Paleontologist — “dawn being” — and here she was up a little later than dawn on Easter, normally celebrated at sunrise. While she dressed she had run the television for the sake of news and weather so that in the background she had picked up a story about the famous “wailing wall” in Jerusalem, about the twice yearly cleaning of notes out of the wall. Armed with bags and long wooden sticks, the cracks of the last remaining wall of the Second Temple were poked out. The multiply folded and screwed up paper — poems, promises, prayers — were not read, but simply dumped into the bags which would be buried later on the Mount of Olives not far away. It was awkward but necessary or notes would find no new place to hide.
She hadn’t really thought she was listening to the story. Now she sat on a bench in the park while the sun rose, doing nothing. Well— maybe she was thinking about her next job which would begin soon. She had been the kind of paleontologist who staked out a square of dust with string and then carefully reviewed the bits of dirt and broken objects as she exposed them with a paintbrush, finally deducing what she could.
But now she was signed up for a study in the depths of a cave. It was not because she was especially qualified so much as that she was small and flexible, so she could slip through the convolutions and cracks in the stone. At the bottom were tangles of bone, evidently because the ancient peoples had left their dead there. How they were able or desiring to leave them was unknown.
Among the things she thought about was her ability to work with others. In cavern work such as this, one was dependent on the ropes and lights of herself and others. It was impossible to let oneself become claustrophobic or panicky — a precipitation towards death. She reminded herself that handholds and maps existed, that there was daily traffic along the known routes.
She was anxious about herself — a little — because her just previous relationship had not quite worked out. There were good things about it but somehow it was confining, a convolution. Or maybe she was just older and getting picky. Adapting to someone is a lot of work. The dead are easier, usually only bones to deal with.
The old man who came to sit alongside her was sort of a friend. He visited with her now and then. He must have been handsome as a youth but his once-expensive clothes were a bit shabby now. He was carrying a box wrapped in gift paper, imprinted with roses. It was a near-cube about a foot in each direction. She assumed it was for his wife, though she had never met the lady. She was evidently ill with something mortal and quietly dying in their apartment. She assumed this was a gift for her but thought it would be rude to ask. He greeted her carefully in accented English and she acknowledged him as gracefully as she could, considering how preoccupied she was.
They talked about Easter a bit, not just the Christian aspect of it — the premise that if a leader were the son of God that he would naturally be immortal and therefore all who believed in him and followed his teaching would also be immortal. It was a mighty incentive and worked with many people.
But there was also the plain fact that every year — actually defining the year — the planet (in places) grew cold and barren, then regrew and flowered. Besides the flowers and bunnies and eggs, temperate zones where this happened became the ground of renewal, so that one year was wiped away and another was begun. Ironically, the early part of each birthing time meant the death of those who were destined to be food.
She and the old man with the box reflected on the doubleness of life, that there was the ordinary necessity of eating, sleeping, traveling — and then the abstract, sometimes apt and sometimes silly, theories about why all this happens, what patterns it, what is so extreme that it must really reflect something else that is unseen.
The old man wanted her to tell him about the fossil skulls she knew about. So many had names, based on the place they were found or maybe the nature of the living human who must have been a living soul — whatever a soul is — an individual at any rate, with warm lips and wet eyes. Someone unique who had to die no matter what, but had met with an end that thousands of years later delivered him into the hands of this woman, who would try to understand who he or she had been and how this example of life, now mute, could be fit into the great torrent of speaking life that came before.
Current thought was that humans had become modern not because of any feature that would show in a fossil, but because of openness to relationships with others, so that each could access the qualities of all. And because of growing empathy, being able to “feel” with others. This was a turning away from the cold Platonic analysis that had been the ideal of science for centuries. Now there was a valuing of “love.”
The old man left the subject of fossils, but not before he questioned her further about her quiet handling of people’s heads, valuing them and treating them well. She got the feeling there was something behind this, maybe his intention to kill himself. She would never prevent someone from voluntary death if they really wanted it. Wasn’t that what Jesus did when He accepted crucifixion?
But how could this old man step away from his life-partner who depended on him? He spoke of her beauty, about the pleasure of brushing her hair or rubbing her still-shapely legs, about kissing the inside of her elbows. Then he rose and walked away, leaving her there in the sunshine on the bench with his rose-wrapped package beside her. When she saw what he had done, she called after him, but he paid no attention.
The package was redder than it had been earlier. It was sodden, soaked through and beginning to drip. It was not until she had help that they opened it and found the man’s wife’s head. He had tried to save it somehow, save that face he loved. Now she realized just how deep and convoluted a mind could be. And yet based on love.