SHOVELBUM • by MacKenzie Tastan

Paul looked down at the screen in his hands and sighed. It was the last day of September and he could see the looming winter months of unemployment as clearly as he could see the storm gathering overhead. One bolt of lightning would deny him even these last few hours of pay. When studying archaeology in college, Paul was all too ready to see its pros. He used to dream about the places he would visit and the people he would meet. He’d never dreamed about months of food stamps when the field projects dried up in the off season. There was still work in the southern states, but there were always more job seekers than jobs. Plus those were the places the big snakes lived. This year he wanted to stay home.

He found himself an hour outside of Indianapolis on the last job of the season. The state wanted to extend the local highway system and their first choice route ran straight through an old cemetery. In the beginning Paul had assumed he would excavate lots of burials, but it turned out that a burial simply meant work was terminated and everyone was laid off most of the time. If the crew was lucky, an alternate site or route was selected and the survey phase of work began again.

At this point in his career, Paul had truly earned the moniker of Shovelbum. It was a term often applied with derision to archaeologists who mostly worked outside in the field as opposed to in the lab or the classroom. He’d been in the field for more than ten years and spent nearly all of them doing shovel test surveys. He could dig a hole to any specifications in under thirty seconds and they always looked beautiful and uniform.

Now he wore the label of Shovelbum as a badge of honor. He had earned it, but he had also earned his age. Sometimes a body’s age wasn’t just chronology. It was mileage, too. Paul could feel every shovel of dirt in his back these days. He could feel the storm coming in his knees. The longer he worked, the more it took a toll on him. Soon he would be forced to admit that it was time he found another way to support himself. The trouble was, he couldn’t really imagine what that might entail.

As a boy, he had been enamored of the Indiana Jones films, but his childhood dreams hadn’t come true in the way he expected. He rented a small apartment in a town that was about halfway from everywhere and nowhere in particular. He struggled during the field season to squirrel away enough money to pay the rent in the winter. He skipped lunches on the job and pocketed the twenty-five dollar per diem allowance hoping he could pay for heat in the winter. The field season was hard, but the off season was brutal.

He heard the first rumble of thunder and cursed under his breath. Then he saw something shiny sticking up out of the soil. It wasn’t obvious, like in the movies. The light didn’t hit it just right and show it sparkling to its best advantage. It was just something that didn’t look quite natural to a trained eye. Paul set down his screen and pulled out his brush, not wanting to damage whatever it was.

The more he brushed, the faster his heart started to beat. The shiny material was mica, a brittle mineral commonly found in small pieces. This was the biggest sheet he had ever seen in situ. When he finally pulled the artifact out of the earth, he was almost at a loss to describe it. It was a bird-shaped amulet. He’d seen pieces like it before in museums.

Most of the big mica artifacts had been excavated before archaeology became a science. In those days, it was glorified treasure hunting. Antiquarians with time and money had ploughed straight through earthworks looking for artifacts, not worrying about documenting their finds. He’d never uncovered anything like this himself before or met anyone who had.

He knew he should report this find to his crew chief. He looked at the creature in his hand and thought about the cold and hungry months ahead. As he thought, he drew the creature closer to him inch by inch until it was nestled safely in the side pocket of his cargo pants. Lightning struck nearby. Work was over for now.

MacKenzie Tastan lives in Vandalia, Ohio with her husband and pet rabbit. Her work has been featured in the Momaya Press Short Story Review, the Reach of Song Anthology, and Illumen Magazine.

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