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A Woman's Bones

a short story
by Holly Phillips

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 In the Palace of Repose by Holly Phillipsforget? 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 visitors."

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 their own.

"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 it.

"An hour?"

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 men.

"Greetings of the day that brings us here together in this place," I translated.

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?"

"I was."

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 polite.

"Is that really what he said?" Dr. Learner said. "'Walls around the wind'?"

"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 said.

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?"

Everyone laughed.

Even me.

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. I went.

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 happen again."

He nodded, his mind already back on his fire, or more likely on the dig.

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, or eyes.

"You always share the westerners' fire, never your own people's. Why is that?"

"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 for you."

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 face.

"... '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 all right?"

"Tired."

"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 about her."

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 rest."

"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 irony.

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 sailed.

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 off true."

"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 student said.

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 muddy ditch.

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.
In the Palace of Repose by Holly Phillips

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