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The Archaeology Lesson

When they dig us up at reunion dinners and birthday parties, they will find the ruins of an unfinished temple, abandoned because its builder-priests had simply run out of time.

To be sure, there had been a deadline, though it had been pushed back and back by so many interruptions, until the priests simply agreed that they would finish in good time, eventually.

The diggers will climb the gentle staircase of the temple's foundation and note that early construction had been easy enough, with slabs of granite faith and the cement of ardent promises. There'll be the memories, too, painstakingly carved into the inner walls and preserved in glass jars, made airtight with fondness.

"Look here," they will say, "dirt and flaming petals from an old ledge, crumbs from a crispy catfish salad, pine needles from Sagada, a boarding pass to her hometown, a paper star."

Then, where the next walls went up, there will also be the first crack, hastily filled with panic's plaster.

"Here is where the morning priest had some sort of crisis, the kind that's notoriously difficult to avoid but always looks childish in hindsight. See the receipts from Butter Diner, and the keys to different houses across the city? She put off building to seal herself off in a room for 90 days, and the evening priest, annoyed by the delay, occupied himself with the blueprints of the treasury."

They will see that building resumed after the cloister was torn down, when the morning priest had heard silence without its walls as well as within. Its cracked stones form the base of the pillars, which might still have stood solid and majestic, eagles and lions carved into the basalt, if lightning hadn't struck one evening.

"Worn bandages, a broken crutch, an empty golden tin that once held methyl salicylate--and the story is here in this tear- or beer-stained scroll. The evening priest was abed for nearly a year, and building slowed to a near standstill."

Somehow, the foundations were strengthened, but nothing was to rise until the builders themselves were stronger. In the meantime, the morning priest made new blueprints of the city that would surround the temple: smooth streets for easy walking, simple houses that shared single courtyards, markets and barracks only as large as necessary, and parks larger still, for children and grandchildren who already had names.

"Here the movie ticket stubs mark the new year, and the evening priest vowed to continue their great work. Over the beautiful pillars, which they would finish first, he said there'd be a gilded roof to last for all time. But look, the limestone blocks never left the quarry. He'd received a regency, and crowns are heavier than hammers."

After dinner, they'll climb the steps, see the invisible pillars, and gaze from the dais over the trees that have grown where houses would have stood. They'll explore the niches, open the jars, and catalog everything carefully for display in their own faraway museums.

They won't know how we passed hammers to one another, admired our own handiwork--how I'd trace your eagles' wings with my fingers; how you'd caress my lions with your palms--and promised with tears in our eyes that this would be the greatest temple, a shining marvel to all the world. They'll see only the bones of the morning priest, sealed off in a stone room to die, clutching blueprints to its chest.

--
Cross-posted.

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