I've been busy. Not just a little busy. More like hustling to keep my task list from pouring down over me like a tsunami. Slaving to pull myself out of this swamp of duties. You get the idea.
So I've backed off of the blog. Sorry about that!
But what I haven't stopped doing is writing about a new story centered in India. This tale has been swirling in my head for some time and it has more than a fair bit of monsters, mythology and magic. It goes without saying, there will be unicorns, too.
It won't be just one book. Nope. Pack your bags. We might be gone for awhile and I can already tell that India won't be our only destination...
As penance for my lapse in blogs, I'm giving you a taste of what's coming next:
Augustus Hithersby adjusted his notes and looked over his reading glasses at the audience before him. “The Roman author, naturalist and philosopher, Pliny the Elder was probably actually describing a rhinoceros when he said that the unicorn had ‘the feet of an elephant’ and ‘the tail of a boar.’ He described the horn as black, instead of the more common white color demonstrated in most art works. Pliny, you’ll remember, wrote the Naturalis Historia, the model for later encyclopedias. He was an investigator of botany, zoology, astronomy, and geology, so his writing has credibility. But while Pliny and the rest of the Romans reference unicorns in their literature, it’s not likely the same creature we think of in modern times.”
Augustus clicked the remote and a slide appeared overhead with a rhinoceros on the left and a unicorn on the right.
“What about the Greeks? Multiple accounts of the animal were found in their study of natural history. Do you know where they believe the unicorns originated from? I’ll give you a hint…It’s the final stop on my speaking tour.” Augustus smiled when a young woman in the second row called out the answer. “India! That’s right. India was regarded as a land of magic and the unicorn was considered a mysterious creature that commanded respect.”
Augustus took a sip of water and winked at his wife in the front row. She’d always been constant fixture in his lectures, sometimes the only occupied seat in the auditorium. Octavia smiled back at him with a sparkle in her eyes. Her face might have a few more lines and her hair might have a hint of silver—wisdom locks she’d informed her husband—but she was the best wife and research assistant that a man could hope for.
“Does anyone know what makes unicorns different from any other mythological creature? Anyone?” He paused theatrically, adding suspense, he hoped, to his presentation.
“There’s no myth associated with the unicorns. None. There are stories about centaurs and winged horses, minotaurs and Medussas, but no stories centered around unicorns. Just like there are no myths about rhinoceros or elephants. Various cultures around the world describe the unicorn as if they’re describing any other animal that walked the earth. It’s clear, they considered the unicorn a real beast.”
“But a beast with an important difference. In all civilizations, and all time periods, the unicorn was both revered and respected. A symbol of purity and goodness.” Augustus raised one brow and tapped his finger on the podium for added emphasis. “So the questions remain…Were they real? Could they have actually existed?”
“I’ll take a few questions and then I’ll have to go.”
A man in the back stood up, but Augustus was quick to stop the man when he started talking. Putting a cupped hand by his ear he said, “Louder, please. My wife claims that I forget what she says, but I suspect that I don’t always hear the dear woman.”
Augustus scratched his beard as the man posed his question and then he sorted through computer files until he found what he was looking for.
“Ah, yes. There is a theory that those pictorial representations only show one horn because we’re seeing a side profile. That the closer horn obscures the second horn. Let’s take a look at an example of that.”
A plaster relief of a unicorn appeared on the wall.
“Here,” he demonstrated with a pointer. “Look at the detail of the billowing mane on this Roman etching. Two front legs. One horn.” He squinted, studying his own slide for a second, before clicking to the next image.
“French tapestry from around 1500 AD. We can see the profile of the body, but the head…see how it’s turned to look at the viewer. One horn.The craft of both of these pieces goes against the argument that the artist did not incorporate a second horn.These have dimension, they are not simply flat pieces of art. Presumably, like the legs in the first example, the artist could have included a second horn if one existed.”
He acknowledged the woman with the note pad when she stood up next. “Thank you, madam, for speaking up so that I could hear you.” He flashed a mock stern expression at his wife. “Do you see how well that works when a person speaks loud enough so that they can be heard?”
“The argument about the unicorn being a composite of other animals is a common theory, but it’s got one rather large flaw.” Augustus caught himself staring over the rows of faces, still finding it hard to believe so many people were interested in his research. The sound of his wife clearing her throat brought him back to his subject.
“There were no horses or camels in the Indus Valley so what could that composite be based on? By the way, the Indus valley is what we now refer to as the modern countries of Pakistan, Afghanistan and a large part of India. Excavations of the Indus Valley have been primarily in Harappa, a small town in the Punjab province of India. The site is thought to be 8,000 years old—older than the Egyptian sites that we’ve uncovered thus far.”
“What did they find there? Great question. Fascinating stuff.” Augustus brought up another slide. “This. It’s a unicorn seal that’s currently in the museum in Karachi.”
He switched to another image, his voice growing more and more animated. “Here’s another…and another. Harappa is the hot spot for unicorn research right now.
When he switched his attention away from his own slides and back to his audience, he saw that his wife was waving to get his attention.
“Ah, it looks like my time is up. My wife is pointing at her watch and giving me that universal ‘look’ that all husbands around the world recognize. I’m a smart man and I’m going to prove it by stopping now. If you’re interested you can read ‘The Harrappan Unicorn in Eurasian and South Asian Perspectives’. You can find the article in Current studies of Indus Civilization. Should be easy to find. Thank you again for your kind attention.”
“Do you have your bag? This might take a bit of time.” Augustus patiently stood by the door of their hotel room waiting for his wife to gather her things. “You can always go shopping if you’d like instead. I know this must be dreadfully boring. It’s just important for me to be prepared before the last big lecture.”
Octavia pointed to the bag already hanging from her shoulder and then finished fastening her earring. “You know I like to pick my seat in advance.” she teased. “I’m going to have to start fighting off your groupies if I want to be anywhere near you.”
“There’s not much in here.” Augustus peered in her bag before slinging it over his own shoulder. “You sure you have everything?”
“I don’t need much. Water bottle. A few books to read. Yarn.”
Augustus rolled his eyes. Knitting was his wife’s latest preoccupation. Fortunately, her failure was so spectacular that she’d yet to finish an entire row. So he’d didn’t have to worry about disappointing her by not wearing the sweater she’d planned. In the meantime, he’d been jabbed more than a few times by the needles she’d left laying around the house. “I’m not sure we’re going to have that much time…maybe you want to leave the yarn here?”
He shook his head this time. She’d recently been on a chat room for knitters and discovered that a non-knitter was referred to as a muggle. She thought the term outrageously funny and had been referring to him like that ever since. Please let this obsession end soon.
She pushed the elevator button before he had a chance. “Do you have your list?”
He waited while she walked through the open doors. “Don’t need it.” The door closed and the elevator started its descent. “By now, I’ve got everything memorized.”
“Podium. Screen. Electricity…”
“I remember. My laptop is fully charged but we’ll check and see where the nearest plug is too. Just in case.”
“And let’s make sure that someone can help in case…”
“We have a temperature problem in the auditorium. He put his hand on her back and guided her out to the lobby. “You almost froze in Italy. What was that thermostat on anyway? By the time I finished by lecture, I could swear that everyone’s lips were blue.”
“That reminds me. I’ll pack a sweater in my bag for tomorrow. Just in case.”
“The National Museum, please.” Augustus waited till his wife got into the car and then slid in next to her.
“Visiting, Sir?” the driver asked.
“Preparing for a lecture tomorrow,” his wife answered. “He’s been invited as a special guest speaker.”
Augustus hid his smile at the obvious pride in her voice. It was only recently that unicorns had become a serious topic of interest and not simply a child’s toy.
“Very good. I’ll have you there in no time.”
It wasn’t long before the car pulled up in front of a curved tan building with gold letters announcing the National Museum. Red steps, divided by round columns, led to the front doors. Augustus helped his wife out of the car before pulling out his wallet to pay the driver, but the man waved the money away and slid back into the car.
Augustus still held the money in his hands as the driver pulled away.
“Did you notice his eyes?” Octavia asked.
“What? Wonder why he didn’t take any money. Eyes? Now that you mention it…”
“Startling blue, weren’t they?” Octavia turned when his hand directed her toward the steps.
They’d only climbed a few when Augustus heard his name.
He thought about ignoring the voice. He had an agenda this morning and it was important to make sure everything ran smoothly tomorrow. But his wife didn’t seem to agree.
“Augustus, that man is trying to get your attention.”
The stranger came to a stop beside them. “I was right? You are Professor Hithersby?”
“That’s correct. What can I help you with? I’m afraid I don’t have a lot of time.” From the looks of the man, he was likely another wanna-be archeology student. He was younger than one would think of a university student, wore a faded tee-shirt over jeans, and spoke with an accent that implied he was a local.
“A thousand pardons, but I wonder if I might disturb you for a moment to examine a few photographs? I’ve been sent this by my brother and I’d like your opinion. He found this at a market and purchased it and we both think that it’s possibly from the region of…”
The photograph was of a golden deer and the workmanship was exceptional. There were several different view points, some close-ups of the detail of the twin horns that flowed over the length of the animal’s body.
“Where did you say your brother found this?” The artifact was stunning, but also familiar. Something tugged at the back his mind.
“A market outside the city.”
Augustus held the photograph a little further away and then used his opposite hand to search his pockets for his glasses. He glanced to the left, where his wife stood a moment ago, but she was gone. She usually carried his spare pair in her purse and he squinted at the photograph trying to make out the details. So familiar. His fingers touched the familiar lens of his glasses just as he was about to call out his wife’s name.
Must be exploring the statuary on the sides of the building. It wasn’t unusual for Augustus to get called away from his wife’s side and she’d gotten quite good entertaining herself.
The image came into sharp focus once his glasses were in place. “This isn’t from India.” He tapped the photograph with his finger. “I’ve seen this somewhere….” This time he spun and called out for his wife. “Octavia, come look at this photograph, would you?” It was when he looked down again at the golden deer that he knew. “The golden deer of Zhalauly, that’s what this is,” he said with satisfaction. “Zhalauly is in Kazakhstan.”
When he looked up, he expected the man to look disappointed, but instead he was looking somewhere past Augustus. And he looked pleased.
“Interesting story. A bunch of children found a felt sack lying on the side of the road, presumably brought in by snowmelt waters. Inside…golden treasures like this.” He was in the act of returning the photograph when something dawned on him. He held the photograph up again and examined it closer. This was no random photo taken by someone who had an interesting find at a market. This was a professional shot. The black background, the reflection of the light on the gold, it looked like Oleg’s work.
In the corner of the shot, it looked like the characteristic…
“Look here, sweetheart, doesn’t this look like Oleg’s work?” He called out louder since she didn’t hear him last time, but she still didn’t appear. It was closer to the time when the museum would open and more and more people were milling around the stairs, waiting to enter the building. He spun around, feeling a tightness in his chest.
“Octavia!” he called out, anxiety making his voice a little higher in pitch. “Did you happened to see where my wife…” When he turned around, he only caught a glimpse of the young man’s back as he faded into the crowd.
Augustus Hithersby was alone and his wife was no where to be found.
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