"There is apparently a k-kind of plant," he said slowly, "like a thistle, that g-grows at remote spots in the Holy Land. And you and I, my dear, have each seen enough of the sh-shameful supernatural to be at l-l-least ho-ho-open-minded to the idea that some specimens of this plant are inhabited, by the old entities. Maly said that when the r-rebel angels f-fell at the beginning of the w-world, some weren't quite bad enough to rate Hell, perhaps weren't developed or c-complete enough to have fully assented to the rebellion. In any case, they were truncated, compressed, c-condemned to live forever unconsciously as a k-kind of thistle-immortal still, in the a-a-aggregate at least, but on a sub-sentient level. They can be awakened, b-briefly, by a certain pprimordial, antediluvian rhythm, something s-similar to what the old illegals and the Rote Kapelle called les parasites."
The wheeling seagulls had disappeared in the darkness below the cliff at his feet. Low tide, he thought vaguely. They'll be feeding.
"And if a p-person awakens one of these vegetation-bound angels," he went on, "and then eats it with the p-proper sacramentals, sugar and garlic and l-liquor and such, that p-person will share in the angel's immortality, will n-never grow old or suffer f-fatal injury or illness. My father had known something of this-in the Gilgamesh story, a g-god tells the man Upanishtim to build a boat and take into it 'the seed of all living creatures,' and Upanishtim and his family do it, and s-survive the flood-and long afterward, Upanishtim gives Gilgamesh a th-thorny plant that will restore youth. But b-before Gilgamesh can take it home to his people, an old s-s-snake!-comes out of a well!-and eats the plant, and immediately c-casts off its old skin and returns, y-young again, to the well. So the plant w-w-worked as promised, but Gilgamesh d-didn't get it."
"Maly did talk to me about this!" exclaimed Elena. She went on, almost to herself, "Oh, I think he did; I will have to tell old Cassagnac that my answer in 1941 was not accurate." She looked up at Philby, her eyes gleaming in the light from the hotels across the street. "I was only twelve, but Maly said that the Serpent in the Garden of Eden tempted Eve with the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in order to keep her and Adam away from the other tree, the Tree of Life, which-"
"Who's that?" Philby shouted.
He had grabbed her arm with his left hand, and with his right he was pointing at the taller of the two rocks out in the bay-for he had just noticed a silhouetted figure standing in the meadow on the inaccessible top. It was far too remote for him to be able to tell if it was a man or a woman…but one of its arms was waving. It was beckoning.
"Don't move," he added in a whisper, for with a sound like sudden rain the birds now swept up from the abyss below the cliff and were circling low over Elena and himself-the pigeons and gulls made no cries, but the flutter of their wings was like rushing banners, and Philby was now aware of an invisible third person here. Had the third person drawn the attention of the birds, or of the thing that animated the birds?
Philby's chest was suddenly cold. Is that thing aware that I'm trying to beg off, here? he thought. Trying to forsake the old covenant?
The tourists along the cliff rail had been startled when he shouted, and now they hurried away as the low-flying pigeons and seagulls did not disperse-and Philby became aware of the ringing of a telephone.
Hatif, he thought breathlessly-the call from the dead at night, foretelling another death-but where is it? He glanced at the figure out on the rock, fearful that it might be flying toward them through the twilight; but it was still there where he had first seen it, still beckoning.
Rocking into cautious motion, Elena took two stiff steps toward a purse and a couple of abandoned toys that a woman had left behind on the sidewalk after snatching up her baby and hurrying away from the intrusive birds. Philby squinted at the toys and saw that one of them was a yellow plastic telephone; and then he realized that the ringing was coming from this toy.
"Don't-answer it," he croaked.
But Elena had bent down awkwardly, her white hair blown into her face by the battering breeze of the close wings, and she lifted the receiver, which was connected by a string to a plastic box with a smiling dial-face printed on it.
She held the little receiver to her ear; the mouthpiece was pressed against her cheek.
His face hot with humiliation, Philby babbled, "It will only be my w-wife, my l-last wife-she d-d-died five years ago, and she's always c-calling me-d-don't listen to her f-f-filth-"
"It's-a man," Elena said tonelessly. "I-I think I know him." She lifted the plastic receiver, with the telephone swinging below it on the string, not connected to anything else and with no antenna, and held the impossibly speaking thing toward him, as if for an explanation.
Philby reached out-slowly, for he feared that any sudden move might provoke some kind of calamitous definition of the birds-and as he kept his eyes on the beckoning figure on the distant rock he pressed the toy receiver to his ear.
"Their thoughts are kinetic macroscopic events," said a British man's voice from the unperforated earpiece, clearly enough for Philby to hear through the bandages, "wind and fire and sandstorms, gross and literal. What the djinn imagine is done: for them to imagine it is to have done it, and for them to be reminded of it is for them to do it again. Their thoughts are things, things in motion, and their memories are literal things too, preserved for potential reference-wedding rings and gold teeth looted from graves, and bones in the sand, and scorch-marks on floors, all ready to spring into renewed activity again at a reminder. To impose-"
The woman whose child the telephone belonged to had for several seconds now been yelling something from several yards away. "Shut her up!" yelled Philby now to Elena.
The voice in the toy had paused, as if it had heard him; then it went on, "To impose a memory-shape onto their physical makeup is to forcibly impose an experience-which, in the case of a Shihab meteorite's imprint, is death."
The speaker had not raised his voice, but at the word death the volume had increased, and Philby dropped the toy telephone when the abruptly loud word impacted his eardrum.
And the birds scattered away into the darkening sky, as if all released at once from invisible tethers. Philby turned awkwardly from the waist to watch as many of them as he could-he had no peripheral vision-and when he saw a Chevrolet sedan swerving in toward this cliff-side curb he whispered, "Fuck."
But perhaps they were simply stopping because of the birds and the panicky tourists.
He was shaking from the enigmatic encounter with the animated birds and the figure on the rock and the hatif call, and from the ordeal of having begun at long last to confess his real career before that; he had been living on nerves and gin ever since passing his proposal to the SDECE five days ago-and he was fifty years old now and felt every conflicted day of it.
He took Elena's elbow and led her away, toward the nearest crosswalk. "Don't look b-back," he said; "That's r-rogue CIA in the Chevrolet behind us, n-not working through CIA Beirut, but sent independently by the head of their Office of Special Operations in Washington."
Could they be here for me? he wondered tensely; could they be planning finally to grab me, kidnap me out of Beirut? Why?-why now, after three years of simply harassing me, and putting surveillance on me, and bribing the Lebanese surete to detain me from time to time for fruitless interrogation? Have they now learned about Mammalian, and the imminent Ararat expedition? Is this a pre-emptive detainment, meant to frustrate the operation I've for-Christ's-sake already decided I cannot perform? If the Americans arrest me, with the intention of flying me back to Washington and publicly trying me for espionage against their government back in '49 and '50, the French will surely withdraw their offer. The SDECE might even have told Elena to kill me, if I look like getting out of the French net. She might be able to do it too. And even if she did not, I'd spend all the rest of my birthdays in an American prison. The CIA, and Hoover at the FBI, will never agree to any immunity deal. And if my Soviet handlers thought I was about to be arrested by any Western government, they would surely kill me. I am being torn to pieces by East and West. I am being torn to pieces between East and West.
Sweat rolled down his forehead from the bandage, and he blinked it away. They'll have heard I was shot, I'm conspicuous in this bloody bandage.
When they had crossed the street to the landward sidewalk, he took Elena's shoulders and faced her, so that she was blocking their view of him; and quickly he hiked his ankle up and snagged the revolver out of the elastic holster and dropped it into his coat pocket.
Elena had raised one eyebrow at the momentary glimpse of the gun, but now she fell into step beside him as he began walking south along the sidewalk below the amber-lit lobby of the Carlton Hotel.
"I suppose they suspect your KGB complicity," she said. Her emphasis confirmed that she was well aware of his work for the deeper, older, vastly more secret agency.
"Suspect, yes-they've s-s-suspected me ever since Burgess d-defected to Moscow eleven years ago. Listen," he said, speaking quickly, "I won't let them arrest me. The deal I'm offering your people is jjj-genuine, damn it, it's richtig, understand? This isn't a Soviet t-trick, I swear by-by the heart that is still beating beneath your b-breast. My father was my protector, my shield, in this business, and he's gone now, and I can't do what the Rab-what the Soviets-well, what the Rabkrin wants me to do now. I cannot go up the mountain." In spite of his frantic unhappiness, he found that there was something distinctly sexy about exposing his momentous secrets to her; and even though his cold fingers were clamped on the grip of the revolver, he found himself thinking about their unsatisfactory kiss in the bar. "Have you g-got SDECE w-watching us now? Exfiltrate mme right now, this nin-nin-instant."
She shook her head. "We can exfiltrate you from Beirut as soon as I am convinced that you'll tell us everything. I need to know-" She didn't go on, and he glanced at her. For a moment her face was blank, neither young nor old but as cold as a statue's. "-I need to know what happened on Mount Ararat in May of 1948."
"I can t-t-tell you all of th-that. If we get so-so-separated tonight, I'm meeting the S-Soviet team tomorrow m-morning at eleven-I've toe-told them to meet me on the t-terrace at the St. Georges Hotel. After that I sh-should be mom-mom-unobserved-follow me from there."
"I'll get in touch with you again, no fear. I'll decide when and where."
"You think I have no capacity for loyalty," he said hoarsely, "but I will be honest with your people. I was l-loyal to the rrrRussians for decades, for far longer than anyone would be who was not genuinely in l-love with the Communist ideal. I was a p-protege of Maly's, and they feared he had told me the s-secret of the amomon rhythms, so in the great purr-purr-purge season they tried to kill me too-on my b-birthday in 1937-"
Instantly he glanced to the left, past her shoulder, and said, "Let's get off the street. A drink in the Carlton, what do you say?"-but he was horrified to realize that in his besotted confessional passion he had nearly betrayed his real birthday. I'm falling apart, he thought remotely. Breaking in two, at least; who was that, talking about djinn on the hatif telephone?
As he led Elena through the glass doors and across the carpeted lobby toward the bar-a good deal dressier than the Normandy's, with wood paneling and upholstered booths-he was remembering that frosty last day of 1937, when he had been out driving from Saragossa toward Tereuel, in Spain, under cover as a war correspondent for the London Times; an artillery shell had landed squarely on the car he and three other correspondents had been driving in, and his three companions had been blown to pieces, while Philby himself had suffered only a couple of cuts. The shell had been a Russian 12.40-centimeter round, certainly deliberately aimed, even deliberately scheduled-but, because it was his true birthday, Philby had taken the precaution of wearing the bright green, fox-fur lined Arab coat his father had given him, and so he had survived the explosion with only scratches. He had received a telegram the next day from his father in Alexandria -the old man had abruptly fainted the day before, bleeding from the nose and ears, at the very hour when Philby's car had been hit, and the elder Philby had been anxious now to know if his son had been hurt.
"Your birthday in '37?" prompted Elena when Philby had walked her to a booth against the doorway wall. She was looking at him as she sat down.
"Maly g-gave me a simple code with which to write hopefully innocent-looking l-letters to a cover address in Paris, a safe house where s-some NKVD courier would p-pick up the mail," Philby said, sitting down across from her and waving to the waiter. "You know the kind of code: 'Six couches arrived yesterday, but the midwife says they're not the edible kind-the dog needs more toothbrushes.' Not that bad, I suppose, but definitely d-disjointed; one hoped that the censors saw a lot of mail from genuine chatty l-l-lunatics." He was beginning to relax-this story was verifiably true, and Maly had given him the code sometime very early in '37, and it might even have been on his ostensible New Year's Day birthday. "I only found out in 1945, when I was Head of Section Nine and v-visiting the liberated c-capitals of Europe, that the address I had been writing to on the rue de Grenelle eight years earlier had been the Soviet Embassy! There was n-no safe house at all, n-no s-security measures-any censor who might have gone to the t-trouble of checking the address I was writing to would have r-reported me as a Soviet agent in an instant!"
Elena had fished matches and a pack of Gauloises from her purse, and she looked at him through narrowed eyes as she lit a cigarette. "Careless and negligent, surely-contemptuous, even-but I'd hardly call that an attempt to purge you, kill you."