Thursday, December 03, 2009

Prophet of the Sun Chapter 1

Back a few years ago, I started writing a novel .... a spiritual action-adventure of sorts. I've shared it with some friends. And now it's my pleasure to make it available online, one chapter a week. I look forward to hearing what you think. My friends, enjoy.... Prophet of the Sun.

Chapter 1

Common sense says that alcohol makes you more of what you are. In some cases it makes you akin to what you once were: like some spectral impression, hanging on at a crossroads haunt, hoping the past is more than memory. Calvin had hoped for twenty years to melt away so he and John could recapture the easy cadences of years gone by… nights spent on Calvin’s rooftop trading thoughts not as profound as they imagined; hours wasted driving the mountain roads faster than their parents would allow. On this night, Calvin hoped to numb his pain by retreating to a time before it. The treasures of John Carter’s wine cellar were but vehicles to that end. For the moment, the strategy was working.

“John,” said Calvin, “ – you have corrupted the morals of an honest and upright man.”
“I can hear your mother now.” John affected a lowcountry drawl, accentuated by alcohol borne slurring “John Canarvon Carter, what have you done to my boy!” They crumbled into breathless laughter.

“She’d – she’d be horrified if we broke into Monty Python,” Calvin wheezed. He began singing, John quickly joining in, a half measure behind:

“Immanuel Kant was a real piss ant
Who was very rarely stable
Heidigger Heidigger was a boozy beggar
Who could drink you under the table
David Hume David Hume
Was a hmmmm hmmm hmmm (for here neither could remember the words)
Hmm hmmm hmmm hmm hmmm hm
And Rene Descartes was a drunken fart
I drink therefore I am.”

They collapsed in laughter again – “I think Graham Chapman would have been proud,” Calvin said between gasps.

“Oh no, the ratings are plummeting – viewers are tuning out in droves!” exclaimed John in mock horror. They enjoyed the easy comfort of old rehearsed banter, relishing inside jokes that had baffled their parents and annoyed their friends. They needed no new material.

Catching their breath, each collapsed into his seat, John reclined on an overstuffed brown leather couch facing a cold fireplace, Calvin in the matching chair. Photos of John’s family were neatly arranged atop the mantelpiece, bracketed at one end by an old Colt revolver in a box and at the other, a framed two cent bill from the State of South Carolina dated 1845, discolored in the lower right hand corner with a smudge that might be blood. Across an open space at the other end of the room was another couch and wingback chair, stiff with formality, before a stern antique mahogany desk, topped with a green shaded banker’s lamp. A neat stack of manila folders lay to one side of the darkened flat screen monitor, to the other side was a glass mug filled with pens, rulers, pencils, bits of glass, half used erasers, paper clips, and commemorative pocket tokens. The desktop was otherwise spotless and dust-free. Even the wires for the computer and lamp were bundled and tucked away under the desk, their chaos hidden from sight. No disorder was evident. The room was clean and bright.

Spanning the length of the room was a wall of built in bookshelves, filled with volumes from different eras – some still bearing the glossy dustjackets of contemporary thrillers, others having the worn binding and dusty sweet smell of books past their prime. It was a wall filled with portals of escape: stories of love, loss, and pain – all the great stories that call to you to fall forward into the page and be absorbed into the world, emerging again hours later refreshed and clean and good.

The other wall was a row of windows that looked out on darkness –hints of tall sentinel straight pine trees just visible from the interior light spilling out onto the lawn. On the walls above the desk hung a neat arrangement of black and white photos of jungle-hidden pyramids, crumbling classic ruins, and megalithic stone circles. In the center of this arrangement there hung a green-painted plaster bas relief sculpture. It’s wild masculine face emerged from a background of greenery – the leaves forming hair, moustaches and beard – looking vaguely like an arboreal Mark Twain. In the windowside corner by the fireplace stood a replica Pacific Northwest Indian totem pole, faces mysterious, the wings of the eagle at the top jutting out, stuck in an uncomfortable wooden pose.

Calvin blew a long exhale between pursed lips – then in quiet contrast to the preceding hilarity, he said “Thanks for letting me vent. It’s been a …. a hellish couple of months.”

John averted his eyes. “I’m glad you came. I wish there was something more I could do.” A few moments passed, longer than either felt comfortable.

“Well….. Enough about me,” Calvin said to break the silence, “what are you doing to pass the time in early retirement?”

“It’s not easy when you’re a self-made millionaire,” John said with mock arrogance. He leaned forward, putting his elbows on his knees, “But I’ve got a project that will help me do it.” He would have seemed much more serious had his right elbow not slipped as he said “project”. He caught himself and fixed his eyes on Calvin, silently begging him to ask for more.

“Yes?” Said Calvin, only half curious.

John thrust himself off the couch, lurching for a moment until he was steady. He walked to the far end of the bookshelves. “I can’t believe I found this. I was browsing the sale rack at the Captain’s Bookshelf when on a whim, I looked over in that old glass case where they keep the expensive rare books. The binding on this caught my eye.” He pulled an old leather book, tied round the middle with a strap “I paid more than I ever thought I’d pay for a book, but it was worth every penny.” He walked back to Calvin, and held out the book to him, a little too close to the eyes, making Calvin lean back uncomfortably in the chair. John’s eyebrows danced for a moment “See if you can tell me what this is,” his tone suggesting that Calvin would fail.

Calvin cautiously took the book, as though it might crumble to dust or perhaps come alive and snap at him. He fumbled at the leather strap, but finally got it open. Within were yellowed pages filled with the compact cursive of another era – cursive that took effort for his modern eyes to decipher.

After reviewing the precursors to disaster that were the other submissions for the contract, I have commissioned Lieutenant Commander Gorringe to retrieve my obelisk. His proposal clearly marks him as the man for the job. I have the utmost confidence in his resourcefulness….
Calvin, regretting that he’d started this conversation, quickly gave up reading, “You’ve got me – what is it?”

Retaking his seat and leaning forward, John replied: “That, sir, is the diary of Henry Hurlburt.” Then, breaking out with a Christmas day grin, John said, “Now, ask me who Henry Hurlburt is.”
Calvin sighed, “All right, who is Henry Hurlburt?”

John’s eyebrows continued to dance as he talked, “Henry Hurlburt was the editor of the New York World in the late 19th century, and a friend of William H. Vanderbilt.”

“And this is important because?”

“He would be completely forgotten to history but for one thing…while having a conversation with the Khedive of Egypt about improving relations with our country, Hurlburt suggested that one way would be to present America with an Egyptian obelisk.”

“An obelisk.” Calvin said flatly.

“A tall thin spire carved out of solid rock ….” Replied John.

“Yes, I know what an obelisk is,” interrupted Calvin, “Ancient Egypt – pharaohs and Cleopatra’s Needle and all that.” He was annoyed, unprepared for this burst of earnestness; he had been enjoying the pity of his friend, and was not prepared to release John from the hold that pity had. Perhaps if he had not drank so much, he would have been better prepared to politely go along – he might even have been intrigued by his friend’s plans. But now, Calvin was simply annoyed.
John, oblivious to Calvin’s body language, clapped his hands together, pointing them at Calvin’s chest. “Exactly! Cleopatra’s Needle! In Central Park – right behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art! That’s the obelisk that Hurlburt is talking about!”

“Mmm Hmm” murmured Calvin, wondering how long this was going to take.

“It was a marvel of diplomacy – the Khedive was Isma’il Pasha – he was working to modernize Egypt. He built railroads, made deals with all kinds of European powers. Queen Victoria even made him a knight!” John leaned back in his chair, having the look of a college professor absorbed in his subject, forgetting the student in his office. “But his modernization schemes bankrupted his country and he was forced to abdicate his rule to his son.”

“… and the obelisk?” Calvin asked weakly, trying to move the story forward.

John, stoked by the question, extended a finger in the air. “Ahah,” he said with triumph, sitting forward again. “Pasha didn’t really want to give up the obelisk, but Hurlburt and Vanderbilt pressured their connections in the state department to force the issue. Pasha agreed. But the sly devil knew that the French had taken 50 years to figure out how to move an obelisk from Egypt to Paris – these things are huge you know – hundreds of tons of solid granite. And half a football field in length or more. It took the British almost 75 years to work out a plan for moving the obelisk they took to Trafalgar Square. Pasha was confident that the Americans would never move the obelisk in his lifetime.”

John leaned forward again, narrowing his eyes. His voice took on a dramatic hush, like a campfire storyteller weaving a spell about his young charges; Calvin, despite himself, felt pulled back from the slumber he had been slipping into. “Pasha didn’t count on Henry Honeychurch Gorringe.” His eyes pursued Calvin’s attention – his head jutted forward at the end of his sentences. “Gorringe was unstoppable. The Italians tried to stop him with lawsuits – and failed. The Egyptian crowds met him with hisses and insults, and he moved in like a conquering Ceasar. French creditors tried to seize the obelisk as collateral for loans to Egypt. Gorringe hung an American flag from the top and declared he’d shoot the first man who tried to take it down.” Admiration radiated from John as he became lost in the story, his own enthusiasm overcoming his intoxication. “When his team had assembled the mechanism to lift the obelisk from its platform, a huge Egyptian crowd surrounded the worksite, as though to disrupt the proceedings. But Gorringe was too clever – he’d spent years as a navy officer in the Mediterranean. The night before he’d called upon an admiral in the Russian navy he’d befriended years before. As the Egyptian crowds circled about, in burst hundreds of burly Russian Marines, encircling the entire worksite, not letting anyone in or out without Gorringe’s say so.”

Calvin, wearied of the story, switched from polite tolerance to sarcasm “So you’re going to bronze the diary and embed it in a monument to his memory.”

“I don’t have to.” Replied John, “there’s already a monument – it’s on Graywacke knoll in Central Park. The obelisk he brought back.”

“So you’re going to impale this very expensive diary on top of said obelisk.”

“No,” John continued unflappably, “but the diary tells us what’s inside the obelisk – or rather its pedestal. Before Gorringe could erect the obelisk in New York, he had to reassemble the pedestal that it stood on. The pedestal is made up of giant blocks encased by steps – and between the blocks were gaps that had to be filled. Gorringe and Hurlburt issued a call for people to send items to be sealed in lead boxes which would then be used to fill the gaps. Stuff came from all over the country – bibles, tools, medals, instruments of trade, catalogs. But Hurlburt also contributed a single lead box – the contents known only to himself!”

Calvin smirked, “Probably copies of his newspaper.”

“Very funny – maybe I didn’t make myself clear” John said, beginning to sense that his audience lacked enthusiasm, “Hurlburt put some secret in the pedestal, and then Gorringe erected a 200 ton obelisk over top of it, and now nobody knows what was inside that lead box.” John punctuated those last words, jabbing his finger on each syllable.

Calvin made their tennis match conversation as a kind of game: “So your task is going to be to sneak in by night and blow up the obelisk” he came back with mock excitement, “Then you’ll remove the lead box, bring it back to your secret laboratory and open it to discover ….” He paused dramatically, “that Hurlburt had packed his teddy bear in the time capsule.” Calvin threw himself backward in the chair with a hard laugh “I’ll bet he even said ‘rosebud’ on his deathbead.”

“This was before the teddy bear had been invented, ” John said with a surly tone, trying to regain his momentum. Calvin felt he had scored a point. “Now stop interrupting – this is where Hurlburt’s diary comes in. He tells us that Gorringe was shown the remains of an old Egyptian tomb.” John snatched the diary from where Calvin had laid it. Flipping through pages, he said. “Listen to this.” He found the page he was looking for and read:

Gorringe described to me what could only be a tomb of such antiquity that it predates the historical record. Apparently his guide showed great discretion, wanting to keep the location a secret. Why he led Gorringe to this spot was known only to himself, I’m afraid. Gorringe spoke of rooms filled with wooden chests. He hadn’t opened the chests for fear of damaging the contents, but he was told legends that they contained a great treasure. Strangely, Gorringe seemed unconcerned about the chests – he said that the inscriptions on the walls were what interested him. He wouldn’t reveal much, only that he hoped to return with scholars and experts to more scientifically explore the find and record his findings. He predicted that his find would be more important to our understanding of antiquity than the Rosetta stone….
John flipped pages. “Now get this…” He read again:

What great tragedy – Gorringe’s accident has robbed us all. To memorialize his great achievements, I have taken his notes and drawings for his planned expedition and have bound them and sealed them beneath Gorringe’s obelisk. I do not think it right that any man of this generation follow through on his quest of discovery. May Gorringe rest in peace knowing that this undiscovered tomb will always be his.

“Did you get that – Gorringe died before he could go back to Egypt. I found out that it happened while he was hopping on board a train in Philadelphia – possibly on a trip to raise funds for his expedition. Hurlburt took all his writings about the lost tomb and put them under the obelisk – likely in that very same mysterious lead box that he’d placed earlier.”

Calvin saw another opportunity to score again: “So you’re going to blow up this 200 ton historic artifact to retrieve another dusty old diary.”

“Stop it… I’m serious.” Another point scored. “Hurlburt says he placed it under the obelisk after Gorringe died – that was three years after it had been erected.”

“Oh, so you’ll just get irradiated with gamma rays and become a gigantic green monster and lift the obelisk up?”

Frustration edged into John’s voice. “That’s not funny. I’m really serious about this.” Yet another point. “If Hurlburt was able to hide Gorringe’s papers under that thing, then there must be an easy access beneath the pedestals. If I can find that access, I can find Gorringe’s papers – don’t you get it – Gorringe describes a lost tomb filled with treasure that hasn’t yet been found. If I can get hold of the papers, I can find a treasure trove of Ancient Egypt!”

“Brilliant, just brilliant,” Calvin said brusquely. “I’m sure your investment banker thinks you’re insane. Who else have you brought into this little Allan Quartermain scheme of yours?”

John hesitated for a moment. His eyes drifted left; and he said with a smile “Just a few associates….” His gaze lingered upon his desk.

“Goody for them – I’m sure they’ll love digging up King Solomon’s mines. Well, this has been wonderfully entertaining – I think we should have Tom Cruise play you in the movie. But I’m going to bed before I get the spins. Think you should too.” At this, Calvin headed up to the guest room, angry that John had something to fill his life – angry at himself for his drunkenness and poor manners – angry at Bethan – angry at God – angry at anger.

John, meanwhile, stayed slouched in his chair for some time, nursing his bemused hurt and cradling the diary in his hand. That’s not the way it was supposed to go. Ten minutes passed. Twenty. Half an hour. He stood up and looked out the window, seeing nothing, his mind still flooded by the confusing ending of the evening – muddled up with thoughts about his plans. What am I doing? Am I this much a fool?