Prompt Day #193: What’s hidden in the floorboards of the abandoned church?
“Professor! I think I’ve found something.” Arianna called out. Sweat dripped into her eyes and stung. She blinked it away. This was their fourth and final week at the old church and grounds. Most students chose to dig the perimeter of the church but Arianna felt drawn to the inside. She’d been unearthing the bricks of the floor nearing the alter this week hoping to find golden chalices or other pieces of sacramental ceremonies.
Dr. Avery strolled in dusting his hands on his khakis. Arianna sat on her knees arm shoulder deep into the dirt of the floor. He bent down beside her.
“What’d you find, Bayne?” He called them all by their last names.
“So, I’ve been looking for ceremonial pieces here near where the alter would have been.” She swept her arm in a semi-circle. “I noticed how sunken these bricks were compared to the ones around them so I pulled them up. There was a thick layer of dirt beneath them but I kept digging and I found this space.” She backed away so he could look down into the hole. She aimed her flashlight in so he could see too. Something metallic glinted deep in the hole. He reached in as she had done when he found her.
“There’s a box of sorts here. It’s big.” His eyes widened. “Arianna, this may be a reliquary!”
She smiled. Dr. Avery had a special interest in Christian reliquaries. If that was what she’d found, she’d probably just dug herself an A for the course and potentially a traveling internship with him next year when he took his sabbatical. Besides being her mentor and a brilliant researcher, he was a ruggedly handsome middle aged bachelor that every female student had a crush on. A real life Indiana Jones. He grabbed her hand shovel and pried more of the ancient bricks up and out of the way. He dug a larger hole so that he could get both arms in. Lying on his stomach, he reached both arms down and brought out a box about the size of a foot stool.
The box itself was pentagonal and each of its corners were plated in what appeared to be gold. The top of the box was scared with pry marks and gouges in a rough five-pointed star shape suggesting inlay that had been since removed.
“It is a reliquary, isn’t it, Dr. Avery?” Arianna asked breathless. She knew most held bones or at the very least something they’d touched in their lifetime. In a church this ancient, one might expect to find bones of one of the disciples. A find like that would do more than get her an A, it would make them both famous.
“My God” Dr. Avery whispered. Arianna reached out and touched the lid. “Open it, Bayne. It’s your find” he said and gently slid it towards her. Her hands were shaking. She lifted the lid. It was warped from years of dampness and she had to shimmy it back and forth as she lifted in order to get it off.
A strong scent of vegetal decay wafted up out of the box. Whatever was inside had been packed carefully with some sort of silage that may have once been hay or alfalfa. Arianna looked at her professor for approval. He nodded and she dug down into the rotted packing material. When her hands fell on the relic inside she gasped. Her tactile sense told her this was an intact body, albeit a tiny one wrapped in shrouds like a mummy. Cradling it in her arms she lifted it slowly out of its coffin.
The mummy was curled in a fetal position and rested perfectly in Arianna’s arms.
“What is this?” Dr. Avery asked rhetorically. “This isn’t a saint. What the hell is a baby doing in a relic box?”
“Maybe it’s some kind of decoy? Like maybe there were other true reliquaries and the church didn’t want thieves to know where they’d been sent?” Arianna ventured. She was disappointed too but not in the same way Dr. Avery was. He was crushed. He stared at the infant shaped package for a moment and then perked up.
“Or maybe this shape is a decoy!” He grabbed the baby out of her arms and laid it on the stone floor. He pulled a box cutter out of his pocket and began to cut at the wrappings.
“Dr. Avery, wait!” Arianna put her hand on his arm. She felt it tense. “If this is something, a relic, then we shouldn’t desecrate it. I mean, we should take it to the school, have it imaged or something. Don’t you think?” She could see the tug of war going on in his head. The excited researcher who wanted to keep his find all to himself, to discover all its secrets alone versus the adult scientist who knew the proper thing was to turn it in to the University that employed him. He looked up at her desperately.
“I’m unwrapping it” he announced and picked up an edge and peeling. Small amber rocks fell from the wrappings. Arianna reached out and picked them up. She held them up to the rays of sunlight beaming through the caved in walls of the building.
“These aren’t amber” she sniffed. “I think they might be…”
“It’s myrrh.” He interrupted without even looking up. “It was used commonly by the Egyptians for embalming mummies.”
“So why is there an Egyptian mummy here buried beneath a church?” Arianna asked, confused.
“This isn’t Egyptian. You can tell by the cloth and the wrapping technique. This baby wasn’t meant to be preserved like a mummy. This baby was swaddled like any baby would be.” He answered. He looked up at her as if he’d just had a revelation. “Bayne! Look through that box again, see if there is anything else in there.”
Arianna did as instructed and digging through the choking rot of the hay, she found a small jewel encrusted box.
“There is something!” She said, holding up the box. Dr. Avery looked at it.
“Open it, Arianna” He said in a whispered voice. He’d never called her Arianna before. It felt the same way it did when her mother called her by her full name. She opened the box. There, inside was a cream colored crystal and a gold ring obviously hand hammered and old.
“My God, Arianna. I think I know what this is.” He ran a hand through his sweaty hair. “But if I’m right, this discovery could change everything.” He sat back the baby mummy only one or two layers away from exposure. “And put targets on our back. Arianna, I…I don’t know what we should do.”
She wasn’t following. Now he was shaking, panting, and the sweat was running down his face.
“We’ve come this far, Professor. If it’s as bad as you think, couldn’t we put it back and keep it to ourselves, maybe? I’m not even sure I know what it is you’re thinking.” She wasn’t following him at all but this was obviously something and she wanted to know. She’d found it after all, she deserved to know. If it was up to her, they would see this through. Avery nodded.
“Ok. You’re right. Let’s get this baby unwrapped and I’ll explain.”
The final layers were stuck to the body and required meticulous dissection. They worked together slowly. There were several interruptions by other student finds, but Dr. Avery shooed them off promising to come out as soon as he’d finished. The students tried to linger for a glimpse at Arianna’s find but Avery wanted no other witnesses and sent them away.
When the wrappings were off and the infant lay completely exposed, three things caught Arianna’s attention. First was the preservation of the body. It was immaculate. If it weren’t for the dark purplish color and the texture of the skin, they could be looking at a baby just delivered. Secondly, it had a long umbilical cord still attached and tied near the end with a small cotton strip of cloth. Lastly and probably the most obvious and unexpected; the infant held its right hand up in the common iconic Christian blessing salute. Its first finger straight, the second slightly bent, its ring finger touching the thumb and its pinky leaned forward to crisscross the ring finger.
Arianna recognized the salute from her art history class. She’d seen a baby Jesus with his mother holding his hand up in the same way. They’d discussed it in class. Suddenly the gold cornered box, the hay, the myrrh all made sense.
“Dr. Avery, in the jeweled box, that rock…was it a piece of frankincense?” she swallowed, the idea she was forming was clogging her throat, refusing to be uttered aloud.
“That would be my suspicion, Bayne, yes.” He said with the same thickness to his voice.
“And the long, attached umbilical cord. When do cords typically fall off?” she wondered knowing it wasn’t long after birth.
“Not long. I’d say one to two weeks at most.” He answered “So, I assume you’re wondering the same thing I am. Was this baby stillborn, given the look of the cord?” He was biting his lower lip. His brow furrowed.
“But, Dr. Avery, if this baby is…” her voice trailed off. She couldn’t bring herself to think it out loud. Dr. Avery was right. This would change everything.
“What do we know about Jesus’s childhood; not much. I mean there are a few mentions of it, and then all of a sudden the boy has a dream telling him to take his family to the desert, then later he stays on in a temple and finally after the age of twelve we hear nothing more about him.” Dr. Avery said.
“So, then we know he survived his birth at least. Maybe this baby is an imposter, because didn’t some king send out a decree to kill all newborn baby boys?” Arianna said hopefully.
“True, but would he have been buried with all this? Would his reliquary be a manger, complete with hay? And he just happened to be buried with the gifts of the magi?” Dr. Avery’s speech was pressured and fast. “What if Jesus was a stillborn? What if when the magi arrived, they discovered it and had him wrapped like this and boxed up. What if they took his body to be secreted away, and returned to Mary and Joseph with a new imposter child complete with all the gifts as a ruse for the reason they visited? I mean would the real Jesus needed to stay in a temple and learn about religion? Wouldn’t he already know? Would the real Jesus have disappeared for all those years rather than stay around spreading the gospel? What if he had to go away in order to learn to be a messiah? Oh my God, Arianna, have you any idea what this could mean?” He was breathless now.
“We have to destroy this, Professor. No one can ever know what we know.” She said panicking. She wanted to throw it all back in the hole and pretend this never happened. She’d seen The Da Vinci Code, she knew they were in danger if they tried to go public with their find.
“No, Arianna. We have to take it and get the hell out of here.” Avery said reaching a hand out. “Are you ready to go underground with me? We have to find the truth, but we have to be careful.”
Arianna stared at him. Was he serious? They were going on the run together?
“I have contacts we can trust. But if we are going to find answers, we have to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. The truth may mean an end to civilization as we know it. We’re the custodians of this now. Arianna Bayne and Thomas Avery aren’t going to make it back from this trip, do you understand?”
“Yes.” It was all she could say.
“I’ll keep you safe.” He promised. She nodded. “Put this stuff back as best you can. We disappear tonight.” He said and kissed her cheek. She felt warmth flowing through her and blushed.