The Right Time
by Nico Montoya
She’d reminded us that we were ab-so-lutely not permitted any flash photography inside. None. Did we understand?
Standing at attention, side by side in the sand, we had kept our eyes on the horizon, as we’d been trained.
She’d paced, pausing briefly in front of each of us to take an incredulous peek through the so-called windows to our souls. For some, she’d tugged at our beards or earlobes in this or that direction so she could get a better angle for this routine character assessment.
So. Did we—turn your head this way—understand or—hmm—not?
We had, one-by-one, answered that, yes, we understood Her Holiness.
Good. Because anachronists, she’d said, gesticulating histrionically, anachronists have no place here anymore. Right?
Right, we’d told Her Holiness. Right, right, right. Of course not.
Certainly not in her own staff.
Of course not, Your Holiness.
They’d be ready for the first prisoner, she’d said, an hour after dinner exactly. Exactly, she’d repeated. Would we be there on time? She would not be back out here to remind us.
Yes, we’d told Her Holiness. Nothing matters more than being at the right place at the right time.
We’d said this in unison, with conviction, as we’d been trained.
This is a big day for me, she’d said.
So don’t fuck it up.
After a final scan, skeptical, she’d then turned and gone into the temple for her Boozy Brunch with the Pharaoh and his retinue.
Nothing matters more than being at the right place at the right time.
• • •
We’d waited outside, in the creeping shadow of the temple. Through the brunch, and whatever debauchery came after brunch, and the preparations for dinner, and all that. Waiting, waiting, waiting.
The prisoner was delivered to us by chariot as the sun set. It was an unusually beautiful sunset. We quickly, secretly snapped a couple pics of it, but we couldn’t capture the bigness of it on that little screen.
The prisoner had graying ginger braids, blue face paint, and a wooly green and gray tartan outfit thing with a miscellany of metal and leather adornments and affordances here and there. She was badly sunburned and stank like hell. Some of her teeth were missing. Great muscle definition on those arms though. Especially for someone her age. We agreed she must have been from the British Isles. Some of us argued Late Antiquity, others the Early Middle Ages. We tried to ask her. She spat and said something rude-sounding, but we weren’t familiar with her language.
The charioteer handed us the other end of our new prisoner’s leash, gave her a sonorous spank and laughed as she tripped out of the chariot. Welp, getting dark, he said, slapping his dusty hands on his dusty knees. Wished he could stay, but needed to get back to the city and all that. About an hour drive, you know. Don’t give her too much slack, okay? She’s a crafty one.
The prisoner, one of us asked. Or the High Priestess?
We all had a good laugh about that.
The charioteer shrugged and smiled clownishly before taking off.
The prisoner spat again. We pulled the rope a little tighter. It was tied around her wrists, which were looking pretty raw, but she didn’t wince. Just glared.
It was still a few minutes until the hearing, so we had some time to kill.
We looked around. No potential witnesses. One of us took out an iPhone, we snapped a quick selfie with our scowling pet barbarian.
How did it turn out? How did it turn out? How did it—
We huddled around the phone to see if we were each at our most photogenic.
The pic was blurry in the waning sunlight. Need to hold everything stiller when it’s a longer exposure like that. And one of us had blinked anyway. And it was all off-center and crooked. Amateur hour. Come on.
We started to pose for a second take, but a burly pharaonic guard with a glinting khopesh in his belt stumbled out of the temple. We hid the phone, acted natural, gave him a salute. He gave us a nod, and then he turned, rearranged the front of his garments, pissed on the foundation for what must have been a minute and a half, and then finally zigzagged back inside.
• • •
Now it’s time to bring the prisoner before her judges.
Nothing matters more than being at the right place at the right time.
We stash our phones in a little leather drawstring pouch, with some other supplies, in the only tent left in the camp. The sun is down now.
This is our first time inside. We’d be lying if we said we’re not stoked.
In the dimness, the interior seems colored by a palate modeled on dying coals, deep grays accented with glowing reds. It takes our pupils a second to dilate and refocus in the comparative darkness, but soon we’re able to behold the immensity from inside.
We’re sad we can’t take a picture of it, but a picture wouldn’t capture the bigness anyway.
The flap, flop, flap, flop of our sandy sandals echoes in the immense hall. We march in 2/4 time through the eternal colonnade, allegro staccato, 120 bpm. Flap, flop, flap, flop. We tug our prisoner along. Her pendulous red-gray braids tick tock as we march.
On either side of us, every column is a unique anthropomorphic colossus. Unique in that they are all standing with somewhat different poses. They’re all males though. No, we can’t see sandstone beards or anything like that way up there in the blackness, where the roof must yoke their unmoving heads. Heads that might be the head of a jackal, an ibis, a crocodile, a bull, a falcon, a man. Who knows? It’s too dark at that altitude so far above us. But we can see up their over-starched skirts a little, because beside each figure is a tripod, and each tripod holds a huge earthenware bowl, and each bowl holds a pool of date palm oil, and each pool of oil holds a red and blue flame. The light from the flames burbles up the sandstone calves of the colossi as we move between those two longer-than-a-city-block rows of them. And—arriving at the point—even up in the fading radius of firelight we can see that the imperial sculptors left little uncertainty as to whether these big stony fellas were also colossally hung.
Flap, flop, flap, flop.
We walk abreast, contemplating the capriciousness of the gods with regard to our own varied genital endowments. Two of us have the prisoner by the elbows. Her chin is high and she is not resisting. Physically, that is. Her lack of resistance is itself a form of defiance, saying I come here of my own choosing, and not by your imperative. Which, although cute, is untrue.
The sweet and spicy smoke of myrrh grows more pungent as we approach a large golden platform at the far back. Upon it are more fiery tripods and a plastic craft services table with some wine, crudité, charcuterie, chips, guac, hummus, salsa.
• • •
Lounging at floor-level in the wings are the guards and wives and concubines and exotic menagerie. Peacocks, baboons, kudus, cheetahs. All with bejeweled collars.
Elevated and slightly off-center stands Her Holiness, the High Priestess. She’s in her impossibly white linen, as always. It’s like a kind of pantsuit or romper or something. Her signature look. It says both business and leisure. It transitions seamlessly from day to night. It’s expensive. Very expensive. She often reminds us of this when we’re getting too close to her with our grubby hands.
She looks out at us, steady and impassive. Without moving her neck, she pours a sensible quantity of wine from a small bowl into her mouth. Head straight and level, she looks down at us with only her eyes as we come nearer to the foot of the high platform. Beside her, centered, and in a lion-footed throne, the Pharaoh slouches in standard Old Kingdom pharaonic regalia, appearing distracted and irritated as he jabs with his thumbs at the keys of his Blackberry.
Flap, flop, flap, flop.
The High Priestess is holding out her palm toward us. The universal, unichronal stop sign.
The Pharaoh continues to thumb the keys of his device. Click, click, clickclickclick.
We glance at each other and back at the High Priestess, thinking like so, we’ll just wait for His Majesty to finish sending his royal email then, or …?
But the Pharaoh eventually grumbles something, sets his Blackberry down on the arm of his throne, and looks up. The High Priestess metamorphoses her stop sign hand into a down arrow. We genuflect and lower our gazes, precisely as she’s trained us.
The prisoner continues to stand and look up at her assessors, defiant in her woolen garments, practically rags. One of us tugs her down to one knee with the rest of us.
Ouch, fuck, she whispers.
Oh, so now she speaks our language, huh?
• • •
Hail! Hail His Majesty the Pharaoh! We shout this as one, just as we’ve been trained.
Jesus Christ, he says, I’m right in front of you.
We look up to see him grimace and Q-tip his ear with his pinky. The High Priestess is giving us a reprimanding look, like we hadn’t done exactly as she’d trained us?
Hey, uh, the Pharaoh says to the High Priestess. Top me off? Please and thank you.
He holds out a small empty bowl to her. Of course, she says as she sets down her own bowl on the craft services table, and from a golden vase she fills His Majesty’s vessel to the brim with dark Phoenician wine.
Thanks, sweetheart, cheers, he says as he takes it from her, with a little nod and an emphatic toasting motion in her direction. Oh, shit, sorry.
He’d splashed some onto her until-then impossibly white expensive linen pantsuit romper outfit thing.
Jesus, I’m so sorry, I—
It’s nothing, Your Majesty. She smiles like an air stewardess and then grabs a paper napkin from the plastic table, tries to dab up the stain, still smiling obsequiously.
The Pharaoh tries to help: Here, let me—
No, no, she says. It’s fine, I got most of… It’s fine. There. See? See?
She pinches out the damp front of her still empurpled vestments for him to assess.
The Pharaoh raises an eyebrow and looks back at us.
Your boss is really the independent type, eh?
He laughs and we can tell we’re supposed to laugh too, so we do, and we try not to sound nervous about this little betrayal of our entrepreneurial supervisor.
The prisoner laughs along with us, but does this much louder sarcastic laugh, really dripping with unflinching defiance. It echoes impressively. Ha! Ha! Ha! (Ha, ha, ha, ha…)
• • •
So, are we going to do this, says the Pharaoh, checking a notification on his Blackberry, setting it back down, then taking a drink of his wine.
The High Priestess clears her throat, faces the prisoner.
You stand before the altar of Tempor, she says. The new god. The old god. The god of timeliness, the god of punctuality. He who is, who was, and who will be.
Her words bounce through the enormous dark chamber.
The prisoner sucks her teeth, nonplussed.
You stand accused, says the Priestess, of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The prisoner spits.
The High Priestess clenches her fists and then relaxes them.
State your name, she says.
Go fuck yourself.
One of us whaps the prisoner in the back of the head with an open palm. She snarls and snaps her teeth like a big ugly crocodile.
The Pharaoh shakes his head and starts multitasking on his Blackberry again.
Prisoner, says Her Holiness, I advise you to cooperate.
I advise you to cooperate, says the prisoner in a pitch-perfect parroting. Ha! Ha! Ha! (Ha, ha, ha, ha…)
We try not to laugh too. The impression is spot on. The nasal intonation, the arched eyebrows, everything.
The Pharaoh chuckles a little, puts his phone back down.
Bring her up here, he says.
• • •
Her Holiness tells Pharaoh that she doesn’t really think that’s such a good—
Shush, says Pharoah. Up here. Come on.
We look at each other.
You can cut her out of that, uh, that ropy thing first, he says, pointing at the ropy thing around her wrists.
We look to Her Holiness, who shrugs, exasperation in her eyes.
We look at each other again, like: who’s even got a knife though?
Some of us have concealed Leatherman multi-tools, true, but those are technically anachronistic contraband. No way we’re taking those out in here right now, of all times and places. Nothing is more important than being in the right place at the right time, and yadda, yadda, yadda.
The drunk guard from earlier is standing in the wings, and he goes, I got you, fam, and he struts up with his khopesh. Flap, flop, flap, flop.
Thanks, man, we say.
He presses and saws and slices the prisoner free but, oops, gives her a big gash on her wrist as the rope finally surrenders to his blade all at once.
Shit, shit, shit, shit, sorry, he says. Shit, I—
There’s blood everywhere. Practically spraying. There’s gasping and murmuring and commotion in the wings. It’s a whole thing.
We look at each other again like, uh, shit, what do we do?
The prisoner rips off some of her raggedy skirt and wraps it around the wound, pulling it tight with the non-bleeding hand and her teeth.
The High Priestess closes her eyes, rubs her temples, seems to be working hard to keep her breathing steady.
We ask her if she could hand us some of those paper napkins from over there on the table, please? Or …
She sighs, passes down a handful of them. We use them to soak up as much as we can. The napkins become heavy with warm blood and start to tear and fall apart as we scrub them over the rough floor.
The Pharaoh looks impatient.
Everyone good now? Yeah?
We don’t know what to do with the bloody napkins so we kind of just stuff them in our pockets.
Yeah, we say. Yeah, we’re good.
Okay, says the Pharaoh. Up she goes then. Come on.
The platform is a solid three or four cubits off the ground with no stairs that we can see. We walk the prisoner to it and a couple of us hoist her up. It’s not graceful. She’s heavier than she looks. She kind of flops on her face and her skirt comes up. She must have lost a couple pints of blood and looks woozy.
But she pulls herself upright nevertheless, adjusts her rags, and stands tall before His Majesty, the Pharaoh.
• • •
Jesus Christ, says the Pharaoh, averting his nose. You couldn’t bathe her before this?
Sorry, we say. We—
The Pharaoh shushes us with his hand.
Prisoner, he says. Are you an anachronist?
I don’t know what that means.
Is this when you belong?
I fucking hope not. Ha! Ha! Ha! (Ha, ha, ha, ha…)
He waits for the echo to finish.
How did you end up here and now, he says.
How? Well. So, this handsy little dipshit with a chariot—
Your majesty, the High Priestess interrupts. The prisoner was arrested in the—
Hey, says the Pharaoh. Hey. Shush. Both of you. I haven’t got the energy for this kind of—
• • •
Her Holiness begins to apologize.
At the same time, off in the wings, a tethered baboon steals a concubine’s paper plate of pears and pomegranate seeds and honeydew and retreats to the corner. The audacious primate tries to gobble it all up before he can be discovered and reeled in and disfrugivated. But it’s all in vain. He’s noticed immediately and he screams as his prize is snatched away by his embarrassed handlers.
The commotion is loud and draws everyone’s attention.
The prisoner uses the distraction to attempt her escape.
She takes off her shoe and uses it to slap the High Priestess across the cheek. Whap. She then pushes Her Holiness into the craft services table, toppling both into a pile of meats and cheeses and vegetables and a rainbow of salty dips. Then the prisoner pushes over one of the flaming tripods and, as the burning oil spills and makes a fiery smear across the stage, she jumps down and starts running back for the front doors of the temple. With what plan once she’s outside? We couldn’t begin to guess.
We just stand there, kind of dumbstruck by the whole situation.
The prisoner is really legging it, hobbled only a bit by having only one shoe on.
Some concubines have already put out most of the fire with a tablecloth and they’re checking on the High Priestess. She’s okay, she’s fine, thank you, she’s fine.
The prisoner is halfway along the colonnade, shrinking away in the distance, her footsteps echoing as she books it the hell out of there.
The Pharaoh turns to the guards in charge of the cheetahs. He hesitates, blankets his face in his hands for a second, but finally gives them a disappointed thumbs up. They nod.
The cheetahs had already been tracking the prisoner, crouching low, waggling their rumps, pulling at their leads.
The guards release them.
Their paws are soft on the temple floor.
They’ll be on the prisoner in a flash.
She’ll never even know she was being chased until she’s pinned to the ground with those sharp teeth in her neck. And then her days of anachronizing will be over.
Thus to those in the wrong place at the wrong time.
• • •
We’ll come back in the morning to clean, after Pharoah and his people have packed up and made the trek back to the palace. The little fire bowls will have run through their fuel, but the sun will be slipping through slits high on the walls and we’ll be able to see everything a lot better. Turns out it’s actually pretty colorful inside. Blues and golds and blacks and whites and reds. And, sure, it’ll all still look enormous, but it won’t feel as infinite as it did in the dark, when we couldn’t even see all the way up to the ceiling.
Turns out the columnal colossi will have human heads after all. All identical, as far as we can tell from down here.
Her Holiness will be recuperating in her personal chamber behind the altar. The door will be closed. She will have told us that she is ab-so-lutely not to be disturbed this morning under any circumstances whatsoever, do we understand?
We’ll be wheeling around a plastic yellow janitorial rig that holds a mop and bucket and paper towels and various acerbic chemicals. But before we start to scrub at the animal droppings and food and blood and the burn marks on the high platform and gods know what else, we’ll look over our shoulders and, when we know the coast is clear, we’ll snap a few quick photos.
Copyright © 2023 by Nico Montoya