He knew he was getting close when he began to find the bones.
They were difficult to identify initially, scattered haphazardly among the rocks and assorted detritus that littered the floor of the cave. He spotted the first one almost by accident—a dirty, gray thing which looked as if it had once been chewed thoroughly by a dog. Charles knelt down and picked it up, turning it over delicately in his hands. The light from his headlamp cast a pool of illumination in the inky darkness, a spotlight that narrowed as he examined his find. It was old, but unmistakably human. Femur, probably, though hard to tell for sure in such a condition. He frowned, dropping it back onto the floor, and stood, looking around more carefully. In the narrow arc of light he saw more randomly strewn pieces of what had once been a man. The skull, missing a large section of parietal bone, he found tucked in a narrow cranny in the wall to the right. What remained looked like a cracked walnut shell. It was in that moment that Charles’s heart began to beat faster, a ball of fear forming in his chest. This was the place.
The bones could have been gnawed by wild dogs, of course, or perhaps even a Pleistocenian cave bear. His scientific mind repeated that over and over, a mantra of rationality. His heart, however, told him otherwise. Something else was waiting for him ahead in the darkness. Something else entirely.
The fear continued to grow, but fought with a mounting feeling of triumph. He had been right, after all.
Up until now, he’d half expected to find nothing but a blank wall of impenetrable rock at the end of his search. He’d already imagined the return trip, the looks of pity and half-veiled mockery in the eyes of the men who’d accompanied him as he stepped, blinking and ashamed, into the sunlight.
No one in academia knew he was here, of course. He’d surrendered his job and any chance for tenure at a respected university years ago. Now the authorities were looking for him, in connection with the theft of certain documents obtained from research libraries at first, unscrupulous antiquities dealers later. Every dime he possessed, and some he did not, had been invested—risked—in the absolute certainty that he had correctly connected the ancient dots, and that certainty was only obtained by giving up any possibility of failure. He reached into his jacket pocket, fingering the small glass vial containing two potassium cyanide pills. It was his only insurance.
In the village he’d hired a guide and a couple of young porters to carry his gear and set up the tents. The money he’d paid them was enough to buy their silence, but they all knew what he was looking for. It was their stories and the stories of their ancestors which had brought him here, after all. They knew what was rumored to live within this mountain. He was far from the first man to make his way up the muddy village road, bearing gold and pleading to be led to the entrance of the cave.
In the local tavern, which was little more than a shack set back from the sloppy, unpaved street, they were eager to tell tales of his predecessors, men who’d passed through this village before entering the mountain and never returning. They smiled through half-rotten teeth, assuring him of his doom while pocketing his coin. Charles couldn’t tell whether they pitied him or thought him a joke, though he suspected the latter.
It took them three days to hike the distance from the village to the cave. The land on the eastern edge of the Anatolian plateau was rugged and arid, consisting mostly of rising foothills born from the flow of ancient volcanoes. The black, obsidian soil was strewn with jagged chunks of basalt which quickly tore through his boots.
During the day, the heat was almost unbearable. Swarms of black flies enveloped them, slipping into nostrils and ears, lapping at the corners of eyes. One of the guides took pity and gave Charles a long, soft scarf to wrap around his head. By the second day, his feet were swollen, cracked, and felt as if they were encased in lead. He wondered if it were all a trick—if the locals had taken his money and brought him out here to die.
When they made camp on the third night, however, it was beside the entrance to the cave. Charles, though exhausted, found he could not sleep. Wrapping a blanket around his shoulders, he sat down beside the fire across from the chief guide, a thin, wiry man with dark, weathered skin and deep-set eyes. While Charles sat, the man looked at him, studying his face without expression.
“Lovely night, yes?” Charles said, in an awkward attempt to end the silence. He looked up, gesturing to the glittering sky overhead.
The man, whose name was Yaavik, did not follow his gaze. Instead, Yaavik continued to stare, unblinking.
“You seek the Phix,” he said, after some time.
“Yes,” Charles answered.
“She does not appreciate company,” he said.
“You’ve seen her?”
“The last person in my village to lay eyes on the Phix was my great-grandfather.”
“And this was?”
The old man picked up a gnarled, twisted branch from the pile of firewood they’d brought in, and slowly stirred the coals before tossing it into the flames. Sparks rose up in a glittering column, drifting silently in the cold air. “Over a century ago,” he said. “I believe the year was 1888.”
Charles rummaged around in his rucksack and pulled out a small notepad and the stub of a pencil.
“And did your great-grandfather . . .”
Charles cleared his throat. “Well, yes.”
“Of course he survived. How do you suppose that I know the tale?”
“I’m sorry,” Charles said. “Of course. Of course he did.”
The old man smiled; a broad, almost savage grin that pulled his chapped lips tight to reveal two rows of broken, blackened teeth. The sight rendered Charles slightly sick. He quickly looked down to his pad, pretending to take more notes.
“Why do you seek her?” Yaavik asked. “For the gold?”
“No,” Charles said, a little too quickly. “That’s only a myth.” He was tired of this story.
“My great-grandfather claimed that he saw what the Phix guarded,” Yaavik said. “He said that the chamber behind her was piled floor to ceiling with more riches than a man could imagine.”
“And how is it,” Charles asked, “that your great-grandfather saw these things, and yet was able to survive and return to tell the tale?”
The old man snorted, spitting a large wad of chewing tobacco into the fire, where it sizzled and popped before settling into a charred mass. “My great-grandfather was a terrible gambler,” he said. “He would bet on anything, anything at all—the weather, how many times the cock would crow at dawn, the number of steps between his front door and the next village. He was the laughing stock of the town—the clown, the buffoon.” Yaavik looked up. “One day he made a bet with a man who did not laugh.”
“He demanded that my great-grandfather pay the debt owed, or die.”
“So he decided to try and challenge the Sphinx,” Charles finished.
Yaavik snorted loudly, wiping his nose with the back of one dirty sleeve. “Phix,” he said.
“In modern stories she is referred to as the Sphinx,” Charles explained.
“Phix,” the old man said again.
Charles sighed. “Phix.” He wrote something down in his pad. “I am interested in her for other reasons.”
Yaavik ignored him. “My great-grandfather was not a learned man. He was not foolish enough to try and answer her riddles,” he continued. “Instead, his plan was to try and steal the money, perhaps even just a single gold coin, or, if this was not possible, to discover a way in which she could be killed, or subdued.”
He stopped then, and was quiet for a long time. A log fell on the fire, sending a shower of sparks flickering up and into the blackness above. In time, Charles began to wonder if the old man had fallen asleep.
“And?” he asked quietly.
Yaavik looked up. His eyes were bright, and shining in the darkness.
“And, nothing,” he said. “My great-grandfather emerged from the cave blind, empty sockets bleeding where he had torn out his own eyes. The wounds became infected, and he died less than two weeks later.”
Charles pulled a flashlight from his knapsack and flicked it on. In the distance he could see more bones, flashes of white against the dark floor of the cave. As he walked they became more numerous, until eventually the way was reduced to a narrow path between piles of broken skulls, vertebrae, and other assorted splinters. Phalanges littered the floor like marbles. Now and again he bent down to pick up a piece and examined it. They were all human, each and every one, and the reality they presented took hold of the nugget of fear he carried, shaped and molded it into something black and heavy in his chest. No amount of scholarship could have prepared him for this raw truth—that hundreds, perhaps thousands had come this way before him. And failed. For a moment he stood paralyzed, unable to go forward. The cave around him was silent, but it was a silence that carried the weight of expectation, as if the cold, clammy air itself waited to see if he’d be brave enough to take another step.
It was the courage of desperation that finally drew him on, as he remembered that the police were probably searching his small, threadbare apartment at this very moment. There was nothing behind him, of that he was sure, but there was something ahead. After a time he took a deep, shuddering breath, and continued down the path.
Before long he noticed that the utter darkness of the passage was lessening. Slowly, he began to make out the shape of the walls outside the beam of his flashlight. It was a golden light, warm, as if from a fire, but there were no flickering shadows to indicate a flame. Instead, the very cave walls seemed to glow. Before long he was able to put away his flashlight completely and turn off his headlamp.
It was in that precise moment that he began to hear the music.
It was faint at first, so much so that he initially doubted the evidence of his senses. It sounded like whistling, perhaps, but not quite. He thought it could have been the wind, until he remembered that the subterranean air was unmoving and stale. As he walked on, it became louder, clearly music now, and sounded like singing, though the sounds were unlike anything that could have been produced by human vocal chords.
High-pitched and ethereal, the melody was a question, a call that wrapped him in uncertainty and wonder. His ears strained to make sense of the sounds, but it was impossible. The desire to hear it clearly, to make out its meaning, drew him like a magnet. It felt as if every step closer would be just enough, rendering the melody intelligible, revealing itself to him like a flower in bloom. He felt his rational mind slipping away. This was something he had not expected, but it was simply too fascinating, too beautiful, to engender fear.
Somewhere inside his mind a memory flashed briefly, just long enough to deliver to him the story of the sirens who’d lured Odysseus’s men to their deaths. As a classics professor he’d assigned The Odyssey to his students every semester, and in that other life he’d known nearly the whole thing by heart. His strength waning, he pulled off his rucksack and began digging through it desperately, tripping on a pile of skulls and falling to his knees. The contents of his bag spilled out, scattering among the bones and rocks. His hands shaking, Charles struggled in the dim light to gather his supplies and shove them back into the pack, though he suddenly realized that he didn’t know why he was doing it, why he was fiddling with these useless things when the song was telling him to get up, to continue on, to walk until his feet were bloody stumps and then to crawl if he must. By chance, however, his eye caught a flash of white protruding from one of the pockets, and, pulling out the item, came to his senses just long enough to push the foam plugs into his ears. The music instantly ceased, and, as he sat, he felt his mind return as if from behind a thick ocean fog. His hands, however, were still shaking. He knew exactly how close he’d just come to death.
When he felt well enough he repacked his bag and stood. The light was brighter just ahead, so he continued on, stepping carefully, checking the earplugs periodically lest they come loose. Eventually, he came to something like a corner, an outcropping of rock that partially closed off the passageway. An enormous mound of bones, piled up like the deadfall after a flash flood, blocked the narrow opening save for a small gap at the top, and it took over an hour of clearing to make a hole large enough that he could squeeze himself and his gear through.
On the other side, the light was much brighter, bright enough that it took several seconds for his eyes to adjust after the dimness from which he’d emerged. He blinked, squinting, as the enormous room came into focus.
And there she was.
She was smaller than he’d expected, larger than a house cat but more diminutive than the lion whose form she mimicked. She sat, unmoving, on an enormous stone dais roughly five feet high, putting her nearly at his eye level. She was so perfectly still that she could have easily been mistaken for stone, though as Charles stared he noticed nictitating membranes periodically sweeping across her eyes. Her skin, black and shiny as polished marble, reflected the warm light. Small, perfect wings of silky black feathers interspersed with tiny tongues of flame swept up in graceful curves from her back. Her face, simultaneously beautiful and terrible, stared at him impassively. She was, in a word, exquisite. Without noticing he’d done so, Charles found himself on his knees.
He realized that the plugs were still in his ears. Tentatively, he pulled one out, testing for sound, but the music had stopped. Slowly, reverently, he removed them both and slid them into his pocket. Then he cast down his eyes.
“Mother of Mysteries,” he said in a low voice.
For a long while there was nothing, but Charles did not dare look up. His ears could discern a shuffling, however, and the light scrape of claws on stone.
“Mortal,” she said. Her voice was a thousand whispers that filled the room with sound and Charles’s heart with an awful dread.
“Have you brought me libations?” A large, golden chalice appeared at his feet. Perhaps it had been there all along and he hadn’t noticed.
“Yes, Sister of Secrets.” From his pack he pulled a bottle of Lemnian wine, the closest he could come to something she might be familiar with. Before setting out he’d uncorked and carefully resealed the bottle, making it easy now to gently pull out the stopper and slowly pour the liquid into the vessel. No sooner had he done so than the chalice vanished.
Moments of silence passed. Then, “This is of very poor quality.”
“Forgive me, Daughter of Wisdom.” He knew better than to argue or attempt to explain.
“It is not in my power to forgive,” she said, “though I may show you the door.”
“A priest,” Charles said, his voice nearly a whisper. He shut his eyes tightly, waiting for the death blow. Instead, there was silence for several moments.
Then her voice. “Correct,” she said. It was several minutes before she spoke again.
“You have come here for the treasure?”
“No, Keeper of Questions.”
“I would like knowledge.”
In her presence the answer sounded ridiculous.
From the direction of her dais came sounds, growls and the beginnings of a roar that frightened him enough to put his hands tight against his ears. It muffled the sound, somewhat, but when it was over his ears were still ringing. The ground shook beneath his feet and he peeked through cracked eyelids, though he was careful not to look up at the monster on the pedestal. From this limited viewpoint, he saw only that stone dust and small rocks were raining down from the ceiling, and Charles wondered once again if the interview was over and he was about to die. In time, however, the shaking ceased and the roar in his ears subsided until he felt safe enough to remove his hands, which were cramped from being locked so tightly against the sides of his head. When all was quiet, she spoke again.
“There are far greater treasures, to one who would pass the test.” Silence. Then, “Head and tail with no body, I hide every deformity.”
Charles paused for a moment. “Gold coins,” he said. He swallowed to keep from losing his breakfast.
“Open your eyes, mortal.”
Slowly, he did as he was told. At first he was blinded by the dazzling light flickering and reflecting around the room. When his eyes finally adjusted, his breath caught in his throat, and he stared, amazed. Behind the Sphinx, the room had become a vast cavern filled with treasure. Gold and precious metals lay stacked in bricks or piled high in mounds nearly reaching the ceiling. Jewels, some as big as a man’s fist, lay in haphazard piles like heaps of coal. Even though he knew that being tempted with riches was simply the first part of the test, Charles’s mouth dropped open in awe. To fill his pockets or even just his knapsack would mean more wealth than he could spend in a lifetime.
With tremendous effort, however, he remained focused. To stop now would mean failure, and failure was not an option. The Sphinx didn’t give away her treasure, most assuredly not to someone who had only answered a couple of easy riddles.
“Mother of Mysteries,” he said, struggling with the instinct to cast his eyes downward once again. “You are too generous. I do not seek wealth, however.”
“Immortality, then,” she said. “It has a song. It has a sting. Ah, too, it has a wing.”
“Fame,” said Charles, keeping his voice low, and reverent. “Emily Dickinson.”
The Sphinx inclined her head slightly. Immediately his head was filled with images of himself, lauded by his colleagues, vindicated and celebrated in the press, interviewed for television and asked to dine with presidents. For a man who had spent his life circling the fringes of success, underappreciated and unrecognized for his efforts, it was far more tempting than the gold had been. It took every bit of effort Charles had to shake the vision from his eyes and face the Sphinx once again.
“Again, you are too generous, Lady of Secrets,” he said, “but I seek not fame nor immortality.”
The Sphinx pawed at the dust under her feet, her great claws cutting deep grooves into the stone. Baring her teeth at him in what could have been either a smile or a grimace, she finally settled down upon the platform, looking like nothing so much as an aloof housecat. “Mortal,” she said. “You know not what you ask. Many have come before you, and all but one have sought the treasures of man.”
“You mean Oedipus,” said Charles.
The Sphinx ignored him. “For in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.”
“The Tree of Knowledge,” Charles said. “Genesis, King James.” He noted to himself that the riddles were becoming easier, and wondered why. Nervous streams of sweat trickled down his back and dripped into his eyes, though he dared not wipe it away. “I understand the risk,” he said, his voice barely audible. “But throughout my life, the search for knowledge has been my only . . . refuge. If I remain as I am, there are questions to which I will never know the answers. And that, Daughter of Wisdom, is far worse for me than mere death.”
The Sphinx stared at him without blinking for several moments before slowly, almost imperceptibly, nodding her head.
“Two brothers approach,” she said, her eyes locking into his own. “One the other’s reflection, though he be taller, paler, more solemn.” Charles felt his eyes becoming heavy, his brain descending into fog and uncertainty. “They take me in their arms, one to soothe, one to bless.”
Charles’s legs, heavy and leaden, gave way, and he sank to the floor. His mouth was dry, and his tongue felt heavy, useless. He began to forget again, to slide into oblivion, and though he struggled, he ached to lie down and rest. At the last moment before he lost consciousness, he whispered the answer, so quietly that it was barely the breath of speech. “Sleep, and Death.”
As from a long distance he felt his consciousness snap back, a rubber band stretched then released. He coughed, choking on dust, gagging as he struggled to pull air into his lungs. His head, though clear, pounded a deafening rhythm in his ears. Blinking, dizzy, and disoriented, he sat up, struggling to choke back the vomit that rose in his throat.
When he could see clearly again, he looked up, his eyes widening as he beheld the figure on the stone dais. No longer a creature, she had transformed into a young woman, naked and exquisitely beautiful. Charles stared, taking in the long, thick waves of midnight hair that flowed over dark, coppery skin. As he watched, she stood and, lightly as a cat, jumped down, landing before him. Without a word she leaned in, kissing him, pulling him into her with hands that felt like claws against his back. His heart pounded, threatening to tumble from his chest.
Her skin smelled of cinnamon and frankincense; of jasmine and myrrh; of life and death. As they embraced, Charles inhaled the scent, taking her into him, filling himself. His questions, once endless, fluttered and were lost.
When the kiss ended, she leaned back, looking into his eyes. Her face was sad.
“Are you certain of your desire?” she asked.
“Yes,” he answered. He looked down.
“The best riddles have no answers,” she said.
She flickered, and in a heartbeat had regained her previous form, returning to the stone pillar above him. Her eyes flashed fire.
“Ask,” she said.
“Thank you, Mother of Mysteries.”
“Ask!” she demanded. Her voice boomed, echoing off the stone walls.
Charles took a deep, shuddering breath. “There are two sisters,” he began. The atmosphere around him started to shimmer, a desert mirage. Humming sounds, the breath of a thousand wings, filled the air. “They each give birth, one to the other.” He watched her fall, writhing and struggling upon the stone, in obvious pain. He was afraid, and ashamed, but he continued nonetheless. He had come too far.
“What are they?” he asked softly.
Suddenly he felt it, alive, inside him. It grew, and Charles screamed. His skin began to split and crack, fissures billowing light like smoke.
There, the answer, he thought.
Sitting under an outcropping of rock, the men felt the mountain beneath them tremble. Yaavik looked up and around, giving a satisfied nod to his companions. Without a word he began to pack his gear. The rest, watching, did the same. One of them scattered the ashes of the previous night’s fire, obliterating any sign of their presence. When they were done they left, following a different path back through the hills and down to the village.
Moments after the sound of their footsteps died away, a young woman emerged from the cave’s mouth, blinking and squinting in the harsh afternoon light. Pausing, she adjusted the straps on her pack, which were far too long for her slender shoulders. A leather belt, cinched tightly at her thin waist, held down the white shirt and khaki pants which hung on her frame. Her feet were bare, and already cut by rocks.
Far behind her, faint sounds echoed off the cave walls, noises that could have been wind whistling through rock, or, perhaps, something else, cut by distance and depth.
Breathing deeply of the high desert air, she smiled into the sky, and walked on.
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