The Phoenician native stared at his opponent, an American woman who called herself an archaeologist, or—in the native’s tongue—an “age digger.” She wore light linen clothing on her body, tall brown boots on her feet, and a wide-brimmed hat on her head. Her bright-red hair was braided back, to be out of her way. She did not want anything to interfere with her concentration.
The native returned his attention to the board between them. This woman had engaged him in a game of be’juul, a tradition among his people and a game of skill and speed. It was a board consisting of ten rows of ten squares, and each square held one of five types of rock. A player had to switch the rocks around to create sequences of the same type of rock in order to remove them from the board and gain more rocks than their opponent within a set time, regulated by a third person who also replaced the removed stones with fresh ones. As quickly as the rocks were removed, more replaced them, taken at random from a bag in a second native’s hand. Ancient Phoenicians from this island used to play the game using real precious stones, but as those became more rare, simple quartzite and other plentiful and cheaper minerals replaced the gemstones.
The native and the woman were almost tied. He could beat her, if he could see just a few more matches. He knew there were not many stones left in the bag—
The woman grinned as her blue eyes located a match. Deftly, her white hands fluttered like butterflies as she swapped the stones, creating a series of removals that exhausted the remaining supply of stones and established her as the winner. She raised her hands in victory as the spectators (who had, of course, been betting on the outcome) cheered and collected their money or grumbled and paid what they owed. The woman, meanwhile, spoke to her opponent in his native language, holding out her hands. The native hesitated, embarrassed that he should be bested at such an ancient tradition by a woman from another culture, but his sense of honor overrode his hurt pride; she had won, and she deserved what she had bargained for. It was no longer his to keep from her. Grudgingly, he yielded the item she had been playing for—a map that had been in his family for generations, a map that did not appear to be any region on earth—a map bearing as its only label the name NATALYS. No one had any idea what language that was, much less what it meant. The woman seized it as if it were more valuable than an entire be’juul-board full of diamonds. Evidently she knew more about the origins and the meaning of the map than he did. She actually thanked the native for it, and returned to the bay where her moored boat waited to take her back to the mainland. The natives watched her leave, never knowing that they had just given the American woman the key to the greatest mystery known to man.
Back on her small sailboat, Teresa Mallow grinned to the pilot, waving the small packet at him. He gave her a gap-toothed, black-speckled grin back. Mrs. Mallow descended into the cramped cabin and closed the door behind her. Sitting at the table in the main galley area, she spread the map before her.
“Natalys!” She murmured, still trying to convince herself that this was not a dream, and that she really was looking at the map of the greatest secret Egypt had managed to keep from the rest of the world for millennia. Now, that secret would be hers. Teresa brought out her sketchbook and carefully copied the map, line by line. She did not leave out the smallest detail or symbol. She worked it over several times before she was satisfied that it was an exact copy. Now it came time to label the map. The original used letters that appeared English; she wouldn’t want to give that away for any price. The name of Natalys was almost as important as the map itself. She had little doubt that if it were to fall under the wrong eye, to sound from the wrong lips, that there would be blood and death and corruption as consequence. But how would she hide the map’s only label in plain sight, without making it obvious enough for those who would seize the treasure of Natalys for their own selfish ends? Teresa smiled to herself, and instead of reproducing the word, she added a symbol in the corner, one that looked deceptively like a compass labeled N for North, S for South—but the addition of the letters A and T for East and West would be puzzling for those she did not wish to understand her meaning. The remaining letters A, L, and Y, she incorporated into a design at the center of the “compass.” There; the secret of Natalys was safe. Teresa smiled as she thought of the special plans she had for this design.
This done, she turned the page and began to write a letter to her young daughter at home. It had been six months since she last saw her precious Elena, clutching the hand of the person Teresa trusted most to take care of her daughter while she was gone: Cal and Stella Parker, Teresa’s dear friends from the college where she had studied World History. Teresa smiled to herself and placed pen to paper.
October 20th, 1938
My Dearest Elena—
How I miss you so! It has been very busy work here in Egypt. Did you know, I found an island off the Phoenician coast that wasn’t on any map—but it was the treasure we found in Akhenaten’s tomb that led me there. Oh, Elena, there were such people on that island! We had thought it was deserted, but the natives had lived on this island for centuries without anyone knowing about them. Did you know they had never seen white skin before? Well, when I came tromping in like a big white elephant in my wide hat and thick boots, didn’t they treat me like I’d just stepped down from heaven! Your mother was quite a sight, I promise you! Unfortunately I was alone, or I am sure I would have loved to giggle over photographs of the state of my welcome with you when I get home. For indeed, sweet daughter, my home is with you. Not here, not the island, not Egypt, Europe, Australia, or Africa—it is with you, and only with you. Instead of pictures, I will have such stories for you, that you will imagine yourself there with me, and we can relive it together. Won’t that be absolutely jolly?
I have seen priceless treasures and exceedingly valuable artifacts—but none are so priceless and valuable as a single minute spent with you. It pains me to be so far apart for so many months at a time, dearest, but you will be happy to know that my business is almost at an end. I have found something that I think will be the key to everything I have been working on and searching for that has kept me from you. After this, dear Ellie, I will be home and I promise I will never leave you ever again. We will be together, you and I, and we will have such splendid times to make up for all the lost years. I treasure this in my heart, more than all the digs and finds I have ever overseen. This work is important for humanity, yes, but it is nothing compared to spending time with my own dear daughter.
I am sending you something, dearest. It is a gift, and I know you will like it. I am having it specially made by a dear, trusted friend of mine, and it is for no one else but you, and I hope you will keep it for always. Treasure it, as a token of my promise to you, and as often as you wear it, I hope you will think of me. Think of the place it came from, Elena, and think of the amazing world we live in, and let that thought guide your life in the right direction.
May you never be lost in the world without a guide to keep you safe, and may you never have questions without answers. I will return swiftly. Be good for Uncle Cal and Aunt Stella; I know that some of their experiments have been very trying for you, but they mean well, Elena. And I trust them to take care of you while I am away. I have only a few more sites to visit, and then we will be together, and you won’t have to worry about anyone coming between us again. Counting days until we see each other!
Your loving mother,