Rosetta arrived on the coldest day of winter when the river was frozen over entirely with a crisp, shimmering layer of ice and only the most foolish citizens ventured forth without a scarf, glove liners, and furious sense of purpose. It was the time of year the ancients had called “the dead of winter” without even the slightest sigh of irony. At such temperatures, it was impossible to deny the omnipresence of Death. But her arrival could wait no longer, and in spite of the cold, Rosetta arrived in Northeastern Iowa on the heels of great international interest.
Her timing could not have been worse for a queen in search of a coronation; in addition to inclement weather, Decorah was in the midst of a high school basketball tournament and a hotly contested municipal special election. The town was also playing host to a delegation of visiting Jesuit scholars who were hell-bent on draining the town of both sin and patience. The local newspaper – which typically spanned a modest six pages – had doubled in size and any further news put the periodical in serious danger of a notable increase in postage. Still, Rosetta was greeted with a robust fanfare, especially among the local arts community, among whom she was both spectacle and taboo.
There had been rumors that she was to be ushered into town in the shroud of darkness to protect her delicate form from the prying eyes of eager socialites and nosy journalists. But alas, a mix up in Chicago and three impassable highways in Northern Illinois had delayed her progress by a full twelve hours. So it was that she – Rosetta was only very briefly referred to as an ‘it’ and never a ‘he’ – was delivered on the back of a flatbed truck, draped in a blue tarp which was, in turn, dusted with an inch of snow. Her industrial chariot made its way through the center of town on a winding route, determined primarily by the turns the long flatbed could navigate without clipping the curb and gutters. Several times, the driver was forced into reverse, backing down his path in order to take a wider swing at one turn or another. When she passed in front of The Norse Omelet, the waitresses inside thought perhaps she was their new walk-in cooler, finally arrived from St. Paul; this was further suspected when the wind caught a flap of the blue tarp, sharing with the world a flash of brilliantly brushed aluminum. Their hopes were dashed when one of the fry cooks scoffed at the damsel in transition and reminded them that the cooler wasn’t due for another week. Deliveries rarely arrived on Saturdays, anyhow.
After another half dozen turns, she reached her new home in Dansburg Park, where a small contingent of artists, local press, and city officials waited with an official proclamation and signs which read “Welcome, Rosetta!” and “Thank You, Gustave!” The latter – a mononymous Swede who had given life to Rosetta among other, less cumbersome installations – was not in attendance to receive his thanks, nor was he a likely reader of the Decorah Daily Register who had sent their entire staff of four to greet the mysterious import. Still, when Mayor Haddock quieted the small crowd and read a throaty proclamation, he made sure to praise the foreigner for sending Rosetta to Iowa to enjoy the warmth of the Midwest. It is assumed he intended this in the metaphorical sense since snow had begun to fall with increasing vigor during the speech.
After a series of additional speakers, including the President of the Rotary Club and two high school students who had penned an essay in celebration of her arrival, city workers slid a forklift under Rosetta and for the second time in her life, she rose like a heavy bird into the sky. The onlookers had braced themselves for a grand reveal – perhaps marked by a drumroll and pyrotechnics. Instead, the blue tarp snagged on some jagged piece of trailer and as she swung wide, Rosetta was unmasked without any further ado.
Even without the theatrics, she was a sight to behold. Unlike her namesake, Rosetta was as symmetrical as this world allows. Her sides formed a perfect cube measuring six feet tall, wide, and deep. Her paneling was brilliant silver bearing the whorls and polish of her maker’s brush. Each edge was trimmed in brass, outlining the cube in stiff relief and sealing tight the joints of the structure. On the side facing the crowd, there were no markings whatsoever – no winged angels or stampeding horses. No noble warriors or hearty pioneers. No fathers, sons, mothers, or Daughters of the Revolution. No symbols of the unique history of Decorah or markers heralding the hoped-for future of its citizens. Nothing that any of those gathered considered to be of real artistic value. As quickly as she had taken their breath, she gifted them in return a supreme sense of disappointment.
The forklift completed a complex series of adjustments, circling the platform before lowering Rosetta inch by inch until her full weight rested on a concrete pedestal. As one, the group circled her thoughtfully, none of them prepared to be the first to voice their displeasure in the famous Swede’s latest artistic endeavor and unsolicited civic donation. It wasn’t until they reached the back of the installation that they saw the true breadth of his handiwork.
“It’s a puzzle box!” shouted Mrs. Franklin – editor of the Register and co-Chair of the Arts committee.
“A puzzle box?” asked the Mayor in shattered disbelief.
And so it was. Unlike the blank, polished sides opposite, the back of the object was a tangled mess of levers, dials, gears, and sliders. Knobs and buttons rose from its surface like a pox, and no less than three padlocks hung from neat metal loops. In fact, only these locks seemed without intrigue, as they lacked any of the ornate majesties of the other embellishments; it was later discovered that each lock was of identical make and model of those which sold for one dollar and twenty-nine cents at the Decorah Hardware and Surplus store. Still, the total effect was breathtaking as a whole, and far more complex than any one person could safely contemplate.
Upon closer inspection, the right-hand seam adjacent to the locks was not a clean line of brass. Instead, it was interrupted by three distinct hinges, nested within the line of the edge. Murmurs began to swirl within the crowd. Hushed speculation gave way to mumbled conjecture; then came conversational conspiracy, which snowballed into shouts of wild assumption and intrigue.
“It’s just a decoy! The real art is inside!”
“Gustave’s lost his marbles; it’s an insult to Iowa!”
“What if there’s a reward inside?”
“Break the damn thing open!”
The transformation of the crowd, from a respectable artistic guild to a manic mob, had been swift. The overall impression left by the din was one of anger and betrayal. But as with all things human, it was not that simple. Those who had hoped for something grand and mysterious like Gustave’s abstract interpretation of the Pieta of Christ in Holland were terribly thrilled at the prospect of a mystery that would unfold for years to come. Their shouts were in fierce defense of the silver cube. Representatives of the Tourism and Visitors Board were aghast at the lost potential for something easily marketable, and they wailed in despair for all the brochures which would go unprinted. Meanwhile, the anarchists among them simply took the opportunity to be loud, with no fear of reprisal. All this noise and confusion would eventually lead Jared York to suggest that performance art was Rosetta’s real purpose – and in this, she had been terribly successful. His theory was dismissed outright by all due to a lack of evidence and general Iowan dislike for his brand of pseudo-intellectualism. His name was mentally struck from Christmas card lists and the rosters of all future art society functions.
As the reception reached a fever pitch, Mayor Haddock – never one to miss an opportunity for leadership in crisis – begged for the attention of the crowd. Failing to get their attention, he climbed atop the pedestal with Rosetta and took a mighty thwack at one of her blank sides with his ceremonial cane, sending forth a ringing clang which silenced the congregation as it washed over them. For all her cubist disappointment, Rosetta would make a fine bell in another life.
“Now, will everyone please calm down,” he said plainly, “There is no reason to get upset.”
Even in their silence, his point was hotly contested. He began again.
“It would seem to me – as a man of the arts – that this installation was given to the City of Decorah as a challenge. All things being equal, the purpose of a puzzle is to be solved. Clearly, Mr. Gustave believes that we are a population capable of solving this…thing…therefore, we must take it upon ourselves to do just that until the artist can be reached for further clarification.”
This time, his decree was met with general agreement. At his behest, the crowd formed a single-file line that streamed away from the pedastal in a long ram’s horn with Rosetta at its center. Haddock announced that every spectator would have three minutes to futz with the puzzle, pulling levers and moving sliders this way and that in an attempt to free her secrets. His mayoral aide, Sandra Hitchins, walked the line of would-be safe crackers counting heads as she went; there were 130 citizens at the ceremony and every one of them wanted their chance to dance with Swedish royalty. As they waited, they stamped their feet and huddled close to one another to stay warm as the snow continued to accumulate.
One by one, they climbed onto the pedestal and took their turn. Some stood in silence, merely mapping the door with their eyes and appreciating every intricate detail. Others took upon the metal behemoth in a slapdash fashion, madly trying every combination of position, alignment, and attitude. Generally speaking, the women were more likely to have at the puzzle with a methodical eye and patient touch. The men were largely content to yank at the levers and knobs back and forth zealously – a fact which did not go unnoticed among the bachelorettes in the crowd.
After three and a half hours, Ms. Hitchins announced that the only remaining challengers were those who had snuck back into line, hoping for a double dip at the Duchess. No progress had been made, and hypothermia was becoming a very real possibility for all but the heartiest Decorahans. Haddock rose once again to address the stragglers.
“We will reconvene tomorrow at the same time, and again attempt to open this damned box. Please dress warmly and bring a lunch.”
This last part was said in acknowledgment of the mayor’s significant waist, which had not gone unattended in many years. The crowd dispersed with none of the enthusiasm with which it had arrived; there was grumbling among them and a sense that they had been promised cultural riches, only to be mocked by an unseen European foe. Of most concern to those present was that while no progress had been made by anyone, the mechanisms holding Rosetta shut against the cold had been shuffled so often and in so many configurations that it was impossible to determine what the default had been.
The citizens of Decorah slept fitfully that first night – some dreaming of being the one to unlock the puzzle and stand awash in the praise and admiration of their neighbors, while others weathered nightmarish premonitions that the mystery would never be unraveled and a cloud of unresolved potential would perpetually blanket the city. Word of the unusual challenge had spread quickly around town, carried on the wings of gossip and hearsay. The arts community had quickly informed the restaurant workers, who then told the industrial unions and truck drivers. The clergy had heard of the box from the public works department, who in turn had been briefed by the lawyers, doctors, and amateur athletes. The college students and the musicians had convened in smoky living rooms and taverns and decided that the whole thing had been an elaborate ruse, and perhaps it hadn’t been Gustave who crafted Rosetta in the first place. The Methodist book club agreed but laid the blame on the obnoxious arts community for attracting the attention of any such prankster. Among them, only the Daily Register staff remained free from conjecture, instead going about their nightly ritual of laying the facts of the matter in print for distribution at dawn. By the time the sun rose over the hills to the east, a line had already begun to form around the polyhedron, dwarfing the crowd that met Rosetta the day prior.
With the arrival of the Mayor, work began again on the cube. Each new challenger was granted only ninety seconds to address her mysteries – a reduction to accommodate the swelling masses who had come to crack her. Once again, levers flew and dials turned. There were loud clanks and dull thuds as mechanisms fought for dominion across the aluminum and brass face of the stubborn lady. Three men, unrelated in all but murderous intent, had to be pulled away from her, kicking and screaming, for trying to break the door by brute force. While it was assumed her intention was to be opened eventually, Decorah is a proud city and one which would not tolerate brutalism in the service of expediency.
The second day ended as the first had – with no progress whatsoever. With the weekend at an end, Haddock suggested to the crowd that a moratorium be placed on any further attempts until the following Saturday. In the meantime, his staff would reach out to Gustave directly, demanding either an explanation or instructions. An armed guard was stationed in a police cruiser near the entrance to the park, and caution tape was unwound around her base. The challengers slunk home, defeated once again and unprepared for five days without resolution. Some were hopeful that Gustave would return their calls post haste and free them from the torment of not knowing the secrets within. The older and more sensible among them had learned patience and walked home with a pleasant feeling in their bones – a tingle which reminded them that they hadn’t seen quite everything yet. Still, others had given up entirely and decided that a lost weekend was more than enough culture for the year. They retreated eagerly to their dinners without another thought about Rosetta and her mysterious creator.
Perhaps they were the wisest of them all because an answer never came from Sweden. Nor did the following weekend bring any progress worth noting. The crowds thinned each subsequent weekend until only three or four champions arrived in the arena each Saturday. The guard had grown fat on his municipal overtime salary, but he was dismissed after six months, much to the dismay of his wife who had her heart set on a new Cadillac. Rosetta’s star had fallen from the front page of the Register before the first buds of spring arrived. There was a brief resurgence of interest around the Memorial Day when a tourist discovered that the padlocks were purely cosmetic. But this was an aberration, and even the first major breakthrough wasn’t enough for Rosetta to regain her limelight.
Days turned into weeks and weeks into seasons. Rosetta’s skin took on the slick lacing of frost, then the yellowed matte of pollen. In one breath, her perch was covered with snow, in the next, it was littered with leaves. She baked in the summer and shone brightly in the reflected blues and reds of the Fourth of July. Haddock was reelected twice and then recalled. Years passed, and Dansburg Park got a pool and a waterslide. It is generally agreed upon that a waterslide is the kind of monarch which never disappoints its people.
Teenagers took to climbing atop her in the summer, spreading blankets and drinking pilfered domestic beer until the police showed up and chased them into the darkness like lightning bugs. The Luther Norse won three consecutive dual Division III titles on the back of on-court heroics by both the men and women’s tennis teams. She was tagged with graffiti, the paint dripping into the small crevasses of the mechanisms. The nation went to war twice. Margaret Florrisant won three games on Jeopardy and was crowned Grand Marshall of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade for her efforts. Life in Decorah went on, and still, Rosetta waited.
Then she was forgotten.