This is chapter one of my book “The Act of Laughing,” which I wrote in 2010. The chapter also works as a stand-alone short story, I discovered, upon revisiting it. The rest of the book is in need of a good edit to bring it up to my current standards, and will remain unpublished until said edit has been completed. Rest assured, though, “The Act of Laughing” will one day make its triumphant return, leaner and meaner than ever.
Donald Raines, sitting cross-legged on a well-worn leather chair overlooking the runway of Tunis-Carthage International Airport looked up at the sound of his name.
He tossed a week-old copy of The New York Times he’d found abandoned on the seat next to him at the airport cafe and stood, hand extended.
“Doctor Quintas, I presume?”
Doctor Paul Quintas, a rather short, squat little man with long, bushy sideburns and a handlebar moustache removed his white fedora and vigorously pumped Raines’ hand. “The one and only,” he said with a subdued Italian accent. “It is a pleasure to meet you after so many years of correspondence.”
“Likewise,” said Doctor Raines. “I must admit, I’ve been looking forward to this trip for some time now. Ancient Carthage, particularly the Phoenician era, has always been one of my favorite areas of study.”
“Yes,” said Quintas with an enthusiastic nod, “Then you are in for a real treat. I have such things to show you.”
“Can we start with a good restaurant?” said Raines. “I’m famished after that flight. I’m afraid I’ve never quite taken to airline food.”
“But of course,” said Quintas with an sympathetic laugh. “I know just the place. The cuisine is exquisite, and the view, well, believe me, it is a sight to behold. Come, let us gather your luggage and be on our way.”
Raines followed him through the crowded airport terminal to the baggage carousel where a skycap retrieved his suitcase and carried it out to Quintas’ late model silver Mercedes-Benz.
Raines marveled at the bustling streets of Tunis, its juxtaposition of ancient and modern themes testifying to the diverse array of cultures that had inhabited it over the centuries.
Every time he traveled abroad, he was reminded of just how young a country the United States actually was–here were buildings that were centuries old, still in use, with newly constructed shops and restaurants wedged in between them. There weren’t that many places like that in America.
The present accommodated the past rather than replace it, and that was a quality Raines admired.
During their drive, Quintas acted as an experienced tour guide, pointing out and eagerly expounding upon various places of interest throughout the city.
His enthusiasm was infectious, and Raines was wholly enthralled by the experience. Had he not been so damned hungry, he might have been disappointed when they arrived at the restaurant.
Quintas had been correct in his assessment of the place. The cuisine–Raines ordered the lamb couscous; a bit spicier than he was accustomed to, but delicious nonetheless–was marvelous, and the view, overlooking Lake Tunis, the Atlas Mountains in the background ascending to the clouds, was indeed nothing short of spectacular.
The archaeologist in Raines wanted to abandon his meal and immediately begin exploring this wondrous, unfamiliar territory, but in the end his stomach won out, and the two men savored their expertly prepared native dishes over pleasant, light-hearted conversation.
“So, doctor,” said Quintas in between mouthfuls of chakchouka, “what do you think of our fair city so far?”
Raines took a sip of wine and dabbed at the corners of his mouth with his napkin. “Breathtaking, as I expected,” he said. “I look forward to seeing more of it after a proper night’s sleep.”
“Yes,” said Quintas. “I imagine that you must be very tired after your journey.”
“Forgive me, though, I’m confused. You referred to Tunis as your city. I was under the impression that you were a native of Sicily.”
“Ah, yes,” he said. “But I’ve been here for so long that it feels like home. I may even retire here, when the time comes for that.” He smiled. “But I’m not so old, not yet. I plan to wring another twenty years of work out of this run-down body before the ravages of old age force me to stop.”
Raines laughed. “I can certainly appreciate that,” he said. “So, what’s on the agenda for tomorrow?”
Quintas took a sip of wine and scratched his chin thoughtfully. “Well, I thought we’d stop by the University tomorrow, give you a quick tour of the campus, introduce you to some of the faculty before we head over to the ruins.”
“The Tophet,” said Raines, his eyes sparkling with anticipation. “I’ve waited so long to see it with my own eyes.”
Quintas raised an eyebrow. “Not much to see, really. Most of what you’re interested in was destroyed by the Romans.” He leaned forward. “Tell me, my friend, do you subscribe to the theory that the ancient peoples of Carthage practiced child sacrifice?”
“I don’t know,” said Raines. “But I’ve always been fascinated by the idea. To be honest, I’m curious to hear your take on the subject.”
Quintas reached into his shirt pocket and retrieved a pack of cigarettes. He lit one up, took a long drag and leaned back in his chair.
“It’s not a popular stance to take,” he said. “Many have dismissed the writings of Diodorus and Kleitarchos as myth, a lot of sensationalized propaganda.”
He tapped his cigarette against the edge of the ashtray and lowered his voice. “I don’t for one minute believe that.”
“Really,” said Raines, fascinated. “What makes you so sure?”
Quintas leveled his gaze, his eyes darting to and fro as if to make sure no one was listening.
“Stories passed down from one generation to the next. Things not recorded in any historical account.”
Raines laughed. “Oh, come now. Surely you don’t place too much confidence in such things.”
Quintas blew a cloud of smoke into the air and shrugged.
“You’re serious,” said Raines in disbelief. “A man of your stature, taken in by wild tales of dubious origin? Forgive me for saying so, but I can’t help but feel a bit taken aback, based on your reputation.”
Quintas seemed unbothered by his colleague’s bewilderment, as if he’d experienced such a reaction dozens of times over.
“The stories I’ve heard in the course of my research have, for the most part, corroborated one another. Sure, there are a few minor inconsistencies here and there, but…” He paused, ground the butt of the cigarette into ashtray. “…I’ve seen things.”
“What sort of things?”
The other man’s eyes grew distant. “Horrible things. Things that will haunt my nightmares until I die.”
Raines wasn’t sure what to make of this statement. He hesitated to pry, but he couldn’t help himself. “Like what?”
Quintas sighed. “I will tell you,” he said, “But not here.”
Raines shrugged, trying not to appear eager. “As you wish,” he said.
The conversation reverted back to less adventurous fare, and the two men enjoyed the rest of their meal together discussing humdrum minutia pertaining to their respective careers.
Raines found his hotel room to be more than adequate, and in fact much more well-appointed than he’d expected. He helped himself to a scotch and soda from the mini bar and sank down into the comfortable suede sofa that sat against the window, the cool breeze from the air conditioning unit creating an agreeable tingling sensation on the back of his neck.
The luxury of air conditioning was one that he hadn’t expected of a third world nation, but he was pleasantly surprised by it.
Quintas sat in a chair on the opposite side of the room, smoking a cigarette and staring absent-mindedly at some generic, mass-produced painting of a rustic barn that hung almost imperceptibly lopsided on the wall.
Neither man said anything for a good long while. It was Quintas who finally broke the silence.
“Five years ago,” he said, his voice trailing off as if he felt it necessary to choose his words carefully. He took several puffs on his cigarette before speaking again.
“Five years ago I encountered a group of peoples from Bizerte who claimed to be followers of the ancient ways. Naturally I was intrigued, and I spent nearly a year with them, listening to their stories, learning about their way of life, earning their trust.”
“Interesting,” said Raines. “So they weren’t Muslim, then?”
“No,” said Quintas firmly. “In fact, they harbored a great deal of animosity towards the Islamic faith, considered it a kind of heresy.”
“That is odd,” said Raines, intrigued. “Go on.”
Quintas lit a second cigarette. “Their primary devotion was to the ancient gods of Carthage, namely Ba’al Hammon and his consort, the goddess Tanit.”
“Amazing,” said Raines. “Modern-day worshippers of Ba’al. I had no idea such faiths had survived.”
“That,” said Quintas, “is because they are very secretive. They have to be. Not every country is as tolerant as America when it comes to unconventional religious practices. Discovery of their activities would surely have meant instant death.”
Raines smiled sardonically. “Tolerance is in the eye of the beholder, I suppose,” he said. “We’re not quite as progressive as we make ourselves out to be.”
“Yes,” said Quintas, but you abandoned such things as, say, the burning of so-called witches centuries ago. Tunisia hasn’t quite made it that far, I’m afraid.”
Raines nodded. “Did you witness any ceremonies, rituals, things of that nature?”
Quintas held up his hand. “Patience, patience. I’m getting to that.”
Raines finished his drink and resolved to let the other man finish his story before asking any more questions.
“Anyway,” continued Quintas, “It took some time, but eventually I garnered enough of their trust to be allowed a peek into the more, shall we say, private aspects of their religion.” He trailed off again, puffing frantically on his cigarette.
Raines hated the smell of cigarette smoke, but he’d learned to tolerate it over the years. Nearly all of his peers at the university smoked, either cigarettes or a pipe, and he had become quite skilled at the art of pretending it didn’t bother him.
“They led me, blindfolded, to what I can only describe as a sort of temple, which as far as I can tell was located within a cave high in the Atlas Mountains.
“The place was lit with torches that hung on the walls, decorated with fine tapestries, and ancient relics that I can only assume were taken from the ruins at Carthage.”
He paused thoughtfully. “They felt these things belonged to them anyway, you see.”
He continued talking as he rose from his chair and poured himself a drink.
“Anyway,” he said, the tiny bottle of gin clinking against his glass, “This place was impressive. Especially considering it was all built by what ultimately amounted to a ragtag collection of poor farmers.”
He downed the contents of the glass in one gulp and poured himself another before sitting down.
Visibly relaxed as the alcohol began to take effect, he continued with his story.
“At the back of the temple, on a pedestal that had been meticulously carved into the rock wall, sat two statues. Ba’al Hammon and Tanit, as you might have surmised.”
Raines nodded silently, captivated by Quintas’ words.
“I don’t know where they got them.” He waved a hand around in the air and took a sip of his drink. “Hell, maybe they made them. Maybe they were authentic. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter.”
He shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “They were life-sized, these things. And frightening. Oh my God, were they ever frightening. Maybe it was the torchlight flickering across their faces in the dark, I don’t know. But they seemed almost lifelike. They looked at you, with those cold, stone eyes.”
Raines was literally on the edge of his seat, waiting to hear more.
“They were all there,” continued Quintas. “All of the people I’d come to know over the previous year, come to love even, in some strange way. And it was as if they were acknowledging me as one of them.
“I followed their lead, kneeling on the floor of the cave as two of the men walked through the crowd carrying torches. Behind them…” He paused for a moment. “Behind them were two more men, dragging a little Arab girl by the arms. She was young; nine or ten years old, at the most. And dirty. A filthy little street urchin. Probably an orphan.”
He shook his head. “I don’t know who she was. But she was kicking and screaming, trying to get away, and me, I just watched, helpless, as they dragged her to the altar between the two statues.
“The two men with the torches lit the furnace, and within minutes there was a roaring fire, and black smoke billowing out into the cave. I felt very sleepy all of a sudden, the smoke was so thick. My eyes were watering, stinging from the smoke.”
He stopped, his expression growing distant. “The act of laughing,” he said. “You are familiar with this phrase, yes?”
Raines stiffened. “Yes,” he breathed. “I’m familiar with it, of course.”
“When the body is consumed by fire, the limbs contract, and the mouth opens, almost as if it is laughing,” said Quintas.
“I watched as they… as they placed her on the altar; a hideous slab of stone stained with the blood of God knows how many had come before her. I watched her struggle as they plunged the knife into her heart.
“She squirmed and kicked. Screamed. My God, did she scream. I’ll never forget the way her leg kept twitching after she died, like some kind of insect. It was ghastly.”
There was a long moment of silence in which neither of them spoke. Quintas lit yet another cigarette, took a few nervous puffs before continuing.
“They put the body in the fire. So gently, as if they were afraid of harming it.” He laughed humorlessly. “Imagine that. I remember this clearly, because it struck me as absurd. They had just brutally murdered this girl, and now they were handling her like a newborn infant.”
He sighed and took a long drag on the cigarette. “That smell, I’ll never forget it. Burnt flesh, hair; skin turning black as the flames engulfed her.”
He looked Raines directly in the eyes. “It really did look like she was laughing, you know. That’s why they call it that. Act of laughing. The lips pulled back from the teeth in some hideous grin, eyes nearly popping out of her head. Awful.”
Raines was speechless. Quintas spoke with such conviction, and he was so obviously distressed that in his mind, at least, he was telling the truth.
It was a wild, outlandish story, and under normal circumstances he would have been highly skeptical; but this was Paul Quintas he was talking to. The man was highly respected, and in fact some might say revered in anthropological circles.
His work with the Kombai tribes of Western New Guinea alone was enough to cement his reputation as pioneer in his field. If he claimed to have witnessed modern-day Ba’al worship, human sacrifice and all, it was more likely than not that his account was credible.
“What did you do?”
Quintas shrugged. “What could I do? Try and stop them? One man against several dozen? No, I was merely an observer in their world. It was not my place to interfere. I stood and watched as they butchered that girl, that’s what I did. After the ceremony was completed, they blindfolded me, drove me back to the city. I packed my bags and booked the first flight out of the country. Stayed away for five years.”
“Have you encountered any of these people since your return?”
“Noooo,” said Quintas. “You don’t find them, they find you. You’re not going to bump into one of them at the corner market on a Sunday afternoon. And I haven’t looked for them, either.”
“Aren’t you afraid they’ll seek you out, kill you for what you know?”
Quintas shook his head. “Highly doubtful. As I said, I’d become quite friendly with them. And I’m no threat to them, anyway. I don’t even know where these ceremonies took place. Seemed like we drove about fifty miles outside of Bizerte, but in what direction, I haven’t a clue.” He grunted. “They probably drove in circles to confuse me.”
Raines already knew he was going to seek these people out, investigate Quintas’ claims for himself; his own professional, not to mention personal curiosity would permit nothing less. Somehow, though, he doubted Quintas would be very forthcoming with any helpful information about where to begin, if he indeed had any to give.
“I’d be fascinated to see your notes from the time you spent with them,” he said carefully, trying not to sound eager.
Quintas saw through him immediately. He smiled. “Take my advice,” he said. “Leave it alone. Don’t go poking your nose into places that will likely get you killed.”
Raines sighed. “Then why have you told me all of this? Just to arouse my curiosity? Do you derive some perverse pleasure from dangling the proverbial carrot in front of me only to yank it away?”
Quintas glared at him, his eyes glassy from the effects of the alcohol. “It’s a warning, Doctor Raines. I’m warning you not to get involved should you make contact with any of these fanatics. I didn’t want you to stumble upon these secrets as I did, and pay for it with a lifetime of sleepless nights.”
Raines wasn’t going to be deterred. He’d find this clandestine cult; write a book about his own experiences with them. A bestseller, even. Worldwide acclaim. Perhaps even his own television special. Carl Sagan. Jacques Cousteau. Donald Raines.
“Okay,” he said. “Fair enough.