Balancing the Scales, by Ray Dean
Dressed in his impeccable white linen suit topped with the jaunty brim of his solar kepi, Reese Halston skirted through the heavy press of the Suk. Reaching the edge of the crowd, he took in a deep breath of air and hugged the package in his arms tighter to his chest.
Turning one direction then the other, he was able to see the towering minaret of the mosque he’d sighted as a landmark that very morning when he’d emerged from the shade of
Shepheard’s Hotel. Putting the structure at his left shoulder he made his way through the narrow streets. Breathing easier as he moved further and further from the market. The thick scents in the air had been too much for his delicate constitution. A man used to the civilized scents of a London street and the brisk brace of the ocean air, Reese had little need for the cloying perfumes of the nargileh pipes or the heady scent of spices from merchant’s stalls.
He had come to the market to find a gift for his wife.
He had found the perfect item to commemorate their marriage and the delightful memories they’d forged together on their voyage abroad. Brushing past the donkey boys, their hands open and waiting for baksheesh, he kept his eyes dedicated to searching for the familiar wrought-iron fence that surrounded the elegant patio.
Half asleep in the shade of a canvas umbrella, Imogen Halston dreamed of the Ezekiah Gardens and its exotic blooms. Reese had disappeared that morning and had completely missed tea. After their weeks of voyaging up and down the Nile, Imogen was grateful for the slower pace of Cairo. Sleeping until the sun warmed her face through the open window, she was only too happy to remain abed this particular morning while Reese gadded about.
She surmised, he had gone to visit another museum of Egyptian antiquities. He was so very intrigued with the idea of the ancient Egyptians and the wonders if the ancient world. Imogene had begun to enjoy the many stories he read to her on the subject. The Director of the Antiquities Department was currently onsite in the Valley of the Kings and would not be able to spare them the time for a visit, but the Khedive, an old friend of Reese’s father, was more than happy to stand in and regale the newlyweds with stories of the tomb.
The doorknob jiggled, and the door banged open against the wall. Rising up in her chair, Imogen blinked open her sleepy eyes and offered her husband a bemused smile. “You’ve returned.”
“Yes, my darling girl!” Taking long enthusiastic steps across the room, Reese paused at the opening of their balcony, a package in his hands. With a quick look about he pulled an empty chair up beside her rather than squeeze his lanky frame on the chaise. She was a tiny little thing and delicate as the day was long. It was, quite simply put, much of the reason why he loved her so.
Setting the package in her lap he gave her a bright smile. “I have brought you a present.”
“A present?” Imogen clasped her hands together over her heart. The sparkle in her eyes reminded him of the glimmer of
the sun on the Nile.
He brushed a kiss on her cheek. “I would give you the world if I could, my love.”
“You have, Reese,” she giggled, “you’ve brought me all the way to Egypt!” Her fingers shook as she opened the wrapping and stared at the carved vase nestled within. Her brow furrowed as she traced her fingers over the carved lid. “It looks like… a wolf.”
Chuckling under his breath, Reese shook his head. “No, dear, it’s a jackal.” He paused, thoughtful. “I thought you could use the jar to hide away some of your treasures when we return to London.”
“A splendid idea!” Imogen took hold of the vase. “Such a fearful looking thing, I know exactly where it will go. With a smile she twisted the head piece off and tilted its body toward her to look inside.
The smell turned her stomach. “Oh dear!” The top piece fell and rolled down the trailing hem of her dressing gown onto the carpet.
Reese took the vase and lifted it to his own nose. The stench was repulsive. “Goodness,” he struggled to maintain a placid mien, “my apologies, my dear. It seems they don’t believe in cleaning wares before they sell them.”
In answer to his prayer, the jackal pushed his head into the open mess of her body, its powerful jaws snapping bone beneath. There, on the ground, his shoes tangled with long stems, Reese lost all touch with the pain that crushed him.
Murmuring voices, hushed whispers, a score of voices that Reese neither recognized nor understood pushed him closer and closer to the pain.
Shifting slightly, he knew where he was. The soft cotton sheets under his hands, the bright sunlit panels from the large eastern facing windows, and the scent of roses that would forever remind him of Imogen. As he opened his eyes the room flared with light. The white walls gleamed but the sunlight that he’d once found cheery and filled with energy only served to remind him of what he had lost.
“Oh, Doctor Carver, he’s awake.” The soft Scottish burr helped him to focus his eyes on first the nurse at his bedside and then the doctor as he peered down at Reese.
“I knew you’d come around, young man. There wasn’t a mark on you.” The doctor pushed the stem of his pipe into the corner of his mouth, somewhat muffling the rest of his words. “Terrible shame what happened to your woman, but I knew once you’d had a chance to rest you’d be back around.”
The words fell on his ears, but Reese ignored them. He
turned his head to the side and stared at the other half of the bed, empty and pristine white.
For a moment his sight was filled with red, blood and pain. He didn’t quite understand.
The doctor seemed to have no such difficulty or any shred of compassion, for he kept up a steady stream of chatter that explained everything starting with how they’d located them in the gardens, the sudden disappearance of the wild jackal that had ended his married life, and finally, as the doctor hefted the carved vase in his hands he asked the strangest question. “Where did you get this ghastly thing?”
Turning his head to look, Reese had to wait a moment for his throat to open enough to let sound through. “I bought it for Imogen,” he gasped in a breath as he fought back tears, “a souvenir of our time in Egypt.”
“Strange ‘souvenir’ if you ask me.” The doctor turned it slightly in his hand. “Good carving of Tuamautef, but why you’d buy your wife a canopic jar,” his pipe puffed out a large cloud of smoke, “seems rather ghoulish if you ask me.”
Reese pushed himself up on his elbows in the bed, squinting up at the object in the doctor’s hand. “The man at the shop said it was a vase of some sort.”
The doctor’s laughter grated on Reese’s nerves. “A container, he probably said, but you folks come to Egypt for the adventure of it all and have no real appreciation for the culture.” Tired of his pipe, the doctor swept it from his mouth and held it out in a careless gesture. A suffragi from the hotel was instantly at his side with a salver ready to receive his discarded item. “This was probably removed from a tomb by grave robbers. The other three are probably on their way to all points of the globe thanks to men like you who collect these ‘antiquities.’”
Reese pressed the heel of his hand to his forehead, attempting to stave off the pain drilling through his skull. “And why should that matter, it’s a jar. I gave it to Imogen so she could use it like a treasure box of sorts. It was all quite innocent even though she cleaned out all that horrid-smelling stuff that was stuck inside.”
“Seems full.” The doctor tested the weight against his palm. “Strange.”
Holding out his hand, Reese managed to sit higher in the bed, wedged up by pillows that the nurse added behind him. He took the jar from the doctor’s hand and looked down at the pale white sheen of the polished stone jar. “I told her she could put her treasures in the jar.” Tears collected in his eyes as he remembered her smile when she’d received his present. He reached for the top of the jar, grasping the jackal’s head as he turned it. “Perhaps she tucked a few things away for safe keeping and-”
The lid removed, he was suddenly assailed by the wet sickly smell of blood. The weight pushing the jar into his palm was too heavy to be the feminine fripperies of a young woman.
Reese could find no words and could barely breathe. The doctor snatched the jar from his slackening grip and stared down into the mouth.
Staggering, the doctor knelt down on one knee as he struggled to regain his composure. “You foolish man…”
“The jar,” Reese shook with cold dread, “what-”
“The four canopic jars house the organs of the deceased. You brought home the third jar, Mr. Halston. You gave it to your wife. And when she emptied it of the heart and lungs that it had once contained,” he held out the jar to Reese, but the younger man cowered away from him as he shrank from the horrible realization of what he’d done, “Tuamautef, the jackal, decided to fill it up again.”
Pushing the top back on the jar, the doctor glared at the man sobbing before him and set the jar on the bedside table. “I’ll leave you alone… with your wife.”
Ray Dean was born and raised in Hawaii where she spent many a quiet hour reading and writing stories. Performing in theater and working backstage lead her into the delights of Living History, creating her own worlds through writing seemed the next logical step. Historical settings are her first love, but there is something heady about twisting the threads of time into little knots and creating new timelines to explore. There are endless possibilities that she is just beginning to explore. She has a future publication in an Edgar Allan Poe Steampunk anthology. Links: Ray Dean’s website can be found at www.raydean.net and you can friend her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/RayDeanAuthor
Posted on January 20, 2014, in Issue 12: The Shadows Only Hide the Monsters: Poe & Lovecraft Tribute and tagged e-zine, Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, horror, monsters, short stories, The Were-Traveler, Tribute. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.