was the stage. With soft featherings and breath and fingertips he painted, sketched in stories of his forays, complete with path and habitat, weather included too.
From rising action to mounting crisis, from languor’s arc to rousing climax, epics moseyed, raveled slowly, narrations drawn out in time to their energetic endings. Sometimes they stalled, tho, at something shorter, something sharper. More vignette than voyage, storied interruptus became a piece of tale instead.
Imagine that a passing squall would catch them or an urgent storm in transit, something ion-passion charged ... and there the story stopped. Kneading clouds, writhing air, the sharp bite of lightning nails trailed by groans and the shuddering moans of thunder. The low sough, the sigh, the stuttering gasp of wind, it was a late noon storm gathered in his hands, gathered slowly before crashing into downpour.
Ah, but the peace after nature’s fury when the world revived, their senses tuned, satisfied and freshened. Surrounded by roars and the underbrush race for life, by crouching hunters and other hissing creatures, they snuggled in and settled in for the bliss of rest at sunset, entwined and sated, as twilight-turned-to-nightfall joined them on the road.
By the end she knew all his stories, his maps, all their locations, and she would pick from them for their love, take his hand and show him where to draw. Her skin seemed almost to reach for him, fairly jump to his lips, his tongue, his fingertips.
She had her favorites (royal favorites, she said), but his had been the slow one, the long meticulous search for a long vanished people. Their past long centuries gone to dust, their history mystery shrouded, it had been his professional goal to establish the time and place of their passing; his personal hope, to find a living remnant.
Before the falling away, she had been that miracle mix of intelligence, beauty and humor that understood his work, then let him go and trusted him with his absence. Together again, they would join their hunger and feast their love; she in thrall to cadence and music and the backbeat drone of story, while he conjugated union in the discovery of her skin. Until losing her to the sway of a passing swami, it had been his delusion that he knew her better than himself.
And as many hours, mesmerized months and years he had given to knowing her and memorizing her every inch, he knew this Chamber and its hieroglyphics better. In its every particular, to its most inconsequential detail, he knew this room, and still no clue announced. And the years stretched out behind him: forlorn, fruitless, fatal, professionally and at heart.
Gabriel Augustus Noble was his name, his millstone, really. Named after an archangel and the first emperor Caesar, it was Gabe’s oldest belief that he was doomed, destined for disaster. Fate was bound to respond, would know how to treat such incautious, injudicious pride. Lovingly gifted by guiltless, guileless parents, still, it was defiant, a name that smacked of challenge, that defied and provoked. It was a snarl that dared showed teeth.
Sadly (because Fate knows every side of story), his inheritance wasn’t indictable pride or any other sin, but that the name itself was sacrilege, and of itself treason against Fate. There was no blame. It was no one’s fault.
Had he missed something by not looking more carefully to finer detail, or had he got lost in the myriad facets and the multiples of minutiae? With evidence and faith imploding around him, was it that he knew the tomb too well, or not enough; had he believed too much, believed too soon, or had he believed too little?
No, that wasn’t the problem and Gabe knew it. No, the problem was that Gabe didn’t believe at all. In the to-and-fro between worlds, from the claustrophobic Room of Jars, to the colors of the Chamber, Gabe was a man in the middle, familiar in both worlds, caught between them, neither at home or welcome in either.
And here between the painted ark and black Anubis (cold hard judge of perished hearts), the knowledge came to him that this trail too had ended. He might crawl one more time into the Room of Jars, go down on hands and knees on all fours into the murky dark where scorpions hid and scuttled ... but why? Why take new chance, why crawl in the same dust again where the slithery asp ruled?
Why (or the why that mattered to Gabe), was that he was governed by a curse. Under dominion and by dictate of his Noble family name, it wasn’t in him to quit. He couldn’t. Robbed of this choice and every other mortal’s birthright, he was born to strife and charm of stature by the witless whim of name.
Hope lay crumpled as his hat on the floor, battered, kicked there in disgust, in that moment of certainty, of knowledge and surrender. He could pick it up, dust it off, *pff*pff*, against even dirtier pant legs, kick the caked dirt from his boots, wash his hands of it all … but not yet. Gabe was no fool and he knew the feel of failure and that life is too short to waste on impossible, so once more to the Room of Jars (he had never stopped believing), then he was done. He kicked his hat again.
Then, out of habit and because hope dies hard, Gabe lined up Anubis with the ark and the wall’s hieroglyphic markings, stared where ebony Anubis stared, and ... nothing. No thing, not hing, nothing. A dark smile crossed his face as he gave Anubis a final pat, then a hard sharp rap to the jackal snout before turning to leave. Let Anubis weigh stone against gold because that was the job of jackal headed gods, but Gabe had the job of living to get to.
With hopes already pinned elsewhere, Gabe turned one last time to the Room of Jars. One more time and if not there, then somewhere else had the answer. But not in this tomb or anywhere in the ancient lore of Egypt.
It was nine meters maybe thirty feet to the entrance of Jars, but Gabe’s weariness measured it in light years. Tho time seemed nearly stopped, embalmed in memory as in viscous amber, still ... it ... moved ... and ... step ... dragged ... after ... step ... interminably ... to ... the crawlway.
Staggered by exhaustion, by the effects of failure and his miscalculation, with sturdy confidence and all resistance gone, the asp seemed more welcome now than foe or adversarial. Neither was the snake anathema, nor the serpent alien. Bowed with fatigue and crawling, would he bother to pull his hand he wondered, or watch in fascination the fang strike when it came?
He could walk out, straight out and ignore the broken passage to his right, continue looking elsewhere ... and why not? Nearly a decade gone and his life’s love, too. His fault, of course, his absence, competing interests, triggered the memory again.
The loss. Remembering loss, disbelieving the void revealed, remembering empty, reliving and remembering, waking remembering, remembering again the recurring shock, the endless loop of returning unprepared ... the memory of finding her gone. And then, suddenly, somehow, Gabe was standing in the Room of Jars. What’s the word, he wondered, to have no destination but instinct, to arrive unaware and to wake as if destined?
He was here, but where to look? He was back, but so what? He had been more diligent here than even the Chamber. With tweezer and lens he’d searched, flooded light into every corner, weighed, gauged, marked and graphed under, around, in every jar; tasted dust for metals, sniffed air for sign, sifted fingers thru decay. This closet of discarded jars was measured and numbered to each grain of sand.
Bold with early belief, courting snakes and scorpions, quick infested rats, really creepy crawlers and swarming centipedes too ... brushed aside without a thought. But in his present state, the smallest error might take him, and he was looking for ... what? What, damn it? Where?
Enclosed in pyramid rock, the burning lamp made the out-sized crawl space torrid, gritty and rank. Pulling out his kerchief to wipe the sweat from his eyes, Gabe reached for his hat ...