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The Falling Woman
By Pat Murphy
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1986 Pat Murphy
All rights reserved.
"I dig through ancient trash," I told the elegantly groomed young woman who had been sent by a popular women's magazine to write a short article on my work. "I grub in the dirt, that's what I do. I dig up dead Indians. Archaeologists are really no better than scavengers, sifting through the garbage that people left behind when they died, moved on, built a new house, a new town, a new temple. We're garbage collectors really. Is that clear?" The sleek young woman's smile faltered, but she bravely continued the interview.
That was in Berkeley, just after the publication of my last book, but the memory of the interview lingered with me. I pitied the reporter and the photographer who accompanied her. It was so obvious that they did not know what to do with me.
I am an old woman. My hair is gray and brown—the color of the limestone monuments raised by the Maya one thousand years ago. My face has weathered through the years—the sun has etched wrinkles around the eyes, the wind has carved lines. At age fifty-one, I am a troublesome old woman.
My name is Elizabeth Butler; my friends and students call me Liz. The University of California at Berkeley lists me as a lecturer and field archaeologist, but in actuality I am a mole, a scavenger, a garbage collector. I find it somewhat surprising, though gratifying, that I have managed to make my living in such a strange occupation.
Often, I argue with other people who grub in the dirt. I have a reputation for asking too many embarrassing questions at conferences where everyone presents their findings. I have always enjoyed asking embarrassing questions.
Sometimes, much to the dismay of my fellow academics, I write books about my activities and the activities of my colleagues. In general, I believe that my fellow garbage collectors regard my work as suspect because it has become quite popular. Popularity is not the mark of a properly rigorous academic work. I believe that their distrust of my work reflects a distrust of me. My work smacks of speculation; I tell stories about the people who inhabited the ancient ruins—and my colleagues do not care for my tales. In academic circles, I linger on the fringes where the warmth of the fire never reaches, an irreverent outsider, a loner who prefers fieldwork to the university and general readership to academic journals.
But then, the popularizers don't like me either. I gave that reporter trouble, I know. I talked about dirt and potsherds when she wanted to hear about romance and adventure. And the photographer—a young man who was more accustomed to fashion-plate beauties than to weatherworn archaeologists—did not know how to picture the crags and fissures of my face. He kept positioning me in one place, then in another. In the end, he took photographs of my hands: pointing out the pattern on a potsherd, holding a jade earring, demonstrating how to use a mano and metate, the mortar and pestle with which the Maya grind corn.
My hands tell more of my history than my face. They are tanned and wrinkled and I can trace the paths of veins along their backs. The nails are short and hard, like the claws of some digging animal, and the wrists are marked with vertical white scars, a permanent record of my attempt to escape my former husband and the world in the most drastic way possible. The magazine photographer was careful to position my hands so that the scars did not show.
I believe that the reporter who interviewed me expected tales of tombs, gold, and glory. I told her about heat, disease, and insect bites. I described the time that my jeep broke an axle fifty miles from anywhere, the time that all my graduate students had diarrhea simultaneously, the time that the local municipality stole half my workmen to work on a local road. "Picture postcards never show the bugs," I told her. "Stinging ants, wasps, fleas, roaches the size of your hand. Postcards never show the heat."
I don't think that I told her what she wanted to hear, but I enjoyed myself. I don't think that she believed all my stories. I think she still believes that archaeologists wear white pith helmets and find treasure each day before breakfast. She asked me why, if conditions were as horrible as I described, why I would ever go on another dig. I remember that she smiled when she asked me, expecting me to talk about the excitement of discovery, the thrill of uncovering lost civilizations. Why do I do it?
"I'm crazy," I said. I don't think she believed me.
It was three weeks into the field season at Dzibilchaltún that Tony, Salvador, and I held a council of war. We sat at a folding table at one edge of the central plaza, an area of hard-packed dirt surrounded by mud-and-wattle huts. The plaza served as dining hall, classroom, meeting place, and, at that moment, conference room. Dinner was over and we lingered over coffee laced with aguardiente, a potent local brandy.
The situation was this. We had thirty men to do a job that would be difficult with twice that number. Our budget was tight; our time was limited. We had been at work for three weeks out of our allotted eight. So far our luck had been nonexistent. And the municipality had just commandeered ten of our workmen to patch potholes in the road between Merida and Progreso. In the Yucatan, the season for road building coincides with the season for excavation, a brief period in the spring before the rains come. In five weeks—sooner if our luck was bad—the rains would come and our work would end.
"Shall I go talk to the commissioner of highways?" I said.
"I'll tell him that we need those men. I'm sure I could convince him."
Salvador took a drag on his cigarette, leaned back in his chair, and folded his arms. Salvador had been working on excavations since he was a teenager in Piste helping with the restoration of Chichén Itzá. He was a good foreman, an intelligent man who was respectful of his employers, and he did not like to tell me I was wrong. He stared past me.
I glanced at Tony. "I think that means no."
Tony grinned. Anthony Baker, my co-director on the excavation, was older than I was by just a few years. We had met nearly thirty years before at a Hopi dig in Arizona. He had been an affable, easygoing young man. He was still easygoing. His eyes were a startling shade of blue. His curly hair—once blond, now white—was sparse where it had been lush. His face was thin, grown thinner over the years, and sunburned as always. Each season he burned and peeled and burned again, despite all his efforts to block the sun. His voice was low and gravelly, a soft rough whiskey voice with a deep rumble in the throat, like the voice of a talking bear in a fairy tale.
"I'd guess you were right," he said to me.
"That's too bad," I said. "I was rather looking forward to barging into the commissioner's office. I can be rude to young men." I sipped my coffee. "It's one of the few compensations for growing old."
Salvador took another long drag on his cigarette. "I will talk to my cousin," he said at last. "My cousin will talk to the commissioner. He will reason with the commissioner." He glanced at me but did not unfold his arms. "It will cost some money."
I nodded. "We budgeted for that."
"If it doesn't work, I can always go negotiate with the man," I said.
Salvador dropped the stub of his cigarette to the ground and crushed it out with a sandaled foot. No comment. Tony poured another shot of aguardiente into each cup.
The sun was setting. The hollow wailing of conch shell trumpets blown by Mayan priests rose over the trilling of the crickets and echoed across the plaza. I alone listened to the sweet mournful sound—neither Tony nor Salvador could hear the echoes of the past.
At a folding table on the far side of the plaza, three of the five graduate students who were working the dig this summer were playing cards. Occasionally, their laughter drifted across the plaza.
"The students are a good bunch this year," Tony commented.
I shrugged. "They're like every other bunch of students. Every year they seem to get younger. And they want to find a jade mask and a gold bracelet under every rock or else they want to have a mystical experience in the ruins when the full moon rises."
"Or both," Tony said.
"Right. Some hide it better than others, but they're all treasure hunters at heart."
"And we hide it better than any of them," he said. "We've been at it longer."
I glanced at his face, and could not continue pretending to be cynical when he was grinning like that. "I suppose you're right. Do you think this is the year that we'll find a tomb bigger than King Tut's and translate the hieroglyphics?"
"Why not?" he said. "I think it's a good idea."
We sat in the growing darkness and talked about the possibilities of the site. Tony, as always, was optimistic despite our limited success to date.
From 1960 to 1966 a research group from Tulane University surveyed just over half of the ceremonial center at Dzibilchaltún, completed extensive excavations in a number of structures, and dug test pits to sample some six hundred other structures. Unlike the Tulane group, we were concentrating on outlying areas rather than on the ceremonial center, expanding the surveyed and sampled area.
By the time the sun was completely down and the moon was rising, Tony and I were well into planning the third year of excavations. Salvador had wandered off, impatient with us for being more interested in next year's plans than tomorrow's work. We quit with the third year, and Tony wandered over to join the students for a time.
Tony always got along well with the students, drinking with them, sharing their troubles and laughing at their jokes. By the end of the summer, they would call him Tony and treat him with affection. Even at the end of the summer, I would be a stranger to them. I preferred it that way.
In the moonlight, I went for a stroll down to the sacred cenote, the ancient well that had once supplied water to the city. Along the way, I passed a woman returning from the well. She walked gracefully, one hand lifted to steady the water jug on her head. From the black and white pattern that decorated the rim of her jug, I guessed that she had lived during the Classic Period, around about A.D. 800.
I do not live entirely in the present. Sometimes, I think that the ghosts of the past haunt me. Sometimes, I think that I haunt them. We come together in the uncertain hours of dawn and dusk, when the world is on the edge between day and night.
When I wander through the Berkeley campus at dawn I smell the thin smoke of cooking fires that flared and died a thousand years ago. A shadow flits across the path before me—no, two shadows—little girls playing a game involving a ball, a hoop, a stick, and much laughter. For a moment, I hear them laughing, shrill as birds, and then the laughter fades.
A tall awkward young man in a dark green windbreaker, a student in my graduate seminar, hails me. We stand and talk—something about the coming midterm exam, something about the due date for a paper. I am distracted—an old Indian woman walks past, carrying a basket of herbs. The design of the basket is unfamiliar to me, and I study it as she trudges by.
"So, you think that would work?" the earnest young man is saying. He has been talking about the topic he has chosen for his final paper, but I have not been listening.
"Let's talk about it during my office hours this afternoon," I say. Students sometimes find me brusque, abrupt. I try to show interest in their concerns, but my attention is continually drawn away from them by apparitions of the past.
I have grown used to my ghosts. It's no worse, I suppose, than other disabilities: some people are nearsighted, some are hard-of-hearing. I see and hear too much and that distracts me from the business at hand.
Generally, the phantoms ignore me, busy with their own affairs. For these shadows, as for my students, the times are separate. The Indian village that I see is gone: past tense. The campus through which I walk is now: present tense. For others, there is no overlap between the two. I live on the border and see both sides.
The water of the cenote was cold and clear. The air beside the pool carried the scent of water lilies and wet mud. I stopped at the edge of the pool, sat down, and leaned back against a squared-off stone that had once been part of a structure.
Here and there, other stone temple blocks showed through the soil. Three thousand years ago, the Maya had built a temple here. One thousand years ago, they had abandoned the temple and retreated into the forest. No archaeologist knew why, and the ancient Maya were not saying. Not yet.
The heavy rains of a thousand springs had eroded the stones; the winds had blown dust over them. Grasses had grown in the dust, covering the rocks and hiding their secrets. Trees had grown on the crest of the mound, and their twisted roots had tumbled and broken the stones. The jungle had reclaimed the land.
I liked this place. By day, I could watch the shadows of women draw water from the pool, slaves and peasants stooping to fill rounded jars with clear water, hoisting the full vessels to their heads, and moving away with the stately grace required to balance the heavy jars. They talked and laughed and joked among themselves and I liked to listen.
The wind rippled the water, and the moonlight laid a pale silver ribbon on the shining surface. Bats swooped low to catch insects that hovered just above the pool. I saw a movement on the path that led to the cenote and waited. Perhaps a slave sent to fetch water. Perhaps a young woman meeting a lover.
I heard the soft slapping of sandals against rock as a shadow crossed between me and the pool. The figure walked with a slight limp. There was a bulkiness about the head that suggested braided hair, a hint of feminine grace when the figure stooped to touch the water. She turned, as if to continue along the path, then stopped, staring in my direction.
I waited. Crickets trilled all around me. A frog croaked, but no frog answered. For a moment, I thought I had mistaken a woman of my own time for a shadow of the past. I greeted her in Maya, a language I speak tolerably well after ten long years of stammering and mispronunciation. My accent is not good—I struggle with subtleties of tone and miss the point of puns and jokes—but I can usually understand and make myself understood.
The person standing motionless by the edge of the pool did not speak for a moment. Then she said, "I see a living shadow. Why are you here?" By the sound of her voice, I guessed her to be a woman about my age. She spoke Maya with an ancient accent.
Shadows do not speak to me. For a moment, I sat silent. Shadows come and go and I watch them, but they do not speak, they do not watch me. "Speak to me, shadow," said the woman. "I have been alone so long. Why are you here?"
The crickets filled the silence with shrill cries. I did not know what to say. Shadows do not talk to me.
"I stopped to rest," I said carefully. "It's peaceful here." She was a shape in the darkness, no more than that. I could make out no details. She laughed, a soft low sound like water pouring from a jug. "Peace is not so easy to find. You do not know this place if you find it peaceful."
"I know this place," I said sharply, resenting this shadow for claiming I did not know a place that I considered my own. "For me, it is peaceful."
She stood motionless for a moment, her head cocked a little to one side. "So you think you belong here, shadow? Who are you?"
"They call me Ix Zacbeliz." When I was overseeing a dig at Ikil, the workmen had called me that; it meant "woman who walks the white road" The nickname was as close as I came to a Mayan name.
"You speak Maya," the woman said softly, "but do you speak the language of the Zuyua?" Her voice held a challenge.
Excerpted from The Falling Woman by Pat Murphy. Copyright © 1986 Pat Murphy. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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