Two a.m. They rise from the recliners in silence and qualify the striking fullness of the moon for several minutes, with its retinue of ordered stars arcing the dark empty mouth beyond. They descend the steps below deck where all is still. They are motionless at his door. Their eyes engaged. They enter the room and stand facing one another. For a moment they do nothing. Her tentative hand then touches his chest. The million cells that comprise his skin. He touches her mouth with his thumb. Utters one word. Habibi. They hear nothing outside of themselves and time transcends them. Their mouths meet and in his arousal he touches her soft skin. Her naval. Pubis. He exhales a groan. A sequestered cave. Her breath quickens. They have nowhere else to go but with the current and they are consumed by it, like a god absorbs the sun. There is a divine presence as they taste flesh and saliva, then sinew coils and the intensity writhes displacing who they once were to an impassable space. His euphoria leaves impressions upon her skin like a carving on stone and before they expire they know neither of them can revert to what came before. They are no longer sightless, nor in darkness. An alignment shifts and their apogee is endless. The world around them is extinguished.
Four a.m. The motion of the dahabiya moderates their silence with the gentle ripples of the unsettled water. They are transfixed. His cheek rests against her naval. His right arm about her naked limbs. The tips of his fingers move along her thigh. His breath abates. They exist in a sphere of their own making. No one can enter. Its landscape is far beyond the trappings of this world. There is neither commerce nor treaty. Decadence nor war. It’s their own private wilderness and they abandon themselves to it. She extends her fingers like tree roots through his hair the way her father used to when she was a child, when she would wake from some disordered dream or from the tapping of some errant branch on the windowpane. They share childhood histories. Memories embedded and long forgot.
What gives you joy? she asks. This moment, he answers. The composition of it. He kisses the promontory of her ribcage. Your skin. It has a truth. A knowledge. There’s no demarcation between yours and mine. She smiles. What else? He looks up and is suddenly conscious of the pre-dawn twilight. The sea, he says. Art in all its form. But above all, words. Words give me purpose. Yes, she says, I see that now. And you? he asks. Trees. I like to stand anonymous among great armies of trees. To breathe with them. Listen to their ambiguous language. And the sea. She pauses to kiss him. My work. She then takes him into her life of antiquities. Certain places where she has felt an affinity with the posthumous lives of those she excavates.
She leads him to a place not far from the Step Pyramid of Djoser, where until recent years it lay undiscovered for four millennia. It is the tomb of a royal official. A well-preserved rock-cut tomb-chapel with beautifully painted reliefs, sculptures and inscriptions. She extends his hand to one of fifty adorned statues of Wahtye and guides it along the stone bicep, down the forearm to the shendyt. She rests his fingers on the foot of the priest as if to bless it. Together they read the blue inscriptions alongside him on the walls. She tells him of the skeletal analysis of Wahtye and his family resting there who had, they propose, fallen victim to malaria. These could represent the earliest known cases of the disease.
They exit the tomb and he takes her four hundred kilometres north of Khartoum where an assignment had taken him in recent months. They enter the ancient Kushite kingdom of Nubia where a complex of sacred temples were built for their deity, Amun. Where kings would have entered the Holy of Holies to fulfil ordination. He takes her hand and walks her up the stone path that leads to the sandstone mesa of Jebel Barkal, where pallid swifts and rock buntings nest. When they climb the hundred-metre plateau they are met by panoramic views of the vast landscape of Karima, the Nile and scattered temple ruins. He describes the view in detail. On the horizon are the pyramids of the black pharaohs, which appear to jut out of the ground like a convoy of ebony teeth, jagged against the endless desert vista and searing coral sun. And within the sacred mountain is a labyrinth. He brushes her hand along the carved wall painted chambers of the Temple of Mut where blue and argil composites of nature are daubed. Its ruins of Hathor columns stand at the foot of the mesa, and near a large bend of the river are remnants of the Temple of Amun. He walks her through these ruins where solitary ram sculptures sit and, although the kings of this lost civilisation are gone and their inventions now relics, the proximity of the divine resides. Four millennia of transient souls have wandered this vicinity.
They are back in the cabin of the dahabiya, inert on the bed. Entangled limbs. The calming chant of the cicadas is general, along with the neutral swell of the river and the call of little grebe. They are silent for a long time in their secret wilderness. He takes her arm and kisses the wound left by her former lover. Nothing can hinder you now, he says as he catches a falling tear from her cheek. What follows are the beginnings of sexual movement.
At breakfast not hours later they find their fellow passengers have already departed for Kom Ombo so they remain behind for the rest of the day. No sleep has come to either of them and neither will it until nightfall. Their day will consist of words of poets and historians long since forgot together with the intimacy that now governs their every moment. They settle themselves among great scholars of men who question everything. All rhetoric of existence. Their beliefs. Their assumptions. The arias of Mozart weave in and out of their discourse like a guest at a feast. Night precedes them before they are ready to untangle themselves from carnal language and the time collectively spent invokes a need in them as an arid plant receives rain. He watches her movement throughout the day. How she holds a book or assumes a demure frown. He surveys the contours of her back when they bathe, every aspect of her torso. The curves of her womanly form, lithe and sensual. How she greets the spray of water upon her neck and twists her long dark hair like twine. But she too studies his cast as if to investigate something freshly unearthed. Reads it like some inscrutable text, her fingertips scanning braille. The eye receives every detail of their anatomy and for him it is as if he is retaining a map to memory, a snapshot to draw on at a later date so as to commit it to the page, or sketch from memory. When they lie in each other’s arms they watch the light change in the room as dusk descends and the reflections of the water on the walls, just as civilisations would have before Caesar, Alexander or Christianity. The river. A spine whose vertebrae stretches over six and a half thousand kilometres feeding life to eleven countries. He is suddenly dwarfed by this knowledge.