We are, of course, staying at the Winter Palace.

            I have a very large room in the back of the hotel overlooking the gardens. Bill and René have a suite overlooking the Nile. Madame’s room is next to mine, so also overlooking the gardens. And what gardens! I had forgotten how extensive and well maintained they were. When Bill and I had stayed two nights here, those decades ago, the hotel had a musty grandeur to it, which we both loved. Unlike many of the grand old palace hotels, the new owners – I think the Egyptian state owned it when we’d stayed there – had made necessary modernizations and restorations, but it basically was still that hotel where Lord Carnarvon waited for word of the opening of the tomb of an obscure pharaoh who had died very young.

            I say we. But that “we” has changed. No surprise. Hany had indeed been talking to New York.

I was late for breakfast, but everyone was still at the table on the deck of the dahabiya, either still nibbling something or just drinking tea, including Hany, who kept looking at his watch. Maalesh, Hany! That’s so American of you, I said, knowing that in fact he had already transmogrified back into a New Yorker: The boat will arrive at Luxor when it arrives. I said something like that, and he snapped back that he’d booked a flight up to Cairo at 13:45. It connected to a direct early evening flight to New York. I shrugged, and that actually made him laugh and unwind somewhat.

            The dahabiya docked at the private dock up river from Luxor at Karnak. We had plenty of time to do farewell kisses. It was a bit after noon. A car was waiting for him. He only had his small suitcase for the cruise. He had a sweater with him, his toiletries. When he landed in New York, it would be freezing cold. I’d checked the weather app. Ah, but his car would be waiting for him, and he’d be left off at the door to his building. “I was planning on flying business class. Sorry, Bill. I’m not competing, but I had to use your airline. Time is money.” Bill laughed, but I could see he didn’t like the remark. For Bill, time was not money. “I was lucky, though. I’m piggybacking with – it turns out – the older brother of an old schoolmate. He recognized my name. Said he was glad to finally meet me.”

            “Gezellig,” said René. He was being snide, but only I understood him, so no one reacted. “Cool,” he’d added. Hany flashed his grin at him. René had stared back down into his tea cup.

            “I haven’t kept in touch with his younger brother. It’s a twelve-hour flight. I hope he won’t insist on talking all that time.” Hany was basically talking out loud to himself. We were all listening to him politely, Madame, more than just politely. She seemed to be basking in his every word. How lucky Hany is to still have his Maman, ready to suckle him metaphorically like Isis eternally does Pharaoh. “I’ll be back home before midnight. The meeting to sign the papers on the penthouse will be at eleven the next day, and then I take our Emirati friends to a festive lunch.”

            “Oh, darling, not more Krug! You poor guy.” I think: Perfect, Bill. I actually applaud. René bursts out laughing at me. Madame is not amused and looks away down into her tea cup as if reading leaves, where there are no leaves, since we are using teabags. Hany has the good sense to laugh.

            After checking in at the Winter Palace, it was time for lunch. “We’re not going to go out into the town, are we? We’ll have lunch here. The dining room is restored and quite grand. Don’t know about the cuisine.” In Hany’s absence, Bill had taken charge. He did have the good grace to check his plan with Maryse. After all, wouldn’t she play hostess in Hany’s stead? And then of course he needed to make sure that Madame agreed. No surprises. Both women were glad to agree, no doubt, for very different reasons. I was not consulted. René was not consulted.

            We learned from the concierge that the Temple of Luxor was open until ten o’clock at night! We were all surprised. He suggested that if we wanted to have a look, it was, after all, right next door; he thought six o’clock might be a good time. “You will not be alone, but you will not be uncomfortable.” The concierge was Egyptian but had a slight British accent. He wore a black suit, white shirt, and pale blue silk tie. He might have been forty. The thought crossed my mind: Where does he live in Luxor? From googling, I saw that Luxor had grown like crazy, messily, and to my eye looked endlessly slummy, built cheaply and in a hurry. But then there are always neighborhoods tucked out of sight, on the outskirts, and, in Cairo, often gated. I was and still am curious. Maybe at some point I can chat with him and find out. I could reminisce about my earlier visit; I could bore him to death. No, I’ll leave him alone. I have Madame in my care.

            We decided to have teatime before hitting the Temple of Luxor. I brought it up. Madame answered my question: “Oh, most of them live in Karnak village. Ahmed and Nadira are there now. There are extended families. No doubt they will be having a party tonight to welcome them. Their houses usually are around a shared courtyard. I know for a fact that they were both truly looking forward to seeing family, little grandnieces and nephews, not even born last time they had visited, and their parents not even married. Ahmed and Nadira refused to leave me alone in the house after Hany moved to New York for his UN job.” Decades ago, I had the good luck to be invited to one of these family parties over on the West Bank. Bill and I went with Rejeb – was that his name? We’d met him in an empty tourist shop – there were few tourists back then except for the occasional group of Russian apparatchiki awarded a trip to Egypt – and decided he was fun and trustworthy. Out in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night: I can’t imagine doing anything like that now, although I don’t really know why. Bill and I were young guys; just being in Egypt back then was an adventure, with the country still at war with Israel, sandbags stacked in front of doorways of buildings in downtown Cairo, a paranoid population waiting for the bombs to fall.

            I stifled a yawn.

Ah, Monsieur, je suis une vieille dame ennuyeuse.”

No, no: I explained I could do with a nap, but then I’d never wake up in time for our visit to the temple, I chuckled. She looked skeptical. “J’espère que le Cataract ne sera pas une supplice…” Her voice trailed off. Yes, her memoirs delivered to me in Aswan. No, of course not: I was and still am looking forward to them. I told her this. She waved her hands and smirked.

Maryse stepped in: “Yes. That’s so good of you. We’ve scheduled the work to begin on the fifteenth. Can you be back in Cairo for that? Or shall I take Maman down to Aswan myself and then you can join us there?” This was the first that I’d heard dates. I blurted out to her that, actually, I’d have to check, and send a few emails or, better yet, text my boss. “Oh? You still work? I didn’t know.” Maryse seemed shocked.

Right. In their world everyone except a kid like René had money, even millions.

I did my gallic shrug number, which was always sure to trigger a chuckle out of Bill. The others took their cue from him then. I grinned, probably like a fool: A reality check is always a good thing.

            Do we miss Hany? I’m sure Madame does. For this excursion, Maryse seems to be enjoying being on her own without Hany: She and I are arm-in-arm with Madame.

In Dendera and Seti I, because of Madame, we’d ended up doing a lot of sitting at the base of columns. At Luxor, we find the bases roped off. Fortunately, Luxor temple is nowhere near as vast as those two sites. But still.

            As we made our way down the grand curved staircase of the Winter Palace, we saw why it was open until ten: It was illuminated.

C’est son et lumière sans le son…” We chuckle along with Madame, and I think: very Hollywood. But then I reassess. I can’t remember too well, but I think Luxor Temple was a bit dreary compared to Karnak back in the day. René pulls his smartphone out and starts taking pictures. There are other tourists, but we’re not packed in with them.

There is an overarching silence to the place. Luxor Temple inspires awe; voices are audible but, as in Notre Dame, even the rowdiest group of tourists has switched to half-whispers. There is no twittering of birds; the Luxor complex has no roof for them to nest in.

            We enter as a group, passing a great obelisk off to the left of the entry, the only one of the original two remaining; the other is in the Place de la Concorde. I state this: I’m playing tour guide. I’d googled late into the night in my cabin, which is one reason everyone else had been up before me.

“Ah, yes. I do know that,” says Madame. “But you know, you needn’t support me. I’m quite capable of walking on my own.” As she says that, she is grinning with pleasure, and continues to have her arm firmly tucked around Maryse’s arm on her left and mine on her right. We’re a trio. Because René was taking pictures, he and Bill trailed behind us, but now they circle ahead of us. We three are moving at a gentler pace, strolling behind them while they’ve already at the entry to the pylon. We stop to look at the carving on the pylon itself: It depicts Ramesses fighting in his most famous battle, that of Kadesh, where he had history record that he destroyed the Great Enemy. In fact, I narrate for Maryse and Madame, it was a draw, with huge casualties. Still, it ended in a grand treaty with the Hittites, so in a way he did win. Egypt was safe during his reign. “You’ve done your homework, mon cher.” Madame is smiling at me winsomely. Maybe, in fact, she already knows all this. Maryse, on the other hand, looks like she’s learned something.

 On either side of us are monumental statues of Ramesses II, colossi designed to make us feel insignificant. Still, massive as they are, the two in standing pose are in ruins, blunting somewhat their impact; the two seated ones closest to us, however, are in far better shape and, though seated, are simply awesome.

Once we’re all inside, Bill and René quickly leave us behind. It’s just the three of us again.

            “You’ve been googling.” Yes, Maryse. “Then you’ve got a good memory.” I enjoy her compliment but also hearing her voice. I realize that she’d been fairly quiet during our cruise. She is a pleasure to listen to; actually, both women are. Madame is the contralto and Maryse the soprano, that is, when they talk, but now we are mostly silent, arm-in-arm with Madame, looking up and around.

            As we move on through, I realize that there doesn’t look like there’s going to be any place for Madame to sit at all.

            And then we enter a courtyard with duplicate statues of Pharaoh, lined up on either side, one after the other, standing like Osiris, holding flail and crook, symbols of his rule. “Ah!” Madame pulls free of us, and walks over to one and sits at the edge of its square pedestal. We join her but don’t sit. She looks up at us: “I have learned something I had never thought before this. I think Egypt lost her soul when she lost her gods.” And she also lost her own unique language, switching to Coptic, and then to Arabic about five hundred years after the Arab conquest in the seventh century. Give or take a few hundred years, Egyptians stopped speaking anything like Egyptian in their own native land. Imagine a country and people switching languages. This is all fresh in my mind; I just googled it last night. But I decide not to bring that all up.

            Maryse adds: “Yes, maybe. Look at India. It still has clung to its gods. And now free of the Brits it’s finally thriving again.” Maryse is smiling down at Madame as she says this, now singing her part in their duet.

            “Yes. This old god of Abraham, this one jealous god.” Madame shakes her head. “It does not suit us. The Christian god is intolerant just like the Jewish one and now Allah.” Saying this, she is grinning up at Maryse. “Maalesh. Maalesh.”

            And then Maryse sits down beside her. They’re laughing. I smile down at the two of them, chiming together, two differently tuned bells.

Even though they have no physical family resemblance, they could be mother and daughter. What was Maryse’s mother like, I wonder? But then, what do I know about Maryse really? For me, she’s all surface.

Madame moves her arm so she can take hold of Maryse’s hand; ah, she’s proving my point. Madame looks up at me: “And what do you think, Monsieur?” She bursts out laughing at me before I can think of a diplomatic answer. “I know. I know. But what I didn’t see until my lovely trip now with all of you was that our ancient gods were symbols of ourself. And that the Christians began to destroy as you saw. Now we are lost. We do not know who we are. In the end, we became Muslim like people from Morocco to Sumatra.” She shrugged. “What is that? It is all and nothing. Maalesh. Maalesh, Monsieur.” She seems to heave a sigh, but it’s more like catching her breath, and then I can see it’s more like how she had been in the van on the way to Seti. Her hand flies up to her throat. Maryse turns to hold her. I stepd forward expecting her to slump, to fall, and then it’s over. She straightens up on her own. “Maalesh.” She looks up and around, and then she sees how alarmed we are. “No. Forget what you saw. It’s nothing. I’m just like some old clock. I miss a few ticks now and again.” She grins up at me and then turns away. I haven’t smiled back. I can’t. And then she jumps to her feet. “That was that. Now, let’s look around a bit more and then back to the hotel. I’m starving. Aren’t you starving, mes chéris?” Maryse gets up in surprise and gives me a smile that means that we were now in cahoots faced with this crazy old woman who we both adore.

            And then Bill and René show up, out of the blue. It feels like they are intruding, because we have been in a place of our own in this colonnaded space bathed in buttery reflector light.

Bonjour,” Bill approaches all chirpy, “all this lighting looks very French, don’t you think?” Maryse chuckles for him. Madame gives him a bright smile. And René snaps a picture of us all. “I’d thought we’d have dinner in the grand dining room, the 1886 Restaurant, but René just read that they expect coat and tie. We don’t have any coat and tie, do you?” Bill is asking me this. I laugh and say, no, of course not. “When did you last wear a tie?”

            René answers for me: “I did last year. I borrowed it from my father. It was for my grandfather’s funeral.” René grins for us as he puts his smartphone back in his side pocket.

            “I rest my case.” Bill likes to play lawyer.

            “Mais on a faim, Monsieur.” Madame sounds so plaintive it knocks Bill off guard, before she gives him a little pout: “Qu’est-ce qu’on fait? What will we do?”

            “I’ll have a word with our concierge. We have nice clothes that we wore for our Christmas feast. That should do. I’ve learned a thing or two from Hany.”

Maryse bursts out laughing. “I bet you have.” She goes up to him, gives him a kiss on both cheeks, and steps back: “We two poor women, we’re so lucky to be in the hands of three such gallant gentlemen.”

It was not that simple. The maître d’hôtel met us with three jackets, three blue blazers, which we put on. We got a dispensation for the tie. The women wore their Zamalek kaftans and lots of costume jewelry Maryse had bought in the same shop. As we were led to a corner of the elegant old room with its Victorian fireplace and Louis XV armchairs, Bill ordered a bottle of champagne.

            The table was round; I decided to sit between René and Bill, so the women were facing us. “They won’t have Krug,” stated Bill. A waiter arrived with a bucket and flûtes. He pulled the bottle out, dripping. It was Mumm. If my theory holds, the waiter in black vest, white shirt, and black trousers was Copt, because he popped the cork and served us. He then handed Bill the wine list. Another waiter arrived and ceremoniously handed menus to each of us. Both waiters left. “The champagne is a tad warm, don’t you think? But it’s back on ice. It’ll cool fast. Should I order Egyptian wine? They have a nice longish list. I mean, where else are we going to get Egyptian wine. Let’s be brave.” Bill looked at Madame for her reaction. She smiled for him. “I’ll ask the waiter for advice then.”

            We finished off the champagne before our starters arrived. What were they? I don’t remember now. I think Bill ended up ordering three bottles of wine for us all. He stuck with the first choice, a red, which was fruity and dry, not bad: actually, surprisingly good. No idea what it was called.

The morning sun is piercing through the thick draperies of the French doors leading to my little private balcony overlooking the vast gardens. I think it must be getting late again. I’ve woken up on my own; no one has pounded on my door. The room is vast, high-ceilinged, Victorian proportions, more British of the period than French, though fairly similar. I lie back in the pillows and close my eyes. I have no idea what our plans are for the day. Before going to sleep, I did check the flights up to Cairo. There are quite a few for tomorrow. I’ve decided to have the concierge book one for me. It just all seemed too complicated on my smartphone. And what would the others do? With Hany missing, they might just fly back to Cairo with me. Today would be the day we visit Karnak. What was there to do after that? Oh, right, the West Bank. The Valley of the Kings. The Valley of the Queens. Bill would show René everything. Maryse and Madame would either tag along or stay back in the hotel, enjoy the gardens; Maryse would swim in the pool.

            My eyes open. Yes, that is a knock on my door.

            I call out. It’s Maryse. Out of bed, I paw through my suitcase for that fake-silk dressing-gown thing. Ah, it’s seeped to the bottom under underwear, not having been used in ages. I put it on. Not so shabby, but of course no contest with Bill’s “real thing,” his antique silk one from London.

            I open the door. Maryse looks at me startled. I explain I was awake but lolling in bed. She is fully dressed, make-up in place, wearing another of those kaftans from the shop in Zamalek, maybe? It’s a pale blue. Blond hair up in a kind of bun, she looks sort of angelic. I break into a grin. “I’m so sorry. It’s just that…” It isn’t the sight of me that’s making her distraught? “I’ve been knocking on Maman’s door, and there’s no answer. I mean. Last night she asked me to wake her when I got up. There was no answer then, so I thought that she was tired and was sleeping longer. I’ve been down for some tea and toast. Now I’ve just come back up. There’s still no answer. She never sleeps this late, you know.” I don’t know. I’m always the last one up in this little family of ours. She stops talking and just stands there. I see she’s worried; I also see she’s pleading with me. I suppose she wants me to come with her and knock harder on the door? I suggest that maybe I should get dressed. She smiles hopefully at that. “I’ll be waiting for you in that chair at the end of the hall.” There’s a chair at the end of the hall? I hadn’t noticed. She turns away. I shut the door.

            It’s after I’ve shut the door that I feel the stirrings of panic. I dress quickly in the clothes I wore yesterday that are just lying in a chair where I dropped them. Socks, yes. Shoes? No. I’m just going down the hall.

            At the end of the hall, I see Maryse jump up from that chair I never noticed. We meet in the middle. “This is her room.” She gives me a look that I translate as: Knock on the door! I do, at first normally with my knuckles. It makes a sharp, ringing sound, discreet but very audible. Nothing. No sound inside. My ear goes to the door. “Pound on the door!” The panic in Maryse’s eyes gets me pounding now. I call: Madame! There is a rustling sound behind us: a cleaning woman with her trolley of cleaning stuff, sheets, towels. She’s young. She has a tan scarf wrapped around her head and is wearing a tan kaftan: She’s in uniform. She is staring at us in a mix of curiosity and fear. “Ah, min fadluk!” Maryse is addressing the girl. A flood of Arabic comes out of Maryse in gracious but commanding tones.

The girl smiles and nods, “Saida.” She leaves the trolley and comes up to us. She nods to me: Sayyek.” I repeat the same greeting back to her. I know this word. I had no idea Maryse spoke fluent, I guess, Egyptian Arabic. We step aside. The girl takes her ring of keys and opens the door, pushing it then wide open, and steps back and aside.

Maryse enters. “Maman?” She moves further into the room, or is it a suite. From behind I can see that it’s a kind of sitting room, not a bedroom. Maryse crosses the room to a door that is half open. I suppose I should follow her in, but I’ll wait discreetly in this sitting room. Maryse pushes the bedroom door open and goes in. “Maman?” The sitting room has a Recamier and a small end-table with a standing lamp behind it. Behind are the floor-to-ceiling French doors with heavy curtains like I have in my room, but these doors lead out onto a larger balcony where there is wicker furniture. The gardens stretch out below and away, the same view I have. The Recamier looks very inviting; I’m tempted to sit down and stretch out on it.

I hear Maryse’s soprano voice make some kind of call, no words, no name. If I were a musician, I’d probably know what note it was. I move towards the door. “Maman!” This is in a lower register, plaintive, even coaxing. “No! No, come, come in here… please.” I do. I don’t rush in. I move in slowly, reluctantly.

* * *

I can’t believe I’m sitting here. I’ve seen these huge and colorful patchwork tents, red, green, black needlework designs, tiny little mirrors sewn in to catch and magnify the light, a tent so illuminated and shadowless that we are in the blazing presence of Allah. I had thought at first sight that they were for marriages, but, no, I was told they were for funerals. Bill and I saw one on our first trip. We paused to look in. Of course, just by stopping and looking in, we were intruding. And then an imam started chanting, a verse from the Koran, no doubt. Five times a day you heard a crackling recorded voice from the top of minarets, but this was clearer and much more beautiful to listen to. I was entranced; Bill had to pull me away.

And now here we were sitting, lined up, first, Maryse, daughter-in-law, and then, oddly, me, and then Bill and René. There was recorded music. Maybe it was Oum Kaltsoum, but, then, it would be her young voice, her girl’s voice. This, I guess, was for the pleasure of the mourners. Opposite, sat Ahmed and Nadira, and then what must be their extended family: men, women, children, all sitting and listening solemnly but not sadly. The idea was celebration. Madame was in paradise.

I think again of how uncanny and now horrifying, frightening, had been my turning away on the dahabiya when I caught Madame asleep, her mouth half open. This was what Maryse and I saw. She was lying in the bed, sleeping on her back, but, of course, not sleeping. Her skin was ivory-colored, almost translucent. It was not blue like that of Osiris. The hotel doctor told us that she had been dead for hours, probably most of the night. He had then smiled benignly: Yes, of course, everyone’s wish, to die in one’s sleep. Wish? Let’s say, thought. When I think of my own demise, I think…

The song from the crackling loudspeakers ends. And the imam, seated between our two rows, begins chanting.

I want to look at Maryse, or at Bill and René, but I feel this will be disrespectful. I am facing Ahmed and Nadira; their faces are creased with grief.

They are hosting this. The tent is set up in the courtyard of the family enclave in the village of Karnak. The imam changes register, his voice flutters and grows louder and then softer again. I have no clue what he’s relating. I do know that Madame would not be interested, might even be hostile to this event, but, of course, it’s not for her. It’s for us. Specifically, it’s for Ahmed and Nadira. Madame was their great benefactress; she had bought the land, had the houses built, so that in fact this village of Karnak was a kind of pyramid for her, I’m thinking. And then, not far from us is the Hypostyle Hall and then the Precinct of Amun-Re. Her soul, her spirit, my vision of her now, will be happy that the ancient gods are so close by.

Hours earlier we had visited. In a hantour, the local horse and buggy, usually for tourists these days but once the only mode of transportation, Maryse had taken us from the Winter Palace down to the entrance where Ahmed was waiting for us. The temple complex had closed at six. It would reopen for a night tour with lighting, a kind of guided tour in son et lumière, which I can hear, a far-off echo of it as an amplified voice, when the imam pauses. We were guided by flashlight through the Hypostyle Hall. We wandered around for forty-five minutes. René tried to take pictures but gave up. When we left, I saw that Maryse was weeping softly, and I lost it.

Now, we are all composed and steadfast. I have no idea how long this will be. We have been served very sweet black tea, something typical but that I really dislike, but I drank it anyway, slowly. We know we are honored to be here in this tent.

Tomorrow around noon we will go to the Luxor Airport where, with the help of the concierge, Bill has chartered a jet to take us up to Cairo. Hany has arranged for a hearse to meet the plane and take the casket somewhere. Hany has arranged the Cairo part from New York. He has sealed the deal, says Maryse. This year they will make their first billion. Her laughter has a touch of hysteria to it when she tells me this. Yes, how ironic. Money. Death. Who cares? Her laughter became sobbing, and then it had stopped, stopped before it became contagious for the rest of us. So, there’ll be no memoirs. There will be no days in January at the Cataract Hotel.