Drawing in the Dust
There is no blemish on the glow which surrounds you like a metal shield. But what good is a shield if the hurt is inside?…O Lord, let his heart break and begin to heal rather than this perpetual and terrible swell!
—THE SCROLL OF ANATIYA 4:42–47
I always wake before sunrise, at least two hours before any of my three housemates. I sit up in bed and stretch, kick off my covers. The polished limestone floor is cold, sending a shiver from my feet all the way up my spine, and it delights me. The light sifting through the window is soft and inviting, as if the house floats inside a lavender cloud. I pull on shorts, a tank top, and slide my white bandana over my hair. I lather my face, arms, legs with sun lotion. The air has the chill of white wine. I’ve seen sunlamps for people with seasonal depression, so that in the long, dark winters when their sadness peaks, they can replicate bright days and feel healed. I’d rather retire to a room with a gentle moonlamp, whirring metal fan, and dewy humidifier. I pull on my socks, my sneakers.
I patter down the hall. The door to our supervisor Norris’s suite is ajar. He always sleeps with it a little open, as if tempting someone to come in. I can see his jeans and belt hanging over the back of his desk chair as I pass by. A picture of Mickey and Orna on their wed
ding day hangs on their closed door. In the picture Mickey is wearing a light brown suit and lopsided bow tie that look like they and the groom had just arrived in Israel off a boat from Russia, which isn’t too far from the truth. He is bending his voluptuous sabra bride, Orna, a little bit backward, her raven black hair wild with curls, and resting his head just above her cleavage. Mickey always said he fell in love with her because she had “the ripest breasts in the Fertile Crescent…and a heart to match.” A wooden plaque hangs from their doorknob reading in Hebrew birkat habayit, “blessing of the home.”
I am the house ghost, in a way, spooking my way through the living room. Norris’s leather chair, so out of place in a room of institutional-style furniture, is opened in a reclining position with a thin blanket spread over the arm and a rummaged newspaper at its feet. I can imagine him sitting here, as he often does late at night, drinking tea and watching reruns of Baywatch on Lebanese television. In the kitchen I drink a glass of grapefruit juice. I make a sandwich, roasted eggplant and turkey tucked into pita, and take a canteen of ice out of the freezer, pack them in my knapsack along with my tools, and head to the door.
There is a note pinned to the door that reads, “P—Dinner with Jerrold March tonight at 8. Prepare to present on shaft tombs.—N.” I feel a tide of fury rise in me, not at the idea of dinner with Mr. March, one of our most generous sponsors. I’ve met with him many times whenever I’ve returned to New York, and he is always a perfect gentleman from the tip of his mustache to his deftness with a salad fork, harmlessly flirtatious after a few glasses of wine. It is easy to melt into his luxurious world, and fun to bring him into the world he funds, my dirty world of chamber pots and ceramic coffins. I’m not angry even at Norris’s directive, although I already knew about dinner. I already have sketches to show Jerrold of official seals, basins, statuettes, and ivories, maps indicating where we’d found the three thousand infant burial jars. Norris knows I’m always prepared. We have been working here together for more than a decade. It is that the note is written on the back of the title page of my last book, an act
obviously intended to upset me. The page had been crumpled in his most recent fit, and then, I suppose, he smoothed it out to use it as scratch paper. To let me know how little he thinks of it, or me.
It’s not worth spending the most beautiful time of the day fuming over him. He’s been playing these games for so many months I’m practically numb to them. When I step outside, closing the door softly behind me, my anger dissolves in the wet, clean, and shimmering air. I love the early morning. Pine trees cast long shadows across the road and clouds stained deep grape and plum are strewn messily over the horizon, as if someone hadn’t yet cleaned up the table linens after a giant party.
It is a two-mile walk to the tell. Every working morning I take this walk, leaving my old white Mazda in the driveway like a beached baby beluga. The air is tinged with rosemary, mint, and diesel. I try to drink in the coolness as I walk, knowing the sun will soon sizzle it all to chalk. There is a mist of sparkles over my clothes and my skin. The little hairs on my arms have been alchemized by the sun to fine gold. My naturally pale skin is gilded by exposure, despite my devotion to applying and reapplying lotion. I feel lean and able striding up the road, my mind clear. I enjoy the long stride of my body every morning before settling into a day of crouching in dirt.
The Judean Hills lie languid over the horizon and birds are winging between the pines. There is a Bedouin woman pulling up herbs down a stony slope. She is swathed in a long black robe, chanting in Arabic:
Fear not if you wander the barley fields after there has been a good rain
And you find an old lover who was slain long ago has risen to meet you again.
I can see the museum at the bottom of the hill. I’ve been working in Megiddo for twelve years, in the heart of the Jezreel Valley in the north of Israel. Every year nearly four million tourists visit this very place. It is an extraordinary site. Megiddo is a hill that spans
about fifteen acres, made up of thirty cities built one on top of the other over six millennia, beginning with the prepottery Neolithic period nine thousand years ago.
The wrestlings of my own heart should be overshadowed in this valley of death. At least thirty-four nations have battled in this place, with enormous slaughters. This is where Pharaoh Thutmose III fought the first battle known in recorded history anywhere in the world. The author of the Book of Revelation predicted that in the end of days, the battle between good and evil will ultimately take place here. In fact, the word Armageddon is a corruption of the Hebrew phrase Har Megiddo, Mount of Megiddo.
Modern Israel is no stranger to conflict, and one doesn’t have to dig to remember. Every weapon created has been wielded here, and the newest generations, biological and nuclear, hang like Damocles’s sword over the young nation. To stay ahead, defense systems scurry to evolve from the technology of tunnels and walls. I’ve spent my career here underground with the ancients, without emerging much into today’s headlines. I’ve been less interested in the political and religious conflict of any century and more interested in personal practice, mostly studying Middle Bronze Age mortuary practices.
In the past, countless have lived, thrived, and then bled here until they became bone. Today, millions come to visit, including historic visits; the first visit of a pope to Israel took place here in Megiddo. Two hundred professionals dig here every working day. Norris directs them all, and I supervise twenty archaeologists and volunteers concentrating on the temples of stratum XV and the elaborate shaft tombs.
But each morning, like this one, there is just me. The generations below me are silent, and the tour buses have not yet rumbled in. In the half light, the site is empty. I cross the museum parking lot and begin to climb the tell. The land is perfectly still and mute, guarding its deep treasures of seedlings, cemeteries, and secret gardens. When I dig my callused hands into the cool, predawn earth, I feel all of her richness tingle through my skin. Before dawn the land always seems
to yield, hinting that, with just the right touch, everything dormant in her might awaken, push through its black chambers, and Ezekiel’s field of bones would drink the moist sky.
I walk through the remains of Solomon’s stables, the rows of dark cold arches. I imagine the din of whinnying and neighing echoing through the ancient hall. Sparse, thorny grasses and sharp foliage poke through the stones.
As I emerge from the maze of stables, the horizon wears a crown. The sun is just rising. I kneel beside my most recent project, the three thousand and seventy-second infant burial jar we’ve unearthed. I put down my knapsack and unroll my pack of tools: a small pickax, a toothbrush, variously sized paintbrushes, and fine dental tools. The jar is shaped like a womb, the corpse inside curled toward the entry. How disappointing for them to be delivered not by some messiah to life everlasting but by me, to a mention in my field notes. I begin to gently dust the rim of the jar, thinking.
It is hard for me to believe that I am thirty-nine years old. Looking at the swollen shape of the jar, I involuntarily draw my hand over my stomach. I used to wonder what it would be like to be round and full like that instead of empty, flat. To carry life inside me. I don’t think about it much anymore. I have never gotten myself tested to see if I have the Lou Gehrig’s gene like my father, like my grandfather. I tremble at the thought of bequeathing my fear to another, if not my child, then his or hers, a Damocles sword over all my generations. And at the same time…
I sigh. The sky that had sagged so sweetly, as if the Kingdom of Heaven’s doormat was just within reach, is pinned back into place by a fiery thumbtack. I labor over the jar and its crumbled contents. “You would be, I’d estimate, three thousand years old today,” I say. Some scholars have written that these are the remains of child sacrifices from an ancient cult. It’s possible, I shrug to myself. Infant mortality rates were astronomically high. Still are in many places. “I don’t know,” I say out loud to no one. “Either way, you probably weren’t going to make it to your three-thousandth birthday anyhow.” I begin to hear
the buzz of insects as the sun climbs, doing their jobs as well. Diggers are beginning to arrive. Soon my team will assemble and I’ll direct them. I pull out my notebook and lean in close to the jar, sketching the details.
“The early bird gets the urn, eh?”
I sit back. Norris is standing over me, eclipsing the sun. I squint a little. He’s smiling, so I smile back.
“Get my note?” he asks, tilting his head. I remember the crumpled page of my book tacked to the door and the plume of heat it fueled in me. I used to stew over his mockery for days. I wonder for a moment if the fact that I’ve started to become used to it, that I can recover so quickly, is a bad sign. A sign I’ve accepted abuse as the norm. It wasn’t always this way.
Norris, my professor of Levantine archaeology at Columbia, had been a great supporter of my first book, Body of Water, Body of Air: Water and Theology in Ancient Israel. My second book, Up in Smoke, was based on my thesis, a study of cultic theology and connections between altars found in Israel, especially at Megiddo, and altars found throughout the Middle East, tracing borrowed cultic practices throughout the region. The new manuscript, Upon This Altar, was a follow-up to Up in Smoke. I did so much research, imprinting my eyes with microfilms of altars, that I began to see them everywhere. In the shape of my desk there was an altar. A baby’s pram was an altar. The park bench. I developed a new philosophy, which I tried to expound in my introduction to the book, exploring the idea that when there were no more altars in space, there would always be altars in time. That there are moments, precious and sacred, when something intangible but terrible is slain, and we are born into a new light. When it happens, the moment could be called forgiveness, or mercy, or even love.
I was delirious with confidence. I was ecstatic for its release. I had written it in a trance. It was, in retrospect, probably just a crappy little book. But it was important to me. I couldn’t wait to hear what my peers would think of my multidisciplinary approach.
As it turned out, no one thought very much of it. In fact, if
anyone bothered to read the introduction, they didn’t understand it, or didn’t like it. One critic wrote, “One has to wonder what sort of incense burned on Brookstone’s own altar when she wrote her prologue.” But the worst criticism came from the one person I’d come to depend upon for unconditional support.
So sure was I that Norris would love my “altarism” philosophy that I denied his requests to read the early manuscript and made him wait until the book was actually published. The day a box full of books landed on our doorstep, I came home to find Norris holding up a copy, the veins rising to the surface of his scaly neck.
He said, “What the hell are you talking about? What do you think you are—some kind of New Age theologian? You going to start wandering around Jerusalem with the other lunatics? This is scholarship? This is a dozen years at Megiddo?”
Norris had never raised his voice to me, and only once had I heard him yelling on the phone at his ex-wife when he was in his bedroom with the door, for once, closed.
He continued in a mocking tone, reading from the introduction, “What does this even mean, ‘When you encounter an altar in time, you slip into serenity, just one letter to the left of eternity’?”
I tried to explain, bewildered by his anger, “The difference between serenity and eternity is that the s becomes a t, and s is to the left of t in the alphabet.”
“What, now we’re playing word games? You expect people to figure that out? You expect people to care?”
Norris fumed at me, crumpling the torn cover of my book in his fist. That afternoon, I felt as though my father had died a second time. I knew that his anger had little to do with the book and instead was about what had happened between us a few weeks earlier working in the pit—that unfortunate kiss—something I’d rather bury and forget. That was six months ago, and since then I’ve been walking on eggshells.
I look up at Norris. When I first met him he was in his late forties, and today, over a dozen years later, he still looks like he is in
his late forties. He is tall and ruddily attractive, his arms and legs sinewy and brown, his dark hair salted, skin weathered. He looks like a man who has had many adventures. I had originally perceived him as some kind of golden emissary, rising up from the sacred rubble of the Holy Land, full of wisdom. His first lecture dazzled me. It was not until later that I discovered the streaks in his hair and the bronze of his face were less the distinctions of heroism and more simply signs of sun damage, his face sun-dried and preserved, the corners of his brown eyes bouquets of tawny creases. He was attractive, an eloquent speaker, a fine supervisor, and oppressive to the people he loved best.
“Dinner at eight,” I answer. “Saw the note. By the way, I saw chicken in the freezer. Jerrold always orders steak.”
“I’ve known Jerrold a lot longer than you,” he says, laughing lightly at me as if I am a child.
My head is down over my sketchbook but I can see Norris’s boots still planted nearby. I know he’s not leaving just yet, so I put the book aside and stretch out my legs. We need to get beyond this.
I ask him casually, “Will the photographs of the mosaic be ready?”
He squats down, his knees popping. “They should be finished today. Oldest known church in the world! Astounding!”
Norris’s pride is well earned. I have been meaning to send digital pictures of the recently uncovered mosaic to Father Chuck Oren, my family’s priest, with whom I’ve remained in touch. He will be electrified to see the circular pattern in the center depicting two fish mirroring one another, an ancient symbol for Jesus that predates the cross by at least a thousand years.
It should excite me too, but for some time now I’ve been longing for something deeper, something more alive. I became an archaeologist because I thought that in drawing cities and remains out of the dust, I could bring a small part of them back to life. I conjured up the spirits locked in the bones and beads of the people who dwelled in this land millennia ago. I believed I could rub lanterns and set the dream of them free. I have been digging through graves looking for
proof that civilizations, people, and stories don’t really ever die, but what I’ve learned, over and over, is that they always do. Maybe I have to step back from it all a little, the way one looks at a mosaic, to be able to see how all the brokenness actually fits together into a greater design.
“You know, people would give their right arm to do what you do,” Norris feels the need to point out, “yet you seem disappointed. What did you think you would find”—he guffaws lightly—“a photo album?”
“Maybe,” I say, twisting my lips to the side in thought. “Or a diary.”
Norris now laughs heartily. Then he sits all the way down. He picks up my sketchbook and looks at my drawings. All at once, he is my professor again, whom I admired so much.
“There is an Ugaritic epic in which the virgin goddess Anat avenges her husband-brother’s death by searching for his murderer, Mot, the god of death,” he says. He glances from the sketchbook to the burial jar and back. “When she finds Mot, she chops him into little pieces, grinds him up, and spreads him over the fields like fertilizer.”
“Huh,” I say.
He glances at me, then back to the book, and goes on, encouraged, “It could be argued that death may be the debt we owe to the earth, ensuring the earth’s fertility. Think about sacrifices offered to ensure a grain harvest.”
“For dust you are and to dust you shall return,” I say quietly, partly to Norris and partly to the 3000-year-old infant in the jar.
“Right, but the return is purposeful, no? The life of the child becomes the life of the wheat, fields and fields of it.” He thinks for a moment. “Burial is a planting…”
A pretty idea, but I don’t buy it. Still, I’m interested. And I’m curious, tentatively, about whether Norris is reaching out to me. “So she actually kills the god of death and her husband gets resurrected?”
“Alas,” Norris sighs. “As the epic continues, with the death of death, Anat’s husband-brother returns to life. But so does Mot.
And the cycle continues”—he gestures toward the burial jar—“to this day.”
I’m disappointed but not surprised. “So the god of death’s own death is annulled by his death.”
Norris reaches out and pats my head as if I’m a puppy. “Aw, poor Page. What is a goddess to do?” He stands up and twists his back hard. I hear his bones pop again. I look up at him and find no tenderness there. He shakes his head slowly and pouts in pretend pity. “Always on the losing end.”
WE SPEND THE early evening straightening the house for Jerrold’s visit. We all share in the rent, but Norris as the supervisor, having served this dig for almost thirty years, keeps the master suite. The Bograshovs have the second-largest room, with private bathroom as well. My bedroom is the smallest, but it has the nicest morning light, as it faces east. I can reach my hand out my window and pick tomatoes right from our garden and often do—ripe yellow, green, and red tomatoes. The bathroom down the hall is understood as mine, and for guests. It is a modest limestone house, windows arched in the classic Middle Eastern style. Orna is in her midtwenties, and the rest of us probably seem, in varying degrees, beyond the age bracket for house sharing, although it is not unusual in this region. Financially it has made sense. Norris still pays hefty spousal support to his wife in California. The Bograshovs are saving, dreaming of starting a family someday. And I have maintained my apartment in New York City, which I try to visit at least twice a year, when I return to lecture and to visit my mother and my closest friend, Jordanna. It sometimes seems foolish to keep it, that empty cube filled with furniture quietly waiting all year to be used: the empty bed and desk in the one tiny bedroom, small empty loveseat, breakfast table with the leaves folded down, cold two-burner stove in the wall kitchen. But I’ve always felt that to give it up would be to become untethered in the world, utterly rootless. I love when I return there and collapse into a chair, looking
at the beveled ceiling and listening to footsteps cross the floor above me. Sometimes I wonder, however, if the opposite is true, if maintaining it all these years has prevented me from taking more risks and finding a real place to call home, rather than a rent-controlled barrenness.
Jerrold arrives in a herringbone suit and a thin black cashmere turtleneck underneath. His silver hair is shaped and gleaming over his head like poured metal, mustache slicked into place. His presence is of prosperity, his skin tight over his face and appropriately bronzed, teeth surprisingly white. He is worldly, sophisticated. Older than Norris, he walks into our home with shiny shoes and a silver-tipped cane, carrying two bottles of Côtes du Rhône. I have showered, pulled my hair back into a clip, and put on a simple black dress. We all look nice but clearly underfunded.
Orna brings out chicken and stewed zucchini, apricots, olives, and pine nuts over a mound of couscous.
“Tell me, Mikhail,” Jerrold drawls while Norris dishes out the meal, “what is your specialty? I’ve heard rumor you are a garbage man!”
“Indeed,” Mickey says in his heavy Russian accent, which somehow always makes it seem as if he is reciting something. “Everyone should spend at least a year collecting and sorting garbage. Yesterday’s dinners, news clippings, and junk can tell you more about human behavior and consumption than anything else. From an archaeologist’s perspective, garbage is the great chronicle of life.”
“Well said! Good man,” Jerrold says enthusiastically. “Let’s open that wine and toast. A toast to garbage!”
Norris wrestles with the wine bottle between his knees. He says, lest Jerrold should really think Mickey is a garbage man, “When Mickey emigrated from Russia, he had multiple degrees.” He huffs a little and manages to pull out the cork. “Physical anthropology, paleontology, linguistics, and chem. He spoke six languages, but not Hebrew, at the time. The only work he could find in his early years was as a garbage collector.”
“I met him when I was a docent at the Diaspora museum,” says Orna. She has Moroccan features and sapphire eyes. “He was an Aladdin’s lamp in a heap of trash.”
Mickey puts his arm around Orna and says, “I only needed one rub.”
Orna blushes deeply and Jerrold laughs mightily, lifting his glass to Orna, adding, “And then all your wishes came true!” He continues, “A toast…but wait, Norris my boy, you have no wine. You must! It is a nineteen forty-two bottle!”
“Yes.” Norris clears his throat a bit nervously. “None for me, thanks.” He looks to me for the briefest moment, and Jerrold notices.
“Ah!” Jerrold exclaims. “There are stories in this house! I see, yes, I’ve always wondered, an old dog like yourself sharing a roof with one of your former students.” He slaps the table. “You bastard! Of course you had to hire the prettiest one!”
I laugh. “Thanks, Mr. March.”
Jerrold hands his glass to Norris and then pours himself another and says exuberantly, “To garbage! Because it is messy!”
Glasses clink and Norris says soberly, “Yes, well, Mickey speaks of garbage with exaggerated romanticism.”
“But he’s right!” says Jerrold. “Ah yes, trash, other people’s trash, it is romantic! Lost sandals and scandals and partially burned candles…it’s poetry, you see?”
After speaking about the mosaic, which is far more interesting than my shaft tombs, and after a few more glasses of wine, Jerrold rests his face in one of his big hands, leaning his elbow on the table and looking across at me. “And Page, yes, the thing about Page is that I’ve never met a human being who knows the Bible better than this one. How is it possible that a girl like you knows the Bible so well? What a shame if it is because they sent you to waste your youth in a nunnery.”
Norris answers, a little clipped, “Ms. Brookstone studied Christian theology at Harvard Divinity.”
“Yes.” Jerrold nods. “I remember now.” He looks deeply into my face, and I can see he’s a little drunk. “All those blood-soaked texts, the Levitical sacrifices, the blood on the altars, the blood on the doorways, whoever sheds the blood of man by man shall his blood be shed…” With his fingers Jerrold picks up a chicken leg out of the bowl in the center of the table. He points it at me and says, “You sucked the marrow out of the Bible until there was nothing but bone.”
“Something like that,” I say. I can feel the wine warming me as well, can see it creeping over everyone. Only Norris remains rigid.
Mickey says, “Every night, she filled her bathtub with Bible stories the way Countess Bathory of Transylvania would fill her tub with the blood of virgins, to achieve eternal beauty, to live forever.”
Orna slaps her husband playfully against the arm.
“It looks to me like it’s working,” Jerrold says, eyes absorbing my face.
“But I left Harvard,” I say, “after I heard a lecture by Dr. Norris Anderson. I remember it so clearly. He said, ‘Archaeology is the place where the precision of science and the intuitive certainty of faith intersect.’ I was so impressed. I gave up my pursuit of a doctorate in divinity for a master’s in archaeology.”
Jerrold’s eyes sparkle and dance. “You abandoned armchair philosophy to pursue the philosopher’s stone. A noble one you are!”
Norris laughs. “Actually, the thing Ms. Brookstone wants desperately to find more than anything else at Megiddo is a diary.”
“Adorable!” bursts Jerrold. “A diary! Now that would be something!” He extends his head over the table toward me, closes his eyes for a moment, and breathes, as if inhaling perfume. “Now, I’ll bet you kept a diary when you were a girl.”
“No,” I say, “but there was this time when our family’s pastor, Father Chuck, got so angry at me.”
“Yes, tell me,” Jerrold croons. “I’d love to know where this leads.”
“He had told us the Noah story, that a man could build a boat to fit all those animals, and I just couldn’t believe it, so I said so.”
Orna says, “Always challenging things, even as a child!”
“Father Chuck turned to me and smiled like a prizefighter stepping into a ring. He took his chair and brought it to the other side of my desk and sat down. He put his elbows on my desk, right on top of my illustrated children’s Bible. He was very young for a priest, and he stared straight into me, as if there weren’t fifteen other students in the room.”
“Indeed, I’m sure.” Jerrold nods vigorously.
“He said, ‘Thousands of years from now, long after you and everyone you know are dead, someone will find the ruins of your house. They will pick through the rubble and sift through the sand. And you know what they will find?’”
“Trash!” Jerrold erupts. “Mountains and mountains of trash!”
“That’s right,” Mickey affirms, raising his glass.
I shook my head. “‘Two books,’ he said. ‘And in one there will be all our records—school records, medical records, dental records, criminal records, growth charts, degrees, honorable mentions…and in the other book, they will find a diary. A diary of all the dreams of all the people.’ Father Chuck said, ‘Imagine that every night everyone rose at midnight and recorded their dreams, and all those dreams were compiled into a book of fantasies, longings. The other book would be the cold facts, but this book would be the deep truth.’”
“The Bible is the diary of dreams,” Orna says, mesmerized.
“I’m in love.” Jerrold heaves a sigh. “Ask me for anything, Page. Even half the kingdom and I’ll give it to you.”
Norris is glowering. I feel suddenly a little sad for him. When he hired me to come to Megiddo, Norris had just finalized a bitter divorce. He had a daughter just a couple of years younger than I who lived with his ex-wife and refused to speak with him, even though it was his wife who had left him for another man. I had sensed that he thought of me like a daughter, someone he could mentor who’d appreciate him. I thought we comforted one another. I knew very little about his ex-wife or the divorce. Whenever the subject delicately surfaced, he would bat it away saying, “My ex-wife is a lunatic,” or “She left me for crazy.”
I say, “That first time I heard Norris speak, he reminded me of Father Chuck. They are both so fluent and persuasive.”
At this, Norris laughs sharply, pushes his chair away from the table with a screech, and begins loudly clearing plates. “Yeah, me,” he says while making a racket with the dishes, “a fuckin’ priest. That’s how she thinks of me.”
After Jerrold leaves, Orna and Mickey insist on cleaning up. I fill up a canteen to put in the freezer for work tomorrow and Norris brushes past me and scowls. “Enjoy yourself tonight?” He walks out of the kitchen and Orna looks at me and lifts her hands as if to say, I don’t know what his problem is.
I pass his suite on my way to my room, and the door, slightly open, makes me uncomfortable. We cannot go on living in the same house this way.