“The History Eaters” by Marissa James

They will not let us dig. Whether they distrust the sharpness of our eyes or the swiftness of our fingers, they hold the unearthing of our city beyond our reach. And yet, we cannot resist palming a chip of mosaic, a shard of pottery, when we see it. What can we say, we have a taste for history.

We carry the earth. Rocks and scree moved in baskets of a weave perhaps as old as the city. One of the dig team women says so. The one who shakes earth through a fine mesh on a frame, who mops dust and sweat from her brow before she sifts fingers through the shards of history that remain. We breathe deep of that ancient dust, hold it in our lungs, as subtly as possible. If they notice, perhaps they will forbid us from standing downwind next.

These are the words they use: The city is ancient. Our ways are primitive. The city has always been here. Our village, our culture, is unrelated, coincidental to the mound beside it.

If they looked deeper into the roots of our earth brick walls, they may say otherwise. But they are here to study the city, not us.

The city has been a legend for millennia, with tales told of its palaces of marble and porphyry, gardens of ebony, avenues lined with palms and citrus, public squares paved with glass and pearls and quartz. A place of beauty and learning and enlightenment once, in a time they cannot even conceive of.

We tell them we have always known these things. The history of the city has ever been a part of our lives.

They say we know what has eroded, in bits and pieces, from the ancient mound beside our village. The city is so storied, so grand compared to our dirt yards and huts, even in what little they have excavated so far. To them, we are dwarfs in the shadow of the giants of the past. Our ways demonstrate a weak simulation of the civilization that came before us.

Each evening, we return to our village and work the dirt from our hands into gritty flatbread that we share amongst all, young and old. Fragments of ceramic, or painted plaster if we’re lucky these days, we drop into pots of tea. The fragrance of that bread, that tea, is porphyry and pearl, marble and bronze.

We traverse history with our teeth, savor the centuries that unfold on our tongues. The voices of the past rise in our ears, songs and poems, plays and philosophies, which were never written down. The painted pathways that have faded to nothing, the tapestries that have rotted away, all show bright and new to our eyes.

We know the ways of the city because we live them. We have learned the weave of the past directly from our ancestors, the shapes of their vessels, the idiom of their tongues. Their ways are our ways. Their past is alive in our present.

For generations, we selected our tokens sparingly, so that our children might know the taste of the past and preserve it for their own children, and theirs. Now that the world beyond us has discovered it, every shard and scrap will be unearthed, dug out, plucked from the sifting screen, and crated away. When every fragment of our city has been carted off for display in glass cabinets, or storage in drawers in buildings in countries we will never see, when the city itself becomes a place for tourists to take pictures and spill drinks from plastic bottles, what will be left to us?

In the morning we return to the dig site, where they will dig and we will move the earth. The woman who sifts the earth is already mopping sweat into her hair. Her fingernails are scrubbed clean from the day before and yet she is eager to discover a world she has only ever touched in fragments.

We offer her a cup of tea and, when she smiles at the first sip, wonder if she tastes the history steeped within it.

As a fine art professional, Marissa James has wielded katanas and handled Lady Gaga’s shoes. As a veterinary assistant, she has cared for hairless cats, hedgehogs, and, one time, a coyote. As a writer (under Marissa James or Mar Vincent), her short fiction can be found in Flash Fiction Online, Translunar Travelers Lounge, Zooscape, and many other publications. She is a recipient of the Ladies of Horror Fiction grant, a Pushcart Prize nominee, and a reader for Interstellar Flight Press. She resides in the Pacific Northwest and can be found tweeting about all things writing @MaroftheBooks.