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I'd gone to Egypt, as a courier, easy. I gave the package to a guy at the airport and was finished and free by noon on the first day. It was a bad time to be in Cairo, unwise at that juncture, with the poor state of relations between our nation and the entire region, but I did it anyway because, at that point in my life, if there was a window at all, however small and discouraged, I would-
I'd been having trouble thinking, finishing things. Words like anxiety and depression seemed apt then, in that I wasn't interested in the things I was usually interested in, and couldn't finish a glass of milk without deliberation. But I didn't stop to ruminate or wallow. Diagnosis would have made it all less interesting.
I'd been a married man, twice; I'd been a man who turned forty among friends; I'd had pets, jobs in the foreign service, people working for me. Years after all that, somewhere in May, I found myself in Egypt, against the advice of my government, with mild diarrhea and alone.
There was a new heat there, dry and suffocating and unfamiliar to me. I'd lived only in humid places-Cincinnati, Hartford-where the people I knew felt sorry for each other. Surviving in the Egyptian heat was invigorating, though-living under that sun made me lighter and stronger, made of platinum. I'd dropped ten pounds in a few days but I felt good.
This was a few weeks after some terrorists had slaughtered seventy tourists at Luxor, and everyone was jittery. And I'd just been in New York, on the top of the Empire State Building, a few days after a guy opened fire there, killing one. I wasn't consciously following trouble around, but then what the hell was I doing-
On a Tuesday I was by the pyramids, walking, loving the dust, squinting; I'd just lost my second pair of sunglasses. The hawkers who work the Gizeh plateau-really some of the least charming charmers the world owns-were trying to sell me anything-little scarab toys, Cheops keychains, plastic sandals. They spoke twenty words of a dozen languages, and tried me with German, Spanish, Italian, English. I said no, feigned muteness, got in the habit of just saying "Finland!" to them all, sure that they didn't know any Finnish, until a man offered me a horseback ride, in American English, hooking his r's obscenely. They really were clever bastards. I'd already gotten a brief and expensive camel ride, which was worthless, and though I'd never ridden a horse past an amble and hadn't really wanted to, I followed him on foot.
"Through the desert," he said, leading me past a silver tourist bus, Swiss seniors unloading. I followed him. "We go get horse. We ride to the Red Pyramid," he said. I followed. "You have your horse yourself," he said, answering my last unspoken question.
I knew the Red Pyramid had just been reopened, or was about to be reopened, though I didn't know why they called it Red. I wanted to ride on a horse through the desert. I wanted to see if this man-slight, with brown teeth, wide-set eyes, a cop mustache-would try to kill me. There were plenty of Egyptians who would love to kill me, I was sure, and I was ready to engage in any way with someone who wanted me dead. I was alone and reckless and both passive and quick to fury. It was a beautiful time, everything electric and hideous. In Egypt I was noticed, I was yelled at by some and embraced by others. One day I was given free sugarcane juice by a well-dressed man who lived under a bridge and wanted to teach at an American boarding school. I couldn't help him but he was sure I could, talking to me loudly by the juice bar, outside, in crowded Cairo, while others eyed me vacantly. I was a star, a heathen, an enemy, a nothing.
At Gizeh I walked with the horse man-he had no smell-away from the tourists and buses, and down from the plateau. The hard sand went soft. We passed an ancient man in a cave below ground, and I was told to pay him baksheesh, a tip, because he was a "famous man" and the keeper of that cave. I gave him a dollar. The first man and I continued walking, for about a mile, and where the desert met a road he introduced me to his partner, a fat man, bursting from a threadbare shirt, who had two horses, both black, Arabian.
They helped me on the smaller of the two. The animal was alive everywhere, restless, its hair marshy with sweat. I didn't tell them that I'd only ridden once before, and that time at a roadside Fourth of July fair, walking around a track, half-drunk. I was trying to find dinosaur bones in Arizona-I thought, briefly, that I was an archeologist. I still don't know why I was made the way I am.
"Hesham," the horse man said, and jerked his thumb at his sternum. I nodded.
I got on the small black horse and we left the fat man. Hesham and I trotted about five miles on the rural road, newly paved, passing farms while cabs shot past us, honking. Always the honking in Cairo!-the drivers steering with the left hand to be better able, with their right, to communicate every nuance of their feelings. My saddle was simple and small; I spent a good minute trying to figure out how it was attached to the horse and how I would be attached to it. Under it I could feel every bone and muscle and band of cartilage that bound the horse together. I stroked its neck apologetically and it shook my hand away. It loathed me.
When we turned from the road and crossed a narrow gorge, the desert spread out in front of us without end. I felt like a bastard for ever doubting that it was so grand and acquiescent. It looked like a shame to step on it, it was shaped so carefully, layer upon layer of velveteen.
On the horse's first steps onto sand, Hesham said: "Yes?"
And I nodded.
With that he whipped my horse and bellowed to his own and we were at a gallop, in the Sahara, heading up a dune the size of a four-story building.
I'd never galloped before. I had no idea how to ride. My horse was flying; he seemed to like it. The last horse I'd been on had bitten me constantly. This one just thrust his head rhythmically at the future.
I slid to the back of the saddle and pulled myself forward again. I balled the reins into my hand and leaned down, getting closer to the animal's body. But something or everything was wrong. I was being struck from every angle. It was the most violence I'd experienced in years.
Hesham, seeing me struggle, slowed down. I was thankful. The world went quiet. I regained my grip on the reins, repositioned myself on the saddle, and leaned forward. I patted the horse's neck and narrowly missed his teeth, which were now attempting to eat my fingers. I felt ready again. I would know more now. The start had been chaos because it was so sudden.
"Yes?" Hesham said.
I nodded. He struck my horse savagely and we bolted.
We made it over the first dune and the view was a conqueror's, oceans upon oceans, a million beveled edges. We flew down the dune and up the next. The horse didn't slow and the saddle was punishing my spine. Holy Christ it hurt. I wasn't in sync with the horse-I tried but neither the fat man nor the odorless one I was following had given me any direction and my spine was striking the saddle with enormous force, with terrible rhythm, and soon the pain was searing, molten. I was again and again being dropped on my ass, on marble, from a hundred feet-
I could barely speak enough to tell Hesham to slow down, to stop, to rest my spine. Something was being irrevocably damaged, I was sure. But there was no way to rest. I couldn't get a word out. I struggled for air, I tried to ride higher in the saddle, but couldn't stop because I had to show Hesham I was sturdy, unshrinking. He was glancing back at me periodically and when he did I squinted and smiled in the hardest way I could.
Soon he slowed again. We trotted for a few minutes. The pounding on my spine stopped. The pain subsided. I was so thankful. I took in as much air as I could.
"Yes?" Hesham said.
And he struck my horse again and we galloped.
The pain resumed, with more volume, subtleties, tendrils reaching into new and unknown places-shooting through to my clavicles, armpits, neck. I was intrigued by the newness of the torment and would have studied it, enjoyed it in a way, but its sudden stabbing prevented me from drawing the necessary distance from it.
I needed to prove to this Egyptian lunatic that I could ride with him. That we were equal out here, that I could keep up and devour it, the agony. That I could be punished, that I expected the punishment and could withstand it, however long he wanted to give it to me. We could ride together across the Sahara even though we hated each other for a hundred good and untenable reasons. I was part of a continuum that went back thousands of years, nothing having changed. It almost made me laugh, so I rode as anyone might have ridden at any point in history, meaning that it was only him and me and the sand and a horse and saddle-I had nothing with me at all, was wearing a white button-down shirt and shorts and sandals-and Jesus, however disgusting we were, however wrong was the space between us, we were really soaring.
And I was watching. As the horse's hooves scratched the sand and the horse breathed and I breathed, as the mane whipped over my hands and the sand sprayed over my legs, spitting on my bare ankles, I was watching how the man moved with the horse. Somewhere, after twenty minutes more of continuous pounding, with the horse at full gallop, I learned. I had been letting the horse strike me, was trying to sit above the saddle, hoping my distance from it would diminish the impact each time, but there were ways to eliminate the pain altogether.
I learned. I moved with the horse and when I finally started moving with that damned horse, nodding forward, in agreement, in collusion, the pain was gone. I was riding that stupid and divine horse, attached to it, low, my head immersed in its mane, and I-
Hesham noticed I no longer struggled and we rode faster. We rode with the sun overhead. There was a wind in our faces, and I felt a part of every army the world had ever burdened. I loved the man I followed in the way you love only those you've wanted to kill. And when I was most full of love the pyramid emerged from the sand, a less perfect peak among the dunes.
At the Red Pyramid we went up its side, lifting ourselves onto each step, each great square stone almost five feet tall. At the entrance, fifty feet up, the man gestured me into a small black entranceway into the chamber at the pyramid's center. I followed him down and in, the passage steep, narrow, dark, dank, too small for anyone larger than ourselves. There was a rope that could be used to guide us to the bottom. I held it and descended; there were no steps. The smell was chalky and the air thick and difficult to draw. Ahead of me the man held a torch which carved a jagged light from the darkness.
At the bottom of the decline, we stood, turned into another hallway, now level, and soon ducked through a doorway and were inside a stone box. It was a completely unadorned room, with high ceilings and perfect geometry. Hesham waved his arms around the room with great proud flourishes. "Home of king," Hesham said, bringing his torch to one side of the room and revealing a long stone box, the tomb. The chamber was otherwise empty, devoid of any markings or jewels or masonry. Chambers like these had been raided endlessly over the centuries, and now all that remained was bare walls, smooth, with no sign of-
The air inside was heaving with dust and I felt we would die if we stayed long. Would he try to kill me? Rob me? We were alone. For no reason at all I was without worry. We stared at each other in the room, neither of us truly impressed by the box we were in, though we both momentarily pretended at awe. I was disappointed, though I knew not to expect much inside these rooms. I didn't know how elaborate the space once was, but there was no evidence that it was ever anything but this, this sandy cube, and the fact of it saddened me. The exterior so magnificent, the core so crude. Hesham held the torch near his face and looked at me, though in the weak light I'm not sure he saw me at all.
He sighed loudly. His face moved through emotions: arrogance, boredom, annoyance. He was obligated to stay as long as I wanted to stay. I didn't want to stay at all, but I liked seeing him suffer, if even a small amount.
We climbed the steps again toward the crooked window of light where the pyramid drank the sky. It was dusk. Once outside and on the ground again, the man said, "There is another."
I asked him its name. He said it was called the Bent Pyramid.
We were on our horses again.
"Yes?" he asked.
I nodded and he struck my horse with his open hand. I followed him though he was soon only a black wraith against a silver sky. Our horses were angry and breathed in hydraulic bursts. I realized now that Hesham was not doing this for whatever money I would give him. He hadn't bothered to negotiate for any of the trips after the Red Pyramid. What we were doing was something else, and each of us knew it. I was now sure he wouldn't kill me, and knew he had no plan, none more than I had.
An hour later we were at the Bent Pyramid, this one larger but less secure, and the light was gone. We climbed to its entrance and descended and once again found ourselves inside a sacred chamber, a room that had held a queen or pharaoh, though again the room was bare. The man and I stared at each other, breathing in the hard thick air, without any compassion for each other or anything.
From the Trade Paperback edition.