By Rebecca Stefoff
A month before I was to leave for Egypt with Napoleon’s army, the Comte d’Erlette asked me to call on him. “My son, you do not have to go,” my mother said to me three times, but I was more than willing. It was past time for a reckoning with the Comte. I would demand an accounting and swear to repay all that he had spent on us.
D’Erlette’s note gave directions to his house in the rue d’Auseil, deep in one of Paris’s oldest neighborhoods. The way was labyrinthine, but once I had kissed my mother and closed our door behind me, I thrust the paper deep into a pocket. I’d dreamed for years of meeting the Comte. The spidery black message, in script so old-fashioned that it must be his own hand, was burned into my mind.
The note was worded as an invitation, but I knew it for a summons. The terrible old man, for such the Comte d’Erlette was rumoured to be, had paid for my education. No doubt he wished to see what he had bought. He’d purchased the rooms where I lived with my mother, too, and other things, although she had always deflected my questions. “He knew your father,” was her sole reply. “The arrangement was made before you were born.”
Three girls descended from a carriage at the corner of our street, chattering like finches. Lilac, pale-yellow, greenish-white, the cool silk of their spring dresses gleamed under the sycamore trees in the evening light. I smelled violets as I approached. They fell silent and smiled; after I passed, I heard their soft laughter. Of course they thought me gauche, a young man whose threadbare clothes said, “Poor student,” whose pose of deep concentration screamed, “Proud, shy, stiff!” I ached to speak to them, but I had no prospects, nothing to offer a worthy girl, too much honour for any other kind.
Would I ever have anything to offer? Oh, I’d done well enough in my studies to earn a place in Bonaparte’s corps of scientists and scholars – “You do not have to go,” my mother had said to that invitation, too, but I, head swimming with visions of scholarly glory in far-off Egypt, barely heard her. Yet, even if I returned with a chance at a university position, such a post would not make me rich, and I was determined to repay every centime to the Comte d’Erlette, no matter how many years it took.
If I returned….
My father had gone abroad as a young man, too, and died horribly before I was born, or so I’d gathered from whispers over my head, when I was a child feigning sleep while our servant gossiped with the tradespeople. My mother had dismissed the servant, but not before the old woman had hinted that d’Erlette must have had something to do with my father’s death. Why else would the Comte support a widow and her fatherless boy, neither of whom he ever saw?
An hour’s brisk walk took me into a maze of ancient streets off the Place d’Enfer. As I gazed up the steep, sooty-cobbled rue d’Auseil, I felt an inexplicable reluctance to continue. More than inexplicable – absurd. Had I not imagined this meeting a thousand times?
The April day died behind me as I climbed the street. Gloom lay heavy in that narrow defile between buildings so crooked with age that they seemed to meet over my head. The blank facade of the Comte’s high, narrow house gave nothing away, not so much as a lighted window. I looked at the door for a long moment before I took up the knocker, a lump of iron that looked, in the fast-falling dark, like a dog’s head.
The servant who admitted me was a Turk, or perhaps a Syrian. He led me in silence through an ill-lit hall. I caught hints of a curious odour: old cloth and dust and some acrid spice.
At the back of the hall, the attendant opened a door. I blinked in the sudden flood of lamplight. With a sardonic smile – for surely I cut a risible figure, a nervous young man striving to appear suave – the servant waved me into the room beyond and closed the door behind me.
The Comte d’Erlette sat in a massive chair of carved wood, appraising me.
I’d expected a wizened, withered centenarian; his age was said to be immense. I found him old, yes, but fat and flabby. Wrinkles sat on his face like a cobweb laid across a pallid, greasy moon.
I bowed and advanced. He pointed to a chair and I sat. The speech I’d rehearsed, expressing gratitude as well as my firm and honourable intentions, melted from my lips under the Comte’s scrutiny. I glanced away, into the room’s dim corners. Quivering lamplight touched the curve of a painted globe, piles of dusty books, masks leering from the walls. A long table was piled with the skulls of what I took to be foxes, jackals and wolves.
“Jules Duchene.” D’Erlette’s voice was hoarse, and deeper than I expected. “No doubt you’ve been told that you look much like your father.”
I had not. My heart raced, but my voice remained composed. “I understand, sir, that you had the honour of knowing him.”
The vast bulk of him heaved slightly. “I knew him, yes.”
The Comte lifted a finger and then let it fall, as if even that small exertion tired him. Or bored him. “But I called you here tonight to talk about your coming voyage.”
I stared at him. “You know of that?”
Again, that soft quaking. “You received the invitation from the Institut d’Egypte, yesterday.”
“How – ?” Disappointment and embarrassment pierced me as the truth dawned.
What a fool I was! I’d fancied myself well-thought-of, recommended by my professors for my intelligence and diligence. But Bonaparte’s cadre of savants sparkled with luminaries: Monge the mathematician, Berthollet the chemist, Saint-Hilaire the naturalist. My own specialty, the monuments of antiquity, was superbly filled by Baron Denon, the noted collector and artist. A humble graduate such as myself, his university course barely complete, would not have been plucked from obscurity to join these eminences unless influence had been brought to bear. D’Erlette must have ample influence to have retained fortune and favour through so many regimes.
It was a bitter blow to my pride, but I took it like a gentleman. “Then, as you are the author of my good fortune, allow me to offer my thanks for this opportunity…and for much else.”
The Comte’s pale-grey eyes glinted above bulbous cheeks when he smiled. “How it must chafe to feel yourself in my debt.”
Horrible that he’d sensed it, appalling that he’d said it. “I assure you, sir – ”
“Never mind.” Red lips pursed in marmoreal flesh. “I know something of your character” – How? I thought, and then, belatedly, Why send me to Egypt? – “and I’m certain that you consider yourself honour-bound to repay all that you and your mother have received from me, even though reimbursement is neither required nor expected.”
Before I could summon a dignified reply, he cut me off.
“What would you say,” he continued, watching me closely, “to one more opportunity? There is a task you could perform on my behalf, which, if successfully completed, will not only recompense me, but leave me in your debt – a debt which I shall pay in gold, not the new francs. It will also win you great acclaim, make you the toast of Paris and the educated world. Will you undertake it?”
Excitement flamed within me at the old Comte’s words. To be free of my odious obligation, rewarded and renowned! “I will, sir, if it be any honourable task.”
“I hoped as much.” He sipped some dark fluid from a crystal glass at his elbow. He offered me nothing, but I was relieved; I seldom partook of strong drink and did not want to risk giddiness.
“You boil with questions,” d’Erlette said. “I’ll tell you what you need to know, no more. First – ” He fingered his glass and looked sidelong at me. ” – do you know how your father died?”
Nothing but his clothes…in pieces…fainted when she saw them. I stammered, “He was…I’ve heard he was – torn apart by wolves?”
“Wolves,” said the Comte. “Yes. I will tell you something about his death, but mind, I called you here, not to satisfy your curiosity, but to discuss my proposition. Do you understand?”
I longed to walk out, but not as fiercely as I longed for the freedom this old man offered. If I must act the puppet, dancing dutifully to his tune, so be it. Wooden smile, stiff nod. “Perfectly, sir.”
“Your father,” said d’Erlette, “set out on a mission for me, as you will soon do. In earlier times, I would have gone myself, but for many years now, I have been unable to travel.” For the first time, I noticed the Comte’s legs. Covered by a crimson laprobe blazoned with unfamiliar glyphs in gold thread, the limbs were grotesquely swollen, each foot as big as his head. One of the dropsical ailments, I supposed.
“What I would not give to be young and strong again, as you are,” he said. “But never mind that. Do you know anything of my work?” His expression was mildly quizzical, his tone bland, but I sensed the need for caution. In truth, I knew next to nothing, just scraps of wild rumour and mad speculation.
“I have heard, sir, that you are a scholar of ancient myths, an historian of alchemy and the other so-called ‘mystic arts’.”
“‘An historian’ – nicely put. I am an investigator and a chronicler of certain antique beliefs, not in any sense a…devotee.”
“Of course.” Where was this leading?
“For many years, now,” d’Erlette said, “I have been writing my masterwork. I call it ‘Cultes des goules‘.”
His pale gaze sharpened. “I alone have unearthed one of history’s long-forgotten oddities – evidence of a religion that once had cults and sects across the ancient world. How manifold are the religious vagaries of mankind! The followers of this lost faith worshiped, not a benevolent or all-powerful deity, but beings of darker imagining: prowling ghouls that were said to feast on the dead.”
I must have shuddered.
“Have I offended you by equating a primitive superstition with your belief in your own god?” His tone was amused.
“Not my god, sir. I am a rationalist. All religions, ancient and modern, are superstitions, and equally worthy of study for what they may illuminate about our human nature and history.”
“One of the new men of science.” His chuckle was the croak of a vast toad. “Then you understand my desire to learn all I can about the ancients who imagined corpse-eaters and worshiped them. Which brings us to your father. I’d found hints that an ancient document about the origins of the ghoul cult lay forgotten in the mouldering archives of an Aromanian monastery in Thrace. Your father ventured into the forbidding mountains of northeastern Greece to obtain it for me.”
“And died there,” I said, unable to keep all bitterness from my voice. How desperate must my poor father have been, to set off on such a journey, leaving his pregnant young wife.
“Quests into wild and remote places are not without danger,” said the Comte, “as you may find. Your father did not, however, die in vain.”
“You mean – ”
The Comte nodded, chins jiggling over his dirty, black velvet collar. “Our agreement was binding, whether he found the document or not. But he found it. Then he perished. His remains were buried on the spot. It would have been…impractical to send home what the searchers found. His clothing and effects, however, came to me. I, of course, sent them to your mother, after looking through them for my property. I found the document sewn into the lining of his greatcoat. It had been somewhat damaged in the attack.”
The Comte d’Erlette gestured to a leather folio on the table, beside his glass. “See for yourself.”
Suddenly, I thought of striking him and was aghast. Not at the idea of violence against one who, however callous, was nevertheless an elderly cripple. No, it was the thought of my fist sinking into that pulpy flesh that revolted me. My hands trembled as I opened the folio.
My father had died for a torn, discoloured parchment. It had been on him when the wolves brought him down. The rents were the work of their slavering fangs, the rusty stains his blood. I didn’t know whether to fling the parchment from me or press it to my lips.
“It is, as you see, a map of Egypt.” The Comte seemed unaware of my turmoil. I forced myself to follow as he traced the line that led away from a familiar sea. “A map from the time of Ptolemy, perhaps. Here, the Nile. And here – ”
A fat, white forefinger jabbed the map at a point that must be hundreds of kilometers south of the Delta, between the sinuous Nile and the blank immensity of the Saharan desert. The finger lifted, revealing a small drawing and several lines of tiny, crabbed characters. The drawing was of a hill or mountain, with two jagged peaks, a palm tree and what looked like an animal’s paw – the rest of the image was obscured by a bloodstain. I could not read the text. The characters were Latin uncials, but the tongue was unknown to me.
“The writing is old,” d’Erlette said, “but not as old as the map. I believe it was added between the sixth and eleventh centuries. The writer used a medieval Slavic language once spoken in Diokletija, which some now call ‘Montenegro’. The text reads: ‘In this vale lurks the temple of the Necrophagi. Enter not lest ye be devoured. Seek not the Second Sphinx.’”
I stared at the map while the Comte continued. “Everyone has heard of the famous Sphinx of Gizeh, massive carven wonder of the antique world. Denon and the other savants who will be your colleagues in Egypt cannot wait to measure and clamber about on it, I assure you. Now, imagine your fame if you, out of all the grand expedition, discover another sphinx, a Second Sphinx, one as yet unknown, lost and forgotten in the desert ages ago….”
Oh, I could imagine it. Every door would open to me – salons, universities, the haunts of the rich and powerful. My reputation would be made, my future secure.
I looked into the Comte’s glaucous eyes. “Tell me what I have to do,” I said.
Half an hour later, I left the Comte d’Erlette’s house to walk home under the stars. Their icy light seemed to prickle my flushed skin as the Comte’s story spun through my mind.
D’Erlette had long believed that somewhere in the East lay a lost temple of the ghoul-worshippers. Twenty-three years ago, he’d acquired the Thracian map that gave him its location. But he’d sent no agent to Egypt to seek the temple, he told me, because the Ottoman Sultan and his Mamelukes, the rulers of the land, were notoriously inhospitable to foreigners. I suspected that he had sent agents, but none had survived. Either way, Napoleon’s expedition gave d’Erlette a new opportunity. When the Comte learned that the General planned to take a cadre of scholars and scientists to survey Egypt, he arranged to have me included.
To act on his behalf, I’d have to strike out into the Western Desert and search for the landmarks on the map: the double peak and the oasis that was, the Comte assured me, indicated by the palm tree. There I would find the temple, “the Second Sphinx,” which must be a counterpart to the great stone monument outside Cairo.
All of the glory, d’Erlette said, would be mine. He wanted one thing only: a piece of carved stone that had been the temple’s chief treasure in ages gone by.
“The amulet is of no great intrinsic value,” he told me. “Riches far more splendid await you; do not doubt it. The inscriptions on the amulet will complete my researches; that is all. They are said to be the prayers or invocations with which the hierophants beseeched their grim ghoul-gods for the gift of everlasting life. Once I have translated them, my long task will be at an end, and I can publish the Cultes des goules.”
A phantasmagoria it seemed, yet the Comte believed it. The pouch of coins in my pocket testified to that. “You’ll need money for supplies and bribes,” he had said. “There will be more, much more, when you bring me my amulet.” I left half the Comte’s coins with my mother when I departed. The money, I said, was a prize from the university for winning a place in Bonaparte’s company.
The embarcation from Toulon, the voyage to Malta and on to Alexandria – all of it was a nerve-wracking, nauseating hell. I was miserably seasick. I was disgusted by the coarse talk of the soldiers and too many of the young engineers and scholars, their jests about slaking their lusts on the women and girls of Egypt. My own fantasies were nothing so crude – schoolboyish daydreams of rescuing a beautiful, high-born maiden from brigands, of her silks and perfumes, of how she would cling to me and draw me into her damask tent to show her gratitude….
Above all, I dreamed of the Second Sphinx, waiting for me in the desert.
We scholars and scientists, engineers and mechanics, stayed safe aboard the ships of the line during what Bonaparte at once called “the glorious victory of the Battle of the Pyramids,” even though the fighting took place kilometers from those brooding tombs and the glory consisted in cannon mowing down spear-wielding cavalrymen.
When our corps of savants entered Cairo, I followed my fellows like a sheep, dazed by the strangeness of muezzins keening on high, alien mysteries in their rising and falling cadences, of smells and filth and jostling in the pitiless clear light, of dust everywhere, as though the world were older here than anywhere else, and crumbling to atoms.
Napoleon issued a proclamation to the sheikhs, telling them that he had come to usher them into the modern world. By that time, I’d realized – not without chagrin at my naiveté – that our supposed expedition to “liberate the oppressed people of Egypt” was a pretext to seize territory and interfere with British trade routes to India. The British realized it, too, and sent a fleet under Nelson to sink our ships at Abukir. The loss of our ships meant that we were committed to Egypt until France could break Britain’s control of the Mediterranean and bring us home. So, Napoleon’s soldiers set about pacifying Egypt, and his savants set about mapping and excavating it.
I set about making myself known to Baron Denon, the eminent artist and scholar of antiquities. Rumour had it that Denon would accompany a military campaign upriver – the direction in which I must go. The surest way to get within striking distance of the Second Sphinx was to win Denon’s favour and attach myself to that campaign.
The first Sphinx opened the way. As d’Erlette had predicted, Denon ordered the measuring of that monument. It was while helping the engineers and senior scholars prepare for that enterprise that I found my opportunity.
Denon and two other artists were sketching the panorama of Cairo, as seen from the Gizeh plateau. When one of the engineers ordered me to fetch more servants with measuring chains, I contrived to pass behind the artists. Pretending to read a note, I loitered for a moment, listening.
“So many minarets,” grumbled a black-whiskered gentleman who scribbled on his pad with charcoal. “Must be a thousand mosques in Cairo.”
“Three hundred, sir,” I said, and when the three of them turned to stare at me in surprise, I added, “According to Frederick Norden, who was here 60 years ago.”
“Ah, young Duchene, is it?” said Denon.
“And you have read the work of the Danish traveler?”
“The Voyage d’Egypt et de Nubie? Indeed, sir. It was necessary. So few European accounts of the region have been published since Ottoman rule began.”
“Three hundred mosques,” Denon said to his comrades.
Black Mustache shook his head. “Twice that, at least,” he said.
“Would you like me to count them for you, sir?” I asked with exaggerated deference and a hint of slyness, calculated to appeal to Denon’s good humor.
It worked. Denon laughed. “Set a servant to do it, Duchene. I think we can find better uses for your time.”
Two days later, it was announced that General Desaix would lead an expeditionary force up the Nile in pursuit of the warlord Murad Bey. To record the monuments along the river, Denon would accompany the troops with a few assistants. I petitioned for a place in the baron’s retinue, and got it.
Desaix never caught up with Murad Bey, but Denon, who always lagged behind or darted off to sketch some new-found obelisk or tomb amid the drifting sands, was several times attacked by roving Bedouin bands, no doubt in the warlord’s pay. By luck alone, Denon and the three of us who accompanied him remained unscathed, although we lost bearers and servants. Along the way, our hasty excavations reintroduced me to the smell I had encountered in d’Erlette’s house. Dusty linen, balsam, and a hint of corruption – the odour of mummies.
Above Edfu, the land grew stark and barren, and the heat sickened us all. By the time the column reached Aswan in February 1799, we were reeling from hunger, fever and exhaustion, but Denon’s enthusiasm was undimmed. As soon as we were settled, soldiers and savants sharing a garrison, he began laying plans to explore the ruined temples on the island of Philae, whose barbaric inhabitants were said to worship crocodiles.
I looked for an opening to make my way westward. Feyoud found it for me.
Of the Moors and Levantines brought from France as interpreters, Feyoud had been the only one assigned to the Nile campaign. Fortunately for me, he had survived it. In Aswan, Desaix and Denon kept Feyoud busy running their errands and dealing with the swarms of servants, merchants, and beggars that besieged us. Still, the man took on a private task for me, in exchange for a gold coin. I asked him to inquire in the bazaars and caravanseries about a steep, two-pointed peak in the western desert. “Something,” I told him, “that I once saw on an old map.”
One day, Feyoud brought to me a Bedouin with knives thrust through his belt and narrow eyes shaded by his head wrap. “This man, ‘Rahman’ is his name, he knows where to find that mountain you seek.”
I looked at Rahman, who stared back, unblinking, like a lizard.
“He speaks only his bastard version of Arabic,” Feyoud said.
I pointed toward the setting sun and then, in the dirt at my feet, sketched the outline of the mountain as I had copied it from d’Erlette’s map. Rahman spoke to Feyoud, who said, “Yes, yes, he can guide you. He has not been there, you understand, but he has seen it from the distance.”
Further exchanges established that the mountain was “ten or fifteen days’ march” west. Payment was proposed, chaffered over, and eventually agreed on. Rahman looked far from trustworthy; I instructed Feyoud to tell him that the greater part of his pay would come only after he had led me safely to the mountain…and back to Aswan. The man spat scornfully, but agreed.
Now it remained only to have Denon send me out on a survey. I had to rouse his interest, but not so high that he would go himself. He was preoccupied with his Philae project, so when I told him I’d heard local talk of a site off to the west – “a minor ruin, no doubt, but perhaps a quick scout would add a useful note to your report?” – he decided to send me.
Denon insisted that the young geologist Laurent Casabien accompany me. I agreed with good grace; to protest would have aroused curiosity, even suspicion. I would simply have to ensure that I, not Casabien, made the great find. The geologist could occupy himself at the peak, turning over rocks.
Preparations were agonisingly slow. With great effort, I hid my urgency. No one must think that I was undertaking more than a minor, doubtless insignificant, sortie. All the while, though, I reveled in thoughts of the high and singular destiny that awaited me.
Finally, all was ready. Casabien and I waited at the western gate of the city with six soldiers, and the three servants in charge of our pack animals and supplies. When Rahman showed up, he was not alone. A figure trailed him, robed and veiled, eyes alone exposed, and those downcast. The soldiers grinned.
“He cannot bring his woman!” I protested to Feyoud, who had come to see us on our way. “Tell him so at once. This is no place for a woman – these soldiers, tell him that the soldiers are a danger to her – I won’t have it.”
A long, sputtering exchange followed, to which the woman appeared to pay no attention. The horses and donkeys stamped their hooves, flattened their ears, and skittered away from her. I wondered why until I caught the faint-but-disagreeable odour emanating from her. An animal smell, sweet and slightly rotten, like a taint of dried blood. Perhaps the wretched thing worked in a slaughterhouse.
Feyoud turned from Rahman and said, “She is not his woman, she is a – what is your word – a refugee, perhaps? She is the last of her tribe, and growing old, and she wants to return to the place where her people once lived. Rahman says he is under a blood-debt and must help her. He says she will be safe; she will cause no trouble. And,” Feyoud added ingratiatingly, “she will be useful to you. Rahman says that she, too, knows the way to what you seek.”
Rahman stared boldly at me. The woman, as tall as he but unbowed despite the age he claimed for her, waited in the shadow of the city wall. Casabien plucked at my sleeve, nattering about how it could not possibly be allowed.
“Very well,” I said. “Tell Rahman that her fate is in his hands.”
I said farewell to Feyoud and we passed through the gate, Casabien muttering direly to himself.
I felt it out there waiting for me, a cryptic mass of carven stone that might have been a magnet, so strongly did it draw me. The Second Sphinx, and mine would be the glorious fate of going down in history as its discoverer.
The first disaster came on our fourth night from Aswan.
The river had long since disappeared behind us, along with dwellings, cultivation, trees; the world was all rock and sand. At noon that day, we emerged from a region of vast tumbled boulders and outcrops onto a wide sandscape like a sea. We inched across it toward the sun as it fell. Evening found us among great dunes that whispered with the wind-stirred hissing of countless grains.
Late that night, shouts and the crashes of rifle fire jerked me awake. By the time I had stumbled, shaking, from my tent, the swift raid was over. Two of our soldiers lay dead. Another was missing, along with several pack animals and half our supplies. Three Bedouin lay bleeding on the sand. One of them was still alive and twitching; I vomited, but did not protest when a soldier put a bullet through his head. I took a pistol from one of the fallen soldiers and tucked it into my jacket, hoping I would not need it. I had never fired a gun.
Then I realized that Rahman was gone. Treacherous bastard. The raiders were probably his men. I hoped we had inflicted enough damage to keep them from returning. Turning back to Aswan was, of course, out of the question, although Casabien went on and on about it until I reminded him, in front of the remaining three soldiers, that Denon had named me leader of our little expedition.
I turned from putting Casabien in his place to see the woman watching me. The sun was rising. Its first rays showed rusty stains on her faded black robe and head covering. Her eyes between scarf and veil were large and golden brown. I gestured her roughly away and she went to help the servants scrape holes in the sand for the dead soldiers. They cringed, but accepted her help. Her fellow natives, I’d noticed, avoided being brushed by her robe or eating food she had handled. No doubt some caste system, akin to that of India, rendered her untouchable.
I could scarcely blame the servants – or the soldiers – for their aversion to the creature. She must have been truly filthy under that robe; I could not seem to escape the smell of her. It was worst at night, when the vagrant breezes carried her earthy, raw scent to my nostrils. It brought me strange, cthonic, red-and-black dreams.
We had lost some of our waterskins in the raid. I sent a soldier and a servant ahead to look for a well or watercourse. Two days later, we found them, men and horses, dead beside a pool of muddy water. The men’s corpses appeared to have been gnawed by jackals, but there was no sign of what had killed men or horses.
Casabien wanted to refill our empty waterskins at the pool.
“No,” I said. “Perhaps these men, these horses, were killed by poisoned water. Chemicals, leaching into the pool from the sand.”
The woman was the first to kneel for the grave digging. Casabien and I pitched in, this time. No one wanted to linger there.
The dreams continued and my sleep became tormented. I ran endlessly through a shadowy maze under a blood-red sky, driven by gnawing hunger for something, I knew not what, that I half-feared to find. I did not run alone – I heard the pattering footsteps of others and smelled their hot breath, but they never caught me, or I them. Often, I woke in a state of arousal, panting and dripping, unable to return to sleep until I had relieved my lust, to my shame, in the only way I could. By day, I felt her eyes on me as if she knew.
One of the two surviving soldiers met his fate a few days after the waterhole. In the middle of the night, he went into the dunes to relieve his bowels. His shrieks of terror roused us, but ceased before we found him, pants around his ankles. He’d been mauled and killed by an animal, maybe a pack. I took this as a promising sign. The presence of lions or jackals or wild dogs was evidence of a water source not far away. I said nothing of the Comte d’Erlette’s map, of course, but I was convinced that we were near the oasis.
Dawn revealed two sharp bumps on the horizon. I exulted at the first sight of the twin peaks – all was happening as the map had said it would. Closer, we saw that the peaks were the highest points in a range of rugged hills that stretched north and south out of sight. The only way west was a narrow valley between them. Closer still, and a shimmer in the valley hinted at water. Even Casabien roused from his sullen dejection at the sight.
We were now out of food as well as water. I ordered the single remaining soldier to kill the last horse. When he and Casabien protested, I did it myself, using the pistol. The poor animal screamed dreadfully until I finally managed a killing shot. The soldier and Casabien watched resentfully as the servants butchered the beast. That night, though, the soldier gorged himself. He died in agony a few hours later, feverish and raving. Felled, it may be, by some swift-acting pestilence that spared Casabien, the two servants, the woman, and me.
The next morning, flies covered the horse’s carcass and the stench made me gag.
Casabien argued long and loud for an immediate retreat to Aswan. I remained firm. We could not possibly make it back to Aswan in our sorry state. Our only hope was to push ahead to where we might find an oasis, water, food. Rested and resupplied, we could plan our return. Casabien, with gestures, tried to urge the servants to retreat with him along the eastward trail. They merely stared at him, unwilling, or afraid, to abandon me. The woman shouldered two of the empty waterskins and looked at me. His little attempt at mutiny a failure, Casabien followed us into the valley.
We stumbled into the oasis as night fell. Oasis, such a deceptive word, evocative of waving palms, blue water, fruit. We found only a brown, near-empty pond and a few dry and leafless acacias. There was no food here, yet that mattered little in the wreck of all my hopes. Beyond the little oasis lay only swelling sand dunes between the valley’s rock walls, as far as I could see. No sign of my sphinx.
Despair consumed me. Impossible to remain here, impossible to make it back to Aswan – I would die here in the desert, but better that than living with the death of my deluded dreams.
The servants sat on one side of the valley, whispering to each other. Casabien sat on the other, watching them with a pistol across his lap. The woman had disappeared. A full moon slid into view from behind one of the peaks, pouring cold light onto the dismal scene. Wearily, I pitched my tent.
Deep in dream, I smelled something thrilling, a warm and meaty odour, irresistible, that penetrated and promised the pleasure I had never known….I woke, inflamed and desperate with need.
Afterward, I left my tent to cool myself in the night air. On a little hillock beyond the pond stood a figure. Its back was to me, but I knew it was the woman, face upturned to the moon, arms weaving. A guttural song reached my ears – a chant, I supposed, in whatever degraded faith she practiced. The rising wind molded her robe to her body. When I found myself creeping closer to look, I turned and crawled back into my tent, shivering. I didn’t venture out to search for her, even when the wind became a howling storm that lasted for hours.
Silence fell in the grey light before dawn. The walls of my tent sagged with sand, but I pushed my way out. A slope of unbroken sand rose where the two servants had sat. Casabien’s tent was empty. Then I turned to look down the valley.
Not two kilometers away, sand lapped at its flanks. Last night’s windstorm must have uncovered it.
The Second Sphinx. Larger even than the monument at Gizeh. I saw the first rays of the rising sun touch it, and then I ran stumbling and gasping, tears of joy and awe on my face.
Halfway to the monument, I realized that this was no counterpart to the Gizeh Sphinx, no pharaonic visage gazing sightlessly across the ages. Short ears stood cocked, as if listening, but the head was neither the jackal of Anubis nor a dog. The glaring face of my sphinx, the almost-human eyes above the short, slit snout and the gaping, fanged jaws, was like nothing I had seen. It must be the dread face of the ghoul-god itself. Darkness under the thing’s chin proved to be a roughly hewn doorway, like a cave entrance. Sunbeams from behind lit my way in. I saw Casabien’s back before he heard my footfalls. When he turned, his face was ecstatic.
“Duchene, isn’t it wonderful? Look at this!” From his upraised hand dangled an amulet on a chain.
I struck him before he said another word. I didn’t plan to do it. I don’t even remember picking up the rock. He crumpled onto the altar and didn’t move.
She must have followed me into the temple. Suddenly, she was there. She looked from me to the body and then, with shocking strength, she picked it up and carried it from the place without a backward glance. Blood from Casabien’s crushed skull left a trail on the dusty floor.
I picked up the amulet he had dropped. The chain was of iron. The medallion was a lump of bloodstone, carved on both sides with words I could not read. I slipped the chain over my head. The stone felt warm against my skin, for I was numb as with cold. I could scarcely believe what had just happened, but in my mind, I still heard the sickening crunch.
The damage was done. Casabien had given his life, in a way, for the advancement of science. The worst part was that, having killed an innocent man, I felt little. Remorse was meaningless next to my desire to survive, now that I had reached my goal.
Weak, tired to death, perishing with hunger, I could manage only a cursory look around the temple. The low, dark chamber was empty save for the altar. Anger flared – where were the treasures d’Erlette had promised? – and I reminded myself that the Sphinx itself was a treasure like no other.
Peering into the gloom, I saw a few long, narrow bundles on ledges in the walls. So, this temple was also a tomb. What kings or priests had been laid here?
Something about the shape of those cloth-wrapped heads….No, impossible!
I tore at the wrapping of one of the mummies. The rotten linen, stiff with aged resins, broke apart like plaster. Inside, I found, not the shriveled flesh of a true mummy, but a skeleton picked clean. The limbs looked almost human. The skull had a short, broad snout and wide, fanged jaws.
I staggered from the chamber, barely able to comprehend that my discovery was more earth-shattering than I could have dreamed. The ancients who had built this place were not just cultists who worshiped bestial, necrophagic gods – they had actually been subhuman, a race of ghouls that once shared this earth with man. At one glance, everything I’d known, all science, all history, had flown into insubstantiality, as a footfall raises a cloud of dust.
The Comte d’Erlette…had he suspected? Known?
After the dimness of the sanctum, the shock of sunlight struck me like a blow. The last thing I saw was the mouth of the Second Sphinx looming over me, jaws wide in a mockery of laughter, as I fainted.
I woke in my tent. The woman must have carried me back to camp. I wouldn’t have believed it possible had I not seen her handling Casabien’s corpse.
Something was cooking. Meat. She must have made a fire with one of those dead trees….But what had she hunted? We’d seen no trace of game here.
A short time later, she brought me a long stick with gobbets of charred, half-raw, pale meat on it. She held it out to me, insistently. Finally, I took it, but spewed after the first bite. She picked a few of the better-cooked morsels from the stick and made me eat them, despite my revulsion. This time, I kept them down. An unfamiliar vitality flowed through me, hot and strong. I felt a quivering, a tingling, above my heart. It was the amulet, as though it knew what I had eaten and relished it.
The tent flap fell shut when she left. I heard her eating outside. I covered my ears and burrowed into my blanket and finally fell asleep again.
Again, I dreamed that red-and-black dream, smelled that visceral odour, woke with that insistent ache. Only, this time, the smell was stronger when I woke, and I had already loosened my clothes. I groaned and reached helplessly for myself, and then the tent flap moved and she was there, on her knees, facing away from me, her robe pulled up. She presented herself to me like a beast, and like a beast, I succumbed.
I grasped her lean hips, felt the grinding of her bones. I thought I’d hurt her. I wanted to. I swear I thought of thrusting her away. Instead, I pulled her to me, and heard her low laugh.
Her heat enveloped me. Her smell bloomed around me like some dark, fleshy flower. This was nothing like my perfumed, silken fantasies. She was dirty and rank, and the hem of her ragged robe stirred the dust as she rocked with each of my gasping plunges. No languor, no tenderness, only fevered urgency and repugnance. In my loathing, I beat my fists on her back. Her response was a snarling, convulsive spasm that drained me.
I shoved her away, then, and scrambled, shuddering, across the floor of the tent, muttering, “Go, go!” But she squatted on her haunches and swivelled to face me. Her hands went to the veil; it billowed and began to fall. At that final moment, I might still have fled, past her and out into the desert to whatever fate might befall me, but I sat still as the Sphinx, heavy with foreknowledge. My fate had come to meet me. I didn’t faint or even look away from the sight of her slit snout and grinning jaws.
Desert winds tear at the rags of the tent, but the sands have not yet covered the great stone ghoul. We den now, she and I, in the temple cave. The change in me is almost complete. I’ve grown used to meat I once found vile. Together, the meat and the amulet have given me a new life, one that, I now believe, will last for as long as I feed.
Soon, there will be young and they’ll have a father. I will never leave them. They’ll learn to dig and gnaw and worship in the moonlight, and when they have grown strong enough, we’ll follow the trail of graves back to the Nile and then downriver, to the battlefields and charnel houses of the Delta. Others of our kind, if any there be, will join us – or be enjoined, as I was. Beyond the foolish printing presses and measuring chains of Napoleon’s new rule, we’ll lurk in shadows unillumined by science, until I find a way to take my family to Paris. Home. An old, old city, with secret places and centuried dead enough to sustain hordes of us, living free.
I dream sometimes of loping up the rue d’Auseil to visit that fat old man again. I want to show him my amulet.
Bio: Rebecca Stefoff lives in the Pacific Northwest, where gambrel roofs are sadly rare but eldritch Craftsman bungalows abound. She has published many nonfiction books, mostly for young readers, including a recent biography of Stephen King and a YA adaptation of Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. “The Second Sphinx” is her short-fiction debut. She’s on Twitter, on Facebook, and at www.stefoff.com on the web.