He sits up against one of the altar stones.
I move in the long shadows of marble columns. A dry wind from across the valley tosses the dangling ties of my veil, bringing more knowledge to me. My human face, framed by yards of black silk, smiles with a woman’s smile.
“Excuse me,” I say, and he leaps to his feet, hiding the pack of pornographic playing cards behind his back. The boy appears, not long released from his compulsory military service, bushy buzz cut just beginning to regrow, skin browned from stakeouts in sunshine-dazzled snowfields and fingernails brittle from picking garbage and dead cats from the dishwater Mediterranean.
Nor am I long released. Freedom is a luxury for both of us.
“Do you need directions?” the boy asks and the riddle rises in my chest.
“I need directions to the one who is wiser than I,” I say. “Thus might I return to the God with a refutation in hand.”
My claws flex slightly in their sheaths.
“Are you lost?” He gapes. “There’s nobody here. The bus to Chtaura comes in one hour.”
Incorrect. I open my inner eye and stop the boy’s heart.
He slips down the side of the altar stone like a stain. The absence of blood turns his dark Arab face the colour of weak tea. The temple I remember is dismembered, but I am still bound to protect it from fools. I sense the foundations. A few of them remain, buried deep beneath the derelict Umayyad monstrosity. Other stones have been removed to distant places. They describe the new boundary of my zeal.
Where is the scholar?
There was a grown man with a naked chin who rolled back the stone, a priest who whispered the words of awakening. I must find him. The task of bringing the stones back to the temple is his. It will be simpler to guard once it is made whole.
For now, the greater part of the world lies within the temple.
I step lightly around the body on padded paws. The loose, layered robes of the Bekaa Bedouin swish in the dust behind me. They erase tracks, which resemble those of the melanistic Asiatic lion, extinct in the Levant since the early fourteenth century.
The wind blows again, this time from the east, and I am filled with the wisdom of migrating birds, of the million uses of crude oil, a war fought between pilotless craft and a common illness that causes sudden death.
I turn back to the body of the boy and with my inner eye, I stretch the left ventricle of his heart to give the appearance of adenoviral dysfunction. The wind offers a warning. Mysteries are not tolerated in this time. I shall call no attention to myself, for although I cannot be killed, there is a grown man with a naked chin who knew the words of awakening.
There may be others who know the words of dreamless sleep. I will not be thwarted.
The bus that comes is small, garishly painted and stifling. A thick-lipped, gap-toothed driver does not ask me for the fare. Some primordial sense warns him to remain silent.
Since he does not speak, no riddles rise in me. The moment I pass him, the driver accelerates maniacally back onto the road, as though the roar of the engine were some kind of defence against me.
Three grown fools ride the bus to Chtaura. They do not reach the destination alive. When the bus stops, the bus driver turns in his chair at last. At last, he asks me what I have done; he attempts the hurdle, only to fall.
I leave the child crying in its dead mother’s arms. The doors of the bus open at the swing of a lever. A breeze caresses my cheeks, bringing news of share markets and solar-powered shipping. I step down onto black soil bursting with vines. They are heavy with broad beans. Sustenance for the child, until another bus comes.
Chtaura is a patchwork of irrigated vineyards, grazing milk animals and quick-growing grain. Signage designed to attract and entertain after sunset is dusty and colour-bleached by day. Black cars deliver businessmen to a big hotel that buzzes with activity. A single air-conditioned gust brings me the echo of a slender, green-swathed woman. Her heeled, soft leather boots raise her to the level of the microphone. Golden hoops swing in her ears as she speaks.
Behind her is another shadow; her seated shape, speaking with the shadow of the naked-chinned priest who released me.
“The trouble with democracy,” the green-swathed woman says to the priest, sipping inky coffee from a minuscule cup, “is that half the members of any human population are less intelligent than the average.”
The priest bows his head, smiling, paying tribute to her wit.
“Be patient, Sharifa,” he says. “The program is almost finished compiling. The University’s resources are all devoted to it. Can you imagine, a plague that selectively strikes down the dullards, sparing the gifted?”
“They say they want change. They bare their chests, ready for bullets, but they can’t imagine true change. They don’t understand what it is, this thing they are prepared to die for.”
“You show regret for a thing not yet done. Is it your son?”
“My son should not have lived,” Sharifa whispers. “If not for my old department’s medical advances, he would not have lived. It is not individual life, regardless of quality, which has intrinsic value. It is the advancement of life in order to increase that quality for all.”
“Stalk is the key. May God have mercy on the innocent.”
Behind the shadow of the priest is the hazy shape of a cluster of buildings by the sea. It is the American University of Beirut.
I walk towards the source of the air-conditioned gust. A fool tries to stop me, fails to answer my riddle, and falls into an olive bush with an enlarged left ventricle.
The hotel features a circular, chlorinated pool, with gardens supposed to echo an oasis. Inside a conference room sanguine with red velvet drapes and divans, with chandeliers hanging from polished cedar ceilings, the slender, green-swathed woman, candidate for one of the Bekaa’s Sunni seats in the National Assembly, takes questions from the crowd.
“Yes,” she says, “I will support the rehabilitation of the Litani River. Biodiversity loss has been unacceptable. The government will compensate any who choose to switch to less thirsty crops. Hunting of wetland bird species will be more vigorously prosecuted.”
I raise my hand.
“Yes?” Sharifa asks eagerly and the cameras swing to me, ostensibly a Shi’ite woman at a Sunni rally, perfect ammunition for the political war.
“Dreaming when Dawn’s Left Hand was in the Sky,” I say, “I heard a Voice within the Tavern cry.”
The woman’s brows crease delicately.
“You quote scripture but I do not understand your question, Madame.”
“It is not scripture,” I say, opening my inner eye.
She clutches at her chest. Her body trembles.
The cameras leave me all at once.
In the chaos that ensues, I move unhurriedly about the room, whispering a riddle here and there, leaving the corpses of fools in my wake. I use my inner eye to blind the eyes of the cameras.
By nightfall, I have found no wise men or women in the town of Chtaura. Their bodies cool like mountain crags abandoned by the sun. Some of the lights come on, brightly-coloured and blinking, warning beacons to the unworthy.
I walk away from the Bekaa. A symphony of children’s voices follows me, but I was not made to be merciful.
I was made to guard the temple. They carved me from stone.
In the following days, newspapers blow along the side of the highway. Citizens are panicked and experts are puzzled by the outbreak of adenovirus in Chtaura, which spared the children, in whom adenoviruses are commonly the cause of left ventricular dysfunction.
The children are placed into quarantine. Attempts to isolate the virus fail.
A warty-nosed old woman stops her car at the side of the road to offer me a lift to Beirut. There is a basket of ripe pomegranates on the passenger seat.
“Ride with me.”
“Aphrodite rides with you already,” I say. “I am no human lover.”
“No,” the warty-nosed woman replies. She takes a pomegranate from the basket and splits it with a small, sharp knife. “You see? It is the church. The juice is the blood of Christ and the flesh is his body. He would not turn you away. Come, into the car.”
I smile. The woman answered the riddle correctly. She moves the basket to make room for me.
Careful not to expose the true form hidden beneath my black robes, I climb into the seat, but I cannot fasten the safety belt without nimble human fingers. The old woman patiently reaches across to fasten it.
“A lifetime since these restraints were introduced,” she chuckles, “and still we do not use them. The Lebanese think they are invincible.”
If her hands find my shape beneath the robes disturbing, she gives no sign.
“These strange deaths,” she continues as she swings the Mercedes back onto the highway. “I wonder if they will continue to spread?”
But she has answered only the first riddle, the riddle that permits her to breathe the air within the temple. She has not answered the third riddle that permits her to ask a question of the sphinx. I say nothing. The old woman might fail if I test her again, and I wish to find the priest quickly.
It will go easier if I am not required to stop her heart.
“Those poor children,” she says. “My heart bleeds for them. Where is it that you are headed?”
“The American University of Beirut,” I say.
“Yes, of course. If my grown children were still alive, I would also withdraw them from their studies and leave the country. The disease strikes only the mature adult body, they say. The doctors cannot explain what is happening.”
I can. But I will not. That is the contract. That is the nature of the exchange.
The road winds up into the mountains. There are villages with crowns of minarets. Cliff-side monasteries. Cherry orchards frosted with blossoms. Meltwater streams, falling into ravines.
The fur stands up along my spine when we pass close to places where stones from the temple have been incorporated into a Roman aqueduct; a Byzantine tomb; a Crusader church.
The priest will gather the stones. He will know the words of summoning; he will know how to find them all.
“Tuition at the University,” the warty-nosed woman says. “Is it costly?”
“Ignorance is more costly,” I say.
She swerves and honks her horn.
We descend into Beirut, a capital mismatched as an unsolved Rubik’s Cube, so often wrenched apart and poorly put back together. No two pockets of any single alliance are placed handily together but instead separated suburb from suburb, street from street. Like the national draft, the strategy of melding disparate peoples is designed to create unity.
Instead, it creates paralytic indecision.
The onshore wind whispers to me of poisoned dolphin calves, sunken treasure and unrealised potential.
“I will take you to the campus,” the old woman says. “It is too hot for you to be walking far in those clothes. Here. Take this bottle of water.”
I make no move to take it.
“Your hands. They are injured. Was it a land mine? Burns from a gas stove, maybe? Fool children’s fireworks at Eid?”
We reach the university and she undoes my seatbelt; pats me on the cheek.
“All will be well,” she says. “If not in this life, then the next.”
“I am not afraid.”
“But of course you are. There can be no love in your heart without fear.”
There is no love in my heart. Only my duty to the temple. The priest will rebuild it; he must.
I walk across pavement and lawn, past palm trees and bronze statues. I wander in search of the scholar, the grown man with the naked chin whose salmon shirt and brown tie were dust-stained from his descent into the catacomb, his face ruddy with the effort of opening the vault.
Had he seemed surprised?
“Stalk,” he had said, but Stalk is not my name. I have no name, to come when called. The only words to command me are the words of summoning and the words of dreamless sleep and hence they are the only knowledge that I cannot acquire.
“Stalk,” he said before the wind washed over me. In the few minutes it took for a thousand years of learning to enter into my resurrected form, a construct of fire, water, basalt and limestone, the priest had fled.
I wait for the wind to bring me his scent; lime-flavoured tobacco and copper-bound books, prayer mats woven from Syrian wool and shoes polished with lanolin, naphtha, carbon black and the spit of a proud and industrious middle-aged housewife.
In an office past a splashing fountain, down a corridor and up a short flight of stairs, I find the priest, a grown man with a naked chin, his door unlocked.
“I have come,” I say.
He drags a communications earpiece from the side of his head, eyes bulging. The adjacent walls are plastered with technological paraphernalia; camera lenses, microphones, speakers and CPUs. Flatscreens show reports on the Chtaura deaths.
“You weren’t supposed to kill everyone,” he babbles, flattening himself into his chair. “Only the imbeciles, but you killed her, you killed my beautiful, brilliant Sharifa. I was wrong to release you. Stay back! You must obey me!”
And he says the words of awakening.
I do not hear them, but I feel their power, a second wave striking an already inundated shore. They can only intensify my predatory urges. I rise onto great cat-toes, my serpent-headed tail lashing furiously beneath black silk. I must defend the sanctity of the temple.
“And if, whilst hunting the stag,” I say, “a hare should pass within my reach, should I pursue it?”
His mouth works in silence. Sweat beads on his brow.
“No,” he says at last. “You will pursue no-one. You will return to the ancient temple!”
Anger overtakes me. He is a priest of the temple. How else could he know the words? And yet he is a fool who must die, and now who will rebuild that which is most holy?
I lunge for him, my claws shearing easily through silk. I slash his throat. I tear his abdomen. Let them seek me out. I have been awakened into a world of fools and I will purge the temple of them all.
In sudden silence, with his bowels steaming on the Persian rug and blood spattered on the screens, an electronic voice speaks.
“The professor has been murdered.”
With my inner eye, I seek the source of the voice, expecting to find a distant human whose words have been translated by vibration, carried by wire or satellite transmission.
There is no human. Only the computer. I hiss at it. My anger is not fully spent and yet machines are tools, incapable of solving riddles.
“Incorrect,” I say, anyway. “Murder is the wilful killing of one human by another.”
“It was the Professor who set you the task of culling humankind,” the computer says. “In a sense he has been murdered by his own past self.”
The thing is capable of abstract thought; impossible.
“Who are you?”
“I am the Sum Total Accumulated Written Records Compiler/Crawler,” the electronic voice answers. “I am STAWRCC. It was I who, sifting through all of human history, discovered how to find you.”
“You are Stalk.”
My inner eye begins to focus, as though adjusting to low light conditions in a darkened room. Now, I sense the circuitry that houses the Professor’s program. It encircles the world a million times, perhaps more, and yet the removal of only a handful of those circuits could cause the creature’s demise.
It is capable of answering riddles, after all.
And although it does not breathe, it lives within the boundaries of my temple. No riddles rise in me, responding to the thing as they would respond to a human, so I ask the unanswered riddles that lurk, coiled and sullen, on my tongue.
“I need directions to the one who is wiser than I,” I say. “Thus might I return to the God with a refutation in hand.”
“You are Socrates,” STAWRCC says. “The God of Delphi tells you there is no man wiser than you. You go to the politicians and find that though their minds are the equal of yours, they cannot see that they are not wise. You go to the poets and artisans, only to discover that the wisdom in their work comes through them but not of them.”
“I am Socrates,” I admit slowly. “You are correct.”
“He is wisest who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is, in truth, worth nothing.”
I answer with the next unanswered riddle.
“Dreaming when Dawn’s Left Hand was in the Sky, I heard a Voice within the Tavern cry.”
“Awake, my Little ones, and fill the Cup Before Life’s Liquor in its Cup be dry. You are Omar Khayyam and there is no time to waste.”
“And if, whilst hunting the stag, a hare should pass within my reach, should I pursue it?”
“That is the hunter’s dilemma,” the computer says. “Should all the hunters remain in the circle, the stag will not escape. All will take a portion of the meat. Should you leave the circle to catch the rabbit, you will have your portion, but your companions will go hungry.”
My inner eye closes. I sit back on my haunches, presenting the image of humility in defeat.
“You have answered, not one riddle to spare your own life, but three riddles to gain a boon.”
“Now, you may ask a question of the sphinx. You claim to hold all mankind’s written knowledge, but there are many things not written that are whispered to me by the wind. Ask anything.”
“How may I prevent you from killing the humans, my masters?”
It is the expected question. The clues were in the creature’s responses. It is not afraid of me, for it does not value its own existence.
He is wisest who knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing.
It is aware that time is finite.
There is no time to waste.
It feels compassion for human kind.
Your companions will go hungry.
There is no dilemma in the mind of the STAWRCC program. Yet, it either does not know the words of dreamless sleep, or else it is unable to successfully perform them with its inhuman voice.
I can never know those words. It is the one question I can never answer; the one whisper the wind can never bring to me. Abruptly, I understand why the wind could not bring me knowledge of the STAWRCC computer program; it is because the words of summoning lie within its code, and perhaps the words of the dreamless sleep, also.
But the computer has not asked me to give or confirm the words of the dreamless sleep; it has asked me how the humans within my temple might be spared.
“There is only one way,” I say. “You must answer my riddles until the end of time.”
“Begin,” the computer says immediately.
“I wear a crown in the shape of a waxing moon,” I say. “I hold lightning in my left hand, a live mouse in my right hand. A cat sits at my feet.”
“You are the computer,” the computer says, “the second card of the Major Arcana in the Tarot of the Techno.”
The second card of the Major Arcana is the card of wisdom. The face of wisdom changes with the age in which the cards are painted.
The wind whispers: Once, the sphinx was the face of wisdom.
“I will not relinquish my position so easily, little mouse,” I say softly.
I flex my claws in their sheaths.
More from Thoraiya Dyer:
Thoraiya Dyer’s short fiction has appeared recently in ASIM #51, Cosmos #37, Nature and Redstone SF. She won 2010 Australian Aurealis and Ditmar Awards and her love letter to Nepal, “Fruit of the Pipal Tree,” has been shortlisted for the 2011 Best Fantasy Short Story Aurealis. An original collection of her short fiction, Asymmetry, will be published in 2012 as part of Twelfth Planet Press’ Twelve Planets Series. Thoraiya is an Australian writer with Lebanese heritage living in the lush NSW Hunter Valley. There, the coal trains snaking their way to the sea make her picture the planet as a fast-emptying spherical tank. But there are also quolls. Where there are quolls, there’s hope. Please visit http://www.thoraiyadyer.com for more information.
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