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"Incessant wind, sandstorms and breathing in more dust than oxygen, all while looking for sunny spots to warm the blood. Damn! March in Egypt, how I love it," Alexander "Ramses" Smith said as he grasped the straps of his heavy backpack. He hurried out of the tiny cabin in the bowels of the old white dahabeya. Up the narrow circular stairs, taking two at a time, then across the lounge and out onto the fore deck. Stepping out into the brilliant midmorning sun, he squinted and shaded his eyes from its reflection off the water. Lex took a last impatient look at the old boat as he waited to go ashore.
The dahabeya seemed as a great white heron, floating almost sadly with wings of stiff white canvas rolled around masts, one at the prow and another at the stern, and folded against a wood deck body. Now there were thick ropes fastened to moorings, squawking a discordant tune where they rubbed against the side of the boat. By the time Lex was on deck, the nimble Nubian crew was busy carrying his duffle bags and carriers ashore. They were effortlessly balancing on the narrow gangplank, which propped from the deck, across the shallows and touched down on dry land. Lex watched them unceremoniously deposit his things on the cement walkway and clutched his backpack even more tightly. Any casual observer would think it was full of stolen goods or precious gems rather than small digging tools, dusting brushes and a magnifying glass, all inherited from his archeologist grandfather. It also held his supply of writing utensils, notebooks and the digital camera gifted from his timid but indulgent mother. Just then, one of the men approached, reaching out for the backpack and saying he could take it across.
"La shukron, no thank-you!" Lex hugged it to his chest and took a step back. Realizing his unintentional rudeness, he then blushed and smiled apologetically.
The unfazed Nubian merely turned with a shrug and went on with his duties. The captain signaled to Lex that it was his turn to walk the plank. Although, it looked unsteady, he gave it a wary look then stepped onto the narrow board. Lex took a breath then waggled quickly along it, waving his one free arm for balance. Just before the end, he made an animated hop, accompanied with a yelp of triumph. He turned back with a raised hand, prepared to wave off their laughter, but dropped it when he noticed they were too busy getting under way. Disappointed, he turned back to the disarray of luggage awaiting its next transfer. There was no hurry now. Lex looked out to where the glassy surface of the Nile flowed serenely away. The sight made Lex feel conflicted. He considered himself discarded in this god-forsaken place by a displeased professor, yet thrilled to be in Egypt — anywhere.
"Good-bye, King Ramses," the captain called while waving with both hands.
"Aye and good sailing to you," Lex called back with a responding waggle of his hand. He grinned at the variation on the nickname the captain had tagged on him after sharing personal stories and an apple-flavored shisha. Of course, Ramses was not his middle name. Rather one dubbed because of his obsession with Ramses II, the old chiseler, so-named for his habit of deeply over-carving the hieroglyphs of former dynasties. That personality trait appealed to Lex who equated it to his own desire to overwrite his own life. With a wry twist of his mouth, Lex stood so alone on the bank of the Nile, watching the retreating dahabeya. Reality sank in. Essentially abandoned miles from any Ramses site, he knew dwelling on why was useless. Yet nothing could stop the disenchantment rolling over him like a tsunami of icy water. Practicality told him to address this assigned fate then grumble to anyone who would listen. After all, he thought, squaring his jaw, maybe the temple will reveal something unique enough to let me leave a mark on archeology as deeply as Ramses did on history.
Mental rehashing was exhausting. How many times had he promised himself to stop pointless nostalgia? By now, the dahabeya was far enough from shore to unfurl its double sails. The canvas resisted the first meeting of the brisk breeze, snapping, flapping and then filling to bulging beauty in the midday sun. Lex continued staring as they left him behind. The hypnotic rippling water made his thoughts wander trancelike to the fateful day only a few months earlier when he had entered the library conference room at The University of Chicago. So vivid the memory, he could still smell the stale cigar smoke, leather polish and carpet mildew of that intimidating dark oak-paneled room so favored by the doctorate committee. With those judgmental faces at one end of the long conference table, Lex felt the perfect victim as he nervously presented his research on the life of Ramses II.
Lex recalled how the long-winded doctoral dissertation had gone well until an utterance suggesting something other than the age-old acceptable concepts of the elitists in the Oriental Studies and Anthropology Departments. He could still see their expressions suddenly change as if they had all bitten into sour pickles. To this day, he had not received their final decision and worried that no answer was not good news. He knew this career sans doctorate would most certainly end before it began.
Just days later, Lex was shocked to receive a letter that he should join the university's archeology team in Egypt. It had arrived by a private messenger service — oddly not on university letterhead — saying Lex was to be a replacement for a girl who had turned down the position to get married. Signed with the flourishing penmanship of Professor Daniel Orridge, it certainly looked legitimate and caused Lex to wonder if he might be wrong about the stuffy old man. Besides, he knew successful fieldwork could vindicate all manner of past scholastic blunders. Still, sent to this less-than-glamorous temple, left him crestfallen to think everyone else was excavating the recently discovered Ramses II temple near Luxor.
"Well, nothing to be done about that now," Lex mused aloud.
Of course, he knew feeding that bitterness wasted energy and changed nothing. He stared down at the disgruntled expression on the face in the dark green water at his feet. Then he smiled and it smiled back. Physically shaking his whole body, Lex made the decision to kowtow to Professor Orridge and his spiteful whims, in spite of how he seemed to be taking pleasure in dangling the pending doctorate like a carrot before a donkey's nose. The young archeologist was soon whistling a tune as he rearranged the bags so he could carry and drag them up the cement steps. There he let them drop into a new heap while resting his back and catching his breath.
Lex searched up and then down the street, curious why no one hurried over to offer help. Egyptians were famous for finding every possible reason to earn baksheesh (tips). Was this little village an exception? He even tried his best expression of neediness, but it brought, instead sullen distrustful stares from the men leaning against doorways and suspicious glances from behind the veils of the women. Older children clutched their schoolbooks tighter and hurried away with heads together, as if telling secrets. Cheerless youngsters in grimy clothes avoided his gaze by dashing from their games and out of sight.
That was definitely an unusual reception, Lex thought as he searched in his pocket for the crinkled scrap of paper with the address where the university placed its people. Despite receiving the information just one day before his flight, Lex had still managed to pack everything needed. He stood searching for the house where he would have total privacy. He took house numbering for granted back home and found it rather startling to learn small Egyptian villages designated homes by painting doors in vibrant hues. Now as he searched, he felt like a kid trying to choose a carnival ride and that made him smile.
"Aha, there it is," he exclaimed, spotting the bright emerald green door. Shading his eyes with one hand, he peered at the other structures running parallel to the Nile. Then, he centered on his target again, the small white washed mud-brick house with a seemingly freshly painted door, gleaming like wet emeralds in the sun.
Stuffing the directions safely back into his pocket, Lex sighed at the ordeal of dragging his things any further. He took one last hopeful look for a villager eager to volunteer then shook his head and set about the task. With his view somewhat obstructed by his burden and focus set on only the green door, Lex never saw the donkey pulling a cart over-loaded with fresh vegetables. He did however hear the angry driver loudly claim the right-of-way. Just in time, Lex sidestepped the cart, barely managing to keep from dropping everything in the middle of the street. He grunted an apology, but all he received from the driver for his trouble was what sounded like a mouthful of Arabic curse words, accompanied by a nasty look. Lex waited until the cart was well past before dragging his things to the door where he dropped them to free a hand. All the while, he was mumbling a mouthful of English expletives, which became lost in the creaking of hinges as the door opened.
After the awkward struggle to get everything this far, Lex was content to just let go of the handles, droop his shoulders for the straps of the backpack to slide off and especially to delight in it all heaped in the middle of his new abode. There would be plenty of time to unpack later, if he chose, but Lex seldom bothered with such domestic fussiness. Now free to look around and settle in, he immediately noticed the staleness of a long-empty house and wrinkled his nose. There was a coating of a depressing blue-gray plaster-like substance smoothing the mud brick construction. That should keep the exterior heat at bay and the inside at a constant comfortable temperature, he thought. There, too, was a noticeably wide stream of sunlight angling in through the single, four-paned window inset into the wall a few feet to the right of the green door. Those unwashed glass panes would provide a nice view of the street outside his house, the river activity beyond and the eastern horizon where Ra as Khephera, the early morning sun, would mark each day's journey.
Still, Lex looked around and frowned. There was an odd sense in the room, a gloominess even sunlight seemed unwilling to dispel. Reason told him that was just silly and Lex went to the window. By leaning over, he could see across the street where the low cement wall hid the corniche that led along the Nile. Only the steps down with the black iron handrail marked the way to the water's edge. Lex smiled, recalling his awkward trek up from the dahabeya, and then straightened again. He pulled his hat off, a metaphoric sign he was willing to stay for whatever Esna might offer. He gave it a hard toss in the direction of the bed, yet without watching its trajectory or caring to see if it made the trip. He ruffled his hat-flattened brown hair, only a shade lighter than his eyes, and ran his fingers thru to comb and fluff it. YES, he thought, gazing at the small room with its meager furnishings, this will do just fine even if it looks like the former occupant walked away just yesterday.
Typically, the furnishings in Egyptian homes reflected efficiency and practicality, rather than stylishness. Since the university used this one for their people, Lex was not surprised to find some extras to accommodate non-Egyptian sensibilities. Two wooden, straight-back chairs and the matching rectangular kitchen table sat squarely under the window, once a glossy white and now yellowed and chipped with age. At the center of the table, Lex found an electric Victorian table lamp with most of its long black bead fringe still attached. He had no eye for antiques and rolled his eyes at the fancy, very out-of-place lamp. Because the only other light source was the window, Lex grinned to think how welcomed it would be for his late night translating and report writing.
Lex eyed the chairs sitting slightly askew, as if their passengers had left in a great hurry. They looked perfectly serviceable, yet seemed mostly splinters waiting for skin. Nevertheless, they both impressed as eager to please so Lex accepted the invitation of the nearest. Sliding his athletic 5'6" frame onto it, he had barely settled when he spotted the stack of books on the table, shoved against the wall. They were in terrible condition, blackened by flames as someone had tried to burn them or worse. In order to read the embossed titles, he cocked his head far to one side then, using his fingertips as a blind person would, began tickling their spines.
"Burnt offerings," Lex said, mortified as he wrinkled his brow and pursed his lips with repugnance.
The topmost book, The Book of Going Forth by Night, he recognized as a compendium of spells and rituals for Set (Sutekh to the ancients), the god of deserts and chaos. What is this to do with a temple dedicated to Khnum, Lex wondered then grew angry at how such important reference books were treated so badly, left abandoned here of all places, especially this one for which he had previously tried to obtain a copy for his personal library. The next book retained most of its gilt lettering: The Egyptian Book of Coming Forth by Day or better known as The Egyptian Book of the Dead. This book was just as blackened, but with streaks of what looked like dried green slime, as if it spent time in or near the Nile. The last two were more charred, warped and oil-stained: Budge's Hieroglyphic Dictionary and A Tourists Guide to Egypt. Lex sat straight again and shook his head, thinking there was someone, probably an Egyptologist, who would use these particular books, treat them in such a horrible manner and then still keep them like this.
That quandary Lex chose not to pursue, especially when his hands began itching and burning, as if something was crawling. He began vigorously flicking his hands to rid them what imagination perceived to be flea-sized spiders from the old books. No stranger to the cobweb effects of electromagnetic energy, he pushed up his sleeves anyway, to be sure there was nothing skittering up his arms. After all, his strong aversion to spiders, needed satisfaction that nothing but hairs tickled under shirt sleeves. He laughed aloud in sheepish relief then noticed how bronzed his hands were in comparison to the paleness of arms protected by cotton. It did not require a mirror to know his face was also sunburned after the few days of sun reflecting off the water and wind whipping across it. Lex scratched absent-mindedly at the prickly stubble on his cheeks. Somewhere he had heard that teasing a sprouting beard would cause it to grow more rapidly. With that, he rubbed even harder, thinking that facial hair would give his thirty-five-year old face an appearance more befitting this profession by conveying maturity and wisdom.
"Oh, what's that?" Lex remarked, noticing the tiny corner of a piece of vellum protruding from beneath the books. Careful not to disturb the ghastly pile, he slowly pulled it free. This durable calfskin paper appeared noticeably discolored with age and crumpled. There was a verse written on it, as if by someone either with terrible handwriting or in an agitated state. It seemed simply a bit of folklore for it told of ghostly figures, disembodied voices heard in the temple and strange smokeless flames roaming through the village.
"Oh, come on, what hogwash," Lex exclaimed, borrowing his grandmother's favorite retort. His attention fell upon words encircled in the margin — Djinn/Genie. Oh, he knew those words, all right. They decorated the folklore of many cultures and children's books. There was another word ... Lex thought, scowling as he tried to remember and somehow sensing it was important that he do so. "It's an older name for them ... um ... I should know it ... I think from pre-dynastic Egypt or before ... yes, afret, that's the word. I'm really surprised I remembered that," Lex exclaimed then shuddered as it occurred to him that his textbooks had referred to the ancient version of the Djinn as Afret. While stopping short of calling them demons, the books said they were considered dangerous and mostly unfriendly to humans.
"This note must be someone's idea written down from the clever stories Egyptians love to tell. Of course, only I would think of the mythic version. That must be what this is," Lex muttered, trying to be convinced. A second more vigorous shudder suggested otherwise.
Lex noticed some unfamiliar pictographs along the bottom. Usually, even the possibility of an unknown language would set his curiosity ablaze, but a closer look made him pull away. The signs appeared drawn by a quill pen — dipped in fresh blood. Even dried to a dark crimson, their repulsiveness quashed any urge to study them further. Instead, he cringed as he crumpled the vellum into a tight ball then tossed it into the empty cardboard box under the table, presumed to be a wastebasket.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Bitter Wind"
Copyright © 2015 Anita Merrick.
Excerpted by permission of FriesenPress.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
CHAPTER 1: ARRIVAL,
CHAPTER 2: AWAKENING,
Chapter 3: Whispers,
CHAPTER 4: MEETINGS,
CHAPTER 5: DISCOVERY,
CHAPTER 6: TRANSITION,
CHAPTER 7: ACCEPTANCE,
CHAPTER 8: RECOGNITION,
CHAPTER 9: IMPOSSIBILITIES,
CHAPTER 10: EVIDENCE,
CHAPTER 11: POSSESSION,
CHAPTER 12: PROBABILITIES,
CHAPTER 13: ILLUMINATION,
CHAPTER 14: TRANSMUTATION,
CHAPTER 15: DETERMINATION,
CHAPTER 16: ENTANGLEMENT,
A BITTER WIND,
BOOK 2 ... TIME UNRAVELING,