Sutton Hoo (Chicago Quarterly Review, vol 14)
Martha leaned close to the glass case. Inside, in one corner, lay a desiccated fly, its wings caught in a puff of dust. In the middle of the case stood a low platform covered in beige fabric. On top of the platform rested a large black and red Grecian jar. Martha couldn’t describe its kind, or what it might have been, centuries ago, used for. She knew only that the jar fascinated her, and she didn’t feel bad for not remembering more from her undergraduate ancient Greek art class. She’d taken that class more than eight years ago. How often does one review the features–the handles, hips and shoulders, lips and feet–of Greek pottery?
Martha taught kindergarten, at a Montessori school located close to the University of Minnesota’s art museum. But today, Rosh Hashanah, was a day off. The school recognized the major Jewish holidays–Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Passover–just as it did all holidays, with a full school closure.
Martha walked around the case, encircling it. Its glass sparkled in sunlight from a skylight above, and a spotlight shone on the jar itself. The gallery was quiet; a guard stood sentry, when he wasn’t checking his phone, in the hall just outside. Occasional visitors strolled past the room, but apparently not interested in the university’s ancient collection, did not enter. Martha was alone with the jar.
The collection was good, but spotty. Even Martha, with her limited knowledge of museums, felt it was odd to pass in just a few steps the solitary Sumerian god statuette, a Minoan coin collection, and then confront the ensemble of three or four examples of stunning Greek ceramic ware.
This particular piece was described as an amphora. Amphora. Martha played with the word on her tongue as one might work a lozenge. It was reddish orange, with a band of inky black figures cavorting across its hip. How, she wondered, had its color remained so vivid for so many years? And the black figures–Martha leaned closer to make them out–so dense? She pulled back with surprise. The figures were all men. Decidedly male, they waved shields into the air, one or two brandished a spear, and all were naked head to toe.
Then she thought she saw the amphora list. It wasn’t possible. Yes, it was. It was a tiny movement, but the amphora swayed distinctly, from side to side. Horrified, Martha looked down and saw her two hands resting on the edge of the glass case. She must have pushed, when startled by the naked figures, against the case.
Time stopped. To the left the vessel leaned, to the right, it crested again. Then back to the left and this time–oh, please–the amphora moved less than it had before. Then to the right again, and Martha saw that the jar’s movements were diminishing. After what felt like eternity, it stopped and returned to its stillness of over two millennia. That Martha had nearly destroyed. Because of men. Or painted figures of men, naked and dancing. She didn’t know, and started crying.
Two or three tears rolled down her cheek. She brushed them away and took a deep breath. Nothing had happened; the amphora stood motionless, solid and unbroken under the spotlight. She hurried on down the row of exhibits, pausing at a large Anglo-Saxon cross studded with red gemstones. A shadow fell across it.
“Miss, are you alright?”
Martha looked up into the face of the guard. He seemed very tall, taller than when she, entering the gallery, had passed him, and younger. He looked down at her with green eyes, half hidden under a fringe of thick blond hair. Martha felt her heart pound. Had he seen her almost destroy the Grecian jar? She was certain no one had been close by; she’d felt utterly alone when it happened. But still, sweat prickled under her blouse.
“I’m fine.” She strained to sound upbeat. “Thank you!”
The guard continued staring, as if he didn’t believe her. “The ladies room is down the hall, to your left.” He gestured in the direction of European Painting.
“Thank you.” She wished he’d move away. “Thanks for letting me know.”
The guard shifted from one leg to the other, and Martha heard him exhale, like soft steam rising from a tea kettle. He’d placed his hands behind his back, the green shirt of his uniform pulled at the shoulder. Martha’s eyes were drawn to his feet as he shifted his weight back and forth. The amphora, she was reminded of its terrifying dance. Her gaze rested on his feet–too obvious under green slacks that hung short on his long legs–and saw that he wore work boots. The guard wore stained brown work boots. A giggle rose in her throat. By the time it reached her mouth, she’d transformed it into a large smile.
“It’s nothing. Just, look at this cross! Isn’t it…?” Martha searched for a word that would do for a cross, yet bring the encounter to a close. “Isn’t it grand?”
The young man’s long body relaxed. “Oh, it is, it is. I agree, it’s my favorite thing in the entire room. The card says its associated with Sutton Hoo, but I don’t know. Doesn’t make sense.”
Martha, astonished, stared at the guard’s face, animated now with color. He rattled on, something about ancient burials and hidden treasure in Britain, warrior-kings and such. He spoke with a lilting drawl she couldn’t place, and as he continued she stopped listening to his words and heard only their slow cadence.
Martha’s legs grew heavy. When would he stop rambling on? His hands fluttered, punctuating his topic, and a light odor reached her, reminding her of the out of doors, of sunlight and drying grasses.
Sutton Hoo. At first, she couldn’t recall it. Oh yes, the spectacular find in England, not so long ago really, of a lavish hoard of Anglo-Saxon treasure. Clearly he was hooked on it.
“And that’s, well, that’s something I’d give anything to find. I mean not here, of course. But when I get there.”
Martha found her voice. “Get there? Get where?”
“To England. A couple of us have plans to search the plains around, you know, it’s really an ancient burial ground…”
He straightened abruptly and scanned the room of the museum. No one was in it but them. But the hall, wasn’t he supposed to be watching that also?
He certainly wasn’t much of a guard. Thieves could have lifted precious works off the walls, and walked out with them in the time he’d chatted with her. He sounded like someone on the margins of the art world–not student or scholar, certainly not serious patron, collector, or archeologist. More like, she imagined, a treasure hunter. Like one of those men who dive for wrecks that have lain hidden in ocean depths for centuries, emerging from the sea with heavy objects streaming with salt water and encrusted with barnacles.
“Say, I’m supposed to be working. How about me and you meet after my shift? There’s a coffee house around the corner from here. St. Mark’s”.
“I know St. Mark’s.” Her mouth felt dry.
“Great! I’ll meet you there. I’m off at five.”
“Sure, okay, “ she replied quickly, and then wondered why she had agreed to see him.
“Super! See you then.”
He stepped back, looking at her from head to toe. “My name’s Christian. You’re?”
He gave a short laugh. “Martha! Martha’s the good one, right?”
He left her beside the case containing the Anglo-Saxon cross, and resumed his post in the hall outside the gallery. A man and a woman carrying clipboards hurried by, talking in hushed tones. Christian, appearing to keep watch over several life-sized sculptures, clasped his hands behind him and rocked back and forth on his heels.
At a little past five, Martha stood in front of St. Mark’s Cafe. One of its frame and glass doors swung open and out hurried a cluster of young women, talking and laughing. Martha moved aside to let them pass. How old was he, anyway? She had turned twenty-eight recently. Twenty-eight! She didn’t feel old, but lately she’d become more aware of her age.
The door to the cafe stood ajar; Martha grabbed its handle and strode inside. St. Mark’s was old and huge. Its ceiling rose high above, white tin tiles, ornately patterned and battered, covered it. It was one long cavernous room, filled with lopsided wooden tables and chairs painted green and black, that stretched beyond a bar and service counter. The smell of rich coffee permeated the place the way beer does a college bar. Customers gathered at the counter placing orders, others sat at tables with books or peered into computers. Several women holding ceramic mugs stood before photographs dotting the walls. A young woman led a crying child to the counter, coaxing her to try a blueberry scone. And everywhere there were men. Most of them were young, but many looked well beyond the age of students.
Didn’t these people have to work? Late afternoon on any other day, she’d be supervising the extended day preschoolers and kindergarteners, some so tired they’d crawl into her lap. Some days she wished she could lie down too.
She started at hearing her name called. Christian stood in the rear of the cafe. He was out of his uniform, in a red plaid shirt that hung untucked over jeans. She crossed the room, and met him next to a splintered table crowded aside a large pot-bellied stove. Heat radiated off of it.
“I thought you’d like sitting here. It’s getting pretty cold out there.”
“I haven’t seen one of these in years.” She remained standing, staring into the stove; small flames flickered behind its grating.
“Do you want coffee? A coke? What can I get you?”
He stood quite close to her. Christian was deeply fair, his lashes and brows a startling baby-white blond. A light stubble with a reddish hue lay on his cheeks.
“I’d like a drink. Wine. White, please.”
“Coming right up,” he replied and left.
She sat at the small table. It tilted when she placed her purse on it. Next to her the stove glowed. He was right; its warmth was soothing in the cool late afternoon air. She sighed. How long had it been since she’d been out with a man? A year or two ago, she saw Jeremy several times. If you could call her former boyfriend’s unwanted pursuit of her seeing someone. But excluding Jeremy–his attempts to reconcile didn’t count–it’d been more than two years. Absurd, embarrassing. What could possibly explain a woman her age not going out, not even once, in a span of two years?
She shifted; the wooden seat was unforgiving. Jeremy and she had been fools to think that they could rekindle what they’d had in college. They tried, believing that each of them had grown beyond the problems that had plagued them earlier. They hadn’t. Even from the start, Jeremy had been difficult–sweet one moment, sometimes, despite his brilliance, vulnerable. But the next, especially if he’d been drinking, hostile and accusatory. He never hurt her. Not physically; she’d never have stood for that. But, he lacerated her all the same with his anxious watching and cross-examinations. His fierce jealousy.
Why had he thought every guy she met was after her? She possessed little that rivaled her roommates, or any of the girls on campus. Barely five foot six, her jeans usually puckered at the upper thigh. Typically she worn simple tees and old sweaters. But her blue eyes, Jeremy reminded her, were large and intelligent, and her hair–mouse brown she called it–hung thick and long over her shoulders and in the sun shone with warm light.
Christian returned, carrying a glass of white wine, a bag of pretzels, and a small glass filled with something amber.
He slapped his leg, and laughed. One or two heads turned in their direction.
“Oh, I love that! Everyone thinks I’m just a kid. Get that from my ma, I guess.”
“How old are you?”
“Twenty-two. But I’ll be twenty-three soon, come November.”
Martha took a sip of the wine. She’d guessed he was young, but hearing it felt different.
Christian grinned. “Don’t worry, I’m legal.” He took a long swallow of his drink, and his accent, easy and musical, returned. He shifted in his chair, edging it closer to the table, and to her. “Perfectly legal.”
Legal. She didn’t want to wrangle with what was legal, and what wasn’t.
“Your accent, you’re from?”
Jeremy’s attentions–that was his word–had persisted long after she’d finally called things off. And had led her on one occasion to threaten calling the police. Then, one of the last times he’d come to her and would not leave, she did call the police–her fingers shaking so badly she dialed wrong numbers twice before getting through.
“But you won’t know the town. Outside of Austin, aways outside.”
“Oh? No, I wouldn’t. I’ve never been to Texas.”
Christian took another swallow. Wasn’t he drinking fast, especially this early? But he was big. Not heavy, just rangy. His hands were large–long, with fingers rough at the knuckles, the nails bitten. She could see his hands gripping reins, roping a calf. Texas and storybook images of it tumbled in her mind, along with the ruby studded cross.
“Hey. Where’d you go?”
She looked up from the stove to find Christian watching her, and let out a small laugh. “Nowhere, sorry! Tell me more about what you do.”
“I’m a guard. At a crappy little university museum.”
“No, no. The stuff about Sutton Hoo. Your archeological interests.”
“Oh, that!” Christian leaned forward. “That goes way back for me. I started searching for stuff as a kid. On weekends, me and my dad used to head into Austin with metal detectors, comb the parks, the big ones, after festivals and concerts. You’d be amazed how much we could collect the mornings after.”
“Sure, money, coins. Once in awhile a wallet, jewelry, sometimes clothing.” He smiled again, the same wide earnest grin. “But no 8th century gem-covered purses.”
“So, did you get to keep what you found?”
He tilted his head, and for a moment looked as if he wondered if she was serious. “No way!”
“Where did it go?”
“My parents, they kept it. They needed all the money they could get their hands on.” He drank again from the tiny glass he held. “Shoot, they found more money than they made.”
“Oh. So how did you get interested in archeology?”
Christian leaned back, stretching out his long legs. His boots rested alongside her feet, nearly touching. How incongruous the stained boots, their laces frayed, had looked before, under his uniform. Now they blended well. His plaid shirt, its flannel gaping at the elbow, hung open over a dingy white tee shirt. His jeans were ripped at one knee; a look, she suspected, he hadn’t paid for.
“When I was in my teens, a number of us started traveling. You know, on the weekends, no place in particular. We were just bored. But I’d picked up some National Geographic magazines, read about ancient Indian sites in the Southwest. One of my buddies, Hal, had a car. We started heading off to some of those sites.”
He stopped talking, and took the last swallow of his drink, dropping the glass onto the table with a flourish. “But, that’s all about me. How about you?”
“Yeah, what brings you to the”–he lifted his fingers to mime quotation marks–”extensive ancient art collection at the university museum?”
“Not much.” She cleared her throat. “I had the day off. I work with kids, I’m a kindergarten teacher. I studied art history here when I was in school.”
“So you’re a teacher.” He rubbed his fingers across the light beard on his cheek. “That suits you.”
She let that pass. “But, Sutton Hoo. I don’t understand.”
“It’s really not that interesting.”
“It sounded fascinating before.”
Christian rested both elbows on the table, and folded his hands in front of his chin. He pursed his lips, stroking his thumb across the lower one. He looked into her eyes, and held her gaze. “I gabbed too much in the museum.”
“It is a fabulous site.”
“Really? You want to know?”
“Yes, of course.”
He twisted in his seat, looking behind him, his hair so long that some of it curled up over his collar. He turned back to her.
“Can I trust you?” he asked, tapping her fingers wound around the stem of her glass. His fingers were warm.
“Can you trust me? We hardly know one another.”
“You’re right. That’s a ridiculous question.” Christian sat back and shuttered his eyes.
But now she wanted to know. What had he been going to say?
“Look…,” she began.
He rocked toward her, overshadowing the tiny table between them. It listed on uneven feet. He held out a hand, but left it suspended in the air.
“We took stuff.”
“You took artifacts? What do you mean?”
Christian looked away.
“You stole them?”
He nodded. “From sites. Some of the desert sites we visited. Haven’t since. It was a long time ago.”
He was twenty-two. Martha felt the table tilt again, in the other direction, and searched with her foot for the table’s leg, to brace it. She wondered if she had anything–a matchbook, a napkin–she could slide under it. She slid her toe across the cafe’s floor, feeling the edges of the boards, each uneven and higher than the other, none flush or aligned. The boards were so warped they reminded her of frozen waves in a pond, in winter.
“Why would you do that?”
“Martha, do you have any idea how valuable these things are? Not just to museums, but to dealers, collectors, shop owners. This stuff is bought and sold all the time. Sometimes it’s legal. Mostly not. Christ, most of the stuff in the big museums was stolen a century or two ago!”
“So you made money that way?”
Christian pressed his fingers to his mouth. “I got out of Texas that way.”
She swallowed, the muscles of her neck squeezed tight. “Was it that important to get out?”
“Was it!” He rolled his eyes, and settled back into his chair, crossing his arms in front of his chest. “Look, I don’t want to go into my life in Texas.”
What was she doing with him, having a drink with someone who pilfered archeological sites, a thief? She’d never heard of anything like it, not up close, in someone she knew. Had he gotten caught, been arrested? Or was this something he got away with, something that fell under the radar of the authorities in those areas?
When she’d called the police on Jeremy, he accused her of deliberately getting him in trouble, of wanting him to get him arrested, thrown in jail, even though he was only questioned, and no action had been taken. Of blackening his name, creating a record on him. Manipulating him, harassing him.
Her, harassing him.
She was a miserable judge of character. She started to gather her things, her purse and coat.
“You’re leaving? Why?”
She turned back to him, her hair swinging around her shoulders in a wide arc. “Why?”
“This will interest you. Really, I want you to know.”
She wanted to shout no, I do not want to know.
“I didn’t know what I was doing.”
His eyes darted away; red shone on his cheeks.
“I mean, yeah, I knew it was wrong. But.”
She wanted to tell him to stop, to just shut up. What business was this of hers? She didn’t want to hear another man’s sorry confession. She’d refused Jeremy’s. Jeremy’s final words to her had been nothing but more blame and accusation. “You’ll never understand, Martha. You’re the problem, not me! You’re out of line, and you know it!”
Now she sat opposite this man, this grimacing boy, seeking what from her? As if she could make it better. He was nothing to her, a stranger. She pressed her purse into her lap, wondering whether she could leave without making a scene.
“I knew it was wrong, that we were stealing. But I didn’t know why it was wrong.”
She twisted the strap of her purse around her hand. “How could you not know that?”
“I mean, I didn’t know that those things meant anything. I didn’t know what they were.”
Her voice rose. “What in the world did you think they were?”
“Those pieces of pottery, sometimes a whole one–they told stories. But I didn’t know that, not at first. I thought they were just things, stuff. Like the shit we found in the fairgrounds. I’m not saying anyone else, the dealers, the collectors, were better than us. Lots of them are crooks.”
He palmed the empty pretzel bag in both hands, then crumbled it into a tight ball.
“Look, I don’t know what I’m saying. But I didn’t know what I was doing, not really.”
She wasn’t convinced.
“Not like now.”
Martha pressed her lips together.
“Sometimes, now, I can’t believe what I did.”
She continued sitting silently, her fingers caught in the purse strap.
“Like you leaning on the case in the museum, almost toppling the amphora.”
Martha jumped as if she’d touched hot iron. “What?”
“The amphora. I saw that.”
She stared, her eyes riveted on his. “I didn’t mean to do that. That was an accident!”
She stood, unsteady on her feet. Tomorrow was a work day; she had to leave. She picked up her coat from the back of her chair. Christian stood and moved as if he was going to touch her.
“I need to go!”
He stepped back. She remained standing, gripping her coat. This was crazy; she’d done nothing wrong.
The people around them seemed very still; she knew they were listening.
Christian glanced at the table next to them, and whispered. “Look, let me get you something to eat. Please. Stay.” He spun on his heel, and walked to the service counter.
Stay? How dare he imply that what she’d done in the museum compared to what he’d done with his buddies, Hal, and all the rest of them? How dare he? She sank back down.
Oh, she’d known for years it was time to leave Jeremy. That she’d let their relationship drag, on again, off again, for far too long. She hadn’t known he’d resist so vehemently its ending, that things would rise to such an ugly pitch.
But that hadn’t been the problem, not the real problem. She hadn’t been waiting for Jeremy to change; she’d been waiting for herself to change. To reach a tipping point, to find the momentum to turn the corner. And she had. Bit by bit, she had found the determination, the hard edge she needed to no longer respond to him. To give it all up. To just stop. And to go on without him, alone.
And to do just fine.
Christian returned, and put down on the table a plate piled with two croissants, a muffin, and two large cookies. And two glasses of water.
“I didn’t know what you like.”
She plucked a croissant off the plate, tore it in two, and stuffed a piece of it into her mouth.
“No, Christian.” It was the first time she used his name. “You listen. You must have known what you were doing. How could you not? Do you really expect me to believe you when you say that?”
Christian jutted his chin to the side.
“You stole from those sites.” She tore off another piece of croissant and flattened it in her hand. “You desecrated them.”
Christian sat very still. Finally, he spoke. “I did. You’re right.”
She lifted a glass of the water, and and took a sip of it; her mouth was so dry her lips stuck to her teeth.
He continued. “I know I’ll never do anything like that again. Ever. I’m sorry.”
She stared, as if she were trying to see through him.
“I feel like such a jerk when I think about what I did. I just cringe.”
A jerk? He didn’t sound like one; she knew jerks. What he sounded like was something else, something she hadn’t known before. What had happened to him in Texas? Had he felt so stifled, as if being buried alive, that he had to flee, no matter how, to Minnesota of all places?
She’d lived here all of her life. Now, she rented an apartment in an area no more than twenty minutes from the house she grew up in. Where her mother still lived, alone since Martha’s father died, waiting for her call every evening. She had two brothers. One lived in Denver, the other had served in Iraq, and now lived in London with a woman he met overseas.
She sat up straighter. “I didn’t mean to do that in the museum.”
He moved the plate closer to her. “I know that.”
“I don’t like what you were implying.”
He picked up the muffin, then put it down. “Nobody’s perfect.”
She leaned back, exhausted. She clutched her coat to her chest; she was far from perfect.
The fire hissed, sending warmth to her face. So, he’d taken a few things. Old, broken things that no one, until Christian found them, wanted, or even knew existed. Who knew what he’d been fleeing from? Working with kids, even those from nice homes, brought her into more contact than she wanted with crime against children. They were so vulnerable, especially those in her classes. At recess, a small group of timid four and five year olds traveled after her, sticking close. Privately she thought of them as her ducklings.
Christian lifted his hand and placed it briefly on her arm. “Let’s drop this stuff about the past.”
Her past. God, if he only knew.
“Let’s talk about the future.”
He leaned forward, resting his arms on his knees, and looked up at her. The smell of grass and the outdoors reached her again. “All I know now is I just want to see if I can get to England.”
“Sutton Hoo, remember?”
She remembered what she could about Sutton Hoo. The art history courses she’d taken seemed a lifetime away. Jeremy, too, was disappearing. For now, at least, he was nearly gone. The only thing still vivid was the Anglo-Saxon cross she’d paused before in the museum. And Christian’s long shadow falling across it.
“They’re still doing some excavating there. I can’t do the fine stuff, I’m not trained for it. But maybe I could be hired in some capacity. Hell, I’ve even thought about volunteering. If they’d take me on.”
The jazz that had been playing overhead had stopped. St. Mark’s was quiet and less crowded than before; it was dinner time.
Sutton Hoo. She imagined the site. Its long open fields, verdant with hedgerows and placid sheep and dew. Where once, who knows, horsemen in heavy armor had ridden, battles had been fought, and treasure–gleaming jeweled objects, finely tooled leather, and sharp steel–had been buried, in damp grief, in ancient mounds.
She wanted to see this place. She wanted to walk where those people had walked, tilled, birthed, and died.
She looked about the room. Each person lingering at St. Mark’s seemed a mystery, someone complete and whole, unknown to her. Who were they all? She felt nearly mad with curiosity.
She leaned forward, as eager as Christian. “Tell me more,” she said. “Tell me all about it.”
(Photos Wikipedia Commons. Top image: replica of helmet found at Sutton Hoo burial ship, British Museum. Photo below: Sutton Hoo burial grounds.)