Miri could see nothing for she was wrapped in total darkness.
She held her hand up in front of her but could not see it. No sound reached her ears save through her own breathing, the beating of her own heart, and the rustling of her linen dress against her skin. The rocks upon which she lay sucked the heat greedily from her limbs, sending hungry tentacles of cold to spread through her flesh and suck the last remaining reserves of heat from the very marrow of her bones.
A wraith amongst the shadows, dead and passed on into the darkness of Sheol, she stood up gingerly, for the cold stiffened her joints.
She shivered and goosebumps rippled across her body. Miri slipped her bare arms inside her linen dress. Within the folds of the cloth, the glow of her sunburned arms brought some relief from the cold, but the touch of the cloth rasped painfully on the burnt flesh. If this is not Sheol, she thought grimly, it was a damn good imitation. How can I fight burning and freezing all at once? She was brought to mind of distant dreams, and the figure of Erishkigal arose before her, lips silently moving, arms held out, but Miri brushed the Queen of the Underworld aside, and tried to walk forward, but the ground quickly sloped steeply downward, and she sat down quickly.
She found she had to travel backwards, crawling on her hands and knees, face against the stone mountainside. In the pitch-blackness, every step was uncertain. She saw nothing in great detail, save the stars above. This is the edge of Sheol, she realized bitterly. I have come to the westernmost horizon and I am above the Abyss Below the Earth! Soon I shall slip and again fall in terror forever!
Suddenly, she felt a familiar greasy warmth between her legs. Her period had begun. Although she had not missed the moon in the sky, until she began to bleed, she had not realized the moon was in the dark phase, swallowed by Mot. Within the temple at Philae, she had lost contact with the movements of the heavens, but now she began to feel connected to the Universe once more. The tickling from the dripping blood inside her thighs, the flow of blood, comforted her. Surely if I were dead, I would not be bleeding, she thought. Her period was an old friend returned after a long absence. Her mind calmed, and she felt her connection with Salome and Naomi, Yohanna, and Martha gel and coalesce. The thought of Martha surprised her, but Miri realized Martha had begun menstruation. She was old enough, Miri thought. "Can you hear me, Martha?" Miri called. She reached out into the universe within her mind and silently probed the darkness. When no answer came, she felt suddenly foolish an
She looked up. Overhead, framed on all sides by the dark looming forms of the mountains, the stars twinkled down at her. She was alive!
At that instant, she slipped, and fell. She screamed in terror and desperately scratched the mountainside for a handhold as she began to slide down the mountain. Her scream bounced back at her from unseen cliffs and seemed to echo back and forth within her mind as she fell. Abruptly, she stopped falling. Miri clung desperately to the rock, her face and body pressed hard against the stone. Panic gripped her. She whimpered, grimly trying to dig her fingernails into the unyielding stone. She wished she would melt into the stone, but she started to slip loose from the rock again. Desperation pushed her into action and her hand scrabbled along the cliff face for some kind of a purchase that would lift her from her predicament. She found a handhold and retained her balance. Her heart pounded so hard and fast, it seemed it would leap from her breast at any moment, and her lungs sucked at the air with such short bursts, she thought she would suffocate.
With a tremendous effort of will, Miri slowed her breath and her heart. The mountainside was precariously steep. She had wandered out onto the cliff face which edged the Nile valley. She decided she must climb back up the rock face, for if she descended, she could never be sure the next step below her would fall away into emptiness. She reached up for a handhold, but could find none! She was stuck!
Panic pushed all thought from her mind and her movements became desperate. Her heart pounded wildly. She searched for even the smallest grip upon the rock to move herself upwards. She clawed mindlessly at the rock. Her hands grasped the tiniest cracks and protuberances and without thought to where they would take her, her feet scrambled for the slightest toehold! Finally, she reached a ledge and scrambled onto it, crawling quickly away from the edge of the precipice. Possessed by fear, she scuttled frantically across the ledge, her hands feeling carefully before her in the dark, seeking a place against which she could rest her back. After crawling several cubits from the edge of the ledge, she stopped. At first Miri thought she had reached the top of the cliffs, but then realized from the change of the sound of her movements, she was no longer outside, but had crawled into some kind of a hollow. She looked up.
The stars were gone! She looked behind her and still saw nothing but blackness. She was inside a cave, and it smelled like every other place in the desert, dry and dusty: a dirt non-smell, devoid of humus and mold. She could detect no musty odour of animals here, and within the confines of the narrow cave, Miri felt safe.
Secure in the womb of the Great Mother.
Here she could curl up and hide.
Safe from the outside world. Safe from the cruelty of others. Safe from their unkind laughter! Safe from their disdain! Safe from the burning eye of Rei.
Safe! Safe! Safe!
Thankfully she closed her eyes and fell asleep.
When she awoke, Miri found herself seated upright upon a stone chair. Her hands rested upon the stone heads of two carved lions that flanked her seat and whose backs formed the arms of her chair. She tried to stand, but she could not move at all and remained seated, staring straight ahead. Her head was frozen in place. She strained against the spell she was under, but her limbs would not respond to her command.
She was alone in the gloomy inner sanctum of a darkened temple, staring out at huge bronze doors. She thought at first she had been found and brought back to Philae, but as soon as the thought struck her, she realized the hieroglyphs and patterns on the walls were not Egyptian.
A red glow pervaded the sanctuary, and she felt the fire from which it projected burning between her thighs. She could not, as much as she strained, turn to look down to see if she was right. It was as if she were made of stone!
An altar stood before her. On either side lampstands, dark and unlit. She sensed rather than actually saw, that the walls were lined with small openings, niches into which were placed urns of various kinds. Her awareness of her surroundings became heightened, as if she controlled an inner eye that could swivel this way and that, and as she gained control over it, she realized she was in deed the goddess of the sanctuary! Her heart leapt for a moment, but she realized she was trapped within a carved image, her limbs and soul frozen into the stone sculpture which now formed her body.
Her soul struggled to free itself, but it was held fast by a charm, and she panicked. Her mind's eye turned to the urns, and she saw the charred bones within them! Bones of children! Babies! The souls of the children materialized before her, staring into her very heart, crying to be free!
"Help me!" came the plaintive cry from a lost child's soul, echoed by a thousand others.
Others took up the cry. Children cried out to her in different languages, all of which she understood. She desperately tried to cover her ears, but could not for her body was made of stone. They cried out to her their little arms stretching toward her for her to pick them up! To hold them to her bosom! To absorb them into her soul, so they would never again be alone, but she could not!
At that moment, the doors to the inner sanctum swung open, and a procession of masked priests and priestesses approached her reverently, carrying offerings to appease her. She struggled to free herself, to get away from the cries of the dead children who surrounded her but she could not! They bore before them, a live baby in a basket. The child was placed on the altar and, the priest raised a knife ceremoniously before her.
"Stop!" Miri cried, but he did not.
The knife descended toward the baby boy, who squirmed and kicked happily oblivious to his fate. It burbled.
And a moment later, the priest had slit the boy's throat! A tiny protest from the baby was cut short before it could be uttered,
Miri screamed, desperately trying to be heard above the cries of the children already dead, but she was trapped within her muscles of stone.
The high priest slowly removed his mask and the face of Setem smiled triumphantly up at her. He lifted the basket and tipped it over. The child, still alive, rolled helplessly into the flames of the furnace between her legs!
Miri screamed in terror.
The child screamed in agony.
Miri raved savagely and shook her ka, her spirit, to free it of the stone so she could stop the carnage, but she could not!
"Hail Mother!" came the chant from the worshippers. "Accept the gift of our first born, that others shall be spared!"
From the fiery depths of her womb, she was wracked by the cries of children dying in agony, but she could do nothing to help them! They were all her own children! Her own unborn little ones! She had a sense that no matter how many offspring she bore, there would never be enough! They would all be butchered mercilessly! She screamed hysterically at the priesthood arrayed in their finery before her! Her mind shattered in horror, and Miri exploded from her stone incarnation!
A flash of brilliant blue light blinded her and she squinted, shielding her eyes. She was awake, sitting bolt upright, in a cave, staring into the blue desert sky framed by an oval of ruddy ochre rock which formed the mouth of the cave. Soaked in sweat from the effort of trying to break free from the hold of her dream, she collapsed and lay back down, holding her head in her hands.
A dream! It had all been a dream!
She was relieved but the images of the dying children slipped in and out of her head her and she groaned in despair. Exhausted, Miri lay on her back staring at the ceiling, the images of the previous two days and nights slowly settling into the darkness of her mind. She had killed Setem! But wasn't it a dream as well?
No, it was real. She had killed him.
Setem was dead.
He would float about the world without rest, for his head had been severed from his body. No.
They would sew it back on.
His family would reattach it.
Bury the head and the body together.
She thought of Setem's head lying between his thighs in the sarcophagus. His brain really is between his legs now, she thought.
Then the horror of it all swamped her again.
She could no longer discern the world of dreams from the land of the living. Her soul transcended the barrier between the timeless dreamland of the gods and mortal existence.
Her mouth was dry, her lips cracked and sore, her skin bright red and terribly painful from days of exposure to the sun. The burned skin had begun to peel away and hung like scraps of cloth from her arms.
She pulled her legs into the embrace of her arms and sat, motionless, staring dully through the mouth of the cave at the blue sky beyond. She nodded in and out of sleep, without thought to the passage of time. Bleating broke her from her malaise and she opened her eyes.
Before her stood a small three month old lamb. She smiled at it helplessly.
"I'm sorry, I can't help you," she said to the lamb. "I'm lost, too!"
The lamb said nothing but wagged its tail and stepped forward two paces. Miri reached out her hand and the lamb licked her fingers, trying to suckle from them. She grasped it in both hands and drew it in towards her, and hugged it tightly. It struggled briefly, but then settled into her lap and drifted off to sleep. Miri cradled it in her arms, glad for the warmth of a living body against her breast.
She awoke with a start and the lamb squirmed free of her embrace. It galloped to the mouth of the cave.
"No! Wait!" cried Miri, afraid of being alone again, but the lamb disappeared. Miri jumped up and ran after it. The bright white sun pierced her eyes and she squinted as she shaded her eyes. Just in time, she saw the lamb's tail flick and disappear over a ridge. She scrambled after it. Amongst the jumbled rocks, Miri frantically pursued the lamb, which obliviously scampered away from her. Her one thought was to reach it, but the little animal always was out of reach and almost out of sight.
"Wait!" she called out after it, tears welling in her eyes, "Please wait!"
Too late. The lamb had disappeared. Miri sat dejectedly on a small boulder and began to cry.. She wished the lamb had never shown itself for now she felt more alone than ever. The little creature had brought the warmth and security of her childhood back to her for a fleeting moment, and now, once again, she was abandoned and forsaken.
She was brought from her despair by an impatient bleating. She looked up and there stood the lamb balanced daintily on the rock before her. Miri squealed happily and leapt up to embrace the little lamb, but the lamb turned tail and jumped nimbly from its perch.
Miri stamped her feet petulantly. "Come here!" she demanded, but the lamb did not even look back. "Bad lamb!" she admonished, but recovering from her frustration, Miri took a deep breath and called, sweetly this time, "Here, little lamb. Come to Miri."
The lamb stopped and turned to look at her for a moment.
"That's good!" cooed Miri, "Come here, li-"
The lamb scampered away.
"Dammit!" shouted Miri, "Come back here, you little-"
She swallowed her pride and chased after it again. She followed the lamb over rocky ground that gradually became smoother and led her into a wadi. The lamb stretched the distance between them, but at the instant it might be lost to sight, it stopped and turned its face toward her. Miri was out of breath, but she was afraid to lose the lamb. Afraid of being alone in the desert. So she pushed on.
Finally she collapsed and sat down again. The lamb stopped and bounced onto a distant boulder and stared at her impatiently. Or as impatiently as a lamb ever can be. The lamb called to her.
Miri took a deep breath. "Oh Mother!" she sighed and wearily came pulled herself to her feet. Her feet were sore and her calf muscles ached terribly. Sweat greased her groin and armpits and trickled down her back. The lamb bleated at her to hurry up.
"I'm coming, I'm coming!" she said, and the lamb bleated at her again. "I can't believe I'm being ordered about by a lamb!" she complained, but her feet doggedly stepped one after the other.
The lamb waited for her.
Thankfully, Rei-Shemmesh began his descent toward the western horizon. The ground levelled out and became easier to negotiate and Miri suddenly realized she had been following a path for some time, but had not noticed.
Miri was exhausted.
"I can't go on!" she moaned to the lamb who trotted alongside her.
And then off in the distance she saw it.
She blinked in wonder. In the middle of the yellow desert, she saw green. Luscious tropical green. Tall palms bent over, crowns dripping with honeyed figs. Papyrus rushes. Water! There must be water!
She staggered forward. Only a few hundred cubits separated her from water. Her knees gave out. She fell to the ground. Sand filled her mouth. Grit rubbed against her teeth and gums. Her throat was raw from dehydration. She could not go on. Her eyelids fluttered and closed.
How can I die so close to salvation? she asked. This can't be happening. In the darkness behind her eyelids, cool water washed over her and she relaxed. The darkness became deeper. And deeper...
The lamb butted her awake. She opened her eyes and stared into the wide brown innocence of her companion, and from the depths of her bowels, she began to move, pulling herself painfully along with her arms. Each time her strength flagged the little lamb butted her until she moved again.
Through the shimmering air, she could see the treetops, so close she thought she could reach out and touch them. Her movement slowed. She had reached the end and could no longer move. The lamb bleated at her and butted against her, but Miri could barely respond to her little friend. She reached for the lamb, but her hand barely rose from the sand.
"I'm sorry, little lamb, "Miri whispered hoarsely, "I'm sorry!"
Her eyes closed.
"I am ready, Mother!" she said finally and her features relaxed. Darkness descended on her under the bright desert sun.
She dreamed she lay in a cool pool within the oasis. A bearded shepherd held her in his arms. He dabbed her fevered brow with the edge of his tunic that clung wetly to his broad chest. She smiled up at him and tried to speak but he pressed his finger to his lips, then to hers and she closed her eyes.
Her mouth was dry and raw, her insides ached. The shepherd brought a bowl to her lips and she sucked greedily at the water within it. Her entire body was hollow and desiccated; the water washed into her dehydrated flesh, seeping into the shrivelled muscle and powdery bone. A coolness enveloped her and she became one with the water. The shepherd allowed her to float in the water, holding her, gently moving her through the liquid.
She floated and the shepherd disappeared. She was alone in the pool, floating. Floating. She came to rest upon a stone slab. The altar. She opened her eyes and recognized the pool. She lay upon the altar in the centre of the four standing stones. Though her lips did not move, she heard her own voice:
"You shall be the One upon the Two
The oasis was alive with vegetation. Everywhere food grew in abundance. Palms laden with dates and figs waved gracefully overhead, whispering secrets to the ancient gnarled olive and proud apricot trees guarding the glade below in which she stood. Wheat and barley grew as though wild, but blessed with full heads. Large plump purple grapes hung from vines entwined around every bole and trunk in the grotto. Cucumbers, fat and succulent, protruded from creeping vines at her feet. Miri could not move without touching or being touched by plants. As she pushed forward into the clearing, the leaves caressed her body and the plants embraced her. She was filled with overwhelming joy.
A pool of crystal water sparkled around her; the altar was now covered with lush tropical plant life, and from her stomach rose a large evergreen with seven huge branches. As she became aware of it, she became it. She was decorated with offerings: strings of beads, amulets and objects of adoration, and fruits of first harvest. Turtledoves flitted amongst her branches, cooing and calling to each other. Lights twinkled about her and the tree was so alive, it seemed to be the essence of Life itself. Miri ached to dance, but her limbs were living wood.
Beyond the pool, a circle by five large shoulder high ancient stone pillars set in a circle, each stele inscribed in Re-En-Kaam, on each pillar a chalice: a goblet of gold, of silver, bronze, another of stone, and finally, a beautiful crystal chalice of finest Phoenician glass.
A hand lifted the Canaanite glass from its place, and the shepherd stepped forward into the water. The water lapped around his legs, his skin raised goosebumps, and Miri shivered with pleasure for her roots reached down into the pool, and that which touched the water touched her. Waist high and halfway across the pool, the shepherd dipped the chalice in the water and brought the rim of the cup hesitantly to his lips. Before he could taste of the water, he spied Miri. Realizing the first drink must go to the tree, he held it out in front of him with both hands. The water ran over the brim. He did not try to stop it for it flowed out in two separate unending streams from opposite sides of the cup. As he stepped from the pool, his wet tunic clung tightly to his bronzed hardened body. He lifted the cup to Miri's lips and the two streams splashed over her roots and drained into the soil. Wherever the water ran, wheat, barley and flax sprouted. Miri was delighted as the water soak
She reached out through the darkness, moist and fecund, she stretched to seek the Sun, expanding to the horizon, opening herself to the rays, the spark which would bring her to life. Sparkling drops of dew were bright points of light upon her skin. The lights floated away into the darkness above her and became stars. They danced in spirals until they found their places in heaven. Then, as the star Sothis rose in the East, the first beam of the sun came over the horizon and struck at her inner eye. It exploded within her head with orgasmic intensity. She shuddered and drops of dew fell from her branches, and where they fell to earth sprouted as seeds and grew as grain.
The sun, the shepherd, her brother Shappash, Rei, rose above her, his head radiant. The rays from his being opened every pore in her being and she took him into her. Heady with the joy and fervor of their lovemaking, Miri drank greedily from his mouth. Where their lips met, pure crystal water flowed like juices from ripe fruit. The sweetness of the water overwhelmed her and down her heaving chest. She closed her eyes, laughing in ecstasy. From her branches flowers blossomed and the sweat from his brow, atomized by the heat entered each bloom. Each flower swelled and bore fruit. Breathless, Miri emerged from the Tree of Life, as its form dissolved about her. Her arms grew from the bark of the tree and she wrapped herself about Shappash the God of the Sun. Her brother. Her lover. Her soulmate. Her friend! She gasped as his human form emerged from the fiery orb of Aten. Fire became flesh, wood became muscle, and the most beautiful young man she had ever seen lay above her, heav
Suddenly he was gone. All she had seen evaporated and she was alone in the velvet darkness. Not warm. Not cold. At equilibrium. Her heart slowed and beat contentedly. A hand lifted her head and brought a bowl to her lips. She drank from it. A warm broth. Onion soup.
The taste was so worldly. Comforting.
Her eyes opened.
Her head was cradled in the arms of the shepherd.
She started for he did not seem the same. He was a child of the Earth.
"Shhh! Shhh!" he comforted her, preventing her from rising. "I will not hurt you!" he brought the bowl back to her lips.
"Here, you must drink a little more broth! You are very weak!"
"Who are you?" Miri asked huskily. Her throat was sore, and she reached up to touch her neck.
"My name is Ayamu," he replied, "My dogs found you in the sand."
"Where am I?" she asked.
Ayamu smiled. "This land has no name. It belongs to the vultures and the scorpions, just as the land to the south of us belongs to the hyenas and the jackals, and the land beyond that to the lion and the leopard. And beyond that to the jiin and the gods themselves!"
Miri stared into Ayamu's dark brown eyes. Everything about him seemed so familiar, and she thought perhaps his eyes would open his soul to her that she could know him.
"Why are you here?" he asked.
Miri started at the sound of his voice.
"I-" she began, then thought better of telling Ayamu how she had come to be in his presence. "I lost my way."
He accepted her answer, but he knew she was hiding from something. All who wander this deep into the desert have secrets tucked beneath their robes. We are all running from our own daemons, we all seek to escape the jiin who plague the Way. Yet, the further you run to escape their grasp, the closer they wrap themselves about you! He had come to this place to forget the hopeless love and heartache that only a woman could bring to a man's heart, and now, here, in the middle of nowhere, the most beautiful woman he could ever imagine lay in his arms. The vision of Miri illuminated by his campfire caused his heart to ache, for she was a reminder of the ways of the flesh.
In the past fourteen days he had tended her faithfully, and had on several occasions been tempted to touch her, to take her while she was delirious, but he had not succumbed. But now he realized, he had fallen under her spell, and he loved this stranger deeply. It had been easy to deny his growing ardour while she had been asleep, but now her eyes had come alive, he was completely held under her thrall. Yet he knew she was unaware of his devotion. She did not remember his caring, his feeding, or his bathing her...
His mind wandered into the memory of her body in the pool, the feel of her skin and the depth of her flesh as he cleansed her. Did she remember the constant tending, the sips of water he had gently administered through dry lips, the washing away of the fever from her brow? Anointing her sunburned skin with oil? His passion erupted with such force, he was startled , and he laid her down on the soft sheepskin bed he had prepared near the fire and stared deeply at her.
God moves in mysterious ways, he thought. Miri smiled back at him, not knowing quite how to break the silence that had fallen between them.
"Were you born here?" she asked finally.
Ayamu shook his head. "No. Yet I feel I have always lived here, alone in the desert. This is where my soul is at rest. When I return to the real world, I walk in fear. Each person I meet seems like a trap waiting to spring upon me. The market place is an ordeal. Each lamb I sell seems a betrayal. Guilt haunts each street corner, a dark hunter waiting in the shadows to seize me and drag me- drag me- I don't know where."
"Do I make you uncomfortable?" Miri asked.
"Yes!" The force of his words made him falter. "Yes," he said quietly. "I am sorry I did not mean to be so direct. I regret saying you make me uneasy. I do not wish to make you feel uncomfortable. It's just that I do not have a way with women."
"Then talk to me as if I were a man!" said Miri in encouragement. She slid closer to him, "I won't bite you!" She touched him on the arm, but he withdrew from her touch.
"It wouldn't help!" Ayamu replied, "I can't talk to anyone! Man or woman!" He stared into the fire to avoid her gaze, to focus his thoughts within the flames and the glowing embers.
"You are a shepherd," said Miri.
He looked at her. "It is my penance," he replied.
"Penance?" asked Miri in surprise, "In the land I come from, the life of the shepherd is honoured. For many, it is a way of life ordained by the Holy Father."
Ayamu smiled, "And so for me. But it is not a place of honour. I have been exiled to this land."
"By who?" asked Miri.
Ayamu's eyes narrowed and he glanced downward. "You will think I am a fool!" he said.
Miri said nothing.
"I was undone by the love of a woman and by Roman Law!" Ayamu's lips curled at the edges. "I was betrayed by that which I loved most and by that which I hate more than any other!
Each year, a patrician or man of means is appointed as Superintendent of the Canals. It is his responsibility to maintain the canals and repair the dykes that will control the flood. In the old days, the pharaoh would allocate funds for this purpose- although the taxes which pay for it came from the people anyway- but under Roman rule, the appointment carries the financial obligation with it. Of course, the appointee is allowed to levy a tax to raise funds, but you cannot squeeze blood from a stone. My district is very poor, with the exception of a few who collaborate with the Romans.
Any shortfall, of course, comes from the pocket of the Superintendent. In our nome, it is an appointment to be dreaded, and many feign bankruptcy in order to avoid the obligations of its office. One year, three men pulled up their stakes and fled after being nominated!
I wish that I had done so too!
But I was young.
I ran and owned an estate given to me by my aged father. He bequeathed it to me in his fiftieth year, and allowed me the run of the place while he and my mother moved into smaller apartments in the compound. I protested, but my father replied he was tired and wished only to tend his garden.
I had become enamoured of a neighbour's daughter, Persephone. She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. My mother arranged for an appointment with her, and I asked for her hand in marriage. The sum she suggested as a bridal price was far beyond my means, but I vowed to meet it!
My parents suggested I lower my sights, and search for a woman who would be satisfied with who I was and came with a lower price. I could not contemplate such a course and in a fit of passion, I vowed before them to the gods that if I could not marry and live with the woman I loved, then I would join the gods in the Western desert! My parents were horrified, and pleaded with me to sacrifice before the gods and rescind my foolish pledge of suicide, but I would not listen.
Unbeknown to me, I had a rival for her affections, Ptolemy, a rather course and vulgar man who I had known since my school days. A bully. But all that was naught, for when we were children, I saved his life. He had fallen into the Nile and was in danger of drowning. I alone seized a small reed boat, and pushed out into the river and paddled out to him. Although I could not pull him in, for even then, he was bigger than his peers, he clung to the side of the boat and I paddled us back to shore.
But rather than being grateful, he resented my rescue of him, and, although overtly he was respectful and at times friendly, he would play tricks on me when no one was looking! We grew to adulthood, and as we were no longer thrown together in the schoolyard, saw little of each other, though I heard gossip and knew he led a dissolute and impious life!
He also became very rich! He was appointed as a tax collector by the Roman junta in an adjacent county. From what I hear he was ruthless, but the job suited his demeanor and, as I said, he became very rich.
In the thrall of love, I became desperate to raise the bride price for Persephone, and my thoughts turned to Ptolemy. I arranged to meet him and travelled to his estate, having told my parents I had business there. His home was magnificent, and he seemed genuinely pleased to see me. He took great pleasure in showing off his possessions, of which he had many.
In fact, I commented many times on his taste, and was, quite honestly impressed by his great fortune. It was quite a while before I broached the matter for which I had arranged to see him:
He quite naturally inquired as to the purpose of these funds, and the thought of Persephone loosened my lips and a veritable flood of praise poured from my lips. So ardent was my description, Ptolemy laughed and put his hand to my mouth to stop my declarations of admiration.
'Shhh! My friend!' he said kindly, 'Enough! Of course, I will help you, but a loan is not the way to raise money for such a woman! You must earn her respect and admiration! Do you think that after you are married, you will be able to hide the fact that you borrowed the money to pay the bride price? Oh no! That would not do! She would not be happy to know that once she is your wife, she would have to help you slave away to repay her own bride price! You must earn that money on your own back and through using your wits!'
'But how?' I asked plaintively, 'My farm can provide for my parents and I, with some to spare for the slaves, but I can only grow so much on the land I own!'
'Take a look around you!' Ptolemy said grandly, 'The money you seek, I could raise within a month and not suffer!' And here, he lowered his voice and brought his face so close to mine, I could smell his breakfast. 'I know of an appointment by which you can raise the money. I will help you secure the position. It is quite lucrative! And by the time the Nile rises, you will have your bride price and more!'
I was overwhelmed. His idea was exactly the right thing for me to do! I would secure an important post in my county, and my worth raised in the eyes of my beloved Persephone. That day, Ptolemy wrote up a contract specifying his service to me in the raising of capital and I put forth my name for the nomination.
Within the month, I attended the council meeting, and a companion of Ptolemy who dwelt in my district put forth my name. There were some who quite naturally opposed it for I was not a man of sufficient means to secure the funds for so great a project, but I produced the contract between Ptolemy and I, and the very mention of his name seemed to satisfy the council members as to my suitability.
From that time on, Ptolemy and I became the best of friends. He came to my farm often, to get signatures upon necessary documents, arranging of work crews, selection of tax officers, and the like. I was very excited, and soon the levy money began to pour in from Ptolemy's agents. I could see very soon the cut, which Ptolemy assigned to me, would within a short time add up to the bride price. I was so flushed, I splurged and bought presents for my aged mother and father, spices and silks, little knick-knacks to decorate their apartment! I even made a great bequest to the temple of Ausar on my parents' behalf, so the priests would say special prayers for them once they crossed over to the West. It was the most exciting time of my life!
News of my great fortune reached the ears of my Persephone, and soon, she came calling on me! Her visits, in fact became frequent, then quite regular, and I could not resist buying her small gifts as tokens of my affection for her! I was in heaven!
At the rising of Sothis along the pathway of the Sun, the pace of work on the dykes began in earnest, and everyday I was called away from my farm to attend to some new crisis, canals were silted in, new drainage ditches had to be dug, dykes had to be built higher, for the rising Nile was swelling higher than ever before! I got little sleep. Soon the financial obligations outstripped the income from the flood levies, and I had to redeem the gifts I had bought for my parents!
Ptolemy was quite sympathetic and finally, he suggested he loan me the money I would need to fulfill my obligations! It would be a secret loan. No one need know of its existence. He would secure the same appointment for me for the next year, and I could pay him back from the taxes. The work done this year would make next year easier. I was desperate and agreed readily. He and I signed an agreement, and the next day, his slaves brought a chest with the necessary funding to complete the dykes before the flood peak.
It was with great pride that he and I stood on the dykes watching the Nile flow past us, into the canals and the drainage fields, stored up for the new year!"
Ayamu stirred the fire with his stick.
"When I returned home, Nubian bailiffs were throwing my belongings out on the street. My parents stood against the wall to their garden, clutching each other in fear. I could not believe my eyes.
'What's going on here?' I demanded.
A scribe who was overseeing the sacking of my farm eyed me with intense disdain, 'You have been tried and convicted of misappropriation of flood levies. Also You have failed to come to terms with a loan paid to you by Ptolemy of Bubastis and we have a court order to seize your estate as per your agreement with him unless you can make restitution within seven days!'
'But you cannot seize them under warrant unless I am brought first to a judge!'
The scribe's finger traced a line down the paper he held. "By my count you have been called seven times to judgment, and you have failed to appear!'
'I have received no such summons!' I cried, 'Let me see your records!'
I seized the paper and read the dates. Much later, I realized I had been duped! Each date coincided with a visit from Ptolemy. He must have intercepted the warrants at my very gate!
'How much do I owe?' I cried, 'Will you take payment now, and I am sure he and I can clear up this misunderstanding in court!'
I managed to forestall the pillaging of my home by sacrificing the bride payment for my darling Persephone. But matters changed from bad to worse. The sum I still owed to the State and to Ptolemy was greater than the value of all my possessions combined. I was thrown into gaol as the plaintiff, one Ptolemy of Bubastis, a man of good standing with the court was afraid I would flee justice as so many who failed their obligations to the state were in the habit of doing.
It was in that dank, cockroach-ridden hole I learned of the deaths of my mother and father. They had swallowed poison rather than be turned from their beloved farm. I was brought before a trial judge and found guilty of misappropriation of funds and treason against the State. I could not believe my own foolishness, when Ptolemy stepped forward to speak on my behalf.
'Your honour,' began Ptolemy, 'I have been a friend of Ayamu since we were schoolboys, and he is basically an honest fellow, as I am sure all his neighbours would agree.'
Heads nodded around the courtroom.
'I would be amiss were I not to step forward and appeal for clemency on his behalf. Though he failed to repay his debt to me, I forgive him. He is young and naive, and I think the amounts he had to deal with were too much temptation for one as inexperienced as he. I am sure he has learned his lesson, and a term of isolation perhaps would be better suited than execution. It would pain me to see so fine a young man struck down. He has been a good friend to both me, and my bride to be, Persephone!'
I was struck dumb!
Ptolemy sneered at me, To the rest of the crowd, it was a smile of beneficence befitting the gods, but to me, it was the triumphant gloating of a demon!"
'It cannot be!' I cried, 'Persephone, loves me! We are betrothed!'
I lunged at him, but the Nubian guards held my arms.
In the crowd, I spied Persephone. "Tell them!' I shouted at her. 'Tell them! It is me you love, not him!'
Ptolemy stepped away from the proscenium and Persephone slipped her hand into his proffered arm and the crowd closed around them as they left the building."
He poked at the fire with a stick pushing unburned dung cakes into the centre.
"So now, the man who I saved from Death has my farm and sleeps with the woman I love. Some say I should have left him to Hapi, the god of the Nile, for what he claims, no mortal must touch. I angered the god and this was my punishment! They also say, because I had sworn to the gods if the woman I loved would not marry me, I would live in the western desert alone with them for Eternity that it was my own word, by my own deed, that determined my sentence! The judge assigned me to this outpost in the desert. Here I collect a toll from wayfarers which once would have been remitted to the temple of Amon once a year, but now is sent directly to the Roman prefect! So it seems now, I am an indentured slave to the Roman Empire!"
He shrugged. Then smiled.
"You are the first person I have seen in two months!"
The night passed into day and the days passed quietly into weeks. Weeks to months. Miri and Ayamu lived together in the one-roomed home he had woven from the reeds growing in and around the pool, and slowly they came to know each other on intimate terms, yet they slept apart. Each night Miri lay awake, afraid to fall asleep for she knew she would dream of Setem.
Each night, she prayed to the Great Mother to protect her from the nightmare, but to no avail. She slept fitfully. She awoke in the depths of night, confronted by the spectre of Setem's headless body standing at the foot of the bed, reaching out to her, calling for his head, cursing her for her deed, for without his head his soul could never rest. He wandered in the desert in the western edges of the world, halfway between the world of men and the world of the Dead. But, no longer could she live life to its fullest, for the experience of each moment was tainted by the horror of his death. She said nothing to Ayamu, for she could not bring herself to admit to Setem's murder.
Ayamu was so pure and simple, she did not want to burden him with the knowledge of her crime. It was her burden to bear, and hers alone. How would he trust her knowing she had killed a man? She could never tell him.
So they slept apart. Her crime stood always between Miri and Ayamu. It set her apart from the rest of the world. So she went about the day-to-day occupations as best she could. She ground wheat. She baked bread. Milked the goats. Spun thread from the wool of the sheep and goats and wove it in to cloth.
Miri and Ayamu attached the cloth she wove to the side of the reed house and strung it between the house and two nearby trees to serve as a porch. They spent many hours beneath it, and it became an extension of the papyrus house.
It was only when she tended the garden, her heart seemed to come to rest. There, she spent long hours attending carefully and silently to the smallest details in the garden. She weeded fastidiously, removing the plants and roots before they came to maturity, and preparing compost from them. She spread manure over the onion beds. She watered the crops each day, alongside Ayamu, who spent most of the day watering the grain, the wheat and barley with the faduf by the well. The dogs attended Miri every waking moment. One of them- there were three- sat behind her at all times, watching.
She thought they were guarding against her, perhaps they could smell the blood upon her, saw the mark of the murderer in her somehow, but their presence wasn't menacing, just watchful. Whichever dog had been posted as her companion for the day sat or lay a few paces behind her. The dog simply stared at her, panting in the heat. When Miri stayed in one place for a great length of time the dog would sigh and lie down and sleep, but always with one ear cocked and ready, for the moment Miri moved, the dog's head would rise alert.
Ayamu had commented several times on this strange behaviour, but Miri, unnerved by their attention said nothing. If it had been only one of the dogs forming this attachment, said Ayamu, nothing would seem amiss, but that all three took turns- Well, that was strange! What made it even more remarkable was none of the dogs would approach her within a few cubits, and could not be persuaded to, even when tempted by scraps of meat. When Miri approached them they scampered away, always at a safe distance and always out of reach. Eventually Miri stopped trying to gain their confidence and resigned herself to having a constant canine escort.
Since her arrival, all the ewes had conceived and dropped lambs. Ayamu had commented on how she had brought the blessing of Hekat and Isis with her.
"Perhaps they followed me," laughed Miri.
"They would be fools not to!" gushed Ayamu.
Ayamu, embarrassed, looked away. Miri's smile faded as she realized Ayamu's feelings had been hidden from her for so long. How could she have missed it? The attention he focused on her. The way he hung on her every word, and lapped up her laughter. He had been her faithful servant, not allowing her to do any work that was unpleasant, and if she insisted upon a task, he hovered about her to smooth the chore over should it have become too arduous.
She remembered the times she had drifted to sleep and Ayamu sat across the room from her watching as- as a shepherd watches his flock.
Now, they stared awkwardly at each other.
"I feel like we are husband and wife," said Miri.
"I wish that we were!" replied Ayamu passionately.
Miri stepped forward, and grasped Ayamu's hands.
"There is no one to stop us!" she whispered huskily.
Ayamu reached up and touched Miri's cheek gently and their necks bent toward each other like blossoms facing the sun. His lips lightly caressed hers, and they held each other tightly. Not moving except to breathe. His chest rose slowly upon her breast and they stood almost motionless in the endless hot mid day sun. Man. Woman.
They slept together that night, lying in each other's arms, contentedly staring up at the night sky, no words passing between them for there was no need. The souls of the dead twinkled back down at them, their secrets held back and their blessing drifting down from the heavens.
Miri awoke suddenly.
She could see nothing in the desert, but all three dogs stood alert staring out into the desert. Miri's scalp tingled and the hairs on her body rose from her skin. She heard a low growl from one of the dogs, and a dark human form appeared in the darkness.
He had returned to haunt her. All three dogs growled menacingly at the figure. The headless body silently approached the foot of the nest Miri and Ayamu lay upon. The dogs snarled at the ghost, afraid, yet unyielding. In an instant Miri realized all this time, they had been watching over her as they watched over the flock.
"Go away!" she screamed at Setem's ghost. It came closer, floating as on invisible wings. "Go away!"
Ayamu awoke beside her and stared uncomprehendingly about him. "What's going on?" he asked.
Miri turned to him and pointed at the spectre.
"Can't you see it?" she asked incredulously.
He propped himself up.
He squinted into the darkness, and then sat up instantly, as he became aware the attention of the dogs was focused on the same spot where Miri was pointing. He grasped his staff as a weapon, but saw nothing.
"See what?" he cried.
"There!" shouted Miri, but as she spoke the spectre faded and the dogs moved forward, their hackles raised. Ayamu stepped past them and stood where the apparition of Setem had been.
"There is nothing-" he began, then spied a dark spot in the sand. He knelt down and touched the black stain. The stain coloured his fingers and he brought his fingertips to his nose and smelled them. He tasted them with the tip of his tongue.
"Blood!" he said and spat on the ground, then abruptly stood up, and backed away from the spot, wiping his hands frantically on his robe. He reached inside his tunic and grasped at the amulet of Auset hanging from his necklace. "What is it?" he asked in awe, "What in the name of the gods is it?"
Miri shook hysterically. She could not prevent it. Instantly, Ayamu was at her side. He held her tightly in his arms, trying to quell the convulsions that racked her body. "I- I," she stuttered, but could not speak.
"Shh! Shh!" whispered Ayamu, his hand brushing her hair, "It's all right! It's all right!" He rocked her gently and her shaking slowed and she nestled into his chest, and he lay her down in the nest under the stars. She reached her hand around his neck and pulled him down upon her, her lips greedily seeking his. They made love under the starlight and the long nights of restrained abstinence exploded within them with a passion that carried them both until dawn.
Miri no longer saw Setem in her Dreams. Each night, she made love to Ayamu, no matter how tired, for she was convinced the sexual union between them was the ritual which kept Setem at bay. But no matter how passionate she was, she could not persuade him to make love to her when her menstrual blood began to flow. For those times she gave up trying, and so she would not dream nor awaken, on those nights she drank the beer she brewed from the barley, or wine from the figs, until she fell asleep dulled by alcohol.
He could not overcome his fear of touching an unclean woman, and she could not bring herself to confess her crime to him, and so this darkness always lay between them. Needless to say, the dark days were darker than she had ever imagined, and as the period of bleeding approached she fell into a deep depression, and Ayamu learned to avoid her completely until the darkness passed. It was the fear of the darkness which determined her decision to insert small sponges soaked in yogurt and alum into her uterus to prevent a child from forming, for she knew she could never bring a child into the world with the curse Setem's blood hanging over her.
Part of her had died with Setem, but she had no idea how to recover it, or what she had to recover.