Though the ground was hard and sharp, Ingrid knelt in the dirt. The dry surface layer, lifted by the afternoon wind, dusted her damp skin. She brushed the hair from her eyes, streaking her cheek with brown, looked up at the farmer who stood above her and placed her hands flat on the earth. "This is no good for farming," she said. "It's very, very old." The farmer's face was stubbornly blank. He did not want to understand. She began digging, jagged bits of rock tearing at her fingertips. Soon she found something. Holding up a shard, she smiled. "You see, antiquities. Good for tourists. Good for money." The farmer squatted and reached for the shard. After studying it, he threw it down and shook his head.
"This was a palace," Ingrid said, retrieving the shard. "A place where kings lived. Pharaohs."
The farmer motioned toward the north. "Giza," he said resolutely. "Kings in Giza."
"Giza is where they died. They lived here
"Giza tourists. No here," the farmer said, waving a brown hand over the soil. "No here."
At a distance, a donkey stood in calm resignation, one hoof slightly raised. As the farmer approached, it opened a mournful eye. The donkey was hitched to a crude plow with rusted blades that cut into the earth as the animal again plodded forward in the heat.
Ingrid walked back to the jeep. "He won't listen," she said. "I think it's because I'm a woman."
"It's because he's a Fellahin," Louis said. "They've been doing this for three thousand years."
"Like you, the Fellahin are impressed only by Giza." Ingrid chewed a fingernail and watched the farmer push an uneven row into the soil. "Damn." She got out of the jeep and stalked across the barren field. The farmer had turned the plow to start the next row when Ingrid stood in front of him. "You understand maat
? It's very bad maat
to plant here. Your crop will fail. You have a family? They will get sick. Malaria
. Maybe they will die." The farmer stared at her through the donkey's ears. Then he clicked with his tongue, urging it on. "Wait," Ingrid said. "Just wait. I can get money for you, money instead of farming. How much money for this whole field of crops? How much for one year of crops?"
"How much?" she insisted.
"Enough for donkey." He pointed at his harnessed animal. "Two donkey."
"Two donkeys. Just wait, then. Do you understand? No more today. Tomorrow I will bring you money for two donkeys." The farmer nodded, and Ingrid was content for the moment to leave it at that.
Louis was waiting in the jeep. "I need to get back to Cairo," she told him. "I've promised him two donkeys' worth of piastres. How much is a donkey worth, anyway?"
"Why are you doing this?" Louis said, starting up the jeep. "You leave in two days."
"Wait." Ingrid held him back. "I want to see if he starts again." They sat with the motor idling until the farmer led the donkey to a stand of tall grass into which he folded himself as the donkey began to graze.
"He's gone to sleep."
"He's dreaming about how with two more donkeys he'll be able to plow the field three times as fast," Louis said.
"We're going to have to dig after sunset. I need to find something tonight."
"You will get a bad reputation with the Fellahin."
"I already have a bad reputation with the Fellahin. But I have a feeling about this place. I could at least mark it for future work."
Louis' eyes traveled across the plot of land. "I know mudbrick is not my specialty, but to me it looks like an ordinary field."
"Be a friend and pretend it's important. Pretend there's an inverted pyramid under that farmer's plow."
Louis smiled and put the jeep into gear. "Because you are leaving, I will indulge you."
They followed a maze of dirt tracks dividing the planted fields. The side of the road was lined with papyrus, the reed used for centuries as paper by the people of Egypt. A few ancient scraps had survived: love letters, poems, lists-relics of undocumented lives of incidental men and women indentured to their pharaoh. This pharaoh was known by other titles: one of them was "king," another "god."
Ingrid thought, not for the first time, that it must have been a rotten life for them. Their crops and families were abandoned as soon as another temple or tomb was to be built. And something was always being built. Sometimes it was decades before they returned home, backs bent or broken by the weight of monumental stone. She imagined the seeds of insurrection taking root and quickly withering again because any such feeling reflected a dangerous lapse in faith--a disbelief in the system of maat
. And if you disturbed the balance of maat
, you opened your life to danger.
They reached the paved road to Cairo and slowly picked up speed, the jeep lurching with each gear shift. Ingrid tied her hair in a scarf against the wind, chasing and capturing the skybound strands with one hand, anchoring the scarf with the other. She was momentarily blinded, trying to control the hair that, unbound, drew too much attention in this country.
"Why did you decide to study ruins that no one could see?" Louis shouted, his own hair a chaos of dark curls.
"Because there is no truth in temples," Ingrid shouted back, pulling hair from her mouth. "It's propaganda. A king's story as he wanted it told. Glorified, altered, edited. It's unlikely that any of it actually happened. I want to know how the people lived, not just how the elite chose to die."
Louis swore in French as a motorcycle zagged in front of them. "The rest of the population catered to that elite, I can tell you that."
"Even the kings and queens of this country had to live, eat and make love somewhere. It's pretty damn clear it wasn't in the pyramids or the temples. It's unfortunate that they chose to build their palaces out of the best fertilizer around."
"They were temporary," Louis said. "Life was temporary."
In the hotel lobby they paused, stunned by the sudden darkness. A few pieces of luggage leaned against the wall. An old paper lay on an age-stained table tinged with the neglect of rapid comings and goings. The places in between, Ingrid thought, are what you notice when you prepare to leave.
They moved toward the back of the room, allowing their eyes to adjust. Up ahead at the reception desk, a letter waved at them in the dim light. "For the lady," the girl behind the desk said sullenly. Ingrid stepped more quickly, reaching the desk first. The girl blinked her charcoaled eyes at Louis. "Nothing," she said.
Louis guided Ingrid up the stairs while she studied the postmark. "So your Templeton is not dead after all," he said.
She tucked the envelope away and groped in her bag for her room key. "You're not the least bit curious, are you?"
"About Templeton? Absolutely."
"About the mudbrick."
"Oh, that. A bit, yes."
"It's not very sexy, is it. I should have chosen something sexier. I'd have more funding. In the Cairo museum, I saw an old makeup case of Hathepsut's from before she became pharaoh, when she was queen. The inscription on the case was 'God's Wife.' It wasn't found in her tomb because she died as a god, not as his wife."
"For some men, maybe this is not so sexy."
"That's why men don't write about Hatschepsut. They write about pyramids."
Ingrid stopped outside her door. "I need a shower."
"And a wash of the hair." Louis smiled sadly. "With the dust, the shine dies."
Light filtered through the thin curtains in Ingrid's room. She tied them open with ribbon she had bought at the bazaar. The street below was hazy with dust; the desert had again breathed on the city, covering its greenery with a patina of fine sand as if to say Don't forget me. I can bury you as I buried others.
She sat down at her writing table, a faded map taped to the surface. She had learned the trick about maps from Templeton. They were like stories, he had told her, redrawn and reinvented throughout history. In Egypt, there were pharaohs who, after death, had been effectively erased from the map, their temples and cities destroyed, their names chipped out of the very obelisks that had honored them. Akhenaten was one such pharaoh, Hatshepshut another. Akhenaten had attracted more discussion and debate than almost any figure of ancient times, with his radical worship of one god and his visionary poetic writings. Much had been made of the resemblance of his God Aten to the Christian God: "Thou hast made heaven afar off that thou mayest behold all that thou hast made when thou wast alone, appearing in thy aspect of the Living Aten, rising and shining forth," he had written. "Thou art in my heart, but there is none other who knows thee save thy son Akhenaten. Thou hast made him wise in thy plans and thy power."
Ingrid had steeped herself in these writings and the writings inspired by him, drawn initially by his conflicting reputations as the instigator of monotheism and forerunner of Christ and as an atheist and a madman.
"Where there is argument," Templeton had said when she presented her thesis outline to him, "there is life. Akhenaten is a fine place to begin."
Hatshepsut had come later. Templeton alone had seen Ingrid's commitment to Akhenaten falter. "Your mind found a home in Akhenaten," he surmised. "But your heart found a better home with Hatshepsut. We must pay attention to what our heart prefers--for ourselves as much as our work."
Ingrid turned his letter over, inspecting the envelope. She bent it slightly and smiled: it was covered with late-night scratchings she would never be able to read. She placed the envelope above the map and picked up the shard. It had once been painted. She pushed the soft parts of her fingertips into its sharp corners and then placed it over the area on the map where she had found it. "I will find you," she whispered.
After he had showered, Louis came over with a bottle of wine. "What does Templeton say?"
"It's long," she said. "I'm saving it for later. Can you meet me and Mustafa at the field in a couple of hours?"
"If you'll come with me to the pyramids after."
"Fine, if we find something. If we find something big, I'll do whatever you want." When Louis raised an eyebrow Ingrid turned sharply and jammed a comb into her tangled hair. They were friends, but the friendship sometimes crossed lines.
"Here, let me do that," Louis said, reaching out with his hand. He positioned her at the sun-filled desk and began to carefully unsnarl her hair. "You shouldn't tear at it that way," he told her. "It breaks." Ingrid sat quietly with her hands in her lap. In the silence of his concentration, she began nervously pushing her cuticles back with her fingernails, watching Louis in the mirror. He was dark, someone who belonged in the desert. And she with her pale complexion, only slightly tanned by the Sahara sun ... She tugged at the uneven ends of her hair.
"Someday I'm going to cut it all off," she said. "I've dreamt about doing it with enormous red scissors."
"French women do this usually later in life, when they are ready to be free."
"And I am not yet ready?"
Louis just smiled. He pulled the loose hair from the comb and let the fine yellow web float into the wastebasket.
Ingrid frowned in the mirror. "I wonder what Hatshepsut did to her hair when she became pharaoh."
"And what her lover did when she wore a beard." Louis ran the comb smoothly through her hair. "Voila, you're all ready for digging. Tell Mustafa I will be around later, so he had better behave."
Mustafa was an old dragoman, who had for decades guided tourists through the pyramids. He had made a good living for himself and, when he was hired permanently for the French project, revealed an aptitude for the digging process itself. His hands were said to be the nimblest in Cairo. He increased his prices as his reputation as a "finder" grew. He had endurance and, beyond that, instinctual knowledge. How else could he be so certain, so free of doubt? "They are speaking
to me," he would say with perfect calm when locating a new relic. Mustafa was paid by the artifact. He lived close to the site and worked in the cool hours of the early morning and evening, when the Europeans, who did not understand the desert, slept and ate.
In the evening sun, the windows of the perfumeries blazed with color, the deep light bursting inside the rows of tinted flasks and vials like jewels on an outstretched necklace. Incense and perfume had been manufactured by Egyptians for over three thousand years, but all that remained was a cluster of cheap, honey-tongued vendors that could make any woman smell like a queen.
By the time Ingrid found his tent, Mustafa had been laid horizontal by his shibuk
. The long pipe lay next to him like a lover.
"Sit, have some tea. I thought you were leaving."
"In two days. I want to check one last site."
"You are still looking for the woman pharaoh?"
"A woman who wanted to be a man, even dressed as a man. To me, she is not interesting."
"Her reign was prosperous and stable. Long, too, I might add."
Mustafa surveyed his guest, easing her into his consciousness with the hypnotic stroking of his beard. "You like her because she was a woman? But to find her, you will have to think like a man. Maybe wear a false beard as she did. And a pharaoh's kilt." Mustafa found this picture amusing and touched his shibuk
as if nudging a friend who might see the humor.
"If she had reigned as a woman, Mustafa, no one would have listened to her."
Mustafa slapped his knee triumphantly. "Does this not teach you enough? A woman's place is not on the throne."
Ingrid smiled. "I am coming to you not to discuss politics, but because I want your opinion on something. There is a site, a field. I think it may have been one of Hatshepsut's mudbrick palaces."
"And you think this why, you have smelled her perfume?"
Ingrid ignored him and pulled out her map. "While she was supervising her expeditions to lower Africa, she would have had a palace built somewhere along the way to the Red Sea, which was where her boats set off. Cairo was close to the water. It would have been a good place to wait."
Mustafa stroked his beard in silence.
"The problem is there is a farmer who is ready to plow the field. I need your help. Maybe your hands can find something for me there tonight."
"There is a price for the hands," he said. "The opinion is free."
At sunset, Louis came in the jeep with a blanket and a basket of food. He waved to Ingrid where she stood in the field, uncorked a bottle of wine and drank from it, watching her as she bent down at some distance from Mustafa, her skirt blowing in the breeze. He whistled to her the way one would whistle to a horse and held up the bottle of wine when she turned. He had on a clean white shirt over his worn khakis. She came toward him, smiling. "Mustafa won't let me watch him," she said. "And he won't let me dig."
Louis handed her a glass of wine and held his in the air. "He doesn't like competition," he said. "That's where we differ."
As the light faded, they watched Mustafa in the field. The deepening shades of blue in the sky were ablaze with great streaks of orange and red. Louis set out baba ghanouj with bread and stuffed grape leaves. They ate in silence until the light in the sky was suddenly extinguished.
"I've been developing a theory about light," Ingrid said. "Have you noticed there's no twilight in Africa?"
"Yes, it's true. It is not a gentle transition."
"It must affect the way the psyche develops. I think it makes people here stronger. No gentle twilight to ease them into the darkness." Ingrid bit into a dolma. "Maybe it's twilight that makes Westerners so sentimental. They can sit on their porches and watch day recede as night approaches. It gives them time to consider what they're going to lose. It's like dying slowly versus being shot."
In the field, Mustafa lit his lantern. His robes hung around him like a shroud, his profile jutting from the smooth fabric. They watched him in the narrow glow of the lantern's flame.
"In France, we have twilight," Louis said. "Le lit de lavende. But we are not very sentimental."
"That's because you are a pompous people."
"Since we are being honest," Louis said, "the word I use for Americans is 'mushy.' It is not as dignified as sentiment."
"American mush is paying for your project, Louis. You should be grateful."
"According to your theory of light," Louis toasted the sky with his wineglass. "I have twilight to thank."
Mustafa approached them, his lantern swinging. "Nothing," he announced.
Ingrid sat up. "Nothing?"
"It is late. I'm going to visit my cousin who lives near here. I will sleep there tonight."
"Thank you, Mustafa," Louis said. "For trying."
"My pleasure." He smiled and bowed. "Do not leave on my account."
They watched Mustafa's lantern bob across the field. "That farmer is probably his cousin," Ingrid said bitterly. "They're in cahoots."
"Before you go after him and start a civil war, finish your wine. I've brought dessert."
"Okay. Then tell me."
"About the project. I don't want to go back to Giza, so you'll have to tell me here."
"Lay back," he said. "You'll need to see the sky." Louis lay down next to her on his side and turned to look at her. "You are a pharaoh. In death, you lie like this." He crossed her arms against her chest. "And this, this is your tomb. A huge chamber. But you cannot see all the stars we see tonight. You see a few stars only; they come into your chamber through long little tunnels, too small for a human. For a long time these tunnels were a mystery. We could not see where they went, what their purpose was. Now we have built a camera that travels like a rabbit down the tunnels and shows us what we could not see with our own eyes. Our little rabbit has found something quite incredible: through the tunnels, stars shine on you like beams. And they are not just any stars that shine into your chamber. Your ancient engineers have worked it out so that the stars of Osiris, the god of the afterlife, shine on your sarcophagus, inviting you to heaven. There, there and there, you see?"
"And with your tomb, with the pyramids, you have mimicked the same constellation, creating a plan of heaven on earth, for they are placed in the exact position of the stars. A perfect mirror."
"I know this part. Tell me the really secret stuff. The stuff you haven't made public."
"Ah, not yet. For that you will have to wait." Louis touched her cheek with the back of his hand. The air blew softly across the field. They stayed close on the blanket while Orion chased his hunt to the horizon. Above them, the night was pierced with layers and layers of stars.
"When I was a girl, I used to think they were trying to break through a dome of black velvet. It was a prison and they were prisoners. They hurled the sharpest part of themselves at the fabric and stuck there, bleeding their light down to us. The night was there to tell us how hard they tried to break free."
"And you, what are you hurling yourself at?"
"I don't know," she said quietly.
She moved closer to him, resting her head on his arm. They stayed until the air grew cold. Louis wrapped Ingrid in the blanket and they drove through the darkness back to Cairo.
"The desert will lose a star when you go," Louis said when they reached the hotel. He dug into his pocket. "I will miss you. Your lady pharaoh will miss you. Even Mustafa will miss you." He opened Ingrid's hand and poured sand into it. "Take this with you. Think about us when you are surrounded by snow."
Excerpted from An Obvious Enchantment by Tucker Malarkey. . Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.