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"THE BENNU," the man said, referring to the hieroglyph of a heron with two long feathers growing from the back of its head. He'd quietly joined Gil Goldsands in the small alcove on the first floor of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Gil was facing forward, at the time, toward a sandstone relief that had been saved from the area around Abu Simbel when the Nile had been backed up behind the multimillion-dollar Saad al-Ali--the Aswân High Dam.
Gil was surprised by his sudden company. The museum was kitty-corner from the Nile Hilton and, therefore, quite accessible to tourists, but most visitors usually kept to the more impressive Tutankhamen exhibit located on the second floor. Gil was saving that until last, rather like saving a fine dessert to be savored after a thoroughly enjoyable and deliciously filling meal.
At first, Gil assumed he'd been joined by a tourist--the man spoke perfect English, albeit with a thoroughly enchanting accent that was more British than American. Gil should have been forewarned by the way the guy was able to identify a key figure in hieroglyphic script. Gil knew very few people, besides his colleagues in the archaeological profession, who were so thoroughly versed. "Yes," Gil said, turning, quite prepared to further define the heron character and prove Gil's own more-than-just-a-modicum knowledge of Egyptology. Despite being handicapped by the long-complained-about warehouse-like dimness, for which the Egyptian Museum was notorious, Gil realized immediately that it was Peter Donas beside him.
"It really isn't a heron at all, you know," Peter said, failing to notice, what with the poor lighting, the expression of recognition on Gil'sface. "It represents the phoenix--that legendary bird that lived for five hundred years before converting its nest into a funeral pyre and cremating itself in the searing flames." He held up his hand as if to prevent any interruption. "But there is a happy ending," he continued, "for it emerged as good as new from its own ashes to live for another five hundred years--give or take a hundred years, of course."
He smiled--a very attractive smile. Peter's pictures always showed him as seemingly very somber. Oh, yes, Gil had Peter's picture--several of them, in fact--mainly culled from archaeological journals and magazines. Gil had faithfully filed them in an album begun in 1922. Not that Peter or Gil had been alive in 1922. The album's first pictures had been of Peter's grandfather, Frederic, followed by Peter's father, Thomas, and then by Peter Donas.
"I do believe you have a city somewhere in the United States called Phoenix, do you not?" Peter asked. Gil couldn't believe Peter could be so blasé about this first meeting. "It's in Arizona, isn't it?" Peter asked.
"Arizona?" Gil echoed, sounding to himself very much like a parrot and feeling ridiculous because of it.
"Phoenix, Arizona," Peter elucidated. "That is the city in question, yes?"
"Right," Gil admitted, trying to get his thoughts into some cohesive order. If Peter could carry this through with such aplomb, Gil was determined to match him. Gil's whole problem, of course, was that he hadn't expected any of this quite yet. He'd arrived in Egypt early just so he would have time to prepare for it--in Hierakonpolis.
"It symbolized the morning sun rising out of the glow of dawn," Peter continued non-abashed. For a moment, Gil didn't know what Peter was talking about, and then he realized Peter was still giving him a lesson on the heron hieroglyph. Gil found Peter's patronizing attitude more than a little irritating. Peter had to know Gil was well-acquainted with what Peter was saying. "Hence it was conceived as the bird of the sacred sun-god, Re," Peter rambled on. If he sensed Gil's growing chagrin, he certainly didn't let on. "It represented the new sun of today emerging from the body of the old sun of yesterday--a manifestation of Osiris, the symbol of resurrection and light." He finished off with a quote from the book of Job that, some scholars argued, indicated that the phoenix legend had passed over into Judeo-Christian teachings: "'Then I said, I shall die in my nest, and I shall multiply my days as the sand.'"
"'Who forgiveth all thine iniquities, who healeth all thy diseases, who satisfieth thy mouth with good things, so that the youth is renewed like the eagles,'" Gil shot back, glad his voice sounded so calm, cool, and collected. His quotation came from the book of Psalms. While neither reference probably had anything whatsoever to do with the phoenix, although that mythical bird had always been represented as an eagle in Greco-Roman art, Gil had at least proved he could match Peter obscurity for obscurity.
"I say, that's very good!" Peter complimented, seeming genuinely appreciative. Gil really couldn't believe Peter hadn't expected Gil to be as knowledgeable on the subject. Gil might not have gotten his education at Oxford, like Peter, but he had all the accreditation in their mutually shared field to match Peter diploma for diploma. There were some people who might even say, after Gil's work at the dig at Avaris on the eastern side of the Nile delta, that he was the one more qualified to work on this excavation at Hierakonpolis. "My name is Peter," he told Gil. "Peter Donas."
Automatically, Gil held out his hand. He hadn't wanted to. At least, that's what he told himself. His was merely a natural reflex born of introduction after introduction at lectures, college teas, or while meeting the never-ending stream of academicians who moved in, out of, and around Gil's circle. Certainly, he wanted his hand back the moment Peter took it and held it far longer than was prescribed by good etiquette. Gil would have pulled it away by force, except he found something intensely pleasurable in the wraparound of Peter's calloused fingers.
"Yours?" Peter asked, making Gil wonder whether he was referring to Gil's hand, which he wouldn't release. Gil's fingers seemed way too comfortable within the cupping squeeze of Peter's powerful hand.
"Yours?" Gil questioned, unsure just what Peter was asking. He continued to be a little muddled, this whole scenario so unexpected. Gil didn't know why their meeting couldn't have taken place later, as scheduled, instead of now. He had hoped to be better prepared.
Posted April 7, 2010
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