Whither Zenobia?

By on Aug 26, 2012 in Fiction

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Woman in headscarf and sunglasses in Syrian market


The colossal earth-hued walls of Doura Europus hovered in front of them long before the dusty Mercedes reached the remains of the four-thousand-year-old city. Dark clouds rolled across the sky and over the Euphrates as a lone guard marched atop mud ramparts in his brown ankle-length abaya and red and white checked kaffiyeh, rifle against his shoulder.

“It’s enormous!” Roberta waved her arms at the maze of streets and roofless mud brick buildings that stretched from the mud towers and gate to the distant river. “Enormous!”

She darted like a child from one dirt alley to another, peering over half-melted walls into the ruins of shops, houses, palaces. Following behind with Khalid, Constance glimpsed the Arab guard bouncing on a motorcycle over dry mud streets toward the Euphrates.

Half an hour later, the storm broke, huge drops pounding on them and the remains of the city. They’d walked farther than they’d realized. Dust and dirt instantly turned to mud. Rumbling up on his motorcycle from behind a mud brick temple, the guard pantomimed an offer of a lift back to the gate.

Even as Constance said “No,” Roberta hitched herself up onto the motorcycle, wrapped her arms around the guard’s voluminous abaya, and bounced away, mud exploding behind them.

Constance trudged back through the goo, giving up any idea of preserving her shoes. No one to watch her struggle, no one to laugh at her plight. Screw ‘em anyway, the people who weren’t there. When she reached the covered gate, she found Roberta sipping hot tea from a thermos cup. With a smile, she offered Constance a sip. Then she saw her friend’s feet: “Connie! Your shoes are ruined.”

Constance shrugged. What did Roberta expect? Flabby good will protects nothing. Especially not shoes.

Back at the hotel, after they showered and changed, Roberta insisted that Constance come to her room and take a pair of her shoes to replace the wrecked ones. Sapphire blue peau-de-soie. Who but Roberta would bring peau-de-soie-covered high heels to the desert?

“See, they fit!” Then she pulled a blue dress from the closet. “Try this on. It goes with the shoes.” She was like a kid intent on giving away her toys. Reluctantly, Constance put on the dress. “See? It looks better on you than it ever did on me. It’s yours.”

Constance stared at herself in the mirror on the closet door: she looked as if she’d stolen the outfit out of a shop window. The only other way she’d get a dress or shoes like these.

“I can’t take any of this.”

“Don’t argue.” Roberta studied her. “But your hair — it doesn’t work. Connie, take off the dress. Sit down.”

The brat was in charge, and the adult was following orders. Moments later, Constance sat on a chair in her bra and panties with a towel over her shoulders while Roberta worked with a pair of manicure scissors. When she was finished, Constance pondered her reflection in the mirror. It was startling, with her new short haircut, how much she resembled Roberta.

“Wonder how’d you look brunette,” said Roberta, fluffing out Constance’s wheat-colored hair. She crouched until her face was beside Connie’s, their two images almost blending into one in the mirror. “We’ll think about that later. Those lonely guys are waiting. Here, don’t forget the dress and shoes.”

She shoved them into Constance ‘s arms.


Next morning, they headed west under a bleached-blue sky, at last nearing the fabled oasis city of Palmyra. This wasn’t sandy desert, but it was desert, all right: a barren land of hard earth and scorching sun. Why had people ever wanted to live out here? What compulsion brought them to this hot and wild place?

“This was the ancient caravan route from Arabia to the Mediterranean,” Khalid told them. His stubby arms gestured broadly. He was in a better mood now that they’d left behind drunken American oil men and Arabs on motorcycles. He’d brought a picnic lunch for them to eat in an abandoned caravansary.

“A thousand years ago, merchants from the East bargained here!” Roberta rhapsodized, balancing her paper plate on the stump of a broken column. “Camels and donkeys were tethered there. Half-naked Bedouin girls danced barefoot for weary travelers.”

Khalid frowned at her description but said nothing.

Abandoning her lunch, Roberta ran into the desert, whirling over sun-baked earth and rocks, bare ankles flashing from beneath her slacks. Khalid called to her, shouting warnings, but she ignored him.

“All roads passed through Palmyra,” Constance wrote in her mind, as they approached the ruined city, blinking at the brilliance of the sun-glazed limestone. “It was rich and luxurious, ancient when the Romans came.”

Roberta clutched Constance’s arm as they peered at the ancient stones. From a low mountain nearby, a Moslem fortress regarded with disapproving austerity the ruined elegance of the older buildings below. Khalid took them to the Queen Zenobia, a low-slung guest house next to the archeological site. While he checked them in, they gazed at the broken arches and columns of the once magnificent city, now faded by sun, wind, and time. A hot, dry gust warned that if they wandered away, past the ruined colonnades and broken buildings into the wind-smoothed hills, their lips would crack, their lungs shrivel, the tops of their heads fry.

Late in the afternoon, Khalid led them into the ancient city. Most of the buildings were pre-Roman, he said. Constance could imagine camel caravans resting among those pale columns. Some of Roberta’s romanticism seemed to be rubbing off on her. Her fourth graders would appreciate it. Camels. Turbans and flowing robes. Curved swords. Jewels and spices.

Constance wore her new dress and shoes to dinner. No other Americans appeared in the dining room, but several tables were full of French and Germans, and at one table a trio of elderly British travelers pondered guidebooks and maps.

“Are you two lovely ladies sisters?” asked a tall, blond German with rather formal English, as they met in the doorway to the bar after dinner. His shoulders were very wide. A competitive swimmer in his youth? Soccer hero? Attractive, anyway.

“Friends,” Constance replied.

“Best friends,” corrected Roberta. “Might as well be sisters.”

The tanned German showed his big teeth in a smile: “Join me for a drink?”

Why not? Harmless enough. Could’ve been either fifty or a sun-ravaged thirty-five.

Klaus Ulrich: an archeologist and, he hastened to make clear, he had nothing to do with the noisy busload of junge Deutsche that had invaded that afternoon.

“They don’t sleep or eat in the hotel. I don’t know why the management lets them park here.”

He took the women across the lobby to the verandah, beside which loomed a three-decker vehicle pulled by a tractor-like cab. The young people swarming around it slept in spaces hardly more than shelves. Now, in ragged tee shirts and grungy thigh-and ass-revealing shorts, they squatted on the ground, guzzling cheap wine and cooking on portable stoves. Dirty. Sexy. Self-indulgent. Beautiful, in their disreputable way.

Klaus shook his head: “They drive all over the world in that thing. Insects taking their own nest with them.”

Constance wasn’t surprised that Roberta quickly became infatuated with the handsome archeologist as they sipped after-dinner drinks and gazed at the shadowy ruins. She left Roberta and Klaus to contemplate the mysterious city and the husky German students gathered around their monster “rolling hotel.”

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Bruce Douglas Reeves' novella, Delphine, won the Clay Reynolds Novella Competition and will be published by Texas Review Press November 1, 2012. He's also published three novels (The Night Action, New American Library and Signet Books; Man on Fire, Pyramid Books; and Street Smarts, Beaufort Books and Ace Books.) Recently, he's completed a new novel, Cavanagh's Promise. He's published short fiction in nearly three dozen magazines and literary journals, including: The High Plains Literary Review, Runner's World Annual, Hawaii Review, The Long Story, Eclipse, The Drill Press, The Main Street Rag, Clapboard House, South Carolina Review, The Blue Lake Review, Danse Macabre, and The New Renaissance. Three of his previously published short stories, “Obsession,” “Ferrocarriles Nacionales de Mexico,” and “The Lady’s Not for Keeping,” now are available again at ANTHOLOGY BUILDER.