They had been working together for six solid months now with no gunshots. Melinda Pappas kept track of this in her journal with little monthly calendars she handwrote and, each day, marked with a tiny and precise "x." There was only one box left after the one she had just crossed off.
"Look," Mel said, holding the book up to her partner on the dig, Doctor Janice Covington. "That's a full half a year."
"If we make it through tomorrow we'll be in the clear," Covington said, rubbing at the grit in her eyes with a smile. Her eyes were red, Mel could see. Covington rubbed her eyebrow, and her face flickered at the tickle of sand that fell down her cheek. She was covered head to toe with a layer of dust just like the end of everyday. She tipped back a large glass of water with a small douse of whiskey in it and downed the whole thing in one fluid drink. She made a smack and touched the back of her wrist to her lips. Then she began to untie the kerchief around her neck, as she prepared to drag off her clothes and wash, so she could climb onto her bunk for the evening. Mel watched the familiar sight wondering if it was the last time she would ever see it. The thought gave her pause.
They were at the end of their work on this dig, a small site just outside of Athens where the vestiges of a Greek temple had been found. The heart of this find was a cabinet that housed a small library of crumbled documents and scrolls. They'd finished the excavation project, and Mel had catalogued each written artifact they found, providing a rough preliminary interpretation of each text. She had been given full discretion to distribute the artifacts at will to scholars at various universities and institutions worldwide, with the caveat that they would all eventually return to the possession of her employer, a select branch of the New York state museums known for their strict non-profit standards and generous collaborative efforts such as this. That is to say, as Mel described the reason for her employer's unique reputation to Covington with great simplicity, they were not corrupt.
Mel had been with the same employer since she left school. She had climbed the ranks, but she had never had more executive power on a job in the field than this one. It was because of Mel that Covington had been hired on as the site leader on their crew. She'd been in contact with her employer by phone and wire and announced to Covington that she had them a new gig. Covington gave a funny sort of smirk.
"Don't you think they're going to question that decision?" she asked skeptically. The name Covington carried heavy stigma. As one colleague made clear to Mel early on, before she sought Covington out, the Covingtons were dangerous. In the know now, Mel could not quite disagree. Covington was a different kind of safe for Mel.
"I'm not going to tell them your name," Mel had said, pressing her glasses at the rim in a manner just a tad superior. Covington smiled. She'd never have guessed upon meeting her that Mel was so successful at business. No one ever guessed how hard Mel worked or how well Mel could maneuver a situation in her favor when she wanted something. Covington loved this side of Mel and also loved how hidden it was. She always pointed it out when it surfaced. This would usually elicit a recital of one of Mel's favorite phrases, "I wasn't born yesterday," that would come with a stern, neutral stare. On this dig, Mel had sent in her site reports and left out names, and no one ever asked. It was simple.
It took several occurrences and a slight pause after each time Mel addressed her as "Jan" for Covington to say something. Mel had only heard anyone else call her Covington or Doctor Covington, save the local men she hired for the dig who insisted on calling her Doc. It seemed a synonym for site leader rather than a nickname. They'd been employed by a few scholars throughout their lives, none of whom they wished to distinguish from the others. They were riding in Covington's truck, and Mel remembered how she scratched her neck and turned took look out the side window just a moment before she spoke.
"Call me Cov," she said to Mel. "That's what my friends call me. I don't really go by my first name."
Mel wondered at the time why it had taken Cov so many days to say correct her name. She was obviously forward, even wildly bold. Mel had theorized at the time that the matter felt intimate to Cov for some reason. As they became closer friends, slowly, over the course of their strange journey, her original assumption was confirmed. She'd never met anyone more paradoxical than Cov, and the first contradiction she noticed was how simultaneously open and private she could be. Her air of mystery never bothered Mel, as she'd inherited a good dose of keeping to herself as a southerner. But it took her a while to put together an idea of Cov, of who she was. She had never met anyone like Cov before. Now, Mel owed Cov her life. And she would trust her with it again, easily. Truth be told, she had never trusted anyone more.
Sharing this job, however, was hardly a favor, Mel found. Cov was an excellent site leader. She had extensive experience – some of it shady, as Cov liked to note. Mel thought this only added to her abilities. How many site managers knew how to get the right amount of beer delivered with the week's food supply to please the whole crew without getting them drunk, how to punch a man out cold, or even how to do most of the real work themselves? She hired on families, couples and their children, and gave each member a job. Even the single men seemed to like it, having women and children around. Their lives were often disrupted by work, Mel figured, and it made it easier on everyone to have a real life set up in the camp. Cov had a level of respect for her crew and each job that was lacking in most. This, in return, gained her a level of respect and trust that carried over to Mel. She focused on her part of the work and left everyone else alone. Working with Cov made life on the dig easy.
She felt she'd seen a new side of Cov watching her as a leader. Mel remembered back to their first week when their backhoe arrived. One of the men climbed in and started it up. Cov stood watching closely, eyes so sharp they appeared to Mel capable of piercing the metal cab. When he started to excavate a major part of the dig, he first clipped an ancient wall. Mel saw Cov's brows tighten and her jaw tense. She just stood and watched silently. Then shortly after, even Mel saw, he began to tip the machine.
"Stop!" Cov yelled over the engine in a tone Mel felt could halt the weather.
Cov darted to the cab, her body language giving every impression she might drag him out bodily, as she opened the door. They exchanged brief words. He jumped down. Cov climbed up into the seat.
Mel could not imagine what Covington said to him, but he stood watching with the other men, seemingly unashamed as Cov went on with the excavation. Cov manned the backhoe herself for the next thirteen days until they finished the major earth removal. And from what Mel could tell, she never spoke to the man about the matter again. Mel would have figured Cov, or any manager on an archeological dig, would have lost their temper the moment he damaged the wall. Even she would have felt no sympathy for the man if Cov had thrown him off the site after nearly upturning the machine. Cov just took the job over and left him alone. Life was not an emergency for Covington, unless someone was really about to die. Perhaps not even then, Mel thought. Mel had to marvel at Cov's grit, on every front.
Mel had gotten a chance to earn her own salt after some political strife in the local district drew off about a third of their crew. Cov let them go without complaint and wired in to New York for their wages, which she delivered to them in person, taking off in her truck for a day. She had some news about what was going on, though Mel had no idea how.
"They got more important things to do," Cov offered as the only explanation. Mel could remember staring at her, wondering what a woman who worked almost every waking hour and committed the vast majority of her life (and some nights in jail) to archeology would so casually deem more important than her own life's work. Understaffed as they were, Cov was working even longer hours and wearing down quick. Mel had nothing to do at the time, save managing paperwork and wiring the office. Mel offered her help, a bit worried, to be honest, that Cov would laugh at her.
"Sure," Cov said, obviously pleased and surprised by Mel's offer. "You're welcome to any work you want. We got plenty." She lifted her arms to stretch her back in an almost cartoon fashion. "You'll want to start slow, though, especially if you want to work every day. I wouldn’t do more than a couple hours the first time." She slumped into her cot and turned on her side and was asleep in moments.
Cov was right about building up to the work, though the muscle soreness faded out after only two weeks time. Much more problematic were the blisters than formed on her hands after the first day. They were going to be real trouble, opening up each day. She understood now why Cov carried a thick pair of work gloves everywhere, unconsciously touching her pocket to feel they were there, as Mel did with her glasses when she had them off. Mel got her a ride into town and searched every shop she could think to try until she found leather gloves thick enough to tolerate the work. They had four pair in stock in colors that ranged from cream to darker browns to a reddish, dark brown. She bought them all. By the end of their stint on the dig, she'd worn through two and part-way through a third. She had used them from the lightest to the darkest shade and carried out the reddish ones after the dig, a detail that would remain in her mind for years.
Now, at the end of their allotted time, the work was inexplicably complete, leaving Mel to ponder the insight of Cov's strange management. Mel felt deeply proud of their work and the part she herself had played in it. She realized she would miss it. She had never felt stronger in her life and hadn't felt this fit since she was in college. She had not played any sports since then and had a highly academic work-life. She swam and walked, but those were leisure activities. This was real work, part of her real life. She could stretch out her arms to her sides and feel power of her own body. She socked Cov on the arm one day, and Cov over-dramatically toppled over onto her side.
"Ooooow," she let out as she fell over.
"Oh, come on," Mel said. Cov was rubbing her arm.
"Seriously, I give!" she said. "You hit like an iron worker." Despite having no mental image of an iron worker to conjure into her mind, Mel felt smug.
"It's my warrior ancestry," Mel joked, pressing the bridge of her glasses, quite prim.
"No shit," Cov offered, profanely, in a tone Mel never did manage to decode. She decided to take as a compliment.
Mel had grown depressed as the memory, or more accurately the feel of her connection to Xena's spirit faded out. What she missed wasn't in her mind, it was in her body. She had felt herself epic – alive, vibrant, unshakable. It seemed to slip away slowly over the following weeks. To lose it felt a terrible loss. She felt she was shrinking, losing solidity, being reduced back down the self she had always known.
But now, that same feeling was increasing again. Slight changes had grown in her over the months since. The transformation was taking place now incrementally. And this, she felt sure, was really her. She could not say how much her experience with Xena's presence those month's ago had to do with it. But she was sure that her friendship with Cov played a major role. Something about Cov made her feel more herself. In truth, she liked Cov more and more as time passed. And she would be sad to see them part, whenever they did. She was grateful they'd snagged this job and postponed their parting of ways. Mel was aware that neither she nor Covington had made any plans for when their work ended.
That night, their last night on the dig, they drank and sang with the whole crew. When everyone had drifted away, Mel found Covington beginning to pack the bed of her truck. She handed Cov a final beer. They toasted in silence.
"So what's next for you?" Cov asked.
"Not sure," Mel said. "You?"
"I'm planning to grab a ship at the coast and head to France for a while. I've got people there I want to see," Cov said. The tone offered an invitation, but Mel felt shy and needed it to be made a bit more explicit. Cov seemed to pick up on this after a brief silence had passed. "If you want another journey in the winged chariot here, you'd be welcome." Mel stared at Cov's hideous truck.
"You think she'll have me?" Mel asked.
"Ah, sure. She's a Quaker at heart, you know," Cov said and took a drink of her beer with no hint of a smile
"I'm sure she's a lady of fine character," Mel said.
"Good, old Jezebel," Cov said, pounding her truck callously on the hood with the beer bottle in her hand. Mel felt a flash of worry that bottle would shatter in Cov's fist from the impact and marveled at the bizarre blend of Cov's cavalier reverence.
"I still don't understand why you would to have that thing ferried across from England," Mel said. Cov looked horrified.
"Loyalty, obviously," she said. "I couldn't just leave her alone." The tone was joking, but Mel knew how much work it would really be to bring a truck on any cross-continent trek, much less a career in archeology. Cov's relationship to her truck was too strange for Mel to even question.
"Your out of your damn mind, Yankee," Mel said, recognizing at once that she was a tad drunk. Covington was delighted by this, however, and laughed so hard she doubled over.
"I'd love a ride," Mel added. Cov smiled and leaned comfortably against her "beautiful, English truck," as she put it, nestled against the wheel well, finishing her beer in a few long drinks.
They went back on the road again together. Covington had taken them north with their treasure on the day they'd first met. Three weeks of easy travel, sleeping at night under the stars by a fire or in an old army tent, and two violent outbreaks later, they handed the pack of scrolls over to Dr. Lawrence Barrington, a close friend of Mel's. He took the scrolls to America that very day. They'd spent most of their time as they traveled with Mel reading Covington the scrolls. Immune to motion sickness, she kept up reading even as they drove. Cov proved at attentive listener, sitting totally silent, but catching on two occasions slight mistakes Mel made in her translation that influenced the story. The entire trip felt an adventure teaming with energy and newness and, of course, danger.
Mel felt grateful life had calmed down since they parted ways with the scrolls. She remembered waking up in the night, hearing the sound of car doors slamming. She felt Covington slip away, then she heard the horrid sound of her hitting one man over the head and the other in the face with an old pick handle. Then, there'd been an outburst in a bar. Covington was stabbed, the wound only shallow since she'd caught the man's arm. Mel hadn't known this at the time. She leapt up and smashed a wine bottle into one man's face and hit another, somewhat ineffectually, with a chair, before Covington decked him, then drew her pistol and chased them off. For a moment, Mel felt that Xena had returned. Then she realized it was her own adrenaline, which was coming down, leaving her terribly shaky. She was so relieved to see Cov standing there angry and gripping her side in a manner almost casual that she could not speak for a moment.
Cov refused to leave the bar until she finished her drink, then adamantly resisted help from Mel to dress such a "minor wound." Mel rolled the idea of major and minor wounds over and over in her mind, new to the concept that they could be grouped in the same vein as poets or chords. Mel got to see all the scars from Cov's implied "major wounds" that were hidden under Cov's shirt later, as she mumbled profanities and chewed a cigar while treating her new one with whiskey and cotton dressing. She held up the shirt, frowning, considering it the worst loss of the evening, Mel could see. They slept in the same bed in the hotel room with Covington's gun in between their pillows, a chair wedged under the door, and a rope tied to the window in case they needed to escape. It had been a great relief to let the scrolls go and come to this new dig and go so long without meeting trouble.
On the road now, everything seemed peaceful, unlike their journey before. They were quiet as the miles began to pass. Their lives slowed down to an easy pace. During the dig, they had little energy for conversation. They'd eat and drink and talk of light things, simply spending the time before bed in one another's company.
"How'd you learn to drive them big machines?" Mel asked Covington.
"From my dad," Cov said. "Anyone can do it. All it takes is practice."
"Preferably before you work on an archeological dig," Mel said. Cov chuckled.
"It is preferable," she said. Mel thought back to the only conversation they'd had about Cov's father during the dig. They were tearing out a particularly heavy portion of dirt in a deep trench that was over their heads, giving them some shelter from the sun.
"I would blast this out with dynamite, but this is a respectable dig," Cov said, joking. "Can't allow my Covington side to come out and ruin your name." Her eyes sparkled as she glanced at Mel.
"You'd prefer less civilized methods?" Mel asked. Cov chuckled.
"Nothing more civilized than explosives, Cov said. "But, nah – I'm just bluffing. I love it this way, everything so orderly and precise."
"You've had some rough jobs?" Mel asked.
"Oh, yeah!" Cov said. "I once excavated a crypt overnight. We blew out a wall and ruined half the goods. I had men scrambling among the mess like rats for five hours packing it into sacks."
"The goods?" Mel said.
"The artifacts," Cov said in a shockingly precise, upper-class English accent. It made Mel smile.
"You were working for you dad?" Mel asked.
"Yep. It wasn't his preference either. He did some really fine work when he was a young man," she said.
"Was it the money?" Mel asked.
"Yep," Cov said. "He never could hold onto anything he made."
"I heard he specialized in mummies," Mel said.
"Yeah? You heard that?" Cov laughed. Mel shrugged. "He did some real dangerous work in Egypt when I was about seventeen and eighteen. He started a bidding war between two big-wigs in the back alley trade over there. One ended up shooting the other over their disputes. His name got out. He put me through school on those couple year's wages. Every time he got money, he'd try to cash it in on something big."
"Is that how he got the name?" Mel asked.
"He got the title 'grave robber' long before he got into all that," she said.
"How?" Mel asked.
"He didn't have a degree. As a boy, he and his brothers used to run illegal trade across borders, and he used those skills to establish himself as an archeologist. He could get the workers and get himself into places no one else could. Other archeologists hated his guts," she said.
"They were upset his digs were illegal?" Mel asked. Cov huffed a sarcastic laugh.
"No, he did things on the level when he was young. He had dreams then. He did their work better than they did, and he didn't have the right pedigree."
"Unlike you?" Mel asked.
"Exactly. Bought and paid for," Cov said with a grin Mel couldn't quite read. "Eventually, he got smart and started selling his finds to other archeologists instead of trying to sell direct to collections. They'd pay him to establish their careers on his finds. I done the same myself a bit, when I was real young, before I got to England." Covington received her degree in England, though apparently she'd spent her summers roaming all through the British Isles.
"They used his work, but they called him a 'grave robber' all the same," Mel said. Cov nodded. She was scanning the wall, which was packed so hard it was like new brick.
"I'm not saying he was any better than any of them. He was no hero. Just not worse. He was never worse," Covington said. After a brief pause, she punctuated the sentence by smashing out a basketball size piece of dirt along with several smaller chunks.
"How do you do that?" Mel asked.
"What?" Cov said.
"Choose the right spot?" The next several minutes were filled with Cov's incoherent attempt to explain how to "read" a wall. Lots of pointing was involved and absolutely nothing Mel could discern akin to scientific reasoning. Mel finally just pushed her glasses up, pressed her lips together, and gave Cov a placating stare. Cov grinned with one side of her mouth.
"I guess you just get used to it," she said and turned back to the work.
Mel's thoughts drifted as she stared out over the Greek countryside as it passed by. How she was going to miss the work. She felt almost homesick now as they rode away, and then she felt a bit surprised to be traveling again with Cov. She still didn't know when they'd part ways, but she had long been prepared for their relationship to end with the close of the dig. That transition felt unmoored now. She ought to try to settle into the trip, but it was difficult for Mel without a clear end in mind. She would still miss being on the dig. She must have been heavy with the thoughts for a while, because Cov glanced over at her. She reached over and squeezed her knee, which made Mel oddly alert.
"You doing alright?" she said.
"Yes," Mel said, "I'm just going to miss the dig."
"Gotta be more work for you soon," Cov said.
"Probably," Mel said, "But I'll miss the digging." Cov smirked.
"Well, you can dig anywhere you want," she said. Mel was unable to make up her mind whether Cov was making a simple joke or a layered one and did not laugh. Cov sobered up right away.
"What will you miss about it?" she asked. Her brow knitted as she tried to understand.
"I just felt… strong, On the dig," Mel said. Cov was quiet for a long time, thinking this over, Mel felt sure.
"You know how to drive at all?" Cov said, catching Mel off guard.
"No," Mel said.
"You can learn to drive Jez if you want," Cov said. Mel was stunned speechless. She started blatantly at Cov, who seemed not to noticed.
"You must consider me a real friend," she said.
"Of course, I do," Cov said. This killed Cov's humor. Her tone flickered with a startled anger. Mel could tell she was hurt. Cov seemed uncomfortable, trying to iron out what Mel meant by the comment.
Mel couldn't think of anything to say. So she reached over and squeezed Cov's shoulder. That seemed to break the mood between them. Cov softened and the crease went out of her brow.
"Anytime you want," Cov picked up again. "She'll teach you how to work a lady." This time Cov gave a blatantly deviant grin, biting the tip of her tongue. She was obviously delighted by herself, as she glanced at Mel.
"Is that right?" Mel said, noncommittally, barely working to suppress her smile. She was lost more in the idea of driving the truck than the humor. It stayed with her all day as she started to notice Cov's body work and shift the pedals and gears, a kind of poetry, the machine an extension of her body it seemed.
Their days of driving passed uneventful and wonderful. They stopped in small towns where they met locals who warmed up to Cov and Mel quickly when they spoke Greek. They ducked into barely recognizable eating establishments and bars that had been pointed out to them. Mel was amazed by how little they paid. Even where Cov knew no one, she seemed to be adopted quickly. Other than that, they bought hardly anything. Covington grew so excited over the purchase of an old hand-scythe, Mel had to keep from laughing at her. It was some brand Mel couldn't remember, though Cov had said it several times. She wanted to ask what Cov planned to do with it, but she couldn't bring herself to rival her euphoric mood. Cov coated it with a thin layer of grease and packed it in piece of cloth, tucked into the bed of her truck among all her other strange gear.
They lay around the fire each night. This night, the air was warm and the sky remarkably clear. A large moon rose up over them. Mel looked out across the Greek countryside, illuminated and strange, thinking poetic thoughts about the landscape of the underworld. She thought back over the scrolls, silent for a while. Across the fire, Covington had her coat folded and propped under her head.
"What do you want in life, Cov?" Mel asked mildly. "What's the end goal?" If Cov was thrown by this, it didn't show. She seemed lost in deep thought a moment.
"To find something of significance," she said.
"More than the scrolls?" Mel asked. Cov smiled and laughed mildly.
"No, not something on a dig. In life, I suppose I mean," Cov said. Her tone implied a great deal that Mel could not tease out of this veiled sentiment.
"What could be more important than work?" Mel asked. It was a half-hearted statement, and Cov laughed.
"I don't know," Cov said.
"You want to keep working on digs?" Mel asked.
"Maybe," Cov said. "Sometimes I wish I could get hold of some divers, learn about ocean floors, and lead an exhibition off the coast."
"Find a whole ship full of treasure," Mel said.
"Well, sure," Cov said. "But finding the ship, that's the good part. All that vast ocean floor and shipwrecks like tiny dots sprinkled in it. It's the chase, not the treasure, I think, in that line of work. As a girl, I used to look at the stars at night and think they were a map – a map of the ocean floor indicating where all the shipwrecks were. I wondered how I could learn to read it."
"Some of the most incredible finds come from ships. But it's not about the artifacts, not for you?" Mel asked. Cov's hand raised as she gave an apathetic shrug.
"We can pull out all the beautiful pots and gods and gold and jewels we want," Cov said, "It's not gonna change anything. Seems like a funny way to try and get at money to me, compared with other things."
"You don't care about the potential profit?" Mel asked.
"Nah. I can hold onto money. I'm not like my daddy was. I got some put by, here and there, in, say, five countries now. I like the work, to be honest," she said. "I feel good at it."
"I'm sure you would be good at a lot of things," Mel said.
"Takes time to learn to be good at something, though," Cov said.
"So how come you cared so much about the scrolls?" Mel asked.
"They're more than nothing," Cov said. A long silence passed. "I'll admit, though, when I started out, I felt a debt to my father. I wanted to salvage his name. But that changed. I recognized it was all those haughty bastards back at uni, all those other archeologists whose opinions I was wanting to change. And I couldn't. I realized they don't matter one wit. There's a lot of people in the world who know more than they do. Most of them didn't get it out of book learning."
Mel sat, mulling over Cov's phrase. They're more than nothing. The expression was just like Cov, just how she expressed what she felt most strongly. Backwards, it seemed. She tried to draw up some fragment from school buried in her mind. Litotes, Mel remembered. She thought of Hamlet, which she'd read as a freshmen working on her undergraduate degree. Mel could not form the precise phrase. But she remembered how the plot was driven by Hamlet's feeling for his father, unexpressed, under the surface. But when he spoke of him, he was indirect. He was a man, Hamlet said of his father. I'll never know his like. She weighed the phrase in her mind, trying to adjust it to make it fit Cov, to say what she would want to say about Cov to someone listening. She was a woman. I've never known her like. She felt a kinship with Hamlet; why try to put into words what was impossible to convey?
Mel was growing tired, she could tell. She felt her thoughts spiraling out like a spool of ribbon, following long, flowing trails on their way to sleep and dreams. Mel slept quite heavy and always had the deepest, vivid dreams. She recorded them diligently in her journal. She often found insights and direction by sifting through her dreams. She wondered what they'd be tonight. So many strange thoughts milling about tonight, so much newness.
She dreamed of riding a horse through a field of high wheat. The sun was rising and a mist came up off the ground. She heard a sound beside her and turned to see Covington walking, wearing her work gloves with her sleeves rolled up, coat slung over her shoulder. She smiled at Mel – a contented smile. She was at peace. Mel looked at the sun. She knew, by feel, it was an ancient one.