The man was so close now and was surprised to feel his heart beat faster. Still he moved forward, zombie-like, and suddenly the woman in front of him began flailing into the expansive darkness to his right as the Palace Guard proclaimed she “wasn’t getting past the velvet rope of this exhibit”. Not yet at least.
The man and Palace Guard, now face-to-face, the only two left. The Guard smiled slyly. Behind him was the Chest.
It had been described mechanically by the Guard, to everyone who had stood in the gothic doorway, as containing some variation of the same thing: The Big Secret, the Designer’s Plans, the Holy Decipherer. Bluntly, the Meaning of Life. But, added the seasoned curator (sometimes indifferently gazing at his fingernails), he tended to think the artifact contained the most unimpressive of all Human Concerns.
For most other tourists, the Palace Guard would list the multitude of directives, executive orders, waivers against liability for disappointment, etc., but to this all-too-calm, borderline cheerful man he simply said, “Finally, someone who is willing to discuss genocide,” and paused. He composed his speech like the man had composed his gait: impossibly slow, impossibly void of possession. Both men appeared content to give the impression of carelessness, in the sense of pride-filled but uninhibited ghosts.
“But, I need not explain matters further to a man of your tastes, Mr. Shakespeare. I’m sure you have divined the Meaning already.”
The Guard opened, a well-oiled car door, the model something ancient but royal. Mr. Shakespeare moved forward, torso hanging a half-step behind, only his legs feeling gravity’s pull toward the Chest. It looked so far away at first he didn’t seem to approach, but no matter. A bead of sweat, a buckling knee but his face did not flush or hint distress.
At last, the massive beast: a work of Aphrodite’s or Picasso’s,—at the right angle—inspired by the amalgamation of Asimov’s prose and visions of Ganesh. Shakespeare thought again of his pride and considered walking away without taking a look but even he could not resist the insatiable human appetite for the ultimate Knowledge, capital K.
The Palace Guard was right; he had divined the reason. Inside the Chest, lid splaying out, he looked down to see darkness so black and infinitely expansive, the bottom of Life’s Ornament did not appear to exist. Shakespeare’s shoulders slumped in relief and for a fleeting moment he had a thought: God is both a wise, old man and trifling, mischievous toddler rolled into one.
There was a slight rustling behind him. He turned to look toward the shadows. In the dim, dull light surrounding the Chest—neither above nor below, but appearing to expand then fade from the object like the light of a tiny moon—there were billions and billions and billions of sleeping figures on a low hillside. He saw Albert Einstein and Caesar Augustus. He saw Cleopatra and Rosa Parks. He saw Benedict Arnold and George Washington. He saw Helen Keller and Mao Zedong and Amadeus Mozart and Sir Isaac Newton. The mind began to darken and fade, outlines meshed with everything, background and foreground. Parallel lines could in fact cross and the roof as high as heaven dipped to meet the ground and the lowest level of Inferno and exchange and back again and he could feel his sanity stretching but it wasn’t elastic and when it did snap it made a dull thud, old cheese that had lived long but didn’t take much force to separate into pieces.
He lay down on the ground which felt like soft, dry grass and arranged comfortably. And slept.