Bones and Stones
Every student of history knows there are two truths: the written truth which is clean and tidy; and the real truth, which is messy and dirty. This is my truth—the one you won’t find in my textbook, Arabian Antiquity. This journal entry records what happened when things go wrong. I am safe now in my red-brick tower office at the University of Washington. It is December 11, 2018. My office doesn’t have a window, but I don’t mind because it is warm and dry. Four years ago, I wasn’t safe or comfortable in the Iraqi prison; I wished that I could die. I remember the bone-deep chill that came from sitting on the raised stone bed as if I were sitting there now. I wish that I could forget it. I hope that one day I can move on.
My past haunts me as I lie in this six-by-eight cell. A chill races through me and I shiver. It is so cold and I am so alone, I ache for memories. I remember fire: orange and yellow licking at wood in the fireplace of Boyne Highlands resort during a ski trip. I remember crackling wood and comforting heat after ski lessons on white powder. I shudder as I hear the metal gate clank down the row. Heavy footfall echoes through the long, empty hallway coming closer. I sit up and scoot back into the corner. Not only is my butt freezing, the cold stone against my back sucks what little warmth I have. I am Nina Anderson, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Washington. I am an American. My social security number is 528-04-0000.
As the heavyset guard approaches, I smell the anise—he drinks Arak and may as well swim in it. He keeps in in a flask in his pocket. I try to step away, but my surroundings prohibit movement. I retreat into memory. I remember kicking up leaves as my brother and I ran across the baseball field in fall, past the red-bricked Shay Elementary, and onto Lake Road to go to school at Harbor Springs High School. He always went first. Despite the chill, we wore shorts so we wouldn’t have to change when we got to the gym. I only complained once. West answered quickly.
“We’re from Michigan, Sis,” West said. He kept a fast pace, but slowed when I needed it. “We don’t get cold.”
I remembered daydreaming of hot chocolate with homemade marshmallows in my mind as we raced through a carpet of soggy fallen leaves before the sun came up so we could play basketball in the gym with the teachers. Mom never had the time to make marshmallows; instead, we drank Swiss Miss with white mini marshmallows.
Keys jangle. I cringe. I tuck my feet up and hold onto them, rocking to comfort myself, but each time I hit the stone wall I wished I could just disappear. I don’t know how long I’ve been here; I don’t know how long ago my land rover was taken. I wish we hadn’t taken that shortcut through Iraqi space. I wish that my interpreter and my driver were still alive. I wish I could join them in death—could wither away into the stone so they couldn’t hurt me. But my captors won’t let me die. I tried three times. Each time, they brought me back, healed my wounds, and then tortured me more.
As much as I wish I could escape cold situations, I can’t. My mind is drawn to them. I go into my mind as I did in childhood and remember another frozen situation. West and I would walk a mile home from work every day together. In the wintertime, when Michigan was covered in a foot or two foot drifts, I would dream of flickering fireplaces and create poetry as we walked home. We didn’t have a fireplace at home, but I saw them on the television shows which babysat us while Mom worked three jobs just to keep a roof overhead. It was one of those jobs which gave us the privilege of learning to ski at the local resort.
I grew up in a little town called Harbor Springs, Michigan. It’s in the Northern, Lower part of Michigan. If you hold up your hand and close the fingers so it looks like a mitten, you can see where it is: the indent between the ring and third finger is Little Traverse Bay. West would walk from his job at Gurneys to Showbiz Video where I worked. He always brought me a turkey on white with mayo and cheese and one of Gurney’s massive dill pickles. He ate a pastrami sandwich on rye with a bag of corn nuts. We sat in the back room of the video store surrounded by X-rated movies encased in black. We ate dinner together before Dennis came in to close.
Each day, Dennis would offer us a ride home. We always said no thanks; we’d be okay walking home. As long as we together, we were fine. I would put on the bright red coat Mom bought me from Kmart for Christmas. West wore a dark navy coat which matched mine in all but size. We gathered our things and walked over to the post office to get the mail, then headed up State to the big hill which was the fastest way up the bluff because the boardwalk which ran up the center of the bluff was impassable; they never plowed it.
West called it training for basketball. I called it the hill that hell forgot. Once at the top, we would wait for traffic to clear and then head up State Street. After three country blocks, we reached the house where the lilacs bloomed in spring, and turned right on E Lake Street and then left onto upper State Street. They never plowed upper State Street, so I followed in West’s large footprints. Three blocks later we were home.
Footfalls of a different nature came closer. I extend my bare feet out. My right foot is tingly and asleep. I force it to move. They will be here soon enough. I don’t know how long I’ve been here, or for how long they’re going to keep me. I just know that I can’t let them see me break. I will not illegally trade ancient artifacts. I will not do what they want me to. I will be loyal to my home and my profession. They will have to kill me first.
The door opens and I see my guard with another man. I groan. The last beating wasn’t enough; he had to bring a friend to help?
He tells me to stand in Arabic. I knew where I was based on his dialect—I was in South Iraq; my interpreter told me that before he shot her at the land rover. I shouldn’t be here. I try to stand, but it isn’t fast enough for him. He reaches me and hauls me to my feet. I hop on one foot as the other is still asleep. He tells me to leave the cell.
I pass the guard without making eye contact. That would only enrage him. I keep my head down and my eyes on the blackness of the floor. No light comes here except via the guard’s Energizer flashlights.
As I walk down the hallway, I see a side hallway that leads to the stairs he brought me down. I struggle to get away, but he forces me along the hallway. The second man shoves me into an interrogation room. The man with the truth serum is there. He is thin and tall with gold wire-rim glasses. He smells like peppermint and too much cologne. If the police asked me to draw a sketch of him I could, but these are the authorities. I hate him. Because of him, in one of the induced states, I told them they have an original artifact. I am forced to sit in the chair and they tie my hands to the wooden arms of the chair.
I will do everything in my power to resist. I will not let them they have an original Solomon treasure. I hope that I can hold out long enough to make it to the authorities and get the good guys in here—the people who need to protect this treasure and study it for everyone; not just pillage it. The antiquarian looters in front of me disgust me. I hope that history will forgive me for telling them what I have—I hope that the artifacts are saved from these monsters.
I ball my hand in a fist as he injects a yellow liquid into my right arm. I can’t pull away. The world swirls around me. The man asks me a question, but all I can think about is David and our first kiss. I wished I were back in his arms now. The guard slaps me and tries to get my attention. I laugh hysterically and he smacks me again.
I look down at my lap. I try to speak but nothing comes out. The doctor tells them to give it a minute and the serum will kick in.
I remember David. The day he said he loved me at my brother’s basketball game was amazing. The floors were pushed out on one side and we were in the upper part of the gym which overlooked the lower. Matthew Jenkins made a basket and put the Rams ahead 21-15. David put his hand on my arm and motioned for me to follow him around the large divider and into the gym. During halftime, the kids would come in here and play, but everyone was focused on the game so it was empty. The crowd thundered.
David bounced a basketball to me. I picked it up and dribbled, then took a shot from the three-point line; it sunk with nothing but net.
David clapped. I ducked my head and blushed.
I motioned to the area behind him where the crowd roared. I looked up and could see the scoreboard between the mesh of the divide—we got another two points.
“Look, I know we’re both going to go to colleges soon and all,” David said. He touched his dark black rimmed glasses and shoved them up on his nose. His hair was short and spiky. “I know you want to go to Michigan. I’ll be heading for MIT.”
“Is that what this is about?” I asked. I set my bag down on the sideline. “David, we can still see each other.”
“It won’t be the same,” he said. He stuck his hands into his pockets. “I just want to say that. . .”
The buzzer sounded, and I could hear the start of the last period. We were missing the most important game.
“Can’t this wait? I want to see the game,” I said. I started to walk over to the divider, but a hand on my arm stopped me.
David spun me around, and we slammed into each other. It wasn’t pretty. He kissed me, our noses squishing until he tilted to the right. His glasses bumped up against my cheek. I didn’t mind.
“I love you.”
Someone thwacks me right across my cheek, and it smarts but I only feel a distant throb because of the serum. I look up at the doctor who is my torturer. I wonder if he knows that there isn’t anything at this point that I will tell him, but he doesn’t care. He wants what he wants, and there isn’t anything I can do to stop him. He gave up on geniality a long time ago.
I wake in the chair. I don’t know if hours or days have gone bye. There is someone in the room behind me. I don’t know who it is. My mind swims in a mix of exhaustion and whatever is in that mix they inject me with. I grew up in a tourist town that was full of heartbreak. I couldn’t wait to get out of it. Mom died when I was nineteen. I didn’t go straight to college as my advisor suggested, or into the Army as my brother did; instead, I headed out on a road trip that spanned the entire continental United States. I couldn’t do anything to make me happy—I searched for months for the thing that would make me happy and didn’t find it.
Then I met a Yogi in an Ashram in Arizona, and he told me to go back to school. He seemed smart, so I did. And then I found something I wanted to do. I couldn’t focus on any one thing at first, but then skulls sidetracked me. The difference between a Neanderthal skull and a human skull is like the difference between the Hulk and Thor. One thing led to another and I got dual degrees in Forensic Anthropology and Ancient Studies. I became a bone hunter, responsible for helping right the injustice of the atrocities humans inflict on each other. I became an expert on the Ancient Middle-East.
I never went back to my home town. Now I wish I had. I wish that I could crawl back into that town and absorb all the comfort it could offer me. I wish I could go home. Here I am lost and wondering if I will ever get out.
I try with all my might to hang onto the person I am—the person I made myself into. She is lost among torture sessions and moments alone with guards. I wish I had the strength to escape.
The door opens. It isn’t my jailor—it’s someone new. He is thin yet wears the same uniform as my captors. I am Nina Anderson, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Washington and consultant to the United Nations on genocide. I am an American. My social security number is 528-04-0000.
The world may never know the truth about how I survived—how I escaped and set out on foot across the desert. I took a chance and crossed the desert alone. I found a group of Bedouins who were willing to help me; without them I would have surely died. It took us two days via desert routes before we reached Arar in Saudi Arabia.
When I made it back to civilization, they didn’t believe me at first. Then facts fell into place and the government saw what I did. I am not allowed to share this story with anyone—not even my husband, David. Yet I feel the need to write it down in case anything happens to me, or to the treasure I have worked so hard to protect.
I will always be grateful to the Bedouin tribe who helped me. Without them, I would be just another corpse in the desert.