Chapter 26: Sacredly Profane
Oliver felt a hand on his shoulder shaking him awake. A voice he recognized, but couldn’t name, was shouting at him in Arabic, “Awake! We have arrived.”
Oliver opened his eyes. The van had stopped in front of a two story mud brick building with a rusted tin roof. He saw more brick buildings in the distance, each with a small array of solar panels bolted to the roof. A small crowd of children and dogs surrounded a well at the center of a gravel paved plaza a hundred or so feet down the road. Streets radiated off from the plaza in five directions, running between the buildings in narrow strips of dusty gravel.
The voice came again, a little louder this time and he felt a slap on his right shoulder. Oliver snapped his head right to see Zaid holding the van door open with one hand as he shook Oliver’s shoulder with the other. “Good, you’re awake. Hadiya and elder Layla are already in the house. They will be wanting to speak with you.”
Oliver slid out of the van and stretched his back, legs, and arms tiredly, feeling a dull ache settling in. It was only mid-afternoon and he had already been attacked by an undead warrior, knocked out by a professional killer, kicked repeatedly in the ribs and gut by a disgraced Egyptian spook, and used for target practice by an enraged mercenary. His body was in desperate need of some good rest and a fistful of painkillers, and the short nap he had taken in the van had only served to make his muscles seize up and drain him of adrenaline.
He swung the van door shut and stalked around the front towards the open door of the mud brick house, his body aching the whole way.
A woman who looked remarkably like an older version of Hadiya stood waiting in the doorway. She was dressed in a simple dress of white cotton that hung from her shoulders to her ankles. Delicately embroidered hieroglyphic designs ran down the front of the dress and across the shoulders and sleeves. The beginnings of wrinkles creased the corners of her eyes, which glinted at Oliver from behind large multifocal lenses.
She spoke to him in a strongly accented English. “Welcome to my home, Mr. Lucas. I am Duha, mother of Hadiya and daughter of the elder Layla.”
Oliver bowed his head and replied, “Thank you for having me. I appreciate your mother sparing my life.”
Duha stepped back and waved for Oliver to enter, saying, “You are our guest. Please, come in.”
He stepped into a combined kitchen and dining room. An electric stove and refrigerator stood against one wall, under several rows of shelves built into the brick wall. Water pipes and electrical conduit ran along the baseboard of the room and disappeared through a hole knocked into the ancient bricks and patched with plaster. Small statues of the gods of ancient Egypt stood in nooks set into the walls around the room.
The old woman, the elder Layla, reclined in a rattan seat beside a heavy wood table at the center of the room. Hadiya was nowhere in sight, but Oliver thought he could hear running water from the back of the house.
Duha closed the door and moved to a seat across from her mother. She lowered herself into the chair and picked up an embroidery frame from the table. Oliver dropped his backpack beside the door and waited beside it until Duha waved him to a seat at the table. He settled into the seat, nervously hoping that the creaking rattan would support his weight.
Layla began to speak. Duha translated, never looking up from her needlework as she spoke, “My honored mother asks you to describe what you seek. She spared your life in the sacred canyon because she believes you to be a good person, but desires to know what artifact you expected to find in our sacred land.” She paused in her stitching and tilted her head down to look at Oliver through the top of her glasses, “I know only what my daughter shouted on her way through, so I also look forward to hearing your explanation.”
Oliver proceeded to explain everything that had happened since the Senator pressured him to take the job searching for the staff that had belonged to Moses. He described bringing Diana into the effort because of his unfamiliarity with Egyptian script, how the mercenaries had become involved, and how he and Diana had double-crossed the mercenaries to gain the information they needed.
Hadiya came in while he spoke and busied herself chopping onions and garlic at the counter beside the stove. She set the knife down and turned around to lean against the counter with her arms crossed as Oliver described exploring Sephor’s house and chapel. This event was clearly the highlight of his story for them, as even Duha laid aside her needlework to gaze intently at Oliver as he described fighting Sephor’s living corpse. Both she and elder Layla had several questions for Oliver, which he did his best to answer.
The old priestess seemed especially concerned with Oliver’s feelings about having destroyed Sephor. He answered honestly, explaining that he took no pleasure in destroying ancient ruins, or their guardians, but that he felt no regret at defending his own life.
“I apologize for defiling the body of your ancestor. Had he given me any warning...” Oliver explained.
Layla shook her head and covered her face with her hands. Hadiya stepped up to her grandmother and rested her hands on the old woman’s shoulders. Duha grimaced and tapped her fingertips on the tabletop. She opened her mouth as if to speak, then shook her head and remained silent.
“Listen. If there is anything I can do to make amends... I don’t quite understand what’s going on here.”
Hadiya replied first, while her mother and grandmother continued to sit in silence. “It’s complicated, Oliver. For my grandmother, most of all. We are all trained as priestesses of the old gods and guardians of Sephor’s memory, and she has spent nearly a hundred years bearing witness to his fate.”
She stepped away from her grandmother and pulled an apple from a basket over the sink. She tossed it to Oliver and looked at her mother. Duha shook her head and picked up her needlepoint. The elder Layla continued to hide her face in her hands, weeping softly and muttering to herself. Hadiya took another apple for herself, then settled into a chair across from Oliver.
“You see, our worship of Sephor’s memory is different from how people perceive worship in your culture. We don’t pray to Sephor to save our souls, or bring good fortune, or anything like that...” She took a bite of her apple and chewed it for a while, seeming to contemplate how to explain the mysteries of her faith to an outsider, then continued. “Have you ever been to Arlington, the cemetery?”
Oliver nodded, wondering where Hadiya was going with his.
“I went to Arlington once over spring break. The college arranged for us exchange students to visit many sites around your capital, but it is Arlington that I remember the most. They have men there who are sworn to guard the tomb of a nameless soldier. Over eighty percent of those who apply for the duty are rejected before they even enter training. Even then, most of the men who are accepted fail to complete the training. They memorize names, battles, rituals. They take vows that regulate their behavior on and off duty. They march a precise step every day in the sun, the rain, the snow. They do all this out of sense of duty to preserve the memory of the men who died in battle and could not be identified.”
Hadiya paused to catch her breath. She had been speaking with increasing rapidity and forcefulness and Oliver was impressed at her passion. She leaned forward on her elbows and continued, “If you can understand that, Oliver, you will understand some of what we feel. The old gods and our ancestor are something to be remembered and honored, even if the rest of the world has forgotten them or written them off as silly tales told by ignorant people in the past.”
“You used a phrase when we first spoke: ‘profanely sacred’. What does that mean?”
“I, and my mother, and my grandmother, and all the women of our lineage for thousands of years, are sworn to protect the memory of Sephor. What I have not explained is that this memory is not a good one. We remember it as an admonition against lust, pride, and tampering with the powers of the gods.”
“As Sephor did, in creating the guardians.”
“Exactly. Our legends tell us that Sephor called upon the power of Osiris to guard his house against the corruption of death, and on Setesh to return the souls of the dead to their bodies as eternal guardians of his home and the treasures contained within.”
Duha interjected then, speaking in a hushed voice like that which she must have used to tell the story to her daughter, as it had been told to her. “And all was well with the mighty lord Sephor for a time. His lands prospered. His people gave birth to many skilled craftsmen and mighty warriors for the Pharaoh. Until one day the lord Sephor offended a visiting noble by taking his wife to bed as a concubine. When confronted with his crime, the lord Sephor laughed and told his guest that all things were permissible to him, because the gods had raised him above all men except the pharaoh himself, even blessing him and giving him the strength to defeat foreign gods.
“The nobleman was outraged at his host’s lust and pride, but did not strike at Sephor directly. Instead he waited until the middle of the night, when all were asleep in bed except for Sephor’s undying guardians. The nobleman took a chisel in his hand and with five mighty blows he struck out the names of prideful Sephor and his family from the great engraving above the household altar. Then he fled into the night, taking his servants with him, but leaving his wife behind.
“That very night, the undying guardians of Sephor’s lands fell upon the family in their beds. Many were slaughtered in their sleep. Others awoke to die with screams on their lips before they could rise from their beds. A few managed to fight. A very few slipped away into the darkness beyond the gates of the estate.
“In the midst of this chaos of bloodshed, Sephor fought the undying warriors that the gods Osiris and Setesh had granted him. Abandoning his wife and concubines to what fate might bring, he retreated to the shrine that he had erected to his own glory, in which rested the guide stone and key, relics that served to remind him of his power and guarantee him access to the temple of the staff. It was there that the most mighty, and yet most foolish, of Pharaoh’s generals sealed his fate.
“Standing before the altar to Osiris and Setesh, grievously wounded by the swords of his own undying guards, the lord Sephor made an offering of his own blood and entrails in exchange for becoming the undying guardian of the chapel, so that he could see his memory protected for all ages.”
Duha’s voice faded away at the end, as if saying the words hurt too deeply. She laid her needlepoint on the table and wiped at her wet cheeks with the back of a hand.
Oliver watched the women in silence. He was unsure what to say. Never before had he been confronted with a legacy such as this. These women held within themselves the memory of an event drawn from the deepest chambers of history, passed on from one generation to the next over the course of five thousands years.
“As you can see, it is complicated.”
Oliver nodded. He swallowed, his throat dry and tight.
Hadiya continued, “I cannot speak for my mother, or my grandmother, but the feeling I have towards you now is a mingling of gratitude and horror. Gratitude that you have destroyed the legacy of foolish pride that we have been bound to remember. Horror that you would dare to defile the monument that we have guarded for so long.”
Duha, who had stopped weeping by this time, nodded and said something in their language. The elder Layla dropped her hands from her face and looked at Oliver thoughtfully for a moment, then replied.
Her daughter translated, “It will be long before I know how to feel about this day. I will continue to tell the story of Sephor’s folly to my people until my dying day, and hope that my daughter and her daughter will continue after I am gone. But that is for the future, and it does not concern an outsider such as you. What does concern you is the evil you have brought upon your friend, and the Temple of the Staff. We will speak more of this at dawn tomorrow, when new light brings with it the hope of a better future.”
As soon as Duha stopped speaking, Layla put her hand on the table and levered herself out of the tattered rattan seat. She turned her back on the three people still seated around the table and tottered through a curtained doorway into the back of the house.
They sat in silence for a while, each pondering the story that the women had told in their own way. Oliver did his best to stifle a yawn, then stood and stretched his aching muscles. “If I’m to remain in your house, I should probably wash up. It’s been a rough day.”
Hadiya looked up from the apple core she had been fiddling with and said, “I’ll show you to the bathroom.” She tossed the core into an earthenware bowl on the counter and moved to the curtained doorway. “Bring you bag. We already searched it for weapons after you fell asleep.”
Oliver grabbed his backpack and followed her through the curtain into a narrow hall. Framed family photos hung on the wall, dimly illuminated by an old metal lamp with a scrollwork shade resting on a small wooden table.
Hadiya paused before a door and said, “This is the bathroom. Don’t be shy about using water for a bath. This village has deep wells, so we never lack for water. Do try and be sparing with the hot water though. It has to warm in a tank on the roof and my father will still need some when he comes home. There’s a towel for you on the toilet seat.”
Oliver thanked Hadiya and pushed the door open into a cramped bathroom. An enameled iron bathtub with a roundabout shower curtain occupied half the space of the room. A toilet and wash basin stood opposite to each other beside the tub. An old mirror, the silvering chipped away at the edges, was affixed to the wall over the basin.
Oliver closed the door and set his bag down. He stepped up to the basin and looked into the mirror, examining his reflection through weary eyes. It had been four days since he had last shaved and the red stubble was coming in thick on his face and neck. He had a bruise over his left eye, which he supposed he had gotten when he was knocked out, or while tumbling to get to cover when Frank had attacked him in the helicopter.
Oliver stripped off his shirt and pants and examined the fresh bruises on his sides and stomach from when Rais had kicked him. He probed the bruises, grimacing at the pain but not crying out, feeling for broken bones or the deep ache of organ damage. His ribs hurt like hell, but he was fairly certain that there was no true damage.
He filled the tub with cold water and slipped into it.
The icy water felt good on his skin and slowly numbed his aches as he willed his muscles to relax. After resting for about ten minutes he sat up and began scrubbing away the sweat and grime of the day. He repeatedly plunged his head under the water and massaged at his scalp, but was still picking grains of sand out of his hair as he toweled himself dry and dressed in his one set of spare clothes. He squirreled away his dirty clothes in a zipped plastic bag in his backpack.
Clean, freshly dressed, and feeling a little more alive than he had fifteen minutes before, Oliver pulled on his vest and unzipped the hidden pocket where his phone had been silently charging all afternoon. He clearly wasn’t a prisoner, wasn’t about to be executed or coerced to reveal any information, but he didn’t know how these people would take to him telling others about their hidden oasis, so he wanted to check his messages in private.
He unlocked the phone and saw several messages from Amber waiting in his Twitter client. Some of them were as much as two days old, having been queued while he was in the cellular dead zone of the canyon estate.
Checking Leonidas from this end. Be safe.
This was followed a few hours later by another message.
Leonidas is bad news. Get out if you can. Putting your dad on Senator, but risky.
“Great,” Oliver muttered to himself. The last thing he wanted was for his father to get involved in this whole mess. It wasn’t that Oliver mistrusted his father, but applying pressure to Senator Wheeler and the Leonidas Security leadership might have unpredictable results. If Kyle was to be believed, the mercenaries and Rais Karim had pursued Oliver and Diana precisely because the Senator had tracked down their employer and started applying pressure for them to retrieve the staff.
He selected Amber’s most recent message and tapped the reply icon.
In the clear for now, but Leonidas still has Diana. Going to try and rescue her in next 24 hours. Leonidas team led by a Kyle Sanders. Includes a Frank.
He paused for a moment, then added.
You and dad be careful, mercs came after us because of pressure from Wheeler.
He locked the phone and slipped it back into the hidden pocket in his vest.
Oliver emerged from the bathroom dressed much as he had been before, with the exception that his clothes were no longer stained with blood and dirt. He found Hadiya and Duha in the kitchen, busily chopping vegetables with large, extremely sharp looking knives. A pan on the stove splattered cheerily and gave off the aroma of browning lamb meat. At the table sat a large man dressed in canvas pants and a light cotton shirt with long sleeves. The naturally dark skin of his face and hands had been tanned a deeper brown by long days spent working in the sun. He looked up from a laptop computer that sat on the table before him as Oliver entered the room.
“You must be Oliver Lucas,” he said to Oliver, speaking in Arabic.
He rose from his seat and shook Oliver’s hand. “Welcome to my house. I am Mahir, husband of one of these women, father of the other, and all-around problem solver in this little village.”
Oliver smiled at Mahir, already getting a sense that he liked the man. “Yes, I’m Oliver. Your daughter and the elder Layla found me in the desert this afternoon and rescued me. Layla said she has a task for me to perform, so I thank you for letting me stay the night.”
Mahir nodded gravely. “Yes. My wife told me of Layla’s plans for you. I don’t envy the journey you are about to undertake, but if half of what Hadiya tells me of your exploits today is true, you might just survive this.”
“That’s my goal.”
“They tell me you have photographs of the estate. May we see them? My wife and her ancestors have never set foot beyond the walls in all the years they worshiped there.”
Oliver pulled the camera out of his bag. “Yes, I have many photos. Can we load them onto your computer?”
Mahir nodded, so Oliver ejected the memory card from his camera and passed it to the man. The transfer took only a few moments, during which Oliver explained how he and Diana had come to explore the estate. Once all of the photographs had transferred, Oliver put the memory card into a plastic case and slipped it into a vest pocket. Mahir turned his laptop so that the women could see the screen while they cooked, and for the next hour Oliver took the family on a tour of the estate that they had guarded, but never entered, for a hundred generations.