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the splintered cane

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The Egyptologist has met his fair share of Americans, and he has never liked any of them. Mr. Henderson is no exception. Rude, brash, big-shouldered, wide-smiling, the corn-fed, corn-haired beloved son of an agricultural backwater that so improbably cast off its colonial yoke and spread gleefully westward, a plague of noise and greed, carving through valleys and mountains, fording rivers, all on the backs of its slaves, piling up the pitiful bodies of Chinamen by railroad ties, decimating native populations, planting and producing these grinning golden exemplars apparently by the sackful—

Until they depleted their soil, hewed their forests bare, drained their lakes, polluted their rivers, exhausted the land with their teeming multitudes, reached the western limits and stared over the placid Pacific. And so to Egypt, where Mr. Henderson and his raucous party of adventurers fell precipitously, drunkenly, into the Egyptologist’s unwilling hands.

And all so loud—so unbelievably, impossibly loud. Seated in the corner of Mr. Henderson’s favorite saloon, an improbably American oasis in the heart of Cairo, with the haze of smoke and whisky washing over him, being buffeted by laughter and shouting and off-key singing, the Egyptologist laments the state of affairs that have landed him in their company. He is, much like that ferrety little Gabor, nothing more than a parasite, a clinger-on, a rider of coattails, or in this case shirt-tails, for he has never seen his particular cabal of Americans in anything but work clothes.

Yes, a lamentable state of affairs. He refuses to dwell on that last conversation with Bartholomew Babington, that whey-faced overbred idiot smiling painfully at him from across the desk, with his crooked school-boy dickie bow and his school-boy voice with its high thin lisp—

So young! so young! A Cambridge man, almost like himself, an Anglo-Saxon incarnation, the Egyptologist in another life, before the loss of his funding, the theft of his fellowship, the repeated, nearsighted rejections of his manuscript—his life’s work, as good as written in his own blood—still upbeat, still eager. And telling the Egyptologist, in those same upbeat and eager and utterly uncompromising tones, that he was out of a job.

Well! it’s not quite the thing, is it, Professor. I mean. I mean. We’ve got to stay high and dry, you see, we’ve got to be above suspicion. Above reproach. The political climate being what it is—so—so you see—there must be no plunder. No—no—no greasing of palms. None of that black market stuff. No winking behind our hands. No hanky panky. There can’t be even a whisper of—of—

“Impropriety,” the Egyptologist said, bone-dry, and Babington brightened, pathetic with gratitude, seized the word like a life belt—

Yes, yes, of course. I’m so—so glad you understand.  

No hard feelings, eh?

“Hamunaptra,” Henderson said, and it was enough, it was enough to light the Egyptologist’s soul on fire. He’d show them. He’d show all of them.

 

 

It’s not his habit to fall into bed with his business associates, but here they are all the same. The hour grows late, and while curfew approaches, the saloon continues to swell with new occupants, seemingly ready to drink the night away within its confines and emerge the next morning, dull-eyed and blinking, into the bright Egyptian sunlight. Glasses break, a brawl begins, and the Egyptologist decides it is time to extricate himself.

Henderson detaches from the Daniels and Burns contingent—Beni Gabor is long gone, gone like a flash at the first sign of trouble—and trails the Egyptologist to the door.

“What do you want?” the Egyptologist says, guarded. Henderson smells like cigarettes and spilt whisky. He’s not all that much taller, but the Egyptologist feels loomed over, and he dislikes it. The freedom of the street is at his back, but his feet betray him. “What do you want,” he says again, “Mr. Henderson?”

Henderson just smiles at him, a slow smile like a drawl, like amber in a shot glass, and says, “How about it?”

How about it, indeed.

The Egyptologist turns and stares blindly into the darkened street, feeling like a marionette that has been given control of its own strings, limbs wooden, uncertain of what to do. Henderson places his big warm hand in the small of the Egyptologist’s back; his humanity returns to him in a dizzying rush, and with it, his weakness. He walks swiftly and surely away from the saloon, Henderson a huge dark presence behind him, loping, hands now deep in his pockets. He pivots down the nearest alley, and Henderson follows, and then the mud-brick is hot and solid against his back and Henderson is equally hot and unyielding at his front, pressing him into the wall, pulling the fez from his head and pushing his hands through his hair.

The Egyptologist is vain about his hair, which is only just beginning to be streaked with white at the temples; it is dark and thick and full, a younger man’s hair, and Henderson, a younger man himself, seems to find some delight in it, grabbing great big handfuls of it and tugging, even before the Egyptologist kneels in the dirt and swallows him expertly down.

 

 

“I knew right away,” Henderson says proudly, hours later, as they lie beneath the mosquito netting that surrounds the Egyptologist’s narrow cot. “I knew from the moment you shook my hand that you wanted me.”

The Egyptologist rolls his eyes and prays for sleep to come on swift wings, to take either himself, or Henderson, and relieve him of the bright hot gaze that is even now burning against the side of his face.

Between the thrown-open doors of his bedroom, the Egyptologist has a prime view of his own destroyed study, papers and their glass weight swept to the floor and a pool of sweat evaporating across the desk where Henderson bent him nearly in two and made him weep with the pleasure of it.

He sighs in irritation.

“Have a care, Mr. Henderson,” he says.

Henderson takes this to mean that he should duck down and try to kiss the Egyptologist, who pushes his shaggy blond head away with another hot swell of annoyance.

“You stink of cigarettes,” the Egyptologist says, and Henderson chuckles and bites him.

 

 

A fortnight remains before their expedition begins. A form of madness overtakes the Egyptologist, a sort of sun-sickness. All he needs is a glance, a touch—on the back of his hand, or his sleeve, or in one deranged instance, the arch of his unguarded bare foot beneath a table—and the Egyptologist will follow Henderson obediently into the nearest available alcove or broom cupboard and consent to have his brains fucked out in the balmy darkness. Gabor gathers horses; Mr. Burns reads quietly by the window; Mr. Daniels wanders the stinking streets and returns with wild tales, of Tuareg raids, of treasure chests, of Americans escaping the noose at the eleventh hour through the grace of God. A fortnight remains, and Mr. Henderson ruins yet another one of the Egyptologist’s diminishing collection of dress shirts and wears his own dirty shirt buttoned up all the way to the neck in the stifling heat to hide the marks on his skin.

Henderson likes to talk. On the nights that he follows the Egyptologist home, he’ll roll onto his side with a hearty sigh, heedless of the shriek of metal coils beneath him, and prevent the Egyptologist from drifting off in a daze of boneless satisfaction with his endless droning. He tells the Egyptologist about his life back in Kansas, growing up in a family of seven or eight or nine brats (the Egyptologist loses count), tumbling all over each other, losing limbs in the threshing, losing their farm in a bowl of dust (the Egyptologist never listens too closely), losing their father to the bottle.

With six (or seven or eight) remaining children draining the family’s resources, Henderson’s absence has probably not even been noted. Does he write home to remind them? The Egyptologist grew up alone, the sickly only son of a well-to-do household, with braces on his legs and an iron-framed window in his bedroom, through which he used to gaze, cold and distant, at children playing unencumbered in the street below.

Sometimes—again, it can only be due to a sort of temporary madness—the Egyptologist tells Henderson about his studies. He’ll turn carefully onto his stomach, hissing in protest at Henderson’s uncomfortably warm and sticky arm being thrown over his shoulders, heavy as an anchor, almost punching him face-first into his own pillow. Then, as they readjust and find a more agreeable position, entwined beneath netting stirring slowly in the night breeze, the Egyptologist tells Henderson stories, the goriest and most horrible legends that he can conjure up from the depraved depths of his imagination:  about the Book of the Dead, the black scarabs of the Levant, every ancient curse from least to most severe in its consequences.

Henderson only laughs. “You superstitious bastard,” he says, “you’re not going to scare me away,” and he sounds almost fond. “You sure know a whole lot about all this mumbo-jumbo magical bullshit. You’re damn’ smart. How come you’re kicking it with a bunch of idiot farmboys like us? You should be leading your own expedition, Professor.”

The pain has never really left him; it was always lurking at the back of his mind, a decomposing monster cloaked in the darkness of memory. He becomes aware of it now, again, feels it as keenly and horribly as a knife sliding between his ribs.

There was some unpleasantness, the Egyptologist mutters. A misunderstanding about his sources, a disagreement about his methods.

What does it matter, the Egyptologist says next, impassioned, remembering Babington, how the things find their way into a museum from the desert? Why shouldn’t he partner with looters and thieves? So long as the artifacts come to him, to his wise and careful hands, to be guarded and kept safe, and studied and understood, and not to scavengers and thrill-seekers, who don’t even care to learn what they have found, who will melt the gold down for scrap as soon as look at it, or let a canopic jar molder on the mantle as little more than a keepsake, in memory of the good old adventuring days? He groups Henderson in with this distasteful bunch, though he is already resigned to his fate, which will be to sit with Henderson and educate him about each of the treasures that will come into his possession. The idea of it, of spending more time with Henderson voluntarily, causes a shudder of revulsion and, more quietly within him, a feeling of warmth.

“Well, where I come from, we call a spade a spade,” Henderson says.

“What do you call this?” the Egyptologist says, and palms Henderson’s cock through his unbuttoned trousers, just to shut him up. He can feel Henderson’s slow, lazy grin curling down at the top of his head, heating the tips of his ears.

“Careful, Professor,” Henderson warns, already beginning to touch him, to slip his fingers inside. The Egyptologist lets his legs fall open, lets his mouth drop, lets Henderson kiss him. A kiss like ash. “I don’t want to tire you out before our big trip.”

They leave tomorrow, on a barge that will carry them down the Nile to Thebes, and from Thebes, into the desert, toward the lost city of the dead.

“Do your worst, Mr. Henderson,” the Egyptologist says.