by Jamie Eyberg
part 1 of 2
John O‘Neal sat and listened to the voice from across campus. “It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity,” the voice on the other end said, “a real chance to get in on the ground floor.”
John had been listening to the man rambling for close to five minutes according to his Timex watch, “I’ll have to think about it. I don’t know if I want to commit to any more projects right now.”
“We understand John, but your expertise would lend an... understanding,” he finished.
“I guess I’m just having a hard time figuring out where a linguist, an anthropological linguist at that, comes into play in this project. Wouldn’t a genetic engineer be better suited for a project like this? What about Hal over in the lab?”
“Everyone is going to play a role. We are going to try to attack this problem from every known angle, not just in one specific area.” The man paused. John heard the clacking of a keyboard and a printer in the background. “Consider it a holistic approach.”
John thought for a moment. “Like I said, I’ll have to think about it,” he said, and hung up the phone.
A week later, he sat in the same square classroom staring at the phone. He had done this a lot over the last week. Four years he had worked on the glyphs in front of him — a short period in the grand scheme of things, but a lifetime for an anthropological linguist who was hanging his whole career on a translation of glyphs found in a forgotten chamber in the caves of Naj Tunich in Guatemala.
The cave still breathed. Centuries of sacrifices and ceremony lay forgotten until it was discovered in the 1970’s. Its gaping entrance, one-hundred-fifty feet across, had been swallowed by the jungle in the centuries before that.
The cave was accessible in all but one place, the pit at the back of the cave. Spelunkers had climbed the nearly five hundred feet straight down to the bottom of the pit only to find the muck that lay at the bottom. Another part was unknown until a local boy found the hand-carved room behind a false wall of calcified mud and logs. It was the only such room known in the area, possibly the world.
The walls and ceiling of the small room were covered in ancient runes and glyphs. This was what John had given the last four years of his life to.
He sat in the aging classroom, his neck cricked and aching, as the lab work had come to an end. All that remained was to confirm what he had found, to understand the reason that the room was sealed off after so much work had gone into the creation of it. He knew that the glyphs were older, much older, than anything else written in the cave. Who had built a special room in a cave full of rooms and corridors was part of the mystery. Why they went to all the trouble to cover it up when they were done was another.
John picked up his cell phone and went through his contacts.
“It’s after midnight.”
John could tell by Mike’s tone that he had just woken up. John didn’t care.
“I did it.”
“Did what?” Mike asked. John could hear the bed sheets rustle and the sound of a table lamp clicking on.
“The glyphs. I know what the glyphs say,” John said, his voice cracked and dry from days of not talking to anyone.
The other end was silent.
“Mike, are you still there?”
“Yeah, I’m here. You broke it? What happened? You weren’t even close last month.” The grogginess was gone from his voice, replaced by a newfound excitement that nearly matched John’s.
“It hit me. The glyphs were so old that they didn’t relate to anything else in the cave. The symbols weren’t similar, but I figured it out. It still doesn’t make sense but I figured out what they say. I just can’t figure out what they mean,” John said
“Don’t be too hard on yourself,” Mike said. “What happens now? You going to write a paper on it. Hit the lecture circuit.”
John hadn’t thought about that yet. He had thought he knew before, when he started, this was going to be just what Mike had said. He would write the paper, get published, do a speaking tour and, when that was all done, he would ask for tenure. None of that seemed important right now. He had to get back to the cave.
“So,” Mike continued, “what did it say?”
“It’s weird. It was almost modern.”
“The creation of civilization. Once I figured it out it read like a history book.”
“You sure you got it right?”
“That‘s the odd part. It reads almost word for word like modern English.”
“Those scribbles on the cave wall were English? Written by who? A pre-schooler?”
John ignored the comment and kept on speaking, “It’s about the creation of a civilization, only the gods were men and they created with machines.”
“You do know the Carbon 14 on the logs goes back one-hundred thousand years, right? I don’t think man had invented the wheel yet.”
“If the Carbon 14 is right, it’s going to give humans the invention of writing almost ninety-thousand years ahead of what was previously thought possible.”
“Sounds kind of weird to me. You sure you translated it right?” Mike asked. “I mean what kind of machine could make living things?”
“I don’t know but the cave wall actually described it as a machine.” John paused once more. Mike said nothing. “It also said the machine was thrown into the bottom of the cave. I think it’s at the bottom of the shaft. I’ve got to get to the bottom of that cave. See for myself.”
“I’ve been to the bottom of that cave. It took me hours to get out of the mud. It’s nearly five hundred feet down and it’s been collecting all the crap that runs through that cave forever,” Mike said. “It is the cave’s septic system. It’s a toilet.”
“I know. When can you leave?”
John and Mike arrived in Guatemala a week later with one of Mike‘s caving buddies Brett, a field archeologist. After a rough six hour ride, they made it to Naj Tunich. Little had changed since the last time John had been there.
“Set up camp in the cave. There should be a dry spot against the west wall.”
“No yet,” a villager said in halting English. John knew that they would insist on performing a ritual that would “cleanse” the cave of unsafe spirits. It was a native custom and John didn’t want to anger them, but he didn‘t want to waste any of the month that they had either.
“Okay. Do what you need to do. We will set up out here for the night,” he said. They set up camp as the locals, headed by a very old man, started a ceremony that lasted well into the evening. By the time that it was over, the sky had cleared overhead and the southern constellations shone down on them.
The next morning started early. Rain sifted through their tents and soaked everything that wasn’t on a pallet and under a tarp. The three men quickly picked up what they could and ran into the cave to escape the rain. The raindrops hit them in the face like a cannon-load of dimes while lightning ripped the sky apart.
They unloaded quickly, setting up the dripping tents where John had wanted them the night before. The ceiling still dripped on them but it was better than what was going on just outside the cave’s mouth.
While Mike and Brett set up the camp again, John donned his gear, turned on his helmet lantern, and quietly went to the man-made room in the cave. He looked around the small room, his journal in hand. The page corners had already started to mildew and the plastic bag that he pulled it from had a layer of condensation forming on the inside. He just wanted to check to see if he had forgotten anything.
After he double checked the cave, he sat on the floor contemplating. The cold cut through his heavy canvas jeans, until he heard Mike.
“Camp’s all ready,” Mike said stooping low to peer into the room. “Again.”
“Everyone ready then?”
“They’re getting there.”
John pushed himself off the floor, “When are the locals supposed to come and help with the excavation?”
“Any time now. I know a lot of them had chores to do before they could get here. They were probably hampered by the rain this morning, too.”
The storm passed quickly. White cumulus clouds raced by the tops of the trees and filtered sun shone into the cave mouth. It would be the last sunlight John would see for a while. The villagers came into sight, young and old, carrying woven baskets under their arms and wearing faded t-shirts.
“Let’s get this show going, people,” John said half-joking. He didn’t want to appear to be a slave-driver. His crew of two had volunteered but he was paying the locals each three hundred for the month. It would feed their families for a year.
“How are we doing this?” Brett asked. He was a skinny guy of about thirty. He had caved with Mike before but John didn’t know him.
“We’re walking down to the pit, which runs about a half-mile that way,” John said pointing. “Then Mike and I will crawl down the shaft and you will help the locals get the mud out of the cave and sort out any debris.”
“How much do you think is down there?” Brett asked, buckling his orange vest. The reflective tape caught the sunlight and shone on the walls.
“A lot,” was the only answer that John knew to give as he turned and started toward the back of the cave, dragging the winch hook with him.
They had gone just a couple of hundred yards before the only light they were getting came from the lamps they carried. Strange looking white insects with long antenna skittered about them, crunching occasionally underfoot. Sunlight had never reached this far.
“Here goes nothing,” Mike said, securing a safety line into the cave wall. He climbed down slowly. Soon he was out of sight. The line tugged against the wall.
John waited a few minutes before he latched onto the line. He peered over the edge. Mike had already made it down several dozen feet and the light from his helmet bounced off the walls as he went further. “Ready for me?” John yelled down the tunnel.
The light shone back up into John’s face. White light flashed behind his safety goggles. “Come on in,” Mike yelled back, “the water’s fine.”
Close to an hour later, John sunk into the ooze that made up the shaft floor. Mike was already buried to his mid thigh; John went in all the way to his hips. John flexed his boots downward. The soft mud gave under the tips of his boots.
“How deep you think we gotta dig?” Mike asked. He looked around his legs, the safety line twirled around his head.
“Till we hit bottom or run out of days,” John said. He swung a hammer into the side of the shaft wall and hung an electric lantern. He flicked it on, illuminating the small space, just a couple of meters in any direction. “Not much room to work, is there.”
“I need to complain to the boss about the working conditions,” Mike said. He undid the winch harness from his belt and detached the first basket from it. He plowed the open end of the basket into the muck. It made sucking sounds as he pulled it through. “This could take a while,” he said pushing in more mud with his hands.
Half a day later, John figured they had filled roughly fifty baskets. Both of them thought they had made progress, in spite of the fact they were still buried in the mud, Mike still up to his thighs while John’s crotch was the only thing keeping him from being sucked down completely.
“I got something,“ Mike said as he reached down and pulled an object out. It was long and thin.
Copyright © 2008 by Jamie Eyberg