Hieroglyphics

Egypt by Shimon Avish  (640 words) 

Egypt. Of all the places Elizabeth could have wanted to visit, why did her first choice have to be Egypt, a place that conjures up so many terrible memories for me? Besides, why couldn't she choose somewhere with azure-colored water, white beaches, and floating bars? But, of course, it was my fault on two counts. First, wanting to surprise her with the trip of a lifetime, I asked her to name the one place she had always wanted to go.

"Oh, that's easy, Egypt. Ever since I read about Cleopatra, I've wanted to see Alexandria and the pyramids and the temples."

Second, I never told her any of my war stories. So, she doesn't know that Egypt is the last place I want to go after visiting in 1973 on an all-expenses-paid trip courtesy of the Israeli military. 

"So, what do you think? Cairo in October?"

"Phwt" is approximately the sound I made as I blew the water I had been about to swallow out of my mouth.

"What's wrong, hun? Are you okay?" she asked as she grabbed the paper towels to clean up the mess. "Was that an enthusiastic or unenthusiastic reaction? Come on, spit it out—pun intended."

My wife is a wonderful woman from upstate New York, and the closest she has come to conflict is that time one of my kids… oh, never mind… you get the idea. I've never shared my army stories with her, always figuring it's my trauma. So why burden her with it, right? Well, this a fine mess I've gotten myself into; How do I explain not wanting to go to her dream destination without spilling the beans on how many of my friends (eleven) were buried before they reached their mid-twenties, and how many men—boys really—died in my arms? How do I explain about the broken bodies I couldn't fix, the lives I couldn't save, the parents and girlfriends and wives who would never see their Dannys, Avners, Mottis, and Moshes again? How can I explain about the lives I've taken, the Mahmouds and Abdullahs who would never see their loved ones again? How do I explain it's all in vain? That once we finished with that war, there was just another one, and then another. The confrontations might change in nature over time, but the violence we were doing to them and us would become pathological and eat away at our societies. How could I explain what being on a constant war footing did to us as a people, how teenage boys, especially, hardened their hearts to prepare themselves for what they would have to do in the army?

"Hun? What's wrong? You look pale."

"Sorry. Give me a minute."

"Sure, take all the time you need. I'll just clean this up."

"Leave it. I'll clean it up later. Just come and sit next to me so I can tell you something."

"What is it? It sounds serious."

"Well, in a way, it is. You know I left Israel when I was twenty-three, and I told you it was to attend university. Well, that was only one reason. The other reason had to do with serving in the army."

 Pacing now, I continued. "You know I was a medic, but I never told you any army stories. That was on purpose, because I didn't want to burden you with what happened. And I left Israel so that my future children would never have to have similar experiences, never have to curtail their childhoods, and never have to bury their friends or kill others."

"You don't have to tell me unless you want to."

"Well, I'm not going to tell you the details, but just know that I was in the 1973 war, and I fought on the Egyptian front. I saw more death than any person should have to see in a lifetime, but I'm not unique in that."

"Thanks for telling me that much, and I'm sorry you kept it bottled up all these years. So, let's not go to Egypt. Maybe we should go to one of those fancy resorts in the Caribbean instead. What do you think?"



A renaissance man, at least according to his wife, Shimon Avish has done many things in his life, including earning degrees in industrial design and political science, designing and building custom furniture and farm equipment, farming, patching up the wounded as a combat medic in the infantry, and advising global companies on the effective administration of certain areas of spend management. In the post-COVID world, Shimon is aspiring to combine a lifetime of experiences into stories that shape the way we see the world and the role we can each play in making it a better place for everyone.

The Best Wrong Choice, by Florin Deleanu  (750 words) 

Egypt. Of all the places Elizabeth could have chosen, it was the farthest place from home. She needed to run away from all the crippling sense of despair. She needed a breath in the open, under the non-judgemental sun, somewhere far away from failed auditions and waiting on people’s tables. Hurghada was supposed to that magic “somewhere,” not a nightmare where death could visit any moment…. 

The bearded man, armed with a machine gun, grenades hanging by his belt, walked by her, stopped a while checking… what? She didn’t dare to look up, lying petrified on the floor of the airport. All she could see were his black boots… They were moving again, thank Heaven! She slowly raised her head and caught a view of one, two, three terrorists treading along the rows of plastic chairs with the guns pointed at the passengers. She dropped her head quickly. 

She noticed an old couple lying three yards away from her. Why the hell the old woman was smiling? And her fat husband who was mouthing something…. What was he trying to say? She shook her head. The man’s whispers floated faintly to her ears, “Five more minutes, and it’s over.” What does he mean by “over?” “Over” like in being freed? Or “over” like in… dead? How would he know? Did he speak Arabic, and heard something? 

She turned her back to the couple. It made her sick to look at them smiling when death was on her way! Maybe old folk like them can let it go. But she didn’t want to die, not here, not now! Why did her life take such a turn? Where had she made the wrong choice? Was it looking for a restroom away from all other passengers heading for immigration? Why on earth would she need to be alone for her makeup? Or maybe it was when she heard an announcement about something in Wing A? Just one of those crappy pieces of information, she thought. It must have been a warning. Why didn’t she pay more attention?   

And why the f*ck did she take a break away from her life in New York? Another failed audition? Come on, it wasn’t that big…. Well, maybe it was big, it was after all Shyamalan’s new movie, but that wasn’t the end of the world. It was only… nine years she’d been studying, day in day out, and nothing yet…. Maggie got her first role after five years. Was she studying too much? Acting has to be perfect. And in order to be perfect, you need a method. She’d tried them all: Stanislavsky’s, Chekhov’s, Strasberg’s, Meisner’s, Spolin’s, Hagen’s, Practical Aesthetics Acting, Laban Movement. And she’d been working so hard for each audition. Maybe Maggie was right, though, and it was “the paralysis of analysis.” But how else can you get to the bottom of it? 

Oops, the black boots stopped again next to her face. Muffled sounds of a voice echoed from somewhere close. When she located the source, it was too late. The terrorist pointed the gun to her face. She’d never thought death could be… so metallic, Just looking into a black hole of despair. Was it the end? Questions, answers, thinking…. all became meaningless. The next sound she’d hear would be…

“And cut,” a loud voice resounded from somewhere. The terrorist’s face relaxed. He smiled and stretched out his hand to help Elizabeth stand up. She hesitated but people around her were laughing and shaking hands with the terrorists. She nodded to her terrorist, and let her helped to stand up. She did need it. 

Then it became all clear: two cameras made their appearance from behind a white screen, the crew moving around frantically. What were the odds? A movie shot on Hurghada Airport, and she getting to play, albeit an inconsequential extra. 

Elizabeth turned around, looking for her bag when she heard a voice: 

“Excuse me, could you come with me please?”

It was a staff member. She followed him sheepishly. “Shit, they’re gonna give me an earful. I’m not an extra. Or maybe I’d ruined the scene?”

 

Elizabeth was led to a man sitting on a chair, lenses in his hand. He looked familiar, but she couldn’t quite say how until she was too close to say anything. It was… Steven Spielberg: 

“I really liked your acting. Unless you got other commitments, I’d like to offer you a role.”

Correspondence, by Marlene Goldberg  (606 words) 

Egypt. Of all the places Elizabeth could have chosen to hold the international conference for young diplomats - this location couldn't be more challenging. First of all, the summer heat which was average for the time of year in the vicinity - hit temperatures of over 100 degrees - in the shade. At least in Las Vegas, you can rely on the air-conditioning to work. But this was the Middle East. Almost every room at the hotel had at least one sputtering air-conditioner only spitting out hot air.  

Then the schedule. They warned me that nothing ever starts on time around here.  But our main speaker waltzes in at almost half an hour late. No time for a soundcheck. And expects our sound men to adjust the mikes with the audience already in the room. Well, some of the audience, a half-hour behind schedule, consisting presently of a few seniors, the only ones to have made a decent effort to arrive on time to get good seats. 

And the audience. Sigh. I can kindly request to shut off their phones until I'm blue in my face, but there's always the wise guy who didn't hear me...Sam mused to himself.  

Then to the speaker, he recorded the message: 

“Well, Elizabeth. This is your baby. I am here mostly to offer moral support.  But that young lady speaker. Wow! I don't know where you find them. She had them all mesmerized with her singing. And in Hebrew no less! Too bad we couldn't convince CNN to send their people. There must be a story there. If I had the time I would look into it. She's a charmer! Thank goodness we had the foresight to bring in our own security personnel. Those young hoodlums that showed up sure made a racket, but our people soon took care of them.”

Elizabeth’s confident tone immediately replied in voice mail: 

“Sam, I know you mean well. But I beg you to let me handle it. Your ‘security personnel’ have already caused more harm than good. We could have had the young people let off steam and just escorted them out, without the aggressive tactics of your men. Now our main attraction, Fatima has gone missing. We don’t know what happened to cause her to suddenly leave the stage and vanish without a trace. We have reported her disappearance to the Egyptian authorities, but they have no clue either. But they are doing a background check and will get back to us. I am afraid under the present circumstances, unfortunately, we are forced to cancel the conference. We will need to inform all the participants from abroad of the exigencies of the situation and reimburse them for the next two days. Mohammed El-Rashish from the Embassy suggests we offer them a Nile tour as compensation. I await your instructions.”

Sam immediately emailed his employee: 

“Elizabeth, do as you see fit. You always do anyway. This is a verifiable pickle and I don’t see any good to come out of it. Funding is not a problem. Our donors have big pockets, as you are well aware of, but it’s your job to assure the steady flow. I leave the sorting out in your capable hands and remain,

Yours truly,

Sam Smith, CEO

And received in reply:

Sam,

I appreciate your confidence in me. No worries. The Federation has seen more stressful times in the past. We’ll find the girl. I’m sure of it. Meanwhile, we’ll give our visitors the time of their life on a fabulous Nile cruise they won’t soon forget. 

I will keep you apprised of the details. 

Faithfully yours,

 Elizabeth Jones

Arabesque, by Nina Lichtenstein  (748 words) 

Egypt. Of all the places Elizabeth could have fallen in love, it had to be here where she didn’t speak the language and, of course, she had to be Muslim. Just when Elizabeth had finally untangled herself from the complications in Israel after her Jewish and orthodox girlfriend Yocheved suddenly decided to dump her, go hetero, and marry Yaakov the yeshiva bocher...and now this. 

 

She caught Leila’s gaze the moment she entered the expansive private gardens of Saleem, the infamous Egyptian abstract painter who, against all advice, threw a gay pride party with a top-secret guest list, rainbow colored cocktails, and the surprise appearance by the iconic Israeli drag queen Mama de la Smallah. A colorful blend of underground artists, expats, and tourists mingled around the multi-tiered pool with a mosaic design of Dorothy’s red shoes shimmering from its bottom, as if they were animated. 

 

Their eyes had locked and Elizabeth immediately knew. 

Thankfully, as they chatted under a palm tree sipping pink Cosmos too sweet with triple sec, she quickly picked up that Leila’s family was “totally secular, like only culturally Muslim,” as she’d said. So, Elizabeth figured at least there’d be less internal drama...more acceptance. “Inch Allah,” she thought to herself, as a flash memory of Yocheved’s mother’s locking herself into her bedroom refusing to come out to meet Elizabeth, the first time she came over to their house in Jerusalem. 

 

Elizabeth and Leila made out that evening, in a quiet corner of the garden, while the crowds raucously cheered Mama de la Smallah’s performance by the pool. When Leila’s hands reached around her waist and pulled her closer, their lips relished the other’s soft yet unapologetic hunger. Later, a little tipsy now from their third or fourth Cosmos, they sat on an alabaster bench that felt cool against their skin. Leila made her repeat elementary sentences in Arabic, “so you can impress my family when you meet them,” she said with an irresistible wink. 

 

The next day, Elizabeth was invited to Leila’s place. Her family was in Alexandria at their oceanside villa, and the Cairo apartment was at their disposal. Cavernous, with room after room of floor-to-ceiling windows and French balconies with ornate wrought iron railings, the place had intricately laid out parquet floors that creaked underfoot, and stunning colorful tiles in every room. Overhead, fans turned lazily in the ceilings making the hot June day seem gloriously airy. “Your brother?” she asked, nodding at a large photograph framed in gold. “Yes, Ammon. 2 years older than me. He is busy nursing a recent break up...” Leila said, rolling her eyes as if it wasn’t the first time he was in this situation. “He’ll get over it. I wasn’t crazy about her and neither were our parents, so my guess is it was for the best.” Elizabeth felt a tug deep inside, reminiscent of the rare occasion when she had been attracted to men. 

 

They made sweet love that day, in Leila’s bedroom, where gauzy white curtains ballooned in the breeze from the tall, open windows, and the sheets smelled like jasmine and rose water. But Elizabeth struggled to get the image of Ammon out of her mind. When she dozed off, Leila’s arms and legs intertwined with her own, she dreamt she was taking a bath with him, and that Leila walked in on them. 

 

When they finally crawled out of bed, Leila put bossa nova on the speakers, its smooth rhythms permeating the apartment. Still nude, they stood side by side in the kitchen sipping wine and chatting while chopping garlic for pasta aglio-olio. 

 

Suddenly, Elizabeth heard a faint noise as Ammon emerged in the doorway, like an apparition. They hadn’t noticed him enter, and Elizabeth was so startled her glass slipped out of her hand and crashed onto the floor. “Oh shit!” she called out just as Leila yelled, “Ammon, you’re home!?” Elizabeth lifted her gaze and gulped. Stunningly gorgeous, he leaned against the doorframe, his seafoam green eyes twinkling as he smiled. Their eyes met and she worried the jolt she felt was noticeable. Did she just shudder? Leila threw her a tiny tea towel which didn’t cover much of Elizabeth’s nakedness, and while she fumbled, neither Ammon nor Elizabeth averted their mesmerized gazes. “Salaam aleikum,” she stuttered. “Aleikum salaam,” he said. He stepped forward and she instinctively reached out her hand to shake his. But instead, he lifted her hand and kissed it. 

 

Elizabeth immediately knew.

Pointy Things, by Cyn Lubow  (531 words) 

Egypt. Of all the places Elizabeth could have developed a phobia of pointy things, this was the most unfortunate. Oddly, she’d never previously been afraid of needles or other pointy objects that cause some phobics the kind of whole-body shaking, sweating, dizziness, nausea, and terror Elizabeth began experiencing since arriving in Cairo a week ago. Much to her surprise, her first look at the pointy tops of the pyramids she’d traveled so far to worship nearly caused her to faint, sparking this visceral reaction upon each subsequent pointy sighting. 

Having saved her money for 20 years working as a third-grade teacher in Bugtussle, Kentucky, this trip was supposed to be the ultimate fulfillment of her dreams. At home, Elizabeth’s apartment was wallpapered with images of Egyptian pyramids, hieroglyphs and mummies, her shelves cluttered with her collection of miniature pyramids and countless sphinxes. In fact, many of Elizabeth’s fellow teachers speculated that she’d probably never married due to her Egyptomania. No one, except her doctor, knew that she had Tutankhamun’s tomb tattooed on her rump.

Fortunately, Asim, the locally-based personal guide she’d booked to show her the sights, spoke English well and understood her challenge, after he witnessed her first full-blown panic attack at the particularly pointy Pyramids of Giza. After that, he was able to navigate her around most offending points and toward the non-pointy temples and museums. When encountering unavoidable pointiness, he would clap a baseball hat on her head, while she dipped her chin to avoid witnessing, in particular, the tops of pyramids. In this way, she got to see the famous ancient burial grounds, though only the bottoms of them.

Elizabeth grew so grateful for Asim’s care (which increasingly included peppering her with compliments and flirtatious attention) that upon glimpsing the enormous, pointy antlers of an unexpected Nubian ibex, she instinctively threw herself into Asim’s arms. With Asim holding her like a baby bird fallen from its nest, Elizabeth quickly recovered from her panic. Her heartbeat, however, didn’t slow, and when she stepped back from his embrace, she met his Hershey’s-kiss-colored eyes, and smiled at him under the glow of a blazing sun.

After spending days and evenings together with Asim in her employ, Elizabeth felt a gradual loosening of the grip pointy things had had on her. She began to tolerate slightly sharper, less rounded buildings, objects and foods. Asim had a knack for pushing her just the right amount so that she could master her fear without slipping into panic. It was painless enough that she wasn’t even consciously aware of what was happening until one evening at dinner, Asim ordered kabab. On first glimpse of the skewers, Elizabeth felt her heart quicken, but shifted her gaze onto Asim’s warm smile, took a deep cleansing breath and felt her shoulders sink from near her ears back to their normal position. It was then that she knew she was falling in love.

Within days, Elizabeth found herself agreeing to let Asim visit her overnight in her hotel room. She suspected that her phobia had finally released her, but it was in bed with Asim that Elizabeth confirmed for herself that she, indeed, no longer feared pointy things.