Barefoot To Palestine
PG, Daniel/Rodney backstory. Postcards from Egypt.
“And concurrent with another academic’s theories some
years ago, it is a clear and obvious conclusion that the Egyptians did not build
No, Daniel thought, pushing his glasses back up his nose; what is a
clear and obvious conclusion is that you are a fuckwit, Mr. Lee. Was that
the student’s name? He wrote it down anyway. “What is a clear and obvious
conclusion, Mr. Lee...”
He stared for a moment at his scrawling, red-pen professor’s handwriting. Then
he wrote the sentence out again in French, with perfectly rendered accents and
circumflexes. Then Spanish. He sighed, but his pen didn’t stop moving. With
only the faintest of reservations, he wrote it out in Dutch, and then with a
flick of the nib, in Italian. He paused then, before turning to the curving
Cyrillic alphabet, angular Devanagari, and in a moment of memory, in Arabic.
“Fuckwit” didn’t translate in Japanese, nor Latin, and he was reaching the
end of the page now anyway, the lower part of the paper a mess of garbled
He stood up. Let the pen drop, the chair knock backwards, and walked slowly and
carefully to the bathroom. “Dr. Jackson?” he said.
His reflection stared out of the mirror, long hair pushed back and straggly,
eyes wide and startled. Yes?
“What is a clear and obvious conclusion,” Daniel continued, “is that you,
my friend, are going insane.”
There was nothing his reflection had to add. The next day he bought a plane
“Rodney? Yeah, it’s me. Daniel. I’m, uh, I’ve just realised
something. I’ve got to go. I mean you might not be hearing from me for a
while. Um. Goodbye.”
Egypt didn’t change. Muezzins called, hawkers spat, small children ran
barefoot through the streets, people yelled and shouted; but at the same time
the noise the people made was undercut by the deep sonorous silence of the
desert in the same way Daniel remembered. He had last been here shortly after
the Lecture, the one that acquired the capital letter and dropped it again to
match his mood, and the country, horizon-to-horizon sand, hadn’t altered in
the slightest. Maybe it was Daniel who changed, a scholar but a mere human as
well, who changed and grew old while Egypt never did. It was old already. Egypt
had been old at the dawn of time.
Maybe not, Daniel thought. Once the pyramids had been new, with gleaming marble
caps. Maybe. Maybe not. Like pulling petals off a daisy, his insanity was
Still, it was better here. He’d left the papers to grade at home and he could
It was the influence of the desert. He’d come here after the Lecture simply
because it was thousands of miles away from California; Siberia would have done
as well, as would Mali or Madagascar, but it was reflex to reach an airport and
ask for a ticket to Cairo. He’d dreamed about doing it when he was younger.
The desert had been the promised land, then; the place he’d played in when his
parents were alive, and even before that day in New York, he’d never quite
understood why the Israelites wanted to leave. That was a long time ago, and
perhaps life had been easier as a child prodigy than an adult one.
The muezzin was calling, now, and his lips moved to follow the words. When the
prayers were over, he bought postcards.
Am in Egypt. Don’t know when this will reach you. Don’t worry. Just got a
He had a vocabulary of millions of words, but only “antsy” seemed to fit the
bill. Good words (quinquereme. lissome. alkanet.) were wasted on Rodney (fuck.
you. Daniel.) anyway. The Lecture had been another waste of words. Speaking
of which, the pyramids were at the edge of his vision. Strange, when he’d been
trying not to think about them for years. He reached down, picking up a pinch of
sand in his fingers and letting it drop. He’d go out to visit them later.
Today, even. They loomed over urban Cairo and he wouldn’t be able to help
He stopped by a stall selling trinkets and picked up an ankh on a chain, light
and delicate in his hands. It felt much like one he’d wear himself, if he
weren’t trying to forget where he came from. The stall-holder looked up as he
held it, eyebrows raised in enquiry, and after a pause, Daniel nodded.
Once the haggling was over, and a price arrived at that would preserve both the
seller’s and his own honour, he pocketed it. Rodney thought jewellery on men
made them look gay.
This postcard has been well-soaked in the juice of three lemons. You’ll be
dead in seconds.
The tourists were being hounded by beggars and souvenir-hawkers, but they
avoided Daniel somehow, and that suited him fine. Besides, he’d learnt how to
deal with them when following his mother round these same bazaars.
Once upon a time, you’d been able to climb the sides of the pyramids. Not once
upon a time as in when they were new, but as in about twenty years ago, before
too many people started falling off. They’d finally stopped it when a
five-year-old child fell thirty feet. Daniel still had the scar, but he didn’t
remember falling. Only the afterwards-time, when people came running and there
were stars coming out overhead and he was lifted, silent and broken, placed over
a camel and rushed to a doctor.
Had there really been a camel? Or was that just his imagination working
overtime, the rosy glow of childhood magnified ten or twelve times?
Didn’t matter. Of course, it didn’t matter now. He reached a point where the
sun and the apex were straight overhead, and sat down with a thump in the sand.
In 200 BC, Erastothenes had measured the circumference of the earth this way;
the sun was directly overhead in Syrene because it reflected in the water at the
base of a well, but not in Alexandria, where it cast a distinct shadow. A
calculation later and he’d changed the world.
Later in life he went blind and starved himself to death.
When I was five I fell off a pyramid and nearly died. Next time I’ll try
There had been whispered words in the newspapers before he left, and a
double-page spread in the National Enquirer. Strange happenings in the
sky, strange blips on deep-space radar telemetry. Daniel wasn’t interested.
There were strange things enough on earth without having to go and look for them
elsewhere; and besides, he couldn’t quite bear the reminder just yet. Did
aliens build the pyramids, Dr. Jackson?
Maybe, he answered himself. It was as good an explanation as any. Losing
the sense of human achievement wasn’t such a hard price to pay when you
considered the spared lives of thousands of slaves, labouring in the baking
desert heat to raise solid stone blocks hundreds of feet in the air. For a
pharaoh’s hubris. Think of the inhumanity.
But maybe the aliens had slaves, too.
Enough about me, I’m self-obsessed. How’s deep-space telemetry treating you?
The pyramids swallowed time. Time was not an arrow; it was a landscape, a
wilderness, a bleak expanse where he walked aimlessly, tracing circles in white
sand with index finger. Days drifted by while he roamed the streets of the old
city, the gardens where he grew up, drawn to the strange places where the sand
mixed with mortar and the desert was slowly reclaiming its land.
Erastothenes had been right about one thing, Daniel decided. The sun was close
here. That immeasurable brightness gave his childhood its golden-syrup glow,
whereas now it merely worked its way into his heart and soul and made him wonder
if he could ever stand darkness again.
The Hajj was coming; the pilgrims were moving. Briefly, he considered following
them, covering his head and his eyes and defiling the holy city with his atheist
touch. Then Jerusalem, maybe; add his tears to the Wailing Wall and fall down at
its base before the weight of history. Cross into Europe at Constantinople, no,
Istanbul, through into the northern lands with their Latinate roots, and if he
went far enough he would come to the Atlantic shore, sea-smoothed and a
different kind of sand.
Or he could stay here, and drift. There was that, as well.
Thirty-three languages, and I can’t say I love you.
The postcard dropped into a puddle of slickly running water, blurring
“Oh my god.” The voice was female and American. “You speak English?”
Daniel turned. “Yes, sometimes,” he answered, and heard the faintest trace
of an old accent in his voice.
The girl stared at him as though he were a scruffy, long-haired, blue-eyed
angel. “Can you help me get out of here? I’m so lost, and I couldn’t ask
anyone, and, and, maybe I’m not cut out for backpacking.”
He gave her directions solemnly, embarrassed by the gratitude in her eyes.
Before she left, she asked, “Are you from round here, then?”
Holding the postcard, he stood and looked, and thought suddenly of the Old
Testament angels of brimstone and flame, who were the lights in the darkness and
the messengers in the desert. He didn’t know what to say.
Ignore the other cards, I was stoned. Wish you were here.
The first time he left Egypt, he’d never seen a Christmas tree nor ever eaten
a peanut butter sandwich nor sung “The Star-Spangled Banner.” This time he
could only wish back that innocence; home and hearth and heart were mute before
It was dark and he didn’t have to look at the sun, only the dozens of
flickering naked flames like a jewelled carpet beneath a soaring aircraft. The
harsh cold air was painful to breathe, and the scratchy airline blanket the
briefest of comforts below his head. But the reading light let him write, and
the sound of his moving nib accompanied him across the thousands of miles of
It was getting light in California when he let himself softly into his
apartment. His journals, filled with new scribblings, were placed reverently on
his desk; everything else went on the floor. He pulled off his boots, noticing
the sand rushing out, and pressed the button on the answering-machine. The red
light continued flashing on and off.
“Daniel. Daniel, it’s me. Pick up. I got your message. Have you lost your
fucking mind? If I moved to Russia you’d never even know about it and if you
don’t pick up I’m coming over there. I mean it. Fuck it!”
Daniel walked to his front door and checked the locks. They were still there. He
switched the answering-machine off.
The term paper was also still there, right where he’d left it, red ink fading
from the sunlight that had fallen through the window. He ignored it. Sitting at
his desk, he drew a new sheet of paper towards him, wrote Rodney McKay is a
fuckwit fourteen times and fell into an exhausted sleep.
Next year he’d walk barefoot to Palestine. It was something to do, after all.