Still of Hylas and Heracles (Christopher Harris and Simon Turner, Sydney Dance Company) from Mythologia, by Jeff Busby

I.

I am standing in a grave, straddling a body of bones found in situ. I am not the one who found the grave; in fact, my team is the third group to have excavated and re-excavated this Grecian hill. Yet, somehow, perhaps in my macabre enthusiasm, I’ve been selected as the one to start digging up the skull. We’ll all take turns, our director says, so that everyone can get a chance to unearth part of the body.

Everyone from the dig team gathers around, their shoes loosening dust from the edge of the grave. I lean over, bringing my brush to sweep dirt from the cracked ivory skull. There is no time to be sentimental, to lock eyes with the empty sockets of this skeleton, to consider that the bristles of my brush are the first thing to touch her face in thousands of years. There is no time to catch my breath, to wonder if this Byzantine woman, her bones finally exposed to the sunlight, can see me excavating her from heaven. I have to remind myself that I don’t believe in heaven when hovering over something so holy.

In ancient times, the temple had been alive with the music of procession, the pouring of milk and honey libations, and voices singing in religious unison. The site was partially excavated twice before, once in 1917 and once in 1967—but these excavations were neither complete, nor well documented, so our directors were awarded a grant to revisit the holy site. The gray stone temple floor that we outline with brooms has already sat uncovered for years, has already been slept on by homeless Greeks, has already been written about in archeology textbooks. Some of the ancient pottery shards that we wash with toothbrushes have been found in contemporary strata, the residual evidence of previous excavation groups. But this Byzantine woman, she is the first body we find in situ, or in its original place. My hands are the first to lift her skull from the dirt since she was buried there, sometime during the Eastern Roman Empire.

We are a group of university students and alumni, each with an incurable enthusiasm for Ancient Greece. Some of us have long forgotten what it was like to worry about our GPA; others have reached the legal drinking age during a nine-hour flight. Two of us have just graduated college, prepared for a summer of getting tipsy off pitchers of mojitos in order to forget the stacks of job applications that were rejected months prior. We are bound together by the slender corridors of the hotel, by the dinner checks we split equally, by the way that we can resurrect the maps of ancient Thebes through the text of The Bacchae or Pindar’s “true seat of the seers.”

On the hill we are digging gaping tunnels around an ancient landfill, sifting and plucking faded coins from the dirt. Some of us take water breaks under trees, looking down at the streets that curve around our mound of American excavators. Some of us are trying to learn Greek by talking to strangers. Two of us will sneak out to this hill around midnight to make love on the floor of an ancient temple, recounting the story by the pool weeks later. One of us is falling in love with another, staying silent because I came here to love Greece, not a freshman—and to court one person when I could be courting an entire country, all its architecture and monuments, really seems like a question of numbers.

II.

There are thirteen excavators in total. Eleven of the team members like to mix drinks with hip hop until two in the morning; we all wake up at six to head to site. In the evenings, that leaves Jon and me alone to lounge on plastic tanning chairs as if we were arranged in a triklinion alongside Plato’s contemporaries in The Symposium, two barely-clothed young men with golden dessert wine in our hands.

One of the first nights of the excavation, Jon and I lounge by the edge of the pool, separating ourselves from the bacchanal. There is a silence between us, the start of our first conversation. Jon is unlike anyone I have ever thought to form a friendship with. He’s the kind of jock I might have spotted at the gym behind the glass wall of the heavy weights, if I had ever strayed from the rowing machines where I liked to picture myself oaring across the Mediterranean. Jon wears his black tank and athletic shorts a size too small, and a wooden cross necklace lays against his chest. When we first met, I immediately wrote him off with disgust. I even questioned his reasons for being here—a man with burly pine trunks for thighs seated at a table of scholars who have arms like tenuous olive branches.

Sitting by the pool, I drink down honey wine quietly, worrying that our conversation is going to tread near sports or cars or any of the other things that I assume men like Jon talk about. Instead, Jon asks a question I have long come to expect: “So, this is weird, but I have to admit that when I first saw you, I thought you were a girl. I think it’s your hair.”

I pull my knees closer to cover my chest. I respond the only way I can, “That’s probably because I was born female. I just started taking testosterone last month.”

His reaction is nothing out of the ordinary: the usual surprise, the usual “but your voice is so deep,” the usual “when are you going to cut your hair?”

I tell him that I am never going to cut my hair, not even in the face of this southern sun that melts our shorts into our thighs. Every morning at six, I will continue to sweep my hair into a top-knot bun, as my professor said Spartan warriors did to redistribute the force of impact from their bronze war helmets.

The wine loosens our conversation. The admission of my gender allows me to inch closer to him and say something I’ve never said after coming out to someone before: “You know I could have said the same thing about you.”

“What?” he asks, disoriented to hear that I could have possibly mistaken him for a woman too.

“When I first saw you, I thought you were a frat bro,” I explain. “I didn’t think we’d have anything in common.” Though our bodies evoke different responses from the world, they share one thing: both are mistaken for something we’re not. His body is the very image of masculinity, but the way he talks is its inverse. My body is unavoidably feminine, and the way I talk is a constant attempt to show that I’m not. He looks old for his age; I look young for mine.

He explains to me that these misconceptions happen a lot, and I explain to him that people mistake me for a girl a lot. His eyes carry the gentle grace of someone who is truly fascinated by all of God’s mysteries, including the kaleidoscope of gender. I’m sure I look incredulous, transfixed by the first person to wear a cross and look at me with real kindness.

I stare at the wooden necklace on his chest. I’m desperate to ask him about it, but I think to myself, not yet. Wait for a place that can bear the weight of that question. This place protects monasteries in its hillsides; wait for something like that.

III.

I’m often guilty of trying to inflict meaning on the world. I’m obsessed with the way architecture can influence the outcome of an interaction: How we become different people in different places. What conversations we allow ourselves to have on buses, at desks, in churches. In what spaces can we plan our grocery list out loud? In what spaces can we tell someone we love them? Can ceiling heights and curtain fabric and the placement of windows shape what happens within (their) rooms? Can we be made vulnerable, made to say a little more or a little less, because of the pattern of a wallpaper? Can the topic of conversation be orchestrated by the simple choice of booth or table? I try to sew together the right people with the right backdrop, so that like Odysseus’s wife, Penelope, I can weave my destiny on my own great loom.

Places also hold moments in situ. Like the Byzantine woman on the Ismenion Hill, moments can rest untouched for years until you push through the rotating glass doors of a pristine hotel lobby, trespass into a former front yard, drive past the iron gates of an alma mater. Instead of a desire to travel anywhere new, I have a consistent urge to return to the places I have already experienced, searching for memories my past self has knowingly left behind to fossilize.

There are some fossils that I’d rather forget, like ones tucked into the red plastic stools in my high school cafeteria, a building that has since been knocked down and turned into a glaring dirt patch in the congested Philadelphia suburbs. I have driven past this dirt patch on several occasions waiting to feel something, but without the brutalist cement exterior, no moments can be excavated.

But there is one high school moment I can scrape at, as I slide a thin copy of Plato’s Symposium into my luggage bound for Athens. My worn copy of this translation by Robin Waterfield was gifted to me by my high school friend, Ruth, who was raised the type of Christian who is forbidden from watching movies other than VeggieTales. In our cafeteria, she and my friend Hannah sit on red plastic stools, reading my first-ever short story, a sexy queer take on Romeo and Juliet. Hannah reaches the top of the page that describes the characters’ first kiss, slams down the stack of papers, and yells at me for exposing her to something like this.

My translation: She must be into it.

A few months later, Ruth hands me my first copy of the Symposium, and as I unwrap it from red tissue paper, I look up at her in shock. I know the thin artifact in my hands is filled with references to gay sex, scantily clad flute boys, and Socrates’s near-love-affair with the most beautiful man in Athens. I know this because I have read as much as I could about the Symposium online, but have always been too afraid to bring it home.

She smiles and explains, “I know you like Greek things and philosophy. So I hope you like it.”

I thank her and give her a hug. For the rest of the year I carry around the book like an academic pride flag, holding it faithfully at our school’s underground Straight Gay Alliance meetings, waiting for anyone to notice it, or better, to understand its contents. For the rest of college I’ll display the book in my dorm room, hoping that the book might work like an arched cathedral ceiling, warping the space around me and another Greek enthusiast, pointing us toward each other, holding that moment in situ.

IV.

Contrary to the modern depictions of Dionysus as a plump old man with grapes, in The Bacchae, he is a young, beautiful, androgynous god. The Bacchae opens with Dionysus’s descent to Thebes. He has, as usual, come to create chaos. Dionysus walks down from the sacred Mount Kithaeron, so dazzling and alluring that he is mistaken for a woman—a scene that made my heart flip when I was first coming out. The Bacchae is the book I read by the pool every afternoon because it takes place in ancient Thebes, where we are now excavating.

When we return from the dig site at the Ismenion Hill at four in the afternoon, everyone takes turns showering, blowing dirt out of our noses, and scraping our shins with soap. Jon naps in his bedroom, and I, often unable to sleep for not wanting to miss a moment of Greece, read by the pool about the tragedy that unfolds in the town below Mount Kithaeron.

As I thumb through the pages of the play, I turn to one of our dig directors, who has just begun to pour himself some wine, and point to the line where Dionysus’s messenger explains where he came from: “Great Pentheus, Lord of all this Theban land / I come from high Kithaeron.” I struggle to pronounce the name of the mountain and ask if we can see it from where we have been excavating.

He squints off into the distance, and in effortless monotone, points to the blue mountain peak behind the pool. “Actually,” he says. “It’s right there.”

V.

We are atop a mountain in Meteora, eating a picnic lunch. There are six monasteries in Meteora, each built on top of rocks that claw toward the unruly sky like thick fingers reaching out of the earth. Our taxi driver took several hairpin turns in order to reach the top safely. The pillars of rock are sturdy and yet they seem buoyant, breathtaking enough to fill the two minutes between when the taxi driver says “meteora, the name” and then “means rocks suspended in air.” We too are breathless, fingers curling at the edge of the car window.

We decided last week that we were all going to bring food to share. Dana, my roommate, hands out a bag of clementines. Chris, who had stepped off the plane speaking Ancient Greek to a confused taxi driver, sets down four cheese pastries that have slightly melted into the cardboard box. Jon brings out Nutella and white bread. We are sitting on the edge of the world, minuscule among mountains and surrounded by monasteries, when I realize there is no better moment to ask Jon about his cross.

His omniscient smile, the hymns echoing into the valley, it all feels like the kind of fate Euripides would force his characters to be guided by. Am I also playing the distant role of the playwright, molding the event to make it this way? Choosing a space that I think would elevate, perhaps even change, Jon’s words? I could not have had this conversation weeks ago by the pool, surrounded by drunk laughter and music cut up by old speakers. I want to be able to return to Meteora years later and uncover this fossil between us—exactly as history had left it.

When I ask about the cross on his neck, he looks unfazed by my question. “I’m surprised no one had asked me about it yet,” he says.

“I was going to,” I protest. “The first night we met, I wanted to ask you so bad.”

He grins and reaches down to turn the wooden cross over, revealing a reference to a line of scripture. He takes out a pocket-sized Bible and reads the verse to me. He removes the cross from his chest and explains: His mom has given him this necklace from her church. The congregation made hundreds of them, all with the same inscription. The crosses are meant to be passed on to whoever inquires about them. They cannot be given away until the question occurs naturally. They are temporary, not meant to live with the wearer for too long.

I feel baptized—me, secretary of the atheist club—when I place the cross around my neck. On my small frame, the cross, only a bit smaller than the size of my palm, looks funny, like it could be used to dispel vampires. We laugh about it, and I take Jon’s Bible from him, reading the verse that was meant for me over and over again. I write it down in my notebook. Despite feeling guilty for contriving the grandeur of this moment, something about it still feels determined, as if the journey of this cross had been inscribed into it at its inception.

VI.

While the rest of the team revels in Dionysus’s scripture, Jon and I go on walks in the dark around Thiva. We talk about all the buildings that are no longer there, and those that still are. We walk past Heracles’s shrine, where male lovers once journeyed from all over Greece to make vows to each other—an ancient form of queer marriage that would be stomped, twisted, and burned out of European minds for thousands of years. By the gate to the empty archeological site, I lean up against the wall and tell Jon that I need to catch my breath. I contrive this moment, wanting to exist here with him, in the footsteps of men sworn to each other thousands of years ago. It almost doesn’t matter if he looks at me with the same amount of romantic possibility, and in this moment he certainly doesn’t. There is no subtext under his words, at least not in the way I am accustomed to, the way that straight men talk to straight women. But there is certainly something that keeps us glancing at each other, a curiosity, a spiritual wonder. I stand by the gates of the shrine nervous that I am making the moment last too long. That the desire to be here with him will somehow reveal my intentions. Eventually we keep walking, and though the moment is brief, it is hard to pull myself from the gates of the shrine, another fossil that I know I will cling to. It makes me ashamed that this feels like a victory, the dizzying bliss that punctuates the end of a marathon. This addictive emotion will urge me to keep contriving these moments, writing Jon into the role of an Orpheus, a Perseus, a Heracles.

On our lunch breaks Jon and I rest our wheelbarrows upside down on top of the Ismenion Hill, the blue handles piercing into the dirt, our bodies seated in the curved tubs, looking through the pines and cedars at the sinuous streets below. He buys me frozen bottles of water from the convenience store and we watch them melt before our thirty-minute break ends. We try to be sociable with the others, but they only complain about the heat, so we corner our wheelbarrow thrones off to the side and talk about God. We imagine ourselves on a map, stretch our brains across the Atlantic Ocean. We talk about how Greek men hold hands to express friendship, about the various types of love. All of our theorizing on love forms an effortless, intellectual fabric—one that makes me feel free to speak honestly, but at the same time, makes it difficult to pierce the conversation by articulating my feelings toward him.

VII.

The three-month excavation finishes a week early. Four of us—Steph, Chad, me, and Jon visit Santorini. Having spent all my money on mojitos, we decide to take the discounted three a.m. ferry. While other passengers retire to their beds, Steph and Chad fall asleep in chairs. I tell Jon I haven’t been able to sleep because I want to be awake for everything. Without another word, he leads me to the bridge.

We stand with our hands gripping the slimy rails, salt water lashing our faces. Together, we look out at the black ocean, and I think about how the Argonauts sailed these very waters and how they wouldn’t have retired to their expensive beds like the other folks on board. I tell him I want to adopt a Greek hero name for our journey.

He asks who I want to be.

I lie, I say I don’t know. I wait for him to pick any Greek hero so that I can choose that hero’s male lover. At this point in our friendship, I can guess that he won’t catch my meaning, but like the copy of The Symposium I displayed in my dorm room for years, the part of me that wants more moments to fossilize is eager to give him the chance.

He goes back and forth about who he might be—Odysseus, because he loves music, and Heracles, because he looks like him. I urge him to pick Heracles, even though it is perhaps less accurate, because I know the name of Heracles’s male lover. Hylas was the young companion Heracles brought to sail with Jason and the Argonauts. Hylas was the boy who had been taken by nymphs, drowned at the bottom of a spring. Hylas was the reason that Heracles left Jason’s voyage, choosing instead to thunder through the island of Samothraki, hopelessly crying out his lover’s name.

“Okay, I’m Heracles,” he says.

“Great,” I say. “I’m Hylas.”

Without any acknowledgement, he turns back to the sea.

I no longer feel disappointment when these moments don’t quite strike a spark. I have learned how to carefully calibrate optimism and delusion. It’s a poor attempt at control. It’s a yearning for the silent, uncomfortable teenage boy years I never had, the desire to be perceived correctly. No matter what he’s said, Heracles or Hylas, Odysseus or Penelope, the sound of wooden oars plunging into dark water will still fill my head. I will still write an Argonaut for myself, and how happy I will be to stand next to someone who fits the role, even if they do not know they are playing the part.

On the bridge of the ferry, the wind tugs at our hair and clothes. I reach through the unfurling waves of my long hair to remove one of my earbuds and offer it to him. We have to press our hands on our earbuds to keep the music—“Yellow Light” by Of Monsters and Men, a twinkling song about one person using their light to guide another through a new experience—in our ears. Suddenly, Jon pulls the bud from his ear to unbutton his shirt and let the wind billow the fabric out behind him.

I look over at him in bitter envy. I have spent every beach day restrained by my chest-binder, barely able to breathe as I tread the oceans. On Greek beaches, every man wore a Speedo and every woman was topless. Needless to say, I stood out as the only one wrapped up in binder, a T-shirt, long shorts, and a towel. I had to cover myself in a year when Greek police were ordered to arrest transgender people on sight, but my fears would have been no different on American shores. On the boat, Jon extends his arms and lets the wind gust his shirt backwards, laughing.

I look sour.

“What’s wrong?” he asks.

“I want to do that,” I say. I turn around to see the empty deck behind us. “But I can’t.”

“No one’s up here,” he says. “You should do it. I’ll keep an eye out.”

Those words mean so much to me. They are the same words my best friend had said to me the first time I slept in an all-male bunk. In our bunk beds, I made him repeat them to me over and over again, “I’ll watch out for you,” in order to get through the night.

On the ferry, I unbutton my shirt, spread open my arms, let the wind give breath to my binder.

VIII.

Two months later, I’m in a pick-up truck with my friend Kelly who has just returned from Australia. She is driving me home from the King of Prussia mall. I’m still wearing Jon’s wooden cross draped around my neck.

The cross and I have sat in the back of the Orthodox church on Sundays, slowly learning the rituals we must complete upon entering—the kissing of the Theotokos, making the sign of the cross. The cross and I started taking Greek lessons from the Father there, spending Sunday mornings tracing our fingers along a foreign alphabet. Here, we feel so close to history, humming ancient texts. When we speak Greek, there is a collective shiver at the sounds, an awakening of ancestors. Together, we inhale the frankincense, we admire the gold leaf iconostasis, we pray for Jon, but amidst the droning hymns we never take communion. Even without belief in God, we marvel at the beauty of ancient traditions with the same reverence as when we turn to Plato. By going through the motions, we wonder if we are helping to make these traditions immovable, immune to the passage of time.

The cross and I have boarded the bus to our first university homecoming; we have danced the night away in old bars, kissed men and women we thought had forgotten us. Wearing the cross, I hugged my confused parents. I swam in the Rhode Island ocean, the cross tucked into my chest binder, and watched my Catholic grandparents look upon the cross with pride when I pulled it free once I reached the shore. I steamed clams alongside my bemused siblings and cousins, stirred a pot full of clattering shells. I walked the beaches at night, counting what time of day it would be on the other side of the ocean. The cross and I held each other tight. We really did. The cross told strangers the words Jon had said to me on the ferry, I’ll watch out for you. With the cross, I felt immune to the aggression and harassment that are regular even in a transgender person’s most romantic summer. Somehow, wearing that necklace, I felt too virtuous to be harassed. Much like the places that have shaped my memories, the cross has a transformative power, but one that I can carry with me.

“Can I ask you something?” Kelly says as she turns the car onto my block.

“Sure.”

She looks over at me, pursing her lips. I watch her watch the cross dangling from my neck. I have been to her mother’s house before, have seen the Jesus paraphernalia in the entranceway. “I’m just wondering, when did you start wearing that cross?” she asks.

“Thank God!” I laugh, clutching the necklace. “Can you believe that no one has asked me that yet? I went to homecoming, saw my atheist friends and everything, and nobody said anything?”

She looks puzzled. She asks again why I am wearing it.

I give her the explanation, the same one Jon gave me. I tell her about Jon, my own Greek hero, and the role he had unknowingly played for me. I tell her about how I have started going to Orthodox church, how I love it, because in the pew I feel more like a historian than a believer. I ask her about her religion, not the specifics, but why religion is important to her. She tells me about the death of her father, several Valentine’s Days ago, and how religion ties her and her mother to him, up in heaven. She turns the car off and we sit in that moment, frozen in situ, until I hand the cross to her and she drapes it around her neck.

As it leaves my hands, I find myself not relieved, but reluctant. It’s hard to watch an object that has lived with me for so long become part of another’s body. It’s hard to give up the power to transform space, to evoke holiness from any situation. When that cross traveled with me, so had Meteora, and Jon, and all of Thiva. Wrapping my fingers around it was like digging into the earth on top of the hill all over again. I know that the cross is not the only route to rediscovering these conversations. I know that one day I will take another plane to Athens, a bus to Thiva, or a harrowing taxi ride to Meteora, and excavate the memories of that summer. But still, I’m afraid to know that the memories imbued in that cross will travel through the hands of others, hands that might not be able to feel the power of what they are wielding. Like the layers of dirt over the Byzantine woman’s bones, the memories will store up inside that cross person by person. As I hug Kelly and the cross goodbye, I leave a fossil on the corner of 24th and Carpenter Street, one I know that I will return to many years later, exactly as history had left it.

George L. Hickman

George L. Hickman lives in Baltimore, Maryland. He is an assistant fiction editor for Barrelhouse, and his work has recently appeared in Heavy Feather Review, The Nottingham Review, and The Louisville Review.

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