about the author

Will Donnelly’s work has appeared previously or is forthcoming in The Potomac Review, Hobart, [PANK], Five Chapters, and elsewhere, and he's a fiction editor for Juked magazine. He has an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a PhD from the University of Houston, and he teaches creative writing at Berry College in Rome, Georgia.

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The Urn  

Will Donnelly

Tempus edax rerum.

Portable trailers rested in a brief line against the base of Yucca Mountain, their roofs crackling with heat, air conditioners chugging in their windows. The government called in scientists of all sorts to live inside these for a while: anthropologists, archaeologists, psychologists, linguists, geologists, radiobiologists, paleontologists, botanists, and experts in the fields of rare metals. They were a quiet bunch, most of them, who might gather out in lawn chairs at sunset to share a beer or two, but most were in their beds by nine. They talked about the future and the past, the movements of the planets and the stars, the glint of sunlight off the white hot desert sand. They talked about their families far away, those who had them, or else about their students back in universities at home. They spoke of their regrets, of religion, of wars then taking place overseas, and deep inside them all there hung a grave wonder at their task, at the impossibility of it, at how long this thing that they were making would need to last.

Mile-long trains rumbled past the desert valley every day, and while they were quite far away, Dr. Lowry could feel the jarring of their wheels against the tracks as they trucked waste in, more and more and more, and then left empty late at night. All of it, of course, was radioactive, spent fuel rods from nuclear plants around the country, and what else could be done? Where else could it go but Yucca Mountain, out here in the desert, at the very heart of nothing much at all? Yucca Mountain, long and silent, would have to house it all deep underground, sealed inside a long concrete and lead-lined corridor, and to anyone who opened up the box during the next ten thousand years, it would breathe forth burning death. The scientists took to calling it “the urn,” for that was what it was: a giant oblong vase that would hold the ashes of their civilization, guarding them for centuries.

Dr. Lowry spoke more than any of the others, though as a rule, he was quieter than most. He led the project to design the sign. It would need to be a warning to all who might come across it that Yucca Mountain was not a suitable place to live or dig or plant.

Dr. Weingarten, an archaeologist, suggested a ring of stones shaped in the form of a radiation circle that could be seen from both the ground and from the air.

“But symbols change over time,” said Dr. Arney, a linguist from Montreal. “It must be something that future generations will still understand and avoid.”

“Then how about we turn the yucca plants bright red?” said Professor Burnstead, a radiobiologist. “We could mutate their genes and cause them to glow an unhealthy color that would last at least ten thousand years, at least until the site was safe again.”

“But would that really keep people away?” others said. “My own children would want to pick just such plants.”

“And isn’t there a sick irony in this,” suggested Dr. Speger from Germany. “Mutating life as a warning to prevent the future mutation of more life.”

Their conversations went like this, back and forth, quick debates during the mornings before they went off in the afternoons to individual trailers in small teams to think and draw and mold from clay their latest ideas to be presented the following day. The one aspect upon which they had already decided was that the object or sign or signal, if not organic, would be made from pure titanium so as not to rust or wear much with time. Regardless, it was the strongest material they could procure, and so it would have to do.

There was a man on Lowry’s team, an astrobiologist from NASA named Hedges, who had an idea. “We should make a sign,” he said. “Something large and simple, clear and direct, with pictures instead of words. It’ll be like the one we sent out of the solar system on Voyager 2. Man and woman and child, each clearly engraved, with pictures showing what can happen to them if they open up the urn.”

At first, no one said anything. They merely sat around the table, their mouths tight with thought, their eyes fixed on the ceiling.

“I can’t think of why it wouldn’t work,” said Dr. Arney, and then Dr. Weingarten, and then others.

They presented the idea to the group the following morning, and the group accepted. But who, they ask, would be the models for the people on the sign? Dr. Lowry had an idea, but he did not share it. He hoped, secretly, that the models would be his own family: himself, his wife, his son and daughter. He had hoped, long ago, that they might have more children, but his wife’s time had now passed, and so who better to demonstrate a stable family? There was something in this idea that suggested immortality, as though it might make his family last longer than any photograph had yet permitted. He dared not mention this to anyone, but decided upon it secretly, when he was by himself.

“I agree with this idea,” said Dr. Steiner. “At least, I think, it’s the best that we can do.” Dr. Steiner was an Egyptologist, one of the breakers of the hieroglyphic code. “The first messages we decoded from the pyramids at Giza, themselves some five thousand years old, were the pictographs, those that represented human motion in its most natural form. It seems reasonable that the same will hold true for future humans.”

And so they set about, all of them, designing what the sign would say, what might be engraved in the titanium, what would have to last ten thousand years.

When the day was done, when the sky was pink with what was left of the sun, Dr. Steiner and Dr. Lowry stood outside their portable trailers and talked. “How do you think that this is going to work?” asked Dr. Steiner. “Well,” said Dr. Lowry, “if the sign doesn’t deter anyone, at least the opening of the urn will. The first person who tries to pry it open will die, and we can only hope that that sacrifice will provide sufficient message to the others not to come close.”

They sipped their beers and bade each other goodnight, but Dr. Lowry stayed. He decided upon a family photo, one taken nearly a year before, to be the model for the sign. It did not show them naked, of course, as the sign would require (because they would not know what kind of clothing—or if there would be clothing at all—would exist centuries from their own time), but it did show their faces and their hair, and from that, Dr. Lowry thought, they might design a signal sufficient to keep others at bay, away from all the danger.

He presented his design, drawn based on his photograph, and it was accepted. They built the sign of titanium, engraved with images of a family being burned by radiation burns, and set it atop a series of four titanium posts that led directly into the urn itself. And with time, the urn was closed, sealed with welding torches, and left in the desert to burn away the years. The portables were moved away and out of sight, and time progressed as usual.

Years passed. Cattle ranchers sometimes passed the sign, its metal face winking in the sunlight. They sometimes wondered what it meant, but left it alone.

A great highway was built linking Seattle to El Paso, and the highway went just past the place where the urn was buried, deep beneath Yucca Mountain, but most drivers never noticed. At most, they might see a reflection of the sky at dawn rising up off the sign’s face, but that was all. Few had any notion of what lay underneath the mountain there.

Soon, the highway fell into disuse and disrepair, and then a famine came and ravaged the continent, causing millions to die. A war killed even more and left the land polluted and black. Yucca Mountain grew a few feet taller beneath the layers of ash that settled on its ridge, and the sign was nearly buried, but strong winds then came and washed the ash away. Groups of people wandered past the sign in search of food. Some of them examined it and tried to make out its meaning, but among the detritus of their own civilization, it hardly stood out. There were other things to see.

When enough people found each other, they formed into new towns and, soon, new cities, and out of these new cities there came a new civilization, built on the parts of the one that had disintegrated. By now, several hundred years had passed since the urn had been sealed, and the titanium sign still stood high and plain above the desert. Cacti came back and even the yucca plants for which the mountain had been named, except that now it was called something different. The sign became a site of wonder, a place for people to visit, to marvel at the ingenuity of civilizations past. People made charcoal rubbings of its surface and took them home. That the sign was a warning of sorts was not in question, but what exactly that it meant was left to speculation and the newly forming sciences.

Remnants of religions had been left behind after the war, but they were changed, and few records existed to support them. One record that was still clear, however, was the sign, and so groups of people gathered around it and began to worship it. They came to believe that the man and woman pictured on it were symbolic of their own parents, and that their children on the sign represented people, to whom the wisdom of a previous society was being handed down. In the section next to this, the section in which the people were opening the urn and being met by such a great light that they seemed to cry out in agony, the worshippers read that divine light must live underground, and they came to consider the place sacred.

Their religion grew over the next thousand or so years until it had followers from around the world, and pilgrims made long trips, sometimes by foot, to visit the sign and to touch it with their hands. It was said that the sign could heal wounds, that standing in the light of the sun reflecting from its face could make the infirm walk and the sick, well. Interpreters of the sign spoke to large crowds that gathered before it and handed down its stories, which were then written down and passed from generation to generation.

With the passage of time, however, there also came the advent of a new society based in reason. Systems of education arose to pass the knowledge gained by one civilization to the next, should such a passage be needed. Scientists learned to harness the power of the sun to drive vehicles and build large buildings unlike any that the world had ever seen. Communities of learners grew in size and social stature, and some of them began to study the past. Those who had mastered fields of learning were given new titles, and, with their titles, they traveled to ancient sites to study what societies had come before them.

One of these titled scholars was Auchter, a man of middle age, who had a wife nine years younger than himself and three children on the east coast of the North American continent, in one of the new cities that had grown up there. Auchter was a quiet man who, much like Dr. Lowry, led the new government’s Department for the Study of the Past and who also taught. The Department, however, was what had sent him out to the deserts of the West, to the site at Yucca Mountain where people gathered and made pilgrimages each year when the sun was at its zenith.

When the government arrived, the pilgrims were driven away.

“You will be allowed to return,” they were told, “once we are finished.”

The government set up a cluster of mobile homes for the scientists, and they brought in tools—diggers, earth movers, giant drills—to pierce the ground and see what was beneath it.

By this time, the titanium sign had lasted a full three thousand years (and then a few more). Linguists from Auchter’s team studied the symbols engraved upon it.

“These are religious symbols,” said one, a young woman who studied ancient religions and the texts that accompanied them. “They refer to a divine light that will supposedly shine out of the ground if it is opened.”

“The sign, then, is a warning to us,” said another woman, this one older, who studied the history of the human race.

“But a warning of what?” said Auchter. “Of nothing more than superstition. These gods are ancient, and their meanings are useless to us now. We should dig inside the mountain, find out what is buried there. It might teach us great things about our past.”

They began by removing the sign itself. It had been welded well beneath the ground, and only high-intensity lasers could cut through it. Once it was removed, the scientists set it to rest against the side of the mountain, the family embossed on it facing angled upwards to the sky. As the machines dug farther into the side of Yucca Mountain, Auchter stood and looked closely at the sign, which, now that it was out of the ground, seemed larger than before. He examined the faces of the family, seeing how they seemed happy (or at least content) before they opened up the box, then expressing pain when subjected to the light that seemed to shine forth from inside it. The picture made him think of his own family, of whether any danger might come to them back home, not from him, of course, or from the box, but from pure accident. The sign made him miss them all the more, and he longed to be finished with the project.

The drills encountered the sides of the urn within a few days, and their bits and blades rang out against it. Those controlling the machines stood back to examine their work and found the large, long box inside the mountain.

“It seems impenetrable,” the workers said.

“Then bring in torches,” instructed Auchter, and they did.

The torches cut through the urn’s walls within a few days, and Auchter himself was the first to step inside.

The area was dark, of course, and filled with what seemed like black dust. He picked up handfuls of it and tossed it around, noticing how it flew out of his hands, out into the wind and the sunlight outside Yucca Mountain.

“You can come inside,” he said, turning around to face the others. “All their gods are dead.” And so the others followed him in.

Over the next few weeks, they trucked the black dust out of the urn and piled it up beside what was left at Yucca Mountain, where it glimmered in the heat of the day and blew south into black clouds and small tornadoes. They worked until they had cleaned the urn completely, until nothing was left inside but bare walls, lined with lead and concrete, and a residue of black dust. But nothing else was found.

“What was this thing?” they asked Auchter. “What do you think it was for?”

“Religious purposes,” he said. “Nothing that could harm us now.”

Rumors spread about a curse, however, especially among the pilgrims who now came back to claim their sign. Priests foretold that anyone who had ventured inside the great box would not survive. Tales were told that those who had entered first had died soon after of sicknesses that could not be diagnosed, or else they had melted in the glare of the divine light that shone from within. But none of these tales could be confirmed by science, and so the Department of the Study of the Past moved on to other things, and the pilgrims set up new camps at the site.

Back home in his city, Auchter tried to conceive of a new child with his wife, but it would not happen.

“Perhaps we’re getting too old,” she said to him once.

And yet they tried anyway, keeping at it until, finally, she grew pregnant. They told their children that another sibling would soon be joining them, and their whole families rejoiced at the news, but then something happened. Auchter’s wife awoke one morning with stomach pains so great that she could not sit up in bed. At the clinic, they said that they would have to deliver the baby stillborn, that it would never make it the full nine months inside her. She cried, Auchter’s wife, but they did what needed to be done.

“Why did this happen?” she asked them when it was over.

“We don’t know,” they said. “We’ve never seen anything quite like it before. Babies sometimes die, but usually there are clues regarding why. Not this time. We’re sorry.”

So Auchter and his wife went home and told their children and their families, and they began to try again.

“I feel better about it this time,” Auchter said to his wife that night. “I have a good feeling about this one.”

“Yes,” his wife said to him. “Let us try to have at least one more.”

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