In physics, there a principle known as the observer effect. Simply put, the act of measuring something changes it. It should be noted that this is not the same as the uncertainty principle, which tells us that we can only know so much about a thing. That is, if you know exactly where you’re making the measurement, you can’t know anything about when you’re measuring it. Or something like that. It’s been a few years since I’ve been in a physics class. Nevertheless, the map had me thinking about both of these effects.
To be precise, it wasn’t the map. At least not at first. No, at first it was the woman standing in front of the map. I was observing her, and when she noticed I was looking at her, she changed her position by moving back a few steps away from the information desk where I was seated. I had been waiting patiently to answer whatever questions she or any other visitor wished to throw at me.
The map in question was actually on the wall behind the woman, and when no one is standing in front of my desk, I have an unobstructed view. I’ve worked at the Davidsson House Museum for the past three years, and I’ve honestly walked by that map hundreds of times. It’s a drawing of the estate grounds, including the gardens and forest trails as they were shortly after the property was built.
I’ve always thought of that map as a dull thing. Visitors seem to feel this way too. Most people stroll right past the sepia-toned print, their backs to it as they ask me about what they definitely shouldn’t miss during their visit. The map was old, hand drawn, and in my humble opinion, desperately in need of some refurbishment.
Sadly, the condition of the map accurately reflected my current state of being. But it hadn’t always been this way. When I first started working here, I was so excited. As a first-year graduate student in museum studies, I thought getting a part-time position in the Davidsson House was quite a coup. Now, though, not so much. Every day felt like a slog, and the enthusiasm for my schoolwork had all but vanished. I had stopped showing up to lectures, which caused me to fail two of my written exams and every single one of my classes this semester.
I still had to work, though. And now, with my grades as they were, I needed to make a choice too. Do I stay in school or do I go? Staying would mean retaking the classes and the exams. Going would mean something else entirely.
The first observation seemed to be nothing more than a stray reflection off the glass that protected the map. I noticed it, but ignored it, or at least tried to. But it kept distracting me, like someone was flashing a light in my eyes. Annoyed, I finally got up and walked over to the map. I looked closely and found what appeared to be a tiny speck of glitter that had somehow gotten stuck to the glass of the map’s frame. The little starburst was located just off of one of the trails behind the museum property. I reached out to touch the spot on the glass, but quickly stopped myself. I didn’t want to set a bad example if anyone saw me.
That day been a rough one. Very busy, with tours and school groups and lots of people asking questions I couldn’t answer. And that flash of light constantly in the corner of my vision didn’t help my mood. When my shift finally ended, I looked at the map one more time on my way out. Then I thought, what the hell, and instead of heading to my car, I walked to the back of the property and onto the trail. I found the spot easily, partly because I knew the grounds quite well, but also because there was an object exactly where the bright speck on the map had been. Under an enormous oak tree was a little stone statue- a gnome. I picked it up and turned it around in my hands. Nothing unusual, except on the bottom where I found three words etched into the base-
Tempus omnia dabit.
The next day, instead of walking by the map as I normally would, I stopped to gaze at it, trying once again to find that sparkly bit that had distracted me yesterday. I couldn’t find it, even with my eyes nearly on top of the thing. This close though, details I hadn’t noticed before seemed to pop out. Huh, that’s weird. There was something in the garden area of the map that I hadn’t noticed before. Had that always there? Bending around a small circle, in a delicate script were words- the same three words I saw yesterday on the base of the gnome.
But I didn’t have time for further study right then. The doors would be open to the public soon and I needed to get ready for the day. I went to my station behind the welcome desk and prepared myself for the throngs of visitors and bus groups that would soon be streaming through the door. As I expected, we were swamped most of the day, but during any spare moment I had, I caught myself looking at the map and thinking about that little circle. What was it?
Just after lunch, the answer finally came to me, and I felt like an idiot for not remembering sooner.
As soon as my shift was over, I headed to the gardens to find that circle, which I now knew was meant to represent the sundial, a small structure almost as old as the house itself. The engraving was faint, but visible. Etched into the disk of the sundial was that same Latin phrase, which I found out roughly translated to “time will give everything”. Tempus omnia dabit.
In bed that night, I felt inexplicably annoyed by what I had found. It seemed as if the sundial was mocking me. “Time will give everything”. What the hell is that supposed to mean? Time takes, it doesn’t give. Time didn’t give me the opportunity to talk to my father before he died, right smack dab in the middle of the semester. I felt the grief rise in my chest, and I punched it down with anger. There used to be so many possible endings, but time took them all and left me with the worst one.
I slept terribly and woke up to an email from my advisor letting me know that I would need to retake the written exams before the end of the current semester if I wanted to keep my financial aid, which meant I would have just a few weeks to prepare. I sighed. Check one in the box for quitting grad school.
All I wanted to do was call in sick. I’ve never asked for time off before, but I wasn’t sure if I could deal with another day. Those written exams! How could I be ready before the end of the semester? I used to be able to study at the front desk, but lately we’d been so busy. My entire shift could go by without me able to crack a single book, much less read actual pages. No way I could pass the exams without time to review during the day. I could quit, but then I wouldn’t be able to pay my rent. I doubted homelessness would help with my studies.
So I got up, showered, and unexplainable even to myself, I arrived at work earlier than usual. I suppose I wanted an extra few minutes to look at the map while the museum was still quiet. The message from the sundial was annoying, but it was also interesting. Time will give everything. Ha, I thought. Ridiculous. But seeing the property so carefully and expertly drawn somehow softened me.
This particular house had stood against 240 years of time, giving and taking in various ways. It had been erected during the Revolutionary War, and years later it served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. It had stubbornly survived fires and cannon strikes during the Civil War. Now, only the scars remained- like the repaired area where three cannonballs had hit on the southwest side of the property. How many times had I directed visitors to that very spot?
My gaze on the map moved with my thoughts, and I noticed that something wasn’t quite right. I squinted, trying to see if I was imagining it. On the side of the building where cannonballs had yet to punch through the brick, the mapmaker had penned in a little swatch of ornamental ivy. And possibly something else.
I went back to the information desk and searched the drawers for the magnifying glass that I knew was in there somewhere. I found it and brought it back to the map. I wished I could bring the entire thing downstairs to the archival area. It would be so much easier if I could take the map out the frame to more closely examine it. But of course I couldn’t, so the magnifying glass would have to do.
And surprisingly, it did. Hidden within the ivy was a signature. An impossible one. It couldn’t be, could it?
On my lunch break, I went outside the museum house intending study the southwest corner that I had been looking at on the map earlier. On the way, I spotted a volunteer I recognized- a statuesque woman named Dori. She was, coincidentally, trimming vines of invasive English Ivy from a nearby oak. Dori had been with Davidsson House for over twenty-five years, giving tours as well as working the gardens. I’ve probably learned more about the house and its collection from Dori than from anyone else.
“Gwen? Is that you?” Dori shielded her eyes against the sunlight.
“Yes, it’s me. Just getting outside for a little break.”
“That’s good. You work too much.”
“I don’t know about that.”
“Well, you do. I see you here nearly every day, and I know you’ve been picking up shifts for people because we’re constantly short-staffed and the powers that be won’t hire anyone. Between this and your school work. I don’t know how you do it.”
She sat down on the bench under the tree and invited me to join her.
“Unfortunately, I’m not. I’m failing. I don’t know if I’m going to stay, or even if they’ll let me stay. Honestly, I’m feeling burnt out.”
Dori looked at me with sympathetic eyes. “Oh honey, I had no idea, but I’m not surprised. What you need is a little time.”
“Mmm hmm. Time to recharge. Time to think. Want to walk with me for a little bit?”
We walked the estate at a leisurely pace, with Dori stopping periodically to trim invasive plants as she noticed them. I told her about what I thought I found on the map- the delicately penned ivy camouflaging an unlikely signature.
Her eyes widened, “Wait, the map by the front entrance, the one that nobody ever looks at?”
I nodded, “Yes, that’s the one.”
“And the signature, you think its Evelyn Lewis’s?”
“I’m not positive, not even close to being positive. But I am convinced something is there, hidden in the ivy.”
“And you know who Evelyn was.” It was more of a statement than a question.
I nod again, “Yes, she was a maidservant for the house. A freed slave. I don’t know, but something in me is telling me that she’s also the creator of that map.”
Dori smiled. “I wouldn’t be surprised at all. Now tell me, how on Earth did you find her signature?”
“Ha, well, I’ve been staring at that map way too long.”
“Or just long enough. Time- often that’s all it takes.”
I look at her, wondering how she could possibly know. Maybe time does occasionally offer a gift. The things we observe, without time, they would never change.
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