The lid of the box falls into place with a thud. A loud clicking sound fills the room. The floor vibrates under me. The jars shake, but none give me cause to believe they will fall. I look around, watching, waiting to see what will happen next.
The bowls around the room, which held flames, now extinguish one by one. I'm going to be trapped in the dark! Not some casual darkness where my eyes will adjust and eventually make out a few shapes, but the real darkness of an underground room, impenetrable to even the smallest glimmer of sunlight. I try to recall how long it takes cave blindness to set in. Days? Hours? How long will I have until my eyes can never see again?
Why would someone select me to record the upcoming history of events, and then render me blind? Then again, if I don't find a way out of this room, starving to death will be worse than becoming blind. How long can I live on the seeds and such that I found? Are any of the seeds poisonous to eat? Will I be able to guess once I'm blind?
The only remaining firelight fills the three-tiered-bowls near the entrance. I expect it to go out, but it doesn't. The vibrations stop. The room is still and silent once more.
In the center of the room, there is now a chair, an instrument, and a large framed poster. These weren't here before. I recognize the depicted image on the poster at once. It's Uncle Sam.
The writing on the poster instructs me on how to play this
complex instrument. Apparently, it's originally from
What cause? If the cause is my getting out of this room alive, I'm devoted.
It seems that I don't need to play much. I need only manage a simple, short song. I managed Hot Cross Buns on a recorder in second grade, so how hard could this be?
I take a seat and hold the instrument as the poster suggests. Alright, that isn't so easy. I wiggle around in the chair, trying to get my stance to match the image before me. Uncle Sam stares me down, his finger pointing at me, making unspoken demands and judgments. I never noticed how intimidating that image was before.
Fingertips aren't used, as they were with that elementary school recorder. This uses the flat surface of the middle section of the finger. Seems I've been ignoring that area my whole life! Then the elbow comes into play. Who invented this thing?
I'm not certain, but I think this is actually meant to torture me. I reread the instructions, hoping for a miracle. An hour goes by, and another. Uncle Sam's eyes burn into my vision the way the old green C prompt burned into computer screens before screensavers and LCD.
My stomach rumbles. That isn't the note that'll save me. I force myself to concentrate. I don't need to master the union pipes, I only need to play a little. I can do this. I have to do this.
As another hour goes by, my fingers finally learn the grip well enough to land where intended. This is by no means mastery, but it functions well enough that I can play the tiny sounds I'm required to produce.
There's a clicking sound again. The floor vibrates.
Uncle Sam fades away as the poster lowers into the floor.
I'm alone in this dimly room without even those demanding eyes to stare at me. I set the union pipes down and run to the door. It's still locked.
What should I do?
( * Union Pipes were later renamed uilleann pipes. Both names start with U.)
The petition only needs 25 more signatures!
The lone box in a secret room filled with handmade clay jars. It's a large box, big enough that I could be looking at a coffin. The wood is dark, almost black, with red undertones. It's very shiny. Oddly, I can't locate a single seam. Maybe it's one large hunk of wood, and not actually a box at all?
I run my fingers along the box. It's soft, pleasant to touch, and feels cooler than the rest of the room. My fingers find a groove that my eyes did not detect. I feel along some more. It's actually a series of grooves, just deep enough for a fingertip to press. Once all five of the digits from my left hand are in place, the box starts to move.
It's a low rumble at first. Then there's a clicking sound. The top of the box separates, opening itself with the slow moment of great age. Balls and spindles rise up. It's magnificent to watch. Some gears turn slow, other gears spin faster than I'd have thought possible.
The fire that fills the nearest bowl cascades down a tube and eases into the centerpiece as it emerges from the box. I watch as the balls spin around that center. The first two have nothing orbiting them, but the largest two balls have an absurd amount of tiny balls circling around them. Wait... the third ball from the center... it has only one going around it...
It's a model of the solar system. That third ball from the center represents Earth, and the tiny ball going around it is our moon.
As the complete platform rises up, I see numbers at the bottom clicking by. Considering how elaborate this is, I'm disappointed that the date and time listed is wrong. Not by much, but still.
I pull my hand away. The box eases itself shut. I'm no closer to finding out my mission, or finding a way out of here.
I head to the next area of the room. There's another grouping of clay jars. Some of these are as big as I am, and some are as small as newborn kitten. There are at least fifty jars here. What should I except to find now? Assuming that these people from the past are the ones who put them here, what could they contain? Will they hold my mission, which the letter spoke about? Could they contain a way to get out of here?
The smaller jars are on shelves. I start there. The lids are well fitted, and need to be turned to come off. When did the idea of a screw top come to the world? It feels more amazing on a handcrafted clay jar than it ever did on a molded plastic bottle. Inside the first jar is a red powder. It smells wonderful. The next jar contains a brown powder. The jar after that has little round balls.
Ah-- ahhhh--ahhhhhh-- CHOOOO!
Peppercorns. Potent enough to make me sneeze, even after being down here for decades. I find another jar with cinnamon, and one with nuts. I step away from the jars on shelves and proceed to the larger ones. There are white crystals in the first. The jar depicts water leaving an area, and people harvesting white crystals. I take one crystal from the jar and give it a lick. Yup, it's salt. A jar large enough to hold a grown person, and it's filled with salt. I open a few more jars to find different colors of salt.
I guess those who plan to return don't have high blood pressure problems.
Another jar has long green stalks, which are wrapped in some sort of waxy coating. It doesn't make much sense, until I come to the smaller jar, which contains raw sugar. Ah, they were keeping canes!
I poke through the medium sized jars last. These all have seeds in them. Some I recognize: pumpkin, sunflower, tomato. The others I don't. Are these preparations to start farms?
The other side of the room had jars filled with gold, and this side has jars filled with seeds. Who stores these types of things together?
An even bigger mystery catches my eye. In a secret room filled with jars, I've just spotted the lone box. What could be inside of that?
There, on the next page, is what looks like the answer I sought when I was told by the elders that the Crow declared I would spend today going through a bunch of old stuff in secret room entered through a basement. The page reads:
Fairest Greetings from the past.
You are reading this because you have been selected to make preparations for our return. The crystal can only activate if at least one of us intends to reside near this location. Perhaps you question the reason behind leaving this answer at the back of the room. It is simple, really. You began today believing that this answer was the destination. The sooner you arrived at the destination, the sooner the journey would end. Had you read this note upon entering this room, your curiosity might not have served the intended purpose. I needed you to want to know more. This note is not your destination. This is your invitation to begin the real journey, as others have before you.
While in service to us, you will uncover unexpected truths. Consider all that you have already seen in this room today. No one is better equipped to reveal the past then those who lived it. We do not return only to reminisce though. Where we appear, notable change happens. You are about to live through a new chapter of history worth recording.
That will be your primary job. As you will soon see, others have filled rooms like this one with true accounts of our roles in events. Leaders decide what their subjects will learn, so we prefer to keep our own records. Almost every leader who was not one of us has been unaware of our existence. They do not know that we are the puppet masters pulling the strings, deciding the outcome. What right do we have to interfere? Age.
We were here before man. We will be here after man. The whole of human existence has been shorter to us than the lifespan of a Mayfly is to you. Like insects, certain leaders of civilizations have acted as if unaware of the greater scheme. There was a time when the people begged us to step in. The requests for our help may have stopped, but our role remains. We will do what we must, as we always have. In exchange for recording this, you will be guaranteed safety and life.
Every era throughout history, someone selected, as you have been, suggests that the weapons now are too powerful to make such a promise. So I will say it again- we were here before humans, we will be here after them. Your first assignment is recorded elsewhere in this room. It is in a vessel you could not have opened before you opened this one. That is the only direction I can offer.
Regards, Thanks, and Best Wishes from 1776
I guess I'm not done searching through jars.
A list of seven of something- brought to you on Sunday. What can you add?
This list is brought to you by J Lenni Dorner, J's assistant, J's friends Seth and Jessica, and J's brother. Surf back next week when we'll show how we'd make it mythbusting issue.
A small clay jar with a broken lid catches my attention. This is the first sign of damage that I've discovered in this room. I carefully open it and peer inside. There are two pieces of paper, rolled up together and tied with a red satin bow. I carefully untie and unroll. The old paper is fragile, cracking in my hands. Most of the ink has worn away from the first page. All that remains on this sheet are four stanzas, a quatrain:
They came the same as every other
They lived, they grew, they bred
But Death would trade them to another
Which is why their legend spread
I flip to the next page. I think this is what I was sent down here to find...
The large stone mostly depicts people. I'm not sure that I understand the meaning of what is drawn though. There's a person on a large, mostly dark, round ball that reminds me of the moon. There's a flaming circle, which I guess could be the sun or an asteroid. Someone is drawn inside of it, which is very confusing. It appears to have lightning coming from it, which connects to the fire drawn where one of the feminine shaped figures stands. It looks like a male figure beside her is attacking the lightning with a stick. Very odd. One figure appears to be drowning. I believe another figure is being swept away by a tornado. There's a turtle and tree, which reminds me of the Lenni-Lenape origins story. A masculine and feminine shape stand beside them, both towering over the tree. Maybe the artist didn't have a grasp of proportions?
I observe the large stone wall for a while longer. The paint colors are amazing, given what was available during the draw-on-walls period. I suppose it could be from another era. Anyone could still draw on a rock, right? Then again, everything else that I've discovered in this room has been old. It seems like a great deal of trouble to fake all of this.
As my eyesight adjusts better, I notice two more figures. There's a very dull bluish white figure in the middle. Both arms are raised, unlike the other figures. The first "wave" ever recorded? Also unlike the others, that figure isn't drawn in a masculine or feminine way. No bulging arms, no distinctive hips, nothing dangling between the legs or protruding from the chest. Interesting. The other figure is almost impossible to see. It's in the dark spot. Masculine looking, his head is tilted toward his arm, which is bent inward.
What does this all mean? And how did it get here? Which came first, the painting or the room? If no one has been down here in at least a hundred years, what could have been able to haul this? And how would it fit down the spiral stairs? Was a cave dweller trapped down here long ago? Did that person make it out alive? I haven't found any bones... yet.
The jars in the back of the room are nearly as tall as I am. It takes a great deal more effort to open them, since I can't quite reach the top. With a bit of tilting and balancing, I finally manage. The contents are long cylinders made of heavy leather. I open one up. It smells old; the way that the renaissance oil paintings in museums smell. The browned paper has beautiful sketches, but I'm not sure what is illustrated.
I crack open another case. There's a rolled up painting in this one. The people portrayed are breathtaking. Each face feels impossible to look away from, even for a moment. The features- those eyes, those cheeks, those lips! I have seen such lips only once before...
My hands shake. Breath catches in my throat. I force my gaze to the corners. There's nothing in any of them. I glance down to the other open case, the one with the sketches. A marking is in the corner of one of them.
I'm holding a da Vinci. Are my hands clean? When was the last time I washed them? I'm not smudging it, am I? I'm holding a da Vinci...with my bare hands! Why didn't I bring gloves? I should have gloves. I shouldn't be touching this at all, with or without gloves! Who would leave original da Vinci works laying around in a case in a jar where anyone could touch it!? Oh, right, secret room, magic crystal, not really easy access. I'm still holding a da Vinci!
With the greatest of care, I ease the precious works back into the cases and slowly (so slowly that the snails of the world would mock my pace), I gently ease them back into the jar. Why wasn't there a warning label? "Warning- priceless works of art- do not touch." Did the elders know that these were down here? If they did, why didn't they tell me to bring gloves? Why haven't they given these originals to a museum? Shouldn't the contents of that jar be shared with the world?
I need to sit down. My hands will never be the same. They just touched the work of a master. I wonder if he ever looked at his own hands that way. If he ever knew that, one day, his work would matter so much to the world. Does any artist, with paints, words, or sound, ever know what they're offering when they're first creating?
The stone wall behind the large jars seems like a decent place to rest against. At least this isn't a priceless work of art! I roll my head back, get comfortable, and take a few deep breaths. I have to admit, seeing that painting is a far better memory than playing Frisbee in the park. I'm glad I came down here.
Relaxed at last, I look around the room. It feels like I'm seeing with different eyes. To bad I don't have the eyes of the people that were in that painting. Magnificent. I stretch my neck, and see something on the wall from the edge of my peripheral vision.
Standing up, I realize that I was wrong. The stone wall behind me, the one I've been leaning against, is a priceless work of art.