The Picnic Table
Next they came to the altar they had not dared look toward before. Upon the marble was a chest of gopher wood covered with gold. At each end winged angels balanced. They were of archaic design, with long, narrow, sinuous bodies, hands down and folded before them and wings like the hood of a cobra.
There were rings for carrying
poles on the sides. The poles lay on a
lower altar with tripods, braziers, musical instruments, golden cups and dishes
of a similar pattern as the Grail, menorahs, and all the furniture of the
Having been unable to gaze on it before, they could now not tear their eyes away.
“The Arc of the Covenant,” said Hapgood. “Carried by the Children of Israel in the desert and in all their wanderings until the time of Solomon. It is said to contain the Ten Commandments. I never thought about it before, but it is forbidden to make images. Look at those cherubs.”
“Not for me,” said
“Don’t you turn into dust or
something if you touch it?” asked
“We all turn to dust,” said
Gently but firmly he shoved
the lid open. The angels began to rock,
swaying far down toward his hands.
The stones appeared to be cut
from a place where red marble had been laid down abutting black granite. Each stone was a thin layer of granite with
marble beneath. Hebrew letters had been
cut through granite into marble. When
“It’s a contract,” said
Hapgood leaned in close. “It is the most beautiful Hebrew I ever saw. The letters are so sharp they could have been cut with a laser. No, it’s too good for that. But the Egyptians … I don’t know how what I am looking at could have happened.”
“Can you read it, Reverend?”
Hapgood did not find it difficult. He already knew it by heart. “One stone says, ‘I am the Lord thy God, who
have brought thee up out of the
“Well this is the obligation of the Children of Israel. They will have this One God and One only. There will be no foreign Gods. Tribes back then were named after their gods, so taking the name of a god meant being in the tribe. And of course throughout history you can never separate sex, marriage and religion. So it means don’t marry outside the tribe, or your children’s children’s children will suffer for it. Sounds familiar.”
“And the other side of the contract.”
“I can sum it up a bit. Thou shalt keep the Sabbath and honor thy father and thy mother and live long. Thou shalt not kill, nor commit adultery, nor steal, nor bear false witness, nor covet anything of thy neighbors.’”
“Well if this is a covenant, then these are things God promises. They aren’t threats, they’re blessings. Anyone knows it’s bad to do those things. The contract says that you won’t have too. Life will be very good.”
“Not just a contract,” said Hapgood. “These are the most important words there are for half the world. They aren’t that simple. Many people have seen many things in them. But yes, they bear the interpretation that it is a contract, and that God is making promises as well as demands. The phrase Ten Commandments does not appear in scripture – any more than the word Trinity, which means it does not appear at all.”
It was with a sense that his
life had now, young as he was, passed its
They moved on, almost completing the circle. There were shelves upon tiers of shelves holding cylindrical ceramic jars lying on their sides. On the wall was a sheet of thick gold twenty two feet high by seventeen wide riveted in many places to the massive slab of marble that comprised the wall. There were Hebrew letters cut into the gold and then filled with something black, possible a mixture of quicklime, volcanic ash and lampblack. The dark letters stood clear against the shiny gold, which was even brighter than the gold of the brilliant floor.
Hapgood read, “‘These are the
chronicles of the kings and the sins of
“What about the sins?” asked
“Just a minute.” Hapgood read to himself for a bit and then began talking as he continued to read. “It’s all here. It says that every marriage, every birth is recorded, cataloged and indexed, father and mother and who their fathers and mothers were and their children and their children’s children all the way down. It’s a record of everything they did, the genealogy of a thousand years.
“There is a story of a king
that made a census in
“Here, look, it takes special note when anyone took a foreign wife. It says God was displeased when the people went whoring after foreign gods, and did not bless them. And it says the record will show that.”
“So it sounds like somebody
thought of this a long time ago,” said
“Yes,” said Hapgood. “As
“Touch it, Reverend,” said
Hapgood searched until he found a jar that contained nothing
but records from the royal kitchens. With
infinite care he cut through the wax and prized the lid open. Inside were leather scroll cases. He opened one and unrolled one of the scrolls
inside. He started out reading the
annual reports of the doings of the cooks of
meticulously set things straight and did his best to reseal the wax
“I don’t think it matters,”
“Let’s check up the gallery,”
They were making their way
toward the ascending stairs when
Men in black jump suits were disembarking from rubber rafts. A bloodhound on the jetty was wagging its tail and straining eagerly at the leash as it sniffed at the floor.
The men were spreading out as
quickly as they landed, their eyes flicking about and guns at the ready.
“I know you’re still here,” bellowed Turelli. “The dog smells you warm.”
Then the feet up the mercenaries were on the stairs, outrunning even the hound, and then the four were looking into the muzzles of a dozen submachine guns. “Hold them,” said Turelli. Three men stood over each of them where each lay in the position of failed concealment. Turelli reached the top of the steps and looked around at the crystals, the altars and the vast expanse of gold.
“Look. The treasures of the ages. And they’re all mine. Mine. Gold. Gold.” He stood in the center of the burnished floor, and looked about fiercely. “People would pay fortunes for this, but I’ll keep it. They will worship me. And I have the secret, too.”
He came to where
“But here is the secret. It’s all around here. This stuff, and probably books in those bottles over there.”
“But you can’t interpret
it. You can’t even read it.”
“I can buy people who can read it. I can buy anything.” He strode back toward the center and waved his arms about. “I have bought everything.” Then he came back and looked down. “I even bought you. And you were plenty expensive. But I bought the people to follow you and listen and now I have you. Pity. All that money I spent for you and you don’t get any. But I’m through with you now. Any last play acting before you go?”
Meanwhile mounted Arabs on
white horses had emerged from the tunnel, cast down their torches, ridden up
the steps and deployed on the jetty before rushing the steps.
There was the chatter of AK 47 fire, and half the mercenaries fell dead. The others took cover and began to return the fusillade. The four friends bolted up to the gallery.
“They’re getting away,” screamed Turelli. He grabbed a gun from a dead man and sprayed at the forms darting from column to stalactite. Rounds struck one of the dependant crystals, which shattered into a thousand shards. A column of water followed them down. Cracks began to appear in the stone roof.
The fire fight continued, but oblivious to singing slugs and falling limestone, Turelli started toward the Arc shrieking, “We’re all going to die. But it’s still mine, still mine!”
A rock struck him down, but he crawled forward with arms extended until a speeding flash of quartz cut his hands off. Then the roof came down.
The gallery led to another tunnel. They raced down the tunnel with air – displaced by the water – blowing behind them, raising the pressure in the tunnel, compressing, straining and then bursting the sealed opening at the other end of the passageway.
There was the faintest glimmer of daylight. Ivan drew his saber and turned back to see if he could help Aden, but the unseen black tentacled piston of water, fat with death, smote him like a pile driver.
The floor of the chamber gave way and fell into the unfathomable spaces under the earth.
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