TECHNICALLY, WYATT CANNOT hire me to work at his dig site. It’s a Yale concession; I have no connection to Yale anymore. The graduate students and colleagues who fall under the umbrella of the university each season have work visas and have been vetted by the Egyptian government for their credentials in the field of antiquities.
I don’t know why I asked Wyatt for a job. I blurted it out, instead of all the things I really want to say. But asking for a job is simpler, and will buy me the time I need for the rest.
“There must be someone you can ask,” I beg. “Someone who can bend the rules.”
Out of the blue I remember that, back when I left, Westerners were not supposed to travel on the Desert Road between Minya and Cairo. Hasib—Harbi’s father—had given Wyatt directions to the airport with this warning to stay off that thoroughfare. Unless, he had said, you are brave of heart. Which meant, when we were stopped at a checkpoint, Wyatt had played dumb, saying he had no idea about the restriction, until we were waved through.
Wyatt sinks down onto the arm of a battered chair. “Forgive me, but I assume that you haven’t been in the field for the past fifteen years?”
I feel a pang, realizing that he has not been keeping tabs on my life, and what became of me, but then why should he have? I was the one who walked away without looking back. I force myself to meet his gaze. “No.”
“Why, Dawn?” he asks quietly. “Why now?”
I hesitate, considering how to tell him the truth without garnering his pity. “Do you know how, if you chop down a tree, you can look at its rings and be able to tell the moments where everything changed? Like, a forest fire. Or a plague of bugs. A year where there was a drought, another year where something fell against the trunk and made it grow in a different direction?” He nods. “This would be one of those moments.”
“You’ve been blown pretty far off course if you landed in Egypt,” Wyatt says.
“Or I was blown pretty far off course when I left.”
His eyes narrow. “Look. I’d like to help you but I can’t just—”
“Wyatt,” I interrupt. “Please.”
“Dawn, are you all right? If you’re in trouble—”
“I just need a job.”
Wyatt sighs. “There’s a chance I can pull strings for next January. This isn’t even our dig season.”
“But you’re here. Working. I mean, that’s a sign, isn’t it? That you’re here, and I’m here…” I swallow. “I know you need the help. You don’t have to pay me. You just have to give me a chance. And then…” I falter. “Then you’ll never have to see me again.”
Wyatt looks at me. His eyes are still the blue of the heart of a flame, the blue of the sky when you have been staring too long and close your eyes and still find it painted there. His fingers tap a tattoo on his thigh. I can almost see ribbons of thought and reason being fed through the machine of his mind. “I know I made you a promise a long time ago,” he begins, and in that instant I realize he is going to tell me what I do not want to hear.
I brace myself, knowing I made a mistake. What if cannot trump what is.
“I can’t make any guarantees, but I’ll see if I can get you a temporary permit.”
My head snaps up. “You will?”
“Isn’t that what you want?”
“Yes,” I breathe. I take a step toward him, and then that strange and shifting invisible wall between us reminds me to stay where I am. “Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me.” Wyatt stands. “I haven’t done anything yet, and if you do get to stay, you’re going to be worked to the bone. Let me introduce you to everyone, and then we can drive into Minya to the antiquities office this afternoon.” He starts out of the library, expecting me to follow. I can hear the house humming, the Arabic chatter of Harbi and his family preparing a meal; the pipes clearing their throats as water rushes through them.
Suddenly, Wyatt stops so abruptly that I nearly crash into him. He turns around so that we are frozen in the hallway, eye to eye. “One more thing?” he says. “I don’t know why you’re here. I don’t know what you’re hiding. And you may well be out of practice.” Then a smile ghosts over his lips, a challenge. “But I unearth things for a living.”
UNTIL RECENTLY, EGYPTIANS who graduated from college were guaranteed jobs by the Egyptian government, which meant there was a glut of government employees and not a tremendous amount of work to do—one study suggested that the average government employee only actually performed about a half hour of labor per day. Because of this, working with the Yale concession was a plum occupation, and Harbi’s father and the others I had known fifteen years earlier were so good at their jobs that it became a family affair, passed down over generations. Wyatt introduces me to Mohammed Mahmoud, son of the Mohammed I knew when I was last here. He works now with Harbi, Abdou, and Ahmed to prepare food, clean the Dig House, and labor on site. In between dig seasons, he and his family live in Luxor.
Wyatt introduces me as an old friend to those who weren’t here before. Some call me doctora, like Harbi did. “It’s just Dawn,” I say cheerfully, but I am aware of Wyatt’s eyes on me the entire time. When he leads me out of the kitchen, I ask, “What happened to Harbi’s leg?”
He props a shoulder against the stucco wall. “How come you didn’t finish your degree?” When I don’t respond, he shrugs. “Think of it as currency. You want an answer, you have to give one.”
“I got an MSW instead,” I say. “Academia wasn’t going to pan out.”
Wyatt regards me, as if he’s trying to figure out if I am telling the truth. “Harbi’s leg broke when a ladder gave way in a tomb shaft about five years ago. Never set right.”
I suddenly see a ladder tangling under my own feet in the tomb of Djehutyhotep II, Wyatt catching me and breaking the fall. I remember how he smelled like the sun baked into his clothes and also butterscotch. How, weeks later I would learn that he kept sweets in his pocket, for himself and to give to the barefoot children who waited for him in the blistering heat at the entrance to the wadi as we left for the day.
“Come on,” he says. “Let me show you what we’re working on.”
In the main room of the Dig House, there is still swing music playing. A young man with tightly cropped hair is bent over a table, sketching Paleolithic flints, which are lined up in neat rows. Wyatt picks one up and passes it to me; I run my finger over the scalloped edge. “Joe,” he says, “this is Dawn.” Joe pushes his glasses up and nods to me, waiting for an explanation from Wyatt that isn’t forthcoming. “He’s the only grad student here this late in the year,” Wyatt explains.
“I’m hoping for a trophy.” Joe laughs. “Or at least a grave marker: Here lies Joe Cullen, dessicated in the desert.”
“Are these flints part of your dissertation?” I ask.
He nods, scratching numbers onto a tiny metal label. “Yeah, I’m all about how ancient Egyptians worked with their hands. These are all primitive tools; I’m recording the season number, the date, and the location found.”
“These used to be paper tags,” I murmur.
Joe glances up, surprised that I know this. “There was a European expedition working in the south that was storing potsherds in palm-rib crates in their magazine at Aswan, and they got termites and basically were left with an unmarked pile of broken sherds. This system saves us from two things that are hard to avoid in Egypt: fading and bugs.”
I set the flint down gently on the table. “That’s a scraper,” he says. “We’ve found a huge number of them, which suggests that there was a lot of hide preparation in the deep desert.”
“That’s really inter—”
“Don’t encourage him,” Wyatt jokes. “Or he’ll pull out his hand axes.” He leads me to the other side of the room, where a man in his thirties has his dark head bent over a computer screen. “Alberto, did you get it up and running again?”
He nods, looking up to notice me for the first time. His face, thin and sharp-nosed, changes when he smiles, white teeth flashing. “You did not tell me we were having company. Beautiful company.”
I feel myself blush. When was the last time I did that?
“She’s not company. She’s working here.” Wyatt looks at me. “Maybe.” I glance at the computer screen, on which a three-dimensional model of a rock-cut tomb pivots. “Alberto’s a digital archaeologist from Italy.”
Fifteen years ago, that job didn’t exist.
Wyatt laughs when he sees that expression cross my face. “I know. We’re old.”
“You draw digital models of the site?” I ask.
Alberto shakes his head. “I do photogrammetry and geomatics. Digital mapping in 3D, instead of the linear measuring that used to be the standard.”
Wyatt hits a few keystrokes, zooming in on the model on the screen, until I can read the hieroglyphs on the wall. It’s almost like being there. “Amazing, right?” Wyatt murmurs.
“It’s incredible,” I say. “How does it work?”
“I take a photo of a site and enter it into software, and—how is it you say?—bam, we have a 3D model with topography.”
Wyatt points to an icon on the desktop. “Show her this one.”
He hands me a set of gaming goggles and I fit them over my head, waiting as a picture loads before my eyes. I draw in my breath, suddenly transported to a wadi I know well: a rock overhang; a quiet, dark hollow beneath. I stretch my arm out as if I might touch it, but of course, it’s only digital.
“Turn left,” Wyatt instructs, and I do, leaning forward to simulate walking, until I am close enough to read the painted hieratic rock inscription we had found years ago.
It’s so different from the way we used to do things. The Mylar we used attracted dust and melted in the brutal heat and there were constantly shimmers of light caught in the plastic so I’d be forever correcting my image against the actual carved sign. This—this is nothing short of revolutionary.
“The sites we excavate are in situ in a landscape,” Wyatt says. “They’re meant to be viewed there. This is about as close as you can get, without flooding Middle Egypt with tourists and their fanny packs. The way we used to do it, you lost half the information—why the inscriptions were put in that particular place, instead of somewhere else.”
I lean forward again, moving closer to the virtual rock wall. “Epigraphy must take half the time.”
“You have no idea,” Wyatt replies. He tugs the goggles off me and hands me an iPad. “Alberto makes a flattened ortho image based off the high-def 3D image and sends it here. Then I can trace the hieroglyphs like it’s a coloring book. You can manipulate the color and change the contrast if the stone itself is busy, like limestone, and you need to tell what’s aspect of the stone and what’s part of the carving.”
“Then after he traces everything, I can put it back into the 3D image of the site,” Alberto adds.
“It means we can get a final drawing even within one part of a given field season.”
“And it’s incredible for sites like the one we are working on now,” Alberto says. “Instead of having to decide whether you’ll put a section through this way or that way, and instead of destroying layers with each excavation, you take a 3D photo before you start, another photo after you clear the first layer, another photo after the second layer—e così via—it is like having a birthday cake you can slice and unslice and reslice any way you want.”
“The only downside,” Joe pipes in from across the room, “is that the iPads overheat and the batteries die and my tender ears are subject to curses in a variety of languages.”
For a moment, I think that maybe I am years too late. That there’s no way to continue where I left off. Then Wyatt takes his iPad from my hands, tapping a few icons until a new three-dimensional image appears. “Djehutynakht’s tomb,” he says, and he offers it to me.
As a grad student I had read up on the excavation of the Djehutynakhts whose coffins were in the MFA—but this doesn’t look familiar. Instead, there is a tomb chapel, and a shaft in various stages of excavation.
“Not Djehutynakht II,” Wyatt clarifies. “Djehutynakht, son of Teti.”
I pinch at the screen, trying to get closer.
“It’s not published yet,” he says quietly.
In other words: I am the first person outside of his team to see it.
There is nothing—nothing—like being the one to discover a piece of the world that has gone missing. Your pulse races, your heart pounds, you forget to breathe. You go still, wanting to hold on to this moment, when it is just you and your miracle, before everyone else intervenes. I was lucky enough to have had that experience, once, with Wyatt. The closest I ever came to it, again, was giving birth to Meret.
“I’d heard you’d found it,” I murmur. But reading that tidbit and seeing this on the screen are two very different things.
I don’t realize I’ve said this aloud until I find Wyatt looking down at me, his face inscrutable. “It’s even better in person,” he says. “Let’s go to Minya.”