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GOLD

ALAN LIGHTMAN, MASSACHUSETTS INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY

At first, he stood behind the green beaded curtain, simply watching her. In the far corner of the room, she knelt on the floor and worked slowly on a small woven basket. Every few moments, she paused to straighten her back. Her bare arms glowed in the flickering light of the sesame oil lamp. To him, she seemed sad. What was he doing here? he thought to himself. Better to have stayed at his farm, where he could get soused with his sheep, count stars in the hard empty night. He started to turn, but his foot caught a hanging mat.

"Keb!" Her basket dropped to the floor.

Now that he saw her full face, she was even more beautiful than he remembered. Her high cheekbones, the long curve of her neck, her lips. She wore a tapered robe of white linen, held at her shoulders by delicate thin straps, and he could see the outline of her breasts beneath the cloth. Awkwardly, he wiped his mouth with his sleeve. His tunic smelled of goat, onions, and manure.

"Keb," she repeated. Her hands trembled, like his.

He fumbled with something in his pocket. Could he give it to her now? He wanted to flee, but he also wanted to ride out this sudden bursting of flutes in his brain, he wanted for once in his life to do something right, he wanted to make love to her. His eyes moved hesitantly around the room, to a bowl of pomegranates on a table, a terra-cotta jar, a single narrow window with its painted wood grille. She was born in this house. Nineteen years she had lived in this house. Her younger sisters were already married.

He would give it to her now, the necklace, made of the miraculous yellow metal that was both warm and cool to the touch, that never tarnished, that could be hammered into a sheet as thin as a layer of sunlight on water. The necklace had cost him 27 sacks of radishes and spinach. He would have paid a hundred. No one had ever seen such a necklace.

"It's for you." He held out the gift. It glinted and gleamed in the light.

She took one step toward him. It seemed to him that she looked at him with pity.

VOLKER STEGER/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY
"Please," he said. How he wanted to fasten that necklace around the curve of her neck, to hold her. He imagined taking her away from this small stifling house, teaching her to paint, brushing her hair in the evening. He had inherited property, he had become something now. A slight breeze came through the window and rustled the beads. Somewhere, he heard chimes. Voices whispered in another part of the house. Then the room was silent again, so silent that he could hear the minute scratchings of a cicada crawling across the stone floor and a muffled thumping that must have been the beating of his heart. Would she not come closer? Why did she look at him that way? She was a silhouette now, standing in front of the single oil lamp. He could smell the lotion of terebinth on her skin.

"It is beautiful," she said, looking at him. "Give it to someone else." She touched his hand for a moment, then returned to her basket.

Outside, he threw the necklace into the darkness. Never. He slammed his hand into a stone post and watched as the dark blood trickled to the ground.


Alan Lightman, author of "Einstein's Dreams," is a physicist and novelist and adjunct professor of humanities at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His most recent book is the novel "Reunion."

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GOLD AT A GLANCE
Name: From the Anglo-Saxon geolo, yellow. The symbol comes from Latin aurum, shining dawn.
Atomic mass: 196.97.
History: Known to ancient civilizations.
Occurrence: Found free in nature and associated with quartz, pyrite, and other minerals. Two-thirds of the world's supply comes from South Africa, and two-thirds of the U.S. supply is from South Dakota and Nevada. Gold is found in seawater, but no effective economic process has been designed yet to extract it from this source.
Appearance: Soft, shiny yellow metal that can also appear black, ruby, or purple when finely divided.
Behavior: Gold is the most malleable and ductile metal. It is unaffected by air and most reagents, and is a good conductor of heat and electricity. Gold is generally nontoxic.

Uses: Commonly used in jewelry, although it often needs to be alloyed with other metals to give it more strength. Gold alloys are also used to make decorative items, dental fillings, and coins. Because gold is a good reflector of infrared radiation, it can be used to help shield spacecraft and skyscrapers from the sun's heat. Aradioactive isotope of gold, gold-198, is used for treating cancer, and gold sodium thiosulfate is used to treat arthritis.


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