I might have been interested in exploring Minya, but no one else was.

            Nadra had prepared a dinner with several vegetable dishes, plus her own take on humus and baba ghanouj. There was more Stella. I drank very little of it. I had had quite enough of it with Madame, but she drank several glasses, probably as was her dinner habit. After announcing that I would record her memoirs in Aswan, she had gone down to her cabin for a nap. Maryse asked me if I had truly agreed on the Cataract Hotel. I had shrugged and laughed, and excused myself for my own nap time.

            Today is Christmas Day. I look around my cabin and find nothing that reminds me of that: certainly, no sleighbells ringing, let alone a wonderland of snow. For a second, I’m pricked with nostalgia, and then I’m not. Madame is asking me about Santa. No, I never think about presents under the tree. I remember it, but I never think about my childhood. And yet I can’t wait to hear about Madame’s childhood. How long would she expect me to stay in Aswan? Bill no longer mentions Biarritz. René could go there with him in any case.

            Before going to sleep, I googled the Cataract Hotel. Quite luxurious, modern, but still keeping it’s ageless quality, at least that’s the description. The photos were enticing, the views from the terraces and balconies of the first cataracts of the Nile pretty spectacular. I think when Bill and I went to Egypt, we went as far as Aswan but didn’t visit Abu Simbel or the island where the Ptolemaic temple to Isis stood. We may have had a drink on the terrace of the Cataract; I think we did. But I realize that my memory has become vague except for one thing, horse and carriage was the mode of transport everywhere. There were few cars; in fact, I don’t remember any in Luxor or Aswan, though there must have been. Something about the highway being incomplete that far south?

What’s not to like about a stay at the Cataract Hotel?

            I sit bolt upright and find my smartphone. Oh, good. It’s not even nine yet. I wonder where we are. I can feel that we’re sailing, no longer moored. And then I click on Google Maps. No idea if it will work and show where we are. Could be some paranoid governmental move blocks it. But no. I start zooming out. We are approaching Asyut. Asyut is a city. Okay for breakfast, but I hope we’re not having our Christmas lunch feast surrounded by urban river traffic. Hopefully, we’ll be further along. I think Bill mentioned visiting the temple at Abydos. Seti the First. I google further. 1300 BCE, what we used to call BC, when I was a kid living in a Christian-centric world. Is that New Kingdom? The temple is geometric with columns like what Hatshepsut built in the desert: no lotus-tipped columns. I wonder if it’s often visited. That could be one reason to make it our post-feast excursion. I can play with my thoughts all I like, but it’s Bill and maybe Hany who will decide. Initially, I was surprised at Madame’s revelation. Now it’s easy for me to picture a relationship between Bill and Hany, not just easy: I’m thinking how stupid could I be not to realize this was the connection between the two of them. I visited Bill a few times when in New York but was never introduced to Hany. I need to ask Madame what year it was that she first met Bill.

            When I emerge from the steam of the compact ensuite bathroom with its modern shower stall – no attempt to reproduce a 1900 bathroom – I smell something, something roasting. I flash for a second on my mother’s roasting turkey, but, no, this rich odor is no turkey: It’s either a goose or a duck. I’m excited. I’ve never eaten the Egyptian version of either beast. As the steam dissipates, I quickly dress. Winter mornings on the Nile are nippy. I grab my smartphone and check the temperature. Well, not cold: It’s 10 centigrade. But by lunchtime it will be 22. That can even be a Rotterdam summer temperature. I glance out the porthole and see what I expect: clear sun. It’s now getting on to ten o’clock. I can hear the flurry of life on the boat. I think we’re using our sails. I think everyone is up and on deck eating breakfast. As usual, I’m the last one up. Nadra is already roasting whatever fowl it is. There’s a sweetness to the odor: I think figs. It could also be pomegranate; both would be indigenous.

            “Marhaba! This guy will not be with us when we see dawn break over the Temple of Karnak.” It’s Bill. I grin back. There’s a pot of foul, but the perfume of roasting bird suggests I eat light. Baladi bread, butter, jam. Lots of tea. I realize I may be a bit dehydrated; I’m very thirsty.

            “Is that the plan?” It’s René. He sounds excited.

            “Hany, what do you say? We beat the tourist buses.” Hany grins at Bill. Madame watches all this and says nothing. I can see that she has had a plate of foul. There is nothing wrong with this ancient dowager’s appetite. Maryse has gone the route I’m taking now. I suppose she watches her figure; Madame doesn’t seem to have to; her figure watches itself, which is due to the genes she has inherited, which seem to burn fat effortlessly. Madame looks amazing for a woman who I suppose drinks about a liter of Stella beer a day. I’m surmising, of course. Today she has her hair covered, not in anything remotely religious, no hijab, but in a colorful no-doubt silk scarf from one of the Paris fashion houses (can I read Dior?) wrapped around her head like a turban. Why, I wonder? Has she washed her hair; is it drying in place as chignon under the exotic colorful foliage of the silk’s design?

            I start sipping my tea and tell them they might be surprised. Yes, I definitely want to see Karnak as soon as it opens, before the crowds. Bill and René start laughing.

            “On va faire ça tous les deux, mon cher.” Madame is backing me up. She’ll be up at dawn, therefore so shall I. I’m trapped, but in a good way. I say: “Merci, Madame.” It’s the turn of Hany and Maryse to laugh.

            “Those smells coming up from the galley are just amazing.” Bill glances at his watch. “When is our feast?”

            “On prendra un peu de champagne, Monsieur Bill, vers midi et demi?” Madame has not forgotten the promise of more Krug.

            “And not just as apéritif. There’s enough Krug for the entire feast.” Really, I think? He’s brought that much with him? I had no clue. No one seems surprised but me. I say nothing. I pour more tea.

            The women are cloaked in large shawls. I have on a sweater. Bill and René are in hoodies. But as the sun beats down on the awning, first René and then Bill take off their sweatshirts. Hany is wearing a tight black polo shirt. Who could he be flaunting his muscles for but René? And Madame finds all that perfectly natural. I need to find out how she became that woman of the world you’d be hard put to meet anywhere in the Middle East.

            I follow Madame’s eyes. She is gazing at the shore. I see she is remembering something and is smiling at that shore. Since she’s never cruised down the Nile, there is something else going on in her mind. “It is true. Our Egypt is eternal. See that man rigging up his felucca on the shore there? He will go out. He’ll catch a few fish for lunch. He may know that this is the shortest day of the year in Europe, but probably not. Sunrise and sunset vary very little over the course of the year. As does our Egypt…” Hany is listening, watching her. She blesses him with the smile of the matriarch. Maryse strokes Hany’s bare arm.

            I have followed Madame’s gaze but see something a bit different. I see groves of palm trees; I see thickets of rushes along the shore, which don’t look like papyrus to me, but what do I know? I know I am looking at a shore, with low mud-colored houses further away, that is certainly exactly as I saw Egypt when Bill and I first visited. I have no doubt that the Victorians who did watercolors and etchings of this Nile back in the nineteenth saw much the same. Ancient Egypt would have been more alive with crocodiles and wildlife. The duck or goose we’ll have for our feast would have been hunted by men on reed punts among the bullrushes, where they also might find a Moses. I chuckle to myself. This moment, what we can see, is worth a cruise down the Nile; there would be no other way to see it except from the superhighway of millennia, this river.

            “So, after our Christmas feast, we’ll finally get off this boat and see something?” All eyes turn to René, not just because of his question but because of his tone.

            Madame gives him a chuckle: “Right. Time to stretch our legs.”

            “That’s the plan. But it depends on the wind and…” Hany grins at René. “We’ll make that happen. I’ll check with the captain. Abydos. Abydos was the plan.” Once again, I see the Google photo of the rather dull-looking Temple of Seti I. I pronounce the name of the temple. Everyone is still looking at me, so I add that it looks dull.

            “Ah, you’d be wrong there. That’s just the front façade. You need to google deeper. It is huge. Massive columns like Karnak, still glowing colors, and a roof.” I nod to Bill’s description. Sounds good, I add, summoning up enthusiasm that I don’t really feel. I finish my tea.

            “Sounds mysterious!” René is an ember that just needed my little gust of air to burst into flame. Maryse gives him a devilish smile that I don’t understand.

            “But first there is our feast. And Nadra will show you how lucky I’ve been all these years.” Madame turns to Bill. “How kind of you to have planned for more of your delicious champagne.” Bill bows his head as if humbled. Another odd reaction on his part. But perhaps it makes sense somehow in that he first met Madame as the lover of her son.

            I’ve googled. Bill was right. I’m back on the chaise longue, and it strikes me how right René is. We desperately need some exercise. Too bad no one was interested in disembarking at Minya. I bet when this dahabiya is used more commercially for small tour groups – well, that is also us: what else are we? – I bet they have yoga classes on deck or something of the kind. We are different in that we’re a family of sorts. Four of us are couples that I suppose get some exercise when they retire to their cabins. That leaves me and Madame. Actually, just me, because Madame is certainly of a certain age that she doesn’t do long walks or climbing over rubble-strewn archaeological sites. Or does she? She was no dawdler on our walk from the mansion to the dahabiya.

She’s back beside me. I ask her if she’s planning on visiting the temple. “Of course. I can’t wait.” She looks over at the dining table. Once again, Bill and René are playing some card game. “My son will make it happen. There must be ways to speed up our sail. The captain is the owner, it seems, a boyhood friend of Ahmed whose family had a bit more means than Ahmed’s so that he bought this boat and restored it. Maryse is down in the galley watching Nadra. She’s curious, she tells me, but is a terrible cook. I suppose in New York people eat out all the time?” She thinks I know the answer. For the second time I give her my Gallic shrug. Again, it works. She smiles as if I’ve answered her. “I confess that the other evening in Zamalek was the first time I’ve eaten outside in a restaurant since Nessim died.” I am shocked and saddened and show it. She gives me a wan smile. “I’m looking forward to seeing the Cataract Hotel again. I suppose one flies there nowadays. I would not take the train there.” Her face shows horror at the thought.

I know Bill and I took the train there, but that was decades ago. I don’t think you could fly there back then. I remember it was an adventure for us. It was not touristy. We travelled first class but with Egyptians. We were quite the center of attention. I wore an orange sweater, and an old sheik asked me why I would wear such a bright color. He did not approve. I snapped back that it was because we had so little sun in Paris and needed bright colors for warmth. He was not stupid; he knew I was putting him down. Others heard and were offended for him. It was in the bar car, a bar car without alcohol, I think, and Bill got up and made to leave, saying ma’a salama jauntily. I did the same, wisely.

Shame. We basically stayed in our compartment for the remainder of the trip.

I have learned to be more diplomatic or circumspect since those days, or I think I have. “I remember the Cataract. It was quite lovely and nice in winter. You will like it, mon cher.” She reaches over to pat my hand but instead pats the mattress. I make a murmur of pleasure but otherwise hold my tongue.

            Ahmed appears at the top of the stairs and calls out Bill’s name followed by ya bey. This, I think, is the signal for the opening of some champagne. I was reading the Euronews app on my phone. I see now that it’s exactly twelve noon.

            Hany appears on the stairs behind Ahmed and then passes him. “Good news. Our captain has called for a tug. We’ll be in Abydos by three or so.” Madame smiles benignly at her son. He can do no wrong.

            “That’s great!” René jumps to his feet. “Bill, I’ll help with the bubbly.” Krug, bubbly? Where did René pick up expressions like that. And then I remember that the Dutch loosely call drink from prosecco to cava to champagne bubbels. But didn’t they pick that up from the Brits? Dutch TV used to have lots of Brit programs. Not so much anymore since Brexit. The UK has disappeared from the radar, an aircraft lost to the Twilight Zone where there is still some kind of Raj.

            “By the way, Abydos is a ways into the desert from the Nile. We’ll get off at this town called Al Balyana. We’ll be picked up by a van. It will be a half-hour drive. The dahabiya will keep on sailing. We’ll pick it up again upstream at Abou Shousha. Tomorrow we’ll visit Dendera. From there we may reach Luxor by nightfall.” This is a bit more complicated than I’d thought. Bill doesn’t look surprised.

            “It’ll be great to stretch our legs from now on. We’re all turning into fat cats.” Hany bursts out laughing at Bill’s remark. I can’t help snickering. René and Madame don’t seem to have picked up on “fat cat.”

            René scampers down the stairs, with Bill following at a more careful pace. Those stairs: traditional Dutch stairs are narrow and steep, is that also true with the Flemish? Of course, I was always told that Dutch stairs were based on those in ships. Maybe this is apocryphal. René certainly looks like he’s at home with them.

            “Maman, tu viens avec nous à Abydos?” Hany is properly solicitous of his mother, I’m thinking. Won’t this be a bit of an ordeal?

            “Mon petit, on n’y va pas à pied, non? Voiture? Quel est le problème. Ça fait une baille que je n’ai pas vu le désert. L’idée m’excite.” She turns to me. “The temple still has its roof. It looks from the pictures to be quite wonderful and mysterious.” Her eyes dance a bit for me. I smile. Hopefully the van will be comfortable. She’ll see that desert she says she hasn’t seen for a long while. It’s when we get there that I wonder, how much walking can she do?

            On our long breakfast/dining table, René has lined up six white wine glasses, no flûtes available, I guess. Up comes Ahmed with a large tray of mezzes and baladi bread. The two strike me as incongruous now, although it didn’t on our arrival in the mansion. I suppose it’s the sight of the reed-clustered shore, the groves of palms, the tan of the earth, the houses: the mansion was grand and opulent, if a bit faded, and was a match for Krug. Bill pops the cork. Suddenly, my musings seem idiotic, pretentious, pompous. Bill hands Madame a glass and then Maryse. The rest of us take a glass ourselves, with Bill going last. He holds his glass up to the light: the froth of bubbles catches the sun. He toasts Madame; she toasts back. And then we all take a sip.

            I was crazy, out of my mind. The ethereal taste of Krug is a sublime match for our gentle cruise. No sails: We’re being tugged for speed. But the motor of the tug is barely audible. Madame takes a second sip and then raises her glass to catch the light: “A libation to Osiris and our ancient gods who watched over this land… until the Christians smashed their faces.” She adds this with fervor but not anger. “Osiris awaits our visit after our Christmas lunch. So appropriate, really.” We have been standing around the table. We now sit down.

            No one seems surprised at Madame’s toast but me. How did she evolve such a subversive vision? Didn’t she have some Coptic influence in her upbringing? I think Egypt is more than eighty percent Muslim; that would tend towards Coptic-bashing and there are terrorist attacks to prove it. Madame has arranged the seating so that I’m next to her. “I could see from your face that you were surprised at my toast, but wait until you see the desecrations at the temples. Yes, they could also be Muslim. Superstition. People, whole families, used to live in these ruins. Probably were afraid of the Evil Eye from these bas-reliefs.” She pronounces this in French. This adds to a new dimension I’m seeing in her. And, didn’t she meet her husband Nessim at the American University? What did she study?

            We are taking baladi bread and dipping it in the classic mezzes of humous, baba ghanouj, tomato-based salads. Tzatziki? Is that Greek yogurt and cucumber dip Egyptian? I can’t say these mezzes go with the Krug. But we don’t always drink Krug with caviar, right?

            I’m losing it! I’m losing my perspective on life and tastes by being in the entourage of a billionaire. I think: Let’s open a tin of Beluga caviar right now and… Cruising the Nile, regaling our taste buds while our eyes feast on bullrushes and groves of palm trees and the honey-colored mirage of desert hovering over the shores on either side of the river. “I’m counting on you staying by my side as we explore Seti.” Of course, I say. She smiles; we are in cahoots. And then I realize that we are the odd couple out among the six of us.

            I turn. Ahmed is ascending the stairs with another great tray. In the center of it is a platter: duck! I think it’s duck. It’s been cut up for easy serving. But I can make out legs, and they are too small to be goose legs. But it’s a deep red: on second look, an orangey red. Ah, so the sauce is probably a mixture of orange and tomato. I’m not the only one staring at the platter of duck. And we continue to drink Krug. “This brings back memories,” says Hany. Maryse looks at him as if expecting more, but he instead sops up some baba ghanouj with a bit of bread and sips some Krug.

            “My son is right. Nadira would cook this once a month on a Friday.” Madame turns to Bill. “Were you raised to eat fish on Friday? I’ve heard this is a New England thing.”

            Bill is copying Hany with a bit of bread. “You’re right. I’d almost forgotten. We weren’t Catholics, but I think we got this from Irish immigrants. I hated fish as a child. I hate Fridays.” He starts laughing. I know what he’s talking about; I join in with him. No one else seems to get it or care. “My mother loved halibut.” Bill adds that as if making the subject more serious.

            That’s when I realize that, maybe because of the warm dry air – even the air on the Nile is dry: the desert is all-pervasive in Egypt – we are simultaneously all getting a bit drunk. There’s a large platter of what looks like risotto. That surprises me, since rice is common in Egyptian meals, but it’s usually regular rice seasoned with onion, spices, maybe bits of fig. “This could not be an ancient Egyptian recipe for duck. Tomatoes are from the Americas.” Bill is making another attempt at being less silly.

            “Right you are, Monsieur Bill. But I’m not old enough to remember when we in Egypt had no tomatoes. I am not as old as the Mamelukes.” Now, we all laugh. I’m thinking just the word “Mameluke” sounds funny: We’re tipsy if not drunk. “Right, mes amis. Shall I serve you?” Madame rises from her seat. “First, you should all put some of the rice on your plate.” She stands waiting for us to do as commanded; I put some rice on her plate. “Qui veut les cuisses?” Legs? Bill raises his hand like a schoolkid. So, then, do I. And then I see there are four legs. So, Nadira has prepared two ducks.

            What would be the traditionally perfect food to be eating while sipping Krug? Lobster? Some cream-sauced fish? Veal? A truffled chicken? Maybe, but Nadira’s duck with its mysteriously tasty combination of tomato and orange along with even more mysterious spices that I can’t manage to unpack. Unpack? Discern. “Can you taste cardamom?” asks Madame in my ear. Ah, so that’s it. Except that I can only barely remember what cardamom smells and tastes like. “The duck is boiled for two hours or so first in a broth with cardamom. It’s the secret spice that…” I supply the word “umami.” She looks confused. I explain its origin in Japanese cuisine. “Odd. What does Japan have to do with this? Oh, and then it’s roasted for a half hour.” And then she shrugs and slices a bit of breast and, with a forkful of rice, places it carefully in her mouth. She closes her eyes. I look away. I suppose I also have breast on my plate, mixed maybe with wing? In the end my request for a leg was ignored. It is rich and, with the intriguing red sauce, delicious; I do just as I’ve seen Madame do it, with the risotto.

            We all drink small cups of thick Egyptian/Turkish coffee, but that does no good. There are six chaises longues, and lying on them is where we drink our coffee. The Egyptian winter sun is beating down, warming us but not burning. Bill is reading out loud a description of the Temple of Seti I. I try to keep my eyes open.

            I hear shouting. I look around. Hany is standing along the bow. The shouting has woken me; now, I sit up. I can still taste the Om Ali, the desert that Nadira concocted for us: puff pastry, cinnamon-flavored milk and thick cream, almonds, pistachios, raisins. I suppose we’ve arrived in that town where the vans will take us to the temple. I can’t see the town. I look up at the now gun-metal sky. I think we’ve past three o’clock. Do we have enough time? Madame is still asleep; again, I turn away from looking at her sleeping. And then René is up and joining Hany at the rail. Hany reaches behind and grabs René’s butt for a second. I look to see if Bill is awake. He’s not. But Maryse has looked up from her smartphone. She’s watching the two of them at the railing; she has this funny smile. Of course.

            I haven’t seen one of these in ages: a Volkswagen van. I can see that Bill wants to laugh but has the good manners, if not diplomacy, not to. This is our means of transport. I think there should be silent prayers to Osiris or someone that we arrive at the Temple of Seti I without breaking down. All the seats have been covered in Egyptian woven carpets. This adds a nice touch as we all clamber in. Hany will sit up front beside our driver. I’m in a row of seats with Maryse, Madame in the middle, and myself with a window. Bill and René have squeezed into the row of seats behind us; their knees must be touching the back of our seats.

            No time for a postprandial nap: We marched off the dahabiya and into the van. We’re still rollicking with champagne. Bill opened a second bottle.

            The buildings of Al Balyana are one with the packed-down earth of the road. They are variations on the same desert tan. Some bricks have a reddish hue; buildings seem never to be constructed higher than four stories and, that, maybe many decades ago. Ground floor walls were whitewashed years ago but are now splotched if not pealing, and patchy with worn, disintegrating posters of sorts. Some doors are painted a pale turquoise. The town despite its banking on the Nile is dusty. Trees are sparse. There are quite a few tuk-tuks, the occasional donkey with a load or someone on its back. There are few cars. And as we drive out of town, any vegetation ceases. We are in Madame’s desert. I look to see how she is reacting. Between Maryse and me, she has no window seat, but she gazes out to the right and left and forward beyond the back of Hany’s head. She looks tranquil, maybe dozing from the champagne, eyes open? She is breathing shallowly. She could be meditating on the primordial dust of creation.

            None of us in the back speak. Hany chats quietly with the driver. Thirty minutes this will take?

            This is no Dutch-type landscape despite its flatness. It is rough with dusty rubble, the desert sand hiding ruins of the ancient city of Abydos, which I think was vast and truly ancient, millennia-old in pharaonic times. Now there is no life, no sound but the coarse wheeze of the old Volkswagen.

            I know that Abydos was a vast and ancient city, a center of pilgrimage for the Old Kingdom to the New Kingdom to the Ptolemies and Roman times. Now there is nothing but sand/dirt heaps, mounds underneath which would have been houses, shops, small palaces, things that constitute a city thousands of years old. Now the only human habitation is in that town of Al Balyana that we have left behind. The road is good and, after we connect with the highway, it’s paved. The Temple of Seti I is visited; there will be busloads of tourists, I suppose, but no trace of that this late in the day. In that, we are supremely lucky. The windows of the van are closed to keep the billows of dust out. It is stuffy. I am enveloped in Chanel fragrances from the ladies. No idea where Maryse’s scent ends and Madame’s begins: They combine in a way that I’m imagining is ancient as I picture those tomb paintings of lithe dancing girls arched backwards, almond eyes shining. There will be no dancing girls on the walls at Abydos, only gods and the pharaoh Seti. I hear Madame breathing more quickly suddenly: “I have forgotten the dust. It gets in everywhere.” She places her hand on her upper chest near her throat and closes her eyes. I’m fearing she might be asthmatic. Maryse turns to hover over her, alarmed. “Non. Non, mes chéris, pas de soucis. Pas de soucis.” She throws me a bright glance and then looks up at Maryse as if she were her daughter. Maryse kisses her forehead. I look away.

            On googling, I’d thought Hatshepsut, but as we proceed up the entry ramp that became shallow steps and again a low ramp, what I saw spread wide was a massive and plane colonnade, something nowadays we’d call Brutalist. It is like a monstrously wide radiator of white limestone. Hany salutes the guard in his ample galabia, turban wound around his head, and is saluted in return. And then we pass through and see it is the vestibule of a peristyle hall of massive tall lotus-tipped columns one after the other, covered with an arched roof painted a night sky with stars. Every column is carved in bas-relief with Pharaoh offering and communing with gods from jackal-headed Anubis to radiantly beautiful Isis. I see that Hany has arranged that we have the temple all to ourselves; no surveillance from the guardian. Soon we have split up, Madame and myself trailing. “Look, mon cher, just look! Such elegant curves to the limbs stretching out to the god.” And she is so right. I see things at her chosen pace that I would never have noticed. Much is fresh and unharmed. Pharaoh’s skin is sienna; Osiris’s face is death blue. Madame has taken my arm. Soon we are alone. We move along corridors; we enter chapels. “See, here the face is chiseled to destroy the evil eye. Christians or maybe Muslim people probably lived in this room like a cave, the floor full of sand up to here.” She points out a level above which is destruction and below which is pristine.

            We leave this chapel. I’m thinking the lighting they have installed, which shines upward, is just perfect, discretely revealing shallow carving and color. “Let’s sit here for a minute.” Madame sits at the base of a lotus-tipped column and looks up at the dome of black heaven and gold stars. “I’m so glad I have come here. I first went to Luxor on my honeymoon with Nessim. It was in the seventies. There were few tourists. We stayed in the Winter Palace where Saint-Saëns wintered in the late nineteen-nineties and wrote his piano concerto called The Egyptian. Do you know it?” I’m not sure; I shake my head. “Pity. You must listen to it.” I think: Is there a music room in the mansion in Garden City? There could be; I’ve never seen the whole house. “I can still play the piano. We have a music room with a baby grand piano. Do you like music?” I nod. “One day I’ll play for you. I have been learning to play Ravel.” She is startling me, and then I realize that I have been stupid to think that she just lived in the mansion in suspended animation. She has a life, no doubt a daily routine, in that vast house. There is also probably a small salon with a TV. There is probably a library where she reads: I picture her reclining on a Recamier reading – reading what? – Remembrance of Things Past, I chuckle to myself, which is what she has promised to narrate to me in Aswan, her own private reminiscence of a life led. How old is she? I have no idea. I look at her; her eyes are closed for a moment. And then they flash open and catch me. She giggles at my embarrassment. “Don’t worry. I’m not going to fall asleep on you.” She suddenly stands up. “Let’s explore some more.” She almost pulls me up as she puts her hand around my arm again. “Come on, mon chéri.” She rubs my arm with her free hand as if to warm me, to speed me up, make the genie come out of the bottle. “I know that Maryse was looking forward to getting Bill alone. She has many questions for him.” I can’t help laughing then. “What?” I just shake my head, and we move on into another chapel. In this one Pharaoh is being suckled by the beautiful Isis. Of course: This would have been the first chance Maryse would have to get Bill alone and pump him for information about Hany, about Hany’s life before she met him. I have supposed that Hany met Maryse in the real-estate game, somehow, but I really don’t know that for sure. I wonder how much Bill knows.

            We pause before the ecstatic face of Pharaoh at the breast of Isis. “Christians had to embellish on this Virgin Mary thing, you see.” I see. No doubt the Mother Goddess was the first of the gods dreamed up by mankind. It is clear from the exquisitely carved work of Isis’s hair that it is a long wig, and that Pharaoh’s domed hairstyle is also a wig. I can imagine them suddenly in real life. And then I can’t, because real life would never have been so perfectly elegant.

            I think abruptly: Where is the Creator God, the Egyptian Zeus, the Almighty Father? Maybe, just maybe in Karnak as Amun-Ra. But not here. Osiris is not that god. He is the one who welcomes you into the next life, who in that way dispels your fear of death even rigid in his mummy wrappings, his flesh an icy blue. Madame is staring at me: “I think now that when Egypt abandoned these gods, it abandoned itself. The Christian god is the god of the Jewish people, with its tribes looking for land to settle. Abraham. Wasn’t Abraham a Chaldean or a Sumerian?” I smile; I don’t know really. “This one god would never be suitable for Egypt. Such a pity…” There is true sadness in her eyes. “Come. We need to see more. When are we meant to be back at the van?”

            I’m feeling very thirsty as I sit in the van, waiting. We all look tired; the effervescence of the Krug has totally worn off. As the light fades, the desert cold is making itself felt. Maryse, Madame again in the middle, and myself are happy to be tucked in the same row as before. Bill sits alone in the seat behind us. Our driver is pacing outside the van, smoking a cigarette. It is getting on to dusk. I suppose it always was the plan that our drive down to the next town on the Nile would be after sunset, but I never thought of it. Driving at night in Egypt is not wise. “Where the fuck are they.” Bill’s words are crude, but he sounds more exasperated than angry. How odd his relationship with René is to be so devoid of jealousy. But then there’s nothing in all the years that I’ve known Bill that would give me the idea that he was a jealous person. Maryse has nothing to add. That is to be expected. What about Madame. I look to find her eyes shut. Is she catnapping?

            And then I see them coming. So does our driver. He puts out his cigarette and gets in.

            For the first time I realize that we have no seatbelts. Hany is once again up in front with the driver. Mostly there is silence, but then Hany has a question. I wonder if it isn’t to test how alert the driver is. There are no streetlights. We are driving along country roads. And then there are houses with lighting. People standing around outside. We are entering that town where our dahabiya will be waiting for us. It is an alien world I see out my window, this rural Egyptian world, and, except for the sticks of neon lighting, I could be journeying through the time when those reliefs were carved and painted. I try not to look ahead. That’s the driver’s job. But I can’t help it; it’s nerve-wracking. So, I just shut my eyes. Perhaps that’s why Madame has shut hers.

            We step out into pools of streetlighting. There is docking for ferries. And there is our dahabiya taking up one whole side. A ferry is coming in on the other side. There’s shouting. I suppose the presence of our boat has upset things. Two cats chase each other across our path as we make our way to the gangplank. Madame immediately takes my arm.

            Are we going to be spending the night dockside here?

            The gangplank is drawn up. I see in the dark that there is a tugboat at the ready. And then we start slowly being pulled out into the Nile. I thought sailing at night was too risky? Madame has gone down to her cabin. Bill and René have gone to theirs to get sweaters, Bill announced. I’m at the rail with Hany. “You’re surprised.” I am? About what? “It seems there’s a problem with our spending the night at this dock. We are sailing upstream to the next town. It’s quieter and has no ferry service using its dock.” Ah, I say. He has been leaning on the rail and now straightens. “Are you hungry? Is it too chilly to eat up here on deck?” I say that, no, and that’s probably why Bill and René have gone for sweaters. I tell him I’m going to go down and get mine. “That settles it,” he laughs. “I’ll tell Ahmed.”

            It’s just the five of us eating by the light of lanterns. Quite magical, I’m thinking. And there’s a bottle of Stella. Madame has retired to her cabin. I assume she is feeling alright, I say to Maryse. Only the two of us know of her little spell in the van. Maryse just smiles at me. Yes, Madame is perfectly capable of signaling for help.

            “I’m totally glad we made this trip. I have seen nothing like that temple. Imagine, still with its roof! And the carving, the colors.” Bill has drunk down half a glass of Stella. René nods enthusiastically.

            “So, it was worth it. I’m glad.” Hany pours a bit more into his glass and takes a sip. “Tomorrow will be simpler. Dendera is not far from the river.”

            Dendera? Well, of course. How could I forget. And this will be our last temple, our last stop, before arriving in Luxor.

            There is shouting. We all look over. Ah, we are coming in to some dock. No streetlighting here, but there are a few lamps lit. Hany starts to get up and then changes his mind. “They know what they’re doing. I don’t want to rock the boat.” He laughs. Silly remark, but we all laugh with him. This is no rowboat, Hany. And then I’m thinking he already has rocked the boat, but no one seems to have cared.

            “Dendera is sort of fake.” Bill has been reading up on Google. I suggest he’s exaggerating. “It’s Ptolemaic.” That does not make it fake. He bursts out laughing.

            “Those Greeks had much respect for our Egypt,” now states Madame. Her eyes are twinkling; she’s had a good night’s sleep. I imagine that Seti had tired her more than she would admit to anyone. Today should be easier on her. The Hathor temple seems to be less than a ten-minute drive from dockside.

            Actually, it looks like we all had a great night’s sleep. The five of us polished off two bottles of Stella, and then everyone went to their cabin. We have one more night on this luxurious antique of a dahabiya. I won’t forget this trip any time soon. If there was an elephant in the room, no one bothered looking at it. In fact, what was there to say. This morning at breakfast, Hany is wearing a loose-fitting shirt with the sleeves rolled up. The sexy polo shirt was a signal. Everyone must have noticed. I did. I’m sure Bill did. But now that I know that Bill and Hany had once been lovers, what was there to be said? What I will only learn, if I do meet up with Madame in Aswan, is what she thinks about her son’s shenanigans. On the other hand, I know. She doesn’t care, is maybe even slightly amused by them. She does care that Hany has married Maryse to make her a grandmother and to continue the family line.

            Bill is looking at Hany’s shirt. Odd. Nothing remarkable: It’s a classic white shirt. “I suppose Dendera is like you, Hany. Or, I mean, like your shirt.” Maryse is suddenly grinning. “That polo shirt yesterday. I mean, what are gym muscles for?” Barracuda grin from Bill; I’m holding onto my seat. “Congratulations, by the way. I haven’t been to the gym since I left London.” What? Where’s the zinger? I see that Maryse is looking a bit disappointed. And then Bill finishes his cup of tea. But no. He’s putting milk into the bottom of his cup, and then a spoonful of sugar, and now he tops it up with tea. Madame is watching the little ritual with interest.

            “Ah, Bill, I’ve lost my job as mother. Pity.” She nods her approval to him.

            “Merci, Madame.” Bill is thanking her, why? But she nods. So, that’s it; this is as much as will be acknowledged about yesterday’s elephant. The elephant has up and gone.

            It could be that I’m the only one who saw an elephant in the first place.

            The Peugeot passenger van that Hany hired for us is much more comfortable than the Volkswagen, and we seem to arrive at the Temple of Dendera before we’ve had time to grow bored with the town and countryside. It’s obvious from the parking areas and souvenir shops that Dendera is more visited. There are also two big tour buses there as we arrive, but their passengers are getting on, not off. Once again, Hany has scheduled so that we will get to see the temple pretty much on our own, though not as much as at Seti I. There are couples visiting, groups of three or four. But they also seem to be finishing up. The site closes at five. These people look like they have hired a guide and a car, probably from Luxor. Hany explains that Luxor is only an hour away by car. “Our splendid isolation will soon be over. Get ready for packs of tourists in tee-shirts and shorts.” Hany humors Bill’s quip with a laugh. Shorts? When the temperature is, at best, 20 C.? Maybe. In fact, I see some young guys in shorts with small backpacks getting into a taxi. I suppose they’re headed back to Luxor. Young couples seem to have gotten the message: The guy has on shorts, but his girlfriend is wearing jeans and a long-sleeve blouse. I can’t hear them talking. I’m assuming they’re European, somehow. Call it tact.

            It’s the day after Christmas, and we are about to explore the Temple of Hathor, Aphrodite, Venus. Madame is on my arm. The approach is a long stone causeway, nicely restored. Of course, this temple is relatively new compared to Abydos: Construction was begun under the last of the Ptolemies and completed by two Roman emperors, one of whom is, if I remember, the famous Trajan who destroyed the Temple of Jerusalem. Ironic, perhaps. Both Greeks and Romans understood the value of the ancient religion and the temple system of economic governance in keeping the Egyptian breadbasket abundant.

            “Look. Look up there and there and there.” Madame and I are at the entrance. The columns here, unlike at Seti, are round, topped with the face of Hathor rather than a lotus bud. All the faces have small chisel marks obliterating the face of the goddess, oddly, sparing her eyes. Each face has little cow ears. Hathor is the cow who gives milk, the mother who suckles, not just the goddess of love and beauty. Or maybe in the ancient mind they were easily one and the same. “Do you see the destruction?” It is as if Islamic State or the Taliban had been here. “Christians.”

            Yes. There have always been iconoclasts; the word has a Byzantine Christian origin. I mention that there was this movement and that they probably also got the icons in churches. “Oh, no. Nothing that temporary. It’s everywhere in the ancient temples, Christian destruction.” I hear the fury in her voice. I can share her anger at the defacing of the ancient just as I had felt when Daesh had taken Palmyra in Syria, when the Taliban had blown up the ancient monumental Buddhas in the cliffs. She gives me a tug. We go in.

            High up – this temple, too, partially has its roof – I hear constant twittering: sparrows or bats? As we go deeper, the sound is all pervasive. Up ahead Bill and René have stopped and have grouped with Hany and Maryse. “Look at the colors.” Maryse is looking up. True. When the eye reaches the ceiling, the color is almost fresh. “I suppose this was partially buried.” And then, as couples, they began wandering further. We all split up again.

I’m beginning to doubt that I ever saw that elephant in the room.

            At this point in my life, I know all of these people fairly well. A year ago, I didn’t. Except for Bill. Thinking back to that Bill fresh off the Eurostar in Rotterdam and sailing high on a joint, where is he in his quest for some cutting-edge avant-garde El Dorado? I’m now thinking, what was he going on about, ranting? And yet, at the time, I did understand. What I absolutely did not want to share with him was my own feeling that I lived in such a place.

            Madame is talking to me. “What do you think? Hathor is beautiful. This temple is a favorite of mine. I haven’t seen it in many, many years. It is better than I remembered. What are you thinking?” Not about Hathor, but I don’t say that. I tell her I don’t have her perspective. She is looking at me so brightly. I give her hand on my arm a little rub of affection. I tell her the temple is magnificent. I imagine her purring.

            She leads me onwards as if she has a goal. She may. There may be a part of the complex that she remembers that she feels I must see.

            Bill. I haven’t had a conversation with him like we had in Rotterdam off his Eurostar since then. I have been commenting. I’ve been accompanying him, seeing places we knew together and now see again, changed, like New York and Paris. And when he bought the apartment in Paris, I applauded. Why? Because I don’t want him to turn to me and say that he wants to live in my city, maybe even share my life.

            And yet, how plausible is that? Despite that elephant that I thought I saw, there seems to be an on-going construction of a Bill-René relationship. So, there it is, right before my eyes: Bill’s new life will be centered around René and not a city with some wildly exciting cultural dynamic. A person, not a scene.

            Madame: “Let’s sit here for a minute.” Right. Just like in the Temple of Seti I, we sit on the rim of a round pedestal that is the base of a stalk tipped in a lotus bud bearing the face of the goddess. We are tiny in the petrified bullrushes of the gods, looking up and around in wonder. There is no uncarved, unpainted, un-hieroglyphed surface of wall of column. Processions, offerings, spells, incantations, words are all around us as if in movement. If we could read it, there would be constant invocations, a chatter like the twittering coming from the stone rafters.

            “You are very kind. I am so very much looking forward to our days together in the Cataract Hotel. Together, we will write my memoirs. I will share my past with you. It will be a kind of immortality for me. It will be my pyramid.” I smile brightly for her. Yes, I will enjoy it, at least I think I will, but day after day, even in that lap of luxury overlooking the cataracts of the Nile, perhaps days that will include a brief sail in a felucca in the afternoon after lunch while the winter sun is still hot? Yes. I’ll make sure I enjoy it. What better way to while away a usually dreary January?

“Khufu. Khufu. Khufu. My name will be repeated; I will be immortal. And isn’t it so?” Out of her throat comes a little gurgle, a chuckle, and then the fingertips of her right hand stroke under my chin. Her eyes glitter, and she looks toward the long palm of the goddess doing the same to the chin of Pharaoh. Her hand falls back into her lap. Her lips seem about to move but then don’t. Instead, her eyes close and her face is flooded with a smile. Sparrows twitter in the stone rafters; the hieroglyphs are speaking.

We sit for a moment that feels out of time. My mind goes still.

And then human voices begin echoing off the columns. I had only noticed one elderly man in a galabia with a traditional Upper Egyptian turban wound around his head, who checked our entry tickets and said, marhaba, when we arrived. But there seemed to be many voices calling out, warning of the closing time. They come from various corridors and corners of the vast temple.

There was a passageway we followed that seemed to end in daylight, an up ramp and then stairs which we could take to the roof. With a smile, Madame shook her head but begged me to go up on my own. I didn’t. I really had no desire to mount all those stairs only to have a view of the surrounding countryside. Let’s continue exploring down here, I’d suggested: plenty yet to see. And there was.

We emerge, squinting into the light of a day fading fast. When we heard the calls to head on out, we’d had enough. We only have to wait for the others. And then I see Hany standing a ways off on the causeway. He is talking animatedly on his smartphone.

Madame squeezes my arm. I turn; she is staring up at me, smiling proudly. “My son is talking to New York.”