It was just another dig to the academic community, but to the dying eyes of Francesco Ariza, it was the discovery of a lifetime.
The site was in a clearing deep in a sparse forest of mulberries in the Eastern mountains. An undercut, the previous party’s absent-mindedness visible in scattered diagrams, etched onto the boulders surrounding the area, gridlines inspired by everything from the Fibonacci sequence to the golden ratio.
The forest was not a place for him, he thought, he who preferred dusting sabertooth skeletons at the edges of deserts, surrounded by analysts who debated on the placement of every joint and juncture–one group claiming the hind legs needed to be longer for pouncing, the other positing the need for longer forelegs for the chase–which debates he shrugged off as squabbling over remnants of God’s mistakes in creation.
He only stumbled onto the site when he dreamt of a row of wands, burning on one end as if torch, through which God spoke to him, telling him that an even brighter fire awaited him there. Such Divine Providence could not be doubted, for it came with a calm he had not felt since the last Ash Wednesday, where the thought that we would all return to dust comforted him in inexplicable ways. Dreams, however, were frowned upon as unscientific and outside cultural ethos, for which reason both the National Academy and the Anthropological Society refused to fund his expedition, leading him to withdraw the remainder of his earnings from lecture honoraria to hire a sculptor-turned-digger and a pack of horses to traverse back and forth the mountains.
“Barbarians, they must have thought the past was this numerical,” explained Tarocchi, the fortune-teller who appeared before Ariza’s house on the morning of the expedition, claiming that he received the same dream, and that Ash Wednesday should be more sacred than Black Friday–a blasphemy whose logic only Ariza understood–as he looked at the etchings.
The dig was, for what it was worth, fortuitous, mostly due to the artful work of the sculptor-turned-digger, whose care in chipping around the past excavations revealed a hewn stone vault about four fathoms square, filled with sheets of pressed bamboo leaf–much more brittle than desert papyrus–bearing glyphs that appeared to be a mix of hanyu pinyin and baybayin, the former’s sharp corners intertwined with the gentle clam-curves of the latter. Two corners of the vault were piled high with the sheets, enough writing for an academy of linguists to quarrel over for at least a full year. “A treasure for our time, thank you God!” exclaimed Tarocchi, who was so taken by his own profession of faith that he later took to incorporating scripture into his readings.
None of this caught Ariza’s attention, though, as much as the corpse: a young woman, lying in the northwestern corner, half-buried beneath a pile of the same writing-covered sheets, as if blanketed with the words themselves, mummified face possessed of an expression that, for the third time that year, made him feel that the world could be much quieter than he worried. It was the expression of one who faced death with neither resignation nor anticipation, a calmness that evaded even his scholarly vocabulary.
“She must have been a Scorpio. Look at her haughtiness, to have buried herself in words,” commented Tarocchi. “And look, her feet are facing southward. Clearly, an ill omen.”
He signaled Tarocchi to be quiet. The corpse could not be moved, to his chagrin, as she was as brittle as the sheets covering her: the slightest movement caused months of knowledge–or wisdom, linguists later argued–to disappear into dust. He lost two of her fingers when he touched them, and would not let his breath or the fortune-teller’s words take away anything that remained.
To mask the discovery of the corpse, which the academic world would only be aware of on the first anniversary of Ariza’s death, he had the sculptor-turned-digger cover a canvas with gravel and cement, and then string up the canvas to mask the corner. He later opened the rest of the vault to the academic community, which, true enough, spent the better part of the next five years extracting every sheet–every bit was precious and worth a high degree of precision, they said, betraying their love for sustained adversarial relationships–and overlooking the concealed corner.
He took secret trips to the dig weekly–this time without Tarocchi, whose fortune-telling business had become so lucrative that he started to train local choirboys as apprentices–to spend hours staring at the corpse, studying every detail, creating rough sketches of her form from different angles. He brought these home to Florencia, his wife of three years whose passion for long ferry-rides made her bored at the mere thought of visiting the same place again and again, who pretended to study each sketch while her mind saw other women reflected in his eyes’ sparkling enthusiasm. Ariza never doubted her passing questions, so caught up was he in his fascination for something which, to him, transcended the victimizing temporariness of human relationships.
In a few months he had memorized and mapped every one of the face’s seventy-seven wrinkles, with a hypothesis for which lines came from her natural features, and which ones came from the mummification process.
In a year, he had written a scholarly paper on the health benefits of Nirvana and a novella about a village that lived in constant hallucination, but switched the addresses of the publications he sent them to by accident, leading the academic community to believe he was hallucinating in a most unscholarly manner, and the literary community to praise his Nirvanic prose.
For the fifth-year anniversary of the discovery, he released a treatise that tackled the theory that we recreate the past when we stare into its remnants, with the problem that we revise it to weave neatly into our present, the prevalent consideration being that our narrative is a straight stitch that must be kept straight, lest we reel from the universal horror of discovering that our lives, ultimately, became stagnant long before we expire.
The submission of this manuscript, and his wife’s later discovery of the document when it was returned rejected, became the shock that realized in her mind that he was more faithful to his imagination than to her. This resulted in her boarding a Southward ferry with their two children, leaving him only two days’ worth of boiled potatoes, and a sack of raw ones–in the hope that hunger would bring him back to earth, and he would be compelled to grow his own–on which was an impeccably-written note: I hope this is what you prayed for.
Ariza grieved for a minute when he found out, even asking God if this was part of the divine patience that He espoused, but then he remembered his theory, and dismissed her departure as her attempt to straighten her own stitch, telling himself that perhaps that was all some people desired.
He spent the rest of his days withering away, his shriveled countenance looking more and more like the corpse which consumed his attentions. His time was spent locked in a small living quarters he erected near the site, writing amid malaria-rich mosquito bites and rumors that he was apprenticing young men for a pagan school of archaeo-philosophy that relished in the blasphemous idea of death without resurrection.
“I was not obsessed with death,” he wrote in an unpublished memoir, a mess of chicken scratches leading up to his death by dementia, waking up one morning to find out his mind had forgotten how to make his heart beat. “I was obsessed with the life that enabled such death.”