Authors: Nick Drake
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Historical, #Suspense, #Mystery & Detective, #Egypt
The Book of Shadows
Three short knocks. I listened to the silence that followed,â¦
The streets were suddenly crowded. People were emerging from differentâ¦
We pushed our way through the crowds to Nakht's grandâ¦
I left the family with instructions to wait in Nakht'sâ¦
It was late when I returned to the house. Thothâ¦
The Keeper of the Royal Household took a lit oilâ¦
It was a small carving of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, togetherâ¦
At the jetty, Khay gave me a papyrus of authorityâ¦
I arrived soon after first light at the office ofâ¦
I returned to my own shabby office at the wrongâ¦
To visit my old friend Nakht at his country houseâ¦
Thoth and I followed Nakht as he passed imperiously, andâ¦
We each have our habitual places to sit on theâ¦
As we crossed the Great River once againâKhety sitting oppositeâ¦
âWhat a spectacle!' said Khety, blowing out his cheeks. âThatâ¦
The royal entourage entered the great Karnak council chamber, andâ¦
As I left the temple gate, Khety appeared suddenly outâ¦
I tried to stop myself breaking into a run asâ¦
Pentu was pacing backwards and forwards, his hands clenched behindâ¦
I hurried to meet Khety in the quarter of theâ¦
The white sun of late morning exonerated nothing and noâ¦
The King and Queen processed out of the temple complex,â¦
The house seemed deserted when I arrived home. I realizedâ¦
The sun had disappeared over the Malkata Palace's flat rooftops,â¦
Simut joined me at the stern of the golden ship,â¦
The strong current drew us onwards, ever northwards, towards Memphis.
Two days later the Great River's deep currents brought usâ¦
We departed that afternoon. The sky was milky with heat,â¦
The Master of the Hunt, accompanied by his chief tracker,â¦
Tutankhamun was sitting on his travelling throne, staring at nothing,â¦
A tracker returned that evening with news. He had foundâ¦
We set out in the chariots, properly armed and provisioned,â¦
I kept vigil at the bedside of Tutankhamun as heâ¦
The Beloved of Amun sailed silently into the Malkata harbourâ¦
Why had no one ever mentioned Mutnodjmet? Not even Ankhesenamun,â¦
I knocked on the door to Khay's office. After aâ¦
The chamber was dreary, lit by the oil lamp sheâ¦
I knocked on the door. The Maid of the Rightâ¦
Ay entered the chamber, followed by Simut, who closed theâ¦
Simut's elite guards took up positions along the dark, adjoiningâ¦
I closed the box, and returned the eyes to darkness.
Horemheb's magnificent ship of state, the Glory of Memphis, wasâ¦
I walked as fast as I could through the noiseâ¦
I was desperate to return to my home, to checkâ¦
The palace officials were running up and down the corridorsâ¦
That evening, Thoth and I returned to Nakht's town house.
I ran through the shadows of the night. Thoth keptâ¦
He wore the black mask of Anubis, the jackal, Guardianâ¦
I released Thoth's muzzle, and he bounded into the darkness.
When I had carried Amenmose up the lane and intoâ¦
Once I knew my family was safe, I visited theâ¦
And so it was I joined the funeral party ofâ¦
The half-moon had sunk to the edge of the blackâ¦
RahotepâSeeker of Mysteries, Chief Detective in the Thebes Medjay (police force)
His family and friends
Sekhmet, Thuyu, Nedjmetâhis daughters
Amenmoseâhis baby son
The royal family
TutankhamunâLord of the Two Lands, the âLiving Image of Amun'
AnkhesenamunâQueen, daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti
Mutnodjmetâaunt of Ankhesenamun, wife of Horemheb
The palace officials
AyâRegent, and âGod's Father'
HoremhebâGeneral of the Armies of the Two Lands
SimutâCommander of the Palace Guard
NebamunâHead of the Thebes Medjay
Maiaâwet nurse to Tutankhamun
PentuâChief Physician to Tutankhamun
Now when His Majesty was crowned King, the temples and the estates of the gods and the goddesses from Elephantine as far as the marshes of lower Egypt had fallen into decay. Their shrines were fallen into ruin, become mere mounds overgrown with grass. Their sanctuaries were as if they had not yet come into being, and their buildings were footpaths. The land was in chaos. The gods had turned their backs upon it. When an army was sent to northern Syria to extend the boundaries of Egypt, it had no success. If one prayed to a god to ask something from him, he did not come at all. If one beseeched any goddess in the same way she did not come at all. The gods' hearts were faint in their divine statues. What had been made had been destroyed.
From the Restoration Stela, set up in the temple complex at
Karnak in the early years of Tutankhamun's reign
I know you, I know your names.
Year 10 of the reign of King Tutankhamun, Living Image of Amun
Three short knocks. I listened to the silence that followed, my heart thudding in reply. Then, to my relief, came the familiar last short knock of the signal. I let my breath out slowly. Perhaps I was getting old. It was still dark, but I was already awake, for sleep had betrayed me once again, as it often does in the melancholy small hours before dawn. I rose from the couch and dressed quickly, glancing at Tanefert. My wife's head was resting elegantly on its sleeping stand, but her beautiful, disturbed eyes were open, observing me.
âGo back to sleep. I promise I will be home in time.'
I kissed her lightly. She curled into herself like a cat, and watched me leave.
I drew back the curtain and looked for a moment at my three sleeping girls, Sekhmet, Thuyu and Nedjmet, on their beds, in their shared yellow room crammed with clothes, old toys, papyri, slates, drawings from their childhood, and other objects whose significance eludes me.
Our house is too small now for such grown girls. I listened for a moment to the rattle of my father's strained breathing in his room at the back. It ceased for a long moment, but then another breath worked its way laboriously through his old body. Lastly, as always before I leave the house, I stood beside my young son, Amenmose, sleeping entirely peacefully, his limbs thrown every which way like a dog before a fire. I kissed him on his head, damp with warmth. He did not stir.
Taking my night passes with me, for the curfews were in force, I closed the door soundlessly. Thoth, my clever baboon, loped over to me from his sleeping place in the yard, his short, tufted tail curved upwards, and he rose on his hind legs to greet me. I let him smell my palm, then ran my hand through his thick, brown mane. I made a brief gesture of libation to the little household God in the niche, who knows I do not believe in him. Then I opened the gate and stepped into the shadows of the lane, where Khety, my assistant, was waiting for me.
âA body has been found,' he said quietly.
âAnd you woke me for that? Could it not wait for dawn?'
Khety knows how bad my mood can be when I am disturbed too early.
âWait until you see it,' he replied.
We set off in silence. Thoth strained on his leash, excited to be out in the dark, and eager to explore whatever lay ahead. It was a beautiful clear night: the hot harvest season of
had ended, and with the appearance of the sign of Sirius, the Dog Star, the inundation had arrived to overflow the banks of the Great River, and flood the fields with rich, life-giving silt. And so once again the time of festival had returned. In recent years the waters often did not rise far enough, or else they rose too much, causing vast devastation. But this year they had been ideal, bringing relief and joy to a population subdued, even depressed, by these dark times of the reign of Tutankhamun, King of Upper and Lower Egypt.
The bright face of the moon cast enough light for us to walk as if she were our lamp. She was almost full, with the great drift of stars about her like a fine mantle: the Goddess Nut who the priests say our dead eyes will gaze upon as we lie back in the little boats of death that carry us across the ocean of the Otherworld. I had been brooding about this as I lay sleeplessly on the couch, for I am one who sees the shadow of death in everything: in the bright faces of my children, in the overcrowded ways of the city, in the golden vanity of its palaces and offices, and always, somehow, in the corner of my eye.
âWhat do you think we see after death?' I asked.
Khety knows he must humour my occasional philosophical musings, as he must humour so much else. He is younger than me, and despite the grim things he has seen in his life of service in the Medjay, his face has somehow preserved its openness and freshness; and his hair, unlike mine, remains naturally as black as midnight. He is still as fit as a thoroughbred hunting dog, with the same passion for the huntâso different from my own pessimistic and often weary nature. For as I grow older, life seems to me simply an endless succession of problems to be solved, rather than hours to be enjoyed. âWhat fun I am these days,' I reproached myself.
âI think we see green fields, where all the pompous aristocrats are slaves and all the slaves pompous aristocrats, and all I have to do all day is hunt ducks in the reed marshes and drink beer to celebrate my glorious success.'
I let his jest pass unacknowledged.
âIf we are supposed to see anything at all, why do the embalmers push onions into our eye sockets?
The bulb of tearsâ¦'
âPerhaps the truth is we see the Otherworld only in our mind's eyeâ¦' he replied.
âNow you are sounding like a wise man,' I said.
âAnd yet those who have been born into wealth laze about all day enjoying their luxuries and their love-affairs, while I still work like a dog, and earn nothingâ¦'
âWell, that is a much greater mystery.'
We passed through the maze of old, narrow passageways zigzagging between precarious houses built to no plan. By day this quarter would be noisy and crowded, but by night it was silent under the curfew: the expensive shops and their luxury offerings were protected behind shutters like the grave goods of a tomb; the carts and stalls of the Alley of Fruit had gone for the night; and the workshops of wood, leather and glass were deserted and shadowy; even the birds in their cages hanging in the moonlight were soundless. For in these dark days fear keeps everyone in obedience. The disastrous reign of Akhenaten, when the royal court and temples were moved from Thebes to the new desert temple city of Akhetaten, collapsed ten years ago. The powerful priests of Amun, who were displaced and dispossessed under Akhenaten, had their authorities, vast landholdings and incalculable worldly riches reinstated. But this did not restore stability; for harvests were poor, and plague killed countless thousands, and most believed these disasters were punishment for the grave errors of Akhenaten's reign. And then as if to prove the point, one by one the royal family died: Akhenaten himself, five of his six daughters, and finally Nefertiti, his Queen of great beauty, whose last days remain a cause of much private speculation.
Tutankhamun inherited the Kingship of the Two Lands at the age of nine; and he was then immediately married to Ankhesenamun, the last surviving daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti. This was a strange but necessary alliance, for they were both children of Akhenaten, by different mothers; and as the last survivors of their great dynasty, who else could be crowned? But they were merely children; and it was Ay, the Regent, âGod's Father' as he was officially entitled, who since then ruled implacably, establishing his rule of fear, through officials who seemed to me loyal to fear alone. Unreal men. For a world with so much sun we live in a dark place, in a dark time.
We arrived at a house that was no different from most of the others in this quarter: a high crumbling mud-brick wall to defend it from the narrow lane, a doorway with one old, warped wooden door ajar, and beyond it the simple mud-brick house, several floors of new accom
modation stacked precariously on top of each otherâfor there is no space to spare in the overcrowded city of Thebes. I tied Thoth to a post in the courtyard, and we went inside.
It was hard to guess the victim's true age; his face, almond-shaped, almost elegantly delicate, was both young and old, and his body was that of a child but also that of a crone. He might have been twelve or twenty years old. Normally his poor bones would have been twisted and bent into each other from the lifelong errors of his crippled body. But I could see, in the dim light cast by the oil lamp in the wall niche, that they had been broken in many places, and rearranged, like the fragments of a mosaic. I carefully raised his arm. It was as light as a snapped reed pen; the fractured bones made it both jagged and floppy. He was like a strange doll made of fine linen and broken sticks.
He had been laid out in funereal fashion, his crooked legs straightened, his thin, uneven arms crossed, his clawed hands like a falcon's talons prised open, and laid over each other. His eyes were covered with leaves of gold, and the Eye of Ra, in black and green, had been drawn around them. I carefully lifted the leaves away. Both his eyes had been removed. I stared at the mystery of the empty sockets, and then replaced the gold leaves. His face was the only thing that had not been successfully rearranged, perhaps because its contortionsâthink how many muscles it takes to make a smileâcould not be persuaded from their habitual lopsided grin by the hammers and tongs and other instruments that must have been used to reshape the imperfect material of this body. That grin remained like a little victory in the face of so much cruelty. But of course, it was no such thing. His pale skinâa sign that he had rarely been allowed into the sunâwas cold as meat. His fingers were long and fine, the carefully clipped nails undamaged. His twisted hands seemed to have been little use to him in life, and not to have struggled against his grotesque fate. Strangely there were no marks of binding on his wrists or ankles or neck.
What had been done to him was vicious and cruel, and would have required considerable physical strength, as well as knowledge and skill in anatomy; but it wouldn't necessarily have killed him. I had once
been called to a victim of the gang wars in the poor suburbs. The young man had been rolled in a reed mat, with his head exposed, the better to observe his own punishment, which was to be beaten with heavy clubs. I still remember the look of terror on his face as the mat, dripping with his own blood, was slowly unrolled, and his body fell apart, and he died.
Most murder victims reveal the story of their end in their postures and in the marks and wounds inflicted upon their bodies. Even their expression still sometimes speaks, in the clay-like emptiness of death: panic, shock, terrorâall these register, and remain in traces for a while after the little bird of the soul, the
, has departed. But this young man seemed unusually calm. How so? A thought occurred: perhaps the murderer had placated him with some kind of narcotic. In which case he must have knowledge of, or access to, pharmacopoeia. Cannabis leaf, perhaps; or else the lotus flower in an infusion of wine? But neither would have had more than a mild soporific effect. The root of the mandrake plant, when extracted, is a more powerful sedative.
But this level of violence, and the sophistication of its concept, suggested something even more potent. Possibly the juice of the poppy, which could be obtained if you knew where to go. Stored in vases shaped like inverted poppy-seed pods, it was imported only by the most secret routes into the country, and most of the crop was known to be cultivated in the lands of our northern enemies, the Hittites, with whom we are engaged in a long war of attrition for control of the strategically vital lands that lie between our empires. It was a forbidden, but highly popular, luxury commodity.
The victim's room, which was located on the ground floor, giving directly on to the yard, was as characterless as a store chamber. There were few mementos of the boy's short, private life, other than some rolled papyri and a rattle. A simple wooden stool was set in the shadows from where he could have watched the passing life of the street through the frame of the doorwayâand through which his murderer could have easily entered in the darkness of the night. His crutches
leaned against the wall by the bed. The mud floor was swept clean; there were no traces of the murderer's sandals.
Judging from the house and its location, his parents were of the lower bureaucratic class, and they had probably kept their son hidden from the critical and superstitious eyes of the world. For some people believed such infirmities signalled abandonment and rejection by the Gods, while others believed they were a mark of divine grace. Khety would interrogate the servants and take statements from the family members. But I already knew he would turn up nothing; for this killer would never allow himself to commit any mundane errors. He had too much imagination, and too much
I sat in silence, considering the strange puzzle set out before me on the couch, intrigued and confounded by the deliberate strangeness of the act. What the killer had done to the boy must be a sign of something else: an intention or a commentary, written on the body. Was the cruelty of the act an expression of power? Or was it, perhaps, the expression of a contempt for the imperfections of flesh and blood, signalling some deep need for a greater perfection? Or, more interestingly, did the boy's possible similarity to the King, with his own infirmitiesâalthough I had to remember these were but rumoursâhave a specific implication? Why had his face been painted as Osiris, God of the Shadows? Why had his eyes been removed? And why, strangely, did all this remind me of an old ritual of execration, in which our ancestors used to damn their enemies, first by smashing clay tablets on which were written their names and titles, and then by executing and burying them, decapitated, upside down? Here was sophistication, and intelligence, and meaningfulness. It was almost as clear as a message. Except it was in a language I could not yet decipher.
And then I saw something. Around his neck, hidden under his robe, was a strip of exceptionally fine linen on which hieroglyphs had been written in beautiful ink. I held the lamp up. It was a protection spell, specifically for the deceased during the night passage through the Otherworld in the Ship of the Sun. It concluded: â
Your body, O Ra, is everlasting by reason of the spell.
I sat very still, considering this rare object, until Khety coughed discreetly at the entrance to the boy's chamber. I put the linen away in my robe. I would show it to my old friend Nakht, noble in wealth and character, expert in matters of wisdom and spells, and in so much else besides.
âThe family are ready to meet you,' he said.
They were waiting in a side room lit by a few candles. The mother was rocking and keening quietly in her grief; her husband was sitting in uncomprehending silence beside her. I approached them, and offered my futile condolences. I nodded discreetly to the father, and he accompanied me out to the little courtyard. We sat down on the bench.