to give me a single sour glance and then he's down the stairs. It's a strange passing—oddly close—because I haven't moved away from the bottom of the steps. Belatedly I step to the side, and as he walks through the space I've just vacated, he half turns and gives me a slight smile that sends a psychic shudder running up my spine.

Our inspector, courtesy of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, is the man following. Magdy descends the stairs and offers a polite nod when he reaches the bottom. He hurries after the other man, who has almost reached the BMW. When they drive off, I watch until I lose sight of the car behind one of the hills. I turn back to the RV and see Jim standing in the doorway.

"Trouble with Magdy?" I ask, even though it's obvious that something's amiss. The tension I've stumbled into is as palpable as a Scottish fog, even if it has dissipated with the men's departure. Jim's answer is a grunt and a step back to allow me into the RV. Only when we are both inside, and he has claimed a chair at the small table in the kitchen area, does he respond.

"The SCA is drafting orders for us to cease the project."

For one of the few times in recent memory, I am left speechless.

Jim gives me a wry smile. "That's essentially what I said. Only with a good deal more cursing." He chuckles and takes a sip of ice water.

"We spent months getting approval to excavate 65," I say, feeling a dull pain take hold along the base of my neck. "They can't make us pull up now."

Finessing an application through the SCA's Department of Foreign Archaeological Missions is a level of hell missing from Dante's book. Meticulousness and a genuine love for tedium are required skills for those trying to fight their way through the minutia of the application process. If even a single item is missing or incomplete, it can set a project back by months. That's the reason I know our potential ouster has nothing to do with a flaw in the application; I'd swear to the document's integrity right down to the molecular level.

And to the best of my knowledge, our inspector has been satisfied with the excavation and the subsequent preservation work, and with the timeliness of his pay.

I think Jim is allowing my indignation to suffice as his own, because I can almost see the anger leaching away from him. He leans back in his chair and starts drumming his fingers on the tabletop. "Technically, they can." Then he winks. "But if we file a protest with the director's office, we might gain a month or so before they force us out."

James Winfield, Professor Emeritus at the University of Canberra, is a throwback to the time when scholarly men met in quaint taverns and downed pints of dark beer while arguing points of philosophy, theology, and hard science. When I studied at his feet, I thought he looked like Oxford—at least the Oxford in my imagination. I've since been to Oxford, and I prefer my na├»ve fancies. He's also the man who taught me the value of a good cigar and the reason I associate refinement with the practice.

I can follow Jim's line of reasoning, can even be somewhat assuaged by it. What I can't understand is the reason behind the sudden removal of SCA support.

"Why?" is the only question I can muster.

Always a step ahead, Jim says, "Not why, but who."

"I don't follow."

"In one variation of the question, who within the SCA wants our project shut down?"

Running a hand through my dusty hair, I nod. But Jim's phrasing isn't lost on me.

"What's the other variation?"

"I would think that's obvious," Jim answers, forever the teacher. He waits until I track with him, which does not take long.

"Who was the other guy?" I ask, referring to the man accompanying our inspector. I have never seen a foreigner employed by the SCA, although it is not unheard of for them to bring in a foreign consultant. Too, KV65 is an important work site, and we've entertained more than the usual share of interested parties in the months we've been here. I'd just assumed our mystery man fit that category. Although, now that I think back on our near collision and the strange vibe I got from the guy, I reconsider—especially because Jim wouldn't have said anything had he not detected something odd about the man.

"I'm not sure," Jim answers. "It seemed obvious that his presence unnerved our beloved inspector. Magdy acted like a small insect in a large web."

That prompts a smile, if for no other reason than that an SCA inspector is the bane of an archaeologist's existence.

"What I do know," Jim adds, fingers drumming the tabletop, "is that he was one of my countrymen."

"A consultant?"

He lets my question hang there, and the look on his face suggests he is struggling to corral his thoughts. After a while, he shakes his head and looks up.

"Consultant is likely," he says, though his voice lacks conviction. He offers a dismissive wave. "I'm sure it's just a misunderstanding. A few phone calls and the whole business will be cleared up." Then he brightens as if only now remembering something. "How are things going below?"

While still reeling from the possibility of having to abandon KV65, I'm grateful for the redirection. Placing this other issue aside, I'm about to tell Jim what we've found when the RV makes a minor shift beneath my feet.

When the moment has ended, a silence fills the vacuum, and it seems almost as threatening as whatever set the vehicle to shaking. Jim and I lock eyes and then he is out of his chair and we are both heading toward the door. Our time in this country has given us ample experience with incidents of seismic activity; neither of us need to verbalize that what we just felt was something else.

My only thought is for the team I left down below, and the run across the hot sand is a blur. I'm two decades younger than Jim and so I leave him behind. By the time I reach the tomb entrance, the first of my team are exiting from the earth's darkened maw. The clinical part of me notes that the doorway is intact; there are no new fissures along the limestone and shale layers to indicate an earthquake. The plebes are coughing; they're covered in dust. One of the National Geographic guys is cradling a broken camera.

I see Brown come out. He's coughing but he gives me a small wave. "We're fine," he manages.

Despite his assurances, I do a head count. With everyone moving around, I have to do it twice before I'm reasonably sure that everyone's accounted for. And it is this relative assurance which makes me feel better about what I ask next.

"Is the sarcophagus okay?"

Brown, who is still hacking up dust, gives an emphatic nod. "It's fine. The structure held; everything's fine."

The fact that the team is all right, coupled with our good fortune of the tomb still being intact, elates me, and it takes a bit of the edge off of the urgency I'm feeling. When Jim reaches us, his breathing labored, he takes his own turn ascertaining the health of his charges and then runs a clinical eye over the dig site. The sun is directly overhead and there are no shadows in the valley, yet his eyes are hooded. Sweat beads on his forehead. He looks like a big-game hunter out on the savannah, surveying the vast terrain. Images like this are what I juxtapose against the more common mien of the academic that is his normal skin.

"What was it?" Jim asks.

The question gives me pause. I know it wasn't an earthquake, and Brown insists the tomb is intact, which precludes a cave-in. And what kind of cave-in would have been felt across the hundred yards separating the tomb from the RV anyway? Could it have been a whole subterranean cavern collapsing in upon itself?

"I don't know," I finally say.

I half acknowledge that one of the National Geographic cameras is snapping again, and I feel a bit like the emperor sans clothes. I'm hoping that this part will wind up on the cutting-room floor, but that's wishful thinking. More than likely, there will be an inset with a picture of my face, complete with poignant caption.

Jim doesn't say anything but I see him doing the same thing I am: ascertaining how an event we can't qualify has affected us. There's a very real hope that it hasn't. Our team and our site appear to be unhurt. This last thought hangs there, teasing me with something I can't quite put my finger on. I stand there, hands on hips, still catching my breath and squinting against the sun. I'm looking at the faces of these people I've come to know over the last few months, and it seems like a long time passes before it hits me that the face that should be most familiar is missing.

"Where's Will?"

The question falls on deaf ears. Most of them are milling about, content to let others determine what happens next. Jim is busy talking with Brown about the contents of the opened sarcophagus. The National Geographic guys are snapping away. It then occurs to me that neither of the two excavators assisting my brother is here, either. I smile and shake my head; it's just like Will to ignore the unanticipated movement of the very earth into which he's digging.

I don't realize I've left the group until I'm already halfway around the hill. I'm not sure what it is that makes me uneasy; I only register that I'm no longer smiling. That's when it hits me: I can't hear any noise coming from the auxiliary dig site.

I break into a jog and it's just as I'm about to round the last bend separating me from Will's team that I hear the first cries.

I now start to sprint, and as the last of the rock shifts out of my line of sight, I catch a first glimpse of Will's dig, with fear now my only reality. Where there should be straight grid lines and pin flags and a clean trench leading to an ancient wall interred in the earth, instead there is a chaos that looks like the aftermath of an explosion. The trench is gone, covered in with sand, dirt, and a large chunk of the adjoining hillside. Particles of sediment and pulverized rock hang like a haze in the air. I've stopped running, frozen by what I see. It's as if I'm experiencing all of this through a fog, and the only thing that seems to reach me is something sounding like an insistent buzzing. When the noise resolves into a man's weak voice, my eyes track to movement in the trench.

Urgency unlocks my legs, and I rush toward the man half buried in debris while at the same time reaching for the radio at my waist. I'm shouting something, but I can't decipher the garbled sounds of my own voice. Then the radio is on the ground and I'm on my knees, pawing at the dirt. It's Steve Connelly. The clinical part of me is trying to determine his condition as I work to free him; it's that part of my brain that I need to use right now, instead of the portion that knows Steve has been married for seven years and has two kids waiting for him back in Minnesota—the part that knows there were other people out here when this thing happened.

There is a flash of movement behind me and then there are several pairs of hands alongside mine, loosening the earth's hold on Steve. When we are able to pull him up, he's limp, but breathing. I let others move him away from the trench because it's becoming difficult to keep my irrational side in check. The activity behind me falls away as my eyes flit over the site. There is no movement, no flashes of color. There's a thin barrier between me and true panic, and I'm not sure how long it will stand up. The only thing I can tell myself is that I don't even know Will was down there.

Except that I know.

There's a shovel by the rebar that is the auxiliary dig's focal point. In what seems like slow motion, I walk over and pick it up, my eyes never leaving the trench. The first shovelful of dirt is like sand, and it runs off, spills over the side. I plunge the tool in a second time, then a third. I lose myself in the task, a growing urgency adding speed with each thrust. At some point, others frantically join me in the digging. I feel Jim there, although my eyes don't leave the worn surface of the shovel.

I don't know how long we dig, how much earth we move, or how many shovels take their turn. We're four feet down and it seems as if we've been digging a long time. I've stopped sweating. And then I hear something—a sound that doesn't originate amid the fevered exertion of at least a dozen men and women abandoning themselves to the work. It's a sound that seems to come from far away, a muffled voice. I stop. I stop for the first time. I listen. And I hear Will's voice, coming from below; he sounds so far away. With something close to a snarl I bring the shovel up and plunge it into the ground, and the abused implement breaks at the shaft.

Tossing the useless thing aside, I go to my knees, pawing at the red earth. "I'm coming Will!" I shout. My hands are bleeding, fingernails ripped away, but I don't feel any of it.

I catch sight of Sarah, who is now digging next to me. The privileged Connecticut girl, covered in grime, blood on her fingers, and tears streaming down her cheeks. Her eyes find mine and, in that instant, I know that haunted look will remain with me forever.

2 comments:

Sheila Deeth said...

I just came here from your Forensics and Faith interview. I really enjoyed this chapter. I love the details. They really make it, and him, come alive. Sounds fascinating.

Rahul J said...

Wow...this was a really good article.
keep up the good work going....

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