A job well done.
I once had a job digging up the bones of dead monks for room and board. The pay wasn’t great, but it was a good job, and I liked it.
On the first day, a portly, pompous Frenchman named Bernard, the foreman, lined off a big grid on the ground with string, making six foot squares separated by one foot borders. Each digger was assigned a square. The job was simple: Dig the six foot square eight feet deep. You could not, however, use a shovel. The only tool you could use to remove 288 cubic feet of dirt was a small mason’s pointing trowel, which you had to supply yourself. Furthermore, you could not dig with the point of the trowel – doing so would be grounds for immediate dismissal. Instead, you had detect and carefully scrape away slight variations in colored layers of dirt with the edge of the trowel, a thin skin of soil at a time, like peeling an onion, scoop that into a pail, then empty it onto a spoil pile 100 feet away. We had three months to finish.
At first it was rather fine. This grid of squares was, after all, in the ruins of a medieval cloister courtyard, in the heart of small city in the French countryside. Roses bloomed in the courtyard garden. It was a peaceful sanctuary, walled off from the noisy city by an arched arcade gallery with thick stone walls and massive iron gate. A white marble Jesus stood in the center gazing at the sky, arms upstretched, adding a air of sacredness to the site. Despite an incessant pestilence of pigeons, and a bleeding heart wrapped in thorns on his chest, he seemed resigned but benevolent, as though calling down a blessing on the whole affair.
An odd effect of the burial and decay process is the jaw muscles and tendons give way before the soil caves in around the corpse, so the jaw falls open on the chest.
Day after day, every day, I scraped and scraped and scraped. But the trowels made a pleasant singing sound, and I could chat with the other diggers to fend off the boredom. There were Yanks and Brits and Frenchies, and all spoke English in their own national flavor, so the conversation was interesting.
After a few weeks, though, all the small talk was used up. Scrape, scrape, scrape. Boredom seeped in from the shadows. Jesus began to look worried.
Conversation grew sporadic, and a little twisted. It developed into something we called Pit Humor. A half hour would pass in silence. Then someone would remember something totally random from their past – free associating in the sun all day will do that to you – and just blurt it out. Invariably it came off funny, whether intentionally or not, and everyone got a good chuckle. By afternoon we were all punchy, and a single comment could set off paroxysms of gasping, uncontrolled laughter. Followed by long periods of silence. Nothing but the scraping of trowels, the cooing of pigeons. A perplexed Jesus.
Little by little, the squares grew deeper.
Walking back to the room was always interesting in the long French twilight, made more so by a desperate hunt for food. French food is rather well known for it’s quality, but there is never enough of it. Have you ever noticed there are no fat French people? At the end of the day I’d be delirious with hunger. The meager allowance for “board” didn’t buy much, and most of the shops closed early. After a week of it, Bread and cheese every night got very tiresome. Exploring down back alleys, I finally found working class cafes where, still dressed in dirt from the dig, I could get a decent meal cheap. The first time, I was so hungry and so happy I ordered two entrées and ate them both at once. This incited such a stream of blue invective from the waiter (my French is very crude, but he clearly said something disgusting about Americans, or about disgusting Americans, or whatever) that I determined it was better to eat dinner twice in two different places. This worked very well. It was a sort of Moveable Feast, and it was pleasant to watch the people walk by as night came on, which was a good thing, because it took a very long time to eat twice.
At the dig, things were getting a little strange. As the squares got deeper, the dirt borders separating them took on new significance. Eventually the holes were so deep we could not see one another, and the borders became the walls of isolation cells. We could still talk, but it required shouting, which soon became ineffective and too much work to bother. Day after day I would work in my little cell, scraping the grey-grey-brown-brown dirt from the grey-brown-brown-grey dirt, under the hot summer sun, always thinking about food. Jesus grew very, very concerned.
Each of the diggers began to go a little crazy, a little at a time. Now and then someone would stand up and call out, just to see if anyone was still there, like suddenly they’d become convinced they were all alone, and we would all poke our heads up to remind ourselves we weren’t. Humor took a dark turn. You’d hear a digger in the next pit start laughing suddenly, though no one had said anything. It was very strange.
Each of the diggers began to go a little crazy, a little at a time.
It got worse when you had a skeleton in the hole with you. I was the first to strike bone. Actually, the first to find anything at all after weeks and weeks of scraping away soil a millimeter at a time. Everyone climbed out of their hole to see. Bernard wandered out of the shade for a look. He gazed down into my pit, twisting his beard thoughtfully. Then he took my trowel, and gave me a paintbrush and a dental tool and said “Carry on! Allez! Allez!” and went back to the shade. The others crawled back to their dirt cells, disconsolate, wishing they had found something interesting. I was left alone with my new companion.
Most of us eventually found at least one dead monk. Once you did, the slow process slowed further, and you worked very close to the bones, still trying to remove just one layer of grey-grey-grey-brown dirt from the grey-brown-grey-grey dirt. Alone with a skeleton for 8 to 10 hours a day, every day, you become quite familiar with it, and your imagination wanders. You wonder what sort of life they led. Secretly, we all gave names to our skeletons. When you walked past another hole to get water or take a bathroom break, you sometimes overheard a digger and their skeleton carrying on a quiet conversation together.
An odd effect of the burial and decay process is the jaw muscles and tendons give way before the soil caves in around the corpse, so the jaw falls open on the chest. As a skull is uncovered, it appears the skeleton is locked in a perpetual scream, not unlike Edvard Munch’s 1893 painting “The Scream.” It depicts a sexless creature shrieking on a bridge under a blood red sky (possibly an effect of the explosion of Krakatoa). The setting is near a slaughterhouse and insane asylum where Munch’s manic depressive sister was interred, err, interned. It is considered a vivid depiction of a mental condition known as Depersonalization Disorder. So I named my skeleton Edvard, and Jesus approved.
It got a bit unnerving day after day, morning till night, at the bottom of someone else’s grave with that someone screaming at you all the time. You could tell it was getting to people when even the pit humor dissipated altogether. Whole days went by without a word from anyone. There wasn’t even the cheerful ringing of trowels to brighten things up, because now all the work was done with brushes and dental picks. Just that incessant screaming. It got so bad a couple of the Brits couldn’t handle it. One day, a slender girl from Cambridge named Georgia, with pale skin and dark eyes, was found weeping, curled up in one corner at the bottom of her hole. She didn’t show up the next morning, and we never heard from her again.
One by one, others disappeared, too. Later we’d get a postcard from them – from a beach on the Mediterranean, or an Italian village, where there were lots of happy, carefree people, and lots of food. We hated them.
If you made it all the way to the end of the project, without losing your mind, there was some satisfaction in knowing the job was well done. Those of us who remained got to watch as people who care about such things came and took some photos and nodded approvingly. Then a little bulldozer came in and pushed all the dirt back into the holes, and the ground was smoothed over as though nothing had ever happened, and I moved on to the next thing.
Fairing is a lot like that.
melonseed skiff, mellonseed skiff, melon seed, mellon seed