The Keeper of History
Looking back, I find it funny how a seemingly normal day could have turned into something so wild and extraordinary. Aunt Katie had taken me to the ice cream parlor and the park, and now it was time to go to the museum. For the first time, the museum was putting on an exhibit about ‘Exploration’ in all its forms. Things made by or relating to people who had explored their various fields would all go on display in one magnificent gallery. Aunt Katie worked at the museum and had put together the exhibit. After two years of negotiating with different museums to borrow famous pieces and objects, like the Mona Lisa and Galileo’s very own telescope, she and her colleagues had finally finished the project, and today was the exhibit’s opening day! Aunt Katie was taking me as a special treat, because I loved history.
As we climbed the majestic marble steps up to the entrance, I thought I smelled something. Could it be… soup? No, of course not. Food wasn’t allowed in the museum...
I didn’t have time to ponder the smell, however, because at that moment we reached the entrance, and were ushered through it by one of my aunt’s colleagues.
“Hello, Katie!” he said jovially.
“Hello, Bertram! Are we too early?”
“No, no, right on time,” said Bertram. “The gallery is going to open in a few minutes. We do need you to help with the lighting though. The spotlights are facing the entirely wrong direction. Can you fix it?”
“Oh, of course!” Aunt Katie turned to me. “Samara, why don’t you go and wait by the gallery doors – they are on the eighth floor. You can take the elevator.” She then followed Bertram through a door that said ‘STAFF ONLY’ and I took the elevator up to Level 8.
The gallery doors were still closed, and a number of excited-looking people were waiting on benches outside. I sat down and waited with them.
After a few minutes the doors opened, and Aunt Katie was there, ready to take me through and show me around the exhibit.
“You fixed the spotlights then?” I asked.
“Yes, usually Gerry would have done it, but he’s welcoming visitors downstairs.”
First, we looked at the science section, where I saw a telescope of Galileo’s made of wood and red leather, and a flask that was used by Marie Curie. We looked at these for a while, and then moved on to literature, where we saw a first edition of a Charles Dickens novel. After that we looked at the art collection, which included paintings by Andy Warhol, Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent van Gogh, and many more. Finally, we came to the adventure section. Aunt Katie showed me a quilted otterskin bag that had been given to Lewis and Clark, the notable American explorers, by native American tribes during their famous expedition, but I was most interested in the Viking helmets I found by the bust of Christopher Columbus. They had dents and cracks, and I could almost envision the Vikings who had worn them. We walked through the exhibit for nearly five hours, admiring every relic and piece of artwork.
Outside a window above a tapestry from Persia, the sun was sinking below the horizon, and the gallery began to empty. Finally, it was just Aunt Katie, Bertram, and me.
“I think we should probably get home” said Aunt Katie. “Samara, your mother will get mad if I don’t have you back there by 8:30, and she’s –”
“Katie! Bertram!” Another staff member burst in.
“What is it, Gerry?” asked Bertram. This must have been the one Aunt Katie had told me about earlier, who had been welcoming in visitors. Gerry was panting.
“One of the modern art pieces fell on a visitor downstairs!”
“Goodness!” cried Aunt Katie. “Samara, stay right here, I’ll be back in a moment – don’t touch the art!” With that, she, Bertram and Gerry rushed through the gallery doors and hurried off.
I sat down on a bench below a painting by Michelangelo, and waited. And waited. And waited...
I looked at my watch. 8:30! What was taking them so long? And then I heard it. The click of a lock. I rushed to the doors. It couldn’t be… locked! The museum had an automatic lock system. Someone downstairs must have flicked a switch by accident! Then suddenly the lights turned off too, and it occurred to me that the museum closed at 8:30, so... I would be locked here in the dark all night!
I started to panic. I walked around the exhibit twice, trying to find an unlocked exit, but the only door apart from the entrance was the staff door, and you needed a key to get through that.
I peered on tiptoes through one of the windows next to the Mona Lisa. If I craned my neck, I could see the twinkling lights of the city below, but there was no way I could climb down – I was eight stories up! And anyway, it would be too dangerous to climb in the dark, even if I was closer to the ground.
I sat under the Mona Lisa and looked around the gallery. It was dark, but the sky outside the window was still tinted blue, and I could make out the vague shapes of artefacts, and the subjects of paintings. They seemed menacing now that I was alone.
And then I noticed it again – stronger now – the smell of soup wafting towards me. I leapt up and realized that the smell was coming from the painting right behind me; the Mona Lisa. I inched closer.
Wait a second… she wasn’t there! No hint of a person in the painting, just an empty backdrop: a pretty countryside and a lake lined with rocks and trees. I stared, transfixed. She had been there half an hour ago! I leaned closer in toward the painting...
The canvas closed in like walls, then contorted into a funnel shape and twisted around me. The colors on it swirled in brilliant circles, it was too bright, I closed my eyes –
Cool air washed over my face and I could feel damp grass beneath me. I hoisted myself up and looked around to see a countryside dappled in moonlight surrounding a rock-lined lake with the reflection of the moon in its gleaming water. In the other direction a vast meadow rippled in the wind, and far off in the distance I could see a house, lights glowing from its upper windows.
Thinking someone in the house could tell me where I was, I made my way towards it, weaving in and out of the wildflowers that dotted the grass. As I walked, another whiff of the soup smell wafted past me, and I quickened my pace. I was hungry.
After a few minutes, the door of the house loomed into view. I stood before it for a few moments, then rapped lightly – but I needn’t have, for at that moment a man with a wispy beard and a very old-fashioned hairstyle thrust open the door and nearly knocked me over. He stared.
“Er, hello, could you tell me where I am?” I asked. He kept staring. “Please, I’m very hungry, and I’ve had the most peculiar day. I was —”
He held up a hand, not taking his eyes off me, and beckoned me through the entranceway.
I followed him down a hall, up a staircase, and into a large dining hall filled with the most unusual assortment of people I had ever seen. Now it was my turn to stare. As the man led me through the hall to a table at the far end, I passed under a magnificent crystal chandelier that cast a dancing golden light around the room. Still keeping up with the man in front of me, I looked around and saw a woman wearing a high-collared black dress sitting at a table next to a man who was scowling down at the star chart in his hand. The scowling man said something in what sounded like Italian, and as soon as he had finished, a squat little man in between them, who I had not noticed before, turned to the woman in the black dress and addressed her in English.
“Ms. Curie, Signor Galileo here says that ‘they have put Ganymede in the wrong place. It is a disgrace.’”
“Well, you tell Galileo,” she replied, “that he is very critical, and should work on being less judgmental.”
As the squat man began translating to Italian again, I was led past a group of men laughing raucously. I recognized two of them from something we had learned at school – Lewis and Clark, the American explorers! They were talking to Christopher Columbus – another face I recognized from a textbook.
I looked around in astonishment at the room. So many famous artists, scientists, and explorers were chatting as though they saw each other every day! And, I realized, the characters that some of them had created were here too! I saw several people I recognized from paintings in the gallery, and I saw a few characters from books that had featured in the literature section too.
Finally, the wispy-bearded man leading me reached his destination – a table with ten spindly chairs surrounding it. The woman from the Mona Lisa painting was sitting there, shouting at a blond man I recognized as the celebrated painter Andy Warhol.
“Lisa!” the wispy-bearded man called to her.
“What, Charles?” she asked impatiently. Suddenly I realized that I knew who the man with the wispy beard was – Charles Dickens! I recognized him from a picture in the back of one of his books that I had read.
“Well,” he began, but the woman from the Mona Lisa didn’t let him finish.
“Listen! We have thousands of years of food-related art to work through, and all he eats” – she pointed an accusing finger at Warhol – “is soup!”
I remembered seeing Andy Warhol’s art in the museum – he had a painting of loads of cans of soup. Sure enough, Warhol was sipping slowly out of a large can of Campbell’s Tomato Soup.
“Anyway,” Charles Dickens said. “This – this girl here, I think she’s from the museum!”
The woman from the Mona Lisa looked closely at me.
“Really? How nice! Pleasure to meet you!”
“Pleasure to meet you too, er...” I started, not sure how to address her.
“Everyone calls me Lisa.” she said, smiling.
“Right, Lisa, well I don’t know how I got here or how to get back and I’m really very confused. Is there someone here who can explain… all this?”
“Of course! Follow me.” Lisa led me out of the noisy hall into a parlor with an arched window.
“What would you like to know?” she asked.
“Well, what this place is, for a start.”
“I’m honestly not quite sure myself. I mean, when I heard about this exhibit, and I heard that my painting would be brought here, I decided that while we have everyone together, we could have some fun! So I invited everyone to come to my painting. This is it, if you can’t tell.” She gestured fondly through the arched window at the moonlit landscape outside. Now I recognized it from the backdrop of the Mona Lisa painting.
“But how – how – you’re just – things! Paintings! Artefacts! How come you can, you know, think! And how come the people who created you are here too! I mean, I saw Marie Curie and Galileo arguing earlier! And I saw characters from books! And how come you’re all in this painting, why not another? And –”
“Slow down!” said Lisa laughingly. “What’s your name?”
“Well, Samara, we have a Keeper.”
“A Keeper. Every fifty years, a new one is appointed. A Keeper of History. Everything that has happened, or existed, in the past has something that’s caused it, and a result, and a whole number of other things in between. For instance, Leonardo da Vinci painted me. He, in a way, caused me to exist. I, the Mona Lisa, am the result, but there were many other things in between that influenced the creation of my painting. The real woman that da Vinci based the painting on, the paints he used... see? The Keepers of History know all about the deep, tangled, endless magic that connects all things of the past. They have sworn not to tell anyone about it, and they always keep their promises. It was the current Keeper of History that allowed us to meet and host this gathering. They work in the museum, so they were able to arrange it.”
“Who’s the Keeper right now?” I asked.
“We can’t tell you, but someday you may find out on your own.” She smiled again, and it was the same kind of mysterious smile that was painted onto the canvas that had brought me here.
“Is he in there?” I asked, indicating the hall. “Leonardo da Vinci, I mean.”
“Yes, he was chatting to Archimedes and Shakespeare last I saw him.”
“Wait, there weren’t any Shakespearean relics in the gallery! And there wasn’t a mathematics section in it either, and Archimedes was a mathematician! How come they’re here?”
“Well,” said Lisa. “We couldn’t help inviting Shakespeare and his characters – they are very interesting to talk to. And Archimedes is such a laugh. Anyway, the more the merrier, right?”
“Right” I said dazedly. “And, er – I will be able to get back to the museum, right?”
“You’re in the museum.”
“You know what I mean! I came from over there,” I pointed through the window across the field. “But there wasn’t a doorway or anything.”
“Well, I was already here – it’s my painting after all, so I don’t know anything about how to get in or out. But you do” said Lisa.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You came into this painting somehow, so you should be able to get out! How did you get in?”
“Hmm. What’s the opposite of falling?”
“Maybe. Like I said, I don’t know, but you should try. It seems like a reasonable enough solution.”
I turned towards the hall, which was echoing with laughter and music.
“Even if that is the way to get out... I’m not ready to leave quite yet.” When else would I get to talk to some of the most influential people in history?
“You’re welcome to stay a while!” said Lisa. “Should we go back to the hall?”
So we returned to the hall, where a few medieval minstrels were making quite a racket.
It was the most fun I had had for as long as I could remember. After chatting to Archimedes about advanced geometrical theorems for a while (he really was a laugh), I plucked up the courage to go and say hello to Shakespeare, but at the last moment I backtracked and decided to just ask Lisa to do it for me later, and contented myself in watching him engage Julius Caesar in conversation. Then I returned to Lisa’s table, where she had put a bowl of fruit temptingly in front of Andy Warhol, who was still stubbornly drinking his soup.
“Really, it’s unhealthy to just eat soup all day!” she pleaded with him.
Warhol pushed the bowl away, and I helped myself to a juicy-looking apple. Lisa gave up on Warhol’s eating habits and started talking animatedly to Charles Dickens.
“ – and I haven’t read your books, but I’ve heard they’re really good!”
Dickens looked flattered.
“I’m glad people think so!”
After what felt like ten minutes, I felt a wave of drowsiness come over me, and I failed to stifle a yawn. I wondered how late it was. It must be nearing ten o’clock, I thought to myself. Lisa peered over at me.
“You look tired. Maybe you should leave now. It is rather late for a child.”
I didn't want to leave, but it was true. I was very tired.
“I don't want to leave though! I might never be able to talk to you lot again! I mean, how many times do people accidentally fall into paintings?”
“I understand. But you can't stay here forever,” said Lisa sympathetically. “I can make leaving easier for you though, if you like.” She extracted an old-fashioned polaroid camera from somewhere in her dress, and handed it to Warhol. “Here, can you take the photo?”
Warhol took the camera and Lisa beckoned for me to stand next to her. Flash! The camera clicked, and a photograph started coming out of the top of it. When it had fully printed, Lisa gave it to me, and I tucked it into one of my pockets.
“Alright”, I said. “I'm ready to go now.”
So Lisa led me back through the house and onto the meadow.
“We decided I should try to jump, right?” I asked.
I looked back at the house, and suddenly remembered that I had never talked to Shakespeare.
“Tell Shakespeare I say hello.”
“I’ll do that.”
I turned my face upward to the star-strewn sky and leapt as high as I could.
The landscape erupted around me into a splendid dome, painted with colors, stretching up, and up. The brilliant colors swirled in blinding circles, brighter, and brighter; almost too bright. I closed my eyes and –
I opened my eyes and looked around me, but there was nothing to see. I could just make out a window across the room, its glass illuminated from beneath by the orange glow of artificial street lamps.
I crept up to it and looked out at the street below. It looked the same as it had a few hours ago – or had it been minutes? I checked my watch, and saw that it was almost three in the morning. My sense of time must have altered when I went into the Mona Lisa.
I must be back in the gallery, I thought. It was darker now than it had been before I went into the painting. The faint bluish tint of the sky had finally been replaced by inky blackness, and the darkness was almost absolute. I waited for my eyes to adjust.
The tick-tock tick-tock of my watch was making me sleepy… I sat down on the bench next to Galileo’s telescope and closed my eyes…
And suddenly, dazzling golden light was streaming through the window, and I could hear the sound of traffic on the street below. I glanced at my wrist. 5:45 am.
I leapt up. Sure enough, I was in the gallery, and Mona Lisa was back in her frame, as if nothing had ever happened. Maybe it hadn’t – it was a ludicrous thought, after all, that a girl should fall into a painting.
And the Keeper of History Lisa had told me about? How stupid! I must have hit my head when I fell. Yes, that was it.
A quarter of an hour later, I heard voices coming from outside the gallery doors, and moments later, the click of a lock. Aunt Katie and my mother rushed in.
“Samara!” My mother dashed forward and hugged me. “Goodness, when you didn’t come home last night you gave me such a fright!”
“How are you?” asked Aunt Katie. She looked guilty.
“I’m OK. I even slept a bit. But what happened? You left with Bertram and Gerry to help with something, and you never came back!”
“Well, er – we went down to help with that poor visitor who was under the modern art piece when it fell and, well, it turned out that he’d broken his leg and was in no fit state to walk, and Gerry had to get home, and Bertram fainted when he saw what an odd angle the visitor’s leg was sticking out at, so I called the emergency room, and I’d just gotten off the phone with them when the phone died (that was why I didn’t get your mother’s texts) and then Bertram came around and helped me lift the visitor into the ambulance and then we had to go with him to the hospital and I wanted to make sure he was OK so I waited and after about three hours the doctors came out and told me they had put a cast on the injury and someone would have to –”
“You don’t have to explain the whole thing!” said my mother. “Goodness, Katie, you’ve had a rough night. Take a nap and then come around to our house for lasagna later.”
So that afternoon Aunt Katie came to our house, and we had an excellent supper of lasagna and ice cream. She stayed for hours and hours, until it was time for me to go to bed.
When I had flicked off the light, I remembered the photo that Warhol had taken of Lisa and me. It felt like such a clear memory, but I knew it couldn’t have really happened. Not wanting to disappoint myself, I decided not to check my trouser pocket for the photo.
Only when I had burrowed down into my comfy duvet did I hear the bedroom door opening. Aunt Katie came in. She sat down next to my bed in a spindly chair that reminded me of the ones around the table that Lisa had sat at.
“I’m sorry, Samara.”
“It’s OK, Auntie.”
A warm silence filled the room for a moment, until it was broken by Aunt Katie.
“What did you think of the Mona Lisa?”
Even through the dark, I could tell she was smiling.