Illuminated by his headlamp, Artur consulted the dirt-stained map, though he was no explorer. It had been scrawled by a native with the first pen his leather-brown hand had ever touched. Artur took the pickaxe from its loop on his rucksack and began scraping away at the ancient rubble, though he was no archaeologist. Exactly when the man-made system of tunnels had begun to cave in, he could not say, he was no historian. To Artur, it seemed as if they had been dug by a giant, careless beast, which is not to say they were not man-made. Rubble and dust surrounded him, somehow clinging to the ceiling, rubble and dust.
What may have once been had either collapsed under its own weight or been looted. But Artur was not in search of riches. He was searching for meaning, though he was no philosopher. No one had ever called Artur anything other than Artur. He didn’t know enough to be called a historian; couldn’t express himself well enough to be called a philosopher; and he knew he was far too objective to be accepted as a social activist.
He knew he did not think like they did, so he could not speak as they would like, thus they would never listen. He was sure he had the mind to elucidate what to them was only noumenon. Life had taught him that they could only perceive and conceive the phenomenological, the noumenological was beyond them. Clarity is galling when everyone lives in a cloud. A light in total darkness is a shadow.
Artur could not express the noumena in a way they could understand or accept, perhaps no one could, but he searched the world for something that could. As he trawled through an archive in Myanmar that he had to bribe his way into—because he was no historian—he stumbled across a description of a book, the description of which was almost untranslatable. That had been his first clue.
He spent a year travelling around Asia, trying to have the passage translated. He found each country’s banks more than willing to grant a well-dressed and well-spoken white man a credit card he would never pay for. Money would be meaningless once the knowledge was known.
In a little town on a little island in the middle of a gigantic ocean, he found a little man with a big, tobacco-brown smile and no card terminal. But Artur had a camera he’d bought on credit in Hong Kong that the man would accept. He translated the description into Indonesian, the opening lines of which Artur could translate as: “The book of nothing, the book of everything. What is known but cannot be known.”
Artur dubbed it The Noumenonicon. The passage contained the name of an island, which the little man told him was somewhere in the Pacific Ocean.
The pickaxe raked easily through the loose rubble that covered the collapsed doorway to the sub-chamber. Artur stopped when he heard the flat edge scrape against solid stone. He could have cleared the rest by hand and admired whatever hieroglyphs the ancients had taken pains to inscribe upon the doorway to meaning, but he didn’t care. Nor did the islanders, Artur knew, they would not have let the temple fall to ruin if they had. Some concerned academic a thousand or more miles away might have cared, but if they cared as Emmanuel did, they would have gotten there first.
Artur was baking in that rock-kiln, the dust caked in his sweat felt as if it might bake bone-dry. But he bore through the heat, spinning the pickaxe to bring the point against the face of the stone door. Hefting the head over his shoulder, he brought the pickaxe down hard, eliciting a satisfying crack.
On the third strike, the dust covering the door shifted before the stone crumbled in. It was followed by a little avalanche of rubble and dust. He watched it fall and waited for it to stop. But what had seemed like solid rock walls around the opening began to crack like parched soil. His eyes could not keep up with the meandering myriad of fissures, but the beating of his heart accelerated with their rising intensity.
Artur felt as if the ancients wanted to keep him out. He couldn’t strain his heart any longer. He dropped the pickaxe and closed his eyes to the collapsing calamity. Clasping his caked hands together, he prayed in Indonesian, the closest language he knew to that of the ancients. The steady flow of words slowed his erratic heart, and the sounds of cracking, crumbling rock and the shifting of dust subsided with it. When the last ruckle of falling rock fell silent, he dared to open his eyes.
A thin cloud of dust still hung swirling before the opening, but through that cloud there was clarity. The gape in the rockface gave way to a steep decline that had hungrily swallowed the falling rubble.
Artur almost crossed himself in thanks before he remembered that the ancients had no conception of Christ. He took up the pickaxe but left his rucksack behind as he stepped cautiously through the dust. The loose rubble shifted at the slightest touch of his foot. He had to plant each footstep carefully to keep from rolling his ankle.
He realized the islander was the only one in seven billion who knew where Artur had gone. Would he care to come looking if Artur never resurfaced? One misstep could turn that temple into a tomb. Artur knew he had been long forgotten, but to die forgotten on the cusp of eternal memorial was an irony too bitter to swallow.
He used the pickaxe as a walking-stick and crept, curled over, feeling as old as the ancients, through the cloud that hung inexplicably around him. He had to pull his neckerchief up over his mouth and nose to breathe in that cloud. The tunnel within looked little different to the one without, only it seemed to grow with each step.
When he finally stepped out of that blinding, suffocating cloud, he felt as if he were stepping into open air, though the gigantic chamber in which he found himself closed him in all around. But there was light in that darkness, that came from somewhere other than his own head.
He looked up, leaning with both hands on the head of his pickaxe, and though he could see the long, narrow cone of light beaming down, he couldn’t see the source of the light above. It confounded him. There was no mountain on the island, and he was sure he had not trekked so far underground, yet the source of the light seemed miles above him.
Perhaps The Noumenonicon would hold the answer. With his eyes, he followed that beam of light’s course from its invisible source to its mouth on the rubble-strewn floor. He found nothing but a small mound of dust and rock in the centre of that cragged dome, standing proud from the rest.
“Time to find the mountain in the mole hill,” he whispered to himself with a smirk. He broke into a run, unable to contain his elation. Luckily, the floor of the chamber was more compacted than the tunnel he had crept through.
“The mountain in the mole hill!” he shouted as he ran.
He fell to his knees at the foot of that knee-high mound and tore it apart with his bare hands. Through the mound of grey, a brown peak poked its head out of the dust. Running his finger along its leathern edge, he knew he had uncovered the mountain.
He drove his pointed hands into the dust and wrenched out the Noumenonicon. He took no time to admire or embrace it. The book itself was nothing, its contents everything. Balancing the book in his left palm, he carefully opened the cover to find nothing but a blank, cream-coloured sheet of vellum. He rooted in his pockets for his tweezer. Wrenching it out, he carefully turned the well-aged animal-skin. He was met by another blank page, crying out for meaning. And another. And another. And another and another and another.
“Fuuuck!” he screamed, tears in his eyes. The caked, ancient clay that had fused to his brainpan crumbled like scorched earth as his forehead furrowed in despair.
“The book of nothing…cannot be known.”
He had scoured the world and dug down to its depths and all he had found was a fucking metaphor. He dropped the book into the dust it had sprung from and put his head in his hands. Of course it could not be known, if it could, it would be known. Of course he could never express it, because it could not be expressed.
Artur couldn’t stand to kneel before that false prophet a moment longer. He sprang to his feet and sprinted from that place. Through the dust and the tears and the hair-pulling, Emmanuel did not see the islander as he passed him at the bottom of the inclined tunnel. The same one who had drawn the map of the tunnels.
Secure in the mind that the silly white man was alive, Toutai followed Artur’s trail over to The Noumenonicon. He picked up the book.
“Silly white man,” he thought, turning the book over, “it reads back to front.”
The elders who had written it centuries before hadn’t had as much to write as they thought they might. Toutai opened it to the first page and ran his index finger from right to left across the elegant, cursive script. He could not read it, but he admired the artistry. He could recite it word for word, regardless. That’s why they had left it there. That’s why they had left the temple to ruin. The words were all they ever needed, all they ever would need.
That’s why they lived where they lived, though there were countless ways to reach the mainland. Some had left, but they had all come back, and what they came back with ensured the rest would stay forever. Not just where they were, but how they were. But it was getting hotter. There were more storms and less rain. The ocean seemed to be eating away at the island, piece by piece, year by year. And the elders had no answer for that.
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