In Which a Guest Is Honoured
Kit strolled into the village: a small farming hamlet consisting of low mud-brick houses strung along the banks of the slow, silent Nile and surrounded by darkly fertile fields of beans and squash, onions, leeks, melons, sesame, and the like-all of it guarded by a noisy greeting party of mongrel dogs. The houses, he noted, were mostly unadorned mud brick, though some featured the occasional wall daubed blue or green. The buildings were uniformly doorless, windowless, and most had small beehive-shaped ovens in their bare backyards. The more prosperous-looking dwellings had small cloth-covered, palm-lined pavilions on the roof-to make use, no doubt, of any errant cooling breeze-but the roofs of the more humble dwellings were topped with heaps of sun-blasted rubbish; any discarded, used-up household items ended their useful lives roofside, along with the accumulated garbage and detritus of daily life.
He glimpsed the first dog as he passed the third house on the edge of the hamlet; the animal was quickly joined by two more, which were in turn trailed by a pack of curious children. They all stared at him, dogs and kids, with wide dark eyes. Kit smiled and waved, which sent the youngsters racing off to find their elders, setting off a general commotion of greeting for a stranger who had wandered out of the desert.
Kit was mightily relieved to discover that his first attempts at communication were met with success. Whatever time he had landed in, Westerners were apparently a common enough sight among the locals that it did not provoke instant alarm; at least, his appearance did not send them reaching for weapons or running for cover. Instead, as the small crowd of villagers gathered around, a dark-skinned older fellow with stubbly grey hair stepped forward and handed Kit a clay cup full of water, which Kit accepted with a smile and nod. Kit tipped the cup to his lips and guzzled it down. The man watched him, then said, “Deutsch? Francais?”
“English,” replied Kit, wiping his mouth. “ Parlez vous English?”
“Non,” said the man. He laid hold of a nearby boy and spoke a quick command that sent the lad racing away. Turning back to Kit, he said, “Francais?”
“No,” replied Kit, passing back the empty cup.
The man sighed with weary resignation, and then everyone stood looking at each other and at Kit until a slender young man in a white kaftan appeared.
“Hello, sir,” he said, pushing his way through the throng. “I am Khefri.”
“You speak English.”
The young man nodded gravely. “What is your name, sir?”
“Call me Kit,” he said. “Kit Livingstone.”
“How can we help you, Kit Livingstone?”
“I am travelling hereabouts,” replied Kit. “I am on my way to Luxor. Do you know of anyplace where-”
“You are on foot?”
“You have been in the desert?”
“Yes, that’s right. I-”
“You have been in the desert on foot?”
“Yes, you see, I am looking for someone.”
“You are looking for someone,” repeated Khefri, his large dark eyes narrowing in disbelief, “in the desert on foot?”
“As it happens, yes,” said Kit, feeling that this line of questioning could go on for quite some time. “But now I am on my way to Luxor-”
“You have money?” wondered Khefri.
“A little,” replied Kit. Wilhelmina had given him a handful of coins. “Not much.”
“This is my father,” said the youth, indicating the older man, who was now smiling and nodding in welcome. “He is head man of this village. You will stay with us tonight, and I will take you to Luxor in the morning.”
“Great,” said Kit. “Terrific. I mean, thank you very much.”
“It is pleasure. The cost will be six dinar.” Khefri exchanged a few words with his father, then said, “You are invited to come now and share a meal with us. My father would speak to you of your England.”
“I would be delighted,” said Kit, trying on his most charming manner. “But I do not wish to put you to any trouble.”
“It is not trouble for us,” replied Khefri. “Hospitality is a duty. If you will please to follow me, I will take you now.”
The dark-eyed young man turned and pushed his way through the onlookers, crying for them to make way. Kit followed in his wake, in a procession that displayed all the qualities of a two-man parade.
“You speak very good English,” Kit pointed out from his place a few steps behind his guide. “Where did you learn?”
“In my school. I went to a mission school in Al-Qahira,” he explained. “The brothers there, they teach me good.”
“I finish school two years ago. Now I work in Luxor.”
“What do you do?”
“I am guide sometimes,” he replied. “Sometimes I help my cousin with his boat. My cousin, he speaks French. We help each other.”
“I see,” nodded Kit appreciatively. “So together you cover the waterfront.”
“Here is our house.”
Kit looked up to see that they were standing outside of the largest house in the village. Oil lanterns were alight along the rooftop, illuminating a sizeable cloth marquee.
Khefri led him to the front door. “Please to come in,” he said, kicking off his shoes. “You are guest.”
“My thanks,” said Kit, removing his shoes. “If you don’t mind my asking, what year is it?”
Khefri regarded him quizzically. “You wish to know the year?”
“It is the year twelve hundred and thirty-five,” replied the young man with a shrug.
“Ah,” said Kit, his heart sinking at the thought that he had seriously overshot the mark and wound up in medieval Egypt. But that erroneous assumption was swiftly overturned by the bald facts: the mission school, the oil lamps, the guide business, and all the rest.
“By the calendar of England,” Khefri continued, “it is the year one thousand eight hundred and twenty-two.”
“That’s more like it,” said Kit, not at all certain what conditions might greet him in 1822. Whatever they were, they would have to be more amenable than those that existed in the Middle Ages.
“Please to enter now.”
The interior of the house was dark and the air thick with the oily scent of heavily spiced cooking. His mouth watered and his empty stomach rumbled. Whatever they were making, Kit was certain he could eat his weight of it. He padded after his young host, who led him through the lower floor, which featured a single large room divided by a woven curtain. Rugs covered the floor, and cushions of various sizes were strewn about the perimeter; in the centre of the room stood a low table with a large round top of hammered brass. Khefri led him out to the back of the house where two women and two young girls were tending a charcoal fire over which a very large and very black cauldron was bubbling.
One of the women was spreading a thin layer of dough over the bottom of a round cast-iron vessel to make flat bread. She looked up as Khefri approached, concern visible on her round face. A word from him and she lowered her head; then, taking up a newly cooked round of wafer-thin bread, she tore it in half, rose, and, stepping around the fire, presented it to Kit.
“This is my mother,” Khefri informed him. “Her name is Mariam.”
Kit accepted the warm bread with a smile and nod. “How do you say thank you in Egyptian?”
“Shukran,” replied his young guide. “Just say shukran.”
Kit repeated the word and added her name, saying, “ Shukran, Mariam.” The young man’s mother hid her mouth and laughed, then made a comment to her son before returning to her cooking. “What did she say?” wondered Kit.
“My mother says you are very tall and not too ugly,” answered Khefri. “She thinks you would make a good husband for Bet-that is my oldest sister.”
“Please tell her that when I decide to find a wife, I will come here first,” Kit said.
This remark, when translated, was the cause of much sniggering among the women around the fire. The two younger girls stole glances at their visitor and laughed behind their hands.
Khefri’s father arrived just then and, with a show of pride, laid a hand to his chest and said, “I am Ramesses. Pleased to meet you.”
“And I am very pleased to meet you, Ramesses,” replied Kit, extending his hand. “You have the name of a very famous pharaoh.”
The elder man smiled and nodded.
“He does not speak English,” Khefri told him. “That is all he knows.”
“Tell him that Ramesses is a very famous pharaoh. Everyone in England has heard of him.”
“He knows that. Ramesses is not his real name,” the young man explained. “His real name is Copt. Very old fashioned-too difficult to pronounce. Everyone knows him as Ramesses.”
“Copt?” wondered Kit.
“We are Copts, yes,” Khefri explained. “Christians.”
“Ah.” Kit nodded. “Please thank your father for allowing me into his home. I am honoured.”
This was done under Ramesses’ benevolent smile. He spoke to his son, who translated, “May the peace of God be with you while you sojourn in our land.”
“Shukran,” replied Kit.
The village patriarch beckoned his son and guest to follow him up to the rooftop, where Kit was given a prime place in the little pavilion-a simple structure of cloth and boards on three sides and covered with palm fronds to keep off the sun. Rugs had been spread and cushions arranged for reclining.
While the elder man busied himself with lighting a small charcoal fire in a brass bowl, Kit leaned back and watched the stars come out. In a little while, when the coals in the bowl were glowing, one of the daughters brought out a hookah or, as Kit knew it, a hubble-bubble pipe, and a small packet of some unidentified substance that would be smoked. The father prepared the pipe and, giving it a few draughts to get it going, passed the hose and nozzle to Kit, indicating that he should have a puff.
Not wishing to offend his host, Kit took an exploratory draw on the tube and was rewarded with a mouthful of cool, curiously menthol-flavoured smoke, on which he promptly choked-to the roaring delight of his host. “Thanks,” gasped Kit. “That was… nice.”
Khefri took a draught and passed the hose back to his father, who then proceeded to puff away happily while plying his guest with questions as interpreted by his son. How was the health of the king? Did Kit think the king would come to Egypt? How many horses did Kit own? Did he live in a castle? Was it true that it rained in England every day? Had he ever met the king?
To these and many more, Kit gave simple, good-natured answers, albeit some of his replies were decidedly vague since he was not certain which king was on the throne. Nevertheless, his forthright responses seemed to satisfy his inquisitive host, who smoked away like a happy sultan. All the same, Kit was grateful when the meal arrived in big brass bowls-a spicy stew of mutton and aubergines with lentils, apricots, and pine nuts. This was served alongside fine, yellow couscous and eaten with the fingers. The men dipped into a communal dish, while the women and girls flitted around filling drinking cups with the local beer-a watery, sour brew that went down astonishingly well. They continually replaced the torn bread with new warm loaves.
When the men finished, the women made their meal of the remains. Kit was yawning and thinking seriously about bunching up a few cushions and closing his eyes when the entertainment for the evening arrived: four men, two with drums, one with a lute-like instrument, and one with a rattle. The musicians had been engaged solely for Kit’s benefit-an honour befitting the guest of the head man of the village-and there proceeded a lively, thumping ruckus that drove all thoughts of sleep from Kit’s weary head. A few of the neighbours showed up to lend a hand, and dancing broke out. Much to Kit’s chagrin, he was pulled into the festivities and forced to stomp about with the men while the women clapped in time to the music and laughed.
It was late-much later than he wished-when the musicians finally laid aside their instruments. They were all treated to jars of beer and then, paying their respects to their host, departed. Ramesses rose and with the pomp of a proper pharaoh wished his guest a good night.
Kit thanked him for a wonderful evening. “I don’t know when I have had a more enjoyable time,” he said, meaning every word.
“Sala’am,” said Ramesses as he disappeared down the steps, still humming a tune the musicians had played.
“You will sleep here tonight,” Khefri told him. “There is a cloth if you get cold.”
“I am sure I will be just fine.”
“I will come for you in the morning. We will leave at sunrise.”
“I’ll be ready,” declared Kit. “Good night-and, Khefri, thanks. Thanks for everything. It was just what I needed.”
“Pleasure,” replied the young Egyptian. “Good night.”
Khefri slipped away quietly, and Kit dragged some of the cushions together and shook out the blanket. In the space of one day-was it really only a single day?-he had been imprisoned and in fear for his life, then hot and thirsty and alone in the desert. Now here he was, full of good food and song and the unstinting hospitality of people that before this night he had never imagined might exist.
Just as he stretched himself out and pulled the blanket over him, the dog-and-donkey chorus began-each setting the others off until the entire Nile valley reverberated with the barking and baying cacophony.
Since sleep seemed to be the last activity any creature was allowed to pursue in this place, Kit lay on his back and stared up at a sky ablaze with far more stars than he had ever seen in any one sky. The Milky Way, never so much as glimpsed in his London, and most often seen elsewhere as a thin dusting of stars, was in the arid atmosphere of Egypt a bright band of luminous cloud. He watched in wonder as the dazzling show slowly wheeled across the gleaming dome of the sky, spinning majestically around the fixed bright point of the Nail of Heaven. And although the moon was late rising, the fulgent starlight radiating from the cloudless heavens cast hard shadows on the earthly landscape below.
How very bright this empire of stars, he mused. Which poet had said that?
The illimitable star field stretched away in every possible direction, everywhere alive with constellations he had never seen before with names he did not know. Here and there he picked out familiar conjunctions of stars, but the glowing firmament was largely unknown to him, easily outstripping the smattering of astronomy he had learned as an eleven-year-old member of his middle school’s Stargazer Club. He had attended all of three meetings before glomming onto the most basic fact that the pursuit of this hobby took place mostly at night in the cold when winter skies were brightest. He remembered but little of the various stellar arrangements. Mostly, he recalled hopping from one foot to the other and blowing on his hands in a futile effort to keep warm while awaiting his too-brief glimpse through Mr. Henderson’s six-inch telescope.
In this-as in everything else of late-he wished he had paid more attention to his studies.
Still, he considered, it was not too late to learn. And he would learn. He would find someone to teach him. Failing that, he would find some way to teach himself. Because, in all likelihood, his life depended on it. If even a portion of what Cosimo and Sir Henry believed was true about whatever it was that lay beyond those glittering stars, the future of the world might just depend on it.
His last thought, as sleep overtook him, was that it was true what Cosimo had said: the universe was far stranger than anyone imagined, or could imagine.