Under the Shadow of the Iron Bird
El Waw Tershed was the latest thing in oases. The waitresses wore brief uniforms of matching pastels. Although they might have been more efficient, they were excessively courteous. Breakfast was a glass of water for each and as usual, Apollodonis said grace — with more than ordinary eloquence and no stuttering whatsoever:
These subjects of Diana, Bacchus and yea, even of the Goat Himself ...
"Ye gods, who created the earth and all the seas, the whales and the little fishes, the algae, sharks, stingrays, barracuda and sea serpents — who also made all the ornaments of this and every world, be it the planet Herschel or distant Metaluna — who give women their beauty and glory and fine breasts and thighs and garter belts — who give inspiration to all poets, doctors and salesmen — who give us health as well as gall bladder, if it please you to let us finish this sustenance alive, let not our aliment itself disgust nor sicken us in any way, cause us to vomit onto the table or otherwise disgrace ourselves, yet if in your wisdom we should
choke and die before we end our feast, let it be with honor and pomp and glory, forever and ever. Amen, pass the spoon jar."
After this inducement, although spoons were unknown in the desert, the company fell to heartily. While they were refreshing themselves, Polly asked one of the women if anyone had any idea where to find the elusive Icarus. Some said they had seen him in Nineveh, while others claimed he had last been heard of in Iberia. Still a third faction felt that Icarus was a mere legend or myth. One of the serving girls, describing Icarus as the best instructor in the art of body-contact she had ever met, insisted that he was holing up only a few leagues away in the Oasis of the 29 Terebinths.
Their break now concluded, Apollodonis folded his hands reverently for the after-breakfast grace:
"O Lords, who remain in Heaven!" he chanted, "We thank you for what we have received and pray that our digestive organs will function as usual. However, if there be in any of us some obstruction or dysfunction whether in stomach, bowel or intestine, let us be not griped by excess of agony. Further, let our day be unhampered by wind, bloat or flatulence that our affairs may continue unimpeded by prejudice. Bless us, then, without your usual caprices!"
These invocations were actually somewhat excessive, since naturally, after the various sacred libations had been spilled, only a few drops remained for the company. Moreover, in paying the bill (13 shekels and 78 sesterces for a mere five glasses of water!) remarked caustically that they had been villainously overcharged.
They agreed that they should leave at once and hurry to the 29 Terebinths, as Time had begun to squeeze them with ever less mercy. Of course everyone assumed that certainly after their previous narrow escape from death by thirst, surely someone would have learned his lesson! So once again no one saw to supplying the water and this time they did have to drink camel's urine in order to survive. So it was that they arrived at last one nightfall at the Oasis of the 29 Terebinths, with very bad breath.
Icarus in the flesh proved to be unconscionably plain. His hump alone rivaled that of a dromedary. His nose was more gigantic and hooked than a Phoenician's. The bags under his eyes were wonders. He suffered equally from acne, dandruff and athlete's foot.
Ooma, with the fickleness of girlhood, took an immediate fancy to him, breaking the heart of Dr. Poxus. To think, he wept inside himself, they had never even consummated!
"Ech! What bad breath you have!" winced the revolutionary leader as Ooma hove into his ken, smiling her toothiest.
"How old are you?" She wasted no time playing her ace.
"Some score of summers, woman. What's it to you?" he answered roughly, carefully at the same time applying airplane cement to the aileron of his flying machine — which was nearly done except for the engine.
"You look decades and decades old," she simpered. Poxus groaned in self-pity. Icarus turned towards her finally with a peculiar leer and holding out his hand, led her into the back room of his hangar, through a beaded curtain.
Polly and the magi regarded one another dumbfoundedly for several moments. At last, Polly in righteous curiosity and morality, went over to the back room & threw aside the curtain with such energy that beads shot through the air like hailstones.
"For shame! Down on your knees!" he screamed in horror at what he saw, for Ooma was already on her knees. Then he himself genuflected and prayed: "Oh chaste and true gods, whose divine eyes must burn at such tableaux — these wicked and lecherous mortals demand your mercy — not for themselves, mind you, nor for the gluttonous mauling of the sacred bodies you gave them, nor for their stinking souls which crawl with the worms of hot desire and crave the continual lust which sends thrills along your spine and causes your toes to curl and uncurl in endless, lascivious carnality and makes of the hands independent thieves with their silken caressings & strokings now here and now there and the blood singing, yea caroling through the veins in bliss towered upon bliss... No! No, these subjects of Diana, Bacchus and yea, even of the Goat Himself, nay Lords, not for the rotten souls of the harlot and the degenerate before me, spare them not for those, for such souls would stain the streets of Olympus itself and blind the demigods with the pus of their rot. Ye must be merciful only because of the innocents who could conceivably rise out of their unholy conjugation. And cleanse, I beg, my eyes as well for being unwilling witness to deeds I never hoped to know, to make them virgins once more! Your obedient servant, Apollodonis...FASN, Master of Nil, Apprentice-Sorceror, 2nd Grade."
By the time Polly had finished this benediction, Ooma & Icarus had got their second wind and all their sails were set. Some days later, Icarus & Ooma came out from behind the beaded curtain to announce their betrothal. Ooma was humming an old ditty she remembered hearing as a child during the War of 1941-45 B.C., "He Wears a Pair of Silver Wings!"
One day, shortly after this premature honeymoon, Polly asked Icarus if he knew what the word "aisoi" meant.
"A mere imprecation of the gods," Icarus replied unthinkingly, and he went on polishing the instrument panel.
"And do you know what clan larthals mini muluvanice means?"
"Of course I do. All rebels speak Etruscan. It means, 'The son of Larth dedicated this to me'." Then he stopped his work and looked up puzzled, "But who told you that? Etruscologists have only recently uncovered that."
Icarus shook his head. "It could only have been Nona of Mesopotamia, although Pandora suits her better, since it's her fault all this turmoil is taking place."
"Then you must be Larth's son."
"Yes, it was I who built the temple and dedicated it to her. She was once a great beauty, before she began using Aziza.
"Was there no hope that this nun, now known as Nona..."
"None at all. The priest is my uncle, you see, as is the tyrant."
"But then you and Ooma are cousins! Why this is scandalous!"
"Oh, don't be such a fanatic. Nepotism isn't much anymore. We don't worry about such things nowadays. Think of Egypt. Why Cleopatra usurped her own brother, Ptolemy, and no one thought twice about it."
"You make it sound all right."
"Changing the subject, we must be off to the pyramids tomorrow."
"Why are you and your machine so important to the revolution?"
"The best of us are only less unnecessary than the rest of humanity. Vainglory continues to rule. Nobody is expendable, even Ozymandias, or that wimp who burned down the temple at Ephesus, so that he would always be remembered — what's his name?"
"Do you have any number of birds in your aeroplane engine?"
"Not wren one."
"That's odd. I remember once a carter I met on the road from Corinth who was freighting a load of finches to the Emperor Pompus Maximus. Every time he began the ascent of a hill he would descend from this cart and beat the boxes with a stick. This was to make the finches take to flight inside their cages during the ascension so that would reduce the weight his old horse would have to pull up the hill."
"Well, I don't believe in avian flight. Enough of this. It's time you and the others were in bed so that we can get an early start in the morning. "
"What is that you keep sniffing?"
"Airplane glue, of course. Want some? It will help you sleep."
NEXT: Chapter VII - Inside the Pyramid