Authors: Nick Drake
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Historical, #Suspense, #Mystery & Detective, #Egypt
We each have our habitual places to sit on the stools around the low table: my father at the far end, Sekhmet and Thuyu down one side, with Khety and his wife, and Tanefert and Amenmose on the other, together with Nakht and Nedjmet, the Sweet One, who likes to sit next to him, hanging her arms around his neck. She watches her audience as she enacts her loving gestures. Where did she learn such flattery? I had cooked our favourite dishâgazelle in red wineâreserved for celebrations.
Sekhmet looked serene and confident in a new pleated robe, displaying the earrings we had given her for her birthday. The self-consciousness of her teenage years is giving way now to a new self-possession. She has read far more than I have, and she remembers everything. She can still recite the nonsense poems we made up when she was a child. Knowledge to her is everything. She once said to me, earnestly: âI can't be an athlete
a scholar.' And so she made her choice.
As I sit with my family and friends on evenings like this, with the food before us on the table, and the oil lamps lit in the wall niches, I wonder what I have done to deserve such happiness. And in darker moments I worry my work may yet put all this in dangerâfor if anything were to happen to me, how would they live? I also have to ask myself: why is this life not enough? And how will I manage, when my father has passed on, and the girls have married, and are living in other houses, and Amenmose is studying elsewhere, in Memphis perhaps, and Tanefert and I face each other, in the strange new quiet of our late years?
âFather, I have been wondering why it is that girls have no opportunities for education and advancement in our society.'
Sekhmet took a mouthful of gazelle while she observed the effect of her statement.
âAnd this is delicious, by the way,' she mumbled.
Nakht, Khety and my father glanced at me, amused.
âBut you have had many opportunities.'
âOnly because Nakht has taught me about things no one else wouldâ¦'
âAnd she is a spectacular student,' he added proudly.
âBut it seems to me because I'm a girl, I've had fewer opportunities than boys, because everything in our society is about the priority of the man over the woman. And that's ridiculous. This is the modern world. Just because I've got breasts now doesn't mean I've lost my mind.'
My father coughed suddenly, as if something had gone down the wrong way. Nakht patted him on his back, but he coughed and coughed, tears in his eyes. I knew they were tears of mirth; but he did not want to embarrass Sekhmet. I winked at him.
âYou are quite right,' I said. âIf you decide you are going to achieve something, you have to be determined.'
âI have decided. I don't want to marry yet. I want to study more. I want to be a physician.'
She glanced across at her mother. I knew at once they had discussed this. I looked at Tanefert, and she gazed back at me with a silent plea to please be considerate.
âBut, my dearly beloved daughterâ¦' I said, wishing Nakht would say something to support me in my tenuous position.
âYes, my dearly beloved father?'
I struggled to find the best words.
âWomen don't become physicians.'
âThey do, actually,' said Nakht, unhelpfully.
âWhat difference does it make whether they haven't in the past? It's what I want to do. There's so much suffering in this world, and I want to change that. And there's too much ignorance as well. Knowledge can alleviate suffering and ignorance. And anyway, why did you call me Sekhmet if you didn't want me to become a physician?'
âWhy did you call her Sekhmet?' enquired Nedjmet, sensing her opportunity to get in on the conversation.
âBecause it means
she who is powerful
,' said Tanefert.
âSekhmet the Lion Goddess can send illnesses, but she can also recall them,' said Sekhmet herself.
âI see you have learned much from your clever godfather,' I said.
things with him.'
For some reason, I felt like the only piece on the game board that has not moved beyond the first square.
Suddenly my father spoke from the other end of the table.
âShe'll make a wonderful physician. She's calm and methodical and beautiful to look at. Unlike those smelly and cantankerous old men who shake a few burning herbs in the air and make you drink your own urine. I'd certainly trust her to look after me when I get old and sick.'
Sekhmet looked at me, and smiled victoriously.
âSo you are guaranteed your first patient,' I said. âBut do you realize what this means?'
She nodded sagely.
âIt means years of study, and I'll have to do twice as well as everyone else because I'll be the only girl among all the boys. And I'll have to endure the opposition of the establishment and the small-minded insults of the old-fashioned teachers. But I'll survive.'
I could not think of how to oppose her wish, and in truth I was
proud of her determination. All that stopped me from supporting her wholeheartedly was the knowledge of the struggle to comeâthat, and the likelihood of failureânot from any weakness in herself, but from the refusal of the hierarchies to accept her.
I was about to say something when Thoth suddenly barked in the yard. An abrupt knocking on the door silenced us all. I rose and went to the door. A tall, thickset, unfriendly man in the formal dress of the Palace Guard was waiting there. Behind him were guards with swords shining in the light of the oil lamp in its niche beside the doorway.
âI know why you're here,' I said quietly, before he could speak. âGive me a few moments, please.'
I turned back into the room. My family were staring at me.
Tanefert says there is always a choice. But sometimes she is wrong. I asked Khety to accompany me, and Nakht to stay and continue the celebrations. Sekhmet came through to the kitchen with me. She peered at the guards waiting outside, and nodded.
âDon't worry, Father. Work is important. What you do is important. I understand. And we'll all be here when you return.'
And she grinned, and kissed me on the cheek.
As we crossed the Great River once againâKhety sitting opposite me, and Thoth crouched down at my feet, for he mistrusts the treachery of boats and waterâI gazed up at the black ocean of the night that glittered vastly with mysterious stars. I thought of an old saying my grandfather had told me: that what was important was not the uncountable stars, but the glorious darkness between them. The faded old papyrus scrolls Nakht had shown me that afternoon, with their columns and signs, seemed only the crudest human rendering of this greatest of mysteries.
The oarsmen expertly guided us to the palace jetty, and the black water slapped gently against the moon-silvered stones. Khay was waiting. In the shimmering firelight of the hammered copper bowls his bony face was transformed by an anxiety it struggled to restrain. I introduced Khety as my assistant. He remained at a respectful distance, his head bowed. Khay considered him, and nodded.
âHis conduct and security are your responsibility,' he said.
I have heard of people who return in dreams to the same situations and dilemmas. The tormenting images of their fears and horrors are repeated night after night: nightmare chases down endless tunnels; or the swift rippling of crocodiles unseen but sensed in deep, black water; or glimpsing the beloved dead, unreachable in a vast grey crowd. And then the haunted dreamer wakes sweating and weeping uncontrollably for something or someone lost over and over again to that Otherworld of visions. This palace, with its long corridors, and many shut doors, and hushed antechambers, reminded me now of something like that. I imagined each closed chamber might contain a different dream, a different nightmare. And yet I did not feel fear; excitement had me once again in its monstrous and glorious grasp.
Something unexpected had happened. And so I was as happy as I could ever be.
We passed through the guard station, and entered the royal quarters. Somewhere, a door slammed in the dark, and a young man's light voice called out a tremulous command. Lowered voices, insistent and persuasive, tried to calm him. Another slam of a door, and all returned to the tomb-like silence. Khay, alert to the meaning of these signs and wonders, hurried forward on his costly and immaculate sandals, until we arrived once more at the great double doors into Ankhesenamun's chamber. Khety glanced at me, his eyebrows raised, amused at the situation in which we found ourselves. Then the doors suddenly opened to admit us.
Inside, nothing had changed. The lights burned in the same places. The doors remained opened to the courtyard and its garden. Ankhesenamun, guarded by a soldier, was sitting very still, staring at a small, closed wooden box that was set on a low tray on the far side of the room, as if she was mesmerized. When we entered, she turned slowly to look at us; her hands gripped each other tightly, her eyes glittered.
The box was no bigger than that which might contain a wig. It was tied with a cord knotted to a complex, interwoven design. Interestingly, it seemed more like a magical knot than a practical one. The co
nundrum of itâthe maker's fascination with frustrating, perhaps demented puzzlesâseemed alarmingly all of a piece with the strange mysteries of the last days. Instead of unknotting the cordâfor it was evidence, and the meaning of its design might be recognized by NakhtâI cut it. I lowered my head to the lid of the box, and caught the faintest of sounds; within, something was moving, toiling almost, on the very edge of the audible, even in the hush of the chamber. I glanced at Khety and Khay, and then very carefully lifted off the lid. The sweet stench of rotting meat billowed into the room. Everyone backed quickly away, holding their linens over their noses.
I forced myself to look into the box. White maggots moved through the eye-sockets, nose, ears and jawbones of a human head. I saw a pair of collarbones, some vertebrae knotted together on another length of cord, and some much smaller skulls, belonging to birds or rodents. Bones of all sortsâclearly animal bones as well as human onesâhad been jumbled together to create this vile death mask. Death masks are usually made from precious gold to represent the dead to the Gods; but this one had been deliberately composed as a kind of anti-mask, made of the butcher's leftovers. But there was one piece of gold here: a necklace on which a name had been inscribed in a royal cartouche. I plucked it out with some tongs that stood nearby. The hieroglyphs read:
I examined the box itself; around the lid, inside and out, strange symbols, curves, sickles, dots and sharp lines, like a kind of nonsense writing, had been carved and then painted in black and red. I did not recognize the language at all. It looked like the language of a curse. I thought I would not want to hear such words spoken aloud. I would not want to meet the man whose speech these signs represented. I imagined a monster. And there at the centre of the inside surface of the lid was carved an image I recognized at once: a dark circle. The Sun destroyed.
Khay, holding a linen cloth fastidiously over his nose and mouth, approached reluctantly, glanced at the contents of the box, and then slipped away as if the ground was suddenly uneven. The soldier
walked determinedly over and gazed at it with military self-discipline. He moved aside for Ankhesenamun. Khay tried to dissuade her from looking inside, but she insisted. Standing close to me, she struggled with her reaction to the smell, and then bravely her eyes plunged into the shambles in the box. She could take no more than a few moments.
But suddenly the great doors were thrown open, with a cry of frustration, and a young man, with a beautiful, almond-shaped face and small, delicate features, burst into the chamber. He hobbled slightly, leaning for light support on an elegant walking cane. A dazzling gold pectoral hung over his slim shoulders. Fine linens clothed his body, which was slim, but wide around the waist. A small, chattering monkey on a golden chain scampered at his feet.
âI will not be treated like a child!' shouted Tutankhamun, Lord of the Two Lands, Image of the Living God, at the silent chamber.
Khay and the soldier moved in front of the box, and tried to persuade him not to approach it, without actually daring to touch his royal body physically. But despite his slight infirmity, he was too quick for them; he moved as deviously and quickly as a scorpion. He gazed at the carvings, and then down at the rotting image. At first he seemed mesmerized by what he sawâby the corruption of it. Then as he began to interpret it his expression changed. Ankhesenamun took his hands in hers and, speaking softly and carefully to him, more as an older sister, perhaps, than a wife, persuaded him to move away. He glanced up at me, and I saw he had his father's eyes, almost feminine, but with an expression that was both openly innocent and potentially, vicariously, vicious. He saw the necklace with the royal name, and snatched it from my hand. I lowered my gaze quickly, remembering the protocols of respect.
As I waited, my eyes trained on the floor, I thought how much more interesting Tutankhamun looked from close quarters. From a distance he had seemed as insubstantial as a reed. But at close quarters, he was charismatic. His gleaming skin evoked the life of someone who rarely appeared in the open air, in harsh sunlight. He seemed more a crea
ture of the moon. His hands were exquisite and immaculate. And something about the long proportions of his limbs seemed to be all of a piece with the burnished elegance of his gold collar, his gold jewellery and his gold sandals. In his presence I felt earthbound; he seemed like a rare species that could only survive in a carefully protected environment of shade, secrecy and utter luxury. I would not have been surprised to see beautiful feathered wings folded beneath his shoulder blades, or tiny jewels among his perfect teeth. I would not have been surprised to hear he only sipped water from a divine source. But I would also not have been surprised to hear he lived in a child's nursery, with the doors shut firmly against an outside world whose demands he refused to acknowledge. I could see at once how terrified he was; and I understood then that the man behind both âgifts' knew this very well. Tutankhamun threw the necklace aside.
âThis abomination must be removed from our sight and destroyed by fire.'
His voice, although quivering, was airily modulated, with a delicate timbre. Like many who speak quietly, he did it for effect, knowing he created the circumstances in which others strained to hear his every word.
âWith respect, majesty, I would advise against its destruction. It is evidence,' I said.
Khay, the ultimate guide to etiquette, gasped at my breach of protocol. And I wondered if the King was going to scream at me. But he seemed to change his mind. Instead he nodded, lowered himself on to a couch, and sat hunched over. Now he looked like a haunted child. In my mind's eye I saw the world from his point of view: he was alone in a palace full of shadows and terrors, of threats and secrets and conflicting strategies. The temptation was to pity him. But that would not do.
He motioned for me to approach. I stood before him, my eyes lowered.
âSo you are the Seeker of Mysteries. Look at me.'
I did so. His face was unusual; delicate planes and structures, with wide cheekbones that seemed to frame the soft but persuasive power of
his large, dark eyes. Lips full and sensuous, above a small, slightly receding chin.
âYou served my father.'
âLife, prosperity and health, lord. I had that honour.'
He observed me carefully, as if making sure I was not being ironic. Then he motioned to Ankhesenamun to join him. They glanced briefly at each other, with a look of tacit understanding.
âThis is not the first threat against my life. But, with the stone, and with the blood, and now thisâ¦'
He looked at the others in the room, untrustingly, and then leaned closer to me. I felt his warm breath, sweet as a child's, fluttering across my face, as he whispered: âI fear I am being haunted and hunted by shadowsâ¦'
But at that very moment the double doors opened once more, and Ay entered the chamber. The air itself seemed to turn cold with his presence. I had seen how everyone treated the King like a marvellous child; but Ay merely glanced at him with a contempt that would wither a stone. Then he examined the contents of the box.
âCome here,' he said quietly to the King.
The King moved reluctantly towards Ay.
âThis is nothing. Do not grant it an authority it does not possess.'
Tutankhamun nodded, uncertainly.
Then, swift as a hawk, Ay picked up the death's head, crawling with maggots, dripping with worms, and proffered it to the King, who jumped backwards in revulsion and fright. Ankhesenamun approached as if to protect her husband, but Ay held up a peremptory hand.
âDon't,' she said quietly.
The old man ignored her, keeping his gaze focused on the King, the death's head held out on his palm. Slowly, reluctantly, the young King reached out and, steeling himself, took the vile thing in his hands.
The chamber was held in a tension of silence, as the King gazed upon the empty sockets and festering flesh of the head.
âIs death no more than these hollow bones and this absurd ugly
grin?' he whispered. âThen we have nothing to fear. What will survive of us is far greater.'
Then suddenly he threw the skull back to Ay, who struggled to catch the slippery thing like the solitary boy who is not good at ball games.
The King laughed out loud, and I suddenly liked him for his audacity. He motioned for a servant to bring him a bowl and linen towel to wash his hands. He dropped the linen deliberately in front of Ay, and then left the chamber, followed by his nervous monkey.
Ay, wheezing with fury, gazed after him without speaking, then dropped the skull into the box, and washed his hands. Ankhesenamun stepped forward.
âWhy do you behave with such disrespect to the King, in the presence of others?'
Ay turned on her.
âHe must learn courage. What kind of a king cannot bear the sight of decay and death? He must learn to endure and accept these things, without fear.'
âThere are many ways to learn courage, and fear is surely not the best tutor. Perhaps it is the worst.'
Ay smiled, his bad teeth showing between his thin lips.
âFear is a large and curious subject.'
âIn these years I have learned a great deal about it,' she replied. âI have had a most accomplished teacher.'
They stared at each other for a long moment, like adversarial cats.
âThis nonsense must be denounced with the contempt it deserves, not given prominence in the minds of the weak and vulnerable.'
âI could not agree more, which is why I have assigned Rahotep to investigate. I will go now to the King, and leave you all to discuss a plan of action to prevent any further such events.'
She left the chamber. I bowed to Ay and followed her. Outside, in the dark corridor, I showed her the ankh amulet I had found on the dead girl's body.
âForgive me for showing you this. But, let me ask: do you recognize it?'
âRecognize it? It is mine. My mother gave it to me. For my name and for my protection.'
â¦My hunch about the connection had been right. And now, as I was actually delivering the object back to its owner, the act itself suddenly seemed part of the murderer's plan.
âWhere did you get it?' She was angry now, and snatched the amulet away from me.
I fumbled for an explanation that would not alarm her.
âIt was found. In the city.'
She turned to face me.
âDo not disguise the truth from me. I want to know the truth. I am not a child.'
âIt was found on a body. A young woman, murdered.'
âHow was she murdered?'
I paused, reluctant.
âShe had been scalped. Her face was cut off. Her eyes were removed. In their place was a gold mask. And she was wearing this.'
She was suddenly breathless. She silently considered the jewel in her hand.