Saturday, July 28, 2007

The 13th Page

The 13th Page, revealed.

~ One carven image of the goddess Sekmet, seated on her throne, two inches high, carved in soapstone, caked with an iron rich clay, oxidized to a deep blood red.

He'd walked for hours over sand hot enough to roast chestnuts on. He had no idea how slick the bottoms of his boots had grown when he reached the cliffs. The wind had worn the edges of the stone to soft, undulating curves, making each shadow sharp as obsidian. He had paused to blot the sweat from his eyes when he spotted the figurine, deep in the cool black. Not thinking, he bent to reach for it. It was just beyond the tips of his fingers. He stretched and felt the world lurch as his footing gave way.

The stone met his ribs with the force of a boxer's punch, knocking the wind out of him. He scrabbled madly to catch the lip of stone and felt it bite into his palms, his feet kicking at empty air. A stream of grit and dust poured over the lip into his eyes, his nose, his mouth. He let loose a stream of curses that would make the quartermaster proud, but he did not let go. Bloody handprints marked the stone, the moisture evaporating almost immediately. One foot and then another found purchase in the niches between the rocks. His fingers dug into the crevices, the hot stone searing his skin.

Dangling on the edge of the cliff, he could see the curve of her body, the regal tilt of her chin and the imperial line of her nose. He was a hundred miles from any city so there was little chance that she was a souvenir, carved in some Cairo back alley to amuse the white man. No, she was perhaps two thousand years old.

He levered his weight up, sucking hot air into his lungs, and groped in the space for it. His hand closed around her and darted back before the sand-coloured scorpion could bury its barb in his flesh. A part of him thought that was only to be expected. He'd have lashed out had someone disturbed his midday escape from the heat.

He took a moment to let his fingertips catalog the lines and planes of her form. The blood of his wound marked the soapstone, painting the line of her jaws with crimson, as was only befitting a goddess.

He squeezed the figurine tight in his fist, tucked it in his breast pocket and began the arduous climb back over the lip, praying to whatever deity watched over this place that he hadn't spilled his canteen.

Or worse, scattered the pages of his journal. Again.

~ One glass phial with cork stopper, filled with thumbnail sized fish scales, grey-blue, each bearing an inked number in Roman numerals. I-XXIII.

He'd been drunk on arak, and in danger of making an embarassment of himself. He pushed his glasses up onto the bridge of his nose and leaned closer over the table.

The dice were easily recognizable as knuckle bones, yellowed with age and polished to a glass finish from the years of handling. Someone nudged his arm and pressed the stem of the pipe into his hands. He only took a small puff of the cool smoke, but it went straight to his head.

He peered down at the table again, watching as coins and paper exchanged hands. The dice clattered on the brass table top again, and somewhere, he heard a fat-bellied lute being strummed.

They were gambling, he knew, but using very small discs of some material he could not identify, each hand numbered. A man would select a few and arrange them beneath a tea glass. There would be much arguing and exchanging of coins. Someone would flip the glass over, and the discs would scatter over the table top. A roar would arise from the crowd, making his head throb.

He watched for hours and never precisely determined what it was they were doing. He tried to speak to his host, but the man was too engaged in the sport to be of much assistance.

He scooped a few of them into a phial, promising himself he would catalog these strange artefacts, if only to satisfy his own curiosity.

~ One rusted rations tin, contents twenty three sea shells, the largest the size of a grown man's first thumb joint. Colours vary from white to charcoal, purple to grey green, to browns and reds.

Though he was grateful for the opportunity to linger, he'd enjoyed the hospitality of the local governor for far too many days.

Or for far too few, he thought, rattling the tin.

She'd been so beautiful, her hair long and dark, her voice unlike any he'd heard before. He'd been enamoured of her from the very first moment he'd seen her standing beneath the jasmine vines. But he was just a scholar, and she, betrothed to another, much richer and older man. It did not trouble her, for that was the way of things.

They had had only had a few weeks together, walking from her father's walled gardens, through the winding streets, passed the market place and down to the strand of beach that marked the city's edge. Each day, she'd given him a shell, to mark their day's journey.

He slipped the tin back into his pack. Days in paradise could only be counted, not kept.

~ One white, kid leather glove, female, folded in tissue paper.

It was hard to hold on to the memory of green here. Here where the heat never seemed to relent, only to retreat for the night, seceding its oppressive reign to the blight of frigid darkness.

It was difficult to remember rolling fields and stone fences. Difficult to remember riding out behind the baying pack, difficult to remember the deep shaded embrace of the ancestral grove. Here, sand undulated for mile upon mile, giving way only to stone or sea, equally barren.

Here he wore linen and sipped tepid water, longing for a night spent tucked up by the fire, wrapped in woolen blankets and sipping a proper cup of tea.

He refolded his mother's gift. Her favour, she'd called it. To help him remember grey skies and the smell of rain.

~ One strand of red silk, knotted, with ninety nine small wooden beads, bearing the sheen of hand oil.

Rahmanir Rahim
I commence with the name of God, The Compassionate and the Merciful.

The imam had pressed the strand of beads into his hand and patted him on the head, muttering something about the hand of Fatima. The next thing he knew he had been bundled onto the back of a horse like a roll of rugs.

Al-hamdu lillahi rabbil 'alamin.
Praise Be to God, the Sustainer of all Creation.

He'd showed them the map and asked if they knew where the ruins were. That had been his first mistake, he thought, ducking as the rifle rounds zinged over his head, richocheting off the sandstone brick behind them.

Arrahmanir Rahim
The Compassionate, The Merciful

The beads clicked in his hands as he ducked even lower in the trench. Horse thieves. Of course they would know about the only oasis in a day's ride. That it was a tomb only made the locals stay away, ensuring their need for privacy. Beside him a man shouted his defiance, waving his curved blade over his head.

Iyyaka na’budu wa iyyaka nasta’in
You alone we worship, and to You alone we pray for help.

The scholar cringed as the man crumpled, an English bullet in his heart. He tossed away the scrap of goatskin that held the map and prayed the regimental commander would believe his extraordinary bad turn of luck.

One linen scrap folded neatly around a stack of five Widow's head pennies and one golden Mohur coin. The linen scrap bears the faded emblem of the Honourable East India Company.

Silent and alone, a hundred feet beneath the floor of the jungle, covered in muck and filth from wading through the underground river, holding only a gas torch above his head, he couldn't be more pleased with himself. A thousand years ago, the Maharaja had set the counterweight of this particular door to the equivalent of one coin. One very special coin minted in his court. One coin that the scholar had spent months locating, weeks convincing the curator to let him weigh and measure it, and hours trying to duplicate that weight and diameter. He'd been contemplating creating a slug out of lead when the barkeep had shown him a trick involving a stack of pennies and the end of his elbow.

So it was that he came here to the entrance to this underground temple complex, with five pennies and a mohur. He gently laid the linen wrapped packet into the cylindrical receptacle. Something groaned and creaked.

Much later, when he came to on the pitch black shores of some underground river, coughing up a lungful of slime and water, he'd thought to himself, "Perhaps I should have factored in the weight of the fabric..."

One water-stained, dog-eared, heavy paper tag indicating Mellivora capensis, Kandahar, Baluchistan. One mammalian scientific specimen, a dessicated, grey and black furred paw, bearing four long claws. Bone structure intact.

"It will rid you of all your enemies."

"What if I have no enemies?"

"No man walks this earth who can claim to have no enemies."

He winced as the one-eyed man pressed the bony artefact into his palm. "How much?"

One wild grey eye peered at him before a gnarled finger pointed across narrow aisle of the bazaar.

The scholar looked. "A loaf of bread?"

The man nodded once sharply.

Within a week, he'd received a telegram calling him home to England. Apparently, there had been an accident. Three of his colleagues had been killed when a tiger had escaped from Chipperfield's and savaged them in the middle of Tottenham Court Road.

It wasn't precisely the manner in which he'd hoped to attain tenure, but under the circumstances, he was loathe to look a gift badger in the mouth.

He'd tried to throw the thing in the river, and it had reappeared in his jacket pocket in less than a day. He'd thrown it into the coal furnace, and within the hour, he found it tucked in the case with his glasses. He'd stood on the prow of the steamer at midnight and hurled it into black of the Indian Ocean. He found it waiting for him on the pillow of his bunk.

In a fit of inspiration, he sold it to a man named Jacobs for the measly sum of 10 shillings and a pint of stout. He didn't bother recounting its history. What difference would it make, he thought?

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And if you're still reading, I challenge you to write your own junk drawer and take request for details from your readers.

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