Bone Box excerpt 2: The Curtain Wall

Joseph Travers, the novel’s main character, is an American who has come to Ayasuluk Hill in Turkey to evaluate the Saint John’s Cathedral archeological site. This scene takes place early in the morning after his arrival in Selçuk.


Travers wakes from a dream of tunnels, caverns, and subterranean cities. Lost in a labyrinth lit only by flickering votive candles, he makes his way along stone corridors lined with images of saints so faded that the red of their robes and the gold of their halos are barely visible. The passageways widen and narrow in a pattern he can’t figure out. Intermittently, shadows sweep the periphery of his vision, but he remains alone. The ground beneath his bare feet is sometimes smooth flagstones and sometimes gritty cinders. The air blows hot, then becomes cool and still, then sultry, then dank. Behind the sweet odor of melting wax lurks a mustiness, as though he has stepped into an ancient vault recently opened. Broken wheelbarrows, discarded shovels, heaps of potsherds, and rows of dark plastic bottles line the walls. And piles of children’s bones lie at each of the domed intersections.

Sweating and disoriented, he rolls over on the bed and stares at the ceiling. Birds are chirping over the rattle of the air conditioner, but he blinks only darkness. He sits up and squints at the digital alarm—4:47. He’s at the Hitit Hotel on the main road at the outskirts of Selçuk in southern Turkey, not in some macabre underground maze. When he returned to the hotel from Sophia Altay’s house, he saw Charles Lee swimming laps in the pool. Lee had an efficient, even mechanical, stroke, and he didn’t notice Travers. Travers had a far greater need to walk than talk so he left the hotel. The road was busy at first, but none of the passing vehicles even slowed to check out the solitary rambler. An hour out of town, as the traffic subsided and the stars spread around a quarter moon, his mind traveled back along the path he had so often trod the last three years…

Now, Travers wobbles to his feet, teeters into the bathroom, and turns on the light, which buzzes before snapping brightness all about him. By the time he returned to the hotel around midnight, the bar was closed and the lobby empty. His Amish phone held no messages from Altay or Kirchburg or Lee or anyone else, and so he went to sleep only to wake at the subterranean labyrinth. Now, despite his nocturnal trek and his lack of sleep, he’s wired. The face in the mirror looks haggard, but the eyes gleam. He douses himself with cold water in the shower and brushes his teeth. His fingers and toes tingle. He isn’t exactly hyperventilating, but his breathing is quick. When he pulls on shorts and a T-shirt, his legs and arms quiver. His feet prickle in his walking shoes as he goes down the stairs and out into first light.

The moon is still well up. Cars and trucks pass him at intervals, slapping the cool air and splashing light across the pavement. A man on a black bicycle peddles by. A cock’s crowing interrupts traditional Turkish music playing somewhere among the flat-roofed buildings at the base of Ayasuluk Hill. Though the sun isn’t yet up, the citadel holds light. A tour bus with tinted windows blows past him. A single, large black-winged bird soars like a shadow.

The jangling in his hands and feet abates as he walks into town, but he still feels disjointed. Women with scarved heads huddle silently near a flatbed truck with its motor running and its exhaust pipe belching blue-gray fog. A block farther on, men slouch smoking on a wooden wagon hitched to a tractor. Travers’ breathing doesn’t calm until he makes the turn toward the cathedral’s gate. A mangy black dog tracks him, wagging its tail and barking, but no boys are selling Roman coins.

To dispel the dream, Travers needs to be above ground and in the open—and he wants to feel the sunrise. The gate is shut, but, remembering the rock, he pushes hard against the door. It scrapes back an inch so he puts his weight into it. When he gets it open a foot, he slides through the opening. He shuts the gate and shoves the rock back in place. As he walks past the ticket booth and up into the ruins, birds sing in the pines. Light tips the marble columns ahead of him, but the partially restored brick walls are dim silhouettes. When he reaches higher ground, he looks over Selçuk’s roofs to the eastern hills limned with light.

He sits on a stone bench in the western courtyard so that he can watch first light traverse the fields and orchards out to the Aegean. He presses his palms against the cool stone and rocks slowly, feeling the breeze on his face. Birds begin swooping forays to his left, and up through the pines on his right a light is on in Altay’s house. The sun tricks him, flashing first on the distant water and then igniting the hills above Ephesus before touching the back of his neck. Still unable to shake the dream despite the sun’s warmth, he stands and climbs onto the top of the curtain wall. He sets his feet apart and stretches his arms as if to bid the dawn some pagan greeting. He raises his eyes to the pale gold sky, and then he glances down.

The body lies crumpled on the rocks at the base of the wall sixty feet below. One black shoe is missing. The legs of the pants are askew, the bulky torso contorted, and the white shirt stained dark at the collar. The head is twisted to the side, the bald skull split as though Sirhan dove to the boulders. Blood discolors his mustache above his frozen grimace. Travers’ breath catches. He drops to his knees and teeters forward as though he, too, is going to plummet from the curtain wall.

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