Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Secret Egg - Part One

When Jenna asked Trey to help sort through her grandfather's belongings, he had not complained.  His usual affectation of chivalry, coupled with a professed enthusiasm at the prospect of exploring a basement of private antiques, made the idea seem positively romantic.  Jenna appreciated his efforts to spice the mundane with flavor.  On a really good day, she could even call them endearing.  But more than anything, she appreciated when he wasn't complaining.

And it did not last.  There had been a few treasures at first glance: a wax-sealed scroll of real parchment, a tall vase of delicate crystal, even a brass-handled cavalry sword from the Civil War.  But Jenna's grandfather had not been old enough to fight in the Civil War, of course; all the evidence at hand suggested he'd spent his seventy years on Earth in the accumulation of paper.  Before Trey could finish checking the contents of a single filing drawer, he was hopelessly bored, and taking it out on Jenna.

"We could be literally anywhere else than this old basement."

"I'm sorry, I just need to find a few documents."

He sniffed in the musty air.  "Don't we do enough of that in school?"

Maybe we do, she thought.  Maybe you do.  She did not balk at her mother's suggestion to dig for anything worth keeping for the family, before the county came to dispose of it.  Searching for things of significance was just the sort of thing a historian did, a kind of short-range, personalized archaeology.  It seemed glamorous; or maybe it was just that sort of thinking that got her into boring all-night situations at the library.  She still sort of enjoyed them.

"I just think it would be good to find some vital records," she said, flipping softly through what appeared to be bank statements.  They were more than forty years old, with a name she didn't recognize.  It wouldn't surprise her to learn the bank had been closed since before she was born.  "Maybe some genealogies, a little family history.  Old family lore, something like that."

"What makes you think he's got any lore tucked in here?"  Trey was running his fingers along the planks of a dusty old bookshelf, perhaps the only interesting thing left unexplored.  But the books were all of the old type, nondescript covers with rough textures and nothing to catch the eye by way of intriguing fonts or pictures.  Nothing to interest a guy like Trey.

"Well, nothing I guess."  She would have sulked, if she thought he'd notice.  "But old things can be surprising.  Is there anything interesting on that bookshelf?"

Trey pulled a slim volume from the center of a shelf and read the cover.  "How to Win Friends and Influence People," he groaned pathetically, "a real old man's classic.  My great uncle had this on his shelf when I visited him, years ago.  I always thought the idea behind the title was a little creepy."  He opened the book and scanned a few pages.  "Looks like your grandpa wrote a bunch of notes in the margins."  He squinted.  "I think he wrote them in Latin."  He pronounced that last word as if it were the most mystifying thing he could possibly imagine, and handed the book to Jenna.

"Well you see?  There's something interesting.  I never knew my grandfather spoke Latin."  She did her best to sound fascinated.  It really was interesting, but she knew Trey wouldn't think so without some encouragement.  Peering at the scribbles, though, she had doubts.  The words did resemble Latin words she knew, but she found that, try as she might, she couldn't read any of them.  "Maybe it's some kind of code?  I can't really make out what any of it says."

"I think the old man just has really bad handwriting," he sighed, bored with the mystery already.  "Where do you think he got that sword, anyway?"

"I don't know," she murmured, half-studying her grandfather's peculiar annotations before placing the book in the putative "save" pile.  "Maybe it's an heirloom.  Somebody in his family might have fought in the war."

"Don't you know?  It seems like the sort of thing that would get mentioned, at Christmas or whenever."

"My grandpa never really talked about those kinds of things," she said.  "Not to me, anyway.  I don't think he talked to my mom much, either.  Or like, at all."  Jenna looked down at the sword resting on the old desk, and wondered why she'd never seen it before.  There was nothing special about it, at least not the sort of cliches one expects from famous swords: no gems on the hilt, no family mottos etched skillfully in the steel.  Just brass and blade, but still she found it beautiful.  "Maybe one of my ancestors was a cavalry officer."

Trey looked at the sword as well, his face more passive.  "Do you think they even let black people fight in the Civil War?"

She bristled, not wanting to fight about this, but not wanting to let it go.  "About two hundred thousand of them," she replied, tersely.  "They fought in segregated units.  White people don't like to admit we had a hand in freeing ourselves, but we did."

Trey stepped back, and for all his blushing he never looked more pale.  "Sorry, Jenna.  That's your field, remember?  I'm just a medievalist, I'm no war buff.  The nineteenth century's all yours."

She let it go, but she still didn't want to.  "I just wish I had more time to look through all of these papers.  There's just so much I don't know about him.  I can't really believe I got this far in life without knowing any basic family history"

"Maybe there's something in this?"  He handed her the scroll, as if to say he really was sorry, not just trying to get out of an uncomfortable situation.  "It might be a statement of ownership or something.  Or maybe a family tree."

She considered the parchment for a moment.  He could be right, she thought; but she also felt uncomfortable breaking the seal.  An odd glyph was pressed into the green wax, an eye-like shape within a six-pointed star.  Something about the symbol seemed to speak out loud, even though she could not recognize it.  Opening it felt like a transgression, trespassing on a memory.  "I was thinking I'd show it to my mother first.  It seems like something we should see together."

Trey laughed.  "You know what they say about curiosity: you can't expect a cat to defy its nature."  Nobody ever said that; Trey was absolutely the worst at these sorts of arguments.  But he wanted to see what was on the parchment, and she didn't want to fight about it.  Gingerly, she pealed the wax off, trying not to deface the glyph.

The scroll unfurled, and they were both surprised to find that it was mostly blank space, but for a few lines, written in thick, grainy ink letters with a determined legibility:

Congratulations, you found the secret egg!
Your destiny awaits.
It is round and beautiful and it is alive. It will not hatch unless you love it.
Please take the secret egg and deposit it in the nearest furnace. What lives within is not of this Earth. 
It can only perish in flames.
Do not attempt to smash the secret egg. It will not work.
Do not attempt to hide the secret egg. In time, you will grow to love it.
Do not forget about the secret egg.
For a minute, she said nothing.  Neither did Trey, who badly looked like he wanted to.  He'd learned enough in the past few minutes to let her have a say first.

"A poem?  I never knew my grandfather wrote poetry."

Trey smiled, awkward and eager to move on.  "I guess there is something to learn in a place like this."

"Yeah, but I didn't find any other poetry in the rest of these papers."  Carefully, she placed the scroll and seal in the crystal vase.  "No other scrolls like this.  I think I'll hold onto it."


Two weeks later, Jenna's apartment had assumed the role of storage space for a fair collection of her grandfather's antiquities, as well as a dozen boxes of documents she judged to be relevant to his estate. Efficiently organized and marked off from her own possessions, it still managed to interfere with her studies.  Cataloging her finds was becoming a full-time job, one she hadn't expected or wanted, yet one she could not comfortably abandon.  She lost sleep over his enigmatic filing system, to say nothing of his bizarre handwriting, but the more she saw of it, the more it dominated her thoughts.

Many things were changing in her life.  She didn't really know it yet, but her relationship with Trey would be over in less than a month.  Her survey of census records in post-war South Carolina was leading her in a different direction than her initial research had suggested.  Intellectually, she acknowledged the work she'd have to put into modifying her thesis.  But in her heart, it barely seemed to matter.

It worried her that she found these old documents so interesting.  Most were forms and statements: useful for tracking an old man's finances, perhaps, but hardly illuminating as to his character.  It had never been a special interest for her, but she found herself restless without her grandfather's papers on her desk.  When she came across any writing in his own inscrutable hand, her heart would pound with excitement, even as she failed to derive any meaning from it.  Messages or doodles, she delighted at the sight of them, as though she were touched by the presence of his mind.  And one evening, while hunting through the papers for spots of spilled ink, she thought again about the Secret Egg.

That, she presumed, was the name of the cryptic writing she'd discovered in the basement.  Poetry was all she could make of it, but she never had an ear for anything that didn't rhyme.  Resting in the vase on her kitchen table, the parchment scroll hadn't been opened since the night Jenna discovered it.  When she thought of its contents, she yearned suddenly to read them again, thinking lightly that they might serve as a Rosetta stone for the rest of the notes the old man had left behind.  That, at least, was one good reason to reach into the vase once more.

Jenna found it difficult to explain why, upon touching the vase's bottom, she had not noticed the egg before. She pulled it out, along with the mysterious poem, and stood bemused by its presence.  It was beautiful and smooth, carved from pale wood - not the sort of thing that hatches, no matter how you feel about it, she might have said.  But she did admire it, as much for its mystery as for the spidery black lines that painted strange symbols all around its surface.  The same glyph that appeared on the wax seal of the parchment appeared on the surface of the egg, noticeable yet not prominent among the other unknown signs.

For a time, the parchment was forgotten; she carried the egg back to her room, lost in wonder as it passed through varying levels of light.  It was large, maybe twice the size of a chicken's egg, but remarkably light.  She found that especially compelling, as it did not seem to be anything but solid.

Could she love such a thing?  Did she?  What was the connection between the egg, and the enigmatic lines of the poem?  In point of fact, Jenna had begun to doubt that the words on the parchment were a poem, though she still could not account for their meaning.  The presence of the egg cast everything into doubt, and dominated her consideration of every aspect of her grandfather: his life, his effects, his entire history, and it was not until she heard the phone ringing that it struck her how very, very bizarre that was.

As the call echoed through the hall, Jenna clutched the egg to her chest, as though someone might try to take it from her.  She did not know why, but she had a sudden impulse to hide the egg, and placed it in a drawer with her seldom-worn winter clothes.  She hurried down the hall to answer her cell phone.  It was her mother on the line.

"I hope I'm not disturbing you and your schoolwork", said Maya to her daughter, "but we haven't talked in so long, I just wanted to make sure you were alright".

"Oh yeah, I'm fine", Jenna replied, glancing down the hall again to catch a glimpse of her dresser drawer.  "I've just been busy, I haven't really thought to call anyone for a couple weeks now".

"Are you eating OK?"

"I'm fine, mama", Jenna sighed.  "I'm sorry I haven't called.  I've been so, so busy, with my paper, and with all of grandpa's things..."

A silence buzzed over the line for a few seconds, before Maya took up the conversation again.  "I probably shouldn't have asked you to go through his things.  Not now, anyway, with your thesis deadline coming up".

"No, it's alright, really..." she started, and felt the wildest impulse to hang up the phone and remove the battery.  But she didn't, because why would she ever do such a thing to her own mother?  "I'm glad you did.  I think I wanted to do this all along, even before you asked me.  I feel like I'm learning so much about him that I never knew before".

Jenna regretted saying it in those terms.  It was not a secret in the family that her grandfather had been estranged from his only daughter: it could never have been, because it was obvious without any words.  Though he dutifully made appearances at Christmas and Thanksgiving (rarely both in the same year) to deliver quaint presents to his grandchild, his visits were defined by quiet and pointed reserve.  Jenna's chief memories of those times were of a small-ish, dire looking man, with greying hair and dark brown skin that over the years seemed to be greying to match.  Yet he had a pair of stunning blue eyes, which never did seem to fade from the bright hue that Jenna saw as a little girl.

Maya did not react poorly, as far as her daughter could tell.  She was too concerned as a mother.  "You know, your father and I will be down in a few weeks to help you out.  I wouldn't want you to get too distracted from something as important as your thesis."

Jenna looked mournfully at the boxes piled by her desk, wondering if she could ever get through them all to her satisfaction in two months, much less two weeks.  "Thanks, mama.  I'm sure I'll have everything finished by then.  But, it will be great to see you guys again!  I can't... I can't wait to show you everything I've found!"

Maya laughed, and sighed.  "I guess there was a reason I asked you to do this after all, dear.  You've got this sort of thing in your blood.  You're a detective!"

Jenna smiled.  "I'm not as cool as all that.  Just some kind of nerd."

"Well, I can't think of anyone more suited to figuring out what was going on in your grandpa's head all those years.  You're a miracle, child".

"I'll do my best.  Hey, mama", Jenna said, glancing back to her room once more, feeling tempted to let her mother in on her strange, secret discovery, "listen, did you ever know that grandpa wrote poetry?"

The reply did not come right away.  When it did, there was a strange quality to it: a cold pain.  Jenna might have failed to understand it, but it came in loud and clear, because it was more or less what she expected: "honey, there is so much I never knew about your grandfather.  So very, very much".

For a moment Jenna's courage failed, but her instincts were strong, and she rallied.  "Would you like me to read you some of it?  It's a little abstract".

"I think that can wait for another time, Jenna".

So it waited.  Jenna went to sleep that night, exhausted from hours of unproductive work, and the last thing she saw before she closed her eyes was the dresser across the room, holding the drawer of winter clothes where the secret egg was hidden.  She was not yet satisfied that it was safe.

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