Friday 23 December 2016
Time: 12:05 am
Photo supplied by Zaragoza Museum. Author: Jose Garrido Lapeña
There are few people walking at this hour of the night on Don Jaime Street. I see a group of university students going into one of the bars on the adjacent streets. The rubbish men are taking advantage of this hour of the night to collect rubbish with the bin lorry.
I look up at the apartments and there are a few with lights on. Because it’s a Thursday night, people go to bed early. Bars, normally overflowing with people from Friday onwards, only have one or two customers tonight.
As we approach Nicola’s house, the five of us look at each other and smile because we see a light in his apartment. Although it is hard to press the door bell of a house after midnight, on this occasion Sofia and I outdo each other in order to do it.
Nicola hasn’t even asked who it was. I think he’s expecting us. We go up the stairs. When we arrive at his apartment, we see that the door is open. We go in immediately. It’s clear that he’s been waiting for us. He has put out five bowls on the table next to a pot, and is carrying a ladle in his hand. Looking at us as we sit down, he asks us:
“How many spoonfuls of soup do you want?”
The level of complicity between us is impressive. I don’t think it would have occurred to us when the History teacher chose us to do this group work. All that we’ve experienced in such a short time has been so very intense. It’s creating bonds of friendship we’ve never had with others. Elsa sits next to me, puts her arm on my shoulder and smiles at me. She looks at the others and the five of us smile as we put our arms on the shoulders of the person next to us, in a kind of collective hug. Even Samuel looks excited. I’m going to remember this moment for a long time.
Without waiting for our answer, Nicola begins to fill the bowls with soup in which I can see pieces of vegetables and meat. This is not the time to say that I don’t like soup. Of course not.
“It’s cold today,” Nicola says as he fills the bowls.
And he’s right. With all this problem, none of us realise that we’ve not had any dinner, and as I see the food, I’m filled with an incredible pang of hunger. I taste it carefully because it’s still releasing steam. The first sip is like a delicacy from the gods. But if I hate soup… It is not salty or tasteless; it’s just right. I have to change my taste for this dish. The meat is chicken. It’s delicious. I like the food and today, I like the place. The apartment is the same as we saw it on the last occasion we were here, everything in white, with the same decor.
Suddenly, the five of us observe the statuette at the entrance now that we know what it is – the head of the god Janus. We all look at each other and wink as we eat the soup.
“I have to admit that I expected you a little earlier,” Nicola starts saying. “If you are going to do what you have to do,” he stops for a moment to look at Erik’s wristwatch, “you don’t have a lot of time.”
There’s absolute silence after he speaks. It’s Sofia who takes the initiative. Before speaking, she gathers her hair to one side. I can’t take my eyes off her pretty neck. I can’t stop thinking about the kiss. I can’t be distracted! I have to focus on the present!
“You have convinced us. We will do it.”
“No,” Nicola replies. “It is you who have convinced yourselves.” And then he adds, “Isn’t that so?”
As time is flying, we tell him up to where we’ve reached and all the information we have, including what Erik’s parents and Sofia’s father had said and done. I would be speaking for everyone if I said aloud that we no longer think that this story is rubbish, even Erik himself is one of the most involved. He is excited as he looks at Nicola directly in his eyes. We are bursting with excitement, but we know there’s something missing. And the old man has recognised it.
We finish telling him all that we know and fall silent. He looks at us. His blue eyes convey serenity and, at the same time, assurance. Today, he’s not wearing anything on his head. His shoulder-length hair is completely white, which gives him an even more extraordinary appearance at this time.
After clearing and cleaning the table, we notice that he’s left the room and, a few seconds later, he returns with a paper. It doesn’t look like normal paper, but rather a very old piece of paper. In terms of modern sizes, we could say that it is an A2 sheet. As he spreads it on the table, we see that it is a very old parchment paper. Although it is very blurred, I can still make out some Roman letters within a rectangle. There are two columns and something I recognise but can’t see very clearly as it is very blurred. Suddenly, I recognise it and blurt out aloud,
“It’s the inscription of the ashlar found in the Eastern Gate!”
We approach the parchment to study it more closely as Nicola moves backwards in the room. Without being able to touch it, we study it several times. Sofia and Elsa take out some papers from their backpacks and try to note down what is written on it.
The column on the left is the same as we have seen on the ashlar that we have studied in recent days. The column on the right is totally new to me, because that is the part that has always appeared to be damaged and illegible.
As we are all sitting at the table studying the parchment, no one speaks, including Samuel who has abandoned his tablet and is totally engrossed by this new piece of evidence. On this occasion, compared to other times when we were in this apartment, there is nothing outside to break the silence of the night. It seems that everything around us is preparing us for the following step.
I am able to put the letters together, and together we correct it until in the end, we agree on what is written:
Parvum est magno ut magnum omnibus est.
As we read it again and again, Nicola sits with us around the table and we all look at him.
“According to legend, when Emperor Augustus finished the city, he insisted that the builders left a clue in the Eastern Gate for coming generations. And this he did on the ashlar. From what you have told me, you have gathered enough information in recent days.”
My blood is boiling. My hands are sweating. I see that I am not the only one who is extremely nervous by what I’m hearing. This is completely new and it’s taking us to a place that I don’t know if we are prepared to go. I try to look for something outside to distract me. There’s nothing. Silence continues to be our companion tonight.
“He was very proud, because he himself used it to return to Rome,” Nicola continues his commentary. “No one knows how but, through his sacred city, he had created a transport through space.” He looks at us in silence, and then continues, “And through time, without realising it.”
As incredible as this sounds, this part of the story seems too far-fetched for me, although it doesn’t cease to amaze me every time I think of it.
“He felt that he deserved it for all he had done for Rome, and as he knew the secret of how to use it, he saw no problem in using it,” he continues. “He was capable of going and coming, always with the intersection of the Cardus and the Decumanus being the point of entry and exit.”
He stops for a moment to take air. Today, he looks tired.
“But a problem emerged. Some soldiers from the Twins Tenth Legion (Legio Decima Gemina) discovered the secret the emperor had used and gradually it became complicated because they began to use it differently from the emperor. This legion had accompanied him on his campaigns in the north of Italy, France and Britain.”
He stops a moment as if trying to remember what he’s going to say next.
“Emperor Augustus found out and the first thing he did was to forbid its use. And in a fit of anger, he himself took a hammer and chisel, and completely destroyed the column of letters on the right.”
Samuel looks almost like a madman, wide-eyed and mouth agape. Nicola had us completely engrossed in the story. With his hands, he simulated the action of hitting something with a hammer. My hands are wet with sweat and I am fidgeting on my seat. I need him to continue. I want to know the whole story. I want him to continue telling it to us as he’s doing now.
“He started to knock out the letters on the left column, but just as he was doing so, the city came under attack from outside the walls and he had to organise its defence. Everything got very complicated. He had to continue his conquest of other countries, and he never remembered to finish the destruction he had started.”
My hands are no longer sweating. I simply do not feel them, as I don’t feel the rest of my body. The expressions on my friends’ faces show the same intensity of surprise and fear that must be reflected in mine. Sofia breaks the silence:
“But how is it that you have the inscription on this document?”
Nicola looks at her and patiently answers:
“When they had finished building the Eastern Gate, and specifically this ashlar, Emperor Augustus had created the post of watchman for this Cardus and Decumanus, the ‘Watchman of Balance’ as he called it.” As he said that, he pointed through the window at the intersection of the streets. “He knew that the sacred city would last for many years if the basic principles on which the city was designed were maintained.”
Samuel is touching his head. His hair is no longer as well groomed as it was when he came to my house. He is back to his normal appearance. He is looking at the photo of the ashlar on his tablet. He says nothing.
“The first watchman did something that Emperor Augustus did not know about, and would never have authorised it. After the inscription was carved on the ashlar, the watchman used a parchment he found, put it on the wall of the ashlar and passed a charcoal stick several times over it to copy the inscription. The watchman hid the parchment in the city itself and communicated its location to every watchman who succeeded him.”
We couldn’t be more silent than we are now. As if I could will his lips to move with a look, I watch him intensely to make him continue speaking.
“I am the first watchman who has had to collect the parchment from its hiding place and to show it to someone else.”
We say not a word. The silence in this room is as intense as on the street.
I wonder if we are the only ones he has shown.
Writer: Glen Lapson © 2016
English translator: Rose Cartledge
Publisher: Fundacion ECUUP
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