I met her at a karahane in Istanbul. She had hair as black as raven's feathers and skin the color of burnished bronze. Her body rolled and moved liked a serpent behind the glass, but it was her kohl-rimmed almond eyes that won me over. I slid a hundred US dollars through the slot and followed her home. She told me her name was Sunflower. She told me her brother lived in Bebek and worked as an engineer for the Europeans. Her apartment was small and hot, the neighbors were cooking but the smell of frying fat turned sour in the humid air. The electricity was out and the fans had stopped turning. We fucked on her couch and her son stood in his crib and watched. I wondered if he would remember me. I couldn't cum.
We stopped and talked for a bit. Her English was rough and my Turkish was almost nonexistent. She sat on my lap and kissed me. I felt nothing for her. She asked if I would like to eat. I left and bought fish from a stall on the way back to my hotel. I could still smell the cooking fat from her apartment when I tasted the fish.
The city moved and breathed and lived as though nothing had happened, but the sirens wailed day and night. The hotel was a mess of press vans and black sedans. French mercenaries stood outside the lobby with machineguns and Raybans. I nodded to them and stepped past into the cool and dark interior of the hotel. Bed seemed the best choice for me with an early start the next morning, but instead I drank beer with a pair of German expats in the hotel bar. They lived in Turkey and were doing advance work for the UN relief teams. They were happily drunk and full of awe at the scale of the disaster.
"Millions dead," the fat one said in English with only the barest trace of an accent, "if not yet then within days. The riots are coming."
I didn't disagree.
"Even with airborne supply it is not possible to feed all of the refugees," the other switched his eyes to me over his pint of lager.
"If it can't be done, it can't be done." I drained my glass and got up from the table. "Best of luck to you both."
"Eh, one minute," the fat one followed me from the table, "what are you here for? American? Are you with the assayers? The developers?"
"Why are you here?"
"Irony. Circular narratives, maybe. Nah, I'm here for no reason at all."
He stopped and stared at me as I continued my walk to the elevators.
The Greeks found Jesus a while back, but before Him they believed in a motley crew. One of their favorites was Zeus and Zeus had parents. His mother was Gaia and in Greek mythology she was the earth personified. Gaia created the blue sky above her and named him Uranus. In an incestuous twist Uranus and Gaia got together and had a whole litter of babies.
One of these babies was a bad seed by the name of Cronos. Uranus was getting a bit long in the tooth by the time Cronos came around and the old man was whipping his offspring into a frenzy of evil. Gaia tried to punish the kids, but like some sort of adult video you can only get by sending cash to a PO Box, Cronos intervened and ended up castrating his father and having sex with his all-mother.
That made Cronos the head honcho, but things tend to work in cycles in mythology and that meant that Cronos would be overthrown by his son. That son turned out to be Zeus and Cronos decided that he would eat Zeus to prevent his downfall. At the last moment before Cronos gulped down his offspring vitamin, good old Ma dropped a rock into the swaddling clothes and Cronos ended up swallowing that.
The rest of the story isn't too important to this one, what is important is that the Greeks called this sacred stone Baetylus and the Jews, much later, came to call all sacred stones Bethel. What made these stones so special is that they were rocks fallen from heaven; meteors to the rest of us. Sometimes they would inscribe them with holy symbols and texts and sometimes they would leave them unadorned. The Greeks and the Jews worshipped them.
The Greeks had a really special rock they called the Athens Baetylus. It fell right down on their capital and killed plenty of people. The Greeks dusted off the rock, put some magic words on it and decided that it was a physical manifestation of the wrath of their gods. They would carry it around in battle and show it off to scare people and inspire their armies. Naturally when you carry something like that around with your army it's going to end up in the hands of the enemy if you ever get defeated. It changed hands a few times and eventually it made its way to Suleiman the Magnificent and was brought to Constantinople. Suleiman was so impressed by this rock that he enshrined the thing in the Hagia Sophia.
The Athens Baetylus was a pretty neat looking rock. It stood about 6 feet tall and was rounded at the end that was pointing down when it came through the atmosphere. It was smooth and dark, with very fine veins of dark green tektite running through it. Geologists and astronomers loved the thing almost as much as the Greeks and Suleiman.
Gaia gave Cronos another rock to swallow. It landed almost dead center on the Hagia Sofia with the force of an atomic bomb. I guess Zeus needed saving again.
"Justinian I," Donald Ferrywell said it 'Justeenean eye' and spit out his toothpick, "was a goddamn homosexual."
I presumed that Donald Ferrywell cared for neither Justianian I, patron of the Hagia Sophia, nor homosexuals. We were standing on the roof of the hotel trading his pair of binoculars back and forth between us. He was there with Geophysical Services Incorporated. One of the vultures.
"You ever seen it?" He asked me.
"I've been there." I nodded to the plume of dust and handed the binoculars back to him.
Donald downed the last of his Turkish Coca-Cola and screwed up his face before taking the binoculars back.
"Too goddamn sweet." He spit on the graveled roof beneath our feet and it hissed.
"They use real sugar." I was tired and I hated Donald Ferrywell, but he had agreed to give me a lift into the Relief Zone in the afternoon.
Later, with the French mercenaries at our backs, I helped Donald's crew of local hires load a pair of spotless Land Rovers with ground-penetrating radar and infrared equipment. He had received permission from the Turkish government to go in and search for survivors trapped in the debris. Donald Ferrywell planned to go searching for oil. I grunted and hefted an aluminum trunk into the back of the Land Rover. One of the hotel employees approached me and pressed a piece of paper into my hand.
"Please look." He whispered.
I unrolled the sheet of paper and saw a list of names and addresses, neatly printed in English, with a hand-drawn diagram of the Relief Zone.
I looked up.
"Please." He repeated.
Something beeped in the Land Rover. Donald groaned and brought out the satellite phone.
"Hello," he answered and then covered the receiver, "hey, can you get rid of this guy and take care of the loading, I've got to take this call."
He didn't wait for an answer.
"No, goddammit Charlene, you tell him if he doesn't get out of bed and get to school today I am going to…" his words were lost in the roar of a helicopter passing overhead.
"Please." The man repeated again.
"We'll look." I lied to him and sent him on his way.
The Relief Zone was a series of rings. First were the refugees and families of those lost in the Relief Zone. They clamored to get in, to feel the ruin beneath their feet and touch it with their hands. They wanted to know. They wanted to see their lost love and not wonder. The Turkish military had different ideas. It had formed a cordon, tanks and all, around the Relief Zone. Guns bristled and when tempers flared theirs batons fell like a farmer tilling his field. I drove the second Land Rover and they held the roadblock open when they saw we were Europeans.
Beyond the army were the field hospitals. These were triage centers for those injured by the impact and the fires and calamity that had followed. They had since become vast morgues and the area was heavy with the stench of death. I covered my face and mouth with a dusty handkerchief. I gagged.
The last ring before the crater was supposedly military, but the Turkish armored carriers and tanks were lost amid the news crews, scientists and Red Crescent workers trying to get some fresh air. Here and there teams of people were working over the devastated buildings along the edge of the crater. They might have been searching for survivors or bodies or they might have been looking for treasure. The Hagia Sophia was gone. Nothing remained but churned rubble. Down in the crater the elite vultures were picking through the blasted ruins. Some were local scavengers in army uniforms, looking for gold, but most were Europeans and Americans looking for the real prizes: religious artifacts.
A road had already been bulldozed down into the crater. It was winding and unstable. We navigated the Land Rovers down to the pit cautiously. Stone and dirt slid away from beneath a rear tire. I gunned the Land Rover back onto the road before we were pulled along with it. The local hires chattered nervously behind me.
When we reached the bottom we were not given a pleasant welcome. A Russian brandished a pistol and shouted. An academic with a white beard and a floppy safari hat shoved me as I got out.
"You'll not take this!" He shouted with a British accent and the Russian pressed his gun into my chest.
I realized he was talking about a crate next to our vehicles.
"I'm not here for that."
It was a gold palanquin studded with rubies. It had been partially melted by the heat.
I left the Russian and the Brit and Donald Ferrywell behind. My hunt was that of the small hyena circling a carcass. I was shoved aside from promising spots and menaced with guns and knives by men who probably taught theology classes at Harvard.
Night came. My back ached. I worked by flashlight, turning over rocks and sheet metal. Donald Ferrywell offered me a bottle of water near midnight. He said he was done and was heading back. He told me he would be happy to give me a ride back to the hotel. I declined but accepted the water.
At dawn the ruins gave their heart to me. Beneath a liquefied and reformed ingot of gold probably worth hundreds of thousands of dollars was the cracked finger of the Athens Baetylus. I poured the last warm remnants of the water out on it and the green veins shined with life once again.
My cell phone had reception. I laughed out loud at that. I called my backers and told them I had found what they wanted. I slapped a woman in the face when she got too close. She swore at me in Chinese. By noon the helicopter had finished loading. I took my money and watched it depart, bound for Israel. It was a strange and wondrous trophy for a new shul, museum, monument or private collection. Just a rock.
I walked back to the hotel and took a shower.
I drank coffee for an hour at a souk outside Sunflower's apartment. She came home with a policeman. I was not deterred. I paid him a hundred dollars and paid her two. He was angry, but he left. I followed Sunflower to her apartment. Her son was asleep. We fucked on her couch without interruption. The electricity came on and the fans began to turn. My skin prickled as the breeze stole my sweat. Her body was exquisite.
"Did you find what you look for?" She asked.
"No." I told her and stood up.
Her husband was waiting outside smoking cigarettes. His policeman's hat was crumpled in his fist. He cursed in Turkish as I walked past, still buttoning my shirt.
I felt nothing for him.
‘Toad coin?’ wondered the traveler as he examined the pebble. It did not look all that different from any other pebble, and certainly nothing like a coin. ‘What manner of coin has no head or tail, and bears no seal or flag? Who backs this toad coin, the toad bank? The toad treasury!?’ The traveler laughed, but the toads croaked sternly back at him.
Spending $10-15 a day on perishable organic dog food is not a sign of a decadent culture in terminal decline, it's actually real good and worth it.
No lifeguard on duty. Maze run at your own risk.
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