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Holy Family

By Virginia Jensen

When the visitor appeared in our back yard, we dropped everything and ran to the windows gawking. He was shivering visibly. Well, it was December in Colorado and he only had on a cotton loincloth. We figured it was another government experiment gone awry.

The Arab-Christian wars had been going on for thirty-six years. No one thought that the invasion of Iraq would initiate the division of the whole world into Christian and Muslim, but it did. Even the neutral Swedes had to take sides. Several countries with heavily mixed Arab-Christian populations were forced to evacuate one or the other religion or face perpetual civil war. People were living in tents all over Europe and Asia.

When scientists started experimenting with time travel, they hoped to prevent the war from the past, since all efforts in the present had failed. But time travel was next to impossible and the work was going badly. Not just generating the energy to power the huge wormhole, which, by the way, we could see day and night hovering high up in the atmosphere like a silvery tornado, but hardest of all controlling who and what went where. This is what I had learned in history class.

This year, 2048, the country was on rations to pay for the war and the experiments, and even the small town of Grand Junction, Colorado, felt the pinch. People living in small towns had it much easier and were subject to fewer attacks of terrorism, but the occasional truckload of Arab sympathizers would work their way along I-70 creating havoc as they went. Often they weren’t even interested in the Arabs or Islam, but they hated the government so much for getting us into this endless war, they wanted to bring it down.

A month or so before, the local police burst into the house of a girl who lived just down the street and downloaded their computer files and hauled off her brother for collaborating. On the advice of our neighborhood watch association, we burned our books on Eastern countries and threw away all our travel catalogs and any evidence that we’d been interested in Oriental religions.

But back to the time travel. We had been reading in the Sentinel just that morning about a flustered Lord with a paunch and a white wig from seventeenth century England who popped into a session of Congress and got security in a fit. Last week there had been a cave man, startled out of his wits by the twenty-first century, who had to be put into a mental institution. It seemed easier to drag people into our future than it was to successfully send someone back to their present. Of course, we didn’t hear about the failed attempts. There may have been dozens of brave volunteers wandering about in the past, but no one could get hold of them to find out that they’d arrived safely – or to bring them back.

So when this boy popped into 2048 out by the frozen yellow chrysanthemums we were not totally clueless. Mom had been doing dishes and daydreaming, thinking probably about what to buy me and Dad for Christmas. She looked out the window into the back yard and there he was. Standing barefoot in two inches of snow, totally in shock, staring back at my mother whose face was pressed against the window looking back at him with the same pale, wide-eyed amazement.

Dad said we should get him into the house right away and that’s what we did. The house was warm enough since we at least had the stash of wood and a fireplace. Services were iffy those days. There might be electricity and the cable would work most nights, but then a fuel shortage would force us to heat with costly electricity or else, as we did, use the fireplace. We brought him into the warm house and he stopped shivering.

We talked to him, but he only gazed at us speechless. Obviously not English. We tried Spanish on him, but nada. I tried a little French, but non, non on that too.

Serious discussions started right up between Dad and Mom about our surprise guest. They went into the bedroom, where they usually have such discussions, away from me, who is not included in such matters even though I was thirteen and technically a young woman.

He still looked cold, so I went to my closet to see what might fit him. I was almost tall as him, but thinner at the shoulders. None of my tees and tops would fit around his broad shoulders.

I tried to wrap the boy in my old fake leopard velvet robe. He took one look at the spots and refused outright. I got him into one of Mom’s long-sleeved sweat jackets from the hall closet. By my gently pushing and pointing, he finally let me settle him on the living room sofa. He looked around half-frightened but quite interested, the way you would be interested in a prison cell, for example, looking for a way out. I handed him some wool socks, which he seemed to think were extremely odd and didn’t know where to put them. He giggled as I slipped them on, like I was tickling his long dark feet.

He looked to be about fourteen, only a little older than me. He was slender and dark skinned with big dark eyes and a sharp nose. He smelled like incense and his head was shaved completely bald except for a lock of hair that fell over to one side. When he looked at me, periodically, to see what I was up to, his face seemed controlled. He was trying not to be fearful, I thought, convincing himself he could handle this, whatever it was. I decided to introduce myself.

“Polly McCallister” I said, then thought that was too much of a mouthful. “Polly” I repeated. “Polly.” I pointed at my chest, why for some reason that meant “me” I didn’t know. I should have pointed at my brain, as that’s what everyone called me then, brainy. I’d never met a time traveler or even a person from another country, so I didn’t know what to expect, but he caught on fast.

“Perankh,” he replied, pointing to his own chest.

Well, it sounded like “pronk” to me so he had to say it again slowly before I could repeat it back to him. He smiled when I got it right. This was fun.

He made a writing gesture and I brought him the pad we used to make the grocery lists. He seemed a little startled by the ball point pen, but I showed him how to use it and he made a few marks, smiling up at me when he saw that it worked. Then he drew a sort of oval with a bar at the bottom and scribbled some signs into it. Oh, I got it. We’d studied ancient Egypt in fifth grade. It was his name.

“You’re an ancient Egyptian!” I said, blown away by the time jump.

“Polly, don’t get too involved,” Dad said, trailing Mom into the living room.

“But Dad . . . . Look. It’s a cartouche. He’s from ancient Egypt.

“We may have to turn him over—”

“No, no, they’ll put him in an institution. They’ll put him in prison.” I pled.

“That may be, but we could get in trouble if we don’t,” Mom said. “We’re at war with Egypt. He’s the enemy.”

“But he doesn’t know anything about that!” I cried. I let the emotion drag my words out, like frantic petitioners do. “He’s innocent!”

Perankh had been following our conversation as if he understood it. I imagined he knew it was about him, and it wasn’t good. I smiled at him to make him feel better. Mom dragged Dad back into the bedroom again, and discussions continued.

Perankh was now staring at the Christmas tree. The lights were on “blink” and the pattern was a complicated one that I’d programmed in myself. It was almost like watching music. I sat there with him watching it too, both of us getting into a trance. I jumped when he spoke.

His voice broke slightly like a fifteen year old boy’s voice would. His language was kind of melodious and choppy at the same time, like something African I’d seen on TV. A kind of chant, punctuated with “heh, heh, heh,” almost like a laugh, though his face was very serious. It had a quality of something religious, like when the priest intones the mass. Like, if I were this boy and I had a God, I’d sure be praying to Him or Her right now.

When Mom and Dad came back in, they looked serious. I was prepared for the worst. Dad sat down on the sofa beside the boy.

“What did he say his name was, Polly?”

“Per-ankh” I said, clearly in two syllables. My father sat down beside him and put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. Dad’s strawberry blonde hair and blue eyes were less than a foot from his. The boy looked back intently, not put off, not offended.

“Well, Perankh, son, we’ve decided to try to keep you here. We think you’ll be safer than if we give you to the loonies running our government just now. We’ve never done anything like this before and it’s very dangerous, but it’s no more dangerous these days than owning a god-damned Persian rug, and we think you’re worth more than that.”

Dad paused and looked at the boy’s reaction, which was that same controlled calm but I could see underneath it a quality of confusion. We all knew he didn’t understand a word Dad said, but I guess we hoped the meaning would come through somehow. Mom stepped up to Perankh.

“We want you to know that you’re welcome in our house.” Mom said.

She reached over and lifted him up by both hands and pulled her to him for a slightly stiff hug. Perankh looked a bit uncomfortable, then grinned at me over Mom’s shoulder.

 

It was two weeks before Christmas. We hadn’t even started shopping, and we had to keep Perankh inside, our private guest until we knew who to tell people he was. Dad had to go to work every day and Mom had her part-time job at Herberger’s, but I was out of school for Christmas vacation. That’s how I got elected to watch Perankh and teach him English.

I was amazed how quickly Perankh became part of the family. He was very kindly insistent about things he would not do or could not tolerate. For example, he hated the cold and refused to go outside, which worked very much to our advantage, making it easy to keep him out of our nosy neighbors’ view. He loved books and studied the pages seriously even though written language was still beyond him, but he was wary of the computer screen and the TV, always sitting far away and refusing to have anything to do with the keyboard or the remote control. But he was eager to learn and willing to try many strange things in the process. Over and over that ready smile would prove my success as a teacher.

On his first night, Dad showed him how to use the bathroom with its magic toilet and faucet and shower, and he was suitably impressed. After that, he wanted to take a shower three times a day. He couldn’t stand long pants on his legs, so we settled for knee-length shorts and big white cotton shirts, plus some expensive sandals, which Mom got at Herberger’s on discount because it was winter.

Mom had settled him in the guest room, since their only child was me and I was a girl, so he obviously couldn’t share my room. My parents were pretty big on privacy and so they gave him his. But I was more curious. Every night, before I went to bed, I put my ear up to the door and listened to him chanting in his language. In the morning the door would be open and I could see him doing things with his arms and bowing at the window, toward the sun. One day, I walked in. He stopped and looked at me.

“Ra,” he said, pointing out the window at the sun.

I nodded and decided I had better brush up on my Ancient Egyptian. That afternoon I did a crash course online. It wasn’t easy to get information on certain foreign countries, but I went through the archeology category and found there was still a lot. Ra, the source of life in the sun. Not the sun itself but the life-giving energy that comes to us through the sun. I read the myths of Isis and Osiris and their son Horus, and their enemy Seth, characters who seemed to represent forces in Nature and some form of regeneration. It was a bit deep for my thirteen-year-old brain, but I liked it. I liked that when Seth cut Osiris apart, Isis put him back together and made love to him. She gave birth to their son Horus in the Delta swamps to protect him from Seth, who was still lurking about creating trouble. I liked that there were women with power, like Isis and Nephthys, and the lion-faced Sekhmet and the Scorpion-headed Selket. Being a Scorpio myself, I decided to take her name. With a red magic marker, I drew a picture of a scorpion on a strip of white cardboard, stapled the ends together and set it onto my head like a Burger King crown. I knocked on Perankh’s door.

“Aah, Selket!” he said, opening the door wide, and he bowed down and pretended to adore me. He pointed to the scorpion above my head, making an action like pinching on his arm and shaking his head back and forth in a negative gesture. I got it: don’t sting me! No. I gestured back: No sting you; love you. I put my arms out to him, which he seemed to understand, and he grinned shyly but stepped back.

A week had passed. We had wheedled our way out of the usual big family dinner at our Aunt Agnes’ house in Cherry Creek, saying we all had the flu and didn’t want to give it to anyone else. And wouldn’t you know, the big communicable disease this year was the Egyptian flu, a slightly kinder bug than the virulant West Nile virus. We felt safer staying at home ourselves. And we didn’t know what would happen to Perankh if he caught a bug.

A few days before Christmas, I woke to find Mom putting out the Nativity scene. We had an old set of china figurines that Mom had inherited from her grandmother — Mary and Joseph, the baby Jesus in the manger, the shepherds and the angels, and the three Wise Men. Mom said people didn’t care about the Nativity like they did when she was a girl. And we didn’t even go to mass much any more, she lamented. "Too busy fighting for religion to practice it," she said.

When Perankh came out of his room for breakfast, he stopped dead still in front of the Nativity scene. His eyes grew big. He looked so excited he seemed to vibrate.

“What is it, Perank?” I said. “What do you see?”

“Auset! Heru!” he exclaimed, and he babbled on, picking up the figures one by one and naming them in his language.

“What does he say?” Mom asked. “How could he know about Jesus and Mary and Joseph?”

“I don’t know. But come to the computer and look at this.”

I dragged Mom into my room and called up the web site I had been reading. Soon she was as interested as I was. It didn’t take long to discover that Auset was Isis and must be like Mary, with her baby. The baby was the son of Isis, Heru or Horus, who Perankh must have recognized as the baby Jesus. Joseph had to be Osiris, just by association.

Perankh had followed us into my room, still grasping several figurines tightly to his chest.

“Netcheru!” he said, holding up an angel and beaming.

Once Perankh got a glimpse of the few hieroglyphs on the computer screen, he read them to us. Wonderful, even though we didn’t understand a word of it. His shyness about the computer was overcome in a flash. As I called up the texts of Ancient Egypt, he watched the screen, rapt, reading bits out loud and saying over and over, “a-a-ah, a-a-a-h,” as if he was about to faint away, but happy, happy to have a bit of his own world back.

 

We celebrated Christmas together, with turkey and dressing and green bean casserole and cranberry sauce. Perankh ate heartily and made grateful faces over the turkey.

“Like goose,” he said. “Good.”

I’d worked really hard teaching Perankh what “like” meant. It seemed a very necessary word under the circumstance of having to compare his time and ours.

For Christmas, I gave Perankh a beautiful picture of the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus from a Medieval church. I didn’t know if Isis was a virgin before she conceived Horus, but I figured it didn’t matter in a picture. Mary was beautiful in a heavenly blue scarf covered with silver stars, and Jesus looked like a little man with his hand on Mary’s breast. It was only a picture I cut out, but I put it in a fancy oval gold frame and Perankh hung it on the wall in his room.

 

* * * * * * *

 

Somehow, my father managed to get him identification papers. I think he went to confession at one of those liberal churches where they helped aliens. I wonder how he managed that, a man like him without a law-breaking bone in his body. Perankh became my third cousin whose adopted parents, my rambling first cousins, were killed in a skirmish in South America, which they were but had no children, and he could pass for half Mexican. Together we invented wonderful lies to make his presence not only believable but interesting.

Perankh spent the rest of the winter learning about our culture, mostly through TV since travel was limited on our budget. All summer we worked on reading and writing. By fall of 2049, he was ready to enroll in school. Dad had thoughtfully set up his age to be close to mine, so I would be in his classes to help if the need arose. Dad thought it would be an advantage for him to be a little bigger and more mature than his classmates, considering the other handicaps he was under.

Eventually my parents adopted him and he became Perry McCallister. Perry became a priest, was excommunicated for his radical ideas, and later he became my husband. But that’s another, much longer story.