Adherents to one faith often look for opportunity in the geographical territory of another. Good seldom comes of it. Often opportunity takes the form of war, with great libations of blood and choice cuts of limbs. But not always. Sometimes it takes the form of thievery, outright or subtle, and the erection of grand museum halls or the publication of philosophical treatises. But not always. Sometimes it takes the form of ornamentation. Not always, but that is how it happened in this particular case.
The Research Club had instigated this particular “ornamentation,” namely, the restoration of the Pink Chapel, and Jon Fox could but watch. This was in Qáreyá, labyrinthine capital of Ópet, jewel in the tarnishing crown of the sultan. The task of overseeing the late stages of the work, begun by another member several years before, had fallen to one of Jon Fox’s colleagues, Walter Pendergast, Ph. D. All the members then resident at the Research Club Qáreyá Branch were quite young. None had attained thirty; the seniors among them were Pendergast and (with reservation) Jon. With reservation: Jon Fox was out of sorts with the R. C. at this time, for matters that need not detain the present account. Pendergast and the others lived and worked off Club funds (frugally, it must be said). Meanwhile, Jon had to rely on his own meager economy, which he created by selling a few photographs and by tutoring the restless offspring of ex-patriates.
Save for his lapsed membership, Jon maybe would have shouldered the full burden of completing the restoration of the Pink Chapel, and things might have turned out very different. However, Pendergast had worked with the esteemed Albert J. C. R. Wenfreys on the restoration of several buildings on the Parthenian Acropolis and knew his business. An Ópetian foreman twice his age oversaw the practical work. Success seemed thus assured and was, furthermore, guaranteed to Baker & Son, major patrons of the project, by means of a strict contract. It was this contract—and only this contract—that gave Jon some peace of mind regarding his present position with the Club.
This day, Jon walked onto the breezy veranda of the Hotel Royale, which overlooked the street, the Corniche, and the Fiáró River beyond, to find his fellow Emerishmen having tea as Pendergast orchestrated a conversation on the results of yet another inventory review. Two other members sat in attendance: Parker Reed Farrington and Hirshel Klein. At such times, Jon’s presence as a lapsed member introduced a certain awkwardness. Although the season, as measured by the Emerish calendar, was autumn, the Ópetian summer heat had returned full blast that day. Unwilling to move on account of the discomfort, Pendergast elected not to close down the meeting. Both he and Jon were, after all, Harbridge men. That university connection created certain obligations that Research Club by-laws could not eclipse. Jon gave Pendergast due credit for that.
“The inventory is done, then,” said Pendergast, “but it can’t be.”
“I’m sorry to say that it must be, Walter,” said Klein, who managed the books, correspondence, and similar administrative details. “We’ve dug as far as we can, and the sponge-diver we hired from the coast brought up everything the Fiáró cared to offer even with the river at its lowest. And we’ve taken inventory three times now. There is no mistake.”
“Not of ours, at least,” Farrington said unhappily, dripping sweat into his glass of tea.
The Pink Chapel promised to be, in virtually all respects, a splendid sample of a proper Ópetian temple—pylon, court, hypostyle hall, sanctuaries, and all the rest of it—being reduced in size by three fifths. It was remarkable that the remains had not, by this late date, been shipped off to Ilyonton or Lutet or some other foreign capital, and perhaps even more remarkable that more of the rose-colored granite and brilliant white alabaster had not been taken away for modern buildings in the two thousand four hundred or so years since its construction.
However, it had not passed the centuries unmolested. The Fiáró had drawn closer and flooded it now and then, knocking down some walls. The religion had changed. Which had knocked down other walls and, in the sanctuary, tipped over statues of King Ósorathó as the god and Queen Meratoor as the goddess, and installed assorted other blemishes onto the property. Fishermen commonly drew up there, to lay their catch for sale among the toppled columns of the hypostyle court, but only on the days when it was not in use by the launderers. Then, a long while later, along had come the khedeev (the ruler installed by the sultan) and the Corniche (designed for the khedeev by a famous Provench architect) and, five hundred yards or so downstream, a Baker & Son travel office.
Baker & Son were up for something new in this part of the Antique Lands, so the company had expressed a great deal of interest when Pendergast’s predecessor made two announcements. First, he concluded after much contemplation of the iconography and texts, the ancient god of the lower case honored in the Pink Chapel was none other than the God of the upper case, at least, insofar as Calosianism identifies its Deity: Kalos Theos, the Good God, Who Let the Devil Slay Him That Mankind Might Learn Its Lesson. (In Ópet and the rest of the Antique Lands the Sun is God, called in Harábese “ál-Reyá,” and the belief that God dies, even at sunset, is apostasy of the most profane sort.) Second, Pendergast’s predecessor concluded, the Pink Chapel could be restored to its full glory.
With the assistance of the Pretish consul and little resistance from the Autorité des Antiquités, Baker & Son made arrangements for the appropriate government stamps and seals and signs. These were magical signs, after a fashion. One of their several effects was to drive away the fishermen and the launderers. Anyone who wonders why the Ópetians and their rulers, most of whom follow the solar faith, would tolerate such foreign activity contrary to their own religion need only be reminded of the old saying: “Those who live here do not care about the faith of passers-by, so long as the passers-by pay hommage to the gatekeepers.” And to the goldsmiths and to the barbers and to the & c. & c.
Now, although Pendergast’s own investigations supported his predecessor’s claim about the God, his every survey came to a different, unhappy conclusion regarding the claim about the restoration.
Jon might have sympathized with Pendergast’s plight if only he had been allowed to share some of the burden and whatever reward might come of it. These he was denied on account of his lapsed membership. He ought not to have taken this personally—there were valid points against him in the by-laws—but he did, because Jon Fox had never in his life known much difference between personal and professional. One existed for the other, and little more. This peculiarity, one not uncommon among academics, did fortuitously lead Jon to offer something Pendergast needed rather more badly than sympathy.
As Klein shook his head over the inventory and Farrington continued to sweat into his tea, Jon stepped forward. The three men leaned back from the wrought iron table. Jon tried to insert himself into their attention, but then Pendergast reclaimed the table with a drawing pad produced from a valise at his feet. And the three heads plunged in again, to watch him as he sketched.
“The northern and southern walls—so-called, taking alignment with the river rather than the celestial course of the sun for east-west—are in good, ah, standing,” Pedergast said. “The reliefs are intact, but for some damaged noses, that sort of thing. And that’s not a ‘blemish,’ per the contract with Baker. That’s proof of antiquity. Must give them some of that, or else we could just put up a new building of our own devising.”
Jon guffawed, quietly. The others agreed—with Pendergast.
Pendergast nodded vigorously and pressed on with his pencil. “Yes. It’s the eastern wall, the pylon, that’s the problem.”
“What about the hypostyle hall?” Farrington said.
“The—yes, some of the column capitals are missing. Hoozeyn” (that was the foreman) “can make them easily enough, if Baker insists. See one palmiform capital with pendant ducks, you’ve seen ‘em all. But here—here’s the ruin of us, the pylon! Key pieces of these reliefs, missing from the very front of the building. Look, some loss is poignant, eh? Arouses one’s sensibilities to the vast passage of time, the carelessness and callousness of history, all that. But this…!”
He stabbed at the offending area with his pencil, breaking through the paper and snapping the lead. Then they all sat back while he took out a small knife and began to whittle a new point.
Jon seized this opportunity to force acknowledgment of his presence by placing his hand on the ruined paper. Pendergast pushed it at him, daring Jon, an outlier, to do anything about something as important, as difficult, as urgent, as contractual, as this.
The sketch was half representation of what existed, half representation of hypothesis; much of the physical work was already done, Jon knew, though it was veiled behind tarpaulins. On one half of the pylon, Queen Meratoor presented a table heaped with offerings before the Mother of the Son of God, St. Cathisma (whom the ancient artists had graced with the Queen’s own features). This portion was well preserved and restored. Blocks from the uppermost courses were missing, but these had been nothing more than a frieze of repeated cobra heads, which Hoozeyn’s men could cast in tinted concrete (this chapel’s species of rose granite being extinct in the quarries).
It was the other half of the pylon that presented the genuine difficulties. Here King Ósorathó stood before God, the Lord of All, who was represented, in the ancient convention, as swathed in the wrappings by which St. Cathisma and the Apostle St. Guinefort had bound his earthly corpse. That much was evident from the inventory. But there were ghastly lacunae. Ósorathó’s outstretched hand was missing; likewise segments of his leg and feet and portions of the irregular ground (hills, in Pendergast’s hypothesis) on which he stood. Crucial parts of God had not been spared, either.
Also missing crucial pieces—chiefly the head—was whomever Ósorathó presented to God. Pendergast had hypothesized, with considerable evidence, that the king’s heir had stood there as a prophecy of the coming of God’s Son, who would not be born into the world for another three hundred years. (Such representations are common throughout Ópet and the other Antique Lands, and Calosians, anticipating the eventual return of God’s Son, are quite keen on them, for the obvious reasons.) Hoozeyn had inserted blank blocks of tinted concrete so that the pylon could at least be made into an architectural whole, but Baker & Son had expressed discontent with this solution. They wanted the scene in full, most especially the Son of God.
“Needles, and all of Qáreyá is our haystack.” Pendergast pushed back from the table and, tipping the chair, hooked hands behind his head.
“If the missing blocks even still exist,” said Klein.
“See,” (Pendergast gestured violently into the air), “it’s realism like that that keeps the R. C. solvent! If we truly believed that we could find every little objet of our dézire, as the Provenchmen say, in our quest we’d break the bank. Baker & Son will come to realize that. They’re businessmen, for God’s sake.”
Farrington agreed, but Klein remained skeptical. “There is the matter of the contract.” Baker & Son had been promised, they all knew, a complete chapel, a jewel of unblemished pulchritude for the exclusive wonder of Baker’s Special First Class tourists, who would have (by grace of those stamps and seals and signs, aforementioned) “special” access to the site.
Pendergast muttered improprieties: about the contract, which he, after all, had not signed; and about his predecessor, who had signed the contract and, after a couple of years of hard work, skipped off with a new firman to excavate in the Levantine.
Klein suggested that, if they failed to complete the restoration and had to remit the fund, the Club might be able to sell off enough of the loose blocks allotted to them by the Autorité to repay Baker & Son. The Pretish Museum and several other institutions had expressed interest. “We’ll never be able to repay the private subscribers; however, they might not mind our failure. After all, how many of them will really make the voyage all this way from Emerland? They ought to welcome viewing at home what their donations have rescued from obscurity in Ópet.”
Pendergast pronounced this notion brilliant. It might just be permitted under the terms of the government stamps, seals, and signs.
“Oh,” said Jon Fox, who, absorbed in Pendergast’s drawing of what-should-be, had scarcely heard what the other men were saying, “I’ve seen such a piece as this.”
Pendergast’s iron chair came down hard on the tile floor of the veranda and he swept a glass of tea up to his trim moustache. He saw that Jon was pointing to where a certain delicate portion of God ought to be. “You have not!”
From Jon’s low tone, all present knew that those three simple words uttered by Pendergast had caught Jon Fox at his weakest: he would go to great lengths to prove himself right. But before Pendergast could take advantage, Farrington intervened eagerly and without malice: “Where, man?”
“In the northern tower of the Bab-ál-Láhem.” This is one of Qáreyá’s fabled seventy-two gates.
Pendergast protested. “I’ve been there a dozen times at least and never seen it!”
“That’s no fault of mine,” Jon said. “Go up fifteen steps from the bottom—that’s the inner, not the outer, steps—, turn about, and it’s there at eye level, built into the far wall.”
Pendergast called for one of the Royale’s servants. The Bab-ál-Láhem was not terribly far from the hotel. It would take the youth half an hour to walk there and another to return. Pendergast, not trusting Jon’s hand, sketched that part of God that the servant was to look for and also wrote out, in Harábese, a request to the gatekeeper to allow the servant to look for it.
The four men shared little talk over the table during this span. Jon was, at least, offered tea, which he took, and, finally, claimed a seat, which, as a Harbridge man, Pendergast let him keep. When the servant returned, considerably more than an hour had passed.
“I could not see it, messieors,” he said (employing the Provench title most commonly used to address foreigner men). This briefly led Pendergast to pound the table and wag a finger under Jon’s nose. Jon’s face and fists hardened as Pendergast dressed him down.
Klein put a hand on Pendergast’s shoulder and said, “Hold up, now, Walter. The boy’s not done speaking. Say that again, lad.”
The servant cleared his throat and said, “Messieors, I could not see it, so I asked the gatekeeper. And he told me that at night, when certain torches are in their brackets, and others have not yet been set, the image can be seen quite clearly. It was too much trouble to throw cloths over the windows and light the torches to show, so he let me up a ladder and I could feel it. Monsieor Fox is right. Though I think I would have said sixteen steps.”
“Ha!” said Jon, wadding Pendergast’s sketch and hurling it at its artist.
And so Jon had the last exclamation, Farrington and Klein had a laugh at Pendergast’s expense, and Pendergast had the first of several moments of small embarrassment that would eventually bring about a curious turn of events.
Although the block—its existence confirmed by the members of the R. C. personally at soonest opportunity—could not be removed from the wall of the Bab-ál-Láhem, arrangements were made for a squeeze to be taken. Farrington did it: laid wet paper over the stone and, when this dried, took away an impression. From this paper cast, Hoozeyn’s best craftsmen created an accurate facsimile of that portion of God. And, for a little while, that was the end of that.
But Pendergast’s inventory was still not complete, far from it, as Jon was well aware. When opportunity arose, Jon pointed out two column capitals from the Pink Chapel that had been sunk into the ground and used as millstones two miles upstream. (He sometimes bought bread from a woman nearby.) Another section of relief, showing the legs of a figure smaller than that of king or God, turned up as a barber’s favored seat a hundred yards from the chapel. Jon inconvenienced Pendergast with these and several other such gifts that gladdened Hoozeyn, who liked a challenge, both the obtaining and the fitting of these newfound elements. To the agents of Baker & Son and to the subscribers, the R. C. Qáreyá Branch appeared extraordinarily well informed with the local urban topography. Jon Fox was thanked publicly for that, because scrupulous Klein edited and largely wrote The Pink Chapel Newsletter.
This might have been cause enough to reinstate Jon’s membership in the Club, and Klein would have obliged if Pendergast had not persistently raised technicalities and reservations. Still, Pendergast assuaged Klein’s evident unhappiness: “Look at him! He’s happy as a clam at high tide already. Let him soak there a while yet. After all, we don’t really know how Jon has come upon these finds, do we?”
“Walter, they’re in plain view—”
“Even so, what is he doing getting his hair cut by a street-barber and buying his bread from just anybody? The Club has contracts.”
Klein might have pointed out that Jon Fox’s membership being lapsed meant that Jon Fox did not have Club contracts to honor, but it hardly seemed worth the bother, even to the scrupulous Klein.
It was not long after one of these conversations—less than an hour, in fact—that Walter Pendergast had reason to be very glad for Jon’s contributions. The senior Baker & Son agent, Taggett, dropped by the Research Club office, above a rug-seller behind the Royale. He had just been under the tarpaulins at the Pink Chapel and wanted to congratulate the Club on its progress in general. He also wanted to inspect the fund accounts, which was his right to do, according to the contract.
“We are anticipating the holiday opening,” Taggett said. “A number of top subscribers have booked passage, the Pretish consul is already asking after his own ticket to the event, and Reverend Hopewell of the Mission House of Mercy has agreed to give the benediction, too; says he’s spoken to you.” (Which Pendergast confirmed.) “But—”
Pendergast and Klein both knew what was coming.
“The pylon,” Pendergast supplied.
“Yes, the pylon, seems rather….”
“‘Fragmentary’?” Klein suggested.
“I was going to say ‘unfinished,’ but the sense is almost the same, isn’t it?”
“Nearly,” Klein said as he offered the ledger.
Much frowning and harrumphing, now, from Taggett. “It’s a close thing. You won’t go supernumerary on us?”
“There’s enough to pay the gangs for expeditiousness,” Pendergast said, stepping into Klein’s role. Klein had no reason to naysay him. “And to pay our rais, Hoozeyn.”
“You have all the materiel, then?”
“No-o,” Klein said.
Pendergast was saved from intervening in what could have become an unpleasant exchange with Taggett by the rushed entry of Jon Fox, with news that he had found the beard broken off the largest statue of Ósorathó in the holy of holies.
“God’s beard, you mean!” Pendergast corrected. He understood the importance of emphasizing to laymen like Taggett that the Pink Chapel was not merely another expression of some Fiáró-king’s vainglory. The building was instead ancient evidence that some germ of True Faith had put forth a blossom during the era of willful pagan ignorance, and this had to be right because it said so in the newsletter. “Really, Fox, we do not have money to waste on—” and, for the benefit of the observant Taggett, Pendergast launched into his argument about “proof of antiquity.” Particularly on this matter of the beard, Taggett (who himself had a handsome one) remained unsympathetic to Pendergast’s pragmatism.
Jon clucked his tongue. “Catch, Walter,” he said.
Only the games of bat-ball that the Club played twice monthly with some lower members of the Pretish consul’s staff saved Pendergast from physical harm. At the moment, the “ball” rushed at him from Jon’s underhand. For want of a mitt, he caught it with both hands, cushioning the blow against his stomach. The “ball” was a fragment from the curled-up end of a braided emblematic prosthetic beard, carved of rosy-pink granite.
Jon said, “The rest are at this address.” He pulled a business card from his pocket. “Send seven bricks for new door-stops, along with a bottle of wine if you’ve any left, and they’re ours. Ah, the Club’s. The Chapel’s, yes. God’s, even, if you wish.” He left the card on the desk and went off to tend to his own matters.
“Say, Pendergast,” said Taggett, tapping the card, “isn’t that your stationer?” And he went back to Baker & Son to enjoy a laugh among his own kind.
“Fox is getting cheeky,” Klein said, after.
Pendergast hefted the fragment in his hand. “He knows all, and what he doesn’t know, he thinks he can find. There’s limits, Klein. Natural limits. Beyond them is but God and the Devil.”
“I don’t doubt that. But maybe we shouldn’t complain about Fox when he oversteps.”
“Eh, you’re exactly right.” He placed the bit of beard into Klein’s care for the inventory. “Does no good to complain about Fox any more than it does to complain about the Devil.” And so, quite simply, Walter Pendergast ceased to do so.
There remained much else to complain about. Jon could not fail to notice that, in the days following Taggett’s visit, Pendergast became vexed and secretive. Jon caught him stuffing papers into a drawer, once, and locking it; and at another opportunity, Pendergast rushed furtively from a telegraph office—and not the one at Baker & Son. With Farrington and Klein about, it seemed that nothing (or at least no more than usual) was amiss, but Jon witnessed sufficient evidence to believe that this was not, really, the case.
All this was more than enough to intrigue Jon, although first he established, through subtle inquiry with Klein, that it was not a financial matter. Some while later Jon heard Pendergast, locked in the R. C. office, say to someone else, whose voice Jon could not quite hear: “That’s right… a foolish mistake… a stupid one. When I drafted the plans, I duplicated a block in the inventory and put the double in place on paper…. Yes, the prince’s face, the one we call the Son, yes, his very eye…! Yes, the one on the pylon, in the front. The eye of God’s Son! Can you imagine not having it? Well, we don’t have it…. The shrine will be nothing without this prince, His crowning glory! Nothing at all, for want of that one block…. Baker & Son will call back the funds and the reputation our branch will be ruined. That will crush Professor Wenfreys, who had such hope for us! And, by God, it’ll crush us with him. We’ll all look like fools to the Autorité des Antiquités, not to mention the Research Club home office. If Fox would bring me that block, by God’s bod, he’d be back in the R. C. before Hoozeyn could put His crowning glory into place…. No, no one else knows…. They mustn’t know. No, I can’t ask Fox directly! But no, even if I did—I think Fox would fail, surely, the odds of finding it are so miniscule. We’ll be proper Emerishmen and put on a brave face until the end. No, I’m telling you he won’t find it. He can’t. No, I’m certain….”
“Won’t! Can’t!” Jon repeated to himself as he stalked off, having heard more than enough. “By God’s bod, it would serve Pendergast right if I didn’t even try. I’ve saved him and the Research Club with its wicked by-laws from more trouble than either’s worth.” He knew this was not true, at least in the case of the Club. If he ever hoped to excavate or otherwise explore legally much beyond the bounds of Qáreyá, he would need the R. C. He then forswore his former oath and resolved to save the Research Club and take Pendergast down a notch or two by turning “won’t” and “can’t” into “will” and “did.”
Jon Fox could scarcely scour all of Qáreyá himself for a single eye. Neither did he want to publicize the Club’s unfortunate circumstance. He might like to expose Pendergast’s epigraphic error, but that no one else had caught the gaffe would cast doubt over all the resident Club members. There were some—Provench antiquarians, chiefly—who would take advantage. When a bit of careful fishing in the waters of Farrington and Klein yielded not the slightest nibble about the trouble, Jon decided that he would, for the while, maintain Pendergast’s secret, at least until he could expose it by providing its solution. So he sought out a dragoman who had served him before, one whom he knew (or believed) he could keep quiet about the matter.
He found this dragoman in the company of a Provench tourist-party just returned from the Sooq-Qáreyá, which, despite its name, is not Qáreyá’s famous bazaar but rather one of its ancient necropoleis. The party comprised a family: husband, wife, and an offspring of each sex. The wife was posing their dragoman (a young woman from Lower Ópet) and the donkey-driver (a Lower Ópetian boy barely ten years old) at either side of the male and female offspring, who were looking quite bored with the end of the day’s adventures. The husband peered toward his waist, advanced the film in his box camera, and took a photograph. Then, having come a little nearer to his dragoman, another. The man was evidently taken by the novelty of his dragoman’s dress: female trousers, head-cloth, and all.
A whinge from the young son broke his father’s reverie and rekindled an argument evidently laid aside for the photograph-taking: the husband saying, in Provench, “I will pay whatever you ask!” to which the dragoman replied, in Harábese, “Lá! Lá! Lá!” when her entreaties in Provench (“Non! Non! Non!”) went disregarded. After a minute of this she demanded and received her báqsheesh, gave something from it to the donkey-boy, and quit their company.
“The boy wanted my qafiyeh!” Iánheh said with great indignation to Jon Fox by way of greeting. And she pulled the ukhl that held the yellow-striped scarf tighter onto her head. By law, she was required to wear that while seeking or undertaking employment; it was fair warning to all that she was a kópeet, who worshiped no God of the upper case: neither her neighbors’ ál-Reyá nor the Good Lord of the Calosian foreigners. “And what do you want, sáyeed?”
“An eye,” Jon answered shortly, and did what he could, delicately, to explain about the missing element of the Pink Chapel, a place she knew from its days of ruin.
She said, “Looking to add another piece of it? I’d thought they were stealing it from behind those curtains, one stone at a time, just as they’d swept away the fishermen and launderers with their magic stamps and seals and signs! Can you give me a piece of the stone? Many walls have eyes, but I suppose that you, sáyeed, being who you are, will insist upon the right one.”
Her simple request proved to be more easily said by Iánheh than done by Jon. Not a week before, someone had tried to steal something from the Pink Chapel. Klein suspected that the thieves were after lumber and rope used for the workmen’s scaffolding. Baker & Son supplied armed guards; colonial veterans, mostly, of wars fought in the New World against the native empires. None except Pendergast, Farrington, Klein, Hoozeyn and his workmen, and a few others, was allowed at the site, either inside or outside the tarpaulins. Jon was not among the exceptions.
So Jon went back at night, with a dark lantern, and tested the acuity of Baker’s Guns. Although they were not much lacking, Jon was able to retrieve an otherwise useless unadorned fragment the size of his palm with only a single shot fired in his direction.
He delivered this to Iánheh early the next morning. She might have been grateful for being spared another day as a novelty for foreigners. Instead she returned a demand for money: most of a day’s wages. When Jon expressed reluctance, she said, “Isn’t your Club providing, sáyeed?”
“Not—not in advance,” he said, wary of admitting that much insolvency.
“Ha! You’re coming up in the world, sáyeed, if they treat you as one of us now! Well, I’ve been before as you are now, so I’ll let pity rule sense. Come back tomorrow morning with just a little money and we shall see what has happened by then.”
Jon went back tomorrow and the next day, to find that she had no news. He spent the other hours of these days haunting the Research Club office and library. On the third day, Iánheh was not at the Bab-ál-Lámeh at all. And so he worried. As did Pendergast, whose private fretting about “His crowning glory” became more intense and even a bit louder, at least in Jon’s presence. “Here I am working to possibly no end, and you—you sniff around the place like a street dog!” he snapped when Jon came ’round on the third day and would not leave the office. “Don’t you have some child to tutor, some view to photograph, somewhere else to be—something to look for?”
Cheered now, Jon smiled, said that indeed he did, and left Pendergast to fret in secret over “His crowning glory.”
On the fourth day, Iánheh was again at the Bab-ál-Láhem. She said, “Come back tomorrow morning.”
“You’ve said that every day! I do, and there’s nothing!”
“I didn’t say that two days ago, and still you were here yesterday. Or so a gatekeeper told me. Did he lie? No. I think you still have hope, sáyeed.”
“Hope or habit?”
“Hope, maybe, would be better for you. I spoke to a juice-seller who knows a banker who once loaned money to a raisá ál-maamal-ál-feerákh (that’s a mistress of an egg-hatchery, sáyeed!), whose sister’s cousin (they weren’t full sisters) had developed the cancer, and so she spoke to—well, never mind. I have yet to track down the former second wife of the man the sister’s cousin spoke to. So come back tomorrow.”
“And how many more tomorrows after that?” Jon calculated how many tomorrows lay between today and the deadline specified in the contract.
“If the former second wife of the man who referred the cousin of the ráisa’s sister is still alive, sáyeed, then maybe not too many. But if she is dead, I’ll have to go looking for her children or her late brother’s widow…. And there are tourists, sáyeed, so many tourists! You can’t spend all your days waiting for me! Surely Pró-fey-soor Pendergast has something else for you to do?”
Jon said, “I am doing quite enough for him now. Maybe too much, but I’ll get my due.” And he gave his dragoman a little more money, in order to shorten what could be a very long string of tomorrows.
The next day, Iánheh led Jon away from the gate. Not through it, out to the desert, but, still inside the ancient wall, up the narrow way in the very shadow of the wall, and onto an even narrower street that cut into the blocks of buildings where tin-smiths and brass-smiths worked, and thence to another, and another, deep into the labyrinth that is Old Qáreyá. They left behind the tourist shops and even the places that catered to the native-born middle class of the city, until, after what seemed to Jon to be the remainder of the morning, they had arrived in the Oom-ál-Faqr.
Here neither smiths nor produce-sellers offer wares. There is no selling, no buying. People come and (God willing) they go, but otherwise all is in a kind of stillness broken only by subsidence. This is the district of the manufactory of Poverty; all other industries are memories only, preserved by the existence of buildings (surely, someone constructed them!) and scraps of pottery and rags and other made goods that have not yet been taken by decay. Many who pass through do not long linger, by the gracious mercy of God. So Jon hoped.
She brought him to a cul-de-sac some fifty feet long and so narrow that he could touch his palms to both walls even with his elbows slightly bent. Iánheh sat down on the broader street and gave every indication that she intended to go no farther. “Your work now, sáyeed.”
The surface level of the street and cul-de-sac had at one time been higher than they were at present. Over the centuries, passage of many feet had worn them down, and stones had been brought in to provide steps up the little embankments to doorsills that now stood a foot or two above the level of the ground. Methodically Jon examined the canyon walls between which he found himself. These were, in overwhelming measure, mud-brick, some baked and some not, some crumbling and some still strong. There was limestone too and granite of several shades, and some of the few doorways and windows had proper sills and jambs of stone, though the windows and doors had been bricked up. They thus reminded Jon of the spirit-doors in the ancient tombs at the Sooq-Qáreyá.
There were ghosts here, too, of a sort. He found fossils in the limestone, mollusks that had lived and died on an ancient sea-bed, but no trace of the artistic hand of man, nor of the Pink Chapel’s rosy hue of granite. “Iánheh could be mistaken, and not for the first time,” he said to himself. “This seems to be a very dangerous place to be mistaken about—or in.”
Near the end of the cul-de-sac, Jon felt exposed. There was a doorway, an honest, open doorway, leading from the narrow alley directly into the shell of what had been a tiny house of perhaps only one room. Beyond the makeshift steps and threshold (all grey granite, Jon noted), in dim light filtered through the slats of a ruined ceiling, he saw a foorn, a brick bakery oven, on which it was clear that no one had either cooked or slept in a very long time. A small stack of rude clay dishes, clean of dust or dirt, occupied a corner, and nearby leaned a palm-fiber broom of the short-handled sort. These were, apart from the buildings themselves and the well-worn street, the only trace of active human life he had found since entering the alley.
Jon retreated to the narrow alley and inspected the foundation. This consisted of the usual mud bricks, but here and there stone blocks had been inserted. A few of them, set into the ground, bore faint traces that he made out to be the ancient Ópetian glyphs. He took the broom from the house and swept the dirt away. Had there been a mattock, he would have appropriated that too and started digging.
When he bent down to inspect the inscription, he glimpsed an ear, rudely scratched into the mud brick. And below it: a piece of granite, grey with dust, but with a rosy hint.
Jon, his attention caught by shadows of written words, had failed initially to apperceive a relief far better preserved. It was of an eye, staring blindly across the alley, and, below the eye, its brow, a few bare inches above the old ground. These were clean and pink, as if kept polished. Above the eye were worn four furrows, as if centuries of fingers had caressed tears into the cheeks of all that remained of this figure. There was the suggestion of more of the inverted profile, too: a nose, its nostril.
Jon put his hand to where a thousand—no, many more—hands had touched these once-princely features. He felt a sting, as if he had reached into a haystack and been stuck by a needle. “His crowning glory,” Jon murmured. “Ah, Iánheh….”
A voice said in Harábese, “Foreigners do not often come to honor the god.”
Jon sat up, now acutely aware that his physical attitude (and his mental one) had been much like that of prayer. Indeed, anyone come to view this fragment of relief had to assume the same position.
Having cursed both Iánheh for not whistling an alarm and himself if she were blameless (which she was), Jon Fox found himself looking at an Ópetian man who could be called barely of middle age. This Ópetian wore a healthy moustache without any trace of gray and a smile that hid its teeth. His garment—a robe two tones of gray and very worn—did not match his grooming. Jon wondered if this man fathomed that his Harábese had been understood. The Ópetian picked up the broom and swept off the threshold as if he were a housewife.
Jon gathered his Harábese vocabulary and asked, “Is this a place of the kópees?” For that would explain some matters, even though this man wore a tárboosh with a turban wrapped neat around it, not a qafiyeh with yellow striping.
Now the man started. He said, in good Provench that evidenced a solid, middle-class education, “It is a place of anyone who cares to ask a favor of the djinee.”
Jon replied in kind. “You called it a god, just a minute ago.”
“You are new to our language,” the man said. “You misunderstood.”
“No, I don’t think so.”
The point was not one of semantics only, nor even academic pride. If this was merely a place of worship of some purported god of the lower case, some inert image honored by the kópees, arrangements for its removal might easily be made with the local authorities. They were inclined to view the kópees as the worst sort of atheists: the honest atheist, by denying God of the upper case and gods of the lower case, creates a vacuum that, in time, the inevitable course of human nature, hungry for civilization, a source of morality, and salvation, will fill with belief in the True God; but the kópees, by stuffing that vacuum with their great multiplicities, create the illusion of fullness and stifle the natural evolution of True Faith. (Thus, anyway, runs the argument of monotheists.) But if this was indeed the locus of a djinee, a real creature, Jon knew it could be a difficult thing to return the stone to the Pink Chapel.
Jon braced his morals and launched his lie. “Whatever you call it, it’s no matter to me.” And he resumed his inspection of the block.
“Do not misunderstand this, monsieor,” the man said. “You must leave this place.” His words were a command; his tone, a plea.
“Why? Isn’t this the khedeev’s alley?”
“The whole city is the khedeev’s, if he wants it. But the duty of this place is mine, by the will, I pray, of God.” And he bowed slightly and made a mourning-like gesture with his arm, almost touching the top of his head with the fingertips of his cupped hand. This was a sign of those faithful to the Sole of the Sun, Wáálreyá, long dead but anticipated by some to return.
This made Jon very curious, that a man of the solar faith—and apparently of some financial means; a good foreign-made shoe and a trouser leg briefly emerged beneath the tattered hem of his robe—would associate with a place of superstition like this.
The Ópetian said, “You would do me great ill if you were to stay where you are. And you would do yourself no favor, either. You have no cause to trust me—none at all—but you will have none to blame but yourself for the evil that follows if you don’t heed me. They who come here are not to be crossed without consequence.”
There was a sound at the mouth of the alley, a portamento whistle, the signal Jon had missed before. Iánheh vacated her place as a small mass of humanity dressed in dark robes began to thread its way down the alley.
The man said, “Come, come, come!” so excitedly that he broke back into his native Harábese. Anyone would have understood him because he thrust Jon Fox into the little house. “By God’s mercy, it’s the blind ones,” he whispered in Provench. “Maybe God does favor you! God favors the mad, doesn’t he?”
Jon sat down in the doorway to watch the man go about whatever odd business his God had appointed to him.
The “blind ones” who came spoke a back-alley dialect of Qárene Harábese. Old women’s voices, these, but also the fussing of a baby. The Ópetian took the stack of bowls outside and arranged them near the relief of the eye.
Two women sheathed voluminously in black passed by the door. They sat down upon the high ground that hemmed the far side of the alley, which was not far at all; they could have stretched out their legs and touched their bare feet to the block and were careful to refrain from doing so. They spoke to each other and reached out for the clay bowls. Once those had been located, they began dissonant chants and one, from somewhere within her robes, produced offerings to fill them. While one offered stale bread, shredded tobacco leaf, and a bit of moldy sugar cane, the other leaned forward to scrape her thin-skinned digits across the pink granite, deepening, molecule by molecule, the tear-marks of the eye. Jon struggled to make out what the women were saying, but the dialect was difficult. Something about the eye—no, two eyes, their own, maybe—no, a grandchild’s, and pain, and (although Jon did not know the word) pus. These were grandmothers, coming to plead for the health of a grandson’s sight—no, a granddaughter’s. Jon was silently pleased with himself for having caught the distinction.
An infant also came from somewhere within the robes. The baby too was wrapped, only the eyes left exposed. (These people were of a sect of the solar faith that believes the living are not worthy to expose face or body fully to God’s bountiful rays.) Jon had to turn away, for the baby’s eyes bubbled with pustules as big as mushrooms that wept some yellow stuff that Jon could smell from the doorway.
Then: another voice, and Jon thought that a kópee, hitherto unnoticed, had accompanied the grandmothers. Jon struggled to understand these words too, wishing for Iánheh. After a minute, he heard the man speak, saying in Harábese what this other voice was saying in some obscure dialect of the kópees.
Jon understood many of the words, some of which were arcane even by Harábese standards: names of herbs or minerals or gods, outlandish claims of divine identity, threats to godhood and existence. It was a type of ancient magical text being recited, the sort of thing done back in the day of the Fiáró-kings. If these spells had ever worked at all, they had degenerated by this modern day into generally unworkable curiosities.
As for who was speaking that mummified kópee dialect, there was no one else visible. Jon at first suspected Iánheh, skilled at leger-de-man (to use the Provench term), of playing a trick, but this voice was exactly like that of a young man; Iánheh’s voice did not have that range. Jon then attempted to discern whether the man might be playing ventriloquist, but he heard both voices simultaneously. Over the ancient words, the Ópetian droned on in Harábese, as though reciting something he had long ago grown weary of repeating. If he were some type of oral illusionist, in that respect he was an exceptionally poor one, but that did not matter. The women mistook his indifference for a species of trance. They had come to present the ailing child to the presence of the words and expected no more.
Jon became convinced that this was the work of a djinee. Now, in this day and age when sysdaimons are the common thing, communicated with through wires and gears and speaking-tubes and propitiation cups, there is sometimes misunderstanding regarding communication with the older and now rarer djinees, or, as they are often called in popular literature and newspapers, genies. In large part it is because, on the Euryborean continent and in the Pretish Isles, the genies most often encountered by the modern general public are those belonging to men in the fields of amusement and wonder. For them, misapprehension is stock in trade. In truth, no particular gift or knowledge, other than that of ordinary hearing or speech, is generally required to speak to djinees. Understanding djinees might be an entirely different matter, because many do not learn to express themselves in modern tongues. So what struck Jon most was not that the djinee was speaking some ancestor of the kópee tongue, but that this man of the solar faith understood what it was saying.
Each blind woman kissed the mud-brick “ear” of the djinee, then the pink granite eye itself, murmuring what Jon made out to be “God’s mercy unto us and the same unto you.” Without a word directed toward their weary translator, they departed, insensible to the fact that a foreigner had observed them with keen interest and even a little sympathy.
The Ópetian did not have the opportunity to take up the offerings left for the djinee before Jon seized him violently. “How,” Jon said to the startled man, “do you know the language of the kópees so well? You aren’t yourself a kópeet—”
He shook off Jon’s grip and said, in Provench, “I shall wash out my ears with kerosene and burn them, you have offended them so!” He turned away as if stricken, not now by insult but by some even greater pain, and he gathered up the contents of the bowls, which he dumped into a basket. While he stacked the bowls in the house, Jon heard him murmur, in Harábese, “Yes, yes, why have I not thought of this before? God surely has sent this mad foreigner here to teach me a lesson.”
“Listen,” Jon said in Provench, “I didn’t mean to give offense. I—I speak a little of the kópee tongue myself, and I’m a—a good Calosian man.”
“God forgive you for both transgressions!” the Ópetian exclaimed, not having any reason to know that Reverend Hopewell, for example, did not think Jon especially guilty of his second claim. He placed a small checkered cloth over the basket and its pitiful contents.
Jon, meanwhile, plotted some less physical means to delay the Ópetian’s departure. If this man made it out onto the street and departed the Oom-ál-Faqr, Jon risked losing important knowledge about the djinee and its block.
The man did a curious thing that saved Jon the trouble. He stepped up into the little house and sat on the floor. “Spare me your assault, monsieor! I’ll give you what you want, satisfy your scientific curiosity. You are a man of science, I can tell. So am I—a chemist at the Polytechnic Institute!—though no one would know it here. It doesn’t matter if the djinee hears me, does it, do you think?” The man arranged his robes with an air of resignation. “The author of my misery knows the answer to your question in its own tongue!”
Jon perched himself on the foorn and let his feet dangle and kick, gently, the old bricks. He thus worked out his impatience while the chemist took a few moments to collect his thoughts and shape them to a foreign vocabulary. In the telling he dipped into Harábese when Provench could not provide. At any rate, Jon understood.
“When I was a younger man—younger than you, I’d wager—I had a sister who became very ill. My mother took her to every medical doctor in Qáreyá and beyond, even the foreign ones, but they could do nothing for her. We prayed and sought help from the seers, but they could say only God’s” (that is, the Sun’s) “will was at work, and then my mother said that no, God’s will was asleep. This greatly offended the seers, and my mother and father knew that from then on they would have to seek their answer elsewhere, if my sister were to live.
“My mother sought out oracles of all sorts, and my father too, but it was my mother who went farther afield. She consulted even with those men of God, so-called, of yours, the missionaries. My father did what he could to keep himself clean of such influences, but even today, the seers and the other servants of God” (that is, the Sun) “will not take his offerings.
“But that is now, and I speak of then. I was a young man then, as I said, and I asked my fellows at school. I had a wide circle of acquaintances even in those days, and I heard of this djinee. At the time there was an old woman who tended him, but she had grown too feeble to keep up the work. When I found her, she was laid upon that foorn there. I begged her to intercede on behalf of my little sister, but she could not. So I laid the offerings before the djinee and begged him myself.
“And he spoke, but I couldn’t understand what he said. Gibberish! ‘Repeat to me what the god said,’ the old woman told me. The djinee said the same thing over and over again, and after a while I had committed the gibberish to memory. I repeated it back close into her ear—because she was very deaf, you understand—but she would not tell me what this gibberish meant. Not right away. After I had begged her, offered to marry any woman on earth she should name—even a barren one, even herself!—and even threatened her life, the old woman said to me that the djinee would cure my sister only if I took the old woman’s place as caretaker. ‘God forgive you and the djinee both for such a request!’ I cried. And do you know what the old woman said to me? Do you?”
The chemist was standing now. Jon was not wholly comfortable sitting on the foorn, knowing that by the time the story was finished the old woman would be dead upon it. So he stood up. In this way, Jon and the chemist stood face to face.
The chemist seemed to strain against a taut rope, unable to speak until Jon answered his question, which still hung in the air.
Jon said, “I don’t know what the old woman said to you.” Though perhaps indeed he did.
“She said, ‘God shall forgive you for agreeing to such a request!’ Oh, and I did agree to her request, and my sister grew well and my mother lived long enough to see her first grandson, upon whom my father still dotes, but whether God will forgive me—”
Here he broke down into tears. He stormed outside and kicked dirt and refuse into the eye of the djinee—or rather, the eye on the block of the djinee. However trapped they are, however they identify with their places, djinees, creatures of subtle fire, must never be confused with the objects of earth they inhabit.
Jon had a number of other thoughts about his immediate circumstances. One of them was this. Despite the circumstances of his itinerant youth, Jon had always been “bookish.” His father had encouraged him to read (it became good for the business he was in), even when the only things at hand were nursery books of fables and tattered penny dreadfuls. So, although this was not a fictional circumstance, Jon recognized that he stood at a sort of archetypal crossroad. He said to himself, “This man will surely try to trick me into taking his place as the djinee’s servant.”
Most solicitously Jon said to the chemist, in Provench, “You made a noble sacrifice for the sake of your sister and for the life of your nephew too, and the happiness of your sister’s husband and your father. God will reward you for it, if He’s a just God.”
This brought a flood of tearful praise for the Sun, called God, whose daughter (metaphorical) is Justice and Righteousness and Truth. This purge seemed to settle the chemist’s temperament, and in a short while he was back to what Jon thought of as the chemist’s rightful self, something presentable on the streets beyond the Oom-ál-Faqr.
“You must tell me one thing, and then I’ll leave you and this place in peace,” said Jon, though he realized his lie. He had no more intention of leaving that block in situ than he did of becoming the djinee’s translator.
The chemist sensed something vaguely of the sort, but he allowed Jon’s question anyway.
“How can you know what the djinee is saying, if it is speaking the language of the kópees and you are not of that race?”
The chemist shrugged wearily. Any offense that Jon might have given was nothing to him now. “I know because the old woman told me what the djinee says. That is all it ever says.”
“The same thing? Day in, day out?”
“The very same.” By this point the chemist was in sufficient good spirits to repeat the “gibberish,” and its translation, this time into Provench but with such extensive use of Harábese for the odd bits that he scarcely needed to have bothered. Upon concluding: “That is all it says, every time, the very same.”
That seemed very unlikely to Jon, who, being well acquainted with djinees, could scarcely imagine such a mentally crippled creature. He began to reassess his conclusion that it was a djinee at all, although what other phenomenon that might produce such an effect eluded him. Mechanically, yes, he knew of phonographs and of the sysdaimons that operated within some of these devices, but, without moving parts, this creature would have to be something of an entirely different order.
Jon concluded his conversation with the chemist on unexpectedly good terms and left him and the gibbering block. Iánheh met him at the mouth of the alley and brought him back out through the Oom-ál-Faqr. Although they discussed the matter in some depth, Iánheh could also offer no explanation for the djinee’s behavior. “An máeh! It is not a proper thing,” she declared. “He must be sick.”
They parted company at the Bab-ál-Lámeh. That evening Jon ate his meal with Farrington, over conversations about some political items in the Emerish newspapers. He attempted a single discreet inquiry about djinees repeating single phrases, but Farrington had nothing to offer on the subject. After dinner, he cornered Walter Pendergast and asked how work on the Pink Chapel had progressed today.
“Well enough, I suppose.” Pendergast chewed on the smokeless stump of a cheroot. “But it will only ever be second rate. I’m resigned to that.”
Jon could scarcely contain himself. To his credit, as Pendergast dragged him off to play billiards, he said only: “Oh, I don’t know, Walter. Cheer up! It might amount to something more.”
In the morning Jon still felt quite confident about his situation. He sought out Iánheh at the gate and asked if she knew whether there would be supplicants (he did not dare, quite, call them “worshippers”) at the block today. It was difficult to say, was the reply, but, having found the chemist’s teaching schedule posted at the Polytechnic Institute, she arranged to take him to the block at such an hour as none would likely be there.
And indeed, as promised, before they had reached the Oom-ál-Faqr, they passed the chemist bound for the Polytechnic Institute: dressed in a Western fashion but for his tárboosh and turban, with no sign of his basket and its checkered cloth.
When they reached the alley, Iánheh again let her sáyeed continue on alone. Jon considered this for a moment. Iánheh was a kópeet, and he wondered if the djinee was, for her, one of the gods of the lesser case. “Well,” Jon said to himself, “if she holds it to be so, that’s her business. She knows mine and exactly what it’s about and so can’t mind very much.”
He pondered how to begin this conversation, if conversation were possible at all with the djinee. The words that the djinee did know seemed to be the best place to start. So he spoke the “gibberish,” understanding its sense but glad that Iánheh was not too close to overhear and harangue him for his accent and errors.
When no reply forthcame, he repeated it several times. He reached down and touched the block at the channels worn by the fingers of old women.
Undaunted by continued failure, from the pocket of his jacket he plucked out a sprig of grapes plundered from the Club’s breakfast-table. He laid this on the ground before the block. And still he gibbered. By now that had become a chant.
Whereas the chemist’s chant evidenced boredom, Jon’s evolved an undertone of annoyance. Jon stepped up into the house. From the leg of his pants, he pulled a short iron bar. The other end of the block, which was blank, formed part of the interior face of the wall. He studied it. There was more than one way to capture the attention of a djinee. When language fails, leverage might succeed. So, although Jon knew he could not demolish the wall, he knelt and proceeded to pry at the block, gibbering all the while.
“Lá! Lá!” said a voice. “Or have you come to take my place? With a little practice, you might say that stuff as well as I, but judging from the size of you, you will not fit here. Not, anyway, in one piece.”
Jon threw down the iron bar and bent his head low to the ground. “You do speak Harábese!” he whispered to the blank side of the block. He thought of the poor chemist, compelled by the obligation imposed by the former caretaker to act as translator until the end of his days.
“What else has been heard in this alley for the last thousand years?” the djinee asked.
Jon stepped out the door again, quickly lest he miss some visual manifestation from the eye in the alley. At this sudden action, Iánheh, who had been dozing at her station, looked his way. He waved off any approach.
But the block was simply the block, just as before, without the faintest flicker of subtle fire. No grapes had been eaten. No manifested figure of a djinee stood anywhere.
The djinee said, “What do you want of me? What plagues you, or that child down the alley, that my words can’t cure? Bring her closer, if she’s ill. Take the remedy and leave me in peace.”
“Leave you in peace?” exclaimed Jon, who had no intention of doing any such thing. “Is this peace? A dirty back alley where any dog might salute you? Where old women beg for favors you can’t grant?”
“Who says I cannot grant them?”
Jon made no direct reply to that. The powers of wish-granting genies are greatly exaggerated in popular fiction and opera, and sometimes even in the newspapers, but novelists, lyricists, and journalists do not create the notion from whole cloth. And, after all, supplicants had been coming to this djinee for centuries; such evidence indicated that the djinee had some power. Jon said, “You know that you do not belong here.”
“And do you?”
“That’s quite another matter.”
“Is it? And what are you going to do? You are just a foreigner without any power here.”
Thus Jon knew then that the centuries of exile in this back alley of the Oom-ál-Faqr had rendered the djinee very provincial. Foreigners had been powerful in Ópet for a long time, although, in this one little back alley, and also in hundreds of others in the Oom-ál-Faqr, that was not entirely true. After all, how could the khedeev or any other ruler of the country reach into every nook and crevasse, even if he had a hundred arms? For if he had a hundred, the alleys would number a thousand. And if he had a thousand, the alleys would spread into catacombs and eat away at the earth like a bone-cancer, making it spongy, and then would the palace of the thousand-armed khedeev collapse!
The khedeev, like everyone else who has ever ruled Ópet (if not everyone else who has ever tried to) knew this. It is part of the bargain of the Oom-ál-Faqr, and no doubt other places in the world too, whether the low slums that suckle upon the Celestial Mansion of the Emperor of Renguo, or the scattered jungle-hamlets of Chocolatala, or the deepest, darkest tenements of Ilyonton’s East End. Jon, not being a government man, did not entirely apprehend the fuller scope of implications, but he could appreciate what pertained to his own circumstance.
He considered returning with paper and water to make a squeeze that Hoozeyn’s artisans could copy, but no: he was determined to return no ephemeral imitation to the Pink Chapel but the very solid object of “His crowning glory,” both to pay his Club dues and to choke Pendergast, pari passu!
Delighted by this prospect, Jon sat himself down against the wall. “You say,” Jon said, “that I’m just a foreigner without any power, and perhaps that’s true, perhaps that’s not. What power do you have, really, servicing a few old women a few days out of a month? Don’t you know that you’re a prince?”
“Of course I do,” said the djinee with what sounded remarkably like an offended sniff, though perhaps it was just a creak of subsidence from the timber roof of the ancient little house.
“You belong in King Ósorathó’s rose-granite chapel that sits on the western bank of the Fiáró, facing the sunrise. You’ll be in a better state there.”
“I should not think so,” the djinee replied.
“Well,” said Jon, “that’s only because you’ve spent the last—” He looked again at the wall, judged its style and material and age against what he had read in books and had seen elsewhere in the city, and continued: “—seven hundred years or so looking at an alleyway from upside-down.”
“O, but I was not in an alleyway, always,” the djinee corrected. “Once, the prince was in a palace. Rosewater upon my head! And the bricks of every wall were plastered with bright colors, and the floors were swept every day, not just on the days when old women (and young ones! yes, the young ones most!) came to beg favors, for they did that too, then. Begged favors of the prince, and the prince granted them as if he were a djinee. But in time the king grew jealous, or envious, or some other hardness took hold of his heart. Or perhaps it was God. And there was an earthquake. Or maybe it was a war. And the prince who granted favors was upside-down, stuck in a wall.”
And what the djinee said sounded mostly right to Jon, except that the Pink Chapel was a temple and not a palace. Not all djinees appreciated such differences among human places.
“Listen,” Jon said urgently, “you suffer unfortunately, but after today it’s all your own doing if you don’t listen to me and do as I say. I know men who are putting together the building that the earthquake or war or whatever it was tore asunder. I can put you back into your proper place. You’ll be restored to enjoy whatever existence you had there. These men I know, they call you ‘His crowning glory.'”
“I was once, I think I know that,” the djinee said.
“But I will have to remove you from here. Your attendant will object, if you don’t release him from his bond.”
“To him I will speak no other words than the ones I have always spoken! How can I trust him? He would sell me if he knew I could speak so. He has said this himself, more than once, as he curses me.”
“He says these things only because he fears you, or else because he fears his God; I don’t know which. Even if it is true, he won’t sell you, not before I can get you out, anyway. I’ll be back before noon tomorrow with a gang and a permit.”
The following morning Jon learned that the bashaw-ruzool (that is, the chief of bailiffs) would not give him a permit or guarantee of any kind that might suspend the activities of the bólees (that is, the police) because the Oom-ál-Faqr was (as has already been said) one of the places in the city that the arms of the khedeev did not reach—and did not want to. “Therefore,” concluded the bashaw-ruzool (though he did not convey the khedeev’s capitulation quite so plainly), “I cannot give to you any permit that says we will not do anything whatsoever. Because that would imply that without your having that permit, we would, could, or might have power to do something, which we manifestly do not.” (This man was, one should note, the very same bashaw-ruzool who had failed to find anything wrong with Iánheh’s performances when she was in the employ of a certain rope-charmer, which is another tale, but let it be noted that he was thus demonstrably a man of the law and not of his opinion.)
Jon Fox was uncomfortable with the idea of knocking down a wall in the Oom-ál-Faqr without some form of official sanction.
“The sáyeed is wise at last,” Iánheh concluded. They stood, again, at the mouth of the alley, while another audience of the misfortunate went on, fifty feet away. “But what will the djinee do if you break your promise to him? He that takes away illness can bestow it.”
“Eh?” said Jon. He had been thinking only of the other consequence—namely, his manifest failure—which seemed to him far more immediate and terrible than any djinee-cast plague. “Maybe Pendergast can do something… direct Hoozeyn’s gangs here for a day. Baker’s Guns. Something.”
The audience ended. The misfortunates stood up. This was a bigger crowd today: an old woman, two grown men, a small girl, and three older boys, one of whom limped, though, to judge by the gestures and tone of those with him, this was an improvement.
Jon began to vacate his place, but Iánheh touched his sleeve to hold him fast.
The people who passed them paid them no ill mind, except for one old woman who paused to give Jon an assessing look. She said something quickly in Harábese, patted Jon’s arm—Jon was by now accustomed to being so assailed by Ópetian women—and hurried after the others.
The woman’s dialect had been too thick, and her tongue too quick, for Jon to catch her meaning, but he noticed that Iánheh was grinning and sucking on a corner of her qafiyeh. His demands for a translation were not immediately met, and while they argued—or rather, while Jon repeated his demands to know to which sort of insult he had been subjected and Iánheh failed to comply because there are things that a young woman ought not to say to a man—a shout echoed from the far end of the alley.
This ended the interrogation. The chemist was dancing as if possessed, throwing his hands up in the air, slapping them against the walls, twirling like a darwesh, displaying his Western shoes beneath his robe, which he in the course of his dance threw off, revealing his Western suit. He sang something as incomprehensible as the old woman’s insult.
“Sáyeed! Has the djinee entered him?”
“That’s the stuff of fiction,” Jon said, unsure.
While passersby had not paid any mind to the audiences, this display could not help but garner attention: unbridled joy was rare in the Oom-ál-Faqr. Most of those who lingered were murmuring (as Jon understood) “another man cured.” The chemist, having broken his broom and crushed his basket beneath Western his shoes, set his tárboosh in place and re-made his turban before ascending the alley.
The Ópetian declined any sign of recognition of Jon Fox. He was himself again, a respected tutor of chemistry at the Polytechnic Institute. This foreigner was part of an old life of superstition he was abandoning forever in the Oom-ál-Faqr.
So after, Jon inquired of the djinee: “What did you tell him?”
“I told him that the god” (“pá natr,” the djinee said, this phrase in some Old Ópetian dialect) “told me that I must release him. Is this not the very truth? Only a god can restore one such as I to his place! I will worship him who restores me!”
“A god!” Jon said aloud, horrified by the notion of Walter Pendergast as a god—even of the lower case!—to a djinee. That was too favorable a position, one that risked bestowing unknown perquisites, for the full extent of this djinee’s powers were, to Jon, unknown. Silently, he said to himself: “It won’t be that way.” Yet, he was quite stuck. If he revealed “His crowning glory” in situ, Jon would make Pendergast the djinee’s “god.” If he did not reveal “His crowning glory,” Jon would deny Pendergast his deification, true, but Jon would also fail in his own task and, in doing so, make Pendergast right. Which fate was worse, Jon could not decide.
And if, tomorrow, supplicants came and found their djinee—or god—spouting its gibberish with no translator…. Jon could barely stand to think of it. He had seen something like this occur in the East End of Ilyonton years ago, when a popular phantasmagorion had closed up shop. The very same patrons who had formerly come to drop their copper pennies into the slots of viewing-booths or to buy tickets for the stage show now came to rip the doors off the vacated building. They tore the interior to bits, in hopes of prying loose some ghost or genie left behind or cornering some tattered phantasmal trace fit to be captured in a looking-glass, lamp, or bottle. He doubted that the people here, in the Oom-ál-Faqr, would behave so very differently.
Iánheh, learning of his fears, said cheerfully, “Let’s go, sáyeed! There’s a solution to your troubles. Leave its implementation to your dragoman, because that is what you pay her for.” And she called, to the djinee, “Niboo! Nim noofr, noofr!” That is to say: “Sáyeed! All’s well, all’s well!”
“Who is this daughter?” cried the djinee, who had not heard anyone (aside from Jon muttering the “gibberish”) address him in something like his own language for a very long time.
Jon said, “She’s a good dragoman, or has been to me, anyway. If she continues to be, you and I will each be back where we belong, you in your chapel and I in my Club,” and the djinee hummed happily in reply, if it was not an echo in the alley of Jon’s own hope.
Jon did not see Iánheh the next day, nor that after. He paced between the Hotel Royale and the Pink Chapel several times a day to inquire of anyone nearby if they had seen a kópeet dragoman. No one had, or at least not the one for whom he was looking.
He did not find her at the Bab-ál-Láhem, nor did any returning tourist party recognize her description. He asked others whom he knew—the street-barber, the women from whom he bought his bread, others, even Taggett—and none could or would say where she might be. To avoid the temptation of the Oom-ál-Faqr, Jon took instead to his room, a third-rate one he rented at the Royale. He sulked there the following days, and Madame Royale sent a servant to look after him now and then. The servant always found Jon at a book or notes, if he did not find him asleep. Even Pendergast poked his head into Jon’s room once and when Jon—in an unguarded, half-sleeping moment—muttered, “I’m working on your blasted crowning glory, God-damn-you,” Pendergast went away laughing.
Late one evening, the hotel servant arrived with a small card, folded and sealed with wax. Inside were Emerish words written in a neat, if childlike, hand: “The sáyeed has an apt next 1 hr after sun rise.” He knew the hand, and the brain that had thought to write it. He slept little that night and paced, half expecting his dragoman to give more hint than that. Weary of pacing, to fend off sleep he even lit his oil lamps and shaved. Jon Fox emerged that following morning at his usual pre-dawn hour, looking ill-slept but otherwise more respectable than he had some other days, properly shaved and groomed. In the hotel restaurant, Pendergast, Farrington, and Klein greeted him over their morning papers, bread and marmalade, and glasses of strong coffee, as if nothing had ever been amiss. At fifteen minutes before the appointed hour, Jon got up without a word and walked out to the street. The morning traffic of pedestrian tradesmen, carted freight, and tourists hoping to miss the worst heat at the desert “sights” was well underway. Among them was no sign of Iánheh.
From their lofty obelisk perches, horologues of the temple sonorously marked the moment of the appointed hour. When this chanted song had subsided and the sun stood over the horizon, a new, livelier sound of singing and drums quickened Jon’s pulse. It was a kópee wedding procession taking advantage of the cool morning air, with female dancers in flowing dresses making circles around the wealthy young bride, who, reciting pieces of love-poetry that extolled her (one must hope) beloved, occupied a sedan chair borne on the shoulders of six eunuchs. Trailing along after came a little contingent of donkeys festooned with bells and fringe, laden with gifts. It would not be unlike Iánheh to insert her own occasion into such a parade, to give her business some “dignity,” but she was not following.
So, as glum as he had been yesterday and the days before, Jon Fox wandered toward the site of the Pink Chapel, knowing that Baker’s Guns would not let him pass.
He did not have time to decide whether or not to be surprised to encounter his dragoman on the Corniche with a donkey cart. “An ass isn’t suited, maybe, for ‘His crowning glory,'” Iánheh said, “but even a god will compromise. The cart’s owner, however, is another matter! I must return it when you’ve finished your end of this business, sáyeed.”
With little prompting she told Jon what supplicants had come the next day: the pitiable, if not fatal, case of a little boy with an epigastric hernia. Iánheh explained to them that the djinee had sent away the other translator (which was very much the truth) because God had spoken to the djinee (which was rather less the truth) and declared that the djinee must vacate the place. Of course the djinee, trapped in the block, could not very well move himself: the supplicants had too been sent by God to do God’s bidding, so all would be all right for them at the end.
The supplicants had been understandably suspicious: after all, Iánheh was a kópeet and could not be trusted in matters of religion. But one of them remembered Iánheh’s father the vaccinator, and, through certain other assurances (some from the djinee in Harábese), Iánheh vouchsafed that all would be as their God willed. So the supplicants had fetched kin, strong men who knew about building walls and about tearing them down. These men pried up the block and deposited it upon the cart, which they entrusted into Iánheh’s care. “So I hope, sáyeed, that your intents are pure and your efforts successful in getting the djinee back where he belongs. Otherwise, once proved to be a liar, I will have much to answer for!”
“And what a wonder that would be,” Jon murmured, but he was smiling, for his faith had not been ill placed and the looming reward was handsome: his reinstatement into the Club could not be long in coming now, and, even sooner, Pendergast would be proved wrong.
Pendergast was not long in showing up on site, with Farrington and Klein. He saw Jon, and his gaze lingered on the cart and Iánheh, who did what Jon would not do: grin most openly at him. He and his compatriots ducked beneath the tarpaulin.
“Soon for your fitting!” Jon said to the djinee, who hummed again, and Jon was pleased to know that it was still there, though perhaps the sound was only the axel of the old cart, groaning under its heavy load.
Soon after, Pendergast emerged. He made a straight line for Jon and the cart.
Jon could contain himself no more. “I have ‘His crowning glory’!”
“You can’t have it,” Pendergast said. “It’s impossible.”
“So I heard you say! ‘Jon must fail at last!’ And don’t think I haven’t heard you, Pendergast, muttering and fretting all this time!”
“I don’t doubt that you have! But still, you can’t have it,” Pendergast said. “It is impossible.”
“Look for yourself.”
“Don’t you understand? It’s impossible because I fabri—”
Jon spoke over Pendergast, unhearing. “It doesn’t matter why it’s impossible, because it is more than possible: it is, in very hard fact.”
“How far you’ve carried this delusion, Fox! But I’ll play along. What have you had a stonemason cut and at what cost? If it’s good enough and fits somewhere, I’ll have Klein put it down in the ledger as an expense.”
Pendergast looked at the block. He stared at it. He gazed at it. He inspected it. He measured it. And, quite to Jon’s surprise, with a laugh he authenticated it: two thousand four hundred years old, from the front face of the pylon of the Pink Chapel. “By God and the Devil, Fox! You are as clever as they say, and maybe more by half. Hoozeyn! Where’s Hoozeyn?”
Iánheh had already fetched the foreman, who expediently took charge of the donkey cart. This became the centerpiece of a slow procession toward the Pink Chapel.
“You owe me for this, Pendergast,” Jon said, bluntly. Pendergast had received his defeat so well that it might be mistaken for a triumph; Jon felt thoroughly robbed.
“I do owe you, I do! And we’re Harbridgemen. The ink on our diplomas is thicker than blood.” Pendergast waved to Klein, who joined the little procession, note-book in hand. “Enter ‘Jon Fox’ onto the roster of members. But we can’t say it’s for extra-ordinary efforts, though, you understand, or else we’ll have all manner of transgressions and attendant attempted compensations.”
Jon said, “No, no, we can’t have such behavior as that, of course,” emphasizing the now-inclusive pronoun. Although occupied watching Klein’s pencil jot notes that would be later typewritten into formalities, Jon began to present ideas about the Pink Chapel that had been fermenting in his brain ever since his exclusion from the Research Club, if not before: if it might not be a mortuary temple, which would bring forward the question of the location of the associated tomb, and where there was one tomb, there ought to be others—
Pendergast spoke over him. “We can feed you from the R. C. accounts, I think, but nothing will be official until next year. Iftah lee!”
The barrel of a rifle lowered, pike-wise, across Jon’s path, in the hands of one of Baker’s Guns, and thus he and Iánheh were shorn from the procession, which disappeared beneath the arc of a brailed tarpaulin.
As it closed down again, Pendergast called, “The main office must approve your ‘rehabilitation’! Don’t despair! You’ll get in, Fox. I give my word as a fellow Harbridgeman that you will receive formal notice of the arrangement before noon.”
Jon waited out the rest of the morning seated in the shade of a fig tree, but Iánheh was obliged to return the unburdened donkey cart. Klein came to him not long before noon. He handed to Jon a small envelope, unsealed, of good, stiff, ivory-colored paper and walked away, shaking his head.
“So,” Jon wondered to himself, “Klein doesn’t approve? No matter. He’s not boss, anyway, and never can be.”
His fingers slipped the envelope open. Inside he could see the back of a card equaling the envelope in quality. Because a man ought to stand when receiving such a privilege—even a belated and well earned one—Jon brought himself to his feet, then brushed off his dusty trousers with his hands and wiped his dusty hands on the sleeves of his jacket. Several repetitions of this procedure soon had him feeling presentable. He savored the prospective moment of his triumph and relief before pulling the card from its envelope.
“That so small a thing can disarm Baker’s Guns and part the tarpaulins—”
Which it did, by naming Jon Fox as one of the Invited Guests permitted to enter the Pink Chapel on the morning of its formal unveiling, to be held with great ceremony in three weeks’ time.
The unveiling came off on schedule. The ceremony was held at ten o’clock in the morning (according to the clock of the Baker & Son travel office), with a brass band that played a succession of marches, a chorus of children from the missionary school, representatives from the khedeeval palace, the Pretish consul, and a number of other dignitaries, including some very important Emerishmen who arrived aboard a Baker’s steamer. The fringed parasols and bright dresses of their wives made a garden of the new pavement between the pylon and the steep riverbank. Jon even wore his best suit to the occasion.
“Are you going to call the djinee out?” Iánheh asked.
Jon Fox was startled to find her at his elbow, dressed not in her best but in her usual, with qafiyeh and ukhl a little dusty. She had become a tourist’s novelty again.
Jon replied, “He was not among the Invited Guests.”
“An unfortunate oversight I’m sure, sáyeed. It has happened even to me.”
The ceremonies dragged on, a disquisition by Pendergast, a speech by a senior Baker & Son man from the Ilyonton office, a homily and benediction by Reverend Hopewell from the mission. Finally, the actual unveiling.
The scaffolding supporting the tarpaulin had been taken down to its barest elements and cleverly arranged by Hoozeyn: so that, when the dusty and stained cloth fell away from all four sides, the scaffolding also neatly collapsed, the whole then being dragged away by ropes pulled by unseen hands. This happened as the choir reached the stirring climax of “Arise Ye Faithful, God Is Risen.” And there was the Pink Chapel, glowing rosy in the sun like a confection.
Applause, now. The National Opera Company’s stage-hands could have pulled it off no better.
The R. C. had admirably adhered to the terms of the Baker & Son contract, and he who approved it deserved little of the credit that his signature later gave him. True, there were tinted concrete restorations among the rosy-pink granite, most especially on the great pylon front, but these were scarcely discernable to the untrained tourist eye.
There, on the southern half of the pylon, King Ósorathó presented his son (nominally Crown Prince Senuóphis, but surely the Divine Son), before God. Although the size matched, the prince’s face was not the djinee’s block. It had a different aspect and the “tears” were missing.
Jon thought desperately, “Maybe the djinee’s prince is somewhere inside the temple, or on another side!” But Pendergast had distinctly, emphatically, indicated that “His crowning glory” belonged to the pylon front. Had Pendergast had Hoozeyn smooth away the tears, lest, as obvious “blemishes,” they violate the terms of Baker & Son’s contract? The more Jon looked, the more he was convinced that the prince’s face was not the djinee’s block—and had never been.
After Baker & Son’s chief man made a final declaration, the band struck up a march and the court inside was opened for the assembled to tour. Pendergast conducted the highest-ranking guests through, and Farrington and Klein took their share of the others. Jon kept himself separate and, with Iánheh, sought the djinee’s block on the exterior.
Iánheh cried, “It isn’t here, sáyeed! Lá, it isn’t here!” Beyond this point she forgot all her Emerish, and even her Provench, and her tongue retreated back into Harábese, and, quickly, into the kópee language.
Jon tried to calm her; the Guns were looking. “Hush now or you’ll ruin us both—and look!” Jon guided Iánheh to the block, because she was now so overwrought that she could not from any distance see it for herself.
He (and she) could reach it, for the eye was just below the King’s feet. And the eye was not upside-down—or, perhaps better put, it was still upside-down, like the entire figure it belonged to: one of the defeated, unnamed foes thrown supine and trampled royally.
“Pendergast’s game is transparent now—his worry, pure fabrication,” Jon said mournfully. “He sent me to the haystack in search of a needle that never left the sewing-box. The prince’s face has been in the inventory all along, I’ll bet. This” (he put his hand to the block, and Iánheh followed suit) “was just one last chance find. It might have been another fragment of a beard! Pendergast made a fool out of me, bad enough… but how much worse to fall from god—even of the lower case—to wretched invert!”
Jon gently called to the djinee.
The djinee replied, but in his own Old Ópetian. With a little trouble, Iánheh, calmer now, translated what he said. It was much the same as he had told Jon before, but now the meaning was different: he had been a prince and a mage, his father’s first and favorite, and there had been a war, a violent plot against his king, his father; he, the prince, had conceived it and lost. Other mages had consigned his living force—qá, Iánheh said—and those of his fellow conspirators to these blocks. The others’ were all gone, having been forgotten, but he (and the qá did not give his name, because he had forgotten it) had been awakened by pleas and strokes to find himself in a house foundation. And now, restored back to his place, he would feel the weight of his father’s wrath while his favored brother was as a gift unto God.
“And now,” Jon thought, “the empty images of king and heir will be honored by Baker’s tourists in their thousands while the djinee—this qá! once a living man like me, or like Pendergast, or Taggett—is just some poor nameless devil who, everybody will say, should have known better than to defy his pious father….”
“Fox!” called Pendergast from within the chapel. “The Reverend craves your learnéd opinion about the presentation of the severed hands! Literal or figurative?”
“Don’t feel too sorry for this qá, sáyeed,” Iánheh said to Jon, who hesitated to respond to Pendergast’s summons.
He rebuked her callousness. “How is it possible for anyone to feel too sorry for that!”
He tried to get her into the Pink Chapel anyway, so that she might hear what he had to say about the presentation of the severed hands. Not being one of the Invited Guests, Iánheh was permitted no farther than the pylon gate. One of Baker’s Guns made it clear that she must not be on the grounds at all. It was against the stamps, seals, and signs, and the Guns were finished being lenient with Jon Fox and his nut-brown maid.
Jon contemplated going no farther, but it would change nothing, except perhaps for the worst. So he went in to argue severed hands, literal, as one of the Guns took Iánheh away.
The esteemed Invited Guests later praised their tour of the Pink Chapel under the direction of their knowledgeable Research Club guides. A newspaper article would later quote one Mrs. Thurkettle, who described it as spending part of a morning in the era of the ancients. “There was not one trace, but ourselves and our shadows, of the modern day, at least until a steamer went by on the river, blowing its whistle.” This pleasant illusion (which any member of the Research Club would have disputed, noting, for example, the complete absence of painted surfaces, ritual furnishings, and roof) did nothing to ease the shock of their return to the outside world less than an hour later: when guests and guides emerged through the pylon gate, the world, or at least the site of the Pink Chapel, had taken on a new character.
The last event of note anyone could remember of the pre-tour world was that one of Baker’s Guns had escorted a kópeet girl back to the Corniche, per the power of the stamps, seals, and signs. Now, however, all of Baker’s Guns were cowed by a great mob: old women and young ones, men of all ages, toddling children, babes in arms, all Ópetian. Some considerable proportion of them was, to put it mildly, not in good heath. These were aided and abetted by the sound ones. It was as if a hospital ward and charity society had been delivered to the Pink Chapel.
This mob centered its attention on a particular detail of the left-hand face of the pylon. Those who could reach brushed their fingers across the legs, torso, and arms of one of the scene’s supine figures, and its face, especially its eye, which was already well worn with strokes and kisses, proof of its antiquity.
Pendergast pushed through, furious.
“Fox! Fox! This is your doing, isn’t it! Whip that dragowoman of yours to get rid of them!” (Never minding that Iánheh was nowhere to be seen.) “A rabble like this is against the contract! Explicitly! This place is for Special First Class tourists! It’s a holy place! It says so in the contract! The stamps! The seals! The signs! It’s the law!”
“Talk to the bashaw-ruzool,” Jon said gravely, with a smile that Pendergast was not allowed to see.
Pendergast did talk to the bashaw-ruzool. As did Taggett of Baker & Son.
It did not do them any good.
To this day, several days each week, supplicants come to the Pink Chapel, at the peak hours when Baker’s Special First Class tourists stroll through. The supplicants bring onions and tobacco and fish, and show off their children’s ruined eyes and the crushed limbs of men, and the ulcers and sores and cancers that have afflicted women. The colors are quite vivid against the rosy pink granite, and their prayers—not that the tourists can understand them—are quite graphic. There is no translator for the supplicants’ benefit, because now one can hear Harábese spoken, softly but without worry, by the djinee, or the qá, or the god. (Who, it should be noted, does not seem to suffer much, for all that a king is standing on his stomach.) Most importantly, the magic seems to work as well as it ever did. Which is not to say perfectly, but not even sysdaimons or men (or even women) succeed in what they try to do all the time. Nevertheless, people continue to come. And they will continue to do so for a long, long time.
The bashaw-ruzool explained the truth of the matter to Pendergast, and also to Taggett. There are some things that cannot be governed. That is the law.
If you liked this story, you may also like:
“Mr Morrow Becomes Acquainted with the Delicate Art of Squid Keeping” by Geoffrey Maloney
“The Six Skills of Madame Lumiere” by Marissa Lingen
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