The Fifth Cylinder
The afternoon was cold and the sky the colour of spent ash. Thaddeus Barnes stood slowly and felt the temporary vertigo of blood reconsidering where it was most needed. He brushed the red clay from his hands and smoothed the freshly disturbed earth with a dusty boot. The air carried a hint of cedar on its breath. A dog barked in the distance, probably, thought Barnes, the matted and cowed spaniel chained behind the inn he had called home for the past few days.
A hill stood between Barnes and the inn's fire and cloudy beer. He hoisted his shovel to his shoulder and turned his back on the reddened scar on the meadow's yellowed scrub. It looked like the grave of a small animal or a stillborn child. A grave without a headstone, or mourners, or the rote and holy words muttered by a jaded priest.
A few feet below lay a metal cylinder, handtooled by Barnes from copper and bronze and sealed with an alloyed solder. The metals would resist the water, ice and vermin it would be subjected to in the seasons that would unfold above ground. Barnes had made six of these containers, identical except for the piece of key each held inside. He did not know how long they would need to sleep beneath the tundra, muskeg and permafrost that held them captive. He pushed his way up the hill, towards the inn, the incline taxing his legs as though gravity increased here.
It was the fifth time he had buried a cylinder, the fifth time he had carefully made note of a location on his topographical map. The fifth time he said his own godless prayer.
The dog's bark was louder, more insistent now, as though it had picked up an urgent scent on the slow, cooling air. The effort of climbing drained Barnes. He was not a young man, nor was he so old that this simple exercise should be such a burden on his legs and lungs. He was, he knew, just a sick man, not so many months away from resting beneath his own long scar on the earth.
"Did you have a good ramble?" the innkeeper asked, as Barnes scrapped the ruddy clay from his boots.
"Indeed, Mr. Jenkins."
Jenkins noticed that the rucksack over Barnes lacked the oblong bulge he had seen there when his guest had left a few hours ago. And then there was the spade the gentleman had quietly returned to the potting shed after he tossed a bit of sandwich to the inn's dog to quiet him. "You'll be wanting supper soon, I expect," the innkeeper said.
"I have some paperwork to attend to first," replied Barnes. "I will be in my room for an hour or two. I would appreciate no interruption. Then I shall take my meal at your fine fire."
Barnes climbed the stairs to his sparse and simple room, his legs again complaining about the slight exertion.
He opened the locked door of his room and noted that the black thread he had attached with balsam gum to either side of the doorjam had been pulled from its weak mooring. Barnes smiled to himself.
He tossed his rucksack on his bed, tugged off his boots and let his body descend heavily on the rough blanket and yielding mattress. The dark shellac on the wooden ceiling was peeling and was blackened in places with age and the smoke of a countless cigars and pipes. Barnes let his eyes close slowly as the exhaustion seemed to leech into the covers beneath him.
No sleep now, he told himself. He snapped his eyes open. He sat up and retrieved the topographical map from his rucksack. He laid it out on a rough desk beside the room's only window and opened the curtains to let the failing light spread itself around the whirls and contours that now filled the desktop. He checked the figures in his notebook again, the latitude and longitude of burial. The where, but not the why in two strings of digits.
He turned to the carpet bag he had brought with him and retrieved a second notebook, this one already filled with pages of grids, strings of characters, drawings in his own hand and enigmatic snippets of text. It was deeper in the bag than Barnes remembered. "Mr. Jenkins," thought Barnes, "you were curious, but, I suspect, none the wiser."
Barnes opened the notebook to a fresh page and carefully devised a new set of clues that would resolve to the location of the cylinder he had just committed to the earth.
An hour earlier Jenkins had indeed found the notebook, intrigued by his well-spoken guest. He could make no sense of the letters and numbers he found, page after page. Perhaps, he thought, this gentleman is a spy or is burying a treasure hereabouts. If he goes out again, Jenkins thought, I will follow him, and take my own spade.
It was two hours before the deep, dark ache in Barnes back told him he must stop. At any rate, he had finished all but the final cipher. Before he went downstairs he reset the thread and stepped over it. Jenkins brought him his meal of venison stew and warm beer as Barnes settled into a chair beside the hearth.
"Is the room to your liking, sir?" asked Jenkins.
"Companionable," said Barnes, looking Jenkins in the eye. The innkeeper left quietly. Outside the inn's spaniel howled into the cold sky lit by a spray of stars. Barnes stared into the fire. You must do this one last time, he thought. He emptied his plate, finished the last of his beer and slept until the fire burned down to spent ash.