Monday, July 19, 2012
Glory, it’s hot.
There is no air conditioning in the farm house where we sleep, so when Zeb (Zebulon Dawson Creed, the other guy on the porch last night), said that we would be spending from dawn to dusk in some kind of cave, it sounded like a great idea. We set out with a thermos of ice tea and a picnic basket, ( I kid you not, the housekeeper, Mrs. Nelson, packed it for us) and walked across the dusty drive to a barn.
Inside the barn, the cement flooring was cracked and heaved as though it had been smashed by a gigantic hammer. This must have been the result of the earthquake, or “steam quake” as the Mrs. Nelson called it. Stabilized with steel railings and thick bands of rebar, a gash in the earth dropped below us, its edge trimmed with corrugated steel steps that looked new and disappeared into the darkness.
Zeb flicked on a switch near the door. A large grey machine whirred to life, heaving before settling into a loud, mind-numbing hum.
“Generator!” Zeb shouted at me over the noise.
Lights flickered on below the ground, giving the barn interior a ghostly cast. Slight traces of steam still wafted through the fissures radiating from the hole. Lafontaine, his face cast with ghastly shadows from the light below, came over holding a hardhat fitted with a large light. He made a big fuss of placing it on my head and snapping the strap of the safety helmet under my chin for me. I could have kicked him.
Lafontaine switched on his headlamp and took the lead down the steps. Zeb followed behind me. Zeb is some sort of cryptologist, he says, but it seems he has a bent for practical engineering as well. Lafontaine is constantly making snide asides about Zeb’s intelligence, naturally. Lafontaine has not changed at all. I really think he remembers our relationship in school a bit differently than I do. Still, there is no doubt that he is brilliant, if annoying.
Quiet grew loud as we descended. The stairs were steep and jiggled alarmingly in their new fittings. I waited for Lafontaine to clear the stairs in front of me, then jumped the last four steps to land on the smooth floor of a tunnel. We were about 20 feet below the surface in a passage carved from limestone and dirt. Support beams lined the walls and thick pipes snaked away ahead and behind fastened to the roof by metal straps. Here and there the straps had broken and the pipes dripped rust-red water onto the floor in rivulets. Loops of exposed electrical cable traced an unpredictable path over our heads supplying power to the incandescent light bulbs, flickering and glowing weakly in wire cages. More than once the gaps in the roof above made for dense pools of darkness and I was grateful for the light of my headlamp.
“Was this once a mine?” I asked, my voice a croaky whisper of excitement.
“You will see, “ Lafontaine answered.
We walked on, passing a section of wall that had fallen away and been recently cleared with adjustable steel columns propping up makeshift panels of hastily assembled plywood and 2×4 boards. Further on, a section of the floor had been covered over with slick metal plates that rang hollowly as we walked over them. Everywhere there was a cool dampness. I began to shiver.
We rounded a corner in the passage. A great carved mahogany door blocked the corridor. Absurdly, a brass doorknocker, bright as if it had just been polished, gleamed invitingly in its center. I had the sudden idea that if we knocked, we would be greeted by a white gloved butler and served tea the drawing room. I think I might have giggled.
“You got to love the Victorians,” Zeb commented.
Lafontaine did not knock, instead pushing the door open into spacious room. The walls were covered in stripped wallpaper and hung with photographs, sketches and linotypes. Against one wall, a black horsehair loveseat, tufted and severely buttoned separated a pair of overstuffed chairs in crimson brocade and green watered silk like a disapproving governess between fighting debutants. A Persian carpet of red and blue cushioned the cave floor.
I stepped closer to the secretary desk that faced the wall opposite seating area. Above it hung a huge linotype of a dirigible floating over an expanse of countryside. The airship was cigar-shaped and steam powered with a sail rudder. Draped all over in a net of webbing that supported a ship, it was like no airship I had ever seen. Even more startling was the distant farmhouse in the picture could have been the same house where I had spent the night before. A small building stood roughly in the spot where the barn stood now. Large letters below the airship stated ‘Sumetra Exploration Enterprises, Limited. 1837.’
I turned to Lafontaine. My eyes must have communicated my disbelief, because he said, “Now you know why I had to show you. You would never have come if I told you. You just would have thought I was crazy.”