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The Sands of Time
And the daughter of Pharaoh came down to wash herself at the river;and her maidens walked along by the river’s side; and when she saw the ark among the flags, she sent her maid to fetch it. And when she had opened it, she saw the child: and, behold, the babe wept. And she had compassion on him, and said, This is one of the Hebrews’ children.
I’d missed my Insertion again. If I’d landed one foot lower, I wouldn’t be here to tell you the story. And it was hot. That was the first thing that struck me. I looked up at a scorching sun you could fry an egg on, though actually you can’t fry eggs on the sun, you couldn’t even get eggs close to the sun. But that’s another story.
I look around, everything is white. White sand. Lots of it. Just my damn head sticking out, the rest of me encased underneath. And there wasn’t any running water down there, because my legs would have been cooler, and I could’ve moved my legs, kicked my legs around if there was water, right? But then how could sand be on top of water? That’s impossible, except on Esophagus 9 in Galaxy 334A, where all that Styro-sand has been floating on the petroleum oceans ever since the Great Unsuccessful Cleanup of 2487.
But let me introduce myself. My name is Legion. Legion Ayers of the Trans-temporal Corrections Agency (or TCA) a 26th century agency whose mission is preventing horrendous crimes throughout history, which is not a walk in the park with a piece of cake. No, it’s more like a run through the jungle with a bomb, and I’m not talking Credence Clearwater or Chris Brown. I’m talking about really terrible things like the sinking of the Titanic, or the Black Plague or Celine Dion’s first vocal lesson. I’ve been in this TCA operation for a 200 years or so and now, at 282, I’m close to retirement age. But I still love the work. Always a new challenge, a new adventure, and a new story to tell my great-great-great-great-great-great grandkids.
But let’s get back to the sand. I couldn’t move my arms. Nothing to do but shout for help. Sure, I could have Withdrawn back to 2542, but Quantum Regnum, my boss, would have had a fit. I needed to tough it out.
“ !!” I yelled. (What the hell was that?) “ !!” There it was again! Was that me? It was me! Then it hit me. My assignment! Ancient Egypt. Long before Cleopatra and her erotic seal, thank God. I must be shouting “Help!” in ancient Egyptian. Now I remembered more: I’d been installed with a C.L.C. unit – a Cognitive Linguistic Converter. But what was the gig all about? The Insertion had screwed up my memory again. My temporal lobes would come around soon, I hoped. Pretty soon I should be able to remember. But where the hell was everyone? I was gonna drown in my own sweat. I gave it another try. “ !!”
Suddenly, I heard footsteps on the sand. Well, more like scrunches, really. Someone was approaching from behind the sand dune on my left. It was a woman, stunning in a vivid green sheath dress, her legs like the Pillars of Xerxes, her skin the color of a Starbucks Caramel Macchiato.
“Hey, will you get me out of here!!” I screamed in ancient Egyptian with my last ounce of strength. She ran to me, knelt down, and began scrabbling at the sand. It was hard work, but soon my arms were free and we began scrabbling together, and I don’t mean we were playing a board game with little wooden squares that make words. No, we were digging me out of the desert sands.
At last, I was free. We stared into each other’s eyes, lost in the mystery of the moment. “Need water,” I rasped, brushing the sand from my clothes. I was wearing a white robe with a knitted belt and tassels, with a finely-made leather pouch strapped around my waist. The woman pointed behind her, beyond a sand dune, and headed that way. We labored up the incline, our feet sinking into the loose sand at every step, until at last atop the dune, an unimaginable panorama spread out before me. There across a huge green river a city of white and ochre buildings stretched to the horizon. Imposing temples and obelisks rose up in its midst, and in the distance, three monumental pyramids stood against the azure sky. Pi-Rameses! A segment of my memory clicked in. This city that would not be called Cairo for another two thousand years. The name rang in my head. Pi-Rameses, filled with monuments, for this was where great Ramses II had caused his new capital to be founded.
And the Nile, the eternal Nile was close at hand. I staggered down a sandy incline to her shore and waded in, falling to my knees, cupping my hands to bring the waters to my parched lips. Sated, I sat there in the shallows, exulting in the cool current lapping at my body. Out on the river, scores of small fishing boats moved unhurriedly about, and larger ones too, with billowed sails, pleasure boats of the rich, I supposed. The woman’s voice came from just behind me.
“Who are you, strange wayfarer, and who was it buried you thus?”
“I am called Awshalim,” popped up from my installed memory. My brain’s contents seemed to be on a need-to-know basis.
‘“One who helps others,”’ the woman said, smiling, her teeth as brilliantly white as the sands, but less granular.
“And you are…?”
“I am called Suhad.”
“Insomnia. Your name means insomnia.” It felt like they’d loaded a whole Metapedia in my cranium. “Why are you called that?”
The beautiful woman laughed shyly, but her eyes flashed. “That, good sir, is a mystery, but mysterious also is why I found you buried in the hot sands? Are you pursued by enemies?”
I had to think fast. “Let’s just say it was a spiritual exercise that got out of hand. I was reaching for great knowledge through suffering and was not worthy of my quest. But great Amun-Ra smiled on me this day and caused you to save me. For this I can never repay you.”
“You speak of our Amun-Ra, who gives life to all things, but your clothing tells me you are of the Assyrian people. I wonder why have you come to our land?”
So I was an Assyrian! I racked my brain trying to remember the details of my assignment. Nothing. I had to think fast – again. “Why am I here?” I looked down at my side. “Perhaps the contents of my finely-made leather pouch will explain better than my own poor words.” You’re probably thinking I was being too open with someone I didn’t know, but there was something about her I felt I could trust. I raised the flap of the pouch and pulled out a yellow parchment covered with strange symbols. It was Greek to me, but what with the desert and the Nile and the pyramids, that just didn’t add up. I figured it must be Egyptian.
“To tell the truth, I cannot read your script,” I said, and handed it to her. She looked it over and seemed impressed. Her face reddened and she performed a ceremonious bow before me. I liked that.
“Awshalim, limmu, you are come from Assur to treat with our Great King Whose Name I Cannot Speak.” I tried to remember. Assur was the Assyrian capital and limmu was an official of some kind, a very high one. “I am in your service,” she said. “But where are your servants, your supplies, your camels?”
“We were, uh, waylaid by Habesha bandits in the desert as we made our way here. I had brought tribute from our king, precious jewels and objects of the purest gold. They are gone, and only I survived. I buried myself in the sand as an act of repentance.” But she looked strangely at me, probably because she’d never heard of the Habesha. They would not emerge for another 1,000 years or so, but that was the best I could come up with. And then, how the hell do you bury yourself in the sand up to your head? Still, she seemed to accept my story.
“Great limmu, destiny has certainly joined us this day. I am a courtier before the Great King Whose Name I Cannot Speak. If it is your wish, I will take you there.” Destiny indeed.
“And you were wandering of the shore of the Nile because…”
“Because I bade the pilot of my sailboat leave me here for a time, as I wanted solitude. A strange mood had swept over me. But these are the ways of destiny.”
“You speak truly, Suhad,” I said. Yet inside I was a bundle of nerves. If only I knew what my purpose should be before Ramses. But there’s only one direction for a man of action, and that’s straight ahead. Something from that old religious document the Bible crossed my mind. A prophet God was sending somewhere, complaining he wouldn’t know what to say, but God telling him he’d know what to say when he got there. That was me all over.
“For this weary traveller, Suhad, you are both the sun and the moon. I beg you to light the way forward on my journey.”
“It will be my honor, kind sir. You have suffered greatly.” You might not believe it, but I was getting used to speaking ancient Egyptian. It had a nice feel on the tongue, sort of a cross between Russian, Hebrew, and Bklopsk, which is spoken on the fourth planet from Flopnosh 9. But that’s another story.
Suddenly, a rapid, rhythmic splashing sound came from my left. Before I could even think, two crocodiles were on me. Still on my knees, I stopped the first with a hard left jab to his snout, then followed it with an uppercut that nearly flipped him over backward, but his huge tail flexed off the riverbed and he was in my face again. “More? You want more?” I shouted, battle lust now coursing through my veins. He opened his big mouth and I gave him my right cross. It cost him a few teeth. He was done, turning tail, so to speak, and slithering back into the Nile. I looked at the other croc and saw fear in his eyes. “You want a piece of me too?” I asked. The big guy seemed to shrug his shoulders, not an easy thing for a crocodile, and slipped back toward deeper waters and easier prey.
Suhad, impressed, reached out to help me to my feet, then took out a small mirror from the sheer garment she wore. She seemed to be directing the sun’s rays toward one of the boats gliding along the river, and I watched as it change its course toward us. It was quite beautiful, made of cedarwood, not the papyrus bundles typical of the smaller boats. I wondered if Egyptian arsonists could be called papyromaniacs, but quickly dismissed the idea. The boat was approaching. Its crimson canopy was decorated with figures of birds and other classic figures we know from archaeological excavations. The craft entered the shallows and dropped its sail. Suhad gestured me forward and we splashed up to some little stairs that the men extended toward us and boarded the boat. There were four dark, smooth-skinned men managing the ship, all of them bare-chested, and mystified by my sudden appearance. “Take me home,” Suhad ordered, and they immediately obeyed. Clearly, she was a woman to be respected. And admired, I thought, stealing glances at her lissome figure. She gestured for me to recline on a cushioned bench under the canopy and gracefully positioned herself next to me. One of the men approached with a palm-leaf fan, but she waved him away, for the winds now gently caressing us on the Nile were cool enough.
The sails of Suhad’s schooner whipped above us in the breeze as we made for the far shore. The city grew closer, and its many monuments loomed against the sky. A huge statue of the Great King bestrode the near shore as we approached. “His palace is like another city entirely,” Suhad said in a low voice, “enormous beyond belief.” I gazed up at the giant figure as we passed by. Enormous beyond belief. Yeah, you could say that. Behind his sculptured stone skirt Ramses’ schlong would have been the size of my personal jet cruiser.
That’s when these Egyptian fighters showed up out of nowhere, leaping aboard and flashing spears. They got one oarsman right away, right through the heart. But the other boys were up to the challenge, like they’d been through this before. Of course I joined in, ripping a spear out of the hands of one of the attackers as he thrust it at me, whacking him upside his head and off into the water. One of Suhad’s men grabbed a length rope and whipped it around another fighter to immobilize him, then delivered a devastating kick to the groin. Then I turned to see Suhad simply staring at one of the attackers. He was frozen in his tracks, a bizarre smile on his face. As I watched him I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The guy’s skin was shrinking up before my eyes. I heard crackling sounds, as his skin turned gray and dried up, adhering to his bones. He shrank into a folded-up shell of a human, toppled into the water and floated there like a tree branch. Indeed, Suhad was not someone to take lightly. That’s when it struck me. If I could get her back to the future, we could do a “Mummies ‘r Us” start-up. But wait – we’d need bodies, lots of bodies, hundreds of them. I shelved the idea and got back to whacking attackers in the head with an oar. Whacking Attackers – good name for a rock band. But I had to shelve that idea too, as the fight was about over. Which was too bad. I do some of my best thinking in brawls. Isaac Newton, on the other hand, he needed a tree.
By this time we’d somehow made our way to the dock. Suhad’s retinue was waiting there with an elegant litter carried by four more men. We leapt from the boat into the conveyance and the bearers took off, sprinting onto a huge, thickly-peopled thoroughfare lined with giant palm trees shading the avenue on each side and within, a verdant central divide. Here they slowed to a brisk walk. The full heat of the Egyptian summer had enveloped us like an out-of-control sauna. We passed great sandstone temples and magnificent public buildings, then turned into an area of smaller streets where private estates hid behind tan walls. The calls of strange birds filled my ears, avian cries I’d never heard before.
“What was all that ruckus at the docks about, sweetheart?” I finally asked. I realized my communication skills were becoming more nuanced. I was slipping into my normal style, that of a hard-nosed but subtly elegant man of the world, the kind that can handle himself in a tough spot and whom women find irresistible. A guy who’s up to speed, yet has that weathered look. You might call me a wabi-sabi technorati. But you don’t have to. I’m easy that way.
“There are those,” Suhad sighed, “who seek my life. The court of the Great King is a place of ruthless intrigue. You must watch what you say and to whom you speak, limmu.”
“Call me Awshalim,” I said. “Or just Awsh. My friends call me Awsh, and that’s what I hope you and I will be. But why would anyone be out to kill someone as lovely as you?”
Suhad blushed, hard to see, given her maple-syrup complexion. “Thank you, but for me appearances mean little. It is the heart I most care about. But in our land there is a man, a good man, who has fallen into disfavor before the King Whose Name I Cannot Speak. My admiration of him is known, and so my life has become cheap to those seeking to curry favor before the King Whose Name I Cannot Speak.”
“Well, your life just increased in value, as long as I’m around, anyway. By the way, isn’t there some way we can shorten that name? Couldn’t we call him Mr. Big, or the R-Man? I mean, do you really think he’s a god?”
“Well, he is…goddish. But yes, Mr. Big is acceptable to me – just between you and I.”
“But limmu – you must be in shock. You have lost your companions and have been attacked twice this day. You must rest and recover. We are coming to the home of my family, where you will be our guest and safe. Put all other thoughts out of your mind for now.”
“I will try, and thank you, Suhad, but I must ask a question of you. We just fought together – I couldn’t help but notice your, uh, technique. How did you…?
“Technique? I don’t know what…oh you mean that poor man. He seemed to have some disease that attacked him, didn’t he?” She smiled a distant smile that told me what I’d seen was not a fit topic for discussion. I let it drop. For the time being.
Chapter 2: Perusing The Palace
“I don’t know if I can do this,” I whispered to Suhad as her litter approached the entrance to Ramses’ colossal palace. “Are you sure Mr. Big knows I’m coming?”
“Yes, of course. Otherwise we couldn’t get in.”
“Do you really think he’ll like the Assyrian figs.”
“He will most certainly be delighted.”
“But they’re really Hittite figs. What if he notices the difference?”
“It’s a chance we have to take. Such gifts are simply put to one side. Of course the tribute sent by your king, the gold and jewels, were taken by thieves. I hope he will understand your situation.”
“All these engraved stone slabs around here, do they say he’s an understanding guy?”
“No, they say he crushed the Libyans, fought the Nubians single-handedly, and slaughtered the Hittites in their entirety.”
“It doesn’t say ‘understanding guy’ anywhere?”
But then our doors were opened and we stepped out before the gateway to the palace. Two colossal seated statues towered ten stories over us, staring out toward the desert. I’m a man of action, I kept telling myself. I’m a man of action. An older guy in a golden skirt came out of a barely-visible side door, greeted us formally, and guided us up a majestic flight of stairs and through the massive portal beyond. I didn’t like his looks, and I didn’t like the way he was eying Suhad. Within the palace, servants and functionaries moved about smoothly and silently, carrying scrolls or stone tablets of various sizes. We made our way along one magnificently painted corridor after another, then through an expansive plaza. A great central pool played host to snowy ibises and pink flamingoes. We climbed another set of marble stairs to a portico overlooking the plaza and then Mr. Gold Skirt led us through gilded doors into an inner sanctum. At the far end of it, I saw the throne and upon it, none other than Mr. Big.
Ramses II, son of Seti I. There he was. Even though he was wearing a skirt, he looked like a hard case, that was for sure. Like he could spear you in the neck and eat a ham sandwich at the same time, if they had sandwiches. I wasn’t sure. I thought about ordering one to find out, but dropped the idea quick. Mr. Gold Skirt led us slowly toward another guy in a flowing blue tunic and fancy headdress and introduced him as Hatiay, the Vizier, right-hand man to the Pharaoh. I didn’t like the look of him either. But I greeted him and apologized for my poor Egyptian.
“Please don’t apologize, limmu, and let me welcome you into the presence of The Great King Whose Name I Cannot Speak. He has heard of your misfortune and sends his consolations. You must be a great warrior to have survived.”
“On the contrary, Vizier, my camel panicked, the cowardly beast, and took me far from the battle. When I could coax him back and found my compatriots dead, I choked him to death with my own hands. A titanic struggle it was, but when my fury subsided and the camel had breathed his last, I realized I had lost my means of escape from the desert. Then began a long and blistering trek. But Amun-Ra sustained me, and here I am before you. Surely then, the gods wish our nations to be at peace.”
“Well and truly spoken, limmu”
“Call me Awsh.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“OK, limmu is good. We’ll go with that.”
“Let us approach the throne, then. The Great King Whose Name I Cannot Speak awaits you.” So Suhad and I followed Mr. Hatiay toward the throne, where the Pharaoh sat in all his splendor. He had gotten himself a big mango and with one hand he was taking bites from it, the juice dripping from his chin and down his arms. In the other hand he held his golden scepter with a falcon’s head on it. He wore one of those shiny blue and gold striped headdresses, like King Tut’s, had the long skinny beard that dropped from his chin. He looked all right, if you were into Pharaohs. But I wasn’t. I was still trying to figure out why I was here in the first place. I followed Suhad’s lead and prostrated myself before the king. He spoke.
“We welcome you, limmu, noble leader of our Assyrian neighbors. We wish you well, and safer journeys than the one you have just taken. You may rise.”
Which we did.
“We have sent soldiers to search for these bandits. Perhaps they will recover the gifts you lost. But it is no great matter, limmu. You can see the unparalleled glory which surrounds me. All the same, tell your king, upon your return to Assur, to send me twice as much gold as he did this time.”
“It will be done, Great King.” I bowed low and reminded myself to stay the hell out of Assyria. Now Ramses turned to my beautiful companion. “Suhad, We thank you for rescuing our visitor from the sands. Amun-Ra placed you there in his wisdom.”
“It was my good fortune, Great King. He is very brave and fought both river beasts and attacking bandits in my presence.”
“Yes, We know of his bravery.” Then Ramses turned back to me with an unsmiling face. “And yet it is said,” he paused for a long moment, “that you refer to me as ‘Mr. Big?” A chill ran down my spine. I felt like I’d gone over Victoria Falls in a papyrus bucket, or like the crocodile had come back with twelve of his buddies. Ramses seemed to swell in size and loom over me like Horus the Falcon-God himself.
“Well…your majesty, that is, I…I can’t imagine who reported such a thing…”
“Silence!” Ramses voice became low and harsh and rasping. “Do you not know that The Eye of the Pharaoh is everywhere, that nothing is unseen to me? All things are visible to Horus, Lord of the Skies. Tremble before my infinite power, lowly ant!” I felt the best thing at that point was more prostration. I hoped all the prostration wouldn’t damage my prostate but I had to take the chance. Suhad bowed too, but I don’t think women have those anyway. At any time, of course, I had the option to save my butt by Withdrawing, but how could I leave Suhad in such a tight spot? The two of us said nothing. Silence fell over the room.
“Mr. Big, you say?” Ramses growled. “Mr. Big?” He paused for another endless moment. “You know, I kind of like it. After all, I am big, I’m the biggest. How about ‘Mr. Biggest?’ No, that doesn’t have the same ring. Mr. Big. That’s the one. Rise again to your feet, my vassals, and fear not the wrath of your King.” He stood up from his throne and raised his scepter.
“Hear now my words,” he roared. “I grow tired of hearing ‘Great King Whose Name I Cannot Speak’ every day. I mean, if you say that, that’s my name, right? So you’re saying my name anyway. What’s the point? And it’s too long! It makes me crazy. Let it be known throughout the palace that all shall henceforth call me…Mr. Big! Mr. Big! Much easier. But write not this appellation in stone, for it is not befitting that future generations know of it. It’s just for around the palace, OK? So, let it not be written, but let it be done!” He returned to his marble throne and turned to us.
“Now you two get lost before I change my mind. Oh yes, and limmu – thanks for the Hittite figs.”
“I uh, that is, actually, I…”
“Will you get out of here?! Scram! It’s time for my dancing girls.”
Scramming was no problem. We headed out to the portico, but stopped there, afraid to leave the palace without an escort. Suhad said to wait for the guy with the gold skirt, but after ten minutes I was ready to make a break for it. That’s when this other guy came out and stood looking out at the plaza with a faraway look on his face.
He looked like a major player. Very fancy get-up. But there was something about him I couldn’t put my finger on. High forehead, angled features. Pretty light complexion too. I’d seen that face somewhere before. Was it in an old movie back in the 20th century? The name Charles popped into my mind. Charles Manson? No, he was a psychotic killer. Charles Lindbergh? No, not him. Charlton! Charlton something… now Suhad drew close and whispered to me. “That is the man of whom I spoke. You can see who he is now. He is a prince of all Egypt! A son of Queen Tuya, as is Ramses.”
That’s when it hit me. Now I remembered why I’d been sent to ancient Egypt. It wasn’t about Ramses, it was about this guy. This was the young Moses in front of me! The founder of Judaism as we know it. Back in the 26th century, our alien overlords the Grolnathians wanted more data on the history of humanity and the effects of religion. What was with all the violence, they were wondering? The Crusades and the religious wars in Europe and India and the Aztecs and, well, just about everywhere? No wonder I’d repressed the memory. This was too big for anyone. But here I was, and I’ve never run from a job – except that time they assigned me to try to make Wayne Newton sing with soulful. I admit I bailed on that one. I wound up feeding $500 into the slots and headed back to 2510.
“Would you like me to introduce you?” Suhad finally asked. I snapped out of my reverie. “Sure, why not,” I said, trying to appear casual. Moses seemed startled when we walked over, then, recognizing Suhad, he accepted her introduction of me. “So, limmu,” he said, letting out a chuckle, “you are the creator of Mr. Big! That was quite a coup. You must be likeable – and certainly fortunate. But you must realize now that the king’s spies are everywhere.”
“Yes, great prince,” I said. “Thank you for your friendly greeting after our awkward exodus – that is, I mean…exit from the imperial presence.”
“Oh, I’ve experienced such things before. How can you satisfy the expectations of someone with supreme power. He is, after all, a god, and knows all things.” I sensed something mocking, even sardonic in his tone. I liked that. “What, may I ask, interests you most in this life, great prince?”
“A deep question, certainly. I take little pride in my military achievements. The shedding of Ethiopian blood by my soldiers only saddened me. These days I often pass my time with common people, not courtiers, pardon my honesty Suhad. You are different from most, your heart is open and compassionate.”
Suhad smiled. “Compassion is not a virtue much praised in palaces.”
“That is an understatement.”
“I am new to Pi–Rameses,” I said. “I know nothing of the common people.”
Moses brightened. “Then you will come with me now! Let us walk the streets and feel the pulse of Egypt’s capital together.” He had already taken my arm in friendly, supremely confident way. “Come, Suhad, please join us. Let us leave this place.”
I had mixed feelings, knowing what happened to people who followed Moses around, but I figured he had more like a day tour in mind than a forty-year march, so I went for it. Plus we had the escort that we needed to get out of the palace, and it was Moses himself. Imagine! I was walking around with the prophet Moses. This is why I got into this business. Who wants to sit around in an office all day when you can tour an ancient Egyptian city with Moses? As long as he stays away from the desert, I thought, what could go wrong? And talk about transportation! We get outside the gates and here’s a completely enclosed litter the size of two limos. A limo for a limmu, I thought. He’s got eight big guys carrying the thing. Inside, a couple of, compartments dark and cool, with cushions everywhere. Moses gave the lead bearer instructions, then excused himself and ducked into the second room. Suhad and I sat down as the thing took off down the boulevard. But I was not ready for Suhad turning to me with a longing look, the kind of look a man knows is asking for a kiss, a dramatic and passionate one. It wasn’t the first time this has happened to me, but it was a first inside the chariot of a major Biblical figure. But what if our host came back to see us embracing and started throwing stone tablets around? You never know with a guy like Moses. So I pretended not to notice her passionate look. When Moses did return, he was wearing what looked like common peasant clothing, and a had change of attire for us too. “Where we are going, we do not wish to attract attention,” he explained, gesturing for Suhad to retire into the other room with a plain linen robe. “Your own clothes will be safe here and you may reclaim them after our little tour.” Soon we were both clothed anonymously, in the most ordinary manner.
After a ride of thirty minutes, the litter stopped and we stepped out into the dazzling sunshine. A narrow street extended to one side, and Moses immediately strode down it, forcing us to catch up to him. He went unrecognized, his cloak hiding most of his features. The alleyway was filled with merchants selling fish, fruit, spices and various handcrafted items, and we found him examining some ripe figs. “How much for a basket?” he asked the old merchant who stood behind his stand.
“Well, these are the best figs in all Pi-Rameses, my friend. One bite and you will find the happiness you’ve longed for all your life. Another bite and you may rise up into the heavens and dance with Amun-Ra himself. Such a fig. Who can put a price on it?”
“You can, of course,” Moses smiled. “They’re yours.”
“Really? Yet in a way, one might say I am theirs. I must raise them, serve them, and I could not live without their blessings, the nourishment they give, the joy they extend to my customers. They possess me, I am theirs. They must decide their price, not me. Why don’t you,” he smiled mischievously, “make them an offer?”
Moses reached a hand in a pocket of his tunic. “I have a few silver deben rings in here,” he said. “How about one of them for a basketful of these beautiful figs?” The man looked shocked. “A silver deben?” He leaned down as if to communicate with the figs. “Did you hear that, my friends? What say you?” He pretended to listen to their response then raised his head. “They cannot accept, kind sir, it is too much. But they will gladly exchange two basketfuls for such a ring.”
“A deal it is,” Moses said, and they made the exchange. Moses handed the figs to me and the three of us continued down the narrow, crowded street. “Life is terribly hard for these people,” Moses said, “but they treat each other fairly and pray fervently to the strangest of gods – one they cannot see. He is not a bird or the sun or a river – I don’t know what he is supposed to be. And he seems powerless to help them. They sweat in the brick pits or waste away hauling great stones to build our temples.” His words had been directed mainly towards Suhad. There was a strange expression on her face as she looked at Moses, a questioning, doubtful look. Finally, Moses stopped in mid-stride and turned to her.
“All right, already. Enough. Do you think I cannot see in your eyes what you think, Suhad? The rumors that I am kinsman to these people, the Jews. All right. I shall tell you the truth: I am certain it is true. The story about me being picked out of the river, of my being the child of slaves? It’s true. In fact, I have found the basket in which the queen found me. She kept it all these years. I took it to the court alchemist, who examined it closely and found remnants of gefilte fish and cream cheese among its strands. These foods are popular among the Jews. I now enjoy them myself, in secret, with a nice cup of tea in a glass. It must be that I am one of them. And so I spend time at their encampments in Goshen. I asked Pharaoh to respect their holy day, and he did. But all this is why I have enemies in court.”
Suhad’s eyes were glowing. “That you can tell us this openly only makes me admire you even more, Great Prince. You bear in your heart a kindness never seen in court. I would that more were like you. Of course we shall never speak of this to others, is that not right, limmu?
“My lips are seals – I mean my lips are sealed,” I said, cursing the memory of Cleopatra’s maidservant and her lover Thoth.
Moses sighed. “Thank you my friends. Of course, I am mainly Egyptian. I am not really one of these unfortunates, I have been given another destiny, but this question of my origins clouds my vision and I often wonder what my future may hold. But come – let us wander farther through these quarters.” And so we moved on, munching figs, under the hot sun. As good as they were, I longed for a icy cool Coca-Cola, but Cokes were outlawed in 2417 by the Grolnathians, when research showed they were linked to sarcasm, and anyway this was 4,000 years before they were invented. Now, as we approached the end of the street, we heard coarse shouts, the voice of an angered man, incensed and threatening. Moses walked faster, and we had to hurry to follow. The backstreet opened into a small square, where a new building was under construction. Moses pushed his way through the crowd of onlookers, Suhad and I following in his wake, and we saw an Egyptian foreman standing over a prostrate Hebrew on his knees who crouched before him. Another worker held his arms to the ground. He was about to be whipped. The Egyptian held his lash high, studded with metal, and unleashed his first stroke just as we broke through the encircling throng. Blood sprang from the man’s back as he cried out. From the gathered people came a gasping wail of anguish and pleas for mercy. Again, the lash came down, with a report that seemed to echo through the square.
Suddenly, Moses stepped forward and walked deliberately toward the raging Egyptian. I watched as he withdrew a metal sheath from his cloak and with a lightening movement, plunged it upward, deep into the aggressor’s chest. The man collapsed immediately, the dark red blood quickly spreading across his tunic. Moses turned toward us with a look that was easy to read: leave this place, tell no one what you have seen. Then with the same purposeful, calm demeanor, he strode away into the crowd. The people fearfully made way for him, but an undisturbed escape was not to be his. There were shouts now from our right and two soldiers appeared, surveyed the bloody scene and, aided by pointed gestures from one or two men, took off at a trot in the direction Moses had fled.
“Come quickly, limmu, Suhad whispered, we cannot stay here.” This I didn’t need to be told. We instinctively held hands as we made our way back along the street where Moses had bought the figs. Moses’ litter was still waiting at the intersection where we had first alit. Suhad spoke to the lead bearer and explained Moses had met a friend with whom he wanted to spend time and that they should return home without him. They offered to take us where we wished, but of course it was best to distance ourselves from anything associated with Moses at this point. We found a small teashop and quickly entered it. The place was pleasantly dim within, and after the host unceremoniously served us a dark brew, unrecognized by anyone, we began to talk.
“What do you make of this shocking act,” I asked.
“I am speechless. But…it seems Moses has two faces. One is kind and moderate and without passion. The other I have never seen before. I am stunned. But his people are fearfully encumbered, they are slaves. And Moses himself is a military leader. Perhaps The King Whose…uh, Mr. Big, does have reason to fear him. But how foolish Moses would be to challenge the most powerful empire the world has seen. What he did today he may not understand himself.”
“We are lucky not to have been drawn into this trouble.”
“Indeed! And I thank the gods you were with me.” Suhad snuggled closer on our cushion. Her hand strayed to my thigh and clung to it, seeking security, but there was more than simple fear in her touch.
That night I dined again with Suhad and her family. Much later, in the wet heat of the Egyptian night, she came to me. I had been restless, hoping for her to come, yet fearing her, for I had not forgotten the deadly powers she had displayed in our battle against our enemies on the Nile. I lay upon my expansive couch, a soft night breeze wafting in through the open window above me. Who was she, anyway? How and why had she been there to rescue me from the desert sands? Could she possibly suspect who I was? But these worries vanished when I heard the rustle of my curtains and saw her lithe, unmistakable shadow approach my cushioned divan. I rose quickly and parted the inner curtains to welcome her and save her any embarrassment. Her fiery glance as she passed under my arm aroused me instantly. I longed for a pair of tight jeans, rather than the loose fitting night clothes I’d been given. Turning my back, I sank to the cushions trying to conceal the tent-like protrusion that had appeared below my stomach. She gazed down at my hands folded upon my lap, and arranged herself deliciously next to me. In the semi-darkness, her breasts pushed out against a gauzy lavender sheath that passed for her nightwear. Nothing was left to the imagination. Her scent, like a gardenful of sweet flowers, permeated the room and my senses as well.
“I’m so sorry to disturb you, limmu, but after today’s shocking events, I could not sleep. Can you keep me company for a while?” Again, she rested her delicate hand on my thigh, letting one forefinger trace lazy circles on it. I struggled to repress a gasp, but with gasps you have, like, maybe a microsecond to take control, and in this case I failed. She leaned her head on my stout shoulder and sighed.
“Why do you gasp thus, limmu, are you in pain?”
It was time to clutch the alligator by the snout, as they say in ancient Egypt. “In truth, Suhad, oh incomparable flower of the Nile, I longed for your visit,” I whispered. “Your touch excites me beyond words. But you are also a great mystery. What happened by the river…you seem to possess remarkable powers, fantastical skills that I cannot comprehend.” Suhad twisted her body toward me so that one buoyant breast pressed against my right arm. “There are secrets one does not speak of. You must accept this. Why not live for the moment? Trust that I have your best interests at heart.”
“I do trust you.” The words emerged easily from my lips.
“Then let us enjoy this time together. Why do you hide the natural reaction of your body? Would you really rather be painfully locked in tight-fitting jeans?” I stared into her eyes, stunned. She laughed mischievously. “Yes, I can read your mind, Legion Ayers. There is little about you I do not know, except perhaps where you got that silly name. But this night is not as long as I want it to be, and we may not have another like it. Come, let us play the eternal game.” Then she took my hand and put it upon her exquisite breast and moved her own fingers, centimeter by aching centimeter toward the center of my rampant ardor. Indeed, my ardor was definitely ramping. But I retained enough sanity to realize my cover was completely blown. She knew who I was! She could even read my mind! There were secrets here beyond my 26th century understanding. Could she possess me, control me as well? She was certainly controlling the raging center of my passion now, with astonishing skill, and these thoughts pulsing through my mind gradually faded. I succumbed to her ministrations, and I did trust her, strangely. “We need to talk,” I mumbled, as our bodies cleaved together and my fingers finally found the syrupy fig newton between her limbs.
“What’s with you and figs?” she whispered into my ear, her breath quickening. This was beyond belief. She knew every thought that crossed my mind. “Figs are the fruit of the gods,” I ad-libbed, “and so, in my arms, are you.”
“You see me as a fruit?” she panted, her fingernails digging into my back.
“No, no,” I said. “It’s just a figure of speech.” I probed her inner sweetness and she thrust against me like a wild panther.
“Panthers don’t thrust,” she moaned. “They creep, they pounce, bite. I’ve never heard of them thrusting. I suppose the male must do some thrusting – but are you saying I’m acting as a male?”
“Oh, no, your thrusting, it’s very feminine, I just…”
“Look, you need to stop this inner narrative you have going on. It sounds like you’re writing a book. This time-travel business must be throwing you off. Just relax and look into my eyes.”
And I did. That’s the last thing I remember, except for an experience of physical ecstasy beyond anything I’d ever known. When I awoke at dawn, my entire being still tingling from pleasure, I was alone again.
Chapter 3: The Deported
Events would probably move quickly now. The Torah tells that the slaying of the taskmaster was the basis for Moses’ expulsion from Egypt. But what was I supposed to do, follow him into the wastelands of the Negev? I’d have to figure that one as I went along. The next morning, determined to get away, I excused myself from Suhad’s matchless hospitality and told her I needed to walk the streets of Pi-Rameses on my own for a few hours. She just smiled knowingly and nodded her assent. Chills ran down my spine as I turned away from her and headed out of her father’s courtyard.
I could feel excitement in the air, as if people knew something big was up. They all seemed to be going in one direction, so I followed. Sure enough, they were heading for the Great Palace of Ramses. I arrived at the back of a great throng gathered around those titanic statues guarding the main entrance. A big rectangular wooden contraption had been set up between the statues, with a ladder on one side and a bench near the top of it. People all around me were murmuring the name of Moses and The Great King Whose Name I Cannot Not Speak.” A ragged man next to me spoke to his friend. They seemed to have developed a nickname as well. “GREKWINICS is doing the right thing. Moses has slain a fellow Egyptian. He must pay the price.” His friend seemed unconvinced.
“But Moses is a great prince himself. He can kill a man if he wishes. Many say GREKWINICS is envious of Moses’ popularity.”
“Nonsense! GREKWINICS has conquered the world! Who can be compared to him? He is like the sun!”
“Yes, this is true. Moses may get a bad sunburn today!” They both laughed and craned their heads to see what would happen next. Moments later, four men appeared carrying a giant bound crocodile, which they lifted high over their heads and dropped into the wooden structure. A great splash of water revealed what lay within. As quickly as I guessed Moses’ fate, he now appeared, his hands bound behind him, led by two soldiers. A great shout went up from the crowd. He was led up the ladder and placed on the bench above the crocodile tank. Now a high priest arose and stood before the crowd.
“Hear me, people of Pi-Ramses,” he shouted. “Moses has slain a loyal soldier of the Great King. He is friend to the Israelites. He has been called a prince of Egypt, but it is the King’s will that his divinity now be tested. If he lives, he is free. If he dies, we shall know he is an imposter. Such is the will of The Great King Whose Name I Cannot Speak!” The crowd cheered.
I saw now there was a kind of target-and-spring device connected to the bench. The priest called up a few children from the crowd and handed each one a little sack, probably filled with sand, to hurl at Moses. He lined them up and they began to hurl their bags at the target. Moses sat impassively on the bench. The sixth bag struck the target, and the prince plunged into the water. I figured that was the last I’d see of him. Aware that string theory had finally been confirmed in 2073, I theorized that I’d crossed over into an alternative universe, one where the Jews never escape Egypt at all.
My conclusion was premature. There was a great thrashing and commotion in the tank. I assumed it was Moses’ death throes. I pictured his body clamped and ripped in the sharp teeth of the great beast. But it continued long past when he should have been subdued. Water was still being ejected from the enclosure, and the whole contraption began to wobble and lean from side to side until it finally collapsed and its contents gushed out, the water, the crocodile and a still-active Moses, who now sprang onto the reptile, spun him onto his back and began hurling hard rights and lefts onto the animal’s white throat. The crowd roared its approval. The crocodile tried to wriggle away, but Moses dove atop its long snout and began pulling the jaws open, farther and farther apart until with an audible crack the beast’s jaw snapped out of joint and it was finished.
Then with the same purposeful, calm demeanor, he began to stride away into the crowd. But an undisturbed escape was not to be his. Three soldiers rushed after him and put him in chains and led him away. The crowd booed lustily.
So much for Ramses promises, I thought. The soldiers were leading Moses to a cage with carrying poles, and they pushed him into it. The cage door slammed shut and there he was for all Pi-Ramses to see, locked up like a wild animal. Then they took off toward the river. I looked around desperately for a way to keep them in sight and spotted a litter that looked like it might be for hire. A couple of guys were leaning against it. I rushed up to them and offered to pay them for a ride.
“Yes, we will take you where you wish, my friend.” I pushed two deben rings into his hand. “For this, we can take you across the great desert.”
“That might be helpful actually,” I said. “What is your name?”
“I am called Shleppa.”
“Follow that chariot, Shleppa,” I instructed, “but keep out of sight.” The two men did a good job, weaving in and out, avoiding street stands and traversing the narrow alleys until we reached the great river. I bade Shleppa farewell and stepped into the shadows to watch what came next. The soldiers had a boat ready and shoved Moses on board. I had to think fast. I moved stealthily toward a boat tied up next to Moses’ and plucked some long papyrus reeds from its hull. I spied a length of woven rope there too and grabbed it. Now all I needed were some heavy stones. Maybe beneath the dock. I slipped into the water behind the second boat and stroked toward the bottom. Yes! Plenty of rocks. I tucked several into my white robe and knotted it so they would weigh me down. Now I rose toward the surface just enough to poke the papyrus reeds out for a breath of air. I was still deep enough, and the odds were no one would notice me in the murky Nile waters. I eased myself around toward Moses’ boat. I needed one more thing and I got lucky again. At the stern was a protrusion I could tie my rope around – and did. That was when the vessel started to move away from shore. All I had to do was hold on to my rope and breathe through my reed.
The journey was short, just a few miles upstream I guessed, and uneventful, except once, when I used one of the rocks to bonk a curious crocodile on the head. Curious Crocodiles. Good name for a band.
They pulled the boat into shallow water, then beached it against the gently sloping sands. I let go the rope as we approached shore – but too late. That was when they saw me. What the hell, I thought, and rose to my feet, standing before them in two feet of water. “Slay him,” shouted one of the four soldiers. How foolish I looked, desperately untying the heavy stones from my robe. A spear flew toward my head, but I looked up and dodged it at the last moment. I picked up the spear from the water and advanced on the soldiers as Moses watched helplessly, his hands bound behind his back. Suddenly I remembered my days as drum major in the University of Minnesota marching band, way back in the 23rd century. Spinning the spear skillfully, I whirled it over my head, then executed the high toss. The soldiers all looked up to follow its flight, and as they did, I pulled my TCA combat knife from the finely-made leather pouch (yes, still slung around my neck) plunged it into the chest of the closest soldier, then slashed open the jugular of the one standing next to him. In the next instant, the spear fell into my hands and in one motion I whipped it at the third fellow, impaling him onto the boat. All this had taken maybe five seconds. The fourth man looked at his suddenly dead companions and tried to flee, but I wrenched the spear out of the third soldier and hurled it at him, skewering him through the neck, much as Achilles did to Hector in the Iliad. A classic performance, if I say so myself.
Moses gazed at me, impressed. “You are a fearsome warrior, Awshalim. I am forever in your debt. They were surely going to kill me.”
“You did OK yourself with the crocodile, Moses.”
“Thank you, but I fought them for years as a boy. I’m surprised Ramses did not remember. But how did you find me here?” When I described my tactics, he smiled. “Ah, the old papyrus-breathing-rope-hauling-stone-ballast trick! I know it well. But you should be going now. If they find you with me your life will not be worth a broken brick.”
“And where will you go now, great prince?”
“I am prince no longer. I am a man without a country. But it is said the Jews came long ago from a land across this desert. I will walk there. Goodbye and fare thee well, comrade and savior.”
“Don’t call me savior – that guy comes later. But look, Moses, no man can pass this desert. You have no water, no food. This is suicide. Don’t you wish to live?”
“The God of my people will help me,” he said. “I shall put my life into his hands.” He turned and walked away into the burning sands, yanking the spear out of the last soldier’s neck to use as a cane. I didn’t like it. I don’t mean using the spear, that was a good idea. But walking like a nut into the desert? I hate hot weather.
“Moses, wait!” I shouted. He turned and looked at me with raised eyebrows. “Let’s take the boat! We can wear the soldiers’ clothes. Sail down the Nile, hang a right at the Great Sea, and next thing you know, we’re in ….”
“Canaan, it’s called Canaan.”
“Fine. We do a little fishing, stop somewhere and get water, maybe some bananas, some figs. What’s not to like?”
“The Egyptians will certainly stop us.”
“We’ll travel by night! We can do this. I just saved your life Moses, be flexible.”
“Can you sail this boat?”
“Is Egypt a big sand trap?”
“What’s a sand trap?”
“Never mind. Of course I can sail a boat like this.” Moses turned and made his way back to the boat.
“All right, my new friend,” he said, grasping my shoulder. “Let us journey together to a more peaceful land.” I began wrestling the military garb off one of the dead men and Moses did the same. We changed into Egyptian military clothes, stowing our own onboard. “Let’s bring their spears,” I said. “We’ll catch some fish for dinner.” But it was a grisly scene we left behind us, four soldiers lying dead, two of them naked, their blood still flowing into the Nile. “Look at them,” Moses observed. “They nearly turn the Nile red with their blood.”
“So do you think that kind of thing is possible?”
“Turning the whole Nile into blood.”
“Of course not. Who could do something like that?”
“I was just wondering.”
And so my new course was set. As I struggled with the sail, my mind drifted back to beautiful Suhad. She had no idea where I had gone. Would she long for me? Would she be safe, or seen as complicit in Moses’ escape and my disappearance? I realized I would probably never see her again, nor solve the mystery of her tremendous psychic powers. As the Nile winds caressed me, I trembled slightly, longing for another night in her arms and the unsurpassed pleasures she had given me. But my better judgment told me sleeping with a woman who read my mind and knew my true identity was ill-advised. Here I was with Moses by my side, and the narrative, as fiction writers say, was moving forward. I turned to the task at hand.
“Now let’s see. Where’s the jib?”
“What’s a jib?” Moses asked.
“It’s one of the sails, I think.”
“You’ve been going in a circle for five minutes, Awshalim. You have no skill at sailing,” he said.
“That is because the winds of the Tigris are different from those of the Nile.”
“In my country, they blow straight down from above, not from the sides.”
“That’s unbelievable. That’s as impossible as, say, a bush that is on fire and yet is not consumed.” Moses took over and skillfully held the boat to lee or starboard or port or one of those places. After another two hours, we headed for a spot on the shore enclosed by trees and hid ourselves until nightfall. Moses speared two fish there and we cleaned and ate them raw. When it had grown dark enough, we headed down the Nile.
I know what you’re thinking. I’m changing history. If I rescue Moses from the soldiers and give him a free ride to Canaan, instead of him tramping through the desert alone like a nut case, everything gets thrown off, causing repercussions that echo down the centuries. Maybe the Jews become a nation of sailors or they all wind up eating raw fish like the Japanese. What you don’t understand is that a phenomenon was discovered in the 25th century, when time-travel began, similar to what was called fuzzy logic in the 21st. It’s called fuzzy history. MIT historian and time-traveler Karyn Klondike discovered there’s a lot of leeway interacting with the past. When she went back to Las Vegas in 1973, she accidentally struck and killed Joan Rivers crossing Las Vegas Boulevard. After returning to 2435, she checked the history books and found no changes in River’s life story. At first it was thought, well, this was Joan Rivers, she was indestructible, but further research by Klondike showed the past was quite flexible, sort of like a rubber band that springs back into shape. So I figured Moses could skip the Negev and we could take another route and relax aboard ship under the Mediterranean moon. The night was warm and only gentle swells rocked our boat. A few lights twinkled on the shore. “So Moses,” I asked, when our craft had left the Nile delta, turned east and begun following the Mediterranean coastline, “A great change has befallen you. What are your plans now?”
“Honestly, Awshalim, I hoped your country might offer me asylum. I have heard Assur is a great and beautiful city.”
“Well, Moses, that might be possible, but a man of your stature…perhaps hunted by Ramses II…that is a delicate matter, needing careful diplomacy. I will do what I can, but Canaan might be your best choice. I hear it’s lovely this time of year.”
“But I was a great general and a prince of my people. What could I do in that desolate land?”
“It’s not so desolate, really. They have a lot of nice dairy farms there with friendly goats. And beekeeping is very big. Some call it the land of milk and honey. Perhaps a rustic setting would do you good after this trauma. Have you ever thought of getting into sheparding?”
“Are you joking, Awshalim? Me? A prince of Egypt? Sleeping in the fields with sheep?”
“Starry skies above you…silent nights…the gentle lowing of the flocks…”
“Sheep don’ t low. They go ‘baaaah!”
“Is that so? I don’t know much about them. They have soft wool though, right?”
“You may seek intimacy with sheep, sir. I do not.”
“Hey, I didn’t mean…”
“There are many beautiful women in Pi-Rameses who weep and tear their hair for me tonight, Awshalim.”
“I’m sure that’s true, Moses. You must have been beloved by many fair princesses. But they have some cuties in Canaan as well, Moses. Robust, meaty goddesses who can smother you with their enormous…”
“No, no, Awshalim, this is not to our Egyptian taste. We prefer our women to have slender hips, lean and sinewy, their gentle valleys giving way to sweetly swelling breasts.” He looked nostalgically toward the dark horizon. “For me there is nothing like a bare collarbone to gnaw on.”
“Ah yes, I understand. ”
“But I am a military man, a leader, a man of action. How can I recline on a hillside and do nothing?”
“Moses, this will not be your fate. Take the advice of the man who cared enough to follow you and fight for you. You will find your destiny in Canaan.”
“Well, maybe I’ll try it. Awshalim, if I’m to be a Canaanite, do you think I should grow a beard?”
As the night progressed, my eyelids grew heavy. Many times I nodded off but whenever I looked up, Moses was at the rudder, his steely gaze fixed on the horizon. By morning we had reached the place where the eastern shore of the Great Sea, as the Mediterranean was called, begins to slant to the northwest. In the light of dawn, we saw rudimentary dwellings along the shore. It was Gaza, in the early days of its existence. It was already a center of trade and travel and was to become one of the five main cities of the Philistines, but now it was still subservient to Ramses.
“Runners will be sent this way telling of my escape. We must move quickly and somehow find refuge farther inland,” Moses reasoned. “Let us pass by Gaza and alight upon the shore in some less populated spot.” This we did. In that land there was no cover. Only the desert come to the sea along an endless, barren beach bereft of coves or complexities. We had changed back into everyday clothes, and as we approached the beach, we saw fishermen casting their nets in the early morning light. I spoke first.
“My friends, we became lost in the night. Where is this place and where can we find food and water?” They glanced at each other doubtfully, then one of them asked, “Where do you come from, sirs?”
Moses now spoke, in a voice of quiet authority. “We would be honest with you. We have escaped from Egypt and may be pursued, though we have done no evil there. Give us but a little water and food and we will be on our way.”
The man looked troubled. “It is our rule to help strangers, but…” He looked at the others, then seemed to reach a decision. “Well, we have caught enough fish for our morning meal. You can join us now and recover your strength.” Once again, Moses had found good fortune. The men asked no more questions, but led us back toward the outskirts of Gaza and a simple brick dwelling and introduced us to the leader of their clan, a wizened old man named Yassib. There we ate and drank, but talked little.
Finally, Yassib spoke. “If you would hide from the eyes of the Great King, it is best to go to the south, toward Aqaba, perhaps. It is a long journey to the land of people called Midians. They are good people, and perhaps you may start a new life. There is a caravan that leaves Gaza for there tomorrow. I can arrange passage for you both, and we will give you clothes in which no Egyptian will recognize you.”
Moses glanced at me. “Awshalim, you have a faraway look in your eyes. What troubles you?”
Troubled I wasn’t. When the old man said Midian, I remembered: that’s where Moses was supposed to go! The Midian well. Jethro and his 12 daughters, Zipporah, the daughter who would become his wife. What was I thinking? Well, Canaan, Midian, Egypt, who can remember it all? It was a memory glitch. I was 282 years old – 18 more years till I retired. Give me a break. But now this old Canaanite was directing us right there! You see what I mean about fuzzy history? These things work out. Destiny’s rubber band was snapping Moses back where he needed to be.
“Moses,” I answered, “the words of our host Yassib are wise. But for myself, I must return to Assur and fulfill my duties there, much as I have enjoyed this passage with you and been honored by your presence.”
Moses nodded understandingly. “I assumed as much, Awshalim.” He turned back to Yassib. “Tell me, my benefactor, these Midians, what are their women like?”
The old man grew serious. “That is a difficult matter, my friend. Sadly, they are not full-bodied and stout like our Canaanite women, but rather have narrow hips and tend to be lean and sinewy, with prominent collarbones.”
“Then this is my fate,” Moses grunted sensuously. I shall leave for Midian tomorrow. But I am forever in your debt, Yassib.”
So that was it. I saw Moses off the next morning, gratified to see him seated high atop a camel rather than plodding on foot through an endless wasteland, beaten down by the scorching sun. I had no doubt he would find the well where he would rescue Jethro’s daughters from the raiders who were about to drive them away. He would spend the next forty years married to Zipporah, tending Jethro’s flocks, an entire career for a modern man, but for him, just a warm-up.
The Bible has him living to be 120.
Interlude No. 32 in B Sharp
But I needed a break. And I needed to get Suhad out of my head. She was still swishing around up there, her green eyes and golden brown skin, the yielding pendants of her breasts and her incomparable Venus flytrap. Wait, that’s not very romantic is it, even if there’s something profoundly true in it. I mean, it’s like they used to say in the 1970’s, “Women are from Venus, Men are like Flies.” Anyway, I needed a break, another world, a lighter place. Suddenly it hit me. California in the early 1970’s! Maybe I could even track down Feral O’Farrell, my crazy New York cop companion from the Manny Perril caper. I’d relocated him there from 2045 so he could reunite with his dream girl – what was her name? Moon Crystal? Yeah, that was it.
But he’d be hard to track down. Forget that guy. The simplest approach was to use my Ultronic Mood-Based Relocation Transporter. You place the UMBRT sensor against your neck and it makes a site-choice targeting your optimum psychic serenity. So I just set the time period, crouched down, and pressed Enter. It’s best to crouch, so you don’t get hit by random bits, which can be physical or mental. You can wind up with a primeval frog in your pocket or even get the idea lodged in your head that Newt Gingrich was an intellectual.
In a few seconds, my desert environs faded into a fog and I spun through time-space, emerging into a sun-drenched landscape of light-brown hills and clear, wind-blown skies. California! From the look of the cypress trees, I appeared to be somewhere north of San Francisco. I stood up and found myself on a path leading up and over a rise, and when I had ascended the incline, I was gazing down at a cool blue-green lake, a pond, really, only several meters across, surrounded by reeds and grass. But on one side was a sandy mini-beach, and on the sand lay three young girls basking in the sun, completely naked except for a few decorative trimmings – colored beads around their necks, flowers in their hair, sparkling rings on their fingers. Right away, I relaxed.
The girl in the middle, her blonde hair radiant in the sun, saw me first. She leaned upward on her elbows. “Hey!” she called out, but not in fear, more out of curiosity.
“ !!” I said.
She looked confused. “Huh?”
Damn! I was still in Egyptian mode. I tried to snap back into Early Seventies English.
“Peace, man,” I said.
“Yeah, really, man.”
“Far out,” I added.”
“Everything is everything, man.”
“Very cool. Lilac, Aries.”
“This is Heather, Saj. And Water Lily. She’s Saj too!”
We were all nodding and smiling.
“Wow,” Lilac added. “I dig your robe. Is that Indian?”
“It’s Assyrian, actually. Very old.”
“Syria is like, in Africa?”
“Assyria – Middle East. It was maybe 3,000 years ago.”
“Is that like your thing?”
Concerned, I looked down at my loins. Then I remembered the expression.
“Oh, wow, yeah, it’s my thing. I’m really into ancient societies. Assyria, Egypt, the Republican Party…” Luckily, they laughed.
Water Lily spoke up. “So, you got any weed?”
“Don’t hassle, him, WaWa,” Heather scolded. Just cause he has a finely-made leather pouch doesn’t mean he’s dealing.”
“Aren’t you hot in that robe thing, Legion?” She scooted to her left and patted the sand between her and Lilac.
“Uh, no, I’m OK, I uh…”
“Hey, relax, man. Take a load off.” Now Lilac was smiling too. They were all smiling. I didn’t need my UMBRT to relocate in their direction. I shuffled down off the path, through the green shallows of the lake onto a beach from heaven and reclined between the love children, hoping my 280 years didn’t show. As I did, sounds of music filtered down from somewhere behind me.
“Sunshine came softly, through my window today,
Could have tripped out easy but I, changed my ways.
It’ll take time, I know it, but in a while
You’re gonna be mine and know it, we’ll do it in style…”
“So what brings you to Spoonful Ranch, Legion?” Water Lily asked, rolling herself onto her side, caressing her flat tummy lazily in the sun. Spoonful Ranch? The old blues song rumbled through my brain …that spoon, that spoon, that spoonful… Her long tawny hair fell lightly onto the sweet bounty beneath it.
“I heard this was a place to relax and find inner peace.”
“Yeah, but you have to free your mind. Is your mind free?”
“Well,” I began, “Capricorns are naturally very free, and I’m into meditation too and I dig the Beatles a lot and Dylan and I’m against the war and stuff and I stopped eating meat and I do a colonic every three weeks and…” My words faded to silence as I saw their looks of disapproval. They sensed I was faking it. Suddenly I was borderline uncool. So I figured I should just level with them.
“OK, I’m sorry, I was making a lot of that up. The reality is, I’m 280 years old and a time-traveler from the future. I’m taking a break from hanging out with Moses. You know, the prophet? The exodus from Egypt and all that?”
They looked really confused now. “But I really do dig Dylan, though.” They looked worried. A sense of rebellion swept over me and I rose to my feet and pulled off my robe, revealing the robust physique a 280 year-old man, a time-travelin’ man, is capable of. Then I turned and strode into the lake and dove in. What ecstasy. I rolled over on my back and floated there, reveling in the cold water, the yellow-brown hills and the azure California sky. Who cared what they thought. This was what I needed. I’d be back in the desert soon enough. My UMBRT knew what it was doing. Non-resistance, self-restraint, that was the ticket. After a while I stood up in the little lake and looked back. Water Lily and Heather, their hair waving in the breeze, were making their way up the path toward a ranch house on the crest of the hill. But Lilac was standing at the shore staring at me. She smiled and walked slowly toward me, her feet splashing softly, as the water rose up her legs to her sleek thighs, to her waist, closer, closer she came, until we were face to face. She tilted her head and threw one arm around my neck, her long black hair blowing against my chest and tickling it just a little.
“I like you, Legion,” she said in a low voice, “I liked you the minute I saw you. It’s OK if you’re tripping. You know what you need?”
She began to sing softly to me. “All you need is love…all you need is love…” She tightened her arm gently and pulled her lips closer to mine. “All you need is love, love…” Every time she said ‘love,’ she gave me a little kiss. “Love is all you need, love is all you need, love is all you need… and the song became her kisses and her kisses became the song. Her waist was like velvet and she had soft peach-fuzz in the small of her back.
That was when I heard a man shouting.
“Legion? Legion? Hey, Legion you son of a gun! How the hell did you find me?” And another voice behind him, a woman’s voice. “Feral! Feral! What’s wrong? Are you OK?”
Sure enough, it was Feral O’Farrell, the drug-addled psychedelic cop from the future. Well, their future and my past. His hair was way past his shoulders, he had some Navajo beads around his forehead and wore a pair of sandals. That was it.
“Wow, look, man, we’re both naked!”
“Yeah, O’Farrell, times have changed.”
“Hah! ‘Times have changed.’ That’s rich, coming from you!” Now a frolicsome young woman arrived breathlessly, as birthday-suited as the three I’d already met.
“Hey, man, meet Moon Crystal. She’s my…uh…”
“…goddess,” Ms. Crystal finished. “We’re all goddesses here at the Spoonful, aren’t we, Feralalicious?”
“Yeah, this is the planet of the gods and goddesses for sure, but we pretty much let the ladies call the shots. And now here comes Luke Timewalker for a visit!”
Water Lily and Heather were racing back down the hill too. Lilac and I stood there with our arms around each other. “Fast worker, man,” Feral laughed. “Watch out, Lilac, he’s a heart-breaker.”
“Do you think so? He seems so lost. He thinks he’s a time-traveler.”
O’Farrell laughed. “Well, actually…”
“I was just joking, Lilac,” I cut in. “I’m just another escapee from the East Coast. Used to hang out with Feral back in New York. I’m no heartbreaker, that’s for sure.”
“Hearts that are free are never broken,” Lilac postulated, then left me in the water and sidled up to the big Irishman. She pulled him in close and drew him into the hottest three-second kiss imaginable. Then she broke away and slapped his ass, and the four women fell into peals of laughter. It was going to be a good day. In fact, it turned out to be a good week, and I could have stayed longer. After all, Moses wouldn’t need me for another forty years, but then, time for us TCA agents is a very flexible thing.
Spoonful Ranch was in the hills about 30 miles north of Santa Rosa, not far from Lake Sonoma. It was a commune of hippie refugees, and the chemistry lab Feral had set up in the barn was keeping everyone in a beatific place. Me, I shunned his psychedelic concoctions mainly because, given the Biblical realm I was about to return to, I didn’t really want to see God at that point. I figured I was already on a pretty far out trip. But I enjoyed the little community there, the ranch’s home grown vegetables and clean water and cool nights, and most of all Lilac.
One night we lay together in a sleeping bag out on the hillside, gazing at the dazzling starry firmament. My lovely Lilac was a creature of the 20th century, but though this scene was three millennia after the age of the pharaohs, it was still a historical scene for me, 500 years before my time. I knew this to be an age of innocence, a last summer of love, soon to be followed by more cynicism and divisiveness and war. There would be other peaceful times to come, as in the 2080’s, when the Second Chinese Revolution spawned a permissive counterculture featuring electronic guzhengs and amazing hyperpunk bands like the Sweet And Sour Saucers and the Great Walls Of Sound and the gay band, Dim Sum Dragons in Drag. And the return of Aerosmith in 2170, after 150 years in cryogenic limbo, especially given the superb reconstruction of Stephen Tyler’s face, launched a huge hippie retrospective that lasted nearly two decades. But all these movements soon faded. It was not until the arrival of the Grolnathians, who imposed peace on the planet from outer space, that the terrible cruelties and atrocities humans had inflicted on each other finally came to an end.
Lilac stirred next to me in the sleeping bag. “Why can’t we have peace in the world, Legion? Look how beautiful everything is, look at the stars, how perfect creation is. Why can’t they just look at the sky in Vietnam like we are now and stop killing each other? How did it all start?”
It was a good question. Just 72 hours before this (in my chronology) I had slain four Egyptian soldiers in cold blood. Yeah, they were bad guys, I guess, but I did it because I had an agenda, to get Moses out of Egypt.
“Maybe it’s about selfishness, Lilac. Maybe it’s about the distance each of us has from everyone else. You know, you’re close to some people, your family, your friends, but it’s like there’s always these outsiders trying to take away what’s yours.”
“But Meher Baba said we’re all one. He was the avatar of the age, he said he was God!”
“Wasn’t he supposed to speak the Word when he died and fix everything?”
“Yes,” Lilac sighed. “But then he just died and no one heard anything.” We lay in silence for a while longer. “I just wish I knew why we can’t make love and not war.”
When it was finally time for me to head back to Egypt, all of us were heartbroken, especially Lilac and Feral. I told them I was going north to raise a crop of marijuana with a pal up in Oregon, though by then, Feral knew about my real assignment. I lied to Lilac, telling her I’d get in touch and maybe she could come visit in the Spring. For all her free love talk, she had a hard time letting me go, but then, I was Legion Ayers, and she wasn’t, which was good, because if we were both me, we would have been the same person and we couldn’t have gotten it on.
“I don’t know how to thank you for sending me back in time, man,” Feral said. “I’m really happy here. Hope you can drop by again sometime.”
“Yeah. Sometime. Whatever that means.” It was “time” to head back. We all embraced, and said “peace, man,” then I turned and made my way over the hill to the spot where I’d arrived. When I was well out of sight, I initiated my return to ancient times.