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October 18th, 2020
This parable is dedicated to the individual behind the Twitter handle @Sixteen_Tons
As the mist crept in from the colder north, Lucilius was lost in reverie, his round and peaceful eyes trained on the light impressions of footprints in the soft moorland grass. As his kind friend, the young exuberant archeologist trudged ahead leading the way, Lucilius was like a walking automaton, happy in his memories.
He could see his hands, young back in that old lost time - a time to which he now rarely turned his thought, pressing the reed quill into the soft clay, spinning the quill at right angles and stabbing in the beautifully spiked and angled script. So long ago, he squinted, trying now to remember the sound of that long forgotten language, still seeing blocky meaning in the faded image of spaded script.
“I think we should make camp here since the fog is rolling in. Make the final push tomorrow.”
The young woman was stopped, half turned as Lucilius closed up the short distance. He grew to a stop close to her and looked at the map she was holding.
“I think we’re about here,” she said, circling a small area on the map with a pointed finger.
“Looks about right,” Lucilius said.
“Probably just an hour or two more in the morning, no reason to push into the fog,” she said.
Lucilius smiled in agreement. They unpacked the tent, heated water on the tiny propane stove and snacked on dried meats. The two enjoyed the chill evening silence, and failed to ruin it with talk. It was lovely, to see the drive and passion of this young archeologist on the move. They had met quite at random, and Lucilius had proved strangely knowledgeable as they had spoken of her work.
“How’d you know what that symbol means? Did you study this?”
“Oh,” Lucilius had said casually, smiling. “I guess I just read widely.”
She was asleep before Lucilius was, bound up in her own sleeping bag, a complete package of wholesome ambition. Lucilius stayed up a bit later, thinking again upon times he’d been through long ago: the enormous clay tablet he’d worked had been the largest anyone had ever known, and when it cracked under it’s own weight, the surprise was a crushing disappointment. Lucilius could still remember the dark and crowned eyes twitching with dissatisfaction. The gilded man had turned and paused only to mutter a few mere words into an attendant’s ear before leaving. The attendant’s face slipped the slightest expression of pity before saying the whole project would have to be redone, in stone.
Lucilius awoke to the sound of her voice. “Wake up old man!”
Lucilius propped himself up on elbows and gave her a critically quizzical look. “Do I look like an old man?”
The young woman shrugged, almost bashfully. “Well no, but you sure sleep like one.”
She already had a bit of breakfast underway way and handed Lucilius a mug of coffee. He relished the steaming drink, feeling the diffuse, slept part of his brain congeal into his waking version.
Lucilius looked to the archaeologist looking troubled, peeling moist pages of a journal apart, the penciled writings smeared and fading. Lucilius chuckled a bit and she frowned at him.
“This is important!” She exclaimed.
Lucilius reached for his pack, unzipped a compartment and pulled a special notebook from it. He tossed it at her.
“It’s waterproof you amateur. Copy what you can make out and go with that.” She tried to suppress her smile, but turned to the task gratefully.
Lucilius sat back, the old image of memory renewing itself in his mind: his hands shaking themselves of the weary pain of chisel and mallet, the vast piece of stone littered with his perfect markings, the task nearly done. And finally when the king laid eyes upon the massive stone tablet, Lucilius could see the smile surpassed beneath his gilded countenance, the muted joy in the man’s hard eyes.
The two were off in no time, trudging through the chilly moorland until some miles on they came upon the small craggy peak. Lucilius smiled, remembering so many years later, long after the king and his kingdom had fallen to the sands of time venturing this far out again with the growth of a new civilization, a new kingdom. Lucilius remembered his legionnaire friends, the living pulse of a new border of a different empire reaching out to the limits of human possibility. Lucilius remembered seeing again, clad in armor, squinting in familiarity at the craggy peak then and now once again. He smiled.
“This has got to be it.” The woman said with an elated smile. “This has got to be what those locals were talking about, and the Hadrian records…”
Lucilius smiled. “Let’s check it out.”
As the two readied their electric lanterns, Lucilius glimpsed again the ancient memory, when the task had finally been done, the monumental stone finally complete, the attendant of the King told Lucilius that more stones would have to be carved so that each could be placed at the far reaches of the kingdom. How many years he had plied chisel to stone, he could no longer remember, remembering only the memorized text that had riddled the many stones, each to be lifted by many men, carried and shipped off to the ends of that ancient world.
Lucilius and the young woman descended into the cleft of wet rock, both navigating the rocky way with hands stretched out to steady, their wide cones of white lantern light jostling around awkwardly at the inner cavern. The descended deeply, having heard the local stories of ancient writings somewhere deep in the winding cave. For an hour they clambered through the winding darkness until finally there was no where else to go.
The two turned in all directions, splashing their lantern light all around, looking. With the impetuous quickness of youth the young woman sighed with aggravation.
“There’s nothing here!” She nearly yelled.
Lucilius didn’t respond but simply kept looking, moving the light slower, and then finally his eye caught on a familiarity - not much, only the tiniest of shapes, off to a side. He took a few slow careful steps to the edge of the cavern and hunkered down, focusing on the spot. It blended in nearly perfectly, a single slice missing from a stone, like any other chipped mark. The exasperation of the young woman echoed loudly off the rocky walls as she muttered, then Lucilius swiped away the stony gravel and she grew quiet. She turned and then hurried over.
“Holy…” she barely breathed. The uncovered stone Lucilius had cleared was littered with faded marks.
“You found it!” The young woman yelled. She collapsed to her knees and began clearing more and more of the gravel earth away.
Lucilius helped her clear away the stone face. “So much water damage…” the woman whispered between laboured breaths as the earth was cleared. An hour later the stone face was brushed clean and the young woman had her eyes trained on the symbols, straining at some. Lucilius noticed.
“That one,” she pointed. Lucilius pretended to lean in and squint as though analyzing it.
“Isn’t that the symbol for…” he’d say, hesitating falsely.
The woman chuckled, “I think you’re right, yea that would make sense - damn you’re good at this!” The woman was overcome with joy.
“This is going to make my career, you know that?” Lucilius smiled limply. The woman flung her arms around him.
“It’s crazy how this all happened. I don’t think I ever would have found this if I hadn’t met you, as strange as that is.”
“Sure you would have..” Lucilius shot back.
“Nah,” she said, pulling back to look at him, holding on to him still. “Even my advisor said I was crazy to pursue this idea. That the Roman writings were actually evidence of their own archeological discoveries this far out. It’s only because we met and started talking about it.”
“So many of our thoughts,” Lucilius said, “are like words written in water.” He paused. “We are like words written in water. Here one moment, gone the next. Gotta hang on to an idea every now and again and hammer it home, see if it’ll stick to reality.” He nodded to the stone tablet in front of them.
“Like this. The person who thought up these words is long gone, but the effort isn’t.”
The woman was lost in a daze looking at the stone, listening to Lucilius. She said slowly, “I guess we are a fleeting chance to make a lasting chance.”
Lucilius smiled. “That’s certainly the assumption you have to make. None of us know just how long we’ll be around.”
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