“I’ve never heard of the Oral History students practicing—activities such as these,” Jasper whispered to Francesca. The hall was dim and the only notable noise was the touch of thin glass against itself. And soft mumbles. We moved among the students, all seated with their legs crossed like Turks, some exercising straight-backed posture, while others were leaned against each other, sedated or altogether incapacitated by this mysterious action.
We were nearly to the corridor’s lone lit lamp. There, Francesca halted without warning, startling Jasper, and then my own heart thumped in surprise as he recoiled. Francesca put her hand toward the lit flame to sense the heat. She touched toward it with her fingers as if she were spinning a spider’s web. I examined the dank hall further. There were doors every few yards and I noticed then that each lamp was unique in shape, size, or style. They were unlit, save for the one beside us, but the doors were unmarked and identical, save for the map beside each one.
These were their nameplates. Francesca could sense the size and intensity of this flame and know precisely where she was. It was an indecipherable sensory-language to any who had not spent years traveling this building.
She set her knuckles to the door and just as she had played with the fire to discover the burning lamp’s coded meaning, she played a song against the wood with her palm and fingertips. A chair stirred inside. Footsteps crossed the room. There was a rhythmic reply from within. Francesca unlocked the door and we waited a moment for the man inside to open up.
The study carrel was brilliantly bright and only once Ianto had turned the fuel levels down, lowering the room’s lamps, could I even identify him. Here he was, though I shouldn’t present him as some sort of cretin, or cad, in Jasper’s words. This would-be classmate of mine was simply rude to me upon my arrival. He was just that—another young man in the world, a white child in America, reconciling his place in these universes we occupy, each composed of various elements and physical laws. I found myself forgiving him as he stood there, a shadow on the sun that was his personal study space, accepting, I decided, of Francesca’s coded message through her complex door-knock. Ianto knew she had brought visitors and had opened the door nonetheless. Perhaps my forgiveness was misplaced? I’ll likely never know. These were minor transgressions of petulant children. I hoped he could understand me while he figured the mathematics of his own place in history.
“Enter,” Ianto said. We did as he bade and Francesca followed, closing us all in Ianto’s study carrel. He lowered the lights hanging from a network of copper pipes a touch more and my eyes adjusted. While the assembled work was piled high on tables and shelves, it was arranged with a fastidiousness usually reserved for German librarians. Unlike the exterior hallway, dim and unlabeled, Ianto’s archiving was meticulous. He identified every piece of work with sections and subsections, separated with specific naming conventions and what appeared to be prefixes of his own creation.
“What?” Ianto asked, putting back up against his desk to face us before I could inquire about his immediate work.
Francesca laughed a little from her place by the door.
“Can you help us—see,” Jasper took care to choose his words. “We came across a question down at the Orrery I couldn’t muster an answer for.”
“Why’re you acting like that?”
“Acting like what?”
“Acting. You are not behaving as you normally do, Barlowe.”
“I am trying to be respectful.”
“Why are you trying—to be respectful?”
Jasper went quiet. Every word cut at him. There was a hesitation in delivering the question while hiding as much truth as possible from Ianto. How could Jasper separate one from the other, especially beneath Ianto’s suspicious gaze? But while Jasper was play-acting, raising that suspicion, Ianto was being practical. This was a different environment from the lounge in the Clock Tower where we had met prior. Here, the hierarchy had shifted.
“How much do you know about the history of the school?” I asked.
“Plenty,” Ianto said.
“Do you know why—?” I found myself being selective with my wording. “Why the Orrery was built as it was? Where it was built? To what specifications? For what reasons?”
“Those are expansive and open-ended questions,” Ianto answered. He didn’t move from his place by the desk or shift his gaze off Jasper and I. “What’s happened?”
“Something we didn’t expect.”
“I can’t explain it myself. I’ve only been at school for two days and I can’t rightly say Cosmology or Oral History are my forte.”
“Share more truths with me.”
“Two events, equally relevant and mysterious have occurred this morning,” I said. I was committing. “First, Professor Rakosi, head of the Cosmology department, came down from the New Chapel with a dire need to personally observe an anomaly within the Orrery. Second, Jasper and I observed that anomaly with him at the Orrery. A silver—band, or a ribbon, or a wave, I’m not sure what description best fits, but it appeared to be liquid, massive in scale, is approaching our solar system.”
“And a third event,” Ianto said. “You’ve shared these mysterious happenings with me here, now. To ascertain their meaning through my expertise.”
“Exactly,” I said, exhaling in completion. I smiled a little.
Ianto cocked his head. “I estimate you bore trepidation bringing this request.”
“No. Actually, Jasper believed in your ability. He had no clue what we might do if you refused. From the sound of it, you’re our only hope, Ianto.”
“And what do you believe?”
“I believe,” I hesitated once again. Ianto was so instant in his questions and understanding. His prescription was tenfold greater than what he demonstrated in our previous encounters. No longer surrounded by onlookers or weighted by the social stigmas I maneuvered through in this new environment, Ianto was plain and obvious. “I believe I judged you harshly when we first met. You, like I, were just play-acting as idiotic young boys because teasing one another is an excellent exercise for sharpening knives we’ll need in future encounters. Or, so we believe. But, Ianto, I recognize something in you now—we betray ourselves in such bitter conversations. I never earned the chance to understand you more closely. I look around your place here in this carrel and I know that. Your talents aren’t in mendacity or vindictiveness. Jasper’s might be—”
I shrugged and shot Jasper a look, to which he rolled his eyes and accepted.
“But in totality,” I concluded. “There are times where we need one, and times where we require the other. Such is the ideal of an academia aimed at focusing this system of existence. I see honesty in you when you are under no pre-fabricated obligation to conform. With all that said, I can only hope you understand how grateful I would be for you to combine your expertise with ours and discover what is happening here, at Shackleburg, at the Orrery—”
I trailed off at last. I could find no further words and I felt it would be best I not express some false clarity when I had run completely out. The rest lay with Ianto.
My classmate smoothed at his hair in a behavioral tic I had not expected. There was a spark to him. Maybe he did it for my benefit and to set me at ease, an expression through a foreign language.
“I’ve never met Professor Richter Viharo,” he said. “That should come as no surprise. From what I’ve heard, he’s a quiet individual. But honest. As historians of traditions passed down through memory, unreliable as humans are, we in this department are governed by a paradox. Do we take the lathe to Oral History itself when we record it otherwise? Does the soul of a moment splitter when I translate it to a modern tongue? That was a rhetorical question. The answer, of course, is yes. So I am left to wonder aloud, for your benefit, Keziah Keyes, what Richter Viharo intended for the Orrery.
“What you see around you here in the carrel is a monument to my failure. Bright lights. Endless parchment. Sketches. Words. Recordings. Out in the corridor, you passed my classmates on the way in. They are the orthodox practitioners of Oral History—flawless devotees to Professor Vihaor. They are sitting and they are remembering. They are pouring the traditional poisons into their eyes to dull those inaccurate senses. It is an action only the most committed to the study shall enact. Histories will one day exist identically in their minds and on their tongues, just as they did in their places of origin. Look around you once more and ask again—what do you see? Rhetorical question. It is my work, achieved not entirely through memory or spoken word, for history is not recorded if it cannot reach the souls who dwell in the present. You and I cannot enjoy, or benefit from, these moments past.
“I—am immune to the poisons the department uses to diminish the eyesight of the students. I was prepared and ready to commit. But I could not become what I desired most. So I was forced to conduct my work within this institution as I am, defiant of Professor Viharo’s teachings. You would imagine Francesca would prove a prodigy in this department.”
“But you’d be wrong,” she said with a dry smile. “I was born blind, unlike those outside. And I’m inclined to agree with Ianto—I know doom awaits us if we can’t record, analyze, and modernize these histories. We have to try. How can we know—if we don’t try?”
“As I am, I cannot help but stand in defiance of the institutions surrounding me,” Ianto said. “I am terse, and I am bad at pretending I care for the flexible candor most enjoy. I do not enjoy such flexibility. I am ill-suited for imagining what others expect of me. Hence, while I am bad at brief patter, I believe I am quite skilled at more lengthy interpretation, given time. I observe the world, its people, and actions holistically—again, given time.”
“How much time do you need to consider our questions?” Jasper asked at last.
“Repeat the most immediate question once more,” Ianto said, taking a sheet of parchment and a pen.
“Was the Orrery deliberately designed to capture the impending arrival of this foreign object in our solar system?” Jasper posed. “And who conceived of such a possibility?”
“No. I don’t believe that is your most immediate question,” Ianto corrected.
“Then what is?” I asked.
“Why was Professor Rakosi dismissed from the New Chapel?” Ianto said, writing. “Why only he? Is this a threat to all if only one was sent forth? To what task are the other Five Old Men devoted while Professor Rakosi studies the Orrery? To my knowledge, they have no instruments in the New Chapel to address the anomaly, as you’ve said.”
“He probably was kicked out because he didn’t go along with the prevailing theory up there,” Franscesca said.
“Which suggests what?” I asked.
“Perhaps the other Five Old Men do not consider the anomaly a threat,” Ianto said. “And if they do not interpret it as a threat, do they believe it is good? Do they welcome it?”
“What do you think?” Jasper interjected toward Ianto.
“I don’t,” Ianto paused, masticating on his thoughts, adding, “I don’t think this event comes as a surprise to the Five Old Men. The Orrery was built in anticipation of its arrival. But is it a good omen? Is it an ill omen? Opinions are divided. No. I will not use that word, as it suggests equal validity to the two sides, and there are indeed two markedly separate sides. We must discover if Professor Rakosi is among us on behalf of the Five Old Men, or if he was dismissed out of contentiousness. We must learn the Orrery’s new silvery substance’s elemental specifics.” He finished writing on the parchment and folded it in half with a tight pinch along the crease. “Tell me—has God ever delivered this school a trustworthy electrochemist?”
-- Alex Crumb
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