Chapter 29b




They went back to the hotel.  The men were happy to make their way to the room to relax, but Tracy said she was restless.  She would be along presently.  In fact it was something she had seen in the crossword puzzle, and it would not do to be seen to be too eager to finish it.  She went to the hotel bar and perched prettily on a bar stool. 


For about half an hour she sat enjoying the ambience of being absolutely stunning looking and sitting at a high class bar.  Presently an elderly man came in and heaved himself stertorously onto the stool next her.  He was quite portly.  He ordered a quinine water and began to nurse it as if it had been grain alcohol. 


Trying not to seem too curious, Tracy adopted the laconic New England approach.  “You?” she asked.


“Ah, sweet child, I am a fisherman.  I have been fly-fishing on Lake Baal.”  His manner was that of one who had since birth been at pains to get people to relax.  It was as if his very presence was enough to stir awe, even fear, in all he met, and in an effort to avoid complete isolation he had adopted a sweet and gentle manner.  But under it one could still detect a consciousness of enormous status, of immense personal power.  “You?”


“A bunch of us are looking into a theory.  The idea is that cells have to signal each other, or else we would be born shapeless globs not babies.  Any signal involves a sender and a receiver, which must be tuned together.  And if you have too many kinds of signal there is confusion.  So there must be a limit to the amount of diversity in a population and thus to population size.  Are you the ‘Fisher King’ or ‘Lord of the Flies’?” she asked impishly.


“Ah, young thing.  Have a care.  One would do better not to be overheard mentioning such things even in jest.”


“But that’s what Baal means,” she said.


“Almost.  Baal means lord.  Beelzebub means lord of the flies.  It was a commonly used word for Satan.  But there is not much difference.  The Carthaginians sacrificed babies to idols of Baal.  And Baal is mentioned in scripture.  Where did you hear of the Fisher King?”


“I don’t know.  Somewhere.”


“The Fisher King is a figure in the story of the Holy Grail.  It is his realm that has been laid waste.  All the people have vanished.  Nothing remains but the ruins of an ancient race.”


“And the Holy Grail must be the cure.”


“Precisely.  You know your old romances.  But here is one thing you must know.”


“What’s that?”


“The Holy Grail is a secret.”


“Everybody knows that.”


“But you must remember it.”


“I do remember.”


“Say it.”


“The Holy Grail is a secret.”


“It is important that it is a secret.”


“Of course.  Otherwise everyone would know about it.”


“You must say it three times.”


“You’re being silly.”


“No, indulge a very old man.  Say it.”


Theholygrailisasecrettheholygrailisasecrettheholygrailisasecret. Do you feel better now?”


“Much.  And you have earned something.”


He looked down at his vest and carefully removed a fishing fly he had stuck in a pocket.  “It is not much, but a token.  I tie them myself.”


Tracy looked at it.  It was a fishhook with little feathers of tan and green tied carefully to it.


“Gee.  Isn’t it kind of big?”


“It has been a long time since a pretty little woman said that to me.  But yes, it is quite big.  The hook is too big for most of the fish one would find in these wolds.  But they say the Holy Grail is hidden beneath Lake Baal.  The lake isn’t so very deep.  Perhaps some day I shall hook it.  If so, the hook should be big enough to reach around the stem.  It would be idle to go to so much trouble and loose it at the end.”


Tracy politely took the fishing fly and attached it at a button hole in the front of her blouse.  It was not bad as an ornament even though, as he  had said, it was a little large for use fishing.  She suspected that the old man’s eyes and hands were not what they once had been, but it looked expertly tied. 


The corpulent stranger excused himself, and presently Tracy went back to the suite of rooms. 


Jon was resting his eyes.  Hapgood was trying to look up local history on the internet.  Ivan was near the window gazing toward the horizon.  Tracy opened, the laptop, pecked out a note and showed it around.  It indicated they should not make any remark because there might be a hidden microphone.  Then she showed them the crossword.  The word in 1-across was VAN.  When she wrote it in it said, 1VAN. 


Taking care not to make any remarks out loud about what they were doing, they worked on the puzzle.  Jon called up a crossword program on the computer.  Tracy used her lancinating wits.  They called on Hapgoods erudition.  Before they finished the puzzle, a message stood out. 


They began to plan out the next day, chatting about weather and shopping, and carrying on their real conversation typing on the computer. 


On the same day Ali was driving into Genoa.  He had a great deal on his mind and would have done well to have had his professional driver with him.  A car came out of a small street to his right.  Too late he realized that the other diver had no intention of stopping or even slowing down.  So Ali slammed on his brakes and almost missed grazing a fender.


There was no question of whose fault it was.  The other driver was on the right, and in Italy that meant he had the right of way.  He had only maintained his speed out of courtesy so as to inconvenience Ali as little as possible.  Since the damage was small, Ali thought he would apologize and make arrangements to pay for the damage.


It was not to be.  The other driver bounded out of his car yelling at the top of his lungs.  That was the way it was going to be.  The Prophet clearly stated that Allah takes no joy in a wrongful curse so technically the only thing to do was to stand there crestfallen and take it.  On the other hand the driver was screaming in English sooo … The converation went rather like this:  (Note to browsers: In the original this dialogue is written out in two parallel columns to indicate that the two are talking at the same time until the end of the conversation, where there are long pauses between each speech.  The Save as Web Page button in Word had different ideas.  I shall indicate the speakers.  I hope it doesn’t spoil the hidden joke.) 


Other Driver: Mamma mia, where you learn to drive you crazy stupid moron?  Maybe somewhere ramming other cars is like a sport.  You do it when you get the chance you kamikaze lunatic.  I guess your mother told you no one has a right to live or anything.  I guess you think its funny just to aim at anything that moves.  I’m lucky maybe just to be alive with drivers coming at me like a bull in heat. You’re blind and lazy.  Even looking out the windshield takes you too much of effort.  Now why don’t you back where you came from; let some driver have a shot at you and tell me how it feels like.  How you live so long?  I don’t see how you made it this far.  I was only going on about my business hoping maybe see my family not wind up just wrapped around your fender, maybe have a vino; now I spend the afternoon – I spit upon your backside – shopping here and there and go to every cheap mechanic who might fix my car and leave you looking for another victim.  Man as old as you should stay at home and leave the driving to a younger person, one who still has eyes and ears and cares about his living not to mention other people living.  If your mother saw you now I think she’d be in tears and say, “Bambino don’t you drive like shit I’m sorry that I let your father do it to me on that evening. 


Ali: May the dung of three hundred and sixty nine camels encrust on your hair sprouting nostrils you worthless excuse for a lost unbeliever, and may thirty three of the mangiest plagues of old Egypt befall your unhappy foul course and make slime of the festering body which carries your filth seeking mind. May the fleas of ten leprous and sinking old beggars inhabit your armpits, and then may the drought of the desert make home on your blaspheming tongue.  May the evil one hunt you like harrier setters go after a rabbit that runs through the brambles, and may he corral you and have his sweet way with you dog of dog of an infidel dog.  May the sound of your wailing arise to the heavens as high as your soul shall go sinking in hell as you wheedle for mercy but never can find it.  May pus flow in boils and ulcers and sores on your festering scalp and the dogs come and lick it and die of the poison.  May ten of your wives swarm around you and scold you from sun up to sun down not even then give you peace in the night but go on till the morning and make matters worse then they start to ignore you and squabble among their own number.  The carrions bird start to circle but choke on the smell of your farting and drop from the sky as the victims of that which they lusted to


Other Diver: After all as crazy drunk and stinking as he was I could have made him take a bath and do it in the morning.  Then I think I might have had a son who knew it’s different driving cars than mounting pigs.”  I guess that’s why you seem in such a hurry.  Got a piggy waiting and to slow down for a second, that would make her … no I don’t mean her – a he pig under age to boot … you worthless silly scoundrel, guess you have a pig pen full of them and all go running when they see you.  Pigs have feelings too and being mounted by a meat head such as you, it makes them feel embarrassed so they run and hide their heads in shame but that’s all right with you because it’s not the head you’re after.  Go and learn to drive and some day when you’re older if you make it maybe you’ll be fit to drive with normal people.  What you father must be thinking looking down from heaven, no I think he died of shame and that’s a sin in spite of circumstances that would make a saint dissolve in tears with such a son as you to go about the world and drag the family name into the gutter, make him go and sit his butt on some convenient ice floe drifting out to sea to hide his shame you worthless son of that unhappy man.  Your mother’s mother weeps alone in heaven thinking how the whole enormous family eat. 


Ali: May your teeth drop, your gut swell, your joints freeze, your eyes melt your bones break, your jaw dislocate while your skin grows red botches of mange, where the maggots will grow up obscenely deformed.  May the sand of the wilderness burn your toes black and the cold of the night air freeze both of your testicles, scorpions nest in your bottom and come out to bugger each other among the rank hairs that grow floridly out of your asshole.  May tapeworms entangle your food and the flies of the south do their battle around you while seruts come stinging your cheek and the friends that you trusted make contests of who can forget you the fastest or make a big prize for the one who betrays you the most.  May your name be forgot and the bones of your house be the home of the bats and the termites.  May half of your camels grow spavined and half of your mares start to founder while blowflies make feast of their eyeballs.  And then may your carcass rot while you still live in it, most wretched human who ever laid foot on the earth.  And then let the unfortunate day of you birth be struck out of the calendar; no one would venture to leave his own home on a time of ill omen like that.  May your path lie among all the venomous serpents and rust flaking bear traps.  Get lost and let panic climb up from your genitals.


Other Driver: suffers so they have neglected every other duty of a person, only spend their time regretting that first day they ever let you draw another breath and didn’t drop you down the well with all the other trash they wanted to dispose of making room for reptiles, spiders centipedes and other wholesome things that bring such joy into their lives because they think at least they’re smarter than their senile, addle headed sick berserker cousin who can’t drive and has no business being out in traffic ramming cars and killing children laughing as he hears them cry in terror pea brained imbecile who cannot …


Ali:  crawling around the dark laboring throb of your heart and then grow in your throat like a mushroom expanding to choke you and try as you may you can’t swallow for fear of the dark and the loneliness clinging around you.  May everyone hate you and loath your approach as the thief with his hand in the pocketbook dreads the alarm to be sounded and hears the crowd turn and observe him and gather in fury.  Your children break wind at their weddings and let them be seen to be scratching their balls and explain that to do so is all that they have that can comfort them after their birth from a cursed American…  




Other Driver: I can’t believe you called me that.




Ali:  Forgive me.  It was the heat of the moment.




Other Driver: You know I don’t have any camels.




Ali: I am truly sorry, my friend.




Other Driver: Don’t worry about it.  Try to be a little more careful. 




Ali: Blessings of Allah. 


Ali proceeded into town.  The name Genoa means laying eggs, and at least as far as Americans are concerned, the biggest thing to hatch from the city was that Christopher Columbus came from there. 


Columbus had at his disposal a kind of ship called a caravel.  It has a short stubby mast at bow and stern, each with a diagonal spar with a triangular sail.  The sail on one mast is on one side and the sail on the other mast on the other.  When running before the wind the ship raises both sails.  When tacking, one sail is raised and the other lowered.  This permits the vessel to tack efficiently enough that it can make headway against the wind.


No Viking rigging has survived.  Common belief is that the Viking dragon boat had a single square sail, and indeed Thor Heyerdahl demonstrated that such a sail – mounted on a papyrus reed boat, of all unpromising hulls – can beat against the wind if only while going at maximum speed.  But a Viking ship has been found in a burial that gives a clue.  There is a step for a mast, and the step is hinged so that the mast can lie in the bottom of the boat.  Space considerations indicate that it must have been a very short mast.  And the boat has crutches for support of two spars, one on either side.  It seems possible that the Viking ship had, at least at times, two triangular sails for use in tacking like the two sails of the caravel. 


Of course the beauty of the dragon ship is so that even a child seeing a model for the first time may be transfixed at the combination of grace and implied audacity. 


But Columbus did not make great use of the tacking ability of the caravel.  Instead of following the coast of North Africa as had been the custom he struck out boldly west into the open sea.  And when he had found land and began the return trip, he did not batter against the trade winds but headed north somehow managing not to run afoul of the eastern seaboard of America – the graveyard of the Atlantic – nor miring in the grasses of the Sargasso Sea.  When far enough north, he turned eastward and rode the prevailing westerlies back to Europe. 


He thus took the most efficient route for crossing the Atlantic in both directions in the kind of ship he had, as if he knew already the secrets of that ocean.  No one had made public such knowledge at the time.  The only group that had the resources to have discovered it and kept it secret would have been the Knights Templar.  This has led to speculation that Columbus had access to resources he did not divulge. 


This Ali knew, and he knew that the same considerations of wind would have affected the triangular trade of rum to Africa, slaves to the Caribbean and the South and sugar to New England.  Ali wondered what history would have been like if the best route had been counterclockwise instead of clockwise.  Would if have led to a slave holding agrarian community in the North and shipping and industry in the South?  And for that matter, what would have happened if the prohibition of alcohol in America had happened a hundred years before it did.  Would that not have shut down the triangular trade altogether?  Would economic forces have frozen out chattel slavery without bloodshed?


He went around the city.  There were palaces galore.  There was a green glass dish which was said to have been used by Christ at the last supper and to be the Holy Grail itself.  It was of Roman manufacture, so at least the age was right.  It was ironic how a tiny fragile dish could survive and be remembered for so long while of the great war galleys of the Roman fleet not a single one survived even in name.


There was the tomb of the wife of Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde, a man of remarkable intelligence, wit and charm, who had written the drama “Salome,” later turned into an opera.  The five names suggested to Ali that for generations Wilde’s ancestors had married outside their immediate background.  If a village adopted the strategy of accumulating names like that, they would soon have wound up with all the same names, the only difference being the sequence.  So to distinguish between any two people it would have been necessary to recite the entire list, and names would have lost their normal function.  Oscar Wilde had once been imprisoned for sodomy. 


There was a violin that had been made by Guarnerius and was played by Paganini.  There was a cross dating from the time before Christians began making their crucifixes with legs crossed and with an expression of anguish.  The wound was on the side of the liver instead of the heart. 


He noticed that the city was situated in a broad valley.  The valley must have been cut, like the Nile valley, at a time when the Mediterranean Sea was lower and the river, now so placid, had been a raging torrent whipsawing its way through solid bedrock, the water under the earth.


And then he started northward and eastward toward the south of France.  


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