Short Stories - Kay Sera Sahara

Kay Sera Sahara - © 2006 By Steven Dufresne, all rights reserved.

Part 1 - Present day

Paul was confused. He carefully brushed a little more sand off of the copper colored object, or part of an object, that shouldn't really be where it was. He was an archeologist digging in the Sahara desert in an area that was dense forest 10,000 years ago. Yet for a moment he'd forgotten who he was due to his understanding that what he was experiencing was wrong. The feeling returned as he uncovered each small new area.

"Grace." Paul quietly called for one of the other team members who was nearby.

"Yah." she casually replied.

"Come have a look at this."

Grace unfolded herself from her own work area and carefully stepped over the grid lines, scrunching down beside him. Unconsciously she brushed a little at the sand herself, as if to test if it was real. "Copper?"

"Looks like." Paul said "But can't be."

"Bizarre." Grace stepped back and returned to her own area. As much of a mystery as it was she knew that answers came slowly and speculation would just have to wait.

Later at lunchtime most of the team sat around a portable table under an open sided, shady tent. The food was largely fruits and vegetables intended to help replenish water lost from heat exposure. That was the theory anyway. The problem was with the lack of heat.

"Hey, the forecast calls for light rain this afternoon. Can you believe it?" Wil was unofficial weather watcher.

"No. We're nowhere near enough to the Mediterranean." Grace said.

"It does rain here once every few years, you know." Wil said. "Plus, the it's only 25 Celsius. That alone is weird."

"Good point. After lunch, put away any unnecessary tools and get some cover ready. Just in case." Gunther was expedition leader. What he said would be done.

"Hey." Paul arrived from the dig area and went to the water bucket to one side of the tent to clean his hands.

"Anything yet?" Grace asked. There was no need to clarify what she was asking about.

"Yup. It still looks like copper."

Everyone stopped eating. "Copper?" a few asked.

"Yeah, bizarre. It looks like the bottom of an overturned bowl, round."

"Well, we do know practically nothing about these people, but copper bowls 10,000 years ago?" submitted Gunther.

"Actually it may even be an overturned vase. The curvature is turning back on itself as if the top is going to have a smaller opening."

"How big is it?" asked Grace.

"Diameter about 30 centimeters."

"Uh, copper oxidizes with water. Be sure to cover it well when the rain starts." piped in Wil.

Everyone groaned and those near him gave him a friendly slap.

"Actually he's got a point." Paul said as he took a seat at the table. "The North Atlantic current has shut down and as a result Northern Europe and Northern Canada are having the coldest years in recent times. So why can't it rain in the Sahara?"

Gunther was able to back Paul. "Yah. When I was in Hanover last week, begging for grant renewals, there was half a meter of snow. And it had been steadily accumulating for a week."

"Isn't that normal for December?" Will asked.

"Where's Hanover?" asked one of the students.

"Hanover's in Northern Germany." Gunther answered the student first. "And whatever snow we get doesn't normally stay on the ground for more than a day or two."

Grace said in wonder. "So the Sahara may bloom again."

That reminded them all of why they were there. In the early days of NASA's Space Shuttle they'd taken X-ray pictures of the Sahara and found riverbeds buried beneath the sand. Where there are rivers, there is often some form of civilization, even if it's only a temporary village.

After having completed some pioneering work in ancient Egyptian technology Gunther had the innovative idea of picking a likely area along one of those ancient buried rivers and seeing just what he could find. After pouring over a multitude of maps he'd settled for a place in what is now Algeria, where three major rivers had once met to become one.

He obtained some grants and gathered together a group of archeologists and promising students. The first few test holes turned up a layer where there was once dense vegetation, even trees. Eventually they hit paydirt and found walls. These from 10,000 years ago.

But the buildings and vegetation looked as though they'd been overcome by desert in a relatively short time, as if the sand had one day arrived as an ocean wave and inundated them. Thus much of it was well preserved.

"Well." said Grace as she began cleaning up her mess. "Back to the brush."

She got up just as a few others did. Thoughts of why they were there made them anxious to continue exploring the mystery.

An hour later they all had their faces pointed earthward, engrossed in their careful work. And then the first drops of rain fell. At first they were surprised but as the few drops turned to real rainfall the surprise turned to cursing. In a rush they grabbed whatever tarps they could to cover the areas they were working on. Within twenty minutes everything was sufficiently protected and they'd retreated through what was by then mud to back under the lunch tent.

Part 2 - Sahara, 10,000 years ago

"Eeee!" Biga squealed with delight as a thin thread of light jumped out at her from the copper sphere. "Do that again!"

"It takes time to get its bite back. Try again in a little while." Naru told his little sister.

Biga stepped down from the base of the daged. From his reading bench on the patio Naru looked over at her. She was checking her reflection in the sphere, the top of her head about lining up with the top of the sphere. No doubt, he thought, she was inspecting the dark line that their mother had painted around her eye that morning. It was the new look for young women. He thought it looked out of place on a seven year old.

"Why does it take time?" Biga was at the age when it seemed that every statement from him was followed by a question from her.

"It just does." Naru answered her to her dissatisfaction. "Uncle Tafar says it gets its bite back faster in the South since it's drier there."

"Explain it to me!" urged Biga.

"Uncle Tafar will explain it later when Jacoa arrives."

Biga suspected Naru didn't want to explain it because he didn't understand it himself but was content to wait. Besides, the reminder that a traveler was going to be sharing their evening meal with them drove her to new thoughts. She was eager to hear about the exotic goings on in the wide Mediterranean valley. Exotic to one so young.

The idea entered her head of not waiting for the evening meal but to run out to the main road and meet Jacoa as he arrived. He was always happy to see her. She ran down the patio's stone steps and onto the path that would take her to the road.

Quickly she was surrounded in a lush green world of trees and leaves, some leaves being the length of her arm. She was never spooked by all the goings on around her when on the path. To either side were sounds made by monkeys high up in the canopy foraging for their morning meal and tigers walking with supreme confidence through the dense underbrush, occasionally glancing up at the noisy primates with either hunger or annoyance depending on the fullness of their stomachs.

A short way in front of her a pair of brightly colored birds suddenly burst out of the crowded trees into the comparatively vast space above the path and raced each other towards her. She ducked reflexively as they past over her head though there was no danger of collision. Turning to face them she stuck out her tongue and then yelled out "Bad birds!". The birds ignored her and reentered the trees to continue their race undisturbed.

But the energy of the birds was contagious and she broke out into a skipping, faster paced step and soon the path took her out onto the open Savannah. Here the yellow grass grew up to her armpits and she stretched out her arms so that her hands brushed across the top of the grass, tickling her palms.

She suddenly stopped and stared with wide open eyes. In the distance, under a lone tree stood a family of long necked animals. She guessed they were a family as there were two whose bodies were noticeably higher, one of whom was picking leafs from the top of the tree.

Biga's Uncle Tafar had told her that this type of animal was a relative newcomer to this area. When he was young there had been a fire that burned all the trees in the area and since there was less rain than there used to be, the trees didn't grow back. Instead the yellow grass grew and there was room for the long necked animals to move in from the south.

After staring for a while longer Biga continued running, hoping to meet Jacoa on the main road.

Part 3 - Present day

The unexpected downpour lasted three hours. No sooner had it ended then Paul, Grace and the rest of the archeologists returned to their respective holes to see what damage, if any, the rain had done to what they'd each been working on.

As Paul approached his he saw that the tarp was still in place but something looked different. Right away he noticed that the tarp had prevented the rain from falling on the object he'd been cleaning but it hadn't prevented the water from washing away the sand around and possibly under the tarp.

He removed the rocks he'd used to hold the tarp down and gently lifter the tarp off. Then he froze. The water had carved out much of the loose sand exposing as much of the object as would have taken him a week of careful brushing to expose. The copper bowl turned out to be a copper sphere and that stood on a pedestal which looked vaguely familiar. The pedestal was made of alternating layers of white material which looked like some sort of polished rock, possibly marble, and thin copper plates as if they'd been laid on top of each other to build up the pedestal.

"Uh, Grace? You'd better come look at this." He said over his shoulder to Grace.

Grace arrived wiping her forehead, unknowingly applying mud instead of removing it. "What's" she said and after a pause added "up?" Grace too stood staring at it.

"Ever see anything like it?" asked Paul.

"Nothing this old. Looks familiar though." she said. "Something about the pedestal."

"Fence post?" speculated Paul half-heartedly.

"Fancy fence post. Plus, the sphere's way too big." Grace answered. "I'll get everyone else." She turned and did so.

When everyone arrived their initial reactions were much the same as Paul's and Grace's, they stood and stared.

"Djed." said Gunther.

"Huh?" said some.

"Of course!" said Grace excitedly. "The pedestal looks like that of a Djed."

"What's a Djed?" asked one of the students.

Gunther answered "It was common in ancient Egypt, both in their artwork and as actual objects. There is some speculation that it was imported from Syria but that's only one of the theories. It's basically a pedestal made of alternating narrow and wide layers."

"But one of the layers is never copper sheets. Usually it's all just carved out of the same stone and the layers colored differently." said Grace.

"But this is 10,000 years old and we're in Algeria." the student said.

"Yah. I guess we have a new theory for where it came from." said Gunther.

After a brief silence by all Paul stepped closer to the object and reached his hand to the sphere to brush off a little dirt. "Ow!" he pulled his hand back in surprise.

"What?" asked Grace.

"A shock! That thing's charged." said Paul.

"Touch it again. I bet you won't get any this time." said Wil.

Paul slowly and carefully reached out his hand and touched it again. He felt nothing this time.

Wil explained. "Thought not. The thin copper sheets release electrons into the air due to their thin edges. The sphere has no edges, it's completely smooth, so it picks up electrons. Being near the copper sheets but insulated from it by the white layers help it. Since you're grounded, when you touch it the electrons jump to you. But then the sphere takes time to gather electrons again, to build up a charge." Wil let that soak in. "The air's dried up fast after the rain but give it an hour or so to get really dry and I'll bet you get a real shock."

"Uh uh." said Paul. "Let it bite someone else next time."

Part 4 - Sahara, 10,000 years ago

Biga was beginning to get bored. She'd met Jacoa on the main road as she'd planned and walked the remainder of the way with him to the house. All the way back he'd asked her questions about what she'd been up to since his last visit and she didn't even think to ask him anything. Then once they'd gotten to the house Uncle Tafar and the other adults had taken over and she'd walked away. Now sitting at the table eating the evening meal, most of the talk was about things that didn't interest her. She decided to take over the conversation.

"Uncle Tafar! Uncle Tafar!" she waited until she had his attention and everyone stopped talking. "Why does the daged take time to get its bite back?"

Uncle Tafar's and Jacoa's eyes met briefly, both thinking that here was a bright and curious one. Insatiably curious.

"I don't know Biga. I don't think anyone does." he said.

Jacoa stepped in. "Many people say it gathers something from the air, the dry air. When you touch it you take that something away. So it takes time for it to gather it back again."

"Something? What something?" asked Biga, hating vagueness.

"We don't know." answered Jacoa. "Whatever it is is too small to see."

"I'll bet it's little bits of gold." said Biga.

"And why do you think that?" asked Uncle Tafar with some amusement.

"Because that's the color of the stuff that flies out from it and bites me." she didn't add the word, silly, but she thought it.

Uncle Tafar raised his eyebrows, impressed with her logic abilities.

"Good theory!" Jacoa raised his arms in delight. "Biga, I'm going to sell you!"

Biga's mouth dropped open at this unexpected turn.

"Well, haven't you been touching the daged a lot?" he asked her.

"Every chance she gets." piped in her brother Naru around a mouthful of food.

"Well then Biga. If that's gold that's been passing between the daged and you then you must be full of gold!"

Biga closed her mouth again. She smiled at the thought of her being filled with gold but had to rethink her theory.

"Speaking of dry air," Naru addressed Jacoa "it has been getting a lot drier here. There's been much less rain in the past few years since you were last here. How is the air in the Mediterranean valley?"

"Getting more humid." answered Jacoa.

This surprised Naru and Uncle Tafar since the valley was only a few week's walk from their house.

"But that's because of the runoff from the mountains. The weather is warmer for longer periods of time so there's melting snow and ice. There's even a lot of flooding. There's just not a lot of places for the water to go."

Uncle Tafar added. "I heard that the ice walls are breaking and melting. That the ice is moving northward."

"That's right." said Jacoa. "I've heard the same thing. Just think, one day there may be no more ice in the north and people will be able to farm there."

Jacoa looked at them all when he said this, expecting wonder. But to Biga it reminded her of the changes that were happening.

"But it's getting drier here. The trees aren't growing like they used to." Biga said.

"Yes," said Jacoa "the changes are here too. Treed places are becoming grassland because of the reduced rainfall, and grasslands are turning to deserts. Some people blame the farms. Once the dirt can't sustain crops anymore the dirt turns to dust and the rains stop coming."

"So will we have to move north, where the ice was?" Biga thought of all the preparation she'd have to do.

"Probably not in our lifetimes." said Jacoa. "But if this dryness continues our people will have to move somewhere else. Maybe north. Or, maybe East to the Nile."

"That river will never dry up." said Naru.

"And will the people there let us?" asked Biga with genuine concern for her people in the future.

"We can only hope." answered Jacoa. "We do have a lot to offer them. Our writing, our art, our science, our farming methods."

"And the daged!" said Biga.

Part 5 - Ancient Egypt, 3000 years ago

The priest and priestess stood to either side of the golden globe of the sun god Ra while the farmer knelt before it, waiting. The globe sat on a Djed.

The farmer's crop was less this year than others but the collectors suspected he'd been trading some with the western nomads. In fact he had not traded any of his crop. It had simply been a drier year as sometimes happened. But still he knelt in judgment for the sun god to speak.

Soon the Nile shimmered with the first rays and a gentle breeze swept over them all. The priest called out to Ra and explained the situation. The priestess then shouted out the question for Ra to answer. Guilty or not guilty? They then turned to face the globe, one on either side, and raised their arms with hands turned upwards and palms open toward it. Slowly they moved closer. And as they did so, strong arcs shot out from the globe to their hands. They winced but otherwise showed no pain. Ra had spoken, the farmer was guilty and would be punished.

Part 6 - Present day

"And when you almost touch it you get a little spark, see?" Paul's nephew, Greg, demonstrated by moving the tips of his small fingers to near the globe. "It's called a vanergraf."

"A Van de Graaff generator." Greg's father told him. "Put it away now. The ceremony is about to being."

Paul ruffled Greg's hair, loving the little runt, as he referred to him. Every Christmas Paul spent with his brother's family in Canada. And every year Greg loved showing his uncle his new toys. This one he'd brought along to Christmas mass, the Van de Graaff generator sitting between them on the hard wooden pew, its battery driven motor whirring away in its rounded base and its smooth globe sitting atop a plastic column that extended up from the base.

He was struck by the similarity to the Djed-like object he'd dug up. Since those many months ago old finds in Egypt had been reexamined in a new light and new understandings were arising that possibly Egyptian priests had used Djeds and other electrostatic machines in their ceremonies to awe commoners. Heated arguments were being held as to whether the priests themselves knew that there was nothing divine in the devices or if they shared the commoner's awe.

He'd missed most of the ceremony while thinking about the past year's events until it came near time to receive the host. His attention returned as the priests shared the wine which represented the blood of Christ and blessed the container of hosts, or thin bread wafers which represented the body of Christ. After that he rose and like everyone else lined up for his turn to receive a host from the priest's hands.

On the way out of the church they stopped to exchange good wishes with one of the priests and thank him as was customary.

"Thank you father." he said.

"Merry Christmas, my son. And a Happy New Year."

Paul silently wondered how much of it would be new.

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