In real life, reading a papyrus involves a great deal of meticulous work. Yet it is every bit as exciting as you might imagine: a word puzzle, a historical mystery, and an ancient artifact all in one. I had the opportunity to work on such a document over the course of two years. Each and every time I handled it, my heart beat faster. Sadly there are more unread papyri–especially in Arabic– than there are people with the skills to publish them. The same is true for cuneiform tablets.
8. A Perpetual Feast of Nectar’d Spirits
Jennet agreed to meet Sebelius in the library to examine his papyrus. She was amused that he seemed so anxious to avoid inviting her to his office, or to come to hers. She didn’t mind. The library was one of her favorite places on campus, in spite of the never-ending renovations. She rode one of the two functioning elevators up to the seventh floor. There were faculty carrels, and some open study tables, though one rarely saw students using them except during exam week. Much to Jennet’s approval, the library had so far resisted the latest trend of permitting students to bring food and drink into the stacks.
Sebelius was sitting at a table with an open folder in front of him, contemplating the papyrus. She approached and looked over his shoulder, taking in the document at a glance. She could tell already from the style of handwriting that it was probably a literary papyrus. Her eyes moved to the back of his head and the rich chestnut curls at his collar. Plenty of women would sell their souls for that hair. Sternly suppressing the urge to touch him, she sat down, putting her bag and jacket on the next chair, and he pushed the folder over.
Pulling a magnifying glass from her bag, she pondered the page, taking her time, and aware of his eyes on her. She examined both sides closely, though the reverse had no writing. Finally she said, “Very nice. This looks like a literary papyrus, a Christian work of some kind. Offhand I’d say it’s a New Testament epistle. The shape of the page and the position of the text block suggest it’s from a codex, a book instead of a scroll. And the handwriting looks very early, maybe even second century. You might have something quite special here.”
“You can’t just read it right now?” he said, sounding a little disappointed.
“No,” she answered. “The handwriting is good but not that familiar to me, and as you can see, ancient documents don’t have punctuation or spaces between the words. I’ll have to puzzle it out, and it’ll take some time.” She pointed to some holes and long tears where the natural fibers of the papyrus had separated. “See how the letters here are obliterated? These words have to be deduced from the context.”
“Okay. Why don’t you take it to your office, then, and let me know what you come up with? That is, if you’re willing,” he said. He seemed embarrassed, as though it was humiliating to have to ask her.
“I’d love to study this, but I can’t take it to my office. It’s not secure— the custodial staff all have keys and they come in every night to empty the trash and such. Besides, I don’t carry insurance that would cover me if something happened to it while in my care.”
Sebelius looked taken aback. “Insurance? You mean it’s worth a lot of money?”
“Hard to say, but if it all checks out and it’s the type of document I think, it’s worth a lot. Collectors are very keen on early Christian documents, and so are the big research collections.”
He swallowed. “Ballpark?”
“Again, hard to know for sure, but I’d say the lower limit is $50,000 and the upper limit is probably under a million. It depends on the actual text.”
His eyes widened and returned to the fragile sheet sitting on the folder. “Sounds like I’d better take out some extra insurance myself. But how can you study it?” He frowned, considering and rejecting various possibilities. “Maybe I can get Special Collections to hold it and let you work with it here.”
“Maybe,” she said, “but our library has no experience with papyri, and they’re likely to balk if their fine arts insurance doesn’t cover it. My guess is they won’t let you store it there unless you donate it. It really should be mounted in glass and stored in a padded box to protect it. I can help with that if you like.”
“Hmm. Thanks. I’ll talk to Special Collections,” said Sebelius, closing the folder and returning it gingerly to the briefcase he’d brought today, in lieu of his usual leather backpack.
Sebelius was shocked by what Jennet Thorne had to say about the papyrus. He’d never thought for a moment that it was anything of importance. As for value, he’d assumed it might be worth a thousand or two, at the most. It was only one page, after all, and damaged. She’d spent a good twenty minutes silently perusing it, appearing completely absorbed, and oblivious to his presence. He found himself staring at her, able to study all the small details of her appearance without worrying about her reaction. Her left ear was delicate and small, with a faint pink color, like the inside of a conch shell. She was wearing another tight T-shirt, this time in forest green, and her firm biceps muscles stretched the snug, short sleeves. A few downy hairs were scattered over her bare arms, and she had the handcuff bracelet on her left wrist again. He pictured her naked, with her toned arms raised over her head, shackled to the post of his heavy mahogany bed… No. Stop that. Get away from her, now. Swetnam’s second law of fencing echoed in his head: Observe distance. Thou shouldest stand so far off from thine enemy, as thou canst.
After he put away the papyrus, he walked quickly to the elevator. She followed, but didn’t speak. They got in the elevator and their hands touched as they both reached for the first-floor button. He tried not to jerk his hand away, though the contact unnerved him. It felt electric. They rode down three floors, and suddenly the car stopped with a distinctly wrong, juddering noise. The lights dimmed —he heard her gasp as this happened— and came on again, but the car didn’t move.
“Oh no,” she said. “This can’t be.”
“They’re doing some work downstairs. I’m sure it’s nothing,” he answered, trying to sound confident, though his heart was thudding in anxiety. They waited in strained silence another two minutes, which seemed to stretch out endlessly. Finally he stabbed the red “emergency” button. After a few more minutes, the speaker built into the wall sputtered like a walkie-talkie and a female voice said, “Hello? Is someone in car number two?”
“Yes, there are two of us in here. It’s stuck between floors,” he said. “How long till you can get us out?”
“Hold on, we’re calling the contractor.” Another long wait. Finally the voice, sounding apologetic, said, “They have to send someone from Philly. Unless we can get it back online ourselves, it may be a couple of hours. Don’t panic if the lights go out again while we’re working.”
He and Jennet Thorne stared at each other in horror.
Copyright 2015 by Linnet Moss
Notes: Yes, I have an elevator fantasy. But in real life, being stuck in an elevator would be horrible. I hope it never happens to me unless the person I get stuck with is undeniably and gloriously elevator-worthy. Are you listening, Saint Ciarán?