Pink and yellow lights synchronized to the beat of the music flashed everywhere. People danced. A thousand people? Yes. And not just people. There were a couple of Jersey Devils spinning across the courtyard. They wouldn’t miss a chance to dance. I spotted a table of swamp crocs. And flying over the crowd I knew I caught a glimpse of some faeries. I moved through the dancers and the lights. If the Boogeyman were in Egypt, he’d be here. I made a note to tell him about it next time I saw him. Finally, I was at the place where you could stare right at the DJ’s Lion Paw toes. He was three stories tall. His lion body swayed to the music and, lit from below, his body cast a dancing shadow, complete with his wings. He held a red set of headphones to the ear of his very human face. I wondered if he would remember me at all. I was going to see. I saw a wheelchair lift and a set of stairs up to a platform where you could request a song, no doubt. I started up the stairs.
A man touched my arm. “Hey, you. Do you have a riddle?” I turned. He wore a black tshirt with white letters that spelled Security. He repeated, “You have to have a riddle ready to suggest a song. See the sign? No riddle, no song request.” I told him, “I don’t have a song request. I’m an old friend. I’m just coming to say hello.” He laughed. “We’re all old friends. You know how many old friends of his I meet here, about two hundred a week.” I laughed, “No really, I’m a friend.”
“You need a riddle, sir. Or you don’t go up. He can’t be bothered by every gawker and he can’t include thousands of songs, so you gotta have a riddle to ask him.” That was strange. I said, “I thought it was the other way around–you had to answer his riddle?” He looked away. “He doesn’t have time for this. Please move away from the stairs.” I put up my hands, “Okay, I’ve got a riddle.” I turned back to the stairs. He crossed his arms, “What is it?” I looked back and said, “It’s for him.” He said, “I have to approve all the riddles.” He touched my arm in a way that said, Come back down the stairs. I’d just walked eight blocks in the summer heat. I wasn’t going to be able to run up the stairs and get to the Sphinx first or wrestle this guard. He was serious. You had to tell him your riddle to make sure you had one. “If I can solve it, it’s not gonna stump him. And let me tell you, I was a star winner on American Jeopardy.”
Alexandria, Egypt, on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, is spectacular from the back of a Griffin at night, hundreds of feet in the air. Mela, the Griffin I met at Dragon Con, insisted I come with her a week later to meet the Sphinx. She felt nervous her first time trying to date after realizing that she couldn’t stay single for the rest of her life after her mate died. This was new territory for her. She needed a buddy. I couldn’t let her down now.
“What soars on eagle’s wings, runs with lion’s legs, and crushes with an eagle’s beak?” He shook his head. “No riddles about people you know. That’s not a riddle. A riddle is an answer everyone can recognize but your description has to be slightly misleading, causing most people, not myself, to be unable to recognize the common thing.” I threw up my hands, “I know what a riddle is!” I said. “Then give me a better riddle and you can see ‘your friend,’” he told me, moving between me and the stairs. A woman in a wheelchair came through the crowd. “I have a song request,” she said. He said, “Do you have a riddle?” She nodded, and looked at me, and then motioned for him to come closer. She didn’t want me to hear. He leaned down, and soon came back up. “That’s a good one! He’s gonna love that.” He secured her into the chair lift and she Wooted all the way up. He looked at me, gave me a cocky grin. “Got your riddle?”
“What mixes together to make the darkest midnight, but can also mix together and make the brightest morning?” I said.
He thought about it, his eyes shifting up to the right. “Okay,” he said. “You can go up.” We saw the red light flash beside him and he looked up to see that the young woman was ready to come back down. He lowered the chairlift and waved me onto the stairs. “Don’t take too long with him. Other people have song requests.” I walked up the stairs and saw the young woman coming back on the way down. She beamed. “He’s really dreamy in person!” she said. She slipped a black and white photo, now signed, back into an envelope.
Until the “dreamy” Sphinx, Egypt had a very bad, cruel policy about how they dealt with “monsters.” Any Hidden that came out would be captured, held, tortured, and then released. Eqyptians called this mild, tolerant behavior. At least they didn’t kill them like Russia, they said. Then the Sphinx came along—or should I say, came back home about twelve years ago. The Egyptian government loved him. He was a Monster, but he was their monster, everything they loved about themselves. What a tourism benefit! they must have thought. They used him in all their marketing. This 30-foot god. What do you do when you’ve been hiding in fear of persecution from a place, and then come out and become a god there? The Sphinx immediately proclaimed every Hidden an aspect of Divine Expression—and the people, I guess, listened to the him. They wouldn’t touch him for fear of damning themselves or their city. For the last ten or so years, it had been safe for Hiddens within Alexandria. At night, they danced with everyone here at the palace gardens beside the beach. He protected them. He turned Alexandria into one big safe dance club.
I got to the top of the stairs. There he was: a three-story giant lion with wings and a human face—with his headphones on—rocking out to the music he was blending and creating. He looked up at me, “Yukon! Hey!!” I smiled, “Puddin’!” He laughed, slapped his belly. “They don’t make enough chocolate pudding here.” He leaned in, “What’s your riddle?” I told him.
He nodded, saying, “The color spectrum—the first is when you mix paints, and the second is when you mix light. But it’s a good one! What can I play for you?” I said, “Asim, I have someone I want you to meet.”
Mela the Gryphon from Dragon Con had flown all the way from the US, taking me with her as moral support, only to turn around at the last minute and land about eight blocks away. She was scared. “I don’t know if I can do it.” She needed some time to think. I gave it to her. She said, eventually, “I want you to go up there and reconnect with him first. See if he’s still the kind of person you thought he was. Sometimes you change and you may not be the person you were.” She wasn’t sure even if she was the same person she was, “I was singing mourning songs a month ago. Now I’m breaking all my traditions. People can change in an instant. I don’t want to put myself in a vulnerable position if he is not the same kind of person you said he was.” I agreed. It was important for me to find out.
So here I was doing that. I told Asim, “She really needs a friend.” He smiled, a warm smile, the kind I remembered when Goody and I knew him, when he was wandering in the Mojave, hiding in the Sierra Nevadas, unsure if there was anyone like him at all, or if they would hate him as he believed his home country would. Asim said to bring her up. He would love to meet her. He’d even give her a riddle to get past the guard. I said, “She’s nervous. She’s been through a really hard time in her life. But she really wants to meet you.” He said he was doing autographs in about two hours if I wanted to wait.
“She can’t come up the stairs. But she can fly. She’s as big as you are!” His eyes got wide. “As big as me?” I said, laughing, “That’s what she said when I told her about you!”
I felt a big gust of wind and I thought it was him at first with those wings, but no—it was her with her wings. She had landed directly above us on the roof of the Inn. He looked up, surprised, as I was—could she hear us? I looked at his jaw drop. Had he ever seen a Hidden as big as he was? Had he ever met a Gryphon? Judging from his face, I would say no. I said, “Asim, this is my friend, Mela!”
He was stunned into silence. She also was not talking. The music around them kept the beat going. He awkwardly called up, “What’s your riddle?” Oh, why did he do that? She didn’t have a riddle ready. I looked at him and he seemed to be tongue-tied. She—she was pulling back. I looked at her, trying to tell her not to worry. “Mela, this is my friend, Asim. He’s a sphinx.” I got stuck trying to create conversation, “You both have wings of eagles, or hawks,” I said, punting, “and you both have the bodies of lions.” They both looked at me, insulted. Asim said, “Lions have our bodies.” She said, “Eagles have Gryphon wings.” Asim looked at her, “Exactly.” He lifted a finger for both of us to wait as he switched back to the turntable and programmed something in, listening carefully through his headphones, as he cued up the next song, and then pressed a button, and the music shifted, and a low, steady beat met a progression of chords, and then a man’s voice in Arabic sang. Asim turned around, “Okay, where were we?”
Mela had straightened back, spread out her wings, her claws clinging to the edge of the roof as she looked over the courtyard, and sang—a high lilting descant that matched the melody perfectly. The melody was sad, but powerful. This was a mourning song, I realized. She was singing her mourning song over the dance music, a countermelody—a counter feeling to the joy of the Arabic song he played. Above us, lit by the lamps, she was full and huge and powerful and her wings spread across the rooftops. I looked back at Asim. His eyes had gone soft, watery. He was smiling.
Well, that went better than I thought. Down on the dance floor, some dancers had stopped to look up at her, pointing. Her voice carried across the courtyards, the gardens. I saw people turning as far as the palace. The combination of her mourning and the electric happiness did not clash at all. People started dancing again—but slower. How can these two emotions exist in the same place at the same time? Isn’t that the most human riddle of all? The existence of pain and joy in the same person. Pain and joy in the same moment. Pain and joy in the same face. When she stopped, the crowd of thousands burst into applause and Bravos as if an opera singer had just debuted. She looked down at Asim. I knew then that we would wait two hours or three till Asim was done. That they would talk and I would find a room somewhere in the Paradise Inn and sleep. And they would be together all night, till morning had broken through.