The dirt doesn’t just get under your finger nails, it gets everywhere. It builds up in the creases of your hands, your elbows. It deepens the shadows under your eyes. After twelve years of doing this job, I have only one requirement: a decent shower. The days of bathing in a creek or wiping my face on the back of my sleeve and putting on an extra coat of deodorant are long gone. I need a good, hot shower at the end of the day as the dirt runs from skin, from my hair.
There isn’t one. I’m already in a bad mood that morning when I go out to the site to meet Jerry.
“Just a shower, Jer,” I say, “It’s really not too much to ask. It’s not like you can just find yourself another archaeo-detector.” There wasn’t a name for what I do before I started doing it. No one else has ever been able to do it.
“Sorry, Mel. I tried,” he says. His expression tells me he didn’t. I sigh.
“What are we looking for today?” I say.
“It’s no Atlantis,” he refers to my most famous discovery with a hint of derision. I shrug. He continues, “But we think there’s an old tomb out here.”
“In the middle of the Egyptian dessert? Whose tomb?”
“No idea. Hopefully you can tell us,” Jerry says.
“Where should I start?”
“Isn’t that your job?” he says. I give him a look. I forgot that I didn’t really like Jerry. He was okay at an SAA conference after a drink or two. But on site, he was a lazy archaeologist.
I turn my back on Jerry and the crew – about two dozen people, Americans, Brits, and locals, assembled but standing around waiting for me to tell them where to dig. If at all. They flew us all here on a chance. A hunch that there might be something here and a grant application that made it sound a lot more certain than it really was.
I walk towards the early morning sun. At eight in the morning, it’s already fiercely hot. I clear my mind and let my senses do the work for me. I focus on the ground I walk on, the shifting sand beneath my feet.
I was a 20-year-old M.A. student on my first excavation when I discovered the skill. I was digging at a Roman fort on Hadrian’s Wall and I was walking along the outer edge of fort’s walls on break. I stopped in my tracks when I felt it. There was something solid beneath me. Within minutes I had walked the length of a wall they had never discovered and mapped out, as clear as day in my head, the layout of another building to the west of the fort. I could feel the walls through the ground under my feet. Over the next few years I tested this skill to realize that I could detect countless things under the earth – a buried grave marker, an unrecorded fort, and, five years ago, the lost city of Atlantis.
Underneath the Egyptian sun, putting space between myself and Jerry, I started to feel it. It’s a thrumming that inhabits my whole body. The feeling moves from my feet, up my legs, and turns itself into patterns and shapes underground in my mind. I was getting closer. Jerry was right. There is something here.
I’m about half a mile from the team and the familiar feeling shifts. My skin turns to ice in the heat, and the hair on my arms stands on end. I feel sick to my stomach. I try to move, to escape this growing sense of dread and wrong, but my feet won’t listen and I’m frozen.
Jerry comes over, frowning in the shade of his brimmed hat.
“What’s wrong? Nothing here?” he says.
“There is definitely something here,” I say. My voice is wavering.
“Great, then let’s start digging! What should we expect?”
“You can’t dig here,” I say. Jerry doesn’t catch the fear in my voice. He is barely looking at me.
“What do you mean?”
“What is here should not… must not be disturbed. Do not dig here,” I say.
“That doesn’t make any sense, Melanie. We’re here to dig. To find the tomb. You said you can detect it. Of course we’re going to dig here,” Jerry is getting annoyed now. With one hand, he’s waving over the crew.
“No. You can’t. Trust me. You don’t want to dig up that tomb. There’s something…” I hesitate. I’m an archaeologist, a person of reason, and there’s no science behind evil. I choose my words carefully, “Wrong. There’s something underneath us that should not be released.”
“This is ridiculous. Are you telling me that this tomb is cursed or something, Dr. Swan? You never struck me as superstitious,” Jerry was finally looking me in the eye. I wish he wouldn’t.
“Jerry, I’m a human metal detector. I have no choice but to believe in things that have no explanation. And I know as certainly as I know that there is a structure beneath us that this structure should not be excavated,” I say. His crew has arrived and they’re already setting up the grid. I step towards them. My knees buckle and I fall forward. Now that I am closer to the ground, the feeling is overwhelming. I’m struggling not to faint.
“I think you’ve had too much sun, already,” Jerry says, moving to help me up, “Why don’t you go cool down in the tent?”
“Don’t do it, Jerry,” I look up at the rest of the crew, “Don’t dig here. It’s not worth it. There’s something bad here.”
I wake up in a tent when the sun is high in the sky. Afternoon. I remember everything all of the sudden and jump to my feet. I must have lost consciousness. Did they start the excavation while I was out? How long was I out? I throw back the tent flap and set off at a run, struggling in the sand. I run out towards the place where I had felt the tomb.
I run almost a mile before I realize that I must have missed it. I double back, searching madly for the place, for the crew. I can see nothing on the almost flat, sandy horizon. Where are they? I search for what must be hours before I find it. One shovel.
I bend down and pick up the shovel. The handle is cold, but I know it’s been sitting in the dessert sun. I shiver. Where are they? Maybe I’ve gone the wrong way? I pause and try to settle my body long enough to feel beneath the ground. Nothing. I circle back to the tents. I spend the rest of the afternoon and into the evening walking a mile in every direction. There is nothing, above or below the ground.