(from Chapter 3)...
She got to Philadelphia in about an hour. Mariam knew the way quite well. She and her husband had often gone down to the city.
Edelberg had told her to meet him at the Archaeological Museum. It was an exotic, neo-Romanesque building, an oasis of taste among ugly hospital high-rises. Parking was a bitch, as usual. But today Mariam couldn't have cared less.
That whole night and this morning she hadn't been able to concentrate on anything except Edelberg's cryptic message. It was nice to have something at last that could drive the other thoughts from her mind. The dark thoughts.
Walking along the long brick wall surrounding the museum, she climbed up to the courtyard, where a tranquil pond covered with lotuses reflected the cloudy sky. Robins were bouncing here and there, yanking worms with aplomb.
As she watched the birds Mariam suddenly remembered her husband telling her about eating his lunches in this same courtyard. For a very brief time he had been a graduate student in the religion department here.
For a few minutes she did nothing but watch the birds dart back and forth, chirping as they flew out of another visitor's way.
Where did he sit? she wondered. Was it by that stone bench there? Or would he have likes to sit on the step? Or the grass?
It didn't matter. This quiet little place, secluded from the traffic-thronged street, was imbued with his presence. She felt close to him for a moment.
Then she went inside to meet Edelberg. On the way there she kept rubbing her palms against the sides of her jeans. No matter how hard she tried she couldn't get rid of the perspiration.
There were several people in the Egyptian room when she got there. One was the guard who was just reminding someone not to touch the artifacts. A couple was peering into a sarcophagus. Two men were bending over a display case that held an ancient and very rare tunic that had always fascinated her husband. She went over to the case and looked at the two men.
One of them, rather shabbily-dressed in jeans, a baggy denim shirt and sneakers said to her, "Mrs. Roberts?"
He looked Scandinavian. The blond eyebrows were the tip-off.
Beneath his unkempt beard his mouth curved in a nervous smile.
"I'm Professor Edelberg," he said. "May I introduce Dr. Thomas Ford, of Melchior College."
"How do you do?" she said to both of them.
Ford took her hand, staring into her eyes for a moment and then quickly looking away. Mariam didn't like to admit it, but she was an attractive woman.
The young professor was a little stocky, medium height, with close-cropped hair and somewhat swarthy features. She would've mistaken him for a Greek or Italian.
She was relieved to find his palm as sweaty as hers.
"It's a pleasure to meet you," he said. Then with a sigh, he turned to Edelberg and said, "Now how about telling us what we're here for?"
Edelberg's features became haggard and weary-looking.
"It's funny," he said, staring at the large window at the end of the gallery which showed the library. "But now that you're here I'm more afraid than ever. I almost wish you hadn't come. That you didn't even exist. Either of you."
There was no malice in his voice, but the fear showed around his eyes. He hadn't been getting much sleep himself.
"Well, let's go then. It's back in one of the labs."
On the way there, Edelberg struck up a nervous conversation with Mariam.
"I've been working in the Levant for several years..."
"The Levant?" she said, embarassed because she didn't know what he meant.
"I'm sorry. It's what we archaeologists call the Middle East---Lebanon, Israel, et cetera."
"Edelberg made a name for himself excavating some third century Gnostic communities in Egypt," Ford said. "Did you ever hear of the Papyrus Edelberg? It's named for him---one of the oldest scriptures from the Coptic Christians that we have."
Mariam began to lag behind them, keeping quiet. Finally her own nervousness made her say, "I think I understood maybe two words of what you just said."
"Um," Edelberg said, embarassed himself now. "Gnostic and Copts and all that? They were a sect of Christianity in Egypt, with very different scriptures and doctrines. They believed that uh...knowledge was the key to salvation. That's what gnosis means, knowledge. With that knowledge they thought you could...er...transcend the material world and climb in successive stages to the heaven."
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Roberts. I didn't mean to show off. We live in such a little self-contained world that we're not used to talking in anything other than scholar-babble. I just wanted to let you know that Edelberg is very highly respected."
"Thank you, Ford. Well," he said, ushering them into a staircase leading to the back of the museum building. "After the discoveries in Egypt I began excavating in the Levant. I've been at it over there for a decade or so. Which leads me to where you two come in."
"Yes," Ford said. "I was hoping you'd get to that someday."
The older man gave him a withering look and turned apologetically to Mariam.
She felt inadequate next to these two intellectuals. They reminded her of how little she knew. There had been a time many years ago when she'd been such an avid reader. Her memory had retained everything she'd read.
Then the problems had begun with her family which eventually led to her moving out. And then she met her husband. Somewhere along the way she lost any of the time she'd had for reading. Living proved something of a challenge. Then, after her husband's death, survival became the challenge---that, and keeping the memories at bay.
he didn't expect she'd ever be able to go back and learn even a tenth of what these men knew. When she thought about it now, she was mystified more than ever that Edelberg had insisted she come here. She, an absolute stranger.
Mariam was suddenly suspicious of these two men. What if they were going to lure her into one of those laboratories to rape her and kill her? Would anyone notice? How did she know they weren't a pair of freaks who'd picked her name out of a hat or off the internet?
The hallway leading to the labs seemed fairly well-populated. That made her feel a little bit better. Plenty of sloppy looking grad students sauntering from here to there. Enough to hear her scream if she had to.
They went about mid-way down the hall until Edelberg paused before a cartoon and e-mail-plastered door. He unlocked it, and flipped on the fluorescent lights. Then with a wave he ushered them in.
"I feel like a psychopomp," he said. Then by way of explanation, "A conductor of souls to the afterlife."
"That's it," Mariam said, standing where she was in the doorway. There was a tremor in her voice now. "You people are freaking me out. I don't know who the hell you are or what the hell I'm doing here. But I'm leaving. I've had enough of these games."
Abruptly, she turned on her heels and headed back down the hallway.
Edelberg and Ford came chasing after her.
"Mrs. Roberts! Please!"
The older professor was beside her now, his hand out to restrain her. Edelberg stopped short of actually touching her. This woman had that look on her face. The kind that said, Lay a finger on me and I'll rip your eyes out.
The stocky young professor told her, "Hey, I'm just as confused as you are. Believe me. Edelberg didn't give me any more information than he gave you. But since we both took a day to come down here why not hear him out?"
His voice was smooth, soothing. Mariam figured with a voice like that he must put his students to sleep.
"We can go inside and leave the door wide open if you'd like," Edelberg said placatingly.
Mariam looked up and down the halls, just to make sure the grad students hadn't suddenly disappeared. They were still milling about, clustering in front of doorways or carrying boxes of samples.
She followed the two men back to the room. The door was left open. Edelberg seemed uncomfortable with the arrangement. So he kept his voice down to barely a whisper.
There wasn't much to the room, Mariam noticed. A single black table took up the center of it. Counters ran along the perimeter of the room. Shelves covered the walls.
"This place looks like a tornado went through it," Ford said.
"Archaeologists are not necessarily the neatest of people," Edelberg told him. "But there's a method in the madness."
Every available inch of space was taken up by dusty boxes or smaller rows of shelves holding innumerable bits of pottery, marble, papyrus, cloth, and any other kind of garbage that humanity had left behind in its rather short life span.
"Are you sure you can find what you were supposed to show us?" Ford asked.
"I think so," Edelberg said. "But I want to give you some sort of background first. So we can inject just a modicum of reality into this situation."
He motioned for them to take a seat. Then, standing in front of them, he began.
"I don't know how familiar you are with the work that we've been doing in the Levant for the past few years. I know it's gotten some coverage on PBS. Especially when we found that Roman mosaic. Since the summer of 1996 my team and I have been excavating a series of digs at Mount Carmel."
Carmel, Mariam thought. Where we spent our honeymoon.
ould she ever stop making these associations? The whole world seemed like an allegory of their life together---and a reminder that it was lost forever.
She lost track of what Edelberg was saying and had to ask, "I'm sorry, what did you say?"
"I was just talking about Mount Carmel and its geographical position. It runs along and juts into the Mediterranean Sea and forms in part the Bay of Acre along with the harbor of Haifa. The headland is part of a thirteen mile long range of limestone hills which provide very rich soil. It actually bisects Palestine quite nicely from north to south."
Ford cut in. "Well, where's the dig?"
"I'm getting to that. To spare you the boredom Mrs. Roberts, I won't go into a lengthy explanation of the history of the region. Suffice it to say that up until the period we're concerned with it was primarily important because it served as a boundary between Tyre and Israel. It was also, from the most ancient of times, a sacred mountain, being consecrated to the Baal of the Promontory."
Whatever that is, Mariam thought.
"But I think it's probably most famous for the part it played in the story of Elijah. Have you ever heard of the story of Elijah and the prophets of Asherah and Baal? How they built altars to see which god would beat out the others?"
"Yes," Mariam said, looking from one to the other with embarassment. "Elijah's god was the only one to get a fire started. Then he had them kill all the other prophets."
"That's about the size of it," said Edelberg with a chuckle. "Well, it didn't remain consecrated to Yahweh for that long. During the Hellenistic period there was a temple to Zeus there. Most recently monasteries have been built there by Christians. In fact the Carmelite order gets its name from this place."
"So there's a lot of history there," she said.
"And prehistory too. Three caves were found in Mount Carmel in the early part of this century. In a cliff on a river called Nahal Mearot, or the River of the Caves, about fifteen miles or so from Haifa. The cultural deposits ranged all the way back to the Upper to Lower Paleolithic periods---about one hundred and fifty thousand years ago. These three caves were pretty thoroughly excavated. We decided to explore some of the other caves in the area. Which brings me to our discovery."
Edelberg sighed and placed his hands on the dark table. When he withdrew them Mariam could see the sweaty imprint of his palms.
"We've been working in a cave called Gamal for quite some time. Didn't have to dig too deeply to find all sorts of great stuff. The best was the discovery we made of a scriptorium."
"That's a place where manuscripts were copied," Ford said, just to say something. He was feeling tense himself.
"A similar place was discovered in the Essene community."
When he got no sign of recognition from Mariam Edelberg explained, "The ones who wrote the Dead Sea scrolls. In this scriptorium we found a table made of mud brick and covered with plaster. Nearby were two ink wells, one still containing traces of ink, the kind made out of charcoal or lampblack mixed with gum and water. This was just the beginning. There were other signs of occupation. Eventually we uncovered a rather substantial complex that we think is almost certainly the oldest Christian community yet discovered."
"How did you know they were Christian?"
"We found manuscripts, Mariam. May I call you Mariam? Yes, we found some manuscripts." His voice had grown tremulous. "Fragments mostly. From what we can piece together they might be the earliest collection of sayings of Jesus. That is, the source that was used by the synoptic writers, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Scholars call it Q."
Ford was out of his seat.
"You found Q! I don't believe it!"
Mariam looked at Ford's astounded face and said, "So?"
Ford, running a hand through his dark hair, said, "Every New Testament scholar would give his left nut to see an original copy of Q. Of course, that would put half the scholars out of work. Most of what they do these days is argue about whether or not such and such a verse is authentic or not. Q would help to settle many of those questions. It would be the greatest find in the history of the field." He turned to the older man. "This is incredible. Do we get to see it?"
"What? You're kidding me, right?"
"Q is small potatoes, Ford."
"How can you say that? What else did you find there, the Ark of the Covenant or something?"
Mariam smiled. For once she understood one of his references.
"Calm down, Ford. You're going to need every ounce of strength you have. Forget about Q for now. We found something else. Another fragment. There's no mistaking the date of it. It was found in the same stratum of occupation as the scriptorium. The numismatic evidence dates it to around the first revolt. That's the year 66 or so. Palaeography..."
Something got caught in his throat, or so it seemed.
"Palaeography in this case is irrelevant."
"What's that?" Mariam asked, clearly excited now. It no longer mattered to her why she was here. All she knew was that she would be among the first to see something big. Really big.
"When I discovered it I thought it was some sort of joke. Something my assistants put in to pull my leg. But they swore up and down on their mother's virtue that they didn't slip it in there. And I believed them. At least, I believed them enough to spend the six hundred dollars needed to send it to a lab for analysis. Accelerator Mass Spectrometry."
"Is that like Carbon 14 dating?" Mariam asked.
"That's exactly what it is. But unlike other radiometric dating it requires much less material for analysis---about three grams. I wanted to conserve this document as much as possible. The result took six weeks. I won't tell you how I spent those six weeks. I didn't sleep much. And I think most of my teeth are ground down to sharp points by now."
Edelberg walked over to a drawer, which he unlocked. From it he withdrew a small box and brought it back to the table.
"The results were what I feared. This manuscript is about two thousand years old. As soon as I found it out, I decided to look for both of you. You...you'll understand things now."
From the box, Edelberg brought out an aged piece of parchment. It wasn't in the greatest shape. The corners were in shreds and the ink was rather faded. The animal skin had turned a dark brown color. Mariam didn't need an accelerator whatever it was test to tell her that this was ancient.
She began to read it. Then something like a scream escaped her lips.
The world started swirling around her. Then it closed in. The walls were constricting, the ceiling collapsing. She tried to take a breath but it was too great an effort to even move her chest. Finally she held onto the edge of the table, as if she were on a ship in the middle of a maelstrom.
The two men did not try to comfort her. They were as profoundly shocked as she. Ford kept staring at it, shaking his head.
Mariam was getting tired of hearing him say, "Oh my God, Oh my...God," again and again.
She had to say something herself. But she was afraid. If she said what needed to be said then it was over. There would be no way of going back. She would have admitted this as reality.
"That's my handwriting," she told them at last.
She tried reading the letter that she'd written. It wasn't too hard to read. But it seemed strange to see a two thousand year old manuscript dug out of a cave in Israel with a long message written on it in perfect twenty-first century English. Well, not so perfect. Mariam's penmanship was less than exemplary.
"I wrote this..."
"No, this is impossible!" Ford cried out.
"No!" Edelberg screamed at him. "I am telling you that this is two thousand years old. It is not impossible. It is real, damn it! Now what the hell are we going to do about it?"
They leaned over the manuscript one more time, the three of them huddled close together. Mariam felt like if she let go of either of them she would spin away into oblivion. She let her eyes drift once more onto the ancient page. And read again that first line:
...st know. It is the ye...as I write the...ds that will n.......ad for tw....sand years.
And then the second one, which had escaped damage, the one that made her shiver:
...y name is Mariam Roberts. I stepped back into the past with Dr. Thomas Ford on June 18 20... I write this so you will know. I have seen him. I have seen Jesus of Nazareth with my own eyes.