Elizabeth Schurman


I only took the everyday spoons. We had two drawers of silverware, one drawer for fancy silverware and one for “everyday” silverware. The fancy silverware had fan shapes on the ends of the handles. The handles were thinner. I took the everyday tablespoons because they were sturdier.  Fat, Puritan silverware.

I would have preferred to find pharaohs. My name was written on every card in every envelope in every book on ancient Egypt in the Corinth Elementary Library. Here’s what I knew: Howard Carter found King Tutankhamen's tomb. Tutankhamen left what most pharaohs left. His just happened to be overlooked by robbers until the age of photography. A chariot. Bread. Statues. That gold mask cover. Tutankhamen was a relative of Akhenaten, who was actually much more interesting. If I explained to my cousin Aaron how the ancient Egyptians drained the brain out through the nose before wrapping a mummy, he would be impressed.

Akhenaten was an early monotheist. When I went to an art museum I would want to see stuff from his reign. Pharaoh Akhenaten has a paunch belly, a realish face with a long chin. There was a moment in ancient Egypt when people were so much more like us. When they were drawn like us, at least more like us, they had an idea of oneness to things, and an idea of making them look like who they were, not their fate, their family, their place.

Some people said there was a curse on the excavators of Tutankhamen’s tomb. This was not true. People get sick. They die. It happens. I knew this even back then.

I grew up in Kansas. I knew I would not find Egyptian treasure. That didn't mean there couldn't be excavation. That we couldn’t find things.

At recess, I got some of my friends to stand between the teacher on duty and our work site. The teacher was walking around, holding her whistle, wearing her coat. Why were we kneeling? What were we up to?

We had found a dinosaur bone.

I had seen the shape out there in the field. I had told my crew. They were working with me, for me, my four best friends. A stringy­haired brunette from a crazy family, a sweaty­palmed white­blonde girl, a too­tall buck­toothed boy. The brunette’s father filled their entire roof, garage, and all their front windows with Christmas robots and lights every year. Every year they were on the local news. In high school, the sweaty­palmed girl would learn to smoke cigarettes with me, and I would visit her at the eating disorders unit of a local hospital. The boy was obsessed with the words “cumulus,” “cirrus,” and "supercilious."  And with Lawrence Welk.

"When are we going to get done?" they asked.

"I'm not sure," I said, and I said, "Before spring break, we need to get it out," I said, "We have to get it out before someone else finds it!"

They nodded. My crew.

Wedged stainless­steel spoons under the edges of the bone. Luckily both our fancy and our everyday silverware was practical, stainless steel, not silver. Bit by bit, we were going to get under it and pry it up. The dinosaur bone would be ours. Tablespoon by tablespoon they removed soil. No one used the tablespoons anyway. I always took a teaspoon for cereal, soup. It was what I preferred.

I took the spoons in 1982. In 1996, I told my mother why she had so few spoons in her drawer. What my mother had found was nice stainless steel spoons to match the pewter napkin holders she had bought at the outlet mall.

By 1996, they had torn down my school and built another one on the same spot, the original building being not good enough for our perfect town. We had gone to the building once before they tore it down. They had an open house. We admired the 1976 mural, two stories high, newspaper clippings from elementary school kids to celebrate the bicentennial. I remember the clipping that said, “My favorite subject is lunch.”

After the original school building was down, my sisters and I each got a brick. We used them as bookends.

I knew it was a dinosaur bone because of the shape, the femur shape, I knew. I had been to the Natural History Museum in New York, and I had seen the dinosaur skeletons. We didn’t have any in Kansas. I had seen them, though. I had been there.

It might, I allowed, be a horse's bone.

I brought my camera to school. A Fisher­Price 110 camera, blue and black, those 110 film cartridges were lopsided hourglass shape. It needed flash bulbs for indoor photos. Photographing the dinosaur bone was outdoors. I did not need a flashbulb, that tower of three flashes, light plastic that plugged into the top of the camera. That was good, I rarely managed to get hold of flashbulbs. I didn’t have money. When I asked my parents to buy me stuff, they ignored me so thoroughly I stopped asking.

I photographed the bone with a ruler next to it. I knew archaeologists did that. Howard Carter did that. The ruler in the photo to show exactly how things measured. I photographed the house that was across the creek, directly at the latitude where the bone was. The chain link fence. The backyard, the small ranch house with the horizontal siding that backed up to the school. So we would remember its location. Archaeologists did that, too.

I remember getting the prints back. I wonder if I actually sent the photos to the Natural History Museum in New York. In their archives, in some file cabinet up at 79th Street, they may still have my photos of the Corinth Elementary schoolyard, in Prairie Village, Kansas.

At some point, we gave up digging.

We forgot, maybe? After spring break, we came back to school. Or they got discouraged, my friends? I couldn't get them to keep going? Or I lost interest?

I had hoped people would know who I was. I wanted to be someone people knew. People would learn there was no curse when you found things.

In King Tut’s tomb there were 139 walking sticks and 50 linen garments, and two baby mummies who might be the king’s stillborn children. Books about ancient Egypt were one of the few places you could, as a child, read about dead bodies, it was supposed to be all right because it was so long ago and so far away. I was also terribly claustrophobic, and reading description of the passages penetrating pyramids and the rock faces of barren valleys scared me good.

When my grandmother died, we went to the mortuary to see how they had made her up. Her body had gone to the same mortuary where her father had worked. Having grown up living above funeral homes, she had a nonchalant attitude about death that was a comforting memory when she finally died. A man in a suit greeted us. Only at a funeral home were we free of selfies and checking in on facebook and people in casual clothes. He led us to my grandma’s body. He told us he had worked with her father. “That Art,” he said, “what a guy. Maybe I shouldn’t tell you this, but. He came by all the time after he retired, he wanted to keep a hand in, you know, and once he came in and said, ‘Did I tell you about my hernia?’ and then he pulled up his shirt to show me and I had to say, ‘Whoa, Art, I don’t want to see your hernia!’ Sorry. I don’t know why I told you that.” My mother and I assured him we loved the story.

My mother laughed when I told her where the spoons had gone, not that she didn’t wish she had the spoons back, she did.

I moved to New York City. I didn’t like taking the subway under the East River. It wasn’t a choice. That was where the subway went. Usually it was fine, I didn’t think about it, but this one time, as the doors closed at Wall Street, terror gushed up my throat and I leapt onto the platform. No way could I go under the river. No way. I paced between the white tile walls. I took a xanax. This happened sometimes. I took the stairs up and walked to outwalk myself, run from myself, on the sidewalks, before the lights changed on the tight streets, across the cobblestone.

I went to the Transit Museum. Their display took you through the digging of the tunnel under the East River. Several men were killed. One who was pushed up and out of the river with unexpected screaming force, lived. Their actual danger, my perceived danger.

It was February when we buried my grandma. “Where is Grandpa’s grave?” everyone said. A lot of us had not seen it. They were buried far from where most of us lived. Grandpa’s grave was covered by the soft floor laid for us, or some part of the tent that seemed to do nothing to break the cold. It was so cold my sister’s legs trembled as the priest rushed through the burial words. Scrappy snow blew on us. I wore a dress. We looked at our great-grandparents’ graves, four of them there, and then we ran to the car where the engine was still warm, and Grandma’s body was lowered and watched by a stranger.

The day after my grandma died, I said,”Don’t tell me that,” because my mother had said, “This is the first day I haven’t had a mother.”

Elizabeth Schurman has been previously published in The Kansas City Star, Kneejerk, Fugue, Review, and Present Magazine.