Christ Died on Film
Christ Died on Film
At the far end of the deep, bookshelf-lined room, a wide, oak desk stood sentry over an enormous picture window. Through the thick panes of glass, a blue-black sky marked night’s meridian. Time was already beginning to melt away and none of them had noticed. Kit, Tom, and Magdalena didn’t notice that Jay and Meridith weren’t with them when they entered what must be a library. None of the books on the shelves resembled the kind of books they might have found in their town library or on some rare occasion they entered a bookstore.
“Kinda feels like someone else’s house,” Tom said as his foot lingered at the threshold of the cavernous room.
“It feels different, too,” Magdalena took Tom’s statement one step further.
“Some of those books are really old,” Kit said.
“What do you mean?” Magdalena asked.
“Isn’t that just the dust and grime?” Tom wondered.
“Look at those spines. That doesn’t look like something mass produced by a machine.” Kit took the first step into the room. He edged over to one wall and wiped his hand through the cake of sediment. “These books have been stitched by hand.” He slowly pulled the cover away from the first page and listened to the sound of the ancient paper snap and blister. “Come see,” Kit said.
The other two watched the spaces behind them as they drifted into the room.
“Look at this printing,” Kit said.
The language was indecipherable even though the letters resembled an alphabet they knew since childhood. The craftsmanship of each turn of a line confounded their interpretation.
“What do you think they are?” Magdalena said.
Kit studied the shelf. He squinted in the gloom as he tried to make out a single word on one of the spines. “I think some of them are occult books. Some of the symbols tooled on the leatherwork lead me to believe they are about satan.”
Magdalena wandered along the bookshelf touching books at random as though the feeling of distinct works might provide some clue to what hides inside.
Tom noticed the track running along the top of the bookshelf first. He followed the track around the room until he landed on the ladder that scaled the stacks. He crossed the room and took a hold of the ladder and moved it one way and then back the other testing the security of the apparatus. No one knew how long it had been left dormant and he didn’t want it to come crashing down on him the moment he stepped onto it. In the dim hue only lit by the milky stands of moonlight he could make out a shimmering gold bound book on a high shelf. It must have been six inches wide. He wondered how much something like that would weigh. He had never seen a golden book before, and he couldn’t pass up touching it.
“Holy crap,” he said from the top of the ladder.
Kit spun on his heels. “How did you get up there?” His eyes hadn’t yet focused on the ladder that was the same color wood as the shelf and at the right angle, it vanished into the background. “That’s weird. How did you see that ladder?”
“This weighs like fifty pounds.”
Kit rushed across the room to stand below the ladder in case Tom crashed under the strain of the gilded tome. “Can you lower it down to me?” Kit asked.
“What are you guys doing over there?” Magdalena had made her way to the enormous desk and the rest of the room was now engulfed in darkness. The sallow light from the window was more pronounced on that side of the room which lengthened the shadows throughout. Now she couldn’t make them out where they stood by the ladder and the shelves.
“It’s really a beautiful book,” Kit said.
Tom rested it against his chest to alleviate the weight from his arms. He leaned back as he carefully moved one foot to the next rung of the ladder.
“Can you lower it to me?”
“Give me just a second to get another stepdown.”
Once he dropped two rungs, Tom was able to pass the book down to Kit.
“This is something,” Kit said.
When Tom planted both feet on the floor, he took one end of the book from Kit, and the two boys moved in tandem across the room to where the desk awaited to take the burden of the manuscript.
Magdalena studied the carvings on the desk. She had been trying to decipher the image for several minutes. Now she had determined they were mermaids with sweeping strands of tangled hair. They were swimming up the legs of the desk as though they were tubes of ocean water. She couldn’t decide if each mermaid was posted on all four legs as protection for the desk's contents or a threat. She remembered a myth from childhood that claimed mermaids tempted sailors into the ocean to drown.
It was once she worked her way around to the front of the desk to see if the carverings were uniform that she found a small, silver box on the floor tucked under the space where the person sitting at the desk would place their legs. On the front of the box was a small lock. She moved the lock around with her hand to test its security.
“What do you think this is?” Tom asked.
Kit ran his fingers along the smooth engravings etched into the gold plate. There were two straps of leather that held the three pieces of solid gold together with hand-tooled pins. A cover, the back, and a beveled section to hold the spine in place. The craftsmanship was unparalleled.
“There’s a locked box down here,” Magdalena explained from under the desk.
Magdalena examined the lock on the chest. By the look of the mechanism, it was a rather simple lock. The kind of lock that only required a skeleton key. There was no combination. From the shape of the lock and the tarnished veneer of the steel, it was clearly quite old. She examined the latch the lock had been used to seal. The material that made up the latch didn’t appear particularly sturdy or impervious. It would be easy enough to break. However, the more she studied the chest the more details she noticed. The craftsmanship was beautiful. The idea of destroying it in order to discover what secrets lay inside felt thuggish even downright Philistine.
Kit unstrapped the leather that was pegged to the front of the book to prevent it from spilling open. Inside the material that formed the pages did not feel like paper. It was thick and heavy. The letters that stamped out the words were designed in a variety of colors. He passed brilliantly rendered paintings dispersed throughout the pages of indecipherable text. Then he fell upon a page with a shimmering Star of David igniting a shimmering night sky with white light. In a distant corner of the page was Mary haloed in gold and the baby Jesus sleeping on a bed of hay in a crude wooden trough. Joseph did not stand in his usual posture over Mary’s shoulder beaming with pride over his infant son as was common for these depictions. Instead, he hovered at the edge of the manger peering out into the vast night as though preparing to flee the idyllic scene. On the far side of the painting from the Nativity Scene approached the fabled Wise Men bearing gifts. Kit knew the story in the infinitesimal way school children learned the Christmas story. He knew enough to know that the common account was that three Wise Men arrived bearing gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But in this painting, four Wise Men marched on the baby Jesus. Kit leaned in close to the painting. He wanted to get a better look at this out of place character.
“What do you see?” Tom said.
“I’m not sure,” Kit said.
The fourth Wise Men held a strange contraption in his hand. The others held precious boxes adorned with splendid jewels. But the man who didn’t belong in the painting held something very different. His hand grasped a cylinder that propped up around a carousel of sorts with small squares carved of equal size and distribution from one another.
“I wish the light was better.”
“You think,” Tom said. “I can barely see my own hand half the time.
“Have you ever heard of a zoetrope?”
“In the early days when they were trying to figure out how to make movies, they made several attempts to create a moving image. One of those inventions was called a zoetrope. It was a round contraption with squares cut out of it at even intervals. Inside the frame they would place a sequence of pictures. For instance a galloping horse. Someone would take pictures of each stride of a race horse. They would put those pictures together in the proper order and affix them inside the zoetrope. Then when the machine was spun with a light shining down inside it would create the illusion of a horse moving. It was the first instance of moving pictures or what would eventually be called motion pictures and then finally movies.”
“Well that sounds cool,” Tom said. “But what does it have to do with a painting of Jesus’ birth.”
“Look at this,” Kit said. He pointed to the four Wise Men in the corner of the painting under the piercing shafts of light firing out of the Star of David.
“What am I looking at?”
“There are too many men.”
“There are?” Tom leaned closer to the page. “That’s right, I remember the song. Three Wise Men.”
“What are you guys babbling about up there?” Magdalena called from under the desk.
“Some painting,” Tom said. “Apparently there are too many men in this painting we found of Jesus.”
“It’s like a picture of when Jesus was born.”
“I thought those were occult books?”
“Some of them are for sure,” Kit said. “But it appears this guy had a wide span of interests. But I’m trying to explain to Tom how it looks like one of these guys in the first century Jerusalem is carrying the prototype for movie making.”
“Is that even possible?” Tom said.
“No,” Kit said. “No, it is not even possible.”
“Doesn’t it seem strange,” Magdalena said, “that the only thing locked up in this entire house is one box under the guy’s desk?”
“What do you mean?”
“Have you seen a lock on anything around this place?” She reiterated.
“I guess I wasn’t really paying attention,” Tom said.
“Is it big enough for a film reel?” Kit asked.
“I’ve never seen a film reel. How big are they?”
“I think an average reel holds thirty-five feet of film.”
“I honestly don’t know what that means,” Magdalena admitted. “I have no idea how big something would have to be to hold that much film.”
Tom worked his way around to the backside of the desk where the drawers were accessible. “Why would someone put their back to this view?” He glanced over his shoulder at the view through the window. It was so steep he almost felt vertigo. The angle of the window shot straight down into the white caps breaking over the rocks. The sea churned and roiled. The black water sloshed between jagged outcroppings of rock. The perilous angle made him feel lightheaded and he turned away.
“Maybe he didn’t want to turn his back on these books,” Kit said.
“What do you mean?”
“Looking around here, I think there is probably a lot of evil stuff written in these books. Rituals. Spells. Incantation. That kind of stuff.”
“The one book you found has pictures of Jesus. How scary do you think this place is?”
“But this might not be the Jesus you read about in Sunday School.”
“Just because the Wise Man is holding a round mechanism on a stick.”
“Not so long ago the Catholic Church had this thing called the League of Decency. The church hated movies. It hated filmmakers. So it started an organization with the express purpose of preventing its parishioners from going to movies.”
“Man, you should have told Andy about that. His church is still trying to do that. I mean, that’s kind of why we’re here right, because of some story Andy’s church tried to scare him with.”
“That’s true. The protestants are trying to do the same thing now the Catholics did a number of years ago. But the Catholic church went one stepfather. They believe the very art of cinema was a sin. They believe because movies trick the eye that it is evil. Movies to them are a lie. It’s like what I was telling you about the zoetrope. The early filmmakers were trying to figure out how to trick the brain and the eye into believing they were watching a still image move. Essentially the church decided that early movies were a lie told to the brain and it somehow undermined faith. This painting is clearly created by a medieval artist and most painters I know of from this period were able to do their art because the church sponsored them. Especially a painting like this. A painting of the virgin birth. So you have to ask yourself why an artist sponsored by the church hiding an image of an early movie invention in a painting? Also, why did the artist clearly put the instrument in the hands of someone bearing gifts for the Christ-child. That’s a lot of questions for one painting. Plus, why is an ornate book with these kinds of images sharing shelf space with dozens of books about the occult?”
While Kit recounted his interpretation of the painting, Tom began rooting around in the desk drawers, searching for a key to the box Magdalena found. The first draw Tom opened was filled with elaborately constructed fountain pens. One was tarnished brass with the etchings of a black dragon scaling the cap. A tiny emerald had been mounted for the dragon’s eye. He shuffled the pens back and forth in the drawer to see if anything hid underneath them. The next drawer held two dried out cigars with Spanish words printed on the paper ring. A shelf of writing paper, the letterhead inscribed Thomas Halleran, Esq. Beneath his name was printed a Hollywood address.
Magdalena suddenly popped up from behind the desk, “I think I found it,” she cried. She appeared next to Tom holding a silver key tied with a crimson ribbon.
“Where did you find it?”
“Somebody took the time to build a trapdoor under the desk. There must be a button in one of these drawers. I think you inadvertently hit the button when you were looking. The trap door opened right onto my head. It hit me in the back of the head.”
“Are you okay?”
“I’m so excited you found it. Or I found it.”
“Let’s open it,” Kit said.
Tom helped Magdalena lift the silver box from under the desk.
“It would have to be a pretty small reel,” Kit said.
“I was worried about that,” Magdalena admitted.
Magdalena’s hand trembled as she slid the key into the lock.
Tom shivered as a sense of deja vu passed over him. He thought about Dan opening the cash register this morning at the video store. He thought about the hundred dollar bill that went missing from the cash drawer. For the first time since he first heard about the cash shortage, he thought that Dan might have stolen the money. He didn’t know why the thought hit him right now standing in the castle anxious to discover the contents of a decades-old box.
“Once we open this,” Kit said, “we can’t unsee what is inside. I know that might not sound like much. But sometimes when you know something exists it becomes more dangerous than wondering if a thing exists. Once you know it exists it has a sort of power over you.”
“Cut it out Kit,” Magdalena said. “This might be why we came here.”
She turned the key. But the lock didn’t release.
“I don’t know?”
“It doesn’t want you to open it,” Kit explained.
“Don’t be so dramatic,” Magdalena said.
“You make it sound like we are one of those horror movies Andy is always watching.”
“It’s just old. Let me try,” Kit said.
When Kit grabbed the small lock with his fist it crumbled into a fine powder. He looked at the pile of dust sitting in the middle of his palm.
“What happened?” Magdalena said. “I screwed around with that thing a hundred different ways. I didn’t want to break it because it was kind of pretty. But it certainly wasn’t about to fall apart.”
“I agree, that’s weird,” Tom said. “I touched it too.”
Magdalena took the lid in both hands and opened the box.
“I don’t understand,” Tom said.
The box held three notebooks with blue covers.
“Notebooks?” Kit said.
“Why would someone lock up a few notebooks?”
“They wouldn’t, right,” Tom said. “Nobody would do that.”
“Somebody did,” Kit said.
“Obviously,” Magdalena said.
Kit picked one up and opened it. He fluttered the pages with his thumb. Every page was scribbled over in tiny, black handwriting. He took a step backwards towards the window. He held it to the sour yellow glow hoping to better see the words.
“You’re not going to read it?” Tom said.
“I’m actually curious why he locked it up. I’m very interested in these books but it would take a lifetime to read it. Maybe he wrote about some of them. I don’t know. I don’t what someone living in this house collecting all these objects from old movies and strange books would write in this journal. But I’m very interested.”
“The night is burning up out there. We have so much more ground to cover in this place,” Tom urged.
“We don’t have to stay,” Magdalena stated. “He can do whatever he wants.”
“You want to stay all alone up here?”
“I’m kind of curious what happened to Jay and Meredith,” Magdalena said. “We have been up here quite a while it seems.”
“I feel weird just taking off on you, Kit,” Tom said.
“When you find Jay and Meredith come back and find me. That should be enough time to at least skim this.”