When I was fifteen, Iris Park, whom I loved desperately even though I knew she didn’t love me, dared me to visit Chiang Kolodny’s Tomb.
I laughed to show her I wasn’t afraid, even though my guts had shriveled up and out of my belly button. “Kolodny’s Tomb doesn’t exist. Everyone talks about it like it’s this magical place, but it’s bull.” I laughed again. “Right?”
Iris shook her head. “It’s real.” She took a drag from those weird Moroccan cigarettes she stole from our art teacher. They smelled like mystery and volcanoes. “My sister’s boyfriend knows how to get there. They’re going tonight. I want you to come with us. I want you to see it for yourself.”
Iris Park was two years older than me. She was on the dance team. She could leap five feet straight in the air and hover before landing. Everyone loved Iris. Even gravity loved her because it allowed her to defy it every time she stepped onto the field at halftime.
And now she wanted me to visit Kolodny’s Tomb. There was no such thing.
Chiang Kolodny was a story seniors told frosh to scare them. Chiang Kolodny was the eccentric billionaire founder of our town. He was a slavetrader who hoarded uncut emeralds. He sold vacuum cleaners. Chiang Kolodny was the hero, the boogeyman, the cautionary tale and the bold ideal we all strove for but would never live up to.
His tomb was supposed to be crammed with treasures and traps and tarantulas as big as German shepherds. It was based on Da Vinci’s designs and built by Nikola Tesla. Kolodny’s Tomb defied time and space. Kids entered but came out fifty years older. It cured cancer. It caused speech impediments. I knew it was nothing but stories, the kind that kids tell each other at slumber parties and keggers and in fumbling backseats.
I knew it was garbage, but I also knew that Iris Park wanted to take me there. If Iris wanted it, I would do it. I said yes. We made plans.
Friday night, I met her and her sister and her boyfriend. Their names don’t matter, because they didn’t matter. Only Iris mattered.
We drove in the Park family minivan, all of our parents reassured with stories of tame movie nights at some boring family’s house.
(This was before cell phones and GPS and ID tracking. Our parents trusted us, so we always pushed the boundaries. Now there’s no trust, and with good reason. The world is a terrifying place full of armed maniacs and wild-eyed madmen and cable news.)
I don’t remember the conversation in the car, because Iris had taken my hand the minute I sat down next to her. Everything else was just noise. Her fingers were fine and strong, and she had chipped the polish on her ring finger. It was a deep red, like roses. Like blood. Every few minutes, she would give my hand a squeeze or rub her thumb over mine. A reminder that she was glad I was there. I believed her.
We left the highway, and the roads grew smaller and twistier. We were deep in the hills that overlooked our city, where civilization ended. We took a turn, and the lights of the city vanished. Even the glow from the horizon was gone, like we’d fallen off the edge of the world. I wanted to tell the boyfriend to stop the car, to turn back, to let me out. This wasn’t right. This had gone from dare to dumb idea. It was late, I had lied to my parents, and I didn’t know where we were. We were going to die, and no one would find our bodies.
Iris put her lips to my ear. “This is so exciting. Aren’t you excited? I’m so glad you came.” She kissed my ear, and I swallowed my tongue.
The minivan finally stopped, and we sat in the dark, the engine pinging itself cool. Iris turned off the interior lights, and we exited. Above, I could see more stars than I ever had in my life. Not even at Scout Camp in the middle of the mountains had I seen this sky.
Think of a table. Cover it with a black velvet cloth. Splash purple and indigo paint and scatter every diamond in the world over it. Now, as you watch this, imagine the small, strong fingers of Iris Park laced through yours as she guides you into that sky. Gravity inverts, your stomach rolls into your brains, and you’re falling into the night, into a rushing river of hard, bright light.
I shook my head, and I was alone by the car. I heard the hoots of my companions as they rushed into the grove of live oaks.
I bounded after them. I tripped over roots and skinned my knees. Branches smacked me in the face. I’m pretty sure a squirrel jumped onto my head and yanked my hair.
I don’t know how long or how far I ran, but I do know that I would have kept running if I hadn’t smacked into the wall of Kolodny’s Tomb. That’s the only thing it could have been, there in the middle of this forest that developers hadn’t turned into a subdivision.
The Tomb ate light. I could feel it consuming the stars and the streetlights. I could feel it pull away the moon’s reflection from my eyes. The Tomb was three times my height, and I was big. The only reason I was first tuba was because I could heft my horn without effort. The Tomb made me feel small. It was smooth and black, like the model of the SR-71 I had made when I was fourteen. It was my favorite plane. It was so fast and flew so high, and its black paint job absorbed radar and laughed at Soviet missiles. The Blackbird was cool. But not as cool as the Tomb.
The Tomb pulled my body heat through my wool band jacket. I felt the heat leave me. But I still put my arms out and hugged the Tomb. I put my cheek to it, felt how smooth and perfect its surface was. Like Iris’s nail polish.
I walked around the Tomb until I felt a seam on one of its walls. It was a fine line as big as my thumb. I ran a finger down it. It opened.
And I don’t mean a door opened. I mean the entire Tomb unfolded like an origami demonstration in reverse. And it let out all the light. Every fold that slicked back released light. The streetlights, the houselights, the lamplights, the starlight, the lifelight. All of it.
I couldn’t look away. I couldn’t move. All that light annihilated me. It became me. I became the light.
And, in the middle: Chiang Kolodny.
It had to be him, of course, with that calm smile, that stubbled head, those hangdog eyes. Who else but the mystery man who haunted our stories? He looked like every kind teacher I’d wanted, every adventurous uncle I’d dreamed of. His eyes had secrets; his smile said he’d share them.
But I couldn’t move. I couldn’t speak. I could only watch as he raised a finger and gave it a gentle wag.
And it went dark.
The search and rescue team found me the next morning. It was still dark, because they used flashlights as they shouted they’d found me. The sheriffs hustled me to my parents, who cried and yelled and embraced me as they asked just what I had been thinking.
Iris was gone, of course, as was the Park minivan. There was no mention of who’d made the anonymous phone call about the missing tubaist.
She wouldn’t speak to me in school the next day. I left notes in her locker, but they were never answered. She ignored me at halftime.
I had tried to explain to my parents what we’d been doing out there, and they tried very, very hard to understand. But they couldn’t. And I couldn’t explain.
I still can’t, even though I spend every moment I can looking over maps and charts, trying to find Kolodny’s Tomb.
I’ve gone over Google Earth, I’ve dredged up every chat room, I’ve eavesdropped on my own kids as they whisper and dare and plan. I can’t find that place that took in all that light and released it in one brilliant motion.
But maybe you can. Maybe it’s meant for you. All I ask is that, if you find Chiang Kolodny, please ask him, if he could, for just one mystery. Not all of them. Just one. His choice.
(This story was inspired by this episode of 99% Invisible: http://99percentinvisible.org/episode/episode-83-heyoon/. I hope you give it a listen.)
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