Carl tugged the thick gloves on and heaved the steel door open with one shoulder, calling out gotta clear the screen, back in five, and then went heavy-footed out into the concrete maze of tub and pipe and channel, into the nearly visible stench of waste bodily and industrial, into the eye-watering spectrum from ammonia to shit and back again, with several unpronounceably chemical notes in between, his mask blocking the odor just enough to put in him the terror of going maskless, of just forgetting one day and opening the steel door without his outer skin on, the gloves the mask the boots the rest, exposing himself to the changed air and bam: he himself forever changed.
It could happen, had happened before — his shift supervisor Andy did it once, just forgot and went out to the tanks with nothing at all, no mask, no gloves, his bare idiot face glowing in the murk, eyes blue jewels of disbelief, the troughs of his nostrils flaring and contracting as he breathed in great swallows of air out of some kind of frozen animal wonder, he said later, once he’d come to his senses and turned and run with that slo-mo dream-fear back into the monitoring room, he said it was so bad, the smell, that he couldn’t stop checking, over and over: that bad, really, that bad?
Carl shook his head and tried not to imagine.
The bar screen was stuck halfway through its arc, one end of a length of fishing line snagged on the teeth and the other on some unseen thing beneath the complicated brown surface of the water.
Carl hauled down on the screen with one hand and with the other snapped the line so it fell in a transparent tangle back to the water, hardly stirring the trash-pitted oil-thick mirror of its surface, and the motor hummed happily back into functioning, and the screen resumed its steady ascent, and as it tipped toward the debris collector, something in the foul gritty leafy paste that glommed up the cradle of the rods caught his eye: a flash of blue.
He reached out and clamped the thing — an oval rimmed in tarnished metal, its intricate carvings clogged with slime — between gloved finger and thumb, rubbed at it briefly, jammed it in his coverall pocket, and as he walked away, forgot.
Had he drained the boiler — Roy furrowed his brow — it was a good question, a fair question, a question that demanded far more frowning and staring out the picture window into the blurred autumnal middle distance than it might have five or even two years ago, he realized, when he would have known in an instant that yes, of course he had, was he not responsible for the maintenance of the house, its day-to-day and seasonal requirements, and hadn’t he been for more than fifty years now, descending the cellar stairs (sturdy as ever, he didn’t see why Cece wouldn’t have the grandkids following him down) to lay hands on the boiler, the creaking, clanking heart of the house, moaning a little on frosty mornings before shuddering into life — him and the boiler both — but had he drained it last spring, or could he have forgotten?
Jenna had asked earlier that day as she shepherded the boys back to the car: Dad, are you sure you dealt with the boiler, because I can have someone come — no, no, I’m sure, he had shooed her away, genuinely believing and only later coming to think, wait, did I, or am I thinking of the year before — then calling out do you remember, did I drain the boiler back in May? to Cece, who was already upstairs tidying up after the visit, after the kids, awfully quiet for a couple of little boys but you could trace their path through the house by the trail of things where they shouldn’t be and things missing from where they should: Hot Wheels lurking in the jungly philodendron, Swiss army knife worryingly absent from the tray of pocket-clutter by the front door, each step up to the second floor lovingly trip-hazarded with a single baby carrot that Roy bent with some trouble to retrieve and tuck into his shirt pocket, on the landing a small yellow sock with a fire engine on it, around the corner to the bedroom where Cece stood at the dresser in mute contemplation of the gingham-frocked Ginny doll that guarded her jewelry box, new and improved with the pocketknife blade-out and wedged in the crook of one dimpled arm, the pursed plastic mouth satisfied, her expression subtly changed.
Wow, Roy said, and Cece laughed, and then stopped laughing, and said can’t you remember about the boiler — maybe she’s right, maybe we should think about moving to one of those, you know — no, he said, low voice almost a growl, no, not yet — Cece sighed and turned back to the dresser: look, half of it’s out of the box, for a couple of boys they sure like to dress up pretty with grandma’s jewels, see if you can’t find the amber or the malachite, that round pin, you know, or the lapis — which is that, he asked, the blue?
That’s right — from my mother, all that nonsense her father sent when he went off to Egypt with those men from the museum — may not have been much for the settled life, but his taste wasn’t bad.
Roy found the amber strung on the bathroom faucet and looped twice around their toothbrushes and knocked the whole thing into the sink trying to get it untangled; mild oaths ensued; he found the malachite pinned, well-camouflaged, to the green hand towel; he wondered what else he had gone in for and while he was there why not take a leak, a thing he did now nearly every quarter-hour, stream frothing the calm turquoise (Cece insisted on keeping one of those little gas-station-smelling disks in there) of the water.
Something rattled as he flushed, something invisible, blue beneath blue, and the lapis rattled back into his recollection — oh lord, not the lapis — he flinched as Cece’s voice carried from the hall: what on earth was that sound, Roy — nothing, dear, couldn’t imagine…
Dearest Beryl: The heat here is a living thing, a heavy creature made of wool that treads the sand on leather-padded feet, breathing out plain clear heat to sweep the scoops and rises of the sand-dunes and settle there for the length of the day while we fools labor on in shirt-sleeves and braces, wishing for loose white garments like the natives wear, at least I do: the way sweat sticks the shirt to you underneath the braces, you wouldn’t care to imagine.
Now, before the heat sends my brains creeping half-cooked out my ears: I received your letter dated 11th March and the enclosed note from Lucy, and you must tell her thanks very much for the birthday greetings and for the drawing (though if she really believes I possess the face of a goat and the height of a pyramid perhaps I ought to come home sooner, or at least keep my beard tidier), and for the reminder to keep my hat on ‘even when it is very hot, in fact specially when it is very hot’ — I will try not to forget.
Though perhaps she isn’t far off with the goat; I am a little like a mule, carrying with me as I must a whole clattering mess of tools, often pushing a wheelbarrow, and of course at all times my hat, my pack, my spare boots, my lunch, and my canteen of warm and sour water.
As for you, Beryl, most precious stone — never mind all this gold and turquoise bric-a-brac they cart out of the tombs, I know real treasure when I see it, and you’ll say why don’t I come home to it then, and this is my answer: I promise to return in the same shape as I left you (husband, father, not a bit of pack animal) but it would be a poor journey indeed if I returned in no way unchanged.
So I will keep on in the swirling sand until I am more what you deserve (more what I cannot precisely say, perhaps wiser or nobler or more stalwart, though so far all that is certain is that I will come back browner in the face) and for your part, Beryl, when I do come back, I beg you not to meet me with that look — you know the one I mean — as if I am a dog you cannot help pardoning, though I have been very, very bad.
One last thing: enclosed find a small trinket I plucked from a tray of odds and ends not yet sorted (and which I had no right to take), but let us say I made my own small expedition for it because it brought your eyes so suddenly to mind — that clear and knowing blue.
Menna turned to look back at the entrance of the tomb, hoping for a glimpse of star, but the clouds had turned the small square of night from black to hazy blue.
Metal rang nearby on stone, and he winced and made a silent promise to the occupant that soon peace would be restored, though — again came the hollow ring and shiver of the pick descending — it took some effort to imagine.
Not a king, they had assured him, a lesser man, a bureaucrat, worthy enough to be buried with riches but not so worthy that the gods would care whether he held onto them, and Menna endeavored to seem reassured as he agreed, agreeing in this way permitting him to remain firmly in the fantasy that he had a choice, that he was anything other than a young man with obligations he was unable to fulfill, though without question he would rather be that than one of these other men who drove their way under earth to unsettle a dead man’s rest for nothing more than profit or glory or pride — Menna told himself, tapping the metal bar across the stone floor as if to underscore this justification, and the flat end of it caught in a groove, and his breath caught too, and his hands moved without instruction to uncover a small hollow full of jewels and amulets and tiny figurines, here in the outer chamber where they had left him while they went on for the real treasure — Menna almost laughed as he combed through the cold bright stuff: rings of gold, a broad collar beaded with carnelian the color of dark honey, a flash of green from a statuette, a small tarnished mirror, a moon-bright alabaster cup, and there, tucked under a golden wing snapped off some now flightless bird, a flat blue scarab, color holding true in the torchlight and cool in his hand, which grew sweaty and nearly dropped it as the footsteps approached and Menna jumped to his feet, blocking the little cavity in the floor, and made his voice glum: nothing but old pots and rock-hard bread here, no luck, too bad.
You’ll get your share anyway, said one of the others with a flat grin, not that you deserve it — they were pooling what they found and splitting it, though not evenly, of course — and Menna waited, turning and turning the brilliant blue stone hidden in his hand, and when the others had gone on ahead he let the scarab fall into the hollow and slid the stone back into place, for if the dead man trusted him with his treasure he would not betray him by taking it, Menna thought with a little flare of pride as he walked out toward the widening prize of the sky, and though he had meant to beg some sort of absolution from the entombed man instead he hurried away from the stale clinging odor of the other world, knowing that once he was clear of all this he would insist to himself that he had not been afraid — he had simply forgotten.
All that goes down into the earth, Menna thought, emerges changed.
To live without robbing another, to live knowing he had tarnished none of the essential parts of himself, and more to the point, to die knowing it — he realized he was conjuring up an image of the dead man, though there was no reason to believe he had made his way intact through this world of filth and compromise — yet still Menna thought it, needing to pin the idea onto someone real, assembling his argument in his head as he often did, making small gestures as he walked, feeling rightness come over him like fever, the heat growing so that a little whisper of it had to be released to prevent him going up in flame: we should leave some offering, he said, some bread at least, and the man beside him heard what he meant beneath the words — you’re too good to take your share? — and Menna returned abruptly to himself and, shaking his head, let everything leave his mind — the smell of death, the living night, the prayer unsaid — except the pinched face of his dead sister’s child as he had left her that evening, folded into the blanket, the slow nod of the child when he told her he would be back very late, knowing that until she fell asleep the child would feed herself on the thin hope of a late impossible meal, and so as the appraising eyes passed over his face Menna found it easy to make his gaze blank and clear as water.
When they told me he was dead, I closed my eyes and felt my sorrow turn to water.
When they told me he must be buried, I took the pendant from my neck and said bury him with this, to remind him the sky before was blue.
He may as well have it; for me the color of all things is changed.
The drum of grief goes on beating for longer than I could have imagined.
How many times will the sun be born before I can forget?
If one morning the sun declined to be born, would it be so bad?
The weather, the road, the food, the company, and every single omen had been bad, bad, bad.
To the west the Indus churned brown and bad-tempered after a month of rain, hungry for stray calves and careless children, and on both banks the land shuddered and sheared off as if it would rather throw itself in and be done with it than wait for the vast groaning appetite of the water.
In truth Kurush was beginning to see the appeal, but — the merchant pulled the cloak tighter over his head and tried to dry his face on its soaked hem — such thoughts were best forgotten.
Easily forgotten, too, when he reminded himself of the dense paradise awaiting him at the end of this, his fifth time on the long winding way from Shortugai at the foot of the eagle-high mountains down through the plains and on, south and south, toward the dreadful rush of the river and the harrowing crossing, and at last the port town on the peninsula, neatly laid out and bright with temples and songs he did not understand and did not try to, cleverly outfitted with wells and water channels and watchtowers, and where the widening river reached for the sea the ships waiting empty-bellied for the goods he brought: horses and rocks, mainly, but what horses, and what rocks! thought Kurush, smiling through the scrim of rain, seeing the liquid shine of the horses once the month of mud was scraped off and their manes combed out and the fine cloth, wrapped up in the bottom of a cart out of the rain, draped on their muscled backs; and the tin blinking glossy black from the barrel; and the gold and silver and copper, of course, nearly dull beside the flicker of carnelian and ruby and of course lapis lazuli, always lapis — a hole cut straight through the world’s cloth by sheer force of blue.
Kurush shut his eyes against the lash of the rain and clung for a moment to the thought of blue, seeing nothing else, and hearing nothing out of the ordinary, the noise of carts squelching through puddles and the complaints of men and horses concealing from his ear until very late the feet that came drumming on wet ground from all sides of the road, until the sound erupted into shouting and grunting and metal on metal and Kurush, not having his weapon to hand, rushed to the closest cart as if he could somehow sweep the whole thing beneath his cloak and hide it, and there a sword found him swiftly, clean under the ribs, and he fell, grateful to find himself on his back and not face-down in the mud, especially now that the rain was lifting and the sun shifting the clouds aside, and he lay listening to the sound of carts moving away and horses squealing in indignation and other men moaning, his mind occupied — as the last drops of water collected in his open mouth — wondering whether the rain-washed sky was truly drawing nearer, or was it one last imagining?
What a blue, he thought, and as feeling faded, thought too that there was nothing in particular he would have changed.
As the man walked home along the narrow path cut through purpling scrub he thought of what he would say to Parnam, his small son: it’s not so bad, down there in the pit of the earth, because sometimes I find a color ten times the sky or more, a color so deep it only grows deep underground, a color I do wrong by when I call it simply blue.
He would say: its name is lapis, and when I find a seam of it, no matter how dusty and how dry my throat, the color is like water to me, and in my mind the sky opens its sheltering wings wider than you can imagine.
He would say: we forget the stone, but the stone is not forgotten; we change the stone, but the stone goes on unchanged.
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