How She Was Found
originally published in The Useless Degree & later included in the story collection, By The Wayside, published by Unsolicited Press
Fiona was a mouse. Everyone said so. As a child she’d been bookish, lonely, with little to contribute conversation-wise. Her brother, Finn, was outgoing, popular, now the owner of a Mercedes dealership in Pasadena. Why Pasadena? They’d grown up in the Pacific Northwest, both graduates of the University of Washington. He majored in business; she in anthropology. He went home with a college roommate one long weekend, a guy from SoCal as Finn took to calling it, and they had drinks with an aunt in Pasadena. Finn was smitten, not only with the climate, but with the aunt’s neighbor, Heather, who was, even Fiona had to admit, the quintessential California girl. All that straight blonde hair made Fiona ache, though her mother (a loyal person for the most part) told her that was just nonsense because Fiona’s wild red hair was just as remarkable, if not more so.
That red hair became a beacon on her first dig. In the high desert of Western Mexico, against the glare and green of hot sand and scrub, she was easy to spot from above. The whine and growl of the twin-engine Cessna that bore her thesis advisor, Professor Martin Harris, made the team below look up, shade their eyes, and follow its progress to the landing strip half a mile away. The Professor’s presence, even at that distance, caused anxiety to mount. He could be demanding, unforgiving, and harsh. Yet more than once he’d been found weeping over some patch of ground that had yielded nothing of value. Perhaps its barrenness was the cause of his dismay. Or that he drank on the quiet from a silver flask. No doubt sometimes the booze got the better of him.
Nine days before, Fiona had found human remains near the village where the three other graduate students—all male—liked to buy tequila. By then they’d been in country for three weeks and had made that trip half a dozen times. That day, Fiona had gone with them. She said she’d wait in the Jeep. They said she should join them, to get some local color and maybe a local hunk—they were intent on setting her up, it seemed. She demurred. They warned it could be a while because the purchase couldn’t be concluded without several rounds of hearty sampling. Fiona was fine. She’d take herself for a walk.
Off the men went one way and Fiona the other. The sky raged blue. She didn’t care for sun. At home, in Tempe, she escaped to malls, indoor pools, or the furthest stack of the library, and then when she couldn’t avoid going out, she hated how cruelly the heat pushed her down.
She followed a faint trail into the foothills, smelling creosote and sage. The saguaros were everywhere, like sentries. At the base of a boulder was a chunk of white stone loose enough to pull free. She examined it. She loved rocks. She’d wanted to become a geologist, but her father objected. Anthropology was better for her, he said, offering no defense of his opinion.
Some earth fell where the stone had been removed, and Fiona probed the opening, hoping for more quartz or maybe amethyst. She had read that amethyst had been found nearby. She hungered for a trove.
What she unearthed was a bone, part of a human hand. Fiona had studied hand bones in depth at the Arizona State University, where she was pursuing her Master’s Degree. Her obsession with hands had earned her some unflattering nicknames from the men on the dig, one of which, “hand-job Fiona,” rankled.
She put the bone back and took in the three-sixty view so she could remember the landmarks for later. She intended to get Professor Harris out there as soon as possible, assuming he’d take her remarks to heart. His custom was to overlook most of what she said. Fiona had slowly come to realize that she’d been included only because the awarded grant Professor Harris obtained specified the need for gender equality in selecting his staff.
The three men wandered up the road in a state of cheerful disarray. From her vantage point, Fiona heard their voices but not their actual words. In the lead, as always, was Kurt, Harris’ favorite and the likely co-author of his next book. Behind Kurt was Jack, who insisted on being called Jackson, to make up for being so short, Fiona thought. Last in line was Tom. Fiona was in love with Tom. He was rugged, strong, spoke gently, and gazed at her with eyes she might describe as limpid. Along with geology, Fiona had also considered majoring in English, a notion that drew even more resistance from her father than the suggestion of studying rocks. If Tom suspected Fiona’s affection for him he gave nothing away. Fiona planned to conquer his heart by the time they went back to Arizona. The trouble, aside from the fact that he might not find her in the least attractive, was Tom’s fiancée, Maricelle, about whom he spoke incessantly—so much so that Kurt and Jackson, and even Harris one night around the campfire as his flask made another appearance, called him “pussy-whipped.”
Fiona joined the men on the road, told them what she’d found, received vague words of approval, then drove them back to their dig site where they’d uncovered pottery fragments, tools, and decorative pieces of petrified wood. They had hoped to reveal a settlement of native peoples dating back a thousand years. The year before, a large one had been found a few miles away, in the opposite direction from the village, by a colleague of Professor Harris, Arnold Sand. Sand’s paper had led to a new understanding of how that part of Western Mexico had been populated. Professor Harris decided that he should locate the next one before Professor Sand did, and was delighted when the grant came through from the National Science Foundation. He was considerably less delighted with the meager find.
When Fiona shared her news with Professor Harris, he grew quiet, withdrawn, obviously deep in thought. He asked to be taken there. He and she went alone. The light was failing but Professor Harris insisted they press on. When he saw the bone, he used the walkie-talkie on his hip to contact the three men they’d left behind. They were to pack up and prepare to change locations first thing in the morning.
For the next nine days, they camped outside the village and uncovered the rest of the skeleton. She consisted of a damaged skull, one clavicle, one scapula, four ribs, a broken femur, shattered humerus, an intact pelvis—the shape and proportions of which identified the body as female—and a total of sixteen additional hand bones. There were no clothing remnants with her, strongly suggesting that she’d been in the earth long enough for all to disintegrate. Two objects were close by: a piece of petrified wood, similar to those found at the initial site, and a fragment of a clay pot on which part of a larger decorative pattern had been inscribed.
Now, their time in Mexico was at an end. Professor Harris had just returned by plane from Morelia, where he’d arranged to ship the bones north in two more days. The team would leave then, too. He strode up the trail. He pointed at Fiona.
“I could see you from half a mile up. Why the hell aren’t you wearing a hat?” he asked. He and the other men all had on the same kind: wide-brimmed and secured under the chin with an elastic strap. Fiona had brought one, and worn it for only three hours on her first day. She couldn’t adjust to how hot it made her head feel.
She’d burned badly. Her skin had finally stopped peeling. That Professor Harris should take an interest in her welfare at this point was odd. Then she realized they might have to appear on the local television station back home to recount the details of their marvelous find. She’d look terrible with her red skin and white rings around her eyes from her oversized sunglasses. That assumed, of course, that she’d even be included.
Kurt, Jackson, and Tom clustered around him. They always did that, forming a male circle with Fiona on the outside. She had stopped trying to penetrate. She prepared a statement to explain her lack of hat, then realized the professor no longer expected one.
He rubbed his hands together.
“This has been an amazing excursion. Tonight, we celebrate,” he said.
“Celebrations require supplies,” Kurt said.
“Check the back seat.”
Kurt and Jackson went and returned with a box. It held three bottles of tequila and six Dos Equis.
“I know tequila’s not your drink,” Professor Harris said to Fiona.
Fiona didn’t like beer, either. She figured she could struggle through one, for the sake of fellowship.
They dined on roasted goat. Fiona had developed a taste for it. Professor Harris had brought back bell peppers, potatoes, and corn, which Fiona carefully chopped, cooked in a large pan, and seasoned with salted butter and hot sauce.
Later, as they sat draped gently by night, Professor Harris invited each team member to share his thoughts. No one offered anything.
“You must have some observations to make. Kurt, you first,” Professor Harris said.
“Hotter than hell down here.”
“Excellent tequila,” Jackson said.
The men agreed.
“Gorgeous night,” Tom said.
No one agreed, though Fiona wanted to.
“Your turn,” Professor Harris said to her.
“I’m just wondering who she was,” she said.
“Until we get her in the lab, all we know is that she’s just a woman, presumably at least a thousand years old, who died from some sort of blunt force trauma,” Professor Harris said.
“Why was she apart from the others? I mean, why were there no other bodies found near hers?” Fiona asked.
“Maybe she’d gone on an errand and was attacked by an animal,” Kurt said.
“Or a person,” Jackson said.
“A man,” Fiona said.
“It’s definitely possible,” Tom said.
“What if the carbon dating proves she’s not ancient at all?” Fiona said.
“Then we’re fucked,” Kurt said.
“Nonsense. We found her, we dug her up. We practiced the techniques we’ve learned,” Jackson said.
“Grant money isn’t for practice runs,” Professor Harris said. He took a long, leisurely pull from his flask. “Besides, if she’s not what we think she is, then she’s something else, at least,” he said.
The men laughed. Professor Harris did, too, once he realized how stupid that had sounded.
“What you mean, I think, is that even if she’s younger than we thought, it’s still noteworthy. Say she’s only five hundred years old. What do we know about the people who lived here then? We’ll need to find out. It’s a win-win either way,” Jackson said.
Professor Harris nodded his approval.
“My mom will be glad. She thinks it’s all very murky, living off grants. She says I should have gone into business with my dad,” Tom said.
“What’s he do?” Professor Harris asked.
“Mine taught third grade. Hard profession back then for a man, surrounded by women all day long,” Professor Harris said.
The night deepened, and the sky was thrown with stars. Fiona wondered what the others thought when they looked up and saw them. She’d never been one to make wishes. The woman they’d found—Estrella, Fiona called her—would have looked above to her namesake and wanted to tear one down from that black vault and hold it, just for a moment. She wouldn’t need to keep it forever, knowing that anything from nature belongs forever to nature and to nothing else. She wasn’t a possessive person, Fiona decided. Larceny or covetousness did not cause her death. She’d been the object of someone’s unrequited love. When the affection wasn’t returned—because her heart was for another—she’d had no choice but to leave and make her way alone in the desert wilderness. Her would-be lover tracked her down. Even as his weapon was held aloft, he said if she relented and became his, he would spare her life. She wouldn’t. Her refusal was the end of her.
She was aware that someone was speaking to her.
“Your family,” Kurt said to her.
“He asked about your family.”
“Oh. Well, my dad’s retired. He was a civil engineer. Dams. ‘Damn dams,’ he used to say. My mother’s an artist, sort of. They still live in Seattle. They wish I’d move back. That my brother would, too.”
“Pasadena, selling cars.”
“To the little old lady from Pasadena.”
“The Beach Boys song.”
Silence fell. Fiona tasted her beer. It wasn’t horrible, though it had warmed up in her hand. She forced it down. She knew she’d need it later, somehow. Something was going to happen tonight. Something big. Maybe she would declare herself to Tom, for whom her feelings were stronger than ever. And there was hope. He’d complained that very day that he didn’t think Maricelle would be all that glad to see him. The others had teased him, saying it would be because he’d look like shit after living outdoors for almost a month. But there was genuine concern in his eyes. They must have quarreled before he went away. She hadn’t wanted him to go, and he’d gone anyway, saying it was his future that was at stake. Maricelle might be used to more money than Tom was likely to earn as a professor or researcher. She’d had a better offer in his absence. That was easy to see. Tom had shown them all her snapshot. She was a stunning brunette, as olive skinned as the native women they saw walking along the roads.
“What’s your brother’s name?” Tom asked. Fiona’s heart leapt.
“As in Huckleberry?”
“Finn and Fiona. That’s quite a mouthful,” Professor Harris said. The others laughed.
Fiona finished her beer and went to the cooler for another. The ice had melted. The carton of eggs Professor Harris had obtained was soggy. Fiona took the beer and returned to the group. She felt funny, all loose in the head. It was the beer, she knew. She avoided alcohol as a rule. She was enjoying its comfort now, as people throughout time had. Estrella must have had her version of it. What did she drink to forget? Or to remember? For suddenly Fiona was flooded with memories. She and Finn, trying to outdo each other playing badminton, or throwing horseshoes, or shooting darts in their father’s private study. Finn always won. She went in tears to her mother, who told her not to compete with boys. She should learn how to sew or paint pottery. Her mother’s plates and vases were all over the house, not very well made, but lovingly turned on the wheel and carefully glazed. Once, in a state of unnamed misery, she’d thrown a few to the floor, then refused to clean up the pieces until Fiona’s father ordered her to.
Fiona was aware that the men had stopped talking. Their unshaven faces were still, bathed in dim firelight. Fiona stood up. She wavered. She went to her tent, which she shared with Kurt. She sat on her cot. Despite the beer, she was too keyed up to sleep, so she went into the tent where the bones had been laid out. She set her battery-powered lantern on the ground, then sat down next to it. Even though she was missing so much of herself, Estrella looked stately. Fiona was mad to know what kind of clothes she’d worn, if they were plain or rich with color. And what about jewelry? Even simple women loved jewelry, though she was sure that Estrella hadn’t been simple at all, but calm and totally self-possessed. Fiona put on a pair of latex gloves from the box in the corner and picked up the skull. It had a hole on one side, probably her fatal blow. She stared into the ridged, empty eye sockets and conjured a pair of warm brown eyes with long, inky lashes. Estrella would have been beautiful, far more winning than Fiona was, though Fiona wasn’t ugly and she knew it perfectly well. She just had no dash. Nothing that drew attention.
“You need to get a life,” Estrella’s skull said. Fiona shook so much that keeping a grip on the skull required great effort.
“Stop living through other people, and just do your own thing,” Estrella said.
“I don’t know what my own thing is.”
“You’ll figure it out soon.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Who else am I going to tell? Those lunkheads out there?”
Fiona sat with the skull in her lap. It stayed quiet for a long time. Then it said, “Go to bed. Strong women need their rest.”
In the morning, Kurt gave a quick yelp when he realized Fiona was on her cot with her arm curled around the skull. He summoned the others. Professor Harris said not to wake her and ruin the moment.
“Wish I had a picture,” Tom whispered. Professor Harris motioned for him to go get his camera. Fiona opened her eyes before he’d even left the tent in search of it.
“What the hell are you all staring at?” she asked.
“You and your little friend,” Jackson said.
Fiona picked up the skull and stroked it lovingly.
“She was lonely, lying over there all alone,” she said.
Fiona got up. Her hands were sticky from wearing the gloves all night. She returned the skull to its proper place in the adjacent tent. The men followed her and waited outside while she put it down.
“That was pretty fucking badass,” Kurt said.
“Didn’t know you had it in you,” Tom said.
Fiona snapped off her gloves. She was hungry. She asked who was going to make eggs. Professor Harris volunteered.
Everyone in the Anthropology Department had heard about Fiona’s night with the skull by the time they returned. No one disapproved. In fact, her reputation soared. She had nerve, she had guts, and what about that totally unexpected off-beat sense of humor? She was just the kind of person you needed out there in the field.
As for Estrella, she turned out to be older than anyone expected, over two thousand years. She shed new light on the history of the native people in that region. Professor Harris quickly applied for and received another grant. Fiona was the first team member he approached. But she wasn’t interested. She was giving up anthropology in favor of her first love, geology. When her father once again objected, she told him she wasn’t asking for permission or even money, since she was okay with going into debt for something that important. He was so surprised, he said nothing, and for once Fiona had the last word.