The Archaeologists: Chapter 11

This chapter is part of the ongoing serialization of The Archaeologists, the new novel by Hal Niedzviecki to be published by ARP Books in Fall 2016. The Archaeologists is being serialized in its entirety from April to October with chapters appearing on a rotating basis on the websites of five great magazines. To see the schedule with links to previous/upcoming chapters and find out more, please click HERE.

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11. June—Saturday, April 12

June sticks her head in the refrigerator, lets the cold light wash over her. She thinks of that other cold, the river gorge veiled in night rain—the feeling she had, the shiver of being watched, of liking it, of wanting to be watched. She contemplates the fridge’s suddenly overflowing shelves. Mustards, jams, salad dressings, mayonnaise, chutney, marmalade. June’s not hungry. June checks the time on the stove. It’s just past one. It’s the second Saturday of the month, which means Norm is working until four. That’s the way Norm does things, makes a schedule and sticks to it. You can set your clock by Norm, June thinks, finding the thought oddly reassuring. Not that she needs to set the stovetop clock. Accurate, the salesman said, to one thousandth of a second. Sure. Sure it is. They’ll say anything to get you to buy. The stove blinks 1:12. Norm and the oven: always on time.

The phone rings, its peal jolting June. One thousandth of a second, she says out loud. Her voice mixes with the phone’s bleat and lingers for a moment, then disperses into the creaky silence of the empty house. June feels shaky, lightheaded. She sits down at the kitchen table. She hasn’t eaten. Today. Or yesterday. The back of her neck is tingling. She keeps having to stop herself from spinning around to see what’s behind her. Nothing’s behind her.

Only: something led her into the basement. Something told her to find the shovel, pushed her out into the backyard, into the rain. And Rose said, though June isn’t sure whether or not to believe her, that the Native people used to live all around here, right by the river. For thousands and thousands of years. So, okay, June reasons. Not a ghost, nothing as horror movie as a ghost. But maybe a… presence. 

Rose is an old lady with a bunch of crazy old lady ideas. Norm would laugh at me. Norm would be like: Now honey, let’s be reasonable here, okay? June’s tired. Tired of being reasonable. When she’s in the—backyard—she feels alive, unreasonably alive.

A noise upstairs. June tenses. She has that feeling again, someone else in the house, skulking around, watching her. Just a floorboard shifting, a wall settling. Big houses make all kinds of noises. Only it’s more than that. More than just—

It’s like the house or whatever—whoever—is trying to get her to—

June risks a glance out the window. Murky afternoon settling over the empty backyard. And the day is passing, she thinks. She feels her rigid muscles, tense and tensing. The house wants her to go out there. The house wants her to—

dig.

No—that’s—

And what does June want? She wants Norm to come home so she can ignore him, not cook his dinner, not rub his shoulders while he watches TV, not offer encouraging words regarding his latest offended missive to their city councillor. But Norm’s at work, he’s still at work, it’s the second Saturday of the month and Norm’s at work. Why isn’t he her? Why doesn’t he have to—

It’s his house too. But she’s the one who spends her days pacing back and forth, moving through the tastefully furnished rooms wondering why she isn’t doing something productive—getting a job, watching over a brood of offspring, crocheting a couch cover, planning the garden.

June jumps up, the chair shoved back, teetering, almost falling. She can feel the blood pulsing in her veins. Am I going…? Only there issomething—someone—

Not hubbie Norm. He doesn’t watch me. He just goes about his business, makes inane suggestions about how he imagines his wife could spend her time. While he’s off burrowing into smiles and saving the world from tooth decay and gum disease she should be at home trying to decide where to put the rose bushes. All of a sudden, everyone wants me to dig. So why not? What else do I have to do? Nothing, June thinks. Her skin crawls in the empty kitchen. The bright pot lights follow her like eyes trolling over her neck, her back, her ass, her calves. Okay, she says to herself. You win. I’ll dig.

She’s never felt comfortable in the fenced-in backyard. The flat-sloped plane of grass, the sudden drop of the gorge. And below that, the river—an occupying, ever-present presence. It’s totally empty, she complained to Norm. Not even a tree. So, he said cheerily, you’ll plant stuff. But for all its space, it gets very little sun. The backyard is dwarfed by the house in front and the tall fence on the sides. And most of all by the trees stretching out of the river gully, angry giants whose black bare limbs remind her of something elemental—insistent in a way more foreboding than comforting. They were here first. That’s what Rose said.

June steps into the curvature of displaced earth she started two nights ago. The overcast day presses low on her and the small descent into what she refuses to think of as a hole confirms the aura of emptiness that seems to be a permanent presence in the backyard. June’s in just below her knees, but she can feel the depth change the temperature, a cold seeping up her. Working against the permeating cold, June energetically stabs at the packed clay at the bottom, loosening the dirt then scooping it into the shovel and throwing it up over her shoulder. Her palms sting where the worn wood of the shovel handle presses against drawn skin. She just digs, losing herself in repetition and pattern, establishing a rhythm that she discovers she is loath to break. She works steadily, loosening, emptying, digging. She doesn’t stop to catch her breath and survey her progress. She digs, not even registering her slow descent.

Finally, after an hour, maybe more, her shovel hits a rock. Jarred out of rhythmic motion, June plants her shovel in the earth. Dazed, she turns her hands up and contemplates the red sores on the undersides of her hands and fingers. She rubs her hands together, feeling the heat rising from her palms. Dimly, she registers that she’s thirsty. She needs a drink. She needs a pair of gloves. Far above, a bird circles then passes with a single caw. June feels eyes on her. A chipmunk scampers then screeches a warning. She has this feeling of descent, of being in the process of slowly descending. The crevice into the core. The sores on her hands sting and burn. Dig, keep digging. It’s almost a trance, automatic motion, a feeling of belonging in your body, the certainty that comes from giving oneself over to the doing of—whatever I’m doing.

She grabs her shovel.

Then she’s in to her thighs. Exhausted, she slumps down, her knees sinking into the seeping clay. She pants, unable to catch her breath. She leans forward, putting her hot hands on the dirt at the bottom of the hole. Cool and wet, the top layer of mud soothes her blistered palms. Her arms hold her up, the muscles taut, pulsing. The pit looms over her, its walls sloping. And it’s dark. She can barely make out her white hands in the muck. She can hear her own panting breaths, she can’t breathe, can’t get enough air, can’t keep up with her body’s sudden need for oxygen, her lungs burning and bursting, she can’t—no—you’re—okay, you’re okay

just—

breathe.

Still on her hands and knees at the bottom of the hole, she feels her breath slowing. She contemplates the pink knuckles of her half-buried fists. I’m underground, she thinks. The thought quiets her. She considers the enclosure of space she’s carved out of the earth. It’s tomb-like, with grey hard-packed clay walls seeping. But she doesn’t feel enclosed, trapped. Her muscles throb languidly. Her eyes track every permutation, every mark of the shovel. Her nostrils flare and she takes a deep inhalation of sediment, compost, renewal—life, she thinks. Her brain is alert, a conduit to sharpened senses. An unconscious gesture, buried conviction abruptly released. Her wrists shake from the weight of supporting her body. She should get up but she doesn’t move. The hole is hers, now; she feels it. This is where she’s meant to be.

When June was downsized from her job, she felt humiliated. She hadn’t experienced that yet, hadn’t yet felt the way the world turned regardless, its rotations carrying on no matter what random mishap might befall one of the creatures on its surface. She’d been fired, for no reason and with no warning. It was the randomness that rocked her. She’d been called into her supervisor’s office and told, kindly but firmly, that through no fault of her own, she was being let go. She would get an excellent letter of recommendation, an extra two weeks of severance pay in addition to the severance specified in her contract, and access to the human resources career counselling services. But right now she’d need to go clean out her area. White-faced and nauseated, June had allowed her boss to escort her back to her cubicle where together they packed up her things. The box was handed to a nondescript security guard and the whole procession then paraded through the office past fellow workers who, their heads down, surreptitiously followed her progress as their fingers furiously typed nonsense. Past reception, out into the lobby, and then ushered into a waiting cab and handed a taxi chit. June, finally alone, dug her nails into her forearm to keep from bursting into tears.

She’d been good at her job. Really good at it. Finding out through the grapevine of office gossip that despite a record $875 million in profit the company was outsourcing her role—and up to 1,000 other jobs in Canada and Europe—to achieve maximum efficiency did little to comfort her. She felt culpable in a failure that nonetheless had nothing to do with her. She could have stayed late every day, finished months-long projects in a week, received every commendation and recommendation in her department—and nothing would have changed the outcome. The realization produced a feeling of torpor in her, a sense of isolation and ineffectuality slowly settling into the flesh of her mind like some slow-acting poison.

It isn’t fair! she thought over and over again. But when Norm came over—they’d been dating more seriously by then—she’d barely managed to utter a word. He had come over as soon as he’d heard, talking calmly about the potential illegality of replacing her with offshore workers and offering to help her sue for wrongful dismissal before finally shepherding her on to a plane to a Dominican resort for a week of R&R. It was when they got back that June first took him to meet her parents.

June’s head dangles. Sweat slides off her brow and the sound of her own ragged breathing fills the hole. Did she marry Norm and move to Wississauga because she’d been fired? No. She gives her head a good shake as if to drive out the thought. Norm had been there for her. She’d always love him for that. His complete and utter devotion. The earth presses up on her palms, solid yet divisible. Her body slumps. Her palms slip and she falls against the bottom of the hole. She’s so tired. She feels the warmth being pulled out of her, sucked into the earth, into what’s below that. She breathes deeply, trying to calm herself. The en-tee-tee, she thinks, remembering the way Rose relished the word, drawing out the vowels. Rose believes her. Because it’s true. Even the taste of the air seems to confirm what she’s sure she now knows—tinged rotting rancid expectation, the scent of old mixed with the carnivorous demands of the new. She raises herself up again and carefully inspects the surfaces she’s uncovered. Squinting, she presses her hands against the dirt, investigating by touch her new underworld of ridges and protrusions.

And then, underneath the chafed bruised skin of a pressed palm, she feels something rough and porous. Another rock? She knows it’s not. Using her hands, she shovels around the hard object, forcing her fingers against the tough clay. It hurts. She digs harder, clawing at the thick soil and wet muddy earth. Bone, she thinks calmly as the shape emerges, all curved edges and grey-yellow jags. Thick brackish ground water seeps around her fingers. Certainty fills her. This is what she was brought here to find.

June? June honey?

Shit.

June?

Shit. It’s Norm.

Inside, their big kitchen gleams. June blinks. Norm stands there watching her, seems to be waiting for something to happen, waiting in the kitchen in his blue buttoned-down shirt and red striped tie. She imagines him in his white coat, officiously peering into someone’s open mouth. What does he see? Just teeth and gums and drool? But there’s something else there too. There must be.

Hi honey! You’re home? She speaks quickly, breathlessly; she can feel her face going red. She’s unnerved by the illumination, the bright kitchen, the Norman-ness of it all. What does he see?

I’m home, Norm agrees. He says it like he’s not sure.

Good. June smiles. Good! She keeps smiling. I’m glad. That you’re home.

Good. Yes.

Norm looks uncomfortable. Like his tie is too tight. He swallows. June watches the bulge in his throat bob.

Uh, June? Are you…? You’re all…dirty—

Oh! Well! I was just…digging.

Digging?

Of course! What do you think I’ve been doing? Look at me! I’m covered in it! June laughs, the sound swirling around the bright kitchen. She puts her hands to her sides. Lets them dangle. They feel like prostheses, filthy trowel tools. They must look…horrible. Scary even. Dirt jammed under nails cracked and ragged.

You’re…planting?

Oh! Not yet! I’ve been…digging. I read an article about…the soil. Helping the soil. You can’t just stick things in the ground you know. Our soil is very—it’s practically dead. So first I need to…fertilize.

Norm peers doubtfully through the glass doors. Fertilize?

What? June squints as the kitchen sways and swirls. She’s having trouble breathing. Everything is so bright and empty.

June?

What? Oh! You, first you dig a big hole. Then you fill it. With special…fertilizer. It’s a new technique.

Huh. How’s that supposed to work? It seems pretty…elaborate. Can I see the magazine?

The magazine?

With the article?

No silly. I saw it on TV! You know, that…local channel?

Huh. Norm’s looking at her. He moves around her to lock the sliding doors. Are you feeling okay June?

Sure! June laughs abruptly, wills herself to stop blinking like a lunatic. She feels great. Never better. In possession of herself, or something else. Her body is heat, tingling humid weather. First spring. Then summer.

C’mon Norm, she says. I need—let’s take—a nice hot shower. She strokes his cheek, leaves a smudge.

In the shower she turns away from him. Wash my back, she teases. She gently scrubs her fingers. Her nails are ruined. Her fingertips are raw. Norm soap-glides his palms against the notches of her spine and down to the soft shake of her ass.

Mmmm. She rubs against him. She reaches behind her. He’s hard now. She turns to face him, has a sudden vision of them, from above, like the love scene in a scary movie, something watching, lurking. She buries her face in his chest. Pushes against him. Their bodies, slick.

Hot under hot water. Steam. June trails her breasts down. Nipples sharp. She slides to her sore knees.

June…Norm hisses.

Then, in the bed, still wet, she straddles him. He arches into her.

June, I’m going to—

Do it, she pants. Do it in me.

June—really? Are you—? I’m going to—are you—

Do it!

—sure?

He does it. Hot splash inside her. Sudden life. Spring. Summer.

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