My life was nothing like a movie.† When Elliot proposed fifteen years ago, he promised me adventure after adventure.† He was a prominent archaeologist.† He had traveled around the world a dozen times.† He painted a picture of the two of us like Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner in those Romancing the Stone movies.
It was nothing like that, though I suppose ďromancing the stoneĒ was what we did.
For fifteen years I followed in the shadow of Dr. Elliot Collier, from Egypt to the Sudan, from the bogs of Britain to the jungles of South America.† I went everywhere with him, a combination ďWife-Secretary-and-Girl Friday.Ē† I took care of everything for him, from his daily correspondence to his travel arrangements to buying his morning aftershave.† I helped with all the little things he never paid attention to, nor wanted to, for that matter.
Did that sound bitter?† I didnít mean it to be.† It may not have been the Hollywood life Elliot had described - like its subject matter, archaeology is a tedious, time-consuming profession - but it had its charms, even when we were camped out in the middle of nowhere, like that endless summer in Algeria in 1994.† He was good to me, in his own way.† I tolerated his infrequent affairs, and he indulged my occasional forays into the exotic.† Iíve been around the world myself now, almost as many times as he has.† How many housewives in America can say the same thing?† Assuming they still could.
It was a good life.† I have no regrets.† I bear no ill will toward Elliot whatsoever, even though his actions at the end were questionable.† Dangerous, even.† It was a close call.
You have to understand the circumstances.† Elliot was under a great deal of pressure.† The ďAncient KingĒ had been partially unearthed in Iran by an oil drilling team.† The initial workers had no idea what it was - at the time, none of us did - but they reported its discovery.† The government sent its own people in.† Elliot, who as a rule kept track of things like this, heard the news within two weeks, the first researcher outside Iran to do so.† He knew it was a major discovery.† Evidence gathered by the Iranian team suggested the statue might have been Elamite, dating it back at least two thousand years.† He decided he had to be the first Westerner to see it.† He moved quickly.† He made phone calls and pulled in all his favors.† I got the travel booking cleared.† We were in Tehran before the end of the week, and within a month of the find we were encamped on the site, a small, out-of-the-way valley deep in the Elburz Mountains.
It was the most remarkable statue.† In a way, it reminded me of the one of Abraham Lincoln in Washington, D.C.† Like the Memorial, it depicted a great figure of a man seated in what is in essence a giant throne.† The workers had gotten about two-thirds of the artifact uncovered by the time we arrived.† Elliot brought his hugely expensive ground-imaging equipment.† From what we could see and guess, the dimensions of the statue made it almost cube-like, at least at the base.† It was twelve-and-a-quarter feet in height and a little under eleven in width and breadth.† It was solid stone, through and through, meaning it probably weighed in excess of seventy tons.† Digging it completely free would be a monstrous task, I saw at once.
The central subject was masculine, though crudely rendered, almost as a bas-relief in an otherwise almost perfectly rectangular piece of stone.† It wore a Persian crown, which I thought somewhat strange.† Living with Elliot over the years I had picked up practically my own graduate degree in ancient history.† The statue must have been considerably older than the Persian civilization.† Perhaps the helmet had once inspired them?
Whatever its origins, it seemed at once both primitive and sophisticated.† The figure itself seemed as if it had been hacked out of its foundation, almost as an afterthought, but all around its edges were extremely detailed engravings demonstrating a level of artistic ability beyond the apparently simple overall design.† These illustrations had been rendered in bands encircling the base and the throne.† They were . . . well, suggestive, displaying a variety of carnal acts, though none clearly enough to be considered outrightly pornographic, at least in modern America.† Remember, we were in Iran, though, where a strict, almost puritanical orthodoxy was the norm.† For a week or two at the beginning, Elliot fretted nightly about possible vandalism.† He neednít have worried.†
Other illustrations showed examples of piety shown to a throned figure, obviously a self-reference to the rather coarse statue they outlined.† The color was a pale gray.† Neither Elliot nor anyone else, so far as I know, ever identified the exact material.† I suppose no one will now, either.†
This unknown composition was important in another way.† The stone didnít match the mineral formation of its surroundings whatsoever, meaning the statue hadnít been made there.† It had been moved in, and, presumably, buried far from its place of origin.
Think about that for a moment.† Seventy tons, maybe.† Perhaps a hundred or more.
Elliot began making arrangements to have it relocated almost immediately.
I can almost hear your gasps.† ďMove an important archaeological discovery?Ē† ďDisturb the site . . . destroy it, in fact?Ē† Yes.† No doubt you have visions of Schliemann using dynamite to excavate Troy.† A crime against science.† Schliemann, though, you must remember, was obsessed.† My husband had grown equally obsessed, though it had been but a few days.† The ďAncient KingĒ had taken hold of him in a way he could not adequately express to me.† He didnít have to, though.† We all felt it.
Elliot never spoke about his dreams.† The workers did not speak English.† I suspect, however, that they were all similar to my own.† Each morning we would wake and look at one another and smile sometimes.† Our eyes would not meet.† It was amazing.† I have always been a vivid dreamer; I have a wonderful imagination.† These visions, though, were pristine in their amount of detail.† I could feel the dirt beneath my bare feet.† I could hear the birds in the trees and smell the incense in the air.† I felt the warmth of the sun on my face, and the transformation itself, ah . . . .† It was like nothing I had felt before.
The dreams, of course, all dealt with the ďAncient King.Ē† I was actually there, it felt like, transported back in time to some distant epoch in a kingdom long forgotten.† Babylon?† Ancient Ur?† It felt older still, though definitely Mesopotamian.† In these dreams, I was not myself.† Most often, I was one of the women in the long lines approaching the ďAncient King,Ē resting comfortably at the top of a low-lying, nearly flattened ziggurat, with many soldiers and priests standing about watching us as we steadily climbed.† The sun was high above and very warm.† It was so strong it lent a bronze color to the surroundings, as if the whole world were being seen through a filtered lens.† It was hot, and I was hot, in more ways than the merely obvious.† My clothes, as were those of the men and women around me, were all but nonexistent.† I typically wore but a loose, brief top and bottom, so loose that they revealed more than even the smallest of bikinis.† My breasts were plump and achingly firm, my nipples like small nuggets of stone.† My tanned and golden skin was besotted with moisture, as much from needy sweat as from the luxurious oil that had been caressed into our flesh, scenting it, smoothing it for that which was to come.† My body - our bodies - were aflame with desire.† We shivered as if from the cold, afraid to touch one another for fear of what the priests would say.† Some could not help but submit to their urgency, however.† The scents - the sounds - of love were in the air.† I watched the couple three wide steps ahead of me suddenly fall upon each other, their hands ripping off their rags, the man plunging into his woman, clutching at her as a drowning swimmer might clutch at a life preserver.† She did the same, her features mad with appetite and sexual abandon.† Their joyful cries - and the curses of the soldiers as they tried to separate them - only strengthened the yearning between my legs, the seemingly endless, ghastly emptiness that had opened up.† I thought of my husband - not Elliot, but my husband then, a sleek, beautiful golden man, a simple farmer, but my man - and endured as best I could.† Moans of frustration went on all around me.† The entire city was making its way to the ziggurat.
It had been this way for weeks, I knew.† Ever since the arrival of the Slow One.
He - it - had usurped the worship of our own gods.† The temples lay forgotten, the priests given now to other duties, preparing us for eternity, for blessed immobilization.
I saw the couple again just before their sanctification, kneeling at the foot of the stone king, the enthroned, magnificent Slow One.† They had been allowed to resume their touching.† His hands clutched at her bosom, squeezing gently, voraciously.† Her mouth clamped onto his face, his chest.† Their long hair entangled with one another.† And then there was another sweet sound in the air - a jubilant, crackling vibration that settled into my bones and increased my desires a hundredfold . . . a thousandfold.† My skin felt electrified.† The oil seemed boilingly, blindingly hot and good.† The couple began to change.† Their frantic motions slowed, though they did not part.† Instead, if anything, they pressed closer and closer together, wanting, needing, to be together for all time.† Her legs wrapped around his back, her arms around his neck.† He settled into her, parting her, his face buried in her throat.† Her face stared upward toward the blazing sky.† Their flesh began to ripple.† Lines of deep color - brown and gold and gray - rose to the surface of their skin.† They hardened.† The stones beneath them crackled with the increase in weight.† All motion ceased, and their features took on the quality of stone, old stone.†
The veins of color deepened, mineral bright.† Their joined hair fused into a single, deeply etched mass.† The womanís eyes - open, bright, glowing - became opaque, as blank and featureless as the eyes of a Greek marble figure.† But this was not Greece, nor were there any Gorgons in sight.† This was not the result of some monsterís gaze; this was the divine approval of a god, the stony benediction of a religion older than time.† The couple became as one, a pair of stone figures joined forever in ecstasy, their mutual climax suspended, heightened, and stretched throughout all the future ages.† Their deep, brownish-gold exterior - roughened but the apparent work of a master sculptor - hid beneath it oceans of passion, dreams of bliss that would never be submerged.
And soon it would be my turn.
I would wake from these dreams pooled in sweat.† Often, as if we had been tuned to the same transmitter (and no doubt we were, in a way), Elliot would awaken simultaneously.† Sometimes we would make love at once, attempting vainly to recapture the feelings we had just been pulled away from.† Twice after the dreams I brought in an agreeable worker, and Elliot would watch, the perspiration budding his flushed features like a morning dew.† He always liked to watch.†
Shocked?† Donít be.† As I mentioned, I put up with his affairs.† In any event, it was useless.† No amount of play could bring back those burning, otherworldly emotions.
The camp buzzed with them.† During the day the workers would dig more and more frantically, as if they thought that by uncovering more of the statue they could increase the power of the dreams.† They may well have been right.† Elliot conducted research, reading for deeper meanings in the illustrations.† I helped where I could, but mostly I spent my waking hours in our tent, reliving over and over my nighttime experiences.
I remember reaching the top of the ziggurat.† One of the priests extended his hand to help me up.† Helplessly, like a small child, I sank to my knees before the enormous stone figure - the Slow One - its sheer impassivity filling me with divine awe.
I remember being spoken to.† The words were alien, spoken by the priest, asking me something.† I replied in the same tongue, though I cannot tell you what it is I actually said.† The attendants seemed satisfied, though.† At their urging, I stood up again.† My clothes - if they could be called that - fell to the rough surface beneath me.† A boy, accustomed to this holy striptease, waited in the wings, sprang forward, and removed the rags, carefully adding them to a vast pile sitting next to him.† The details are so clear, so distinct.† I could feel the hot air as it brushed past my nipples, engorged with fiery blood.† Shivers radiated out from the center of me, thrilling waves of appetite.† The stone kingís gaze stretched off into the distance.† I stood there as an insect, a mite, might stand in front of a man, small and unnoticeable.† I was tiny, insignificant, unworthy.
And blessed, for in the next moment, against all logic, the Slow Oneís attention did focus on me, and I began to change.† Oh, the thrill of it!† The pleasure!† It was like being grasped by an invisible hand, one that touched all my flesh at once.† An unearthly power seized me.† My nerves were pulled taut with glowing ecstasy.† My skin crackled as it became so firm, firmer than mere mortal flesh could endure.† The sensations were both hot and cold, blazing and arctic chill at once, like the heat of having an ice cube gently rolled over my sun-drenched breasts, simultaneously teasing and fulfilling.† I could not move.† I did not want to move.† My muscles locked in a manner not in the least painful, and they hardened, so hardened.† Layer after layer of tightness - glorious, rapturous, pleasure-filled tightness - settled unto my body, each stratum coating me in an eternal, unbreakable embrace.† I turned to stone.† The transformation began at my toes and worked upward, calcifying muscles and rustling skin, a sensation like being lowered into a vat of warm syrup and then having it dry quickly to a crust.† It went up my legs and for an instant pressed deeply, sensuously, onto my clitoris, beautifully pushing ravished energy into my body.† Orgasms radiated outward from my engorged sex like ripples in a pond.† A wave of stone, transforming flesh, flowed over my breasts, down my arms, and over my head.† I had never felt so ironically alive, so gloriously sensitive.† And then all was still.† The pleasure continued to radiate but more subdued now.† More importantly, I could still feel the presence of the Slow One in my mind, in my reactive, tingling body.† The touch of the soldiersís hands as they gripped me, straining with my newfound weight, my delightful density, was almost as sensational as the touch of my enthroned god.† They moved me with the others, a long line of new statues warming under a desert sun that no longer held the least impression on us.
I began to long for the Slow Oneís touch in my world.† I wanted to feel my own dear flesh harden . . . my own eyes glaze to opacity . . . to feel the cooling tide of a stony metamorphosis rush through my burning loins.† To be rendered permanently, perpetually frozen and put away forever my vague and petty habits of mobility.
I wanted to be turned into a statue, as I had been transformed so many times before.
Sometimes in the dreams I took the part of one of the priests, seeing from within their masculine perspective the petrification of their followers, their wives and their sisters.† Their own petrification.† Once I was a soldier.† I felt my muscles come close to bursting and back to breaking as my companions and I moved statue after statue into the desert.† I awoke from these experiences even more flushed than usual.† The male outlook was wildly exciting, though it felt strange to have such an incredible hardness all the time dangling between my legs and pulling me onward.† How could they stand it?†
I wonder if Elliot and the workers experienced feminine perspectives in their dreams?
I hope they did.
You might understand now the nature of the obsession that had driven my husband . . . all of us.† There was no doubt in my mind at least that the Slow One of our dreams was the ďAncient KingĒ of our reality.† But were the dreams themselves real?† Night after night we saw - felt personally - an entire ancient nation submitting itself to petrification.† Had it really happened that way?† If so, where were all the statues, these transformed people?
And what had happened to the Slow One?† Why had it been moved?† Buried?
What was it?
These questions haunted our days at the site as much as the dreams dominated our nights.† Slowly, though from an archaeological point of view obscenely quickly, the giant statue was cleared from the earth sheltering it.† My husbandís connections served us well.† The oil company agreed to lend us the necessary equipment.† Iranís government gave us the proper clearances.† Transportation was the major problem: cranes, flatbeds, and additional personnel were all needed.† When we first arrived at the site, weeks earlier, there had been perhaps only twenty-five of us.† By the end, by the time the Slow One was completely unearthed, the campís population had risen to over a hundred.
Problems arose.† The newcomers apparently did not share the Slow Oneís regard.† They did not dream, and in an unspoken conspiracy we who did agreed not to share our inside knowledge.† We were worried about what they might think and do.† Some of them spoke better English than their predecessors.† They wondered why all this trouble was being done for a pagan idol . . . admittedly a very large idol but one clearly not in keeping with the local mores.† They grew suspicious about the way we ďdreamersĒ tended to group together.† They really didnít like that Elliot had gotten into the habit of talking to the great statue, whispering to it in a language they didnít understand.† His fixation had apparently provided him an insight we others lacked.† I finally questioned him one night before bed - hurriedly, for I wanted to return to my dreams, but with more determination than I had shown before - and he spoke a little about his theories.† The Slow One was speaking to him, in a fashion.† Not in words precisely but in images, abstract ideas.†
It was not alone, that it made clear to my husband first of all.† There were other Slow Ones resting in the earth, waiting, watching.† A time was approaching . . . a time of great change . . . a Revolution to overturn the soft and hideously malleable Animate world.
I really didnít understand much of what he said - he was raving at times, as if contact with the god had disturbed his sanity - but I finally got the gist of it.† The dreams, after all, fairly spoke for themselves of the Slow Onesís agenda.† That didnít frighten me.† As I said, I wanted to become a statue now.† What was frightening was our current situation.† An air of superstitious dread had descended upon the camp in those last few weeks, and I began to worry what the newcomers might do to us - to our Slow One - before we left.
What finally happened to turn the new workers against us was Elliotís fault.† He made a mistake.† He forgot the nature of the Slow Ones by acting too quickly, too precipitously.† Elliot always had lacked patience, a damning fault in an archaeologist.† He tried to bring about an apotheosis too soon, before the camp could be acclimated to the idea.
Poor, foolish man.† He would learn patience, as I have now.† Endless, dreaming patience.
We were less than six days away from the ďbig move.Ē† Tests were being run on the cranes, and a deeper road was being cleared for the journey.† The plan was to take the Slow One across the country to the Gulf and thence to a waiting ship named The Cassiopeia, which would take us then to Hong Kong.† I had just awakened from another passionate dream of petrification when I heard yelling outside the tent.† I looked out and saw several workers huddled together and shouting.† Two or three at a time would glance in my direction and turn away quickly.† I dressed and went out to see what was the matter.† It was several minutes before someone with enough English was able to explain.
One of their crewmates had disappeared during the night.† They were searching the camp but so far had found nothing.† Ordinarily, such an incident probably wouldnít have caused much concern - we werenít on the Moon, for Godís sake, there were villages nearby - but the nasty atmosphere in the camp made the situation boil over.† The workers had convinced themselves that something evil had happened to their friend.† What concerned me most was the way they acted toward me.† Their eyes were hard.† They cursed softly.† They clearly blamed me - Elliot and me - for the disappearance.† I tried to reason with them, gather more information, but they were too hostile.† I was seized roughly and forced along with them.† The original workers just stood by and watched.
I want to repeat what I said earlier.† I donít hate Elliot, no more than do I blame the workers who just witnessed this first glorification in stone.† My husband was careless, but his heart was in the right place.† His motive - their motive, too - would have been the same as mine.† We all wanted to know for sure, to see if it were all true, that the magic I had glimpsed in my dreams was real.† Elliot wanted to see a petrification like those we had felt so many times before by then.† Our workers wanted to see one, too.†
I didnít resist.† I suspected what was coming was coming, finally.† I looked forward to it.
It was still a close call, though.
The superstitious workers assembled before the great statue.† The Slow One stood in the middle of a newly etched valley.† Mounds of earth and torn stone lay in heaps to either side . . . like the heaps of clothes in my dreams, I thought.† The sun had risen enough to present them a clear picture of the camp that morning.† We saw the same sight at almost the same time.† Actually, I think it was rather stupid of them not to have looked for their friend near the statue in the first place.† Either that or they had dreaded searching near it in the dark.† Well, in any case, we found the missing man.
He stood slightly to the left facing the Slow One, gazing up at it with what had become to me a familiar expression of awe.† He was shirtless, though he was still wearing a loose pair of trousers.† They were gray, though nowhere near as gray as the manís flesh had become.† I thought to myself, So, itís true.† The dreams really arenít just dreams.
He had been turned to stone.† I was so glad.†
Elliot stood off to the side next to the enthroned deity, his eyes unfocused, as if he had just awoke from his dreams.† Possibly he had.† I donít think he really knew what was happening at first, of the danger we were all in.† The workers, noisy and cursing on their way down, had fallen deathly silent as they stared at their former companion.† His hands were pressed together as if in prayer; his eyes were wide open but as featurelessly blank as marbles; his open mouth had formed a dark cavern in the small and exquisitely crafted mountain he had become.† I stared at him myself and thought of statues I had seen previously in museums, in private collections, even in the tombs of kings long forgotten outside of universities.† None of them approached the level of detail carved into this once-living artwork, if carved is even the appropriate word.†
Even an idiot would have recognized what happened.† No one - no one - could mistake this new statue for anything other than as a former human being who had been magically turned to stone.† I imagine Elliot lured him to the Slow One on some pretext.† Perhaps he even offered the man me; I had developed something of a reputation in the camp.† We both had.† Once there, the worker would have seen something more than just a statue than had lain for so many centuries beneath the earth.† He would have seen something Elliot had spurred inside it, awakened as we awakened each morning from dreaming.
Then he would have felt the touch of the Slow One.† I envied him.† He was in bliss.† He would have known we were there, though caring little, if at all.
Not so his friends, still so terribly Animate.†
The workers, well over eighty of them, were dead silent for what seemed like an eternity.† Little did I know of that concept then!† Then, with a great roar, they fell into the space before the Slow One, pushing me with them, tearing at me, at my clothes, hurting me.† Their minds were consumed by a fearful, bloodthirsty mania.† They would surely have torn us to pieces had the Slow One not acted to save its servants.
Fortunately, I was not to be counted among their number, to be plagued longer with the burden of mobility.† I was spared any further such suffering, as were the members of the mob surrounding me.† The ground in front of the Slow One surged, rippled like water, as the wave of the deityís regard took us all in.† A surge of electricity passed through my soft, useless body and began disciplining it for the rigors of eternity.† The mob went silent once more.† As for myself, my only regret was not having enough time to shed all my clothes like a more worthy sacrifice.† I fell to my knees in utter gratitude, though.
As in my dreams, the pleasures of transformation were beyond earthly gratification.† But this was better.† This was no mere memory, no shadow from the past.† This was real; this was happening now, to me!† I felt so honored.† My flesh solidified like clay firing in a kiln.† Joy surged through me as my bones softened and merged seamlessly with the flesh and muscle of my being, all one now, all stone, through and through.† I saw the men in front of me turn gray.† I saw tiny veins of mineral peek out from underneath their clothes.†
It was happening to me as well.† I thought of those behind me, beside me, watching as I turned to stone, as I watched them do the same.† My climax was as much voyeuristic as truly experienced.† We froze, transformed in seconds from a rampaging force to a still, beautiful army of sculptures, like the clay soldiers found once in a Chinese tomb.
There is really little else to say.† Elliot and the ďdreamingĒ workers had proof now of their devotion.† We who had been transformed were moved to places of safety, buried in soft earth, while the work of moving the first Slow One to the New World began.† The disappearance of so many people troubled both the oil company and the government for a time, but eventually they came to see the same perspective we had enjoyed.† Dreaming is a wonderful thing, perhaps the best thing.† I still dream, you know . . . of my own transformation, of transformations of the past, of those transformations that occurred later during the Revolution, when all the world came to know the blessings of stone.
We are still buried, like the people of that ancient kingdom are still buried, but that is nothing to be concerned with.† Eventually we will surface again, like the Slow Ones surfaced.† We are patient, and in the meantime we communicate through our dreams.
It was a bit of a close call, though, I must admit.†††††