The Cabinet of Curiosities

An Excerpt


Max wished he could rewrite the code of life, give himself feet that ran fast and straight, or eyes that weren’t so green, or that his skin was a darker color.  Sometimes he even wished he had different parents.  But mostly he wished he never knew anything about collecting.  Your body can grow, your hair color change, you can even move thousands of miles away hoping the parts that you’d left behind would never find you.   But they do find you, and you realise that if something is part of your DNA, it stays with you forever.

Thanks to Granddad Archibald Mead, Max was raised around a private collection of antiquities that could rival almost any museum.  As a small boy he played amongst cases and cabinets displaying curious things like the small figurine of Venus of Hohlen Fels, and musical instruments, like flutes made of bone and wooly mammoth tusks, dating back thousands of years.  His fingerprints smeared the glass, his eyes fixed on one thing after another, an ancient vase from the Bronze Age then a Turkish dagger found in the hands of a 4,000 year-old skeleton.  Granddad surrounded himself with a broad variety of artefacts from very different times and regions.  He was a well respected ‘eclectic collector’, albeit still a novice, with a reputation for an uncanny, almost forensic-level understanding of the objects in his possession.    Nearly everything Max learned about the past came through Granddad’s understanding of objects.  His almost trance-like exploration allowed him to describe the object’s experience as if he had witnessed it himself.

Soon after Granddad’s disappearance, Max gave up all ambition of becoming a novice collector himself, packing up the few pieces he kept in his room and storing them away forever.  He was mad.  Mad at Granddad for leaving too soon, and mad at the world for withholding the information Max believed could explain what  happened to Granddad.  It became everybody’s fault that Granddad had disappeared, and the police’s fault that they hadn’t found a single clue.  How could Max ever hope to locate clues the police seemed unable to find themselves?  What access to information did Max have?  None.  Max had himself and the internet, and it occurred to him recently, he had some of Granddad’s artefacts in his own collection.  If collecting was truly in his DNA, then so was Granddad, and as long as Granddad was missing, there was still chance that he could find his way back to Max.

Max lifted the newspaper from the floor and buried his face deep inside the grey-coloured pages.  The headline, THERMAL IMAGING REVEALS HIDDEN CHAMBERS, stretched across the entire front page.  A sudden chest flutter took Max by surprise.  Was history about to be rewritten?  His eyes pulsed with excitement as they devoured every word.  Advanced infrared imaging had revealed fissures in the walls of King Tutankhamen’s tomb.  Max could almost taste the air that for centuries had protected Tut’s sleeping treasure like an invisible security blanket.  He imagined artefacts so spectacular, they overshadowed anything discovered by Howard Carter when the tomb was opened in 1922, and that would include the now famous gold funerary mask.  “KV62 Granddad, can you believe it?  Everyone thought it’d been cleared out.”  He continued, his eyes never coming off the page.  “Do you think they could find anything as amazing as Tut’s mask?  Doubt it.  Sure took them long enough,” Max said as he rippled his lips.

Granddad would be grabbing for the paper by now, trying to read over Max’s shoulder and asking a lot of questions.  It wasn’t an easy article to understand.   Scientific jargon like “multi-spectural”, “hyper-spectral”, and “electro-magnetic” made Max’s head ache.  “Sorry Granddad.  This sounds too much like Mr. Wittleman’s physics homework.”  Max rustled the pages, his eyes landing on a small caption near the bottom of the fourth page. LOOTED TREASURE DISCOVERED IN CAIRO NEIGHBOURHOOD.  His feet lifted off the floor until his big toes were the only thing keeping his seat from toppling over.

“Now that doesn’t sound anything like homework!”  Max lived in a Cairo neighbourhood, and if there was any discovering going on, he wanted to know all about it.   He folded the extra pages back and scanned for any detail that might give away the exact location.   The article quoted a local man, Ayman Roushani, saying, “Where does the sun go at night?  Ancient Egyptians asked this question.  And we are grateful to them, just as we are grateful for those who ask the questions today.  Not dying a second time means these vessels can live again, they have ascended with the sun, stronger than ever.”  There was a grainy photograph of a large stone statue being hoisted with ropes and pulleys from a sandy pit.  “This is a great day for the great people of the great Republic of Egypt, and a warning to those who would steal from us.”  Max thought Ayman Roushani had lost his mind, except for the warning to looters who Max considered among the worst kind of thieves.  He crimped the pages and tossed them to the floor.

“Who writes an article like that without putting in the location?  Ahh!  If it happened in Giza, say Giza!  Or Mansoura, just say it!”  Max’s excitement was dampened.  He wanted the discovery to be in Maadi were he lived, but since he hadn’t heard about it until now, the location must be miles away.  “How did they even know to dig there anyway?”  Had it been a spot of satellite imagery that tipped them off, or an anonymous caller?  Max knocked the desk with his elbow, shifting the stack of homework papers and books to the far edge.

The school year was nearly over and Max was so far behind he wanted to cry.  As if grabbing a dirty diaper, he lifted his English homework from the pile and dangled it at arm’s length. He knew exactly what Mrs. Marjorie would say tomorrow when he showed up to class with his work unfinished.  Mmaaaxxx, you’re not working to your potential.  You really should apply yourself!   “I could care less Mrs. Sour-face Marjorie!  You and your stinky homework can go”-  Just as Max was about to crush the paper in his fist, the photo of Granddad came into focus.  Granddad would be shocked to hear Max just now.  He’d be even more shocked to see how far Max had fallen in his grades.

Max stood abruptly causing the desk chair to tilt off its front legs and hang in the air for a moment before gravity pulled it back to place.  He stretched his arms towards the ceiling and yawned before throwing himself in the direction of his bed.  His body made one slam-bang revolution before landing back first.

The single-sized mattress barely caught him, the springs groaning under his weight.  Legs dangling off one side of the bed, head and arms off the other, Max felt defiant, ready to ignore the never-ending nag of homework.  He turned his eyes toward the shelves behind him.   Granddad’s father, Harold, was a collector, and Harold’s father before him.  For Max’s sixth birthday Granddad gave him a half-dime coin and whispered, “It’s in your DNA, son.”   Max remembers his hand tingling where the coin touched his skin.  His passion for collecting grew from that day, stretching beyond coins to things like 2000 year-­old papyrus buried during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. You might think the scroll on Max’s shelf looks like a large lump of charcoal, but you’d be wrong.  Max can knows what lay within the tightly wound layers of delicate carbon sheeting. It would be impossible to unroll the charred texts without breaking them into a million pieces, but one day new methods like 3­D x­-ray imaging or a super advanced laser reader will reveal their hidden secrets. And Max expected Granddad to be with him when that happened.  The headline in Archeology Today would read something like, SCROLL’S HIDDEN SECRETS FINALLY REVEALED!

“Haha…if only! I have to be a wiz at science first, and I don’t see that happening any time soon.”  Even if Max sucked at school, collecting was something he was really good at.  He prized every artefact in his collection and had made a game of recalling the era or origin of each one, sometimes in chronological order, sometimes by region.  “Pharaoh’s Toe, Upper Egypt; Mameluke Saber, Ottoman Empire; WWII Tankard, North Africa; 2000 year-­old Papyrus, Ptolemaic Dynasty, Roman City of Herculaneum.” He stopped.  Not because he ran out of objects, but because a strange sound caught his attention, something like air escaping from the pinched opening of a overstretched balloon.   His eyes widened as he scanned for the noise – it was coming from the floor next to his bed, where his dog lay. He rolled over until he was hovering just above her stomach. “Poor Ramses, did you eat something you shouldn’t have, like maybe one of my socks?” He stretched out a hand and gently rubbed her belly.

Ramses, a Labradoodle, had been a Christmas gift to Max from his parents when he was ten years old. She’d been about the size of a rugby ball then. Her glossy black coat, a thick mass of wispy curls, was the softest thing Max had ever felt. She arrived at a time when Max was totally into pharaohs, and that’s why he gave her the name Ramses.  When she was six months old, Max took her to obedience training. Ramses learned to walk with a lead, stop on command, and sit and stand according to hand signals. Granddad taught her to fetch. Sometimes she ran in circles like a wild beast, but mostly she pranced around like an elegant show dog.

Max watched Ramses squirm and slowly kick out a hind leg. An odour, something like rotten meat co-­mingled with stinky cheese, swept up his nose. “Hhooh Ramses. What did you eat? Grrrooosssss!” he laughed, pinching his nose and rolling as far away as possible.

Max stood, and for a moment considered returning to his desk. “I h-a-t-e homework!” He said, punching both fists in the air.  Spinning on his heels, Max nearly bumped into the built-­in wardrobe where he kept his clothes and shoes and a few items not worthy of a place on the shelves. The wardrobe, with heavy brass handles and stylised corner carvings of stems and leaves, was not something Max would have chosen for his room. But as an original feature of the villa dating back to 1915, he knew a collector, somewhere in the world, would love to own it.

Stepping around the wardrobe, Max came face to face with one of three Premiere League posters he’d hung during the first week in an attempt to make this room feel a bit more, well, like his room. Brown greasy spots blotted each corner where sticky putty residue had bled through. The entire Manchester City team, dressed in blue shirts, was nearly eye-to-eye with him now. Max gave two thumbs-up, recalling the excitement he felt when Man City beat Sunderland to win the Capital One Cup. But his smile quickly turned cold.  He hadn’t seen his favorite striker Sergio Aguero in…well, since Granddad left.

Max lifted his arms in a wide embrace, “Aren’t you glad you’re not in a stuffy old museum? Spending an eternity surrounded by objects you can’t stand, having total strangers stare at you all day, wondering, ‘what’s so exceptional about you’?” Max laughed at himself, smugly crossing his arms over his chest. “Or, you could be stolen and buried in a pit where you splinter into a million minute fragments, only to be lost to the sand forever.”  The magnitude of what he’d just said scared him.  “At least here, you’re safe. And you’re part of a family. And I don’t plan to let you slip away, not now or ever.”

His shoulders dropped as he realised how lonely he’d become.  In Egypt, making friends had been like homework: difficult.  And after a month or so of being snubbed at school, he’d given up trying.  He wanted friends, but so far Youssef was the only kid who took any interest in him. Most of the kids at school were busy with friends they already had, or maybe Max just wasn’t cool enough? “Friends, Schreends, who cares. Everyone knows objects are a boy’s best friends.  Oh, and you too Ramses!”

Max peered over his shoulder at his dog, ready to throw himself back on the bed.  Instead he twisted around and reached for the WWII tankard. It was against protocol to handle objects without gloves, but he didn’t care, today would be an exception. He lifted the tankard and cradled the brassy bottom. The wooden handle, with its silky finish, felt warm. The tankard was not, by any stretch of the imagination, his favourite object.  That honour belonged to the Pharaoh’s toe.  However, it was special because it once belonged to Harold before it belonged to Granddad.

With the tankard firmly in his grasp, Max returned to the bed and nestled into the oversized pillow.  He raised the tankard to his lips and imagined drinking an enchanted brew, some ancient herbal extract which would somehow, miraculously, provide answers to the remaining questions of Mrs. Marjorie’s assignment. As he swallowed down the last remnants of magical thinking, the tankard came to rest sideways on his chest. An inscription close to the rim, so worn and tarnished it was nearly impossible to decipher, read: Desert Campaign 1940­-1942. Max ran a finger along the edges of a map where Egypt met the Mediterranean Sea, and down along the Suez Canal into the Red Sea, and eventually over to neighbouring Saudi Arabia.  His imagination filled in the topographical details. Circling the bottom of the tankard were more words: “British V Corps, British X Corps, British XIII Corps…” Then a quote, “Before Alamein we never had victory. After Alamein we never had defeat,” Winston Churchill.

Max’s muscles twitched and suddenly his organs were in a wrestling match with his body. He was bombarded, as though by ferocious attack, with thoughts of the thousands of men who had lost their lives fighting from Tripoli to Cairo and beyond. As Max conjured images of heavy artillery and battle-weary troops advancing on a hostile enemy, the muscles in his body went limp. His breathing became slow and shallow. He lay motionless, watching the tankard burrow itself into his chest like a soldier taking refuge in the sand. He blinked in disbelief and blinked again, just to be sure he was awake. An eerie sort of quiet enveloped him and his mind evaporated into a starless sky somewhere between twilight and total darkness. His body lifted into the night, suspended like a kite at the end of a long string, held afloat by a very warm breeze.


A faint, faraway, unfamiliar voice emerged:

“Sir…I don’t know if you can hear me.” Static cut through the voice.   “They’re outgunning us…”  The voice went silent, giving way to whizzing, screaming, crackling sounds like fireworks or loud explosions.  “Small arms fire, seemingly from all directions, Sir, is sending us back to the trenches each time we attempt an advance.   Explosion after explosion.”  The voice was muffled and became very hard to hear.   “Blinding acrid smoke…Sir…are you there?”   Another moment of static drowned out the voice.   “The cries, the gut-wrenching cries of our fellow soldiers…just out of reach.”  The voice went silent.  Despite a long wait, it never returned.

Max stared with wide eyes into an endless darkness.  Small tremors took hold of him beginning in his chest until his entire body was shaking.  Someone’s heavy breathing grew louder and louder.  “Hello?  Sir, is that you?Max screamed as he reached into the darkness with both arms, but there was no one there.  Suddenly, a burning orange fountain of light opened up overhead, followed by an earsplitting explosion.  Max shrank to the size of a football.  Twinkling and swirling patterns of red and magenta light flashed through his closed eyes.   Charcoal and sulphur smoke stuck in the back of his throat and, with every breath, he felt his lungs getting smaller.   Is this what dying feels like?  Max wondered, as cold and fatigue crept into his bones.  In the silence that followed, an intense loneliness swept over him.  Max wanted to hear the voice again, to retreat with the other men to the trenches where he might feel safe.  Instead he cried.

Uncontrollably, his body began to sway from side to side in a soothing rhythm.  Comforted at first, like a baby in a rocking bed, Max listened for his mother’s voice.  It wasn’t there, she wasn’t there.  Without warning, Max was shaken up and down, his insides churned into whipped butter.  Blinding flashes of light, loud noises coming from nowhere, and the intense, smothering darkness; it all felt like torture to Max.  His ears began humming.  Tiny wings beating five hundred times per second.  He swatted at the sound, but it only grew louder, until it was hovering right above him.  Suddenly, Max no longer felt cold.  He no longer felt anything.

“Clicka clicka, ticka ticka, tock tock.”  The sound of a thousand hands of time moving at different speeds played in the background to women talking and laughing.  When Max opened his eyes, he was staring into a large factory bathed in light beaming down from hundreds of small, steel-framed windows overhead. Max’s heart pounded with an inescapable urge to jump up and run away.  Instead, his muscles went rigid and heavy, as if all his limbs were made of steel.   Two women dressed in white coveralls, their hair tied in blue scarves, were standing directly in front of him.

Max couldn’t see exactly what they were doing, but they appeared to be assembling or disassembling something that went by on a moving belt.  Again and again they reached into a box and pulled something out, then placed it on the belt.  Max wanted to see what was in the box, but his field of vision was restricted to something like the scope of a gun.

“Can you believe they picked these up on the battlefield?  Some place in Egypt.  Say, isn’t that where the pyramids are?  Doesn’t matter.  If you ask me, I think it’s a shocking waste of time and money carting these silly things all the way back here, for this.”

“There’s a lot of good metal here, Betty, and we need everything we can get right now.  Besides, this is a nice thing we’re doing.”

“Sure, I get that, but did you ever stop to think where these bullets came from?  This bent up one I’m holding right here for instance, maybe it pierced a man’s leg or lung.  Who knows, it could be the one.”

“What?  You mean the one that killed my Johnny?”  As if shot through the heart with horrible news, the woman drew her hands to her chest and cried out.  “How could you?”  The woman darted off, tears streaming down her face.  For a few seconds Betty tried doing the work of two, grabbing shells with both hands and scattering them over the belt.  “Why’d you have to go and open your big mouth, Betty?” she asked herself, as the situation quickly got out of control.  Max watched as dozens of shells flew through the air, a barrage of metallic pings as most of them hit the floor.  With a closed fist Betty punched a large red button above her head, and instantly the machine shut down.  Everything went quiet.

While Betty ran after her colleague, a space opened up.   As far as Max could see, metal shell casings on the conveyor belt and in boxes stacked on floor.   His eyes shifted trying to see more of the space.  It was an industrial setting on a scale Max had never seen before and he wished he could change position to get a better look.

After several minutes the two women returned to their stations.  Though she carried a wadded tissue which she used to dab her nose, the woman who ran off crying was smiling and talking again.   Just as Max thought they would return to work, Betty turned and walked straight towards him.  His instinct was to duck for cover, but he was powerless to move.  Max hoped he was invisible just as Betty stretched out both arms and lifted him into the air.   “When did you get here little fella?”  Max panicked.   “Why, aren’t you smart, all shiny and new.” Max couldn’t breathe.  He wondered what would happen to him now that he’d been discovered?

“What do you think of this, Doll?  It’s supposed to look like a wooden handle carved by hand.  It’s made of that new-fangled plastic.”  As Betty’s friend took hold of his arm, it was clear they weren’t talking about him. Through some kind of fantastic magic, he wasn’t Max anymore.  Somehow, he and the tankard had become one. With a look of sadness, Doll slowly stroked her palm the length of the handle.  With a single finger, she traced along the brass rim, reminiscent of the way Max had explored the tankard earlier.  As she followed the map’s edge, Max could feel every bit of contact, like a spider crawling on his skin.  This cannot be happening!

“Stop Doll, Stop right this minute!”  Max screamed.  He tried to pull away from Doll’s creepy touch, but it was no use.  This is not real.  I am not suppose to be a tankard!  I’m a boy.  My name is Max!  I’m not even supposed to be here!  His attempts to free himself were futile.

Max suddenly stopped resisting.  In the few seconds of calm that followed, he thought he understood what was happening.  Somehow, he was seeing into the past, but more than seeing, he was living it. From Doll’s grip Max could see more of the factory than before.  In the distance other tankards were sitting impassively on shelves that stretched out of sight in both directions. A million thoughts collided in his brain and he fought to make sense of them all. What if he never left the factory?  What if he never saw his family again?  Max was horrified at the idea of spending an eternity on a shelf staring out at the daily happenings of total strangers.

“I think it looks very authentic, it’s got a knobbly crook and the grain of real wood.  I quite like this plastic.  Give me machine-tooled in jolly ol England any day!”  Doll laughed, handing Max over to Betty.  “Another fine product made in-”




“Hey Brother, you in there?” Maggie’s voice came like a thunder clap from beyond the door.  The tankard slipped from Max’s chest and crashed to the floor with a ‘THWACK’.  Ramses, startled by the commotion, jumped to her feet and barked.

The intrusion yanked Max from his magical odyssey and left him out of breath.  Covered in sweat, he felt paralysed, unable to grasp what had just happened to him.   His sleepy eyes darted around the room.  Had he been dreaming?  Or, had the tankard given him a shortcut to some sort of past universe? Max lay there tried to recall every detail.

I was the tankard, I know I was!  Had he travelled to the desert of Alamein?  Was he really in England?  What if he hadn’t been interrupted, would he still be in the factory with Betty and Doll?  Max ignored his sister’s pleas and closed his eyes, becoming lost in the very real possibility that he had just travelled back in time.   

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