The Archaeologist

by Camille Gazoul

Only to a few will it matter that the smell of the dirt reminds you of the beach. That wet soil smell of sandy toes in a body of seaweed tainted lake water. Now it is dried up—hundreds of years ago—but, you guess, the smell was trapped beneath layers of clay.

Clay in the heat smells musty, like dust, or humid attics in July. It bakes like clay should bake in the hot sun, it sizzles. 

The tool given to you, which at first felt clunky and over large in your fresh blistered hand now feels right, balanced in the grooves of your dusty calloused fingers. It is hot from being left in the sun as you crawl, crab-like, backwards dragging the collected ancient dust in a bucket. 

Today you take the bones out. You spent so long unearthing them. Tracing the slender orange lines with a paint brush— scraping the hot earth with your tools. It was painstaking, careful work. 

Your hair is heated to straw, eyes burning from the dusty wind, lips and arms drying out from the elements, despite the sweat. 

The dust is everywhere, between the wrinkles of your knuckles, in the whorls of your ear, thrown on your now darkened skin like a patchy reminder of the paler winter months. 

You know you’re inhaling it because when you get back and pick the dried scabs of snot from your nose it is brown like the dust. 

Your knees have ached since the first day, from the constantly clenched position the bones require. The bones—at first just specks of different colored something, maybe, is it? Now more familiar than your own toes. God damn bones— back breaking mind tricking, is it a rock? Is it a bone? Or is it all dust either way the second you pick it up, so what does it matter? Damn these bones, because at first just a speck— when done well, when done with focus— the beautiful kind of focus you love when the sounds outside your ears go away and the static inside your head starts to go absolutely silent. Even more beautiful when the focus makes beautiful whatever the task may be— in this case the dust. With every scape and brush and spritz of water—and with every twist and ache of your own bones you come closer to these bones— slowly emerging as if on their own fruition— with nothing to do with your scraping. As if that was side work and the bones came when they were ready. They appeared one by one and suddenly one day you had a skeleton. And you celebrate your work that seemed fruitless and you thank the thankless job and you have the beer. 

But then you see them again, all at once now, all in articulation. And now the bones are a body and the body is in your brain and you’ve memorized every inch and agonized over every node and notch. And you’ve fallen in love with the curve of the leg and the hollow of its ribs and the gentle sweep of its spine and the innocent non-face of the crater skull. And you feel like an intruder— like you’ve woken up something pure and clean and silent and forced it into a dusty world of wind and words and scraping and it didn’t—couldn’t stop you. And it’s awake out of its time in a new place that doesn’t feel holy because you’re kneeling in destruction, not in prayer. 

And the body calls you in the dark of night and in the clouds you see pelvis and patella and mandible and you can’t feel good that not only did you expose it to this world but now you are going to take it into it—take it out of its home of six hundred years and into a sterile lab where nothing is holy. 

You painstakingly scrape the edges and the body drinks up the water and it smells like the beach and the mud sticks to you like the dust never did and your hands crack with their mud-cake-mask and one by one as they appear, the bones—you take them away. You take them away from each other after 600 something years of attachment. 

Your hands, 21 and arrogant, remove them from their soil of choice and place them on cloud colored cloths, fluffy and clean. 

And you wrap them. You wrap them in the cloths so gentle— so careful with an ache in your stomach. And you swaddle these dark bones with their nebulous-spiderweb, honeycomb insides, like a baby. Like a diaper on a baby, and you tape it’s name to the front carefully, slowly, with a gentle light hand, never meaning to harm. And you place these soft bundles in a plastic bag and you heft it into your arms.

And you feel him. 

You feel the weight—this man— this body—you feel him in your arms and you carry him like a baby. You cradle him and you walk— just now realizing the uneven, treacherous terrain. You carry him away from his place, from his home. And you cradle him to your chest and lay him in the box like it’s a crib and you don’t say goodnight and you don’t leave a light on just in case. You walk away and you feel weird, and you feel empty without the weight.

You have the beer and think about it. You are the last witness to this grave— to this person who may not have been a man— but is now only bones. Bones that no one but you touched. 

Even in life this body, how close could one get to it? But you touched it’s bones, no one has felt your bones, no one has seen your skeleton. No one ever will. You are the last one who saw him whole—and now— it is numbers and data in a system whose rules of destruction give light only to a few. Only to a few does it matter. 

About the Author

Camille Gazoul is a writer born in raised just outside of Detroit, Michigan. She majored in Anthropology and minored in Creative Writing at the University of Michigan. She currently lives in Austin, Texas.