by Amy Denton
Enjoy this never before published 4th of July short story with a touch of mystery to it.
“Bride of the Rat God?” I asked Michael Beinecke, eying him across the low bookshelf that separated us.
“Absolutely,” Michael replied, disappearing from view for a few moments then reappearing with a handful of sodden paper that he stuffed in a trash bag. “This is disgusting.”
I nodded in agreement. “It could be worse, though.”
“Dare I ask how?”
“The college could’ve burned to the ground, and we’d have nothing left.” I swiped errant strands of hair off my sweaty forehead.
“Bite your tongue.” I wrestled a load of ruined books into a trash bag. “You’re serious? Bride of the Rat God is a real book?”
“By Barbara Hambly. It’s classic fantasy. You should see the looks on my student’s faces when they realize I’m totally serious about them reading it.”
Michael taught freshman English, and I taught freshman History. My name is Abbie Simmons, and we both work at Obadiah Starbuck Community College on Nantucket Island, thirty miles off the coast of Massachusetts. OSCC was tiny, a satellite campus of Massachusetts State University, created to serve those who worked in the tourist industry.
The campus consisted of one very large building, a supermarket in a past life, and two smaller buildings that held the administrative offices. One of the fire department stations was literally across the parking lot. That was a blessing that no one at OSCC realized until the main building caught fire last night and might have burned to the ground had the fire department not been so close.
As it was, the main building had suffered massive water and smoke damage and no classes were going to held in it for the foreseeable future, including our part in the 4th of July celebration, two weeks away. We couldn’t think about that now. Every faculty member, adjunct and full time, administrative member, and as many students could get off work had come to the campus to help clean up the building and what had been destroyed by fire, smoke, or water. All utilities were shut off and had been since last night. Portable lights powered by generators allowed us to see what we were doing. The building was structurally sound, the fire marshal had assured us, it just wasn’t very pleasant to be in at that moment.
“You have them read it because?”
“So they can see that not all literature is boring. We cover the classics, of course, but there’s more to English Lit than James Joyce and Charles Dickens.”
I did not reply. I was busy wiping the sweat out of my eyes. Nantucket had a very temperate climate, during the summer all you had to do was open the windows and get a breeze going. Unfortunately, there were no windows and no breezes. It was warm, water logged, and more damp and sticky than usual. Part of our clean out was to stop the spread of mold over everything that had gotten wet; time was of the essence because mold was the enemy of any archivist.
“I can feel you judging my reading assignments from over here,” Michael said, with a smirk.
I shook my head. “It’s none of my business what your students read. You’re not in my department. I’m all for having the students read something that might interest them while reading. I have mine reading Craig Johnson and Tony Hillerman. They both give an excellent view of modern day Native American—Caucasian relations.”
Michael nodded, and we continued our soggy, messy work. I was so completely going to need a shower after the cleanup. Maybe I could just get Kelley, my husband, to hose me down before I went inside.
“Hey guys…break time! Come breathe some clean air.” A volunteer called to us from the doorway.
Stepping outside, I turned my face upward, closed my eyes, and let the breeze blow across me. Fresh air was right. I felt slightly more human after that. I pulled off my work gloves and joined the others at a couple of folding tables that had been salvaged from the building. Stop’N’Shop, the local grocery store, had donated bottled water and sandwiches. People sat wherever they could. I helped myself, then joined Michael on the curb. The rest of my department, and Michael’s, were in the back of the building.
“Professor Simmons! Professor Simmons! You aren’t going to believe what we found. Jackson, come on!” Rebecca Swanson, a younger student, came pelting around the corner of the building, followed by Jackson Woodland, another student. He held a rectangular box in his hands.
I cast a look at Michael and stood up. Jackson, a tall, gangly young man, came to a halt in front of me and thrust the box into my hands. I looked down at the box. It appeared to be made out of metal, its lid held closed by a lock of some kind.
“I think it’s a time capsule!” Rebecca said.
“We found it under the back porch.” Jackson said.
“Please tell me you didn’t crawl under the building,” I said. There was a crawl space at the very back of the building for access to the utilities, to call it a ‘porch’ would be more than charitable.
“No. It was sticking out of the ground. Jackson grabbed it, and we came looking for you,” Rebecca said. “How do we get it open? We tried forcing the lock, but it wouldn’t budge.”
Michael and a couple of other volunteers came over, and we studied the lock together. It appeared simple enough. A long piece of metal passed through the hasp, then back and around, forming a U.
“What’s the box made out of?” A man on my right asked.
“Be right back. I’ve got a pair of tin snips.”
“Tin?” Michael asked.
“It’s not heavy enough to be iron or steel.”
The man returned, tin snips in hand. I held the box out to him, and he very carefully removed the lock. I opened the box and saw three tightly wrapped cylinders, covered in oilcloth.
“I told you, it’s a time capsule,” Rebecca said, breaking the silence. “Let me hold it while you take the stuff out.”
Taking my time, I took the first cylinder, unrolled it and squinted. It was written in a cursive I could barely read, only partially because the ink was so faded.
“Let me see it,” Michael said. I handed it to him.
I unrolled the second cylinder and felt my mouth drop open.
“It’s..it’s a copy of the Declaration of Independence,” I paused, my mouth going dry. “I think it’s real, not a reproduction.” My hands shaking by then, I unrolled the last cylinder. “It’s a copy of the Constitution.”
“No way,” Jackson blurted out.
“Seriously? Are they real?” Rebecca asked.
“I don’t know, I think so. Michael, what do you have?”
“Looks like a letter, written by the person who put these things in this box, and it’s dated 1784.”
Everyone started talking at once, Rebecca and Jackson started bouncing up and down and I tried to get my brain to start working.
“Everyone! Hush!” I managed. Silence fell instantly. “Someone go find Dean Folger and President Garnett, they’re here somewhere, I’ve seen them. And someone else, call the National Archives in D.C. I think we just found our 4th of July exhibit.”
* * * * *
Zachariah Weatherford. That was a name we all got to know real well, and personally, it is a name I will never forget. He was the person who put the documents in the box all those years ago. We’re still trying to figure out why he chose to bury the documents where he did, how they managed to stay hidden for so long, and how they remained intact. The mystery of why he had copies of both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution was explained through the letter he had thoughtfully included.
Mr. Weatherford, originally from Boston, Massachusetts, had secured the position of server during the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia. He brought drinks to the delegates, he cleaned up after them, he listened to them, and when the Declaration was signed and sent off to the printers to be made into broadsides, he got a copy for himself. In 1783, when the Constitutional Convention was held in Philadelphia, he was able to get a job as server again. Again, after the Constitution was sent to the printers, he got a copy. He didn’t know if the Constitution would be ratified, but after it was, he made the box, put the documents in, and where ever he moved, it came with him.
He died on March 12, 1826, on Nantucket, leaving behind a wife and two adult sons. A genealogist from the Nantucket Historical Society tracked the family down through the generations, only to discover the last remaining descendant of Zachariah Weatherford had died in 1918 during the Spanish Flu epidemic.
Everyone who was there that day became minor celebrities, for a while anyway. We all had our pictures splashed across many, many newspapers, including Nantucket’s own Inquirer and Mirror. We made the front page, all of us still covered in dirt and soot, standing there holding the box and the documents. Of all the pictures that were taken, that one was my husband, Kelley’s, favorite. Myself? The biggest find of my entire career, and I look like I was pulled through a chimney backwards.
The copies were authenticated by the National Archives and the National Center of the American Revolution. We even had someone from the F.B.I’s Art Crime Team come and see if the documents were authentic. They were. It’s hard to get experts to agree on anything; on this, they did. The paper and the ink were from the right time frame, and there was a watermark from the printer. The crowning glory of all the attention we received was being able to display the documents in the main hall of the historical society’s headquarters for the 4th of July celebration.
They were whisked away after that, up to Boston, and then to Washington, D.C. Nantucket may see them again someday in the future, but I wouldn’t count on it. Being that the original owner had no living descendants, ownership went first to the State of Massachusetts, then to the federal government. It didn’t really matter to me. I had held the box and both of the founding documents of the United States of America. It didn’t get any better than that for me.
Two days after the 4th of July celebration was over and the media attention died away, I sat on the back deck of the house Kelley and I shared, watched the sun set and toasted Zachariah Weatherford. Because of him, I had had the most exciting two weeks of my life and my career.
“So, what’s on tap for next week?” Kelley asked, as he sat down next to me, beer in hand. “Finding the Holy Grail or the Ark of the Covenant?”
“Honey, don’t you know? The Ark of the Covenant is hidden away in some government warehouse. And I think Indiana Jones kept the Holy Grail,” I grinned. “I’ve made my mark in the world. I’m good.”
“Oh, well. I was just getting used to being famous,” Kelley made a face and snorted.
“Poor guy. I’ll keep you in mind the next time someone hands me an ancient, beaten up metal box.”
“To Zachariah Weatherford.” I held up my glass of wine, and we toasted Mr. Weatherford one last time.
I have always loved being a history teacher. I tell my students history is the best soap opera out there, but no one’s paying attention. The past two weeks were the best possible example of my statement. I had touched history, held it in my hands. I couldn’t wait to see what else was out there, just waiting to be found and brought into the light of day.
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