If I were a real novelist and not just a misguided historian, I would never have written this chapter. It’s too implausible, even for low fiction. But since it’s what actually happened, I’ll just present the facts and let you believe what you will.
I called the council of war by tinking on The Grail with a table knife, surreptitiously giving myself an excuse of holding her as I spoke.
“Ladies and Gentlemen. You may wonder why I called you here today. It turns out that I stand at a critical fork on the pathway of my life—a track that tolerates no backtracking, I might add—and I need you, my dearest friends, to help me decide which is the most expeditious and beneficial direction for the journey to take.”
“Speaking on behalf of your dearest friends,” The Boomer interrupted, “if you’re using that artifact you’re waving around to be more articulate, we don’t require eloquence. On the other hand, if you’re going to try to talk us into doing something that we don’t really want to do, you would be putting that very friendship in grave danger by using The Grail on us. So why don’t you just set it down.”
I did as he requested, to a smattering of applause from both of them (and a little pout from The Cup).
“Well, the crux of the problem is this. After spending two months slaving at making the transition from historian to literarian, it’s already obvious to me that I’m a shitty writer of fiction. And if I continue working at it for ten more years, I’ll still be bad. Besides which, my heart really isn’t in it. But if I’m going to approach this narrative as history I’ve got to have proof, which I can’t figure out how to get. Dr. Giles is leaving on his honeymoon for the rest of the summer and is too much in lust to have a coherent discussion anyway. Miss Doubletree is too patient to throw me out, so I have to keep wasting my life until my year-long trial is over. Which may not be so bad for her—since she’s only investing a couple of hours a week, it represents a waste of more time than I am willing to sacrifice. But I don’t know what else to do.”
“Is your writing really as bad as all that?” Anne asked. I hadn’t shown her any of it and she’d had the grace not to ask.
I swallowed my pride with a big swig of beer and replied, “Here, see for yourselves.” I handed Bedivere’s version of the sword in the stone to Layl’Annie; The Boomer got the Galahad story that The Grail and I had co-authored. Then I brooded in silence while they read and exchanged manuscripts.
The Boomer finished first, staring up at the ceiling in shallow contemplation while waiting for her to catch up. When she looked up at him and raised her eyebrows, I realized she was passing the dirty work. He handled the task with grace and brevity. “Brad, as an author, you’re an outstanding historian.”
I wasn’t offended; they weren’t telling me anything I didn’t already know. In fact, I laughed, which made it OK for them to laugh too, something they had clearly been suppressing.
“So what do I do now?” I asked as the hilarity wore down.
We spent the rest of the evening drinking beer and brainstorming. None of the solutions we came up with jumped up and said, “Try me first,” although several had just barely enough merit to be useful as a desperate fallback position.
“Use The Grail to raise obscene amounts of money, bribe your way into a professorship at UT, and brainwash a generation of incoming historians into believing that your version is the real one,” was The Boomer’s most workable suggestion.
“Why don’t you use The Grail on Miss Doubletree and convince her to ghostwrite the story for you,” offered Annie.
“Maybe I’ll just write a bad novel, then go on the Today show and convince people that it’s really good, it just seems bad. People do that all the time without owning a Holy Grail of their own.”
“I don’t know how well that’ll work,” The Boomer opined. “After all, you only managed to convince one person over the radio to send you money when the outcome was less-than-desirable.”
After a while we were mostly drinking beer and laughing and sharing, and although it was a special time, it was obvious that I wasn’t going to get an answer I was happy with that night.
My alarm clock said 3:17 when the telephone woke up me out of a dead sleep.
“Brad, are you awake?”
Don’t you just hate it when people wake you up to ask you if you’re awake? Once cognitive thinking broke through the sleep haze enough that I recognized Layl’Annie’s voice, adrenaline drove me fully functioning. I mean, it had to be an emergency. Nothing in her behavior so far indicated that she would call me to tell me she‘d forgotten her umbrella.
“Don’t panic; it’s not an emergency. I just had the craziest dream and had to tell you about it.” The Marquis, who was much sleepier than I was, suggested that maybe we had overestimated this woman. Her next words acerbated the idea. “We were in a cave overlooking the Dead Sea with The Grail and The Boomer’s ghost machine, looking for Joseph’s scroll. And guess what? We found it!”
She went on for a couple more minutes before signing off.” OK, I just wanted to share it while it was fresh in my mind. You can go back to sleep now.” But I didn’t. The idea was so far-fetched, so improbable, so downright crazy that I couldn’t get it out of my mind enough to fall back asleep. And when I finally did, I dreamed about it too, although it was one of those hazy dreams where we were digging through mountains of sand with our fingers because we couldn’t find our shovel.
The Boomer met us for breakfast the next morning, and when we disclosed our dreams with him, he was both amused and amazed that Anne could plant such an insane idea in my head so deeply that we had, in effect, shared a dream. “Clearly that’s a sign that we should do it,” he joked.
“I’m in,” Layl’Annie said. “Maybe I’m too young to know better, but I never ignore my own subconscious.”
I hated to have to be the logical one, particularly in this crowd of engineers and mathematicians. “Except that it’s too crazy to have a chance in hell of working.”
Before the last cup of coffee was finished, we had talked ourselves right into it.
I’ll briefly summarize the mundane details. My job was fund raising, which The Grail and I accomplished by the simple expedient of standing outside large churches as they let out, gathering in the crowds, telling them that I was going on a trip to the Holy Land to recover a scroll that would prove, once and for all, the historicity of Jesus (which wasn’t a lie, strictly speaking) and asking for contributions. In three weeks of working long Sundays plus a couple of hours on Saturday and Wednesday nights, I raised more than enough for the expedition. In the meantime, The Boomer rebuilt his gadget to reduce weight as well as survive the ordeal of airline luggage handlers.
As her modest contribution to our adventure Anne made the travel arrangements, purchased airline tickets, got passports, talked to people who had been there to find out what we needed to take to survive an extended camping trip in the Sinai, bought gear (using her employee’s discount at Sears), and reserved a rental four-wheeled drive carryall. She had to up the limit on her credit card—something neither The Boomer nor I had ever considered owning—to get it all done, but five minutes of sweet-talking the American Express representative accomplished that.
In our spare time, we poured over what maps we could locate, trying to pinpoint the best place to look. Obviously, it would take an incredible amount of luck to find the spot from The Grail’s sketchy description:
At a little nameless collection of huts too crude to merit the label village—the Palestinian version of “Last chance for gas, next one hundred miles”—they bought three pack animals, loaded them down with supplies, and ventured east through the Wilderness of Judea until they reached the western edge of the Dead Sea. A fortnight of passion and one dead mule later, we finally ended our journey in a roomy cave that overlooked an intermittent rivulet near where it flowed into The Salt Sea.
Despite our considerable grilling, she was able to add very little to her earlier account. And although, with her typical bravado, she was certain she would recognize it if she were ever there again, a lot of things can change in a couple of thousand years in the desert. Such as the cave filling up with sand and becoming a dune. Not to mention the fact that the cave we were looking for might be on the Jordan side of the Dead Sea. Jordan had fought against Israel in the Yom Kippur war a couple of years back, although their contribution was mostly token. Still, I didn’t imagine that they would welcome us wandering over from the Israeli side.
But we didn’t let little negative thoughts deter us any more than we had the overall insanity of the scheme.
From the moment we landed, we were surprised at how easy the whole business went. The entire nation of Israel may have been an armed camp only a couple of years away from a major war with Arab nations on all sides, but our cover as archaeologists and our fair complexions—not to mention the magic of our U. S. passports and the occasional persuasion of The Grail—saved us from a lot of hassle.
This is amazing! Who’d have ever thought I’d be back, convincing Jews to believe unbelievable things again?
The real secret to success was our guide. I have no idea how many prospects Anne had interviewed before setting on David—there were a lot of small tour outfits in the Negev—but he was a real gem. Young and energetic, with the deep tan and wiry build that suggested extended time in a kibbutz. Beneath that tan, David possessed a wit that rivaled the other world-class nitwits in the party, which he shared with us in excellent and barely-accented English. In addition, he met both of the other qualifications: he spoke Aramaic, the language of biblical times, and was willing to spend a couple of weeks with three crazy Americans who had traveled to Israel in the peak of summer to search for a two-thousand year old ghost in an unknown cave, all the while keeping his doubts about our sanity to himself.
David was waiting for us outside our hotel bright and early the morning after our arrival and immediately demonstrated his extensive knowledge of the Dead Sea. “There are scattered caves all along this area,” he pointed out on his map that was far better than anything we had seen. “But the biggest concentration is down here, along the el Hasa. We will be able to set up a base camp and search a lot of caves without moving around.”
Five minutes later we were on our way. Getting an early start turned out to be a wise decision, since it got hot early and stayed that way. But we weren’t out in the open desert for very long—nothing in Israel is very far from anything else. In one dusty and bumpy morning we completed what we hoped was the trip that it took Joseph A. and Mary M. a month to finish. However, we could have crossed the whole Sinai in not a lot longer, and it had taken Moses and the Israelites forty years to accomplish that. So maybe travel just took longer before the invention of four-wheel drive (although camels have four-foot drive, so maybe it was seat belts that was the breakthrough invention that propelled society into rapid transit). A more likely explanation was that we weren’t stopping to honeymoon along the way. Old Joseph of Arimathea, who had likely never seen a woman naked before, and Mary Magdalene, who believed religiously in providing fair value in exchange for being a kept woman, probably broke camp each morning, walked alongside their mules for a couple of hours, then pitched their tent and retreated for a passionate interlude in the heat of the day, slept it off during the afternoon, cooked supper, and then retired for an evening of lovemaking. Sounds like another of those Tours Unlimited dream vacation itineraries. If this wild goose didn’t net any poultry, I could just chuck the whole history-fiction quandary altogether, drop out of grad school, customize a “Forty Nights of Desert Passion” tour to go along with my “Literature and Healthy Living” holiday package, and seek my fortune in the vacation business.
From The Grail’s narrative I’d gotten a mental picture of one lonely cave set into a gentle outcropping and overlooking a horizon of emptiness as far as the eye could see. But no, standing there on the bank of The Dead Sea, I could see easily a hundred caves on the Israeli side of the border and maybe fifty more over in Jordan. It looked as if Mary and Joseph had ended up joining a little commune of first millennium cave men. Well, The Grail hadn’t said they were all alone out there; that came out of my own imagination. At least she hadn’t mentioned Mary M. taking up with another man after Joseph A. died. Maybe she found a new guy who took his new consort, along with the scroll, and moved back to civilization, The Marquis opined. Although he was a true optimist any time the possibility of getting laid existed, on all other matters he was a hard-core pessimist. I studiously ignored him.
With so many caves to check out, we settled into a pleasant and efficient routine. Up early for a breakfast of bread, cheese, figs, and tea. Work steadily until eleven-thirty before knocking off for lunch, a meal pretty much indistinguishable from breakfast. Nap through the heat of the afternoon in the cave that we had just finished. Then more searching until nearly dark. Back to the base camp we’d set up in a spacious cave for a hot dinner cooked by Anne (we half-heartedly offered to share this chore, but she always declined), served with a bottle of one of a dozen excellent local wines shared among the four of us. An easy camaraderie of stories and silence under the crystal clear nighttime sky with its billions of stars. On our best day we did thirteen caves, although eight to ten was more typical.
Our tactics evolved as rapidly as our routine. Whenever we got to a cave, David made a quick inspection inside for snakes and spiders. Anne liked to accompany him while he did this, since by the time we’d tromped around a bit, all the fauna had decamped. Meanwhile, The Boomer set up his machine while I took The Grail on a tour of the locale, trying to get a reading on whether she thought this one might be the place. I had more than a couple of reservations about her ability to recognize the cave, but after all, she was magic; who was to say she’d told me everything about herself? In any case, I kept my doubts to myself, as much as I could. Which amounted to little more than being polite, since of course she was fully aware of my misgivings. ‘Oh, ye of little faith,’ as Barnaby used to say, she chided me. But I absolutely refused to get baited into an argument, and she didn’t send out any false alarms.
By the end of sixth day out we guessed that we were halfway finished with the caves, at least the ones we could get to. The newness had worn off, but it was a pleasant enough life and we weren’t more than a wee mite discouraged that we hadn’t already found what we were looking. A half dozen snakes, two dozen scorpions, pottery shards that could have been forty years old or four thousand, and a male ghost that spoke no language that any of us could understand. But no scroll and no Mary Magdalene. However, one of the universal characteristics of us humans is that we desperately need ceremonies, so we solemnized being half done with a second bottle of wine at dinner.
The Boomer and David went to sleep soon after, leaving Anne and I to our own amusements. So we moved our sleeping bags to the mouth of the cave and lay there, holding hands and staring at the vast theatre of stars and sharing without words our feelings of insignificance.
If it hadn’t been for the second bottle of wine I would never have been so foolish as to try such a ridiculous stunt. But between the alcohol and being filled with the euphoria of the week and the emotions of the moment, I didn’t think it through. On impulse I pulled The Grail out of my pack and held it, molding Annie’s hand into mine so that we were both touching the stem as well as each other.
Suddenly the splendor of the sky was nothing. In fact, I closed my eyes so as not to be distracted by such trivialities and just lay there, drinking in the complex depths and intimacies that was this woman named Anne. How long we remained like that I have no idea. But then, without speaking—who needed to speak? —she unzipped her sleeping bag and mine, and then moved into my arms with an intensity of purpose that was not to be denied or even impeded.
The next day, on our first try, we found the cave we were looking for as well. Curiously, finding the treasure we’d traveled halfway around the world for had unexpectedly been reduced to the second best event in the prior twenty-four hours.
The Boomer had no more than switched on his machine—I hadn’t even gotten around to seeking The Grail’s opinion—before a soft woman’s voice came drifting through the speaker. He and I both dove for the headphones, but once it was apparent that she wasn’t speaking English, I reluctantly I handed them to David while The Boomer switched on the tape recorder. As I picked up The Grail, she began shouting, This is it! I’m certain of it! But I didn’t regard that as prophetic, since she’d heard the voice along with the rest of us.
Young David had obviously never bought our unbelievable story. Probably he just wrote us off as another batch of crazy American kids with rich parents who were willing to finance our New Age kookiness. Whatever the case, his eyes went wide as he listened to the quiet voice. The rest of us were so eager to find out what he was hearing that he had to keep shushing us so he could hear.
“She is speaking Aramaic with a strange dialect that I have never heard before, so I am not absolutely sure about everything she is saying,” he finally shared. “But she seems to be lamenting that she hid something too well, so well that it has remained lost for centuries.”
I grabbed one arm and The Boomer had the other (if David had been a wishbone, one of would have had our wish come true). “It’s the scroll!” I practically screamed. “See if you can get a clue about where she hid it.”
He gently took our hands off his arms—leaving white marks against the tan—and began concentrating again. After another few minutes he added, “Once an old man came and took a cup away. Apparently he was close, but never even looked for it.”
“Merlin!” Anne mouthed, as caught up in the excitement as I was.
David went back to listening. After many more minutes-that-seemed-like-hours of this, I walked back into the cave to scope it out, knowing that I wasn’t going to see anything but needing to break the tension. Ten minutes or so later, The Boomer joined me.
“Buried somewhere in the far back of the cave is all he’s been able to come up with so far,” he said.
Well, hell, in a cave this size the four of us could dig for months and never find it. But at least we knew we were in the right place. And more importantly, it was still here, somewhere. Having come this far and gotten this close—astonishingly, considering the odds—I wasn’t discouraged by the possibility of a few months of digging. Sacrificing a semester of writing bad stories was like giving up Brussels sprouts for Lent.
So we set up lanterns and started into it. The Boomer guessed that it would be no more than a foot deep, and probably less, so we did more turning sand and probing than moving massive amounts of dirt. Nonetheless, by suppertime, our arms were hanging aching and useless, despite the physical condition that we had hardened ourselves into during the week before. David offered to help but we told him to continue listening while we dug.
We stayed with it until Anne called us to dinner. After we had eaten, our emotional subconsciouses wanted to get back to it, but our bodies wisely said otherwise. Personally, I could barely lift my spoon, and was happy to crawl into my sleeping bag as soon as it was socially acceptable. Much too worn out to even consider amorous activities, much less actually participate in them, I fell asleep almost immediately. Anne hadn’t expended her energy digging, however, so she shamelessly woke me up after a short nap. The next time I went to sleep, though, it was for good (my lusty wench may have tried beating me over the head with a canteen, but I was much too tired for such subtle methods to work).
I was hurting when I woke up the next morning. Misery loving company, at least I was comforted that I wasn’t the only one; The Boomer tottered to breakfast like an arthritic octogenarian, groaning in harmony with me.
The new reality of the physical effort involved caused us to reconsider our plan. By the time the tea pot was empty and we were ready to hobble back to our excavation, we’d come up with a compromise scheme. The two of us would dig for three more days, with Anne spelling us as much as she could while David continued to monitor the machine. If we hadn’t found the scroll by then, David would head into town to recruit some manual assistance. We’d worry about the inherent problem of getting the scroll out of the country with more people knowing about it when we found it.
If we find it, the Marquis insisted but again I ignored him.
Recognizing the basic soundness of our plan, Murphy intervened. Corollary seventeen of Murphy’s Law is: if you go to the effort to make a detailed contingency plan, you will either face some contingency that you didn’t consider or none at all. And obviously Old Murph was too busy that day to cook up some unforeseen disaster requiring an unplanned contingency, because he just shrugged his shoulders and called the game off.
We’d only been digging long enough to work out some of the soreness when David rushed into the chamber.
“Beneath the yellow mark. She said it is directly beneath the yellow mark.”
Now with all of the brain power we had on this expedition, somebody should have figured out that there had to have been some kind of mark. Mary Magdalene was far too pragmatic to bury something valuable without a way to retrieve it quickly herself. But in our eagerness to start digging in the dirt, we simply hadn’t bothered to think.
You humans are such impulsive creatures, aren’t you? That’s OK, dear. You have so many redeeming qualities.
Finding the yellow mark took all of ninety seconds. It was a two foot long by three inch wide discoloration in the limestone wall. An intrusion of iron or chromium or some other mineral oxide from the time of the cooling of the earth’s crust, I would guess. But maybe it was where some prehistoric Canaanite, and his children, and his children’s children, all the way to the third and fourth generation, had pissed on the same spot day after day.
Five minutes later we were holding a pottery vase sealed by a tattered piece of wool cloth. And inside, right where it was supposed to be, was the ancient scroll that we had come to find.
Just like in a James Bond movie.
One other curious thing happened; I share it with you because it was of such intense interest to The Boomer. While we were packing up back in the main cavern, chatting excitedly, David noticed that the voice had stopped. The Boomer checked out his machine and couldn’t find anything wrong with it, but it was as if it had suddenly quit working. But it hadn’t (he took it right out to the cemetery the day after we got back to the states, and it was performing fine); the ghost of Mary Magdalene had stopped transmitting. You draw your own conclusions.
The Grail didn’t quit transmitting, however. Bradley Schuster, we did it! she crowed. Now you won’t have to give up being a historian after all. I was touched that she had been really concerned about my problem. She seemed to be getting more human all the time.
Dark found us back in our hotel in Tel Aviv. David was delighted to get the 2,000 year old vase, all the camping gear, and a hundred dollar tip in exchange for his promise not to tell anyone what had happened out there in the desert. Our party still occupied two rooms, although it seems I had managed to switch roommates along the way.
The Boomer and I quickly showered, pulled on clean clothes, and were ready to go out for Tel Aviv’s finest food and wine (with a real reason to celebrate, not just an ersatz excuse). Not Anne. She informed us that she was soaking in the tub, thanks, and would be at least another hour. So we made use of the time drinking beer and talking each other into taking a peek at the scroll.
We had read enough to know that even opening such a treasure was only supposed to be done by experts. But we were young and dumb back then, not to mention impulsive. We figured that if we started doing any damage, we could stop immediately. Actually, although it was as brittle as a baked pie crust, the scroll unrolled easily enough. There were twenty-three sheets of papyrus, which didn’t seem like much for that many years’ work, each covered with fine writing from margin to margin. The ink had faded quite a bit, but was still pretty legible.
Then, since we had come this far, The Boomer insisted on photographing the pages “just in case something happens.” Two exposures of each. Two rolls of film, one in his luggage, one in mine. It took us almost as long to document and preserve that priceless piece of history as it did for Anne to get her magnificent body clean and dry and oiled and scented and otherwise pampered.
Says something profound about values, I’m sure.