Burning Question

By Joe Giordano

My first sensation was the smell of burning oil. Feeling flushed, I found myself squatting on a marble floor with my back against a fluted Ionic column inside a large room. On either side of me were stacked scrolls on shelves. Bearded men wearing draped garments were perusing the papyri, some reading by the light of licking flames of terra-cotta lamps.

Was I dreaming?

I overheard two men talking.

“When you show me a goatskin that can hold Aeolus’s wind, then I’ll believe Homer’s story is true.” 

They chuckled.

I rose and approached them. I wore a T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers. They took notice and their conversation stopped.

“Are you Persian?” one man asked.

“Where am I?”

They exchanged glances before the same man said, “The Library of Alexandria, of course.”

I blurted. “The library burned centuries ago.”

They snickered and began to walk away.

I called out. “Where is Alexander the Great buried?”

“Check the scrolls under ‘Alpha.” Their laughter echoed as they moved away.

Streaming sunlight drew me toward a broad entrance. I shaded my eyes. Jutting up from the turquoise sea, the Lighthouse of Alexandria stood. 

I should’ve been agog to see one of the wonders of the ancient world, but my mood was oddly depressed.

I heard a man muttering to himself, sitting on the stone steps to my right. He had a screw carved out of wood and a terra-cotta pipe in his hands. He frowned, seemingly in a quandary.

I wanted to locate myself in time, so I disturbed him with a question. “Who is the king of Egypt?”

His eyes didn’t rise and his tone was curt. “I’m trying to solve a problem and don’t have time to discuss politics.” He continued to ponder the screw and pipe, but his muttering became intelligible. “How do I keep the water from leaking around the screw?”

I wasn’t going to get my answer until I solved his problem. “You don’t,” I said. “If the amount of water delivered by the screw is greater than the leakage, the pump will work.”

The man’s head rose, and he blinked a few times. “Eureka,” he said, delighted. He turned to me. “Ptolemy the second and thank you.” He strode away, presumably to try his invention.

Around 250 B.C.! How did I get here?

Then it came to me. I’d been in an ICU hospital bed, my body scorched with fever, diagnosed with coronavirus, unable to breathe, feeling like I had an elephant sitting on my chest. I’d agreed to be intubated. 

My thoughts were interrupted by a male voice, sounding distant, like from a hollow chamber. “Mr. Christos is sinking fast. We need the bed. I see there’s a DNR, a ‘do not resuscitate’ order.”

Alarmed, my mind tried to scream. Forget what I signed. Rip it up. Take extreme measures. Give me experimental drugs. Keep me alive.

Suddenly, I was pulled back inside the library toward a bright light and the heat intensified. The scrolls were on fire. The smell of rotten eggs mixed with the smoke. My anxiety grew as shadowy figures like flickering candle flames reached out to grab me. 

Oh my God.

I felt a burning pain like my skin was being seared, then I began to sink, spinning down like I’d free fallen into a glacial crevice, dark, and infinite. 

I was dying.

Will no one help me?

As abruptly as it began, my descent stopped, and I floated slowly upward until a light shone on my lids, and I opened my eyes.

A doctor, masked and with a face shield, wearing a blue gown stood over me. A female nurse in the same garb was on the other side of the bed. 

“Mr. Christos,” the doctor said, “I thought we’d lost you.”

As I was intubated, I motioned that I wished to write. The nurse brought me a pad and pen.

I met Archimedes.

The doctor chuckled at my note. “High fever can cause strange dreams.” He placed a gloved hand on my shoulder. “Your oxygen is much improved and you’re breathing mostly on your own. We should be able to extubate you sometime tomorrow.”

I thanked them with a nod and closed my eyes, elated to be alive.

I felt sleepy and smiled to myself with an idea. Maybe I can return to the library and find out where Alexander the Great is buried?

                                                                     *   *   *

Joe Giordano’s stories have appeared in more than one hundred magazines including The Saturday Evening Post, and Shenandoah. His novels include Birds of Passage, An Italian Immigrant Coming of Age Story, Appointment with ISIL (Harvard Square Editions), Drone Strike and his short story collection, Stories and Places I Remember (Rogue Phoenix Press).


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