GOLDSANDS

an excerpt


HOW INCONGRUOUSthose sounds like ice cubes tinkling against fine crystal! For the heat would have melted real ice. Yet the sounds remained, carried on the stillness of the desert morning.

There was clarity to the desert air, and Gil could gaze for miles, picking out faraway landmarks that seemed so near yet were so far. It was therefore easy for him to pinpoint the source of the sound: two tiny bells, one a semitone in pitch above the other that together produced the audible discord. They had originally come from the Lahore region of Pakistan, made by an ancient process that gave light but good repercussion by means of the striking of an irregular clapper against the metal of the bell. They were for wear by a peregrine falcon, designed to be attached to short leather strips -bewits-one of which rode each leg. Smaller bells were used on tiercels-smaller ones yet on kestrels, merlins and sparrowhawks. The peregrine in possession of these particular bells soared on those air currents that were active above the ground but that left the desert sand in undisturbed stillness.

There were some people born with a hereditary tone deafness that disallowed them clear hearing of those sounds emitted by hawk bells-a decided disadvantage to any falconer needing to locate a hawk whose flight had ended in deep cover. There was, however, no need to worry about cover here, for there was none. On all sides stretched a seemingly endless sea of sand. It was somehow fitting that the largest continuous wasteland on the face of the earth, extending east and west between the Atlantic Ocean and the Red Sea, north and south between the Sudan and the Mediterranean, embracing an area of over 3,500,000 square miles, should most often be called by the redundant Sahara Desert-sahara meaning "desert" in Arabic. It was, however, a mistake to think of the Sahara as only a continuous monotony of undulating sand, for it enclosed extensive plateaus and sterile rock-strewn plains. It was not sandy everywhere, but it was sandy at and around Saqqara. That city of the dead, necropolis to the ancient Egyptian capital of Memphis, wasn't immediately visible to Gil, but the airborne peregrine could see all fourteen pyramids and hundreds of mastabas and tombs dating from the First to the Thirtieth Dynasty. Picked from Saqqara's ruins had been the oldest known mummy and the oldest papyrus ever found. For Gil, it was decidedly apropos that the name of the place derived from the Arabic sakr, meaning "hawk".

Hatshepsupt, hawk named for a long-dead queen of Egypt, was a queen in her own right, regal as she surveyed her domain, subtly shifting on the wind, sometimes maneuvering so smoothly that she achieved a silence without bells. Her back, wings, and tail were bluish gray, the feathers barred with a darker tint. Her crown, neck and a spot below each eye were nearly black. Her throat was white with dark longitudinal lines; her brats, belly and legs were white with dark bars. Her wings, now open, could fold almost to the tip of her tail. On occasion, she came between those who watched her and the sun, and sparks of sunlight telegraphed through her end feathers, which she imperceptivity adjusted to coast through the blue Egyptian skies.

There was a beauty and grace to her movements, a power and strength, a speed and a style, that had made her species coveted by falconers in Eastern countries long before the sport was to become ancient in central Europe or Great Britain. Even Gil could admire the aesthetic grace and beauty, the oneness of the bird with her surroundings. Under certain conditions, there would have been a tragic beauty even to the kill, for it was the nature of things that some hunted and others were hunted-a balance nature strove always to achieve in the end. But whatever beauty was present this day, it was marred by the interference of men upon the scene. For Hatshepsupt, though she seemed free, was, in reality, anchored to men on the ground by an invisible umbilical cord that tampered with the natural scheme of things. Even her latest victim, a pigeon caught mid-flight with a force that sent a showering of white feathers earthward, wouldn't have kept its appointment with destiny if it hadn't been frightened into flight by human hands shaking it from a wicker cage.

"You don't approve," Abdul said, not having missed the fact that Gil had once again turned his head away. They were sitting in the shade offered by an awning outstretched from the entrance of a large Bedouin tent that had been set up to accommodate lunch preparations and provide comfort for the sheikh and his guests.