A Fantasy Novel
This book is a work of fiction derived from a real incident of cultural and religious tolerance that ultimately led to the peaceful coexistence of two very different peoples. The goal of this publication is to convey that lesson while providing an entertaining story for the reader.
The Pueblo ceremonies I have depicted are based on the writings of Tewa author and anthropologist Alfonso Ortiz in his book “The Tewa World: Space, Time, Being and Becoming in a Pueblo Society.” Mr. Ortiz's writings are not without controversy, and I apologize in advance to those who take exception to his work.
The Great Room
“Ah, Carlos,” the Doctor said, looking very small in the frame of the immense door. “Right on time. Please come in."
I thought it might be rude not to comment on his strange bushes, plus I was downright curious. “This is a pretty nice zoo you have here. You should be included on the Santa Fe Chili Pepper Tour.” The Chili Pepper gives tourists open-air tours in busses painted to look like chilis. “They all look so real. Did you trim them yourself?”
“Yes, this is one of my hobbies; turning living bushes into living art. Maybe sometime you’ll be here to see them under the light of a full moon with just a whisper of fog. That is when they really seem to come alive.
“Enough about the animals. Come inside and let’s see if we can get you working.” The doctor stood aside as I stepped up onto the porch and crossed the threshold into a short hall paneled in light yellow marble. At the end of the hall was a closed pair of shiny brass doors, and to my left, through a partially opened wooden door, I could see a stainless steel exhaust hood over a black countertop covered with books, beakers and flasks. Across from the door, hanging against the wall like a giant flag, was a richly embroidered tapestry with the image of a great tree. On one side of the tree the blue water of a sea stretched to the horizon. Swimming in the water were stubby-legged lizard-looking creatures. On the other side was a lush green garden. Near the base of the tree, at the water’s edge, a man and woman stood side-by-side. The man’s arm was lovingly draped across her back, while her head rested lightly against his shoulder. Above them, a dense canopy of branches grew out from the thick trunk. Delicately woven within the leaves were hundreds of people that seemed to be from many different races and cultures.
“That is my office and laboratory,” Doctor Lopez said, easily pushing the heavy front door closed with one hand while pointing to the partially open door with the other. “No need to go in there now. Most of your work will be done in the Great Room and the antechambers.”
I followed Doctor Lopez as he walked to the brass doors at the end of the hall and pulled them open. The light from the hall spilled across the threshold into the unlit room, illuminating a medieval suit of armor that stood just on the inside of the doorway. For a second I got the feeling that someone or something was staring out at us from behind its louvered visor. Beyond the suit of armor the room was cloaked in complete darkness.
“I know it’s here somewhere,” Doctor Lopez said, stepping into the room, his small hand sliding up and down along the wall in search of a light switch.
“Ah ha, I found it,” he said, and the next moment the room was flooded with bright white light. “Welcome to the Great Room, Carlos.”
My jaw dropped open and I heard myself gasp.
Spread out across an immense room was a collection of art, artifacts and goods that would have made any museum curator envious.
The Great Room’s name barely did it justice: it was in fact a magnificent work of architecture. The ceiling had fifteen elegantly curved concave sections that lay three abreast across the width of the room and in rows of five along its length. At their lowest point, where the corners of the sections met, solid black marble columns rose from the floor to the ceiling. Hanging from the center of each section was a crystal chandelier.
The knight I had seen in the shadows was only one of about twenty lining the wall at the top of the room. The metal gauntlets they wore on their right hand grasped the hilt of half-drawn swords, while their other hand held tightly to wooden spears with wicked looking iron tips. They were like sentinels standing guard over the king’s treasury.
In front of the knights were ancient manuscripts, beautifully bound Bibles and white marble busts wearing crowns of gold. Hanging on the walls and perched on easels scattered throughout the room was a magnificent assortment of paintings in gilded frames. Glass cases held finely crafted ornaments made of precious metals, wood, and bone. From primitive stone knives and hammers to delicately sculpted statues and intricate stained-glass windows, the variety seemed endless. Through three arched doorways in the opposite wall the collection continued into other rooms. I figured these were the antechambers Doctor Lopez had spoken of out in the entry hall.
“You can take a breath now, Carlos,” Doctor Lopez said.
I hadn’t realized I was holding my breath and slowly let it out. “This is…is…awesome, Doctor,” I said, stammering to find the right words to describe his collection.
”Awesome? Yes, I suppose it is. This is the collection I told you about. I have spent my life collecting and studying what you see before you.”
I turned my gaze from the room to the doctor. I could only think of one response.
The doctor’s expression turned thoughtful for a second and then he gave a small chuckle. “A very good question, Carlos, but a question to which there is not a simple answer. I guess the easiest answer is I study to learn, and by learning, I will understand.”
“Understand what?” I asked, hoping I wouldn’t irritate him with my curiosity.
He looked at me keenly. “As much as is humanly possible.” He took a moment to gather his thoughts. “You see, Carlos,” Doctor Lopez continued, “I want to understand how a newborn calf, less than an hour into the world, is able to stand for the first time and go straight to the milk waiting in the udder between its mother’s back legs. I want to know how big the universe is and how small it once was. I want to know….”
He paused and brought up his right hand until it was a few inches in front of his face. Slowly his little finger began moving rhythmically as if to some unheard music. Then the other fingers started moving, first together as if he was waving, and then apart as if he was striking the keys on a piano. Then they stopped and the fingers came together making a tight fist. He relaxed and dropped his hand to his side while taking a deep breath. This he held for a few seconds and then let it out slowly. Suddenly he laughed a great booming laugh that echoed throughout the Great Room, causing me to start.
“I want to understand,” he continued, “why my body can do that.” Doctor Lopez was silent for a moment. “But most of all, more than anything else, more than math and chemistry and astronomy and geology and biology, I want to understand what we are and why we do the things we do.”
I followed Doctor Lopez as he walked out into the room.
“I’ve found some answers but many allude me. I know our world today is the sum total of our past. And in both the past as well as today, I study the beauty human nature has created and,” he said in a slightly weary tone, “the darkness of evil that so often rears its appalling head.”
I felt a small chill, almost as if a cold draft of air had blown across us. Suddenly it seemed that the Great Room wasn’t quite as bright as it had been a moment earlier.
“I am an antiquarian. The things spread out across this room are antiquities. In the antechambers are other parts of my collection. I study civilization as if it were a tree: a tree of many branches, but born of one seed. And though some of the branches may have withered and died, and those that continue to grow have changed and taken different shapes with the passing of each season, the seed that gave life to the tree remains the same.”
He suddenly stopped walking and turned to me. We were standing next to a glass-enclosed pedestal. Underneath the glass was what looked like half a human jawbone with only a few teeth still intact.
“There are many experts who believe the seed of the human tree took root in Central Africa about two million years ago. Of course that was long before any records were kept, so much of what is known comes from studying the evidence that was left behind. From this evidence, we know the seed sprouted, and the branches formed. Over the centuries, the human race multiplied and migrated around the globe. Though very similar to modern man in many ways, these first people were physically smaller and their brains were not as large or complex as they are today. It was only about forty-five thousand years ago that we evolved into what we are today. Do you know how old the Earth is, Carlos?” he asked.
“Four billion years is what comes to mind, but I’m not sure where I got that number.”
“Well, wherever you got it, it was from a good source. Most scientists think that is the approximate age of our world. Now consider that man has been here in his present physical shape for only forty-five thousand years. Compare that to four billion years.”
I considered the relative size of the two numbers and the number of zeroes involved—45,000 years vs. 4,000,000,000 years. Take away three zeroes from each side to simplify: 45 years vs. 4,000,000 years. The sheer size of the numbers was still bigger than I could really grasp, so I tried to think of some examples that would give me a good comparison. What I came up with was surprising to me. It would be like a shovel full of dirt tossed on a mountain, a thimble of water taken from a lake, or my day’s pay from Carlotta resting beside a four million-dollar fortune.
“Talk about new kids on the block,” I said, whistling softly through my teeth. “We’ve hardly been here at all, compared to what has passed. It kind of makes me feel insignificant, if you want to know the truth.”
“Quite right, Carlos, we are, as you say, the new kids on the block. But it is not my intent to make you, or me, feel insignificant. I believe we need to look at the world around us as the product of over four billion years of work. How can we be insignificant if the product of those billions of years is a species that can contemplate existence, and death? We are only insignificant if we do not meet the responsibility we have been challenged with, which is the challenge of improving and bettering that which has come before. To fulfill our responsibility we must use the gifts that have been given to us, whether through evolution or by our creator, and comprehend what we examine. So let us meet our responsibility and try to understand.
“It is of great significance to my work, Carlos, that modern man is relatively new, and, as we know him, physically the same today as he was ten and twenty thousand years ago. Let us return for a moment to my analogy of the tree. For the sake of this discussion, let us assume it is an oak tree. During the spring months, the tree produces a new set of leaves that fall off and die when winter sets in. The cycle repeats itself every year. Old leaves die and new ones are born. They are not the same leaves, but they are all oak leaves, and they all have the same traits and characteristics of the leaves that came before them.
“The tree of man is no different,” he continued, “and that is a key factor in my work. Stone Age man made his tools from rocks because he did not know how to forge and use metal. The people of the Iron Age didn’t know that adding tin to iron would make a new metal called brass. And that is no different from men in the nineteenth century not knowing about the operation of an automobile—”
“Or,” I interrupted grinning, “people not knowing fifty years ago how to play video games.”
“Touché, Carlos,” Doctor Lopez said smiling. “So we know men and women were no less intelligent ten thousand years ago than they are today. Our intelligence is a common thread. But that intelligence is only one of many threads. Archaeologists have unearthed evidence that shows the most ancient tribes fed and took care of those unable to care for themselves. Now we have charities and social programs that perform the same functions in our present day world. There is no difference; compassion, like intelligence, is but another thread.
“Unfortunately, the threads are not always so benevolent. The threads of envy, brutality, and greed are as much with us today as they were with our earliest ancestors. And, interestingly, none of these traits are confined to any single branch or part of the tree. Man shares these characteristics across the face of the world. But that is hardly surprising. As I said, we are all of the same seed.”
As he spoke, Doctor Lopez’s voice had taken on a somber note. He was silent for a moment, then he looked around the Great Room.
“This is my work, Carlos. Through these things from the past I study the common characteristics of humanity. From the time people were banding together and learning the use of fire to the modern day of space travel, super computers and weapons of mass destruction, I try to find answers to the question of why we are as we are.”
I did not reply, but stood looking at the doctor’s face. What a strange little man I had come to work for. But something in the way the doctor spoke, or in the things he said, gave me a sense of anticipation.
I think my job had found me.
“Come now,” the Doctor said, “it has been a long while since I have walked through my collection, and it will do us both some good.”
For the next three hours, we meandered through the Great Room. The doctor spoke almost nonstop as we moved from one exhibit to another. Sometimes he would pause to pick up an item and study it as if for the first time. Other times he would make me laugh with a funny story related to his acquisition of a particular object.
The antechambers, though much smaller than the Great Room, housed a considerable number of exhibits. They ranged from the recurved tusk of a woolly mammoth (the doctor hadn’t been kidding in Carlotta’s café, but he had failed to mentioned the elaborate carvings in the ivory) to small displays of concrete from the Berlin Wall and the World Trade Center.
The sun was setting and there was a chill in the air when Doctor Lopez escorted me back onto the front porch.
“Thank you for coming, Carlos,” the Doctor said. “I think you will have the opportunity to learn quite a bit while working here.”
“Thanks for taking a chance on me,” I said. “I’ll do my best to make sure I don’t let you down.”
“Your best is all I ask for, Carlos.”
I rode my bicycle down the drive and into the street. Looking back over my shoulder, I saw Doctor Lopez standing next to a lion-shaped bush. He seemed to be talking to himself. Maybe singing to the twilight. It was, after all, a beautiful evening deserving of song.
I started humming as I pedaled down the lane and headed home.
When I returned the following day, I found Doctor Lopez waiting at the front door with a bottle of furniture oil in one hand and a dust rag in the other. He led me through the Great Room and into one of the antechambers, where I spent the remainder of the afternoon cleaning and oiling 17th century French furniture. A small card of heavy paper was attached to each piece of furniture with a strong thread. On the card was a brief description of the object, including the origin and time from which it came. Occasionally there was a paragraph describing significant events related to the piece. Doctor Lopez encouraged me to read the cards as I worked.
The rest of the week proceeded in a similar manner. After school let out, I would hurry over to Doctor Lopez’s and receive my assignments for the day. Generally they involved some type of cleaning and polishing, or the moving of an exhibit from one place to another. After the doctor had assigned me my afternoon tasks, he would usually disappear into his office until the end of the day. Every once in a while I would catch a glimpse of him across the Great Room or as he entered one of the antechambers.
Sometimes I thought back to my first meeting with the doctor, and his ominous queries about being strong in back and in spirit. So far the hardest jobs he had given me had done little more than cause a light sweat to break out on my forehead. I sure hadn’t had any assignments like the kind suggested during our interview.
But as the weeks passed and autumn moved toward winter, I thought about his curious words less and less, and soon forgot about them altogether.