JUST BEFORE DAWN on the morning of February 25, 2011, Absidy Blanks stood in the moonlight shining over the muddy tidal flats of Tulubhan Beach, watching his three dogs, Scarlet, Pepper and Brownie, run and dig in the thick gray silt. He listened to the surf breaking in the distance over the reef that marked the far edge of the flats. A damp wind carried the scent of the flats, filling the air around him. He could see a rain shower falling over Carabao Island to the northeast, across the channel from Boracay. The clouds were slowly drifting southwest towards Boracay and its mother island, Panay.
"Let's go guys. The rain will reach
us soon," he called to his three dogs, as if they could understand him. "We
only have a few minutes, so let's do our business and get back to the house
before we all get wet."
As he looked out towards the distant storm he noticed the coiled spire of a broken miter shell a few feet away from where he stood. Absidy walked over to it and carefully brushed away the mud with his right foot, wondering what kind of mollusk had used it for shelter before the current washed it past the reef. The shell was unusually large for a sea snail. It had probably been there for years.
He looked up again towards the approaching shower. The spire seemed to be pointing right at it. And then he saw the tablet, rising out of the mud a few meters past the spire, standing on its edge as if hurled from above. He walked over the flats towards it, feeling the mud sucking down the soles of the old track shoes that he always wore when he walked the dogs on the beach every dawn. He pulled the wooden panel out of the ooze. It was rectangular, about ten inches high and half again as long. It felt wet and slippery in his hands. How did this get here? A broken rudder? Not likely, he thought. Though it was perfectly flat on one side it was curved, almost like the wing of an airplane, on the other. He could see that it was made from a narra tree, an exotic hardwood with wide undulating grain. Its edges were rough and splintered but blackened, as though it had caught fire before the sea and mud had extinguished the flames. He flipped it over. An inscription had been carved into the wood, but it was too faint to make out through the mud. "C'mon guys, let's take this thing home. We'll clean it up and see what it says."
Absidy and his dogs reached the bamboo gate just as the rain was beginning to fall. Like most dogs, Brownie, Scarlet and Pepper hated the rain and they ran past him through the gate into the small house that Blanks had built a few hundred meters from the beach. The three dogs huddled together in the open doorway under the nipa roof while Absidy pushed open the gate and followed them inside. Within minutes, what had started as a light shower became a downpour, the rain so dense that it ran off the nipa leaves like a waterfall. It seemed as if the entire Philippine Sea was pouring over the island. He wondered whether the nipa would hold, fearing that the fierce downpour would flood the house.
When the rain stopped, the roof was still intact. Absidy fired up his laptop
to check for any important messages. The computer, a sturdy Lenovo that he
had bought in Manila, was one of the few luxuries that Absidy owned. He had
chosen it because of its durability, which was a necessity on Boracay. The
humidity that cloaked the tiny island quickly corroded anything it found,
and while a few computer shops had opened along the narrow paved road that
ran the length of the island, none of them stocked spare parts.
It was miraculous that there was any internet service on Boracay. The small coral island had once been a bohemian getaway, with narrow dirt paths that cut through the jungle, branching east and west to each shoreline from its seven kilometer axis road. But although it was fast becoming a major tourist destination because of the powder white sand beach and crystal waters along the island's west side, the cable company that provided the service skimped on the cost of new equipment. Downloading anything more than email was excruciatingly slow. The electric power on the island was even worse. There were regular blackouts that often lasted hours at a time. If you had a generator you might still have internet, but generators were a luxury that few could afford. Boralco, the electric company that provided service to Boracay, was supposed to be a cooperative it didn't seem like the cooperators were cooperating with anyone but the company.
Absidy logged on with his user name, Nonamesatall4me@gmail.com. The only message was from one of his friends, inviting him to join a Facebook group called "Free Shaving Gel for the Men of the Taliban." He ignored the silly request, shut the laptop down and closed the lid.
He boiled a pot of the Indian chai that he had brought from a tea shop in Makati and poured a cup, adding condensed milk to sweeten the tea. Scarlet, who had a sweet tooth and liked to lick the bottom of the empty cups, waited patiently while Absidy sipped the hot tea. When he finished drinking, Absidy turned his attention to the narra tablet. He found a soft cloth, dampened it in clean water, and gently removed a small amount of the fine silt that coated the wood. It was difficult to make out the individual letters, but the inscription was written in what appeared to be a series of separate paragraphs or short sentences. The first character of each paragraph was slightly larger than those that followed in the sequence. He turned on a lamp and held it under the light. It had a faint sheen, as if sometime in the past it had been polished or lacquered with a thin protectant. The writing appeared to be a kind of Aramaic, the language that was ancestral to both the Arabic and modern Hebrew alphabets. Although Absidy had taken a few courses in pre-history and archaelogy in college at Lund University, he was unable to decipher the ancient script.
the tablet on a white sheet, photographed it from various angles, and
emailed the photos to Hans Axelsson. Hans had been Absidy's faculty advisor
at Lund when Absidy was a student there. He was an older man in his late
sixties who'd been teaching at Lund for forty years. With his trimmed grey
beard, wire-rimmed spectacles, worn loafers and old tweed jacket, he looked
every inch the part of an academic. He'd taken Absidy under his wing when he
met the young man, who seemed to be struggling to find himself. He was a
true friend, someone you could rely on. Within minutes, he received a reply:
"Absidy - Call me, I know what it is."
logged on to Skype and tapped out the numbers for Axelsson's land line.
Axelsson's receptionist picked up the phone:
"God morgon, Professor Axelsson
"Good morning, may I please speak with Professor Axelsson?
"And who is calling please?" she answered in English.
"Absidy Blanks. I think the Professor is expecting my call."
"Can you spell your name please?"
In fact, Absidy had no name. On the day that he was born, while the newborn infant toyed with with his still-attached umbilicus, Absidy's father, Amurao De La Cruz, debated what to call their newborn son with his Swedish wife, Eva Osterlund. Amurao wanted to give Absidy a traditional Filipino name; Eva wanted their son to have a name that sounded Swedish. Amurao was a lawyer in Manila. He was an honest man with liberal leanings who made a modest living from his private practice. Eva was a painter who worked of her small studio outside of Angelholm, in the south of Sweden. Amurao met Eva while each was on vacation in Phuket, in the mid 1980's when Phuket had yet to be infected by the same explosive tourism boom that was now afflicting Boracay. They were kind and compassionate intellectuals who rarely argued with each other but they shared a stubborn streak and neither of them wanted to yield ground. Unable to agree on any name, they spelled out the letters A,B,C,D and E. "That's what we will call him," declared Eva, "ABCDE." We'll pronounce it " Absidy."
Amurao had the same wry sense of humor as Eva and agreed. Osterlund also wanted the infant to have a hyphenated surname, De La Cruz-Osterlund, but Amuarao objected. He was proud to have a son and he wanted the infant to have only the paternal surname. Again, Eva did not agree. "Then let's give him another last name. Any suggestions?" she asked. "None that I can think of. How about a middle name? I'm sure that we can agree on something."
They discussed a few possible names but, as with the infant's surname, could not agree on anything that both of then liked. "Okay, we will call him Absidy Blanks," said Amurao, "I like sound of it."
And that's how it was. They wrote out the letters for the duty nurse, who recorded ABCDE on his birth certificate, with no recorded middle or last name. Upon reading it, their pediatrician laughed, but signed the certificate as the couple had requested, leaving the empty lines blank. As the years passed, Absidy grew tall and handsome. Though he was mestizo, his features were predominantly Filipino: straight dark hair, brown eyes, and flawless skin that darkened to a deep bronze in the bright sun. Had anyone asked about his parents they would not have believed that Absidy was half Swedish.
Axelsson picked up the extension in his office.
"It's good to hear from
you, Absidy. How is my favorite student doing these days?"
"I'm good, Hans. Very good. I'm living down on Boracay Island. It's an interesting place. You should come down and visit some time."
"I'd love to," replied Axelsson. "It's bitter cold and grey here in Sweden now and I could use a vacation in a warm sunny climate somewhere. I looked at the photos you sent. The writing is definitely Aramaic, but it's the earliest form of Aramaic that I've ever seen. Whoever wrote this really knew his stuff. This language predates the Hebrew spoken by Jesus by at least a thousand years. It's even earlier than the Canaanite dialect that we believe was spoken by Moses. Where did you say you found this object?"
"It was standing on edge in the mud flats near my home here. I found it when I was running my dogs on the beach."
"Well, I'm quite sure that I know what it says", said Axelsson, "Someone chiseled out the Ten Commandments on your piece of wood."
Absidy laughed. "That's it? The Ten Commandments? I'm not so sure that the writing was chiseled on the plank though. It may have burned into the wood for all I know. The lettering is hard to read, but the markings are fairly deep and completely even."
"So someone with a knowledge of ancient Aramaic chiseled or burned the Ten Commandments onto a piece of wood and tossed on a filthy beach in the middle of the Philippines?" said Axelsson. "If it's some kind of a joke, someone down there has an interesting sense of humor."
"Yeah, that's my impression. After all, if it was thousands of years old it would have rotted away to dust by now," said Absidy.
"Well, not necessarily," answered Axelsson. "Wood that has been in cold salt water can survive intact for a very, very long time. Have you thought about having the wood examined? If you can get a sample to me I will send it up to Stockholm and have it analyzed and radiocarbon dated."
"The ocean temperatures down here are quite warm, but sure, let's do it. I
doubt that it's anything more than an elaborate hoax, but I'd like to know
for certain. I'll send it to you by LBC courier. With a little luck you'll
have it on your desk in a few days."
"Okay Absidy. I'll let you know more as soon as they've finished checking it out."
Axelsson didn't tell Absidy that a similar tablet had recently turned up in South America and that it had been recovered in the Amazon river. It wasn't something that he needed to know. Not just yet.
Absidy found a sharp blade and carefully scraped a small sample of the tablet where the first character was inscribed in the plank. He placed the sample in a small envelope and brought it to the LBC courier office in Ambulon, the section of Boracay closest to his home. The desk clerk asked him if the package contained cash, jewelry or other valuables. Absidy told him that it was only sliver of wood, and the clerk entered it into the system for air freight to Sweden. Absidy spent the rest of the day attending to routine chores. He cleaned the house, shopped for galango fish and rice to cook for dinner, and tended his small garden. By nightfall, he'd finished his chores. He fried the galango and cooked a handful of rice on his small gas stove. His dogs waited patiently at his side, hoping for a few table scraps. One by one, he fed each dog some of the rice and fish and allowed them to take turns licking the plate clean. He rinsed off the empty plate, placed it on a rack to dry, and lay down on the small bed inside the house.
Until he'd found the tablet, Absidy's life on Boracay consisted of such
routines. He had little interest in kite surfing, sailing or scuba diving,
which, in addition to roasting their bodies under the blazing tropical sun
and picking up young Filipinas at the bars on White beach, were the main attractions
for foreign tourists on Boracay. He rarely drank, except for an occasional
beer, and rarely left his house unless it was necessary for one reason or
another. He was content to stay at home with his dogs, reading and writing
in his journal to pass the time.
By Philippine standards, Amurao and Eva were well off, if not wealthy.
Amurao had an excellent reputation as an honest lawyer and made a good
living from his practice, and Eva's paintings were prized by Manila society.
Absidy was Amurao's only son; he loved him but he was disappointed when
Absidy left Manila for Boracay. He had hoped that Absidy would pursue a
career in politics, or at the very least, join him in his law practice in
Manila. But it was not to be. The Philippines was a study in contrasts.
There were a few privileged families who controlled most of the country's
wealth and resources and lived like kings. There was a small middle class,
most of whom lived in the big cities or resort islands and did service work.
The rest of the population lived in near squalor. Seventeen million of the
archepelago's ninety million people lived in Manila, the nation's capitol on
Luzon island. The sprawling city had of seventeen districts or sections. In
the better sections of Manila like Makati and Malate , the wealthy lived in
expensive high rise apartments and enormous homes behind high walls in gated
communities that separated them from the teeming poor, most of whom lived in
vast baranguays of overcrowded, tin-roofed shacks. When Absidy graduated
from Lund and returned to Manila, he had intended to serve his people and
work to rectify the terrible corruption and inequality that he viewed as the
nation's shame. He established and promoted a foundation dedicated to
eliminate poverty and corruption, but those in power resisted change, and
discouraged, he left Manila for Boracay.
Three hundred or so kilometers south and to the east of Luzon, the island of Panay is one of the larger of seven thousand odd islands that comprise the Philippine archipelago. The waters that surround Panay are only a few meters deep, and clear water, warm and shallow, is ideal for the growth of coral. Millions of years before an ape somewhere in Africa got off her hands and knees and pointed at the moon, ancient coral took root off the northern tip of the big Pacific island. The coral flourished, and as generation after generation of coral disintegrated into coral sand the living coral rose higher and higher until a smaller island thrust its head above the surface of the sea. The small island was shaped like a bone, wider at each end but nearly straight on the southwest side. Seeds borne by the wind from Panay, along with seeds from the droppings of birds, fell on the island, and as vegetation accumulated and died, its compost became soil. Trees began to grow, and ancient birds and other wildlife made the tiny island their home. Strong currents pounded the sand into a fine white powder that accumulated along the island's west side. What had once been little more than some sand and a reef was now Boracay Island. The northeast side of Boracay had a more irregular coastline, where mangroves grew in small coves at each end of a stretch of sand that came to be known as Bulabog beach. A long reef south of Bulabog at the mouth of one of the coves trapped the tidal flow there, and sea grass flourished in the shallow flats. In time, the plants decayed, coating the seabed with a thick layer of soft grey mud that ran from the reef to the shore. Early settlers from Panay named the narrow beach and flats there Tulubhan Beach and the section of land behind the flats Tulubhan.
Tulubhan was less populated than the booming west side of Boracay.
Absidy bought a small parcel of land there a short distance from the flats.
He cleared the scrub from the lot and dug a foundation. He collected mud
from the flats, mixed it with dried leaves and other materials to bind it.
He shaped it into bricks, drying each brick in the blazing sun until it was
hard. Brick by brick, he built a small house with his bare hands, topping
the structure with a roof of coconut palm wood and nipa leaves. He covered
the outer walls with amakan panels of woven bamboo to protect the bricks. It
took him six months to complete. By the time that he had finished it, his
arms were rope hard, his body lean and strong. He dug a well behind the
house and installed a hand pump. He built a low fence around the property
and planted vegetables in a small garden beneath the old mango and avocado
trees that he'd left in place when he built the house, along with
bougainvillea, hibiscus and yellow bells.
Absidy should have been proud of his home and garden. Except for an iron
hand pump for the well and a few basic appliances, he'd created his own
private Eden with nothing but hard work and the materials provide by nature.
But he remained disconsolate, unable to find peace because of the corruption
of men and their seemingly incurable insistence on destroying the land, and
his own inability to bring change. To make matters worse, the same purulent
greed that was festering in Manila was spreading to Boracay. Where once
there had been a pristine white beach unspoiled by commerce, there were now
luxury resorts, bars and two open air shopping malls. The rapid development
should have been accompanied by infrastructure improvements but avarice
prevailed, and instead of providing for the growth, there were now so many
people on Boracay that raw sewage ran to the island`s west side, where it
contaminated the sea and killed much of the coral on that side of the
island. Yet despite the tourist boom and its attendant problems, Absidy
still preferred his life there, on the quiet side of the island, to what
he'd left behind in Manila.
For the next few days after he'd sent off the sample, Absidy spent most of
his time working on his discovery. He downloaded as much as he could absorb
about philosophy and physics. On March 1st, he found himself unusually
tired. He turned off his laptop and spent the rest of the day in bed reading
his favorite author, Paulo Coelho, until he drifted off into a deep sleep.
Sometime after midnight, he woke up, startled at the sound of Scarlet's
growling. He looked over at the dog and saw her pawing and scratching at the
narra tablet, which he'd left on the shelf beside his bed. The tablet was
emanating a strange blue light, almost as if lit from within. He wasn't sure
that he wanted to touch it, thinking that the source of the glow might be
toxic or even radioactive. He covered it with an old copy of the Manila
Bulletin and gently placed it on his desk. When he removed the paper, the
tablet had stopped glowing and he switched on a lamp, startled to find that
the inscription on the tablet had changed. The new inscription was written
in a different, perhaps modern Arabic script. Absidy turned on his laptop
and browsed the Arabic sites on the web. By dawn, he understood its
Coincidentally, Absidy's cell phone began to ring. The call was from Axelsson.
"The wood is definitely from a
narra tree, Pterocarpus Indicus. In the U.S., the tree is usually called
narra and sometimes further delineated as red narra or yellow narra. The
narra that grows in southern and southeastern Asia is called Solomons padauk
or Papua New Guinea rosewood. As expected, your plank came from the latter.
We can't pinpoint its exact origin, but Narra grows extensively in the
Philippines. It also grows in Borneo, New Guinea, and the Malay
"Ok, so it's from a tree somewhere in this general vicinity. How old is the wood? Where they able to get determine its age?"
"As far as we can tell, the wood may be more than six thousand years old, but
there's a compound on the wood that has never been seen before, a highly complex organometallic material comprised of hydrogen, graphene carbon and a superheavy element that has never been found on earth outside of a high energy physics laboratory. We're quite certain that the material is extraterrestrial."
"So what I'm holding in my hands
is a tablet from an ancient terrestrial tree coated with an extraterrestrial
substance, is that what you're telling me?"
"Yes and no. Whether the tree was ancient depends on your concept of time. How much do you know about general relativity?"
"Just the basics, why?"
"Okay, we've known that time is relative since we confirmed Einstein's theory. The tree was 'old' as we perceive time on earth, but it might be only a few years old in some other space-time. The radiocarbon dating suggests that the wood is old in our terms, but it might be from a young tree in some other dimension. But graphene is new. It's a recently discovered allotrope of carbon. If you take single atoms of carbon and bind them into a flat sheet, you get graphene. Just to bend your mind a little bit, imagine this: If you stacked twenty million sheets of graphene, one on top of another, it would be one millimeter thick. It's also highly conductive; we're only now learning how it can be used, but graphene is so much more conductive than silicon that it will replace silicon altogether someday. You know what a transistor does, correct? A transistor is a switch. So a transistor made of graphene instead of silicon could be used in things like touchscreens, biodevices or anything that requires a superfast state change. The people at IBM only figured out how to make a working graphene transistor three years ago and it's still highly experimental. To duplicate the compound on your tablet we would have to combine the graphene with hydrogen somehow, which no one has even tried yet, and this third element, ununseptium. Either some being or some entity, from the future or another world, made that thing and stuck it in the mud on your little beach."
"Well, I'm not surprised. Are you sitting down? The inscription changed last night. It's now completely different, and I'm almost sure that I know what it says."
"The characters are now in Arabic script. It's now the opening verse of the Qur'an."
"Read it to me."
"In the name of Allah, the
Beneficent, the Merciful. Master of the Day of Judgment. Thee do we serve
and Thee do we beseech for help. Keep us on the right path. The path of
those upon whom Thou hast bestowed favors. Not the path of those upon whom
Thy wrath is brought down, nor of those who go astray."
"You're absolutely right. That's the Qur'an. And this happened last night while you were asleep?"
"Well Absidy, it seems that you are in possession of some kind of cosmic etch-a-sketch, and if I were you, I'd get rid of the damned thing as fast as possible."
"Think about it. The military will want to weaponize it, the Catholic Church will want to destroy it, and the Muslims will suspect that you are mocking them and issue a fatwa. Your life is in danger, Absidy. Get rid of it!"
"Okay Hans, thanks for the advice," he replied, "I'll stay in touch."
"I mean it, Absidy. Get rid of it as soon as you can."
Axelsson, knowing that Absidy had inherited a stubborn streak from Eva, assumed that Absidy would, at the very least, want to study the tablet before he disposed of it. He called Ella Nordenstjerna, a younger colleague at Lund who held a doctorate in Philosophy. She was very smart and no less attractive, with saphire blue on green eyes and dark brown, almost black hair. She was also a natural athelete who had skied for Sweden in the 1992 Winter Olympics biathalon when she was eighteen years old. She still hit the slopes whenever she had the chance, but her real love was travel. When she couldn't ski she'd fly to ruins in eastern Europe and the Middle East. Her thesis, "The Semiotics of Ancient Middle Eastern Religions," was regarded as an academic masterwork.
"Ella, we have a problem," he said. "Another tablet has turned up, but this one was found by one of my former students. How soon can you pack your bags?"
"Where am I going?"
"To the Philippines."
From Seven Till Dawn sends Absidy and some decidely unusual friends on a take-no-prisoners romp across three continents. It is NOT recommended for young readers. The print (softcover) and Kindle editions are now available at Amazon.com.. The ipad version is on sale at the itunes store, and in ipad, nook, and other ebook formats here.
About the Author
D.H.Weiss retired from the practice of law in New York City after a distinguished legal career that included winning the only acquttal of an extradicted foreign national in the history of the United States. He now resides in Sweden and Southeast Asia. For additional information, he can be reached through his agent, or by email to email@example.com.