by Nükhet Barlas
The cool air brushes over my face as I hurry into the library. My favorite place in campus, especially in this heatwave, it looks too empty for a typical Sunday. Midterms must be over, I think, sauntering towards the Afro-Asian Studies housing the priceless Carson Collection.
The late Professor Carson, a famous alumnus of this university, bequeathed these works of his lifetime two years ago, only months before his wicked murder shocked this quiet campus town. As the number one candidate for his assistantship, I was not only mournful but also crestfallen when his dead body was found in his study, behind doors locked from inside.
I always relish cutting across this museum-quality collection. And I don’t only mean the ancient papyruses; the notes of the unfortunate genius himself are priceless, especially for an archeology student like myself. I slow down to gaze through his sketches recently put on display. I knew he had real interest in animal burials, mainly of cats.
We all know cats were revered as goddesses during the times of the pharaohs, an esteem I can perfectly understand. I am quite familiar with how these narcissistic creatures can convert you into their eager slaves. Having shared my home, if not my bed, with them since childhood, I have had first-hand experience of how a pitiful kitten can transform into a strong-minded monarch in no time. But Dr. Carson seems to have searched for economic reasons behind that appreciation, such as their guarding of invaluable crops from pests.
The mystery of Professor Carson’s death had never been solved, especially the gnaw marks on his body. Millions nationwide watched the futile search of the inspectors. But no clues were found nor any reasonable theories developed. The only baffling discovery was that he had been indicted in Egypt for artifact smuggling; the charge was dropped later due to lack of evidence.
The adoring community here quickly dismissed this unsettling piece of information and the whole case was purged into the trashcan of the public memory. But sometimes I wonder how he made his fortune. Did he unearth a priceless treasure and keep it for himself? Could his generous donation to the library be to clean up his soul?
Anyway, I am here today for some fun reading. And thank God! My hide-away corner is not occupied. I don’t like to be disturbed when I read. And that gives me another excuse to do without a cellular phone, even though it makes my friends mad sometimes.
I throw my denim jacket over the couch and bounce up the stairs to the third floor where my feet have taken me so many times, to the shelves reserved for venomous snakes. Holding my shoulder bag between my feet, I screen the titles. I set aside three hefty volumes, try to hold them up.
Instantly, a suave young man pops up, offering help. “Are you in zoology?” he asks, pointing at the books.
“Archeology. I am just curious about these... fascinating creatures.”
“Fascinating? In what way?”
“They are so primitive, so basic, in complete contrast to the masterpiece design of cats, my number one obsession. Yet they have such remarkable skills for their minimal construction.”
“Hmm. So, do you think knowing about snakes would have value in your profession?”
“Maybe not,” I reply, “but my grandmother says any piece of information may be vital at least once in your lifetime.”
After a few uneasy moments he introduces himself. “I am Robert, by the way.”
“Tina,” I reply, unsmiling.
He is attractive and polite, which is hard to come by in campuses these days, but I am not in the mood to socialize. I thank him and lug the books all at once. When I drop them on the table, I rub my wrists. I can almost hear the coach’s angry voice: Very smart! And right before the tournaments!
I put the books on my lap. I am glad not many students are aware how comfortable this settee is, probably because it looks too firm with the thin padding. When I am really tired during exams or competitions, a little doze here is all I need.
The settee has a peculiar design though: hard to decide if it is ancient or post-modern. And the leather covering has such a unique shade of brown, like the rust fungus that once infested my mother’s geraniums.
I discovered this quiet spot last year, while browsing through Professor Carson’s work on ancient Egypt. I wish to be as famous one day, though I am not so naïve to expect making as great a fortune as he did. The archeologists I intern with are far from being prosperous; they spend their lives in dust and dirt, hoping for a tiny noteworthy discovery.
The first volume I open is about snake species in tropical regions. We all think of them as crawling animals. Wrong! There are swimming, burrowing, and even flying kinds. They don’t exactly fly, of course; this one in Southeast Asia jumps from a treetop and glides in the air. Though the popular myth that they milk cows turns out to be nothing but fantasy. A farmer once told me his cow calls for the snake to ease the engorgement of her breasts. In fact, they only visit barns in search of small rodents.
These limbless reptiles seem to have incredible skills. Pit vipers have heat sensors to detect warm-blooded prey, like the night-seeing apparatus of modern soldiers. And the killing skills! A snake can kill creatures fifty times bigger, by size or physical strength. That’s impressive.
I know boas and pythons coil around their victims and squeeze the life out of them. Vipers usually strike and stab their prey. Toxic warfare, forbidden in human combat, is daily business for poisonous snakes. The venom not only disables the prey but also starts breaking down its tissues. So, digestion starts before ingestion!
I imagine being swallowed, little by little, without being able to move a finger. What a nightmarish kind of death! No wonder you find snakes in so many legends and myths. I must not be alone in my fascination.
As I flip the pages, a stray thought flashes through my mind: I wonder if the detectives considered a killer snake in Professor Carson’s case? Locked doors would not stop such a slim assassin. Yes, even here in the South, the likelihood of dying from snakebite in your room would be, say, similar to being struck by lightning. But, it is not impossible, and people do get zapped.
That evokes further speculation: what if he stole artifacts from ancient tombs guarded by snakes, just like in the movies? I remember him explaining in class that such rumors were invented to scare off potential thieves. So, he was not scared, that’s for sure. Golly! If it were a movie, the title would probably be something like The Revenge of the Snakes.
But my theory of a killer snake would not explain Professor Carson’s gnawed body. Snakes cannot chew. Their teeth point backwards only to help swallow the prey. Could there be an exception?
My growling stomach returns me to reality. I can get a snack from the vending machines downstairs but I decide to finish the chapter about the Australian species first. Apparently, pythons are widespread “down under.” These giants are not poisonous but they can swallow dogs, babies, or whatever fits in their expandable mouth. People keep them as pets too. I would, if they didn’t need live feed for lunch. No sir! I cannot be an executioner!
Suddenly, I notice the dead silence around me. My watch shows ten past 8. I jump up. On Sundays, library closes at 6 pm. Oh, darn... I must have missed the closing bell! I rush to the normally crowded central lobby; there is not a soul. Same with the counter; it is completely deserted. The lights are off too, except for the emergency exits.
I take deep breaths to calm down like I always do before tough competitions. I can always call the campus security to come and let me out. My fingers grip the empty phone-pocket of my purse. I just need to walk to the pay phone.
I see the phone in the corridor, right across the hall. That scene conjures up childhood memories of a scary game we used to play. An older kid would hide in a dark room; one of us would walk into the room alone, go all the way to the other end to pick up the small trophy, and bring it back without being caught. I would usually be the first one to step in.
Yes, it was terrifying to walk in the dark knowing you might be attacked any minute from anywhere. But at the same time, it was exhilarating. Now, as I stand staring at the dark hallway, my heart starts to race, but not because I am frightened. Thank God, I am not scared of the bogeymen, or zombies, or ghosts, or anything of that sort. The only thing that can frighten me now would be a malicious person.
I pick up the phone; search my purse for change. None! I hesitate to dial the operator. I don’t want to turn this into a charade. Imagine me, nicknamed smart bomb, captain of the college volleyball team, a local celebrity since having appeared in a TV program four days ago, locked inside the library! I need to handle this more tactfully.
I wipe the sweat off my forehead and try to strap my thick red hair. I decide to wait near a window overlooking the back alley. It is possible to spot someone. After I stand there for about an hour, l sight a skinny girl arguing with her presumed boyfriend. I bang on the two-ply window with both my hands. But they pass by. No, it won’t work. I’d better call the operator.
I walk towards the stairs. Thanks to the moonlight, I can see well enough. But hey! I sense something moving, probably a shadow from a car light. I feel uneasy, though, and turn my back to the wall. Oh my! What a beauty! I cannot believe that an Abyssinian cat is staring at me with big emerald eyes. And this explains the eerie sensation earlier.
I approach her, squat down to touch her glowing coat. Underneath the silky fur, I feel her muscular body. She must be bored; paces back and forth like a miniature puma. Ah, doesn’t she act noble! That is not surprising though. I once read that these intelligent cats are believed to be direct descendants of the sacred cat of Egypt.
In fact, I wouldn’t mind spending the night here with such a friendly companion. As I stroke her beige tummy, she purrs louder. But all of a sudden, she freezes as if someone called her name. She stands still, ears upright. I try to get her attention, no way! She remains motionless like an elegant sculpture, except her tail is whipping back and forth. Then she darts to the stairs, stops for a quick glance at me, and disappears downstairs. Did she want me to follow?
I hesitate to pursue her through the dark staircase. It looks scary, even for me. Ah, it dawns on me: there must be a night guard! I start hopping down the stairs that go on and on in an endless spiral to make my head spin. When I finally reach the well-lit basement, I gape in front of an amazing Egyptian exhibition. Have I missed the announcements of such a major event? Or, could this be... the rest of what Prof. Carson donated to the library?
I stroll among amazing arrays of marble blocks and statues. I see the cat on a pedestal posing like a statue. This time her tail is not moving either. I get it now: the Abyssinian must be part of the exhibition. It makes perfect sense! But when I reach her, it’s nothing but a bronze statue; a gorgeous one adorned with precious stones. Her eyes must be real emerald. Then, I notice the caskets lying all around looking like... Gosh... mummies? I feel a chill on my neck; try to calm down by repeating aloud that there is no reason to be afraid of something long dead! I must find the real person, the one who called the cat.
“Anyone there?” I shout.
The only response is the echo of my voice. I spot the Abyssinian in the gallery chasing after something, probably an ugly rat. There are plenty of them in these aged buildings. Yes! I see the slimy tail. These repulsive creatures can be aggressive too; a hungry one wouldn’t hesitate to attack a cat. Wouldn’t a pet python be handy now?
I can’t stop hypothesizing again: could it be rats that chewed up Professor Carson’s fingers? I feel queasy catching a glimpse of my nail-varnished toes peeking out from strapped sandals. Nevertheless, I pick up a wooden stick from the rubbish and go after them. Wow! I freeze. There is a tall, slender snake, reared up to attack. It resembles the lethal coral snake. But more likely, a common milk snake. This similarity keeps predators away, but I can’t be fooled! The poor drifter must be after these chubby pests, not me.
I try to walk around the snake, but without warning, it strikes, bites my forefinger, and swiftly disappears behind marble blocks. What if it was a coral snake? I strive to remember what distinguishes them from harmless snakes, try to visualize their exact color pattern: black, yellow, red, yellow. Instantly, I recall the rhyme: Red on yellow will kill a fellow.
I scream, more like howl: rats will nibble on my body! When I stumble towards the gloomy stairs, I notice the statue; is she looking at me? If I am hallucinating, I don’t have much time left. Suddenly I remember the palm-reader who implied I would die young. I was only 12 when she poked the little cross on my lifeline.
“No, I won’t die!” I shout, climbing the stairs heading for the fire exit. That would be the fastest way to bring cops here. But how would they know what happened to me? I stop to write in the palm of my hand with trembling fingers. I wonder if the hospital would have an antidote. Am I kidding myself?
Tears run down my face. I drop the pen, bend down to search for it but it is pitch-dark. Rubbing my sore eyes, I yell; no voice comes out. And the ringing in my ears gets louder. I cover my ears with my hands. I cannot stand it anymore.
There is a hand on my shoulder. I push it away. But I realize it is not dark anymore. I come around, completely drenched. The charming young man I met earlier, was it Richard, leans towards my face. How come I am back on the chaise?
“I was running,” I mumble.
“Must have been running away!” he responds, offering me a paper tissue. “That happens often in nightmares.”
I wipe my face, look at my sore forefinger. I don’t see any bite-marks.
“Let’s go. The library is about to close,” he says. “Don’t you hear the chimes?”
So, that’s what was ringing in my ears! I watch him pack my belongings and follow him like a sleepwalker. When we arrive in the lobby, he chuckles.
“When I drowsed on that couch last month, I had such crazy dreams too.”
“Like what?” I whisper.
“There was this ruddy cat walking me around,” he blurts out, “but I refused to follow her through a dark corridor... and I woke up when she turned into a statue.”
I stop walking and try to comprehend what he said.
“Tina stop! You cannot go back; the doors will be shut in a minute!” he shouts.
I don’t care; I have to understand what happened back there, even if I’m locked in for real this time. I walk back to the corner, panting, examine the chaise lounge. There are barely visible carvings on its wooden parts. Don’t they look like hieroglyphs? Isn’t that a serpent?
Right at that moment, I hear the chief librarian’s commanding voice behind me. “Time is up, young lady. You’d better hurry!”
“Yes,” I say, “only after a quick question.”
He frowns, but I shoot my question faster than he can open his mouth: “Do you know where this settee came from?”
“Oh that, “he says with a nod. “We received it together with Professor Carson’s collection and I don’t know why it astonishes you youngsters so much!”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because I am asked about it more than the whole set of books.”
He puts his hand on my shoulder and continues, while walking me to the stairs, “Because the chaise was listed in his will, we thought it had some significance. I mean besides being his favorite reading spot, as you might already know, he died on it too.” Then he stops to finish: “Unfortunately, the experts could not appraise its value. It seems it was not comparable to anything ever listed before.”
I gawk and mumble something like a “thank you.” I dare not tell him that I am sure of its authenticity, that it might be the most important piece in the collection. Or, should I say dreadful? Who would believe in any of what I have to say? How could any rational person explain my dream, or the others’ dreams?
Was it really a dream? Was I that close to a horrific end like Professor Carson’s? My finger starts to hurt again; I fly down the steps, outside to fresh air.
Copyright © 2009 by Nükhet Barlas