I licked my first pot sherd a click downhill from a midden that looked like just another beige wash, even when you were standing right on top of it. It was a shallow arroyo, hardly that even, more like a crease on the desert, differentiated only by a depth of a few inches and a slightly greater prevalence of smooth round stones than the beige to either side of it.
“Just lick it. Tastes good.” The mustachioed man crouching in the paltry shade of a scraggly cedar had a habit of grunting his monosyllables. He was swathed head-to-toe in loose clothing except his feet, which were seated precariously in flip flops. Every inch of him, from the bandana tied under his chin to the frayed cuffs of his generic cargo pants, bore a layer of caliche dust so thick it cracked in the creases of his elbows and knees. His hat was felt, shapeless, and stained black from the brim to halfway up the crown, the sweat even now soaking through the dust, making a wide slick band of clay the color of laundromat curtains, circa 1980. He had clearly gone native… or whatever one goes after too many lingual assaults on ancient artifacts.
I held the little triangle of pottery in two fingers and hesitated. The silence was a pressure on my eardrums, disorienting me, making me wonder if I were going deaf, until a crunch of stones under the feet of my companion dispelled the doubt. Sound seemed not to travel well, as though the air were thick. It fell with a thud without echo and ended with an abruptness that tricked my memory; I wondered if I had really heard it or just imagined it. The pot sherd was less than an inch across and about a quarter-inch thick. A hint of a ridge ran diagonally up the back where the potter had failed to completely smooth the coil.
My mouth felt dry, but the longer I stared at the little piece of broken pot the more fascinated I became. Lick it, go on, I thought. It’s just dirt, after all, you ate about half a pound on your way up here, you ate a pound last night on the way into camp in that wind. Just do it, he’s staring at you, he’ll think you’re an idiot if you don’t, my god, doesn’t the man ever blink?
Tentatively, my tongue broke through my lips, sticky and chapping in the February sun. The tip darted out and brushed the sherd, a burst of chalk and alkali assaulting my nose. I shut my eyes tight and just went for it, swiping the flat of my tongue over the smooth, slightly convex front.
I peered at the little fragment. My teeth crushed grit as I tried to hide my disappointment. “Didja think a genie was gonna come out?” I looked at my guide. A wide grin cracked under the overgrown mustache, making him look a little insane. One eye was opened much wider than the other. “Lemme see,” he grunted, and I put the sherd in his outstretched hand.
It had darkened against my tongue, though it was rapidly paling again as it absorbed my saliva. With the washing a thin black line had become visible from one side of the triangle to the hypotenuse. That was all.
“Nice one. ‘Bout 1500, I’d say,” said the archaeologist, holding the sherd about an inch from his eyeball.
“How can you tell?” I asked, wondering if I was being had, if the whole thing was just a joke at the expense of the new kid.
“Paint,” came the grunt. “This is juniper. Don’t see that much later than 1550.” He continued to regard it for a moment, then licked it himself as I cringed. He continued his scrutiny for a time and then his eyes wandered to the ground, where hundreds of tiny nondescript fragments peeked from the soil and the occasional shade of weeds.
The archaeologist sat for a moment, the sherd cradled loosely in his fingers, seemingly lost in thought. Then he stood abruptly, tossed the little triangle aside and demanded, “You hydrated?”
“Wha…yessir,” I replied, standing hastily and brushing a cloud of caliche from my bottom. At least I thought I was, having drunk insatiably for the past two days. I knew I could never be sure, out there in the desert, so I wasn’t taking any chances.
“Good,” said the good Doctor. “What time is it?” I glanced at my watch. “About 10:30,” I replied.
“Good,” said the old man again, regarding me kindly, the hint of a wry smile playing at the corners of his crow’s feet. “Time for a drink then.” He rummaged in his pack and brought forth a plastic enema bottle with the word “Gyn” scrawled in black sharpie on the side. Catching my look of alarm, he chuckled and explained, “It’s a new one, don’t worry. They’re flexible, see? Easier on the contents. And the pack mules.” Another moment’s searching brought forth a pack of powdered grapefruit juice, government issue. The two were combined in the enema bottle and shaken vigorously. The Doctor offered it to me, and I only hesitated a moment before accepting it.
It was warm as bathwater, bitter, and gritty. The gin was cheap and did not blend well with the grapefruit. I drank deeply, half-turning to look out over the long mesa sloping gradually away below us. Row on row of juniper and creosote broke the beige to the far mountains, which seemed to hover in a pale haze of dust. It was monochrome; it was silent. I crunched a few grains of grapefruit and caliche in my molars as I handed the bottle back to the archaeologist.
“Welcome to the desert,” the old man grunted, lifting it to his lips and taking a few practiced gulps.
I turned again to look at the floor of an extinct sea, ocotillo stirring in the relentless sunshine like anemones. It’s going to be a long season, I thought, and a shy little grin crossed my face. I took the bottle back and drank again, looking forward to it.
– by Danielle Gallo