The Great Sand Sea of Egypt is just that: a wasteland of sand replete with shimmering waves of heat and the infamous khamisin, the fifty-day season of "stale heavy winds that are discharged from the Sudanese wastes." Despite the usual inconveniences, sand in your eyes, up your nose, in your teeth, in your bed, the astronomer Sanford Thayer has brought Egyptian and Sudanese workers to build here, in the sand, a triangle.
Did you say triangle? Yes, an equilateral one: A = B = C = A. Each arm is "306 miles and 1,663 yards in length ... each trench five miles in width."
Thayer has determined that in daytime the desert's perfect black triangle cast up on the white sands, incontrovertible proof of terrestrial intelligence, will be visible to indigenous observers equipped with telscopes on the planet Mars.
When this project is completed, and each side filled with goo, black goo (or better, petroleum) then they will know we are here, that we are speaking the language we all understand, the language of mathematics. On the 17 of June 1894, in case they --- the Martians --- don't get the picture, the goo will be lit, a massive triangular body burning brightly in the night to let them know that we are wise, filled with intelligence and purpose, so much so that we can spend sixteen million British pounds digging trenches in the form of a triangle.
You doubt that there are people on Mars? Remember that we've seen their canals. starting with Giovanni Schiaparelli back in 1877, peering through his 8.7 inch telescope. He saw straight lines which he labelled "canali," which can mean "gullies" or "channels." When the English-speakers got hold of them they became "canals" ... and Schiaparelli didn't demur.
Others were to follow, including the Irish astronomer Charles E. Burton and the self-taught astronomer Percival Lowell of Boston who mapped them, even wrote a book Mars As the Abode of Life. And not only did these enthusiasts see the canals; if you looked closely in 1892 and 1894, during "opposition," you could see dark blobs, obviously lakes near the base of the canals to store water. Along the edges, some could see and draw darker patches that could only mean one thing: vegetation. The denizens of Mars not only knew how to draw water from the two poles by means of canali, they were growing kale and broccoli and spinach and perhaps Martian artichokes to baste with canal-flavored lemon butter. A civilization with gourmet tastes equal to our own!
Since Mars is only 206,669,000 kilometers (128,418,000 miles) from us when it reaches opposition --- that is, when the planet draws closest to the earth --- Thayer thought it would be the ideal time to make our approach. They can't hear us, nor feel us nor, probably, see us as individuals --- but if we lay out a big imprint on the face of the desert filled with enough burning goo, then they can see it and know that we are here, alive, and that we want to be pals.
It becomes another Big Project that the Victorians were so fond of, in this case 900,000 men employed in digging the Great Triangle ... 200,000 more than were engaged at Suez. The goo that will be set aflame at opposition, at the right moment, consists of 22,000,000 barrels of pitch "to be consumed in a single night." The cost: £16,000,000 sterling, some "collected in small coins from the schoolchildren of six nations."This Kalfus is a terrific story-teller. Equilateral is filled to the brim not only with oily goo, but paradox, poetry, and, at times, high comedy. Astronomer Thayer becomes enchanted by his "attendant." One night, he tries to seek her out in the women's dormitory. The Turk --- Pasha --- is in charge. Thayer asks for her by the only name he knows, "Bint."
"Bint." Daoud Pasha says. "That's the word for 'girl' in Arabic. Your former attendant's name is Alya. Your new attendant's name is Wadha. If you prefer, I can send you Noora. She's especially lovely, in her way. You can call her Bint too."
"Her name's not Alya," Thayer insists. "Her name is Bint."
"Every girl is a bint. Your mother is a bint. My mother is a bint. I have a bint for a wife, and Allah in His infinite wisdom has blessed me with four bints. And so it is written."
Throughout this and the rest of the book there is a divine confusion. "And so it is written." There is confusion over the girl's name: who she is, what she does (or doesn't) do. The Egyptians are certainly befuddled by this monster triangle in the desert sands. Those who hear the word "canals" are convinced that there must be superior intelligence behind these engineering masterworks on Mars.
When Thayer and Bint are looking though his telescope at the red planet, he tells her,
"Look well, Bint ... Look hard. Everything worth seeing lies at the edge of visibility."
He adds, "Every discovery lies within the standard error of measurement. The most important truths about the cosmos can hardly be separated from illusion."
Thayer and a member of the royal family go aloft to see the project from above, and, at one point, the pilot of their hot-air balloon turns and attacks the Khedive with a knife. We are told later that "The police have thoroughly investigated the assassination attempt. They've discovered certain stratagems, deceits, maneuvers, and intrigues within plots within conspiracies. A network of faint lines has become momentarily visible." A network of faint lines has become momentarily visible.
In our final look at Mars, Thayer spots something outside the disk of the planet, "a line, a red-pink fluorescing line, that he has never seen before. None of us have." Here we have a rare use of the first person plural, as rare as the color trail above the surface of Mars, "the unavoidable impression of the smoky effluvia that typically accompanies the discharge of a terrestrial cannon." This silent discharge results in "a single luminosity off the planet's surface," perhaps, one might think --- or at least Thayer does --- a sign of something that may be coming our way.
It is rare for this critic to become so involved with what we used to call "a tall story" like this one; it's even rarer to get sucked into the flower of mystery that only begins to blossom on the final pages. Our Bint is giving birth, no? But is it possible that something else is being delivered at the same moment? Why did Thayer just call for the building of "a customs house" next to the triangle? And what is that noise? "A foreign howl, a prolonged wail, slices through the sickroom. It reverberates against the walls and shivers the windows."
No one speaks as they wait for the next signal, the inevitable call of life; intelligent, companionable, needful, rampant life.