FICTION: The Forger of Cairo by Wayne Turmel

Cairo, Egypt, July 1800

Scritch, scritch, scritch. The fine metal tip gouged the bronze to exactly the right depth. Ahmed smiled as he pursed his lips, blew a flake of metal away, and ran his thumb over the new mark. The precision of the work pleased him even though it was a shame to waste it on a blatant fraud. Still, for what Europeans paid for such items, they deserved to be hoodwinked by the best.

As odd as this commission was, the old jeweller had enjoyed the challenge. Most of the fakes being pawned off to Napoleon’s scavengers were cheap and obvious; old pottery with a few hieroglyphics hastily scratched into them and buried at the right depth the night before their “discovery.” Gold scarabs fetched the highest prices. He had three molds of different sizes hidden in his workshop to accommodate different levels of avarice and stupidity. But this… this was art he could be proud of, and he suffered an odd pang of regret he’d never be able to put his name to it. His client would sell the object to some kafir and it would disappear into a collection or some museum behind glass and no one would ever know of the man who crafted it.

Ahmed removed the handmade loupe from his right eye and blinked the dryness away. His fingers, which after fifty years had begun betraying him with pain in the joints, traced every line on the fist-sized metal disc. All twelve symbols reproduced precisely from the drawing his client, Mister Wahmoud, provided. Some he recognized—the jackal head of Anubis was plain—others he’d never seen, and he wondered if they were legitimate at all, or mere scribbles designed to intrigue gullible buyers and add a sense of authentic mystery.

“Is that it?” Mister Wahmoud startled him as the sibilant voice slithered through the air from the doorway.

Ahmed pretended not to be bothered that his client always seemed to appear out of nowhere and enjoyed sneaking up on him.  That was only one of many ways in which he was odd. Wahmoud was unusually tall, and dressed in impractical European garb, yet moved noiselessly and with a grace that belied his appearance. Despite this discomfort, the craftsman plastered on a smile, stood, and salaamed with all the deference due to someone paying such a price.

“Allah be praised, it is just now finished. It is poor work, but I hope it pleases you, effendi.” Excess humility was the right of the expert craftsman; the more you belittled your own work, the higher the praise the buyer must bestow on you. It was ever thus, and Ahmed awaited the compliment he was so richly due.

It never came. His patron snatched the disc away and inspected it with narrowed eyes, muttering to himself in a language that was neither Arabic nor French. Long, pale fingers traced every line, every perfectly etched symbol and along the precisely crimped edges, and Ahmed wasn’t entirely sure where to look or what to do. Finally, Wahmoud remembered his manners.

“I’m sorry, my friend. Forgive me. Your beautiful work entranced me.” The man’s eyes flashed as the corners of his mouth curled like a scorpion’s tail.

Curiosity got the better of Ahmed’s wounded feelings. “I have made hundreds of treasures for stupid Frenchmen, but I’ve never seen anything as elaborate as this. If I may ask…exactly what is it?”

“Egypt’s salvation,” Wahmoud said, as if it explained everything.

Ahmed nodded. “Inshallah, it’s high time we drive the foreigners away and leave this land to the Believers.” This bit of piety drew a barking laugh from the client.

“Bah. I don’t mean your Muhammadan nonsense…” Ahmed couldn’t hide the gasp he made at such heresy, “… I mean the true Egypt. To a time long before the Rashiduns brought the Quran and the scimitar and replaced the foolish Copts who took over long after Cleopatra whored herself to the Romans. Before Alexander and the Greeks trampled the authentic Kingdom under his filthy pagan feet and destroyed the true dynasties. When Pharaohs ruled Nubians and Egyptians and the Old Gods were properly respected.” Mr. Wahmoud’s eyes remained fixated on the disc, his abnormally long, thin thumb stroking the face of the bronze object with an almost erotic caress.

Stunned into silence, Ahmed merely dropped his eyes to the table top and began clearing it of bronze shavings and dust. “As you say, effendi. It is not my place to question a customer. I apologize for being rude.”

“Not at all my friend. You did brilliant, lovely, work. True craftsmanship worthy of a Pharaoh. Do you really want to know what this is?”

The artisan felt compelled to nod, even though he was no longer certain he cared. He wanted to be paid and this strange, irreverent man gone from both his workshop and his life. Yet a deep curiosity gripped him.

Wahmoud continued uninterrupted, his voice dropping to a whisper. “Forgive the deception, my friend. This is not for sale, especially to a cursed foreigner. It was crafted to summon the God Anubis himself. It is an exact copy of one that Narmer, the first Pharaoh and most blessed of men, had. Some say no mortal hand crafted the original; that it came from the stars. I searched long and hard to find a craftsman worthy of this task. Until, of course, I found the last honest artist in Cairo.”

“You do me too much honor.” The flattery was working, even from such a distasteful source. An artist he was. Who cared if his reputation was built on a foundation of fraud?

“Not at all. Here, let me show you what you’ve brought into being.” Wahmoud was now directly behind Ahmed, his long shadow blocking all light from the table top. “Here, take it in your hands. Both hands now, cradle it… gently…”

Without making a conscious choice, Ahmed accepted the offering and held it in front of him, his hands cupped to avoid touching more than the edges. Wahmoud reached over the older man’s shoulder and ran a long, pointed fingernail the color of ancient ivory along the symbols circling the jackal at its center.

“See these words? They’re an old language… the language of the True Gods. From before the pyramids were even a dream—can you imagine? Would you like to know what they say?”

“A-a-as the gentleman wishes.” A moment ago, what Ahmed most wished was to be paid and left alone, but he knew his desires were unimportant to the customer. From inside him rose a deep aching need to know.

“Here. You start here. Ohm thothpricothoth…” Wahmoud chanted the words, rather than spoke them. At the first syllable, the metal felt warmer and heavier to Ahmed although that couldn’t be so. Following the fingernail, the man continued to read, “Ich marchatolo…

Ahmed felt the heat and weight increase and had a sudden desire to be rid of this object. Even though he’d created it from common metal, it had taken on a life of its own, far from the workaday, if mildly larcenous, intentions of its creator. He shook his hands, but the object wouldn’t move. He shook harder, with no change. The object was bonded tightly to his callused skin. He tried to rise, but found himself welded just as tightly to his stool.

Ahmed was frozen in place, his arms petrified straight in front of him, cupping the disc, his eyes wide with panic. Trapped within his chest was a groan he couldn’t utter. Sweat he couldn’t wipe away dripped down the side of his face and puddled in his beard.

Wahmoud seemed not to notice, or at least care. With only the slightest chuckle he continued reading. “Meelothoth Anubis prico…”  His nail stopped at a symbol not unlike a thunderbolt. “Do you know what this is, my friend? It’s ompiha, the word for sacrifice. For Anubis to appear again in this world, we must offer gifts. Of blood. Isn’t that interesting?”

Wahmoud leaned in next to his ear. Ahmed felt the man’s hot breath on his skin and it reeked of garlic and dust. “Yes, a blood sacrifice. It’s actually quite an honor, if you think about it.” He couldn’t blink or move. Out of the corner of his eyeAhmed saw a glint of light. The dagger’s blade was honed to razor sharpness. Its hilt was a golden scarab, Anubis’ canine likeness etched into its rounded back.

Ahmed’s head throbbed as if his sanity were trying to force its way out through his temples. Outwardly stoic, he watched in mounting terror as the tip of the blade caressed his arm, then broke the skin. A thin rivulet of blood dripped down his wrist and into the deep grooves of the object.

“Thoth imicprimazompihafulcho…” Wahmoud chanted louder now, but the words sounded far away as the panicked man watched his life’s precious blood drip into the deep grooves on the metal disc.

Fascinated and unable to look away Ahmed sat transfixed and nauseousas the thick red liquid began filling the grooves. He knew it wouldn’t be long until all that blood overran the object.

But it didn’t.

It was worse than that.

Against all the laws of Allah and science, the metal seemed to absorb the liquid like a sponge. The blood disappeared into the metal as quickly as it touched the bronze surface. The silent shriek inside him built as he heard Wahmoud’s voice again. Louder. Triumphant.

“Anubis hochmatchi…” the words came faster, more fervent and crazed. Wahmoud appeared in Ahmed’s peripheral vision, grabbing his stone-still arms in an unbreakable grasp. The strange man cackledas the initial offering was so gratefully—even greedily, accepted. He thrust his dagger deep into Ahmed’s paralyzed right wrist, opening the vein to a gush of crimson, then slashed the veins of the left arm.

Ahmed felt nothing but the scalding heat of the metal in his hand. His eyes were wide and uncomprehending as the metal throbbed like a beating heart. In his panic he thought he heard a thirsty slurping as his life’s essence poured along, over, and into the terrible thing he helped bring into the world.

Before the blessed relief of unconsciousness took him, he could swear he saw Mister Wahmoud throw his head back in a long triumphant laugh. “Anubis ramohochtamen pa…”

As the great veil fell over his eyes for the last time, he saw the man’s long, pale face grow longer. Allah grant he never see such a thing again, Mister Wahmoud’s head was replaced with that of a jackal with long teeth and pointed ears.

The last sounds Ahmed heard were the greedy slurp of the metal disc, and a victorious howl that could be heard across Cairo to the French camp five miles away.

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Wayne Turmel

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Wayne Turmel is a former standup comic, car salesman and corporate drone who writes fiction to save what’s left of his sanity. He’s the author of 8 non-fiction titles and three historical novels, “The Count of the Sahara,” “Acre’s Bastard,” and his newest release “Acre’s Orphans.” His motto is: Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. The rest of us are doomed, too, but get to smile smugly and say ‘told you so.’ Wayne and his wife, The Duchess, now live in Las Vegas. You can learn more at 

www.WayneTurmel.com

If you enjoyed ‘The Towel’ leave a comment and let Wayne know.

Read Wayne’s previously published short stories below:

The Towel

The Clairtangentist

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You can find and follow Wayne at:

www.WayneTurmel.com

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Amazon Author Pagehttps://www.amazon.com/Wayne-Turmel/e/B00J5PGNWU/

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