Shades of the Sphinx
It was a different time. That's what people my age say when they talk about doing things that would give today's parents a coronary. I doubt young people understand that, how could they? The thing is, it's true. My parents were just as concerned about me as these folks are about their precious little tykes, and there were plenty of dangers for them to worry over. But in many ways the world was a simpler place in my youth, and the really dangerous stuff seemed so far-fetched to a kid that I never thought about it.
Things like a young girl making friends with a weird old man. You know the kind; lived all alone in a big ol' tumble-down house up on the hill at the edge of town, got frequent deliveries of packages wrapped in brown paper with return addresses from big cities and foreign countries, wasn't seen much in town and (gasp!) didn't attend either local church. There were rumors of strange lights and sounds emanating from the house during the wee hours of the morning, though how anyone knew that is beyond me. It was well-known that the cop on night duty always dozed behind the wheel of his cruiser and everyone else was fast asleep in complete confidence that he was protecting them. As I said, it was a different time.
In short he was different, and 'different' doesn't set well in a small mid-Western town during the 40's. Even now I suspect denizens of such a town wouldn't accept someone like that. They were all farmers or storekeepers, good Christians, friendly people who were always willing to help a neighbor in need. But they were, perhaps understandably, leery of someone who didn't fit their mold. A solitary old man who didn't join in and socialize was gossiped about and suspected of any number of evil doings.
In truth, Mr. Macpherson did something far worse than not fitting in - he taught me to ask questions and seek the truth. I'll always be grateful to him for that. It made my life interesting even if it did cause me to leave the safe haven of my little town and the respectable life my folks had planned for me from the day I was born.
I knew who he was; all us kids had seen him occasionally when he did venture out of that spooky house. He was hard to miss because the adults all whispered to each other after he'd walked by. A veritably ancient man (to a kid anyway), Mr. Macpherson was overweight (not yet knowing to be politically correct we called him 'fat') and had untidy long white hair around the sides of his head even though he was bald on top. He wore baggy tweed trousers with suspenders, a white shirt with a bow-tie, a ratty old red cardigan, and a funny-looking flat cap. Only later did I realize his clothes were long out of style.
I met him by accident - literally. I ran into him while chasing a ball Jimmy Spencer had thrown over the fence. Jimmy was a mean kid, a little older than my ten years, and he probably did it on purpose so one of us would have to go fetch it. I don't think he had anything other than that in mind, but it's possible he saw Mr. Macpherson shuffling along the sidewalk and thought it would be a hoot to startle the old guy. If so, his aim was off.
At any rate I was closest to the gate and ran out onto the sidewalk without looking, thinking only of getting the ball back. As I grabbed the gate-post to swing myself around the ball hit a chunk of concrete that had been pushed up by the root of that big old elm in front of Jimmy's house and bounced back toward the fence. I saw it change direction and dashed madly after it without really looking where I was going and ran head-long into Mr. Macpherson. The ball bounced off of the fence and he caught it as I lay on the ground in horror, expecting to be turned into a frog sometime in the next three seconds.
Nothing of the sort happened. Mr. Macpherson simply smiled, asked if I was hurt, and extended a hand to help me up. I jumped up without his help and blubbered, "I'm really sorry I was chasing the ball and didn't see you and it went the other way and I was just trying to catch it and I don't know why it went that way and can I have the ball back…uh, please?"
He handed me the ball and said, "That's easy, it went that way because the angle of reflection equals the angle of incidence. Are you sure you're not hurt?"
"The angle of impudence?" I asked. That word I knew, I'd heard Mama use it lots of times. But why was he talking about reflection when there were no mirrors out here?
"In-ci-dence" Mr. Macpherson said, pronouncing it slowly. "It means the ball changed direction because the angle of the pavement differed from the norm where it hit." He smiled as if to say, "That explains everything."
I suddenly remembered my manners and said, "Uh, thanks for the ball." And just as suddenly had a mental picture of what he'd been talking about. "You mean the ball didn't bounce straight because the sidewalk wasn't flat?"
"Yes!" he said, "That's it exactly. You're a smart young lady to understand. I bet you do quite well in school, don't you?"
"Yes, sir, I do - but it's all so boring. I mean, they never tell us why we need to learn all that stuff. Daddy says I just have to, that's all, but I don't understand."
Mr. Macpherson smiled even more broadly and said, "I could show you what it's all for, would you like that? Come talk to me tomorrow after school and I'll begin by showing you exactly why the ball behaved in that manner."
I wasn't sure what to say to that and, glancing around, realized that everyone was staring at me in a way I didn't like. "Uh, I don't know, I mean, I have to do my homework, uh, I'll think about it. I need to get back to the game now. Goodbye."
I ran back to my friends, tossing the ball to Jimmy as I got closer. He missed it, which probably embarrassed him. Which of course was what I wanted. So to get back at me he asked "You really going out to Macpherson's spooky old house?"
"No way!" I said, with false bravado. "But I couldn't just say 'no', that would be rude."
Jimmy sneered, "Knew you wouldn't - you're a fraidy-cat."
"Takes one to know one!" I shot back. "You wouldn't know whether I went there or not, you don't have the guts to go near the place."
"You gonna go?" he taunted.
"What's it to ya?" I replied. Kids don't argue logically. I couldn't just admit he was right, that I was afraid to go in that house. So I changed the subject, "Let's play ball, before we have to go in to supper."
After supper that night I did my homework. I remember I had math that night. I was good at it, whipped out that page of problems as fast as I could write down the answers. But I got to thinking about what I'd told Mr. Macpherson, that I didn't understand why I needed to know how to solve them. The trains thing, who cared? I'd like to know why this stuff was important - could he really explain that? He'd sounded like it was a good thing to want to know 'why', and nobody else did, not even Miss Phelps. Besides, he hadn't seemed scary up close. Why didn't the grown-ups like him?
It took me two days to work up the courage to knock on his door after school. As I walked up the steps to the porch the old wood-frame house seemed to lean out over me, like it might fall over at any minute. The wide wooden porch was bare; no potted plants, chairs, or swing; nothing to show anyone ever sat out here. The dark heavy curtains at the many windows were open but the glass was so dirty I couldn't see in.
Between the sound of my knees knocking and my heart pounding I couldn't hear my feeble knock. But I guess Mr. Macpherson did, or maybe it was my knees he heard. At any rate he opened the door with a big smile on his face and invited me in. I thought my knees might buckle as I walked inside, and wondered if anyone would ever see me alive again. But I went in.
The entryway was dim after the bright afternoon sunlight. I could see a coat rack and one of those funny skinny tables, but it had nothing on it. The one at my Aunt's had a bowl that was always full of fruit or flowers, and it sat on a big fringed cloth. The bowl, not the table. There was a staircase off to the right; the carved wooden banister would be perfect for sliding down but I bet no one had in a long time because it was really dusty. The big umbrella stand in the corner looked like it was made out of some kind of wrinkled grey animal's foot.
"As I'm sure you know, my name is Mr. Macpherson," he said. "Colin Macpherson. What's yours?"
"Emily." I wasn't sure my voice would work, and the name came out so quietly I wasn't sure he'd heard.
"It's so very nice to meet you, Emily," he said as he offered to shake hands. "I'm glad you came, I was afraid you wouldn't. I know people think I'm a bit dotty, and this place would make a perfect haunted house if I didn't live here. I'll bet your friends dared you to come, didn't they?"
I'd never had an adult offer to shake my hand and couldn't figure out how to do it because of the school books in my arms. "Well, Jimmy said I wouldn't, called me a fraidy-cat. But can you really tell me why I have to learn all that stuff in school? I mean, well, I can do the exercises but I don't know why I need to, and no one will tell me."
"Yes, Emily, I can. And it would be my pleasure to teach someone who truly wants to learn."
Mr. Macpherson told me to put my books on the table and we'd talk in the parlor. I wasn't sure what a 'parlor' was, but it turned out to be a big room. A big room full of junk. There was a big sofa with wooden edges carved with flowers and vines, but when I sat on it the seat was stiff and scratchy so I sat in one of the big soft chairs instead. There were lots of chairs, mostly pushed up against the walls, and a lot of them looked too delicate to actually sit in. There were lots of little tables too, covered with flowered cloths and littered with knick-knacks and books. There were books piled on the chairs, too.
A huge bookcase covered two walls, and every shelf was positively crammed with books - yet there were all kinds of little pots and statues in front of the books and sometimes on top of a stack too. As my eyes adjusted to the dim light I could see bigger statues sitting around, in the corners and stuck partly under the tables. There were even a few big pieces of rock but with pictures carved on them. There were a few pictures on the wall, brown pictures of people standing stiffly and wearing old-timey clothes.
Mr. Macpherson asked if I'd like something to drink. Mama would give me milk and cookies, but when I asked he said he didn't have any. Would I like some tea instead? I thought he meant iced tea and said "Sure." He told me to look around while he made it and left the room.
I wasn't quite so scared now, so I got up to get a closer look at some of the statues. They were weird! There was one of a lady in a long skirt but no blouse (I giggled at that), she was holding her arms above her head and there were snakes in her hands. There was a graceful grey dancer in flowing robes with a funny pointy hat and China-man eyes. That white one was the top half of a pretty young man with curly hair. Here was an ugly one of a man's head; he had feathers sticking up on top and big round ear-bobs that pulled his earlobes nearly to his shoulders. He looked like he was mad about something. There was a pretty little Japanese doll, and a black cat with painted eyes and a gold collar.
The pots were just as strange. They were big and small, clay and stone, painted real fancy and plain as dirt. Some were tall and skinny, others short and fat. Some had handles, some didn't. One was painted with black zigzags, another had funny lizards that looked like my little brother had drawn them. Here was a red one with black stick figures fighting each other. A big one in the corner had three-petaled flowers in red and blue. They all looked old and I was afraid to pick up any of them.
I looked at some of the books. They seemed to be about far-away places, but I'd never heard of most of them. There were science books too; math, bugs, bridges and buildings, guns, and plants just to name a few. I was wondering if it would be OK to look at one when Mr. Macpherson came back in.
Turned out he'd meant hot tea, he was carrying a tray with a big silver teapot. He put it down on the coffee table in front of the sofa and chairs and I could see two pink-flowered cups on matching saucers, a fat silver bowl full of sugar cubes, a tiny silver pitcher with milk. There was also a bigger (matching) plate piled with squares of toast and jam. My stomach growled.
"I'll be Mother," he said.
"How can you be a mother?" I asked.
"That's what the English say," he laughed. "The lady of the house is supposed to pour the tea, but when there isn't a lady around whoever pours is referred to as 'Mother'. With a capital 'M'."
He poured the tea, added milk and sugar to mine, and offered me some toast. "You're really supposed to have biscuits with tea, but this was the best I could do," he said as I gobbled one down and reached for another.
"Why would you eat biscuits with tea?" I asked around a mouthful.
"Well, we'd call them cookies here, but they call them biscuits," he replied. "Haven't used this tea service in years, it came from England. Oh, don't worry, I washed it out first!"
"Have you been to England?" I asked. I looked a little more closely at the teapot.
It was decorated with a spray of raised roses across its fat round side, with a clump of them at the corners where handle was attached. The silver was brightly polished, but I could see black edges around the roses. "It's real fancy, looks old, I bet it's expensive."
He got a funny look on his face, said "Yes, it's quite old, and I imagine it would fetch a large sum in an antique store. And yes, I have been to England, many years ago."
"Should we be using it?" Suddenly I was afraid I might drop that thin little cup, and set it down on the table. "You could sell it and get some money."
"Oh, I'd never sell it," he replied. "I have enough money to get by, don't need much, and that teapot has great sentimental value for me. It was given to me by a good friend, who passed away quite a long time ago. But I think she would be pleased that I'm using it again, and that you appreciate its beauty."
I grabbed another little piece of toast, but was very careful with the cup. As we ate Mr. Macpherson told me all about real English tea parties, how there were formal ones that you dressed up for, and casual ones among friends. That you could eat biscuits or little sandwiches, about clotted cream (which sounded icky). I was surprised to learn that 'tea' was often a little meal to keep you from starving all afternoon since in England you wouldn't get dinner until nearly my bedtime.
We talked about the different kinds of tea itself, and that got him to talking about Chinese tea. I was surprised to learn that it tasted different! He got up and searched the bookshelves, finally pulling down a thin book about China. He showed me pictures of simple little black cups with no handles sitting on a tray painted with beautiful flowers. That got him telling me about how they made the shiny lacquered wood and that somehow made him think to explain how porcelain was made and why it was called "China".
He did eventually explain about bouncing balls and reflection, bringing in a small mirror that he used to throw spots of light on the ceiling. That turned into geometry and how to measure angles in degrees. It was so interesting I was disappointed when he pointed out that it was dinner-time and I really ought to get home before Mama got worried about me.
I was hooked, and I knew it. My folks acted like it was strange that I would go visit to Mr. Macpherson, but when I told them what all we'd talked about they seemed to get bored. Mama seemed to think tea parties were a waste of time, and Dad said he didn't see why I'd ever need to measure an angle. But they didn't tell me I couldn't go back.
At first I'd just go once a week, after all I wanted to play with my friends too. But before long I settled into a routine of visiting Mr. Macpherson two or three times a week. I rarely knew in advance what we'd talk about on any given day, but it was always fascinating. Mr. Macpherson seemed to know everything, and he told me in a way I could understand easily.
Often he'd stop talking and say "Let me show you a picture." He'd look at all the books on the shelves, running his finger along the spines to keep track, and rummage through those piled on the tables and chairs. He'd mumble to himself, "Where is that, I know it's here somewhere. Now where could I have put it?" His eyes would gleam when he found the one he'd been searching for and he'd bring it triumphantly back to the coffee table. The picture would always bring more questions from me, and often we'd be off on some new subject.
We talked about all sorts of things. We might start with Roman aqueducts, segue into bridges, and end up discussing how they affected battle tactics. Another day it would be pyramids - and not just in Egypt! He'd show me pictures of exquisitely life-like Greek statues, though I thought it best not to tell Mama that many of them were naked. I learned about art, religion, and cultures old and new. I began to see why mathematics and science were so important, allowing us to build and mine and travel and make our lives better and more comfortable.
I asked him one time how he'd learned so much, said he must've gone to college. Remember, back then most people (at least those I knew) were considered reasonably educated if they finished high school. He seemed to think that was funny, told me his father had been a poor man unable and unwilling to send him to a college.
"I've knocked about a fair bit and picked up things on my own," he said. "When I was a young man I worked at a lot of different jobs. I learned about building, electronics, metalworking, and a lot of other things; mathematics came with it. I'd read books on the subjects and learned even more."
We didn't just talk, we did things together. We spent time in the kitchen making 'biscuits' to go with our tea. We performed experiments so I could see just how a principle worked. I suggested we organize all the books, but that took several months as we'd always get sidetracked talking about at least one of them. Mr. Mac sent off for some real Chinese green tea; I didn't like it, it was bitter. He surprised me by serving it in those funny handle-less cups, and the lacquer tray sure looked like the one in that picture. He laughed when I said that.
Even though we talked about engineering, architecture, and art he always put it in an historical context. The Greeks used mathematics to build beautiful temples to their gods and goddesses, temples so aesthetically pleasing that they've been copied around the world ever since. Japanese smiths discovered how folding metal produced a strong and flexible sword, and their samurai warlords used it to bring peace to their whole island. Egyptian architects learned how to engineer massive pyramids, built only to provide for the Pharaoh's continued existence in the afterlife. Gutenberg's printing press brought books within the reach of all, bringing education to the masses. Columbus and other explorers opened up new lands, bringing back not only gold, but spices and silks and the wisdom of other cultures.
Mr. Mac had a way of telling about these things like they were stories. He'd make up people's names and tell me how a particular discovery affected that person. He talked about the way they felt, whether they were afraid or excited, or didn't think it would matter to their lives. He described their houses and clothes, what the men did to make money or how the women cooked the family's meals. He explained why their religious beliefs made them think a thing evil, or inspired them to spend their entire life building a cathedral. I felt like I knew these people from the past.
We slowly worked our way through the stacks of books, organizing them chronologically by culture and alphabetically by science. We moved out all the fussy little Victorian tables and chairs, and Mr. Mac built bookcases on the other two walls. We scoured the house for still more books which we put in place on the shelves. As always, we'd flip through one at random and end up talking about its subject for an hour or more, frequently pulling down other volumes to compare pictures or look up some scientific data. It was a haphazard education - but I loved every minute of it!
One afternoon Mr. Mac carried in an armful of books from some other room, and in looking through them I discovered a photo album. He'd gone back for another load so I sat on the floor and looked at the pictures. I guess I'd expected to find family pictures; Mr. Mac's parents and their children, an old farmhouse with the extended family lined up on the porch, sepia-tone photos of grandparents.
What I saw made no sense. Mr. Mac was in all the pictures, at first as a young man but gradually aging as I leafed through the pages. It was the pictures themselves that were impossible. Near the front was a thin young Mr. Mac - but dressed in a toga and standing in front of a Roman fountain. I turned a few pages forward and saw a slightly older version of him standing with a group of men all wearing white robes, doing something with cups and daggers on top of a stone altar. In the background I could see one of the trilithons of Stonehenge.
I moved back and forth in the album. Here he was dressed as a Spanish noble on the deck of what looked to be one of the ships of the Armada, there in Colonial American attire beside a large brass cannon. I saw a picture of a thirtyish Mr. Mac wearing an embroidered waistcoat with a mass of frothy white lace at the neck of the shirt, seated on a couch beside a lovely young woman. I wasn't certain, but that teapot on the table in front of them looked familiar.
In this one he wore almost nothing as he pointed to a giant Moai, in that one tight leggings and a beautifully-embroidered silk jacket sitting on a Louis XIV chair in what could be the Louvre. There were pictures from places I didn't recognize, and the ones I did followed no discernible time-line or geographical route. The only constant was that Mr. Mac got older as I moved forward in the album.
There was one picture that truly puzzled me. I recognized the Sphinx of course, but why did it sport an over-sized pair of cheap plastic sunglasses? Mr. Mac was in a linen kilt, perched inside the thing's giant ear, waving at the camera.
Mr. Mac walked in and dropped a pile of books on the floor beside me, looked to see what I had. "Where did you find that?" he asked. He sounded rather testy.
"It was in that last bunch you brought in," I replied. "Didn't you recognize it? What is it, anyway? How'd you get all those pictures?" I asked.
He reached down and gently took the album from my lap, closed it and laid it on the library table we'd recently moved into the room. He had a funny look on his face, I couldn't tell if he was angry or amused. "It's a joke," he finally said. "I have a friend who likes to make up fake photographs. He starts with a picture of some historical site, adds pictures of people dressed in the proper attire, and then caps it off by putting my head on one of them. He's been doing it for years, used to send me a new one every few months. He's quite good at it, as you can see."
I got up and walked to the table, sat down and opened the album. I'd never seen Mr. Mac act like this, and was a little afraid I shouldn't be doing this. I spied a picture of a Conquistador on horseback, Mr. Mac's face clearly recognizable despite a pointy beard and metal helmet. "You don't have a beard, how'd he do that?" I asked.
He sat in the chair next to me to take a closer look. "Oh, that's easy," he said, more like his usual easy-going self. "He just painted it on the film, like drawing a moustache on a character in the Sunday comics."
I turned a few more pages. My eye settled on a photo of a grass hut with three men in front. All were wearing leopard-skin loin cloths and collars of fluffy ostrich feathers. Two were Africans, but the copious skin Mr. Mac showed was decidedly pale. "OK, why don't you have a better tan?" I asked.
"Well," he said slowly. Then, "It would look funny to put my face on an African body, now wouldn't it? He must've done something with the negative to make the skin match. I don't know how he does his tricks, he doesn't tell me the details. That would spoil the fun."
I found the English tea-party again and asked about the teapot. He assured me that one teapot looked quite like another, and since his was an antique it could easily have been made by the same artisan. I wasn't entirely sure I believed him, but what other explanation could there be?
I flipped through the pages, looking for a certain photo. Pointing to it I asked, "So what about this one? I can see how he'd stick a small picture in the ear - but why in the world is the Sphinx wearing cheap sunglasses? That can't be historically correct!"
Mr. Mac laughed heartily. "Well, I could tell you that it was just another of my friend's cute tricks; or I could make up a truly unbelievable story that explains all of these pictures."
I laughed, too, said, "Oh, please, I'd love to hear that story!"
"The truth is, Emily, I'm a Mad Scientist and I've invented a Time Machine. For years now I've been travelling back into the past. I'll choose a destination and year, spend a couple of months in research, climb into my Time Machine and off I go."
He had a serious look on his face, but I was sure he was teasing me. Still, it was an interesting story and I was eager to hear him tell it, joke or not. "Wherever you went, you took your camera with you and got someone to take your picture. How did you explain it to them?" I encouraged him to continue.
"I didn't," he answered. "Sometimes I told them it was an experiment, sometimes I just asked them to do it. Most of them wouldn't have understood if I had tried to explain." He laughed softly, "They thought I was a little crazy anyway, always taking notes and asking strange questions. A camera just looks like a box, and I had no way to develop the film so I couldn't show them the photos."
"How did you talk to them without knowing their language?" I asked.
"Well, now, sometimes that was difficult in the beginning. Sign language works for the basics, especially when accompanied by something of value. I spoke bits of several languages before I started and learned more as I went along. I seem to have a knack for picking them up. I could learn a lot from observing but it was always better to be able to speak to people."
"What did you use for money? You couldn't use U.S. dollars, no one would take them."
"That was part of my research," he replied. "Gold and silver are universally accepted, but sometimes I could get by more cheaply with peppercorns, cacao beans, parrot feathers, sea shells, or small bits of mirror. It all depended on the culture and what they valued."
I thought of all the different clothes he'd worn. "I suppose you're going to tell me you stitched up all those outfits and put them on before stepping into your Time Machine." I thought I had him there.
"Oh, no, not at all. Most of the time I'm afraid I stole clothing when I got there. It's not very nice, I know, but I needed to blend in. Besides, in many cases scholars don't know how the clothing was made so I couldn't make it up in advance. Can't sew on a button, in any case." He seemed to be warming to the story.
"But we have paintings from a lot of places, couldn't you use them as a guide?" I asked.
"You're asking some very good questions!" he said. "Think about it for a minute. If you saw a picture of a woman wearing a dress, could you make one that looked exactly the same?"
I started to say that my Momma could, but then I thought about it a little more. "If she were sitting down you might not be able to tell how it would look when she stood up. And you couldn't tell how it fastened, or what it was made from."
"Very good!" he exclaimed happily. "Now you're beginning to see the difficulties. Although in my defense I bought clothes whenever I could."
We continued talking for awhile. He claimed that's how he knew about all those people he'd told me about, that they were real and he'd been there. It had been the same teapot; he'd been in love with a young lady named Jane, but she'd died from a fever not long after the photo had been taken. He'd tried to nurse her back to health, but he had little medical knowledge and there wasn't much he could do. As she lay on her deathbed she'd told him she wanted him to have the tea service; as an American he hadn't understood about having tea, and her teaching him had been the beginning of their romance.
I asked as many questions as I could, but couldn't find anything to shake his story. I still didn't believe him, but that didn't make it any less fun. He claimed he'd gotten too old to go time-travelling and had destroyed the machine. He said it was better that way, others might abuse the capability.
Then I thought to ask him about the Sphinx. If I believed his wild tale it would explain how he could've been in Egypt, maybe even when the thing was first carved out of the rock. But the sunglasses had to be some kind of hoax.
His eyes twinkled as he said, "Ah now, that's an even more unbelievable story! I suppose you want to hear it as well?"
"Of course I do!" I looked through the album for the picture, thinking I might see something in it to help me find a hole in the story. It was a close-up, all you could see was the head of the Sphinx with those ridiculous sunglasses on its face and Mr. Mac standing inside the ear. You could see sand in the background, hazy with distance - but not even a corner of a pyramid.
"How did they take the picture?" I asked. "There's no angle to the picture, so it wasn't taken from the ground."
"Oh come now, Emily." Mr. Mac was shaking his head as if I'd missed something obvious. "The photographer was atop some scaffolding so he could be on a level with me and get a good shot."
I hung my head a little in embarrassment. I was trying so hard to find fault that I wasn't thinking. "Of course he was. I'm sorry, I was thinking there are no other tall structures out there except the pyramids. I didn't think about temporary structures."
"No need to apologize," he said in a kind voice. "It's an easy mistake to make. Though there weren't any pyramids at that time."
"What?" I asked, my voice sharp with surprise.
"They weren't always there, you know. Do you want to hear the story or not?" He was getting testy again.
So I listened to the whole bizarre tale without interruption. There were no Great Pyramids when Mr. Mac had arrived in Egypt. The Step Pyramid, Bent Pyramid, and Red Pyramid (to name a few) had been built. I thought maybe he'd been going to claim he gave them the idea, but he didn't. The story was more fantastic than that.
It seems he'd gone about his usual agenda of getting to know the important people, and asking questions about their specialty. So naturally he'd made friends with the Pharaoh's architects. They'd taken him to inspect one of the pyramids and spent the day discussing the engineering involved.
That evening they'd held a feast in his honor. They'd pitched a large tent; the sand inside was covered with beautifully woven carpets which were strewn with soft pillows. Charcoal braziers provided light and warmth in the cold desert night. The tables were covered with brass platters piled high with various kinds of roast meats and baked fishes, bowls of spiced vegetables, and expensive delicacies from surrounding regions. Courtesans were brought in to entertain the men. They drank barley beer from golden goblets, and the 'ladies' kept them constantly filled. They ate and drank and told ever-wilder stories late into the night.
They told him how the pyramids were built. Not with slave labor, as has always been supposed. There was a rock formation on the Giza plateau, shaped vaguely like a recumbent lion. Someone had gotten the idea of carving the rock away here and adding stonework there so that it would become a sphinx to honor the Pharaoh. During the construction they'd discovered a cunningly-hidden door which led to a chamber deep underground. Inside were strange devices made of metal and unbreakable glass.
Wise men from all over the land came to determine what these gifts of the gods might be. They were all startled one day when a bright ray of light shot forth from one of the boxes, then disappeared. One clever fellow worked out the sequence of actions necessary to make it happen again. As he demonstrated the ray happened to touch a large stone - and it rose into the air!
It took some more experimentation, but they learned how to control the ray and use it to lift heavy objects. As it happened, a small pyramid was under construction at that time so they took the box to the site and successfully used it to lift the stones into place. With a little practice they could place them precisely, and the pyramid was finished quickly. It was mighty magic from the gods.
Naturally the next Pharaoh wanted to build a bigger pyramid for himself. And the next, and the next built ever bigger resting places for their mummies. Khafre had been crowned recently and was busily planning a pyramid bigger than any other.
But there was a problem. The god-box had stopped working. The ray of light was faint and would only lift small things. The architects and engineers had prayed and sacrificed to their gods, but to no avail. They were terrified to tell the king.
The next morning Mr. Mac awakened (doubtless with a hangover) and remembered the fantastic story. Over a quiet breakfast he thanked his host, telling him it was the most magnificent lie he'd ever heard. Instead of being pleased at having entertained his guest the man acted fearful, saying the god-box was a great secret and it was only in his drunkenness and despair that he'd spoken of it.
Mr. Mac assured him the secret was safe, and eventually convinced him to show him the device. After a camel ride of several days across the desert they arrived at the Sphinx. Mr. Mac inspected the box and the secret room. The items there had writing on them, but it was not a language - or alphabet - that he recognized.
He thought the box had probably run out of power, essentially its battery was dead. Surely whoever had left it here would've needed a power supply, but since he couldn't read the instructions he had to figure it out by trial and error. Eventually he found the lenses leaning against some equipment in a corner and discovered they were meant to concentrate sunlight, much like a magnifying glass. A hose on the equipment fitted neatly into the box, transferring the power. He had no more idea the principles by which it all worked than the Egyptians, but his knowledge of modern science allowed him to figure out how to use it.
It was his sense of humor that suggested the two lenses belonged in a pair of giant sunglasses. That, and he thought some pseudo-religious talk about using the power of the Sphinx would better explain things to the engineers. They built the frame for the lenses and hauled it up to the face, perching it across the ears and nose. It worked to re-charge the machine.
They were ecstatic, and only too glad to climb the scaffolding once more to take the picture, even if they had no clue what the camera did. They showered him with gold and jewels, and he watched the pyramid's foundation being laid before he went back home.
So what happened to all that technology? Mr. Mac says he doesn't know. He's been to the Sphinx in 'our' time, and the secret door is gone, covered over by stones with no access. His best guess is that sandstorms eventually scoured the lenses so badly they no longer functioned and the box ran out of juice. Perhaps the equipment is still in there, the room filled with rubble and walled up by priests angry at the failure of the gods' gift. Likely that's why they quit building pyramids, too; it was too expensive to do it by hand, and anyway they took it as an omen of the gods' displeasure with that form of tomb.
So everything was neatly explained. It happened, he was there, and has a picture to prove it. But it's all gone now, no way to prove it really happened that way. Only the pyramids remain. He winked at me as he finished the story.
I didn't believe a word of it, but it was a great story. I thought of all the details he'd put into his stories about the past, but he had so many books I figured he'd just read about most of them and made up the rest. The next time we had tea I looked up the picture while he was in the kitchen and did my best to memorize the details; the pot did indeed look the same. I offered to wash up and inspected it closely, but there was no engraved name or anything else to indicate original ownership. He'd probably bought it from an antique store because it looked like the one in the photo and made up the sentimental story for the sake of a young girl who still believed in romantic fairy tales, at least a little.
Mr. Mac continued to tell me stories of the past, but somehow we both seemed to treat them as just that - stories. He'd put the photo album in the cabinet at the bottom of one of the original bookcases, one that had a door. He never referred to it again. Sometimes when I knew he'd be out of the room for several minutes I'd pull it out and look through it, studying this picture and that one. I don't know what I was looking for, something to prove his time-travel story or a flaw that indicated the photos were fakes. I noticed that occasionally the book was in a slightly different position than I'd left it, but I never asked.
Time passed, as it has a way of doing. As I got older I spent more time with girlfriends, and later boyfriends. But I always managed to spend time with Mr. Mac. He didn't so much help me with my schoolwork, as explain more about what I was learning. And always he showed me why it was important. We read and researched and experimented. He taught me several languages, and eventually we'd spend an entire session speaking only German or French. I even learned how to read cuneiform and hieroglyphics! I soaked it up like a sponge and had a wonderful time.
At the beginning of my senior year Mr. Mac asked me what I was going to study in college. I was shocked. College? Me?
"Mr. Mac," I said. "You know my parents don't have the money to send me to college. They're not even sure they can afford to send my brother, they're sure not going to spend that kind of money on a girl."
"Your brother seems to be majoring in hot rods and beer-drinking." He shook his head as if to say "What a shame."
"You're the one with the brains, Emily. It doesn't matter that you're a woman, it would be a waste if you didn't further your education."
I smiled rather sadly. "I'd love to go," I said without much enthusiasm. "I'd like to study history. You've taught me so much, especially how to use information from other disciplines to make the pieces fit. But I'm afraid it just isn't going to happen."
"Ah, history!" Mr. Mac's eyes twinkled with delight as he spoke. "You'd be good at that. Be sure to take some courses in mathematics, engineering, comparative religion…and, oh, some archaeology would be good, too."
"Mr. Mac," I sighed. "You're not listening! Much as I'd like to, I'm not going to college. I don't have the money, and besides, I think Greg is getting serious. I wouldn't be surprised if he proposes soon. We'll be married in June, and by this time next year I'll be pregnant. But he won't mind if I keep visiting you."
"I had a feeling you'd say that," he said. "And I have a surprise for you. I've set aside some money to pay for your continuing education. There's enough for you to attend a good school, but I'm afraid you'll have to live a bit frugally."
I was absolutely stunned, literally didn't know what to say. I'd never asked about Mr. Mac's finances. He always seemed to have money, though he did sometimes complain about the rising cost of things. Suddenly I felt like I was ten years old again, incapable of rational thought and unable to utter a complete sentence.
"Oh, Mr. Mac!" I exclaimed. Then, "Are you serious? I mean, thanks. What, uh, why, um, how? Can you afford it? I'm sorry, you wouldn't have offered if you couldn't. Thank you. What are my parents going to say? Which school should I go to? Oh, I'll have to move there, won't I?" I paused for a moment to collect my thoughts. "Mr. Mac, how can I ever thank you enough?"
"Well, you may not thank me when you see how much work is ahead of us!" he said. "I never married, so I have no children of my own. I think of you as the daughter I never had Emily. It will be thanks enough to see you continue to learn and do something with your mind."
My parents were not happy with the idea, I think Mama was looking forward to grandchildren. They got over it, especially when they found out how much was in the bank account Mr. Mac had put in my name. They did tell me, several times, that I'd better be careful with it because they couldn't help me out. Dad told me he didn't understand why I wanted to do this, but he could tell it made me happy and that was the important thing. And funny thing, I saw less and less of Greg and he proposed to Cindy on Valentine's Day.
Mr. Mac was right about all the work. We spent time at our usual tasks, but much of it was taken up with researching colleges and filling out an endless pile of forms. As I sat at the library table one afternoon, drinking tea, I began looking around that familiar room. Anything but another form! Something about the room seemed different. Where was the Minoan snake goddess? The Balinese dancer wasn't in her accustomed spot, and the Mimbres bowl was gone from the shelf.
I got up with the excuse of getting more biscuits, but walked slowly through the house looking to see what else was missing. It's funny how you know a place so well, but suddenly can't remember the actual details. The big stone Celtic cross was in the dining room, not the corner of the hallway. But there were several items I didn't see anywhere. Had Mr. Mac sold them to pay my tuition?
Once I settled on a school - and was accepted - we worked on a class schedule, and wrote letters asking about cheap apartments and the possibility of roommates. We began compiling a list of books I should take with me, trying to balance worth against weight. Some we considered basic and began stacking them on the floor.
As the pile grew more precarious Mr. Mac suggested I get some boxes from the cellar. I'd only been down there once or twice, it was a big cellar full of a lot of junk - and spiders. I was hoping he'd have tossed empty boxes near the stairs, but didn't see any. So I made my way cautiously by all the piles of stuff and threaded my way through the narrow path between old pieces of furniture. I made it all the way to the back corner and still didn't see any empty boxes, so I started along the back wall.
As I got to the next corner I saw it was occupied by a tall but skinny metal cage. Curious, I managed to get closer. The cage was just big enough to hold one person and it had a stool bolted to the floor. There wasn't a lot of light back here, but it looked like some kind of metal plate was welded to one side of the bars. There were a lot of dials and switches on the plate, but it was too dim to read any of the labels. I thought it must be one of Mr. Mac's old experiments. It was covered with dust and had junk piled all around it, so clearly he hadn't used it in a long time.
I started along the next wall, then spied a pile of boxes in the center of the room. I'd walked right by them before. I shook the dust off two of them and carried them back to the parlor-cum-library. We got the books packed and went back to making our list.
We slacked off the planning and packing when it got close to Finals. I wasn't worried about the tests, but did want to study. Mr. Mac came to the graduation ceremony, and even spent a short time at the big party the town held at the armory. He stayed just long enough to give me a graduation present. When I opened the gaily wrapped box I was astonished to find the lovely antique tea service. I'd expected he'd get me a new slide rule, or maybe a fancy pen.
With tears in my eyes I said, "Mr. Mac, I'm honored to have this. I know it means a lot to you, and I will treasure it always." I had to stop before I started bawling in front of everyone.
"I can think of no one who would appreciate it more, Emily." I think he was about to cry, too. "You can make yourself tea while you're studying, and remember the good times we had together."
He left soon after that, but the party continued til after 10 p.m., a late night for our sleepy little town.
When I was younger, summer seemed to last forever. This summer seemed to fly by. We got books selected and packed, ordered maps of my new town, and found me both a place to live within walking distance of the campus and a roommate to share expenses. Cindy asked me to serve the cake at her wedding. I finished packing my clothes the night before I was to leave.
I was excited as my parents drove me to the train station - and a little scared, too. My brother was there, several of my friends showed up, and of course Mr. Mac came to see me off. He and my Dad saw to it that my trunk and all the boxes got loaded on the train, and then it was time to leave. Hugs all around, everyone smiling and crying at the same time. I promised I'd write, and reminded them unnecessarily that I'd be home for Christmas. I found my seat and waved to them out the window until the train went around a bend and I couldn't see them any longer.
My new roommate Theresa and I got on well, and though college was harder than high school Mr. Mac's tutelage had taught me good study habits and I did well. Terry was impressed with the tea service, and we quickly got in the habit of having tea every afternoon. I told her the maudlin story about the young Victorian woman who'd supposedly owned it, even the time-travel bit. Though for some reason I didn't tell her about the rest of the pictures. Terry remarked that Mr. Mac must have a vivid imagination.
I went home for Christmas, and spent an entire day talking to Mr. Mac about everything I was learning, and how much I was enjoying myself. When summer came it actually felt odd to be back home, and with not much to do. I spent a lot of time at Mr. Mac's building on what I'd learned. It was just like old times, except that it seemed weird to make tea in a porcelain pot. Mr. Mac was looking older and moving a little slower, but he assured me he was in excellent health.
Three more years went by in much the same manner. My folks were proud of me, though they didn't seem to understand what kind of job I could get with a history degree or why I'd even want to have a job. My brother listened to me talk about all the studying and declared he'd rather work at the feed store. Since he'd recently wrecked Dad's car trying to race it on the back roads outside of town, no one tried to talk him out of it. Mr. Mac was the same as ever. He looked a little older each time I saw him, but was as sharp as ever.
My parents made the train trip to see me graduate - and they brought Mr. Mac with them. They took me out to dinner after the ceremony, and I noticed Dad helped Mr. Mac up the steps. The next day they helped me pack up my things. It was crowded in the tiny apartment, my family and Terry's bumping into each other and having a grand time nonetheless. Mr. Mac helped the moms pack boxes, sitting as much as he could, and let our dads carry things. I felt more like I was leaving home than when I had left home.
That summer was a blessing, and I knew it. I could sleep in, and spend the day doing nothing. I helped Mama in the kitchen and Dad in the yard. My brother wasn't home much, but even when he was there we didn't seem to have much in common to talk about. Cindy had a darling little girl (and another baby on the way), and we spent an entire Saturday picnicking at the lake with the rest of our friends.
I spent time with Mr. Mac, too. I even brought the silver teapot back, so it seemed more like old times. But there was a difference; Mr. Mac would often stare off into space and I'd have to ask a question a second time before he answered. Once he took so long in the kitchen that I went looking for him; found him in the dining room. I was worried about him, but he insisted he was fine, just getting old and forgetful.
In August I got a response from one of my job applications and took the train for the interview. A week later they called to say I'd been accepted! I was going to work in the History Department of a big college back East. I spent the next two weeks packing up (again) and saying goodbye to everyone. I'd come back to visit, but I knew it wouldn't be the same.
So I moved to a new city and settled in to the new job. I had to teach a class or two, but mostly it was research. I loved it! I made friends, and met a fellow teacher who just might turn into a boyfriend. I invited Rob to tea one Saturday and we spent the afternoon talking about history. Things went swimmingly until we had a bit of a disagreement over some detail. It was something Mr. Mac had told me in one of his stories, but Rob swore that no such site had been discovered. I laughed it off, saying I'd probably just gotten it confused with some other place. We ended the evening with dinner and a long walk looking at the stars.
Life was good, and I was happy. I read a lot and learned a lot. Every so often I'd read some new paper and find myself thinking that I already knew about the author's discovery or conclusion, but figured I was thinking of some other paper I'd read recently, there were so many. Sometimes I think I made the head of the department mad when I would cross an engineering or cultural idea with known facts, but after checking with the experts it would often prove - or disprove - a theory. That made me feel good, and I was beginning to get a good reputation among my peers. Rob and I got engaged at Christmas. Mama was thrilled at the prospect of grandchildren.
I guess I thought nothing bad would happen. So I was completely unprepared for Dad's phone call in late spring. There was no way to soften the blow, he told me Mr. Mac was dead.
That old house on the hill had caught fire late the night before. The firemen had found Mr. Mac still in his bed; thankfully he'd apparently been unaware of the danger and died in his sleep. That was some comfort anyway. Rob insisted on going home with me, and we caught the afternoon train.
I was really glad Rob was there with me. I cried so hard at the funeral, I wouldn't have been able to walk I don't think if he hadn't been there to support me. Later the Fire Chief told me he thought Mr. Mac had left something heating on the stove and gone off to bed. It made sense. Poor Mr. Mac had forgotten he'd left the stove on and it started a fire. He'd been so sure he was OK and I'd believed him. I knew he wouldn't live forever, but it always hurts when someone you love dies.
The house was a total loss. Rob and I walked through the ruins and poked into the piles of charred debris, vainly looking for anything that might have survived. I found blobs of melted metal and bits of cracked ceramic, but nothing recognizable. The fire had started on the ground floor and really taken off when it got to the library. Everything was gone.
It turned out that Mr. Mac had left a will, leaving everything to me. I made arrangements to sell the property and went to speak with our local banker. I signed a couple of forms and got a cashier's check for several thousand dollars, a not inconsiderable sum in those days. I was about to leave when he mentioned the bank box.
There was the problem of the second key, but knowing the situation they just called in the locksmith and got it open. Inside was a pile of jewelry and small objets d'art; my trained eye spotted pieces from many different cultures and eras. This meant more to me than gold and diamonds! The banker brought me a cardboard box and I carefully transferred everything, but didn't feel like taking the time to examine each piece.
We spent another day with Mama and Dad, then headed home. It was the end of the semester and we were both busy for the next couple of weeks. When it was finally over we celebrated with a short trip to Boston, to tour historical sites of course.
Now that I had a little time before the summer semester started I pulled out the cardboard box and began sorting through its contents. Among other things I found an Inca lost-wax mold, complete with wax; a Persian cylinder seal; and a tiny Chinese jade Buddha. There was a pair of Roman earrings with glass beads; an onyx signet ring that looked to be 15th century, probably French; a Celtic torc; a silver Indian bangle; and an English cameo brooch, circa 1800's. The cameo was inscribed on the back, "To my Dearest Jane".
And a beautiful Egyptian pectoral, a winged sun-disk in gold, lapis, carnelian, and turquoise. These weren't colored glass, they were precious stones, and that meant it had been made for someone very important. I turned it over and found hieroglyphs carved into the back of the setting. My mind began to translate automatically: "Beloved of Ra, Wise in His Secrets, Advisor to the King's Chief Architect, May He Live Forever". But there was something odd about the cartouche, I couldn't quite make it out. I jumped up to get a reference book and flipped through it trying to make sense of the syllables. It was only when I said them aloud that I realized the problem - it wasn't an Egyptian name at all. It was "Colin Macpherson".
I was so shocked that I nearly dropped the amulet. In my mind's eye I saw the photo of the sunglasses-wearing Sphinx, with Mr. Mac standing in its ear. I thought of the discrepancies I'd come across, things that Mr. Mac had told me years ago that were just now being discovered, or that no one else had heard of. That cage in the basement.
I'd always thought that story in particular was a big joke, a prank he'd played for my enjoyment. It was too fantastical, and too neatly wrapped up. The Sphinx was solid and there were much more believable theories on how the pyramids were built. There was no proof of his story, except a picture that could have easily been faked, a picture that was ashes now along with all the others. And the necklace.
I'm not sure Rob really believed me, but he accepted that I believed. I couldn't tell anyone else! Throughout the rest of my professional life I did my best to point others to find proof of the things I knew to be true. I had to be careful not to give too much away and sometimes deliberately led them astray so I wouldn't seem to be too lucky in my assertions. Oh, yes - I wore Jane's brooch on my wedding dress.