Category: sunday sketches

Lost treasures

The dirt doesn’t just get under your finger nails, it gets everywhere. It builds up in the creases of your hands, your elbows. It deepens the shadows under your eyes. After twelve years of doing this job, I have only one requirement: a decent shower. The days of bathing in a creek or wiping my face on the back of my sleeve and putting on an extra coat of deodorant are long gone. I need a good, hot shower at the end of the day as the dirt runs from skin, from my hair.

There isn’t one. I’m already in a bad mood that morning when I go out to the site to meet Jerry.
“Just a shower, Jer,” I say, “It’s really not too much to ask. It’s not like you can just find yourself another archaeo-detector.” There wasn’t a name for what I do before I started doing it. No one else has ever been able to do it.
“Sorry, Mel. I tried,” he says. His expression tells me he didn’t. I sigh.
“What are we looking for today?” I say.
“It’s no Atlantis,” he refers to my most famous discovery with a hint of derision. I shrug. He continues, “But we think there’s an old tomb out here.”
“In the middle of the Egyptian dessert? Whose tomb?”
“No idea. Hopefully you can tell us,” Jerry says.
“Where should I start?”
“Isn’t that your job?” he says. I give him a look. I forgot that I didn’t really like Jerry. He was okay at an SAA conference after a drink or two. But on site, he was a lazy archaeologist.

I turn my back on Jerry and the crew – about two dozen people, Americans, Brits, and locals, assembled but standing around waiting for me to tell them where to dig. If at all. They flew us all here on a chance. A hunch that there might be something here and a grant application that made it sound a lot more certain than it really was.

I walk towards the early morning sun. At eight in the morning, it’s already fiercely hot. I clear my mind and let my senses do the work for me. I focus on the ground I walk on, the shifting sand beneath my feet.

I was a 20-year-old M.A. student on my first excavation when I discovered the skill. I was digging at a Roman fort on Hadrian’s Wall and I was walking along the outer edge of fort’s walls on break. I stopped in my tracks when I felt it. There was something solid beneath me. Within minutes I had walked the length of a wall they had never discovered and mapped out, as clear as day in my head, the layout of another building to the west of the fort. I could feel the walls through the ground under my feet. Over the next few years I tested this skill to realize that I could detect countless things under the earth – a buried grave marker, an unrecorded fort, and, five years ago, the lost city of Atlantis.

Underneath the Egyptian sun, putting space between myself and Jerry, I started to feel it. It’s a thrumming that inhabits my whole body. The feeling moves from my feet, up my legs, and turns itself into patterns and shapes underground in my mind. I was getting closer. Jerry was right. There is something here.

I’m about half a mile from the team and the familiar feeling shifts. My skin turns to ice in the heat, and the hair on my arms stands on end. I feel sick to my stomach. I try to move, to escape this growing sense of dread and wrong, but my feet won’t listen and I’m frozen.

Jerry comes over, frowning in the shade of his brimmed hat.
“What’s wrong? Nothing here?” he says.
“There is definitely something here,” I say. My voice is wavering.
“Great, then let’s start digging! What should we expect?”
“You can’t dig here,” I say. Jerry doesn’t catch the fear in my voice. He is barely looking at me.
“What do you mean?”
“What is here should not… must not be disturbed. Do not dig here,” I say.
“That doesn’t make any sense, Melanie. We’re here to dig. To find the tomb. You said you can detect it. Of course we’re going to dig here,” Jerry is getting annoyed now. With one hand, he’s waving over the crew.
“No. You can’t. Trust me. You don’t want to dig up that tomb. There’s something…” I hesitate. I’m an archaeologist, a person of reason, and there’s no science behind evil. I choose my words carefully, “Wrong. There’s something underneath us that should not be released.”
“This is ridiculous. Are you telling me that this tomb is cursed or something, Dr. Swan? You never struck me as superstitious,” Jerry was finally looking me in the eye. I wish he wouldn’t.
“Jerry, I’m a human metal detector. I have no choice but to believe in things that have no explanation. And I know as certainly as I know that there is a structure beneath us that this structure should not be excavated,” I say. His crew has arrived and they’re already setting up the grid. I step towards them. My knees buckle and I fall forward. Now that I am closer to the ground, the feeling is overwhelming. I’m struggling not to faint.
“I think you’ve had too much sun, already,” Jerry says, moving to help me up, “Why don’t you go cool down in the tent?”
“Don’t do it, Jerry,” I look up at the rest of the crew, “Don’t dig here. It’s not worth it. There’s something bad here.”

I wake up in a tent when the sun is high in the sky. Afternoon. I remember everything all of the sudden and jump to my feet. I must have lost consciousness. Did they start the excavation while I was out? How long was I out? I throw back the tent flap and set off at a run, struggling in the sand. I run out towards the place where I had felt the tomb.

I run almost a mile before I realize that I must have missed it. I double back, searching madly for the place, for the crew. I can see nothing on the almost flat, sandy horizon. Where are they? I search for what must be hours before I find it. One shovel.

I bend down and pick up the shovel. The handle is cold, but I know it’s been sitting in the dessert sun. I shiver. Where are they? Maybe I’ve gone the wrong way? I pause and try to settle my body long enough to feel beneath the ground. Nothing. I circle back to the tents. I spend the rest of the afternoon and into the evening walking a mile in every direction. There is nothing, above or below the ground.

Cardboard ship

Good intentions sink ships.
Eyes fixed on the horizon,
The captain wasn’t steering
And assumed he was on course.
It wasn’t his fault.
Nothing ever was.

Held captive by circumstance,
He never tested the chains.
Missed direction, missed a chance
For bravery from inside his cage.
It wasn’t his fault.
Nothing ever was.

He built a cardboard ship,
Tried to navigate the ocean.
Stubbornly he sailed forward
Ignoring the water seeping in.
It wasn’t his fault.
Nothing ever was.

38 Pickering Street

One firmly placed, steel-toed booted foot and a strong kick at the weak spot of the door was all she needed to gain entry to the house. She walked into the foyer of what had been someone’s home. Maybe it was once their sanctuary, the only place they felt safe. She always thought that, for an instant, as she crossed the threshold.

Then she remembered. No place was safe anymore.

Jenna listened. A telltale shuffle. A cough. The smell of a snuffed candle. Anything could give them away. She was alert, but she was not afraid. Two years and eight months, give or take a week, since the End. If there were someone alive in here, they would be weak from malnutrition. Or insane from the pleasure of their own company and the contaminated water supply. It was better these days. Only one a hundred or so was dangerous. She had grown braver. Foolishly so, her boss would say.

She checked the rooms on the first floor. A dusty piano, no fingerprints. If someone was here, it was not the person who had played the piano. She scanned the floors for footprints in the dust. None. No sounds. Probably another empty house. But she had to complete her search, had to cross number 38 Pickering Street off the list by the end of the day before she could move on.

The wall going up the staircase was full of framed photos of smiling people. A couple and one child. The son had been around ten years old at the End, or they had never bothered to frame more recent photos. These were the kind of thoughts that Jenna held on to; kicked around in her head to keep out the loneliness during the long weeks on Mission.

In the last bedroom on the left, she found the answer to her question. The son had never grown much bigger than the pictures. He had not been dead long. She could still tell he’d been blonde. She turned away.

A raspy breath. She spun back around, an arrow in her bow in an instead. She scanned the dark room for the source of the noise.

The shadow in the corner was barely a woman. The mother. Jenna kept her bow aimed.

“Get up,” she ordered the frail shape. She wasn’t sure the woman had enough strength to stand. She would have been dead in a matter of days. When was the last time she’d eaten? Impatiently, Jenna strode past the corpse and grabbed his mother’s arm.

“Up,” she repeated.

“Are you…” The woman’s voice was barely audible. “Who?”

“Your savior. Get up. You won’t die today.” Jenna said brusquely. The woman’s eyes were fixed on her son’s lifeless body. She said nothing.

Jenna dragged the woman down the stairs and out the door. She shriveled from the sunlight, cowering and backing towards the house. Jenna looked her over. Barely 90 lbs. She hit the button on her walkie talkie.

“Pete, do you copy?”

“Go ahead.”

“I’ve got one. Female. Forties.”

“Be there in twenty.”

The woman sat on the stoop with her back against the door. Jenna sat down beside her.

“Where?” she asked.

“You don’t want to know,” Jenna answered.

Sunday Sketch - Drifting

When the lake is glass, you drift. Paddling is a disturbance of the peace. The oar cuts through golden blue glass, the ripples break the reflection of the setting sun. At dusk, touched by sky and the water, you are drifting in between.

The shore seems as far as the horizon, and for a moment there is only water. And you are a water bug, held up by surface tension. You are the fish that jump to see the sunset. You are the heron, overseeing the dusk from your one-legged perch.

The prow of your boat cuts through the water, tiny golden waves behind you. The sun disappears behind the trees and the world you drift in grows ever darker. The paddle brings you safely home, no longer drifting. Cutting through the peace.


The matter of time

Down a twisty, cobbled road in a sunny, piecemeal village, the smallest, oldest building is a quaint cottage that is both a workshop and a home. In the front room, an array of clocks and watches tick away, marking seconds and gathering time. Somehow, mysteriously so, these clocks - all of them, from the towering grandfather to the smallest wrist watch - keep time together. In unison. Not a single tick or tock is out of place, as if each clock is too embarrassed to fail the group.

A small door remains closed at the back of the room. One presumes in this one-storey house the door must lead to a bedroom and kitchen, though it would be hard to find someone could tell you for sure what’s on the other side.

Three men stand in the centre of  the room, their eyes and voices focused on a man in a green armchair.

“Ridiculous,” says the man at the front, whose pretty hat and shiny shoes mark both his importance and affluence, “Absolutely, completely, preposterous.”
“I assure you, Lord Dietrich, that no amount of adverbs will persuade me to your cause. It cannot be fixed,” says the man in the armchair, his voice calm in contrast. He is a handsome man, neither young nor old, with light hair and a strong jaw, and pale skin that sets him apart from the rest of the village.
“Absurd,” Lord Dietrich spits. Then, into his voice creeps a hint of desperation, “You haven’t even looked at it yet, Horatius.”
“I can see it fine from here,” Horatius’ voice softens, “There’s nothing to be done.”
“What will it cost?” Lord Dietrich demands.
“There is no amount that you can offer me to fix your clock,” Horatius rises to his feet, and puts a hand of the shoulder of the shorter man. Lord Dietrich shrugs him off.
“Name your price, Horatius. I assure you, I can pay it,” he says, heatedly.
“It is not a matter of money,” Horatius says, quietly, “And the price was paid long ago, my lord.”
“What do you mean?” Lord Dietrich demands, “What are you playing at? You are a fixer of clocks, are you not?!”
“Yes, my lord.”
“Then fix it.”
“I can’t, Lord Dietrich. You are out of time,” Horatius’ voice is not unkind, “If you would please leave my shop, sirs.”

The two men who are standing behind Lord Dietrich are wearing his crest and livery. Between them they are holding a large, mahogany clock. It’s face is beautiful, built by a fine craftsman, with each quarter designed to reflect a season. As the day ticks by, so the hands pass from winter, to spring, and summer at noon. And, as the dusk falls, finally into winter. The clock is ticking still, but it’s time is running out.

Lord Dietrich is desperate, his brows furrow. He grabs Horatius’ arm as he walks by.

“Anything,” he whispers, “Just tell me what you want. Anything at all.” Horatius places a hand atop Lord Dietrich’s, and gently removes the man’s grip.
“There is nothing,” he says, kindly, “I am sorry.”

Now, the front door opens, and all four men turn to see a small boy standing in the doorway. The boy is immediately taken aback by the presence of four tall men, and the marked tension in the room. He shrinks back, ducking his head.

“If you will excuse me, Lord Dietrich, it seems that I have a customer,” Horatius’ tone is a final dismissal. Even Lord Dietrich, accustomed to hearing no orders save his own, recognizes this. He snaps at his servants, and they bluster out the door. The boy moves out of the way, quickly, to avoid being pushed or crushed.

“Come in, child,” Horatius’ smile is warm and inviting. His cat, ginger and fat, leaves its spot of sun by the window to wind itself around the boys’ feet, nudging him inside with its head. The boy reaches down to pet the cat, and steps inside. The door closes behind.

The boy stares in amazement at the walls and shelves of clocks and watches, and the incredibility of all ticking in the same time.

Horatius has settled back into his armchair.

“Have a seat,” he gestures a second armchair in front of him.
“Master Horatius,” the boy begins in a rush, taking three stammering steps towards Horatius.
“Please, sit, Evander,” Horatius insists. The boy is too young to question why this stranger would know his name, he simply accepts, as children often do, that all adults know his name in order to better scold or instruct him. Evander obeys, and sits in the second armchair. He stares at Horatius. He has never seen anyone like Horatius before, pale as if he swallowed the moon.

“What do you have there?” Horatius asks, kindly. Evander remembers, and looks down at his hands grasped around an old, tarnished pocket watch.
“It’s my grandda’s,” he says, holding it out, “Can you fix it, Master Horatius? It’s almost out of time.” Horatius gently takes the watch from the boy’s hands, and turns it over in his own.
“Tell me about your grandda, Evander,” he says, quietly. The ginger cat comes to lie beside the boy, purring.
“He smells like pipe smoke and hugs very tight,” Evander says, in a rush, “He is old and his bones are creaky and he falls asleep beside the fire most nights. He tells the most wonderful stories.”

As Evander speaks, Horatius sees the man his grandda is. Warm, strong, and loving. A simple man who lives each day to love, and does his best to help where he can.

“Can you fix it, Master Horatius?” Evander says, worry and sadness creeping into his voice.
“Yes,” Horatius says, and is silent for a moment, looking down at the watch. The sound of ticking seems to grow louder around them, filling the silence. After a minute, Horatius passes the watch back to Evander. It is shiny, now, almost as new. It ticks in time with the rest of the room. Evander’s face lights up.
“It will keep time for a while still. For more stories, and more hugs,” Horatius smiles, “But, Evander, you must know - someday the time will run out, and I won’t be able to fix it. Someday, this watch will pass to you, and so will the stories and strong hugs.”

Evander nods, solemnly.

“But not today,” Horatius says.
“Thank you, Master Horatius,” Evander replies, excitedly, “I’ll go and tell grandda!” He jumps to his feet, and rushes out the door.

As Evander exits the shop, the tick tocking from inside is silenced, and he can truly here the ticking of his grandfather’s pocket watch. He smiles. Behind him, an old sign blows in the gentle breeze: Horatius Portius, Timekeeper.