"Look around you," Gerald said, encompassing the entire sun-drenched desert all around them with one sweeping gesture. "Who knows what's still hidden under the sand here? Don't you think it's a crying shame that we have to leave?"
"Of course," René replied while he stacked some more gear in one of the Landrovers. "But without funding we simply can't continue our work here. You know that. However unfortunate this may be, money is the bottom line. This mission is over, Gerald, whether we like it or not. All we can do is hope that one day we'll be allowed to come back and resume our work. That means we'll have to find someone who's willing to supply the funding. Face it, Gerald. It's over."
"I know, I know," Gerald admitted. They had known from the start this was a small privately-funded mission, with little hope of long-term prospects. Only sensational discoveries would have warranted additional funding, but unfortunately their findings had been rather modest. They had been able to confirm what aerial photography had suggested, months earlier, that an ancient Roman city must be hidden under the desert sand here, but their excavations had yielded little more than some fragments of columns. In an area which featured such splendid ancient sites as Apamea and Palmyra, a handful of toppled columns would hardly raise an eyebrow.
As Gerald was staring out over the Syrian desert, a mirage-like vision appeared before his eyes of a fully restored Roman city, its majestic colonnaded street extending as far as the eye could see, tetrapylons marking the major crossroads, an opulent amphitheatre dominating the cityscape, a massive temple...
"Don't just stand there dreaming, Gerald, give us a hand," René's voice interrupted his reverie. "We're supposed to be back at Deir-Ez-Zor before noon."
"I know," Gerald said, and helped the other members of the team stack their equipment and their personal belongings in the four Landrovers. When three of the Rovers were full and ready to go, René told the others:
"There's no need to wait for us. You might as well leave now. We'll follow as soon as we're ready. If there's any problem, we can always get in touch by radio."
"Fine," Steve DiSouza said. "We'll see you in a few hours at the hotel then. Bye."
"Bye," René and Gerald said in unison, still busy with equipment that required careful packing and handling. They were so concentrated on their work that Gerald only noted something wasn't quite right when he glanced over his shoulder to cast a final admiring look at the desert.
"What's that?" René asked. "Mist? That's impossible!"
"Of course it's not mist," Gerald said. "It's an approaching sandstorm. That isn't too rare in these parts in this time of the year." René's remark hadn't been all that far off-target. The cloud of upswept sand blowing in their direction and obscuring the sun could easily be mistaken for mist - but mist was an impossibility in this dry country.
"We're about ready to go," René said. "Do we drive through this storm?"
"I wouldn't recommend that," Gerald said. "It's easy to get lost in a sandstorm. It's better to take cover and wait till the storm's over. Sandstorms tend to pass quickly anyway."
"Right, we'll do that," René agreed. "I'll just put these two suitcases in the back of the Rover. You take care of the rest, okay."
"Fine," Gerald said.
They were still busy tugging along boxes and bags when the storm hit. Taken by surprise, Gerald tried to shout at the other man to take cover as quickly as possible, but his words were lost in the barrage of sand enveloping him. He turned around, holding his hand before his face to protect it against the tiny particles bombarding his exposed skin and eyes, and tried to see where the Rover was, but the storm had turned the day into an impenetrable semi-darkness. He stumbled through the sand, groping around, trying to remember where the car was parked. To his relief his fingers touched metal, and he quickly opened a door and clambered inside.
He was glad he no longer bore the full brunt of the storm, although the Rover offered only a limited protection against the windswept sand. Several of the car's windows had been rolled down, and the back door was still open, allowing the sand to pass through unhampered. Gerald spit out the sand in his mouth, and tried to clear his irritated eyes. He hoped his friend René would make it safely into the Rover as well, but there was no sign of him yet.
He tried to roll the windows back up, but that proved more difficult than he had imagined. The sand still blowing inside and covering everything with a thin yellowish layer didn't exactly help. He cast another look outside, but all he saw was a whirling mass of particles, obscuring everything, blotting out the entire landscape, virtually cutting him off from the rest of the world. He managed to roll up two windows, limiting the amount of incoming sand to a minimum, but the open back door was completely out of reach because of the gear stacked in the back. It would have to do for the time being.
Although sandstorms often blew over quickly, this one showed no signs of abating. Poor René, Gerald thought. The man hadn't made it back to the car, so he still had to be out there. He could think of nothing that might have served his colleague as a shelter against the unchained elements, and he feared the worst for him. Sadly, there was nothing he could do but wait.
After a while he could no longer see through the left side windows of the car. The sand had been blown up, forming a slope that threatened to become as high as the vehicle itself. This is how all the old ruins got overblown with sand and became "tells", Gerald thought. He had never imagined he would one day be inside one such tell. If this went on, his friends would have to come and excavate him. Seriously, it would take him some time to clear the Rover of the sand. He might have to call for help, if he proved unable to do the job by himself.
He was still considering a variety of possible future scenarios when he felt the car moving. This is impossible, he thought. The Rover had been parked on a flat stretch of sand. There was no way it could start to glide off a slope or something. Yet the car was unmistakably moving, tilting, sliding down, as if a giant hand was gently but firmly pushing it aside. As he leaned over to try to see something through the windshield, the vehicle suddenly dipped down like a ship in rocky waters, with such force that his head bumped against the side window. Everything went black, and his last sensation was that of the car being turned over, but maybe that was merely an effect of the dizzying and numbing pain slowly taking possession of him and ultimately dimming his consciousness.
Consciousness returned, darkness retreated.
Bright sunlight came slanting down from somewhere above. Where was he? What did the sunlight mean? Why was he feeling so uncomfortable? A light but persistent headache made it difficult for him to concentrate. His leg was hurting too. What had happened?
Memories, still faint, came trickling back. The storm hitting them before they were ready to drive off. René's failure to take shelter, his own success at finding his way into the Rover in the nick of time. The storm going full blast, the sand shifting under the vehicle, his head bumping against the window.
The Rover! That was where he was. He struggled into an upright position, noticed that a suitcase had fallen onto his leg. The sunlight was shining through the side window, which was above him, so the Rover must have been overturned. He looked around, still disoriented, and tried to find his bearings. Obviously the storm was over. There were pieces of equipment and spilled objects everywhere, all covered with a layer of sand. It was as if a miniature hurricane had whirled around inside the car.
He climbed over all the boxes and bags that had been tossed about and flung in all directions, and got out of the Rover through its back door. Now he saw that the sand must have shifted somehow and made the car glide away. The vehicle was now lying on its side, partly embedded in a small sand dune, like an insect crawling out of its cocoon and drying in the sun before taking off. Pieces of precious equipment were scattered everywhere, fallen out of damaged boxes. Gerald cursed under his breath, and started taking off his clothes to shake the sand out of them.
While he kicked off his shoes and pulled out his socks, he scanned the area. All he saw was desert and blue sky. There was no sign of René. Where could his colleague have taken shelter? Had be run off blindly through the storm, and was he now aimlessly wandering through the desert, doomed without water? Or had he, God forbid, stumbled and choked on the sand and was his lifeless body now hidden somewhere nearby under his feet? The very idea made him shudder.
He quickly checked if the food and water supplies in the Rover, however limited, had suffered any damage, and was glad to discover they had not been lost. He tried the car radio, but as he had feared, it no longer worked. For now he was really cut off from the rest of the world. He picked up the scattered pieces of equipment, and put them all in one of the broken boxes. Then he took off his T-shirt and underpants and shook the sand out of them.
As he was standing stark naked under the merciless sun, his clothes strewn all around him, against the backdrop of the barely half-visible, overturned Rover, it struck him how symbolic this scene must appear : a man stripped bare, severed from the civilised world that had sent him, shattered fragments of his technological society at his feet.
He put his clothes back on, called out René's name at the top of his lungs, but that effort proved fruitless. As it was no use to go and look for his missing colleague, who could be anywhere, there was nothing he could do but wait until help arrived. The others will come back for us, he thought. They know where we are, and they'll figure out what must have happened. He could picture Steve DiSouza and team leader Lawrence O'Connor discussing the problem, Steve gesticulating furiously, true to his Italian origins, and Lawrence responding with unmitigated British phlegm. No doubt they would be back soon. He had enough supplies for a short period of time, and hopefully René, wherever he was hanging out, would be saved as well.
He wandered around, scanning the landscape, and suddenly he noticed something that had escaped his attention until now. Faintly but unmistakably visible under the sand, a series of stumps of columns stretched into the distance. No doubt the storm had cleared some of the sand covering the site. Still, Gerald thought it was very strange that his team had missed out on this line of toppled columns, if a simple sandstorm had been enough to expose them. They were all experienced archaeologists, working with professional equipment in an area now proven to feature ancient ruins. There was no way they could simply have looked in the wrong direction!
He wandered over to the twin rows of sand-covered stumps, extending about thirty meters into the desert. This must have been part of the main street, neatly dividing the city in two parts. All these ancient settlements had been built according to the same pattern, and it was no surprise to discover this as yet nameless one was no exception to the rule. He walked to the end of the geometrical patterns in the sand, and stared out over the unmarked desert extending as far as the eye could see. Who knew what was still buried here under the sand? Maybe a lifetime's worth of excavating, maybe an ancient site apt to rival the splendour of Palmyra, the riches of Jerash. If only they would be allowed to clear away the sand and expose, for the first time in countless centuries, the marvels of this city. Let's call it Rothberg City, until its actual name is revealed, he thought. Rothberg City, named after Gerald Rothberg, the American archaeologist who discovered the site, albeit by accident, after a sandstorm.
He grew thirsty, and trudged back to the Rover to get something to drink. A quick calculation made it clear that if he used his supplies sparingly, they would last for several days. That should be enough by all accounts. If a rescue team hadn't showed up after a few days (which he couldn't really imagine), he would have to take his fate into his own hands. In the meantime, however, it seemed wiser to stay around here, the logical place where his rescuers would look first.
Time passed. The sun rose in the sky, and the heat built up until it grew unbearable and Gerald had to take shelter in the relative coolness of the Rover. He spent the day staring out over the unmoving sand, dozing off for short periods, taking small sips from his water supply, and wondering why no rescue party showed up. What could possibly be the problem?
The afternoon faded into dusk, and a chill descended over the desert. Gerald took a little stroll, then retreated into the Rover to spend the night.
Gerald opened his eyes, and saw to his surprise that he had slept a lot longer than usual : the sun had already begun its steep climb into the sky. Had he been more tired than he had realised? He felt hungry and thirsty, but limited himself to a very frugal breakfast. Then he crawled out of the car, stretched himself and looked around. Nothing seemed to have changed during the night. There was not a living soul in sight. A gently undulating desert landscape, dotted with dried-up vegetation, and broken only by the occasional sand dune or "tell". A bright blue sky, and a sun that would soon produce a scorching heat. And, of course, the ancient city buried here.
He walked over to where he had seen its remnants yesterday, and stopped dead in his tracks. This was simply impossible. Had there been fierce winds during the night, blowing away vast amounts of sand and thus exposing more of the ancient city? No, that was a ridiculous idea. And a nightly storm would not explain what he noticed now anyway : the columns that had been mere stumps yesterday were now several meters high, as if someone had replaced a few segments on each one. These columns, he realised, had not been cleared of sand, they had been restored... But by whom? The very silliness of this idea struck him, and he shook his head with disbelief. Was he perhaps dreaming?
He tore himself loose from his paralysis and quickly walked towards the surrealistic ruins, risen phantom-like from the sand. Now he saw that not only did the columns reach higher into the air, they also extended farther into the desert. Puzzled, he continued along the main street. When he passed by a "decumanus", marking off a side street, he glanced sideways and noticed that more geometrical patterns had become faintly visible in the sand. He quickly walked over to his left and explored the newly excavated foundations. It was hard to determine with absolute certainty what this structure must have been, but this constellation of lines and sand-covered ridges might well be the remains of an amphitheatre.
Suddenly agitated, he walked back to the main street and scanned the entire area. As he had expected, there were other places where foundations of buildings had become visible. One of these clearly was a temple; he was not too sure of the others yet, but there had to be thermae, a nymphaeum, at least a few more temples, shops and living quarters if this was indeed an ancient Roman settlement.
For a while his predicament was forgotten as he tried to find an explanation for the overnight appearance of this city, an event defying all logic and all rational thinking. Yet it was undeniably there. He extended his hand to touch the columns, and found they were very much real. He wasn't dreaming or hallucinating, yet he was at a loss for a scientific rationale behind this bizarre phenomenon.
Only when the heat began to rise he managed to pull himself away from the miraculously restored city, and sought refuge in the Rover. He drank a little, and tried to let the wonder he had witnessed sink in. His thoughts finally returned to his most pressing problem : why hadn't his rescuers turned up yet? Were they looking for him in the wrong place? Was there another problem he was unaware of? Had the other vehicles had an accident on their way to Deir-Ez-Zor, and was a rescue party still looking for them? Of course he had no way to find out. All he could do was wait.
His thoughts roamed freely. In a few days, he should have been back home, but he was sure he would never catch his flight, even if he was rescued later today. It would take hours to get to Deir-Ez-Zor, the nearest city in the area. From there it was at least half a day's drive to Aleppo, where they were supposed to catch a domestic flight to Damascus. In the capital they were to spend the night, then take a flight to New York via Amman. Home seemed further away than it had ever been.
Home... More memories came flooding back. His divorce from Alice, last year, after six years of marriage, his move from Florida to an apartment in New York, where he had accepted a teaching job but had never felt truly comfortable, and where he had often been plagued by loneliness, restlessness and a sense of futility, of dreams that had failed to come true, of ambitions that had remained unfulfilled. The offer to join a small-scale archaeological mission to Syria had been a godsend, an opportunity he had grabbed with both hands, and for a few weeks he had regained his sense of happiness, of fulfilment, of deep satisfaction.
Then the bad news had come. The mission was aborted, funding had been discontinued due to the limited results. Then there had been the sandstorm, leaving him stranded here in the middle of nowhere, wondering when he would be rescued... if at all!
And now this mysterious city had offered itself to him, a mirage turned to stone, a hallucination that had adopted concrete shape. As darkness fell, Gerald was still trying to come to terms with his present condition. He cast a final worried look at his dwindling food and water supplies, and went to sleep, wondering what tomorrow would bring.
Gerald woke up as dawn's early light spilled across the night-chilled desert. He ate and drank a little, and left the Rover. The city attracted him like a magnet, and he almost tripped over his own feet in a frantic effort to get there quickly. His assumption had been right : the "instant restoration" of the city had indeed been continued this past night.
Still amazed, but no longer baffled by the incongruity of an ancient city inexplicably growing into existence in the middle of the desert, without any apparent human involvement, he started his exploration. The colonnaded main street was now restored in its original splendour, its columns rising high into the air, topped with delicately chiselled capitals, and extending a considerable distance into the desert. Between the rows of columns the sand had been cleared, revealing the pavement marked by cart tracks. An endless string of shops lined the street on both sides.
He caught his breath when he noticed a tetrapylon at the place where he had passed along the crossroads yesterday. In between each cluster of four columns, a statue had been mounted, resplendent in the early morning light. Whom did these statues represent? The founders of the city? Its "current" rulers? Historical or even mythological figures? There was no way to tell. Gerald edged closer to this marvel, respectfully, as if he felt unworthy to behold such beauty. Of course he had never seen an ancient city restored to this point. Statues and works of art found in archaeological sites were automatically transferred to musea for safety reasons. No archaeologist on earth had ever witnessed what he was seeing now. It was a privilege of staggering value, the culmination of a lifetime's worth of excavations and studies.
Slowly, and observing a devout silence, he strode around this architectural paradise. Over there! The amphitheatre! To his surprise, he noted the building was not yet fully restored, indicating that this phantasmagorical process had not yet come to an end, that more nights filled with mysterious activities would follow. An idea suddenly surfaced in his mind: What if he tried to stay awake at night? Would he be able to see, with his own eyes, how this restoration was carried out? Would the stars give sufficient light to keep track of the proceedings? He would definitely give it a try tonight.
He made a tour of the amphitheatre-in-progress, noting a striking resemblance with the one in Palmyra, only this one was slightly bigger. He had just started his climb to the top row of seats so as to have a complete view of the stage, adorned with two tiers of columns, when he thought he heard voices. He quickly descended the stone steps and hurried outside, his heart throbbing furiously. Not a sound could be heard. There was clearly no one here but him. He crossed the main street, and explored the rest of the city, rapidly visiting a number of temples, the thermae, a nymphaeum with a very elaborate fountain (sadly deprived of water), a series of smaller buildings (all still awaiting their final stage of restoration) whose function eluded him for the time being (the senate? stables?). He randomly picked side streets, crossed a vast agora, scanned and observed and made short mental notes, all with a restlessness he proved unable to control.
Several times he thought he heard voices and the clatter of footsteps on the pavement, but no doubt the footsteps were his own, echoing from the ancient walls, and the voices were but the interior monologue ringing within his skull. At a few occasions he halted, convinced he had seen something or someone move, a vague shape glimpsed from the corner of his eye, but again it was probably only his imagination playing tricks on him.
As the sun rose in the sky, the white and yellow colours of the columns and buildings constantly changed hues, rendering the architecture more splendiferous and opulent with every passing moment. The city, all the more real and tangible for this play of light and colours, seemed to be beckoning him. The place was vibrant, almost alive, and he had the feeling he could make its inhabitants appear by simply snapping his fingers, or by shouting a secret password. Strangely enough, he found he no longer questioned this magical situation, he now seemed willing to accept its existence at face value, to welcome it as his new reality. After all it was undeniably there! Why not immerse himself in its grandeur, why not accept its invitation, why not take advantage of this golden opportunity?
Hunger and thirst drove him back to his encampment, however, the Landrover half-buried under the sand, the last vestige of his old world that was slowly sinking below the horizon. When he finally arrived at the vehicle, embedded in its dune like a doomed animal, drowning in a sea of sand, he noted the sun had reached its zenith. Had he really spent half the day in the city? No wonder he was thirsty! He took a swig from his water supply, almost finishing it in the process, and ate a little.
If he was going to spend the night in the city and stay awake, it would be wise to rest during the afternoon, and take a long nap in the car before seeking a suitable and strategically situated vantage point in his haven of stone and marble.
Gerald opened his eyes, blinked a few times, and shook his head. He felt cold and didn't know where he was. The cacophony of sounds and smells that had yanked him from his sleep now hit his senses with full force.
My God, he thought, as it dawned on him what this had to imply, if there were any logic to the sequence of events he was witnessing. The mist enveloping everything in his mind dissipated, and his recollections finally resurfaced.
Yesterday evening, at the onset of dusk, he had sneaked into the city, taking a blanket and the little that remained of his water supply with him. He had walked around the silence-shrouded streets and squares, looking for a place to spend the night that would offer him a field of vision as all-encompassing as possible, and had chosen a narrow portico overlooking the vast agora, the building he assumed might be the senate, a part of the amphitheatre, and, glimpsed in the far distance, the nymphaeum. He had curled up in the portico, the blanket wrapped around him, determined to stay awake and watch, sipping slowly from his water, but obviously he had fallen asleep anyway. Still hiding in his portico, he stared at the scene unfolding before his astonished eyes. During the night the restoration must have been completed, but that wasn't all. Now the city was no longer a deserted vestige of antiquity, as if by miracle transported stone by stone to the present. Once the finishing touch had been put to the restoration, the settlement's inhabitants hadn't failed to dematerialise either.
With still unbelieving eyes, Gerald watched people walk past his hideout, talking, gesticulating, carrying bags and bundles and baskets. Mule-drawn carts clattered between them, and the agora was slowly filled with a caravan that had apparently just arrived in town, a dense swarm of people, camels and mules. The entire place was bristling with activity, a kaleidoscope of vivid colours, shrill sounds and tangy smells that hit him with dizzying effect.
Relief quickly replaced his astonishment as he saw, at the rim of his vision, the fountain within the nymphaeum, and sunlight glinting off what could only be water. Water! He realised now how thirsty he was. The question was: Would he be able to drink this water? Was all he saw actually real? And if it was, would he be able to wedge his way through this crowd, wearing his present day clothes, and casually go and drink from the nymphaeum's fountain without being seen and stopped? There was only one way to find the answer to his question.
Gerald rose to his feet, dropped his blanket, and emerged from his portico, ready for anything. The people walking past him within arm's reach didn't seem to notice him. He took a deep breath, and threw himself into the crowd, going with the flow rather than fighting his way into the direction he wanted to go. When nobody seemed to pay any attention to him, he abandoned all his restraint and darted straight towards the nymphaeum. He wasn't sure if he bumped into someone, but he didn't feel any contact, and no one turned his eyes in his direction or gave an indication that he was aware of his presence. Was he perhaps invisible to them? Were these people shades from the underworld, allowed to return to their old city for some unfathomable reason? Or, perhaps more likely, was Gerald himself the shade, was he the one who was not quite real here?
Whatever the case might be, his invisibility fit his purpose for the time being. Within less than a minute he had reached the fountain, and drank to his heart's content. The water streaming down his face and dripping from his chin made him realise how filthy he was, and he splashed more water onto his dirt-encrusted face, washing away several days' worth of sweat, revelling in the freshness and the invigorating effect of the cleansing, and drank yet more until he felt revitalised, reborn, ready to take on the world. Now if he could also appease his gnawing hunger...
Would food be tangible? At least water had been, but why then were people still unreal? Or was this rematerialization perhaps a gradual process, and would everything eventually be completely real? In that case he'd better hurry to get something to eat, now that he could still go about his business undetected. He left the nymphaeum and went back to the agora, where people were relieving the pack-animals of their burdens. He heard what people shouted, but failed to understand it. Could it be Latin? He had learned Latin, but of course his passive knowledge of the highly stylised language of the old writers did not allow him to understand the spoken "vulgar" Latin these people used. For all he knew, various languages were spoken here in the cities dotting the caravan trail.
Gerald walked back to the agora, but found it was too busy for him. He didn't know to what extent he was "invisible" and "intangible" to these people and their animals, but he'd rather not take the risk to be inadvertently flung to the ground or trampled. Cautiously he eased back in the direction of the colonnaded street, marvelling at the architectural splendour surrounding him, resplendent in a state of perfection no archaeologist before him had ever been privileged to behold. As he reached the section of the street lined with shops, he noticed a stall offering a variety of fruit, ripe and succulent, glistening invitingly in the sun. He quickly made his way towards this appetising cornucopia, waited until the shopkeeper was looking the other way (the man may not see him, but he might see his merchandise disappear - and that could have consequences he preferred not to think about), and grabbed as much as he could carry. Then he hurried off to a quiet corner where he greedily gobbled down his loot.
The fruit did a lot more than appease his hunger: it also restored his hope. He had been able to touch it, snatch it away, and, most importantly, eat it. If he could fill his stomach here, he would stand a decent chance at survival. He might have problems integrating himself in this society, but at least the most basic problems had been solved. Maybe in due time he would become "visible", maybe tomorrow already, and then he could begin to adapt to the local mores and habits.
In that case his clothes would be a problem, of course. He would have to shed them, and replace them by "period" clothes, a silly term for what everybody else here would call "present-day clothes". He continued his exploration of the city, and as he passed along the thermae an idea surfaced in his mind. This might be the ideal place for the next phase of his total immersion program.
He entered the thermae and stripped, throwing his dust and dirt-caked clothes into a corner. Quickly he passed through the three baths, the first one almost painfully hot, the second one merely warm, the third one comparatively cool, grateful for the steam cleansing his body, but too restless to take it easy and spend some time here. Only a few people were inside, so his choice of clothing would be limited. He would have to be careful; it might be wiser to steal items of clothing from various people, which would render him less easily identifiable as a thief. He would also try to exchange his newly acquired clothes as rapidly as possible, so that his tracks would be covered. He knew very well that stealing clothes from the thermae was a severely punished offence.
Nevertheless he picked a few items from various heaps of clothing, rolled his own "historically incorrect" stuff into a ball and walked out without looking back. Wrapping clothes around his body rather than pulling them on, and not wearing pants would take some getting used to, but he didn't really have a choice.
With the right clothes rubbing against his skin, he already felt more part of this city's population. He spent the rest of the day walking around, exploring a living ancient town as he had never even dared dream doing, stealing the odd bit of food here, some wine or water there, secure in the knowledge he could not be seen - not as yet. But while his eyes roamed around the cityscape and its colourful inhabitants, his mind was busy finding solutions to his next set of problems.
Would he be able to fit in without speaking the language? He could always pretend to be a stranger, who had come to the city with one of the countless caravans stopping here and who had decided to stay. Probably this happened frequently; people no doubt came and left. He would try to find odd jobs, make a living, find a place to spend the night, pick up enough of the language to communicate on a basic level. Soon he would be a full member of this society, and maybe one day he might leave and explore the rest of this area. Wouldn't it be wonderful to visit Palmyra and Jerash and the other ancient settlements in their fullest glory? Supposing, of course, that these cities existed in the same plane of time and space that he now inhabited...
As he was wandering, lost in thought, in the outskirts of town, close to the city wall, he passed a few deserted and dilapidated shops, and halted. Wouldn't one of these be an ideal place for him to spend the night until he had found more permanent living quarters? The chances of being disturbed here would be rather limited. Comfort would of course be pretty Spartan (the word had suddenly acquired undertones of immediacy and proximity he found unsettling), but with a little luck he might be able to move to a better residence soon.
As dusk approached, torchlight came to flickering life all over the place and fought back the gathering darkness of the night. The streams of people and animals clogging the streets and squares shrank to lone individuals crossing the roads and alleys in haste, casting eerily dancing shadows on the walls and the pavement, and hurrying to get wherever they were expected. Ancient towns weren't renowned for their ebullient nightlife. Gerald decided it would be wise to interrupt his exploration of the city and returned to the abandoned shop he had chosen as his shelter for the night. He was glad he hadn't thrown away his "old" clothes, as he now discovered they came in handy and served him perfectly as pillow and blanket. He drifted off into sleep with a remarkably steady peace of mind, wondering what tomorrow would bring.
Gerald woke up, and heard right away that many had risen long before him. He must have been exhausted from his ceaseless exploration of the city. Eager to pick up where he had stopped yesterday, he jumped to his feet and emerged from his humble lodging. Two men sitting on a mule-drawn cart clattering past looked in his direction, shouted something he didn't understand and burst into roaring laughter.
They can see me, Gerald thought. The city and its inhabitants had finally become completely real - or maybe he had. That meant he would have to be very careful from this point onwards. He could no longer walk wherever he wanted and do anything that crossed his mind. Stealing food and drinks would be out of the question. If the owners of the clothes he wore spotted him, he might be in really serious trouble. From now on he would have to behave properly, and live according to the local mores.
A few naked children playing ten meters away saw him too, came running to him, told him something unintelligible in high-pitched voices and pointed at the derelict shop. One of the children stepped inside, and giggled as he saw his clothes still lying on the ground. He asked Gerald a question (this couldn't be Latin, of that he was now sure), but as he replied by merely smiling and shrugging, the boy started chattering to his younger friend or brother. Then they darted back into the street again, the strange man with his bizarre rags already forgotten.
Gerald realised it would be best to get rid of his clothes, as they might give him away as a far stranger kind of foreigner than he pretended to be. He would have to leave the city and bury his belongings where nobody would find them, and where he could still locate them if that proved necessary. Why not bury them where the Landrover must still be embedded in the sand?
Nobody asked him any questions as he hurried through the streets and out of the city gates, but then there were a lot of people out on private business. Hard pressed as he was to dispose of his "anachronistic" clothes, he had no time for the majestic architecture or the variegated crowd populating it. He walked straight back to where he knew the car must be, and it already appeared to be difficult to find his bearings here in the desert from where he had come. Over there, the slightly irregularly shaped sand dune, wasn't that the place? It turned out it was, but the Rover was nowhere in sight. For a few moments he let his eyes sweep across the desert landscape, suddenly hit by a disturbing sense of unreality, a nagging feeling of unease and forlorn hope.
Had everything been a dream? Was all this a hallucination of a man in the throes of death, marooned in the desert? As if to break this gloomy spell cast over him, he randomly kicked away some of the sand at the dune's base, and suddenly his foot touched something hard. With restored hope, he shovelled some more sand away with his bare hands, and to his amazement he discovered that the Landrover had totally sunk away into the sand, and this in a matter of days only! How could this have happened? This was after all an ordinary desert, not a marsh dotted with quicksand?
Still, he saw no other possibility than to bury his old clothes here. This was the only place where he would be able to retrieve them, if he would need them for one reason or another. After the clothes had been hidden close to the Landrover's roof, he kicked back the sand and looked around. What was that? He squinted against the harsh sunlight, tried to focus on something he had glimpsed just there from the corner of his eye. He had definitely seen movement. And what was that? Voices? The engine of a car? But that was totally impossible! Unless of course...
Then he saw a Landrover appear from behind a dune, manned by several people. Could this be the rescue party he had been awaiting for so long? Had they finally figured out what must have happened and made it over here? But who were the men inside the vehicle? He peered at the car, slowly making its way through the sand, but he couldn't see clearly. The car in the distance had a shimmering, mirage-like quality, as if he was looking at a reflection seen in slightly rippling water.
Still, these people must be looking for him. There just was no other logical explanation for their presence here. The car was now unmistakably fading in and out of view, as if oscillating between two planes of existence, but maybe, if he attracted their attention, ran towards them, shouting and waving, he might be saved. They would see him, however indistinctly, but that might be enough. Once contact had been established, once they knew the man they were looking for was indeed here, they wouldn't leave. They would do everything within their power to pull him back to "their" side, and return home reunited without looking back. (Unless they discovered the ancient city... But how could he be sure they could see it? Maybe he was the only one able to straddle this immaterial bridge arching between the epochs.)
This was his ticket back home. So what was he waiting for? The impulse to dart towards the Landrover had remained without effect, leaving him nailed to the spot. What did he have to go back to, after all? A failed marriage, an unsatisfying teaching job in a city where he didn't feel at home, little or no prospects for a brighter future... A life of unfulfilled ambitions, dreams destined to remain unrealised, a nagging emptiness that would only grow bigger, and might one day swallow him...
Whereas here he had discovered a city that would take the rest of his life to explore and savour, an entire culture to immerse himself into, a genuinely ancient population to become part of. His insights would be rich, his understanding deep, the rewards especially gratifying. The chance to live in this city in the shimmering twilight zone between the present and antiquity was an archaeologist's dream come true, an opportunity too precious to waste.
After a final glance over his shoulder at the Landrover, still slowly cruising around and flickering as if about to wink out of existence, he ran back to the city, hoping his "rescuers" wouldn't see him before he was safe within the town walls. Hopefully they would conclude there was nothing here and drive back to Deir-Ez-Zor with the bad news that there was no trace of poor Gerald Rothberg.
He was out of breath as he stormed through the gates, and slowed down, panting, praying the men and their car would have faded out of this world by now. He joined the crowd clogging the colonnaded street, more determined than ever to forget his past (or his present?), filled with painful memories, and to build a new life for himself in this enthralling present (or past?). The future had never looked this bright.
Enraptured by the view and the sounds and the smells surrounding him, Gerald walked on, convinced that happiness was finally within reach.