by Saramanda Swigart
Carrie fled to her father’s study to escape the archaeologists. By then, most of the artworks in the house had been sold, but the study still had a coveted collection of Near Eastern art. Carrie, twenty years old, lonely and unbeautiful, liked to sit among these magical objects and think of her father, ten years dead. Like all westerners, he’d treated his things with respect. But Carrie felt deep in her heart that these objects, like herself, like her Middle Eastern mother—whose beauty her father had been famous for—were more than decoration. They’d been created with purpose, to accomplish something hidden and wondrous: to induce rain or fertility, to commune with gods and spirits and animals. Carrie, raised in America, didn’t know what their exact purpose was, but she did know that in all this silence, under this museum glass, her father’s horded treasure was lifeless. It’s magic needed human roughness—anguished tears, desperate negotiation, a bloody act of devotion. Only then could it be suddenly and exquisitely animated, and given instruction, and obey.
The archaeologist’s voices followed Carrie into her father’s study and quieted when she closed the door. She removed her shoes and walked to the middle of the carpet with the chevrons edging its border. She released her hair, which her mother had brushed and pinned earlier that day, and it bristled out in every direction. How her mother wanted her to be beautiful! Carrie massaged her scalp. She dropped the hairpins one by one into her purse, and then she lay down on the carpet and looked at the ceiling. She turned her head to the side so that her cheek rubbed against the carpet’s silk.
She listened until she could hear the objects in the room hum. The gilt plates, impressed with hunting scenes from the Shahnameh, hummed a rich bass. The archaeologists had gasped when they saw she’d set the table with them. They’d put on their gloves so the oil from their hands wouldn’t touch the gold, and rushed them back to her father’s study, and closed the glass over them.
“But people ate off those,” she’d said. “They’re for eating.”
“Hundreds—hundreds!—of years ago,” the archaeologists huffed.
The ivory figurines, which Carrie liked to squeeze until they were the temperature of a human body, hummed the high notes. The bronze mountain goats whose curved horns she used to crash together were altos, and their voices rose and fell in gentle bleats.
It was the Parthian horse made of stone, hanging behind her father’s desk, which hummed the tune. The horse’s hind legs were missing, and so was most of the rider, but the rider’s bent knee and the horse’s two front legs were frozen in mid-jump, in mid-fight, and Carrie loved to run her hand over the stone, feeling its pits and grooves.
Carrie, lying on the carpet, let herself fall into the room’s music.
“These are stolen,” an accented voice interrupted, and the humming stopped.
Carrie scrambled to her feet. For a wild moment she thought the Parthian horse, which now lay on the desk, had spoken. She thought, for an even wilder moment, that the horse had removed itself from the wall of its own accord and was speaking in her father’s voice. But no, it was a stranger, a man of indeterminate age, standing in the shadows behind her father’s desk, his hand on the horse’s rough head. He was dusky-skinned, with thick black hair. His pants fit him loosely.
“You can’t take that down,” she said. “It’s ours.”
“Not yours. Stolen. Stolen from the East. The Occident steals everything from the East.” He swept his arm to include all the art in the room. “They don’t belong with you.”
This rankled her. “So you’re—stealing them back?” she said.
He smiled. “No. I’m freeing prisoners.”
She paused. Her heart, for reasons she didn’t understand, quickened. The objects in this room were prisoners. One could see her that way, too. “How’d you get in?” she said.
“I was let in.”
“How’d you get in here?”
“Down that hallway. Through that door.”
Carrie hesitated. If she shouted, how long would it take the archaeologists to get here? She didn’t shout. The man stood up straighter and relaxed his shoulders. His eyes gleamed and she saw that he was very handsome. His stare assessed her, which wasn’t something she was used to. Her hand flew to gather and smooth her loosened hair. She took some hairpins from her bag and began to pin her hair back in place.
A silence stretched between them. Finally he said, “Don’t worry. I’m not stealing as such. I’m with the archaeology department. I came with the rest of them. I’m Hassan. I’m just here to determine provenance.”
“You weren’t at dinner,” she said.
“I know. I wanted to be alone in here. His collection is famous. Was.”
He walked around the desk. When he reached her, he stood looking down, and something caught alight within Carrie, gave off a little heat and glow, like an ember. She met his eyes. Before she could repress the thought, Free me! darted into her mind, and Hassan reacted as though he could see the thought by reaching out and pulling the pins gently from her head, one by one, and laying them on the desk.
“Look at him,” he said, directing her eyes to the horse. “He’s a stallion. He’s in battle gear, plated armor, which means his rider is a cataphract, an archer so skilled he can turn full around, shoot behind him while guiding the horse with his feet, and deliver a fatal Parthian shot. That’s because the Parthians invented stirrups. See his bent knee? A stirrupless rider can’t bend his knee like that, can’t, as this rider is in essence doing, stand on his horse’s back. A single innovation,” Hassan snapped, “changed war forever. Suddenly an army can have an effective cavalry, because the archers can stand atop their horses. Suddenly an army can penetrate the phalanx, which was the single advantage the West had over the East. A Parthian shot —” He mimed a bow being drawn, aimed the imaginary arrow at Carrie, and let go. “— your phrase ‘parting shot’ is a bastardization of it — does not mean a shot delivered as one departs. It means a shot of lethal accuracy.”
Hassan’s finger was the arrow now, and the arrow approached Carrie’s chest. She held her breath in anticipation of his touch. His finger came to within a quarter inch of her, so close she could feel the warmth of it, and then it veered away, back toward the horse.
“And the rider?” she breathed.
“This rider is an expert archer, needless to say,” he said. “And an expert equestrian. No European could handle this horse. Look at the nostrils.” He pointed to a line carved into the horse’s nose. “They’ve been slit with a sword so the horse can breathe faster, so he can run farther, harder, and longer.” He ran a finger down the tendrils of the horse’s mane. “What does an American do with it, with this fine piece of history? He puts it on a wall. He erases or willfully ignores what the horse and rider were for. What they mean.”
“I’m not an American,” Carrie said.
Hassan’s raised eyebrow said, No?
“Not all the way. My mother’s from over there.”
“Her mind is fogged,” said Hassan. “She’s forgotten what it means.”
Carrie stared at the horse. “What does it mean?” she whispered. She thought she could hear the hum rising again in the room. As though in a trance, she reached out to touch the horse and said, “You don’t have to tell me. I know. The horse misses the rider. The rider misses the horse. They’re calling. They need each other.”
Hassan placed his hand on top of hers. “See?” he whispered. “You understand, hamsur-am.”
Carrie breathed, first in, then out. The shot Hassan had released was deadly, she knew, and it was about to kill her off. But she also knew that she could be — was determined to be — reborn.
“Maybe I don’t have to steal it,” Hassan said, reading her thoughts again, his breath on her neck. “Maybe I’ll marry it.”
Carrie pulled her hand back. “That’s not… That’s presumptuous,” she said at last. But her insides, full of jangling disarray, thrilled at his words.
“Is it? The Occident steals from us. We steal back. But we free our prisoners. We don’t put them on the wall.”
Carrie’s heart, within her breast, burst open. She felt disinterred. She felt, for the first time, that she was about to be touched like a magic lamp. Her eyes would begin to glow, her ears would hear, and her mouth, free of the dirt in which it had rested, would open to speak.
* * *
That night was Carrie’s first night in a house other than her father’s. She cataloged and memorized the contents of Hassan’s bedside table, in his tiny graduate apartment. There was a candle glued with wax to a glass saucer; a birthday party invitation used as a coaster; two water glasses half filled with wine; a soapstone scarab beetle; a disembodied 1969 MGB speedometer and a tin of mints emptied and filled with cuff links. These objects, the minutiae of a man younger than she had at first thought, a man with commonplace interests and modern hobbies — a man, one might think, firmly from and of the West — were, because of the freshness of her love and the strength of her yearning, still numinous to Carrie. They were archaeological remnants, a trail that leads down into the heart of the other.
Before she fell asleep, she said, “Will you really marry me?”
He smiled with his eyes closed. “I will.”
His eyes opened and he began to speak. Carrie held her breath. She didn’t recognize guile.
“You’re mine, hamsar-am,” Hassan said. “Surely you could see that right away, as I could. You’ve been mine for a thousand years. You don’t remember? When we lived together in Samarkand? When the night spread across the desert like dark honey, and someone we couldn’t see played the oud so sweetly, and we carved our names into the flesh of the acacia tree? When the moon opened her arms to us, we saw against her the silhouette of the world’s saddest camel driver, and I whispered in a language neither of us can remember that you would always be mine?”
Pleasure bloomed in Carrie’s breast. Her body, so recently brought to life by his words and hands, thrummed with hope and desire. “I remember,” she said. “You’re my cataphract, and you delivered the lethal shot straight into my heart.”
“You understand, hamsur-am.”
When Hassan fell asleep, Carrie watched him. The places on her body where his tongue had touched her burned cold and she shivered. She imagined his dreams: ships full of lading from the Orient: reams of silk, heaped carpets, the jade carvings of long-dead gods. Also danger: serpents fat with poison, flowers whose petals cause hideous protracted death, nuts that fill the mouth with rust-colored foam, gold and silver drinking vessels borne by treacherous dark-skinned slave girls.
She knew this oriental dream, and because it was so familiar, and because it lulled with the slow and spicy music of a snake charmer, she let her body sink into it.
* * *
Eleven years later, Carrie watched Hassan out the kitchen window. They lived in the house in which she’d grown up. Hassan worked, as always, on his Western hobby, the broken MGB in the driveway. He had been working on the car since before they were married, and it had yet to run. He drove long distances in the sedan to pick up bucket seats, chrome bumpers, a period steering wheel. His hair was graying and thinning, and it made him look all the more like what he was: an American archaeologist, a professor at the university, approaching middle age. Carrie was having more and more trouble forgiving him for his transformation into the banal. He reminded her, increasingly, of her own father before he died, graying head bowed over his desk, locked in his office with its dead art. Hassan leaned in to crank something under the hood, and his shirt rode up, revealing the slight paunch, which, had he turned out to be a kinder man, would have stirred her heart with affection.
Carrie’s hands trembled. Earlier in the day her doctor had shown her an object the size of a cashew curled inside her. Its little translucent heart, on the screen, flicked with life.
She’d gone straight to Hassan’s office at the university. Standing at his desk, waiting for him, she noticed, between cases of pottery and rare coins, a corkboard with postcards on it. The postcards were of exotic locales, with palm trees and camels and minarets. She pulled the pin from one and turned it over. To My Cataphract, It said in a hand she didn’t recognize. Another, in a different hand, read, Look: I found the world’s saddest camel driver. Carrie dropped them in the trash with shaking hands.
The family story went that her father had returned from an archaeological expedition with a sandstone temple relief, fifteen Safavid coins, an ancient brass lamp, and her mother. “I couldn’t help myself,” he said. “She bewitched me. Look at her: still my oriental mirage.”
He’d slid a hand beneath her hair and cupped the back of her neck. Her hair fell, luxurious, over his hand and down her back. Carrie thought of the home she’d made with Hassan. What was left of her father’s art collection remained in its cage, still under museum glass.
“Hamsur-am,” said Hassan, startling her. “What are you doing here?”
She smiled weakly. She opened her mouth to speak, but no words came. The hope in her breast had been shrinking for some time, and today it was nearly gone. After all, she saw now, there were no cataphracts or magic arrows. There was no magic at all. Objects couldn’t hum and never had. She was silent as they rode home together.
Standing at the window watching Hassan and the car she thought, But the baby. She decided it was a girl, a daughter with her mother’s legendary beauty. She would have toes that were long and slim and brown, as expressive as her slender hands. Her hair would be wavy and glow with a darkness that was almost like light. Her eyes would be the color of almond skins. Carrie imagined holding her child. She imagined hardly believing such a creature belonged to her, and she would whisper to the child, No one will ever own you.
“Is dinner ready?” Hassan startled her for the second time. He had a grease mark on his cheek. With an automatic gesture Carrie wiped it away.
As they were eating she said, “Why didn’t we ever take down the horse?”
“What horse?” Hassan said.
“The Parthian horse. The one with the cataphract. It’s still up there on the wall.”
“You know how old it is,” Hassan said.
“We used to talk about how to use these things. These pieces of history.”
“We do use them — we look at them.”
“Why nothing else? They were for something.”
Hassan dismissed her with his hand. “No one remembers what they were for.”
“Can’t we decide?”
He smiled, shook his head as though clearing something from it. “What’s gotten into you, hamsur-am?”
For a moment neither of them spoke. Carrie touched her fingertips to her belly, alive with its secret cargo. It felt like a bird was trying to escape from her chest. “Something’s gotten into me,” she said, tasting the words.
Later, before he fell asleep, Hassan held Carrie to him. In his arms her body felt precious and fragile, as though it were the last relic of a dead empire or the key to an undeciphered language. But Carrie found that she was weary of this oriental mirage. It had never been real.
“Remember our time in Samarkand?” he murmured. “When you said you would always be mine?”
Carrie turned her face away. The window out of which she looked was clear as museum glass, and the whole world pulsed and throbbed, pushed and pulled, shimmered behind its surface, and suddenly her mind registered that all these years the humming had never stopped: there it was, just beneath the threshold of her awareness. Her ears had closed to it, but it whispered now: Rise.
Of her own volition, she stood. She walked the length of the room, the length of the hallway, over the chevron carpet, past the ivory figurines in their cabinets of glass, past a wall of inert miniatures, to the Parthian horse. Breath held, she lifted it from its wall mounts, kissed its pocked mane, and placed it on the surface of the desk. She wedged books on either side of it so that the broken thing could stand on its own, and she waited.
The humming rose in intensity. Carrie’s eyes, after a while, began to glow. Waves crashed in her ears. Her mouth, she realized, was free of clay, and it opened. From her mouth came a small, high song that she had never heard before. Looking at the horse, she saw that it had a rider. Horse and rider were not two beings at all, but one. The rider’s eyes were the color of almond skins. Her hair glimmered with a darkness that was almost light and fell like water down her back. She tucked long, elegant toes into the horse’s stirrups and stood in the saddle, and Carrie watched her fit an arrow to her bow and pull the bowstring taut so that one arm was braced straight before her and the other was bent, with her chin resting between the thumb and forefinger of the bent arm. And she held the arrow, tense and trembling, for a long moment, and then she let it go.