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Once Upon the Shoulders of Giants

An entry for the mystery box challenge.

By Call Me LesPublished about a year ago Updated about a year ago 11 min read
Image from Shutterstock

Funny it should rain today, Ariel thought as she wiped the misted rain droplets off the top of the reliquary. She tucked her short blonde hair behind her ear and unfurled her sleeves. An admittedly disenchanted, middle-aged archaeologist, Ariel had never been one to appreciate the irony of weather in a situation, but there was a first time for everything.

The solid gold relic was modelled in a 4th Dynasty Egyptian fashion, yet it was inlaid with Peruvian opal. The gemstone shimmered in watery rainbows under the cloud-mottled afternoon sunlight. Egyptian hieroglyphs, as well as words in Phoencian, Greek, Latin, and Punic encircled the box, all stating the same phrase.

“We who have stood upon the shoulders of giants, we who have known high waters, tell those who come after us to watch the sky.”

She lifted the lid off the box, and removed the palm sized sculpture from its nested hollow in the blackened sand. The carved Mayan jade was cool to the touch; the linen-clothed human family it portrayed — at least she assumed the two larger people and two smaller ones might be a family — returned her gaze from their reed raft with blank, ominous expressions. Their lidless, sunken eyes were unsettling, but it was the gaping mouths that flummoxed her. Were they shocked? Singing? Praying? Or was it symbolic of something lost to time?

“I think we better hurry up before the deluge gets worse.”

The shadow of her research assistant, Brum, passed over Ariel as he paced to and fro along their perch on the top of the tallest pyramid of Güímar. That is, if you could even file the seemingly pointless, stumpy steps located on one of the Canary Islands as a pyramid when compared to those in Egypt or Mexico or China. But these mounds were more than they appeared.

“Give yourself a moment to contemplate the journey, Brum. Until 1990 you would have struggled to find anyone who cared about the Canary pyramids. Then suddenly, the openly racist ethnographer, Thor Heyerdahl, posits the islands are a connecting port during esoteric voyages between ancient Egypt and Mesoamerica. And whoosh! It’s a - “

“Controversy for the ages, I know, Dr. Blum. You’ve said it several times, and I agree, but we’re going to lose the light in a few hours and we still haven’t found the marker. Not to mention I'm getting soaked.”

“You’re not made of sugar,” she chided.

Brum responded by plopping Ariel’s toolkit in front of her and digging out his sketchbook. Then he recorded their coordinates for the fifth time that day before beginning yet another map.

Ariel sighed. At what point in their travels had his zest for adventure traded with her sense of practicality? Oh right, she winced. Sudan maybe.

Ariel began clearing away moss from what she hoped was the marker stone concealing an entrance into the pyramid. What a journey, she thought. Two months ago she had been so deeply entrenched in the camp of those who had dismissed Heyerdahl’s work as whitewashed, blockbuster nonsense that it would have been insulting to suggest she’d be out here digging for clues. She sighed. But then the box appeared, and she had found herself swept up as easily and unceremoniously as all those who had follied before her.

As she scraped, she recalled the day the unexpected package had been deposited onto her doorstep in Cambridge. She remembered watching it from her front porch swing as the drone slowly touched down, eyeing the contraption the way a keen cat observes a simpering pidgeon. Unlike a cat however, Ariel did not pounce. She called the bomb squad, but though they had proved the package to be harmless, it had nevertheless blown up her life.

One minute she was sipping poorly steeped tea and the next she was scouring old texts and knocking on doors in various sister departments: earth science, linguistics, biology . . . even the old coots in astronomy. Tracing the box's origins had led Ariel and Brum on a whirlwind tour of some of the greatest pyramids of the world. Leaping from clue to clue, they had puzzled their way to the Canary Islands. Their last stop — she hoped.

Ariel read the words aloud again.

“We who have stood upon the shoulders of giants, we who have known high waters, tell those who come after us to watch the sky.”

Such an easily read sentence, and yet so difficult to understand.

“There are a few people over there to the east. Bad weather for a climb,” the all-American Brum observed.

Ariel shrugged.

“Probably just Brits on holiday. We don’t mind the rain. Stop fretting, Brum: our last decoy we placed was a substantial one. Now, look here; it’s a pink rhyolite and it’s the only one of the lot. It must be this one.”

“You can’t know they're tourists for certain,” Brum mumbled with a wary eye to the figures on the horizon. “Maybe it’s not too late . . . ” his voice trailed off.

The archaeologist forced a thin smile, “Brum, you’ve done more for me than any other RA in the history of science. It’s true: it might not be too late — for you. But once I lift the stone, you’ll have knowledge that can be . . . how should I say it . . . extracted. You could just leave now. No judgments. Climb down, catch the next ferry and get the hell off this island. Dr. Metcombe will help you if you can make it back to the university.”

The sea breeze ruffled Brum’s hair. Poised with his chin lifted, the swirling grey sky outlined his stocky stature. He reminded Ariel of an ancient Spartan warrior painted onto a vase. Brum squeezed his eyes shut in contemplation, but after a long pause, shook his head. “No, we’ve come this far. I have to know. They can’t keep burying our history.”

Ariel nodded. The thirst for truth was to an historian the same as a warrior’s bloodlust. She was relieved to see her trust in him had been well placed.

“Interesting choice of words,” she said with a mirthy chuckle and passed him a crowbar. He glanced at the stone, rubbed the back of his head and grimaced sheepishly.

Even thin rock can be difficult to budge when compacted into the earth over centuries. It lifted with a sick sucking sound like a rotten tooth being plucked from its socket. Both scientists shivered. The void below stretched into a fathomless darkness. A short set of stairs led the way down, much like a root cellar.

Unlike its counterparts, the Canary pyramids were not known for glory and riches; there was no reason for anyone to assume anything lay inside of them. No reason to assume they were even hollow. The idea of exploring a pristine ancient site was exhilarating and the duo forgot their earlier concerns, flipped the light switches on their headlamps and forged ahead.

Once through the opening, the space widened and they followed a sloping ramp which wound its way down into the ground like the spirals in an abalone shell. Ariel and Brum picked their way along, testing each footfall for stability the way a skater measures the thickness of winter ice.

So far so good, Ariel thought. Despite the dampness, the ramp appeared unpitted. Closer inspection revealed it to be a quartz heavy sandstone. It wasn’t a native rock on the island, meaning it must have been brought in for the purpose of creating a path that could withstand the test of time. Transporting it would have taken some serious coordination and effort. Altogether it was a good sign they were in the right place. Brum noted the sandstone, too and the pair picked up speed.

The increasing darkness as they descended pressed around them.

Sometime later, Brum halted in his tracks.

“Did you hear something? Just now?” he whispered.

Ariel shook her head. She couldn’t be sure; she might have, but there was no turning back now. The ray of light from the entrance shone down like the gaze of a God and she hungered to find what it spied.

A few more turns.

Another length of ramp.

Each extension of their legs was a step backwards in time.

Back to a time when humanity had watched the stars instead of screens.

At last, Brum and Ariel reached the bottom and stopped short. In the gloom, the miniscule ray of sunlight from their entrance above illuminated a notch in a Grecian pedestal. They approached it carefully and found that the centre was cut in the shape of the jade figurine. With steady hands, Ariel slotted the sculpture into place. She turned the key twice to the left and a quarter turn to the right, precisely as the note with the box from the unknown stranger had instructed.

With a squalling hiss, the pedestal rose a foot taller and exposed an elegant mirror. An ancient method of illumination, the mirror caught the scarce light and reflected it to dozens of other aligned mirrors, amplifying the brightness until the entire space was bathed in an amber glow.

That's when they saw it. They had been so focused on their feet that they hadn’t noticed the walls.

There before them stretching in 360 degree technicolour all the way up the spirals was an entire saga told in mural form. It depicted a tall race of people who were seen fleeing the demise of their sinking island. It outlined how they took to their ships bringing with them all manner of books and wealth and tools. It showed their circumnavigational journey and their stops along the way. Stops that later played host to pyramids. The irony of a rainy day while discovering evidence for the greatest flood in earth’s history washed over Ariel for a second time.

Scrawled along the walls were the same words as those on the box.

“We who have stood upon the shoulders of giants, we who have known high waters, tell those who come after us to watch the sky.”

Only this time, there was an addition.

Ariel breathed it aloud. “We obey our Gods from the island that sank below the waves. We await their return.”

The meaning sank into their bones with an icy chill. Neither researcher could bring themselves to utter the irrefutable conclusion despite spending hundreds of dangerous hours in the hope of chasing it down. It was a conclusion which when spoken would be death by cyanide for the career of any serious historian. Doctor and associate faced one another, their astonished, gaping mouths resembling those of the figurine.

“Atlantis," said a voice that belonged to neither Ariel nor Brum.

The pair wheeled around to find an old acquaintance of Ariel’s father. Magnus, a fish-faced Norwegian businessman dressed to the nines greeted them in a thick Oslo accent,

“Hallo Ariel. Brumus. I must commend you: I didn’t think you’d make it out of that nasty scrape in Peru, let alone stumble on this hole in the ground.”

Ariel and Brum had survived calamity on more than one occasion in the past two months, but this time was different and they both sensed it. Their only trump card was the clue they had left at the hotel. All they could do now was play dumb.

“You sent the box.” Ariel stated in a flattened tone.

Magnus took the bait.

“Indeed. When my grandfather, Thor Heyerdahl, willed me that opulent monstrosity, the fortune that came with it was conditional upon following his ridiculous set of clues. He was determined to prove once and for all that he was correct in his theories. Of course, any respectable person could not have considered such a damming undertaking. It’s bad enough he ruined the family name while living. The idea of openly pursuing Atlantis? It was abhorrent.”

Ariel eyed Brum and ever so slightly gestured to the doorway which was steadily filling in with more shadows. Brum had noticed too and he squared his jaw.

“That explains the drone drop-off then. But why send it to me? I was at the top of the list for those who had spoken out against the hypothesis.”

As though flashing cards at a blackjack table, Magnus confidently pulled out a handgun. He toyed with it and the tension in the room tightened around the trio like a python.

Magnus scoffed and shook his head, “That’s precisely why I sent it to you. I assumed you were capable of disproving it. Good God, woman! You were never supposed to go on the goosechase.

He laughed and cocked the trigger.

“That decision, I’m afraid, was a fatal error on your part. While I appreciate your hard work, I can’t have you publishing your findings and putting my family name back into a cesspool after all the years I’ve spent cleaning it up. Any last words?”

“You can’t suppress history. This won’t be the only site like this uncovered. There will be others.” Brum spat.

“Perhaps. But it’s the only one tied to my name.”

Brum rushed for the gun but Magnus was faster. The bullet hit Brum between the eyes and the young man’s blood and brain matter sprayed outwards in grotesque confetti.

Tears sprang to her eyes but Ariel kept her voice steady and as only an historian could deliver it, she uttered the quote, “History repeats itself first as tragedy, second as farce. You are - “

The shot cut off whatever Ariel had been about to add, but the sweaty businessman had heard enough to register her meaning and had not appreciated it. Magnus wiped his face with a silk handkerchief square and gestured to the men behind him.

“Clean it up,” he grumbled.

“Yes, sir. Right away sir.”

Within minutes, the modern industrial power washers had scoured away what would have taken an artist their entire lifetime to create, the colourful paints swirling together in a flood knee deep. The only consolation prize for Ariel and Brum’s efforts was a morbid poetic justice in that by the time the hired men had added the lye and sealed up the entrance to their tomb, Güímar could finally be called a true pyramid.

~ Some days later… ~

A spindly limbed young girl, Rosemary struggled to wield the rockhammer she had borrowed from the souvenir shop in her grandmother’s hotel. Only she had taken interest in the strange instructions left by the absconded tourists Dr. Blum and Brumus Carter. After she deciphered the clue, Rosemary had wasted no time climbing the stone steps which led up to the rhyolite. The heat bore down on her bare shoulders, but she kept striking the rock until finally she chipped off a sample. Then she stuffed it into her dress pocket and carried it home. Every night thereafter, its glittering kept her company as she watched the night sky through her bedroom window.

And waited.

AdventureHistoricalMysteryShort Story

About the Creator

Call Me Les

Aspiring etymologist and hopeless addict of children's fiction.

If I can't liberally overuse adverbs and alliteration, I'm out!

Instagram @writelesplaymore

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Comments (11)

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  • JBazabout a year ago

    What a great take on the challenge, mystery, suspense and thrill. Great story.

  • J. S. Wadeabout a year ago

    Beautiful prose. Great story, Les ❤️

  • Dana Stewartabout a year ago

    Your descriptive imagery is captivating. Several lines were written so brutally beautifully: 'It’s bad enough he ruined the family name while living'. Exceptionally smart, entertaining read. Well done!

  • Testabout a year ago

    I really enjoyed this. You provide such a strong introduction to Ariel, and Brum is a great character too! This had the feel of a genuine archaeological mystery/discovery, and the richness of the detail was top notch. Great work!

  • Caroline Janeabout a year ago

    A proper archeological mystery! Fab! I love this line "Ariel had never been one to appreciate the irony of weather" Great job! 🙌

  • Jasmine S.about a year ago

    That was riveting. I wanted Ariel and Brum to succeed but there's always someone in the shadows, isn't there? Fabulous job. I loved it.

  • Kelli Sheckler-Amsdenabout a year ago

    What a fabulously told story! I loved it!

  • Cathy holmesabout a year ago

    Really well done. You put the mystery in mystery box.

  • sleepy draftsabout a year ago

    Wow! I totally got lost in the world you created. Ariel and Brum are fantastic characters, and I found myself rooting for them. Your ending was seriously impactful and definitely left me thinking about how history repeats itself in such strange ways. Also, the image of the caves being washed down was heartbreaking. You created such a vivid world and characters, I know I will be thinking about them for a while.❤️

  • Wonderful story and good luck in the challenge

  • Babs Iversonabout a year ago

    Fabulous, absolutely fabulous!!! So many lines to love!!!

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