The Grand Museum’, Ola Al-Fateh

Illustrations © 2016 Martin Hanford

 [ White cat, © 2016 Martin Hanford ] Despite the perpetual city noise of Alexandria, Nonier Onyango managed to sleep soundly until the coming of a bright, humid noon. With a throaty sigh, he lifted himself upright in his bed and sluggishly wiped the dry bits of sleep from his eyes. Still caught in a bit of a waking daze, he blinked as he peered around the room with his brow furrowed at its unfamiliarity. It took a second to remind himself that this was his first morning in Uncle Wycliffe’s apartment in Egypt.

Nonier pulled the sweaty comforter off and sat up on the edge of the bed. He rubbed his shaved head and looked up at the ceiling as he tried to recollect every fragment of the dream he awoke from.

There was an alley cat… it was white… what happened after that?

With a shrug at his own question, he stood up and stretched his arms, dragging his legs towards the window. He drew the curtains open. Sunbeams entered and penetrated his brown eyes in greeting, followed by the dense, polluted air that swept onto his dark-skinned face. He quickly drew the curtains closed and went to his bedroom door, opening it, and stepping out, hearing the faint sound of the television in the living room.

“Uncle?” the young man called out. There was no answer.

He sauntered down the narrow hallway, heading towards the room where Uncle Wycliffe was perched on a sofa with his arms folded across his heaving chest, smoking a cigar. He turned to look at Nonier and smirked. A black and white Turkish soap opera played on the television screen.

The young man gave him a small wave and smile. “Morning.”

Uncle Wycliffe pulled the cigar from his chapped lips. Smoke puffed from his nostrils, like steam from a kettle. He glanced at the clock on the wall and then back at Nonier. “You had me worried, boy. Another hour and I might have had to bring in the undertaker from the top floor.” He uttered a half cough/half laugh and turned his attention back to the soap opera.

Nonier rolled his eyes and helped himself to a seat on an armchair and looked at the TV, not really watching. “I had a dream last night.”

“Is that so?” said Uncle Wycliffe idly. He took one last smoke of his cigar before sticking it into the ashtray. He made a snide comment about the bit of bad acting on the television screen and then said, “I once had a dream too, you know. Plenty of them. I dreamed of owning the world’s largest menagerie, and I chased after that dream for years until I gave up on finding the money for it. Another time, I had a dream of becoming an engineer… and as you know, that never happened…” His gruff voice was filled with clear dismay, but he chuckled just the same.

Nonier chose not to attend to Uncle Wycliffe’s rambling. “I dreamt about a cat,” he said, looking up at the ceiling. “I don’t remember too much, though. It probably wouldn’t really help me anyway.” He sunk back into his chair.

Uncle Wycliffe frowned with slight bafflement “Help you? Dreams that come to those while they sleep mean even less than the ones that people make when they’re awake.” He snorted. “How on earth can they help you?”

“Oh, I didn’t tell you?” Nonier was hesitant to share his reason, as he wasn’t quite in the mood for the old man to take what he said as another thing to ridicule. “You know I’ve been searching for ideas for my artwork, right? Well, I used to use my dreams as reference for painting something otherworldly and surreal. But nowadays…” He stopped when Uncle Wycliffe raised his hand in a quieting gesture and looked ready to jump out of his seat.

“Listen to yourself!” he exclaimed with a sneer. “Do you not realize where you are?”

“I believe we’re in Egypt, Uncle.”

“Precisely. Wasn’t finding something fresh and new the reason you agreed to travel here all the way from Kenya? You’re in a land that’s been around for three thousand years and you look to the distorted, nightly images in your head as your only means of finding something to paint?!”

“Er… but you didn’t show me anything yet.”

“You arrived here just at midnight, boy! Did you expect all the statues, mummies, and scrolls in the Cairo Museum to show up at your bedside, and beg you to paint their pictures?” Uncle Wycliffe shook his head, barely making an effort to hide the tight smirk on his bearded face.

“But I’ve already been to the Cairo Museum three times,” said Nonier. “And I’ve already seen the sphinxes, pyramids, and camels lots of times. As great as those experiences were, I doubt that I’ll find anything there that I haven’t already seen in textbooks or on the Discovery Channel. Seeing the same things over and over won’t do my creativity any favours, Uncle.”

“Wait… I know a place I could show you. It’s right here in Alexandria.”

“Yeah?” asked Nonier. This was his first time in Alexandria and he hadn’t seen much of it yet so this already sounded promising. “What is this place?”

His uncle helped himself to another cigar.

“It used to be the palace of Princess Zeinab Reem,” he said. “Outside of this country, she isn’t someone very well known.”

He dabbed the ashes of the cigar into the ashtray as Nonier listened closely.

“There was nothing all that exciting about her life as a member of the royal family,” Uncle Wycliffe continued. “No revolutions, no usurps, no masses of executions, nothing. On top of that, she came from the 20th century. Egypt’s ancient history is the only reason anybody comes here anyway. That’s why there isn’t much about the princess in history books, not even here. However, she left a very fine monument behind. A brilliant piece of architecture. It’s now called the Grand Museum. Believe me, the place is far better than its name.” The old man looked up at the clock.

“It should be open now,” he said. He turned off the television and, with a grunt, lifted himself up from the couch and said, “Go get ready.”

Nonier raised his eyebrows in slight alarm. “Do we have to leave right now? Can’t I have breakfast first?”

“You missed breakfast. We can find a Pizza Hut on the way to the museum. Besides, you always told me that when inspiration for a painting was at hand, you never had time for anything else. Go get ready, boy.” He shuffled out of the living room.

Nonier left his seat and headed down to his own room. Tiredness, irritation, and subtle anticipation stirred inside him all at once. Not knowing anything about the Grand Museum made him look forward to the experience a little more.

After collecting his sunglasses, a pair of jeans, and a t-shirt from his suitcase, he carried them to the small bathroom, closing the door behind him. He set them on the counter and turned the tap on, leaning over the sink and splashing his face with running water. When he finished washing, and looked at the mirror to make sure all soap was rinsed, something in the mirror behind his own reflection caught his attention. He turned around to take a good look at the object.

Staring back at him curiously was a watercolour painting of a white Persian kitten, framed and hanging above the towel rack. Nonier’s mind, which had been preoccupied with the museum and his hunger just a minute ago, now raced back to the white alley cat in his dream.

He turned away from the picture and narrowed his eyes into space. What was it about that dream that was so peculiar now?

He was abruptly reminded of his superstitious Scottish friend who excelled at dream interpretation, or so he said. He swore that his friend had said something about the meaning of cats in dreams… if only he could remember. Indeed, if only.

Uncle Wycliffe’s voice from outside abruptly broke into his wandering thoughts.

“Nonier!” the old man called. “Hurry up, boy!”

He was forcefully brought back into his uncle’s house, with his visit to the museum just a few minutes away. He quickly got changed and hastened out into the hallway, following his uncle out the apartment door.

Almost an hour later, they were finally stepping through the open gates and towards the entrance of the former castle, pure white in its pallor, and twenty stories high. Flower bushes and small palm trees surrounded it. Our friend Nonier had forgotten to bring a camera, so he stood there in front of the museum, settling his eyes onto the former palace, sure to take in every detail and etch it into his memory. For what felt like forever, he surveyed the Corinthian columns, and the maroon double doors placed at the top of the marble staircase. At each side of the bottom step stood a bronze statue of a young nobleman grasping a lamppost. Ornate balconies loomed above the rich entryway.

“Hey, nephew!” Uncle Wycliffe called from the top of the staircase. “Do you feel the inspiration flowing yet?”

Nonier had nearly forgotten that his uncle was there. He ascended the steps to meet him at the doors, which a security guard had just pulled open.

“C’mon then.” Wycliffe gestured for him to follow.

After one last look at the world outside, Nonier entered the palace.

To detail the museum’s intricate magnificence, from its gallery of mythological paintings and frescoes, to the cased diamond tiaras and rubies, to the gaudy mosaics, to the portraits of the Royal Family, would take pages and pages. In any case, they were nothing compared to what Nonier found at the top of the West suite.

The top floor was circular and empty but for five surrounding doors, each topped with mounted marble busts. Just as Nonier was about to walk past it after a quick peek, he stopped and gazed into the room again.

Uncle Wycliffe raised his sunglasses as he followed his nephew’s gaze. “Huh. Strange,” he said. “I remember the royal family’s machete collection being here last month. They must have been stored away. Eh, no matter. I think I showed you everything already, Nonier… Hey! Nonier!”

The old man furrowed his brow when he saw his nephew stepping into the room, not appearing to hear him.

“Meet me outside, Uncle,” Nonier murmured, looking from bust to bust.

“What’s with you?”

“I’ll be out in just a sec, Uncle. I… just need to look at these busts for a bit… I think I might have an idea for my next painting…”

Wycliffe scratched the back of his head and shrugged. “All right, then. I’ll let the artist and his epiphany alone. Don’t get lost on the way out.” He disappeared down the winding staircase, mumbling to himself.

The eyes of each bust, on top of each bronze door, peered down at the young man who stared back at them from the centre of the room. Though none of them smiled, placid expressions of tranquillity filled their marble gazes. It was only the one that topped the doorway in the middle that didn’t carry such an expression. Nonier’s mouth opened in a small gape of fascination as he inched nearer to look at the bust. To contrast with the carved sleek crops of the others, its hair stuck out and twisted like snakes. Its eyes, sharp like those of a feline, were narrowed and its brow was lowered in a glare while the corners of its parted lips were drooped into a cruel moue. The doorway it topped was no more pleasing to the eye. Wooden boards were nailed onto it, as though it were in need of more safekeeping than the others. And yet, Nonier could not will himself to look away or step back.

 [ Through the door, © 2016 Martin Hanford ] Just as he was now inches away from the door, the boards shuddered and ripped away from the hinges, falling to the floor in a pile. His trance kept him still as he watched the door leer open and his trance pulled him into the pitch blackness of the room inside. Behind him, the door closed with a low, hollow slam.

At the entrance of the circular room, a lean security guard stepped in. When he saw that the door was no longer barricaded, he merely folded his arms and shook his head slowly and solemnly.

“Every summer,” he murmured.

With each second of bulging his eyes in the dark space, Nonier sensed the unseen being’s hunger grow. Relocating himself did our dear pathetic friend no good, for he couldn’t move to any part of this forsaken place without hearing the heavy breathing and feeling the hot foulness sweep over him. Despairing of ever hearing another human voice again, Nonier squeezed his eyes shut, remaining still and silent. He would no longer attempt a movement or a cry to match his inner horror.

“Dreaming of catsit means one false move will lead to inevitable loss.” The last words of his Scottish friend rang in his head.

To be spared from the searing dread was his only wish. He knew it would only happen when his life was done.

He didn’t know how much more of the loud breathing he could take.

A dark-skinned young man with a shaven head let himself out from the darkness of the opening door and slowly walked across the room towards the entrance. The security guard took off his cap and lowered his head in a sort of fearful bow. The young man looked at him sternly and hissed, “Not a word.” The guard nodded and stood frozen until the young man departed from the room and made his way down the winding stairs. Rubbing the sweat off his forehead, the guard turned his face upwards, towards the middle door, which was closed and boarded up again in an instant.

The bust still remained mounted above the door, though its writhing hair and malicious visage had gone, replaced by a sleek crop and an expression of serenity that matched the others.

Uncle Wycliffe frowned at the young man descending down the staircase at the front door and running to greet him.

“You’re so slow, boy,” the old man said, gesturing for the man to follow him out through the gate.

“Very sorry, Uncle,” said the man, trying to make his grin look as apologetic as he could.

“Well at least you’re in a better mood.” Wycliffe kept his eyes on him as they headed down the crowded, dirty, clamorous sidewalk. “This place has inspired you, Nonier? Better than the cat dream, I hope?”

The young man took one last look at the Grand Museum behind him with a tight smile.

“It has done great wonders for me, Uncle.”

And that’s the end of that.

There is no reason to worry about our good-natured but oh-so-heedless friend Nonier. To this day, he is far from dead. You could say, however, that he is not quite himself anymore. You may even say he is as good as dead.

For, you see, it’s not just his place and face I’ve taken. Nonier’s every memory and knowledge are now all mine.

There are others like me. Some walk among commoners, acting like commoners. Others wait in places where only those who are too curious for their own good shall stumble in and lose everything. Well, as the old proverb goes, one’s loss is another’s gain.

Why is it that the we take the body and identity of those who find us? For the same reasons your kind takes the sustenance from the trees and from the animals below you. Surely this is something you understand.

The real question is this: how far are we from you?

Are we far away at all?

It brings me great remorse to say that none of us can promise that.

© 2016 Ola Al-Fateh

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