Nico drove with one hand caressing the steering wheel, the very picture of the bella figura so fundamental to Italian manhood. His other arm lay along the seatback, his hand cupping my shoulder. It was a sparkling, chilly November morning. Leaving Genoa’s shabby grandeur behind, the westbound A-10 began to pour under the old Karmann Ghia’s wheels; Liguria’s terraced vineyards and red-tinged green forests flowed past. Every mile or two we plunged into the fluorescent gloom of a tunnel.
Nico whistled a cheerful tune. He radiated benessere—the beautiful Italian word for well-being, for body and heart joyfully joined—because this trip meant we would finally spend the night together. He didn’t share my anxiety about the trip’s outcome, and I didn’t want him to. In the month that we ’d been lovers, I ’d kept my balance by remembering the things that divided us. The things we didn’t share. Nico was in his early thirties; I was forty-seven. Nico had a fidanzata who worked in Argentina; I had been a widow for a year. Nico, a botanist with zero job prospects unless he left Italy, was treading water as a teacher of Italian; I was trying desperately to restart my career as an archaeologist.
I felt in the zippered pocket of my windbreaker for my camera, with its precious photograph of—I hoped—Bussana, the site we were heading for. After two and a half months of scouring Liguria, Bussana was my one real lead. My last chance to make some kind of discovery before I had to leave Italy. Two weeks more, and my hard-won research fellowship would end. My visa would expire.
Nico’s hand tightened on my shoulder. “Tutto okay, Kate? You do not forget something?”
He told a joke in Italian, jokes being one of his instructional staples. Italians have a saying: lovers make the best tutors. Nico saw all pleasure—laughter, a good meal, good sex—as motivating. “A man walks into a bar with a slab of asphalt under his arm and orders a beer. The bartender says, ‘How about one for the road?’ ”
I said, “A dyslexic man walks into a bra.”
It took a second for Nico to process the English. Then he let go of the steering wheel to high-five me. His laugh, deep and rhythmic and lingering, traveled through me like a drumroll.
When we ’d sobered I said, “Tell me about Bussana.”
That sparked a lecture, as I ’d known it would. Our route took us west of Genoa and the Centro Studi Internazionale, where I had a research fellowship for the autumn. We were driving along the Riviera di Ponente, “the coast of the setting sun.” Bussana stood high above the sea, almost at the French border.
Like most Italians, Nico was unable to speak without gesturing, which meant both hands left the steering wheel. “Bussana, it is ruined,” he said. “From the earthquake of 1887. The artists who live and work there now, they are . . . I forget the English word. People which live illegal in a place which is vietato. Forbidden.”
“Davvero? Okay, these squatters, they continue an old, old tradition of artists in this place.”
“Perhaps it begins in the cinquecento. Perhaps a bit earlier. Anyway, the village exists since many centuries.”
At the mention of the cinquecento my heart lifted. The 1500s were my period. The project that had won me my fellowship was to investigate a year in the life of the painter Sofonisba Anguissola. I thought of it as the Lost Year: in December of 1579, after the murder of her husband, forty-year-old Sofonisba embarked on a ship in Palermo, intending to return to her childhood home in northern Italy, but she disappeared. A year later she surfaced in Genoa with a new husband—the ship’s hotheaded young captain. They went on to have a happy and illustrious life for the next half-century. I ’d become fascinated with Sofonisba through her grave marker—my specialty is epigraphy—because of its loving tribute from her second husband. My fellowship project was to apply an archaeological approach to the Lost Year, which had historians stumped. And which—if I could find something scholars had missed—would make my career.
And which—though I told myself such thoughts were unprofessional—might offer a key to my personal future. Life after widowhood.
“Madonna!” Nico stuck his arm out the open window and shook it, palm up, at a blue Fiat that had cut in front of us. “Stupido! Cretino!” He grabbed the steering wheel again, then changed lanes and speeded up, sweeping past the Fiat. I breathed, deeply.
“Che cazzo!” Nico murmured. The week before, we ’d spent a lesson on le parolacce—bad words. Where English uses fuck, Italian uses dick. Cazzo lies at the heart of all Italian curses, except for those involving the hearer’s mother. And, as with fuck, you can throw cazzo into your sentence almost anywhere. I could see it was going to be useful.
After a half-hour or so, I said, “There it is!”
“No, cara. That is Bussana Nuova. After the earthquake they rebuild lower down, closer to the sea.” A snort expressed Nico’s disgust for such faint-heartedness. “To reach the ancient village of Bussana Vecchia we must ascend. Hold on!”
The off-ramp led to a narrow road overhung with trees. Suddenly we were driving up a mountain. Tall hedges beat against the car as we corkscrewed upward. Flung from side to side, I wondered whether grabbing the dashboard would seem like a lack of faith. Nico slammed on the brakes. His arm shot out to catch me a second before I would have hit the windshield. A piercing squeal as the car opposite came to rest inches from our own.
“Idiota!” Nico shouted.
“Idiota tu! Cazzo!”
Nico’s face turned red. I could feel him hold himself back. If I weren’t here, I thought, he ’d jump out of the car and go for that man’s throat.
The man—middle-aged, golf-capped, equally red—thrust both hands out the window and made a violent gesture whose meaning I didn’t know but could guess. Nico did the same, then backed up, moving over enough so that the bushes on my side of the road thrust in through the open window. The two cars inched past each other. When we reached the top of the road, Nico got out and slammed the door and stood there, still furious. I knew he thought the near-collision had made him look foolish, eroding the bella figura. Climbing shakily out of the car and looking down the hill behind us, I saw the spot where we ’d almost crashed. The frail-looking bushes on my side of the car screened a sheer drop to the valley below.
After walking for hours up and down Bussana Vecchia’s cobblestoned alleys, Nico and I sank onto the low stone wall of someone’s garden. Jade trees, palms, small evergreens, pots filled with cactuses of different shapes. Looking closer, I made out several sculptures half-hidden by vegetation: a bronze woman, a wooden centaur, a regal stone cat wearing a headdress of multicolored plastic pinwheels. I sat considering what we ’d seen of Bussana Vecchia so far.
Artists had reclaimed the ancient stone buildings, turning them into homes and studios. My archaeologist’s heart faltered at the sight of so much valuable evidence destroyed. As we walked, streets turned into steps, then back into streets again. Giant aloes (“Aloe ferox,” Nico murmured) crouched in crevices in the walls. Children kicked a soccer ball back and forth. Old men sat gossiping, sending wreaths of smoke up into the cold blue air. In what must have been the center of the ancient village, we came to a ruined church. Only the campanile still stood; the rest was roofless, open to the sky. High padlocked iron gates blocked the entrance, and a sign said vietato. Forbidden. We peered in. A peacock peered back at us, then spread its starry midnight tail. My breath caught, and Nico took my hand.
We ’d seen a lot of interesting and beautiful things. What we hadn’t seen was any trace of Sofonisba. Now it was late afternoon and seemed to be turning colder by the minute.
I pulled my camera out of my windbreaker pocket and studied, for the hundredth time, the painting by Sofonisba that I ’d found languishing in storage in Genoa’s Palazzo Reale. The painting, the museum’s curator felt sure, was of Bussana Vecchia. Looking at it was like coming to a place you’ve never been before but somehow know—a place you might have seen in a dream. The cottage with its whitewashed stone walls and climbing roses. The lion-colored meadow where it stood. The trees that sheltered it. The sunlit suggestion of other dwellings further down the slope.
What had I been thinking? Had I imagined that this very scene would pop up in the middle of the ruins, more than four hundred years later? That the archaeologist’s pre-discovery tingle would lead me, like a divining rod, to whatever Sofonisba had left behind?
“It’s hopeless,” I said. “We shouldn’t have come. It’s too late.” Everything it was too late for crept into my voice before I could stop it.
Nico looked at me in surprise. I ’d never told him about Daniel’s death; he thought I was divorced.
He reached across and took the camera from me. “You are tired, cara, and you are hungry,” he informed me. “It is easy to discourage when you have not benessere.” He pulled out a Swiss Army knife and swung around to a small evergreen and cut off a branch.
“Watch.” Nico breathed on his fingers to warm them, then touched the tip of one frondlike leaf. It curled slowly into a thin green reed. Then, one by one, the other fronds on the stem did the same. The whole stem drooped until it pointed straight down.
“That’s amazing,” I said.
“Thigmonasty. Movement caused by touch. Only certain plants can do. Look!” He flicked a finger at another many-fingered stem. The whole thing collapsed. “Calliandra surinamensis,” he said happily. “It is rare in Italy. Perhaps the microclimate just here encourages—”
Suddenly he swung around and stood up. “Time to go.” He held out a hand to me. Turning, I saw an old woman hobbling toward us across the garden, dressed all in black and brandishing a hoe. Two white geese tumbled before her, squabbling.
“You stole,” I said to Nico as we ran, hand in hand, over the cobblestones. He was still holding the branch. We were both laughing. “You stole from a crippled old woman.”
“Dipende!” It depends: one of his favorite expressions. Holding the branch high, he dragged me headlong up a flight of steps. “Things belong to the people who want them most.”
“It’s at the church,” I said. “That’s the logical place. There’s something there. Something she left behind.”
“Campari on an empty stomach—it has gone to your head, cara. There’s a reason those gates are locked. These buildings could collapse at any time.” Nico looked around the Trattoria degli Artisti, the only restaurant open. Its roof, our waiter had told us proudly, dated from the eleventh century. “This place, for instance. It could fall on our heads in the next minute.”
“Like life,” I said. My voice must have held some bitterness, because Nico raised his eyebrows.
“In Bussana Vecchia one goes back in time, è vero” he said. “But one is also in the present. The dangerous present.”
“Anyway, the church is forbidden.”
“Since when did that stop you?”
The food came, along with two kinds of wine. We ate in silence what our waiter, a short, smiling man with a limp, had recommended. Anchovy-and-olive salad. A plate of what looked like sparkling maggots. I demurred; Nico insisted. We were in luck, he said. The silvery, nearly transparent morsels were immature sardines, legal only a few months a year, and December (why would this be a surprise?) wasn’t one of them.
They were delicious. Tender, salty, touched with olive oil and lemon. Dessert—Ligurian sweet milk fritters—turned out to be Nico’s childhood favorite. He told me how they were a Sunday treat at the orphanage where he ’d spent the year he was five. “My mother got pneumonia. She was sick for a long time. She bribed the nuns to take special care of me by bringing them i gialli. How do you say it?”
“Ah, sì. I remember how the books vanish into their long black skirts—like a magician trick.”
“And your father?” I asked. My mind was still on the ruined church, or I wouldn’t have asked so bluntly.
“I never know—knew—him. Mamma always said he died before they could marry. But my aunt told me he disappeared when Mamma got pregnant.”
This was more personal information than Nico had imparted in the entire month we ’d been lovers. Looking down at the table, I discovered that while he was talking he ’d put a hand on mine and I ’d covered it with my other one. Now he put his other one on top. A stack of hands. His were warm
He fell silent. Waiting for me to respond in kind? If only I could, I thought, feeling for the first time a jolt of wistfulness. But what experiences could Nico and I possibly share? Daniel’s long descent into ALS, our marriage a decade of doggedness, the heartsore days, the wakeful nights—Nico was too young to know all this. Or even to hear it.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “About your father.”
“Don’t be, amore. La vita è così.”
That’s how life is.
When we emerged from the trattoria, a post-sunset sky the color of bruises hung over the ruined buildings at the street’s end. Nico murmured something in Italian.
“The . . . unraveling? . . . of the evening is ours?” I translated haltingly.
“Sì, cara. You did not heard this?”
I shook my head.
“It is Montale. The poet of Liguria. You must know him.”
The air held the bittersweet smell of frost. I zipped up my windbreaker. So there could be winter on the Riviera, after all? Sudden, probably fleeting—but all the harder for those reasons.
Nico put an arm around me. “It is very cold, no? Do you still want to look at the church?” When I nodded he said resignedly, “Va bene,” and produced a small flashlight from his jacket pocket. We hurried, arms around each other, to the iron gates of the church. They were higher than I remembered.
“Hold this.” Nico thrust the flashlight at me. Its beam picked out the padlock. He pulled out his Swiss Army knife, broke off the tweezer attachment and bent it into an L shape, then inserted one end into the lock.
“Have you got a spilla?”
“Una spilla di sicurezza,” Nico whispered impatiently. “To hold up clothes.”
A safety pin. I didn’t have one, of course. But wait. I pulled a bobby pin out of my hair and handed it to him. In the flashlight’s beam his fingers held the tweezer steady while he jiggled the bobby pin in the lock. “Eccolo!” A snap; then a screech as Nico pushed open the gates.
Hard to believe we were inside what had once been a church. It felt more like a courtyard surrounded by arches. The stones seemed to exhale dampness and cold. We walked the perimeter, the flashlight picking out rubble and clumps of grass growing up through gaps in the marble floor. Nothing else. No place for anything to hide, much less to remain preserved for centuries.
Something grazed my cheek. I screamed. Nico pulled me close. Then he laughed.
“What is it?”
Another dark shape shot past. In spite of myself, I let out a shout.
Nico swung the flashlight above our heads. Black lumps clotted the arches. “Madonna! They are living here a long time. See those stains on the walls?” The lumps pulsed and twitched, their motion making me queasy. And what if my scream brought someone to investigate? I tugged on Nico’s arm.
“Let’s go,” I said. “There’s nothing here. I give up.”
Nico did his best to comfort me, and for a while he succeeded. The bed and breakfast he ’d reserved for us was warm and welcoming, with a small brown dog asleep on its paws and a cheerful, plump proprietress. Our top-floor room, as Nico pointed out proudly, had both a fireplace and an enormous bathtub.
We sat in candlelight in the warm scented water—Nico behind, and me, with my back to him, between his outstretched legs. Nico’s erection nosed my spine. He cupped both my breasts in one hand while the other explored the wavering wet hair between my legs. I thought of his fingers on the padlock outside the church.
“What is the English name for this?”
“No—a light name. For fun. We call it grillo.”
“Sì, amore. This”—his fingers approached, then withdrew—“is your cricket.”
“Don’t stop! Go back.”
“I do not need to. It will come to me.”
My hips were already lifting. His fingers moved away. My pelvis followed.
“You see? It is thigmonasty.”
I woke before Nico and slipped out of bed. The cold hit me, prickling my flesh and making my nipples tighten. I wrapped myself in the spare blanket we ’d tossed on the floor, crossed the room, and stood looking out the dormer window as the sky began to lighten. I thought how every romance has its high point—after which it’s all downhill to the end—and you can recognize the moment when it comes, even though you deny it. I wondered: Was last night that moment?
I leaned my forehead against the cold glass. This view—what was it? I must be looking out the back of the B & B. Last night I ’d noticed that our street was at the very end of the inhabited part of Bussana Vecchia; now I saw a stretch of abandoned ruins, more crumbling and much more overgrown than those Nico and I had walked through yesterday. A deer emerged from a stand of pines. She stood still for several seconds, A plume of steam rose from the long grass. She must have been peeing.
The deer turned and ambled away. Farther off, ruins gave way to chaos. Tall grasses silver with frost; a tangle of underbrush and fallen trees. A chill struck the nape of my neck and fled down my spine. It’s out there! I thought. We’ve been looking in the wrong place. Whatever it is is in the part of the ruins that’s fenced off. The part marked vietato. Forbidden.
“It is the first time we have slept all the night together, amore.” Nico’s arms came around me, wrapping the blanket tighter. He rested his chin in the curve of my neck. “What are you looking at? Aren’t you cold? Come back to bed.”
I said, “We have to find a way to get into the forbidden part. If Sofonisba left anything, it would be there. Where no squatters have settled. That’s why it hasn’t been found.”
“What hasn’t been found, cara?”
I turned, breaking the circle of his arms. The blanket slid to the floor. “Come on. Let’s get dressed.”
Over breakfast in the sunny kitchen our proprietress answered my questions while Nico gazed sulkily into his cappuccino. He wore a green tee shirt that said, chi va piano va sano. He who goes softly goes sanely. Not advice I was following at the moment. But how could I leave Bussana Vecchia without exploring this one last possibility?
Sì—our proprietress told us—la città fantasma, the ghost town, was cordoned off from the rest. There was a high cyclone fence topped with barbed wire. If we ’d walked up from the new town instead of driving, we would have seen it. Sì—the area was dangerous. Even today, more than a century later, every now and then you could hear part of a building crumble, like the roar of distant lions. Sì—it was illegal to go there.
“It is absolutely forbidden. So when you go, don’t leave a trace.”
We didn’t know how to get in, I told her. Nico heaved a sigh.
Our proprietress would be delighted to show us. Anyone who ’d been a child in Bussana Vecchia knew the secret entrance. She would take us there. She went off to get a jacket and boots, “for the snakes.”
“Che cazzo!” Nico muttered.
“Dipende,” I said.
We set out along the top of the ridge, the sun at our backs. The tall grass glowed with frost. I shivered in my windbreaker and slapped my arms against my sides to warm up. This area must once have been a stretch of well-tended chestnut and olive groves; now, we waded through underbrush, climbed over piles of stones. The exhilaration I used to feel at the beginning of a dig took hold of me. I forgot the moment of foreboding when our proprietress pulled aside the stretch of cyclone fencing that long-ago children had cut and hinged to make a hidden door. I forgot that the running shoes Nico and I wore offered no protection against snakes. I forgot to look over my shoulder, to worry about what I ’d say if we were stopped.
Nico let me lead the way, making no attempt to help me over fallen trees or hold aside the branches that now and then slapped me in the face. He skulked along, the very opposite of the bella figura.
“We are breaking probabilmente three different laws,” he grumbled.
“Some laws need to be broken,” I said. “You believe that, yourself. What happened to dipende?”
“Boh! Dipende depends. Right now, we break the law for no good reason. And we do not know even what we look for.”
“Yes, we do.”
Sofonisba and her ship captain would have lived secretly until their marriage—which must have occurred without the required permission from various male figures, including her brother and the Duke of Tuscany—could be recognized.
“A habitable spot,” I said. “But set apart. A spot where someone might be discreetly hidden, where they could live in comfort without getting involved socially. Trees. Of course they can’t be the same trees now as then—but couldn’t they be their great-great-grandchildren? Water. Though that could’ve disappeared by now, too, or gone underground. A hill or a small rise, for safe outlook.”
Nico looked skeptical. He’s forgotten I’m an archaeologist, I thought.
“And something that might once have looked like this.” I pulled out my camera to remind him. He didn’t move closer. I had to hold it up in front of his face.
He snorted. “Signorina Cappicchioni said she didn’t know any spot like that.” It was true: our proprietress had studied the photograph of the painting and shaken her head. “And four centuries later? Impossibile!”
“You said the lives of plants unfold in a much slower dimension of time. Could you just look, Nico mio? Look for the kind of vegetation that would grow near a hidden water source.”
We plowed along, clambering over uprooted trees, crunching through the crust of black earth that sparkled with frost. Saplings parted to let us through, then snapped shut behind us. Sweet cold air and birdcalls and being in search of something vegetable gradually improved Nico’s mood. He walked more slowly, muttering species names. The wildness that surrounded us sparked a lecture on the superiority of plants. Did I know that some plants commanded animals? Their chemical signals could summon wasps to eat attacking caterpillars, or persuade a bee to remember a particular plant and come back to pollinate it again. And not only that—plants were indispensable to all life. “If humans become extinct tomorrow, the planet will survive. But if plant life dies, that’s the end.”
Ahead lay a rise, crowned with a copse of olive trees. Through their trunks came a gleam of something light-colored, close to the ground. I grabbed Nico’s arm. If what we saw was the remains of a dwelling, it was set apart from any others, just as I ’d imagined.
The overgrowth looked even worse than what we ’d struggled through so far: impenetrable, untended for centuries. Nico clicked his tongue in disapproval. While we stood there looking for a way in, a white owl flew out from among the higher branches of the olive trees. And then I felt it—the old familiar tingle. A needle-fine vibration, pulling me forward.
Nico said, “Let me see that photo again.”
I handed him the camera. He looked at the painting, then ahead.
“This way,” he said, his bossiness reviving.
I followed the path he tramped through the underbrush, catching the low branches he thrust to either side. The ground rose as we went, then abruptly leveled off.
There it was. Moss-covered stones overgrown with vines and shrubs sketched out a rectangle. I started toward the tallest pile.
Nico put a hand on my arm. “Pera volpina,” he said.
“What?” I tried to shake him off, eager to explore.
“Fox pear. See?” He was still holding my camera. He pointed to a tree in the foreground of Sofonisba’s painting: leathery heart-shaped leaves, glowing globes of fruit. Then he pulled me over to a tree growing near one corner of the ruins. It held no fruit, and only a few dry brown leaves clung to its branches. I would not have known it was the same tree. Nico looked at me, expectantly.
“Well, okay,” I said. “Great. But—”
“No, cara, you don’t understand. Pera volpina is a very rare species. If it is in your lady’s painting, and it is here, then it is possible that your lady was here.”
“Pera volpina re-seeds itself. Even for centuries. You cannot discourage now, amore. Go! See what you can find.” Nico handed the camera back to me and went closer to study his tree.
I fought my way through tangled vines, thistles, fallen limbs, to the tallest pile of pale stone. Up close I could see it was solid, not loose. A piece of wall, intact up to my waist. Stepping toward it, I saw something that made the back of my neck prickle. On the wall’s scarred surface, near the ground: a glimpse of color.
Rule One: Maintain the integrity of the site.
Every time you touch an archaeological site, you destroy. Even the most meticulous excavation inflicts damage. Ordinarily the first step would have been to get the government’s okay to do a site survey. Then, with some evidence in hand, I could make the argument for a license to excavate. But as things stood, I didn’t have time. Extending my visa into a permesso di soggiorno would take months of waiting back in the States. Unless I looked now, I wouldn’t know what I was waiting for. My career was on the line, but, more than that, I owed it to Sofonisba to give the world whatever she ’d bequeathed it, to be the living bridge between her then and my now. Because bridges—I reminded myself as I pulled out my camera—go both ways. The dead once wanted to reach us as passionately as we now want to reach them.
Perhaps they still do.
I remembered how my favorite professor used to inveigh against lone pot-hunters. Like them, I was without the proper tools—the Centro’s gardener had lent me a trowel, and I ’d borrowed a whiskbroom from the housekeeper, but that was all I had. Still, I was going to have to risk moving things. First I knelt down to photograph the wall, a close-up view followed by one that showed the surrounding vegetation. Then I started pulling away thorn bushes, so excited I barely noticed the pain when I grasped them.
Rule Two: Nothing should be removed from its location unless it is likely to be disturbed or lost before an excavation can take place.
I broke off the stoutest, straightest branch from a fallen tree and stripped away the smaller branches. With my crude pole I began to poke gently among the stones: lifting them away, holding my breath, praying not to disturb whatever they hid. My hair kept getting between me and the sun. I twisted it into a ponytail and tucked it inside the collar of my windbreaker. When enough stones were cleared away, I took another photo.
The wall looked to be half-buried. The soil around it had shrunk, exposing it, because of the previous night’s rare cold. Frost heaves, we call them in New England. The lowest part of the wall would have remained invisible otherwise. My trowel loosened the hard-packed soil, but I couldn’t dig deep for fear of damaging possible artifacts. Holding my fingers straight and tight together, I began to sweep away the crumbling earth. Slow and focused.
Archaeologists are earth-whisperers. Blue-green dirt can mean bronze; iridescence can signal glass; earth-encrusted pebbles can turn out to be tiles or coins.
The intoxicating smell of turned earth filled my nostrils. It was damp and clung to my skin. My hands already sore, I used my toothbrush to sweep the wall’s surface clean.
Yes, there they were. Colors.
I looked closer. Scattered patches of blue, rose, saffron. An embedded look to them—like faded frescoes. My heart began to fire with excitement. The sun at my back lit the wall. Hands shaking, I snapped a photo, then another. A shadow fell over me.
“Amore! You have found something?”
I stood up, arching my back, rubbing my sore knees. “Look.”
Nico crouched in front of the wall. “Madonna!” he breathed. It was the first time I ’d ever heard him say the word with reverence. He reached out a hand toward the flowering of ghostly colors.
“Don’t!” I exclaimed. “Don’t touch anything.”
He looked up at me. For a moment I thought I ’d insulted him, cast doubt on the bella figura. Then his face relaxed. “Certo,” he said. “How can I help?” His voice held a note of respect.
I stood looking down at my work. I ’d gone as far as I could. Or should.
Rule Three: No artifacts uncovered, regardless of their quality or nature, are of much use to archaeologists unless information about the excavation is recorded in a systematic manner.
I said, “These are fresco remnants, probably of considerable age. Whatever this site is”—but in my heart I knew, I knew this had to be the cottage in the painting, the place where Sofonisba had taken refuge during the Lost Year—“it’s valuable. It should be left to the proper authorities”—I ignored Nico’s snort of derision—“to uncover.”
I ’d already broken the law. A state antiquity permit or land-use license is required for any survey, testing, or excavation conducted on state lands.
“Context is everything,” I told Nico. “The site has to be recorded as fully as possible.” My mind ran over the necessary elements: site report; feature register; stratigraphy record; photo or sketch with scale sticks . . . Scale sticks!
“Nico mio, would you get down and put your hand next to the wall? Straight up, like this. But don’t touch it.” Nico squatted so that his hand was level with the patches of color. “Yes, there. Perfect.”
“Stinging nettles,” Nico observed, looking at the pile of greenery I ’d torn away from the wall. “Urtica dioica.”
Nettles! I thought. Of course. Often a sign of previous habitation.
I knelt beside him and leaned the camera on his shoulder to snap two more photos. Now the size of what I ’d uncovered would be clear. But in the field you always back up everything. Batteries die; cameras get lost; technology fails.
“Don’t move, caro,” I said to Nico. “Keep your hand right there.” I pulled paper and pencil out of my windbreaker pocket and made a drawing, Nico’s hand beside the fragments, each labeled for color.
When I ’d finished, we got to our feet and stood for a minute, looking—the two of us fused by the shared sense of being a living bridge between the present and the past.
Nico murmured, “Lontani andremo e serberemo un’ eco / della tua voce, come si recorda / del sole l’erba grigia.” “From far away we’ll come, and we will keep an echo of your voice, the way gray grass recalls the sun.”
“Sì, cara. Montale.”
Nico’s face held an expression I ’d seen before: wistfulness. Was he thinking of his own abandoned vocation?
He said, “I too have found something,” and pulled some greenery out of his jacket pocket. Wild onions, slender as grasses. He pinched off a snail the size of a pearl and set it on the ground. Then he wiped the dirt from an iridescent blister and handed it to me. When I bit into it its sharpness made my eyes water.
“You see,” Nico said, handing me another and biting into one himself, “you are hungry. We must go.” Bossy; bossy. But he was right. The sun had begun to move down the western sky. We ’d been out for hours.
Rule Four: Leave part of each excavation for the future. Later archaeologists will come who have more knowledge, better tools, more funding. You excavate for the next generation.
Meanwhile, though, you can’t leave the patient open on the operating table. Time to stabilize the site. First I took a couple of photographs from further away, to place the bit I ’d uncovered in the context of the rest of the wall. Then I replaced as much of the dirt as I could, backfilling to protect the part of the wall I ’d uncovered. If only I had a tarp—something to shelter it from the winter rains until it could be properly excavated.
I unzipped my windbreaker and pulled it off.
“Cara! What are you doing?”
I picked up the stick I ’d used to lift stones and broke it in half across my knee. “We need two more this length,” I said. Nico was already pulling another long, straight branch off the same tree. He snapped it in two. Together we pushed the four poles into the damp earth and stretched my windbreaker across them. Now there was a canopy protecting the part of the wall where I ’d worked. But how to keep it there through wind and rain? Nico grasped the cord that ran through a channel at the bottom of the windbreaker. Grinning at his own ingenuity, he took his Swiss Army knife, cut off the knot at one end, and pulled the cord free. He chopped it into four equal pieces. We tied the windbreaker to the top of each pole.
A breeze came up as we made our way, Nico in the lead, back toward the village. I felt deeply happy. Benessere. We all leave something behind, I thought—all of us. No one is truly lost. Everything I looked at seemed to shine with this knowledge—every blade of grass, every bramble, every fallen tree.
At last we reached a stretch where we could walk side by side. Nico shrugged off his leather jacket and helped me into it, then put an arm around me. I tucked my sore, cold hands into the pockets. Our joined shadows traveled before us, and the wind whispered in the long grass. I could hear in the distance a muffled clanking.
“Sheep,” Nico said. “The shepherd is bringing them home.”