When Jonah came upon the artefact he didn’t have the foggiest idea what it was. It was oblong but symmetrical, and ornate in a crude sort of way. At the summit was what looked like the lid – in the form of a carved gecko figurine that slid neatly over a rectangular hole. The inside was hollow and smooth – no small engineering feat as the vessel had been crafted from a single piece of wood. What’s more, the hole at the top was small – too small for even a child’s hand. At best it might accommodate three adult fingers. So then – how did the carver get into the body of the vessel to carve it out, then file it down? The entire piece was a mystery.
Gingerly, Jonah lifted the tag.
Borneo, it read.
“It’s a gorgeous piece, innit?” declared the dealer, a weary-eyed woman who’d been on the antique circuit far too long.
“Mmmm,” Jonah replied noncommittally. “What is it?”
“I dunno,” the woman shrugged. “Maybe it’s for water, luv.”
“No,” Jonah said sceptically. “The lid’s in the wrong place. Who’d carry water that way? You’d carry it this way,” he said insistently, using his hands to illustrate the object standing portrait, rather than landscape.
“Well,” the dealer shrugged, “as I said, luv – I don’t rightly know. It’s just a lovely piece, that’s all. I fell straight in love with it.”
“But now you’re selling it?”
“Well, that’s life, innit?” The woman shrugged. “You can’t keep ’em all.”
“Well, well, well!” someone gushed, just over Jonah’s shoulder. “Now what is that? Good Lord!”
Jonah’s heart dropped. Antique hunting can be a cutthroat business. There’s always some scavenger lurking over your shoulder, ogling the thing in front of you, likely to grab it if you don’t.
He turned around wearily. The newcomer was about sixty, with a leathery complexion.
“It’s from Borneo,” said the dealer.
“Not, it’s not,” the old man grunted. “Not Borneo.”
“Well, where’s it from then?” The dealer frowned.
The old man bent forward to examine the object, his eyes gazing inwards as if he were flipping through a large mental encyclopaedia in search of a matching entry. “Well, I don’t have a clue,” he said eventually, “but I know it’s not from Borneo.” Then his finger flew to the carvings on the base. “Oh, look,” he noted, “spirals.”
Jonah groaned, unable to hide his annoyance. “Spirals are a universal motif. You’ll find them on artefacts from all over the world. And they all look exactly like those spirals.”
“How do you know?”
“Books,” Jonah said contemptuously. “You should try opening one some time – they’re an endless source of insight.”
“Now, look son, there’s no need to be rude.”
“Rude?” Jonah hissed. “You’re the one who interrupted.”
“Okay,” the old man grunted, chastened.
“The fact is, spirals are just spirals – whether you’re talking about African curios, Polynesian carvings or Viking amulets. They’re all just squiggles. There are only so many ways you can depict a fucking spiral.”
“Now, old man, if you don’t mind, kindly bugger off. I saw this thing first, you know.”
“My, my!” the old man noted, his eyebrows rising. “You seem to like this item.”
“Maybe,” Jonah shrugged.
The old man eyed him for a moment before turning to the dealer. “I’ll give you three hundred dollars for it.”
“What?” Jonah balked. “You fucking jackal.”
“Three fifty,” the old man grunted, ignoring Jonah.
“Four,” Jonah countered. There was no point being coy now. The battle was on.
“Five?” The old man smiled. “Well, it’s your money son,” he chuckled, before walking off.
“Thanks, luv,” the dealer blinked at Jonah. “It’s such a lovely piece. I hope it makes you very happy.”
“Yeah yeah,” Jonah grunted, his heart now heavy with buyer’s remorse.
He carried the piece back to his apartment in Glebe and cleared a place for it on his bookshelf, shunting aside his other eclectic tribal artefacts – the Polynesian god stick, Fon fetish and cassowary headdress. And there it sat, the centrepiece of his collection, for many, many years.
However, no reference book ever shed any light on what it actually was. There was also no record of anything remotely like it having sold at auction – ever. Over the years, it plagued him incessantly that something so unique and curious could elude categorisation so completely. Sometimes he wondered if it had some religious significance. Had it sat in some shaman’s hut, or was it just a mundane household object? Was it a map of the cosmos, or merely a vessel to hold grain? He never did manage to embrace the mystery – not until decades later, as he lay dying.
“What’s that?” A man asked, just out of his vision as he lay on his bed, his life ebbing away.
“I don’t know,” a woman replied. “But what a lovely piece.”
And at once he was overcome with horror at the thought that something with such inestimable significance could be reduced to nothing more than a lovely piece, for the bland consumption of ignorant Westerners. Only then did it occur to him that this artefact had come from a world that had recently been smashed to atoms. Just one of countless worlds obliterated by a monoculture that was spreading across the planet like a dementia, gouging out great chunks of humanity’s collective consciousness without anyone even noticing. This cultural Alzheimer’s had already taken away almost everything that made the human species unique and beautiful, turning the meaningful into the meaningless, and uniting humankind in ugly and formless uniformity. There were now just a few pieces left, mysterious objects like this, sitting on mantelpieces or in museums somewhere, to suggest that anything had ever been any different.
And with that realisation Jonah’s heart suddenly stopped and he went kicking and screaming into the void.
©Copyright Ron Lawrence Anderson