Jake was on his way to school. It was a normal day; he was running late again. He had spent too long finding the screwed up scraps of his school uniform which were strewn across his room and now he had to cycle especially fast to get to school on time. If he was late again, his form tutor, Mr. Pliskin, would be furious and Jake’s mum would receive another letter. That could not happen.
He didn’t want to be late today. Today was Time Capsule Day. The whole school had been excited about this day for months, and it was finally here. Two students from every year group had been selected to place an item of their choice, which “represented their age group”, into the Time Capsule, which was to be buried under a concrete slab in front of the school. Of course, Jake had been one of the two chosen from his age group, and he was now going to be late for the burial of the items.
Jake pushed harder on the pedals of his push-bike until the wheels began to churn into the mud that ran alongside the surging River Thames, sending a spray of brown muck up into the air behind him, with some settling gracefully on the back of his creased red school jumper. Jake was stood up on the pedals, pumping them with his wiry legs as though his life depended on it. He was breathless and beginning to sweat but he couldn’t stop. He feathered the brakes as he reached a bend in the path and then swerved angrily passed a yapping dog-walker and their silent dog.
He deviated from the path and launched the bike into his usual shortcut, lifting the handlebars so the bike jumped nearly a foot off the ground. He was in the middle of a field which separated the river from a new housing estate. There was already a number of builders working on something and Jake spotted a couple of fire engines parked in the estate’s car park. He dismounted his bike and walked it over toward a gathering of people. Why would there be fire engines here? Something is wrong, Jake thought as his curiosity forced him to move closer and try to find out what was happening.
He reached the group of fireman, builders and residents, all of whom were in deep discussion, and muscled his way through to the front. They were stood around a deep hole in the ground. It was about Jake’s height across, and you couldn’t see the an end to it; it looked as though it were bottomless. Jake peered over the edge and a firm hand grasped his shoulder. He turned to see an old man with thick grey eyebrows and a hunched back.
“Be careful there, little boy.” The man said. “You don’t want to go falling into that pit!” He showed Jake a friendly grin and mussed his hair.
“Okay. What is it?” Jake enquired.
“It’s a sinkhole. The builders were working here and then the ground just fell away. They lost a cement mixer down the hole! It’s a beautiful thing, isn’t it?” The man laughed and Jake copied him.
“I better go to school. Good bye.” Jake walked away from the group.
“Yes! School. Ride like the wind!” The man chuckled after him.
Jake was about to jump on his bike and cycle the rest of the journey to school at the fastest possible speed, when he spotted something in a pile of earth not far from the sinkhole and the gathered crowd. It was a thick, leather-bound book, jutting loosely from a mound of freshly dug earth. He went over and picked it out of the ground, glancing over his shoulder to ensure nobody was watching him. The crowd were distracted and the old man had vanished, but Jake thought nothing of it, shoved the book into his backpack and cycled off towards the river.
He found an alcove in some bushes and threw down his bike. He sat on the stump of a tree and tore the dusty book from his back. It was bigger and heavier than any book he had ever seen or felt before and he cradled it in his hands for a few moments. It was beautiful. The brown leather had been carved with an image of a vast tree, which was surrounded with odd symbols that meant nothing to Jake (nor would they to most human beings). He ran his finger over the front of the book, feeling the indents and markings and the perfect leather; coarse and smooth in equal measure. There was a small golden clasp which sealed the covers of the book closed. Jake had to work it from side to side before it gaped open with a soft click.
With trembling hands, he opened the book in his lap and it groaned happily, revealing yellowed, moth-bitten pages. It emitted a rich, powerful smell. He began to gently skim through the book. The pages were a thick paper and they were decorated with a wild and eccentric writing. Some pages were just words, with thick looping letters; other pages were decorated with pictures and a riot of colour. Jake satisfied himself with his glancing at the book’s contents and then returned to the first page. In the top left-hand corner of the page, in looping, extravagant lettering was written: ‘The Beginning’. Jake ran his index finger over the slightly embossed, dried ink of the title, and then began to read the text aloud (he never normally read out loud, but the book compelled him to).
“In the time before mind,
Before you and I,
The clock began ticking
In a vast empty sky.
I sat, still and silent,
The world at my feet.
Then came the first heart.
Gently, began the beat.”
Jake finished reading a looked up, deep in thought. He was trying to unpick the words and capture the meaning of the poem. He had been taught in school that poetry always had a more important meaning than what it was actually saying, but he had struggled to ever see anything other than the arrangement of letters on the page. It took several seconds for Jake to realise that the world, in which he had started to read, had fallen away.
He was sat on top of a vast, rolling hill which sat in the middle of a rich landscape. There were few trees, and no buildings of any kind, as far as he could see in every direction. And he could see so far in every direction. It were as though his eyes had gaining miles and miles of sight. The shimmering morning air made the horizon swim in his vision. To his right, at the very edge of his visual reach, he could see mountains jutting out of the ground. To his left he just about make out blue rim of a sea. He stood slowly.
“Where am I?” He said. To nobody at all but himself. He was not scared. He was exhilarated. He just wanted to know everything at that moment. There was an intense desire for him to simply understand where he was and why he was there.
“Before.” A voice came from behind him to snap him out of his reverie. Jake turned to see the old man who had spoken to him at the sink-hole. He was wearing an old, battered cloak, and leaning heavily on a twisted stick that looked more like a tree root than a branch. He smiled softly at Jake.
“You? Who are you? Where am I?” Jake’s voice quivered as he tried to contain his feeling. Anxiety, confusion. Excitement.
“Me. I am not important. You are important. You are precisely where you were when you started to read that book. Just not when.” He grinned and nodded behind Jake, gesturing him for him to turn around. Jake obliged. “It is time, Jake.” The old man had gestured towards the mountains Jake had seen before, but now they looked different. They were moving.
Jake watched, open-mouthed as the mountains parted. As though they were a block of butter being cut into with a sharp knife, they split into two and spread apart at a slow, groaning pace. Through the middle ran a surge of thick, surging water. It was so blue it was almost black and it poured through and over the mountains like a swarm of starving insects. It bled into the plains in front which sat between Jake and the mountains, and then began spread out across the ground. It covered every inch and filled every crevice along the way, until everything was completely covered with water. The waves lazily lapped up to the edge of the hill on which Jake and the old man stood, creating an enormous, placid sea. It was close enough for Jake to touch.
Jake stepped forward and peered down from his enormous hill which had now become a small island, surrounded by ocean. The water he looked into went from shallow to deep, gradually, with the gradient of the land. Small, silver fish flicked their bodies against the dull lapping waves, their scales reflecting the sun easily. Jake stared at them in wonder.
The old man appeared beside him, he was smiling wildly. “It’s a beautiful thing, isn’t it?” He said through crooked, broken teeth. Jake just nodded in reply, his eyes wide in his head. “Just remember, Jake, this world was nothing once. And now it is everything.” Jake continued to stare out over the glowing water with fascinated, consuming eyes. “You can go back to your book now” Jake turned to face the old man and he was gone. He returned his gaze to the water and the broken mountains in the distance. They glistened as the water which had consumed them began to evaporate in the sun.
Jake noticed then something in the sky, at the peak of his distant vision. It glowed and flickered as the sun caught its faces and its edges. It was spinning. And it was enormous. Slowly, it tore through the sky above the mountains, moving towards them with precision. There was a stillness in the air. The world held its breath for a long moment and the falling thing disappeared behind the mountains.
There was a blinding light that smothered the entire sky and caused Jake to cover his face with his hands. The ground beneath his feet started to vibrate, and then it started to rumble with a ferocious intensity. Jake lost his footing and began to fall. The ground had opened and he fell inside.
It’s a sinkhole.
And then he was gone.
Jake opened his eyes and found himself sat on a broken stump of a tree, reading a thick, leather-bound book. A sigh of relief left his lips as he felt his face to ensure that he was real. He was.
What was that? He thought, filled with fear but also so much excitement. It was the most beautiful thing he had ever experienced. He was exhilarated.
“You can get back to your book now.” The words fluttered in his head like the wings of a butterfly. Read, Jake. Jake turned the page and began to read on.
“Time can be stricken,
By fist, tooth and claw,
We learn to live boldly
We forget days of yore.
Progress versus peace
Is the battle we face.
Defeat becomes natural
As we fly through this space.”
This time, Jake was waiting for it. He was ready. He looked up as he finished that last word in the poem and tried to see if the world would change and, if it did, catch it in the act of changing. But he was too late. He was already somewhere else. Like before, reading the book had transported him.
He was sat in a room, surrounded by men. There must have been over a hundred in the room with him and they were dressed in extravagant, bright and frilly clothing. They looked absurd and Jake had to suppress a laugh when he saw them. None of them seemed to notice him.
The men were having a heated argument. Debating a topic that drove many of them to stamp their feet and jeer nonsensically at seemingly random times. Jake tried to piece together what was being said, but it were as though they were speaking Jon a foreign language. I’m in the past, he thought, and his heart began to beat a little faster.
“Good sir, you speak a most devious nonsense.” The tallest of the group and the apparent leader created calm with his booming voice. His this, shoulder length black hair tumbled about his face as he gesticulated passionately. His face was twisted into a vicious grin and he loomed over his adversary: a stout, plump man wearing a rainbow coloured tunic. “I bid we destroy every last one of them and build, build, build.” Every punctuation mark in his speech was accompanied with a flamboyant stamp of his left heel. “Our glorious queen will not allow for these morons to breed on her great land. They must be removed at once and we must oil the wheels of change afoot!”
The plump man was seething and sweating. He glared up at the pointed chin of his counterpart and mopped his brow, laboriously as perspiration dripped from his bulbous nose. “Quite plainly, human and natural rights aren’t something of which you have even the most rudimentary of knowledge. You must cease this tirade and this shortsighted foolery at once. People’s lives are in the balance!” He tried prevent his voice from shaking with anger but it could still be felt simmering beneath the surface. Cries of “here, here” could be heard bouncing around his head.
“Here, here”? Jake thought, what is there, there? He looked to one of the men who’d shouted it but could see nothing worth shouting about.
“I assure you, young preacher, human lives are all I care about. British, human lives. And the advancement of this glorious empire. If we have to make sacrifices along the way, so be it.” We smiled a horrendous smile and bowed down so far his nose almost touched his knees. Jake felt a tightening in his stomach as even more cries of “here, here” flew across the room. (He would later come to recognise this peculiar feeling as pure rage.)
The little man bristled and took an aggressive step forward. “Like you have already sacrifices your God-given, rational respect for your fellow human being? Or like you’ve sacrificed your masculinity?!” He spat the last words and the room fell silent. The taller man straighten his back and threw a look at him so severe and wrought with fury that Jake found himself letting out a soft, pathetic moan of fear.
This drew the attention of the taller man and he silenced the crowd with an upraised palm. Everyone turned to address the boy stood in the corner. The men all began to exchange glances and whispers. “What on earth is that?” Jake heard one say. “Is that a spy?” Another asked his neighbour.
“Boy. What are you doing here.” The tall man enquired, his face betraying his confusion at Jake’s presence. Jake felt himself shrinking into the wall behind him. He suddenly noticed how small the room was, and how unbearably toxic to breath the air was. “Do you have a tongue!?” Two of the men closest to Jake began to move slowly towards him. Jake had nowhere to go. “Cease him!” The men leapt forward on command and Jake cowered and covered his face with a yelp.
Nobody grabbed him, and Jake fell backwards off the tree-stump and into a puddle of mud.
Jake rose from the mud, giggling to himself. The way the men had behaved was hilarious and the fact he had managed to escape from them made him giddy. He brushed himself down as best he could (the back of his trousers was caked in a healthy layer of mud) and returned to his seat on the true-stump.
He pulled the book back onto his lap and was about to begin reading the next chapter when he remembered about his school day. He glanced at his watch to find it was 9.15. He would certainly be late now, but he had time to make the assembly for the time capsule presentation if he continued his journey soon.
He flicked through a number of pages in search of a section he could quickly read before setting off, and found himself at the final chapter. The draw of the book was immense. He found it difficult to tear himself away from the text and the experiences into which the text seemed to be throwing him. He read on:
“Into the distance
We must bury and fly,
For there exists an infinite
Which will ne’er die.
From the gloom of
The place we once loved
The souls never cease,
Living hearts high above.”
Jake ran his fingers over the accompanying drawing of a swirling black vortex, punctuated only by a tiny silver spec drifting into into middle. The transition from image to reality was faultless. Transfixed, Jake barely noticed that the picture had vanished and that he was now seeing that picture vividly in front of him. He was now there.
Floating through a soft metallic blackness, Jake drifted toward the enormity of the disc before him. It span with a beautiful stillness. It’s size was unfathomable. It was beyond anything he had ever seen. Jake was floating toward it gently. His breathing felt odd; strangely pleasant. It was as if he were breathing the purest form of air. He sucked it in greedily.
He turned his body away from the direction in which he was heading, and he viewed the punctured, perfect blackness of space with eyes as wide as the infinite around him. Fields and fields of stars decorated the edges of the all he could see in every direction.
Jake turned back toward the black hole and gasped at how close to it he now was. It was all he could see in that direction now; it seemed not to end at its top, bottom or sides. It was a wall of surging nothingness. He saw now, drifting some way ahead, the silver spec of an object floating deep into the core of the swirling mass. Jake was getting closer to it as he began to pick up speed.
The skin on Jake’s cheeks was rippling as his speed became frantic. The pressure on his chest tightened as though he were being squashed. Seemingly endlessly he flew forward. He was gaining ground on the floating object and he angled his body toward it. As he drew closer, he could make out it was a large piece of rock, like a meteor, shaped like a disc. The perfect shape for skimming stones, Jake thought. The top of the disc was reasonably smooth but for a few rough outcrops of rock which jutted up around the edge. Jake headed towards them in an attempt to get hold of something solid.
He was now deep in the dark of the black hole, though there was a deep glow all around him which created dull a purple hue. As he reached the spinning disc of rock he grabbed hold of one of the, almost cylindrical, raised areas on the edge. He held on as tightly as he could as the disc burst through an apparent wall at the very centre of the hole.
Suddenly everything was very still and very bright. Jake opened his eyes, half expecting to be back on the tree stump where he had started. The sky was golden. Planets the size of the moon flew in magnificent arcs across the sky, apparently chasing one another; there were too many to count. He climbed to his feet and looked around him. This wasn’t anything like the world he was used to.
There was a figure on the edge of the disc, which now seemed to be hovering, motionless in a purple void. The figure was vaguely human, although immensely tall. It also had an effervescent quality. The form hovered and quivered like as though it were smoke. But the outline of a human was there. The arms hung limp by the sides and two long, thin legs supported the flowing, translucent trunk of the torso.
The figure moved closer and Jake could now see that it was not just tall, it was vast. High above him it loomed, the shape of a head tilting down to face Jake, who stood open-mouthed and amazed. Jake could see through the being into the endless purple sky beyond. The flying planets appeared to fly through the being as they tore around the sky in the distance behind him.
The right arm of the being stretched out slowly, raising the palm of its right hand toward Jake. There was something in this hand, something bright and glowing. Jake stared stupidly at it, trying to fathom exactly what it was that was being given to him. Jake reached out and took the gift carefully.
It was light, but hard. Cold but warm. Bright but then immediately dull as it he cupped it in his small hands. It was a chunk of crystal. Jake held it up in front of the glowing sky (there was no discernible sun in the sky responsible for the brightness) and the light scattered madly from every angle as it hit the crystal.
Jake looked more closely and saw, deep in the heart of the glassy rock, a pulsating core of blue and green, sat in a black pool. It floated perfectly in the centre, regardless of how much he manipulated the crystal.
Jake looked up and the ethereal figure was drifting away towards the others of his kind in the distance beyond him.
“Thank you!” He yelled after it and his voice seemed to evaporate in the air as it left his mouth. He returned his gaze to the crystal and, being so lost in his wonder of it strangeness, didn’t notice when the real world came crashing back into place.
The crystal glittered in his hand and the blue-green core shone softly as it placed it onto the open book in his lap. Slowly, he looked around himself, to make sure that he was indeed back to his reality. A bird called brightly somewhere in the tree above his head, to snap him out of his reverie. He rose to his feet, closing the book carefully and placing the crystal in his pocket.
The book slid into his school bag easily. He jumped onto his bike and began to cycle like a child-possessed towards school. I am going to be in so much trouble, he thought. But it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered anywhere near as much as the morning he had experienced. Where he had been and what he had seen. But with every rotation of his bicycles pedals, the memories faded slightly. They slipped from view like ice melting and sliding down a window in the sun.
He tried to force them into view but it didn’t take long for him to forget who he had spoken to, and what is was he had seen. He remembered an old man, but wasn’t that at the sink hole? He remembered water, or was that the river he had sat beside to read his book. What book did he read? Did he pick up the rock that was jutting into his leg from his pocket? Why did he do that? It was all a blur and his temples began to throb with the effort of recalling his morning.
He tore into the school grounds and the playground was deserted. Oh great! Everyone is already inside, he thought. He dumped his bike in the bike shed and ran off without locking it.
He burst into the assembly hall out of breath. The hall fell silent. Every child’s head turned to face him as they sat in regimented order across the floor. On the stage at the top of the room stood all of the teachers and a handful of students. Jake realised that these children were those selected to add items to the time capsule. He was supposed to be up there too.
Behind the line of students and teachers on the stage stood the capsule itself. It was a metal casing, about as tall as Jake himself, in the shape of a barrel. It looked formidable, as though it had been transported through time in order to serve its purpose as a receptacle of “objects of our time.”
“Jake.” The head-teacher’s voice boomed across the hall. “So nice of you to join us.” His grin was formidable and terrifying. One that Jake was very much used to. He knew that this embarrassment in front of the school wouldn’t be the last of his punishment either. “What was it this time? Car crash? Earthquake? Lost dog?”
“Sorry, sir.” Jake mumbled. The sound of his voice disappeared into nothing in the vast hall.
“Up to the stage, Jake. I trust you have your time capsule object?” The headteacher continued to grin. He knew it was likely Jake had entirely forgotten about the time capsule and hoped that he could embarrass him. Jake began his slow walk around the edge of the hall to the stage at the front. As he reached the steps he placed his hands into his pocket and rummaged for the crystal he had been given.
“I h-h-have s-something.” Jake managed to say as he took the crystal from his pocket. It glinted in the morning sunlight which poured in through the windows that ran the length of the hall. The entire assembly hall seemed to lean in closer for a better look at the object the latecomer had deemed good enough for the time capsule. The colours in the heart of the crystal had faded to a dull glow, as though they had lost some of their potency, their magic.
The headteacher snatched the object from Jake’s fingers. “And what, exactly, is this?” He held it so close to his eye that Jake thought he might blind himself.
“It’s a crystal.” Jake hung his head shamefully in preparation for the judgement he expected was heading his way.
“Nice.” The headteacher lowered the crystal and smiled a strange smile. It almost appeared sincere. “What does it symbolise?” Jake looked around at the other students who had lined up patiently across the stage. He eyed the objects they clutched pathetically to their chests; a bible, a CD, an MP3 player, a tin of soup. There was meaning in all of them in some degree. They represented modernity in a distinct way. What did the crystal represent? Jake thought. More importantly, where did the crystal come from?!
“It shows how fragile earth is. How precious the world we live in is.” Jake spoke the words without hesitation, although he didn’t fully understand them. They were like a memory, an echo of something he had once heard. He understood those words perfectly, but he had no idea he would say them.
“Good. Well done, Jake.” The teacher smiled and nodded and placed the crystal gently into the time capsule. Jake moved to the back of the stage and watched as the other students each explained their own objects in turn, before handing them over to the headteacher for the time capsule. He felt a deep sense of pride for what he had done. Yet, deep down he was lost. He was confused at what had happened that morning and where the crystal had come from.
That night, when he got home from school, he opened his school bag to find a scrap of paper which looked like it had once been a page in an old book. It tried to spark a memory. There was a whisper of recognition, of understanding. The words on the page were written in extravagant handwriting and Jake read them aloud:
“It’s a beautiful thing, isn’t it?”
He folded the paper and smiled.