In the distance where the sky met the great desert hills, or mountains, or whatever the Egyptians called them—Howard had no map to reveal what those great masses of land might be—where the sky met the land, it was nothing like Howard had seen in Colorado where he’d grown up among the Rockies, and he was sure it was nothing like he’d ever seen in film, in paintings, in any art anywhere. What he saw where the sky met the land was the shutter mechanism of a great camera, snapped closed in this instant. All this was a mere instant. It was an instant that spanned his existence and all existence he’d ever known and all he could imagine, all of which amounted to little more than nothing in a greater immeasurable passage of time. Where the sky met the land, it was his own smallness evident there, indeed he was but microscopic, and when this struck him he ordered a second whiskey drink from the man behind the bar on the deck of this little cruise boat on the Nile.
Howard could not look into the distance again but instead, closer in, to the land’s incongruous green swath along the Nile, and then to the water, and then much closer in, to the table before him, and his Egypt guide book with its requisite Sphinx cover image.
Howard began to consider a new film, nothing like any of the films he’d ever made: a woman on a Nile cruise boat to Aswan experiences what he’d just experienced when she looks into the distance where the sky meets the land, and she wouldn’t be able to shake the profound impression of it. The experience alters the very mechanics of who she is. She must set herself on a new course.
As Howard swelled with the stirred emotions of this inspiration, as the possibilities and even a storyboard for the film gathered in a great cumulonimbus cloud range inside of him, there came a wind at those clouds, a knowing that it was too ambitious—it would not succeed—and this again was his smallness evident, the smallness of his work. Roiling now with anger, he downed what was left of his whiskey drink. Really, he hated the work of film.
Laughter, cutting into the quiet, startled him; it may as well have been a gunshot. The laughter was from a group of four at a table some distance away, an unfathomable distance because neither he nor they belonged and this was all they together had in common. Among the four of them, French speaking, one woman in particular: slender, a scarf, dark hair. Her hair may or may not have had some gray in it. It was impossible to distinguish her age but certainly she was younger than he was. Her name: Anne, or Marie, or Claire. He guessed that she’d bought the scarf in Cairo’s Khan el-Khalili market, probably the same day he’d been at Khan el-Khalili, he’d been at Fishawi’s having mint tea, and closer in, probably it had been during the time he was at the corner table reading a Naguib Mahfouz novel, while an American couple at another table held hands, while along the wall four Brits in dinner jackets risked a sheesha, while an older Egyptian man in a galabeya walked in and out of the café a number of times anxiously expecting someone or something that could not be found there, while nothing really of significance was happening for Howard, she was in one of the stalls on the Sikket lane that led into the quarter, she was running her hands over scarves, and then she found this scarf with its rich stripes of orange, brown, blue, and green, more colors than at once apparent, certainly handmade, and its soft fabric, spun by bedouin perhaps, the highest quality. He expected she had negotiated price. She would be a tough customer. There was something disarming in the way she looked at you—he saw this now in a glance from her over the unfathomable distance between them. She gave the shopkeeper extra Egyptian pounds after these negotiations. Howard had done the same for the man who sold him a glass Arabian ornament. She’d probably seen the shopkeeper feed a thin cat from his own plate. Howard had seen this. Or had she counted out precisely the negotiated price? Either way, certainly she’d said shokran, as he had.
Among the market stalls of Cairo’s Khan el-Khalili: How much is it, she would ask, “Bi-kam da?” and she would say “Maashi” and she would say, no, she does not speak Arabic but could understand a few words, inshallah, please speak slowly, and la la la la, she would say, Maashi.
All this while he sipped the mint tea at Fishawi’s and marveled at all he did not know, all the histories and cultures and peoples and languages, while he was suspended there in the scene unfolding at Fishawi’s, while scenes unfolded everywhere else that he could never know, because he was not omniscient, and yet if he was so limited how could he draw from a reservoir of experience to craft relevant work? All this while she browsed Arabian tin lamps and onyx baubles and silver necklaces in stalls on the Sikket lane so near to Fishawi’s asking “Bi-kam da?” while inside the mechanics of her experience were more than those of a shopping tourist, one could tell this when she looked at the shopkeeper and told him in her limited Egyptian Arabic with a French accent that she could speak a few words, she could understand a few things, there was much more she wanted to be able to understand, as she negotiated the price with him and counted out her Egyptian pounds and told him it was too much, wasn’t it, she wasn’t speaking of price now, she was speaking of the human struggle, one could tell this, she didn’t understand well but she understood well enough to know it had been too much.
And had she in the Souk al-Attarin stopped to smell pyramid-shaped mounds of cinnamon, cloves, cardamom? While he was nearby in the Souk es-Sudan passing through aromatic clouds of perfume and incense, while exhausted, rubbing his eyes, searching for names of these medieval lanes, searching for the way to Midaq Alley because he’d been reading Naguib Mahfouz at Fishawi’s for some time, so he was searching, asking one man, another and another, Which way to Midaq, “Feyn, feyn Midaq?” And always a different answer: this way, no behind us, no, that way, until he turned onto a side lane and climbed steps and found what he thought must be Midaq Alley.
On his way out of the alley hadn’t he seen this woman, this very same woman, wearing this scarf wrapped once around and one end tucked, the same way he wore a scarf? And then he’d browsed the same market stalls. They crossed the same stones, touched the same objects appraisingly, one after another, and in these moments they were, in a sense, together, in a kind of union, in Cairo’s Khan el-Khalili. Hadn’t he seen her glance at him across the unfathomable distance? Their gaze locked for an instant, a mere instant, an instant that should have amounted to little more than nothing in a greater immeasurable passage of time. Would she remember the American man who walked alone?
The bar man came around and set a fresh drink on the table before him. Howard said, “Shokran, shokran,” and was feeling the second drink in his head and his heart was pounding in step with the rhythmic hum of the boat engine.
The sun was lower in the sky, there were fewer people at tables on the deck, and the cruise boat was still on its way to Aswan—he did not know when it would reach Aswan—and there were other cruise boats, too, one ahead of them and one behind, and of course there were more, there had been many boats at the previous stop, Kom Ombo. There were many more boats.
Howard guessed that in Cairo she’d covered her head with this scarf at the Mohammed Ali mosque, as women tourists were required to do, and probably she had lifted the scarf over her head and tied the loose knot before entering while he was on his way there, while he was following the wall as the guidebook said to do, following the wall she had followed, crossing the same stones, climbing the same steps to that summit of the citadel—and on those ancient steps to the Mohammed Ali mosque, she had given coins to an old Egyptian man selling postcards. Probably she had said to the Egyptian, “Sahlan” or “Assalaamu aleikum,” with a smile, respectfully, because she did not have the Arabic to explain well, to express, that these coins are a gift and please watch over yourself and your children and your grandchildren for they are loved. Wasn’t she, as she seemed, full of love? Had she the capacity to love all the world, despite all she had experienced and all she had learned on her journey of self? He was certain that she had noticed this Egyptian was in physical pain. Something was wrong with one of the old man’s legs. It was possible that the femur had fractured in a fall in some other part of Cairo, perhaps in Tahrir Square, a fracture that hadn’t been treated well because he could not afford the time away from work.
Howard imagined that she’d been moved to tears in the mosque. The tears had been unexpected, however they had come, so suddenly, from wherever they had come, perhaps from the experience of being in this mosque, of being so far from home, perhaps from something about the Egyptian selling postcards on the steps, but certainly from somewhere deep inside of her, no one could really know the source but her—and of course she knew from where inside of her it had come, one could tell that she knew. Grateful for the scarf from Khan el-Khalili, she pulled it even further forward and hid under its low hood for some time, crossing her arms, separating from her friends to walk alone under the opulent domes and multitude of glass bowls of light strung overhead. It confused her to feel so much in this place. She scolded herself. She did not belong. This emotion did not belong here. It was simply her sensitivity, heightened as a result of that which she did not want to think about, that loss, that absence of a loved one—or it was simply the allure of the mystery of this place—this place had touched something inside of her—she was telling herself these things—she was telling herself it had nothing to do with the death of her father—
—while Howard walked from the steps to the courtyard and then stood for some time admiring all of it and appreciating the effort it had taken a devoted people to create such intricate structures, the alabaster stonework, the arched naves, the pillared and domed ablution fountain, while he felt a stirring inside of him, an anticipation, though of what he did not know. In that moment he did not attend to what he felt. Probably it was only the tremor of thrill at experiencing something so important as this place. He took a deep breath. Hands in his pockets, he passed some time in the courtyard.
When he’d removed his shoes and entered the mosque, yes there was the beauty of the mosque that took his breath but there was this woman, too, this woman wearing the scarf—hadn’t it, hadn’t it been this very same woman, her scarf?—the only one lying on her back on the carpets under the great dome among others who were sitting, the only one lying and staring up into the dome’s majesty, probably her tears had stopped some time ago, probably she’d pulled the scarf back a little from her face, she’d come out from the low hood, she’d walked from her spot alone at the wall to the center of the mosque, with the soft carpets under her bare feet, and there she’d stood for a long moment looking up before sitting and then lying on her back though no one else was doing this. Howard regarded her for a long moment. She was like a camera someone had placed for the perfect shot. He wandered under the domes and the strung lights, crossing the same carpets she had crossed, while probably she noticed this American man walking alone, and then he stood for a long moment looking up into the majesty before sitting and then lying. It was an unreal sensation, it seemed like it shouldn’t be possible, like lying on water under morning light. He was some distance away from her but near enough to turn his head and see her, too, lying nearby, and then she turned to him—hadn’t their gaze locked for an instant?—while he could see that she’d been crying—while she could see something about him, too, something no one could really know but her.
It would be morning, he guessed, when the cruise boat would arrive in Aswan. By late morning she would be on a felucca sailing around Elephantine Island, in the Nile wind, her scarf tied in a knot or the wind would take it, sitting among her friends but leaning away, her gaze on the water—would she remember the American man who walked alone?—while Howard strolled along the water, hands in his pockets, regarding the swooping egrets, regarding the sails on the Nile, knowing that she was among them, and this would be worth enough to matter in the immeasurable currency of time’s passage and of all he’d ever known and all he could imagine.
Christopher X. Shade has a novel set in Spain and France in agent circulation, and lives in New York City. His stories have appeared in numerous national and small press publications; recently, Poydras Review, Arcadia, andPrime Number Magazine. His book reviews have appeared in New Orleans Review andSaint Ann’s Review. Visit his website at www.christopherxshade.com.
Image credit: Andrew A. Shenouda on Flickr