The Son of the Sun
Chapter 1 - The Threshold
Today the choice is mine: I live or die. When I enter the House of Many Thresholds, the ancient pyramid, the tomb which is no tomb, my duty as oracle is to travel, clad only in my soul-double, to the regions of the gods and there to intercede for my people, pleading for the rising waters, the inundation of the Nile, which yearly deposits the rich black silt on our farmlands, that we may eat and thrive. This year, the year before and the year before that, the waters have not risen at the appointed time: the fields have baked and cracked in the heat, the seed shrivelled, the people died of famine. No ordinary prayers will serve this day. The oracle himself is to be sent beyond the earth, held by a slender silver thread to life, to speak with the gods directly. When it is done I am to return to my body with their answer and live out my life of waiting, my life of service, my life that is no life.
Today, the choice is mine, and I have decided that I will not return. I will kill myself.
That music I hear? A flute playing notes as lonely as my heart.
Am I afraid? Yes, I am afraid. I am Oracle. I speak with the gods; but I have no name that is my own. How will the spirits call me to the weighing in the Hall of Osiris? What name will my heart bear on the scales as it lies beside Maat�s feather of Truth and Justice? Like an enemy or a criminal, a name has been denied me: but worse for me, since it has been denied since birth.
It is known that a man is of nine substances. He has his shadow, his double, his soul, his spirit and his body. He has his heart, his intelligence and his power. He has his name. Into life he comes blinded by splendour: into death he goes knowing what he knows. But wherever he goes his name is with him. In the silence, in the waiting and the listening, the cry of the one without a name is lost. Because I have no name I will live no more when I am dead. I will become nothing and will fall back into the void.
I see a star, brighter than any other star, still hanging from Nut�s nipple even as Ra rises. It is Sopdt, the star that I was born under, the star that should herald the rising waters. I call it deliverer, fire-quencher, bringer of life, but it does not answer. For three years it has been a dry star, pitiless: no inundation has come at its beck, no Osirian green has touched the barley into life, nor drawn the corn shoots from the earth.
They gave me no name in a world where everything is named, but perhaps I, who am nameless, will be named in my death: �Deliverer�, �Fire-quencher�, �Bringer of life�. I will pull the cloth of waters across the world as I die, and leave it as rich as they left me poor, as hopeful as they left me hopeless.
Reflecting in the pool at my feet the star shimmers briefly among the sleeping lilies and then disappears, swallowed by the sun.
Now, it is only as I remember it.
In the west the full moon plunges. The day in which I have chosen to die is with me.
From the dark house the priests, my gaolers, come, padding softly on the flagstones of the courtyard. I hear their voices chiding me, feel their hands pulling me back into the darkness even as the sky bursts into light. Inside, the lamps are still lit because inside it is always night. I should not have been in the high-walled court. I have missed the first incantations, and there is no time to repeat them now. I will have to go on my dangerous journey without the full invocation. No matter. Our words are but the creatures of Time.
I am stripped of my night-clothes, my head shaved, then squeezed into the hard, painted wooden head-dress that tells the world that though I am lesser than the lowliest man because I have no name of my own, I am mightier than the mightiest because I speak for the gods.
I? Speak for the gods!
Why do I not scream and rage, now, while they are pushing and pulling me into their ceremonial robes? They understand nothing of the spirit realms. Some of those they call gods are no more than servants of the Most High, and others are but named aspects and attributes of the One Beyond all Others. The priests teach � but they have not learned. And I? I fear my gaolers. I fear the physical pain they can inflict when I do not obey. But most of all I fear the demons of darkness that they conjure to torment me.
Once again I keep silent. But this time I know that there will be an end to my suffering, to the lie I live. I will not come back from this journey. I will be out of their reach forever, beyond their filthy spells and their stinging whips.
They never talk to me except to give me orders. How can one talk to a person without a name? But they talk among themselves, and I hear the king himself is to be there to watch the procession and the sealing. Shall I call out to him? Shall I tell him how they treat me, how they lie? The voices I speak with are false, tricks of Ma-nan, the so-called priest of Amun. I will tell the king. I will shout out with my own voice that has never been heard outside this house. I will tell him everything. I will destroy my captors. I will pull down their edifice of power. Beggars will spit on them, dogs urinate.
Ma-nan narrows his eyes and looks at me. I have never been sure whether he can read thoughts or whether he is just shrewd at interpreting the signals of the face. He looks at me hard and then mutters something I don�t catch to the thin one, the one who is always bowing to him. The creature, Pi-en (even he has a name!), slobbers off and comes back running with some thin sticks of that resin I hate.
�No!� This time I scream and struggle, but Ma-nan holds me down, his arms like a vice, my bones almost cracking under his grip. The resin is already lit and the smoke waved in front of my nose. I try not to breathe, but my lungs rebel and finally, after enduring almost unendurable pain, burst open, and I suck in the foul stuff, Set�s cursed breath, the dark god�s poisonous effluvium.
Ah, but now the pain is gone and I float, float on soft cushions of air... Sleep is near... Do I drift to my golden bed, or do the men lift me? I am as docile as a doll as they arrange my arms across my breast and slip the symbols of my high office into my hands... smooth my brow and close my mouth for me. Then a third eye is drawn upon my forehead with kohl, with powdered malachite and lapis lazuli � the eye that will see what no ordinary eye can see. Then the black plumes are set in place at the four corners and we are ready for the tall Nubians who come so swiftly to Ma-nan�s call.
I must have dozed off, because now I am in the open air. My body feels numb, and I cannot move my head to see what is on either side of me. I can see the shoulders of the men carrying me, the tall black plumes fluttering in the air, the high, high arched sky, totally blue, totally blank. I try to remember the star Sopdt, but even that memory is fading... I taste bitterness with my tongue, but I can say nothing. Ma-nan has played this cruel trick on me before. Inside my head I scream. But no one can hear.
The carrying-bed tilts as the Nubians walk down a ramp. Without moving my head I can see the crowds now, thousands and thousands of people crushing forward, ragged, dusty, starving, anxious... pressing forward to glimpse the great oracle who will speak with Hapi, the great river god himself, and Osiris who was dead yet gave life, who was buried yet lived again. He will bring the green and golden grain back to the land and save the people from famine. They see me encased in gold, painted with powerful magic symbols. They do not see the one who lives in that house of darkness, a prisoner of loneliness. If they were to look more closely, they would see the tears leaking out of the corners of my eyes.
Level ground is reached, and I can no longer see the people, the parents clutching the hands of children, the youths sidling up to young girls. The tears stop flowing, but I can still feel their uncomfortable dampness at my temples. The bitterness knots in my heart. I can feel the tightness of it squeezing the life out. Let them do what they like; after today they will have no more power over me. I know from experience that the effect of the resinous fumes will last only a certain time. Ma-nan has become very skilled in judging just how much he needs to use to keep me docile for the required length of time. But he knows that he must not use so much that when the time comes for me to �perform� I will be unable to.
Today is a very special performance. Instead of going to the temple as I usually do, I am to be taken to a pyramid, the House of Many Thresholds, and sealed in. There, there will be no priests to harass me as I separate that part of my soul we call the �ka� from my body. In death the ka is naturally released from the body, and may travel freely through the many realms of matter and spirit, earth and sky. In life, usually only initiates of a very high order can separate the various substances of their being while they still remain attached to the body. But I have been trained for this � if for nothing else.
�What if the gods refuse my plea, refuse to give the waters to the Two Lands?� I had asked Ma-nan. �Must I bring this message to the people?�
I see by Ma-nan�s face that, as usual, the words I bring will be rephrased by him, cunningly, ambiguously, and without hesitation.
The Nubians stop moving.
This will be because we are about to board the barge that will take us by river to the House of Many Thresholds. There will be singing. The rowers will sing rhythmically and the water will slap the sides of the boat.
There seems to be a longer delay than usual, and my muscles ache with the unsuccessful effort to lift my head to see what is happening.
Suddenly, a man stands beside me, looking down into my face. Beside him is a pale, thin young man whose crisp pleated kilt and golden menat collar seem too large for him. The older man is broad-shouldered and strong, and on his head the double crown fits snugly. The king himself! And, probably, the prince who will succeed him.
Now I should speak out and tell them what I know and how I am being treated, but though my voice, fumbling at first but growing stronger every moment, sounds clear to me I can tell that he is not hearing a single word. I begin to shout and cry and plead, but he hears nothing, sees nothing except the beautiful young painted body with its mask-like face, lying completely still on the bed of gold.
�Look into my eyes,� I scream. �My eyes will tell you!� He stares into my eyes sombrely, and it seems, for a moment, that he is deeply troubled.
The young prince takes a step forward and leans over me, looking into my eyes. He starts, and turns to his father to say something, but at once Ma-nan steps forward, bowing, and speaks to the king. The king and the prince withdraw and I can no longer see them. The bed that is to be my bier is picked up again, and carried aboard. The river journey has begun. This time, I think fiercely, for the last time!
I listen to the drumbeats of the time-marker, the rhythmic song of the rowers. I listen to the swish and slap of the water, to the captain calling to the steersman. But mostly I listen to my own breath and my own heartbeat, and wonder if, when I come to it, I will have the courage to give them up.
As long as I can remember I have been in the dark house. It has a name: �the House of the Oracle�; but I never call it that. I have been told nothing about my parentage, nor why I have been chosen for this office. I am treated with remote respect by the few servants who work in the house, all deaf-mutes. My meals are brought to me by them on rich and elegant dishes. There is a tutor who teaches me the holy texts, but he will never answer my questions. There is a girl flute-player, but I have never seen her. I don�t even know for sure that she is a girl; I just find myself thinking of her as one. Her music is always so haunting and sad I believe that she is not only beautiful, but blind, and I long to run away with her, far from this place, and teach her to see with my visions. Yes, I have visions of my own. Real visions, nothing to do with Ma-nan and his sorcery.
Ma-nan, who is in charge and has been always, treats me with cold severity, and it is he who inflicts pain if I refuse to do what he demands of me. His underling, the thin one, seems as frightened of me as he is of Ma-nan, and avoids me as much as possible. When I am taken to the Temple of Amun I see other priests, but they are always encased in rigid ceremonial robes and their faces are as expressionless as masks. Beneath the robes and the paint I wonder who the real men are.
Everything that is said and done in the temple is ritualised. The very way the lector priest reads from the holy texts in his high whining voice hides, rather than reveals, any meaning the texts were once supposed to have. How can they expect me to believe the god is really there when they themselves do not address him as though he were?
After the chanting it is my turn to perform. I am placed before the god in the high place of the sanctuary and am expected to stare into his eyes with the one eye painted on my forehead. I have to stare and stare, unblinking, until my own eyes sting and water in the smoky atmosphere. I am never told the �why� of anything, only that I have to stare until Ma-nan gives me a signal by moving the taper he holds up to the god. Then I have to speak out the words Ma-nan has taught me to say. If I try not to say them, knowing that they are his words, and not the words of the god I am supposed to be speaking for, he will rouse his familiars; and I will be surrounded by ghastly figures, man-bodied, animal-headed, like the gods, yet not like the gods, demon figures who surround me and torment me.
No one else sees them. Only I.
Then, if I have rebelled, I will be punished when I am taken back to the dark house.
I shudder as I remember the punishments. I hear my heart beat faster. I know I cannot go on like this. I will not go on like this! This river that bears me now alive, will bear me tomorrow, dead.
We arrive at the jetty. The bier is lifted again. Again the plumes flutter against the sky, as the Nubians lift me and carry me along the causeway to the pyramid, the place where all the worlds meet, the only place I know of where man can leave his body, travel in the other worlds and return to his body, without experiencing body-death.
I shiver as we pass through the low door and into the long gallery of stone. Warmth and sunlight are gone and I will never see them again. For a moment I weaken and think: A little longer ... perhaps I could endure this life a little longer, just so that I can occasionally feel the sun�s warmth and see its light...
The darkness oppresses me.
I smell the sticky black blood of the torches, and see the soot-grimed rock ceiling getting lower and lower as we go deeper and deeper in, further and further from the sunlight.
I�m afraid. I don�t want to be sealed in. I don�t want to be left alone in that impenetrable dark. I begin to scream; but my lips do not move. No sound comes from my throat. The footsteps of the Nubians are enormously loud on the stone floor. I can hear them panting with the effort of climbing up the narrow ramp. I feel I will suffocate long before I reach the chamber at the centre. Huge and grotesque shadows flicker over the walls and the ceiling.
I am going to die with no one knowing my story. No one knowing what I have suffered, am suffering. No one has ever loved me, known me, cared. My loneliness is huge. Having no name, my story cannot even be scratched on the walls, cannot even be written in blood. In my death I will cease to exist. I will never have existed...
We have reached the chamber, and I am lowered carefully on to the slab of cold black granite.
I hear them leave. I hear the hollow clang of the rock door as it is shut. Every muscle in my body is straining to lift me off the bier, to call out, to plead for them not to leave me. The Nubians will listen. I suspect they don�t like Ma-nan any more than I do. But Ma-nan�s resin has worked well and my body is still paralysed, though my consciousness is agonisingly active. I smell the different kind of resin smell, the kind that is used for sealing. They are sealing the cracks around the chamber door. No one may break these for three days and three nights.
Ma-nan thinks that when he opens the door again, he will find me as he did last time, on the floor, my fingernails broken and my fingers bleeding from trying to dig away the resin and open the door. But this time he will find me lying on my bier as he left me, my face composed and calm: and he will no longer have me in his power. This time when I leave my body I will not return, but travel on until I am transformed and become one with the mighty splendours of the Secret God who is beyond all gods.
But to achieve this I must keep calm. I cannot die of starvation in three days, and there are no weapons with me to kill myself. No, I will do what I have been sent to do. I will leave my body and travel to that realm where I have been before in soul-form, the abode of the free spirits who have chosen to help our world. There I will plead for the water for the fields, for life for the people of Egypt. When this is granted, and only then, will I plead for myself. If they will not take me I will defy even them. I will not return to my body, no matter what.
But first the preparation and the journey.
I try to conquer my fear. I can feel the paralysing effect of Ma-nan�s drug wearing off, and I can move my limbs again. The temptation is to jump up as I did last time, and tear at the door. The darkness is absolute. The cold is the cold of the tomb. My heart is pounding. My thoughts race about in my head like rats in a trap. What if I can�t control myself, and at the end of the three days I am gibbering and whimpering at the door of life, whining to be let back in?
I waste precious time, weeping.
Now I have the full use of my limbs back. To give that up, voluntarily... I have had few pleasures in this life, but one of them is to sit by the pool in the tiny walled garden of the dark house and watch the water-lilies open. Can I give this up? Can I?
I take a deep, deep breath and bring myself under control. I must not think of the water-lilies, the one star of dawning, the moon, nor of the faces of the people I sometimes glimpse when I am taken to the temple. I must think of the pain, the loneliness, the darkness, the constant harassment from Ma-nan; the demons waiting to get me if I say or do something against his will...
What if Ma-nan has planted his familiars in this chamber? I look around fearfully. But it is as though I am blind, the darkness is so complete. My skin does not prickle as it does when Ma-nan�s demons are near. I feel increasingly calm and relaxed, as though there are good spirits present... or at least...
I begin to do my breathing as it should be done in preparation for the separation. I flex all my muscles, rejoicing that they now obey my commands, and gradually relinquish the use of them, one by one. Every time my old fear threatens to rise to my throat and choke me I say the words I was given in one of my visions, words not even Ma-nan knows. I think, with brief satisfaction that Ma-nan does not know how to leave his body as I do, that in this he cannot interfere � though he will no doubt insist on giving me the words to say to the people when I come out. But in here now � I am alone, and what I experience is my secret, and the secret of those I reach towards. If only I can keep my fear under control.
It gradually becomes easier.
I know my ka is slipping from my body when I begin to see again. The darkness no longer exists for me, and I can see my body as though it is a stranger�s, lying on the dark stone. I see inscriptions and paintings on the walls in minute detail, yet I know that the walls of the chamber are not painted or inscribed. To anyone existing only in the body the dark stone is smooth and unmarked. To the ka it is filled with signs and symbols needed for the journey. This is the threshold between the known and the unknown, and there is a map here of the universe beyond the stars, of the realms where the gods sail throughout eternity � and I do not mean the eternity of endless time, but the eternity that only the gods know, the eternity that has never known time. The words inscribed are not of worldly matters, but are written in the old language, almost forgotten, hinting at mysteries too deep for the human mind to grasp. I feel strange � as though as I look at them they are keys that are turning lock after lock in my invisible self, and as each one turns, a little more of me is released from the world I know.
I hover, enjoying the freedom from the restrictions of the body.
I look dispassionately at the youth lying so still. He is thin. I can see his ribs and his prominent shoulder bones. The kohl has run down his temples where his tears have soaked it off his eyelids. His lips are set in a sad line as though he rarely smiles.
I speak the words of praise I have been taught to Hapi, god of the Nile, spirit of the inundation who lives in a great cave under the river and in whose power it is to draw on the primeval waters beneath the world.
I visualize the river swelling as it does at times of flood, flowing with its rich green and brown over the fields; the festivals of greeting in all the towns and villages; the fleets of little boats decorated with coloured streamers by day, and torches by night, passing from village to village over areas that a few short hours previously had been dry, cracked earth and withered shoots.
And then I invoke Osiris, the great spirit of fertility, who will bring from Hapi�s waters and from the rich black silt they have deposited, the bright green growth that will feed the people of the Two Lands.
Slowly I climb the ladder of the sacred words. Slowly I say the spells that have come to me from ancient times. The scene around the youth is no longer there. Without passing out of the chamber I am no longer in it. I am in a boat. I look over the side and the water is crystal clear, and beneath it I can see the continents and the oceans of the world laid out as though on a map. I see my country is small; is one of many.
I drift to the masthead and see that there are no horizons. We are sailing towards a huge darkness, and behind us I see that we have come from a darkness equally vast. I pray for spirit-sight and that I may not be afraid of the dark.
My prayer must have been granted, because out of the darkness looms a huge and beautiful figure. I can see the stars through her body, and feel her breath on my cheek like the whisper of a great and potent secret. It is Nut, who is the spirit of the sky, created before the earth...
I bow as low as it is possible to bow, and my heart breathes the prayer my lips are now too awed to speak. I ask to see Osiris, he who has power to give life on the other side of death. She reaches out her closed hand to me, and as I stare at it enquiringly, she opens it slowly in front of me. Resting on her palm is a golden falcon. He spreads his wings and flutters on her palm, light sliding from his feathers like drops of water. He is a being of light beyond anything I have ever seen. I understand he is to be my guide and my protector. Silently I follow him as he wings away from her towards the darkness. One by one we reach the guardians of the way, monstrous figures, fierce beyond belief, who reach for us � but when the falcon cries the name of Him we go to seek, fall back and let us pass.
�How can such hideous demons serve the Lord of Life?� I ask.
�Look back,� the falcon says, and as I look the guardian that had seemed so dangerous and harsh, is now as beautiful as fire on the hearth. I remember Set, whose other name is Violence, the slayer of Osiris, the enemy of Horus, standing at the prow of the Boat of Millions of Years and in his role as Protector, destroying the enemies of Ra.
We reach the Great Waters out of which the first hill rises. Osiris, green god, rooted in the earth, his branches reaching to the sun, is before us.
How can I speak to such a one? Who am I to address a spirit so lofty? My throat is dry: my words sticking in it like bones. And then I remember the suffering of the people without food and water the pot-bellies of children with skeletal bodies the withered vegetation... the cracked red earth I forget myself, and pray for them, for the mysterious waters that will bring the rich black earth to my land.
He hears my words, and lifts his hands to receive them, and then he lets them go again so that they drift upwards like smoke... higher... higher... until they disappear into a light-source impossible to look at, so dazzling, so great, that our own sun if placed before it would appear to be a dark hole; our own gods, like moths around that sun.
I tremble, and find myself back in the chamber with the youth who has no name. I remember that I have forgotten to ask for his death.
I can feel his suffering drawing me to him again. Soon I will be back with him, and he will have to face the life he hates.
I am no longer in the world of spirit, but I pray to Isis who has suffered more than any mortal, who has known loneliness and loss. I will pray to her though now I know the gods we pray to, the gods we worship, are no more than mediators between us and the unknowable, bridges that span for us the mighty chasms between reality and reality.
Suddenly, the youth and I are not alone in the chamber. A figure stands to one side of me. He is very beautiful. Not young. Not old. Where have I seen him before? Was it on a granite wall carved by a sculptor with the seeing eye, or is it that he has the eyes of the falcon who was my guide on the journey to Osiris?
�I am Khurahtaten,� he says quietly, proudly. The name is unknown to me. His golden eyes watch me.
I look at him, not knowing what to make of him.
�Many things will become clear to you soon,� he says gently. �Let my name stand on your doorstep, sit at your table, walk with you in the evening... All things will become clear��
�Why do you come to me? What have I to do with you?� I ask.
�I seek help.�
�How can I help you?� I say. �It is I who need help.�
�Nevertheless it is you who must help me.�
�But how? I have a body that is kept prisoner by the priest Ma-nan.�
�It is a body that houses the soul of a true adept in the mysteries. With recognition of who he really is will come freedom from whom he thinks he is.�
�But now he is lonely and afraid. He does not know who he is. He has no name.�
The being looks thoughtfully down on the young body.
�I will help him with my strength. He will grow strong,� he says.
I feel the urge to return to my body, to cling to what I know. It is as though I have glimpsed for a moment what we truly are, and am as frightened as someone who had thought he was a child, and finds suddenly that he is expected to be a responsible adult. There is a moment when I have partly returned to the motionless figure of the boy, and partly not. I feel the searing of his pain, his fear returning; yet I am still separate and he screams at me to keep away.
�I won�t let you return!� he cries. �Leave me! Leave me! I want to die! I want to die! I must die.�
His body shudders and jerks as I unite once more with him.
I have failed... failed... now there will be no escape.
The blackness is oppressive. How can there be such darkness? I, as nameless oracle, struggle to my feet and rush forward, feeling for the wall. I tug the hated wooden head-dress from my head and start to beat my bare skull against the wall, again and again, with all my might. The pain is terrible but I seem unable to kill myself. I remember nothing of what happened while my ka was on its journey... I can think of nothing but my fear of returning to life.
Blood fills my eyes where tears filled them before.
I join the darkness, and fall unconscious to the floor.