Elsa turned to me and giggled, wondering if this peculiar behavior were for her amusement. I let out an awkward laugh. I had never known Granddad to handle a first impression like this.
Mom wordlessly watched from the window for what seemed like ages before trudging out to him. As she coaxed him to his feet, he seemed embarrassed to be caught playing a game of discovery he should have outgrown some sixty-odd years ago.
We returned to sit in the living room. Granddad apologized. He said he did not know what came over him, but he felt strangely curious about what could be buried in the yard. After a pause, Elsa spoke. She shared a story about her graduate research as Granddad only nodded vaguely. I saw Elsa’s shoulders slump in disappointment.
In a while, Granddad excused himself for a drink of water. When he had not returned after a few minutes, we looked out of the kitchen window to find him digging again, this time with a shovel. I don’t know what possessed him, but he must have thought it a thing worth discovering, something he wanted to unearth for the world before he too went the way of burial.
I knew Elsa felt awkward, so I invited her to the coffee shop. We spent a few hours making each other laugh and enjoying each other’s company. I don’t remember whose idea it was to go back home. Probably hers. That was often the case. She was more restless than I, so she usually decided when we left. But I cannot remember.
Elsa. If I had known that would be our last time alone, I would have memorized every word, every moment, every breath.
A throng had gathered in the driveway when we returned. I parked, and Granddad rapped on the car window and pointed beyond the crowd. We pushed through until we stood on the precipice of what now was the pit of his backyard.
The exhumed wall jutted diagonally from our house, presumably facing an ancient road which ran at an acute angle to modern ones arbitrarily formed a few centuries ago.
I asked Granddad how he managed to excavate the site in a single afternoon. He gave a puzzled look and replied, “Was that really all?”
The wall must have served as the entrance of a modest mansion. Small half-moon windows adorned the second story while rectangular windows extended from the first story’s ceiling to its floor. The house had three sections, judging by the markings that vanished archways had left on the back of the wall.
Elsa pointed out differences in coloring between the sections barely visible in the setting sun. Although the colors had faded with age, the far right section appeared to be painted greenish, the middle section blue, and the left section the shade of white of Puritan churches.
A man pushed through the crowd and climbed into the pit to get closer to the wall. Granddad rushed to meet him. I tugged on Elsa’s arm as we went to get a closer look.
I recognized the man as our town’s historian, who stored and kept every record this town ever made. He was also its gravedigger.
Granddad pressed the historian for information, but he had none ready to give. He kept records dating back five hundred years. To his knowledge, none of them accounted for this structure.
The historian knelt by the rightmost section of the wall and pulled away ivy. There was some sort of drawing – I could not tell whether the faded ink formed letters or an ornate design.
“I recognize this pattern,” the historian muttered, fixing his pale blue eyes on the artwork. “I have seen drawings of a fleur-de-lis like this in books, but never in person.” A small smile formed on his face in awe for the preservation of something so old, but the smile suddenly vanished. His eyes flickered. I thought at first he had had an epiphany and remembered which records to consult for more information. Looking back, I think he wondered how this image was preserved. I think he knew what was coming and was selfish enough to leave without warning anyone. We all asked him what the pattern could mean, but he shared not a word with anyone as he left the yard and walked home.
Granddad followed him, as did many of the crowd, trying to coax an explanation. Elsa and I joined in, due more to curiosity than fear. He remained silent.
Granddad voiced his frustration but determined to interrogate the historian the next day. We went to our separate rooms for the night, per my family’s arrangement.
I slept soundly enough but abruptly awoke before sunrise, as I sometimes do. The only light, save the glow of my alarm clock, came from a yellowish flicker at the window.
I remained frozen for a few minutes in wonder but forced myself to the window. A girl I had never seen knelt in the dirt before the left side of the wall, her head bowed as though in prayer. She held a candle whose dim light danced off the white paint of the old wall. She wore only a thin nightdress but seemed unaffected by the cold. I made up my mind to help her. I could not think what anyone would be doing outside at night. Of course vagabonds occasionally roamed through, but this girl did not look older than thirteen. Somehow I knew her reason for being there was born of desperation.
By the time I reached the yard the girl was gone, but she had left the candle near the wall, and its flame still flickered. I approached the spot where she had knelt and picked up her candle.
The candleholder was not like any I had seen before. Its pewter base resembled a snowflake with hand-etched patterns adorning every inch. It had been made with an artistry and a craftsmanship no longer taught; indeed, signs of corrosion confirmed its age. The candle itself looked rough and misshapen, as though the wax had been hand-dipped. The makeshift candle did not fit perfectly into its base and in fact arose crookedly.
I knelt where the girl had knelt, extinguished the candle, and left it for her where I had found it.
As I entered the house, a light flickered behind me. I turned to see the candle relit, yet there was no sign of the girl. I ran towards the candle and called for her.
I reached the wall and found myself standing not on dirt but on a rug. A small round cushion replaced the spot where the girl knelt. I looked towards the two other sections of the wall. The once empty half-moon windows now held thick panes of soda glass. Solid oak archways grew from the marked partitions of the wall. Suddenly I noticed the girl, standing just in front of the cushion. She had her back to me and stood with her hands folded. I blew out the candle and in an instant the windows lost their glass and the archways and furniture vanished.
The girl spun to face me, watching me through sunken eyes. The lace of her nightgown was threadbare. I wanted to speak but could not make a sound. I dropped the candle and hurried back to the house, locking the door behind me.
Outside there was no sign of the girl, and I cannot be sure I saw the candle either. The house was noiseless. I bound up the stairs towards Elsa’s room. She slept soundly, and I did not say anything to wake her. I wish, in retrospect, I had, but I thought I had simply imagined the whole thing. It took me a while to fall asleep again, but I slept through to morning.
I awoke a little after nine, even though I remember setting my alarm. For some reason it was switched off.
I peered at the wall from the window. There was no sign of the girl or her candle or of anything that occurred the night before. I headed for Elsa’s room, imagining the confused smile on her face when she learned of the phantasm.
Her bed was made and her pajamas were folded over the pillow. I called her name as I went downstairs but heard no response. I called for Mom as I sprinted to her room, then for Granddad as I sprinted for his. No response. No sign of them.
I paced around the living room and glanced at the clock: nearly half past nine. I could fathom no reason why they would have left the house without me. My last desperate thought was that they had gone to Granddad’s favorite restaurant for breakfast and saw fit to let me sleep.
Few people were on the streets near the restaurant. I turned the familiar corner, and then –
A stone tower, maybe three stories tall, occupied its place. A man stood guard on the roof. My jaw dropped and I did not move a muscle until someone accidentally nudged my shoulder. I turned to apologize but he instead stared coldly. He wore a blue tunic and I a hoodie and jeans. At least I was familiar with his style of clothing from books and such, but he had no way of relating to mine. He muttered something in a foreign tongue. Without reply, I bowed my head and turned the corner for home, instead plowing headfirst into the green sleeve of a woman carrying a basket of flowers. I retreated a step and raised my hands in apology, but she met me with the same icy stare. My gaze switched to the girl whose hand she held. It was the same girl I had seen the night before, though she now wore a frilled purple dress. Her bright green eyes were anything but sunken and they beheld me neither with coldness nor wonder, but with an understanding. She recognized me as an outcast.
I averted my eyes and hurried home, pinching myself repeatedly. I returned to Granddad’s house with my eyes shut tight, convincing myself that when I opened them I would be in the present again.
When I looked, I beheld not my home but the house with half-moon windows. The archways again jutted out of the wall and spread as the roof grew over them. I watched as the last parts of the wall and the cornerstone regenerated, the finishing touches of a reproduction completed seven years ago today.
At first I wished I had read more history books or learned more languages. I racked my brain for anything that might have prepared me for this, for some trick I might remember that I could use to fit in. Then I accepted there was nothing I could have done. I am as nameless to them as they are to me. Possibly more so, I have realized. There is no remnant of me these people could possibly dig up or find, no book they could read or movie they could watch about my customs and way of life. Time, that artificial and incomprehensible construct, has made us mutually unknowable. Yet all I can do is let the clock tick and hope time will carry me home.