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Cairo Diaryan Egyptian fable
By Linda Lambert
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2010 Linda Lambert
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDelhi is a great place-most bazaar storytellers in India make their villain hail from there; but when the agony and intrigue are piled highest and the tale halts till the very last breathless sprinkle of cowries has ceased to fall on his mat, why then, with wagging head and hooked forefinger, the storyteller goes on: "But there was a man from Cairo, an Egyptian of the Egyptians, who"-and all the crowd knows that a bit of real metropolitan devilry is coming. -Rudyard Kipling, Letters of Travel, 1908
April 12, 2006
Justine couldn't wait. Nadia had offered to show her around Cairo, but Justine was too eager to set foot in the crypt under St. Sergius Church, a cave that had served as home to the Holy Family two thousand years ago. Tension gripped her body as she descended the thirteen worn steps down onto the marble floor below. She took each step with deliberate slowness to allow her body to absorb the holy site where the family once lived. Myth or fact.... or something in between? she mused.
Now inside the crypt, Justine continued to reflect upon the remarkable woman who had captured the imagination of the world. How did she raise her extraordinary sons? Where did Mary spend her nights? Where did Jesus sleep? She stood among the columns, her eyes sweeping over every nook and cranny looking for answers to the questions that drove her search.
The last time Justine was here, the crypt was closed because of groundwater that had seeped in after the '92 earthquake. She could now see that the crypt, just recently reopened, had at one time served as a three-aisled chapel with an altar in the front wall. Justine ran her fingers across the smooth plastered walls surrounding four marble-crowned columns and supported by a roughly hewed ceiling. Primitive lights hung from each side of the room, the cords crawling back up the stairs. Shadows painted haunting images across the walls and ceiling. Perhaps ghosts or saints watch over this holy place, she thought. Not a religious person, nevertheless Justine could be swept up in the historical moment. In this moment.
Nearly four hundred kilometers to the east of Cairo, the morning sun danced a crystalline ballet across the Gulf of Aqaba. Deep below the shimmering waters, the Arabian plate snuggled up against the African plate as it had for millennia. This morning, the earthen plates quivered-only slightly. But enough. Suppressed energy, like flexing muscles, reached the tipping point. The quiver snaked itself west across the African plate, under the Sinai landmass, beneath the Gulf of Suez, and into the eastern Sahara creating a long ribbon of rupture. The quake hit Old Cairo some 90 seconds later.
Half way around the world at the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, California, a large gathering of seismologists prepared to participate in the upcoming centennial celebration of the great San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906. The seismologist on duty burst into the room to announce that a quake of significant proportions was occurring along the African plate in the Gulf of Suez. This disturbance registered larger than the destructive 1992 Cairo earthquake.
Justine's feet moved back and forth, her body swaying abruptly. The crypt must be settling into the water table below ... A jolt ran up her spine as the lights went out, leaving the crypt pitch black. The shaking continued for what seemed an eternity to her, although it must have been only seconds. She was nine years old again, riding in the back seat of the family car as it approached the San Francisco Bay Bridge. That was 1989 and the Loma Prieta earthquake was about to rip a section of bridge away in front of them. Her father yelled, "Get out of the car!" Hand in hand, they began running back toward Oakland. Justine turned around just in time to see their Toyota, and her new ballet shoes, teeter on the ledge and drop into the bay below.
Cracking and crashing sounds were deafening as the crypt now came alive around her. Steadying herself by holding onto one of the four pillars, Justine coughed as the first cloud of fine sandstone dust entered her lungs. The pillar began to fall toward her, forcing her to the floor. Justine crouched under the slanting column: This time, I'm going to die, she realized, a growing panic threatening to block out all rational thought. The thin veneer of plaster on the roof and sides of the crypt rained down, covering her with a veil of taupe dust. Another of the large columns collapsed.
No light entered the crypt. The stairwell must be blocked-perhaps St. Sergius has collapsed around it. The first aftershock hit, more ferocious than the initial quake. Larger chunks of plaster fell within inches of Justine's face, trapping her in the hollow under the collapsed column. The column wedged against the wall of the crypt and held. She didn't move. She couldn't move.
Justine began to pull away the plaster with both hands, cutting her fingers and palms. Tearing off the bottom of her blouse, she wrapped the strips around her hands. The air was heavy and thick, sandstone dust crowding out precious oxygen. I'm suffocating. The thought seized her as she found it harder and harder to draw a breath. I'm going to die here and no one knows where I am. My desperate need for independence will be the death of me now. She was terrified.
The movement stopped; at least there hadn't been an aftershock for several seconds. Justine waited, relieved by a few moments of stillness, her heart pounding in her ears. Already forced into a crouch by the press of the column, she frantically felt around her feet, finding her canvas bag and purse, a heel broken off her boot. Her fingers touched a surface of parched skin. She continued to explore the blistered façade, her fingers lightly touching the flaking edges of what now felt like a small book. Whatever this was, she quickly stuffed it in her bag with her other belongings.
Suddenly, the second aftershock hit with such fury that large sections of the encrusted ceiling collapsed around Justine, nearly burying her alive.
Chapter Two... there appeared an angel of the Lord to Joseph in a dream, saying, 'Rise, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt ... -Matthew 2:11
April 9, 2 CE
Sunlight skimmed across the water beneath a pale lavender mist as she watched the Great River come to life around her, warm sand rising between her toes. How long will these mornings be mine? Mary wondered. For nearly eight summers I've been free to come to this river alone, to listen to my own thoughts. At home in Palestine, my mother never felt the warm waters touch her skin, never traveled without a man at her side. Mary stepped into the river, embraced by the waters rising around her ankles. As she watched, a white crane, startled by the approaching light, took flight. Hundreds of birds ascended in harmony while a single pelican swooped into the water, found its target, and emerged with a mouthful of squirming catfish. Mary's attention moved to the glassy water below, where blue and white lotuses with toothed leaves offered temporary homes to restless grasshoppers and water beetles. Joseph moves slowly now and speaks of home. What will l say, what will I do, when the time comes to return to Palestine? Will my voice be heard?
The water nearby parted as two large protruding eyes joined by a gray leather mound surfaced into sunlight. An indifferent purple gallinule spread its wings and squatted between the hippo's eyes. Colorful bursts of acacia, hyacinth, and oleander hugged the towering palms near Mary's feet. As she deeply inhaled the fragrant air, she felt a wave of exhilaration. Although melancholy was often companion to her thoughts, she was grateful to God for these moments alone.
She knelt to catch some of the warm, clear water in her pot, slipping her sandy feet into worn leather sandals. Wet sand clung to the fringe on her tunic. She shook it to loosen the sand's tight hold. The cloth would dry quickly.
As she leaned forward, her thick blanket of hair-not yet tamed for the day-was divided by a peak at the center of her forehead and framed an oval face tanned by the Egyptian sun. Two dimples deepened when she smiled. Her black eyes were especially alive and curious this morning. As a woman of twenty-four summers, she had grown into a rare beauty, far more beautiful than her modesty would allow her to comprehend. She was a woman with neither mirror nor vanity.
Mary shouldered the pot of water and started up the rise toward her home. The first thirst to be satisfied belonged to the sycamore tree near her home. This young sapling came with them from Palestine eight summers ago, the tender root wrapped in damp linen and kept in a small leather pouch at Mary's side. Sometimes the family could only spare a few drops of water to keep it alive. No one but I thought it could survive, Mary recalled as she poured the water into the thirsty earth. This sapling is a piece of home, a piece of my life before Joseph when I was just me ... no longer a child, not yet a wife or mother. I took care of this delicate seedling as I would care for a child. She stepped beyond the sycamore, watering the small garden and tucking her long skirt into her girdle to cradle the vegetables and the figs.
When Mary stepped into the cave that was the family home, she was surprised to find Joseph sitting on a small chair near the far end of the table that remained in darkness. Morning light reflected off the western wall and settled on the glass lantern set into a small niche in the sandstone. A miniature prism of multicolored light had captured his attention. Deep in thought, he hadn't noticed her enter.
"Joseph, is anything wrong?" Mary asked as she walked through the light into near darkness.
"I am just resting for a short while before I return to work, Mary. My body has lasted me these many summers, but I'm afraid my knees will forsake me while I still need them," he said. Even in the subdued light, Mary could see his expression, an unfamiliar blend of youthful optimism and aged resignation.
"Are you sure that is all, Joseph?" Mary asked as she pulled forth a chair and sat facing her husband. Is this the moment, she thought, the moment when he tells me we must return to our homeland? Is it possible that I could stay behind?
"I've many feelings about coming to Egypt, Mary. We had little choice but to leave, and the place of Moses called to us," said Joseph, noticing the distant look in his wife's eyes. "Mary, where are your thoughts?"
Embarrassed that concerns for herself had led her astray, she said, "I'm sorry, Joseph. Moses called us?"
"Moses called us, Mary," continuing as he was assured of her attention. "Herod was a madman, as are his sons. I'm not sure we'll ever belong here. My end may be growing near, and our family is far away." Joseph had found steady work in Egypt. His fine furniture could be sold at the weekly market and word of mouth had brought farmers from miles around to purchase his yokes. And now that the Romans asked him to prepare the gates for the new fortifications, his family need not worry about their livelihood as before. At one time, Joseph had thought that such security was more than he could hope for, but now he felt a sense of impending peril. The morning light broadened its reach, now reflecting on the sleeping pallets tucked into the shorter sides of the cave.
I knew that marriage to a man of many years would be beset with difficulties, but I thought we could grow old together. He is growing old without me. She rose from her chair and walked toward Joseph, taking his face in her hands. With her thumbs she gently smoothed the leathery wrinkles around his soft brown eyes. As always, his eyes spoke of his love and acquaintance with sorrow. This wise face was worn by time, yet worn in a way that preserved his humor and kindness. On either side of his thin mouth, small curved lines were drawn in memory of his frequent smiles. Gray, sinewy hairs defined his chin, eyebrows and head. The core of his character rested deep inside where quiet courage meets humility. As Mary held his face, a tear warmed her hand.
"You uncover my heart, Mary." Joseph placed his rough hand gently on Mary's cheek and found her tears there. He did not move to brush away his own tears.
For whom do I weep? she thought.
"You have given me a life I cherish," Mary said as she sat down beside him.
"If we had not come to Egypt, Mary, we would not have lost her." The pain in Joseph's voice pulled at Mary's heart.
"It was not your fault, Joseph. Not your fault," she insisted, her voice quivering. "It was God's will." It was God's will. How often have I said those familiar words even when I am so unsure? What does He want from me? What is His intention? When are we responsible for our own choices?
"Ho," cried Noha as she entered the kitchen area and caught a whiff of the simmering garlic, "What are you cooking, Mary? It smells like the feet of my donkey." Noha set a jug of wine on the worktable and settled onto one of the stools near the fire pit. Salome, the family friend and midwife who had accompanied Mary and her family to Egypt, did not turn around.
"Nothing so delicious," Mary replied with a grin. "Only a moonfish stew. James caught two large ones last night."
"Are you sure they are fresh?" demanded Noha. "A terrible death comes to people who eat bad moonfish." Both Salome and Mary continued their work, determined to be unruffled by Noha's scorn.
"Thank you for your concern, Noha," Mary said, slipping into her own tone of mild sarcasm. " I do believe they are fresh. We cleaned them last night and kept them in a cool place in the cave." Noha scowled but said nothing in return. Scornful comments accompanied Noha wherever she went. Today remarks were aimed at Salome and Mary. She saved the more cutting comments for her husband, Isaiah.
Jesus waited for his mother inside the cave. "Why are you so kind to Noha? Her angry words make us all join in her misery," asked Jesus, sitting half way onto one of the fragile chairs and placing his elbow on the edge of the table.
"The more difficult it is to extend kindness, my son, the more we please God by offering it. Noha gives us all a chance to please God. But today I'm afraid I wasn't very successful."
Jesus smiled and took the cups from his mother's hands and placed them on the table. "But why is she so angry?"
"When we left Nazareth, your father invited Isaiah and Noha to come with us. Noha opposed the journey, thinking it too dangerous, too uncertain. She didn't want to leave her family. I understood. But Isaiah agreed to make the journey. Even before she arrived, Noha had made up her mind she would never be happy here." Mary took eight large wooden spoons from the niche and placed them on the table below the cups.
"Can Noha ever be happy, Mother?"
"She may never be happy. God has not given her a happy heart." They smiled at each other, a glint of mischief flickering through Jesus' deep brown eyes. Mary reached out and tousled his dark auburn hair. She was pleased that he was still a child and welcomed her caresses.
I wish Noha had not come with us, Mary allowed herself to think. "What have you learned from the Rabbi today, Jesus?"
"I find it most curious. The Rabbi quoted God's word, 'He will give rain to your land at the right season, the spring rains and the autumn rains.' But it doesn't rain here, Mother." Jesus sat down again and placed his chin in both palms.
"You are right to be curious, Jesus. I believe God was speaking of the land of Israel. Sometimes I am confused as well, but I have noticed that when God does not send rain, He sends the Great River to overflow and make the land fertile. Listen for God's meaning and He will speak to you, my son." Mary sat down as well, smoothing her tunic with her palm.
Jesus sat very still. He looked at his mother for a long time before nodding.
"I've heard more about Isis in the market," Mary offered after the family sat down to their dinner of moonfish stew. Joseph and Mary, Salome and her husband Samir, Noha and Isaiah, and the two brothers, Jesus and James, sat around the long cedar table in the cave. The late afternoon sun reflected off the east side of the cave, holding the April warmth.
"Isn't she a pagan god?" asked Salome as she picked up the basket of warm bread and passed it to Noha.
"An Egyptian goddess of medicine and wisdom, Salome. One worshiped by man," said Mary, suspending her wooden spoon over her stew while she talked. "Her husband, Osiris, Lord of the underworld, was killed and cut into pieces by his jealous brother, Seth. From what I've heard in the market, Isis found the parts of Osiris scattered about the Great River, turned herself into a sparrow hawk and hovered over his body, fanning him back to life with her long wings." The wooden spoon became a bird in Mary's hand and swooped through the air, landing on Jesus' nose. He giggled; she smiled with pleasure. "Isis became full with child," she continued; "Their son, Horus, is said to be a powerful falcon god who avenged his father by slaying Seth."
Excerpted from Cairo Diary by Linda Lambert Copyright © 2010 by Linda Lambert. Excerpted by permission.
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