The Shadow Of The Valley

A small breeze fluttered the flaps of my tent, then past them, to the cot where I was lying, the warm air seeming to kiss me awake.

Like a long-lost lover.

Fat chance of that, I thought, with a slight smirk, looking down at my khaki t-shirt and matching not-by-design carpenter pants. Clothes I had slept in last night and the two before it.

I sat down on my cot to pull on my my mud-encrusted boots, then pulled my shoulder-length hair up under a baseball cap, not wanting to think about the last time I had washed it. Or had a real bath.

A tub with water clear up to the chin would be-

“You up, Meg?” I heard the voice that was more bark just outside.

George, of course. Who else would be up at this hour?

As I was decent, I drew aside the tent flaps and stepped out into the day that was upon us.

George puffed on his ever-present cigar, a red glow beneath his bushy white mustache, and started to speak again, but he closed his mouth as he watched me take in the beauty of another sunrise.

“Never gets old, eh?” He asked, rhetorically, as I continued to watch the subtle changes in the sky. The pinks and oranges even now giving way to yellows and the first blues.

A fitting backdrop for the tableau before us, the craggy, unforgiving Theban Hills.

Many are familiar with one of its valleys, the eastern one, named in honor of those who found their final resting place there, the infamous Valley of the Kings.

George, it was rumored, had been part of the Tutankhamen expedition some forty years ago, though many of us suspect he was merely an errand boy. A fetcher of water, maps, and other sundry items. But still, a bigger claim to fame than any of the rest of our ragtag crew could boast of.

Point of fact, it was my first dig. I had been so inspired by a guest lecturer in my otherwise yawn-inducing geology class, that I made the unilateral decision to leave college the summer before my junior year.

My parents were decidedly displeased, my mother, especially, who thought higher education was wasted on me and the only degree I should be seeking was my mrs.

I’d like to think my father was secretly pleased, after a fashion, as it was the sort of thing he had dreamed of as a young man at Yale before a certain icy blond wearing a red cashmere sweate, sitting in a pub, as if awaiting her prey, turned his head and her vision for the future, of home and family, became his own.

The war was a temporary setback, a short-lived obstacle and gave Mother another part to play. The dutiful fiancée, who bandied about his letters and worked them into a melodramatic soap opera unparalleled by stage or screen.

He came home, they were married, and I was conceived in short order. Right on Mother’s schedule. We’ll, except for that pesky little interlude in the Pacific.

The one comment he had made about my escape, known officially as The Great Disappointment, out of her earshot, of course, was that he could not understand giving all that up (meaning college) for the slim chance that our expedition would bear fruit given it was not to take place in the tried and true eastern valley, but the western one instead.

He could not fathom that the hope and the promise of such unchartered territory was irresistible to me. So much so that I gave up college, my friends, the life I knew, even. the barest of creature comforts. All to take up refuge under a canvas ceiling and sleep on the narrowest of cots. Tolerating the bawdiest of men and their off-color jests and endless machismo competitions to impress the lone female among them. Digging in the dirt day after day until my back felt broken and my nails were perpetually filthy.

And yet I loved every moment.

Because all of our hard work, the blood (from tiny cuts from clawing at rocks), sweat (which turned the soil clinging to every part of me to grime), and tears (from the occasional wave of homesickness) was about to pay off.

Yesterday, after too many days to count, we had broken through to what appeared to be a narrow corridor that was eerily similar to those leading to the tombs and their kings.

What would we find at the end of that hallway?

I downed the cup of scalding hot coffee that I had long since grown used to and ducked back inside my tent to collect my gear.

By then, the others had arrived. A sea of faces, many swarthy and deeply-tanned from the desert sun. Others surprisingly fair-haired and pale. I barely knew any of their names, though I’m sure they knew mine.

But when it became apparent that I was here for the enterprise and nothing more, certainly not the sharing-a-tent variety, they quickly lost interest and considered me another bloke, as George, born and raised in Melbourne, put it.

Even if I had been game, it was something unspoken by our aging Aussie captain of sorts that not so much as a finger was to touch me. A fact that warmed me even as it also chafed like a wound in need of salve.

Shaking off thoughts that were getting me. I closer to my reason for being here, I walked with the others, George and his cane that was mostly just for show, a few yards away, to the entrance of the cave.

My pulse tingled in my wrists and my ears, to say nothing of my beating heart.

A few minutes more and we were before the same narrow corridor that had been before my eyes as I drifted off to sleep.

To my surprise, George gestured for me to go forward.

“Me?” I questioned, glancing back at the men surrounding us. Their expressions, unreadable, but after a moment, when no one objected, I nodded and began my approach.

Up close, I saw what we had only had a glimpse of the previous evening. A shallow layer of silt and rock covering up what appeared to be a door. But we couldn’t be sure.

I retrieved my tools, slowly, carefully beginning to clear who know how many centuries of earth and sediment away. George moved forward beside me to unearth whatever lurked beneath.

We worked in silent accord, pausing now and again to stretch achy muscles, leaning back with hands on hips to breathe deeply, take a long pull of water from someone offering a canteen, and then go again, spurred on by more than the momentary respite as we worked to answer the riddle before us.

I have no idea how long we scraped and picked and brushed and examined but there it was, the intricate carvings beneath my dusty fingertips.

I took a deep breath, reaching as for George’s hand and, together, we pushed against the wooden surface.

This was the test that would prove the door false or true.

False doors, the gateway between the living and the dead, were far more common than the real deal.

It stood fast, dousing our hopes like rain to a candle, but then…the tiniest motion forward.

The chamber itself seemed to sigh along with us as we let out the collective breath we had unknowingly been holding and pressed our palms to the door again.

And again…and again…moving slowly, almost reverently, reminding us all it had been more than a millennia since it had last stood open.

A few moments more and we stood on the threshold of a perfectly rectangular room. A single chamber, given the more diminutive dimensions.

Flashlight held aloft in my shaking hand, the adrenaline was racing so, I scanned the interior more closely.

The room was not empty.

My breath caught and held as I stood in the doorway, the others crowded behind me.

So many were the items, I scarcely knew where to look. Various jars, stone boxes, weapons, instruments were placed at various increments, but my attention and those of my companions was drawn to one item.

As if one body, we moved to surround the sarcophagus in the center of the room.

Despite the dimness of the room, that it was made of gold was unmistakable. My breath escaped in a gasp as I realized the magnitude of our discovery.

“My God,” George said. The first words any of us had spoken.

I smiled at him. There were smiles all around.

I reached in my knapsack for a pair of gloves. True exploration would wait. For now, we wanted to savor this moment. But I needed to touch the shimmering metal before me. Needed tangible proof that my eyes did not deceive.

Gloves firmly secure, I placed my fingertips on the coffin. So enthralled was I, I barely noticed the hum beneath my fingers. I thought it was the singing of the blood in my veins. The humming sensation became louder and I took a step back.

Without warning, the door swung closed and our flashlights went off, one by one.

We were left in the dark.

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