Between the Reeds

april 2012. short story.
a tale of Moses, a tiki bar and love lost.

Once upon a time, there lived a man named Walter Wong. He was born in 1989 on the island of Hawaii in an alternate universe. After a disjointed childhood he moved to Memphis, which in those days was a mysterious magical place. All sorts of folk all comin and goin, the great Nile even the desert’s sands alive with the commotion of men’s workings. And all that, why, they were there in the cause of greatness, to build the Pharaoh’s tomb, to make a man eternal.

Wong was party to that same ambition. On the seventh day he pronounced he’d build the greatest nightclub yet seen. It was a big todo. He had to secure a steady supply of coconuts, pineapples, mangoes, papayas, strawberries, apple juice, orange juice, lime juice, Coca-Cola, Sprite, fine rum, brandy, blue Curacao, Kahlua, fresh mint, milk, ice, ice cream, among other things. And back in Ancient Egypt, those were hard things to find. But he found’m. In just two weeks he opened up. Wong’s Waikiki Luau Lounge.

It was a hit. Every night every chair filled. He had to hire dozens of Nubian Warriors just to keep the line in order. But much to his credit, Walter made sure the Luau Lounge didn’t become just another overpriced joint for rich folk. He even made Wednesday night free for slaves. He called it Slaves Night. Real nice of him, considering they didn’t have much otherwise.

His favorites though, they were the odd balls, the eccentrics. Like he had this regular Adjo who was a priest who could transmutate fish into sand. Not very useful but a neat party trick for sure. Also this Phoenician merchant Ahinabad who’d traveled nearly everywhere and this activist Moses who was organizing an exodus type thing. All sorts of kooky characters.

Wong was real happy. He would sit in the corner behind the volcano mountain, with Moses, Adjo and whoever else he liked, and they’d talk the night away. Like Ahinabad would try to teach them his alphabet, but Adjo wouldn’t have it, saying, This alphabet is a stupid fad. Hieroglyphs are much more beautiful! Ahinabad, all clever, would retort, But with its phonetic abstraction the alphabet is much more sophisticated. Soon everyone will forget your priestly scribblings!

And everyone would argue and argue till Walter laughing would hand out pacifying rounds of coconut mango kisses. Moses loved them. The way the coconut and mango balanced to subdue the luscious 130 proof rum — it was a sublime beverage. But the universe has its immutable laws. The Egyptians have always been wary of outsiders, especially those who’d use their foreign magic to successful ends.

One night, Commander Akhom came and he brought his regiment with. It wasn’t pretty. The Luau Lounge was mostly outdoors, a garden court overlooking the Nile, palm trees swaying overhead. The center piece was a large bean-shaped koi pond and mini-Manchu castle surrounded by cabana style tables and oriental statues. It was kitsch but in its composed chaos and contrasts really beautiful too. Everywhere you looked there was something noteworthy. It had a magical feeling, like the whole place twinkled and maybe it did, just a bit, for the only lights were christmas lights. That’s actually what the Egyptians found most amazing, what they’d tell their friends all about, those countless twinkling little lights.

Commander Akhom was a powerful man, captain of the Pharaoh’s retinue, second officer to the Egyptian army. He was one of the ones who didn’t like foreigners. In fact, he killed foreigners. They of course skipped the line. Marched in under the twinkling lights and encircled the koi pond, their stout swords swinging gleefully from their waists. Commander Akhom was the last to enter. On his way in, he flipped a table, but he did so like it was unintentional, like he’s just so big and important that furniture and breaking glass are beneath his perception.

He took his time. I guess figuring out what to do next. He walked around the mini-Manchu castle, inspected it quite thoroughly and then real quick-like unsheathed his sword and sliced off one of its towers. I don’t know. Maybe something about its pseudo Chinese nature offended his righteous sensibilities. Maybe he just wanted to demonstrate his power. But you know, when tools of murder are wielded so casually, when destruction comes to a soul as easily as a smile, that’s when you know to be afraid.

Walter quietly approached Akhom. He asked, Can I help you? Akhom didn’t respond. Just starred back. Wong didn’t know what to do. He bent down to pick up the broken tower and Akhom slowly raised his sword. The band had long ceased playing; the lounge was deathly quiet. They wondered, an audience to a frightful tragedy, What would get sliced off next?

And then, a voice rose up and said, He would like the volcano special and a round of mai tais for all the men.

Wong was on the ground yet as he turned to her he managed to bow further. Yes Ma’am, he said. And he slowly rose to organize their drinks.

Her name was Kifi and she was beautiful in every way. Her dark eyes were framed by her long brunette hair, her svelte body by glistening jewelry. She was the matron to the Goddess Hathor. She presided over the priestly sacrifices of cattle. She looked to the stars and saw to women’s fertility, to the Milky Way and foresaw the great flooding of the Nile itself. She was a patron of the arts and music, of joy and beauty. She was untouchable. Even to an officer of the Pharaoh’s court.

Commander Akom pulled a chair to Kifi’s table. It was an impressive group, the Priestess Kifi, a few full-blooded royals, even a High Priest to Ptah’s Grand Temple. The house band started up again. They played a fusion mix of surf rock and Ancient Egyptian. Think upbeat melodies but with flutes, lutes and the occasional trumpet. The music had become popular amongst the avant-garde royals and discovering this, situated amongst his peers, Commander Akom quieted and became nearly joyful.

Ten minutes later and Wong was returned with the Volcano Special. It was an exceptional cocktail, high proof rum set ablaze, garnished with sugar and tart pineapple, surrounded by strawberry daiquiri lava, served of course in a large volcano-shaped bowl. They all enjoyed the spectacle, even Commander Akom. He put out the fire and asked Wong to join them. Wong dithered. But he had no choice. So he pulled up a small stool and they asked him of his birthland.

He told them that Hawaii was a very nice place, but that there was a recession. So he decided to immigrate backwards in time via an interdimensional portal he discovered in his stepmother’s linen closet. They said they did not understand. Wong agreed, saying he didn’t understand either — he did okay in high school, graduated from college and yet the only steady work he could find was bartending. Oh well. He was happy to be in Ancient Egypt anyways. He told them they had a great vibe, that he was an easy going, fun loving guy just trying to get by. Kifi asked if he had brought other things from America. Wong said he had, and that he would fetch them and share.

He came back carrying a small duffel. He showed them photos and they were astounded first by the photographs and then by the sight of more people who looked just like Wong and others who looked similar to the Nubians and others with brightly colored hair. Wong explained that America was full of all sorts of different people and that was one of things that made it special. He then took out two water pipes and placed them on the table. Tobacco was of course foreign to the Old World, but they took to the hookah like it was in their DNA, like generations of Egyptians would in the future. Akom especially. He became almost mellow. He made a joke and everyone laughed, even Wong.

At that, Walter grew quiet — it’s confusing to laugh with someone who almost murdered you. The conversation shifted back to astrology and royal intrigue. Wong made an excuse, said he would bring them a round of the coconut mango kisses, on the house. Kifi gave him a polite smile and thanked him for his service. Wong thanked her and everyone at the table for their patronage and left.

The Waikiki was crowded probably a few dozen over capacity. Wong was worried. Would they get ticketed for breaking the fire code? He found his manager, Mhotep, an affable competent chap, who told him that all the inspectors had gotten sick. Maybe a case of food poisoning in the municipal cafeteria? Wong found that odd. Yes, said Mhotep. Very odd. He then added, quietly, that the inspectors were quite lucky — a little food poisoning is much better for one’s health than shuttering the Royal Guard’s party. Walter’s eyes went wide. So they wouldn’t have to close up at nightfall, as the law stated? No, at least not if you care for your health, Mhotep winked.

Walter went outside. The line went down the block and around the corner. It was huge. One of the Nubian bouncers said it went all the way to King Sekhemkhet’s tomb. Wong shook his head in amazement and he got a feeling, that tonight is going to be a good night.

Walter ran inside and had some of the servers help him remove one of the reed fences. The house band was quickly shuffled out and placed precariously atop some tables. He told the Royal Guard they had constructed a special VIP section and lured them out with platters of pina coladas. The waiting minions watched all this bewildered. Mei, the lead singer, gave Shenti, the trumpeter, an encouraging nod and they started up by raging into Surf Cat, their hit single, as the bouncers relented and let the crowd crush inwards.

The Egyptians were very good dancers — their culture was imbued with religious festivals and song. Surf Cat parroted the ceremonies of the cat goddess Bastet. Everyone already knew when to reach up and clap out the ritual syncopated beats. Knew the traditional dance but also knew that in this context it would be more exuberant, and garments would have to be loosened. Mei led the way, danced around Shenti who wore these scandalously tight white linen jeans. Together they oozed sex appeal. Everyone wanted their signatures papyrus bound. The Royal Guard were paired off, a few gutsy girls pulling them out to dance, tossing their swords and armor aside, as Mei sang out, Move it, move it, it’s time to boogie boogie! And the Egyptians — you’ve seen the hieroglyphs — they put their arms out, one in front, one behind, hands angled, and rhythmically they did the Surf Cat.

The beat rose over Wong’s Waikiki Lounge. The staff raced to keep up with demand. The young royals started a procession dancing out to the rave. Platters of jungle birds, frozen hurricanes, pineapple strawberry daiquiris and missionary’s downfalls were ferried out. Commander Akom, high on nicotine, drunk on long island iced teas, his new favorite drink, stood up with an unusual lightness. Mhotep passed Walter exhausted and exclaimed, We’ve already outsold the last week combined!

Yes, thought Walter, tonight is going to be a good night. And then, he heard his name.

It was the priestess Kifi. She was all about music, dance and joy. That was her thing, her job as matron to Hathor. But she had never seen a party like this. She gave Walter a beckoning smile and asked, Would you like to dance?

I don’t know how.

I’ll show you.

And she took him up and he forgot how he had yet to pay his pyramid taxes, forgot the difficulties of importing Coca-Cola into Ancient Egypt, forgot about everything that had ever bothered him except her and how she moved him.

The music was swelling. Overhead a falcon circled. It was the god Horus. He dived for the makeshift stage and as he landed, in a great puff of smoke, transformed into his human self. The crowd went wild. A golden amber light strobed forth from his left eye, the sun, and from his right eye, the moon, like blue lasers danced forth, piercing through the smoke. Then from the street, more wild screams. On the crowd’s edge stood Hathor as a cow, massive, majestic, horns spiraling into the heavens and a great golden necklace weighing from the folds of her neck. The drummers put out a strong beat, the lutes melded into a trance, and the people’s hands danced skyward, breaking up the smoke, cutting patterns out of the blue lasers. Horus started tapping his foot to the beat, then in perfect pitch sang out, Like oh my god! I’m a god! Tonight we worship, worship like it’s the last!

Kifi ran to Hathor, Walter’s hand clutched in her’s. Hathor recognized her and gently lowered her great head towards Kifi. Kifi was awestruck. She took her hand and slowly outlined Hathor’s massive head. Hathor starred into Kifi, and then snorted, but majestically, beautifully, if you can imagine the thing. They shared the moment, as Horus continued to sing, Tonight’s the night! Let’s live it up! Worship worship! Let’s rock this world! Shake the underworld!

Walter looked over to see Moses and his brother Aaron getting down, boogieing with Anubis, Sobek and a few other gods. It was so epic, like the whole Pantheon was there, gods dancing amongst the mortals. Moses did his signature move, where he held his arms out inviolable, twirling his staff to the music. The cat goddess Bestat, inspired by Moses, leaped up and flew over them, her hind legs down and her fore paws out, as if she was riding the air like a surfboard. It was so cool. They smiled at her at each other and at life, losing themselves to the night and they danced. They danced! They danced. Even the koi fish swam to the beat. They jumped for joy and as the music crescendoed, somersaulted over the mini-Manchu castle. Walter found Kifi in his arms, he felt her, her shape, how she moved. They embraced and he felt he could taste adventure on her breath, he thought it should never end.

The next week was a dream. They looked to the future and fell in love. Mei and Shenti were planning to take their band on a pan-Mediterranean tour. Ahinabad dreamt of franchising the Luau Lounge. He’d never seen a business so successful. They’d open branches in Thebes, Babylon, Athens, Ur, Tyre, maybe even become an official sponsor to those games in Olympia. They even bought tickets for Mhotep to scope out properties in Thebes, like it was a done deal. Kifi was around a lot, quietly at first but all the time in short order — gravity is an irresistible force.

Tuesday night Ahinabad ran in carrying a case covered in alien hieroglyphics. He told them he had a story, a story he had never told anyone before, but one he knew he had to share. He said, in summary, that years ago he was on a routine ceramics trade to Crete, when a flying disc came over his galley. It was covered in bright flashing lights and before he knew what had happened he was inside lying on a bed being probed by green-skinned gods with big black eyes. They told him they were of the stars and that it was of paramount importance that he construct a new pyramid to secretly guard a lifestore of crystal energy to maintain cosmic balance.

Everyone was speechless, except Moses who scoffed at the story, saying, That’s crap, no god is more powerful than my God. But Ahinabad wasn’t one to shy from an argument. He said, Prove it. So Moses did his thing where he’d throw his staff on the ground and it turned to a snake. But then Adjo transmutated a few fish to sand and while not as cool, I guess Moses felt insecure because his face went red and he shouted indignantly, No a bush told me my God is the greatest god and soon all of you are going to be real sorry. It’s odd, because mostly Moses was so humble, a simple shepherd who was divinely articulate. But at times he could also be insufferably self-righteous, like he was God’s prophet and knew it.

Anyways, Ahinabad opened up the alien case and a three dimensional hologram popped up and laid out how to build the new pyramid. Apparently the sky gods had also given him a tractor beam gizmo-gun to effortlessly cut and transpose twenty ton blocks of stone. The whole thing was pretty simple. It seemed really doable, like they’d build this pyramid by next harvest. That only made Moses more upset. But Walter, he was such a good guy, he turned to Moses and kindly suggested, Tomorrow is Slaves Night. Many Israelites will be in attendance. If you wanted, you could use the occasion, maybe begin organizing your exodus?

Slaves Night was always crazy busy. The Waikiki Lounge would hand out free bread and platters of veggies with a mango chutney mayo sauce. Moses was so excited. He couldn’t contain himself. He leaped up and ascended the volcano mountain and from the mount-top addressed his people. The event wasn’t even fully prepared — they had to eat the bread unleavened, the veggies with a simple vinegar, but no matter, they toasted to his speech four times. Everyone was left in tears. Moses spoke so eloquently to slavery’s brutality — how it’s fundamentally unfair for a people to be indiscriminately wronged. Kifi was moved most of all. Maybe by her guilt, terrified that she had possibly profited from this evil. She suggested they use the power of the temples to organize a grassroots movement. They’d start with a letter writing campaign. Turn all of Pharaoh’s advisors to their cause.

Wednesday it picked up speed. Mei and Shenti put on a benefit concert, papyrus was distributed, signatures collected, and one by one Pharaoh’s advisors were convinced. Slavery was untenable. And besides, now that they had the alien tractor beam, the slaves were also economically needless . But unfortunately, God had hardened Pharaoh’s heart. He would hear none of it. At the sunset of the fourth day, Pharaoh summoned his men to the Great Hall. He stood at his golden throne. His voice rose and carried up the Royal Guard with righteous authority.

I am Pharaoh, son of Atum-Ra. You go to this Waikiki. You drink their foreign potions. Can you not see how they poison your reason? Egyptians! They intend to undo our way of life. They spit on our gods like they don’t exist. They steal our daughters and deliver them to that terrorist Moses. Sons of Egypt! Where is your fury? Bring me our justice, bring me their heads.

They came at a slight jog, sandals slapping against dirt, their bodies bobbing in unison. Pharaoh led. He called out and they began to chant, the same men who a day before made merry. Pharaoh entered first. His sword was already drawn. The hostess was pulverized. Not in fear but in awe. She was the first slain. It was terrifying. It was horrible.

Horus looked down with his right eye. He couldn’t bare it. He blinked, then cast his eye shut. None of them noticed that the moon had disappeared. They were Not a one.

Bestat slinked along a wall. She had seen darkness coming. All the gods had. But she didn’t think it would be like this. God had turned Pharaoh to lead the destruction of his own nation.

Walter ran to the kitchen, gathering who he could. He entered to find servers and the kitchen staff cowering in corners and under tables. The room was occupied by a gaggle of Royal Guard, at the center of which was Commander Akom. He stood at ease, a bloodied sword in his right hand, a long island iced tea in his left.

Good evening, said Commander Akom. Then he tossed up his sword and caught it upright so he was ready to slice. Some of the kitchen staff screamed. They loved Walter. He had been fair.

Akom came after Wong. But Walter, he did not budge. You fool, shouted Akom. He cut open Walter’s leg, then heaved him into the store room. Walter fell back, tumbling down stairs to a dock along the Nile. Akom was already on top of him. He raised his sword and starred down at Walter.

Walter still did not move. Akom stood there, his chest heaving, testosterone pulsing, his sword aligned to Walter’s neck. Walter was prepared to die. They said nothing. Akom saw it. And he couldn’t do it.

Fall into the river. It will take you away.

Walter was confused. He looked around. No one was near. He looked back at Commander Akom.

Go.

Walter was still. He continued looking at Akom. He wanted to be sure he meant it. Akom lowered his sword. He did.

Thank you, said Walter.

It’s a peculiar thing, to thank someone who just sliced you open. It was like Walter knew. Disobeying Pharaoh was the nicest thing Akom would ever do. Akom watched Walter as he crawled to the dock’s edge, letting Walter’s thanks fall to the river with him.

He slipped into the Nile and let the waters carry him. He shivered violently and felt very tired. He flipped onto his back and saw his world disappearing. Most of the christmas lights were out. People were screaming. He could feel the cold water mixing with his blood. It was beginning to numb. He wouldn’t have long.

The weeks that followed were tumultuous. First the Nile turned to blood and all the fish died. Then a plague of frogs sprung forth. The priests and royal advisors attempted to change Pharaoh’s heart but it could not be done — all Egypt became afflicted. Their skin was consumed, first by gnats then of boils. And yet things got even worse. A great storm of thunder and hail attacked the land. Those without a roof, mostly the poor, were pummeled to death. An epidemic disease killed all the livestock and a swarm of locusts consumed the fields. All the stores went empty. People who thought themselves secure had to beg, sometimes steal. People lost hope. Some let the fear consume them.

You learned to watch your back. Also to look the other way, when a roll disappeared, when food went missing. It was easier to pretend it didn’t happen than to acknowledge the pervasive hunger. It was a time to have friends. Ahinabad could import grain and he shared what he had. Adjo used his temple contacts and he tried to keep them safe. But though they did fight it, sharp enough, pronounced pain will override all else, especially that which is warm and friendly.

One day, Mhotep was walking home and he noticed Israelites using hyssop to paint their doorframes in lambs’ blood. He found this quite odd, but thought everyone should do as they want, even really weird things, and he let it be. Then at midnight, he woke to discover God standing over his firstborn son. His son screamed, God rose a club and smote the child. Mhotep ran to his son, God was gone, and he cradled his son in his arms. He was eight years old. He wanted to be an engineer just like his grandfather. He had a full mop of hair and a friendly face gone limp. He was dead.

Mhotep would never recover. He could take the frogs and the gnats, even the Nile turned to blood and the enveloping darkness, but that, the murder of his son, that was too much. He remembered what Moses said, that the innocent should not be prejudicially harmed. He wanted to ask him what his son had done to deserve this. He was sorrowful and angry and he rose up casting the lifeless body aside to stalk out to the street. He looked up to the dark night and shouted, Why do the innocent die?

Pharaoh let the Israelites go, but God hardened the Egyptians’ hearts and they became like zombies dedicated to Israelite blood. They built chariots and put the Israelites to chase. They came to the Sea of Reeds and were glad to see their foe pinned against its waters. Then the incredible happened, the sea was parted, and the Israelites began to make their escape. The Egyptians, so blinded by God, went galloping after into the sea’s midst. As the sun set, God jammed the chariots’ wheels into mud. They realized their folly and began to flee. God told Moses to stretch out his hand and send the waters upon the helpless Egyptians. Moses did. The waters picked them up and tossed them into each other. They were beaten into one another till drowned — God had his glory.

Wong had it easier. He was angry at first, floundering in the Nile, grasping at his memories. He went through his life, step by step, wondering what he had done wrong. Should he have settled for Hawaii? Given glory to Pharaoh? To God? Refused that first dance? He didn’t think this is how it would be. He thought he would have done more.

He went back, way back, and remembered his third grade birthday when his parents gave him a Playstation 2. That was so nice. Thinking of that made him happy again. He wondered how they were doing. He wondered if his brother had been admitted to UC Irvine. He missed them. He wished so much that he could talk to them. But he couldn’t. He was sad again.

A crocodile swam up and nudged him. Walter looked at him, at his pancake face and beady yellow eyes. It was unusual. The crocodile was gently crying. Turning upright, Walter tried to smile back. But he couldn’t. He was getting weaker. He could barely swim. Another crocodile came and pushed him to the grasses on the river’s edge. Simple touches, how meaningful they were.

The grass stalks were coarse. They scratched his skin. He remembered how Kifi touched him softly. He wrapped himself in his arms in the grass, tried to make it like she would hold him. He remembered her laugh, the way her shoulders would move up and down as she giggled. He remembered what they shared, he remembered their dreams. And as he let himself pass, he said to himself, yes, that was real.