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Fall 1999, Volume 17.1

Fiction

 

Ralph Hardy photo of Ralph Hardy.

A Hummingbird


Ralph Hardy (M.F.A. Columbia College, Chicago) works with Asian refugees in Chicago. He is also the editor of One City, published by the Chicago Council on Urban Affairs. He has published in Hair Trigger 20 and has recently completed a novel.

 

This happened in Egypt where at one time the road leading from Karnak to the Temple of Luxor was lined with massive stone figures, half lion and half goat, on both sides for a distance of perhaps five miles and the pinnacles of the obelisks were sheathed in gold. In the thirty-five centuries since then, the row of mythic beasts had been partially destroyed, the gold removed or plundered, and when Napoleon's army entered in 1798, the walls and columns of the temple, nearly sixty feet high, had been buried in sand by the city's inhabitants so as not to offend the priests of Mohammed. I learned this from our guide, the daughter of a wealthy Egyptian physician, as we rode with her from the airport past the Valley of the Kings to our hotel, which flanked the wide, sluggish Nile. My sons, in the back seat, wide-eyed, kept a sharp watch for the terrorists their classmates had told them lay behind every bend in the road and behind every mound of rubble. Their mother would be joining us after her conference ended in Cairo.

The conference had come at a time when I was finishing a book, and so I had not wanted to leave Geneva, where we lived, thinking instead that I might remain and work hard, with the children gone. But then there was the allure of Egypt, which I had never seen, and also the knowledge that my children's voices, like poltergeists, would haunt the apartment if they left without me. This had occurred the previous summer when they traveled with their school to Italy and I had found productive work impossible. Perhaps because we live abroad we are a close family.

The book I was working on was a biography of Capucine, the French actress who three years earlier had thrown herself from her eighth story apartment in Lausanne, which is a short train ride from Geneva. After several years of teaching English and having written three novels which were seldom read, I had found a niche for my writing to supplement my meager teaching stipends at the International School: biographies of minor actors and actresses, but principally starlets; of the kind who sometimes blaze across the screen a few times a year, perhaps revealing a breast or the curve of a hip when the feature actress would not; who are perhaps linked with political figures and rich men and are then forgotten by all but the most ardent cineophiles. Capucine had achieved more than this, acting in more than twenty films, but she had withdrawn from Hollywood at an early age, when her exotic beauty still lingered, though she continued to act in European films. The policeman I interviewed said that she had thrown herself backwards out the window so as not to see the paving stones far below. This affected me in a way I could not explain to my wife.

We have three sons: the eldest is fourteen, the second is ten, and the youngest is six. My wife and I have always taken our children with us wherever we go, believing if they travel with us now, they will care for us when we are old and tottering. After two days in Cairo, during which I developed sunburn, my children and I flew south to Luxor, landing late in the afternoon. The plane had flown along above the Nile. From high up you could see the green, arable land that spread out from the river for a short distance before the Sahara took hold.

"The Nile flows north from Lake Victoria through Uganda and Sudan and then Upper Egypt, which is the south, to the Mediterranean Sea, " my eldest son said, having studied Egypt in school. His face was pressed against the window of the airplane and when he withdrew it to tell me this, the tip of his nose was yellow from the lack of blood.

The travel agent had arranged a car and there was a driver with my name on a placard waiting for us as we left the baggage turnstile. Beside him, but standing off a little, was our guide, a girl of about sixteen or so, named Yasmin. The girl—Yasmin—reminded me of Capucine. Her eyes were curved like scimitars and partially obscured by eyelashes like palm fronds. I thought of her as Nefertiti, for that is the role I'd first seen Capucine play, in Fellini's Satyricon. I shook her hand in an exaggerated, courtly manner. This made her laugh; it was a strange sound, like a child's xylophone falling off a chair. I had not heard that kind of laughter in a long time; there are seldom girls in our house. She was wearing an olive-colored tunic over creamy white harem pants that rustled as she walked. The driver, whose name was Sayyed, gently put our suitcases in the trunk of his car, then opened the passenger door and stood by silently as I slid in. The boys and Nefertiti rode in the back seat: Nefertiti pressed against the side door and my youngest son beside her. The drive to the hotel was short but filled with the blaring of car horns and the smell of diesel. Along the way I saw soldiers standing in the shadows of storefronts, clutching machine guns. Tourism was very low, Sayyed said, gesturing at the empty hotels. He had fought against Israel in the Six Day War, he said, but now wanted peace above everything. I nodded and he spat out the window.

Because we had arrived late in the afternoon Nefertiti suggested that we wait until morning before we began sightseeing, and despite the boys' protests I agreed. Nefertiti stayed with us while I registered and then she followed us to our suite to make sure it was adequate. While the boys explored the rooms I ordered Cokes from room service and they came very quickly. I took them out to the terrace where the boys and Nefertiti were looking over a guidebook to the Temple of Luxor. My eldest son sat with his hands clasped around his bent knees as if holding something in. I could tell he was already in love with her; boys that age drown in ardor so quickly, like capsized fishermen.

We drank the soft drinks while sitting on the terrace cross-legged like gurus. I took off my shoes and my eldest son looked at my feet with dismay. I wriggled my toes and Nefertiti laughed again. I thought: I would gladly bear my son's condemnation to hear that sound. My wife and I had been married eighteen years. I had no daughter of my own. We were a happy family. When I looked at Nefertiti from across the terrace she had looked back at me with eyes that were thoughtful and despairing, as if she were straddling a window ledge in a small Swiss town.

I knew from my wife that she attended school in England, a public school, where the daughters of wealthy men starve themselves and ride horses.

"Do you enjoy the school?" I asked Nefertiti.

"Sometimes," she said. The light from the window was behind her. One hand was tucked between her legs and the other one held the glass of cola. Her neck was slender and bent like a stalk of papyrus. My youngest son gripped his own neck as if he'd been garroted and made choking sounds. My eldest son rolled his eyes and shook his head. The middle son who is very shy looked down at the floor, as if confessing to a murder.

"Well, then," I said.

After a while Nefertiti left and the boys and I ate falafel and hummos at the hotel restaurant for dinner. Nerfertiti had arranged for us to see the Valley of the Kings in the morning before the sun became too fierce. We were to meet her at seven and so I coaxed the boys into going to bed early and I followed soon after, without calling my wife, who would be working late into the night. Despite my sunburn, which had begun to itch, I slept very well.

In the morning I roused the boys and we ate melons and drank tea. My youngest son seemed bewildered, as if he had been out in the sun too long. Perhaps he is missing his mother, I remember thinking. Sayyed was waiting for us at the entrance of the hotel, wiping the dust from the car that had accumulated over night. He was wearing a cream colored long shirt over loose pants and he saluted me when we approached..

"He's still in his pajamas," my youngest boys said.

"That's what the men wear," said the middle boy.

Yasmin met us at the Valley of the Kings. Her long hair was pulled back and piled high over her head where it was clinched and then spread out like a fountain. Again, I thought of Nefertiti and the statue I had shown my sons of her: the pathologically elongated forehead, the feline eyes, the neck like a taper. My wife had said this image was not a true likeness of Nefertiti, but rather was meant to indicate a distinction between nobility and the peasant class. My sons and I did not believe her.

After we returned from the Valley of the Kings and its catacombs and crypts we ate lunch at the hotel. Yasmin stayed with us and my boys behaved well, handling their utensils with utmost precision, though none of us ate very much. After lunch we all returned to our room to plan the evening's agenda. My youngest son wanted to go swimming. It was midday and too late to go to the Temple of Luxor, where the heat followed you like school boys trailing ants, stepping on them as they emerge from their dark underground nests.

"Let's go to the pool!" he squealed.

"Why do you want to go there?" I teased him.

What about the terrorists?" my middle son demanded, drawing his hand across his throat and inhaling sharply through his teeth. The youngest one squealed again and pretended to be rent by bullets, staggering in circles, before collapsing.

My oldest son groaned. I think he must have felt that he was past the age when he should have to play with his younger siblings, but then, surprisingly, he jumped up and ran to get his swim trunks. Perhaps he thought that Yasmin was going to swim with us, but she had come to our hotel room empty handed. I looked at her: she seemed to be facing me as well as looking far off at something couldn't see. The ancient Egyptians painted images of their dead both full face and from the side at once so that they would enter the next world intact. I thought: they knew secrets about death that we could no longer grasp, having become too civilized. Civilizations move toward complexity before they perish.

"Go put your swim trunks on," I told the other boys, who had suddenly grown bashful. Then, "Would you like to swim, Yasmin?"

"No thank you," she said. "But I would like to sit in the sun. England is so awfully gray."

"We'll be out in a minute," I told her and then went into my room to change.

The pool was empty because of the conference still in Cairo and the fear of young men with Kalashnikovs. It was shaped like an "L"; vivid bits of flotsam drifted near the far corner, above which a palm tree dipped. A few lounge chairs, stained and faded, lay open along each side. The boys jumped in as if escaping a fire. Yasmin watched from a chair near the ladder, her face shaded by an umbrella protruding from the center of a table.

I removed my shirt and slathered lotion onto my shoulders before descending the ladder into the pool.

"I want to play the game," my youngest son shrieked, "the game." He tugged on my arms as if toppling a statue.

The game is very simple. Our name for it is Marco Polo, though I'm sure there are many others. One of us—usually me—is Marco, and must search for the other players. However, Marco can only open his eyes while underwater. When not underwater, he can cry "Marco!" and the other players must respond "Polo!" unless they are underwater. Hearing their response Marco can move in their direction, opening his eyes underwater to fix his course. And of course the other players cannot leave the pool, though it is not forbidden to cling to the sides, half in and half out, to avoid being seen.

"Will you play, Yasmin?" my youngest son asked. He, too, was bewitched, I realized.

"No, but I'll watch," she said and left the table to stand near the edge.

She slipped off her sandals and rolled the thin fabric of her pants up over her calves almost to her knees and sat down, dangling her feet in the water like a dryad.

"Okay," I said. "I'll be Marco!"

I swam underwater to the deep end and surfaced. The water was clear; purified with salt, rather than chlorine.

I stopped swimming and cried "Marco!" There was only the faint sound of the muezzin, far away and sorrowful. They were all underwater. Sometimes when we would play this game my youngest son would begin to wheeze from the excitement, and we would have to stop until one of the other boys retrieved his inhaler. And then the game would resume.

I stopped swimming, waited until I heard them emerge, and cried "Marco!" loudly in one direction and then dived back quickly at a sharp angle, swimming on the surface so that I could hear their reply. This had worked well in the past but the boys were beginning to catch on. They were all holding their breaths, it seemed. I'd never known my boys to be so quiet. Perhaps it was having the girl there, I thought. We are all showing off for her.

I was moving with my eyes closed, listening for the boys to surface when I felt a foot gently graze my shoulder. I thought I had caught one of them, clinging half in and half out of the water like a lungfish. I took the foot in my hand. Then someone put their head next to my cheek. I was not prepared for this; it was Nefertiti. Then she pulled away. I still held her foot, the arch like the hood of a cobra, trembling, a ring on one toe. I have been married eighteen years! I wanted to shout. We are a happy family! I began to move away. I should have done this earlier. Someone tugged at my arm, was pulling me up as if to whisper something. "They're in the shallow end by the ladder," she said, "holding their breaths." My ear was near her mouth. Nefertiti worshipped the sun and bore six girls before having Tutenhamen, then was banished.

I heard my boys blowing air. I shouted "Marco!"

"Polo!" They had to respond. I heard my youngest son laughing.

I felt a splash of water across my face but I didn't open my eyes. The spray had come from nearby, but not from Nefertiti. I submerged and began to swim slowly toward my sons, swimming in diagonals like a shark to create the sense of inevitable capture.

There is that theory that all boys wish to kill their fathers. Yet, in the myth on which the theory is based, Oedipus did not recognize his father before murdering him. I thought: On what flimsy evidence we base everything!

I had not been swimming in several months so I had to come up for air before I reached the shallow end. When I surfaced there was silence, as if the Sphinx' riddle had been solved.

"Dad, open your eyes!" my middle son screamed.

"What is it?" I asked. "Who's hurt?" The sun was so bright I gasped.

"It's Yasmin. She fell in!" my youngest cried.

"How?"

"She was pushed, my oldest boy cried. "You pushed her!"

"It was you. You did it"

I was in the middle of the pool, on the slope where the water became deep. From there I couldn't see beneath the surface. I dove and swam underwater to the deep end. She was there, lying on her side, with one arm outstretched, below where she had been sitting. She might have been asleep. I'd not heard the splash because of the crying of "Marco!" and my children's laughter, and the swimming underwater.

I was still holding my breath, was struggling to stay down. I had to let out the air in my lungs so that I could remain on the bottom and lift her. I grabbed her around the waist and pulled her to me, then pushed off the bottom. She was heavy, as if forces were pulling against me. My eldest son was on the side of the pool above us.

"Hold her up! I told him.

He took her under her arms while I heaved myself over the edge. Together we lifted her out and laid her down. We banged her body terribly against the tiles. Her hair covered her face; the water streamed off her. I thought of Ophelia.

"Yasmin, are you all right?" pleaded my eldest son. Then, "Dad, she's not breathing!"

"Go call for help," I ordered the middle boy. "Run to the lobby!"

"Push her chest! Push her chest!" cried my youngest son.

I knelt and rolled Yasmin over onto her back. Then I placed my hands my hands on her and began to press her chest. I pressed hard with my fingers together. I had seen this technique once on a late-night cable television program. Then I put my lips on her mouth. It tasted like rose water.

"Count," I instructed them. "One thousand, two thousand…" The trick, I knew, was to force out the water and then mimic natural breathing. She had put her head on my shoulder.

"Three thousand, four thousand," my children chanted in unison. "Five thousand, six thousand."

I exhaled into her mouth every five seconds, then pressed out the old air every ten.

"Is it working?" asked the oldest boy, breaking away from his chant. Desperate.

"I don't know," I said. "Where's help?"

"It's coming," shouted the middle boy. He had returned, was kneeling there. I saw blood on his feet.

I pounded her chest, the fragile birdlike ribs. From deep down I felt a hollow beating, like a hummingbird trapped against a window.

Only my youngest son was counting; his voice trilled. I looked over at him. He was nearly blue with asthma. I thought: I can't save everyone!

"Go get his inhaler," I told the middle boy. "Run."

It was time to blow again. I pinched her nose and covered her mouth. I was not sure if you sucked or just blew; they had not explained this on the television. I tried to find the rhythm of it, the pressing, the blowing, the listening to the heart. I sat astride her, her hair spread out like waves. She was not responding. I pressed harder, my fingers encircling her ribcage, my palms on her breasts, which were cool to my touch. The hummingbird had escaped. The Nile flows north from Lake Victoria. I had wanted to kiss her. Perhaps she had slipped in by accident, wanting to play our game, or escape the sun.

A man from the lobby came running up to us. He was thin, with skin like parchment, a beetle mustache "What happened?" I was looking up at him. Above us falcons swooped into the sun.

"She fell in," I said. "We didn't see it. Where's the bloody ambulance?"

"There are no ambulances here," he said. "We'll have to take her in my car."

"She didn't know how to swim," my eldest son explained. He had started to cry.

"Is she dead?" asked the man.

I said, "Yes," but I kept on pressing. In this land of tombs and mummies death so young seemed impossible, but there are some mysteries for which there is no explanation.

 

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