It started in the spring of 2007. That March, Zhang was invited to attend a conference at Boston University, thanks to a Chinese-American archaeological research agreement. In Boston, he met one Dr. David J. Whitener, researcher of East Asian culture at the Cabot Museum, which at the time was holding a special exhibition on Far East relics. Sensing a rare opportunity, Dr. Whitener invited Zhang to have a look around the museum after the conference concluded. The definitive circumstances of the visit are lost to the ages, as such a fleeting event is naturally impossible to investigate, but in his unsteady handwriting, Zhang made repeated (almost rambling) note of a singular artifact——a leather scroll of unknown origin.
I emailed Dr. Whitener once about this affair. The kind-hearted old man enthusiastically corroborated my constructed version of the events, and sent me a few pictures of that leather scroll besides. After a cautious examination of the photographs, I had to agree with Zhang: the peculiar artifact was at once eye-catching and thoroughly incomprehensible. I could make neither head nor tail of it.
The leather hide was extremely old, appearing to have been undergone an extraordinary artisanal tanning technique for swine-skin. Its carefully-trimmed edges were about six inches wide by twelve long, and the whole thing a dead, ashen grey. What disturbed me, however, lay in the center of that ashen face: a striking sequence of symbols, smeared in an unusual dark brown ink. The symbols seemed at first glance to be oracle-bone, or perhaps bronze inscription-style, characters——not unusual for ancient Far East artifacts——but after careful examination, one discovered these symbols originated from an altogether separate codex. Nevertheless, frequent students of archaeology can readily recognize an ideographic system. Altogether there were seventy of these symbols, neatly arranged in five rows by fourteen columns, repeating only rarely——hinting that the ancient tongue was complex indeed.
Dr. Whitener also sent me some information about the scroll’s history. According to the museum archives, the relic had been brought to America by an explorer named Claude Jacobs in the 1920s, who traded for it in a remote village somewhere near the current border of Sichuan province. Mr. Jacobs wrote in great detail of his dealings with the villagers in bartering for the leather scroll, noting that it had been originally preserved in “an especially disgusting little mud pottery, whose surface was etched with a pattern of obscene deities.” Sadly, by the time Cabot’s grandson Thomas bequeathed Mr. Jacob’s expansive collection of curios to the Cabot Museum in 1986, only the scroll remained. The pottery had been lost.
The scroll was unnaturally thin, and although it came from a distant era, had retained the soft suppleness of skin. No doubt it had been tanned by some uniquely powerful process. There was as of yet no consensus on exactly to which species of animal the skin belonged. Having exchanged hands many times, the leather’s carbon was quite severely contaminated, preventing the Cabot Museum from evaluating it with carbon-14 dating. Moreover, due to lacking a similar artifact to reference, the museum was unable to pinpoint the leather scroll’s precise era. On top of that, deciphering the symbols proved an ordeal worthy of Sisyphus. Claude Jacobs had originally thought the symbols to be primitive Tibetan, but Tibetan scholars quickly eliminated this possibility. The museum had already sent a transcript to the most prominent linguists and archaeo-graphologists of the day, but not a one of them could decrypt it——or even locate a similar specimen.
What had stood out most to Dr. Whitener was Zhang’s miraculous understanding of the inscrutable object. In his email, Dr. Whitener wrote that upon studying the scroll, Zhang was able to offer him a new perspective. During an expansive excavation of the ruins of Sanxingdui (the “Three Stars Mound”) in April of 2005, the Paleoanthropological Institute of Sichuan had unearthed an unusual bronze statue of a snake. It was more or less a common Sanxingdui artifact by make, but its decoration made it exceptional: the partial statue had been carved over and over with a single strange mark, the like of which had not yet been observed on any known artifact. Zhang, having studied the odd bronze snake before, dimly recognized the hints of likeness between that symbol and the dark handwritten characters of the leather scroll. Since the scroll had been discovered in a village on the district border, Zhang inferred it must have originated in either the plains of Chengdu or a remote corner of the West Sichuan mountains.
Naturally, this completely new perspective captivated Dr. Whitener. He gave Zhang several high-resolution photos of the scroll and brought him to the museum’s archives for access to Claude Jacobs’ microfilm journal entries. According to Dr. Whitener, Zhang spent over two hours taking copious notes at that tiny viewing screen, and fought to stay longer when the time came for the museum to close. He had to be escorted, broken-hearted, from the archive room. Zhang promised Dr. Whitener he would return to the States to continue researching the matter, and to follow the gossamer-thin threads in Jacobs’ journal to settle the question of the scroll’s origin once and for all. Regrettably, although the two of them kept in contact, it seemed that Zhang’s research——and their correspondence——eventually slowed to a crawl, until the whole affair faded almost completely from Dr. Whitener’s memory. Indeed, until I reached out to him, Dr. Whitener had not even heard of Zhang’s disappearance.