Authors: Lori Dillon
They stood at the end of what had once been a small side street lined with merchant’s shops. To the untrained eye, it was probably hard to tell because now only the top portion of the second story walls of the buildings peeked out of the earth. The rest was still buried nearly ten feet down under ash and volcanic stone.
Finally, she came back to where the rock had landed yesterday.
“Yes, this is the spot.”
“Are you sure?”
David shrugged and went to get the tent poles. She stopped him as he dragged them over to where she stood.
“No, set the tent up over there.” She pointed to a flat spot near a three-foot section of wall jutting out of the ground. “A lot of sterile dirt needs to be removed before we reach the artifact levels.”
“Sterile earth means the ash,
, and pumice from the eruption that contains no artifacts. Over twelve feet of it buried Pompeii, and from the looks of things, probably around nine to ten feet are still left to be removed here.”
His mouth dropped open. “You mean we have to dig down ten feet before you can even start?”
have to dig down ten feet before
can start.” Serafina smiled sweetly at him. “You picked the spot, remember?”
He tossed down the tent poles and stalked back to the supplies. No doubt he was looking for another rock to throw at her.
She bent to examine the ground David had just cleared outside one of the walls. She heard his footfalls behind her as he approached, and she braced herself for whatever smart comment he was about to make. She felt him squat down behind her, and a bunch of wildflowers appeared under her nose.
They were the kind that grew all over Pompeii. Vibrant red petals on tall weedy stalks sprouted in patches all over the ruins, even growing in the cracks and crevices of the stones in the walls.
She glanced over her shoulder at him. What was he doing?
He smiled, and for the first time, she really noticed his face. The skin at the corners of his brown eyes crinkled, and two small dimples appeared in his tanned cheeks. His teeth were white and straight, and wisps of black curls jutted out from under his hat.
Her mouth went dry as she looked at him, his face so very close to her own, and her heart began to pound.
How had she not noticed it before? David Corbelli was a very handsome man—and the last thing she needed in her life right now.
She reached out and took the small bouquet from him, the wildflowers already wilting in the heat. She stared at them, not really sure what to say. How dare he do something so sweet when she was all geared up to hate him?
David stood, putting some much-needed space between them, and shoved his hands deep into his pants pockets.
“So, what is this
and pumice stuff?”
Grateful for the change of subject, she set the flowers down and scooped up a handful of small pebbles. She shifted through the stones and pointed at a few tiny fragments.
are small pieces of glass-like volcanic ash.” She picked up a slightly larger stone, not much bigger than a marble and riddled with tiny holes. “And this is pumice. If rock can be like a sponge, this is it. Some pumice is even light enough to float on water. Along with tons of ash, this is what covered everything when Vesuvius erupted.”
He peered into her cupped hand.
“They all look like rocks to me.”
Dropping the pebbles back to the ground, she dusted her hands off as she stood.
“Well, they’re not just rocks, but I guess that’s what makes me the archeologist. I know the difference.”
She looked at David, expecting him to smile at what she meant to be a humorous remark. He wasn’t. Instead, he stared at her with intense chocolate-brown eyes.
“So teach me.”
Surprised, Serafina returned his gaze.
“Do you really want to learn?”
“Certainly. Since we’re going to be working together every day, I should probably learn the difference between a rock and an artifact so I’m not shoveling away something that might be important to your work.”
Her work. The words sounded oddly flattering to her. It was rare that an outsider validated what she did as work. Most women who dabbled in archeology did it only as a hobby—young girls from rich families playing at the excavations until the heat and hard work got to them or something more interesting came along.
She squinted at him in the sun.
“Fine. I… we should probably start by putting up the tent before we both wilt like these poor flowers.” She touched the toe of her shoe to one of the pitiful red petals lying on the ground. “After that, I’ll show you how to grid off the area we will be excavating.”
After setting up the tent, he started removing clumps of overgrown grass from the center of what used to be the road while she sketched on paper a plan of the buildings surrounding the site.
They worked in a silent truce throughout the day. He dug where she told him to and she didn’t comment when he took a break now and then to climb the tower and rest, even though she thought it odd that he would do something so strenuous to relax.
Once her anger faded, Serafina had to admit that being in charge of her own dig site was exciting. She chose where to dig, she would document every inch of the excavation, and she would get credit for any artifacts they discovered.
She was almost grateful David had forced her into this situation. Almost.
As the sun sank into the Bay of Naples, David and Sera packed up the supplies under the tent and headed toward the east gate. On their way out of the ruins, they passed
going in the other direction. He was struggling to push a wheelbarrow down the cobbled road. Inside was a large clay jug nestled in a bed of straw.
, you’re working late this evening,” Sera said. “Maria will be upset if you’re not on time for dinner.”
, but we just finished unearthing this at the
wants it stored in the
“Let me take it there for you. No need for you to eat cold leftovers because Maria is angry at you again.”
Chuckling, the old man eased the wheelbarrow down on its back legs.
“I would be very grateful. The last time I was late for dinner, she made me eat dry toast on the back porch.”
“Well, we can’t have that. Go on, get home while your supper is still hot.”
tipped his cap at them. “I’ll see you both in the morning.”
Sera adjusted her pack and reached for the wheelbarrow, but David beat her to it.
She stepped back, her brow furrowed.
“I said I’d take it.”
Ignoring her affronted look, he tossed her his pack and lifted the wheelbarrow by the handles.
“I’ll help. Besides, I’m getting pretty good at pushing one of these things around.”
She shrugged and heaved his pack over her other shoulder.
“Suit yourself. Do you know where the
She huffed out a heavy sigh, then started down the road. “Come on, I’ll show you.”
David followed behind, intensely aware of her stiff back in direct contradiction to her shapely, round backside. How could a woman who looked so soft on the outside be so cold and standoffish on the inside?
“So, what is this thing?” he asked, glancing at the large vessel to make sure it didn’t topple out onto the street. “Some kind of wine jug?”
She glanced over her shoulder at him, but kept walking. “Yes, that’s exactly what it is. It’s called an amphora. We’ve found many of them at the
She stopped and turned to glare at him.
is where I’d been excavating for the past year, until you came along.” She paused, and seemed to reconsider her words. “It was a neighborhood bar.”
“A bar?” He wasn’t sure if he’d heard her correctly.
“Yes. Well, actually, it was more like a café. It served wine and warm food. No seating, though. You either had to eat standing or take it with you. We’ve also excavated a brothel a few streets over, complete with numerous frescos depicting all the, um, various services one could purchase from the prostitutes there. I’ll have to show it to you sometime.”
“Well,” he cleared his throat and tried to control the flush racing up his neck. He couldn’t tell if she was flirting with him or not. This was not a topic he typically talked about with a woman. “That would definitely be something to see.”
She continued walking beside him, a smug smile on her face, and he couldn’t help but feel she was finding humor at his expense. That was okay. He would much rather have her laugh at him than be angry.
As they made their way past the empty shops and villas, he sensed the ruins slowly turning into a ghost town. The setting sun created long shadows, reaching out from dark crevices like groping fingers trying to pull him into a vacant alley or doorway. During the day, the city was alive with the sounds and activity of the archeologists, laborers, and tourists moving about. But now, as darkness fell and the ruins where once again left to stand by themselves throughout the lonely night, he could all but feel the dead preparing to come out from the shadows and claim the ruins for their own once more.
He glanced at Sera walking quietly by his side. The creepiness certainly didn’t seem to bother her one bit. In fact, she appeared to be almost serene in her surroundings. She looked so at ease in the ruins that he could almost picture her as a young Roman girl from centuries ago on her way to the market or a play. If he wasn’t so acutely aware of her being a living, breathing woman, he might think her one of the ghosts of Pompeii, too.
They came to an intersection, then walked along a large open area, the grassy lawn surrounded by tall white columns standing like silent sentinels as they passed.
“What’s this place?” he asked with a nonchalance that belied his unease at the silence threatening to envelope him.
“Hmmm?” Pulled from her reverie, she looked to where he pointed. “Oh, that’s the Forum. Two thousand years ago, it was the heart of the city. All day long, it would be filled with hundreds of people going about their business, visiting with one another, and politicians giving speeches. Slaves and wealthy alike could be found here side by side. Everyone had to cross though the Forum at one time or another.”
Yeah, I can almost see them walking around there right now.
Sera stopped at a sheltered area cut into a long expanse of stone wall.
“This is the
, or what we lovingly call ‘the pottery shed.’ It used to be a grain warehouse, but now it’s where we store some of the artifacts until they’re ready to be shipped to the museum or restored and returned to where they were found.”
The so-called pottery shed was actually a large recess built into three stone walls two stories high. It was open on one side and covered with a wooden roof which he didn’t doubt let in more rain than it kept out.
Metal scaffolding lined the three walls, its wooden shelves overloaded with a myriad of clay pots and amphorae. He could practically hear each shelf groan as it bowed from the weight of its burden. Between the wall shelves and tall freestanding shelves threatening to tip over at the slightest touch stood makeshift tables created from boards supported on wooden sawhorses. A menagerie of items sat piled on top, with many more objects shoved underneath. Every available space held some artifact or relic, leaving barely enough room to walk among them.
“A fine way to protect priceless artifacts.”
It was only after catching her sharp glare that he realized he’d said the words aloud, and for a moment he worried that he may have spoken them in English.
“Yes, well, government funding only goes so far, especially when there’s a war going on. We do what we have to do.”
David breathed a sigh of relief. All it would take to blow his cover was one slip of the tongue.
“Here, put the amphora on this shelf.” She indicated one of many shelves lined with identical clay vessels.
He did as he was told, surprised when the shelf didn’t collapse under the added weight. As he turned, he noticed a small statue on one of the tables.
He wedged his way between broken columns and waist-high pottery to take a closer look at a statue of a young child lying on its side. David reached out and ran his hand down the child’s leg, its surface bumpy and rough to the touch. Definitely not the smooth marble work of art he had come to expect from the ancient Greeks and Romans.
“I hope whoever carved this didn’t quit his day job, because he sucked as a sculptor.”
“That isn’t a statue.”
He glanced up at her. A sad smile tugged at her mouth, but there was no joy in her expression.
Setting down the backpacks, she walked over and delicately touched the top of the figure’s tiny head.
“It’s a plaster cast of a young boy who died in the eruption.”
He snatched his hand back.
“You mean this was a real person? A kid?”
Sera nodded. “Flesh and blood.”
He looked at the body cast again, now seeing the delicate features clearly for the first time. The boy appeared to be sleeping peacefully, without a care in the world.
“But, how… ?”
She stroked the child’s head, running the back of her hand down the boy’s cheek much like a mother would caress her own son.
“When Vesuvius erupted, small stones and ash fell from the sky for several hours. During that time, most of the people of Pompeii had time to escape, but many stayed behind thinking they could wait it out and the danger would pass.”
“That was stupid.”
She shrugged. “Not to them. At the time, Pompeii was still rebuilding from a major earthquake that occurred ten years earlier. Most of the people fled the city then, too, only to have to return with all their belongings. Much of what they didn’t take with them had been damaged or looted by thieves. I’m sure they thought this time would be much the same.”
He shook his head at the idiocy of it.
“I find it hard to believe they couldn’t tell the difference between an earthquake and a volcano eruption.”
“They couldn’t see the volcano. In fact, they couldn’t see much at all. The first phase of the eruption blocked out the sun, turning day into night. Even with their lamps and torches, they could only see maybe a foot or two in front of themselves because of all the soot and ash in the air. The ones who decided to stay sought shelter where they could.”
“Unfortunately for them, it was.” He watched her draw in a deep breath as if she couldn’t get enough air into her lungs. “The pumice rained down for hours, piling up twelve feet high. Some were crushed when the weight built up and the roofs collapsed on top of them.”
“Ouch.” David glanced up at the flimsy wooden roof over his head, now looking more insubstantial than ever. It wouldn’t hold back twelve inches of dust, much less twelve feet of ash and lava rock.
“Others were trapped inside their hiding places as the volcanic debris blocked up the doors and windows, and they couldn’t get out.”
“So they were buried alive?”
“Basically. Eventually poisonous gases seeped in through cracks and crevices and killed them.” He found himself holding his breath. Was that the faint odor of sulfur he smelled? “We usually find their skeletons huddled in the corners of buildings or in the cellars.”
“What a horrible way to go.”
“There are worse ways. Once the rain of ash and pumice stopped, those who weren’t trapped or crushed thought it was safe to leave and tried to escape the city then.”
“Do I really want to know what happened to them?”
Sera’s eyes took on a distant look, as if she were in another place, another time, and no longer aware that he was there.
“The mountain’s sudden silence was deceiving. Vesuvius wasn’t done yet. Up until then, she’d only been warming up. As the last of the citizens of Pompeii tried to flee the city, Vesuvius erupted with a vengeance, sending a
flow racing down the mountainside.”
She continued on, as if she hadn’t heard him. “The hot air and toxic gases hit them first, dropping the people in their tracks, blistering their skin and scorching their lungs, suffocating every living thing in their path.”
He tugged at the collar of his shirt, finding it hard to breathe himself as she told the tragic story.
“A shower of ash came next, covering everything in sight. Rain followed, turning the ash into mud that later hardened like a layer of cement over the victims’ bodies.”
David could almost feel the hot, wet ash on his skin, weighing down his clothes and clogging his throat.
“As the centuries passed, the flesh decayed, leaving hollow cavities in the ground where the bodies had been. When we find one of these cavities, we pour a plaster compound into it. Once it hardens, we chip the volcanic layer away and are left with a perfect cast of the person at the exact moment of their death.”
He looked at the child, a boy who couldn’t have been more than three or four. He had hardly begun to live before the volcano had taken his life.
“Poor little guy.”
She continued to stroke the plaster face of the child, oddly comforting a small boy who had been dead for nearly two thousand years.
“In the confusion and chaos, he must have been separated from his parents. We found him curled up in the doorway of a villa, all alone, lying there just as you see him now.”
He glanced up from the cast in time to see a tiny tear fall, leaving a sad trail down the dirt on Sera’s cheek. Reaching across the plaster child, he caught it on the pad of his thumb, startling her back from wherever she had been.
She stared at him, obviously surprised by the gesture. When she began to pull away, he stopped her by cupping his hand against her damp cheek. A wealth of emotions shadowed her face—shock, embarrassment, sorrow. Then she closed her eyes and ever so slightly turned her face into his palm.
David didn’t know what to say. What could he say? The reality of the eruption seemed all too real to him now, as if he had just experienced the horror for himself. He sensed she felt the same way.