The following is a short fiction piece that was accepted into Pendulum literary magazine in 2008. It appeared in print form and I am republishing it here digitally for your enjoyment. It grew from an idea I had at the time for a novel, and a desire to experiment with the first person perspective. I plan to write the entire tale one day, but for now here is a taste.
DAUGHTER OF ISIS
It was impossible to tell the time of day or night in the inky gloom. The rise and fall of the brush seemed to move in time to the rise and fall of my chest – sometimes long and slow, often quicker, more purposeful. The smell of oils, ochres and water mixed with the pungent odour of the mother earth and the dreamy scent of incense. Heat sucked life and energy out of everyone who enetered, an irony for a place intended for those who feel nothing. The only way I had to mark the time was the life of my flickering torch and the progress of my artwork.
I thought how difficult it was to reduce a person’s life to a series of images, however numerous they may be. How to capture the essence of their personality, when such a one as he was larger than the span of years he was allotted? Which actions and deeds should be deemed of great honour, and which trivial? I felt myself an inadequate judge of such things.
My stomach growled, a beastly, echoing noise in the thick blackness. It drew me away from my ruminations and I repressed the urge to sigh as I ignored the demands of my body. A period of fasting had been decreed by the Pharoah’s widowed Queen and I was in no position to question such a decision. Even so, my hand had begun to tremble and I lifted my brush from the wall lest I mar my last – and possibly greatest – work of art.
I sank to my knees in the sand for a short break. Barely an armspan of blank wall remained in the vast chamber where his body would be laid to final rest. I approached the end – or the beginning, depending on one’s perception – with an equal mix of pride and trepidation. A once bright future held only impending darkness. Despite my resolve to be brave, I could not help but be afraid. Could not help the shaking of my shoulders, the wet tears that burnt my cheeks on their course to drip from my chin.
“Khala?” the tunnels distorted voices beyond the realms of recognition, but there was only one person who called me by that name. Despite our intimacy, I was loathe to let him see my weakness and I scrubbed ruthlessly at my face with the back of one hand, sheering my tears away before he navigated the maze to the chamber where I toiled.
I turned back to the image I had been working on and added the last few finishing touches as I waited. The soothing routine of dip, stroke, examine; dip, stroke, examine helped to restore my equilibrium. By the time the tall figure of my friend Balai came around the final corner, I had regained my normal sense of composure.
“I thought I would find you here,” he offered a tentative smile, as if unsure of my reaction. His features were thrown into harsh relief by the flickering flames of the torch he carried, and I could see lines across his gentle face that had not been there days earlier. He wore his ceremonial costume uncomfortably, as though the crisp linen bit into his flesh.
“Where else would I be?” I asked, setting my brush down into the bowl of water I used for cleaning. He looked stricken as I turned to face him. I tried to smile, but my face felt brittle as old parchment.
“You are almost finished,” he said, moving his gaze away from my face to where I had been working.
“I am,” I agreed. An awkward silence descended, and I wished that he would leave with the same fervour that I had once wished for him to visit. “You are not working?”
“It is done,” he said, his chest heaving in a sigh. “The Queen has called for the rituals to begin as soon as this chamber is completed.”
“You are here to fetch me, then.”
“Khala…” Balai stepped forward, reaching for me, but I held up a hand and turned away.
“Your embalming is second to none. You will do as good a job with me as you have done with anyone else,” I said, doing my best to sound brave. To my ears, my voice sounded thin and breathy with fear.
I bent back to my appointed task and though the silence resumed, I could feel the weight of his eyes against my skin. I dared not look at him again, for fear it would give me away, and instead focussed on my duties.
Balai lingered, watching me work in silence. I felt guilty that I did not pine for him when he was so obviously grieving, but I had purposefully emptied my heart. I would dutifully follow my Pharoah and I would serve him in the afterlife as I had done in this one.
A group of eunuchs arrived to collect us for the ceremony of blessings. Refusing to be hurried in the last moments, I made them wait whilst I added the finishing touches to the tribute I had created. Looking back over a life so filled with great deeds, I felt myself terribly small and insignificant. What was the future of one scribe to that of a land of people? A strange calm stole over me, and I found myself glad to have been part of a time when there existed such a person who cared for others beyond all else.
Fate tugged at my arm and I allowed myself to be marched out into the late afternoon, squinting against the searing light of the sun and the glaring heat of the desert sands. Balai walked ahead of me, his back stiff with tension. Two eunuchs supported me on either side, for after so many days underground without food, my feet were unsteady and my eyes were streaming. It seemed an age before the heat beneath my sandals faded and the biting rays of the sun became the cooler interior of the temple of Isis.
A small group of priestesses met us in the temple’s main hall, the hoods on their soft green robes pulled low to cover their faces. Balai bowed stiffly to them and went on ahead of us. I stood silent, head lowered and heart racing, until the cool hands of the priestesses guided me away in the opposite direction. The temple walls were carved in honour of the goddess Isis, and I found myself praying to her for deliverance as I moved.
The priestesses washed me, coiffed my hair and clothed me in the soft green robes of the temple without uttering a single sound. The mood was sombre and though I tried to distract myself, there was nowhere to hide from the morbid bite to my thoughts. Despite the pampering I felt distant from myself and was glad when they ushered me to my feet once more.
The embalming chambers seemed a gaping black mouth looming over me, and I found myself shivering as the priestesses left me alone in an antechamber. At first all I could hear was the fluttering of my heart as it fought the cage of my ribs, but as my ears grew accustomed to the silence I could hear voices through the cracks in the temple walls.
“How is that to be chosen of the gods?” I recognised Balai’s angry voice and stilled, straining my ears for the reply.
“I do not know. All I can do is place my trust in Isis.” Though I did not recognise the voice, I guessed he must be speaking with Kherai, the temple’s High Priestess.
“And where was Isis when the Queen was making a pact with Set to kill the Pharoah?” Balai demanded. My stomach dropped away from me as I considered his words.
“You have listened overmuch to the gossiping of eunuchs,” Kherai snapped, but I heard her indecision as clearly as if I were within her heart.
At that moment the door before me opened, and I was glad I had my head lowered, for I could pretend I had not heard their words.
“All I can do is place my trust in Isis,” The high priestess tipped my head up and smiled into my eyes.
“Then I will place my trust in Isis too,” I said.
We fell silent then, for there were no words adequate to fill the space between us. She stepped close to give me her blessing, then left Balai to lead me into the main embalming chambers. His team of eunuchs waited silently, heads bowed, and though they helped me onto the embalming table, none would meet my eyes. Once I was settled, Balai sent them away to fetch a bowl of heated resin and a pile of linen bandages. I lay silent, eyes closed as I waited for my fate.
“I don’t think I can do this.” The words were so quiet I was not sure I’d heard them, but I opened my eyes to see Balai bent over me. He was shaking his head, and I was shocked to see tears glittering on the end of his lashes. I reached up a hand to touch his cheek.
“I am in no hurry to die, but I draw comfort from the fact that yours will be the last face I see before I leave this earth.”
“I wanted to marry you, not bury you.” His voice was the merest of whispers. The pain in his face tugged at my heart, evoking images of a future that had been torn from us.
“Life is not always as we expect,” I told him. “I would have no other hands but yours upon my body.”
He looked as though he would say more, but the eunuchs returned so he merely nodded. His face settled into a grim mask that I wished I could smooth away, but I knew better than to torture him with false comforts.
I was wrapped in a thick layer of linen before they began soaking the bandages in resin. When Balai’s gentle hands rearranged my body into the traditional pose of eternal rest, I could not tell if the trembling came from my bones or his. Even with the initial layer separating me from the heated substance, I flinched as it seeped through to my flesh. It was like a nightmare, long and drawn out beyond anything I would have ever dreamed. It was forbidden to watch the work of an embalmer, and I was thankful for the ignorant darkness behind my eyelids, although some part of me feared to keep them shuttered lest they never open again.
Though the embalmers worked with care, the process was quicker than I had expected and it seemed no time at all before Balai was rinsing my face with a wet cloth and supervising the eunuchs as they loaded me onto a stretcher of woven papyrus. I was uncomfortable and hot, the tight bandages and the setting resin preventing me from the barest of movements. The sun was cruel above me, but I could look nowhere else as I was carried to the pharoah’s pyramid, for though my head was free from bandages a stiff brace had been set up the back of my neck to keep my head steady lest I faint.
Chanting rose from the depths of the tomb, and the further we descended into the darkness the more I struggled against the scream begging to be free of my throat. The large burial chamber was almost overflowing with nobility and priesthood. Small, plain sarcophagi had been set at regular intervals around the walls. As I was levered to a standing position from my stretcher, I saw that each one was already filled with faces as dull and distant as my own.
I looked down into the main sarcophagus and tears caught at my eyes as I saw the golden vessel which contained the remains of my beloved Pharoah. As one of his three uppermost servants, I knew I would be laid to rest with the bodyguard and the maidservant in that same sarcophagus.
The High Priestess recited the funeral blessing of Isis, her voice clear and beautiful. It seemed no time at all before the false base was in place over the Pharoah’s body. I was laid in between the bulky form of the bodyguard and the slight, weeping handmaiden. The cramped space heightened our discomfort, and I found myself glad that I would soon pass beyond the realm of feeling such things.
It was Balai who came forward and placed the burial masks over each of our heads. I looked up into his eyes with a gentle smile, and just before he set the beaten gold mask between us, he leant forward to drop the gentlest of kisses on the end of my nose.
The grating of stone on stone echoed dreadfully in my burial mask, but once the lid was in place above us the silence was broken only by the muffled weeping of the handmaiden. Unable to stand the heaviness of her distress, I began to sing softly. The song was a common one my mother had sung to me as a child, and though the burial mask made it hard to speak, before long I felt the bodyguard’s chest rumbling as he too joined in. It was oddly comforting, and though some part of me knew we were using up precious air, we sang until the words would no longer pass our lips.
How many hours passed I could not judge, but the handmaiden stilled so suddenly that my heart leapt into my mouth. Though we could not move, I had known the second her heart faltered and stopped. It was not long before the bodyguard exhaled his last and I wondered how I was still alive. My mind had begun to wander, and I felt as though I was no longer in the sarcophagus but flying free in the night sky. My lungs were burning, but it was a far off sensation and mattered not to me. Air was a luxury I no longer needed. I felt filled with love, and a strange peace stole over me. Spots seemed to dance behind my eyes, beating in time to a distant, thready drum. I ignored such things, for I could see before me the face of a gentle goddess.
“Khalan-ke, may I dwell within you?” Isis’ soft voice filled my soul with light.
“You have always dwelled within me,” I replied.
Isis smiled, leaning in to lay a gentle kiss to my lips. It was in that moment I knew I did not need air, nor food or even water, for her grace was the most nourishing of all things.