by Veronica Montes

The archaeologist, I’ve noticed, cycles through the same two hundred or so photographs and stories. Tonight she will post a beaded dress from the reign of King Khufu, but this afternoon she has shared the ivory hair comb again. By now I have memorized the facts: the comb once smoothed the oiled tresses of a wealthy woman who lived in Pompeii during the second half of the first century AD. The handle is engraved with two peacocks and a wicker basket filled with fruit, possibly pomegranates. Parts of the comb are chipped away, and the only color still clinging to the basket and the peacock is vermillion. The vermillion, I recently learned, was made from crushed cinnabar, the toxins of which may have assaulted the nervous system of our lady, leaving her crumpled in an elegant death against the frescoed walls of her bedroom, her gold sandals askew, her servants screaming.

I strike a similar posture now, though my own walls are just particle board, and this one in particular, this wall next to the stove, is sticky with splattered grease. I run my thumb over the image on my screen, and I wonder. How can it be that this comb, this fragile object, this slip of a thing, still exists after two thousand years while you and your hulking presence, your sagging bookshelves, and your half dozen pairs of tsinelas (all black) have disappeared, leaving nothing behind to prove that you existed here at all? I would like to excavate the space around the kitchen table, to tap away at it with a tiny hammer and a chisel until I reveal the form of you drowning your rice in soy sauce, lifting the bowl to your mouth, and… oh. That’s it. I scoot on my ass to the other side of the kitchen. I stand and open a cupboard, and I take a picture of the dishes that are stacked one inside the other. I post it to my feed. You were here, I type. And then I delete it. And then I type it again.

Veronica Montes is the author of the chapbook The Conquered Sits at the Bus Stop, Waiting (Black Lawrence Press, 2020) and Benedicta Takes Wing & Other Stories (Philippine American Literary House, 2018). Her flash fiction appears or is forthcoming in WigleafSmokeLong QuarterlyCHEAP POPLost Balloon, and elsewhere.

An image of the comb described in this story can be found at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli near the bottom of the page covering the collection of Metal, ivory and glass objects.  (Click on the photo for more information and a larger image.)