While Sanchez checked them out of the Hotel la Colombe, Philip waited in Timbuktu's sand-filled streets. The sand got in everything, even the bread, and if the peace of their first few nights in town before the occupation by the Tuareg rebels had held, the sand would've ranked as his number one annoyance with Timbuktu. He looked forward to seeing the dried-mud streets from a plane even if it meant trekking to the airport and breathing wind-whipped grains one last time.
As Sanchez approached, Philip's phone buzzed with a text message from Compagnie Arrienne du Mali. He unlocked his phone, but his fledgling French wasn't sufficient to pick up more then it was about their flight based on the flight numbers. He hoped it was a message reminding them of the flight times, but he didn't see any times. He held his phone out to Sanchez. "CAM airline just sent me a message."
Philip pulled on his shirt's collar to release the sand sticking to his sweaty skin. "When are we rescheduled?"
"Told you we should never have scheduled a flight on Friday the 13th."
"Don't be superstitious." Sanchez rolled his eyes. As head of the antiquities department, he had always taken his role seriously, never espousing anything but pragmatic science. "Wait here. I'll see if I can get rooms for another night."
Sanchez intercepted the desk clerk on his way to the single car parked in the hotel's lot. They stood too far away and besides, Philip wouldn't have understood more than the occasional word, but he did understand the way Sanchez flapped his arms. His lectures were renowned within the department. When he got passionate about a subject, his whole body moved. After a few exchanges, he collapsed into himself, looking defeated. He removed a phone from a pocket and jotted a note on the touchscreen.
The clerk climbed into his car and drove out of the parking lot, raising a cloud of dust that choked Philip as the car passed.
"With all the unrest, and travel advisories keeping tourists away, they're closing the hotel."
They were homeless, maybe for different reasons than the men huddled around heating grates in downtown Philadelphia. But at least the homeless in Philip's hometown wouldn't be buried by sand after a single night. "What will we do?"
"The clerk gave me the name of a local marabout who he said lends his rooms out to travelers in need."
"A phone number?"
"Just an address."
Philip struggled to pull the luggage down the streets to the marabout's house. Rolling luggage wasn't designed for sand, and within two blocks Philip's shirt was soaked with sweat. Ghosts of children distracted him, peeking from behind mud walls. And the moment he looked away from the road, his luggage's wheels caught on a pebble and he had to yank to free the luggage. He felt like an outsider.
The marabout's house was built from mud bricks. Two poles holding the bricks in place extended from the wall with dillapidated flags flapping over the door. Sanchez knocked.
When the door opened, exposing cool shadows, Sanchez entered, motioning Philip to remain on the threshold. Once inside, Sanchez spoke French with a man hidden in the shadows. His words were chopped and harsh and Sanchez's slow and the careful enunciation hinted that the marabout's French was poor.
Sanchez ushered Philip and the luggage into the room. Philip barely had space to pull everything in between the two of them and the marabout who'd opened a wooden chest and was pawing through the drawers.
He turned to them with two cords threaded through small leather pouches so they looked like a necklace. He spoke words, rubbing his fingers over the pouches, not the lilting rhythms of French but one of the half-dozen languages spoken in Timbuktu.
Philip raised an eyebrow and turned to Sanchez. "What's this?"
"Quiet. He was insistent that we follow their customs if we stay. We don't have any choice so we better not offend him."
Philip shrugged, he wasn't the one tied up in believing science was the only answer. He accepted the totem from the marabout and hung it around his neck, tucking it under his sweaty shirt.
They stowed the luggage in an empty room, and used a bowl to freshen up, changing into non-sweaty clothes before the marabout beckoned them to evening prayers. He led them to Sankore Mosque and Philip fretted at the freshening since all it had managed to accomplish was dirtying a second pair of clothes.
By the time they returned to the marabout's house, the light had disappeared and without electronic lights inside, they prepared for the night. Sanchez discarded his totem over the back of his luggage before lying on a mattress pushed against a wall.
"Didn't the marabout tell us to wear the totems at all times?"
"Philip, it's just superstition. Give it up."
At least the hotel had had air-conditioning, the marabout's rooms smelled of stale sweat, which wasn't surprising given the heat. Philip struggled to sleep, but couldn't get comfortable. Especially, when Sanchez began snoring within fifteen minutes.
Philip blinked. A ghost shimmered over Sanchez, the body crouching down to smother the man on the bed. Sanchez began to shake.
When Philip stood, he discovered the room was filled with a dozen ghosts. Their ghost-flesh was icy. Although his body could pass through the ghosts, he found it difficult, flinching from the psychic chills they induced. His hand closed on the totem around his neck. It was warm to his touch. He grabbed it, moving forward, the ghosts avoiding the pouch.
Philip found the totem Sanchez had discarded and draped it over Sanchez's neck. The ghosts faded.
Sanchez started. His hand moving to the totem. "What's this?"
"We may not understand superstitions, but what we don't understand might exist. Sleep now." At least one of them might as well.