One day, long ago, when the Earth was younger and the heavens held fewer stars, the great god Ehu brought forth two sons. One he named Isham, and to him he gave dominion over the world of the living, and the other he named Azamat, and to him he gave dominion over the world of the dead.
For a thousand years the two brothers existed in harmony, but as the Earth grew older Azamat became jealous in his cold kingdom, with its darkened chambers filled with the whispering dead, and he began to ask himself: “Why must I hide from the joyous sun and the gracious sky? What have I done to deserve a punishment like this?”
I don’t recognise the man at the door.
“Dr Keller?” he says.
I rub my eye. It is half past seven in the morning, and the light that sluices in through the blinds is thin and watery.
“May I come in?”
“I have to get ready. I have a lot of work to do today.”
“At the research facility?”
I look at the man: he is elderly, small and thin, and his nut-brown head is bald apart from a shrug of wiry white hairs at its southern reaches. He looks Arabian. I have never seen him before.
“Do you mind telling me who you are?”
“All work at the facility has been cancelled for today.”
“What are you talking about?”
“There was some kind of security incident. I was just there.”
“I’ve got time booked on one of the beamlines,” I say.
“I expect they’ll reallocate it. May I come in?”
“It can’t be closed, surely. It must be a mistake.”
“You could telephone Security, perhaps.”
“The security guard, in the reception building. He’ll confirm it.”
I look at him for a moment, then I go back into the apartment and pick up the phone. The man follows me in, pulls the door closed behind him, walks through to the kitchen and starts filling the kettle with water. I am about to ask him what the hell he’s doing when I hear the security guard’s voice on the line.
No sir, closed this morning sir, suspicious device sir, police are searching the premises sir. His voice is flat and bureaucratic.
When he hears me hang up the man walks out of the kitchen and smiles at me sympathetically. He is holding a cup in each hand.
“Perhaps it will open again this afternoon,” he says, “Tea?”
“Look,” I say, “Who are you, and what are you doing here?”
He glances down at the cups, a little sadly I think, then looks back up at me. His blue eyes seem younger than the rest of his face.
“My name is Hashim Ya’qub Al-Samarrai, and I have come here from Iraq, from Al-Hillah, because I have something extremely important to request of you.”
“Perhaps we should sit down. Are you sure you won’t take some tea?”
Hashim places the cups on the table, pulls out a chair and sits down. He motions for me to do the same and, despite my misgivings, curiosity has taken hold of me. I sit down opposite him.
“What is it?” I ask.
“You are to scan the Pélissier Scroll, correct?”
“How do you know about that?”
He waves his hand, purses his thick lips.
“It does not matter how I know, only that I know. You are going to take the scroll to the facility, and you are going to shine light on it, and you are going to read the words that are inside, yes?”
“The focus of my research is a private—”
“Dr Keller, I beg you: do not do this. It is of the utmost importance that the contents of the scroll remain unknown.”
“What possible reason could there be for not investigating the scroll?”
“I know that you are a man of learning, an enlightened man,” he smiles, pityingly, “And I know that you wish to investigate the scroll only to add to our knowledge of the world. This I admire greatly. But there are other scrolls, other sources of knowledge that you can illuminate and reveal to mankind. Please, investigate those instead.”
“Look, Mr Al-Samarrai, I appreciate your coming here, but I’m not going to abandon my research just because of…just because you ask me to.”
He takes a sip of tea and pulls a disgusted face.
“Ugh, your tea is always so terrible,” he says.
“Forget about the damned tea,” I say, “Tell me what’s so bad about reading the scroll.”
He turns, looks away for a moment. His face seems to cloud.
“You ask me what is so bad. Do you know the story of Azamat and Isham?”
“Of course,” I say, with some irritation.
“Dr Keller, what the scholars call a myth is nothing but an encoded truth handed down through the generations. I am one of the last of the Azamites, and the Pélissier Scroll is our burden. Our curse. It is like the box that Pandora opened, except that in Pandora’s box hope remained. In this box there is no hope. Do you understand? No hope at all.”
“You’re not seriously trying to tell me that the Pélissier Scroll is the one from the myth? That’s impossible. Absolutely impossible.”
“You cannot imagine how dangerous it is. If it is ever opened and read…” he shuts his eyes for a moment, bows his head, “Please, put it in a museum, in a glass case. Write that it is too fragile to be opened, that the centuries have rubbed away the ink within. Make it an artifact, a curiosity, take away its mystery. That is the safest way.”
“I can’t do that. You must understand—”
He leaps up suddenly, whips his hand out and grabs my arm. His fingers are thin and powerful, bony little pincers.
“It is you who must understand,” he says, “You must not read it. You must not!”
I pull my arm away, twist it from his grasp, and suddenly he seems not to know what to do. For a moment the world seems to petrify around us.
“Get out,” I say.
“I could kill you right here,” he says. There is sudden venom in his voice, but I take a step towards him.
“You will leave now,” I say, “Or I will call Security.”
He flares up suddenly, jabs a finger in my face: “It was me who called the facility and told them of the bomb. This time it was a hoax; next time you might not be so lucky.”
“I will not be threatened. Get out. Now. I won’t ask you again.”
He scowls at me and backs slowly out of the door. Outside the apartment he seems tiny, a shrivelled remnant of some ancient culture, and his fury is swallowed up by the banality of the corridor. Suddenly I hate him, despise his threats, and I reach across and slam the door. The lock clicks once, then there is silence.
So Azamat left the world of the dead and travelled to the heavens to ask his father to allow him to change places with his brother Isham and to rule the world of the living in his place. But the great god Ehu sent him away, and Azamat returned to the world of the dead boiling with bitterness and jealousy.
Eventually he could bear the injustice no longer, and he resolved that if he were not to rule his brother’s kingdom then it should be cursed. So one night, when the moon was low, he disguised himself as a man and crept out of the world of the dead and walked amongst the living. He spread lies cloaked in mantles of truth, kindled wraths and jealousies, whispered into men’s ears terrible secrets that should be known only to the gods, and then he crept back to the world of the dead and he hid there, far from the seeds of chaos that he had sown.
I first learned of the Pélissier Scroll when I was just seven years old. I read about it in a yellowing library book that smelled of glue, read it and re-read it as a child will, spent hours poring over the black-and-white photographs until I could recite its landscape of murders, desecrated tombs and curses without flaw and without hesitation.
My father loved it as well. He loved to read the story to me. For my eighth birthday he bought me an enormous hardback book of unsolved mysteries simply because the Pélissier Scroll featured in a double-page spread, and on the night of my birthday as I lay in bed he read the feature to me from start to finish.
“We’ll never know what’s written in the scroll,” he’d say, “It’s an enigma. An unanswerable question set by a people long forgotten.”
He had a flair for the melodramatic, it’s true, but for many years he was right: the scroll was too fragile to be opened, too delicate to be unravelled and read. He didn’t seem the least bit concerned about this, however; didn’t seem to care about not knowing. I think he enjoyed the mystery of it.
I, however, couldn’t accept it. The knowledge that something was written there, that something secret had been left by this ancient cult, drove me mad with curiosity. One of my regular daydreams was of breaking into the British Museum, late at night, lifting the scroll out of its humidity-controlled storage box, spraying it with a solution of my own invention and then unrolling it and reading it for the first time.
For my twelfth birthday my father took me to the British Museum. I’d been before, but he told me that this time would be different. We reacquainted ourselves as we always did with the Lewis chessmen, with the Rosetta Stone, of course with the Nimrud lamassu, but after we’d been there for an hour he took me to the Great Court, where he spoke to someone behind a desk and then returned to me without a word.
“What was that about?” I asked.
“You’ll see,” he said, and before long a tall, neat man with round glasses and a trimmed grey beard walked up to us, introduced himself as Dr Jenks, wished me happy birthday and asked us to accompany him. He took us away to an office lost under drifts of files and papers, and, as my father smiled beatifically, Dr Jenks opened a sturdy metal case and peeled back a layer of white linen.
“Take a look,” he said.
I peered in.
“Do you know what it is?” asked my father.
Of course I knew what it was. I would have known even without the hours spent poring over the grainy photograph in The Big Book Of Unsolved Mysteries. I stared at the Pélissier Scroll open-mouthed, hardly daring to exhale in case my own breath might damage it.
“I’m afraid I can’t show you any more of it than that,” said Dr Jenks.
“I know,” I said, “It’ll disintegrate if you open it.”
I imagined the words scorched into the parchment inside. A hidden message in a forgotten tongue.
“He’s going to be a scientist when he grows up,” said my father.
“I’m going to decipher mysterious scrolls,” I said, “Like this one.”
“Good for you,” said Dr Jenks, “Good for you.”
My father and I smiled all the way home. As though we’d just witnessed a miracle. As though we’d just encountered a saint.
When my father was lying in the hospital bed, tangled up in tubes and sinking into the shell of his own body, it was the story of the Pélissier Scroll that he asked me to read for him. To take him back to better times, I suppose. So I sat at his side and read it, read about how Gustave Pélissier discovered the scroll in the ruins of a tomb at Nippur, about how he lost his fortune in a Paris casino and sold the scroll to a British collector before being stabbed to death by a creditor, about how just before the collector, Lord Arbrough, tried to open the scroll he contracted malaria and died within the month, about how the curator of the British Museum who preserved it for the nation went mad and killed his wife with a hammer, and when I’d finished my father laid his calcifying hand on my arm and looked up at me with a child’s eyes.
“We’ll never know what it says,” he said, and for the first time I suspected that he felt regret at not knowing.
The world of the living became violent, deceitful and immoral, as though a terrible poison had been unleashed upon it, and Isham was greatly ashamed to see his kingdom corrupted. When the great god Ehu learned of Azamat’s treachery his fury was too great for the universe to contain, and the Earth shook and the sky cracked and the stars themselves fell into the sea.
“Where is my son?” he cried, and he rent the Earth in his search, but Azamat was cunning and he concealed himself deep in the farthest caverns of the world of the dead.
I leave Ridgeway House early. The morning is cold and metallic, the sun still low in the sky. The security guard smiles, waves me through, and I make my way to the beamline.
Scanning the scroll takes all day, and I am largely superfluous to requirements – an overseer, little more – and it is only as the shadows outside are beginning to deepen that Phil comes to find me, to tell me that it’s all done.
“We’ll have the results for you tomorrow,” he says, “Check your inbox first thing.”
I leave the Diamond Light Source with the scroll safely wrapped in its case, and as I drive out onto the A34 and sweep south through the low, darkening Oxfordshire hills I am anxious, excited, blistering with nervous energy.
Now and then as I drive I think about my unexpected visitor of the day before, about his warning, about his rage. I realise that the promise of revelation carries with it a risk of contradiction for him, for his beliefs, and I realise that I was unfair on him. I realise that I feel a little sorry for him.
Azamat knew that he could not hide in the world of the dead forever, so he trapped his spirit in a scroll and turned himself into a man. His plan was to open the scroll once his father’s anger had subsided, and transform himself back into a god once more, but a snake had seen what Azamat had done and the snake told the great god Ehu, and Ehu came down and snatched up the scroll from Azamat. Then Ehu broke the curse placed on the world of the living, and left Azamat to see out the remainder of his days as a mortal man.
But Ehu could not destroy his own son’s spirit, so he hid the scroll in a dark and secret place, and he warned mankind not to search for it.
“For whoever reads it,” he said, “Shall bring upon themselves the malice of Azamat.”
I force myself to wait until after nine o’clock before going into work, to give Phil time to send across the files, and by the time I reach the office and turn on my computer I am almost trembling with excitement.
Phil is as good as his word: his e-mail sits in my inbox like a lost jewel. I download the files and open them immediately, and they bloom onto my screen, a topographic map of infinitesimal contours painted in imaginary colours. I gaze at my screen and see what no man has seen for two thousand years.
I gaze at my screen, and the pit of my stomach turns.
The data is still raw, unrefined, but these preliminary images are unmistakeable. I call Phil immediately.
“You’re sure?” I ask, “There hasn’t been a mistake?”
“We ran the scan the same way we always do,” he says, “What you see is what you get.”
I look over the data again, force myself to face the reality of the situation. I am a scientist, and there are no wrong answers; I tell myself this over and over again. Force myself to accept the merciless, irreducible reality of the situation.
There is nothing written on the scroll.
A lifetime, a whole lifetime of wondering. A thread of inquisitive energy running from child to man, broken. Cut.
I look at the framed photograph of my father on the desk. He is as I remember him from my childhood, enormous and clumsy and kind. Is this what it was for? All these years?
There are no wrong answers. There is nothing written on the scroll.
I understand Hashim now. That is, I realise that he was right when he said that the scroll was dangerous. The scroll drew its power from our ignorance and from our need to find meaning. The investment in belief that we have made has exhausted us, overwhelmed us, and we are weaker men for it. Hashim and I are the same. Each blinded by our desires, each condemned by a truth revealed.
I think back to what he had said, to the threat he had made. I wonder whether he was telling the truth. About the bomb. Suddenly I want to talk to him, to share my feelings with this one man who would understand. I wonder whether it is too late to contact him. I wonder whether the truth would placate or enrage him.
I suspect that, one way or another, it is too late.
This story won second prize in the Light Reading short story competition; the rules were that the story be in some way about the Diamond Light Source facility, and that it be no more than 3,000 words long.