Boston, June 20, 2006, 11:00 a.m.
Roger Planckton, Professor of Religious Symbology at Harvard University, was lingering over a plate of organic tofu quiche and poring over the latest issue of "The Journal of the Sacred Feminine," suddenly he heard footsteps. Oh God, another student taking issue with his exam grade. His eyes rose to meet an unexpected surprise. Standing before him was a most strikingly beautiful young woman. What is Catherine Zeta-Jones doing in my office?
An unmistakably Irish brogue jolted Roger Planckton from this fantasy, confirming that it was not, in fact, a famous actress standing before him, though the resemblance was uncanny. "Professor, my name is Brigid Maturin. I’ve traveled here from Ireland to see you, because I read your article on ancient riddles and secret codes and I am convinced you are my last hope. I need to solve a riddle." A riddle? My specialty.
"By all means. Have a seat Miss Maturin. I'm at your service entirely. It is 'Miss' Maturin I presume?" Wishful thinking.
"Why yes. As I was saying, I need your help with a riddle. My great great great great great grandfather was a famous and wealthy world traveler and explorer during the 19th century. You may have heard the name of Dr. Stephen Maturin from his many publications on natural philosophy. While he never quite achieved the fame of his friend and colleague Charles Darwin, he did make a number of important discoveries of his own. Dr. Maturin's best known work is a treatise on mind-altering plant substances of the world. But what is not well known is that he began his career as a young surgeon in the English navy during the Napoleonic Wars. According to family history he was a distinguished war hero and accomplished sailor and navigator as well as a physician and scholar. After his military service, he sailed the seven seas in his own vessel, studying nature and collecting specimens. When finally he deemed himself too old to explore, he returned to his native Ireland to live out his days. It was during those final years that he developed an interest in pre-Christian religion, goddess worship, Druids and Celtic ritual, and the family wrote him off as dotty. Finally, before his death, he hid his great fortune, burying pots of gold all over Ireland. After he died his daughter, for whom I am named, discovered his sea chest filled with notebooks containing strange writings in code. On top was a letter to Brigid, laying out several puzzles, clues to locate the buried treasure. It was a game I think they must have played often. Brigid managed to solve most of the riddles and recovered the treasure. But one puzzle remains, despite the efforts of six generations of Maturins. We suspect it is the clue to the most valuable treasure of them all. There are family rumors of a great blue diamond, as large, perhaps, as any diamond known to exist. If you can crack the code, Dr. Planckton, we might both become rich beyond our wildest dreams."
"You have brought the riddle with you I presume." God I love the way she tosses her hair.
"Of course!" said Brigid, handing over an antique parchment.
The faded script read:
Where lies the greatest treasure trove
By sun’s first light, year’s longest day
Sheela points the seeker’s way
One more hint I’ll give to you
Who know my favorite tales true:
The name, to Irish peerage born
Great hunter of the unicorn
Roger Planckton studied these words and wrinkled his brow. "First of all, does any of this mean anything to you?"
The first stanza is Greek to me, Dr. Planckton, but I may be able to help with the second. There is a family story about a crazy ship captain called Lord Clonfert, who claimed he had killed a unicorn and collected its horn, which he proudly displayed. Dr. Maturin knew that it was a really just a Narwhal tusk but felt, I believe, sympathy for the poor deranged man. A case of birds of a feather, I suspect.
Dr. Planckton’s jaw dropped. His face lit up and he looked directly at Brigid. “Miss Maturin, where did you leave your car?"
"I think you Americans call it a parking lot."
"No, I mean in Ireland, when you left the country."
"Dublin airport, Dr. Planckton."
"Miss Maturin, we must be on the very first plane back to Dublin. Today is the twentieth of June and tomorrow is the summer solstice. According to the riddle, we can only unlock the treasure at first light tomorrow. Dublin is five hours ahead of Boston. There’s not a moment to lose!"
Dublin, June 21, 2006, 2:00 a.m.
"You drive, I'll navigate."
"Sure, but Jaysus, Mary and Joseph, Dr. Planckton, where are we going?"
"Clonfert Cathedral, of course."
"What? That’s in County Galway! It’s over two hours from Dublin!"
"Drive as fast as you can, Miss Maturin. We must get there by first light, and by my calculations, that will occur in just over two hours."
"I'll drive like a banshee, Dr. Planckton, but you have some explaining to do!"
“The first clue, Miss Maturin, was 'the ancient navigator.' Did you know that Clonfert Cathedral was built to honor St. Brendan the Navigator?"
"That's news to me, I’ve never visited the cathedral."
"Miss Maturin, I believe I know the answer to the riddle, and in just a little while we’ll both know whether I’m correct." God I hope I've got this thing right.
Clonfert Cathedral 4:30 a.m.
"I can already see light in the sky. I only hope we're not too late! Brigid, have you ever heard of a Sheela-na-gig?"
"Well, it’s a symbol of the ancient sacred feminine. It's what I study. It's...they are ancient Celtic sculptures, usually fertility symbols, which have been incorporated into modern Christian churches. There is a famous one right here in this cathedral. Look just over there. Do you see the mermaid combing her hair?"
"Ooo, she's lovely! Whoever would think such a thing could be found in a Catholic church! She must be the Sheela who points our way."
"I am guessing she is." Thank God it’s not raining. "You see she has a small mirror in her other hand. That's Venus's hand mirror, the ultimate symbol of femininity."
At that very moment, the first ray of sunlight appeared over the horizon and traveled through the purple stained glass window in the cathedral's east wall. A purple ray met the mermaid’s mirror, reflected, and in turn came to rest upon a stone on the opposite wall.
"THERE!" shrieked Dr. Planckton. "Quickly! Take hold of that handle before the light moves!"
Together they tugged and heaved with all their strength. Slowly the stone shuddered, and dislodged itself in a fury of dust. The two travelers fell back, coughing and sputtering.
Amidst the clearing dust, they pulled themselves up to see a large stone crypt they had yanked from the cathedral wall. Together they peered into the chamber, searching, searching for a flash of blue brilliance, any sign of diamonds or gemstones. Alas, there was none. But they did see something gleaming.
"What is it?" asked Brigid.
"It's a golden cup. A chalice of some sort," said Dr. Planckton.
"IS THAT IT?" cried Brigid.
"That appears to be it," said Dr. Planckton, holding up the chalice and brushing away the dust.
"It looks very old. Do you suppose it’s valuable?"
"A chalice is yet another symbol of femininity, as woman is the vessel of new life. But aside from its symbolic value, I doubt it."
Brigid sighed. “I had so hoped to become very rich today. Even if this thing is solid gold I am not rich. But I do believe you have solved the last Maturin riddle once and for all, Dr. Planckton."
"Please, call me Roger." Is it possible she likes me?
Their eyes met. "Well, be damned to the treasure, you shall be my diamond, Roger. We'll leave this dusty old cup thingy here on the altar. Maybe the priests can use it. Let’s have a nice drive in the country, shall we?
© 2006 Robin Welch