Authors: Merry Jones
Harper smiled, started to respond, but a tanned, silver-haired man stepped to the front of the room, asking everyone to be seated.
‘Here we go,’ Lynne whispered. ‘That’s the head honcho.’
‘Good evening. For those of you who haven’t met me yet, I’m Givon Ben Haim.’
The thirty or so people in the room gave a round of applause. Some whistled and hooted, shouted, ‘Yeah.’
Dr Ben Haim smirked and raised his hands, waiting for them to quiet down. ‘Okay.’ His English was accented. ‘I want to formally welcome you to Tel Megiddo South.’
More cheers. More hoots. A whistle.
‘I’m glad for your enthusiasm. I welcome it. And I hope it lasts when the work gets hard and the day gets hot. For those of you who are not my students, let me tell you a little about where we are and what we’re doing here.’
Harper looked around the room. About a dozen young people, probably his students, sat in the front row, hanging on his words. Responding to everything he said with laughter, comments or applause. Peter Watts and his fellow churchmen sat further back, their backs stiff and bodies alert. The pastor sat with a group at the back of the room.
Dr Ben Haim spoke casually, sitting cross-legged on a table, pointing to easels with maps of the region. He reviewed the progress of digs at Tel Megiddo and Tel Megiddo East, where twenty-six layers of ruins had been excavated since 1903. He talked about the major finds: an altar from the Canaanite period, a grain pit from the Israelite period, stables from the time of Ahab and an intricate water system. He told them about thin carvings on hippopotamus incisors from the Nile, possibly from the time of Ramses III.
Harper listened, enthralled, more eager than ever to get to the site.
‘Think he’s sexy?’ Lynne whispered.
Who? Dr Ben Haim? Actually, he was, in a distinguished kind of way. He was solid, muscled, neither tall nor short. His tan contrasted with his silver hair, made it gleam.
‘Because I do,’ Lynne went on. ‘These swarthy Semitic types stir up my blood.’
Harper said nothing, tried to listen to Ben Haim.
‘Not that I’m looking or anything.’
Harper glanced at Lynne. A couple of decades ago, she would have been her high school’s Homecoming Queen. A cheerleader. The quarterback’s girlfriend. Miss Small Town Indiana or wherever she’d grown up. But now, she was married, traveling with her husband and her church. Why was she fixating on Dr Ben Haim?
Harper tried to forget about Dr Ben Haim’s supposed sexiness and listen to his words. He was listing their specific goals for the week, defining the sections of the site, explaining that they would work in pairs, each assigned to a section.
‘You’ll be my partner.’ Lynne nudged Harper’s arm. It wasn’t a question.
‘Next, let’s talk about safety. Remember this: We have to protect not only the site and the finds, but also our volunteers. So I’m telling you: be careful. Read your safety manual. Pay attention to it. The equipment can be dangerous. Wear your work gloves, your hats. Sturdy shoes. Don’t run. Don’t fall into the ditches. And remember. It’s Israel. We have all kinds of life here. Spiders. Snakes. Respect them. Don’t lift rocks by hand – use a tool. Don’t sit down on something until you’ve had a look underneath. Check your shoes every time before you put your feet in. Understood?’
His students whistled. Others nodded, replied, ‘Understood.’
Harper did neither. She was thinking of Iraq. How she’d been warned about snipers and IEDs. Insurgents. But spiders and snakes? No one had thought to mention them. And yet, they’d been there. Like the flies.
‘Let’s go.’ Lynne stood, headed for the front of the room.
Harper joined her in line, waiting for Dr Ben Haim to hand them their assignment. When Harper got to the front, he stood and shook her hand.
‘Dr Jennings! Welcome. I was told you’d be joining us. It’s a pleasure to have you here.’ He asked about her trip and her accommodations, invited her to join him for lunch after work later in the week. Gave her a welcoming embrace as she left.
Lynne walked out of the building with her. She was about three inches taller than Harper and far more striking. ‘That dude was into you.’
Harper shook her head. ‘He was just being professional. Acknowledging me as a colleague.’ She looked over their packet. Handed Lynne her copies of the map and paperwork. ‘We’re at section thirteen.’
‘He’d be too short for me, anyway,’ Lynne said. ‘But not you.’ She paused. ‘Harper? Do you believe that things happen for a reason?’
Harper looked up. ‘Sorry?’
‘Just . . . Maybe you two were meant to meet. Maybe that’s why you came here. Now. To this place at this time.’
Harper didn’t respond. This woman Lynne seemed kind of wacko; she didn’t want to engage. Instead, she concentrated on the map of the site.
‘It could be part of God’s plan.’ Lynne pursed her lips.
God’s plan? Harper didn’t look up. She located section thirteen.
‘Think about it. Maybe that’s why you were called to come here—’
‘Lynne. I’m married.’ Maybe that would end the conversation.
‘Really?’ Lynne frowned. ‘So where’s your husband? Are you separated or something?’
What? ‘No, he’s in Jerusalem. Attending a symposium.’ Why was she answering? Hank’s location was none of this woman’s business.
Lynne looked troubled.
‘Nothing. I just – I don’t want you to be alone here.’
Why not? ‘It’s fine. Just ten days. And I’m not alone. Our baby’s with me.’
‘Your baby? Here?’ Lynne’s eyes widened.
‘With a sitter. Yes.’
‘Well.’ Lynne looked up at the stars. ‘Even so. You’re here for a reason. God wanted you to come.’
Harper folded the map, replaced it in the envelope. Wondered how she’d last ten days with Lynne talking nonstop, connecting every other sentence to God.
‘It’s sure beautiful here, isn’t it?’ Lynne said.
‘I didn’t imagine it this way. I thought it would be, you know, desert and sandy. But I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that God would put beautiful events in a beautiful place—’
‘Hey, Lynne. You coming?’ Peter called from the street.
‘On my way!’ Lynne ran off, waving to Harper. ‘See you tomorrow, partner!’
Harper watched her scurry down the path to Peter. He held his arm out, wrapped it around Lynne and led her away into the night.
The next morning, Harper dressed in khaki pants and a long-sleeved white cotton shirt, a wide-rimmed hat to shield her from the sun. She rushed through breakfast, dropped Hagit and Chloe at the nursery, and hurried off with a quick goodbye, both relieved and a little hurt that Chloe seemed oblivious to her departure.
Harper was the first one on the bus that would shuttle them to the site. Dr Ben Haim’s students arrived next, filling the back of the bus. Lynne and her husband took a block of seats with others from their church. As the driver pulled out of the kibbutz, their pastor stood and led them in prayer.
‘Lord, guide us today as we attempt to do your work. It is your word that we follow. Your will that we seek to fulfill . . .’
Harper tried not to listen. Thought of Hank. Missed him. Pictured Chloe, wondered what she was doing. Imagined her listening to a story. In Hebrew.
Finally, the bus ride ended, and they arrived at Megiddo South. Some structures from the prison were still there – the watchtower loomed over the parking lot as if armed guards were still posted there. Beyond the tower, the dig covered a vast, bare expanse, stripped of topsoil and a few feet of fill, in sharp contrast to the surrounding green hilly fields. The area was divided by string and posts into a grid of five-meter squares, each identified on the map. Paths of wooden scaffolding ran across sections and around the perimeter.
A line of trailers and supply shacks had been set up at the edge of the parking lot. One trailer served as the site office, and there Harper found Josh Kahn, one of Dr Ben Haim’s student assistants. Josh fitted her with an equipment kit: two pairs of black leather gloves, white suede gloves, a grapefruit knife, graph paper and pencils, brushes, a trowel, a folding shovel, Ziploc bags, a pick, screens, measuring tape, tweezers, clippers, a level, foil, a folded tarp, a dustpan, nails, a hammer, a camera, dust masks, kneepads, a scale, tablespoons, an air puffer, a refillable water bottle. She asked about dirt buckets, learned they’d already been distributed throughout the site.
Josh guided her to section thirteen, where Lynne was waiting, decked out in hat, sunglasses, kneepads and gloves, her nose covered with zinc oxide.
‘Let me show you how to get started,’ Josh offered. He took out a trowel, gently digging into the ground, scratching the top exposed stratum of earth. Removing the dirt, straining it through a screen into a nearby bucket. ‘You strain to examine the fill.’
Harper watched impatiently. ‘We’ll manage. Really.’
‘But be careful,’ Josh said. ‘The earth is in layers, or stratifications. You’ll be able to see them, the different colors and textures. So you want to dig evenly, going only one layer at a time to preserve context – in other words, to be sure of the exact location of the find. Because the deeper the stratum, the older the find. That’s why we remove only one level at a time, to keep things in their own time—’
‘She knows all about it, Josh.’ Lynne interrupted. ‘Harper here has a PhD in archeology. She could probably teach you what to do.’
Josh’s mouth opened. ‘Oh. You’re Dr Jennings? Dr Ben Haim told us you’d be joining us. Sorry. I didn’t realize . . .’ His face splotched red. Embarrassed. ‘Well, nice to meet you. Let me know if you need anything.’ He hurried away.
For the next several hours, Harper and Lynne removed dirt from their five-meter section, strained it into buckets to make sure nothing of interest was in there, and dug some more.
And for just about all of those hours, Lynne seemed compelled to talk. She complained about the heat. About how monotonous the work was. About men, marriage. She talked about how she’d met Peter back in college, at Ball State. How they’d had a rough patch when she couldn’t get pregnant, but then they’d turned to Pastor Travis and he’d saved their marriage and put them back in touch with God. She talked about how blessed she was to have the pastor in her life. How he’d inspired her and given her new direction. She asked about Harper’s marriage.
Harper didn’t want to talk about it but, as the day passed, she opened up, sharing memories of meeting Hank in Iraq, when he had been a civilian consultant, she an army officer. He’d offered her a drink, even though she’d been on duty. He’d been confident, brash. Handsome. Her voice thickened, remembering how he’d been then, his smooth words, his easy gait. God, it had been a long time since she’d thought about how he’d been before his accident. She stopped talking, coughing. Not wanting to go on.
‘It’s just the dust.’ But her voice was unsteady, so she didn’t say more.
They repeated the digging pattern, working in rhythm: removing earth, straining it, filling buckets, straining again, digging some more. Lynne went on about her pastor and how he’d changed her life. She talked about how much evil there was in the world – crime, poverty, disease, war. How leaders had risen on false pretences, serving not for good, but for their own interests. How, if you really thought about it, the end of the world seemed inevitable. In fact, that realization was what drew her into her church. Made her want to serve God’s purpose in these troubled days.
Harper tried to tune her out. She didn’t want to engage in conversation about Lynne’s world view or her church. She wanted even less to talk about crime and war, or to theorize about the end of the world. She made no reply, focusing on the joy of being part of a dig. On lifting small bits of ancient earth, sifting them through a screen into a bucket.
Eventually, Lynne stood and stretched, stepped carefully around the perimeter of their section, pulling over an empty bucket. ‘I don’t get it, Harper. Why would you want to be an archeologist?’ she reached for her trowel.
Harper looked up, not sure how to answer.
‘I mean,’ Lynne laughed, ‘your career’s always going to be in ruins.’
‘Very funny.’ Harper smirked, took off her hat, wiped sweat from her forehead. She’d heard the joke before, but chuckled to be polite, relieved that Lynne could talk things other than church.
‘But there’s good news. The older your husband gets, the more interesting you’ll find him.’ Lynne grinned wickedly.
Harper groaned. ‘So, this is how it’s going to be?’
‘Sorry. When I told my friends back in Indiana that I was going on a dig, they told me a ton of archeology jokes.’
‘I’ve heard them all.’ Harper kept digging.
‘So, tell me.’ Lynne lowered her voice. ‘Is it true archeologists like it dirty?’
Harper rolled her eyes, nodding. ‘And we will date anything, even our own mummies. That’s because we dig mummies.’
This time, Lynne moaned.
‘Also, we cut our hair with Caesars. And, if we don’t eat right on digs, we get irregular trowel movements. Trust me, Lynne. I have millions of them – they get worse. Want me to go on?’ She put her hat back on, picked up her trowel and began digging again.
‘No.’ Lynne put her hands up, grinning, warding off more jokes. ‘It’s enough. But we should write these down and put on a show for the others. We can call it “The Archeology Revue”, or – wait for it – “Arty Facts” – get it? Artifacts?’
Harper got it. She stood and sifted dirt through a screen, found nothing, came back and dug some more. The sun was hot, she was sweaty, covered with dirt, and so far, the earth hadn’t given up a single find. But, Lord, she was having fun.
Harper didn’t even go back to the bungalow to shower. As soon as the bus pulled into the kibbutz, she said goodbye to Lynne and hurried to the nursery. In fourteen months, she hadn’t been apart from Chloe for longer than a couple of hours. Had Chloe missed her? Had she been afraid or cried?
From a distance, Harper heard shrieks and giggles, and when she got to the picket fence, she stopped and watched. Chloe was standing in the big inflatable toddler pool, perfectly happy, wearing her pink ruffled bathing suit, pouring cups of water onto a little boy’s back. Harper’s chest tightened. Chloe had been fine without her. Had played happily with other kids. Had transformed in just a few hours from a baby into a little girl, and at least one little boy seemed entirely at her mercy. Lord.