The Face of a Lion
by Deniz Bevan
Austin met the cat during his first week in Turkey.Bored with helping his parents clean their villa, he set out to explore the town. Every few minutes he had to climb onto the stone wall edging the street – there were never any sidewalks in this country – when a car or bus full of tourists whizzed past on the narrow road, a stench of diesel fumes floating behind. As the roar of each vehicle faded, the seaside sounds rushed back into his ears: the drone of motorboats slicing the water, cicadas buzzing in the distant tops of the fir trees, and below everything else, the unending rhythmic crash of waves breaking one after another on the sand.
He waited on the wall as another car zoomed by, then peered through the exhaust and added up the houses he had passed. His mum had said there were forty houses in the original village. Something had to be wrong somewhere, because he had counted every house for the past ten blocks and already reached sixty – and there were still a few streets to cross before he reached the ice cream shop at the bend of the road. Maybe his mum’s memory was slightly fuzzy; she had a tendency to exaggerate the merits of Kuşadası-in-the-past. Sixty houses, plus at least fifteen more, that made –
An unearthly howl filled the air, drowning out the disappearing rumble of the car. It came again, a long-drawn out screech, close at hand. Austin ran to the crossroads. The wall here fell away in a sharp drop to the weed-filled garden of a boarded-up villa. On a patch of paving stones, two kids crouched over the prone figure of a thin grey cat. One gripped its front paws as the other tied a couple of tin cans to its tail. The cat wrenched and jerked its back legs.
“Hey! What are you doing?”
His yell was swallowed by the roar of two buses zooming past behind him, and a truck loaded with watermelons that came clacketing up the street. He looked down, ready to risk a jump, and saw a garden shed directly below. He leaped, and as the boys glanced up, hands still on the squirming cat, he vaulted off the shed’s roof to stand beside them.
“What are you up to?” He glared, trying to look as imposing and foreign as possible – easy enough, given the contrast of his blond hair and blue eyes to their own dark features. They looked about eight years old, four years younger than him. They wouldn’t meet his gaze, but shot each other shifty glances out of the corners of their eyes.
“Abi, yabancı bu. Bizden büyük.”
“Ya birini çağırırsa? Hadi gidelim.”
It was impossible – but he had understood what they said! They were afraid because he was older – what if he called someone?
He took a step forward, as if to grab the cat. As one, they released their grip, leapt up and ran off.
The cat crouched low on all four paws, eyes wide and ears taut, but did not move as Austin approached. If it would just trust him… With one hand extended, palm out, he waited. Either the cat would sniff the offered fingers or get up and run.
Slowly, slowly, he bent and untied the twine binding the tins to a tail puffed out and crackling with electricity. The cat did not twitch once, even as Austin broke away the last of the metal and tossed it aside, but eyed him the entire time, as if waiting for a signal.
He stroked the cat between the ears and, to his surprise, heard the low rumble of purring. The yellow eyes narrowed and, for a moment, he had the silly idea that the cat was actually smiling at him.
He had been bending forward, petting. He overbalanced and nearly tipped over, palms flat on the tiles to keep from pitching head first into the cat.
Had it actually spoken? He gazed at the shadowy creature, who had stopped purring, but stayed still, yellow eyes fixed on him. Had he really heard –
“Thank you, Augustine.”
There it was again! A kind of chirping sound. His parents’ old cat used to make the same sounds; not meowing or purring, just chirping, like a new species of bird. And under that tone, he could have sworn the cat had spoken in English.
He peered around the garden. No, there was definitely no one else near. He sat and stared back into the unblinking eyes. Far down on the beach, he could still hear the ordinary shouts and laughter of tourists, and the unending whine of cicadas and crash of surf. The smell of fried fish floated up from the restaurants on Ocean Boulevard.
He said the first thing that came into his mind. “My name’s not Augustine, it’s Austin. After my great-grandfather.” He kept his voice low, as though he might be overheard. Silly, talking formally to an animal – the cat wasn’t really talking was it?
But the chirping English came again. “In Latin, your name is Augustine, or Augustus. In Ancient Greek it would be Σεβαστός.”
Sebastos. Austin heard the cat’s mrrp!, the soft Greek letters, and yet understood the name as if it was in English. “But no one speaks those languages anymore!”
“Perhaps not here, Augustine. Yet I know a number of languages from a variety of places, and times.”
He strained his ears, listening carefully to the English words under the chirps, watching the cat’s mouth, trying to catch each word as it came.
“In return for your kind gesture today, rescuing me from those young hooligans,” the cat rested a paw on Austin’s knee, “I may be able to do something for you. Not a favour, exactly, but I fancy you’re a little bored here?”
“How did you know?”
“You were not walking with a friend and you had time to notice an animal in distress.” The cat sat up, so that they were nearly face to face. “I can lead you to an adventure.”
“An adventure? Where would we go?”
“Not where but when.”
Before he had time to question this strange remark, Austin heard a shout behind him.
“Oğlum, ne işin var orada?”
What’re you doing over there, boy? There it was again – he was sure he had understood the words. He craned his neck, and saw the man his mum had pointed out on their first day, the neighbourhood watchman. Austin must look suspicious, loitering in the garden of a closed-up house.
He stood up and shrugged, forcing a smile and pointing in apology at the cat as his excuse for being there. He could still feel the man’s eyes on him as he headed out of the front gate. The cat followed him until he reached the boardwalk.
“I’ll come to your house. Look for me tomorrow,” he chirped, then disappeared into a thick vine. Austin was going to try to follow him, but heard the watchman’s footsteps behind. He walked faster and turned onto Ocean Boulevard, stepping quickly into a huddle of tourists, talking loudly and pointing with their cameras. He passed through, hurrying, trying to disappear from view. Shutters flashed behind him. He must have shown up in their photos – a skinny almost-teenager in shorts and an England football jersey, just another blur in the background.
He ran on. Where had the cat gone? Look for me tomorrow. There was nothing to do but wait.
Sunday’s breakfast was a hurried affair. His dad wanted to leave as early as possible, “to beat the crowds and heat”. His mum rushed about, clearing the table.
“Where are we going again?” he asked through a mouthful of jam and cheese sandwich. His mum removed the cheese plate just as he reached for it again.
“Ephesus,” his dad repeated patiently, lowering his newspaper. “It’s a fascinating place. The excavated ruins of a 2,000 year old city – the same city where the Apostle John brought Mary after the crucifixion. There’s even a church there, built on the site where it is said John wrote his Gospel and the Book of Revelation.”
Austin felt his eyes glaze over. “But is there anything interesting?”
His dad groaned. “There are a lot of ruined walls and columns that you can climb –”
That sounded promising. He peered about for what felt like the tenth time that morning for any sign of the cat, and reached for the milk carton before his mum could whisk that away too, with a vague idea that the smell might attract the animal. But the only creatures to appear were bees, hanging heavy over the jam pot and making his mum nervous.
He kicked his feet against the table leg, waiting for something, anything to happen. There, a dark shape passing the outside wall – no, it was only another stray dog.
His father was still talking. “…and there’s a great view from the top of the mountain.”
“Mountain? You mean there’s another of those roads going up, around and around a mountain?” He shuddered at the memory of their entry to Kuşadası, riding in the bus down a precarious single-lane highway, built along the edge of a cliff. A few centimetres to the side, and there was a sheer drop straight down into a valley – or the sea. “I’m not going up any mountain.”
“Oh, Austin.” His mum had that I-know-what’s-best-for-you look on her face. “You have to come with us, you can’t miss Mary’s house.”
Ephesus, and now a mountain trip. How long would they be away, and what if the cat came by while they were gone?
It was only ten in the morning when they entered the ruined city, but the heat was already unbearable. There were no tall buildings to offer any shade, or air-conditioned shops with open doors blasting icy air onto the streets, like the ones around the bazaar stalls in central Kuşadası. He followed his parents down an avenue of fir trees that offered a bit of shade, then stepped out into what felt like the inside of a cauldron. The crumbling stone and marble, under their feet and piled on either side of the path, reflected the sun’s rays and gave off heat like one long radiator. He was grateful for the two bottles of water his mum had insisted they each carry, despite the weight in his backpack.
The straps were already dragging on his shoulders as he trudged along, peering at the stones while his dad read off the guidebook what they might have been hundreds of years ago. Here was a gymnasium – two surviving walls enclosing a dust-filled courtyard. There were the adjoining baths – an archway leading to another square of yellow dust. He looked at the drawings of soldiers in the book, and tried to picture them training. There was a round indent in one flat stone; a target for archers, maybe.
A dove circled a shrub and pecked at the ground, and his imagination failed. The square looked exactly like the other courtyards and, glancing up, he realised that not one single building remained standing – it was all just a pile of rubble. All except for the amphitheatre ahead on the left, and the front of what his dad called the library, where they all climbed onto a stone parapet, and took photos of each other posing as ancient statues.
After two hours of traipsing in and around the marble avenues, he felt weak and dizzy from the sun, and his parents eventually agreed to let him stay in Ephesus while they went up the mountain. He sat on an overturned column near an ice cream stall and watched their taxi climb up the winding road until it curved out of sight halfway up. The sun shone full on the mountain face and he scrunched his eyes, holding a hand to his brow. No, the car had disappeared; he could see only the blacktop shimmering in the light. Now what?
He flipped idly through his dad’s guidebook, his gaze falling on one random paragraph after another. The word cave caught his eye and he stopped to read.
“…in 42 AD, the Emperor ordered the arrest of seven noble young men who were Christians. The men, with their dog Kitmir, went into a cave on Mount Anchilos to pray and prepare for death. When the Emperor’s soldiers came and found them asleep, the Emperor had the cave closed up with huge stones, burying the men alive. One day, a rich landowner had the cave opened. The seven sleepers awoke, thinking they had slept only one night. When they entered the city to give themselves up to the Emperor, they discovered that two hundred years had passed… The cave is now only a grass-grown depression in the ground…”
That was disappointing. He skipped ahead a few pages. “The mystery of the Temple of Artemis… One of the original seven wonders of the world, it is now nearly hidden under a marsh… One column only is visible; further excavations are ongoing.” That seemed more promising. Maybe he could help dig and find something. He checked his watch – at least an hour before his parents returned.
Stowing the guidebook in his bag, he headed over to the placard next to the ticket sellers’ windows. There was an arrow pointing into the middle of nowhere, showing where the Temple was supposed to be – across the highway, outside of Ephesus entirely. He shifted his pack onto both shoulders as he stood on the verge, blinking at the wind from all the cars whooshing past, barely two steps in front of him. He had to remind himself to look left not right, instead of the way he was used to back home. There had to be a break at one point – there, after that bus, no one was coming from the left. He hurried forward then glanced right again, in time to see the lorry bearing down on him. The horn blast vibrated all around as he stepped back and tightened himself up, drawing in his arms, trying to stay as stiff as possible and not be swept away. No one else was coming; he threw himself forward and collapsed on the other side of the road, in a ditch off the edge of the tarmac. His breath came in ragged gasps and the blood pounded in his head.
The glare of the sun was still intolerable. His heart had stopped racing and now he felt almost giddy, as though he had run in amongst the cars on purpose and known he would escape. He could vaguely make out a white tent-like thing in the distance. They must be digging under there; it would be nice to get into some shade. He finished off his first bottle of water, pulled his cap on backward, tucking in the longer hairs on his neck, and set off through the grasses and weeds.
When he reached the tent – an almost two-storey rectangle of white – he checked his watch again. Twenty minutes had passed already, and he hadn’t even started exploring yet! He looked around for a door, then lifted a flap of the tent and poked his head under.
He drew it out again as quickly and quietly as he could. Of course, he had expected people to be there. What were they called? Archaeologists, that was it. There were only two of them. The guidebook had said there was still work being done – excavations. Surely that meant digging with shovels, or scraping mud off old marble and coins. Not what the man and woman in there were doing?
Should he risk another peek? He stepped carefully around the tent until he came to an archway; the only door leading in.
He stowed his cap in his bag and ruffled his hair, trying to make it as messy and curly as possible. He bent down so that his knees were in the mud and rubbed them about a little. What else? His shoes – he untied one of his laces and let it dangle. There. Now he looked like a lost little boy and if anyone asked him what he was doing, he could just look confused. But that man and woman had been acting so mysteriously – he could not leave without finding out what they were up to. Carefully, he poked his head around the side of the arch. They were still at it.
All around the sides of the tent there were metal shelves set up, holding all sorts of columns and statuettes, bits of stone and other mud-covered objects. There was an empty space in the middle, a sort of hollow in the ground, in which two long tables had been set up end to end. He guessed that this was where the archaeologists usually worked. Now, though, the place was silent, with no bird calls or cicadas outside. Only an eerie drone that seemed to come from the tables.
The woman stood at the near end, her back to him, long hair waving gently about her head, though Austin felt no breeze. She was dressed in a dark blue sleeveless robe, gold and silver bangles covering her arms to the elbows.
The man lay on his back on the surface of the table, arms crossed and eyes closed, and the woman walked around and around, her hands held out in front, clasping a silver cup by its long stem. As he watched, she began to chant, at first quieter than the droning noise, gradually rising in volume. She was not speaking in English but, for the second time in two days, he found himself understanding a strange language. This time, though, there were words mixed in that he had never heard before. They sounded like names.
“I call on the craven of Circe, I draw on the hordes of Hestia, I summon the strength of Artemis!”
They were names. He recognised Artemis as an ancient god, from the Greek history module they had covered in school last term. What was this strange woman doing chanting their names? And what was she going to do to the man?
For she had stopped walking and was standing behind the man’s head. If she looked up now she would see him. He drew his head back as far behind the tent flap as he could while still keeping his eyes on the scene in the hollow. The man’s eyes opened, but if not for that Austin would have guessed that he was asleep. His breathing was deep and even, his chest rising and falling in continuous rhythm. The woman bent down, her hair falling over her face, and drew out a knife from the folds of her robe.
Austin’s breaths were as shallow as he could make them and his palms were sweaty. A fly buzzed around his ear but he dared not swipe at it. He could not look away but was terrified that the woman would lift her head and see him. His first instinct was to run, maybe get help. Whatever this woman was up to, he sure did not want to be next. He took a step back, but kept his gaze fixed on the scene inside.
She continued chanting, gliding the knife over the back of the man’s left hand, up to the elbow. His skin fell apart and blood welled up as she drew the knife over his arm, across his chest and down the other arm. The light failed, as though she was drawing away the sun with her movement, sucking the brightness and the heat toward the centre of the table until everywhere around the tent was pitch black. Only the cup in her hand remained lit with a pale, reddish glow and the wounds on the man’s body glistened in the shine.
The shadow of the woman lifted the cup and pulled it along the tracks that her knife had made. Brimming blood filled the cup and as it did so, pinpricks of light began to glow along the walls.
Austin turned his head from left to right, trying to see where, or what, the red dots of light were coming from.
Eyes. They were eyes. Every figurine, every half-uncovered statuette left by the archaeologists, seemed to have come alive and was staring directly at him.
The woman’s voice rose in a final summons, “By Circe, by Hestia, by Artemis, feeder of all, take me to you along the path ordained, take me to your bosom – now!” She drained the cup in one long swallow, grasped the man by the shoulders and started walking forward.
She was walking through the man! Austin forgot his fear of the eyes at the sight of her walking through man and table. He dropped to the ground, intending to crawl backward in the darkness and disappear around the side of the tent. She must have heard; she glanced to her left, her right and, following the trail of the red glow, she lifted her head and saw him.
Her mouth opened in a silent scream and she raised one arm, as if to cast a spell. The red eyes held his gaze fast and he could not look away. Her eyes flashed fire at him out of the darkness. She held the man by one arm, her fingers digging into the wounds she had made, and his body flopped off the table to land at her feet.
In that moment, both man and woman disappeared. The red eyes blinked once and did not return. The darkness rolled away and the sunlight returned, a welcome heat on the back of his legs and neck, as he sat immobile in the high grass.
Sunstroke, his mum had decided. He had managed the run across the highway, and collapsed on a stool near the ice cream stand. His parents found him moments later, silent and withdrawn. He was unwilling to answer their questions, as though repeating what he had seen would make it more real. When he closed his eyes, he could still see the red eyes.
Now he lay under the thin cotton blanket in the cool dark of his room, eyes closed, fuming. His mum had sent him to bed way too early. What if the cat came now, seeking the shade of the verandah to snooze in? He was barely tired anyway. But the longer he had gone without telling his parents, the more incredible the whole thing had seemed. He could just see his mum’s face if he told her that a mysterious disappearing lady had put a spell on him. He would wait, and ask the cat. If that creature hadn’t been a figment of his imagination either.
He yawned and stretched. Maybe if he opened the shutters a crack, there might be enough light to read his comics. Noel had lent him some funny ones about a Roman called Asterix. Or was he battling Romans? Something to distract him from dwelling on the awfulness of the afternoon…
It seemed only moments later that he heard someone calling his name. He started up in surprise, blinking. The cat, who had been purring about his head, rolled neatly off his chest to sit on the mattress, still gazing, steadfast, into his eyes. His black nose was only an inch away.
The voice was there – just as he had heard it the day before.
“Have you thought anymore about what I asked you?”
Austin was certain now that it was the cat’s voice, and underneath the words he heard again a low rumble, almost as though he was purring while speaking. Yet the cat’s mouth was hardly open at all.
“Yes?” The cat laid a paw on his shoulder, expectant, claws sheathed.
He sat up straighter, having recovered breath enough to whisper. “Yes! But I don’t know anything about – about –”
“No matter. There will be time enough on the way to tell you everything. Wear the simplest clothes that you have.” The cat jumped off the bed and turned toward the half-open door. “Be ready when I come tomorrow at dawn.”
“Wait!” Austin called. “What do you mean ‘be ready’? What should I bring? Where are we going? I don’t even know your name!”