This is the tenth installment of a series. There’s a link at the bottom of the page to the eleventh installment. Or, to read from the very beginning, click here.
Dario’s inelegant complaint was not much to go on, and his mildly exotic accent was like a linguistic version of the ambiguous character on the potsherd – it could be anything, from anywhere. Unless you knew what to look for: Wayfarer would have to do some digging to uncover the origins of the young man’s mongrel vowels. To do that, she would need to hear him say more than three words together.
Ptitim with Amit
As the dusty, sweaty excavation team trailed panting off the ridge, they homed in on the mess tarp as efficiently as vultures on a carcass. At the start of the season it had been showers first, but now no one except Wilson Rankle bothered until after eating. Kibbutz-style, lunch was the main meal of the day, and the only cooked meal. As the season wore on, people had grown less polite or more hungry: they helped themselves to the prime portions, and stragglers risked finding protein-short rations awaiting them.
Under the high midday sun, the tarp shaded all the tables well and although there was some habitual grumbling about the repetitive menu and mediocre flavor, there was no jostling for shady seats. People got their food and settled into place by location, polarization, or association: the Aussies were in one grubby, boisterous clump, and the Israelis were in another, but Wayfarer was surprised to see most of the rest sitting with their area teams. She thought that after long hours working together in cramped pits everyone would be ready for a change. As a newcomer, she felt free to stir things up by settling anywhere. Intent on investigating her “artifact with an accent”, she was considering heading for the spot where a wide-brimmed straw hat with a beehive crown had been set on a table, when behind her a voice rumbling with gutterals said, “Professor Wayfarer!”
She turned, and found herself within handshake range of a brown, wiry man in his forties with a bent Medici nose and close-cropped hair. “Amit Chayes,” he said, squeezing her hand in one of his and her upper arm with the other. “Shalom! I hear you’ve decided to stay with us longer — welcome.”
“Thank you,” Wayfarer replied. “Please, call me Einer.”
“Of course.” The co-director’s cordial grip was strong and brief. Releasing her he said, “Come – please, sit.” Wayfarer allowed him to guide her to a seat via the food table, while he explained that he’d been off-site since his six-year old had been bitten by a spider at home in Be’er Sheva. “He’s fine now, but he needed a few days in hospital for observation and my wife is away for her reserve service at the moment.”
“She’s not exempt, as a mother?”
“The Lebanese matter has changed things for now.” Chayes shrugged. “It’s not combat duty, anyway.” He waved the subject away with a firm hand. “Are you finding yourself comfortable? Unless one has just come off military duty, the showers take a bit getting used to. And the heat, of course.”
His direct, intuitive manner caused Wayfarer to feel relief on behalf of the Beit Bat Ya’anah staff, especially the younger, more callow ones; she judged that his forthright character adequately balanced Rankle’s peevish authoritarian style. “Visit Lassiter in July if you want to experience oppressive summer weather,” she replied. “And insects. Although, I keep hearing impressive stories about your local entomology.”
“Entomology?” The bench jumped as Zvia joined them without ceremony. “Was young Eric boring you with bugs, professor? He’s obsessed with them. And arachnids. But then, he seems to attract the nastier specimens. And we’ve got some monsters: camel spiders the size of your hand…”
Chayes lifted his chin in acknowledgment. “The Negev is a tough environment. It breeds tough creatures,” he said, spearing a chunk of chicken with his fork. “Have you encountered any of our nocturnal desert wildlife yet, Einer?”
Wayfarer’s eyes shifted momentarily over the archæologist’s shoulder to where the owner of the straw hat was now sitting with a plate heaped with ptitim and tinned vegetables, steadily working through it and taking no part in the conversation around him. She said, “I thought I might have seen a leopard marauding last night.”
“A leopard?” Chayes’s keen eyes followed her pale blue glance, and he showed even, white teeth in a smile. “Ah, you mean Dr. Szeringka’s protegé. Our very own djinn, manifesting in the darkness – his midnight baths are no secret.” He fixed her with an inquisitive look and said, “Perhaps I shouldn’t ask what you were doing up in the early hours?”
“Not conjuring djinn,” Wayfarer replied promptly, “I assure you. But other than that, I’d rather not say… on the assumption that Wilson has devised a suitable penalty for dastardly water thieves and their ilk.” At her elbow, she heard Zvia unsuccessfully suppress a snicker.
Chayes showed more teeth. “You shouldn’t worry, Einer. But Bill does have a problem with… ah… well, one of the more independent staff members in particular, you might guess which. One of our few personnel issues. You’d better not mention the incident, in fact. It’s been a long season, and…”
At this moment, a fuss was heard coming from inside the mess tent. Outright shouting in emphatic and unrestrained Hebrew billowed like cooking smoke through the gaping door flaps, making the Israeli students at the next table laugh. Wayfarer could only distinguish the word shafan, which she vaguely recalled was some kind of etymologically significant animal, and — repeatedly — syllables that sounded like lo ba’mkarer, “not in the refrigerator!” The shouting in Hebrew was punctuated by equally vehement but not entirely fluent English denials of responsibility.
“Oh no, not again!” muttered Zvia.
“Apparently so, “ Chayes said. “The other on-going personnel issue. Our cook Mikka is Danish,” he added as if that accounted for it, and took another bite of chicken. Chewing, he listened. “Moshe sounds very angry,” he commented.
“Camp manager,” Zvia explained to Wayfarer. “You haven’t met him yet, I don’t think. Can be a bit, ummm… crusty…”
Chayes said placidly, “Moshe’s strengths are organizational, not social. He’s an invaluable member of the dig team and an old friend, but he has strong beliefs. Not religious as much as administrative – the University requires us to provide kosher meals to dig participants, although out here we manage only the most rudimentary kashrut. Even that’s been a struggle for Mikka. It could be worse – no one on site is very religious, so Moshe’s the only one who minds, because as he says rules are rules and it’s his job.”
Zvia began tartly, “And because Mikka is a…”
“A very good photographer,” Chayes finished for her, firmly. “I take responsibility,” the director went on. “I should have hired someone with more kitchen experience –” here he raised one shoulder philosophically, “– only, it seemed so fortunate to find a site photographer who was willing to cook, too. But it proved to be – what’s the term?”
“A false economy,” Wayfarer supplied, listening to the fuss in the tent escalate.
Chayes nodded. “Precisely: we’ve had to re-kasher the refrigerator twice this season. Work and water we can ill spare.”
From inside the dim canvas doorway came the clatter of metal on metal. The director shook his head and put down his fork. “Please excuse me, I must go mediate.” As he moved away Amit Chayes looked over to the now empty place where Szeringka’s protegé had been sitting, then glanced back at Zvia. “Eyfo Dario?”
“Ani lo yoda’at,” she answered, frowning a little. “Ask Lior or Yael, they were sitting over there.”
Chayes growled the same question at the group of BGU students lingering nearby, eavesdropping on the fracas. Only his grad student Lior replied, with a jerk of the chin that signaled equal lack of knowledge and lack of interest, and Chayes disappeared into the overheated gloom of the mess tent, where the volume of bilingual squabbling dropped immediately.
“Eyfo Dario,” Wayfarer repeated, where’s Dario. No one ever seemed to know. Or, admitted knowing. “That question is asked with some frequency around here,” she said.
“It is,” Zvia agreed, collecting their empty plates from the table. Her brown eyes were fixed on a point somewhere in the desert above the camp, and she was still frowning. “Recently, at least. Anyway, Amit will find him. Or he’ll just show up. He always does. No reason to be worried.”
The professor was not worried. Like a spotted leopard, the wayward Dario seemed to be able to disappear effortlessly against any background and reappear again just as smoothly, no doubt promptly at mealtime. But, assessing the young woman’s knit brows astutely, Wayfarer knew that Zvia — who didn’t strike her as the worrying type — intended the reassuring words for herself, and that was far more interesting.
…to be continued
To read the next installment, Part 11 “Natural Systems” click here.