by Nicasio Andres Reed
Edited by Pablo Defendini
Copyedited by Chelle Parker | Selected by Julia Rios
4006 words — Reading time: around 20 minutes
Jun’s Italian is worse than it should be, considering he’s been in the country, on and off, for the past three years. Tonight it’s worse than usual.
“Mattia non le piacciono le notti. Ottenere i brividi. Lo sai.” Something about the night.
“Okay,” Jun says. “Sure, hey, long as there are eyes on the dig at all hours, I don’t care who does it. Mattia can do it, you can do it, I can do it, whatever.”
“You? Starai per la note?”
“Oh. Well, okay, yeah.” Up the beach to the excavation, the rest of the team is packing up, switching off floodlights. The fire from the cookout has been extinguished, the gulls and cats are circling. Liz and Paola are trying to get Dr. Bisel to join them for a drink. Dr. Bisel is demurring again. “Yeah, sure, I can stay. No problem.”
So, Jun finds himself sitting on the lip of the centermost chamber with a bottle of beer and a weak flashlight. The sea gulps at the darkness before him, and from the darkness behind, a silence presses like a chill hand laid on his bare neck. The town above is a pitchy murmur blended into the surf and the breeze, cresting here and there in a crack of laughter, a barking dog, a failing car. Jun rolls the sweating bottle across his knees. The moon leans out from behind a cloud. A lone bicycle whirrs past above his head. It’s no Rome.
Jun’s desire for modern urban amenities is the source of some disdain from his colleagues. He’s heard Liz warning the newest intern not to engage him on his grand theory of history: that these things are the point of their work, that the present is the point of the past. That the people whose bones they treasure so selfishly would mean less were it not for the things that separate us from them. That it isn’t the ancient in itself that is sublime, but rather the act of wiping the dust of the ancient from your hands, walking into a halogen-lit 24-hour 7-11 for an energy drink, and later ridding yourself of it down a flush toilet.
In the dark in Ossia, he finds it harder to feel that separation. For all the glow of the town somewhere above and behind him, and despite the winking of vessels mingled with stars, it’s a timeless moment. He’s a silhouette alone in the night by the sea. He could be anyone, alive at any time. The dark weight of Vesuvius behind him, casting its shadow over every age. And then he hears a voice wake the skin at the back of his neck.
At sixteen years old, in Rockford, Illinois, Jun shovels snow out of the driveway as dusk becomes dark. He ignores his mother, who’s trying to call him into dinner by shouting the wrong name out the kitchen window. The driveway extends from the street, past the side of the house, and to the back fence, uninterrupted by a garage or a lawn. Jun circles the car and continues to shovel, his nose gone red and running, his back and hips aching, his throat roughened by the freezing air.
There’s a space within the exertion and the pains of his body where Jun finds stillness. Even as he digs, heaves, twists, there’s a quiet interior that he can reach by knowing that he is more than his body. As his fingers go stiff, as it begins again to snow, he retreats further and further into that dark room where none of it matters. He shovels for hours.
Eventually, his father opens the front door and calls him as anak — an ungendered Filipino child. Jun lets it be enough. At the doorway, his father hasn’t moved aside to let him in.
“Are you hungry?”
“I’m fine,” Jun says.
“Your mom left a plate in the microwave for you.”
Jun nods. Standing still, he’s begun to feel the meltwater that’s made its way into his boots.
“I’ll put it in the fridge if I don’t eat it,” he says.
“You have to stop this,” says his father. “You want to dress like a boy, be a lesbian, well you’re young, and we have been patient. But you will not ignore your mother, and you will not be sullen.”
“I’m not a lesbian.”
“You’ll answer when we call you.”
“I told you both, that’s not my name anymore. I told you my name.”
“No, that’s not how life is, I’m sorry.” His father has one hand in a loose fist, shaking it now and again like a politician miming regret. He’s letting the warm air seep out of the house. “You are my daughter, and I named you. We named you after your lola, your mother’s mother. You don’t get to throw her name away.”
Jun starts to say, “I didn’t want,” and “I don’t need,” and even “It makes me feel.” None of these lead him anywhere. His father watches him become angry with himself.
“You are not the only one who wanted to be different than how you are,” says Jun’s father. “We all have these wishes sometimes. But some things you cannot change, even if you want to.”
He moves to the side to let Jun into the house. The sound of a snow plow approaches from far off on the main road. Past that, a mile east, is the highway. South on the highway, following the lights, is Chicago. Unfurling from Chicago, along roads and flight paths, schools and jobs, is the world.
Jun tells his father, “I’m sorry if you couldn’t be who you really are. But I won’t do that to myself.”
Ossia is built on the grave of ancient Ossuaria, seven kilometers from the mouth of Vesuvius, between the mountain and the sea. When the mountain erupted, it was the hottest time of day in the hottest month of the year. The upheaval would have jolted the townspeople to their feet, raised their faces to the northern sky, to the tower of ash and rock that thrust miles high. Slowly, they’d have had the revelation of their incredible luck: the dark cloud was blowing away to the southeast. Down the coast, Pompeii cowered and was buried. In Ossuaria, the ground shook, the mountain spat, and the people fled north, a light flurry of ash falling on their heads like a benediction.
That night, the tower in the sky collapsed, and the breath of the volcano burst into the abandoned city. A pyroclastic surge of heat like the venting of a star. Mud came down, entombing Ossuaria in an instant. No time for the furniture to shatter, the mosaics to break, the paint to bleed from the lintels. A perfect, empty city.
Incredible, but Jun thinks it bloodless. He skims the journal articles and skips over the conference presentations and generally ignores the whole thing until the project lead, Dr. Bisel, cracks open the first of the boathouses and finds it packed with human remains. Hundreds of them: the people who hadn’t run.
Jun’s in a bar in Nebraska when he sees the first photos. He’s doing the good research assistant thing and buying a round for Dr. Tanner so that Dr. Tanner can tell him how lucky Jun is, how easy Jun has it, and who’s an asshole in the anthropology department at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. The other excavation lead shoulders through the door, waving a stack of paper, talking about late breaking news from his friend in Italy.
“Fuck you, Tanner, I have friends.”
His venerable elders order another round on Jun’s tab, and Jun thumbs through the report from Ossia.
The pictures are ill-lit and grainy — a fax of a fax. In the background are the unfocused outlines of limbs and ribs jumbled together. Just in frame is the sliver of a face. Straight teeth, barely parted, gasping into the curl of the fist. They’re a child’s fingers, small. It strikes him that he’s digging his own fingers into his palm. He asks Dr. Meyers to call in a favor.
There are cats on the Ossia beach at night. He’s seen their mirrored eyes when they’ve caught him catching sight of them. Jun’s always thought of cats as uncanny: their mysterious gatherings and dispersals, their invisible paths. A cat would suit the boathouse and its silent residents. A cat could certainly be in the deep shadows now, could have made a sound like a human voice.
He switches on the flashlight and it catches on a hollow eye socket before jittering into the further gloom at the back of the chamber. It’s too weak to reveal anything at this distance. Jun knows he needs to go further inside. The sound of the surf rushes behind him, over and over. The light bobs between white flagstones and white faces. The length of the boathouse tunnels before him like an open throat. It speaks again.
The summer of his seventeenth birthday, Jun’s brother Felix finds him packing in his room. He’s nearly finished. One duffel bag for clothes and three boxes of books that he’ll come back for with a friend’s truck. The sight of his brother’s face reminds Jun to take the picture from his desk, the one taken in the hallway of the old house. In the picture, they’re kids with identical bowl cuts. Nobody could tell them apart, or that Jun was older. Jun takes it out of the frame. He doesn’t own the frame.
Felix closes the door and folds himself into sitting on the floor, blocking the exit. He looks like a mantis there, sharp and long with adolescence.
“Dad told you?” Jun asks.
“He said you said you’re done with us.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Are you, though?” When Jun doesn’t answer, starts emptying his sock drawer instead, Felix asks again. “Are you done with us?”
“I won’t waste my life trying to be who they want.” Jun’s socks are neatly matched and folded.
“I didn’t know we could just quit. Dump each other.”
“You’re still my brother,” says Jun. Felix makes a noise. “You are. And they’re different with you, you’ll be fine.”
“They’re not different,” says Felix.
Jun says, “You’ll be fine.”
Felix squeezes his legs up impossibly further and tucks his chin on top of his knees, his arms around his shins. A fist closes behind Jun’s ribs. He can’t release it to say to Felix that he’ll call, and go to his high school graduation, or try to. He can’t unclench his jaw. When he leaves, Jun pushes his brother, just enough to get past him and through the door.
The dig consists of twelve chambers, three open, the remaining nine waiting. Thirty paces from the shore at high tide, a stone wall rises seventeen feet high to buttress the town. Atop is the roadway, now closed to traffic, modest homes some eighty years old, and a few patchy cypresses, their seaward faces pale. The center chamber is the site of the primary excavation. They’ve found no boats and have counted thirty-three bodies.
Jun and Liz are crouched above the crown of a skull, freeing its face from the earth. The skeleton’s shape has been picked out in pins and string. They use delicate brush work now, clearing the centuries off of it. Liz on one side and Jun on the other, him facing the dim chamber interior. The minute sounds of their scratching are louder than the hubbub outside. Someone pecking at a keyboard, carpenters fitting the chamber mouth for swinging doors, and the constant sea.
“Foot,” Liz says.
“Your foot.” She gestures.
He’s edged his foot forward to take some pressure off his knee, and it’s come too close to a small child’s spine. Jun grunts and stands to change his stance but gets stuck upright when his knees pang in warning against bending again too soon. He waves at the child’s skeleton where it lies, curled into itself near the legs of the adult they’ve been working on. “Sorry about that, sweetie.”
“Aw. I didn’t know you liked kids.”
“Well, this one’s pretty quiet, so that’s nice,” he says. Liz gives him a pained look. “Too dark?”
She does something complicated with her eyebrows. “Pretty dark. But I guess I can’t say it’s too soon.”
“Everything’s gallows humor on an excavation, right?” Jun sticks his tools in his back pocket and rolls his ankle. “One of my first digs, they named all the remains after cuts of beef.”
When Liz laughs, her hair shakes in a frizzy halo around her face. Her freckles are darker under the floodlights than they are in the sun. “Where was this?”
“Down in Brazil. Cerca Grande. I was just an undergrad.”
“For real? I was proofreading the Journal of World Prehistory when Cerca Grande papers were all the rage. Did you submit back then?” She smiles at him, and Jun feels it with the force of a terrible accident. He starts to speak, then pauses until he’s paused too long. She says, “Hey, no worries, I’m not gonna judge either way.”
“No, it’s not that. I just….” He trails off without finishing the thought. Moves on. “An early draft of one of my thesis chapters ended up in there that year. Very early. Not my best work.”
“Oh, wow, that’s impressive, though. What was the title? I bet I’d remember. I can’t believe I didn’t recognize your name from it earlier. You were really an undergrad?”
Jun realizes he’s kneading his fingers into the fabric of his jeans. He lets go, but then clutches one hand to his shoulder, then to his chest. He can’t find a reason to refuse to answer. “It was about single-observer bias in morphological measurement. Nothing groundbreaking.”
“No, that definitely rings a bell! That’s so funny, wow. Small world.”
He crouches abruptly, ignores his knees, and pulls his brush from his pocket. The child’s skeleton has only undergone cursory excavation. Dr. Bisel is more interested in first unraveling the meatier data from the adults. Jun traces his brush along an outline of the child. A kidney bean shape, small as a dog. The pecking noise of Liz’s pick resumes.
“I feel a little guilty prioritizing the adults,” she says after a moment. “Kind of replicating the same bullshit they pulled, you know?”
“What?” Jun is still circling the child, dragging a shallow moat around its remains. From the corner of his eye, he sees Liz sweep her small trowel through an arc in the shape of the vaulted ceiling.
“Hiding out in here at the last minute? That’s one thing if it’s just you, but a parent….” Liz shakes her head. “I never understand why people stay when the really big shit happens. I don’t know, I don’t have kids, maybe I’m just being judgmental.”
“No.” Jun resumes their work. “I don’t think you are.”
“No, maybe I am. Some people can’t leave. Physically, financially, whatever.”
“That’s just details when it comes to something like this.” He looks at where they are. A tomb, packed full, in a row of them all the same. The shell of a woman’s skull under his fingers, cracked from the heat that cooked her, the fire that cooked her child. “After a certain point, it’s selfish to try to stay.”
“Harsh,” she says, not unkindly.
Jun shrugs. “Running away gets a bad rap, but there’s such a thing as a lost cause.”
Jun has always held that there is a distinction between the dead and the ancient. His grandparents were alive, and now are dead, but the bodies burned by Vesuvius were ancient in life and are ancient in death. When he thinks of the people he knows as dead, of the moment when Felix will call to tell him that their parents have died, he sees the journey he’ll have to make back to Illinois, the empty rooms he’ll stand in for the first time since the last time. Death is something experienced primarily by the living. But the remains of the ancient are themselves in full, are themselves and their surroundings rotted into each other. So to think of the boathouses as haunted is meaningless, redundant. Yet still: the voice calls.
Moonlight cuts a curtain into the chamber, but only so far. He stands with his back to the night. The voice is saying things he can’t understand, nothing that the dead would ever say. And if it’s an ancient voice, then there’s no reason for his hands to shake.
Dr. Sara Bisel is a pale woman who wears her hair cut close to her scalp. She speaks with a studied slowness that gives the impression of exaggerated care and walks at a similar pace. She keeps to such a stroll that Jun feels the anxiety of holding his steps back as a kind of jittery tension. Liz seems to fall easily into step with her. They’ve been dispatched to the fish market in preparation for a celebratory we’re-funded-for-another-six-months cookout on the beach. Dr. Bisel wants to choose fish that the ancient Ossuarians ate. It’s a long list of species. Jun, Liz, and Daniel the intern have come along to carry.
“But seriously, though. Do we actually need to get all three kinds of eel?” Daniel says, angling his voice into Jun’s ear, away from Liz and Dr. Bisel.
“Why wouldn’t we?” Jun replies, pitched loud enough for the entire group. Daniel doesn’t answer.
The street is narrow, cobblestoned, the walls of its terraced houses crumbling after a mere century or less of wear. In the intersection at the center of the market, the way widens just enough to contain a towering stone pine, its highest branches level with the third-story roofs, its trunk ringed by pink oleander. Laundry flaps from balconies. A man with a cigarette behind his ear is selling dwarf juniper manicured into cones. There are rows of figs — fresh, dried, and candied. Baskets of lemons that Dr. Bisel has admonished them to ignore as anachronistic. The fish are in tiered beds of ice, managed by a collection of older women with rough hands and quick eyes. They recognize Liz, and they love Dr. Bisel for her accurate, unhurried Italian. Jun catches every word in a dozen. He puts out his arms to receive packages of bream, sardines, anchovies, and something large and exotic that he doesn’t recognize in either language.
Fully burdened, he walks ahead on the way back down to the beach. Liz jogs to catch up to him. Jun glances behind her.
“You’re leaving her with Daniel?” he asks.
“Yeah, it’ll be good for both of them. I don’t think he’s even met her before! She asked me if he was someone’s little brother and said we probably shouldn’t let him on the dig site. Poor kid.”
“Sometimes I’m not sure she remembers who I am either.”
“Oh, come on, that’s not true.” Liz shrugs. “Okay, that’s probably not true. To be honest, she was my graduate advisor and she still calls me Jessica half the time.”
“How does someone even hear Jessica from Liz?”
“I think it’s just her default. I heard her do the same thing to Paola.” She watches Jun laugh. “Hey, kind of speaking of that, I found that old journal article of yours. Or I think I did, anyway?”
They approach the entrance to a side street with a car emerging, barely six inches of clearance for it on either side. Jun can see that the street winds back up and away, deeper into the hillside. He could veer off. Disappear into the labyrinthine neighborhood.
“Okay,” he says. The pass the alleyway and continue.
“The single-observer Cerca Grande paper? Turned out I had it on my external drive. Which is a sign that I should clean some stuff out of there. That’s about ten years old now, right?” Jun keep walking. “Anyway, yeah, I think it’s the one you were talking about. But the name is different.” She’s trying to catch his eyes.
The packages in his arms have started to smell. It isn’t too hot out, but the sun is overhead, and the breeze from the shore doesn’t reach them. Jun feels sweat stick his shirt to his back.
“Did you… change your name?” Liz says. The other question radiates from her.
Jun has learned to stick the tip of his tongue between his teeth so that he won’t clench them together. It sits there, thick and wet.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to pry, and you don’t have to tell me anything you’d rather not. I mean, I’m also not going to tell anyone. Just, you know, FYI.” Liz won’t stop talking. “And I’m sorry if you didn’t want me to know, and now I do, but I guess I figured, if you didn’t, then you wouldn’t have told me about the article, since you could have, I don’t know, just not done that, right? I mean, shit. Sorry. Can you say something? I’m screwing this up, and I’d really like to be friends, but you don’t have to actually stay in this terrible conversation I’ve created if you don’t want to.” Liz waves her canvas shopping bag in his direction. “Do you?”
Jun doesn’t know which question she’s asking anymore. The skin of his face feels too tight. His heart pummels at his ribs, the desperate military drumbeat of a besieged country. They’ve pulled far ahead of Dr. Bisel and Daniel. Liz matches his pace with as much equanimity as she slowed for Dr. Bisel. She lets him rush them down the hillside, lets him decide on an answer.
“We are friends,” Jun says.
In the chamber, the voice is murmuring words too low to understand. A familiar sound, like someone he hasn’t spoken with in years.
It’s so cool inside the boat house, where their bodies burned away. He’s never asked Dr. Bisel whether she thinks these people died together accidentally or by choice. She couldn’t tell him, in either case, what passed between them during those intervening hours between the eruption and the end. Which hands they reached for when they felt the mountain betray them. Whether they lived long enough to forgive each other. He drifts among them in the dark, someone they will never know. But the child is here.
It’s the one who had huddled into its own body, its thin spine and the curve of its ribs curled like a young fern. The child has been excavated, or more than that, it’s been freed entirely from the stuff of the chamber. Its small skeleton lies as if placed on the floor moments ago. The child is clean, discrete from the remains around it, and when Jun reaches down and lifts it up, the child’s skeleton hangs together in the shape of its body.
He can hear it clearly now. The admonishment to run while there’s still time. To run even if there isn’t time, to die in the effort.
Jun finds it in himself to argue. Panic is a place where nobody can follow you. The act of running can burn a country in your wake.
But the child’s bones don’t speak English, and they have no use for his adult devices. It’s a child, and it doesn’t want to be a story, an excavation, ancient. A child wants a body, to be alive. There will be time for regret when you run, it tells him. Time to make things as complicated as you need them to be, but only if you run.
It’s untrue. Jun knows that it’s untrue. They will always be dead. He will always be himself. But this is a child, and it doesn’t need the truth from him. A child has a right to fear. He holds these bones and turns, and he follows the sound of the sea.