A Rebellion in Heaven
1. The Perfume of the Gods
2. The Realm of the Dead
3. The City of Dogs
4. The Gate of Shades
7. House of Life
8. The Lotus Lake
9. The Hall of Osiris
10. The Gate of Dawn
A Rebellion In Heaven
A novel of ancient Egypt
This lyrical and poetic tale is set in ancient Egypt, when Pharaohs and strange but divine beings ruled over the fates of all.
Enter Anubis ---a young god, powerful, introspective, and heir to the throne of the Afterlife. Within himself he harbours a dark secret, one that throws his immortal soul into chaos, and drives him to the edge of despair.
For him, the only answer lies in escape ---escape from the Underworld, by way of mysterious passages, and out into the world of living mortals. It is here that he undertakes a spiritual journey, to rediscover the meaning of his life.
Enter Iset ---the poor but beautiful widow, who steals Anubis's heart, and who tempts him to abandon his divinity, for the sake of an earthly life, and its many pleasures.
But how far will he go, to claim what he truly desires? Will he sacrifice the gift of eternity? And will he risk unleashing a rebellion, which could threaten to bring down the very pillars of heaven itself?
This poignant new novel from the author of Blood of a Barbarian, and Panzerfaust, is a clever blend of historical fiction, myth, spiritual adventure, and fantasy. It is, above all, a meditation upon the eternal questions that we all ask ourselves: What is the meaning of life? How can one be happy? And how does one learn to give, and to receive, true love?
All that day long the activity in the Palace had not ceased. Servants ran to and fro, attending to the biddings of myself and their other masters, while the wide mirrored hallways echoed to the sound of their footfalls. Everything had to be perfect. The incense had to be lit, the walls and statuary polished, and the chairs and tables arranged. No one was allowed to sit idle, not even for a moment. Even within our private royal chambers, the pace was at a fever pitch, as our personal maids and footmen fussed over the smallest details of our make-up and attire, checking and rechecking everything to be sure that nothing was out of place.
Though I myself am the firstborn son of an extremely powerful family, I have never taken things too seriously, which has always been my manner. Granted, the guests were on their way, and a favourable impression must be made, but nevertheless, I dismissed my footmen, preferring to rummage through my clothes alone, and to dress myself. It was always the same with me: A stiff linen Shendyt skirt, worn leather sandals, a black woven shirt (to symbolize death and rebirth) and lastly, an ornately carved mask, meant to represent a desert Jackal. I never put on the mask till the last minute though, because it was hot and stuffy inside, and it was hard to see out of the eye-holes, so in the meantime, I carried it under my arm. I knew that many in my family were fussy, and would already have spent some hours gazing at themselves in their polished mirrors. My mother and my stepmother in particular, did that most days, and even at night, having their eyes painted with black Kohl, and their nails and hands decorated with Henna, before being bathed in the mist of a variety of perfumes, myrtle and spices. Then, donning their coloured shawls, and with an impressive gesture, they would dismiss their lady-maids, and sweep out of the room, a cloud of scent following in their wakes. My father, a very different sort, was both stern and ever-patient, and would sit for hours with his eyes closed as the painters with their brushes applied many shades and hues of green to his pallid and long-suffering face. He endured all this without a word, because he knew it had to be done.
Lucky were the very few of us who were able to wear masks instead, for we did not have to go through with all that to the same degree as our elders, whose faces showed, and who had to do much to conform to our guests’ expectations. That was an important fact. None of the guests was allowed to see us before we’d had a chance to prepare for them. Each week we had a new batch of arrivals, sometimes a dozen, and sometimes only a few. Today we had six coming to stay with us, and they would be here within minutes, and as the Chief Custodian it was my task to welcome them to the Palace, and so I had to be on my way.
I then left my private rooms, and worked my way down the corridor, to where everyone in my extended family was already waiting. In making towards the Reception Hall, I passed through the Hall of Pillars, which was a very large and dank room, whose roof was upheld by one hundred stone columns. In the centre of this vast space, there was a large, stagnant pool, and a fountain, which was filled with rotting leaves. It had not been cared for in decades, and the whole vast place smelled of decaying vegetation. And yet I liked it, and often sought refuge and solitude in one of its dark corners.
When at last I reached the Reception Hall, I checked to see that everything was correct, and that all had been laid out as it was supposed to be. Most of those who were expected -the forty-two members of our dynasty-had already seated themselves, and were waiting patiently. The chairs had been specially placed, so that everyone faced in the same direction, towards the Great Golden Doorway. I noticed that my mother and stepmother had not yet arrived, which was typical, and so there would have to be a slight delay in the day's proceedings. I disliked making the guests wait, and also resented having to stand there, sweating in my tight-fitting mask. I would have preferred to take it off, but it was forbidden to remove it once you had entered the hall.
Finally, after the passing of an age, they arrived, and grandly took their seats amidst a flurry. I have to admit that both of them are beautiful looking women -my mother especially, who was wearing a close-fitting dress of pale linen, and a raven-dark wig, while her slim neck and dainty waist were draped with lapis-lazuli and amethyst stones. My stepmother was no less a sight, coming into the room like a whiff of breeze. She went barefoot, and wore a turquise dress that was covered in silver-work and beads. Both of them liked to make an entrance, and were always trying to outdo one another.
Now that everyone was assembled, I looked up to my droop-lidded father, who signalled that the time had come. I turned, and began to walk through the towering Golden Doors, then down the long passageway beyond, that led to the Palace’s entrance.
It was difficult to see in the dark passage, especially through my Jackal mask, and so I was led by a seeing-guide, who’s flaming torch illuminated our steps. When we reached the end, we came before the entrance door, a very humble stonework affair, which was guarded by two spearmen. I signalled to the guards, and they opened the door, which creaked on its rusty hinges.
There, waiting on the landing, were the six guests, four men, and two women, and, also as expected, they were terrified. I tried in vain to reassure them, by lifting my arms in a sign of welcome, but this never did much good. It was my job to see them safely in, and to set their minds at ease, but that was a difficult task. One by one, they tentatively approached, and then crossed the threshold, until all of them were inside.
This small group was led by the man who wore a crown, and who had the mark of royalty upon him, a King no doubt. The other men were nobles as well, and the women were dressed as Queens. It was no surprise to me that the crowned one appeared to be the bravest of the lot; he carried himself with the most dignity, and this, I noted to myself, would serve him well in the tests to come.
At this point, I was still not allowed to speak, or else I would have done more to be comforting. I just turned, and taking the King’s hand, began to lead them all down the passage. The closer we got to the light at the end of the tunnel, which marked the entrance to the Reception Hall, the more the guests began to tremble, and the women to openly weep. Every now and then I raised a hand, not to rebuke them in their tears, but to silence them in their anxiety with as much compassion as I could. It was always the same story: Our guests were frightened. They wanted to turn back and to run away; wanted to flee what they knew was coming. But the spearmen who followed us prevented this from becoming a reality.
I never failed to be intrigued by our guests, was fascinated by the musk they gave off; was both repelled by it and drawn to it. The smell of their bodies was partly sweat, partly dirt, and water, and partly sand. The scent of the desert was upon them, and of the holy and eternal River Nile, and the heat of the sun, new-born. It emanated from their well-preserved flesh like the heat of the humid breath of basking crocodiles, who lazed along the banks where the royal barques sail idly by; and the scent of birds was upon them too, and of the blue lapis-lazuli sky, and of all of the myriad numbers of things that make up the earthly life.
At last we came to the end of the passage, and the light there was bewildering and dazzling. The torches that lined the walls blazed, and the bundles of myrrh that had been lit filled the hall with its smokey haze, and saturated our clothing and our nostrils. One by one, I presented our trembling visitors to the outstretched row of my family line, each of the forty-two judges in turn, who nodden their heads in acknowledgement. The guests did not seem at all surprised to learn the truth of the identities of those before them, for long had they been preparing themselves, and acquainting their vague life senses with the heavenly order and the set rituals they had known that they would eventually, one day, face.
Lastly, I presented myself to the guests, speaking all the while in a booming voice, and intoning the sacred words, just as I had been taught. ‘I am Anubis!’ I said, ‘God of the funerary rite, and of the process of embalming, where the body is preserved for all time against the ravages of decay and spoil. And it is I who am guide of the dead, overseer of all who pass through the Golden Doors, and of those who seek to draw the Eternal Breath.’ (I paused here for good effect). ‘I see that you know who I am, and such a thing stands in your favour, for all who do not know my name, and who do not pay me my due homage, shall not pass beyond these walls!’
This, as usual, set the newcomers to cringing, and they immediately fell to their knees, and began pleading for immortal mercy. I smiled slightly to myself then, and was glad that I wore a mask, so that they would not see my face, as gods were not supposed to smile, especially in the presence of their subjects. And yet I could not help myself, as the ritual of eternal judgement had not even begun, and already they were at loose ends. I also smiled because I was relieved, as I had not misspoken my lines. It was difficult to remember everything, and in much earlier days of old, over two-thousand years before, I had been a notorious stutterer.
I then turned myself very stiffly about, as the choreography of the occasion demanded, and tilted my head ever-so-slightly, and then raised both of my out-turned arms towards the direction of my seated father. There he sat, enshrouded in gold, upon His Double Falcon Throne. His arms were crossed upon His chest, and he held both the crook and the flail, symbols of his immortal power, in his thin, green-painted hands. The green was meant to represent the renewal of life, and had He not been painted thus, His subjects would not have recognized Him, for they knew him as the One Who Had Been Reborn. The expression upon the Chief god’s droopy face was one of resignation, as he surveyed the mortals standing before him.
‘Who,’ I said, getting into my stride now, and demanding the attention of my audience, ‘Who amongst you can behold the face of the mighty Osiris, King of the Underworld and its Halls, and Lord of the land of renewal, without first bursting into flames, and perishing in hideous screams?!’ (I always especially relished that line) ‘Do you count your sorrowful selves… ‘ I continued on in the same vain, ‘Amongst those who are worthy? Or are you like the creatures of the desert, who scurry about when they feel the footfalls of the master coming? And who hide away in deep holes, when the blanket of inky darkness descends upon the sinful earth? And do you tremble in soul-shaking fear at the radiance of His light?! Speak now, I say to you, to avert a terrible end to your earthly souls!’
The six miserable figures knelt and scraped and grovelled upon the floor in full supplication, not sure whether they would be rewarded, or punished, for saying that they were worthy.
While I enjoyed certain aspects of being the Grand Overseer of this colorful theatrical production, I hated to do this to these poor beings, hated to see their pride brought so low, for they and their fear were not at all a sham. And yet I knew that for us it was all part of the act, and that I had to fulfil my role in this. For thousands of years, we gods had ruled the heavens, largely because we understood the elusive art of power, and wielded it most effectively through cloaked illusions.
'You are not worthy!' I shouted hoarsely -my voice was beginning to go now- 'It has been decreed from above... Now all that stands before you and the deep and eternal darkness is the mercy of His Lordship, King of the Land of the Dead. It is He who will decide your fate, and He will do so in consultation with His wife and beloved Queen, Isis, Most High amongst goddesses; and Nepthys, daughter of Nut; and Horus, God of the perfect sky, and a thousand honoured titles besides; as well as all the other gods and judges, who have been appointed to oversee this hour.'
‘Now,’ I said, turning to my friend Thoth, who was the only one of the gods present to be sitting cross-legged on the floor, ‘O mighty Thoth, God of the words that come from out our mouths, and God also of the words written down in eternity’s great and everlasting book, are you ready to witness the final judgement?’
‘I am,’ said Thoth in answer, though his words were muffled by his bird mask. ‘And furthermore,’ he continued, ‘my sacred pen is ready to record the weights and deeds, and the ultimate fate of these new souls. Let them not be cast into darkness without sufficient and just cause, and let them not reach for the light, likewise, without sufficient and just cause.’
Once he had uttered these words, this was the signal for me to proceed on to the next phase, and so I solemnly made my way over to the grand set of scales which had been set up that morning. Beside the scales, on the ground, was an ornate bucket which held six stones of various sizes. The stones were meant to represent the weight of the numerous sins of each of the souls being judged, though actually, they were just random rocks, and bore no relation whatsoever to the lives of these people-souls, who were waiting though all these proceedings with great uncertainty.
Now my fellow gods and judges watched keenly, as I called out to the first hopeful.
‘Seti I,’ I said, but gently this time, to the one of the six who wore a crown. ‘In the life and land of the mortals, you were counted a mighty King, though for the moment at least, know that that rank does not stand here. During your long and illustrious reign, you lived for the worldly pleasures, thinking only rarely of the days to come. Did you not count amongst your personal harem nine-hundred and ninety nine ladies who were devoted to your whims? Did you not spend whole days sailing in idle passage upon your barque, down the whispering waters of the Nile? And did not the sweet sound of music anoint your royal ear at nightfall, to soothe away the cares of office? And did you not participate in the great Hippopotamus hunts, and count one-thousand of these monsters’ ears as your prize and reward? And did you not make war upon a thousand hateful foes, who sought to make a desert, where your builders had made an oasis?… You have tasted the full measure of all that mortal life had to offer, and you have served, and been served, by the land whose safety had been entrusted to you. And just as you passed judgement upon living men, and distributed justice to your people, so too, will we now consider the facts, and weigh in upon your own final judgement, to see whether you be worthy of eternal life.’
Seti I drew nearer to me as I spoke, but reluctantly.
‘Your sins are many!’ I cried out. ‘They are as the river, vast and wide, and are as the mountains to the east. Weighty are they, and burdensome, but are they as heavy as this feather?’ And so asking, I reached into the air and plucked a single Ostrich feather from where it hung suspended by a nearly invisible string. I then held it up and turned it slowly, so that all could gaze upon the pure and radiant whiteness that emanated from its perfect form.
Next, I laid it down very ceremoniously upon one of the two scale plates, and then bent down to fetch a stone from out of my ornate bucket. I took hold of one of the smaller ones, and straightening myself up again, placed the stone upon the opposite plate from the one the feather rested on, making sure all the while to draw out the suspense of the moment so that everyone would get the full effect. King Seti I of Egypt, meanwhile, had drawn a little closer still, but was unable to contain his fear. He had begun muttering nonsense, and fragments of half-remembered prayers, hoping upon doubtful hope, that the scales would balance in his favour, and that he would be saved from damnation.
The scales teetered back and forth for a moment, then finally settled themselves, with the stone the higher of the two objects. The King let out a relieved sigh, and collapsed wearily to the ground, utterly weak from the tension of the past moments. I signalled to two of the guardsmen to take him by his arms and lift him up, and once he had gathered his senses back, and regained his poise, I did not delay in passing judgement.
'O Mighty Osiris,' I said to my father. 'Let it be known that this soul is pure, for it has passed the test of all tests, having shown itself to be free from sin. The scales have spoken the truth, and it is recorded by our scribe, Thoth, in his eternal and everlasting record. Let us be merciful to this soul, and let it claim the reward it deserves -to pass unhindered into the Elysian Fields, where it may enjoy the fruits of paradise forever... What say you, O mighty Council?'
I then waited for a brief moment, as all the gods, goddesses, and judges pretended to confer with one another over their final and definitive decision. Of course it was all worked out before-hand, and my family only went through this charade so that it would appear we were impartial, and had nothing to gain from the outcome.
After a moment, all became silent, and Osiris moved to speak.
‘Let it be known this day,’ he said, ‘When the sun crosseth over the sky, and when the stirring wind doth blow its mighty breath upon the seas of Nun, that the Council of Truth and Justice has made their recommendations, and it has finally been decided to let this soul claim its reward.’
Osiris now gestured to the King.
‘Seti I,’ he said, now momentarily shedding the habitual weariness of his voice, a voice which still held us, after all these thousands of mortal years, under its hypnotic spell. ‘You may now pass into new life!’
With that, my one-eyed brother Horus, who wore the mask of a falcon, gestured to the slouching gate-keepers, who stood sentinel at a set of doors at the far end of the room. These doors, unlike the ones of gold, were not fancifully designed at all, and yet what lay beyond them was a treasure beyond all other treasures. As the gate-keepers obediently swung the doors open, we all turned to behold the sight, for none of us ever wearied of it.
All at once, there came a flood of light, and the raging scent of a thousand flowers swept through the stagnant hall, and washed away the weary air. Carried on this refreshing breeze, was the scent of coriander, and juniper, and any number of other good things, and beyond the door’s threshold, a lush landscape spread out before our eyes. We heard the laughter of children, and saw countless gamebirds take to the sky, and the sound of their flapping wings and the trickling of fresh water was music to our ears.
These were the Elysian Fields.
Seti I was, needless to say, as delighted as a small boy, and all at once he set off running, in a most undignified manner, across the Great Reception Hall, until he passed through the doors and into the waiting meadow. Behind him, the doors were shut again, and a last beam of spear-like sunshine narrowed upon the newly polished floor, until it vanished altogether.
We now turned our attention to the other souls, who in the meantime had become more hopeful, seeing, as they did, that they too stood a chance of gaining passage to eternal paradise -a chance to walk forever in the Elysian Fields. And yet they still had some hesitation, still harbored fears of what was to come. In this, they were not unwise, for it would be necessary, I deeply regretted, to make an example, and to remind the guests of our power, so that no one would ever question our supremacy. Of course it would never do to condemn a King or a Queen, as their authority came from we, ourselves, and so we usually settled upon some unruly Vizier of bad council, or a General of unvictorious wars, or an Architect of unstable structures, to pay the ultimate penalty.
Next in line was the King’s Vizier, or Chief Council and Advisor. Long had this man and his misdeeds been known to us of the family, and so none of us had any regrets about casting him into darkness. As he stood forward to be judged, I reached low, and sorting through the stones, pulled out the heaviest one that there was. This time, the scales did not balance, and the feather was far outweighed. Punishment would have to follow, and when it came, it was as swift as an arrow from a hunter’s bow.
‘Let him be cast into eternal darkness!’ I cried, and then called out to vicious Sobek, the family ne’er-do-well and drunkard, from where he had been hiding in the shadows. Sobek looked truly terrible indeed, for he wore the mask of a crocodile, and the skin of a Lion that he himself had slain, draped over his broad shoulders. He had a quick temper and a cruel streak that even his fellow gods sometimes feared, and he was more than happy to fulfil his duty.
Upon seeing this frightful creature’s approach, the Vizier fell upon his quaking knees, and began to beg for his eternal life. But it was all of no good use, and Sobek just laughed and gloated as he man-handled the prone figure, with the help of two guards, across the length of the room. Together, they led him to a deep hole, which had been carved into the floor a hundred centuries before even our time, and then pushed him over the edge. The man called out in terror as he fell, and it was some time before his cries faded completely into silence. Who knew how long it would take him to finally reach the bottom? Perhaps even the span of a royal dynasty?
All this struck fresh waves of terror into the four other trembling guests, as they waited for their own final judgement. Pleading now poured from their lips, as they made the case for their own innocence, and as they tried to appear as blameless as possible. But by now I was hot and tired, and could barely breath with my mask on, and so just wanted to wrap things up as quickly as I reasonably could. It had become possible, in the meantime, to just sort of go through the motions, as all of the remaining stones were small. And so thus it came about, that on that day, One King, Two Queens, and two Generals were able to walk into paradise, while one soul was condemned to death.
I was happy enough when it was all over, and as the last soul departed the Underworld, and crossed into the Elysian Fields, I immediately headed for the door that led back to the main Palace. Now that the guests were gone, and there were no more new ones due for days, there was no point in maintaining the façade which we had just blatantly enacted. As soon as I left the hall, I removed my Jackal mask, and threw it to one of the servants, who held onto it reverently, and even began to polish it with his dirty sleeve.
I needed the silence of my quarters, now that my duties were fulfilled. Solitude, and perhaps even sleep, would soothe my troubled conscious. My family was not what it seemed, and what we had established here, over the span of two-thousand years, was nothing like paradise at all, but was merely a way of enriching ourselves. I had become part of this system, sometimes by choice, or design, and had no one but myself to blame for this fact. But lately I had begun to question, within my own mind at least, what had always remained unquestionable, and that was my own role as a god, and the role of my family, who ruled over heaven and earth…
As I made my way through the Palace, and headed towards my private chambers, I knew that behind me my family would be filing out of the Reception Hall.
Sobek, my drunk and demented cousin, and Horus, my war-loving brother, would be eager for a stiff drink, and engagement in some kind of cruel and unusual pleasures, while my Judge-King relations, mostly former Pharaohs, would be at one another’s throats, arguing pettily amongst themselves, all while weaving their various plots.
My mothers, Isis and Nephthys, would be propping up old Knum on their arms (a visiting deity from the Upper Levels) as he tottered along at a crawl. Knum was half senile by now, and in his gradually weakening state, was the ideal pawn in the games of court intrigue that my mothers were such past-masters at. They never seemed to run out of ways to feather their ever-lasting nests.
Each one of the forty-two would then make their way towards the Place of Eternal Diversions, where wine awaited them, and endless plates of food, and here they would laugh and drink till dawn, and enjoy the life of ease and plenty which they had, over the centuries, built for themselves here.
I myself stayed aloof from all this, as I was not interested in their petty games, and because of this the others thought me strange, and a god apart. And yet, as the son of Osiris, and a powerful god in my own right, there was nothing that they could do, except to gossip and be perplexed.
There were two from within my kin though, whom I genuinely did enjoy, and they were Thoth, God of writing, and Hathor, daughter of Ra. Like me, Thoth was a bit of an outsider, always happiest in his books, and not at all interested in intrigues. He was a being of pure intellect, who did not see value in action, and so we limited our friendship to all-night theoretical discussions.
Hathor, my brother Horus’s wife, was a girl I thought very highly of, and I could have fallen in love with her, were she not already taken. She was slim and very beautiful, with dark hair and a dancer’s grace, and I have only once seen her angry, and even then, her innocent face only clouded over for an instant.
Generations ago she used to dance for me, when we shared a flask or two of wine, and I would sit spellbound, as she moved her body in the light, her hair tumbling like a waterfall over her elegant shoulders. Once I even touched her waist, and felt that she had liked it too, but I never repeated this again, for though Horus and I were not close, I could never betray him.
Besides, she was the daughter of Ra, God of the infinite sunlight, and it would have been suicidal to provoke his scathing rage. It had been bad enough for Horus, who had taken her in lawful marriage, and who had had to endure a century of scowls from the old grump. It was an open secret that Ra was attracted to his own daughter in a way that was closer than usual, and that he had only allowed her to marry because it would have been unseemly to have done otherwise.
My family, the Royal Dynasty, was not at all like what our followers believed, and though we ruled the Underworld for all these centuries past, our hold on power was tenuous. We ourselves owed our position to a much higher power still (that of the Higher Ones) who ruled from the Upper Levels. In order to keep what we already had, it was necessary to constantly pay homage to the Great Deities.
Ptah, for example, the ever-youthful one, was insatiable for praise, as was Knum, maker of the world, Ra, God of the blazing sun, and Nut, Goddess of all. These beings had ascended to the highest pinnacles of heaven, while we, my family, were but their highest servants, and we lived in awareness that we could be replaced.
When I reached my private chamber, I lay down on my little bed without even bothering to undress. My room was spare and simple, more like a military barracks than a royal flat, but then I, unlike my family, did not live a life of luxury, and had no use for such things. It felt good to lie upon the sheets, and I gestured to my body-servant, who brought me out my ebony pipe. I took it from her hurriedly, and then placed its charred end against the ever-burning flame of the candle beside my bed, and inhaled deeply of the smoke.
The sleeping drug acted very rapidly, and instantly I was tired. Dreams and half-wakeful visions took hold of my weary brain as I lay stretched out. The illusions were so very real that I felt as though I was floating through them. I imagined myself to be there, there at the beginning of it all: the time before time itself, when there was nothing in existence save the chaotic waters of Nun.
These waters were deep and green, and covered an infinite expanse, and in the sea’s depths, no creatures swam, nor were there any birds in the air. All was lifeless and void, except for the heaving waters. Very slowly at first, but then much more rapidly, there appeared a great agitation upon the surface of the waves, and as if from out of nowhere, there came a sudden blinding light. The wind began to pick up, and a storm lashed about, coming from all directions at once.
A face appeared before my eyes: It was recognizable to me, and yet appeared strange, different, and younger than the face that I knew. It was, I soon realized, the face of the deity Knum that I was looking at; not the weak and aged god who hobbled down the halls at night mumbling to himself, but a new and beautiful being, both graceful and handsome of form. Young Knum sat himself -in this feverish dream-upon a giant lotus flower, and I knew that this was the time of the event that they had always called The Birth of the World.
This story, and these images, were not unfamiliar to me, as I had heard the tale before, a hundred times or more, from the lips of my childhood tutor. It had never ceased to amaze me that old Knum had been the one who had started it all: bringing existence itself about, as well as all the other gods and mortals, merely by speaking a word, a word which has not been repeated since.
The dream now took a different turn, and I saw myself as a child again. I was standing, alone and naked, deep in the wind-blown desert. My single braid of hair, which grew out of my left temple, had become so long that it draped over my shoulder. There was a Scorpion at my feet, and I was throwing pebbles, trying to hit it, as it writhed and lashed out in impotent fury at its tormentor.
These were the early years of life, and I could now almost smell again, in the delirium of my senses, the wild scent of the desert sands, of the scorching of dry brush, and even the carcass of an animal. In those pre-dynastic days, when we still lived amongst mortals, my family had but a single temple which had been made in our honour. It stood in a solitary place, a place of rough-hewn rock, a place where the oracles of years gone past had always gathered.
Its lofty walls, and trellised ceilings, had been carved from the precious wood of a thousand and one living trees, and were painted in colors so bright that they rivalled the sun-banners of Ra himself. Fires burned both night and day, in and around the sacred temple, and a throng of countless faithful came every hour to prostrate themselves before the anointed feet of Osiris, who even then was a powerful deity. My father’s sisters, Isis and Nephthys, served as his consorts (not yet as his wives) and also as his High Priestesses, and lived only to satisfy their brother and master’s every whim.
If I can now recall the pain of birth, in all its cruel viciousness each and every time I dream, it is only because years later I learned the harshest of truths, and that was that Osiris was not my real father, and that I had been born out of wedlock. It was rumoured that Set, whom I had believed to be my uncle, and who had always been jealous of Osiris’s elevated position, had seduced Isis one evening in the hopes of hurting Osiris’s pride. That was the very night that I was conceived. Upon learning of this treachery, Osiris’s full wrath was invoked, (not against Isis, whom he treasured) but against the back-stabbing Set, who had always been his rival. It was this incident which provoked the final break between them, and Osiris banished Set to the outer reaches of the Kingdom.
To his ever-lasting credit, even though he was distraught over the reality of my illegitimacy, Osiris raised me as his own son, while both Isis and Nephthys, whom he had by then married, acted as my mothers. Both women were very dissimilar to one another, though they had always been close. Isis, the eldest of the two, had always been widely renowned for her love of children, and yet to me she was always cold, aloof, and distracted. Nephthys, on the other hand, who seemed as elegant and delicate as finely woven cloth, was far gentler and kinder. Even now, the dream of her scent fills my swelling memory, and I am a weeping child again, curled up in her warm lap.
I used to love looking up for hours at her mouth and at her eyes, as one would watch the clouds, and the changing expressions that came over her beautiful face were like bursts of sun, or rain. And yet, just as this face could express teary-eyed hope, or the tenderness of a mother doe, I have seen it transformed into the hiss of a snake, as when she learned of the death of her brother and husband, Osiris.
Set, my uncle and true father, had never been able to reconcile himself to his new lowly position, and he had openly plotted for himself to one day sit upon the throne. The High Ones above, Ptah and Ra and so on, watched all these goings-on from the lofty heights of the Upper Levels, much as one would watch a play, but were not sure at this time who’s claim of ascension they would support, and so they just decided to let these younger gods fight it out amongst themselves. That was when my uncle, knowing that he would not be interfered with from above, and with the help of some treacherous Palace guards, had sneaked into Osiris’s bedchamber, and killed him as he slept. Set then made off with the body, and after cutting it up into many small pieces, buried them in random spots in the sands of the desert, in order to hide the evidence.
Never had I seen such anger, as I saw that day, when Isis and Nephthys learned of the fate of Osiris. Immediately they assembled a vast and mighty army, and set out to recover the body. Many long weeks passed by, as they followed in Set’s footsteps, but eventually they recovered each one of the pieces, and brought them back to the Palace, in order to have a proper burial.
Both of my sorrowful mothers acted like women possessed, and would not see the body laid to its eternal rest, until they had cast a hundred tearful spells, hoping to bring him back to life. Yet all these efforts were in vain, and I myself could only bang my fists in frustration against the walls of my room.
For seven long days and nights I neither ate, nor drank, nor slept, and felt as impotent in my rage as that scorpion in the sand, whom I by now regretted taunting. Osiris had always been my father, in all of the important ways, and had guided my journey into the realms of godhood, and steered my craft through the reeds of life. Now he was gone forever, and I felt helpless and alone, and as though I had been abandoned.
It was Isis who finally broke the cycle of grief, and she mastered her tears enough so that she could call upon my services. Why, she asked me then, did I not use my fledgling powers to restore Osiris to life? It seemed a far-fetched plan, and at first I did not believe that I possessed the skill, and that such things were as yet far beyond me. But both Isis and Nephthys were by now steadfastly convinced that I already had the power, young and inexperienced though I was, to work outstanding miracles, and that I only lacked confidence. I could not help but try, of course, and so took them up on their suggestion.
Late into the night I worked, a hundred candles burning, as I hunched over the pieces of my father’s defiled body, trying to stitch and hem them back together. I sweated over my labours, till at last the work was done, though as yet this crude assembly was without the breath of life. It was then that an idea struck me, and at once I began to strip the cloth that still hung in tatters from Osiris’s bloodless limbs, and tore them into strips, and then bound his body tightly, till he was fully encased.
When this task was complete, I buried him in the sand, where he lay undisturbed for one full lunar month. When the time was right, I dug him up again, unwrapped his shrouded face, opened his silent mouth, then breathed as deeply as I could into his unmoving lungs. At first, there was no response, but then, slowly, he began to draw air. Some hours later, his eyes opened, though he was still unable to speak. Around then, my mother and stepmother arrived, and after throwing their hands up into the air to show their relief and rejoicing, they spent the next month or so caring for him at his bedside.
Within a little over two months of having been recovered from the desert, Osiris was well enough again to resume his place on the throne. He never did fully heal though, and he was much changed in personality as well, being more angry than before. Now, he was always shivering, as though he were cold, and he insisted on being wrapped in white linen sheets and shawls, which not only warmed him, but also served to cover up the many unsightly scars that zigzagged across his body.
Never did he speak to me of this though, not of having been murdered, nor of his resurrection and recovery. And neither did he show any gratitude at having been given a second chance to resume his eternal life. He did, however, acknowledge me as being possessed of considerable skill, and it was then that he appointed me as God of the Embalming Process -a new role within the pantheon-and as compassionate guide to the dead. I now found myself responsible for everyone who sought out the beyond, and I have served him in this capacity ever since.
As I said before though, he was a being much changed, and where in earlier days there had been room for compassion and compromise in his outlook, now there was little or none. For at least one-hundred years after the day of his rebirth, he was the picture of vengeance, as he hounded his brother Set from place to place, using his army, and his wild dogs, which he himself led onwards. Within the span of a century, they had driven evil Set out of the desert Kingdom, and to the very edges of the world.
Now Osiris was in full command, having proven himself strongest of all the junior gods of sea and sky, and of wind and falling rain. Seeing this, the High Ones were much impressed by his resolve, and so decided at last to support him fully, and to back his claim to the throne against all challengers.
All that was left for Osiris was to vanquish any of his rivals who still held any sway over the minds of the people, any who had not knelt down before the ascendancy of his person. There were countless numbers of gods such as these, and many mortals also, who did not bend down to my father’s omnipotent will. Upon these rebellious beings, he vented the full fury of his raging vengeance, and only when his enemies were finally destroyed, or were at least subservient, did he again become the mournful and merciful god, whom we had known before.
Over the centuries, my father's fortunes -and thereby my familys' as well-grew to staggering proportions. Great treasures began to burst the seams of the royal vaults, as all the souls of the dead now paid tariffs to us, and to no other divinities (at least not within the lands that lay upon the River Nile). Far back, during the early years, when our dynasty was but young, the Afterlife and its pleasures had been reserved for kings alone. But a new and heavenly decree now made it possible for anyone to be able to live forever -just as long as they were wealthy, and preserved their mortal forms in imitation of mighty Osiris, in the binding and burying manner that I had invented.
Now the gold flowed like honey, and it was no longer just Kings, but also Queens and Noblemen, and even common merchants, who entered our sacred realm. In order to accommodate everyone, and to reflect our elevated status, a grander Palace was built upon a heightened level of the higher reaches of Paradise. Upon these royal grounds, lush gardens and vineyards were planted in the Elysian Fields nearby, where the flowing, dream-like Nile ambled over the green lands, rising and sinking forever, with each rotation of the moon.
All this had been the work of a millennia, but when at last it was complete, there had never before been anything like it in the Afterworld, and as word of its glory spread, everyone began to plead to be allowed to enter into this particular corner of Paradise.
The best part of it all for some though, was that Osiris had ordered that it was the guests themselves, that is, the souls of the dead, who would do the labour for this great project, as a further way of paying for their costly voyage here. Once he had begun to realize what a profitable system of exploitation he had just established, and just how much revenue in silver and wheat and wine was now pouring in, he not only saw no reason that it should stop, but decided that it should be expanded.
What sense did it make to let these souls sit idle, when there was a fortune to be made? He quickly issued orders that the labour of the souls should be forever unceasing: those who were of royal blood were to administrate his wealth; those of merely noble birth were to serve as his overseers of work, while those without title or rank were to toil all day in the fields without break or respite.
Since the days of long ago, when Osiris had given this order -with full approval from the Higher Ones-the vaults have been swelling as they never had before. In the earliest days, long ago, paltry tithes had been collected from amongst the living believers, but this was no longer enough. Now furniture, furs, heirlooms, costly perfumes and clothing, and even food were demanded as well, for entrance into the Afterlife.
And of what use were all these things to those who had no need of them? For immortal gods had neither to nourish their immaterial bodies, nor to swell their bellies with wine, nor to ease their lidless eyes with the sight of splendiferous things. And yet they very often succumbed for some reason to the illusion of permanence which these things exuded; they become intoxicated with power, and with pride, and with greed; they clung onto luxury for its own sake, and beheld, with much pleasure, the sight of many beautiful things as they shone in Ra’s sunlight. This collecting had become an end in itself, and even I, who scorned it all, and who prided myself on my simple life, had over the years given in in some ways, measure by measure, to the invisible lure of riches.
And yet there was a price to pay for these many and varied privileges by us immortal gods as well, and not only for the poor souls who had come expecting Paradise, only to have to labour tirelessly as they had never had to on earth. In order to hold onto our positions, it was necessary to render service unto the Higher Ones above, who ruled us with an iron fist. We were just as much under their thumbs as our guests were under ours, and we had to keep them appeased. They demanded the lions’ share of the collected booty and spoils, and expected constant praises and homages to their greatness from us.
These rituals had to be observed, no matter what the circumstance, and it was not unreasonable for us to live under the assumption that the Higher Ones might suddenly decide to bring back Set, from where he still lived, and still burned for revenge, out beyond the farthest reaches, and to put him upon the throne. The Higher Ones were not above playing the two brothers off against one another, and should Osiris step out of line, or refuse to kneel in supplication, he knew that he would be punished.
It was our never-ending task not only to keep the treasure flowing, but also to keep a firm grip upon all the supplicant gods who been cast down. It was difficult, to say the least, to kill an immortal god for good, but Osiris had rounded up all those who had opposed him, and banished them to the Lower Levels of the Underworld, where they eke out a miserable existence. Both Osiris and the Higher Ones feared an uprising one day from these lowly subjects, even though they had no power anymore, and were not worshipped at all. In Osiris’s mind they were still a threat, and he therefore punished them, and inflicted humiliations upon them whenever he could.
A lifestyle such as this, had, over the tedious centuries, grown into a lifeless routine: nothing now but rituals, punishments, and gluttony. And where before the Palace had glowed with activity and life, now no one even bothered to organize the servants anymore, or even to have anything cleaned. Windows often stayed dirty for years, pools were choked-out with leaves, and litter and refuse were everywhere. Even the royal garments that we wore, which had once been so splendiferous and bright, had been allowed to become faded, and threadbare over time.
Only the Great Reception Hall was kept immaculate, and that was just for the sake of our guest souls, who saw it for but a moment. It was a show-piece room, the purpose of which was to convince their trembling minds of our authority, and invincibility. Now, in truth, the family of the gods was dedicated only to pleasure, and because of this, everything had descended into decadent and useless luxury.
Very often my family members did not even bother to carry out their celestial duties, which very often led to disaster, and irreparable damage, caused to those of the mortal beings who trusted in, and worshipped, these particular holy figures. My brother and cousins were usually too busy haunting the Royal Gardens, or eating and drinking food which they had not harvested, or gambling away the money that they had not earned, to worry about floods, or fires, or swarms of locust pests, which plagued their living subjects.
It was this last vice, gambling, to which I myself, in my weakness, most often gave in to. I loved the thrill I felt when the die were in my hand; loved the high stakes set, the plunging dark despair
when all was lost, and the ecstatic flying heights when all was won. These were the moments I now lived my life for, and that brought me nearer to an elevated plain of existence -or that at least convinced me that all was not boredom.
I was not heartless myself; did not share the outlook of my father, or my kin, who wanted nothing more than that all should continue on, just as it always had. I was a powerful being, with the gift of renewing life, measuring out invisible sin, and casting into outer darkness all who failed my tests. And yet I was powerless to move heaven and earth towards a brighter future, either for the world, or for myself.
These were the troubles which haunted my days and my sleepless nights. I sought escape from this reality, and yet knew not how to fly. I was a child of the Underworld, too much of a sacred being to sell my labour in the fields, even if I had wanted such a form of escape, and too much of a man of heart for these intangible levels, with all their lifeless intrigue, and divinity. I was not even allowed to wander within the Elysian Fields, for it was said that it would do no good for the godly mystique, which we had cultivated, to be soiled and undermined, should the souls behold the sight of Anubis, God of Embalming, to be cursing and sweating away just as they themselves did.
All that remained open for me was to take to the Lower Levels, where I could lose myself in drink, and the company of fast goddesses, and where I could speak to my fellow gods, even if they were cast down, as my equals.
When I awakened from out of my delirious sleep, I shook the dreams from my mind, and sat there on the edge of my bed. I now felt more energy surging through my veins, and as I surveyed the bare stone walls of my room, I decided I could not imagine spending another moment here, and would much rather while away the rest of the night with a bottle in one hand, and a die in the other.
First, it would be necessary to change out of these formal clothes which I was still wearing, for such things would not pass within the Lower Levels, so I stood up and grabbed an old stained cloak and hood, and also fetched a bag of coins. I had, of late, been having a bit of an unlucky streak at the gambling tables, but before I paid my debts, I decided, I would have another go, and would try to lift my spirits with a turn of luck.
Outside, the night beckoned to me, and I knew what I desired: to go out into it, and to lose my restless soul in its dark, mysterious embrace…
As I moved my way down the hall, headed towards the entrance door of the vilified Lower Levels, I tried to keep to the shadows. If I were seen and recognized by either Thoth or Hathor, who lived nearby, I knew that they would admonish me, and try to talk me out of it. At least they were my true friends though, and could be trusted not to tell the other members of my insulated family, who constantly chastised me for associating with ‘the Lowers’, whom they rabidly despised.
When I came at last to the entrance door of the Lower Levels, which was always heavily guarded, the Captain of the Night’s Watch waved me through at once, with hardly a second glance. The guards were used to me now, as this was my evenings’ ritual, and they also knew that they would be rewarded for their compliance and discretion with a palmful of coins.
Once through the opened door, the corridor of the inner passageway seemed to lead on forever, and was cold and damp. There were torches on the walls, which gave off a dim illumination, but by now I knew the way down so well that I could have proceeded in complete blackness. As I neared the end of the stairway, the pulse of my heart began to quicken with each and every step, as the anticipation of what was to come took hold of me.
Coming out of the dark passage, and into the vast vaulted rooms of the subterranean Lower Levels was always quite an experience. The first thing that hit one, after the effects of being half blinded by the intensity of the torchlight had worn off, was to be overwhelmed by the smell, which was rank and fetid. Here, there were no windows, and no exposure to clean air, and hygiene was, to say the least, a word that was not well understood. And yet, this pungent aroma had the breath of life to it, and I had become accustomed to its character over time, as it served as a counterpoint to the sterility above.
Apart from the musicians and dancers, who played out their strange rhythms upon drums and upon strings, and who swayed in a haze of some ancient body cult, there was gathered in this place a whole assortment of gods; some minor, some totally obscure, and some who had once been great. They had all been defeated though, and now each one carried the curse of this a little differently than the others. Some sought oblivion, or the cure to their sorry state in the bottle, the dice, the whore or the fight. Not an hour could go by without a scuffle breaking out, as one drunken deity shouted at another, or pulled a spike from out of his filthy tunic, to try to drive it into his opponent’s flanks.
I pushed and elbowed my way through the milling assembled throng, and made my way quickly to the Place of Spirits, where the beer and the wine were served. I had developed a rigid pattern over the many years of visiting here, and that was to have a few drinks upon my arrival so as to begin the long, drawn-out process of self-lubrication and unwinding which would continue unhindered throughout the rest of the evening.
Upon reaching the Place, which was really just an open-air bar, with a collection of lopsided old stools and unwashed tables out front, I called to my friend Mithra, the ever-present wine server, to fill a cup to the brim, and then to listen to my woes.
‘Coming up, Your Lordship,’ Mithra responded amicably, and then scurried over to my table.
Once, long ago, Mithra had been a powerful god like myself, and had been responsible for the souls of his people. But after having been conquered by the sword of Osiris, centuries before, he’d been demoted, and forced to scrounge out a living in this dirty, wretched little dive. He and I got along well though, and had a lot in common, despite the fact that he hated my family. He was always curious about how I was managing, and was one of the few who lived in the Lower Levels that had not descended into complete degeneracy.
I, in turn, enjoyed his company, and loved to fill him in on all the latest gossip from above, which he ate up with gleaming eyes. In previous days, he had been thin, and even graceful I am told, but in the meantime he had gotten a bit soft around the stomach and neck. Still, I was one to talk, for after hundreds of wild nights of fun, I too had begun to slip a bit.
Mithra now brought a bottle, and slopped wine into my cup, a third of the liquid ending up on my hand. I groaned loudly. ‘Aah, Mithra my friend! Is this how you treat all of your valued customers?’
‘No, just you Your Lordship,’ he said, and then smiled toothlessly.
I sighed at this response, as I always did, for this banter was not new, and had been repeated a hundred times or more over the many years.
‘Would you please refrain from calling me ‘Your Lordship?’ I pleaded playfully. ‘I am ‘Ani’ to my friends.’
As I said this, I removed my hood, and took the first of many gulps of the low-grade wine, which was unfortunately the best one could get around here. Within moments, I was beginning to loosen up, and to shed some of the cares which followed me around, but it would take three cups at least before I really took off.
Why was I so unhappy, I wondered?.. But it was a question not easily answered.
In the life above I had all that I could desire, and a thousand things besides. And yet none of these things were of any real use to me. So that was why I came here, to drown out the emptiness, and to at least feel something real, for a while anyway.
‘Has anything interesting happened?’ I asked friendly Mithra, who had decided to sit down and join me in a drink.
‘Oh, just the usual things,’ he replied in his casual way. ‘Kakka, God of pestilence and mayhem came to blows with Nazi, God of plague, the Destroyer Sun. As usual, it concerned Gaga, the Beautiful One, whom they both desired to take for their consort. This whole affair had gone on for far too long, of course, but Kakka finally got the upper hand, and Nazi had to be carried off with a bloody face. I don’t think he noticed though, as he was drunk at the time.
'Then there was an incident concerning Sin, God of the Moon.' Mithra continued. 'He lost all his coin at the tables, and accused the dealer, Zababa, of cheating with the cards -which he probably was. Anyway, someone hit Sin on the back of the head -the dark side of the moon. Ha ha! It was probably an Exalted Serpent from the Yazata Gang who did it. They don't like players who start blabbing to others about how everything's rigged... But all in all, quite a night. Just one of a million, on this side of paradise.'
I turned and scanned the room. There were hundreds out tonight, but no more than was usual. All was noise and racket, smoke and haze, breath and filth. Squalid gambling tables littered the view in all directions, and dreadful music sifted through the air. Beside the dried-out fountains, Beelzebub and Moloch, the evil horned sacrificers of children, slouched with their entourages while Ba’al the Forsaken hurled insults at them.
Then there was Kingu, God of the scurrying vermin (also called Lord Rodent) who was making obscene gestures in the direction of the goddess Astarte, who had taken to selling her body; and there was Asag-Birdu, murderer and former war god, who was also called ‘The Hairy One’ and whose very presence used to make fish boil alive in the rivers; and there was the Sebritti, a minor Babylonian gang, who were the only challengers to the Yazaka; and Sulk, the Lurker, who hung out in lavatories, peeping and drooling and spying all the while. Everyone avoided him, especially the goddesses.
There was a whole slew of divinities, all the rejects of the world; those no longer fit to rule because they had been conquered, or simply forgotten. They were an ugly lot, misshapen and bent-over after years of misery, and wearing nothing but the clothing which they had been captured in, and that had worn away to rags long ago. Now they had totally gone to seed, if they had not originally started out that way.
I myself was following not too far behind, and would be just like them if I did not stop constantly drinking and gambling. In the meantime, I liked the way Mithra joked about these things. He had learned over the years not only to be wary, but also to be ironic. And who could blame him? It was a tough place to make a living in.
But tonight I was interested in something else altogether, and so posed a question to Mithra: ‘What do the other gods down here think about me? And what do you yourself think?’
‘Most don’t give a damn,’ he mockingly retorted. ‘But some resent you a little. They wonder why a god who is so well situated above would bother with this hole. If they were in your place they would enjoy life, and drink their fill of it. Others think that you are a spy, sent to keep an eye on them… As for myself, I think you are a fool, but then, I am glad that you are, for who else would I share a cup of wine with?.. Still, the fact that you do not raise too much of a fuss, and do not put on airs, has probably saved you from getting a knife in the back.’
‘Nice to know I am so loved,’ I said, my voice slurring now after three cups of wine.
‘Can you blame them, really?’ asked Mithra, more seriously. ‘These gods had everything: their own splendorous palaces and Kingdoms to rule over, until your father came along and took it all away. You must know, that if it were not for your high position, you would never have been let down here at all.’
‘That’s ironic,’ I said. ‘I had to soar high, in order to fall. This truly is the City of Dogs, and I am the lead Jackal.’
‘That you are,’ said Mithra. ‘And you had better get to the dice, before you are too out of it, or before everyone else’s coins have vanished for evermore into the hands of the Yazata.’
‘Right you are,’ I said. ‘I shall tarry no longer.’
I left Mithra to his devices, and then walked, swervingly, over to the table where my favourite game, ‘Thieving Jackals,’ was played. I reached down to my belt where I kept my bag of coins, took out some gold, tossed it onto the table, and called out for the dice. The dealer handed them to me, and after I gave them a good shake, I let them roll across the animal-hide surface of the filthy old board. It was a bad role, of course, and so the inevitable losses of the evening began. I noticed that the dealer, a faded out and obscure god from the land of Kush, smiled knowingly to himself as he asked if I would like to go again?
I gestured my consent to go on, but after I had played a few rounds (all of them losses) I felt the presence of someone standing directly behind me. I turned to see a god, one who went by the name of Den, and though I had seen him before, I had never actually spoken to him. Mithra had warned me about this one, saying that he was corrupt -more than was usual, even for this place-and that he was always looking for an angle to make a profit. Even if I had not known this though, just the look of his grinning face would have been enough to put me off of him for good. I scowled in his direction as he smiled ingratiatingly, and turned back to my game.
I was used to the fact that minor gods were always trying to insinuate themselves with me. These fallen ones were hoping to be able to bribe me into putting in a good word on their behalf with the royal court, or with Osiris, and were desperate to be restored to their positions, and to reclaim their power. Long ago, I had learned to ignore these entreaties.
‘It seems as if the goddess of luck has not been on your side tonight, your Most Royal and Holy Lordship,’ Den said with a soothing voice. ‘I have often observed you playing at the tables, sire, and if you will permit me, you do not usually fare well. This really begs the question as to why one who is so powerful, and in such a supreme position, would trust his fate and fortune to a blind game of chance? Why, you hold within your palms the kind of power and riches that few gods or mortals could ever even dare to dream of, and if you will also permit it, it also begs an even greater, and deeper question than that!’
‘Oh, what question?’ I asked, now tiring of this charlatan with his insolent and over-familiar tone.
'It begs the question, your Lordship, of what it is that you seek that you cannot find above?' (his answer was a little too knowing) 'I have been led to believe, though of course I have not witnessed it for myself,' he hastened to add, 'that the Upper Levels are a place of great splendour and bounty, and that those who reside there -your very self, sire, live in comfort and ease. And yet you choose to seek your many pleasures here, amongst the lowly, and the cast-out.'
I pounded my fist on the table, angry at Den’s intrusiveness. ‘Mind your own business, you, before I display some of the power which you so rightly point out that I possess a great deal of!’
Den immediately shrank away, and yet even as he did this, I felt that he was not really afraid, but was merely play-acting the role of a subservient, even as he insulted me to my face. This worried me somewhat, for it spoke of great control, and of a hidden power which he was able to summon up at will.
‘If I did not think that I could help,’ he continued on as confidently as before, ‘then I would never have dared to trouble you. It just so happens though,’ he said with a little wink, ‘that I am well renowned for not only being able to see deeply into the hearts of others, but to be able to offer a remedy to all of their true desires. The question that remains, is…’ He said as he drew closer, ‘What it is that you want in all this endless life? What do you wish for now, in this moment?’
I was tempted to push this Den character away, and to just return to my game, and yet I had to admit to myself that he did have a point, that I did have desires, many of which were unfulfilled.
‘What I want,’ I said flatly, ‘You cannot provide me with.’ And I made to turn around again. But Den reached out his hand, and touching me by the arm, said: ‘Oh, but sire, there would be no harm in telling me… Perhaps I would surprise you?’
‘I doubt it,’ I said dismissively. I was getting really annoyed now, but just for the fun of it, I decided to string him along. ‘I want to get out of here,’ I said with some feeling. ‘I want to see the living, and to walk in their land again; to taste the fruit grown on the earthly vine, and to smell the desert in the early morning, and to look, and to laugh, and to sleep with the moon, and to rise with the sun, and to bask like a lizard on the shores of the Nile. I want to be free of death, and yet bound by it; to be the servant of real life, and not its master… But do not try to tell me that you can help me fulfil this dreamy goal, because I know that you cannot.’
Rather than being taken aback, as I had expected him to be, Den only smiled at this and said, ‘Do not be so sure of yourself, your Lordship, for I have many contacts.’
‘And how do you know,’ I said very pointedly, ‘that I have not been sent from my father above to get just this sort of treasonous information, straight from the source? You would be punished harshly for even thinking such thoughts; for plotting means of escape. How do you know that I will not tell my father all? He would banish you forever to depths even lower than these.’
‘Oh, no.’ said Den very slyly. ‘You cannot deceive me. For I see the look in your eyes, and I know what it is that you seek. Words spoken from the heart will ever reveal their secrets, and show the guided way to ones’ true and hidden desires. For only twelve gold pieces, I, Den, shadow-dweller and guide of the lighted way, shall lead you forthwith into the Land of the Living.’
‘Away!’ I cried out loudly, and gestured for him to be gone. I was a bit drunk by now, but was not so reeling as to believe in Den’s fairy tale, nor to give away my gold for dreams that would vanish like a wisp of smoke. Anyone worth their salt knew that once you were here, chances were that you would be staying as a permanent guest. I could not bear the thought of leading myself to disappointment, and so collected my coins up from off the gambling table, and headed back to the tavern. There, Mithra would refill my cup, and I could lose myself in drink.
‘If you change you mind, you know where you can find me!’ I heard Den call after me, but I did not look around.
_ _ *
After another three hours of filling myself with wine, I lost all track of who, or where I was. Some indeterminate time later, I suddenly awoke to find myself on the ground in a very dark alley. I had obviously wandered into the worst area of the run-down Lower Levels, where the dingy goddesses, painted up in the semblance of earthly whores, plied their nightly trade.
Judging by the soreness that I felt in my body, and by the blood that I could taste on my lips, I had obviously been in a fight, or had been robbed by a thug, who had seen me as an easy and feeble target. I reached down to my belt, and felt around for my coin satchel, but knew that it would not be there. I had been mugged after all, or so it seemed, and beaten pretty badly. This was, I am sad to say, not such an uncommon scene as I would have liked.
A moment after awakening, I fell unconscious again, and did not wake again until I felt myself being shaken. When I opened my eyes, I saw above me the hovering forms of two of my royal slaves, who had no doubt been sent to fetch me by either Hathor of Thoth. They knew that they could not stop me doing what I did, and yet tried to help me anyway, as best they could.
The two slaves lifted me up under my prone arms, and carried me up the passage towards the Upper Levels. I was dazed, and hungover, and felt that I had to vomit. I tried in vain to remember the night before, but had drunk myself well into stupor and oblivion, and so now just drew a blank.
When I was alone again, in the privacy of my room, I splashed some water onto my burning face, and only then began to remember something of both my conversations with Mithra, and with Den.
‘Nonsense!’ I said aloud to my reflection in the bronze mirror, and noticed that I was still slurring my words. First I would sleep, I thought, then bathe, then eat. Most importantly of all, though, was to forget about Den, and all of his false promises of escaping to the other side, where perhaps some meaning might be found. But that would be difficult, for I did not foresee a change in my fortunes here, nor a lighted way, through the uncertain future…
When I awoke the next day it was already late afternoon, and I had the worst hangover I had ever had in my life. It hurt to open my eyes, as a shaft of Ra’s sunlight had come through the open window, and settled directly on my face. I could tell that someone, probably Hathor, had taken the time and trouble to see that I was comfortable under the sheets of my bed. I had a raging thirst, and so despite the fact that I would have loved to have lain there all that day long, I knew I should get up and get something to drink.
I dreaded the start of my day; knew it would be filled with the usual recriminations that I had grown used to hearing from my concerned family. And yet what could I say, for I knew that my irresponsible behaviour was reprehensible. A shot of pain went through my head, and I groaned as I sat up and tried to get my bearings. A pair of slippers had been thoughtfully laid out for me, and I slipped them on, and made my way to the basin, where I dunked my face into a bowl of cool water.
By the time an hour had passed, I was sitting under the gaze of my imperious mother, and father, and the rest of my family in the royal sitting room. Isis was so angry at me that she could barely speak, and just paced back and forth across the length of the room, her pale blue dress flowing out behind her like a river. She was an impressive woman -especially when she was fuming-and the colour of her clothing contrasted very sharply with that of her pinched face, which was heavily made up with rouge powders, and also with the crimson of her rage.
My father Osiris managed to keep his stern composure, and looked through slitted eyes at the form of his guilty and wayward stepson, while my second mother, Nephthys, and my half-brother Horus, sat glaring at me contemptuously as they whispered to each other. Only loyal Thoth, and Hathor, who both now tried to look away, had any pity in their eyes.
‘Why must you persist,’ Isis finally blurted out, ‘with this unruly behaviour?! Do you have no shame? You are the son of Osiris, and as such you should have some awareness of duty, and of the station you hold. How can you make a mockery of the dignity of this house? It is nothing but a disgrace that you persist in spending all of your leisure hours amongst the heathens below. Why your father does not punish you for this, I don’t pretend to know, but you bring shame on us all… It is your sacred duty to set a good example!’
I knew better than to try to contradict my mother when she was in a mood like this. It was not the first time that I had had this lecture, nor would it be the last, and so I held my silence, and tried to ignore the pounding that was going on in my head.
Isis now turned to Osiris, and began to shout in his direction, while still addressing me. ‘If only your father were tougher on you!’ she lamented loudly, as though he were not even present in the room. ‘It infuriates me that he is so indulgent of you. Sometimes I wish I could pour my own strong will directly into his veins! You are no longer, husband and brother…’ (she was now addressing Osiris directly) ‘the man that I married. Such a man as he was, crushed his many enemies beneath his mighty heel, and trod upon a hundred thousand armies in such a manner, until they were laid low before the entire world. Even when these enemies thought that they had caught a glimpse of his colossal shadow, they trembled with fear, and hid themselves away like children. But now you have weakened, and your grip has slipped, to the point where even your own stepson defies you openly, and comports himself freely, each and every night, with your old enemies!’
Osiris now spoke for the first time, and his words came as a defence to me against all that had been said thus far: 'He has the blood of Set deep in his veins' he said in a low voice, and as though he were making excuses for me, 'and his heart moves in mysterious ways that are foreign to me. He is like a wooden barque that sails at night without aid of a lantern -even he does not know where he shall land on safe shores, if at all... But all of this is because I am not his true and rightful father, and this has made him wild, just like Set. And yet I disown him not, for he is my true son in all the ways that matter, and I will not abandon him, though my heart is stricken.'
These words moved me, because I knew that Osiris was angry. He had never mentioned my illegitimate birth before, to anyone, and I could see that this delighted Nephthys and Horus, who wished me removed so that they could have more power for themselves. It appeared as though Osiris were now distancing himself from me, despite what he’d said that was favourable.
Silence now lingered in the air, but Thoth was quick to try to save the situation by speaking in my defence. ‘If I might, aunties and uncle,’ he said, addressing Isis, Nephthys, and Osiris. ‘I would like to say that while there is no doubt that Ani’s behaviour is, to say the least, troubling and unruly, perhaps we might look at the deep root causes underlying his actions, so that we might better understand why he does what he does.’
There was a lengthy pause, as everyone considered this, or at least pretended to. I could always count on Thoth to be of no help whatsoever in matters such as these, though I knew that he was trying, in his overly-intellectual way. Hathor, meanwhile, was just doing her best to hold back her tears, and would say nothing, for fear of disapproval.
‘Well, Ani?’ Osiris spoke again. ‘What have you to say to that? Why have you defied my ban on consorting with those below? Know you not, my son, that these are the enemies of law and order, and even of heaven itself?’
It hurt me immeasurably to have such a question put to me from my father, whom I still respected, despite his subservience to both Isis and Nephthys. But I could not answer, as I did not really know why I did what I did; had not worked out a plan, but had merely drifted along. I only knew that this paradise that my family had worked out was somehow unjust; was not paradise at all, either for those who had been its creators and minders, or for those who came as our guests, and workers.
Somewhere along the way, we had turned something good into something that was bad. Perhaps it had started when we had become greedy, and had begun to accept anyone who could bring gold with them. Soon, the lust for treasure had outweighed all other concerns, and vast numbers of unworthies had been allowed in. Even those who were not really true believers were ushered through the gates, as long as they were rich. This had created cynicism in the ranks of the gods, so that they had become exploiters, and did not work for the betterment of men and their souls, and did not reward properly those who had lived good lives.
Still, I said none of this to the members of my family, for I knew that they would not understand these things. Besides, I had no real solutions to these problems anyway, but only a vague feeling that things had not been right for several centuries past. Instead, I made my apologies, and assured my mothers and father that I would never again be found drunk in an old alleyway of the Lower Levels. They, in turn, pretended to believe me, and dismissed me to my quarters in order to think things over, as if that would help.
Within an hour of reaching my room, I had already decided to break my word, but in a bigger way than usual this time. I had to escape from this place, at least for a little while, to think things over. I was suffocating in stagnancy, and had to figure out what I believed, and wanted from life, and the only way to do that was to see things from a new perspective. I had not forgotten Den, nor his many promises, and if he was better at keeping them than I was, than I would take him up on his offer. Of course I knew very well that there was a chance that he was lying, but then what did I have to lose, by giving the idea a try?
The only problem was that I did not know what now lay on the other side, in the land of the mortals, for I had not seen it for two-thousand years. But I was drawn to it, all the same, like one is drawn to a foreign land, or towards the future itself. Strange winds blew the candle flames of my thoughts, compelling me onward, toward a new horizon. They carried within them the scents of juniper, and of sagewood, and a thousand exotic things, and I breathed deeply, imagining myself to be in the desert again, next to an oasis.
Once I had made up my mind, I was quick to react. I grabbed my hooded cloak, and a hefty sack of gold, and after checking the halls to see that no one was there, I dashed through the shadows in the direction of the door that led to the Lower Levels.
When I finally found Den, he was in one of the dives that he loved to frequent. It was a house of die, and he was in the midst of a game with a group of his cronies. At the sound of my voice, he turned, and greeted me by name, and broke into that hyena laugh of his. The expression on his face said it all: He would be just as delighted to eat you as to do business with you. He was a low sort indeed, even by the standards of this place, but he had something I wanted, and he knew it very well.
‘I have come about that small matter we discussed yesterday evening,’ I said as quietly as I could. I did not wish to draw attention to the fact that a deal was being made, for that would have alerted the thugs who inhibited this dirty shack that I was carrying on my person a substantial sum of money.
‘Ah yes,’ said Den, his grin widening all the more at my words. ‘That little matter. Of course.’ He then rose out of his chair, and bowing to his jeering comrades, said in a mocking tone: ‘Gentlemen, you will forgive me, but I must attend to business. Please keep my seat warm, and pray that lady luck blesses you this day, as much as she has blessed me.’ He then let out a chuckle, and taking me by the arm, guided me out the back way of the squalid tavern.
After walking in silence for awhile, we eventually came to a deserted street, and suddenly he turned on me, and was all seriousness now.
'You must not,' he said gravely, as he cast his darting eyes about in either direction to ensure that we were not overheard, 'tell anyone what you see, nor even hint at it, ever! I could be banished forever, or thrown into the pit of darkness, were it known that I had shown anyone the way through the passage which leads to the land of the mortals. It is our secret, and it will cost you dearly -a tidy sum of gold in fact.'
‘Have no worry on that account,’ I said in a hushed tone. ‘If gold is what you want, then you shall have it.’ And so saying, I pulled out my heavy satchel, and shook out a dozen coins of gold into Den’s extended hand. His greedy eyes lit up, and glittered at the sight, and he seemed well-satisfied, like a beast who has claimed a fine kill.
‘But let us not wait any longer,’ I said to him as he stood admiring his new-found fortune. ‘I am eager to see if your actions match your heady words, for they are words that promise much, but have yet to be proved.’
‘Oh, you shall see for yourself, soon enough,’ he said with a wink. ‘Now follow me, quickly!’
After walking for another hour, we came to the city’s outskirts, which were in even worse condition than the districts that I frequented. I now found myself far beyond any area that I had ever been to, or had even known existed. It was a place of ruins, and crumbling pillars, and the light here was even dimmer, and the air stuffier, than anywhere else.
Den was leading me about in what seemed to be circles, as he zigzagged like a nimble cat through the narrow stone alleys, every now and then stopping, and cocking his head to one side as though he were listening for something.
‘What is it?’ I asked him. ‘What is the big mystery?’
‘Shhhhh!’ he said hissingly, with a finger to his mouth. ‘We must be very quiet… No… I think it is alright. I do not think that anyone has followed us. You see,’ he whispered conspiratorially, ‘there are many about who would pay a dear price for the knowledge that I carry about, right here in my head. And since I make my living by serving as a helpful guide, I am not about to give away the most profitable thing of all, and that is the location of the door to the other world.’
‘So you do not desire for others, or even for yourself to be able to flee from here?’ I asked.
‘No, I do not,’ Den confided. ‘For here I live as a god, even if a lowly one, and I am possessed of many skills that line my pockets with gold. I have no desire to live in the land of men, for what to them are sins and shames, are to me my greatest virtues, and no one stands as master over he who is masterless. I am the one and only who knows this secret location, and for coin, I will show the way.’
‘How many others are there who have gotten out?’
‘Not many,’ he replied frankly. ‘I charge far too much for most to be able to afford. Besides, it is necessary to keep the numbers small. I don’t want your father, who is the only god I fear, breathing down my neck. He would not be well-pleased if he knew what I was up to. And I am taking a chance, I know it well enough, that you might turn out to be a spy. Before we go the rest of the way, answer me truly, as I have answered you, about the purity of your intentions.’
‘That’s rich, coming from you!’ I laughed, but the look on Den’s face, and the gravity of his demeanour, made me sober up enough to assure him of what he wanted to hear. ‘Don’t worry, you scoundrel. Your secret is safe with me. Just take me there now.’
Within another twenty minutes we had entered through an opening in the side of an old wall, and had made our way into a cavern. The passage had obviously been carved out with men’s labour, and I wondered who exactly they had been. It surprised me that I had never heard of it before. Den, meanwhile, was carrying a flaming torch, and led the way confidently, with me following just steps behind. At first the passage was level, which made the going easy, and continued on this way, with little or no changes.
After we had walked for some time, the passage suddenly narrowed, and began to sharply recede. As we continued on downwards, I could feel a cool breath of air that came up from the depths, and I found it difficult to retain my grip on the surface of the smooth-polished rock. I slipped and slid about, and battled against the feeling of claustrophobia which threatened to take hold on more than one occasion.
Through all of this ordeal, Den was unusually silent, and I did not speak myself, for fear of distracting him. He had his hands full, no doubt, just trying to remember which of the many passages was the right one. It had become more and more like a maze the further we went, but Den was all assurance and he navigated, it seemed, merely by his sense of smell.
At last we emerged from out the narrow confines, and into a fairly large, though deserted room. The space had paintings all along its walls, which depicted the gods of my family. All over the floor, and gathered in the corners, was a build-up of sand that had obviously never been swept. It was this that told me that we had gotten close to our destination, for there was no sand anywhere in the world above. It must have blown-in through a crack, which led beyond, to another land.
There was a hole in the wall, which seemed to have been made with hammers and chisels. We climbed through this opening, and when we came out onto the other side, I could see that there was a light at the end of the tunnel. There must be someone who had lit that light, I thought, and my heart began to beat faster with each passing moment, for we had almost reached the end of our journey.
It was then that I noticed that Den had relaxed, and he called out loudly in the direction of the light. ‘Menna!’ he said cheerfully, ‘You old crook! Prepare yourself well, for I have brought a guest with me.’
There was no reply, but as we stepped into the room with the light, I saw there was a door which had once clearly been painted a bright hue, but which in the meantime had faded to a blur, so that one could barely see what it had once depicted. Below the large door there was a lighted brazier, and beside the brazier there sat an old man. He was grilling some meat on the end of a long stick over the open flame. On his face was a white beard, and he had long hair, and wore only a loincloth.
‘Menna is always here,’ the old man said excitedly, with twinkling eyes. ‘Menna is always here. He never goes out much. Just cooks his meat, and toasts his bread, and tries to remember the taste of good wine.’
He then looked up at me, and eyed me suspiciously, and then he looked at Den. ‘Aaah, Den, my friend. I see you have indeed brought with you a new guest… But does he have gold?’
Den smiled his smile, and reassured the old man. ‘Would Den ever bring a guest who did not carry gold? This one carries a great deal, and he is, besides that, an important god from the Upper Levels.’
‘Is he now, is he now…’ Menna seemed to ponder, as he stared a moment through slitted eyes. ‘And what does his Lordship want with poor Menna, who knows little, and who owns even less?’
I spoke up now, as I was eager to get things started. ‘I want you to show me the Land of the Living, to let me pass, before this night is through.’
Menna considered this, as he slowly chewed his meat.
‘Perhaps,’ I said boldly, ‘this will help you in your considerations,’ and I jangled my coins as loudly as I could.
Just then Den cut in, and whispered in my ear, ‘With respect, your Lordship. If you will allow me to do all of the talking. This man is mortal. Once a High Priest of the Temple of Ba’al, before he was deposed by your very own father. He is not like us gods, and he has his pride, as you can clearly see. He must be addressed in a certain manner.’
I did not see at all, for the old filthy man lived in squalid conditions, way down here in the bowels of the earth, but I backed away, not wanting anything to go awry.
‘I have, I believe, decided,’ said the old priest grandly, ‘to assist this eager young god, who pines to travel beyond. But I must warn him that the Land of the Living contains many perils for those of you not of it. Most importantly though, he must be able to pay his way in gold, both in the going, and in the returning. For if he cannot pay,’ he added ominously, ‘he will find himself abandoned forever in that mysterious land… Accept you these conditions?’
‘I accept them,’ I replied.
‘Good,’ he said, and slapped his leg happily. Then he stood up, and moving along just like a flitting bird, he exited the room, leaving me alone with Den.
‘I told you all would work out for the best,’ said Den cheerfully. He seemed happy that the deal had gone through.
A moment later the old man was back, only this time he was wearing a hat on his shaggy head. The hat was dusty and torn, but I could clearly see that it was the headwear of a once High Priest, and in his bony hands he carried a scroll, a religious text by the look of it.
‘These are the invocations,’ Menna now spoke tremulously, ‘which will break the seal, and throw open the Gate of Shades. Only by uttering these words, in the correct and proper order, will you be able to proceed with your journey. If I mis-speak, or if the sacred offering should not be sufficient to satisfy the gods above, then these doors shall remain fast-bolted!’
I knew well, of course, better than anyone, that these two characters had worked out a scheme, the two of them together, for grafting their clients. I was, afterall, a past master at it myself, and knew all the tricks. The gods far above, had they known what was going on here, would not only not consent to such things, but would deal out death to any involved. At the very least, they would have wanted a cut of the profits. Still, I said nothing, for all that mattered was that I get through that door.
Den and I stood silent, as Menna breathed deeply, then closed his eyes with a reverent look, and then opened the scroll.
‘The sacred eye of Horus,’ Menna said shrilly, raising his eyes, ‘ever-watchful and vigilant, observes us though the day, and also through the night.’
I could see that Menna was doing his best to be solemn and serious, but it was hard for me not to laugh, because of the high-pitched tone of his voice, which added humour where it had not been intended. What also added humour though, was that my step-brother Horus was probably now, at this moment, snoring in his bed. He certainly wasn’t keeping an ever-watchful eye on things.
‘But even he cannot see,’ continued serious Menna, ‘each and every deed of his loyal servants, those who stand here, far below, in the steaming bowels of the Lower Levels… Here we stand!’ he shouted, ‘At the portal of the earth, the very edge of heaven, and we implore magic Ka, which is everywhere, implore it with every breath to let the one who seeks to pass through the shades, and into the shadowless lands, to be unhindered’
He then stamped his feet three times in a row upon the ground, and then threw up his arms, and spoke no more.
All at once there was a sound, and a great whirling of wind, as though a giant was breathing in deeply. The Gate of Shades slowly swung open, and I felt myself drawn in the direction of the now open space.
At first I saw nothing, but once the wind had died down a little, I looked outside. There was a barren desert, and hills and valleys, and a shining moon above in the sky. It was the same moon that shed its blue rays into my chamber at night, and yet it was different, though I knew not how. And the air was different too, for it bore the smell of my youth; there was the scent of the beetle in it, and dung, and salt, and many spices, and I breathed deeply of the cool night air as though for the first time.
It was then that Den broke the heavy silence, and reminded me again: ‘By the end of one night and one day, or one of Ra’s sunrises, and one of his sunsets, you must return here, carrying your gold, or you shall not pass back into these walls, but will be banished forever in this strange land.’
‘Do not worry yourselves about me, which I am sure that you won’t. Still, fear not for your coins, for they, and I, will be here at the appointed hour. I have no wish to end my days here, no matter how much I long for a breath of freedom. In one more sunrise, and one more sunset, I will be standing in the very same place that I am standing now. Just be sure that you are at the ready to open the gates and to let me through.’
I then turned from them, and began to walk out into the darkness of the night…
After stumbling through the dark for nearly an hour or so, I finally found a path that led me windingly over the many rocky hills that made up this valley. I knew I was in the place that had many names, but was usually called The Valley of the Kings. Here was where the Pharaohs lay buried in their sarcophagi deep beneath the sand, hidden away in tombs, encased forever in gold. Many were the robbers who would like to plunder and to despoil these riches, these many untold treasures that belonged those of us above, but the location of the sites was known only to priests, and remained untouched by mortal hand or eye.
Eventually, the path led to the base of a mountain, and I saw that at the centre of the peak there was a tunnel which led into the quarried rock, and came out the other side. I obviously had to go through that tunnel, if I was ever to be able to get out of here, for the valley’s outcropping walls were sheer on either side.
The only problem was that the entrance, a large open gate, was heavily guarded by an armed contingent of Royal Watchers. I prepared myself inwardly for what they might ask when I tried to pass, and composed many words amidst my racing thoughts. Yet I need not have worried, for while the men were vigilant about not letting any unauthorized persons in, they made the assumption that anyone leaving must have been alright. In my case they simply waved me through casually when I approached them, assuming, no doubt, that I was one of the many local priests whose duty it was to care for the shrines that filled the valley.
When I emerged at last from out of the tunnel, I saw that I was standing on the upper-most level of Dier-el-Bahari, or, The Stairway That Leads Up Into The Infinite Sky, as it was known. It was an impressive structure, part temple, part ramp, which leaned up against the side of the mountain. This was the work of Queen Hatshepsut, who, centuries ago, had had this built, both as an entrance, and as a form of protection for the great valley.
Besides this wonder, there was also a row of crouching lion-sphinxes that lay stretched-out into the dark horizon. Anyone who passed by these ominous forms with evil in his heart, it was said, would be cursed by these formidable beasts for all time hereafter. No one but priests and guards were allowed entry to this most holy spot, and anyone caught trespassing would be executed at once.
After a moment’s hesitation, I breathed in deeply, and began to descend the gradually inclined ramp. At first, I did so with a sense of caution, for I did not want to draw unwanted attention to myself, but then I remembered that I was thought to be one of the local priests, and so began to hold my head much higher, and to stride with dignity down the last steps (no priest would ever hang his head low).
At the bottom of the ramp there was a lush garden, whose sweet fragrance was almost intoxicating, even at this time of night. It was very well cared for, and besides the greenery, there were artificial lakes, whose glass-like surfaces reflected the night stars without a single waver. During the daytime, these many slender trees would no doubt be filled with squawking birds, and the reflecting lakes would be teeming with scores of colourful fish. It was truly a paradise made with man’s hands, and was meant as a form of imitation, and spiritual flattery, towards the Elysian Fields of the Underworld. The Egyptian people had made a noble effort in trying to recreate the look of eternity, here in their land.
It would have been pleasant to have lingered awhile there in the gardens, but eventually I would be stopped, and interrogated, and so I had to decide what to do next. Staying here any longer was out of the question, and yet what lay before me, out on the open plains, was nothing but desert. However, from the heights of the ramp, I had seen that beyond the fairly narrow strip of forbidding desert there was a small town. I knew this because I had seen the lights of many dwellings as they glowed in the distance.
The town lay on the edge of the River Nile, and beyond the river, lay another, much larger town or city. I decided I would head in that direction, as I wanted to see as much of the world, and how it was lived in, as I possibly could, in the time allotted to me. I hoped there was some way to get across the water, and assumed I could hire a barge, or skiff, once I got to the village. The first thing to do, in the meantime, was to traverse the desert, and so I pulled my hood a little tighter, and tucked my hands up into my sleeves so as to protect myself from the cold night air.
Within no time at all, I had left the temple behind, and was well into the desert. The ground beneath me was not flat, but was made up of thousands of dunes, and I struggled to climb up and down them. Descending was no easier than going up the slippery sliding slopes, and I fell on my face more than a few times. I was, afterall, not very fit, and was used to living the pampered existence of a holy prince in a comfortable palace.
Still, as hard as it was, I enjoyed it immensely, for I felt totally free for the first time ever. Here was I, Anubis, God of mummification, Lord of greeters, Lord of holy hosts, Weigher of hearts, both black and pure; yes, here was I, Ani the immortal, on a grand adventure; unburdened by duties, unburdened by cares, and free, also, for once, of the stifling authority of my ruling family.
I had already begun to change: In a matter of hours I had begun the process of becoming a mortal amongst other mortals, and I breathed the same air, and thirsted with them, and hungered too; and when I looked up at the at the floating moon, it was the same moon and the same stars that they observed, and wrote poetry about. And yet it was all just as much a mystery to me as it was to them. It amused me that many mortals believe, for some reason, that we immortals are somehow endowed with a greater understanding of the mysteries above, but they are mistaken. They would be surprised to learn the truth -that we are as ignorant of the meaning of this world as they themselves are.
The sands of the desert were cool beneath my feet, and the dunes spread out like an ocean before me. They were like great heaving, shifting waves, and I was just a swimmer trying to reach the opposite shore. After several hours, I finally saw that I was nearing my destination, as the torchlights of the ancient village, which before had appeared just as tiny pinpricks on the hilly horizon, now became larger with each passing step. I also began to be able to distinguish silhouettes of humans, as they walked the banks of the moonlit river.
I avoided the town, and headed straight for the outstretched shore. I hoped to find someone -a fisherman perhaps-who could take me across. But because it was late, there were not many men out of their beds, and any boats that there were, were tied up for the night.
There was one group of men though, who were still out at these hours, a hearty looking bunch, who were gathered by a fire. These fellows were oarsmen, and their decrepit boat, a leaky-looking skiff, was docked just a stone’s throw away. I enquired of them if they would be willing to take me across, and they agreed at once after they saw the silver that I promised as a fare. This was twice their usual fee, and I offered it to them as a way of compensation for having dragged them away from their dinner of rabbit, which they had been roasting on a spit over the fire.
After the men had gotten aboard, and taken up their oars, I walked across the gangplank and tried to get comfortable on a wooden bench. The captain of the vessel, who introduced himself as Tey, was master of this slender skiff, which he called ‘The Eye of Horus.’ It was his very own, he said, bought and fully paid for, and the five strong oarsmen were also his as well, though there should be six.
He laughed for some reason when he told me this, and when I asked him why, he said it was because one of his men had been carried under the water’s opaque surface by the clamping jaws of a hungry crocodile, not even one sun-cycle past. And so, that was the reason, he explained with a smile, that there were now three rowers on the one side of the boat, and only two on the other. ‘At first,’ he chuckled, ‘we rowed around in circles, till we finally figured out what the problem was. In the meantime, we have learned how to manage it.’
As the boat was launched out onto the Nile’s surface, it rocked back and forth gently, to the steady rhythm of the men’s stroking oars. Tey had quieted down by now, and had leaned back in his seat, while I said nothing more, and just sat contentedly, as the crew began to sing. I could see that Tey was beginning to get sleepy, for his heavy eyelids had started to droop, and within no time at all were completely shut, and he was fast asleep.
As I sat there looking out over the open waters, I tried to get a sense of my new surroundings. Everything here was vast, and so marvellously open; not at all like the life I had gotten used to back home in the palace, where it was stuffy, and totally confined. Here, one could breath, and feel the soft wind caressing one’s face, and let one’s thoughts wander where they would.
Off in the distance lay the great pyramids that the Pharaohs had built. They were so far away that even these giants, in all their grandiose immensity, were reduced in scale till they appeared as no more than tiny children’s toys. Yet they shone brightly there in the moonlight; the white sheen of their marble sidings was unblemished in perfection, and the golden tips of their top-most points reflected luminously in the pale blue light.
One might be forgiven for believing that it was actually the gods who had hewn these near-perfect shapes from out of the living stone, for mortal men all too easily forget the dizzying heights that their fore-fathers have scaled in ages past. And strangely enough, it is we immortal gods who best know the truth: that it was not we who had humbled nature’s design, but mere flesh and bone that had laboured for decades in order to erect these monuments.
Just then there came a noise which startled my reveries, as from out the reeds, which lay along the shallow Nile’s banks, a flock of Ibis birds suddenly took fright, and burst into the air with one unified shriek. Their graceful forms were as black as onyx, as they shot up into the sky, while the sacred pyramids, temples of ascension, provided a backdrop to their soaring flight.
The noise of the birds disturbed Tey's sleep, and he opened his eyes, and looked at me then, as though he were curious about my identity. I did not want to be recognized by this man -not by my looks of course, which he couldn't know, but by the words I spoke. I thought that it would be wise to play the minor part of an ignorant stranger, one who had come from lands far away, in order to pay homage at the holiest places of the Egyptian Empire. I wanted to use well the short amount of time I had to learn about these people whom I had ruled for so long, and yet still knew so very little about, and so decided to ask a him few questions.
‘Do you have many attacks?’ I inquired of Tey.
‘What attacks?’ he responded.
‘You said that your rower was carried underwater by a famished reptile… Does that sort of thing happen often here?’
‘Oh, yes. At this time of year.’
‘What time of year do you mean?’ I asked innocently.
'What time of year?!' Tey exclaimed loudly, fully awake now. 'You must be from very far away stranger, if you do not know about the yearly flooding of the sacred River Nile. It is an important event -the greatest of our calendar. It is the water's inundation that keeps us in work -gods above be praised! For without the flood there would be no spirit in our tilling soil, and no fish for our nets, nor water for drinking, nor...' And then he gave a sly and lazy smile, 'nor work for a ferryman, such as myself... The Nile, in a word, is all of life itself.'
‘Ah, I see,’ I said. This did surprise me, for life in the Elysian Fields was much the same, and was, in fact, a mirror’s reflection of its earthly counterpart, though far less real.
'As for the rower,' Tey continued with his story, 'he met his mortal end in a painful way, true, but also an honourable one -no less true, I believe.'
‘An honourable one?’ I asked. ‘But how can that be so?’
‘Why? Because he was claimed as a living sacrifice to the mighty god Sobek, he who takes the form of a crocodile, and who roams these very waters in the hours of darkness, and who basks upon its banks when Ra’s sun is shining. Lucky is the man who has been chosen to serve as the appeaser of His everlasting appetite.’
‘Lucky!’ I exclaimed. ‘He does not seem lucky to be eaten while alive!’ But I regretted these words as soon as I had uttered them, for I was here to observe, and not to pass judgement upon my earthly subjects.
Tey’s eyes were now alert, and he looked upon me with a hint of disapproval. ‘Careful stranger,’ he said. ‘Because you are from away, I will let that remark pass, but here in these parts, we worship mighty Sobek, and will not stand idle when he is spoken ill of.’
‘No, of course not,’ I said apologetically, and yet it almost made me laugh out loud to think that my cousin, Sobek, was so revered here. At home he was disliked, even by members of his very own family, for he was a real savage. This was a god, afterall, who loved nothing more than engaging in robbery, drunkenness, and lewdness, and any number of other distasteful acts. Even during our childhoods, he had been notorious amongst his own kin for putting on his realistic crocodiles’ mask, and then hiding away and waiting in the shadows for someone to pass by, and then leaping out with a cry!.. I personally had never thought much of him, but apparently these mortals held him in high esteem, for some unknown reason.
‘Oh yes,’ Tey continued. ‘Sobek is out protector, and our benefactor, and we try our hardest not to disturb him while he is resting. That is why we work late after darkness sets, as that is when he hunts, and not during the day while he is sleeping. And yet all this love we men of the water have for our beloved is nothing at all when compared with the endless honours that are heaped upon him by his very own priests. In the city of Crocodopolis, where my friendly brother-in-law resides, the holy men there devote all their time, and all their energy, to serving every whim of their great Lordships. There, the crocodiles reside in specially-designed pools, which are covered in precious stones, and have earrings of gold pinned to their hides. They are worshipped daily from morning to night, and even when they die they are not left to rot, but are embalmed, just like our Kings, and placed in sarcophagi, and then buried in tombs so that they too might enjoy a taste of the afterlife.’
Upon hearing this tale, I had no doubt in my mind that my cousin Sobek had found a way to smuggle reptile mummies into the Underworld, as a way to make extra money on the side. It amazed me no end, for I, God of embalming, had not heard a word concerning the matter until this moment, and it angered me too. ‘What a little schemer!’ I said to myself, but was able, with some effort, to hide my thoughts from curious Tey.
It amazed me no end, as I was beginning to see it up close, how the cult of worship that my father Osiris had established so long ago had, over the millennia, taken on a life of its own. It had become, in the meantime, almost unrecognizable in the process. Still, I said nothing to discourage this man, for Tey, in his faith, seemed genuine enough -a true believer in fact.
Just then the Captain looked into the distance, squinting his eyes, and then pointed his finger at the water’s surface.
‘Look there!’ he said, and not without fear. ‘That’s a hippopotamus!’
I quickly scanned the water’s rippling surface, but could see nothing.
‘No, over there,’ Tey said, and pointed again.
This time I saw clearly the large, indistinct, and ominous shape as it moved rapidly through the water and toward the skiff.
‘I hope that it does not decide to ram us,’ I said.
‘I hope so as well,’ Tey replied worriedly.
Then why don’t you order your rowers to go faster?!’
‘No, I cannot do that. If it means to ram us, then it will have to ram us, and that will be because it is the will of the gods. If it is a male, then we can fight back, but if it is female, than we will just have to let it crush us.’
I stood up from my seat, and mentally prepared to dive over the edge should we be hit. I did not understand Tey’s sense of resignation, and was prepared to flee.
'If we kill a female,' he went on explaining, though I was hardly listening, 'our own priests would later destroy us, for the female is sacred. It is a grievous sin to commit such a terrible sacrilege, and we would be forced to pay for it -in this world now, or in the next.'
I did not explain in this tense moment that in the afterlife there was no punishment for killing Hippos.
Luckily for us all, the crisis averted itself at the very last moment, when the giant beast, whether male or female, suddenly changed course and passed us on by. I breathed a sigh of heartfelt relief as I stood watching its receding form, and then sat back down on the wooden bench.
I understood now, better than before, that while here on earth I was almost as mortal as any living man, and I had no desire to forfeit this life without a struggle. Such feelings as these, this fear of death, were totally new for me, and I’d never had emotions like this before. The sensation was not entirely unpleasant though, and was even exciting, and that shocked me. It was certainly better that spending yet another wasted night in some broken-down dive in the City of Dogs.
Through all this activity I noticed that the stout-hearted oarsmen had not even stirred from their diligent rowing -not without the word of their pious master. Now they began singing all at once in unison, and the words they sang were pure and sad, and the sound echoed out into the still night and brought a sense of warmth to the chill air.
I had never before heard the sound of men’s voices as they sang together, and the song’s words seemed to come alive as they spoke of the hardships of an oarsmen’s life, and of the love they had, and respect, for the Nile’s mysteries. To them, it was the source of everything they knew, the banquet of life, and the source of their world. And they sang too of desire; a desire for happiness, a desire for a long life, and then the final desire: to be united forever, when they died, with the gods above. It moved me deeply that they had such devotion, but it saddened me as well, for they would not achieve this elusive dream. What lay beyond was out of the grasp of an unwealthy man, and was besides, not what they thought it was.
By now, our sailing boat had crossed the distance of the sacred River Nile, and as we reached the shore, the skiff rocked gently there in the tall reeds. Tey was busy giving orders, and he had a man fetch me the wooden gangplank, so after it was laid out as a bridge I hopped up onto the steep sandy bank.
‘May the gods go with you on your holy journey,’ Tey said to me and smiled.
'And may they go with you,' I said to him, and meant it. 'And with your men too,' -I added. 'But we shall meet again, and I am sure very soon, as I will be coming back this way, after I have seen the great city of Thebes.'
'That is good, stranger,' Tey said and waved. 'But if you really want to learn about us -the people of Egypt-then you must visit the Temple at Karnak. It is not far from here -you can't miss it. I will be interested to hear what you think about it when you return. We will be waiting here as we always are.'
‘Thank you, Captain,’ I said and smiled. ‘I will take you advice.’
I then turned around, and began walking down a long path that was as narrow and winding as a snake, and that led towards the ancient city which lay just ahead. On the horizon were the sleeping houses, and stone buildings that I had seen some hours before from the ramp.
‘So,’ I thought aloud, ‘now I have a few hours less than I had before, until I must return to the Gate of Shades…
Within a very short time I found myself standing before the largest complex of Holy Temples that I had ever seen before. This was after having walked through the sleeping city of Thebes, then through the desert outskirts of that ancient capital, and then into the sacred precincts of Karnak, where the pilgrims gathered.
The entrance to the site was guarded by two Colossi statues of Pharaoh. These were at least forty-five strides tall, and were painted brightly in order to more strongly resemble living, breathing figures. The stone of their serene and cherubic faces was tinted rosy pink, and even in the dim light cast up by the torches at the statue’s bases, I could make out the elaborate details in their ornamentation.
High above these two looming stoneworks, on the soaring walls which ringed the complex, I could read the elegant form of writing that had been etched there by artisans, and which told the story of bygone ages. Above even this, a dozen royal banners fluttered and snapped in the cool night breeze as the stars looked down from the inky black sky.
I took a brief moment to absorb this sight, and then proceeded on, further into the precincts. I was drawn on by the sound of music, which seemed to come from the Temple of Osiris, which was rightfully the largest of the stone structures here. As I approached through the square, I could see that a small crowd had gathered, mostly priests and peasants, who had braved the cold of the night in order to pay homage to their beloved gods.
I tried to mingle in with these pious people, in order to see what they were looking at. It appeared as though there were a mystery play about to be performed. I had heard of these before, though I had never actually seen one, but remembered that they were called ‘Mysterion’ because of the strange and mystical qualities which underlay their action and plot. They were performed for all, and were meant to show a time in the life of the people of the past, and of how the gods had brought order to the eternal chaos that had reigned before.
This play was to be performed at once, there on the steps and landing of the temple’s entrance. The scene was illuminated by the lit torches of a dozen or more priests who were standing sentry, while behind these mute men, I noticed that the great stone columns which upheld the roof had been carved to resemble lotus stalks, with the unfolding petals and all, there at the top.
Then the play began, and I saw that it was to be a re-enactment of the life and death of my step-father, Osiris. This was as it should be, for it was his temple, and this was the most popular story in the entire canon. The actors stepped out from where they’d been hiding from view, and now took center stage. I could see that all of the members of my immediate family were represented, seven in total: Osiris, Isis, Nephthys, Horus, Set, Thoth and myself. I was delighted to see a reflection of my own visage, but couldn’t help but notice that while they had gotten my costume right, the Jackal mask I wore was in this case a little stylized, and not as realistic as my own.
As for the rest, the actors had done well, and had basically gotten things right, but as they took their places on the stage, and struck their poses, I saw at once that Osiris had far too much green paint crudely applied to his face and hands, while the actresses were too tastefully attired, in simple white chiffon dresses. My real mothers would never have presented themselves so plainly, but in real life were always covered from head to foot in the most gaudy apparel.
As for the falcon god, Horus, the actor was not fit enough at all, and had a big belly, which would have horrified my muscular half-brother, even if I got a good chuckle out of it. As for Set, my true father, he had been cast as the irredeemable villain, and had been made to look almost comically evil, with heavily arched brows, long curved fingernails, and a sinister smile. My cousin Thoth was the only one they got completely right, even down to the way that he walked, and nervously fidgeted, and considering it was only the dead who ever actually saw us, I wondered how this had been achieved.
But before the action could properly begin, the temple’s head priest came forward in order the speak ‘The Words’. This was a necessary prelude to the tale, and helped to set the mood. His authoritarian voice carried well out into the assembled crowd, and we all stood spellbound and stilled by his eloquent tone. It was his task to fill us in on the essentials, and he uttered these things in a low but grandiose tone from the right side of the stage as he reminded us of our heavenly origin.
'In the beginning,' he said, 'there was only darkness, and the raging waters of Nun. In all the world there was only one very small island of dirt, and out of this sacred mound came a lovely Ibis bird -this was the god Thoth-and he laid a perfect egg, and thus was creation born! Then a sacred lotus flower emerged from out the waters, and unfurled its petals, and the Sun God, Ra, stepped forward as a boy. There was born that day, light out of the darkness, and this place took a name: 'The City of the Sun.' And many new life forms sprang up from the earth, and they worshipped here, and it became a temple, all covered in silver and gold.'
The priest was getting well into his stride now, and his eyes shone brightly there in the torchlight, as his voice rose higher. ‘But behold the sight of Nut, Goddess of the sky! For she swallows the sun each and every evening, and the sun passes on, into the Underworld again, and is reborn each morning. This is where the dead walk, for just as rebirth follows death, so too does the River Nile recede, and yet is reborn to us. ‘Ah,’ said our Lord Ra, ‘when I cried these tears, man-form was created in these flowing streams, and even in sadness, all of life is forever joined.’
The priest's expression now changed into a sort of fanaticism, as he looked upwards, and pointed at the stars, 'Look to the sky!' he said. 'There is no Ra! He who crosses the void through the celestial heavens, and out over the breaking horizon. Ra, in the region of the night -there in his Meserktet Boat-he makes his journey into the Duat at days end; and with him are the Ka's of many passed souls. And brightly shines the boat; gold and lapis lazuli are its glinting ornaments, as well as emerald, and ruby and amethyst. And look there, upon the company of the gods, who draw the boat onwards, along the ghostly River of Death with golden towing ropes -the portals are flung wide! And then they all enter the region where the Kas who have died will face their final judgement, there, in the Hall of Osiris!'
I could picture these scenes in my mind as he spoke, and listened very intently to the rest of his speech: ‘Now we worship here, and create pools and gates, and line the water with reeds, and the temple walls stretch up into the sky, and depict scenes of the glory which our mighty Pharaohs have brought to our land. And the wings of mother Isis, made of gold and lapis lazuli, spread out over the entrance of the great thronging gate; and no priest may enter here, without first washing his feet, and anointing himself with sweet perfume; all this we observe daily, to please the almighty gods, so that they might show us favour, and see us as worthy.’
After a brief moment of silence, the sound of music began again -a repetitive strain upon many unseen instruments, and the priest withdrew from sight. There was no talking now, and all was pantomime, as the frozen actors unfroze themselves, and began to play the scenes. To begin where it began, Set and Osiris stepped forward, and took up athletic engagement in a mocked-up battle -all choreographed of course. They threw their arms up, and whirled and twirled about, slamming their staff poles hard onto the stone landing and making grim faces at one another.
The audience members gasped, for although they had no doubt witnessed the play before, it never failed to move them, as this was the story of how the first seedlings of their current civilization had been planted. It amazed me to see actors playing the role of us gods, when we ourselves were really just actors playing out our own dramatic roles, and the irony of the situation was not at all lost on me.
Soon the wretched villain Set had cast Osiris down, though not as it had really happened, with Set stealing into Osiris’s chamber and sticking him with a knife, but with a sweep of his staff. Osiris fell very melodramatically to the ground, while Set ran offstage, scowling as he went. It was then that Isis and Nephthys came forth, and they walked in unison, their long strides synchronized, and their made-up faces grim with determination. Then they both half squatted, and putting their open hands to their wide eyes, began swaying back and forth to the rhythm of the music, which was much louder now.
Poor Osiris, meanwhile, lay dead upon the ground. The actresses pretended to see him for the first time, and ran to him, knelt down beside the body, and made great gestures of grieving and wailing as they threw up their arms with sorrowful abandon and pulled at their hair. Then two strong slaves came onto the stage, and kneeling down, picked up the prone body very ceremoniously and carried it to the other side of the landing. My two mothers trailed behind Osiris, weeping with noisy tears, and holding onto one another tightly.
But then, suddenly, the music changed pace, and Jackal-headed Anubis, who up until that point had been keeping out of sight, stepped out of the shadows. He made a symbolic gesture with his up-thrust arms towards the crowd, which everyone recognized as meaning that he was invested with the power to raise the dead to life. He then made a great fuss of pretending to wrap Osiris in yards of invisible linen, and began to cast spells over the newly encased mummy.
Once again, the slaves returned, and carried dead Osiris in their sturdy arms, and then lay him down again onto the landing, but in the center of the stage this time. The music took on a whole new intensity as Anubis stood over his mummified father, and he made wide gestures over the body, bidding it to rise up. Slowly at first, and with a great effort, my step-father rose until he was standing at his full height. He appeared very stiff, and just stared fixedly, with his arms crossed in front of his chest.
Isis and Nephthys, who had been watching all this from a corner, threw up their arms and exclaimed with joy! Then they began to dance a dance of celebration, moving their lithe forms through the shimmering light, which made the spectators exclaim. Even Anubis himself, distant and unemotional beneath his Jackal’s mask, also began his own dance, though this one was more masculine, as he stamped his bare feet, and circled about the still but living figure of breathing Osiris in a traditional strut.
The end of the dance was obviously a signal for the torch-bearing priests, who all at once drove their flames into the sand, thus stuffing them out. The crowd was hushed, as all became blackness, made all the more so because of its suddenness. This had obviously been done on purpose, so that the full weight of the death and the life of Osiris could sink in.
The play was not over though, and even in the darkness, the music continued on, not only to keep the mood of the play unbroken, but also to cover the sounds of the frantic actors who were busily scurrying about behind the drawn curtain, changing or adjusting their elaborate costumes. After about three minutes, in the flash of an eye, the stage burst into light! Literally hundred of torches had been lit at once, and now the entire landing was fully illuminated, and was so bright that I had to look away.
Assembled on the stage was the entire cast of the sacred Mysterion, and they stood in a line, holding distinctive poses. In the center was Osiris the King, resplendent in a long, white robe, which fit tightly over his rigid body. The colour of the robe was meant to symbolize the rebirth of all life, and just as before, both his arms were crossed in front of his chest, though he was now brandishing the crook and the flail that embodied Egypt and its sovereign power.
It never ceased to amaze me that nation-states always presumed that their power somehow came from the favoured place they enjoyed in the life to come. This, rather than the way it was in reality, which is that a nation’s place in heaven was fully dependant upon it’s ability to accrue as much treasure and power as it possibly could. It was this alone that assured them a place at the eternal table, and always would be.
Standing next to Osiris, meanwhile, were his two loyal wives, and they knelt on the ground, and gazed up at their King. On his other side was Horus, who stood, proud as a falcon, and towering imperiously over the figure of Set, who cowered in subjugation underneath Horus’s foot. The symbolism was clear: Evil, in the form of my true father, had been forever vanquished, while the order of heaven, and of the living earth, had been restored. Now eternal life itself stood enshrined as the greatest goal of all, for Kings and commoners alike, and this goal could be gained only if one served this Royal Dynasty that was my family, and the priests who served us.
Anubis, or myself that is, stood not that far off, but a little behind the rest, and in his raised hands he held a set of scales, the same scales which represented my power, and the judgement to come to all souls when they died. In that moment, I realized that I did not look forward to returning to my life above, with its many onerous tasks, and it was hard for me to look at this image, this mirror-image in fact, of my own life-form without feeling as though it were a cruel mockery.
Thoth, the God of writing, was the only moving figure, and he was sitting on the stage with his legs crossed, and was writing something on a tablet of papyrus, much as he truly did. This was meant to represent the act of recording history, which went on eternally, regardless of circumstances.
The milling crowd of people who had patiently witnessed this dark and moving spectacle now solemnly began to murmur and stir as the sacred music stopped. Once again, as before, most of the torches were extinguished, and this allowed the actors a chance to make their way offstage without being seen, while the people began to disperse back into the night.
In that moment, I felt vulnerable, as I had just been presented, in the form of a play, an important part of my bitterly painful youth, and I had to wrap my mind around this. Not only had my step-father actually been murdered, but it had been my real father who had carried out the deed. What followed this tragedy was that Set had been tossed out and banished, and declared an outcast, while I had discovered the extent of my powers when I had become a god. It had not been easy to go through that transition, and was also not something that I wanted to relive. Afterall, I had come here to get away from all that.
Still, I wondered to myself, how amazed would the assembled pious priests and peasants be if they had known that this very night a true god had stood amongst them? Would they have shouted, and been happy? Or would they have been unable to believe it, without some sort of miracle being performed as a proof. They might have even tried to kill me for being an imposter -an unholy blasphemer. As an experienced gambler, I was willing to bet on the latter, for a god is rarely recognized, especially in his own land.
As fascinating as this was, I felt that the time had come for me to be getting away. I had wanted to see the temple, and had, if only briefly. But now I realized just how tired I was, and how hungry and thirsty. These were new feelings that I had not had before, but were no doubt all just part of being a human, and I knew that I would have to satisfy these appetites eventually. The longer I was away from the Underworld, the more such things would take hold of me, and yet I did not mind. First, I would head back to Thebes, where I could find an Inn for the night -as little of the night left that there was-somewhere to lay down my head, and buy some food and wine.
As I broke away from the crowd, I was bumped into several times by different strangers as I made my way through the towering gates, an unusual experience for me, and then headed out onto the narrow strip of desert that lay between myself and Thebes. In half an hour or so I would reach the city, and could finally rest.
Within a few moments, I was all alone again as I crossed over the moonlit sands. The silence was eerie after the noise that I had just experienced, but I was happy.
Was I alone though?
Several times I got the distinct sensation that I was being followed, and yet when I turned and looked around I saw nothing. Many times before, in the Underworld, I had had my money taken by thugs, but I had not counted on that happening here.
I decided to pick up my pace a little, so that I could get out of the desert as quickly as possible, but as I crossed a dune, two cloaked figures, both bathed in shadows, rose up in my path and blocked my way. They had obviously been waiting for me to pass by here, and I was clever enough to know a stick up when I saw it.
‘Who are you?!’ I shouted, in the highest voice I could, but it didn’t seem to phase the men one single bit, and they just took another step forward. Then I turned around, and saw that there were three other shadowy figures closing in on me from behind. Now I was surrounded. I thought of trying to make a run for it, but it was no good as it was very difficult to run in sand. It looked as though I would just have to talk myself out of this tricky situation.
“Well, well, well, well, well,’ said the grimiest man, the one who looked as though he was the so-called leader of this gang of ruffians. He was one of the ones who had come up from behind me, sneakily, and his voice was the most sinister sounding I’d ever heard before. ‘We might very well ask you,’ he said condescendingly, ‘just who you are… But never mind, we are not interested. My name is Megamouth, and these men here are my Birds of Prey. We hunt for meat and for gold here on the desert’s edges, and we claim a hefty fee from all who pass.’
I knew then, very well, that I was not dealing with just ordinary thugs, but with men possessed with the spirit of Set, my real and true father, who dwelt in solitude at the edges of the desert. These men had become the worst social outcasts, and had resorted to making their living though robbery and plunder, and they served and worshipped no god but Set.
Megamouth the thug then stepped forward, till he was standing only a few feet away from me. I saw in the moonlight just how filthy he was, and the smell of wine was on his breath.
‘You see,’ he then said, as though he was explaining something very important. ‘This here is our territory, and we want our fee! Me and my mates here, we couldn’t help but notice, back at Karnak, that you had some gold there on your wrist. Now where did a scoundrel like yourself get an ornament like that? You ain’t a nobleman, or a prince, is ya?’
The thugs began to cackle, and to hoot and whistle, and I realized then that they had been the ones I had bumped into back at the temple. So, they had followed me the whole time, looking for a chance to get me alone, and I had just walked right into their trap! Now I cursed myself for not having left the bracelet behind in my room. It was the one sign of my royal status that I had on me, but I would have rather had power, divine power no less, than anything else in that moment, but sadly I had none. Anything I could do, could only be achieved in the Underworld, and here on earth, I was as helpless as any man.
‘If it is the bracelet that you are wanting,’ I said firmly, trying to sound brave, ‘then just take it, and be on your way.’
‘Aha,’ Megamouth sneered, drawing out the moment for his goons’ benefit. ‘It ain’t gonna be that easy. Who knows what other sparkling trinkets you might be carrying? That’s just what we aim to be finding out.’
Just then I remembered the satchel on my belt, and the gold it contained. Without that money, it would be impossible for me to pay for food, or for shelter. But worst of all, is that it would mean that I would have nothing to bribe my way back into heaven again. As much as I wanted out of it, I was not yet ready to be stranded here amongst the mortals.
In that moment I knew for sure that I had to at least try to get away, but as I turned to run, one of the filthy thugs anticipated my move, and tripped and pushed me. As I fell to the ground, fierce punches and kicks came raining down on me, onto my head and my legs, and I struggled to fend off the many fists and feet that were beating at me. It was no good though, and after they had torn away my bracelet from off my wrist, it didn’t take them long to find my satchel of gold as well.
I heard the sound of their gleeful laughing, as though from some great distance, for I was rapidly fading into unconsciousness. Apparently, I would never be free from getting both robbed and beaten, and if I had hoped that things would be different here on earth, I was bitterly disappointed to find that they were just about the same. So ironic, I thought, that those who served my real father Set had carried out this attack.
In vain, I tried to stand, but was far too weak, and only collapsed again in a heap on the ground. The Birds of Prey had gotten all they wanted, and had already made off to spend their loot. Megamouth though, had trailed behind in order to deliver a few more swift kicks. The evil character enjoyed his work, and he only left very reluctantly.
I groaned and struggled to get some air, but even my ability to breath had been taken away from me, at least momentarily. The very last thing that I remembered before I passed out was the feeling of sand, cold and dry on my face, and in the palms of my grasping and clutching hands…
A flash of dream came across my sleeping mind. The images were both clear, and indistinct, like the scent of a fading flower, and they became sharper with each passing moment. I imagined that I was flying, just like a falcon, soaring high above the desert floor. Stretched out on all sides of me was the infinite expanse of a sea of white light. This was the sun as it reflected off of the wavy dunes, and they glinted like gold.
I soared ever higher, happy to be free at last, happy to have these wings that could carry me away from all my haunting troubles. Nothing could stop me now, as I soared up into the blue, and then swooped down to the valley below. I navigated through the peaks of craggy rocks, and past the palm trees that stood, slender and bent, casting their long shadows onto the desert floor.
I was all alone out here, and had not a care in the world. The desert smelled of spices, spices that had been carted over the swirling sands by centipede-like caravans of merchants, till at last they reached holy Thebes, where they could sell their wares at market. I did know where I was, and yet I did not mind, for I knew that I would be able to find water, and shade when I desired rest. There was nothing that this strange land would not provide, if I truly needed it, and I was filled with a confidence that I had never felt in my waking existence. If only the dream could be true I imagined, even as I still dreamed, but then my mind drifted off into forgetfulness, and I slept on awhile in a dreamless state.
When I awoke, I appeared to be wingless, and was beyond mystified to find myself not by the side of a cool oasis on the desert’s far edges, but in a well furnished room. I was laying in a large bed and was covered over with a fine linen sheet. Daylight streamed through a billowing curtain at the window, and I breathed deeply of the fresh air.
I felt very well rested, but when I went to lift my head from off the pillow there was a shooting pain in my neck. In fact, my whole body ached, and it was then that I remembered the beating I had taken at the hands of those brutes. It took me a long moment, but eventually I was able to raise myself up onto my elbow, and come to a sitting position. The room, I could see, was a fairly large one, and looked as though it belonged to someone who was wealthy, judging by the excellent furnishings.
I was perplexed by my situation, and yet at the same time was relieved, for wherever I had ended up, it was better than being out in the desert, and other than feeling sore, and hungry and thirsty, I was comfortable at least. Someone seemed to have taken alot of time, and thought, to see that this was so, and my curiosity was burning to be satisfied. It certainly wasn’t Hathor or Thoth that had come to my rescue this time. I had to see who my benefactor was, so I got out of bed, tightened the sash of the robe which had been laid out for me, and walked out of the room and down the long hallway.
Even before I reached the end of the sunlit passage, I could hear the sound of a booming, but genial male voice -no doubt the master of the house-and he seemed to be giving commands to his servants. As I entered the main living area, I was greeted by the sight of a rather large fellow, who was reclining on a divan, stretched out like a large cat. He turned to me at once, and a giant smile lit up his entire double-chinned face.
‘Well!’ he shouted jovially. ‘Here is the wayfaring stranger. Awake at last, I see. And how did you sleep?’
‘Very well, thank you,’ I replied sheepishly. ‘But how did I get here?’
‘Ah, my boy,’ he said. ‘Now that is a tale to be told. But please seat yourself, and make yourself comfortable, and then we can talk.’
He then snapped his fingers at his bowing servants, who stood in a row before him, and called out for more food, and some wine.
‘When we found you,’ he continued, ‘you looked no better than a beat up old mongrel. I would not have stopped, but something told me that you were no ordinary drunk, or extraordinary criminal for that matter either. So I had my men load you up on my donkey, and we brought you here. I had been paying my respects at the temple, and was on my way home, when I saw you laying there in a rumpled heap. It was not the first time that something like this has happened in this area. There are bandits all over the place around here, and that is why I always travel with an armed escort, especially during nightime… But tell me, my boy, what on earth were you doing out alone at that hour? You must not be from around here, or you’d have known better.’
I was not sure just how much of my tale I could entrust to this curious man. He seemed well-intentioned enough, and did not have to help me, and yet I decided to just give him the bare facts.
‘My name is Ani,’ I said, ‘and it is true enough that I am not from here. I too was visiting the temple, and had hoped to find a place of rest in Thebes, but that was when the bandits attacked me; they stole all of my money, and now I have no way of even getting home.’
‘Tosh, tosh, my boy! I, Pepi the merchant, am, as you can see for yourself, a very wealthy man, and I will see to it that whatever they took, you will have it replaced. But first, tell me about yourself. I am curious about you. To start with, your name: Ani. Is that short for Anubis?’
‘Yes, it is,’ I said quietly, feeling as though I were on the spot. ‘He is my patron god.’
‘Ah yes,’ Pepi replied. ‘Anubis is also well-honoured in this household. But of course the most honoured god of all is Aldokkan, the god of commerce! I have become very rich, by selling silk and other fine-quality products, and I owe everything I have to the gods. And you too,’ he said, his eyes filling with mirth, ‘you also owe something to the many gods above, for they have led you to me, or me to you!’
Then Pepi let out a roar of endearing laughter that did not subside for a whole minute. ‘But right now we eat!’ he said, and rubbed his hands together vigorously. Just then his servants entered the room carrying platters all covered in delicacies, and large jugs of wine. ‘Eat your fill, and drink till you swell, for you must be famished,’ Pepi declared, and then, without another word, began to gorge himself.
I admitted that I was hungry, and reached out and grabbed whatever came to hand. There was a wide selection of things to choose from, including vegetables, but I avoided these and went straight for the meat. There were slices of cold hedgehog, and fish, and pigeon, and roasted and glazed mice. After stuffing myself, I piled up a healthy helping of sweetened Tiger Nut, which was made of tubers mixed in with honey, which was my favourite dessert, and I washed it down with quarts of good wine. Pepi, meanwhile, polished off even more than I had just had, and with just as much relish. I now began to understand why he was so fat, and also why so happy.
After I finished the meal, my senses began to slowly return to me, and I reclined luxuriously there on the divan, and took a look around me. The reception room was large, and was tiled in polished stones, and there was an abundance of fine wooden furniture. Everything was decorated with geometric motifs, and yet the room did not appear to be cluttered in any way. Straight before us, from where we both sat, was the open entrance to the courtyard outside, and there were two large windows that went down to the floor, and these gave an excellent view out into the garden.
There was a large pool in the center of the well-groomed courtyard, and in it, gentle Ibis birds waded in the shallow water. Everywhere there were palms, and blossoming fruit trees, as well as ornamental shrubs. Just like in the guest room, sunlight streamed through the billowing curtains, and it warmed me, as did the wine I had drunk.
Just then I noticed, for the very first time, that I had obviously been bathed at some point, for my skin felt smooth, and was cleaned of sand, and even smelt of scented oils. A moment later, at the snap of Pepi’s fingers, a servant stepped forward and offered me a scented-fat head-cone, just like all the civilized people wear when visiting, and I placed it on my head and immediately relished its fine lavender scent.
I knew that I could not hold off Pepi’s curiosity forever though, and so now that we had finished our delicious meal I thought I would be as honest as I dared to be, and give him some explanation for my mysterious presence. He had, after all, probably saved my nearly-mortal life, and so I owed him as much of the truth that I could bring myself to share, but without giving myself away entirely.
‘Pepi,’ I said informally, ‘I am, as you say, a wayfaring stranger here. I do have a home, but it is far far away, and soon I must return there. I came here to Egypt to have an adventure, and to find new meaning for my weary life. I did not belong back in that other world, and thought that I’d come here to see if I’d be happier.’
Pepi was silent a moment, and then raised an eyebrows. ‘And what is the verdict then, Ani? I can’t imagine for a moment that after last night you’d want to stay here!’
‘Actually,’ I said, ‘It has been a mixed experience. I have had some negative things happen to me, but some positive ones too. I met you, didn’t I? And there was one other who was not unkind’ (I was thinking of Captain Tey).
‘Well,’ said Pepi, with a mystevious grin, ‘Let us see if we can’t make your stay here a very fine one indeed. We do not want you to go home with sad tales of Egypt’s poor hospitality. This is, don’t forget, the reign of Ramses II, our new Pharaoh, and after years of failure, we at last have the Two Lands back on the right course. Trade is very good, and war is even better, and there is prosperity for every roaming creature. Even the borders are secure, after hundreds of years. The gods have been kind to us all, of late. And it is my happiness to share it with you, stranger, but only because I can see that you are not a heathen… Now let us leave weary subjects, and focus ourselves on the many pleasures of life instead.’
Pepi then clapped his hands, and immediately his head servant, a wiry man of eighty or so, appeared out of nowhere. After receiving his orders, he disappeared down the hall, and as the moments passed on by we sipped away at our wine. Soon enough, five beautiful young women, all of them Khebait dancers or trained musicians, lined up before us there in the reception area.
They began to sing in unison, a happy, lyrical song, and to move their bodies to the swaying rhythm. On their dainty fingers, three of them wore castinets, while the other two girls played the harp and the flute. These dancers had trained for all their young lives to be able to interpret the many various sounds, and to move their lithe bodies in a way that suited the tune.
I sat back on my divan, and just enjoyed the show. For the first time, due to the lively distraction, and the effects of the wine, I had ceased to feel my many aches and pains. I really was in heaven, as the dancers moved in a blur before me. Pepi too was enjoying it, and was clapping along to the music. I did not stir myself for an entire hour, and the dancers also never seemed to tire.
But as I watched, I could not help but feel a slight tension, for the day was now slowly drawing to a close, and the sun god Ra had now covered a greater distance in the sky. Soon darkness would come, and then it would be too late to get back home again. If I did not make it the Gate of Shades at the assigned hour, when the sun had set, then Den would just abandon me to my fate, the treacherous rascal.
I had to find a way of breaking the news to Pepi, and felt bad because of this. He had been so hospitable, and yet I could not afford to end up abandoned here, as pleasant as that might seem. How could I abandon my own step-father, who had not abandoned me, though I was the spawn of evil Set.
‘Pepi,’ I said at last, ‘I am eternally grateful for all that you have done. I cannot explain it now, but I must leave you. I have business to attend to, and I simply can’t be late. I can’t tell you why, but my very life itself may well depend upon it,’
Pepi had a concerned expression, but held out his hand to show that he was not hurt. ‘Fear not, young Ani. You need explain no further. I am a man of the world, and am well acquainted with the notion of pressing time, and a man’s business is his own. I have enjoyed having you here, and am certainly glad that I did not leave you to the mercy of those wild desert Jackals. Perhaps you will come to see me again some day? My home will be yours, anytime that you like.’
‘Thank you Pepi. I will return, and hopefully soon. Then we can become great friends, who will never be parted.’
I really meant that too, what I had just said, for Pepi was the most real and alive person I had met during the course of my life. He was not at all like the withered gods above, but was open, and hearty, as well as being a bit of a lovable cad himself. I think that it was obvious to the both of us then that we would be friends, come what may.
It really was time to go though. I could tell by the angle of the slanting sunlight that it would begin to set within five hours or less. I still had to make my way across the Nile, and through the desert, and also get back into the Valley of the Kings. It would be much more difficult to get inside than it had been to get out, and time was slipping away. It was not easy for me to adjust myself to this sense of urgency, for time had been immaterial since I had become a god.
As I left the home of Pepi, I turned and waved goodbye. He was standing with his servants at the gate of his beautiful home, and I only hoped that one day I could return. He had been as good as his word, and had given me back every one of the coins that had been stolen. He even offered to send along some of his stronger men as an escort, to see that I wasn't robbed and beaten again, but I declined the gesture. I did not want the men to see where I was going, and to report back to him. It wasn't that I didn't trust his goodwill -quite he contrary in fact-it was just that it would have complicated matters, if ever I was able to return here.
As I walked down the dusty path, dressed, at my insistence, not in the fine clothes that Pepi had offered me, but in my dirty tunic with its large hood, I could see that the sun had passed its zenith, and was moving fast across the blue sky. I moved quickly to keep up with Ra, my grumpy uncle, as he made his daily celestial journey, and hoped against hope that I would not be too late…
The Lotus Lake
As I walked along the edge of the River Nile, I kept checking the location of the sun. I had covered a good amount of distance, and was nearing the place where I would catch my return ferry to the other side. It would be good to see Tey again, and to recount my adventures as his men paddled us across the water.
Next to me, the River had widened at this point, and the view reminded me of the Lotus Lake, which one could see from my family’s palace. This was it’s earthly counterpart, and was even more beautiful, and so I found a cool spot beneath some gently swaying palm trees, and stopped to look out over the blue waters.
At first I did not notice her, because the sun was glinting off of the sun-dazzled surface, and because I was focusing on the tiny white sails of little fishing skiffs that had anchored far out. But I did hear the sound of a splashing swimmer, and so shaded my eyes so that I might see what was making that noise.
As I began to focus my vision, I saw that I was looking at the form of a girl, or a young woman rather, who was about thirty yards out. It appeared, even from here, that she was swimming without any clothes on, for not only was the pink of her smooth flesh somewhat visible to me, but there was a neat pile of colorful clothing which had been left by the side of the river.
This really was an ideal spot for an evening swim; with warm, shallow water, and relative privacy, which I had obviously intruded upon. This did not seem to be the kind of place that too many frequented, and so I was moved by my sense of propriety to be on my way, and not to scare the woman, who hadn’t yet noticed me.
But just then a terrible thought suddenly struck me, and I was compelled, without even thinking, to call out to her.
‘Hello!’ I yelled, through cupped hands. ‘There are crocodiles in that water! You must get out quickly, or you’ll be attacked!’
The woman turned and let out a cry. No doubt she had not expected to see a man on the shore.
‘You have seen them?!’ she called back to me.
‘No!’ I admitted. ‘I have not seen them. But they do eat people!’
‘Oh,’ she said calmly, and just continued to paddle in the water. ‘You must not be from around here, or you would know that the crocodiles don’t even come to this place. That’s why I wash my clothes at this spot, because it is safe… At least from reptiles. You either didn’t know, or you were just trying to lure me out of the Nile. But it’s no use, as I am a very strong swimmer, and I will shout for help!’
It bothered me greatly that she assumed the worst of me, and yet I could understand her position completely. I had only tried to help, but had stuck my foot in it. I also noticed again, to my annoyance, that I was so obviously a stranger here, for others had no trouble in picking me out.
‘No,’ I said to her, a little quieter then, as she cautiously drew closer to the shore. ‘I am not trying to lure you out. It’s just that I didn’t want you to come to any harm.’
Her voice, as well, had softened by now, and I thought that she must be starting to finally believe me. The expression of her face changed from suspicion to what seemed to be her more usual look of heartfelt innocence. I also could not help but notice her suppleness, and great natural beauty as she treaded the water.
‘May I ask you if it is usual for a young woman to bathe herself when she is alone, and without a man to protect her? Do you know that I myself was robbed only last night… Who knows who is lurking about.’
I was eager to prove to this exquisite girl that I was someone whom she could trust. She fascinated me, and I was attracted, and wanted to stay and speak with her, but understood that I had to win her over.
'It's just that I've never seen a woman who was quite like you before. No one that I know would ever do anything like this at all -to swim on her own.'
‘It’s really very simple,’ she said with a smile, as she rocked back and forth on the rocks of the shallows. ‘I was washing my clothes, and it was very hot, and since I was alone, I decided to cool off… Now will you go?’
I was tempted to obey, if only to please her, and yet I sensed from the tone of her voice as she said this that she did not really want me to go, and so I stayed put, and even knelt down there at the river’s edge.
‘When you come out,’ I said boldly, ‘I would like to hold your clothes for you. I will cover my eyes, but I would like to talk to you. You are beautiful, and when you are dressed, I want to look at, and admire your form. May I do that? And what is your name?’
The young woman hesitated for a brief moment, and then said ‘My name is Iset, and you may unfold my clothes for me, and hold them up, but you must promise to keep your eyes away, and not to try to touch me.’
‘I promise that I will… keep my eyes away. And that I will not… try to touch you, though I greatly desire to look at you now. But I will not do so, because you have asked me not to, and I would not care to ever hurt your feelings.’
These words I spoke were truly sincere, and came from the depths of my heart. I had never been so overwhelmed by the presence of a woman in my entire life -she had bewitched me. I reached for her clothing, then unfolded a long, cheaply made garment, and held it out before me. I then turned my head, and did my best not to look at her as slowly and cautiously, Iset stepped up to the shore.
As she came closer, I felt her doe-like eyes watching me intently, waiting for any sudden moves on my part, but I was as good as my word, and stood very still. Her shoulders lightly brushed against my hands as she allowed me to drape her garments onto her young body, and after she had tied her sash around her waist, she told me that I could open my eyes again.
I gratefully did so, and now allowed them to linger on her, as she stood so close, facing away from me, that I could smell her heady perfume. It was not at all like the type that my two mothers wore, flowery artificial scents that had been ground out by the labour of slaves, but was a natural smell, like that of the water, and of clean sand, and the intoxicating whiff of a fully ripe woman.
I heard her slightly rapid breathing beneath me, as I looked down at her. She did not stir at all, and when she spoke, her voice was soft, almost a whisper: ‘My husband died,’ she said, looking up at me. ‘He died years ago, in one of Pharaoh’s wars. I have two children. One is a strong boy, and the other is a girl. They are both young.’
I held out my hand and touched her shoulder, using more pressure than before this time. As I did so, a thrill like a burst of stars washed through my body, and I sensed that Iset opened her heart to me a little in that moment. It was as though a drawbridge that connected to a fortress was lowering to let me pass, and that was because my touch had been wholesome, and was not lewd; it was sexual, true, but not exploitative, and she clearly sensed this, and I was filled with wonder at her intuition.
In that moment, I was struck with the strangeness of my current situation. How on earth, I wondered, had I ended up here, by the side of the Nile, with this tender beauty? I, I was an immortal, a god of the heavens, and she, though she did not even know it, was one of my subjects. And yet I had no desire to rule over this woman; no desire to conquer, nor to bind in possession. My only true desire was to hold onto her for as long as I could, and that alone, I felt, would be paradise.
'Thank you for saving me from the crocodiles,' Iset said teasingly, breaking the spell she had wound around me like a warm cocoon. Then she began to walk over to her laundry, and to put it into her basket. I smiled at her then, and she smiled back -a pure smile that had no mockery or malice in it. She was making a little joke at my expense, but not a cruel one. She did not know, thankfully, of my true identity; did not know that I had cast many a soul to the feet of my crocodile-headed cousin, Sobek the dread, and had spared others from this terrible fate only because it had been expedient to the family, and our eternal empire.
This time was different, and even if I had been proven foolish, I had, for the first time in my long life done something to save another from harm, and only because I desired to be good. In that instant, without even thinking, I had wished to preserve something that was beautiful in the world, because everything, especially beauty, was so fleeting, and therefore so precious. But most of all, I had wished to preserve this woman not only for her sake, but also for my own, for I wanted her; wanted to be with her; and though this was selfish, I did not feel it to be so.
‘You’re welcome,’ I said in response to her joke, as I pretended not to have caught on. Then, I drew nearer to her, and sat myself down onto a large stone. ‘You really are beautiful, and your name, Iset, it is beautiful too… May I look at you?’
She did not blush at all, but nodded her consent as she turned to me, and let me gaze. How amazingly, I thought, and how freely, this woman now began to bend to my desires, to yield herself up. But she did so not in the manner of the ladies of the free-wheeling bazaar, those who would do anything a man desired, but only if their palms were first touched with coin.
No, I had seen before a hundred such women, but Iset was different, and as she rose up, and streched out the full, elongated form of her firm, lithe body there in the sunlight, it was my my pleasure, and for mine alone. Now my pleasures, and hers, had become one thing, had become indivisible, and in the space of so short a time. I was truly stunned, and kept wondering at how such a divine miracle of creation as the man and the woman coming together as one, had for so long escaped the notice of this supposed god that I had played the role of.
She truly was gorgeous, and I could see that she was agile, and flexible, and that she moved like an exquisite cat. Her long hair too was spectacular, and was still somewhat wet from her swim in the Nile. It hung down her back and came over her shoulders, a dark and flowing mass, and as she ran her wrist through its strands it caught the sunlight, and she couldn’t help but let a out a little laughing cry of joy that won my heart. She was eager now, and not reluctant at all, to show off the full glory of her body to a man who could really appreciate it.
I longed to touch her, longed to have her nearer to me, just so I could smell her hair, and put my mouth onto her smooth neck.
‘Please come closer,’ I said. ‘Let me hold you awhile.’
I knew that she would not do this, knew she would not allow me that sort of familiarity from the start, but she did draw somewhat closer, close enough that my senses were once again fully intoxicated, and I was sent reeling. It seemed as though everything else in the world, the swaying palm fronds hovering high above us, the urgent cries of soaring flocks of birds, and the lapping of the ever-restless water all disappeared from my mind as I bathed in, and drank in thirstily, the holy sight of her.
I ached to touch her, ached to draw her near, but she continued to stand a mere foot away, and so I had to satisfy myself with allowing my hand to glance off of the small of her back, and the sides of her hips. I tried not to push my luck, as I had promised not to, and yet it was agony -agony without relief.
In this state of mind, I had almost forgotten that I had to keep to a schedule on my journey. I had to reach the Gate of Shades within a few hours. Part of me was tempted just to stay here forever, and to forget my other life. I could care for this woman, and spend the rest of my days living as a normal mortal.
But no, I could not do that. For one thing, I could not be guaranteed that Iset would even accept me, and even if she did, how could I stay? How could I abandon my only home forever, without a single word? I could never count on Den to tell anyone of my new whereabouts, and even the eye of my brother god Horus, as powerful as it was, could not see all things.
No, I owed it to my friends, to Thoth and Hathor, and especially to my father, to say goodbye at least. Besides, I had only the coins that Pepi had given me, and they would not last. What would we live on, and how could I support Iset and her children? If her husband had died just a poor soldier then she would be poor also, and with children to feed. I could not afford to be frivolous now. I would have to get back.
‘I am sorry, Iset,’ I said with grief in my heart. ‘But I must leave you. I have business to attend to, and it will not wait.’
Her expression was hurt, though she tried her best not to show the truth. I was pleased though to see that it was not hurt pride, but real hurt feelings that animated her face. If it had been pride, then I would have known her to have been selfish, but since it was clearly real feelings, I knew her to be pure.
‘You are lovely, Iset, and I have never felt anything like this before, but I must leave you.’
‘Why must you leave?’ she asked me then, and I noticed the distinct traces of tears beginning to well up into her eyes.
‘I must bury my father,’ I said to her quietly, and though I wasn’t exactly sure why I had chosen these words, it didn’t feel like a lie. It had been I, after all, who had raised Osiris up from the dead, so long ago, but I now sensed that the time had come to let him die within me, in a symbolic way, so that I might live. He, and His kingdom, had stifled my growth, and I longed to break free.
‘Your father has died? She said, and seemed genuinly regretful. ‘I am sorry for that. I did not know.’
‘Something like that,’ I said to her. ‘It is a thing I have long been putting off, and it must be attended to at once.’ Then I looked at her, and I spoke with passion, ‘But I wish to see you. No, I must see you again! Will you be here, tomorrow evening, at this very hour?’
‘Will you?’ Iset asked, and then turned to face me. Her eyes, which gazed into my own, were not so much accusing as they were questioning, as though she couldn’t quite believe that I was really serious. It seemed, at least on the surface, as though I was merely asking to see her again, but I was not at all. I was asking for much more, and something in her eyes told me that she was also. As a single mother, who knew how many nights she had lain awake, looking into the dark, and feeling as though the future was bleak, and hopeless even.
That was very close to what my own existence had become over the ages, both bleak and joyless, and without the prospect of any future happiness. But for the first time ever in my whole life, over the past two days, and especially then, in this moment with Iset, I felt genuinely happy, and I knew that this was the true meaning of the word heaven.
‘I will return,’ I said softly, and made the promise good with a long deep look that I knew she believed. I tried to draw myself away from her heady scent, which was easier said then done, lingering a full minute before finally breaking away, then, without turning, I resumed my walk along the dirt path that lay beside the river.
I did turn once though, and saw Iset standing there under the palms, and even in her sadness she looked divine, but lonely too, as she was bathed in a dwindling shaft of yellow sunbeam. I vowed to myself that I would come back to this place, to this woman, no matter what else happened, and would again feel the way that I had, here, on this day.
Off to the west, the sun had not only crested its arch, but had begun its long plunge towards the earth, and its intense light seemed to set the peaks of the mountainous range of the Valley of the Kings ablaze with its fire…
I made it back to the Gate of Shades just in time, as the last rays of the sun set upon the Valley, and the first new-born stars began to twinkle in the sky.
Den was waiting for me at the Gate’s entrance just as we had agreed, but he was impatient, and demanded extra coins for all the trouble he’d taken. I gladly paid him off, as I was happy, and overwhelmingly grateful, to have arrived in time, and also to learn from him that as far as he knew my absence had not yet been noted by my family.
The journey back to the Upper Levels was uneventful, and as I climbed through the narrow tunnels and passages I basked in the glow that I still felt from my recent experiences of human life. It had been so very good to see Tey again, and to have met Pepi, who had proven to be a very loyal friend. But most of all I could still feel the warmth of Iset against my skin, and could still smell her beautiful hair.
After leaving Den behind at the entrance to heaven, I managed to get past the guards without trouble, and then quietly slipped down the long hallway and back into my chambers. I was exhausted, yet thoughts still raced through my churning mind, and even though it was well-on into the night, I could not sleep.
It seemed as though I had pulled off the whole entire escapade without anyone knowing, which was not really that surprising afterall. It was not uncommon for me to spend alot of time by myself, and so I could easily go unnoticed for awhile. If anyone were to ask me where I had been, I reasoned there in the dark, I could just tell them that I had been feeling ill, and so had been keeping to myself for the last couple of days. I had been very careful not to miss the time of arrival of any new souls, and could be reasonably secure about getting away with this story.
Within an hour of my arrival home, I heard a knock at my room’s door, and when I went to answer it, I saw the Captain of the Guard standing there. He had never had occasion to come to me before in this manner, and so right away I suspected that something had gone wrong.
‘What is it?’ I asked him gruffly, trying to make it sound as though I had been disturbed from a deep slumber. ‘How dare you disturb me in my private chambers!’
‘Forgive me my Lord,’ he replied, though I could see that he was not at all sorry, and not at all afraid of me either, which was concerning. ‘Pardon this intrusion,’ he said with a low growl, ‘But his Lordship Osiris requests your immediate presence in The Great Hall.’
‘Did he say why?’ I asked, suspicion taking over my mind now.
‘He did not… My Lord,’ replied the Captain, and I sensed the slight hesitation in his voice, as though he had suddenly begun to have second thoughts over whether I really was his Lord or not.
‘I will attend to you presently,’ I said dismissively, ‘Now wait with your men. You will escort me!’
This last part I almost yelled, and then slammed the door right in his unwavering face, as I did not want him to see any doubt or fear in me.
Had I been discovered, I wondered to myself? And if I had been, then did Osiris know the full extent of my journey, or did he believe that I had just been off gambling again? If he knew the full truth, would he see this as just a little adventure on my wayward part, or as something far more serious and grave?
There was only one way that I would find out, so I quickly washed off the dirt of the last day, and then went out and followed the Captain and his six men down the hallway, towards my waiting step-father.
When I entered The Great Hall of Osiris, the King of Heaven, I was surprised to see that my whole family was assembled there, as well as the Judges of the High Court, who stood stiffly and formally. None of them smiled, and all looked at me sternly; in their minds, I was sure, I was already guilty of whatever it was they were there to charge me with. For many centuries past, these relations of mine had desired my demotion, and had plotted against me. They had never seen me as one of their number, and had been jealous of my position as the favoured heir to the Eternal Kingdom, especially since I was a bastard.
Osiris sat upon his throne, and he also was not smiling. He had a disappointed look upon his face, and yet I could also see that he wished there was some way that he could help me to redeem myself. For many centuries now, he had defended me against my many detractors, which had made him look weak and indulgent, but his expression now seemed to say that I had gone too far this time, and that even he, might not be able to hold off those who sought to finally bring me down.
Horus, meanwhile, was standing behind my father’s right shoulder, and he had a look upon his features that managed somehow demonstrate both envy and malicious delight at the same time, as if to say that he had me right where he wanted me. Both of my mothers, who had always favoured Horus, stood impassively as I waited before them. Even beautiful Hathor, and thoughtful Thoth, usually my trusty allies, had cold expressions, as though they too had now turned against me. I wondered what they knew, and how they could have found me out? It was certainly clear though that they knew something.
Then, all at once, I understood everything, for standing off in a corner, in the dimmest of shadows, I spotted conniving Den, my subterranean guide. It was clear that he had sold me out for a price, for gold or for promises of a position at court, and he had told them all -everything that had transpired over the last few days.
The strange thing was that even though I felt betrayed, I could hardly blame Den for what he had done. Here he was, living out his days in a stinking world, far down below, and was no doubt happy for any chance to get himself out of it. Judging by the splendour of his new clothing, it was clear that he had not sold me out cheaply, and this made me almost want to chuckle to myself. Ah, the wily ways of this enterprizing scoundrel! I was not angry at the others either, and could hardly blame them, for although most were not even remotely my friends, I had in a sense betrayed them all by going against the wishes of my father.
Osiris finally spoke, and as I listened, I was moved to an even greater respect than I already had for him. His voice was so restrained, there was not even a trace of anger in it although he was obviously feeling much displeasure. His words came out slowly, and as raspingly as ever, and were clear in their deep meaning.
‘My son,’ he said. ‘Yet again you have disobeyed your father, and for that reason, you yourself will now be judged, and in the very place where you once stood in judgement over the souls of the recent dead.
‘When I first heard of your treachery,’ Osiris continued, ‘Soon after you had again slunk away, I could not believe it. I had been clear as to my wishes, but never-the-less, you descended into the City of the Dogs, where we divine beings do not ever go. What, I asked myself, had I ever done to deserve such a grievous slight? All of my children and relations have been a boon to me in my old age, and adhere to my words. Even Horus here, has always been his father’s son, and though he is wilful, just as you are, he has never gone against his King in anything of any true import.
'And yet you Ani, who are only half my own, and who should be grateful for my faith and loyalty, have never ceased to go against my strongest wishes. Despite this fact, I have always favoured you -I admit this-and had every intention of handing over rule of heaven itself to you, when the time was right. Even an immortal god tires of the strains of so great a responsibility, and with passing time, we must make way for the one who will succeed us. I had always thought that that would be you, but now I can see that I was wrong.
‘Once I had learned of your disobedience, I had Horus watch you carefully from afar, with his all-seeing eye, and what he reported truly astonished me! Apparently, you were cavorting about the land with mere mortals, and even allowed yourself to be beaten and robbed by minions of Set, my greatest enemy, and your true father. But worst of all, is that you were seen in the company of a poor young woman of no consequence.
‘Do you not understand that as royal gods we must not be seen to be on the same level as our mortal subjects? If any of them had guessed your identity, what would that have done to their faith in us? And this is not even to mention the fact that you exposed your immortal self to mortal danger by stepping outside the heavenly boundaries. What would have happened if you had been killed? You would have been seen as just a commoner, and your lifeless body would have been thrown into a mass grave to rot with all the rest, and your soul would have perished with it.
‘We have an empire to run. It was bad enough when you spent your time with the lesser gods, but this is a new low. Men must aspire to one day become gods themselves, and they must not ever get the impression that we desire to join their mortal ranks. This would create confusion and unlawful disorder, both in the heavens, and on the earth. We must be an example, so that they will continue to aspire to the eternal life, and those who cannot ever reach it must serve those who can. This alone is the basis of our power; this alone is the basis for our heavenly empire!’
After this lengthy speech Osiris was tired, and he slumped back into his royal throne, looking more aged than I had ever seen him. I then remembered that day, so many centuries before, when I had saved his immortal life, and had become a god in the process. He and I were one, and always had been, our bonds forever sealed through the debt of life. I had brought him back into a sort of existence, and he had given me a position in the stars of the divine order, which I had lived out for the last two millennia.
And yet this position had never really brought me happiness. I had never felt as though I truly belonged. I didn’t know where my rightful place was, only that I had been genuinely happy for the first time ever when I was on earth, and especially when I was in the presence of beautiful Iset. Only with her did I feel the spark of life deep within myself, and I did not feel that I could now go back to the dull sort of existence I had had before, no matter the cost to myself, or to anyone else, even if it meant overturning the order of heaven itself!
Now it was my half-brother Horus’s turn to speak, and he vented his venom on me shrilly, as though he had been waiting for this for a long time. ‘I,’ he said indignantly, as all the others turned to look at him, ‘have served my father as a good son should. What he commanded, I have carried out. And what he has denied, I have respected as being forbidden. True, I make no claims to be the perfect son, but I am his son, sprouted from his loins, unlike you, Anubis, who are half corrupt from the loins of Set, and of his evil seed. And unlike you, as well, I have never betrayed my father or my family, nor the honour of this most righteous house.
‘And yet,’ he continued, ‘through all these years I have watched you, Osiris’s half-son, and my half-brother, as you have taken the greater share of his divine love, while I was forced to stand in the shadows. You have never tried to excel at anything but gambling and vice, while I have made of my mystical body something hard, and strong, and have shaped my ever-noble character into something worthy of a mighty god. And I have trained myself in the ways of command and rule, while you cannot even rule over yourself. Should the entire fate of the eternal heavens be left in the hands of such a one as this? I ask you now?!’
And with this, Horus then turned pleadingly towards the other members of my assembled family.
They all seemed to be in agreement with his sentiments, and they nodded ther heads in approval of his words, while only glaring at me. The only god whose expression had softened somewhat towards me was my step-father, who throughout this long-extended harangue had watched me closely, and with great intensity. He then spoke out, and all were silent as he did so, not only out of respect, but because they sensed that this was the moment of my final sentencing.
‘Well, Anubis? What have you to say for yourself? Have you turned against this family, or have you repented of your former ways?’
‘I have repented of my former ways, if you are speaking of my drinking, and of my gambling,’ I answered defiantly. ‘But I only did those things because I was unhappy, and had nothing in life that was worth living for. Now I see a way forward, a way to be happy, and a way to be free. I just need your indulgence this one last time, and I will trouble you no more. Make me into a mortal, so that I might shed this twisted immortal coil, and live as a man.’
Every one of my family, and the judges as well, all let out a collective gasp at my words! Never before had they heard of an all-mighty god giving up his immortality in order to become a mere mortal. It was unthinkable, sacrilegious, and blasphemous! Even my brother Horus, who would have been happy to get rid of me in any other way, could not imagine that a fellow god would willingly sacrifice the greatest treasure that was eternal life. What if I were found out by the living beings, he no doubt wondered? What would be the implications for all the other gods?
No. The consensus was quick: They thought it too risky, and all yelled out their passionate disapproval. I had always known that this would be their response, and yet had only spoken what I truly desired, and what I truly felt. For the first time ever I saw on Osiris’s face a hint of the depths of anger that he was obviously feeling. It hurt me to see that, as I had never wished to cause him grief. When he spoke again, after a moment, I knew that he was trying to control his emotions, and to keep his voice level.
‘You,’ he said, and pointed his finger at me, ‘You have forfeited the rule of the kingdom of heaven with these lowly words. They show that you will never be fit to take on this great responsibility, nor do you deserve it. Horus will be my successor. From now on, the Pharaoh, whom he embodies, and not the priest of life and death, whom you have embodied, will now stand highest in the world of men… This is my final decision!
‘In the meantime,’ he then continued, as evenly as he could, ‘A guard will be placed upon you, Anubis, both day and night, so that you will not be tempted ever again to run off on us. And you will think, both long and hard, about what you have said. With the passing of time, I trust that you will begin to see reason, and will lament that such nonsense ever passed your lips. But even if you are my heir no longer, you are still a god, and you will perform your duties as you are instructed, and until I think upon this matter more clearly, I will speak no more… Now you, Anubis, are dismissed!’
I immediately turned, and left The Great Hall, escorted closely behind by the Palace Guard. All was silence, except for the echoing of our footfalls on the cold marble floor. In my numbed mind, I went over the scene, so recently played out: Horus’s look of victory, when he realized that he would be King after all; the smug looks from my two mothers, as well as my step-father’s look of bitter disappointment.
As for my half-brother Horus, he was welcome to it as far as I was concerned. I had never wanted to rule over the Kingdom, and had seen this prospect only as a burden. Besides, he was probably better suited to such a task as this anyway, not only because he actually wanted it, but because he had a definite cruel streak which he shared with most other rulers.
My only real regret was that I had made my father suffer, and this was something which filled me with bitterness towards myself. And yet, in a way, I also felt more free than I had even one hour before, not only because I had shed such a great burden, but because I had told the truth about myself at last.
And yet I was desperate too, for time was slipping by. I had promised Iset to see her at sunrise, and yet the chances that I would be able to slip away were looking more and more remote. Had I been a fool to return here again? Perhaps if I had stayed where I was, on earth, I would have been better off in the long run?
But no. I had been right, for I would never have been able to live with myself if I had just walked off. I had been right to come back, at least to lay to rest any doubts I had that this was not my home. But now there was no way to know whether I would ever be able to reclaim the freedom I had felt, or whether I would remain forever a prisoner, forever chained to a destiny that I did not want…
It was to the Hall of Pillars that I always went when I needed to think things over. My heart was heaving in my chest; it was full of sorrow, and pain, and if, in that moment, I had taken my heart in hand and weighed it upon my set of scales, I would never have been able to say that it was either light, or pure. How many innocent souls, I wondered to myself, had I banished to eternal death, or to the slavery of paradise in such an arbitrary manner? And how could I end this cycle, and break away from it all?
It was no longer a question of morals, or of family loyalties, or of anything else, but had become a practical question. Now my father’s guards would keep their eyes on me both day and night, and in such a situation as that, how could I ever be free? I was sure that my escort of six specially trained men were watching me even now; were standing in the shadows, though I could not see them.
Above me, stretching high up into the vaulted ceilings, the great stone pillars soared, and in the moonlight had become, despite their sheer size and scale, almost weightless and evanescent, or seemed to, in the pale beams of light that washed over them. I tried in vain to measure within myself the purity of my own heartfelt intentions, but knew that even though I was still very far from clarity on that matter, at least I was on the right path.
The very thought of lovely Iset was enough in and of itself to make me want to become a truly better man. She deserved someone who could think of the future in a more positive sense, and who could cherish her, and possess her fully, and I longed to be this for her. But I pondered these things with a growing sense of despair, and of true hopelessness, for I knew it was unlikely that I would ever see her again.
Just then the sound of a low, dry cough came from behind me. It echoed slightly in the vastness of the hall, and I knew at once that it was Osiris. He had come alone, and now dismissed my hidden guards with a wave of his hand. I heard nothing of these silent watchers, but knew that they withdrew immediately. Osiris appeared statuesque there in the moonlight, and as ageless and monolithic as the ancient stones that surrounded us. Yet, perhaps he was not so ageless after all, for there was a stoop in him that I had not noticed before, and that he could not hide, for all of his royal dignity and poise.
‘My son,’ he said in a low voice, and then drew nearer to me, and actually sat himself down on the base of one of the pillars. ‘My son,’ he repeated. ‘Do not think me too harsh. I only said the things I did, there in the Hall of Judgement, for the sake of the family, and for the glorious empire. I could never let you, my own half-son, go without punishment. Unity must be preserved, for without united purpose, the entire edifice that we have built together would crumble into dust. Even these stone pillars,’ he said as he touched one, ‘would not be able to support the weight of a single cloud, if they were not united in their strength.’
‘Sometimes I wonder if that would be such a bad thing,’ I said.
Osiris did not rebuke me as I expected him to, but only seemed to ponder my words for a moment before he replied. ‘Not all of us are able to be the creators of life. For all of my powers, I cannot create anything, and am limited to organizing what already exists into new patterns and orders. I have set up a system which has served the heavens, and the mortal earth, for all these centuries past.
‘But you, my son, ‘ and he looked at me fondly, as though he really were my father, ‘you have always had the gift. You can bring new life from something that is dead. In a way, that is a power that is even greater than my own, and that is why the others fear you, because for all of their prestige they cannot match you in the pure life force.
‘I will never forget that it is to you that I owe my own life. This is something that the others can never forgive, and that is the reason why I have not brought up this very subject for all of these years. It was not because I was not grateful, but only because I did not want to make things more difficult for you. Your greatest failing is that you never had a sense of responsibility to go along with your power. That is a deadly combination, for others will envy you, and you don’t have the backbone to stand up to them. That alone is the reason that I feel that you are unfit to rule; because you were not made for it.’
I could not believe that Osiris was sharing these thoughts with me. For all the centuries past, he had not spoken as many words to me in private as he had now, and though he was calm as he spoke, for him, this must have been a veritable outburst of emotion. And to think that I hadn’t even known that such things lay within his soul!
‘You have within you,’ he continued, ‘the very spark of life, and the ability to give this spark to others. I know of what I speak, for on the day of my resurrection, when you breathed life into me, I felt its overwhelming vitality, and I knew that you were, without even knowing it, the most powerful god of all. You now seem to feel that your calling is to go to earth, to live amongst the life-bound mortals, thus giving up your own eternal life in the process.
‘To me, this is a terrible waste of your untold power, but I have never claimed to be wiser than I am, and perhaps you may be right. I am an administrator, and an accumulator of other beings’ labour, and wealth. I have built up prestige, and a heap of glory, and yet I know full well that the days of our empire are beginning to be numbered. I thought that you might be the one to save it all, by ruling wisely, and justly, and thereby transforming heaven. But I can see that that is not to be. You brother Horus is strong, but he has not the right temperament; he will wish to interfere in the affairs of men, and will unknowingly weaken our position by tying our own destinies into an unbreakable bind with the destinies of the Kings of men.
'Then, even this splendour that you see here all about you will fall -even these mighty pillars. It may take thousands of years, but we will be relegated to the great dustbin of history. What I have not told you -and this is the one thing that I truly am wise about-is that I have always known that the masters of heaven do not determine the fate of humanity, so much as humanity determines the fates of the heavens, and the gods. Horus does not understand that one must hover above politics.
‘A war won, or a war lost, between the earthly nations, can be a determining factor over who will rule in the Afterlife for the next thousand years. And so, just as we vanquished our enemies long ago, we in our turn will be vanquished, and cast below by our conqueror gods; and will be forced to live amongst the lowly ones in the City of Dogs. Imagine the scene: All of us residing, there in the shadows. It is good that you will be spared such a fate; there is that at least.
‘You have never done anything to ask for such a fate, or to deserve it either. The others in this family, your mothers and your brother, and myself, have never wanted anything so much as power, and we will suffer as a result. But just think of this when you judge us: Power does what it must, so that others may do what they will… Someone has to take up this heavy burden; and to be honest, I am now happy to be ridding myself of it.’
I was glad to hear my father unburden his heart to me like this, but I was confused, for he talked of the future of my family as though I were not any longer a part of it.
‘And what of my fate?’ I asked him anxiously.
He turned to me, and looked into my eyes. ‘Son,’ he said sadly, ‘You can go if you wish, to the living earth, and I will make you into a mortal. But you must promise never to have yourself mummified after you die, and you must never again try to seek your family out, either through sacrifice or prayer. If you leave us, it will be forever, and this grieves me. But just as you once breathed the gift of life deep into my soul, so I will now breath the gift of death deep into yours, if you so wish it.’
‘I do wish it, father,’ I said with tears in my eyes, and for the first time since all those years ago when I had breathed new life into his chest, I embraced Lord Osiris, and felt his heart beating against my own.
‘If we are to perform this ritual, then let us do it now,’ he said, and drew himself back. ‘And then let you slip away, into the stillness of the night so that no one will know. I will tell them that you once again made off on another adventure. I cannot be seen to be encouraging this sort of thing. I must remain here, for as long as I am needed, until people stop believing in the faith I created.’
'Of course father,' I said gently to him, and felt a depth of unlimited gratitude that I had never felt before in all of my long life. Here was Osiris, letting me go off, even when his own hopes and desires had become shattered by me in my selfishness. There was no question of his seeking revenge, or of trying to get rid of me -no-he was doing this against his better judgement, just because I wanted him to.
Now Osiris stood up with some difficulty, and walked over to the fountain in the centre of the Hall of Pillars. He then beckoned me closer, and when I had come so near to him that I could feel his breath upon my face, he reached down and scooped up a palmful of the clear water, and then lifted it up to my waiting forehead. Then, after reciting a few sacred incantations, he let the water trickle through his fingers, and over my head and face, thus taking away forever, with this one gesture, the gift of my immortal life. I did not feel anything during this ritual, but just stood there in a shaft of moonlight, staring at my father.
‘You will never again,’ he said very quietly, ‘know eternal pleasures, nor have the consolations of the eternally young. I, having died once, am not immune to the ravages of time, but these ravages work slowly on my body, whereas with you, they will work a hundredfold more quickly… It would not be untrue to say that by tomorrow you will begin to feel a creaking in your knees, and a weariness in your bones that you have never known before, and have been spared from. But those days are over, and now you will work with mortals, will eat with them, will feel their passions, their lusts, and hatreds, and you will die with them.
‘Now you will no longer carry within you the seeds of eternity. Instead, you must learn to cherish the gift of transient life which is within you, for I can now see that this alone is the promise of rebirth, for in it, all things can become possible. Life will be reborn, in new and living things; in awakened children, and many other forms, and you Anubis, like a drop in the ocean, will contribute to the whole… Go now, my son! And may you find the happiness you seek. When you reach the earth, I will visit you, in the form of a falcon, and I will cry out, and you will look up and see that I am watching over you, and yet I will never interfere with your new life.’
I obeyed my father, and turned to leave. I wanted to embrace him just one more time, but I could clearly see that he was trying to keep his composure, so I just looked back at him once, over my shoulder. I saw, one more time, his sad, and old, and resilient face, and his resplendent attire which shone in the blue shafts of light. Then I turned, and made my way toward the entrance to the City of the Dogs, and to an uncertain future.
I did not even return to my private chambers to get any gold as I had originally planned. Nor did I say goodbye to anyone I had known, but just made straight for the door that led below, though when I got there I found that the guards were gone. That was very strange, as there were always sentries posted at that door. But then I guessed that my father had anticipated this very moment, and had sent them away so that they would not try to stop me. I easily and quietly slipped down the stairs without being noticed, and went down to the City.
Luckily, I have a very good memory, and was able to navigate my way through the many and varied tunnels that led to the Gate of Shades. The old bearded man, Menna, who sat at the door, was scared upon seeing me, for he believed that I had come back to do him harm for having helped Den in my betrayal. But I put his mind at ease, and he opened the door out onto the Valley of the
Kings out of gratitude for my having forgiven him, and after I had stepped out onto the desert sands, I wished him well.
Getting through the valley, through the gates of the Temple of Dier-el-Bahari, and then through the desert was much easier this time, as I now knew exactly where to go. Seeing Tey again, and his rowing men at the banks of the Nile, was like seeing old friends, and we laughed together as they rowed me across. I had no money with which to pay them, but Tey was kind, and let me pass for free. He said that he was happy that I had returned, but I did not tell him that in a certain sense I was more a part of this surrounding land, and its people, and even the of water that moved beneath the gliding boat, than anyone else. And yet I thanked him for his kindness all the same.
As I stepped off of the boat, the sun was just beginning to rise on the horizon, and its brilliant shafts of clear white light shone into my eyes. I bade Tey and his hearty men another farewell, and then began to walk towards the place where Iset and I had agreed to meet.
And yet I couldn’t help but to wonder whether she would really even be there, for we had agreed to meet at sunset, not at sunrise. She would have no doubt tired of waiting around for someone who might, or might not turn up. Perhaps she had already decided to move on with her life without me in it. I certainly hoped not.
As I approached the spot, beside the lapping waters, where I had warned her of the treacherous crocodiles, my heart leapt in my chest, and for the very first time in all of my long life, it truly felt as light as a feather. I was just now beginning to understand the significance of my newly reborn life, for there by the shore, just where I had seen her before, and standing in the light of a rising sun, was beautiful Iset.
The warmth of her eyes, and of her smile, was truly overpowering, and instantly erased all of my previous doubts. But before I could take another step, I dropped to my knees on the ground, and then looked up to the heavens. Just then, we both heard a plaintive cry, coming from high, high above us. There, circling round the edge of a cloud, its wings outstretched and seeming to embrace the whole vast entirety of the empty sky, was a gently soaring falcon.
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Will an immortal god sacrifice eternity to find true love, and the meaning of life? This lyrical and poetic tale is set in ancient Egypt, when Pharaohs and strange but divine beings ruled over the fates of all. Enter Anubis -- a young god, powerful, introspective, and heir to the throne of the Afterlife. Within himself he harbours a dark secret, one that throws his immortal soul into chaos, and drives him to the edge of despair. For him, the only answer lies in escape -- escape from the Underworld, by way of mysterious passages, and out into the world of living mortals. It is here that he undertakes a spiritual journey, to rediscover the meaning of his life. Enter Iset -- the poor but beautiful widow, who steals Anubis's heart, and who tempts him to abandon his divinity, for the sake of an earthly life, and its many pleasures. But how far will he go, to claim what he truly desires? Will he sacrifice the gift of eternity? And will he risk unleashing a rebellion, which could threaten to bring down the very pillars of heaven itself? This poignant new novel from the author of Blood of a Barbarian, and Panzerfaust, is a clever blend of historical fiction, myth, spiritual adventure, and fantasy. It is, above all, a meditation upon the eternal questions that we all ask ourselves: What is the meaning of life? How can one be happy? And how does one learn to give, and to receive, true love? Praise for John-Philip Penny's previous novel Panzerfaust: "A poignant story of a young German boy fighting for his home." (Rachel, Amazon.com)