We descended a long, rutted track, overgrown with ti-tree, into a valley at the base of a towering escarpment. Nestled amongst the underbrush on the banks of a burbling creek, the little handcrafted stone cottage stood askew – abandoned – bereft.
Vines scrambled over tumbling stone walls, rendering the attached water wheel motionless. The air made thick with insect buzz and chiming bird song. Humidity settled damply on my skin.
Ghosts murmured softly, and I turned expecting to see somebody. No one was there. But I could feel their memories like a soft mantle on my consciousness, just beyond reach. We crossed the threshold, into a dimmed hush, compelling me to whisper. Somehow, I felt we were trespassing, treading on the past, stumbling over someone else’s dreams.
Jewelled parrots sat bathing in light spilling through a window at the end of the room, fooling me for a moment. A stained-glass window remained miraculously intact amid the rubble of a partially collapsed roof.
A closer look around revealed a living space more recently used for storage – old car parts, machinery, building materials. It seemed sacrilegious. Others before me have violated the dreams this place once held.
How tenuous are human aspirations, indeed how tenuous are human lives. The things we leave behind are not just material artifacts but vessels for memories and dreams once held. They tell those who come after, stories of who we were, who we aspired to be. Is it the whole story though?
I took my ten and eight year old grandies to the brilliantly curated Egyptian Mummies exhibition at The Queensland Museum these school holidays. Advanced technology allowed us to see through the swathes of linen wrappings and even desiccated tissue and muscle to their skeletal frames which gave some clues to how they lived, and in some cases, even how they died. Some from arteriosclerosis, some from accidents. The amulets, canopic jars holding organs, and other artifacts that accompanied the bodies, told stories of the social roles they held, what their culture deemed important.
I applied the stone cottage experience to the Egyptian mummies and realised the enormity of what was missing. In fact, it’s the very essence of those who have passed.
You see, I knew the builder of the stone cottage. How he laboured to gather river stones and cut timber to build his dream. I knew the tragic details of his life and the subsequent impact it had on who he was. By that I mean, I was witness to the impact of events on his life, but not necessarily the meanings he attributed to them nor how he made sense of them in the greater scheme of things. How could I know? He left no written records that I know of.
While the scribes of ancient Egypt left records in the form of hieroglyphs or “godly writings”, many are still undecipherable. Those writings on the tomb walls were thought to be accounts of deeds and accomplishments which would ensure the passage of their subjects into the afterlife. Since it was thought only scribes and priests could write, and only those of elevated status could pay them to do so, it’s unlikely we will ever know the inner thoughts of ordinary Egyptian folk.
For all we think we know of those who have passed, their possessions – personal information, social status, official records, even diaries – what they leave us is an imperfect record, it can never be the whole story.
Our essence, our innermost self is largely unknown territory, unknown to most – including ourselves – a quest through time.
There are three things extremely hard: steel, a diamond, and to know one’s self.