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Chapter 1: The Gods Will Not Wait
Hetephras limped from her pallet to the door of her house like an old arthritic monkey. She pulled aside the linen curtain and squinted to the east. Scents of the unfurling day met her nostrils. Sour emmer wheat from the temple fields. The subtler aroma of new-cut barley. Distant Nile water, brown-rich and brackish. And even at this early hour, someone fried onions for the Osiris Feast.
The old priestess's eyes were almost entirely opaque now. Though a physician had offered to restore her sight with his needle treatment, Hetephras was content to view the world through the tawny clouds with which the gods had afflicted her; in exchange they had endowed her other senses with greater clarity. Out of timeworn habit she raised her head again to the east, and for a moment imagined that she saw the beacon fires burning in Amun's Great Temple far across the river. But the curtains fell across her sight again, as they always did, and the flames burnt themselves out.
She pitied herself for a moment, because as priestess in the Place of Truth she could no longer clearly view the treasures wrought in her village -- decorations for the tombs of pharaohs, queens, and nobles that were the sole industry of her village of artists; pieces that lived for a smattering of days in the light of the sun, then were borne to the Great Place, brought into the tomb, and sealed beneath the sand and rock in darkness forever.
Hetephras unbent her thin, bony spine, firmly banishing self-pity. She was priestess and had to perform the inauguration rites for the Feast of Osiris that morning. At Osiris Time, the hour for speaking with the gods was at the very moment when the sun rose, for it was then that the membrane separating this life and the next was at its most fragile, when the dead left their vaults to gaze upon the distant living city of Thebes, girded for festival.
Though she had been a priestess for over twenty years, Hetephras had never seen any shape or spirit among the dead, as others said they had. She was an unsubtle woman who took her joy from the simple verities of ritual, tradition, and work. She believed with all her heart the stories of the gods, and put it down to a fault in herself that never once had they revealed themselves to her. Her husband, Djutmose, had been the spiritual one in the family, having been the tomb-makers' priest when he married her. When he died in the eleventh year of Pharaoh's reign, the villagers chose Hetephras to continue his duties; they had seen no reason to search elsewhere.
Hetephras sighed. That was many years ago. Soon her own Day of Pain would come, as it must to all living things, and she would be taken to lie beside Djutmose and their son in their own small tomb. Perhaps it was only the morning breezes that made her shiver.
She limped to a large chest in her sleeping room. On its lid, flowers of ivory and glass paste entwined, while voles and crows of pear wood worried the curling grapevines of turquoise and agate. It had been made by her husband. In addition to his priestly duties, Djutmose had been a maker of cupboards, caskets, and boxes for Pharaoh, and he had fashioned these simple images knowing they would please his simple wife. She cherished this casket now above all else she owned; it would be buried with her.
From this chest Hetephras plucked her priestess garb: a sheath of linen, white; pectoral of woven wire, gilded; and a bright blue wig of raffia fibers in the shape of vulture wings. Then she carefully packed the oil and sweetmeats the gods so loved into an alabaster chalice. Thus attired and burdened, she waited at her stoop for Rami, the son of the chief scribe. It was Rami who had been appointed to guide her to the shrines on these feast days.
But there was no sign of the boy. Hetephras stood waiting patiently for him, skin prickling against the cool air of morning. Her thick wig made a comfortable pillow as she leaned against the doorframe. Her eyes closed, just for a moment...and the old lady was carried away into nodding forgetfulness by the quiet and the breezes. She was brought awake again by the subtle warming of her skin.
She looked around, startled, sniffing the air. Irritation and panic made her heart beat faster. It was fast becoming full dawn! She would miss the appointed time for the offering! The gods would blame her, and in turn would become churlish with their blessings.
Damn Rami! Where was he? Sleeping with the shroud-weaver Mentu's little slut, no doubt. She had heard them together before, her ears keen to catch their shared laughter and, later, their moans. The youngsters of the village often used the empty stable next to Hetephras's house as a trysting place -- as did some of the adults. The old priestess murmured dismally to herself that a generation of sluggards and whores was poised to inherit Egypt.
Hetephras decided to go alone to the Osiris shrine. It was the most distant of all the shrines and chapels she tended, and when she thought of the effort it would cost her, half-blind as she was, her heart thumped with fresh anger toward Rami.
Damn him! She would give him a tongue-lashing in front of his parents, that's what she would do -- in front of the whole village!
This satisfying thought propelled the old woman up the narrow avenue as if she were young again. So what if Rami were not with her! Didn't she know the Great Place better than anyone? She had traveled between the shrine and her home every Osiris Day for almost a quarter of a century; she would find her way. But as she passed through the northern gate, Khepura's voice called out to her.
"Hetephras -- you're not thinking of going up to the Osiris shrine by yourself, are you? You, who can't see a cubit in front of your face."
"The rite must be performed, Khepura, and I've no time to wait." The smell of onions was stronger, and the squinting Hetephras could almost see the dark form of her neighbor bending low over an outside griddle. "Rami never came to fetch me this morning, wicked boy."
"Then I'll go with you." Khepura's voice was insistent, as always. Wife to the goldsmith Sani, she had been chosen head woman of the tomb-makers' village in the last election. To everyone's regret, she had become quickly used to the habit of command. "I've gotten enough of the feast organized here for the servants to take over. I'll just get my shawl. It's brisk this morning." She turned to go back into the village.
"No time, Khepura, no time -- the gods will not wait! And you're so fat, you'll only slow me down!" The old priestess hurried on impatiently, leaving Khepura to sputter ineffective protests.
The path up the Gate of Heaven was narrow, bounded on either side by limestone chips. The bright shards, remnants from carved-out tombs, served to prevent the unwary traveler from straying too far to the edge, where a sheer drop of some twenty cubits waited. By keeping to the center of the path, Hetephras was able to ascend quickly. Near the crest of the pathway, however, a cascade of stones suddenly blocked her way.
"These were never here before," Hetephras thought in wonder, curious not to have heard the stones tumble in the night. All the tomb-makers were keenly alert to the sounds of shifting rock. Landslides had been known to bury the village -- along with many of the villagers -- in distant eras.
Hetephras edged forward and gingerly felt her way across the unfamiliar heap of stones. She looked up toward the sky, fearing that the time for the ritual was long past. But she felt no light on her face; it was as dark as ever on this side of the mountain.
She thought again of Rami, how he should be helping her, and muttered aloud, "I wish my husband could see how this pathway has been neglected, and how children no longer heed their elders." She pulled herself forward across the heap of rubble. The irregular limestone rocks shifted beneath her feet. Hetephras steadied herself, then took a step forward. Another few cubits and she would attain the smooth, narrow path once again. She placed a sandaled toe tentatively upon a rock and took a tiny leap --
The unsteady rocks gave way. The alabaster chalice flew from her hand, smashing to pieces on the valley floor below, spilling its lode of oil and sweetmeats. Hetephras pitched forward, a scream caught in her mouth. The wig saved her from dashing her brains out on the sharp rocks as she rolled swiftly downward. The landslide that had caused her accident now served as a kind of steep, sloping causeway to the floor of the valley. Her shoulder twinged as she tumbled, and she tasted blood. A rib cracked, and the sharp rocks stabbed her thin shanks. She landed with a soft thud on the valley floor.
Hetephras lay gasping. Aside from her shoulder and rib, she felt no other injury. She laughed weakly, weeping too. "I am not dead!" she said in giddy relief. "I'm not dead!" She moaned as she sat up. She would be horribly bruised, crippled even, but indeed, she was still alive.
A rustling from behind silenced her. Dark shapes began to emerge from the earth itself. Dark, animal shapes -- beasts with ears and snouts. She gasped. Hyenas and jackals, even the occasional lion, were known to prowl the Great Place at times. All around her the animals sprang up, and fear cleared the clouds from her eyes. She opened her mouth to scream --
Yet before she could utter a sound, the first true rays of the sun reached their length into the valley and she saw -- she saw! -- no pack of slavering beasts but the golden faces of the gods themselves! Anubis the jackal god, Thoth, Set...Horus the hawk! And everywhere, everywhere the flash of gold emanated from them as the sun's rays caught their unblinking eyes.
The old priestess was seized with a holy rapture, which drove away all her pain. Here, today, after so many years, she was graced at last to meet the gods of Egypt in their incorruptible flesh of gold!
"Ay-aa!" she cried out in reverence.
"It's Hetephras!" one of the gods said. He seemed to be in as much wonder as the old woman.
"Yes! Yes! I see you, August One! I know who you are!" Hetephras burbled. "My eyes see everything now!" But somewhere at the rim of her consciousness another thought nagged. Curious that the god -- she believed it to be ibis-headed Thoth -- curious that he reminded her of someone she knew, someone against whom she held a recent grudge...
"What will we do?" Thoth faced the other gods, his youthful voice querulous. For gods they seemed extremely perplexed. But Hetephras had not much time to wonder.
It was the god Horus who walked decisively to where Hetephras lay. She raised her face to him with a smile so completely believing, her cloudy eyes turned so joyously upward, that for the briefest moment the god hesitated. And then he reached into his belt. He held something high. Hetephras could vaguely see the flash of cold blue metal in the sun's rays before it came down.
The axe bit deep into her neck, tearing across her throat and spilling blood down the front of her linen sheath. Her blue wig was knocked from her head, and it tumbled down the rest of the sloping valley like a weed in a windstorm. The bald old woman raised her hands in feeble supplication. The axe raised high again, and once more descended.
Hetephras, without further sound, entered the Gates of Darkness.
It was the last night of the Osiris Festival, and bonfires lit every street corner in Thebes. The avenues overflowed with riotous Egyptians. Foreigners were there, too, invited by Pharaoh from tributary nations to attend the Osiris festivities. They were easily distinguished from the Egyptians -- their dress was barbarously colored, the men were bearded, and their women did not even shave their heads. The fastidious Egyptians averted their noses at the outsiders' oily reek. The foreigners were barefaced, too, not intelligent enough to know that during the Osiris Festival one went about sensibly masked. It was the only time of year when Osiris allowed his dead subjects to revel with the living. Practical Thebans wore masks lest a resentful spirit, the enemy of some ancient ancestor, had come to the festival to harm them. Unconcerned, the foreigners instead gazed at the wonders of Thebes, barefaced and unprotected.
They pointed, amazed by the size of the glittering temples and by the long blue and crimson pennants that undulated in the night breezes, flying from high poles whose spires were tipped with crystal and gold. They were stunned by the vastness of the temples' gates, sheathed in silver and bronze, encrusted with gems. They marveled at the height and girth of the temple pylons on which painted carvings depicted Pharaoh's greatest triumphs -- triumphs over their own peoples.
Down at the harbor, crowds of families carried tiny reed boats to the Nile, each containing a wax candle shaped like an enthroned Osiris. In each miniature barque, according to ancient custom, the families had placed a limestone chip or piece of papyrus bearing a written prayer asking Osiris to grant their most cherished wish. At the Nile's edge, where the tall reeds grew, each family's eldest child lit his or her candle and launched their little ship. The current took the fleet of offerings north, to Abydos, where Osiris's body resided in a magnificent tomb. The entire breadth of the Nile was choked with thousands of the glittering miniature craft. Slowly the gentle Nile god gathered them up in his arms and bore them northward until their lights drifted out of sight at the bend in the river. At the river's edge families gazed at the little ships with avid eyes, for surely the good god would grant them their wishes.
One family, that of the stonemason Kaf-re, had at last reached the river after a tiring walk from the masons' quarter. Kaf-re's wife, Wia, held their baby girl in her arms, while their son, four years old, gripped a tiny reed barque in both hands. The children's eyes glowed from behind their palm-bark masks, entranced by the sights they had seen on the way here, and their bellies were full of the honeyed cake their father had bought them with a precious copper.
"Light the candle, sweetheart," Wia urged her son. She pointed to the charcoal brazier placed there for the purpose.
"No," the child said. Wia saw the stubborn line to his jaw harden beneath the palm bark. She knew that line; it was his father's.
f0 Her voice became a little sharper. "Go ahead, silly, or the god won't grant our prayer!" The family had asked for a larger wheat ration from the temple guardians, for Wia was again pregnant.
"But there's nothing to it! Just hold the wick to an ember, and set the boat free by the reeds over there. The river will do the rest. Then we can go home. You'd like that, wouldn't you?"
"Light...the...candle," his father said between clenched teeth.
The little boy screwed up his face. "Don't want to! Not while she's there!" He pointed to something in the dark water. "Scary. Ugly." The child exploded in tears.
"A crocodile!" screamed Wia. Kaf-re lunged forward and caught his son in his arms so swiftly that the child's mask was knocked from his face. Now the boy wailed in earnest.
Wia's panicked screams attracted the attention of a guard at a nearby wharf. He ran to where the family stood, holding high a long spear as he made his way through the throng. At the water's edge, peering into the dark reeds, he aimed the spear carefully. Then he looked closer, slowly lowering his arm.
"Why do you just stand there?" Wia shrieked. "Kill it! Kill it!"
The guard did not answer immediately. "It's not a crocodile," he answered almost apologetically. "And it's already dead."
He called for a torch, and someone brought one from a nearby stanchion. The crowd gathered round and stared. The guard held the torch close to the water...
The linen-clad body of Hetephras bobbed before them, face down, caught in a thicket of reeds. She still wore her gilded pectoral, but her skin was a ghastly, puckered white. In the wavering torchlight, the second gash made by the axe at the back of her skull was clearly visible. Blood and matter oozed from the wound, and a small cloud of tiny minnows darted in and out, feasting. One of her arms was outstretched, seeming to point accusingly toward the city itself. A chorus of gasps and screams filled the quay.
Though no one knew it at the time, the Year of the Hyenas had begun.
Copyright © 2005 by Brad Geagley