A Woman's Bones
a short story
Our second day in camp I walked out into the grass. I had
forgotten the wind. Born with it in my ears, how could I forget?
As constant as a mother's love, unnoticed until it was gone. The wind,
at least, I could regain. A vast current of cold air, it sang through
the stakes of the surveyor's grid laid across the barrows, boomed in
the walls of the tents, hissed and thrashed in the grass. Listening
to its voice I did not hear Dr. Cahill approach until he spoke my name.
"I'm sorry to disturb you," he said, always courteous, though as the
leader of the expedition he did not need to be. "We seem to have some
The camp was as it had been all morning: the circle of tall white
canvas tents, the untidy cluster of smaller tents and blanket shelters,
the neat line of lorries in between. Archeologists and workmen gathered
around their respective fires for the midday meal. But beyond, to the
south, a dozen horsemen sat their ponies on an invisible rise in the
steppe, black silhouettes against the shadowless haze of the sky. The
Alyakshin, come to protest the disinterment of those they would claim
(falsely, by Dr. Cahill's theory) as ancestors.
They were polite about it. Instead of riding into camp they dismounted
where they were, a mile or more away, and began setting up a camp of
"Well," said Dr. Cahill, humor disguising his relief, "at least they
aren't riding in waving their spears." He was not a tall man by western
standards, with sandy hair and a beard trimmed to a point, and round
gold-rimmed glasses that flashed and winked in the sun.
"They will wait for you to invite them into your encampment," I told
him. "They mean to be polite about this. It gives them the advantage,"
I added, not sure he would understand.
"Oh, yes," he said. "Just like my Aunt Hilda." He slapped his hands
against the pockets of his khaki jacket, as if confirming he was equipped
to handle the situation. "Shall we go?"
"Better, perhaps, to give them a little while to get settled."
"A little while," he repeated, a twist to his mouth that I'd seen
often enough on the journey out. It is as hard for the English to live
outside the efficiency of clocks as it was for me to learn to live within
He nodded, looking at his pocket watch as I looked up at the sun,
a brilliance behind the high white haze. "We can finish the preliminary
survey today, start digging tomorrow," he said, as if the Alyakshin
protest had come to naught before it had even begun.
We walked through grass and wind, Dr. Cahill, Dr. Learner
and myself, to meet the riders. Dr. Learner had come fresh from a dig
in the desert and was heavily bundled against the steppe's spring chill,
his sweaters and coat making him seem even bigger than he was. Dr. Cahill
might have just stepped out of a lecture hall.
"Good afternoon," he said, stopping just within earshot of the Alyakshin
"Greetings of the day that brings us here together in this place,"
The Alyakshin stood to greet us. Lean, even slight, they did not meet
the western image of warriors. They wore felt vests colorfully embroidered,
and their long black hair was braided with bright yarn. Their sabers
and slender wood javelins had been set aside for a peaceful meeting
in another's camp. The leader, a man perhaps a little younger than Dr.
Cahill, stepped forward.
"You ride with these trespassers, woman of the steppe?" he said in
the formal way.
"Yes," I said. "I have come to speak their words in the Alyak tongue."
"You are from the south. Pelyoshin?"
He was polite, he let it go. He said to Dr. Cahill, "You have ridden
across grass grazed by Alyak herds, yet you are strangers, not a tribe
we have met in friendship, nor yet one we have met in anger. How shall
we meet, on this grass the Alyak herds graze?"
I translated, then added, "He's being very formal, very polite in
the old fashioned way."
Dr. Cahill glanced at me. "And there's a formal response, I suppose?"
"Assuming you don't want outright war." I gave a faint smile. "From
his point of view, inviting him into camp is a bit like a burglar inviting
in the man whose house he's broken into, but not inviting him would
be worse. Of course he knows -- they all know -- who you are and why
you've come, and that you have government permission to be here. He's
just trying to make a point."
Dr. Cahill looked the Alyak men over. "He can consider it made," he
said dryly. "By all means, invite them in for a cup of tea."
The leader of the Alyakshin was named Kehboryavin.
"It is not the trespass on our lands," he said. "Or not only that.
We have learned long since what it means to be conquered by a nation
that would put walls around the wind." He paused to let me translate
and sipped his tea. It would seem insipid to him, I knew, even with
a spoonful of condensed milk stirred in, but he drank it, unremittingly
"Is that really what he said?" Dr. Learner said. "'Walls around the
"Jack." Dr. Cahill was repressive.
Kehboryavin went on. "But this is not a matter of grazing, or water,
or camping rights. This place is a place where the dead wait. You are
not of the plains, any more than the hillmen who give you permits to
come here, so perhaps you can be forgiven your ignorance. But since
I now tell you, you will know: there is a great power buried here that
must not be disturbed."
Dr. Cahill spoke with long pauses for thought. "Tell him it is true
there is something powerful buried here. Tell him I know this. Tell
him the power here is the power of knowledge, the power of the past.
There is no evil to be unearthed here, only a link in the chain of history,
and of the lives of the people of the steppe. Tell him that the power
we recover, the knowledge, will give his own people strength, like the
strength a deep taproot gives to an ancient and flourishing tree. Tell
him it is for his people that we have come here to dig."
The trees on the steppe are stunted, wind-tormented things. The plainsmen
trade hides and furs for wood straight enough to make tent poles and
javelins. I didn't mention this to Dr. Cahill. It is difficult enough
just to translate the words, never mind the assumptions behind them.
Kehboryavin studied me when I finished, then turned his dark gaze
on Dr. Cahill. "We know what is buried here," he said flatly. "It is
you who are in ignorance. Will you listen to the words of one who would
teach you what you must know?"
"Yes," said Dr. Learner before Dr. Cahill could speak.
"Jack," said Dr. Cahill in exasperation.
"Speaking as an anthropologist, Tom, this is gold he's offering us.
The oral history of the place, of the people buried here, to compare
with what we actually find? It's a gold mine!"
Dr. Cahill frowned. "You know the modern plains people are the descendants
of a different group entirely from the barrows people. They supplanted
the barrows people more than a thousand years ago."
"I know that's what you're digging to prove. But this could give us
a whole new insight into the way populations meet and replace one another.
We don't even know if there was direct contact between the barrows people
and their successors. Does the oral tradition about this place actually
start with these people's ancestors finding the barrows and inventing
a reason for them, or is it a borrowed tradition from the barrows people
themselves? Or was there even an intermediary group between the two?
It could be a whole new facet to the investigation here!"
Dr. Cahill sighed. "If we tell him we want to hear what he has to
say, it will only give him false expectations. I'm certainly not delaying
the dig for you to catalog his superstitions."
Leroy Paltz, the expedition photographer, said quietly, "If we say
we're interested in his knowledge, give him a role in the dig, some
stake in the outcome, he might end up an ally rather than an opponent."
"Yes," said Dr. Learner emphatically, and two of the graduate students
murmured their agreement.
"Very well." Dr. Cahill turned to me. "But make it clear that we are
going ahead with the dig regardless."
"Tell him we value his knowledge and are eager to make use of it to
direct the excavation and to help interpret what we find," Dr. Learner
I told Kehboryavin. He looked at me a long time, while the wind slapped
the fire down and shook the tents. "I think they said much more than
that," he said finally.
"I told you everything they asked me to tell you."
His expression did not change, but I could feel a door close behind
his eyes. "Tell them I will take their words to the elders. Tell them
it would be better for them to wait to dig until they have heard what
they must hear. Tell them they do not know what danger they could raise."
Dr. Cahill listened, politely, and nodded. "Thank you," he said. It
was a dismissal. Kehboryavin set his cup aside, stood, and walked away.
When he was out of sight beyond the tents, Dr. Cahill chuckled. "What
dig is complete without a superstitious native or two?"
The Alyak riders left as simply as they had come, returning
to the rest of their tribe to report. For the next six days we labored
over the barrows, cutting the recalcitrant sod and sifting the fine
loess that the wind blew into everything, eyes and tents and food. Dr.
Cahill set the workmen and students to excavating alternate squares
along the spines of both barrows, reserving for himself and Dr. Learner
the shallow dome-like mound where the two long barrows met in a T.
When I wasn't relaying instructions to the workmen I assisted Leroy
Paltz, the photographer. The blowing grit was a menace to the fragile
mechanism of his camera, and even more so to the treated glass plates
of film, so we spent a lot of our time constructing and reconstructing
a kind of canvas blind, and Leroy had me back up every exposure with
a sketch. It was tedious work at this stage, but Dr. Cahill's enthusiasm
kept spirits high -- at least, the spirits of the academic contingent.
The workmen were growing quickly sullen, but I put that down to the
unaccustomed labor (they were all drivers and mechanics, men of status
in the city where they'd been hired) and to having to take orders relayed
by a woman. But one night, lying awake listening to the wind throb in
the walls of my tent, I heard their voices rising in unison from their
camp and realized that instead of the songs and boasting stories of
earlier nights, those men were singing prayers.
Superstitious natives, Dr. Cahill would say.
My dreams were empty of everything but wind.
The Alyakshin returned at noon.
This time only Dr. Learner and I walked out to their camp, Dr. Cahill
grudging any time away from his dig. The whole Alyak tribe had not come,
I saw, but a fair proportion of it. Women were setting up the felt and
lathe ghurdis, while men cut fire pits and kept an eye on the ponies
and long-legged sheep grazing south of camp. They were a traditional
lot, the Alyakshin, following their herds across this remote reach of
the steppe, a long way from the encroachment of civilization. Most of
them would never have seen a truck before, or a blond man, or a woman
wearing anything but the long tunic and wide felt trousers dictated
by tradition. The Alyak women were too busy, the men too polite, but
the children stared and stared.
The man Kehboryavin met us on the edge of their camp with three elders,
a hearty grandmother almost as broad as she was tall, and two sexless
beings withered so dry by age it was a wonder the wind did not snatch
them up and scatter them into dust.
Dr. Learner said, "Good afternoon."
I said, "He gives you good greetings this day, honored elders, and
wishes of health and fair journeying to you and yours."
The ancients nodded. Kehboryavin studied the work taking place over
my shoulder. The grandmother said, "My, such fine manners in a foreigner.
And so much said in two little words!"
I blushed. "It was his meaning, grandmother."
"Hmm." She studied Dr. Learner a moment, then turned to me with shrewd
black eyes nested in wrinkles. It was a look that took me back to childhood.
She said, "Pelyoshin, I think my grandson said?" In the grip of manners
and memory both, I told her my name, my mother's and grandmothers' names.
She took in my jodhpurs and plain shirt, and the bobbed hair dictated
by both fashion and practicality, then dismissed me to say to Dr. Learner,
"You are the one who is willing to hear the truth of this place."
He gave a short, jovial bow. "I am he, madam."
She looked, as her grandson had never ceased to look, at the industry
taking place half a mile to the north. "You should have waited. Come
tomorrow after dawn and we will begin."
Dr. Learner bowed again, making no effort to hide his amusement, and
turned away. Before I could follow, the Alyak grandmother said to me,
brooking no argument, "You will stay. I have work for you."
"I should go back, I --"
"I have greater need of you here. Come with me." And when I hesitated,
aware that Dr. Learner was watching with interest, she snapped, "Come!"
It was the voice of my childhood, the voice that could not be disobeyed.
When I returned to camp a little before sunset, Dr. Cahill glanced
up from the fire he was building to say mildly, "We could have used
your help this afternoon."
I flushed, grateful for once that my skin was too dark to show it.
"I beg your pardon. It ... " I wanted to explain the imperatives of
a grandmother's voice. But one thing all my studies have taught me is
that some things truly will not translate. I finished lamely, "It won't
He nodded, his mind already back on his fire, or more likely on the
Dr. Learner clapped then rubbed his hands together. "And tomorrow,
the great mystery revealed!"
Grandmother Kehboryana sat by the fire, her broad, round-shouldered
form dark against the newly risen sun. The cold wind was laden with
dew, drenched with the scent of grass. My stomach growled at the smell
of fried mutton stew.
"The Story of the Conqueror Yulima," Grandmother Kehboryana said through
me, "is the oldest story of the Alyak nation. It carries the names of
our ancestors and of the lands they rode to find this place, their home.
On this day, for the first time, those not of Alyak blood will hear
this truth. Already, the Alyak heart becomes divided." That said, she
began the story. "These are the events that occurred in the days before
days were numbered ..."
There is a thing that happens to me when I translate. Perhaps it is
common to all translators, I don't know. But sometimes it seems that
the two languages meet and mirror each other, word for word, without
any involvement on my part at all, except the rudimentary cooperation
of ears, lips and tongue. The rich phrases, soaked in the folkways of
the Alyakshin, became straight and stiff and alien when clothed in English,
like foreign students at the University clothed in their uncomfortable
new tweeds. Dr. Learner fell into a trance of his own, writing, and
I, as distantly as if I were reading what he wrote, saw the pageant
of the Alyakshin story, their oral history, their truth, roll across
the background of the windblown steppe. The people from beyond the known
world who swept up the armies of a dozen nations and remade them into
their own. The powers that let them conquer, and conquer again, and
yet that drove them as unmercifully as they drove the lesser folk under
their sway. The lust for the riches of the far west, the only land that
resisted their coming and thus, like the winds of frustration, drove
their desire into ungovernable need.
"... like the unceasing wind of the east that drives the summer fire
until it consumes all the grass under the western sky," Grandmother
Kehboryana said. "And in that time a child was born."
The sun had risen above the grandmother's shoulder by this time, sending
her shadow streaming across the grass. The clang of shovels and picks
rang clear from the dig, counterpoint to the bleating of sheep. Several
of the children had settled nearby to listen to the story, sneaking
glimpses of Dr. Learner's pale hair, and of his long hands doing incomprehensible
work with paper and pen. Grandmother Kehboryana directed one of the
girls to pour out the sugared tea that had been steeping to syrup by
the fire. We both sipped before she continued speaking through me, trailing
her images across my mind.
"A child who was no child, for, though she was as fine to look upon
as any babe, with as sweet a voice and a smile more like sunlight than
gold, she bore from the dark of her mother's womb the hungry soul of
a demon. She was the Conqueror Yulima ..."
Dr. Learner would occasionally nod at a phrase or a metaphor. I had
taken his class on folklore -- in fact, it was he who had recommended
me to Dr. Cahill as the expedition's interpreter -- so I also recognized
what he was hearing. The story contained echoes from a hundred different
cultures: the great and terrible leader who nearly transcends his own
wickedness by the height to which he brings his people; the challenge
to the gods that can not be borne; the humble hero who lays the prideful
low. The one moral truth imperative to the primitive society, according
to Dr. Learner. The individual with the power to wreak change upon the
community must bow to tradition, or be buried by it.
The only new thing here was that the individual, the great leader,
the Conqueror who threatened change upon the world, was a woman.
"... That first man of our people, he cried, 'Wind of the north, wind
of the east, wind of the south, come to me! The killing in the west
has raised such a darkness that heaven itself has turned black. Come
to me, and join your brother of the west to end the dying.' And of course
the winds came, for all the winds are the breath of the gods' will.
And the Conqueror Yulima could not stand before them. Her armies were
scattered beyond the earth and she was blown here, where the ancestors
of our ancestors, who had been left behind, buried her beneath grass
and stone, for of course a woman such as she could not be killed. And
here she has lain, for an age and an age, waiting for her tomb to be
breached so that she may once again rise to conquer the west."
The circle of silence the old woman had created with her
storytelling closed in around us, a wall of wind separating us from
the bleating sheep and the hard labor at the dig.
After a moment, Grandmother Kehboryana drew in a slow breath and let
it out, her hands dark and gnarled in her lap. "So you see what you
risk with your digging."
Dr. Learner set his notebook aside and stretched, pressing his hands
to his back. "Tell her she has all my thanks. Her knowledge can only
add to the knowledge we will gather from the dig. And tell her that
if this is the Conqueror Yulima, the stories she will tell us
will be given in turn to the Alyakshin. It is the greatest gift we could
possibly give them: a return to the present of the power of their past."
Grandmother Kehboryana thought about this when I had finished. "Tell
him this, granddaughter. Tell him we, who have seen our children seek
out the knowledge of his cities and come home dying of that knowledge
-- tell him we know the price that is always paid. All knowledge, and
all power, comes at a cost. He would do well to listen."
When Dr. Learner returned to camp, I went with him, quickly, before
the grandmother could call me back.
That night, alone in my tent, I dreamed. No great vision
of the mythical past, no window onto the days of the Conqueror's triumph
and fall. The dream I dreamed was an old one, familiar as the sound
of loose canvas in the wind. There were the noble buildings and crooked
quadrangles of my college. There were the echoing wooden floors, slate
blackboards, and diamond-paned windows. There was the mellow chapel
bell, the flutter of academic gowns, the pervasive smells of dry rot
and tea. And there, where they never had been, never could be, was my
family. Mother, brothers, aunts, who'd died so long ago they scarcely
had faces, setting up my grandmother's striped ghurdi on the green rolled
grass of the Fellow's Lawn.
I woke, as I always did, sweating and sick with shame.
The dig was going well, despite the growing reluctance
of the native help. The students worked themselves into exhaustion every
day, inspired by Dr. Cahill's fireside lectures in the evenings. I don't
think you could even say he disregarded the grandmother's warning, so
utterly did it fail to impact on his consciousness, but the Conqueror
Yulima's story was the wind that blew his ambition, his desire to know,
into a conflagration. Every night he spun a new strand of theory from
Dr. Learner's account of the tale. Each mention of a people conquered,
each stage of the conqueror's journey, was pinned down on the map of
the world he carried in his mind. One night, Dr. Learner said, "So what's
next after this dig, Tom? When do you start to trace the Conqueror's
people back to their origins?"
We all called the barrow's occupant "the Conqueror" now.
Dr. Cahill smiled. "What are your plans for next season?"
Everyone laughed, but I didn't think he was joking. Once a man like
Dr. Cahill creates a map of the world in his mind, the next, the only,
thing for him to do is recreate the world in the map's image. The people
of the steppe travel thousands of miles across the seemingly unlandmarked
plains, they have done so for countless generations, but they have never
even invented a word for 'map.' The first time I ever saw one was in
the orphanage school far to the south, where I learned a hundred words
for things I had never known, and was commanded to forget the names
of everything I did.
While Dr. Cahill ordered the past for his students beneath the springtime
stars, the diggers told their own stories over on the other side of
the camp. The lore they traded was all modern, and mostly to do with
the money they were earning and how it would be spent once they were
home, but one night, standing in the dark outside of camp, I heard a
slow, measured voice explaining the doom that would fall on any man
who touched, by accident or design, a bone from under the barrow. "Even
the dust," said the senior driver. "Even the dust." And after a silence
they all began to pray.
"They are wiser than your learned men."
I jumped. It was Kehboryavin. I had not heard his footsteps under
the hush of the wind. The Alyakshin had remained camped a half-mile
or so away from the dig.
"Were you at the barrow?" I demanded, shrill with shock.
His face was all gray angles under the quarter moon. He looked at
me, then away to the camp, where the two fires burned orange, like beacons,
"You always share the westerners' fire, never your own people's. Why
"The drivers aren't my people. Anyway, they wouldn't want me to."
"I did not mean those piyevya." The word meant, literally translated,
'weak without walls.' "I meant my grandmother's fire. She has been watching
I was silent a moment. "You aren't my people, either."
"And they are?" He gestured towards the other fire, where Dr. Cahill's
glasses caught the light, circles of fire in his sunburned Englishman's
"... 'the gold and amber fields of the west' could be a reference
to the ancient Celtic trade ..."
Kehboryavin listened to words he could not understand, or to my silence.
Then he said, "Pelyoshin was never Alyakshin's enemy," and walked away.
I don't know what moved me to spit at his back, "Pelyoshin is dead!"
But he didn't respond.
I had said it in English.
In only two more days, the sod and dirt was cleared from
the T-shaped barrow. Leroy Paltz, the photographer, and I worked late
into the day, even after the rest had cleaned off their shovels and
headed for their tents to rest for the evening's celebration. The sun
was a searing orange flame on the horizon when Leroy exposed his last
plate. I held the camera's black shroud against the wind, while my eyes
took their own picture of the barrow's central dome. It was huge and
dark, its rough granite stained by centuries under the earth. It seemed
to lean away from the bitter wind, yearning for the golden fire of the
west. Covered with sod it had been merely a hump in the plains. Marked
with string and cluttered with students, shovels and sieves, it had
been -- what? -- an artifact. Helpless, quiescent. Dead.
Now, though. Now.
The wind blew more fiercely in the wake of the sun. I swayed and Leroy
said my name. He was finished, already packing up his things. "Are you
"It's the wind," he said knowledgeably. "It'll dry you right out.
A cup of tea and a glass of beer, in that order. Can you take the tripod?"
It wasn't easy, turning my back on that resentful heap of stone. But
it was good to head into camp with the prospect of a sponge bath, clean
clothes, and something to drink before me. Leroy was right, the wind
could take it right out of you.
I had hardly drawn my ration of bathwater from the drum, however,
when Dr. Cahill came to find me.
"There you are," he said. He was impatient; some snag had interrupted
him savoring the approaching triumph. "If you wouldn't mind, the drivers
seem to want a word."
I was surprised. I had assumed any problem would be the Alyakshin.
The drivers stood in a group on the scholar's side of the line of
lorries. Their leader, a man with a broad, dark, furrowed face that
always reminded me of a tilled field, barely acknowledged me with a
glance. He kept his eyes on Dr. Cahill as he spoke.
"He says they will not dig any more."
"Tell him there isn't any more digging to do. For heaven's sake, they
know very well we've uncovered the stone structure! How can they see
what we've accomplished and still complain about doing farmers' work?"
Dr. Learner and the others had approached by this time, one or two
carrying lanterns against the gathering night, so the two groups confronted
each other across the trampled grass, with me between. Some instinct
made me glance up and away, and I saw not far off three horsemen silhouetted
against the last of the light.
Dr. Learner said to me, "Tell them the work they'll be doing from
now on is the most important part of the whole job."
"Tell them," Dr. Cahill interrupted testily, "I'd do all the rest
myself if only I could. Tell them they're bloody lucky to have any part
in this enterprise at all."
He was missing the point completely, but it wasn't my place to say
so. I told the drivers what the two doctors had said. The drivers' elder
went into some detail about the threatened doom of any who touched the
Conqueror or her minions' bones.
When I'd finished, Dr. Learner said eagerly, "Ask them how they know
about the Conqueror."
Dr. Cahill said coldly, "I know bloody well how they know about the
Conqueror, and so do you."
He was staring at me, and the blood began to burn under my skin as
Dr. Learner and then all the students understood and stared as well,
or, embarrassed, looked away.
"I beg your pardon, Dr. Cahill," I said. My voice was low enough,
but I couldn't keep it from trembling. "But I didn't tell them anything
Leroy Paltz stepped forward from the group. "It isn't as if the men
couldn't talk to the Alyakshin if they wanted to, Tom."
"It's quite a different dialect," Dr. Learner said. "Still, it wouldn't
take much more than a word or two, their own imaginations would do the
"It isn't as if this kind of thing hasn't happened before," Leroy
added. "Think of Egypt in 'Fourteen."
Dr. Cahill glanced past me at the drivers. "Well, it hardly matters
how they got onto it. The point is to get them off. Tell them ..."
I told them. I told them repeatedly and at length, but Dr. Cahill
might as well have been talking to the grass, or the wind. Eventually
he threw up his arms and pretended to laugh. "Superstitious savages!
You can give them lorries instead of horses, but you can't bloody civilize
them. All right! Come on you lot, if we're going to be shifting stones
tomorrow, we'll need a hell of a good dinner tonight. Who's for beer
and jerky stew?"
Dr. Learner and the rest trailed after him, quietly, heads down. They
knew as well as I that, for all his laughter, he was furious. Yet, at
the same time, I knew that he had said nothing less than the truth.
If he could have done it all himself, he would have.
The oldest driver knew it too. He said, "What kind of a man is that?
He'd rather fuck a pile of bones than a live woman?" He looked me over
and spat, just to one side of my feet.
A javelin's point slid out of the darkness to tap his jacket over
his heart. "Go back to your sty, city pig," Kehboryavin said. "Speak
to a woman of the tribes in such a manner again and I'll see you roasting
over a dung fire on a spit."
Dr. Learner was right. Different dialect or no, he got his meaning
across. The drivers shuffled off with only an evil look or two, leaving
me alone with the tribesman. The light from the two camps only seemed
to cast the space between in deeper darkness. I was not unaware of the
I said in English, "The noble savage rescues the beleaguered maiden."
It was a scene caption from a moving picture I'd seen just before we
Kehboryavin said, "Grandmother sent me to ask you to eat at her fire
tonight. She'll be in a bad temper if we are late, but I did not wish
to interrupt. Perhaps it will sweeten her mood if I can tell her there
is a problem with the digging."
"Tell her what you like," I said, and started for my tent.
"You aren't still hoping you belong with them, are you? But then,
it seems living between walls makes all the rest of them fools, I don't
know why you should be any different."
I stopped. "May I ask you something, young chief? If you are such
a bitter enemy of the westerners and those who take up their ways, why
do you oppose waking the Conqueror?"
His laugh was indeed bitter, but his answer surprised me. "Why do
you think I do oppose it? It is my grandmother who is so afraid of change.
For myself, I say some change might not be so terrible a thing, if it
should blow these men and their cities and diseases and laws from the
grass." He laughed again. "But you know as well as I do, the Conqueror
is only bones, and a woman's bones at that."
Because the ocean of grass really does swell and move with
the tide of wind, the ground level of the barrows was nearly three feet
below that of the present. Alyak territory isn't quite far enough north
to mean permafrost, but the yellow loess clay stays cold and saturated
late into the spring. Good for the grass, but a bad sign for the archeologists.
However, as drainage ditches were painfully dug and the base of the
long barrows was revealed, hope among the expedition members grew. They
had rallied behind Dr. Cahill after the drivers announced their strike,
and although their cheerfulness had been somewhat forced to begin with,
it took on strength as the intact masonry was gradually revealed.
Dr. Cahill apologized to me: an exercise in good manners, since he
no longer required my services as an interpreter. Unlike his colleague,
Dr. Learner was actually quite pleased by the turn of events. Now that
I was freed from having to relay instructions to native diggers, I was
available to act as guide among the Alyakshin, and Dr. Learner could
at one stroke advance his own work and avoid the back-breaking labor
of the rest. I wasn't sure that I wouldn't rather have joined in with
pick and shovel, but the scholars had been uncomfortable with me since
the confrontation with the drivers. I decided ruthlessly that if I was
going to be unhappy wherever I was, I might as well choose the work
that left me free from aching muscles and blistered hands.
That was what I thought before we actually approached the Alyakshin
camp. Any suffering of mine wasn't because the ostracism was worse.
In fact, the Alyak manners were exquisite, by my grandmother's reckoning.
And there lay the source of my misery. Not the polite welcomes, but
the memory of my aunt snapping my ear when I was rude. Not the buttered
tea, but the memory of sipping from my mother's cup, nestled in her
lap, listening to her sing. Not the elders' stories, but the stories
of my own tribe, so like and so very different, with every name echoing
the names of my family. Dead family, dead stories, dead tribe. Dr. Learner
asked me about the differences. I pretended not to remember, and then
lay awake half the night listening to the wind, afraid it was not pretense
but truth. Yet why should I be afraid, when I had done nothing since
I was a child but try to forget everything I had ever been? To forget
was to attain all the goals that had waited for me at the end of the
long road to the west.
My mistake was that I had turned my face back towards the east.
The long barrows were sound, but the leaning dome was in
danger of collapse. Dr. Cahill had a nightly argument with himself about
whether he had been right to strip the sod and earth from the structure.
Every night he absolved himself, but he worried endlessly at his structural
diagrams, his dusty hair standing in spikes and his glasses flickering
in the lantern light. "It's all guesswork, that's the trouble!" he said
once in the middle of dinner. "How is it propped up inside? What's the
condition of the foundation? The whole thing is more than twelve degrees
"It's a sophisticated structure," said one of the students who'd been
with him at other digs. "Surprisingly sophisticated, considering they
were a people who never invented the wheel. It's a true dome."
"Eskimos build domes -- igloos -- and they never came up with the
wheel either. It's not sophistication, it's an imitation of nature,"
someone else said.
"Perhaps that's all wheels are." I spoke to the tin plate on my lap,
not intending to be heard, but a silence fell.
"The wheel is one of the fundamental machines of civilization," another
I looked around at sunburned faces hidden and revealed by the wind-tossed
fire. "A fallen tree rolling down a hill. A water-rounded boulder tumbling
in a stream. Eskimos live surrounded by ocean and ice. The people here
..." I gestured at the night. "What would suggest a wheel to you here?
Even if you came up with the idea, what would you make one with? Grass?
Wind? The ancient Britons who built Stonehenge moved all those stones
by sledge and raft, and they must have been surrounded by rolling trees
and tumbled boulders. In fact, wasn't it the Romans who introduced the
wheel to Britain? Along with plumbing and heating and bricks and ..."
Leroy Paltz laughed, and the tension broke.
"In any event," Dr. Cahill said. "There's no sense in speculating
about cultural sophistication at this point. The barrows and dome are
an impressive show of engineering -- though perhaps not quite on the
level of Stonehenge --" more laughter "-- but it's what's inside that
will tell us the most. And to find that out, we have to get in without
bringing the top of the dome down on our heads. Now, this is the best
plan I can come up with -- and if doesn't work, on my own head be it."
The students got up from their camp stools and gathered at his shoulders
to peer at his sketch. Around their own fire, the drivers were praying.
The Alyakshin camp was nothing but a point of light in a sea of black.
I didn't sleep that night.
The wind boomed and sighed and muttered around my tent. Sometimes
I thought I caught a new note, an eager whining voice wrung from the
rough corners of stone. That wind had traveled over a thousand thousand
miles of grass, I thought. Surely it would recognize something that
did not belong.
They used boards taken from the truck beds to prop the
leaning side of the dome. The many cracks between stones seemed much
blacker than they had, and there was some worry that the wind, or simply
the process of drying, had done structural damage. But the foundation
was exposed and drainage ditches dug, and still there was no sign of
movement. Finally, everyone climbed out of the ditch and watched while
Dr. Cahill walked the base of the dome, from the point where it met
the long barrow on the east around to the west.
It was at the end of the day. The sun was a blaze of light that seemed
to burn through my eyes into my brain. Green-gold grass washed towards
it in waves, hiding the slow rise and fall of the steppe that was itself,
grain of dust by grain of dust, moving ahead of the wind. The scholars,
mud-caked and leaning with exhaustion, were gathered by the north arc
of the dome, keeping out of Dr. Cahill's light. The drivers were there,
too, a clump of dark, suspicious men farther to the north. And out in
the grass, a line of horsemen.
Dr. Cahill spoke. "It looks good."
A sigh of released tension passed over the archeologists, and for
a moment they seemed to sway like the grass.
"So." Dr. Learner walked to the ditch, an iron wedge in one hand,
a sledgehammer in the other.
Dr. Cahill squinted at him through his dusty glasses, then looked
at the watch from his pocket, as if he were blind to the sun. "We've
only got an hour or so of light left. It would make a lot more sense
to wait for --"
He was drowned by a chorus of groans. Dr. Learner laughed. "Come on,
Tom, you know as well as I do, you're not waiting for anything."
"I only said it would make more sense." Dr. Cahill grinned and reached
for the hammer.
He meant to pry out only one block of stone in the course above the
foundation, close to where the dome met the long barrow, in the assumption
that the barrow wall would act as a prop for the weakened dome. He chose
a big block, twenty-eight inches square by the tape, big enough to allow
him to crawl through the space it left behind. It was hard work, forcing
the wedge into a gap and then heaving with the iron pry bar, over and
over, but no one offered to help. It was a kind of honor they did him.
He grunted, his whole weight on the pry bar, his boots scrabbling for
traction in the slick yellow mud of the trench bottom. One of the drivers
lit a cigarette. The scent streamed by on the wind. Shadows grew long,
and longer still.
When the stone block fell, the wind leapt into the square black hole
with a sound like tearing, or fire.
"My God, Jack! Did you hear that?" Dr. Cahill turned his face to look
at his colleague, but the setting sun forced his eyes closed even behind
his dirt-streaked lenses. He turned back to the tomb. "It was sealed.
It was bloody sealed!" He stuck his head in the gap.
"Tom!" Dr. Learner, no doubt like the rest of us, thought he was about
to enter blind.
Dr. Cahill looked up from the trench and snapped his fingers at me.
"You. Run to the camp and get a lantern. Quickly!"
I ran, anger and excitement and a strange kind of grief at war within
my breast. I snatched a lantern from the door of Dr. Cahill's tent and
a box of matches from the table inside, then ran back. I lit the lantern
with shaking hands and without waiting to be told slithered into the
Dr. Cahill held out an imperative hand.
I clutched the lantern tight and, ignoring his unspoken command, bent
against the stone to reach the light into the ancient darkness.
If the Conqueror truly slept within, I would be the one to wake her.
© Holly Phillips 2005.
"A Woman's Bones" was previously published in the
collection In the Palace of Repose.
In the Palace of Repose was published in January 2005 by
Prime; ISBN: 1894815580.
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