The Westport house was staged for showing to potential buyers. So was Laila Mahfauz, the owner. Sohaila sensed that the old woman hid herself well beneath her surface. Atypical for her Connecticut town, which gave nouveau riche a bad name.
Sohaila shrugged. “Mrs. Mahfauz, thanks again for selecting our company to handle the sale of your house.”
“Laila, please.I selected you to handle the sale, dear. Your company is just being dragged along with you.”
Mahfauz’ skin, unwrinkled despite her age, had the gloss of pale milk chocolate. She wore a carved pendant over a one-colored gown of burnt orange that dropped to her toes, a simple style worn in variations for thousands of years.
“Your maiden name, Sohaila, I think was Monsef?”
“I married an American and kept his name after the divorce- an Egyptian name can be a turn-off in this business. How do you know my maiden name?” Sohaila almost frowned but stopped herself. Be the customer. See through her eyes.
“You come from an Egyptian family with a long lineage, Sohaila. That was important. I’ve looked a long time for the right person to handle this. My lawyer has reviewed the papers and they seem correct. However, I’ll need a commitment from you that we can discuss once a buyer is found.”
Sohaila hesitated, but she couldn’t strongly object to what she didn’t know about. “Of course, Laila, as long as it’s legal and not overly burdensome.” She was close enough to the old woman to study the details of her pendant. It hung by a long leather strip, a carved shimmering brown slightly darker than Laila’s skin. The workmanship on the gemstone was elaborate and beautifully executed- the head of a serpent or crocodile. “How beautiful your pendant is.”
The old woman gently fondled the jewel. “Thank you. I wear it every day.”
The sales agency agreements were quickly signed. On her way home, Sohaila told the car to call Steve. She needed to talk about Laila with someone outside the office, and Steve, among other things, was good at listening.
“Can you stop by after dinner?”
“Are there carnal strings attached?”
Steve wanted more than occasional intimacy, but Sohaila for reasons she couldn’t identify kept him short-leashed in companionship. She set him up in a comfortable chair with a large drink and began.
“The place is a mansion, well over 100 years old but carefully updated. My six percent would be something like $130k. You know how badly I need the money. I need to be her best friend, but I get the crawly feeling that she wants to use me worse than I want to use her.”
Steve was thrumming with anticipation, but refocused. “If it doesn’t hurt you, give her what she wants. Are you afraid that it’s illegal?”
“No, nothing like that. But whatever she wants from me is a lot, or she wouldn’t have set the stage like she did. But hell, I’m a big, bad girl- what could she want that I haven’t already considered?’
She woke just after midnight and kicked Steve out just after 1a.m. He muttered protests and tried to snuggle, but Sohaila was merciless.
A serious prospect to buy the house emerged less than two weeks later- dumb assed luck- and Sohaila made introductions and began the ritual haggling. When the price and terms had been all but decided on, Laila Mahfauz called and asked Sohaila to stop by the house.
Not good, she thought. Anything routine could have been handled without a face to face. Sohaila braced herself for the deal to abort. She was seasoned enough to not count on a commission until the check was cashed, but need had sucked her into pre-sale anticipation.
Laila Mafauz had her sit in an easy chair in the library and made tea before starting to talk.
Cushioning the blow. “Is there a problem, Mrs. Mahfauz?”
“Laila, please. No, not a problem, but a condition I’ll require from you.”
Sohaila had counterargument arrows mentally laid out so she could quickly shoot them.
”In order for me to make this sale I need you to swear, in writing, that you’ll take possession of my pendant and wear it every day for at least one month.”
Sohaila threw aside the useless verbal arrows. “Um, Mrs., Laila, The pendant obviously means a great deal to you. I’m touched that you’d consider giving it to me…Or maybe you’re the one that’s touched… but really it’s an item that should eventually be passed along to your family.”
“I don’t have a family. My situation is changing rapidly, and I need to consign the pendant to someone like you, who has the background to put the carving to its best use. I can tell that you’re attracted to it. Is it so onerous to wear it for a month? After that you can dispose of it however you wish. You’ll need to wear the pendant all day, every day, but can take it off at night if you wish.”
Sohaila sensed the implacability of a rising flood. Thoughts of the commission resurfaced, easing her decision. “Very well, Laila, if it’s your wish I’ll take the pendant from you.”
Laila shuddered as if something heavy was sliding off her shoulders. “Ah, my dearest, you won’t understand yet, but I both love and hate you for doing this.”
The closing came four weeks later. The two women remained in the lawyer’s office after the buyer had departed. They sat on faux leather chairs at one corner of a long conference table, veneered, like the wainscoting, in pretend mahogany. As though we’re performing in a theater. Laila’s lawyer presented her with a one page document.
Sohaila was surprised to see that the top half of the page was hieroglyphics, and pointed an interrogatory pen at the characters.
“The meanings are the same as the English, dear, and as you can see, the agreement is uncomplicated. I signed the same agreement many years ago, and have done quite well. Please notice, however, that if you’re discovered not wearing the pendant you’ll lose both the pendant and the commission.”
Sohaila had the feeling that a heavy stone door was closing behind her, but signed. Laila slowly lifted the leather cord over her head, as if it were a ceremony, and equally slowly lowered it over Sohaila’s head and neck. The pendant was much heavier than Sohaila had guessed. Must be really dense.
After the closing Sohaila drove back to her office, brewed a coffee, and stared at the image of the pendant in a mirror. What the hell have I just done? The crocodile head nestled firmly between her breasts, like a sailor with good sea legs. She pulled out her cell phone.
“Professor Tassebehji? Ah, yes, Farid. Just reconfirming our appointment for tomorrow. I’ll bring a check for the honorarium we discussed. I’ve left the afternoon free, so you can take as long as necessary for your examination.”
Sohaila rarely remembered her dreams, but that night’s visions were sharply colored hours after awakening. She’d been swimming in, no, under really, murky water filled with drifting reeds and plants. She knew without seeing herself that she was of great size. The current surged relentlessly, but she slipped through it with strong swirls, crisscrossing the river in search of prey. And found it. A fat Nile perch of perhaps 60 pounds was too busy seeking its own food to notice Sohaila as she weaved up behind it and grabbed it behind the gills. Violent thrashings tore the fish into gobbets of flesh which Sohaila bolted down. . She awoke flexing aching muscles, as though she’d spent the night exercising. I wonder, she thought, if I need to get back into therapy.
Farid Tassejehji was waiting for her with open reference books and various magnifying instruments. He was considerably more excited that Sohaila thought he should be for a routine evaluation. He held the carving as gingerly as a newborn, carefully rotating it and examining it with a magnifying glass.
“Incredible, “he muttered, “just incredible.”
“Do you see this cartouche at the top of the carving? It’s the cartouche, the signature, if you will, of Sebàkneferu. She was the first woman pharaoh of Egypt.” He riffled through a thick book. “Assumed the throne around 1799BC. Her name is taken from the crocodile god, a servant of Set called Sebàk. You’ve heard of it of course…”
“Afraid not. If I cared enough I’d be an agnostic, but I’m just irreligious.”
Farid went on as if he hadn’t heard her. “The spelling in English is rendered often as Sobek, but it’s the same god. See here, the hieroglyphs on the back under the gold wire- give me a minute…”
Farid consulted various texts, then pronounced, “see, it’s the same as what’s in the Book of the Dead, ‘I am Sebàk, who dwelleth amid his terrors. I am Sebàk and I seize like a ravening beast.’
“I’m guessing that the stone is sphene, of a beautiful, pure brown. The carving is exquisite, and the condition is pristine. The style seems correct for this period in Egypt, but the odds of its actually having belonged to Sebàkneferu are impossibly long. But even as an ancient copy it’s worth a great deal of money and priceless to a museum. Is there any provenance that accompanies this piece?”
“Only what little the old woman told me, nothing really.”
“We might be able to offer you a considerable sum for this piece in order to add it to our collection, but I’d need to keep the piece long enough to put it through various technical tests and examinations.”
Sohaila felt a sudden dread. She abruptly reached out and grabbed back the crocodile head. “Thank you, Farid, but I’m going to keep this with me for now.” She dropped the pendant back over her head and patted it to ensure that it rested firmly against her chest.
“Farid, did you notice the leather thong? What’s it made of?”
“I’m no expert on leather, but based on the pattern, I’d guess crocodile. It would have to be a replacement.”
On the way out of the university building Sohaila caught herself swaying as she walked, one foot almost exactly ahead of the other. Runway models exaggerated this motion to look sexy, and Sohaila noticed the appreciative stares of men she passed, but it felt somehow more natural, more predatory than her usual shoulder-wide pacing.
A surge of greed washed over her. If Farid was right about the value of the carving, in a month she could sell the gemstone for as much or maybe more than her commission on the house.
When she undressed for bed that night Sohaila took off the crocodile head and set it down gently on her nightstand. But after she’d gotten under the covers she turned the light back on, reached over, and slipped the stone back over her head. As she moved the gem rocked gently over her heart. She felt comforted, as if five years old and unable to part with a tattered pink elephant.
Once asleep she began to swim, not in water, but in the night air as if it were water, as if the great river had overflowed its banks and transubstantiated into the moist night air. Her sinuous body seemed as long as a house roof. From time to time she crouched in rain gray clouds, lurking until impelled to destroy. She felt the great jaws yawn open and the night air pass through unharmed.
The morning light disappointed Sohaila, who wanted to crawl back into the nocturnal reptile. But she pushed herself up and went into the shower, reluctantly taking off the carving.
Get a grip! Maybe there’s some residual drug on the thong or carving? Maybe the thought of all that money got me loopy?
The office mood was exuberant, for some of the money from the sale of Mrs. Mahfauz’s house would be shared out. How come I’m not feeling it? It’s like all these grunting mullet are in a different fish tank than mine, and I’m looking at them through two thick panes of glass.
“Nice job, Sohaila.”
“Yeah, way to go. But what’ll you do for an encore?”
What indeed? Her office mates, usually the center of her universe, now looked like pop up figures in a toddler’s book, flat and garishly colored. She confirmed her appointments and left- better to face humanity one on one.
Her first meeting was with a thirtyish, affluent couple who’d decided their image required an embellishment to their sleeping quarters. Nobody wants to be petit bourgeois, Sohaila thought, but most people remain so, even when they move away from it. Up or down, they just keep moving.
She applied verbal salve to their delicate egos, but all the while rocks rumbled in her stomach. The inanity of these two, brimming with self-importance when they’re really just rapidly staling Twinkies. A little of her rancor seeped into her tone and expression, and Sohaila dragged herself back into apparent empathy.
Her remaining two appointments were equally difficult. Sohaila beat on herself during the drive home- she couldn’t sell effectively if she considered her clients as turds- but couldn’t shake the sense of alienation.
Three drinks didn’t help either. On impulse, Sohaila stripped naked and moved slowly around her condo in that foot-over-foot gait she’d used earlier in the day. She could feel the air and artificial light on her skin, almost feel the wood beams under the flooring. She went to bed nude except for the crocodile head, which seemed to hold, without adhesive, to a spot over her heart and between her breasts.
The dream that night would have been a nightmare except that she wasn’t afraid. The reptile body enveloped her, its cold blood pumping through her. It swam with purpose through the great stream of night, ignored by those who lay beneath.
Her densely-muscled tail waved in rhythms that flexed and heated her groin in a sexual pulsing. Souhaila gave herself to the sensations, more completed than she’d been with any man. She swam into a home almost as large as Laila Mahfauz’s and crouched on bandy legs in front of an old man. Sohaila innately knew that the man’s ka, his soul, had been weighed and found wanting, and Sebàk had come to remove it.
She felt the man’s fright. his heart almost blasting a hole in his chest. Then, with Sebàk, she seized the man and began the shaking and rending that in the end tears out all living essence.
The crumpled man dropped onto the floor. Sohaila was surprised to see that he appeared untouched and unbroken, merely dead. Sebàk had fed well, and she rolled lazily with him in the night currents. Toward dawn Sebàk gave a violent thrash, and Sohaila broke loose from the reptile, awakening covered in a slimy sweat.
She yanked the pendant over her head and threw it onto the nightstand. I’m going crazy. This carving is triggering paranoid delusions. She went on line, conducting stream of consciousness searches of what she feared, the television a flattened tower of Babel in the background.
She called Steve at 6a.m., hoping he was up. He wasn’t quite, but took her call good naturedly.
“Steve, I’m going crazy with this and need to talk to someone.”
Fear crackled her voice, and Steve without hesitation said,” Sure. Do you want me to come over? I can put off work…”
A face ballooned onto her television screen, filling it. She’d seen the face just last night.
“… and, recapping, noted financier Eric Lawrence was found dead in his estate early this morning. Police say at this point they don’t suspect foul play, but are conducting a thorough investigation. Lawrence was under indictment for the forced sale of inner city properties …”
Sohaila picked up the phone again. “Steve, forget what I said. I can’t hit you with this. Go to work.” She hung up before Steve could protest, and ignored his call back a few seconds later. Although her mind was writhing, she moved, still nude, with comfortable slowness through the condo. Her usual quickness hadn’t deserted her- she knew she could lunge explosively if needed- but the slow, swaying pace helped her to calm herself.
She flushed off the night terror sweat and donned a long black gown. I need to do some clothes shopping. Sohaila thought about finding a psychologist or psychiatrist, but at 9 a.m. called Laila Mahfauz.
“I need to give you back the pendant, or amulet, or whatever the hell it is.”
Laila’s voice was plastic coated. “You’re a realtor dearest, you know the kind of agreement you signed. And by now I suspect that were you faced with actually handing it over you’d refuse.”
“We need to meet.”
“Of course. I’ve been waiting for your call.”
Laila Mafauz met Sohaila in the great room of what would soon not be Laila’s mansion, surrounded by packing crates and boxes.
“Come with me dearest, I’m delaying the packing of one small room as an oasis of relative serenity.”
The small interior room was windowless. The lighting was electric, but used bulbs that flickered, perhaps in imitation of torchlight. The uncushioned wood furniture was brightly painted and figured with horse drawn chariots, seated kings and standing gods, Sebàk prominent among them.
In just a few days Laila seemed to have become more slender and ephemeral. Her sleek skin was still unwrinkled but had lost much of its luster. Sohaila remembered her manners. “Where will you be moving to, Laila?”
“A way station, Sohaila, just temporary accommodations. But you didn’t come here to talk about me.”
“No. Ever since I put on that pendant I’ve been having nightmares and delusions about a huge crocodile. To the point that I’m beginning to lose my grip on things. Is the stone tainted with something?”
Laila’s expression was calm. “No, child, I also had these-delusions when I first put on the god stone. You’ll accommodate to them. Think of your dreams not as nightmares but as bearing witness to a god’s activities.”
“What god? Sebàk? Some imaginary, misbegotten reptile?”
Laila’s hand swung back to slap her, but stopped before contact. She hissed, “It’s man’s vanity that the gods need believers to exist. Aware or oblivious, we have them swimming through our lives. You’ve been honored to be made a consort, revel in what you’ve become. Now get out!”
Demented, she’s dangerously unbalanced. But how can that be affecting me? “Ms.Mahfauz, I’ll honor the agreement, I have no real choice. But don’t think that I accept your superstitions.”
Laila Mahfauz’s expression softened. “Dearest, you’ll develop in ways you can’t yet conceive. Fight it if you want, but you’re caught in the flood of a great river, and will be swept along regardless. Au Revoir.”
Once in her car Sohaila grabbed the pendant, wanting to pull it off and throw it onto the floor mat. But stopped. No, I’m not going to give in to this. Taking it off means admitting it has power over me. Screw Laila and her imaginary pet.
Back in the office, Sohaila deliberately mingled with her coworkers, but they still seemed like air-gulping mullets. She diverted their office maneuvers almost unconsciously. If this is Laila’s dementia at work I can see why she was so successful. Their posturings and lies are so blatant.
The next day Sohaila braided and oiled her hair, a look that made her memorable before she said a word. She called and sadly jettisoned Steve, who was no longer close to what she was becoming.
The following month of nights were frictionless swims through water and air, her eyes seeming to blink sideways, sensing life and death in the absence of all light. Sebàk killed, now and then, for reasons he knew and she began to sense. Sohaila realized a guilty pleasure with Sebàk, with bearing witness to the spirits torn out of their bodies to give reckoning for lives badly lived.
And as she swam Sohaila began to hear the faint voices of women, in languages she didn’t know but could understand, telling her of the great rivers that coursed through existence. At the end of the month, Sohaila understood that she couldn’t remove the pendant without tearing out a large part of herself, and kept it on, fondling it during the day in anticipation of the night.
And one night Sebàk settled into a small apartment. A tall, beige-skinned woman rose from her painted chair. It was Laila.
Yesterday’s handmaiden had withered and puckered into herself. She spoke to the empty room. “Welcome dearest. You share in Sebak’s communion now, with me and all those who have gone before us. What you now do is our consummation.”
Sebàk mouthed Laila gently, not rending and tearing, but easing her gently out of her body and swallowing her whole. As Souhaila watched through Sebàk’s nictitating eyelids, the body drooped back like a tired child onto the painted chair. Memories flooded Sohaila, of Laila and of her intertwined sisterhood rooted back into the great river Nile. I am complete, she thought.
[Edward Ahern resumed writing after forty odd years in foreign intelligence and international sales. He has his original wife, but after forty-five years advises that they are both out of warranty. Ed dissipates his free time fly fishing, shooting and attending German, French and Japanese language groups.]