Isadora Zidan ignored the covert looks and the excited whispers as she walked into the upscale restaurant. As a well-known Hollywood actress, she was used to the attention.
Isadora looked stunning in a shimmering, dark green short dress. Her long, shapely legs ended in a pair of stylish stilettos. Careful make-up and naturally youthful skin hid her age and made her look much younger than forty.
She had olive skin, thick slanted brows, dark luxuriant hair inherited from an Egyptian father, and striking blue eyes, courtesy of an American mother.
The maitre hurried towards her and guided her into the private dining area.
Mark, the casting agent, got up from his seat and gave Isadora a hug and a lingering kiss on her cheeks.
As the sommelier and the maitre approached them to take their orders, Isadora’s heartbeat went on overdrive as the details of her bank statement flashed through her mind briefly. She was down to her last five thousand dollars. Unless she got a well-paying role with a good director ASAP, she was doomed.
While Mark had a detailed discussion with the maitre’d about the menu and the accompanying wines, Isadora sat poker-faced.
She chose a simple salad and a bottle of mineral water for herself.
Mark let out a teensy burp and looked up at Isadora enquiringly.
“So, yesterday, I went out with a few friends for drinks. One of them is the girlfriend of director Tomasso. After one too many, she let out about the extravagant movie Tomasso plans to produce and direct. It’s still a secret. Entirely set in Eygpt, it’s the story of the not-so-well-known Eygptian Queen, Nefertari. I have done my research and learned all about her. While everyone is familiar with Nefertiti, Nefertari is relatively unknown. She is famed for being the typical beauty with brains. She was the only lady of her times who could read the hieroglyphics.”
Mark was listening to her attentively.
“I want that role by hook or by crook. Tomasso is planning to announce the movie next month. I want him to declare me as the heroine in the press releases.”
Mark sounded highly skeptical. “There are so many newer and younger and, let’s face it, sexier girls available. Why would he choose a has-been actress like you for the role? Also, I remember how your last film bombed at the box office and the unkind reviews the critics gave you. I saw the movie too. It certainly looked like you had lost touch. You were certainly hamming it up.”
Isadora winced as she remembered the scathing words of one of the critics verbatim.
‘Looks like Isadoradora has lost her magic touch. Her acting skills have gone for a toss. In this movie, she has tried to pass off the ‘baring of teeth’ for a smile. Let alone reaching her eyes, the expression never even started at her lips. AND her idea of crying? Scrunching up her eyes and releasing a few glycerin-induced tears? She had a stony, vacant expression throughout the movie. Where has Isodora Zidan, the Golden Globe award winner, dIsadorappeared to? It’s high time Isadora follows, quits Hollywood, and walks away into the sunset.’
She did not show her distress and replied in an upbeat voice. “Everyone has their ups and downs. I was going through a personal crisis during that shoot, and it showed. Just a temporary creative block, that’s all. Do you really think I could have reigned as a popular Hollywood actress if I did not have it in me? Believe me; I am back in the game.”
Mark sounded unconvinced. “Let me be blunt. Tomasso is a friend, and I can sway him. But the final decision to cast you depends on Bob, who would be the assistant director, as always. He is a tough nut to crack, and also, he hates you, as you know.”
Isadora replied saucily, “Hey, Mark, I thought it was your job to sell me. And I know you certainly can if you set your heart on it. You just convince Tomasso and the rest, and I can deal with.
He shook his head and took out his mobile, and started browsing through in a dismissive gesture.
Isadora continued, “I have an edge over the other contenders. The love story of Nefertari and Ramesses 11 is a not-so-well-known chapter in Egyptian history and is going to be the focus of the movie. By a great coincidence, I have a Nefertari connection. My dad was an Egyptian and purportedly a descendant of the royal family of the Ramesses, and I have inherited the Egyptian noble looks from him. So you have a huge selling point to promote me. I already look the part.”
Mark kept the phone down, leaned towards her conspiratorily, and said, “I can do it if you throw in an incentive for me too.” With an obnoxious smirk, he continued, “You know how I have always fancied you?”
Isadora ignored his pot belly, his ugly mug, and his bald pate, looked at him seductively, placed her hands on his, and whispered in a sexy voice, “Oh. I do.”
Isadora had reached Cairo a week earlier than needed so that she could enjoy the sights. For some reason, she had felt an instant connection to Eygpt. She felt an unusual sense of familiarity with the place and the people. Was it because of her roots set in the country? Was it some primordial channel that lay claim to her whole being? Or it could simply be that no one recognized her or chased her for autographs, giving her a total sense of freedom.
Bob, the assistant director, had arrived earlier to do some promotional videos and had asked her to be available for an early morning shoot.
The sands were still cool from the previous night. The sun rose in majestic orange-red hues from behind the pyramids. A few camels and tents on the vast empty sands made the background.
Isadora wore an itsy bitsy two-piece costume of glimmery russet, glittering with sequins. Her olive skin glowed with a bronze sheen. Her blue eyes sparkled underneath the shimmering blue eyeshadow, adding mystery to the depth of her eyes.
A few silhouette shots were filmed as she emerged from the dark, seated on a camel. Some others were clicked with a side profile and the backdrop of the mighty Pyramids.
Bob asked for a few close-ups, and that’s when the trouble began.
Bob’s voice commanded, “Soulful look” on the mike.
Whatever expressions Isadora managed to come up with, Bob was not satisfied. He made the camera person change directions and asked the makeup people to touch up her face. He hollered on the mike, “More intense,” and ‘Express with your eyes.” But nothing seemed to work.
Finally, with a disgusted snort, he yelled, “That’s a wrap.”
Bob summoned her to his room.
He did not even bother with being nice.
“Isadora, After your hamming session this morning, I have no other option but to replace you with a different actress. My God! You were lousy. Your acting skills were atrocious. Let me be frank. I did not want you in the movie. But only because Tomasso insisted we settled for you. This movie is very important for the production company. I don’t want the movie to bomb on account of such a deplorable performance from you.”
She knew in her heart that Bob was right. The creative block seemed to be continuing. How much ever she tried to bring in her emotive skills, she could not. The harder she tried, the more her talent played truant.
But she confidently replied, “Bob, I am still jet-lagged. I did not sleep a wink last night, and it showed in my performance. Let’s wait till Tomasso is here and then take a call.”
Bob nodded reluctantly.
She googled to find solutions to break the invisible creative block wall. One answer was to walk away from the conflict and take a few days off.
Anyway, Tomasso and the other crew were arriving only the next week, and the actual shooting would begin then.
On the spur of the moment, Isadora decided to take a luxury cruise on the River Nile, using the advance payment she had received for the movie.
If she was unceremoniously dumped, she did not want to lose out on exploring the mysteries of the ancient country.
She hastily wiped out the image of her perilously low bank balance from her memory.
Isadora sat on the private deck of a Nile River cruise ship, marveling at the beauty of the Egyptian countryside.
The Nile was a shimmering blue ribbon, the lush, life-giving artery along which the history of Eygpt had unfolded. The ancient tombs and temples were all located on the banks of the magnificent river.
She had never sensed this kind of peace ever in her life. It was as if she had come home. In a way, it was home because she was on the land where her forefathers, the Ramesses, once ruled. Was the feeling of contentment some primitive call of the ancestry running through her blood, or was it just the enchantment of the ancient civilization?
She was on her way to The Valley of Queens, which housed the tomb of Nefertari. The guide from whom she had heard about it had waxed eloquently about the finest tomb in the whole of Egypt, dedicated to the Queen, as a shrine to her beauty.
Ever since she heard of Nefertari, Isadora had been fascinated by her and could think of nothing else. Since learning about her at the pub in Hollywood, she had been bewitched and enchanted by her persona. That was another reason she wanted to feature as the queen in the movie.
The guide offered her his hand, and she stepped onto the island.
They passed through paved roads lined with quaint shops selling curios and artifacts. There were mini pyramids, wooden masks, papyrus scrolls, colorful jewel boxes with geometric patterns, and bust-sized replicas of Queen Nefertari displayed outside the storefronts.
Little kids were on the streets, selling cheaper versions of the same trinkets.
After the heat outside, the coolness of the tomb felt soothing to the skin.
Isadora stood mesmerized. Golden-colored stars festooned the ceiling of the tomb.
The place which housed Nefertari’s sarcophagus lay empty. The tomb raiders had stolen it along with the buried treasures and her mummified body, long back.
The walls of the tomb were covered with brilliantly colored paintings of the Queen, in which Nefertari was shown to be in the company of Gods, with associated texts which guided Nefertari on how to transform into a bird in the afterlife.
In one of the paintings, she was pictured wearing a divinely transparent white gown and a golden headdress depicting a vulture and two long feathers extending from its back.
Isadora did not want to leave, but the guide hustled her, and they came out.
As they walked out and were finding their way back to the cruise, Isadora hopped into one of the shops and browsed through. There were many wooden masks of Nefertari she liked. But the specter of her bank balance rose in her mind, and she satisfied herself by clicking their photo on her mobile.
The Eygptian shopkeeper had been looking at her curiously ever since she had entered. He approached her and said, “Madame, you look a lot like our Queen Nefertari. Are you from Eygpt?”
Isadora was delighted, and in a way, it was true. She did resemble the queen as portrayed in the paintings.
She explained about her father and was leaving when he beckoned her. “Madame, I have a special item to show you.”
Curious, she followed him into the back of the shop, passing through a curtain of beads.
From under the table, he produced a mask of the Queen Nefertari. Unlike the wooden ones outside, this was made of white translucent material and could mold itself to the face.
She slowly reached for the mask. A jolt went through her when her fingers brushed it as if she had received a shock.
“This one is not for all the tourists, Madame. This is exclusively for you. Please try it on after returning to your room. Especially when you need to impress someone.”
Isadora let her guide haggle for it and paid with her card.
The proprietor murmured to her, “You have paid only a part of the price. You will pay the rest when you learn its use”.
She looked up at him in shock, without understanding his words.
“Nefertari never gives anything for free.”
Did the shopkeeper actually wink at her, or was it some play of light that made her see the conspiratorial batting of an eye?
The joy of shopping was replaced immediately by a sense of worry.
They would pay for her return airfare even if she were unceremoniously dropped from the project. But once back in Hollywood, Isadora did not know how she would live. The rents were due, and she had to pay the traders supplying her daily needs.
Back in her room in Cairo, she got a call. Tomasso had landed the previous day and asked her to come for a meeting in the evening.
Her heart sank. She knew that the axe was going to fall. She had to impress Tomasso somehow.
As she got ready, she noticed the mask lying on the top of her suitcase. She remembered the shopkeeper’s words. She grabbed it and put it on.
She again felt the jolt. It was as if a storm had passed through her. Her thoughts were being yanked out, and it felt as if her mind was overtaken by someone else.
She reeled and tumbled into the chair, the mask still in place. She sat bewildered and stunned, not knowing what was happening.
The image of Nefertari slowly popped up out of the blankness, unbidden. It was as of the queen stood in front of her. Neferteri clapped her hands and laughed uproariously. As Isadora watched, other images followed in slow succession. Nefertari shed tears, flirted coquettishly, smiled serenely, stomped angrily, and prayed devoutly.
The images were life-size. It was as if she was watching close-ups on a giant screen.
Once Isadora’s mind adjusted to the show, she slowly leaned back and observed the expressions minutely.
She felt Nefertari was giving her a quick personal lesson on ‘how to be Nefertari.’
She noticed how the lips parted languorously, showing perfect teeth, when she smiled in seduction. She observed how her eyes gleamed and snapped in anger and how her lips curved down and eyes turned somber before tears appeared.
She absorbed the techniques greedily-Learning and retaining the expressions in her mind- Like a dehydrated person quenching her thirst- Like hot sand absorbing raindrops.
She walked into the auditorium, where the technicians were getting ready for a video shoot of the launch. Tomasso and Bob stood in a corner chatting. Wires from strobe lights and mikes crisscrossed the floors.
A red carpet covered the stage, and dreamy video footage of pyramids, camels, and deserts was being cast on the screen behind. Oriental music was playing in the background.
Tomasso noticed Isadora and approached her with his hands outstretched for a hug. Bob stood stiff, his body language giving away his dislike for her.
On a sudden whim, she sidestepped Tomasso and lightly ran up the stage. She took up the mike and waited till she had everyone’s attention.
She announced, “Folks, meet Nefertari,” and threw the mike on the table.
Her head held high, her shoulders in an arrogant lift, she walked the stage in lofty hauteur. Then she suddenly stopped, pirouetted on her heels, and changed her demeanor to show sweet love, her eyes turning soft and luminous, a gentle smile tugging at her tender lips.
By then, people gathered around the TV screens that focussed on Isadora as she owned the stage. Tomasso stood watching her, enthralled by the expressions that flitted across her face.
She halted on her tracks and started raging at the audience, her anger palpable in her fiery eyes and tight lips. She began pacing the stage aggressively. As suddenly, she stopped, and in a trice, her lips trembled in sudden grief, a lone tear escaping deeply sorrowful eyes.
She finished her impromptu performance and bent low as the audience clapped for her. She saw Tomasso grinning widely at her audacity. She looked for Bob and found him sitting by himself with slouched shoulders on a chair.
The movie was a resounding success, followed quickly by a sequel and prequel. Isadora was featured as Nefertari in all three films.
She won an Oscar and again became the darling of Hollywood.
She bought a sprawling mansion in an upscale suburb of Hollywood and invested wisely so that she would never become bankrupt.
Ten years later.
Isadora stood looking into the mirror. An old lady, shriveled and withered, stared back at her.
As soon as the shooting for the franchise’s last movie got done, Isadora began aging. It was not a gradual process but a sudden and overnight transformation.
She ruefully thought about what the Egyptian storekeeper had warned her.
Nefertari had extracted her pound of flesh. Clearly, she did not want Isadora to be anyone else except herself.