“Good evening,” asked the young man with a few raps on the open office door, “Professor Wheeler, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” said the professor sitting at his desk in a small pool of somber lamplight.
“May I have a moment of your time?”
“It’s been a bit of a rough day. Tomorrow might be better.”
“I understand it has been a rough day for you. You see, I’m Rabbi Lochel. I studied under Rabbi Roseman.”
The professor rose from his desk and walked earnestly to shake the hand of the young Rabbi, “I’m sorry. How is Rabbi Roseman?”
“I’m sorry to say…he’s passed away. A few hours ago.”
“Oh dear, that’s terrible. I’m so very sorry. I had hoped the speed with which the paramedics arrived here this morning would have made a difference. I feel just awful I couldn’t do anything more.”
“Don’t put any blame on yourself, professor. Rabbi Roseman suffered from a well-known heart condition. He’d had cardiac events before.”
“I wish I’d known. My work tends to make people very excitable.”
“I was wondering why the Rabbi was here today. He mentioned he was coming to the Institute, but he did not tell me any of the details as to why.”
“I sought him out to translate a bit of Aramaic. There are few people one might call upon in these parts with an ear for a Galilean dialect of an all but dead ancient language.”
“Yes, he was the foremost expert in this part of the world. With him gone, I suppose that title falls now to me.”
“You speak Aramaic?”
“I told you, I studied under Rabbi Roseman.”
With a new energy in his eyes, the professor asked, “Perhaps, you could help finish the work he started?”
“I suppose I could try. What is it you need translated?”
“Follow me,” said the professor.
The men walked across the campus to a building with no windows. The professor punched in a security code and they entered. At the end of a long hallway they entered a dark room. The professor flipped on the lights revealing a laboratory bordered with stainless steel tables covered in a series of electron microscopes attached to computers. A table in the center of the room held dozens of small foam-lined boxes, each containing small bits of broken pottery. The professor held out a piece of broken pottery, “These are what I need you to translate.”
The young Rabbi took it in his hand and examined it.
“But – I don’t see any writing on this?”
“No, none of these artifacts has writing on it.”
“I don’t understand. What’s there to translate?”
“The voices within.”
“I still don’t understand.”
“I know you’re young, Rabbi, but have you ever listened to a vinyl record?”
“Yes, my older brother has a rather impressive collection of vintage Beatles albums.”
“Then, you understand how the needle picks up and reproduces the vibrations left by the artists’ voices and instruments in the original recordings?”
“It turns out these pieces of clay work in somewhat the same way. Patterns of sound vibrations can be captured in the molecules of clay while it is drying.”
“You’re kidding me?”
“No, sir. It took us the better part of a decade to program these computers to read the vibration patterns set into the molecules of dried clay. We mastered making our own recordings in clay first, then used what we learned to attempt to read much older samples. It’s been the work of a lifetime. I’m a historian at heart, but to hear the voices of the past, I had to learn how molecular science and a hefty bit of computer programming as well.”
“Do you mean to tell me that every clay pot I’ve ever see in a museum is actually a recording of people from the past?”
“Not necessarily. I wish it were that easy. Most pieces of pottery speak nothing to us. The recording conditions and preservation have to be absolutely perfect. Wet clay being worked by its potter still has time for the vibration patterns to settle out. Clay that’s too dry won’t vibrate at all. We can only pull recordings from clay pots that were in the perfect, shall I say, ‘Goldie locks state.”
“A person spoke just as a gust of wind dried the surface of a pot made a few hours prior, left to dry in the sun, and such?” offered the Rabbi.
“Precisely, that circumstance would certainly stand to reason. We hear the wind blowing and leaves rustling in most of the recordings we’ve pulled so far. Also, there are other challenges. The recordings are only captured on the surface level, so if a piece of pottery is used too much, and lives a long lifespan, the recording is worn off by repeated handling. Most of the recordings we’ve found have been on pieces of crockery that look to have been broken early on in their usefulness and discarded in refuse piles.”
“Still, there must be millions of pieces of excavated pottery sitting in museums around the world!” exclaimed the excited Rabbi.
“I told you my work has the potential to make people excitable. You don’t have a heart condition do you?”
“No, but I might soon, as fast as it’s now racing.”
“Well, calm down and take a deep breath. Most of my work is dull and boring. You are right that countless pieces of pottery fragments have been found by archeologists. So many that, although thousands of years old, most have little value. These here,” the professor motioned to the small foam-lined boxes on the table, “were practically worthless until I discovered my technique. These few dozen represent the best of the recordings we have yet found. But each of these represents about three thousand pieces we’ve searched with nothing of any relevance on it. Most pieces have nothing. Bad ones have really faint sounds. On the good ones, you’ll here the chirp of a bird, the bark of a dog, the cry of a goat or a whinny of a horse – maybe even the sound of a carpenter or blacksmith with a hammer. The best ones,” he motioned his arm across the table, “make all the toiling searches worth the effort.”
“May I please hear one.”
“One? Rabbi, you may hear them all if you wish. It’s the only way I’ll ever know what’s on them. I told you, to get this far I had to learn history, molecular science and computer programming. Learning every language of every dead culture is a bridge too far, even for me. I think it’s best I subcontract this part of my work.”
“Did Rabbi Roseman get to hear any?”
“Yes, several of them – before he collapsed.”
“May I start with the ones he heard?”
“That would be perfect. I was sort of left hanging on the result of a very curious ancient conversation.”
The professor pulled a small, almost heart-shaped, piece of crockery from under the nearest electron-microscope. He placed it gently back in its box. He picked up one a few spaces over and placed it under the microscope. “This one seems to be the beginning,” said the professor.
He started up the program on the computer and turned on the adjacent speaker. A ghostly, grainy voice of a woman filled the room. The young Rabbi, in shock, covered his smile with his hand as tears came to his eyes. “That’s extraordinary,” he gasped through his fingers.
“Yes, a real voice from past; around two thousand years, judging from where the pottery was found.”
“I still can’t believe it,” said the Rabbi.
“And, I still can’t understand it.”
“Oh, right,” said the Rabbi, as he listened closer. “It seems to be two women. My guess is a mother and a daughter. They are talking about a census and the levy of new taxes, I think.”
“Some things never change,” laughed the professor.
“It’s extraordinary – the dialect – there’s so much I’ve been pronouncing incorrectly.”
The voices cut out.
“What happened?” asked the young Rabbi.
“That’s all that’s on this piece.”
“Because it’s broken?”
“No. It doesn’t work exactly like a record. Instead of going round and round the surface, the vibrations are recorded inward from the surface. It is the same on every surface of the clay. I could break that piece in two and it would play the same message. The depth of the vibrations tends to stop at half a millimeter in depth. Most recordings end around twenty seconds. Thirty-two seconds is the longest we’ve found.”
The professor removed the played piece and replaced it with another, somewhat similar in color and size. The voices returned and the Rabbi pressed his ear to the speaker.
“It would seem it’s the same two women. The mother doesn’t seem to be too happy. Her daughter is crying. The daughter’s name is Mary.”
The Rabbi’s eyes grew abnormally wide and he jolted his body upright from the speaker. “The Mother…”
“Yes,” asked the professor.
“The Mother is angry that Mary is pregnant out of wedlock.” The Rabbi took a shallow breath. “The Mother scolded, ‘Taken by an Angel? It’s the oldest excuse in the book.'”
The professor grabbed the Rabbi’s shoulders to steady him and smiled, “Rabbi Roseman interpreted the very same scolding.”
“It can’t be!,” cried Rabbi Lochel. “I’m sure it’s simply a coincidence. I’ve heard that excuse was widespread in that era. The Mother herself said, ‘It’s the oldest excuse in the book.'”
“Maybe, but there’s more,” said the professor. “All these clay shard were excavated from the same refuse pile.”
“Please, play another.”
The professor placed a smaller piece than the others under the microscope and started the program. The sound of a breeze played, carrying upon it the joyous laughter of a small child. At the end of the recording, the older women’s voice returned briefly.
“What did she say? asked the professor.
“She simply said, ‘Wonderous child – bastard or not.'”
“Another?” asked the professor.
The professor removed the previous shard and replaced it with the one that resembled a heart-shape.
“I feel it only proper to tell you, this is the one Rabbi Roseman was translating when he collapsed. He translated half of it, but never made it to the end. Are you ready?”
The professor started the program. It was the two women’s voices again. They were calm and loving. The child could again be heard laughing in the background.
“The Mother is telling her daughter that she is glad that she is now married, but that she almost could believe the child was not of a mortal man. She’s calling the child over by the name… Jesus!”
The pale Rabbi pulled a chair over and sat down. The sound of footsteps followed by rapid kisses from the Grandmother upon some unseen cheek could be heard on the speaker. The Grandmother spoke again.
The young Rabbi translated, ” So much peace and love in a Child. And, who will care in a thousand years that you are a bastard?”
The boy’s soft voice cut her off, “Careful Grandmother,” the Rabbi interpreted the words, “men will hear you and judge you.”
“‘What men?’ asked the Grandmother.”
The young Rabbi’s eyes bulged and he shook as he listened to the boys answer. He made the ‘sign of the cross’ with his hand over his head, heart and shoulders.
“This is where Rabbi Roseman collapsed,” cried the professor. “Damn it! What did the boy say?”
The young Rabbi looked at the professor incredulously and said, “He said, ‘The men in the clay pots.'”