By Adam Ehrlich Sachs, from his debut collection of short stories, Inherited Disorders, which was published last month by Regan Arts.
Although the plaster casts of Pompeii’s dead, buried alive in the ash of Mount Vesuvius, have furnished archaeologists with a wealth of knowledge about the lives of Roman citizens, one particular pair of corpses, caught in the narrow underground passageway of the so-called House of the Cryptoporticus and identified by scientific consensus as a father and a son, has inspired only endless debate. Were the father and son trying to squeeze past each other, as some archaeologists believe? Or, as others maintain, was this some sort of embrace, something between a handshake and a hug? The infighting in the latter camp has been, if possible, even more vicious, with one faction deducing from a careful analysis of the arms that the father was initiating a hug while the son countered with a handshake, and another faction, from its own thorough arms analysis, concluding that the son was going in for the hug while the father reciprocated with a handshake, perhaps anticipating — this faction theorizes — that the son would find a hug awkward, not realizing — they theorize — that the eruption, the prospect of imminent death, had in a sense annulled the old conventions between them and made the son want, quite simply, to hug his father. Yet another contingent agrees that the son is going for the hug, the father for the handshake, but perceives signs that if the ash had caught them a moment earlier we would have seen the reverse: father going for hug, son going for handshake. The embarrassing failure of that embrace caused each party, these archaeologists contend, to abruptly and clumsily adopt the other’s strategy — i.e., handshake for father, hug for son — and this just happened to be their position when the burning ash buried them and they were immortalized.
Giuseppe Fiorelli, the architect who produced their plaster casts in 1863, was, incidentally, one of those who believed the two were simply trying to squeeze past each other. He was not even convinced they were related, or that they were men.