The Emerald Scarabs
Everyone at the museum was very happy with their new acquisition, as were several government functionaries and business leaders. A large exhibition would be held to celebrate the arrival of the emerald scarabs, beautifully carved stamps used by the ancient Syrians. Pierre Chavelle, the junior director of Antiquities, was the happiest of all. He had spearheaded the search, drummed up the funding, everything. He felt the scarabs would be a wonderful addition to the near- and Middle-Eastern History section, and would rather not speak of their somewhat mysterious provenance. All he could be forced to divulge to the press was that, “all the contractors we hire to find, buy and transport our acquisitions are always thoroughly vetted. Unfortunately, the current political situation there [in Syria] makes it inadvisable to publish any of their names.”
He tugged lightly at his bow-tie. Monsieur Le Grand, the museum’s director, would introduce him at any moment and ask him to say a few words, and he was easily flustered when faced with a live audience. He was much more at home with his artifacts. Still, he was immensely proud. He had spent months poring over records, indexes and directories. He had alerts set for every auction on the continent, and quite a few around the globe. But these scarabs were thin on the ground, and even the museums that had one or two were unwilling to lend them out, much less to sell them. On the open market, he could only find ones made from more common materials – limestone, terracotta, or black steatite.
“Madame et Monsieurs, please, give a warm round of applause to our very gifted junior director of Antiquities, Pierre Chavelle,” Monsieur Le Grande said in his resounding baritone.
He cleared his throat as he approached the podium. “Thank you. I would like to begin with a short introduction to the context of these marvelous pieces. I am sure you will...” He cleared his throat again and took a sip of water. “Find it as fascinating as I do.” He took a breath and launched into his speech. He had spent so long researching these objects that he hardly needed his cue cards. He was so engrossed in his explanation of the significance of the names on the stones that he didn’t notice Monsieur le Grande approaching until he felt his prodigious belly pressed against his arm.
“Let’s try and finish before tomorrow morning, eh?” he whispered gruffly.
“Uh, yes. Of course...” He tried to ignore Le Grande, standing a few feet away, smiling at him. “So, in conclusion – each of these stones is completely unique. Many of them bear the markings of identity of a people lost to time. And I... Think that’s pretty special.” He waited for this to sink in for the attendees, but he couldn’t tell if it did. “I’d also like to thank my team, who have worked thankless hours, and to... Uh, to all the people who helped us along the way.” He nodded a small bow at the attendees and stood aside. Monsieur Le Grande gave him a pat on the shoulder.
It was fortune that got him the scarabs in the end. As if from nowhere, a seller appeared on his radar, apparently with a never-before-seen collection. When he reached out, it was as if the man had been waiting for him. He never revealed his name, and Pierre only knew him as Al Taajir – the merchant. After a few days of negotiating and travel arrangements, Pierre finally laid eyes on them – two hundred scarabs, all emerald, all in remarkable condition. It was the most incredible moment of his career.
They were not cheap, and the assigned budget from the museum would never cover the costs. But Pierre knew he had to get them. He pulled every string he could, called all his contacts, and knocked down the door of every non-profit, cultural institute and educationally-minded millionaire in the country. He had gotten the money together, and a week later the crates had arrived with their carefully-packaged contents. He had sent an email to thank the seller, but hadn’t heard back since. Perhaps he had been too effusive in his gratitude.
The director finished his last words and walked over to the rope that would pull up the red curtain to reveal the exhibition. He paused for a moment with his hand on the rope to give the photographers time to snap him. Their shutters clattered for a few seconds, and when they stopped, there was an echo from behind the curtain. The photographers looked about, confused, but Le Grande pushed through.
“And now,” he said, having to raise his voice above the slowly growing din, “Our new exhibition!”
He pulled the rope, and Pierre’s first thought was that someone had ruined all their hard work in arranging the pieces in their cases. What they had carefully laid out in grids was now a haphazard mess, scarabs lying every which way. Then he saw one twitch. Another testing its wings. A few more, already flying confidently, spinning dizzyingly in the glass cubes. Pierre frowned at one in particular – it was bashing, as if on purpose, against the case. Already, cracks were beginning to spiderweb across its surface. A woman, one of their funders, stepped on his toe, snapping him out of his reverie. He looked about. Most guests were gawping, some were recording this spectacle on their phones, but some were making their way to the exits with worried expressions. Le Grande was completely dumbstruck, the limp rope still in his hand.
As the buzz grew louder and more and more of the scarabs started chipping at the cases with Stoic determination, even the guests who had thought this was some kind of prank fell silent. Le Grande had made a special point of noting the high-security, blast-resistant, bullet-proof glass employed for the exhibition, and now even the back rows could see the cracks appear and spread.