Miriam’s Book Store
“Tell me,” asked
“There are three stars almost in a line in Orion’s Belt, and three great pyramids also almost in a line,” agreed the official.
“And here, I understand,”
“That would be about right.”
“How far from the South Pole is Orion’s belt? I mean in the sky.”
“Yes. I understand. Orion’s Belt is right on the equator.”
“And was Orion’s Belt ever thirty degrees north of the equator?”
“Ah, well of course the fact that there are the three stars of the belt means that you must make some sort of decision as to exactly where the center of the belt is. But approximately, the belt was as far north as we are about two thousand years ago. Does that help you?”
“It is interesting, but no it does not really help. And in that time, I understand that there is something called the precession of the equinoxes. The position of the sun, let us say in mid winter, is not constant against the background stars, but drifts slowly.”
true. This was discovered by a man named
“Or perhaps one hundred
twenty degrees since people first began to notice such things,” said
“In the absence of records, you are free to believe whatever you like,” replied the official. “But if you want to be in accord with modern science, you must take into account that the North Pole describes a circle in the night sky. Right now it is pointed at the North Star. But that will change. The circle takes about 25,700 years to complete and is about 23.5 degrees in radius.”
“I see,” said
“My career is to care for them and to meet the legitimate needs of many people. There is the government, which has its own needs. There are the faithful, of which I am one. There are tourists. There are scholars. There are those who entertain tourists. And there are the seekers who are looking for some sort of mystery. It can be said of none of these groups that they all believe the same thing. And of course there are great differences between groups. I do my job best to see that all have the access they need. It is easier if I have no rigid belief about these things myself.”
“And how would you describe
“I do not know, my friend.”
“Nor I. As soon as I do, I shall inform you.”
“But tonight,” said the official, “Do you have plans? My home is yours. My wife cooks excellent lamb, and I will do all in my power to make you feel welcome.”
“A thousand thanks for your
kind invitation. But I have a night
It was a couple hours and many conversations later before he found the right coffee house. He directed his driver to collect him in an hour and then went inside and found his contact. Soon he was leaning across a low table to whisper harshly to the man he had just met, “Find out. It is very important to me. Find out. I shall call you from Malta in a few days.”
“If Allah be willing,” the man said. The young waiter came by and said something inaudible to the contact. The man did not react until the waiter had made his way indirectly to the back of the coffee shop.
Then he leaned forward and
They went out the back way
and found the waiter using all his weight to tip over a flask-shaped earthen
jar as high as a man. Together they
rocked it over. The contact crawled in
backwards and beckoned to
Having scoured the house, the police came out to the back alley. One hoisted himself up and smelled the table scraps. He made a disapproving sound and pulled the rug all the way over the opening. The air inside began to turn fouler, but after a bit it sounded as if the police had left. The other man rose slightly and made an opening again. The police were not expected to be brilliant. They only had to make a good appearance.
But the driver kept his
wits. Presently they heard the familiar
growl of the Land Rover coming down the alley.
The car stopped. The driver got
out, came over to the jar and whispered
“I seldom think a dirty back
alley smells quite so good,” said
“The smell of Allah’s mercy always has a special scent,” said the other.
“Can I give you a lift somewhere?”
They got in the car and started.
The driver asked, “Where do we go?”
“Take the next left. We go to the brothel.”
“The brothel?” asked
“Yes. Under such circumstances I am always coming home from the brothel. The day will come when the religious zealots close them. But for now the desires of the flesh command.
“The religious extremists, of course, are in the employ indirectly of the government. The troubles they cause give the government the excuse to deny us out rights. The government could not care less about the occasional bomb, but they are very concerned that anyone should threaten through legal means or otherwise to supplant them.
“So it is a deal made in hell. The government encourages the extremists and the extremists give the government the excuse to arrest their real enemies.”
The car rolled on through evening traffic.
The contact said, “Go left at the next intersection. The brothel will be on the right. It is fortunate that the brothel is able to survive. If the extremists ever close it down, we shall have no place to hide. But the call of the flesh means that the brothel has good friends on all sides.
“Or perhaps it is that we all need a place to hide from time to time.”
They let the man off. The driver turned north and west. It was about two more hours and quite late
when they reached
For many years after
Most compelling was the great
library. Every library under Greek sway
was compelled to send their collection to
In something like a reminiscence of old glory, a new library had been built at
The new library, as the old,
concentrated on keeping originals of ancient classics.
“Do you ever worry about fire?” he asked the librarian.
“Hardly ever,” came the response. “I offer you a trick question. What destroys more property? Fire or water?”
“Obviously fire, so since it is a trick question, then water.”
“In fact, more property is destroyed by the water used to extinguish fires than by fire. Floods are off the scale.”
“But you can hardly fear a flood here. The sea is not a mile away. That will never rise much.”
“You have heard of the high
“Of course,” said
“As long as it is secure, we are happy. But suppose one day the engineers make a mistake. They do not maintain the dam properly. The dam breaks. What then?”
“That can never happen. If we were able to build the dam, surely we can maintain it.”
“You have seen the pyramids. How well have they been maintained? And perhaps you did not notice, but we have lost the secret of the engineering that made it possible to build them.”
“Very well, so the
“That is sad and frightening,
and I would not make light of it. But
“Forgive me that I persist,” said the official. “And I will leave this if you like, but I fear I cannot agree.”
“Nay, pray continue,” said
“You saw the edge of the
“Yes, of course. The pyramids are built on a plateau.”
“Those sheer sided cliffs go
all the way to
“I know not.”
“A million years ago, the
“I see,” said
“The nose would have been amazing.”
“And the cataract carved an
enormous canyon, a mile deep and more with vertical sides. And the cataract worked its way upstream
hundreds of miles, as far as
“What could have happened to such a ravine?”
“It is still there. But at last the Straights of Gibraltar
“An enormous flood,” said
“There were no humans at the
time to see it. Whether the human
ancestors that science believes in could have carried tales of the event is
beyond our knowledge. Whoever may have
been the witness, the valley filled with mud and at last a delta appeared, just
a mass of mud clinging to the edge of the bottomless
“That would be the
“You came with very good
credentials. And I must say that either
your knowledge of geology or your knowledge of people is more than you
proclaim. At all events, yes. There is more. When the
“And you will be protected,”
“For a few
minutes, yes. But remember there is no stone. It is only an enormous pile of mud. The lateral force will shove the whole delta
into the depths of the
“Tell me, my friend. Back when the
“It was a paradise, then.”
“Ah, save for the serpent. You see, so deep it was that the air was very dense. Insects the size of eagles could have flown. Eagles the size of camels. But the worst would have been the snakes.”
“Yes, my friend. There are snakes that glide out of treetops
even in this day. Given the thick air of
“You do not believe that.”
“The Egyptian cobra now has the largest and longest hood of any cobra. It may be a coincidence, but it is possible that it is descended from a flying cobra. Imagine it armed like the spitting cobra, able to kill by spraying you in the face, able to approach from behind in total silence and to retreat to a treetop and await your death.”
“The flying serpent,” said
“And the feathered serpent of
“We would have been little
more than apes then,” said
“It must have been a terrible
danger. But the valley still had to be
crossed if humans were ever going to leave
“My blessings,” said
“Think well, but have no dreams of it,” said the librarian.
It was time for
In a dream he was an ape or
human venturing to cross the deep
Ali awoke thinking about the flying cobra, about the terror men felt in the presence of an angel and about the Midgarth serpent represented as the speckled band of Orion’s belt, sliding through the sky gradually over the centuries until it was now at the equator and ready to strike.
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