There is a tendency of us surly, sunbeaten natives to speak of our city as the first capital of Egypt, and therefore, of the world. Perhaps some of this fiction can be attributed to the boasting of Egyptians, naturally fanciful; another portion must be credited to the quality of our education, often poor. The truth we conveniently forget is that there was a settlement upon the mouth of the Nile delta long before the founding of Al-Qahira – that which we know today as Cairo. The name of this elder sister was Memphis, and for much of her long history, she was called the deathless city.
Tracing the origin of this assumption is simple. For the two millennia leading to the Great Freeze, Memphis was explored by robbers and scholars alike; nearly all that those centuries of excavation revealed was funereal in nature. Temples where the deceased were prepared for the tomb, and the vast necropoli where they were laid to rest – then, reanimate. For the first inhabitants of our land believed that death was only temporary. That afterward, they might live forever, in the garden of youth.
Of great temptation for the historian is to muse on how the ancients might react, if somehow yanked forward millennia to witness the changes wrought by our present. I am unsurprisingly guilty of this pastime. What would they think, what would they say, I often wonder. To see with their own eyes this miracle. The fulfillment of their faith.
Those of us born after the Great Freeze, given free what our ancestors sought, will, perhaps, be wondering a long time.
Al-Masri, Khaleid. The Final City. Cairo, African Region: Nour University Press, 3019.
The last of the azan still hung honey-thick in the air as Khaleid passed through the revolving door of the lecture hall. A frigid blast from the air-conditioned lobby pushed him out into the clamor of students and commuters streaming down the sidewalk to their buses.
At the curb he signaled once, and a taxi screeched to a stop. The window rolled down for the cabbie’s head to loll out. Without further ado he spat.
A gob of tobacco hit the street. It gleamed black in afternoon light. The crowd parted and met around it like water; their loud chatter went on over the honks of cars.
There were several fine lawn suits crossing the intersection, a few country gellabiyas, by some miracle still spotlessly white. Three Saudis with heads bent together. A gaggle of pretty Beiruti girls, heavily made up, strapped tight into glossy handbags and sandals. Perfume from the swing of their hair reached him: sweat, mint chewing gum. Tuberose.
“12 Mahmoud Azmy Street,” Khaleid settled into the cracked vinyl backseat.
Traffic was bad, as always. Having accounted for this, Khaleid brought up his holo and dictated the day’s last few missives to his VA. A reminder to book a hotel for his upcoming lecture in Esfahan. The touch-base with his dean to review the slides going to the board. A heads-up to Haifa that he’d be home early to pack for tomorrow’s trip. The resident messaging addict of their house didn’t answer right away, so he supposed she was still finishing the salat.
Duty done, he powered down the holo. It faded to a blue shimmer, then nothing at all. They were just beyond the old city gate: a donkey stood blinking in the middle of the road, ignoring the pleas of her minder and increasingly apoplectic shouts from other cars. The driver pummeled his horn.
Through the dusty windshield, taller than the minarets of the mosques, for all that it was much further off, Khaleid could just see it. The crystal towers of New Memphis, in rosy haze, catching and playing with late sun.
“Ma’a salaama,” and with a start he realized his VA had already paid up the cab.
They had turned into a narrow cobbled street lined on both sides with homes built of masonry to three or four stories each. In the shadow of these the temperature instantly cooled by degrees; it took some moments for Khaleid’s vision to adjust to the relative dimness. The smell of livestock and petrol was faded here, replaced by wet stone and oven smoke. The only noise was ahead, where two girls diligently hopped scotch under the bored yellow eye of Fawzia, a recently deceased neighbor’s best mouser.
The old house rose precipitously from the curb, looming over the lane as though meaning to cross it. In the mashrabiya windows on the second floor, where Haifa often liked to pray, Khaleid saw no movement behind the carved ebony screens.
As he unlatched the wrought spiderweb gate and crossed the fountain in the courtyard, his stomach began to grumble and he turned his mind to where they might go for dinner. Haifa had mentioned an odd craving for koshary, his personal favorite, one she generally had no qualms about feeding to Fawzia when he brought home choice leftovers from colleagues’ birthdays. It seemed prudent to strike while the iron was hot.
Hopeful thought in mind, Khaleid paused at the biometric scanner on the door, its red light filling his eyes. He remembered a café in walking distance; they could go for ice cream or date milkshakes after. As if on cue, her familiar husky laugh filtered through the door, followed by another, this one ringing bright, the struck rim of a glass.
“Ahlan wa sahlan,” intoned the scanner, and he stepped into the parlor.
Haifa was sitting at the low inlaid table with her back to the door, gesticulating madly above the three glass cups set before her, though one stood empty. Her guest was poised to pour the third, tapered fingers steady on the pot. He watched the mint-tangled dregs steam the cup. He watched a thread of gold hair fall on the mirrored pillow.
Mina’s eyes lifted, unhurried, to his.
“How many, aanesa?”
“Ten.” She pointed at the unblemished limes topping the pile. “That whole crate will do.”
The boy was rapturous. “Do you need ice, too? Mint? Are you making limonana?”
“Not the kind you can drink,” came Khaleid’s sand-dry voice from behind, “not yet.”
He had pressed the credits into her hand before she even had a chance to go for her little sling purse. Mina smiled at him gratefully, then at the child. “Is this enough?”
She shaded her eyes while the boy counted the fruit into cloth sacks, a stick of rock sugar tucked inside his cheek as he worked. Behind him the wall was completely papered over in advertisements and notices: Japanese language classes, holo repair, emissions testing deadlines. She had no Arabic but the images were clear. More than half of them were printed with photographs of the New Memphis skyline, crystal brightly jagged against a backdrop of pink smog, looking like the rock sugar in the boy’s mouth.
Bagged limes in hand she and Khaleid made their way down the alley. On either side of them were stacked boxes of softening bananas, fresh dates the same color, heavy melons; cones of pomegranate arils; pale green figs faded by the heat. The street sellers made only halfhearted attempts to draw their attention. Mostly they were nursing impenetrable glasses of tea, absorbed by games on their holos. It was the end of the workday and soon they would be home with wives. Already some were packing up.
They had nearly reached the end of the street before Khaleid spoke again.
“You’re tanner than last time.”
She glanced down the neck of her shirt, linen sleeves rolled up her forearms.
“I was in Colombo,” she said, “and along the coast with Rei, then Junin joined up with us after. He and I went rowing, some days with the fishermen, for a bit of exercise.”
She was aware she was rambling, but he didn’t appear to notice.
“She doesn’t sweat,” said Mina. “Not on purpose.”
She heard, rather than saw, his smile. “They’re well?”
“They all are.” The sun was setting at such an angle that she had to put a hand to her eyes against its saturated orange light. Softer, she said, “You haven’t changed at all.”
His tone didn’t shift. “Not to the eyes, I suppose.”
He was a half-pace behind, just in her periphery. She had an impression: features strongly set in the narrow brown face, sunlines springing from his eyes. Black hair gone prematurely to white. He was taller than her, anyone on the street, by over a head, and moved in a way befitting his size. Back straight, each stride long but slow, as if the earth weighed him more than others. She knew it was this gravity that made strangers turn their heads to look at him. He was not beautiful.
“I thought that when I saw you again the first time,” she said, smiling.
Mina felt his gaze on her. “And yet you didn’t come tell me so.”
“You were out walking with Haifa, and I have some manners,” she turned slightly to elbow him, allowing herself the warmth of his muscle, solid bone through the thin white of his shirt. He had deigned to roll up his own sleeves, conceding more to her tastes than the heat. She thought he looked precisely like what he was: a man neither young nor old, not careless, not bent by worry, in the place he wished to be. His unspoken contentment radiated against her skin. “But I found you eventually, didn’t I?”
They had turned onto a quieter side road, sky blocked by the madrasa occupying the block. There was hardly anyone here, just a few passerby, hefting groceries for dinner. It grew deeper as they progressed, walls growing high and hastening the dusk.
Two gowned women were walking just ahead of them, fluttering edges of their hijabs violet in the dimness. Their footsteps clicked quickly, echoing along the cobbles. As Mina watched, the taller one leaned down quickly to kiss the other.
She felt the back of his large hand brush hers.
His voice was low. “Of course you did.”
Without hesitation Mina laced their fingers together. The motion came to her like an old reflex. The first time she had done it in this life, she had expected his hands to be soft and pliant like dough, decades spent among pens and paper. But they weren’t. Along his palm were the same firm calluses that lined her own, the same blunt fingertips, the same power.
“I did try to wait,” she said lightly.
“No,” he said, “you didn’t.”
“Not very hard,” she agreed. “I wasn’t patient.”
“And you are, now?”
Windows in the tall apartment building facing the street had begun to light up. Children were playing among the hanging laundry, howling as they jumped from fire escapes to terraces, narrowly missing the potted flowers and flaking-rust guardrails. Their silhouettes like birds.
The desert air had cooled off the moment the sun fell below the horizon. Threaded in with the odors of dust and concrete, she thought she smelled night-blooming jasmine, faint. She couldn’t recall what crystal smelled like. Something curiously void, almost without odor at all.
“Maybe I’ve changed,” she said.
Dinner that night was a thrown-together affair, as only Khaleid knew how to cook anything, and the butcher had closed his counter for a late nap and failed to return. In lieu of groceries they had procured a whole roast pigeon from the shop, green stuff for a salad, and the lime crate for which Mina vaguely sensed she’d been fleeced.
She washed the grit off the arugula and added to it tiny tart tomatoes gifted by a neighbor on vacation; Haifa fished a mostly trustworthy hunk of rumi cheese from the back of the fridge, covertly scraping off the blue bits. The two of them sat at the dining table with their respective tasks. Meanwhile he carved the meat by the sink.
“I thought Abba was going to throw him out with the cat litter,” confided Haifa.
She had confiscated all but three limes from the crate and was now in the process of pickling them. Her quick hands were studded with nigella seeds, safflower threads. Coarse salt and lime halves, some pulp, others about to be.
“Your father was always fond of me,” said Khaleid, in the kitchen.
A little louder, Haifa said, “That’s because I never told on you.”
“There was nothing to tell.”
She huffed. “You tortured that cat of his when we were little.”
“I – ”
“Ya lahwy, don’t say it – ”
As he exited the kitchen with a tray of cut-up bird, her chin protruded to a caricature of his. In her deepest voice, she intoned, “I exerted necessary discipline, Haifa.”
Khaleid set down the steaming tray down between them. He was still in his collared white shirt from work, ill-advised for butchering; Mina briefly amused herself with the thought that even stains were apprehensive of its owner.
As he pulled back the side of his palm grazed his wife’s cheek. She leaned into the touch, involuntary; his fingers lingered there against the smooth curve.
“All right.” His tone betrayed nothing. “I won’t say it.”
Mina propped her chin on a hand and met his gaze sedately. “I love cats, myself.”
Under her lashes his wife exchanged with her a look of perfect conspiracy.
“Are you coming from New Memphis, or going?” she asked.
Beneath her apron she wore a pretty floral dress; her hijab was thrown over the chair back. Under the limes she was pickling were newspapers, stained by juice, text bleeding into the pages below. Mina read the first headline upside-down at a glance: Crystal Acceptance Rates Rising in African Region; New Memphis, Kinshasa, in Lead.
“Going. But not for very long. I’m taking a few meetings there, that’s all.” She carefully twisted back the peel of the third lime; once done, she dropped it into plain tonic and pushed it over to Haifa. “But forget New Memphis, I want to hear what’s new here. Last time I came was for the royal tour. It’s been too long.” She uncapped the gin she’d brought and poured a respectable measure in the other two glasses. “I’ve missed it.”
“Well,” said Haifa, looking contemplative. “Sadiya aunty next door finally died.”
“Haifa,” said her husband.
“See how sweet Fawzia’s become with those children? She’s like a completely different cat now that miserable woman’s gone.”
“They’re very good judges of character,” observed Mina.
“She almost bit off Khaleid’s toe once.”
Khaleid was ignoring this exchange so thoroughly it was as though he had willed himself into another room. Only a twitch by his eye indicated he had heard them at all.
“Mina,” he said, and his wife glanced up. “Is everything truly fine back home?”
Mina studied the familiar stern features. Faint lines, at the brow, the mouth.
“It is,” she answered.
His gaze held hers. “It’s a long way to travel just for a few meetings.”
“I was already traveling.” She took a long sip from her glass. “And then I heard about a backlog in Crystal exposure applications in the region, so I thought I’d check with the authorities here.” She handed Khaleid’s glass to him purely for company. He took it, though he hardly drank. “It’s getting to be hard work for applicants to navigate all the requirements. Birth certificates, background checks, medical records, psych evals...”
“Necessary work,” said Khaleid. But his face had relaxed, slightly.
Haifa wiped her hands on her apron. “Not everyone here has all those things.”
Mina stirred her gin with a pinky, then sucked on the finger. “Especially post-freeze.”
The other woman hummed assent, and glanced out the window.
“Should we eat?” she asked, gesturing before them.
As they had been speaking what was left of the sunset had long since abandoned the kitchen. The light from the chandelier was low, bathing only the dining table full and warm. Loaded down with mundane things. Pens, an empty fruit bowl, three crumbling books, a decanter of oil, papers. The surface patina of oil and ink spots, water stains.
Haifa put salad on all of their plates, complaining of the unripe tomatoes, but she and Mina kept popping them in their mouths anyway, conflicted by their pleasing sweet-sourness. Eventually Khaleid reheated aish baladi bread with which they sandwiched the perspiring cheese. As they all talked the pigeon grew cold, and colder.
“How long are you here?” asked Haifa after some time.
“Two days.” Her holo quickly confirmed it. “I have a room booked at – ”
A noise of displeasure came from the other woman’s nose. “Are you insane?”
“I don’t want to be in the way.”
“Since when have you ever – ”
Mina waved a hand. “There’s no point arguing, it’s already paid for – ”
Khaleid’s voice cut effortlessly through both of theirs.
“You’ll stay here,” he said, “home with us.”
They looked on in startled silence while he took a leg from the tray and put it on his plate, then went about serving himself more salad with the tongs Haifa and Mina were now ignoring in favor of fingers.
Haifa recovered first. “Yes, that,” she said with asperity, snagging the last wedge of cheese. “And then tomorrow you can keep Khaleid company while he’s on the road.”
Mina blinked. “The road? To where?”
“The coast. Ain Sokhna.”
The name was certainly familiar, but it still took some seconds to place it. She looked from one face to the other. “Where you grew up.”
As she said it Haifa had taken an enormous bite of arugula and cheese. Olive oil gleamed from the corners of her lips, down her chin.
Wiping her face with the back of a hand, around the mouthful she explained, “He already has the rest. Just needs his birth certificate.”
When Mina turned her head, she found him standing a little back from the table, full plate untouched on the counter behind him, arms folded across the wide chest. The flicker of the chandelier hardly reached him; she couldn’t glean anything from his inexpression.
He was watching her. His eyes like mirrors.
“It’s time I decided,” he said.
Mina opened her mouth to speak, and then, all at once, the lights went out.
The road to eternal life was a long one. It was not a path that preoccupied only old men and women. Preparations had to be made well in advance: the old spells invoked, body and spirit made ready for the journey, the heart weighed against the feather. Not a simple thing, to live forever. The ancient Egyptians knew this perhaps better than anyone. Those who came before them. And those who now come after.
Khaleid Al-Masri, The Final City, p. 57
The bedroom was overwarm, smelling powerfully of beeswax. They had blown out the other candles in the kitchen and hallways, feeling their way along the walls in the pitch black. But here, they had let the candle burn all night.
In low light the bumps of Haifa’s spine glowed smooth as amber. Half awake, half not, Mina reached out to touch, then trailed two fingers along the narrow of the other woman’s back.
Haifa stirred, then turned, catching Mina’s fingers before she could retract them. Her hand was small but strong, veins wiring its back. A frazzled curl fell over her cheek.
“Did I wake you?”
The other woman blinked, slowly like a cat.
“I wasn’t sleeping.”
Down the hall they heard the faint squeak of a faucet, and then the drum of water hitting a metal pail. It was still dark outside; no light glanced through the warped shutters.
“The hot water isn’t working yet. I think power’s still out for our street. He’ll boil it for your bath.”
“There’s no need, it’s already hot here.”
“Let him do what makes him happy,” said his wife, smiling. “You know what Khaleid’s like.” She wiggled close as if to share a secret. Her breath was humid with the anise candies she liked to suck on even before brushing her teeth. “And we missed you.”
Mina looked at their interlaced fingers, brown and browner, on the rumpled sheets. Behind Haifa’s head she could just make out faded green vines, leaves painted on the mud plaster wall. Old-fashioned work from at least a century or two before the freeze. There was little else in the room but a graceful writing desk and old rose chintz chair. The camphor wood trunk fragrant ten years after their wedding. A basket by the window in which the prayer mat was rolled, and next to it Mina’s suitcase. Shadows edged forward and retreated, throwing these things into light, then darkness.
“This was your room once, wasn’t it?”
“Mm.” She yawned. “After we got married Abba was worried he would throw everything out and fill the house with his own things. He thought since Khaleid was agreeing to live in his father-in-law’s house...he might…” She trailed off, shrugging. “He didn’t.”
“He cares for things,” said Mina, “the way they are.”
Her friend rolled onto her back, arms settled under her head, still smiling.
“He knows my wishes,” she said. “Yours. Everyone’s but his own, really.”
Mina closed her fingers slowly over her palm, still feeling the stickiness of the other woman’s in it.
“I didn’t come to change anything,” she said softly. “You know that.”
Haifa turned her head, regarding her, steady. Then she lifted a hand to cup her cheek.
“How can you say that?” she said gently. “You change everything.”
It was the sort of statement that neither asked nor allowed for reply, the kind that seemed to echo, changing in tonality the longer it sat on the air. Mina thought she had heard what was intended. What had been meant by it, consciously or not.
“Haifa,” she said. “Have you told him?”
“Told who what?”
Wordless, she reached out and laid her palm over the other woman’s flat stomach.
“Oh.” The dark lashes fluttered, tranquil. “No. Soon. He’ll be my little surprise.”
“You already know it’s a boy?” She couldn’t keep startlement from her voice. “How...?”
“Blood and placental samples. A full karyotype, once I was late,” Haifa said promptly, then burst out laughing at the look on Mina’s face. “We’re not that backward, silly.”
As her laughter subsided the room was filled instead by a pigmented kind of silence. They stayed where they were, lying there on the bed, looking at each other. On the desk the candle was low on wax: Mina could tell without looking, the way the light cast behind Haifa had leapt up, like a switch had been flipped.
She wondered if Haifa loved her because Khaleid did; if it started that way and now sprang from its own well. On what it might be conditioned. In the years since she’d met her there had never been anything other than openhearted affection. Tonight Mina sensed, for the first time, the smallest pinprick of something else.
“I offered you something, once,” she said, slowly. “The Crystal, the life it gives...it goes on a long time. We don’t know. Maybe forever.”
“Khaleid will not age, I know,” said Haifa calmly. “It doesn’t mean he won’t grow old.”
“He’s decided,” said Mina. “When your son is older…maybe he will, too.”
The bed creaked. In a single practiced motion, her friend rose from the rumpled sheets and went barefooted to the shuttered windows.
“Yes,” she stretched onto her toes to reach the latch, “if he wants.”
“What about you? What do you want?”
The outside light coming now through the window was blue, and cool. In the distance Mina could hear an invocatory crackle. The muezzin, preparing to call the faithful from the nearest minaret’s speaker.
Haifa’s arms were wrapped around herself against the desert’s predawn chill. Her face was serene. She glanced at the candle on the desk, now sputtering, flame high. She made no move to extinguish it.
“It’s lovely, isn’t it,” she said. “How brightly it burns, at the end of the wick.”
By the time Mina had finished and it was his turn, the bathwater boiled an hour before was lukewarm, the same as the air in the house. When he came downstairs he saw her at the dining table. She was drinking strong milky Ceylon, yawning through each sip, eyes on the news alert in front of her. Haifa was on her holo in the study, arguing with her editor from the sound of it.
Finding them both preoccupied, he went about obtaining breakfast. Leftover coffee Haifa had burnt, a handful of dried apricots, and cardamom cake. Despite having no classes to lecture Khaleid felt a pressing need to accomplish something, so as he ate, he powered up his holo to fire off several amendments to the lesson plans for his teaching aide.
On the chair beside him, Mina had folded her legs, knees hanging over the seat. She had exchanged yesterday’s jeans for one of Haifa’s gauzy embroidered dresses. Top few buttons undone, flaxen and loose. With her face bare, free of jewelry, she looked young in a way he couldn’t recall seeing before.
Feeling his eyes, she looked up smiling, but said nothing.
They were ready to set out in another twenty minutes. Mina knocked on the door of the study, but on opening it, Haifa was already shaking her head.
“I can’t come, too much work.” She blew a curl out of her eyes. “But I’m glad you can go. Nobody should make that trip alone. The new highway they’ve built through the desert is so bloody straight you could fall asleep driving and end up in Aswan if you’re not careful.”
“I’ll be careful.”
His wife drifted over. Unbathed, she smelled of bed. Traces of perfume. She stretched up to kiss his jaw, black eyes limpid. “When are you not?”
Out on the street, they packed the old car with water bottles and taameya Haifa had bought that morning, mixed with hot sauce and pickles and slipped between pockets of aish baladi.
Mina tapped the hood, already hot from sun. “Is this thing regulation?”
“No.” Khaleid shut the trunk. “Neither are the police’s.”
They pulled out of the tight space without difficulty and peeled down the lane, dirt flying in their wake. Behind them Haifa’s waving figure shrank until she was only a speck of dust in the rear view mirror.
The traffic was marginally better than it had been the day before, and it only took them about forty-five minutes to break from the labyrinth of interconnected ashwa’yats, hitting the Cairo/New Memphis-Aswan highway. The clock showed almost ten.
Next to him, she was curled up with her holo, mostly quiet. Alternately distracted by responding to messages and glancing with interest at the other cars around them on the freeway. But as the towers of New Memphis came into view Mina sat up slightly as if her name had been called. Attention showed in the line of her back.
“Have you been there?”
“A few times.”
She fiddled with an outmoded knob for a nonexistent radio. “What did you think?”
He remembered the last time he had gone was to see the new university, which at the time was still being built. The walls had shone with a cool heaviness like glass, but when Khaleid passed his hand over a pillar it had felt warm under his palm, the crystal quivering as though it were alive.
He had found it strangely disorienting to walk the long shining halls and hear his own words bounce back to him. Refracted into a thousand small pieces. Back at the grimy old college in Zamalek, he had to raise his voice not to be drowned out by his students, even in the lecture room.
“You didn’t like it.”
“I didn’t say that.” Khaleid reached up to tilt the mirror against the glare. “I was thinking.”
Her head tipped sideways. Sun streaming in her hair. “You mean frowning.”
“Why don’t you tell me what you think?”
“You must’ve been more than a few times,” she said, ignoring this. “Haifa said your book is about it.”
“The book is about the old city built there some millennia ago.” Without conscious thought he shifted his grip on the steering wheel. His holo had activated lane control as soon as they hit the freeway, as was mandatory, but Khaleid much preferred to drive as if the autopilot didn’t exist. “The new city...it’s only been there a year. For a student of history, there’s not much to be said yet.”
“A student,” echoed Mina. There was a playfulness to her tone, which as always, almost sounded like mocking. “Not a teacher.”
“Aren’t they the same?”
“Dr. Al-Masri,” she sighed, “don’t be a pedant.”
He kept his eyes on the road. “I can only be one thing, at one time.”
There was no response. At the edge of his vision, he saw she was once more checking her holo; alerts floated green on the blue gradient.
In minutes, the crystal towers were in the rear view mirror. Traffic had thinned to mostly freight trucks. The terrain began to change rapidly once they passed the urban limits. Between city and desert there was no visible boundary, except where the tenements and depots inexplicably stopped short, and an endlessness of deep gold sand began.
No matter how often he came this way it still startled, how the cities rose from desert with all the suddenness of the pyramids from which they’d descended. For Khaleid it evinced pleasing symmetry. It seemed to him things of a place couldn’t help but remain that way. They were firmly what they were; they didn’t make sense anywhere else.
When he glanced over her way after some time, the holo was gone. Her forehead just touched the window, too lightly to be dozing off.
“You used to say that.” Her voice was subdued. “Things like that, anyway. Even then you were…”
She trailed off, a vague gesture of her hand in lieu, but he heard the words regardless.
“You knew what I was,” he said. “I was always this.”
Mina breathed out a small laugh. “But only when you could be.”
In the glass her reflection was hard to interpret. Sunlight angling her mouth. She was one of those people who could play wonderfully with her face; what one saw in it had little bearing to anything she was thinking. But he had been learning her a long time.
“I needed to be something else then.” Her hand had at some point been laid flat on the edge of the armrest. Without looking Khaleid rested his own over it. “He needed me.”
Her fingers flexed slightly under his, tensile, warm, before they loosened, splayed out again. “He has hundreds of people to worry about him.”
“And billions to worry about.”
“Khaleid,” she said clearly. “He doesn’t need you now.”
Theirs was the only car on the highway. In front the fresh asphalt smoldered a deep even black. Past the ditches on either side choked with bits of rubber, metal rims, and flung-away bottles, he saw the desert stretching to a pale blue line of haze.
The idea that he would choose to leave this place someday had always lived deep inside him. Like another self, something he knew but could forget, a future remembered. When he’d first seen cities of crystal rising on the corner store’s tinny vid screen.
She had turned back to the window. Her hand turned up, palm to palm with his, but she didn’t try to hold him. Her eyes reflected in the glass were indistinguishable from the sky beyond it, and he thought that she might have been trying to spare him her gaze.
“I know,” he said, eventually. “I’m glad.”
A few bright strands disengaged from the back of her head to float in the automated fan’s current. Her posture was of leisure, feet flattened on the seat, shoulders relaxed, but he sensed her absolute awareness. Of their surroundings, their interior, him.
“How old is Memphis, really?” she said.
Khaleid thought about it.
“When we last lived,” he said, “this was a sea. No one would have thought of building a city here then.” He allowed a pause. “Does that answer your question?”
Mina’s fingers closed on his as she brought his hand to her mouth. He couldn’t see her smile, only feel it form against his knuckles, heat from her breath.
“No,” she said. “I don’t know why I asked.”
The turnoff sign for Ain Sokhna from the highway was a large, important-looking one, in seeming defiance of the fact that Ain Sokhna was neither large nor perceptibly important. It was a minor town perched high in the Suez gulf: near enough to Cairo for a weekend visit, not charming enough to make the two-hour journey. Both of Haifa and Khaleid had been born and raised there, together. When Haifa’s mother died, she went to live with her father, a prominent judge, at 12 Mahmoud Azmy Street. When Khaleid’s parents died, he was finishing his studies in Damascus, preparing to apply for a doctorate program in Cairo. Six months later, they were married. Mina knew he had not been back since.
There were no walls or gates that demarcated Ain Sokhna from the desert. Instead its buildings crept up gradually from the barren sand, clusters of yellow mud domes increasing in size and frequency, thick-walled and with few windows like termite mounds grown overlarge. It was hard to understand one was in the town until one reached the center of it. Upon parking Khaleid had disappeared into an especially squat edifice that looked no more official than its neighbors. Within it were the birth, death, marriage, and property records of anyone who had done anything in Ain Sokhna since the Great Freeze.
Demurring to wait inside, Mina soon found herself wandering, without any particular destination in mind. There seemed to lack any organizational grid: some streets looped back to their beginnings, while others ended abruptly without anything to mark their conclusion. The alleys were an unpaved mix of sand and rock that had been packed hard with time. Grit accumulated steadily under her heels, between her toes, as she walked. Here, as in Cairo, was dust everywhere. The colors too were the same: bleached blue sky, the white heat of sun. The light and heat without noise.
In the dead of afternoon, the air shone like glass. Stray cats lay prone baking in the bright main plaza, eyes squeezed shut, ribs expanding, closing faintly. There was hardly anyone moving about, save for a few of the very old, and some children. Many larger building facades were padlocked and let to rent. Passing a shoemaker’s shop, she saw on the counter the withered feet of the cobbler, asleep.
There was a dreamlike quality to it, as if by mistake she had meandered through a film set. Unreal despite the heat insistent on her skin and the way sun glanced off her lashes. Of course this was how so many people lived outside of cities, how Khaleid had lived more than half his life. It was peculiar to not feel the friction of others on her skin.
It only took her an hour to walk the breadth of the town and back again, the muted scratch of her sandals on stone following. She retraced her steps to the little square records office and then stopped.
When she knocked at the heavy door, there was no movement behind the slat-wood shutters, not even a flutter of the peeling green paint.
In front of the office she noticed a dingy plastic stool, in shade cast by the corrugated roof. Next to it sat a pot overflowing with ragged tendrils of jasmine. Despite – perhaps because of – obvious neglect, the flowers grew profusely. As she approached their scent reached her, fecund.
Mina took a seat on the stool, settling against the wall. There was a distant rushing in her ears, straining for sound that wasn’t, like listening for the sea in a conch shell. Her eyes closed against the prick of the sun.
When she came to, what felt like minutes later, it was with a sense of being watched. A man’s shape crouched in the dirt before her. The bulk of his body, wide shoulders, blocking the late light. It took her eyes some moments to adjust, to make out the familiar structures of his face.
A yawn escaped; belatedly she covered her mouth. The other arm she stretched high overhead, twisting her wrist, muscle quivering with pleasure. “You snuck up on me.”
He regarded her calmly. “You must’ve let me.”
“Is it done?”
Khaleid reached out to detangle a wisp of hair from her lashes. The movement was such simplicity, she had no reaction for it.
“It was done before you came.” His thumb soft on her brow. “This was just the last step.”
Mina looked at his silhouette in the deepening afternoon. The long hair he usually bound had loosened in its tie, easing the salience of his cheekbones, his serious mouth.
“I didn’t really come to visit New Memphis,” she confessed impulsively.
“No?” he sounded unexercised. His palm moved along her jaw.
“I just wanted to see you.”
She hadn’t meant to say it, though of course he knew.
“I would say that you’ve earned the right to do what you want.” He tilted her face up, holding her to the light. “Do you remember who told me that?”
She closed her eyes briefly, lids showing brightly pink. She opened her mouth, then shut it, then opened once more.
“There’s hardly anyone here,” she said, instead. “Was it this way when you grew up?”
Khaleid stood from the ground, up to his full height. On him the motion took a ludicrous amount of time, like a child’s jack-in-the-box toy that kept unfolding upward.
“Like this, no. When I was living here as a child Ain Sokhna used to be much bigger. Tourists, a port. Some fishing. But after the Great Freeze, all the jobs went to Cairo.” He dusted the legs of his pressed trousers, on which there was not a speck of dust, and inspected the flats of his hands. “Soon they’ll go to New Memphis.”
There was no hint of anything in his voice, neither anger nor satisfaction nor regret. There was nothing to refute. Only the same inevitables that always pressed them forward, the way one was buffeted from behind by waves, or wind. Though no wind moved here now, her cheek still felt cool where his hand had left it.
She thought again of Cairo. Slow and fast, maddening, wry. Impossible to think of it otherwise and yet equally impossible to think it could stay as it had. Perhaps it had been like that for Khaleid when he had left this place without looking back, knowing how its shapes would change. Mina wondered what he thought of it now.
All the years since she had come to find him, compelled by spider’s thread, memory. His identity had been so immediately certain; Kunzite stamped into the very bones. But maybe all those years had shaped them as well, their graspable edges, like a bar of soap held by so many hands. Maybe that was inevitable, too.
“Where to now?” she asked. “Back to the city?”
Khaleid had turned away from her, facing east. In profile she could see he was seeking something; face careful and intent, senses drawn to tautness. She waited for him to turn back to her, and for him to speak when he did.
“There’s a place I want to show you first.” He grasped her hand, pulling her upright. “Come with me.”
They went by way of a rough path that was thick with parched scrub and a tumult of stones that had accumulated from landslides. It started at the far edge of the village and went precipitously down along a bluff made of bare rock; she hadn’t understood at all before, just how close yet far above the level of the sea they were. Her sandals were useless and toes scratched, but halfway down, licking her teeth, she could taste the salinity of the gulf. It was there in the edge of her vision, like polished green glass, drifts of still-seeming white foam. It was the sound she had been hearing without knowing.
At bottom the cliff’s own crags stuck out into the gulf like long fingers. Mina reached down to unstrap and kick off her sandals, placed one foot in front, then the other. Her toes rounded instinctively over the surf-slicked ground. She moved with quickening steps, eyes trained down, nearly at the end of the rocky jetty. Just as she reached there a great burst of spray slapped against it, her.
She gave a short shriek, wiping her eyes, seawater leaking past her lips. At the same time she heard behind her a concise splash.
When she turned around she saw only his brown back knifing below the water’s surface. A pile of his clothes, shirt and pants neatly folded atop his own shoes. The beaten sandals and bag she had tossed aside were stacked beside his leather satchel.
She wasted no time reaching down for the hem of Haifa’s dress to pull it overhead, throwing it down with her underthings. By the time she dove in and surfaced, blinking and shaking her head, so had Khaleid. Water suspended wonderfully from his arced nose and dark skin, his darker brows, his hair the color of dried salt. He was laughing.
Mina half-swam, half-pedaled to him to keep her head above water. All the while she was laughing too, in short gasps, shocked and giddy from the sudden cold. Every part of her felt fully charged, her skin buzzing with aliveness. She had forgotten this kind of vividity. When she got to him she set her hands on his shoulders and rose up swiftly to kiss his mouth. Somehow, though she’d come yesterday, it felt like a greeting.
She pulled back. “Do others come here?”
“Stray goats.” His teeth shone. “Nudists.”
Her head dipped to suck his pulse, testing if it would bruise. “So no one who would be too shocked.”
“Don’t sound so disappointed,” his deep voice vibrated by her mouth, and she laughed again, and couldn’t stop.
She released him then to cut a few sedate strokes into the water, which now that she was far enough in felt temperate as her morning bath. Then she kicked up her legs, content to float on her back. The sky softening at its edges where it met with the sea, cloudless so it all looked the same, inseparable blue. She knew that he was close from the way the waves moved under her body but he made no attempt to close the short distance she’d made. It was different to have him like this, both within and out of her reach. It was different to have him this way, not as he was before, or would be soon.
It could have been minutes that they floated there, or an hour; after some indeterminate time, by unspoken cue, they both made their way back to the jut of rock and hauled themselves up. Wind pebbling up their chilled dripping skin, ravenous, they took out the leftover taameya in Khaleid’s satchel; there were cans of sugarcane juice and a bag of pistachios and dates packed as well. Mina attacked the food and drink without pause for breath or speech, wrinkled fingers around the hot can as she drained it in one go. He was measured even in hunger. Placing fried fava chunks in his mouth, punctuated with bites of bread, small draughts from his drink. For a while after she had finished she sat back on her haunches and observed him; then she got up and walked a few meters away to dry her hair as best she could.
On inspection it was crisp with salt and predictably tangled. She flung the great weight of it forward to work her fingers through and promptly cursed as a spritz of seawater from the ends temporarily blinded her. Her hands caught and yanked on the knots. Her eyes had already begun streaming.
His voice sounded from behind her. “Come here.”
She pushed back her hair and went to him.
The place had been swept of detritus from their ragged meal. He was leaning back on an arm with his legs folded in front of him, one knee up; he was still as naked as he had been in the water but the unselfconscious way he held himself he might as well have been fully clothed. When she took another step forward, and turned to sink into the space made by his thighs, he shifted to accommodate her without pause.
Immediately Mina felt his broad palm smooth over the crown of her skull.
“It’s wonderful here,” she hugged her knees, released them. “Why don’t others come?
“Most think it’s haunted.”
He hummed. “This used to be a beach. There were places down here to stay, rent boats,” his fingers combed out the length of her hair, slow, careful, “but after the Great Freeze, when the sea rose, everything washed away.”
“I remember,” she said. “They built levees in Tokyo, and bridges. It took decades.”
For a little while neither of them said anything. She was thinking, for some reason, of how he’d laughed when she emerged from the water. There’d been such a weightlessness, as if the sea buoyed more than his body.
Khaleid had worked loose one of the tangles and set that lock of hair over her shoulder before returning to his task with the rest of her mane. When he spoke, the words held a deliberative note, as if each were a single knot to be undone.
“I wasn’t here when Haifa lost her mother.” More strands looped round his hand. “Damascus was a world away. I thought there was nothing I could do.”
“At times I’ve wondered,” he went on, ignoring her. “How it’s possible to be in two places at once.” His fingers kept on, steady. “How to love more than one person.”
Khaleid fell silent, and a wave higher than the rest lapped the promontory; tide rising.
“You talk about dividing yourself,” she said, “like chapters in the book you’re writing. Beginnings and endings, numbered pages. It doesn’t work that way.”
“How does it work?”
“Like this,” said Mina. “The three of us, us all. We make – a kind of happiness, like this.”
She knew what he would ask the moment before he asked it. “Are you happy?”
She drew her legs closer to her body. The air hadn’t taken chill yet, but the sun had sunk behind the cliffs, and already she missed its clean strong heat. When she curved her spine and rested her head on his chest it felt like wood that had been sitting out and soaking up all the afternoon’s richness. It was like leaning against a pillar, or coming home.
“Most of the time I don’t think of you at all,” she said, honestly. “And I can be over there, and hold all of it, all of them, together.” She shrugged. “Sometimes – I do think of you.”
Khaleid said, “Mina.”
She felt an opening in her chest, exquisite, painless. It felt like a place for the sea to come rush in.
When she placed her hand on his knee it looked so small.
“There’s time,” she said, “for you, me. Don’t rush to it.”
He had kept a hand atop her head, unable to comb her hair now, with her leaning back wholly on him. With the other he gripped her hand on his knee, encompassing it.
“I want that time,” his voice brimming. “And still I want to stay this way. Stay – human.”
Tiny coarse hairs on his chest tickled when she turned her cheek, reminding her, some, of Haifa’s wiry curls brushing her neck, lower, her breastbone. She thought of her, then: what she was doing right now, closing shutters against sundown, but not before putting out her head one last time, letting the Cairo dusk cool her cheeks, thinking of husband, lover elsewhere, as Mina was thinking of her. There would be children shrieking their delight in the fire escapes again, by now. There would be, later, another boy making those leaps terrace to terrace. She thought of him with his mother’s dimples and ungainly in his father’s height; one growing old into grace, the other paused forever in time.
“Last night, when we went to sleep, I saw the crows’ feet by Haifa’s eyes,” she said. “I never noticed them before. She was so annoyed I couldn’t stop touching them, the same way I used to with your fine lines so long ago.” She laughed. “Do you remember?”
“I remember you calling me old man,” he said, “when you were at least twice my age.”
“You looked it with all those wrinkles.”
His fingers against her smooth brow. “I remember you said – they were beautiful.”
She twined his fingers with hers.
“They were,” she replied quietly. “They are. I wish...”
But it wasn’t clear, what she’d meant to say. Some sort of shapeless yearning had swelled in her, but when she tried to touch, like a blown bubble it retreated from her reach. She remembered she felt this when she had first come to find him. Had watched Haifa steal a kiss, under the shadow of old Cairo gate. There wasn’t anything she, he, any of them would’ve changed, done differently. There wasn’t another happiness but this.
Tipping her head back more firmly on his chest, she sensed a gradual kind of release, there. As though his ribs were shifting apart to make place for her, or as though he had taken and released a long, long breath. After several moments he reached for his discarded shirt and shook it out to settle over Mina’s front. On it she instantly smelled him: the dried bay leaves of his hard soap; Cleopatra cigarettes he shared, as a scrupulously measured indulgence, with Haifa on the roof.
In the space of minutes, the sky had blued deeply. No toothed moon waited at the edge to drown the new stars. She blinked at them, half-dozing on him and half-strangely alert. It was that kind of place, she thought distantly, poised between all things: day and dusk, land and sea, tide low and high. What was behind them and what lay ahead. It was the right place for both of them to be, and at the right time. Where Mina sat, the sea spread lusterless and dark, a mirror for the sky. From here, she could see, and see.
They had only driven back halfway when she laid her hand over his on the steering wheel and Khaleid pulled them over to the shoulder. There wasn’t a single car or light or sign, only an ancient-looking obelisk that rose directly from the desert some hundred meters off the road, which seemed vaguely familiar. It observed them in silence while in the deep sky above, the stars seemed to whirl, dizzied.
Out of the car the air glinted sharply. She drew him down against her, mouth wide and seeking, her fingers grasping his belt. She always knew what to do and how to lead him but it seemed to Khaleid that by the sea she had roused some want in him which he couldn’t stay. Things moved beyond his control. He heard her murmur his name: under his palm the prickle of her skin, bunching her dress at the hipbone. He lifted her against the passenger window and stifled her gasp with his mouth.
They found rhythm without words; her exhale hot on his face. Chins, tongues, everything gleaming as he and she worked against each other.
Under them the metal-glass cooled, except where they were upon it.
Once, she breathed, “You never did – this with others.”
Khaleid buried his face in her neck, feeling her body jerk under his. “No.”
“Not even him.”
“Never like this,” he closed his eyes, inhaling her perfume, risen from her breasts. The same he’d smelled in Haifa’s hair this morning, the odor teeming thick with musk and white flowers, though his wife never wore scent. It should’ve been strange to him. He’d grown up used to smelling jasmine on streets, flowing unchecked from windows, and now it was a thing impossible to uncouple from her. Her presence. “With – anyone.”
When he pulled back her eyes were wide and calm, wet at the edges and lashes spiked damp, so he kissed each of them again and again until they shut. Her head fell back, exposing to him the quivering length of her neck, aglow in the dark. She wasn’t lightweight but lean, every part of her sleek with muscle. But bracketed in his arms she felt like something he could hold, and hold together.
The wind whistled flat between the dunes, carrying a low, metallic sound and smell.
Her eyes still shut but a smile about her lips. Small and secret, tender. She let him watch her expression, the striations of pleasure and vocalization, her brow tightening with focus. The desire moving underneath her skin as though it were transparent to him. He found himself unable to look away from the intimate play of her face. Khaleid knew she too had loved others; he knew it had never been like this, with anyone.
They moved together without urgency, prolonging each act as they could. Her fingers slid in his hair; he gasped in her ear. There was no need in the way they grasped each other, only their want and its uncomplicated satisfaction. Despite everything there was no ache, no burden. Distantly he thought of another thing she’d said to him, more than long ago, another life. That what was needed couldn’t really be loved. Maybe now, after all this time, he finally understood what Venus had meant.
Underneath them the car’s hood was still just barely warm. She wore her clothes as well as his, but had allowed her companion the use of his trousers, as the wind held a chill.
“A doctor,” she said, at length. “Or maybe an actuary.”
“But quite a senior one. Someone who worries. Professionally.”
Khaleid said, “Is that really what you thought?”
She smiled to herself. In her memory was a clear image, as though in a camera lens. A tall man of indeterminate age, a sweater over his collared shirt against January’s bite, hands in pockets as he paced past Al-Azhar. From her vantage point in the cafe Mina had watched the woman come up from behind and wrap her arms around him. Small as a blackbird and lovely, in that cold bright Cairo morning.
She glanced at him, then skyward again, still smiling.
“I thought you looked happy,” she said.
How did our ancestors prepare? Not for death, but the next life?
Much has been written about their ways of preserving the body and feeding the soul, preparing the tomb for its dweller and the spirit for its crucial interview. When first uncovered these processes were considered morbid by historians. Perhaps I am biased by my profession, but I prefer to think of the ancient Egyptians as well-prepared. And after all, no obsession with death drives these practices. Rather, they are the celebration of life, one so full it bears continuation. As the priests said in their ritual closing: you are alive; you are alive forever.
Behold, they said. You are young again, and forever.
Khaleid Al-Masri, The Final City, p. 149
In the city it was easier to forget the fact of the desert waiting outside. Growing up it had always hovered just out of his sightline: conscious in street cricket games that their only ball should not fly into sand holes, dunes out the smudged window on his first bus ride to Cairo. But ensconced in the city’s center one couldn’t feel the khamsin wind coming on with its hot wall of dust. Like every Egyptian born he was wary of the desert; he respected its indifference; he could not imagine life in it, or far from it.
It coursed past them for a seemingly interminable time. In the dark without landmarks it all looked the same. At several points during the drive back Khaleid thought she might have fallen asleep, but then her thumb pressed his, or she would sigh unexpectedly, sit up. Her holo seemed to have been forgotten altogether, though occasionally he could hear it bleat from her bag. She was not a restful person; even her quiet was this way.
Their return to civilization was less abrupt than their exit had been. More than a few kilometers out he could see an orange luminescence on the horizon. Wires, towers, charging stops began to reappear at intervals, insistent neon lights blinking in the night. Other cars joined them on the freeway, come from travels further inland Nile-side, tires caked with dried mud. The tallest spire of New Memphis came and went, lit within by its soft unearthly radiance, and then suddenly they were entering Cairo’s limits.
It was late enough that the traffic had thinned. They passed a few night vendors by the old gate, truck interiors lit fluorescent green. Customers spat fat from lamb skewers as they sat out; their wives drew their hijabs in, gossip rising smoke-like. The occasional burst of Lebanese pop music from an open shop door followed them down the side streets. A right turn, then left, and then the road had narrowed, emptied of cars, even passerby.
On most corners the iron street lamps had gone out and left in their wake the pungent kerosene they still used. The lane names were worn and faded; the car nearly squeezed between some buildings. But he could have navigated the complexity of these alleys in complete darkness. The cobbles had been rinsed of dust and shone before them in the headlights; through the open window he smelled the old cool stone of the street. Ahead of them was a townhouse with the glass lantern still burning.
Haifa was already coming out of the gate. A shawl was wrapped loosely around her head and shoulders; hair braided away, tendrils about her face, she looked like a young girl. As he and Mina got out of the parked car she stopped, looking from one face to the other.
He went to his wife, taking her in his arms. His hand slipped under her shawl to her warm nape and she shivered. Her small, compact body felt so familiar against his larger one, how her head fit to his sternum, the softness of her curls. She glanced up at him, flyaway brows in question, and it was homecoming. Khaleid bent his head.
“I’m back,” he spoke against the exposed edge of her hair. “I’m home.”
He felt her wriggle a little in his hold.
“Good,” she said on a long, fitful breath against his chest. “Good.”
Her arm stretched out, fingers beckoning; Mina came to her immediately. His wife released him to embrace her, hands skimming her arms and sides. Then, she took Mina’s face between her palms and with an almost tender formality, pressed their lips together. Once, twice. He heard Haifa’s whisper. He heard no words.
In the mirror-wet cobblestone, their reflected figures melded and ran together like ink.
Over their heads, he could see in the distance the crystal tower of New Memphis. The ancient granite spire they’d passed in the desert flashed again in his mind, and Khaleid thought he knew what had struck him, then, as so familiar. Another kind of symmetry that he was only starting to see. Another witness, the world reborn.
As he looked down again, he saw that around Haifa’s embrace, Mina had extended a hand. When he took it she gripped him back. She held on tightly, and didn’t let go.
He was in the study, a space he shared with Haifa though the latter had an infuriating tendency to spread her work all over the dining table instead. He was pulling a pre-freeze reference from a high shelf when he felt someone’s gaze connect with the back of his head.
“Now who’s sneaking up on whom?”
Mina watched him from the doorway. Her hair was secured in a messy high tail; she was back in jeans and linen shirt.
“My car just arrived.”
They stood where they were across the room. He noted a kind of bright, lovely solemnity in her expression, rather than the playfulness to which he was accustomed. The night before written there, showing plainly, not brushed away or smoothed. He thought if he reached up and touched his own face he’d feel it there, too. Anything otherwise would have been a lack of acknowledgement.
She was holding herself very still, as if coming to a decision, and then she drew a little closer. Her bare feet made no noise on the worn Herat carpet as she crossed it.
“Are those hieroglyphs?”
Khaleid let the pages splay, showing her one at random. “Burial texts. From Memphis.”
She nodded at the page. “What does that one say?”
He flipped the book back toward himself and scanned the lines.
“It’s by a man who predeceased his wife or lover, but it’s not clear which. He says – ” he paused to work through the symbols. “He says, on this soil or another, we’ll meet again.”
When he looked up again Mina had her head cocked at him, slightly.
In the dim, cluttered study she looked somehow different. Out in the world, the city and desert and sea, she moved as a part of it, how a lion looked at home in its owned wildness. Here there seemed a surreality to her that was almost hard to look at. He thought she knew it, too, the way she stood in the middle of the room, the soft upward curving of her mouth. Things of a place. He set the book down and waited.
Mina came the rest of the way, stopping at the desk’s edge. She placed a hand on his bicep and stretched up to brush her lips to his earlobe. Warm tea fragrant on her breath.
“Goodbye,” she murmured.
She had almost made it out the door before he spoke.
She turned on the threshold as if she had been expecting it. Her gaze found and held him, a moment, at once clear and soft. She smiled. Then she was gone.
For some time after she had left, he remained behind his desk. The shadows in the room moved almost imperceptibly; the only real sound was the tiny tick of the wall clock.
Khaleid picked up the book again, sifting through pages, tracing the symbols so familiar to him. The texture of the papers like ashes in the whorl of his fingertips. They were so fragile that when he rubbed his thumb over the script he had shown Mina the old ink transferred to his skin. He looked at the gray smear on his thumb; he looked down where the words had been. It was only when he touched it to the corner of his mouth that he realized he had been smiling, too.
He made his way across the office. The study door shut gently behind him.
In the ancient past, Egyptians viewed the gods as existing on a different time scale to our own. The time of the gods was eternal in the sense that it had attained perfection, and therefore had no reason to change. Temples and necropoli built of masonry: these were eternal. Cities and villages made with loam: quick, temporal.
Ancient Egyptian tombs were called houses of eternity, a place for the dead to meet themselves. The progress of their lives painted on the inner walls, each event stacked tightly atop another, accumulating the look of vivid procession. Why, when the dead had the life and time of the gods to look forward to? Why look back?
I am not the first to imagine I have decoded the ancient Egyptians’ philosophies on immortality, nor will I be the last. But we know from the detailed, dramatic life histories on their tomb walls that these were a complex, expressive, emotionally rich people, and therein, I think, lies the answer. It cannot be so easy to let go of a fully lived life. Even if what is beyond is wanted.
What can we say then about old Memphis, when all that is left of her is for eternal time? What do we make of the new history being painted on her everlasting walls?
Time will tell if New Memphis is for the time of the gods, or if crystal is something more like loam. Immortality is for all of us who want it, now, but we stand too far from attaining perfection. So let me propose a less lofty goal. I hope when we meet ourselves in the eternal house, we might pause on the threshold and look back. I hope that in so doing, we might remember ourselves.
Khaleid Al-Masri, The Final City, p. 398
“Khaleid,” said his wife.
She sat on the opposite end of the couch, socked feet in his lap, shelling pistachios. Sunlight coming in to drape her shoulders, striped through the potted palm behind her.
He lifted his gaze from his book. “Hmm?”
Across the cushions, Haifa smiled at him.
“I want to tell you something.”