This is also one of the sadder stories I've ever written. You've been warned.
The Things the Sea Awakens
Carmen took a swig from her water bottle, held it out to me. I shook my head. I was thirsty, but I’d be thirstier yet. And part of me thought of the thirst as a just punishment for my sins. Enduring it was penance.
“Where do we go?” Carmen said, stowing the bottle in her backpack and wrapping her dark locks in a bandanna.
“Down, I think,” I said, being deliberately difficult. I shaded my eyes and looked off in that direction.
“Thanks for that helpful information. Any idea where, other than down?”
I sighed. I knew better than to start this. “Left, this time.”
“Left? Seriously?” Her voice was high, strained. “Right was bad enough. Left is where the worst of it is.”
“That’s also where everything collected. If we can find it, that’s where it will be.”
“You’re the boss,” Carmen said after a meaningful pause, and shouldered her backpack. The mud sucked at her boots, but the laces held and she began trudging her way down the middle of the street. What had been a street, once.
We used to work so smoothly together. Before. But what wasn’t different now? Surely that was the least of the destruction, a working relationship that chafed where once it had glided. So many worse things, so close to hand.
I sighed again, and casting a reproachful eye at the merciless sun, followed in Carmen’s wake, walking a slightly different path. The sound of the mud compressing, sliding, sucking and releasing trailed after us as we made our way over the crest of the hill and down toward the sea.
It looked so peaceful now, the gently lapping Mediterranean, azure blue darkening to royal and then to navy as the depth increased, but all of it was tranquil. It seemed harmless. It had seemed that way then, too, a month ago, when it drew out, first ten meters, then a hundred, then a thousand, uncovering wrecks of ships so old they crumbled to powder without the support of the sea, a gigantic treasure-chest of historical artifacts from back before Alexander, from when Tyre was the jewel of the Med, the most powerful trading city in the ancient world. Or so I heard. I wasn’t here to see it. It was a betrayal I paid for with every step.
Tyre was my home, for many years now. I should have been here to see the waves roll back. Although it would surely have meant that I was not here now. I frequently thought that would be a blessing.
When the sea retreats, it returns, usually mildly, like a heartbeat, the soft rolling of the waves. It goes out gently, slowly, withdrawing like an old servant leaving his master to sleep. It comes in with thunder. The farther it withdraws, the more violently it returns. A retreat of this magnitude, three full minutes’ worth, meant a massive incoming tsunami that crushed everything in its path and swept all before it.
The Med is a closed system. What happens to one happens to all. I was back in Tyre because I had no other place to go. Nothing was spared, no city on the coast of any country, all the way to Iberia. But this was my home. I couldn’t help the people in Tel Aviv, or Crete, or Naples. They would have to bury their dead themselves, what of them remained. I had my own dead to bury, both fresh and ancient.
The sea had brought back more than waves.
A door gaped open to my left, one of hundreds on this street alone, as another gust of wind swept up some drying dust and threw it in my eyes. How dare I look. I had to stop and wipe the grit from my face, and as I closed my eyes I heard them again. The murmuring. A word, recognizable in the mumble. The bark of a laugh.
They were here. Still here, all of them.
I forced my eyes open, and the world went back to being quiet and dead. Ironic, that.
Halfway along the abandoned street, Carmen halted in the shade of an overhang made by the crumbled side of a hotel leaning across the alley against a warehouse. The pocket between them made a triangle of shade, and we sat together on the sodden remains of a pair of leather chairs, carried out of the hotel through a gap in the walls.
I wanted to close my eyes against the waves of heat rising off the mud, but I didn’t dare.
Carmen sipped her water. The stench of the decay was overwhelming, an almost visible miasma of putrefaction that had made me retch uncontrollably the first day I’d returned. By now, only the worst places still made me wrinkle my nose. I could get used to anything. Almost anything.
Above us, a bird hopped from rock to rock, chittering. Not one of the ubiquitous gulls; this was something else. I didn’t know what. Carmen was the nature freak.
“What’s that?” I said, tossing my head in the direction of the bird. It was an attempt at a peace offering, and she took it that way.
“Turnstone,” Carmen said. “Pretty. It would be down on the beach, but-“
“Most of the beach is up here now, yeah.”
“Plenty of good eating for birds. Birds love flies.”
The flies were so thick I thought I could live on them myself. Mash them and spread them on toast.
But the stinging flies, the carrion flies, nothing kept them from eating me back. I slapped at one and let my head droop, just for a second, my mouse-brown hair drifting down over my shoulders like a dark rain at the edge of my vision. There was no rain. A blessing and a curse.
Other than the buzz of the insects and the occasional chirp from our bird friend, the only sound was the sighing wind, gusting through gaps where once thousands of voices had rung, squabbling, haggling, laughing. Loving.
But that was gone, too. Layth had saved a number of people, I heard, but had neglected to save himself.
Typical. Always forgetting the practical things. Incurable romantic, that was Layth. Was.
“We need to get moving,” I said, slinging up my pack like a shield against the past.
“After you,” Carmen said. She didn’t move.
I fought down the urge to snap at her, and substituted standing up and stretching, putting one foot ahead and following it with the other. Move. You have to move. Once you’re moving, it’s not so hard.
This had been Heram street until a month ago. Maybe it still was. Was a thing still itself if there was no one around to call it that anymore? It ran in a shallow slope down the hill from the ruins toward the beach, and forked at Al Awkaf; to the right was the port, to the left, the slum. Neither was there anymore, but if the port was a wreck, the slum was a midden of death, a portal to Hell.
We’d already been to the right, more than once. And found nothing.
The mud was worse here. The closer we got to the water’s edge, the shallower the mud was and the more objects stood out of it. Broken bits of table. The undercarriage of a car. Two small picture frames, the photographs obliterated by mud and salt. Everywhere the lost bits of lives.
We skirted debris clogging the center of the street. Objects clumped together as if huddling for mutual support against the long-gone tide. Like the people that owned them, they died in bunches, thrown together. If I listened, I could still hear them screaming.
That was with my eyes open. If I closed them, I heard much more than that.
We reached the split in the road. I refused to stop. If I stop, I will never make my feet move again. I took the left fork and slogged down Al Awkaf past the trinket shop on my left. I didn’t look at it. It wasn’t really there anymore, anyway.
But all along this side of the road things that had been there called to me, sirens of the past luring me to the rocks. If I went in there, I knew what I would find, and it wasn’t the beautiful collection of glass birds, lovingly crafted just up the hill. It wasn’t the rare sail from one of the sailing vessels that plied these waters thick as schooling fish. It wasn’t Durrah, small and quick, doing her homework in the corner of the museum, her pencil tapping her lips.
Or, maybe I would find them there after all. That would be far worse.
I couldn’t. Someone else would have to do that job.
The sea lay at the bottom of the street, cool blue against the brown and white of the land. A small knot of people in orange vests stood off to the right a hundred yards away or so, looking at what had been the Kaffiyeh Café, pointing, making notes. Cleanup. As if this could ever be truly cleaned up. As if Tyre was even on the list of things the world had to do. How could it be?
But it was on my list. It was the only thing on it.
One of the men glanced up the street and saw me. He frowned and detached himself from his group, advancing on me. I was already reaching for my back pocket and the ID badge before he said, in Arabic, “You can’t be here.”
I pulled out the case and flipped it open, showing him my ID and the pass from the Lebanese government. “I’m with the museum. Cleanup detail.” I sketched a bow, although it wasn’t strictly necessary. He was already on his heels because I’d understood him, and replied in the same language.
His frown deepened, and he took the case from me. He scratched his head, but the look on his face said he had other things to do that persecute me, so I added, “My partner and I are looking for some lost artifacts. We’ve been over on the port side until today.”
He handed back the pass. I hoped he would respond to the professional tone. Obsequious would have been better, but I didn’t know how to fake that.
Fortunately, Carmen came up behind me, stopping a pace back. His gaze lingered on her, as I expected it would. “Carmen,” I said, half turning to her, “show the officer your pass.”
He held up a hand. “No need for that,” he said, his face lighting up in a grin. He was young, probably no more than thirty, dark, well-groomed. Some years Isabella’s junior, but just the right age to be charmed by Carmen. But then, if there was a wrong age for that, I hadn’t discovered it.
“Is there a place we shouldn’t go?” I said. I didn’t care what he said, but thought he’d be happier if I asked.
His face lost the grin. “Yes. Anywhere down there.” He looked back over his shoulder at the slum. Where the slum used to be. “You don’t want to go down there.”
I nodded. “You’re right. I don’t. But I have to.”
“These artifacts are important?”
“I wouldn’t be alive if they weren’t.”
His eyes widened a fraction. “Were you here?”
I shook my head. “I was at a conference in Athens. You?”
“Beirut. But I was in the first truck after the waves stopped coming in.”
“I heard about Beirut,” Carmen said, stepping forward and offering him her water. “Not a pleasant thing.”
He took the water and uncapped it. “Everything you have heard is nothing to what happened there. It is a city God has forgotten.”
They all are.
Taking a long drink, he wiped his mouth, capping the bottle and returning it with a pleasant nod. Guest-host reciprocity having been established now, he said, “You are sure you have to go there?”
“I’m sure.” The sun seemed to glare off the unnatural mud, blinding me.
“It is the pit of Jahannam.” Gehenna, the burning garbage pit of Hell.
It matches my heart, then. “We will be very careful.”
He turned slightly so that his next statement included the men he was with, still discussing what to do about the café. “Please do not take anything away without telling us, and letting us see it.”
Expected. “We won’t,” I said.
He shuffled across the road, sliding his feet across the firming crust of the mud. It wasn’t as thick here. It would hold us, if we were careful, and we could walk along the top. We started off along the road in the same way.
After a moment, he called out, “What is it you’re looking for? In case we come across something.”
We exchanged a look full of dismay. How can I explain this? “You know what the Gordian Knot is?” I called back.
His face told the answer.
“It’s a large lump of rope, with a stick through the middle.” I knew what that would sound like.
He stared. “For this you go down there?” He obviously thought we had lost our minds.
Maybe we have. “It’s priceless,” I said.
“More like worthless,” he said with a bark, waving a hand in dismissal.
Resigned, I turned back to the road stretching down to the waterline.
When Alexander the Great invaded Cilicia, maneuvering around Darius’s army, keeping always his route to the sea, he found himself in the mountains of Phrygia near the town of Gordium, where there was a famous knot given to Midas by Zeus himself. Whoever could untie the knot, it was said, would become ruler of all Asia.
The knot was bulbous and large, more than two feet in diameter, rope balled and twisted, and no ends of the knot were visible. It was tied around a long pole, and had defied generations of attempts to untie it. The priests presented it to Alexander as a challenge, and dared him to solve the problem.
Alexander, in typical barbaric fashion, unsheathed his sword and chopped the knot and pole in two with one stroke.
As he did the rest of the empire, eventually, but first he had to secure his seaward base, and there was one city his generals were unable to reduce: Tyre.
The ancient city sat on an island just off the coast of Cilicia—Lebanon, now. The Tyrian sailors were the best in the world and the fleet the most advanced and formidable anywhere, and Alexander’s pathetic Greek ships were unable to come to grips with them.
But he was not to be denied. The devil always finds a way. Since he could not come at the Tyrians by sea, he did it by land, dumping a mountain of earth into the strait between the coast and the island. He built a ramp wide enough to bring up his armies, and took the city by storm. As he always did to any city that defied him, he slaughtered the men and sold the women and children into slavery, burning the city and its fleets.
No one since had spent as much time in the ash of that defeat as I had. My hands were stained with it, and my soul as black as the charcoal timber of the ruined houses when I thought of the butcher who called himself “the Great”.
The Knot had been acquired by the museum in the 1900s, and was the main tourist attraction. It had stood in its glass case, with the “hands-on” display for visitors to try their luck with, just to the side, for the fifteen years I’d been with the museum. I didn’t care about the Knot. I was there to dig in the museum’s research excavation.
The tsunami rolled all the way up the hill and carried off the museum, artifacts and all. And two of the staff. My excavation filled with stinking mud. Everything gone. But it was the Knot that had brought us back to search.
For me, the Knot meant nothing so much as a reminder of Alexander’s puerile brain, but to the museum it meant tourists and money and more chances to dig, to recover what had been lost. Whether there would be more tourists, no one could say. But the knot had to be recovered all the same. And it was not without its personal connection.
There was a knot in my heart as well …
I shook my head loose of the gathering recollection. It would not do. Not now.
The air began to hum.
“What’s that?” Carmen said, shading her eyes. Down the hill from us a fog rolled, or something that looked like a fog, winding like a gray sheet over the lowlands next to the sea.
It took me a moment. “Flies,” I said. “Those are flies.”
And it was, clouds of small black flies, not so much a swarm as a blanket, lying over the flattish lowland at the bottom of the hill.
Carmen’s face went white. “I can’t go down there,” she said. “I can’t …”
“I don’t want to do it either, but that’s the job. We have to go.”
“No, you don’t understand. I … so many bugs, I can’t do … I can’t.” Her breath dragged in and out raggedly. I had never seen her so shaken.
We had to go. Or, I had to go. I knew the Knot was down there. Where else would an Alexandrian artifact be, if not in the bowels of Hell?
I examined the buildings to the right and left of us, just at the crest of the slope. A massive pile of debris lay against the opening of one of them, a bakery. The junk was piled against the wooden beams of what had been the front of the store, now just a skeleton, but the debris field was stacked with its back toward the ocean, meaning that it had collected as the water receded. It was a possible site.
“Fine,” I said. “You can work this section here.” Where the flies were merely annoying, instead of Biblical.
She gave a shaky nod, and a glance that was as good as an apology. She knew she was letting me down.
“I’ll be back in two hours,” I said, glancing at my watch. That was as long as I dared spend there by myself. “What time do you have?”
We synchronized watches and I began trudging down the hill.
I had grown used to the stench of decay above, where some of the odor was dissipated by the ocean breeze. As I descended, the breeze died away and the full force of the miasma assaulted me. I choked, and had to stop, halting between a small school and an office of some kind, one I didn’t know. Piles of seaweed and paper and rotting fish—and other things—steamed in the strengthening sun, reaching its zenith. The hum of the flies intensified. I could see them, great swarms of them, just a few meters below me, flitting in and out of the houses—or the places the houses used to be.
The devastation was total. The shacks of the slum were never built to withstand anything more than the mild zephyrs of the Mediterranean, certainly nothing like the sixty-foot wall of slate-gray water that rolled up the beach and into the town, as irresistible as death itself. The hovels lay piled against one another, but great swathes of them were simply gone. Erased by the waves, deposited with the wrecks that lay on the sea floor for centuries.
But under the corrugated metal and driftwood there were other things. Furniture. Derelict appliances. Bodies.
So many bodies.
The warning to run had come far too late for most of them, and when the wave came racing in it crushed them where they stood, open-mouthed, seeing doom come that had not been seen on these shores since Thera wiped out Minos and Crete, and Atlantis, some said.
I had to stop for a moment. The flies were thick enough to walk across. The acrid putrefaction smacked me as if I had run headlong into a wall. I set my pack down, covering my face, and felt after my bandanna and my breathing mask, and my goggles. One by one I placed them on my face, and I could see again, though my skin crawled with insects, unable to tell the difference between the dead and the living.
Sighing, I closed my eyes.
And I heard the voices again.
They echoed, as if I were hearing them down a long marble hall. In such a place, I thought to hear screaming, if these were the voices of the dead, or at least alarm, but the gaggle of speech reminded me of nothing more sinister than a cocktail party. My Greek is weak—it is a hole in my education that I don’t wish to fix—but I knew the speech was Greek, and here and there Aramaic, a variant of Hebrew. It was not the speech of the people that lived in this place before the crashing end came.
I opened my eyes, and the voices ceased, the whining hum, like a dentist’s drill, recommencing. It was hard to tell which was worse, ghosts or flies.
I rolled my sleeves down and donned my gloves, the best protection I could muster against the bugs. I would swelter, but that was preferable. Slapping at the insects, I slogged down the last hundred meters to the flat at the base of the hill, and prepared myself for what I would find there. As best I could, anyway. There was no true preparation possible, and I knew that.
Might as well start with the first hovel on the right. It was flattened completely, the rickety supports that held up the tin roof completely washed away. Judging from the debris pattern, most of what was here, old rags, some cans of food, and fur that once had been a dog, had washed inland with the wave. That was no good, but still I raised the corner of the tin shed to look underneath.
I shouldn’t have. The residents were still inside, lashed together with a piece of old rope. The decay was advanced. I felt my stomach turn over and threaten to eject its contents. My mask was still in place, with the bandanna over it. I would never get it out in time.
How ironic, I thought with the part of my brain that had not gone into panic, that I would drown in a site of thousands of drowned bodies, not from the tsunami, but from aspirating my own vomit.
I couldn’t die that way. Ripping my mask off I threw up onto the street.
Shack upon shack. Piles of bodies, young and old. My mind reeled from so much death, but gradually each broken form, each snuffed-out life was just one more. Humans are such ridiculous creatures, getting used to whatever comes. Is it impossible that I should have become inured to maggot-ridden bodies, to the stench of death, to the sensation of the living flies crawling on my flesh? Yet I did.
The entire slum was a burial ground. There was far, far too much for me to find anything. Or, I found things right enough. Lockets. Chests that held pictures, all of them destroyed beyond reconstitution. Cooking pots. Hairbrushes. Tins that held honey, or oil, some of them still sealed and full, and perhaps even usable. I left them. Watches. Guns. Dolls. All the accumulated detritus of lives lived and lost.
I pulled back the door of one hovel from which all had been sucked away in the flood, except in one corner, where still stood a Christmas tree, and around it gaily wrapped presents, sodden and muddy, with the paper drooping down over the underlying boxes and toys. It looked practically untouched, a trick of the mischievous water. The gifts lay there around the holiday symbol, and they would never be touched. My symbol, though, was not there. It was never there, no matter where I looked.
But where would I find a single thing, the one I sought? It would take me Tears streamed down my face, fogging my goggles, but what was there that I wished to see clearly? The blur of the things around me was a blessing. The head can only process so much horror.
My lips were dry. I had drunk all my water. The sun still beat down like a forge on a steel rod, bending me over and twisting me. I had found everything, and nothing. My eyes no longer saw the destruction around me, just the glare of the Levant sun, smiting my back and driving me onward, and behind my eyes I saw over and over the Knot and the ring, the ring and the Knot.
Layth. Brown skin shining, oiled and perfect. The flashing of ivory teeth against the tanned face, the laughing eyes, the just-too-high voice. Dark hair to his shoulders, loose and free, swept back. His hand on my arm, on my back. The taste of him on my lips. The only one, ever. No one else had ever seen me, truly seen me, looked past the plain face and the too-wide hips and the thick torso, the small breasts, to the mind and the soul. He had seen the blackness there, the simmering hatred and disgust and loathing, had seen the pain writhing in torment, and had not flinched from in. His hand remained in mine, and drew the blackness out into the light, turned it, examined it.
Loved it. He loved me.
So much that even when he gave me the ring, the hammered tin ring, I did not recoil. I did not leap at him and seek to tear his eyes from his skull, as I would have with any other person.
“It’s a knot,” he said. “It’s the knot, the knot of your soul. I shall never unravel it, but I shall pull from it the stick.” He looked me in the eyes, all the way in, past all my defenses, to the part of me that no one dared see, not even myself. “And the knot shall fall away and all that will be left is you.”
He put the knot on my finger. I wept.
We were knotted together that way for almost a month, and then the wave came in, and took my love, and my knot, and my heart. I had left the ring in my locker at the museum. When it went, it took everything I had.
I wept into the graveyard of the Tyrian people and fell to my knees on a dusty patch and raised my bloodshot eyes to Heaven.
Where is it? Where can I find it? If I do not find it, all will be lost, all this, all the people that were ever here. They will be lost, they will be forgotten, and nothing can bring them back but me.
So I closed my eyes.
The ghosts were louder down here. I could not see them, could not hear them, with my waking eyes and ears. As exhausted as I was, as bereft of hope and choice, instead of recoiling from the murmur and chatter of the dead, I lingered in it, concentrated on it, though my skin crawled and my mind rebelled.
I heard the chatter in Greek, and the Aramaic of the common people, and the Hebrew of the scholars, all noises and accents I expected to hear, but I had been wrong before, that there were no others.
The first I knew of those was a voice, far in the background, saying, “Look, there is no way to know what really happened here,” in a plummy English.
Then another voice, high and feminine, speaking another tongue I thought might be German. Others, in Arabic, that I nearly understood. A child spoke in Italian, or possibly Latin—the accent was foreign to me, native to the tongue. A cacophony of sound, a gaggle of accents, though the Greek and the Hebrew dominated. The noise of it rose and threatened to overwhelm me.
But squeezing my eyes shut I focused on choosing one, a voice I could understand, speaking modern Arabic. It was a young voice, no weight or timbre to it, a pre-adolescent, or very young teenager. By focusing, I could make out some of what she was saying. She appeared to be talking to her mother.
“I’ll be back before dark,” she said. “The café is open and my friends will be waiting for me.”
Her mother might have replied; I wouldn’t have been able to sort it from the hubbub in the background.
“Mother, you have to understand I’m not a child,” she said. A teenager then.
Her voice faded, as if she were finished with the conversation, and for a time I was adrift in a sea of voices, each striving for supremacy, though not in competition with each other. They weren’t trying to get my attention; I wasn’t there, as far as I could tell.
I rose from the dust and took a step forward. The voices went with me, but they changed, like music fading in one place and rising in another. Another step. New voices. I opened my eyes, lest I fall and hurt myself, and the brightness of the sun burned my eyes and forced them closed again.
The afterimage, though, remained, and using that I could take a few more steps out into the middle of what had been a small lane, about ten feet wide. I walked purposefully toward the sea. The noises changed, and I heard gulls and the rough call of sailors, hailing the shore. The place on which I stood had not long been here. Once it had been ocean. I was hearing the people who lived here, the things the sea awakened when it came crashing in upon us.
They were still here. Of course they were, for those that could hear them. I had never heard them before, but I had never lost someone before, not like that.
Deep in the recesses of my mind I recalled the old myth of Orpheus and Euridice, the harpist who descended into Hades for the love of a woman, and whose bargain with the Underlord left him bereft of hope and sanity when he could not live up to his end of the deal. Orpheus, in the underworld. I was Orpheus.
This island—I thought of it as an island, though it had ceased to be one twenty-five hundred years ago—was filled with the dead. My heart crossed the Styx when Leyth died. It lent my ears a new hearing. Part of me was dead along with those I listened to.
But if that was so, then …
Clapping my hand over my eyes to protect them, I opened them and waited a moment for my vision to adjust. At first everything took on a greenish hue, but that faded, and then I could see. The voices ceased. That didn’t matter. I knew what I had to do about them.
I weaved my way through the mounds of putrefying debris, back to Al Awkaf, and started back up the hill. Not too far, just thirty meters or so, until my way was half-blocked by the collapsed facing of a brick building.
Even without closing my eyes, I could see what it had been, a small, one-story flat-roofed box with wide windows on the northern face, and a sign, green on white, above the door, saying “Museum”. Ours was the big museum in Tyre, a multi-building complex around the dig site, but this one was a charming one-room labor of love for an old man and his invalid wife. Where most museums are stuffy, academic places that try to impress visitors with the importance of the artifacts on display, this one invited guests to realize that most of the things we revere and coo over were just everyday objects to the people that made them.
Just inside the door was a box filled with rusted iron and frayed rope, the lost odds and ends of centuries of naval building. Every guest was encouraged to play with these bolts and clasps, and the shop rang with the delighted laughter of children, discovering that old things are good things, made with care, built to last, and they left with the dust of the ages under their fingernails. The magic of history in their hearts.
The museum had one full-time employee, a slim, bright man of middling height and towering personality. The first day I’d come in, I could feel a magnetic power from him even before he’d turned his ebony eyes on me and smiled the smile that sliced me open like a ripe fruit.
Leyth didn’t do research. He did joy.
The museum was practically inside the slum itself, just on the upward edge, a shining light in squalid darkness, and those that staffed it were the candlepower. Before long I was spending almost as much time sorting the dripping nets and their treasures behind the Maritime Museum as I was in the dark pits of my own.
I hadn’t been here when the wave came in, but I knew from the old man and his wife what had happened, and how my love was lost. This was the place. I hadn’t wanted to come here ever again, the place of my loss, but having lost most of what I cared about I was terrified of losing everything. It was a hopeless act. What good would it do to come here?
And worse, what if he was here as well? What if I closed my eyes and there was his waterfall laugh, pouring down on visitors? On me?
I had no choice.
I closed my eyes.
Rich, deep voices, speaking a miserable Greek, but with command. Voices used to issuing orders. Barks of agreement. Creaking of oars. A shout of alarm, and screams. I couldn’t tell whether they were ancient or recent. Then Arabic, flowing and beautiful, but the words unfamiliar, and Hebrew, and Aramaic, occasionally languages I knew, German, English.
I needed him to be here. Nothing terrified me so much as that he would be.
And then I heard him.
He was speaking softly—but he always spoke softly—and telling someone about the way ancient ships laid alongside the Tyrian harbor docks. Tears sprang to my eyes. I could see him.
And then, really. I could see him.
In front of me, the shop stood as it had been before that day. The deep blue paint on the door, the rust-colored tile, the sky-blue accents on the walls and the ceiling. A small group of children stood over by the iron-bound trunk against the right hand wall, their hands deep in the treasures inside, awestruck and showing one another what they’d come up with.
Leyth stood over them, smiling, explaining, encouraging. I saw him as if with my own eyes, and I was so startled I opened them.
The shop was still there.
I blinked, not believing what I could plainly see, but whatever I did the shop remained, and I put my hand on the post of the door, running up and down, feeling the smoothness of the paint, incredulous. I stood on the mat on the outside, just a step from being in the museum, and the door was open and there was Leyth, standing just where I’d heard him and seen him with my eyes closed.
My heart clanged in my chest like wind chimes in a strengthening breeze. This couldn’t be. But I rubbed my arms, and there were no flies crawling on them. The cool wind off the sea blew up the street and ruffled my hair, and it was clean and dry and filled with the scent of cardamom and incense, without a whiff of decay.
The sounds of commerce, of strolling tourists, a harp and guitar from the café up Al Awkaf.
And Leyth. Who turned his head, and saw me.
For a moment I believed I might be a ghost myself, just able to see and hear a scene that didn’t exist but in memory, unable to affect it, but then his eyes found me and there was that look in his eye that caught my breath. He looked back at the children, giving himself to them, and letting me wait, exactly as he would have done.
Was this, in fact, a memory? I tried to recall if I had been just here, with him just there, and the students, and the sun past its zenith and wending downward, but I couldn’t remember. My head spun and there was no oxygen in the air. My chest hurt simply from attempting to breathe.
The children were called by someone deeper in the shop, and they groaned at having to leave their treasure-hunting, but buzzed off in a swarm and left Leyth standing at the side of the museum, his hands on his hips and a faint smile playing about his lips as he regarded me.
I stepped into the shop, because if I was dead then this was Heaven. I didn’t believe in Heaven and nothing ever mattered to me less. All I had wanted for two weeks was this, for things to simply go back to the way they had been, before.
But they couldn’t. The world did not work that way. My mind insisted on this, refused the senses and all they told me.
Leyth sauntered across the floor toward me, unhurried, in that calm, unruffled space in whch he always seemed to exist, his own private weather system, always blue skies and warm wind. He blew that wind on me and the tears dried on my cheeks.
“Hello, my flower,” he said.
“Leyth,” I whispered, barely moving my mouth, afraid I had somehow cast a spell that any speech would break.
“I knew you would come for me.” He stopped a few feet away. His shirt was open one button too far, and his chest was brown and smooth.
I found my voice. “Come for you? But I didn’t come for you.”
“Yes, you did. You want to tell me you didn’t come here, stand here, looking for me?”
“What … what is this?” I said, not sure I wanted to know.
He took another step forward. I could feel the heat of him, stronger than the heat of the Levant sun.
“Why do you need to know what this is?”
“I don’t believe this can be Heaven.”
“Some things are true whether you believe them or not.”
I turned a circle, giving myself time to think. Everything was just as I remembered it. “Maybe so, but if this is Heaven, I cannot be here.”
“You are so unclean as that?”
After the last few days among the rotting bodies of the dead, I could. My Zoroastrian mother, to whom even the sight of the dead was anathema, would have disowned me after the last few days. But even before that, my soul was black as ash, the ash that was made of the dead themselves. That was reality. This was a beautiful dream, but nothing more. My chest unclenched and I breathed deeply once more. I turned to Leyth and smiled.
“I wish you were real. I wish all this was real. But what I need to know is,” I said, moving the step between us and laying my hand on his arm, “are you here? And can you help me?”
He clasped my hand. “I can do that and more."
Forget the more. “I need the Knot,” I said, and saw some of the light go out of his eyes.
“It’s here,” he said, swiveling slightly and extending his arm to guide me back out of the museum and onto the street.
If this was a dream, or a hallucination, what was my body doing on the ruined wash of Al Awkaf? Any moment I expected to crash into a rubbish pile and be pitched headlong into rotting muck, but my feet were sure and steady on the street that no longer was. I could go along with the vision if it didn’t drop me into a sodden mess of rubbish, or something worse.
Leyth was in no hurry, though I paced next to him with impatience. He strolled a leisurely path down the street, and after a few paces reached out to take my hand. I recoiled from his touch, though it was as soft and warm as ever. I wasn’t really here. Or, I was, but he wasn’t. He wasn’t staying. No handholding would change that.
His footsteps faltered a little, slowing. He gazed steadily at me for a long moment, and said, “What are you afraid of, Isabella?”
“I’m not afraid of anything.”
“Fear comes off you like stink from rotting fish. Why?”
I shook my head. The portcullis was down, and I refused to raise it. “Just show me where the Knot is.”
He stopped altogether, held his arms out in the golden sun, and raised his face to the sky. He stood there, like the statue of the Christ in Rio, only much happier-looking, while I paced forward and back, waiting impatiently for him to do whatever he was going to do. But apparently this was what he was going to do, and I knew that until he was done, there wouldn’t be any moving him forward to get what I’d come for.
“Why?” he said, eventually, not opening his eyes nor changing his body. A tourist couple veered around us, breaking into grins as they saw Leyth, checking me from the sides of their eyes, wondering what I was doing with such a person, or maybe what he was doing with me.
“Why what?” I said, when I judged them to be out of earshot.
“Why do you want the Knot?”
“Can you tell me where it is, or can’t you?”
“I can,” he said, his arms beginning to drop slowly downward, “but I am deciding whether I ought to.”
“What does that mean?” I said, squaring right up to him and looking him in the eye.
“It means,” he said, raising one finger and dropping it on the point of my nose, “That you will need to convince me that I should tell you where it is. I am not convinced I would be doing you a service were I to tell you.”
I spluttered. “You … you’re not even real.”
“Oh, my deserted flower,” he said, using his favorite pun, “you never have known what that word meant.”
Tiring of this, I turned my back to him and tried to interpret from where we had been headed where we would eventually end up. But I couldn’t get the overlaid images out of my head. As soon as I moved even a few feet from him, the other voices grew louder, and for a moment, the scene flickered, the real world layered over the one before me, the destruction rotting through the buildings and lamp-posts as I watched, decay erasing the glorious vision like a bucket of mud thrown on a whitewashed wall.
I stepped back toward him without turning around, and the vision solidified again and the Greek voices faded.
“You see?” he said. His voice held no trace of smugness. I envied his ability to teach without ever making his pupil feel small and ignorant.
“I see nothing but that whatever the spell is, it’s centered on you. That’s probably because … it’s probably …”
“Yes?” he said, and his voice was right behind me, the stubble on his chin plucking at my hair.
“Because I’m so hurt to have lost you.”
“That is not what you were about to say.”
I couldn’t. “Then you say it.”
Low and sweet, like desert honey. “I love you. I love you as the desert loves the coming of the rain.”
It was too much. I bent over and wept.
He did nothing but put his hand lightly on my back as it shook and quivered, as great wracking sobs tore through me and out into the sunshine, where they faded away like the high clouds in the heat of the day.
“If I don’t have the Knot,” I finally choked out, “I have nothing.”
He didn’t respond. His hand stayed on my back, at the base of my spine.
“I’ve already lost the knot you gave me. I cannot lose my research, everything that made up my life all at once,” I said.
“As I have,” he said, as if completing my sentence.
I should have thought … “Yes. Obviously, yes.”
“But you see that I have lost nothing but you.”
“I … I don’t know what I see.”
“Ever the scientist.”
“What would be a better answer? What are you looking for?” I said, and edged backward so that he was touching me from the crown of my head down my back to my calves.
“It is not what I look for, dear one.”
“What, then? God? Is he the one that has to give you permission to show me?”
“No, Allah is unconcerned with this little scene we play. I am he who will decide.”
I turned my head to look at him. “Decide to help me.”
He laughed. “I decided that the day we met. The complication is merely how to do so. You are far from a simple woman.” But he took my hand—I allowed it this time—and led me off down the hill. We were nearly at the bottom, passing a small stall where flatbread was heating on a cast-iron griddle. It smelled delicious.
Leyth edged around the stall and into an alley I didn’t remember seeing before. It wasn’t a passage so much as a space that the ramshackle huts had neglected to fill. More than once I had to turn sideways to scoot between walls, all the time mindful that if I pushed any harder, the structure would probably collapse. Fifteen, twenty meters in, Leyth halted.
He stood at a dead end, where three walls met. “Before I show you, I must ask if you are certain you need this thing.”
“I need it,” I said, looking about as if I could find it on my own, not really listening to his question.
“What will it give you, this thing you seek?”
“It will give me my life back.”
“You loved this life so much?”
The question struck me like a backhanded slap. Of course I loved it.
Why had I loved it?
Had I loved it?
He saw my face contort. He prodded me. “Tell me, Isabella my love, what you loved so much about this life you have lost.”
I opened my mouth, unsure what would fill it. “I loved … discovering things. I loved the people I researched with, listening to them and the things they knew. I loved learning things no one else knew.” As I spoke, the words tumbling over themselves, I realized they were true. I did love those things.
But there was more. “I loved the bustle of the town. I loved the museum and the little café and I loved sitting in the setting sun and sipping my coffee and waiting … waiting for you …”
I looked desperately into his face. “I loved you.”
“You can have all those things again.”
“Not without the Knot.”
“Yes without. You can stay right here, with me.”
I rocked backward a step. “I can’t. This isn’t real.”
“It’s as real as you decide it will be.”
Above me a gull screamed, floating in the cerulean sky. The pull of the illusion was powerful beyond anything, like a wave, like the wave, irresistible and drawing me.
It was all here. Tyre that was. The museum. My things. Leyth.
“What is this place?” I said, searching his face.
“Come and see.”
I took another step backward, and saw the look it produced. He wasn’t going to plead, but he wanted me here. Of course he did.
That’s when I saw it. That look was exactly what I would have hallucinated him wanting. This was everything I wanted. How could it be anything else? It was all in my mind. Nothing here was anything but what my own overtaxed mind showed me.
The realization crushed me. “I’m not really here, am I?” I said, spewing hopelessness. “I’m still standing in the ankle-deep mud in front of your destroyed museum, and I’m asking you—the mirage of you—to show me where the Gordian Knot is so that I can put it back in the antiquities collection on top of the hill, so that when tourists start coming back there will be something for them to see, some way to raise money so that we can have … so that we can …” I took another step back. “This is not real. It’s sunstroke. It’s a phantom.” I looked wide-eyed at him. His eyes broke my heart, but not my resolve. “You can’t tell me what I want to know, can you? Because I don’t know it myself.” That was the proof, and the realization smote me like a rod.
Slowly he closed his eyes, and shook his head, and smiled the saddest smile I’d ever seen. “You were all things to me,” he said. “I could be those things to you, but you will not have it. I hoped, but I knew it was vain. So I give you the thing you say you want, because you will not take the thing you need.”
In a drifting of color and sound and smell, the scene dissolved, like a chalk painting in the rain, and the flies and the reek of maggoty flesh slammed into me, an avalanche of pain and stench and Leyth was the last thing to go. Just before he vanished his arm came up, reaching out to me, asking me to come, one last time, and the gesture drew me forward. Against all reason, if he had lingered another moment between wherever he was and my reality, I would have run to him, even if it meant living the rest of my life inside a mania.
But he faded before I could.
And I was standing not in front of the museum, but down the hill in between what had been a double row of hovels in the slum, exactly where I’d been in the hallucination. The dead end was there, no longer rising above my head, but still waist high, where three solid walls had withstood the water’s crushing embrace. The place Leyth had stood was a deep mound of trash, an arm sticking out, part of a dog, clothing and chairs and what might have been a chicken. It crawled with flies. I felt my gorge rising again.
I turned to flee. How I had gotten here I couldn’t imagine, because behind me there was no path out to the road. I was blocked in by a collapsed wall that cut me off from Al Awkaf. Had I climbed over it, in the vision? How could I have done that?
I could only try to do it again. There was nothing here. There was never anything here. The Knot was gone. Everything was gone. I felt it go from me and the blackness enveloped me from my soul to my chest.
I put my foot on the skeleton of the wall, testing it. It was mushy, but seemed solid enough to hold me. I put more weight on it.
My foot smashed through, unbalancing me, and a chunk of the wall fell off to the right. I fell into the viscous mud, the ooze mushing around me, holding me. I lay there and took stock. Nothing dangerously wrong. My calf was scraped, but otherwise I was unhurt.
Ahead of me, at ground level, was a cavity under the wall, invisible until the collapse. I peered into it, but couldn’t see. The dark was too deep against the blinding reflected sun. But there was something …
A wooden rod extended out from the darkness. I grasped it and pulled, and out of the shadows came the Gordian Knot.
Leyth hadn’t been beckoning me. He had been pointing. Which meant … he had known …
Blood draining from my face, I turned back to the place Leyth had been, and was no more, and closed my eyes again, tightly, praying to whatever gods there were that he would come back. I listened. I willed the souls of all the dead to speak to me again.
I stood there for hours, until I cramped, until the men from up the hill came and dragged me away, rigid and hysterical.
But all I heard was the crying of gulls and the gentle pound of the surf, and the things the sea awakened drifting far away from me.