A tiny lizard fissured the white wall, about a foot above the cool, marble floor. I knelt beside him, feeling the ridges of the floor tiles press into my bare knees. He wasn't black, as I had first thought, but a mass of densely packed dark emerald green scales, his eyes dull bubbles of blood. "Look, Bryce," I said. "Isn't he gorgeous?"
Bryce lounged on the bed, hands behind his head, sandals mussing the woven silk bedspread. "This room costs too much to be infested with wild life. Come here!"
Reluctantly I left the lizard, sat awkwardly on the bed beside Bryce's muscular, hairy legs. He waved at the window. Through it the pyramids loomed, almost as ancient as nature itself. "That's what we came to see. I've already arranged for us to ride out there at the crack of dawn tomorrow. We have lizards in New Jersey, Laura. Don't act so dumb."
I looked back at the wall; I hadn't sensed the slightest movement, but the lizard had gone.
The next morning the alarm went off at six. Groggily, I surfaced. We had flown in to Cairo the afternoon before and the seven hour time difference must have disoriented me. I hadn't got to sleep until two or so. Bryce, more used to flitting between time zones, stood over his suitcase, pulling clothes out and discarding them in a heap. "Get up, lazybones! Don't forget, you have to wear long pants to ride." I knuckled my eyes and dragged myself out of bed, then pulled on pale gray cargo pants and a T-shirt. Bryce was already posing by the door, rugged in faded Levi's, with a trace of stubble shadowing his firm jaw.
In the high-ceilinged lobby of the Mena House Hotel we were met by a serious looking young Egyptian who introduced himself as Omar. His opaque dark eyes sized us up. "You good riders?"
"Sure," said Bryce, even though I could count on one hand the times he had been on a horse, all of them with me. I nodded.
"Okay. I get horses for you." Omar led us down the cobbled drive and out of the gates of the hotel. The main thoroughfare—not much more than a dirt track with a layer of tarmac thrown at it—was dotted with little groupings, each consisting of a young Egyptian boy and a bunch of horses. The groups all looked the same: one grubby urchin, several long-limbed dusty horses, all Arabian, as far as I could tell. I had never seen so many Arabs in one place. Omar scanned the road, then set out confidently toward a distant boy.
When we got close I could see why he had chosen these animals. He was understandably concerned that Bryce's solid six-foot physique would prove too heavy for the Arabs. The youth in front of us held the reins of a much heavier limbed gray, standing about sixteen hands, probably from Arab stock crossbred with something more like the sturdy plains horses I was used to.
Omar began to negotiate in free-flowing Arabic with the young lad. Egyptian pounds changed hands, but I didn't see how many. The boy handed Omar the reins to three horses: the one I had earmarked for Bryce, plus a shorter, pretty bay mare, and finally a chestnut gelding with the classic dished profile and flared nostrils of the breed. "He's beautiful," I breathed.
Omar grinned at me, showing white teeth. "You know horses," he said, nodding with approval. "This is Karim. You take him."
I swung myself up into the saddle and took a minute to shorten my stirrups a notch.
Bryce struggled to mount until Omar gave him a discreet leg up, but once astride, he lounged back like a cowboy, the reins gathered in one hand. "Yee haw!" he said, raising his empty hand up and back like a rodeo rider.
Omar turned to me. "We ride once round the pyramids, just walk, trot. Then we can run the horses out into the desert. We stop for drink, then trot them back across desert, then walk home. Okay?"
I smiled my understanding. Karim felt strong and supple between my thighs. At a signal from Omar, I squeezed Karim's flanks with my heels, and we walked on.
As we approached the pyramids Bryce pulled his slim digital camera from his pocket in preparation. We walked the horses around a discreetly wired perimeter fence, at a distance of a few hundred meters. Even so you could see that the slopes of the pyramids, which appeared smooth from the distance of the hotel room, were actually tiny steps, much eroded by time and desert winds. Bryce snapped a couple of shots, then stuffed the camera back in his pocket. "I got better pictures from the hotel balcony," he said.
The outsides of the monuments were bereft of markings, the entrances blocked off with scaffolding and tarpaulins. "Renovations," said Omar, seeing Bryce's scowl.
Once we had completed the circuit, we turned the horses towards the open dunes. Omar gave Bryce a skeptical look. Clearly he had made his own assessment of Bryce's riding ability. "You hold tight to Maggie," he said. "She take you for ride." He made a funny click with his tongue on his teeth and pressed his heels into the bay mare. She sprang forward like a tiger unleashed toward prey. Karim needed little urging to follow, and Maggie gamely took up the rear.
Then we were galloping, across the sand, the horses' manes fanning out as they stretched their noses ahead and flattened their shoulders. I felt like I was flying. I was Lawrence of Arabia, about to rescue his comrades from a Bedouin stronghold. I looked back. Maggie couldn't keep up with the Arabs, which was a good thing, as Bryce was struggling just to stay on. A glorious feeling of freedom swept down from the sand dunes like a hawk and perched on the windblown space between my shoulder blades; I leaned into the gallop and gave myself up to its rhythms.
Eventually we pulled up by a cluster of sand colored Bedouin style tents. The horses were hot and sweaty, foaming at the nostrils. I could feel damp patches under my own arms, my blood pumping through my limbs. An involuntary grin spread across my face. "Wow! That was awesome," I said, then I dismounted and began to pet Karim on his cheeks and neck, "Good boy! Good boy!"
I sensed Omar behind me, then heard his deep, expressionless voice: "Miss, ask Mr. Bryce to get off please. Maggie needs water and a rest." I turned. Bryce, red faced and breathing heavily, was still sitting on Maggie with a dazed expression creasing his face. Maggie looked exhausted; she hadn't been bred to race a pair of Arabs, especially carrying a two-hundred-pound dead weight.
"Bryce!" I said, tugging his arm. "Look, there's a sign for Coke!"
Bryce leaned forward, swiveled, and almost tumbled to the ground, just as—miracle of miracles—two small ragamuffins emerged from one of the tents lugging a cooler, open to display the familiar shaped and labeled bottles. I gave over the money they asked for; it sounded like a lot, but I suddenly felt the sandpapery dryness of my throat. I swigged and gulped at the cold sweet liquid until it was gone, aware that Bryce was doing the same. I didn't even like Coke.
Afterwards we brought the horses back to the road just outside the Mena House, alternating walk and trot. We didn't speak much; I was still exhilarated from my wild desert gallop. The sun was hanging just above the horizon now, and already my pants were sticking uncomfortably to my thighs.
I stiffened as I handed Karim's reins back to Omar. My mount's glossy chestnut coat was flecked with salt and slick with sweat. Normally I would never return a horse to a livery stables in such a condition, but would rub him down myself.
Omar caught my eye. "Is okay. Is my job. Karim is good horse. He likes you."
I managed a smile. Bryce thwacked Maggie heartily on the rump so she let out a little squeal. "Camels tomorrow!" he bellowed.
After showering, we spent the day in Cairo, first at the Egyptian Museum, and then shopping for souvenirs and gifts for Bryce's family. I bought a glass pyramid paperweight for Bryce Senior. Next I chose an elegant snakeskin purse for Maddy, who—I realized with a sensation akin to joy—would soon be my mother-in-law. On our first meeting, Maddy had hugged me and told me how much she'd always wanted a daughter. For my part I had always wanted a mother like Maddy, a trim and stylish woman who campaigned tirelessly for her various charities and yet had always managed to be there for her sons.
Bryce, wearing his baseball cap and fanny pack, continuously cracked jokes in a loud voice. Even Tutankhamen's gold death mask couldn't silence him. He didn't listen to the fascinating history of papyrus, although he bought several scrolls. He refused to drink the carpet-sellers' hot, black tea. I shrank inside myself and caught the eyes of the native sellers. I imagined what they really felt beneath the polite veneer, as thin and yet impermeable a coating as on the papyrus itself.
I never looked at Bryce critically in New Jersey, I realized. There, he was in his element. As a former football player and Princeton graduate, now working for a renowned consultancy firm, he wasn't someone whose deeper feelings were ever brought into question. Even in the Philadelphia airport, when he produced the ring, he didn't so much ask me to marry him as expect me to fawn awestruck over the idea. He said he would get down on one knee in Cairo, so we could tell our friends we got engaged in sight of the Great Pyramids. As we rattled back to the hotel in a rickety cab, I twisted the ring on my finger. He hadn't done it yet.
We ate dinner on the balcony of the hotel restaurant. I ordered the meat kebabs, muskily sweet and tender, and drank bottled water. Bryce had shrimp, despite my reminders of dire possibilities, and washed them down with glass after glass of whiskey. He enthused about the Nile cruise to Alexandria we would take in a few days. I found myself thinking of Karim, the earnest smell of willing horse beneath my body, and of Omar, observing Bryce discreetly with inscrutable eyes.
When we got back to the room, I glanced at the window, and gasped in admiration. Apparently there were lights set up around the bases of the pyramids, and right now they were lit up, shading the sloping sides in different colors of blue, red and green. But Bryce's attention was elsewhere.
"Eww," he said. "It's that slimy little lizard again." Reluctantly, I looked away from the window, only to see Bryce swoop on a tiny dark green form like a bird of prey and snatch it up between thumb and forefinger, then hurl it out of the open window.
"It wasn't doing any harm," I protested.
"You don't know that," said Bryce. "They're probably like flies and have all sorts of germs on their feet." He made a point of washing his hands with hot water and soap; I made a point of getting into bed and pretending to fall straight to sleep. In reality I lay in bed awake again until late, imagining the little lizard, cast into unfamiliar undergrowth, bravely trying to make his way back to whatever home he had known.
I knew how he felt. When I was in Junior High, my parents divorced and my mother, on being awarded custody, moved back to New York in an attempt to reclaim the career in high finance she believed my arrival had ruined. An only child, I passed the next six years being minded by a series of housekeepers during the week and spending weekends and vacations at my father's apartment in Princeton, watching him play footsie with a succession of young blonde girlfriends. It was no wonder I idolized Maddy and Bryce, whose solid thirty-year marriage had produced three strapping sons.
The next morning, when the alarm went off at six once more, I awoke readily, but shuddered as I remembered what was planned. I didn't want to ride camels. I'd seen the beasts, dumb and slavering, carting tourists around inelegantly the previous day. Why would one want to get on such a thing, when one could choose instead the restrained muscular power of a horse?
Bryce had seemed determined we should ride them though. "How can you go to Egypt and not ride a camel, Laura?" he'd asked the night before, rolling his eyes at the sky as though I were a first grader unwilling to admit the world was round.
However this morning Bryce's covers had not moved, despite the tinny guitar music emanating from the radio. I knew he would blame me if we missed our chance to ride camels, so I leaned over him and slid the covers slowly down from over his face, then, when he still didn't budge, I nudged his arm. "Bryce, it's six," I cooed. "If we're going to ride, we have to do it early, remember, before it gets too hot."
Bryce moaned, and pulled the covers back up.
"Bryce," I tried again. "We have to be at the pier at seven tomorrow. This is our last chance to ride camels. Come on, honey."
He opened one bloodshot eye, then the other. "Ohhhh," he groaned theatrically. "I think that shellfish must have got to me, babe. I'm dying here."
I observed him skeptically. Shellfish or whiskey, either way, it didn't look much like he was getting out of bed.
"You go," he said, snuggling back down. "Get Ahmed or whatever his name is to take a photo of you that we can show our friends, okay?"
"Omar," I said. "Okay then. See you later."
Omar stood in the hotel lobby just like the day before. "Good morning, Miss," he said, inclining his head in a tiny bow. "You want to ride camels today, yes? Where is Mr. Bryce?"
"Just me today, Omar," I said. "Mr. Bryce has a bad stomach." I patted mine to make my meaning clear.
"Okay," he said, then cocking his head and showing those white teeth again, he added "You still want ride camels?"
A big grin spread across Omar's face. "Good," he said. "Camels not clean, not smart. We ride horses. I have horse special for just you."
Today we bypassed all the groups of waiting boys with horses, even Karim, though I recognized his clever head and could have sworn he whinnied at me. Omar led me to a stable block a way down the road and set back on a side street. The usual urchin stood outside, holding a couple of bay Arabs by the reins. I tried not to look disappointed, but neither of them was the horse that Karim was.
Omar talked long and low to the boy without any money changing hands. At last the boy shrugged. Then Omar entered the stable block and a few minutes later returned leading the most magnificent black horse I had even seen. He stood about fifteen-and-a-half hands—tall for an Arab—and he stared me down with haughty eyes as Omar tacked him up. "This is Balthazar," said Omar.
"He's incredible," I said, holding Balthazar's gaze and reaching a hand out to pat him slowly but firmly on the neck. "He must be more money to ride. You must tell me what I owe."
Omar gave a snort. "Balthazar is my horse, Miss. Pay nothing. Only understand, Balthazar is not—how you say—cut? He has spirit. You must be respectful."
I tried not to betray any nervousness. Omar was letting me ride his black Arabian pureblood stallion. I could ride camels at Philadelphia Zoo any time I chose. Where else was I going to get this kind of opportunity?
I let Omar give me a leg up onto the big horse, partly so Balthazar could understand his master's complicity in my riding him. The difference between being astride Balthazar and Karim was like the difference between a 1000cc and 250cc motorbike; I could feel the raw power restrained beneath me, ready for me to release. Balthazar's smooth flanks rippled as we set off toward the pyramids.
I noticed that the boy was following us on one of the bay geldings at a respectful distance, and asked Omar why.
"I cannot be alone in the desert with you, Miss," said Omar, beside me on the taller gelding. I flushed, but Omar remained fully composed. "Do not concern yourself, Miss," he added. "It is his job."
I don't think I can explain fully how wonderful it felt to gallop across the desert on Balthazar. I could hear the bass beat of his hooves on the compacted sand, smell the salty steam rising off his neck, feel his coarse black mane in my fingers. I was running with the wind; Balthazar was the wind. I hung on like a tick on an eagle's back. Nothing had ever got close to this experience.
As we stopped by the tents at the end of the gallop, I slid off laughing. My knees felt weak, and for a minute I felt they might collapse beneath me. Omar steadied me by the arm. His fingers felt sure and gentle, as you would expect from a man who loved horses. He handed me a Coke, and we sat down on the sand facing each other. "I knew you would like Balthazar," he said.
"I love him; I want to adopt him," I said, and immediately felt like a crass American for saying such a cutesy thing. Omar didn't seem to notice.
"I must tell you something important," he said, "even though my English is not so good." I looked at him curiously. Behind his head the red orb of the sun was beginning to creep over the horizon. We had a few minutes only before we would need to head back.
"People and horses are the same," he said. "I see them on the outside, but I must see how they are in their heads. This is how I know that some people must not ride some horses. Maybe they do not feel things deeply; perhaps they are not gentle enough. They may not be bad people, just wrong for the horses."
Omar sipped his Coke and lowered his eyes. I twisted the engagement ring on my finger—the ring was way too loose. I wondered if Bryce would actually propose in sight of the Great Pyramids, or if he would assume everything was settled already.
It would be a big wedding, I knew. Maddy and Bryce Senior would want the best for us. I wondered if my parents would even come. I felt uncertainty blow over me like the desert wind, and shivered, despite the early sun warm against my back. I stood up. "Take me home, Balthazar," I whispered, stroking his velvety muzzle. He whinnied softly and nuzzled me back.
"I am a British citizen but permanent resident of NJ, where I am raising two daughters. I write short fiction and poetry, and have had over 100 poems published in various journals. My story "Skins" won an Honorable Mention in the 2003 Byline Short Short Story Contest. My story "Gritty" won Second Prize in the Fiction "Words on the Wall" contest at the 2004 Philadelphia Writers' Conference and was subsequently published by the e-zine Outsider Ink. My short story "Impressions" won Third Prize in the Fourteenth Great Blue Beacon Short-Short Story Contest and appears in the latest issue of The Stockpot. My short story "Refuge" was published by Toasted Cheese." E-mail: evnsanna[at]comcast.net.