After a night at anchor, a local pilot at the wheel, the Andromeda made her way around the small lighthouse that stood at the end of a long jetty. The dhows, brigantines, barques, and sloops entering the new port navigated carefully through the rocky channel of Boghaz.
Once in the harbor the ship passed the black hulks of rusting ironclads, from the sterns of which trailed the red flag with the star and crescent. Seamen with red caps were everywhere. Steersmen in beards and tarbooshes rowed out among the ships, where, above their heads, flew the flag of the United States of America and the Union Jack. Steamers from French and English companies shot into and out of the harbor or rested, temporarily moored, in the inner briny waters. Some of the pasha's feluccas floated back and forth. They showed a Turkish flourish painted on the stern, and long-tailed Arabian characters were painted in gold on their paddle boxes. Steam whistles erupted in noisy calls as gray smudges from smokestacks marked the sky, and bells screamed out over the port.
The sun was burning down on the wooden railings of the ship. The captain stood on the forecastle and watched as his sailors made fast the ropes, swabbed the deck, and rolled the barrels containing the cloth up from the hold, down the planks, and onto the docks below. The ship bobbed up and down gently on the high tide. The journey had not been unduly harsh. They had encountered only one storm and had weathered it without damage and with only the expected loss of sleep as well as the loss of one cousin of one man who was himself a cousin of a third, whose head was knocked by a swinging boom in the midst of an abrupt turn. The man's death was noted by the captain in his log, although his name was left unrecorded and his body dropped with a few Christian words spoken into the waters of the sea, where it disappeared along with the shafts of light, the puffed buds of a stalk of seaweed, the shimmering scales of fish, the rank smell of human waste released from a recently used pail, all mingled with salt spray, as the traces of blood washed off the deck.
The ship was carrying large bolts of dyed cloth purchased from a trader in Calcutta, cloth pressed and cut and stretched out on wooden poles. Dozens of barefoot men had poured water into the waiting barrels, stacked the cargo hold, packed the grain and dried fruit in baskets. As they worked, they often slipped in the low river that ran from behind the company's storage shed down to the docks. The men's hands were stained dark by the mud in the water. The bolts of cloth, blues and reds, some stenciled with gold dye in shapes of birds and vines, were destined for the bodies of the women of Egypt, to wrap around curves, to accentuate breasts, to decorate with bangles and brooches. This would be done in the manner of the women of Paris, to please in the privacy of their rooms the tastes of men. This was not cheap cargo, a fact that contributed to the captain's satisfaction.
The heat of the day was stifling. The sailors wore no shirts, and their shoes, made of simple turns of rope, were often kicked aside so they could scramble, climb, and pull and push their cargo more efficiently. The reserves of fresh water had almost been exhausted. There were two barrels left, one on the port side, one on the starboard side. The first was hauled up on deck and the boy, who served many purposes and who was passed at night from hammock to hammock, dipped the copper cup again and again into the barrel and carried the water, carefully, balancing against the rocking of the boat, the passing of the men, the hauling of the cloth, the rope ladders swung up and down along the sides of the ship, and he gave water to those who called to him. As he climbed over the chain that held the anchor that moored the boat in the harbor, a seagull flew close by the boy's head, spread wings brushing against his cheek. The boy ducked and, in doing so, slipped. The water he was carrying fell on his own foot, seeped between his dusty toes that were cracked with the dryness of the sun, with the beating of the wind that so often rose out of the sea. He refilled his pail from the barrel.
Unseen pulsing crescent moon shapes, safe in their invisible, rapid motion, moved like vastly shrunken versions of the Word of God on the walls of a recalcitrant kingdom. The boy carried them on his foot, in his cup, in his pail. No one rejected the water he offered. Without water a man could not work in this heat. Even with water, some of the men needed to pause, to squat down on the deck, and all could feel their tongues swollen and dry against the roofs of their mouths. The tissue in their throats plumped with the water as it flowed with the tilt of the head back toward their throats, bringing relief. The captain called the boy, and the boy brought the cup to the captain, who, before he drank, poured some of the water over his hands, covered as they were with the dust in the air, churned up by the wheels of the carriages on the docks, the carts pulling cargo, the men climbing up and descending. It took a few hours for the English customs inspectors, surrounded by fully armed British soldiers, to emerge from their quarters from which flew the British flag that had so recently replaced the French flag, a matter of complete indifference to the captain and his crew.
Great palaces lined the wide avenue that curved along the shore, while more modest homes stood at the center of the city. The mosques rose, domed and white, above the smaller alleys. The dome of the Orthodox church shone like a half lemon above the trees that lined the streets. In the bazaar, the olive pits and the splashes of wine and overripe fruit mingled on the cobblestones with the blood of slaughtered animals. The noise of the city, the clacking of wooden shoes, the ringing of bells, the yelling of merchants, the clap of donkeys' hooves on the stones, the running of the donkey boys as they called "ride, ride," in Italian, English, Arabic, French, the barking of dogs, the screeching of birds in cages, the heavy wet heat of the day, the dust in which all these things stirred and sighed, shifted and changed positions, made the boy weary. He took a piece of bread offered by one of the sailors and ate it, pulling at it slowly with his hands. The bread turned dark from the dust on his fingers.
Later the boy fell asleep on a bench in a tavern. He woke with a start. There was a pain in his stomach. He rushed to the street and, in the early hours, by the light of the million pale fading stars above, the contents of his bowels flowed over the mud of the stone curb. When the sun rose and the first stirrings of animal and man began and the arched open windows, windows without glass, let in the innocent rays of a new day, he stretched out in the gutter, covered with dirt, his own and more that he had found in the street, his limbs trembling.
A child in the street, a dirty child, was not rare. Before most of the men of Alexandria had woken in their beds, washed their faces in the basins, tasted the coffee brewed in their kitchens, the boy's body had shriveled, flattened, lost its copper color, turned gray like slate. His eyes open, he lay dead. No hand had come in the middle of the night to comfort him. No mother had brought him sips of water, or prayed for his soul's redemption.
Out of the water life climbed, and all life requires water still. Human beings are more water than flesh, afloat in their own bodies, and yet, out of water, necessary water, welcome water, can come death. And so it was that a sailor from the same ship woke in the bed he had paid to sleep in on the top floor above the tavern. He was warm with fever, cold with fever, bowels running, eyes slipping back into their sockets. His barmaid pulled the now odorous sheets out from under his limp body and sent her young daughter to fetch water so she could wash them in the tub in the backyard. Before dawn the sailor had died, the water in which the sheets had been washed had been thrown into the alleyway where barefoot girls were playing with a wooden doll and the wheels of carts splashed through, catching the water on their spokes and rims.
The captain took a week to load his ship with cargo going back to Calcutta. He would carry hemp and boxes of brilliant blue turquoise stone dug from the hills, and his chests would hold gold coins, money for the owners of the ship, and treasures, souvenirs that each man had purchased in the markets, a feather, a hat, a postcard, a button made of bark.
In the following days the very young woman, breasts still turned upward, hips not yet pleasingly wide, but slim like a boy's, who had welcomed a sailor to her bed, taking a few coins for her efforts to please, drinking with him a cup of wine, allowing his mouth to kiss a burn she had received from the rack in the oven, collapsed in a doorway, trying to flee the thing that was inside her. She died there.
Some life-forms are meant for the desert heat and some are meant for the cold of the arctic, like the tiny worm that eats the smaller bacteria that survive all through the long dark winter in near frozen states under the snow in the turquoise ice of glacial peaks. Some organisms make their happy homes on the warm, hairy skin of deer and squirrels and bats. Some survive in the darkness of the earth, sipping moisture from the droplets of rain that seep downward toward the earth's boiling center. Some survive in the bellies of mosquitoes and some in the warm bloodstream of human beings. People are so proud of their souls, vaunted capacity for distinguishing between good and evil, for devotion to God, for service to king or country and charity to beggars, but in fact souls are easily crushed, vaporized, eliminated by the tiny microbes that swirl about, indifferent to Michelangelo's David and the Ten Commandments and the grand pyramids, or the Gothic arch, as well as the petty tremors in their lustful or loving hearts.
The day the ship was set to sail back to Calcutta, the captain had visited the offices of the Pacific Company, which were on the wide street beyond where the library of Alexandria, the fabled burnt library, had once stood. The captain had carried his logs with him and, while receiving congratulations for a job well done from the short British gentleman who had almost disappeared behind the large desk, was offered by an Egyptian clerk a piece of fruit from a glass bowl. The captain picked up a round green apple and then saw a more appealing-looking pear. He put down the apple and took the pear, which he placed on the offered plate. The clerk took the bowl of fruit back into his own office and there bit into the apple, devouring it to its core. The clerk went home to his wife and that night conceived a child whom he would one day take to the beach, teaching him how to dive into the white froth of the waves.
The captain, back in his quarters on his ship, had a headache. It was more than just a result of the full day he had spent on land. His legs felt weak, and the muscles in his thighs began to tremble. Within hours he was lying on the deck, having ripped off his shirt in his fever, and his men gathered around him as he thrashed about and his eyes seemed to disappear back in his head and streaks of blue and purple appeared on his skin and the sailors washed him again and again as his bowels turned thin and bloody and his fever rose. Perhaps he was over the worst of it, perhaps he was one of the lucky ones who might have recovered, but when the tide was right and the ship's first mate pulled up the anchor and the ship sailed out of sight of the port of Alexandria, the men in their fear pushed the still-breathing captain overboard into the dark moving waves.
The year was 1883. Cholera had come to Alexandria.
It was late winter, in Paris.
The famous scientist Louis Pasteur received in his laboratory at the Ecole Normale a package of papers from the Academy of Science. It contained, among the thick sheets now spread out on his desk, this report from October 1831 in the Sunderland Herald, based on the report of two English doctors, Barry and Russell, who had seen for themselves the ravages of the disease in St. Petersburg. He read:
Early symptoms are giddiness, sick stomach, slow pulse and cramp at the tops of fingers and toes. This is followed by vomiting or purging of a liquid like rice-water . . . the face becomes sharp and shrunken, the eyes sink and look wild, the lips, face, neck, hands and feet, and the whole surface of the body is a leaden blue, purple, black. The tongue is always moist, often white and loaded but flabby and chilled like a piece of dead flesh. The respiration is often quick but irregular. Urine is stopped. All means to restore the warmth of the body should be tried without delay. Poultices of mustard to the stomach. Twenty to forty drops of laudanum may be given. No remedy of this disease has been discovered, nor has any cure been sufficiently successful to recommend its use, but the greatest confidence may be expressed in the intelligence and enthusiasm of the doctors of this country, who will surely find a method of cure.
Cholera was bred in water, dirty water, water with feces, water with urine, water with sweat, water with tears, water with blood and mucus floating in it. Cholera was fond of sewage and clung to the lumps of obscure matter that floated and sank, that rose and bobbed with the flow of the thing, invisible to the human eye. Cholera was a water baby, a water flower. It hid in the water. It fed in the water. It bred in the water. Its brief days were wet and its purpose, to make more of itself, fulfilled in streams of water, in bubbles of water, in droplets of water, in foam and mud. It clung to moisture as naturally as man clings to air.
Excerpted from An Imperfect Lens by Anne Roiphe. Copyright © 2006 by Anne Roiphe. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.