The Son of the Sun
Chapter 2 - The Journey
My return to the city of Men-nefer passes like a dream, I am only partially aware of the suns bronzed disc low against the horizon, the river sounds a boatman calling to the boy who climbs the mast, the cry of birds...
Sometimes I am aware of nothing.
Then images swim into view and through a mist I see the crowd being held back, while the young prince moves forward to gaze at me. There is something in his face... I cannot tell what it is but it is as though he desperately wants an answer from me and does not know how to word the question. I see horror and pity in his face when he notices the blood that has seeped out from under the formal head-dress and dried on my temple. I look over his shoulder half-expecting to see his father, the king... but I meet Ma-nans eye and close my own with a sigh. What if the king is there or not? What if the prince pities me? There is no escape. No way out.
In the night the prince is in my dreams. We are reaching out towards each other through a jostling crowd of people who are driving us further and further apart. Behind him I see his father, Amenhotep Neb-maat-Ra, and his mother, Queen Tiye, calling to him... behind them is a young woman weeping...
When I wake I am aware of nothing but the throbbing of my aching head. I am told that by the kings command I am to be taken at last from this dark house, this place of sorrow. I know not where I am to go, but Ma-nan is agitated and shouts at the thin one. The servants scuttle about seizing things and hurrying them into boxes. For the first time in all the years I have been here routine is broken.
I lie on my bed swathed in bandages, unable to die. Is the move to be a punishment because I tried to kill myself? Is some worse prison awaiting me? Ma-nan, of course, tells me nothing. Through the thundering of the pain in my head I hear snatches of words not meant for my ears, and gather that it will be a long journey. I ask no questions, knowing that if I did, they would not be answered. Worse, my voice would he ignored as though it had not entered their ears, and I would feel again as I have often felt, as though I have no existence except as a tool for them.
When all the house is empty and the echoes double each footstep, each word, Ma-nan comes to me and stands over me, looking down. I cannot read his expression. Is it triumph or bitterness? Only Ma-nan knows how to combine these two. Snatches of my kas journey have been coming to me, but my head is too painful to sort them out into real and not-real, memory and imagination. Did I do well for the people and Ma-nan in the House of Many Thresholds? I am not sure. I am sure only that I failed to take my own fife, and now I am worse off than before because my head is in agony as well as my feet.
I shut my eyes and Ma-nans face disappears, but I can still sense him beside me. Why doesnt he speak or go away? At last I hear him clap his hands, and then feet without sandals pad across the floor. The Nubians. Surely not another performance already? But it cant be, because a cloak is put over me and I am placed on an ordinary stretcher, the kind for carrying sick people. The rich trappings of my office as oracle are nowhere in sight, packed up no doubt with the kitchen utensils and the excretion bucket where they belong.
I am taken through the early morning streets back to the harbour, only a few citizens out to see me pass. Very different from yesterday, when the crowds were staring, pleading with me to bring them salvation. When a prince tried to speak to me...
The streets are narrow, mud-brick houses crowded together. The administrative capital of the Two Lands, placed strategically at the junction of the broad, rich delta lands and the narrow strip of green hedged in by desert that comprises the rest of the country, is an old city, sprawling and ungainly. The huge Temple of Ptah dominates it, the streets close to the temple less oppressive, the houses of the noblemen who provide most of the priests to serve the god, more spacious and elegant than those we have been passing. Palm trees in their gardens rise above the walls and flowering vines flow over the brick almost to street level. We pass the south gate of the Temple of Ptah and my heart skips a beat as I meet the eyes of the two gigantic alabaster sphinxes that guard it, unsleeping day and night. I have passed between them many times never happily. In this temple too I have spoken lies. I have been taken from the Temple of Amun, the Hidden One, to the Temple of Ptah, the Creator in both I have been manipulated like a puppet by Ma-nan. Can I hear the chanting still? Ptah who created all I see around me, mighty and powerful energy beyond imagining, reduced to the small figure of a man carved of stone with a skull cap, holding to his chest the sceptre, the wand, the rod of power the means to create, to bestow life. Ptah speaking with my voice. Ptah taking the piping voice of a child to mouth his Wisdom Words. Sometimes he has spoken to me alone and I have told no one. He has reassured me that everything has a reason and a purpose, even my own shadow-life. He has told me that I must not despair, that my time will come.
In these temple precincts there is also the smaller temple of Ptahs consort, Sekhmet. I have been used for her too. She I fear as much as I love Ptah. Visits to her I dread. Great scarlet woman, fearsome lioness, drinker of blood, the Destroyer that shakes the earth and tumbles cities down. When I am in the chamber behind her shrine and am told to speak with her voice, I tremble. Many a night I dream of running through the desert with Sekhmet padding after me, her sinewy limbs rippling in the starlight, her eyes seeing in the dark, seeing through rock, seeking me out wherever I try to hide. Sekhmet the Destroyer, angry. Angry with me!
But today we do not enter. We skirt the high walls that keep the secrets of the god and goddess safe from the uninitiated and head for the river that laps one of its sides. We board a sailing-boat of the kind that plies up and down the river for long distances, not the narrow barge I usually travel in. I find my heart contains a tiny shoot, a bud... possibly it is hope for a better life possibly excitement that whatever happens it, at least, will be a change.
The day goes by and I lie under an awning, protected from the worst heat of the sun; the banks slide past. I doze and wake and doze again.
Where the green of the cultivated lands ends, behind the forest of palms, rises the desert and there on the escarpment of reddish rock and sand we glimpse something of the ancient necropolis of Men-nefer, the tall step pyramid of King Djoser rising higher than any of its fellows, towering above the smooth walls of his mortuary temple, like the first mound that rose from the waters of chaos and on which the shining spirit-bird of the greatest god landed to lay its golden egg. I have heard tell of this place in the ancient texts but, as far as I know, I have never seen it before. Yet, as I look at it, I know it is familiar. As I look at it, I know what I will find if I turn my gaze to the north and the south of it. I know what will be on the other side of it, though from here I cannot see further than the gleaming walls of stone. I have seen this place in a dream and in the dream I stand in the moonlight with a roll of papyrus in my hands and, as I try to read the hieroglyphs, it disintegrates into fine dust and is blown by the mocking breath of Set to every horizon. Is that sound a dog howling or my own voice howling in despair for a great wisdom lost and an opportunity missed? The sorrow in my heart tells me it is my own voice. I have been here before and I have not been here. Is it a memory from a long-gone life or are the gods trying to tell me something?
We pass the landing quay, the entrance to the causeway that leads from the river to the field of many pyramids. Here the great funeral barges would have come in the old days, here the royal burial processions would have started. Nowadays kings are buried in the far south, at Waset, in tombs cut into the western mountains. The great days of pyramid building are over. Even here some are crumbling, their fine casing stone loosening and slipping, quarried for the sumptuous buildings of the living city to the north, their secrets violated by the tomb robbers. Only Djosers stands as perfect as it was at the time of its building, the greatest of them all, constructed by a visionary, the god Imhotep himself, surrounded by ancient glories and the tombs of priests and high officials.
I am drawn to the place and long to stop, but the oarsmen pull even harder against the current and we sweep on to the south.
There are other people aboard, but they are kept well away from me. In the long, dark, moonless night I think that perhaps, when I am stronger and the pain has eased off, I can creep to the side of the boat and leap off. They will not notice that I have gone until the morning. I can hear Ma-nans ugly snore beside me. But not now. Now, I have not the strength. I drift off to sleep again. Strange dreams. Someone seems to be trying to reach me. I turn my back on him. I know he wants me to do something for him, but I am too tired... too tired...
Go away, I say, go away. Leave me to sleep. Leave me alone. I wake and am in a huge night... people all around me sleeping, but I alone.
Days pass and I gradually grow stronger. Ma-nan changes my bandages from time to time, and gives me food and drink. He never talks to me. It is as though I am deaf and dumb like the servants. Perhaps I am dumb, I think. I havent used my voice for a long time.
A north wind begins to blow, cooling the air. A Horus wind that presages the inundation.
I sit up, feeling considerably better. I had thought I had noticed a change in the motion of the boat and now I see what it is: the river is running strongly against us, very strongly. I take a deep breath, hardly daring to hope, and look closely at the banks. I was right. The floods have come, the river is on the move to cover the fields with its beautiful, deep, rich, life-giving black silt. I look at Ma-nan, half expecting him to show some spark of gratitude for what I have done. I, done? Even as I think it, I know he will show me no gratitude. Quite rightly. It is not I who have brought the water...
Each night that comes I think that I should jump overboard, and either die in the turbulent water or escape. But each night that comes, I put it off to the next. Is it possible that I am beginning to enjoy life and want it to continue? I am still kept away from the others and treated with cold contempt by Ma-nan, but now I dont care because every day my eyes are dazzled by beauty. Ducks, with a green translucence in their wings, fly over me. Flowering water-reeds shimmer above the surface where the banks used to be. Flotillas of little boats bob beside us, their occupants waving joyfully. At evening I am awed by the splendour of a procession of shining beings accompanying the mighty golden disc of the Sun as he enters his unseen realms, his hidden kingdom. I never cease to catch my breath with surprise at the sudden flare of fiery light that suffuses the whole sky, long after the disk has disappeared. Slowly, slowly fading, easing us into darkness. At dawn my heart beats with love, as first light stains everything pale green like a new shoot, and I see my star still there when all the others have faded from the sky. The nights are lighter now, as the moon steadily grows from silver feather to polished wing. The only pain I feel now is fear of losing all this beauty, this day-by-day growing intensity of love for the earth and sky and water the gift of life I have received. When I sleep, I see the one who had wanted to reach me that first night, and I welcome him. We stand on the deck at night with the stars like enormous lamps above us, and he talks to me, telling me that his name is Khurahtaten, an incarnation of the great spirit, known to us as Horus, sent once before to guide me and now returned to guide me again. He tells me he has a task for me, something that I started when I last lived on earth but failed to complete. He wants me to work with him. At first I argue that I cannot, and then I say maybe. And now I know I shall.
At first he came only at night when I was asleep. But now he comes in the day at any time. I might be staring at a hawk circling, and I hear his voice inside my head. I might be admiring the infinite shades of blue and pink in a distant mountain range, and he is beside me. I ask questions, and am answered, but I am worried that our time together will be brief and that at any moment Ma-nan may notice the strange trances I slip into, and find a way to stop them. Khurahtaten asks me if I am prepared to take a step from which there is no turning back. Eagerly I cry Yes! And then I know that where Ma-nan used to paint the Seeing Eye on my forehead I now need no paint. I am no king, but on my forehead I feel the golden ureaus, the cobra poised to strike at darkness, like the sun. There is no mild recognition, but fission and terror as meaning leaps to meaning, like lightning in iron mountains. Words split in revelation. The crust of my former understanding shatters, and inside, like a geode, an unimaginable crystal landscape is revealed. The myths of my people take wing, and leave behind the shabby trafficking of priest-magic and empty incantation as the golden eagle leaves behind the sparrow. I know my task is to find the living truth behind the holy words and the holy rituals, to bring understanding to a people who have so misunderstood the ancient revelations that they believe the body has to be preserved in Time for the spirit to live in Eternity, and that magical formulae alone can open what is truly closed.
My instructor, day by day, night by night, goes deeper into the truth for which my soul thirsts. His knowledge comes into my mind and becomes my knowledge. I grow in wisdom and strength moment by moment.
Now I do not care that I am kept isolated in one part of the boat, and that no one is allowed near to talk to me. I welcome it, and dread the breaking of my silence. People sometimes come to where the cord is drawn across the deck to keep me separate, and stare at me.
I squat on the deck for hours, unmoving, staring at the blue water rushing past the boat, or stand, still as stone, my eyes fixed on some distant rock-formation from the moment it appears until the moment it disappears. The clarity of the air makes it possible to see great distances, and figures of stone a mornings walk away seem only arrow-far, every cleft and cranny clear.
I presume Ma-nan has strengthened the effectiveness of the cord with some spell, because no one attempts to push it aside and come to me, though it looks easy enough to do. And I too make no attempt to escape my confinement.
From time to time we change the oarsmen. More rarely we stop, pulling in at some small quay to take on bread and beer. Often I have no idea of the name of the village that serves us and I do not care to ask, but one day I notice more than the usual flurry of excitement that characterizes these pauses in routine. I hear the name Abedju and realize we have reached one of the holiest sites in the Two Lands. It is here the head of Osiris is said to lie and it is here everyone from king to commoner wants to be buried or at least have some monument raised to associate himself with the great King of the Underworld. The place is a forest of stelae and cenotaphs. The temple itself on its sacred mound lies some way back from the river and it is clear there is no intention that we should visit it though some people leave the boat and do not return. I lean over the side and gaze into the heat-haze that almost obscures the town and certainly the hills beyond it. I wonder at the long centuries that have seen this as a place of pilgrimage and miracle. I picture the continual seasonal re-enactment of the death and resurrection of the Great God the battle he loses against his brother, Set, his dismemberment the long search of his sister-wife, Isis I wonder at the magnificent Book of Coming Forth by Day that is buried with so many kings the book that gives such clear instructions for their progress through the Underworld where they endure trial after trial until they stand at last before the throne of the Living One, the resurrected Osiris. I look at the water of the inundation lapping high upon the banks, covering the low-lying fields, and know that when it recedes Osiris will bring the green world to life again.
We leave Osiris and travel up-river again. The next stop is at Tantere. Here Hathor, the daughter of Ra and wife of Horus, gave birth to her son, the god of music. Here music and dancing enliven her temple, the Lady of Turquoise, the Beautiful One, the Mother of the earth. I have always loved Hathor, fantasizing that she is indeed my mother, that I have suckled at her breast, that she comes for me and visits me in the night to comfort me when I am lonely and afraid. I long to visit her cult-centre and put flowers on her altar but Ma-nan refuses to let me set foot off the boat. I have never known a mother of flesh and blood, and I weep secretly for Hathor who is also kept from me.
One day I am standing urinating over the side, when I see that we are approaching a great city. I hear the others on the boat excitedly shouting and pointing, and gather by the collecting together of possessions, the squabbling over position on the decks, that this is our destination. I have a twinge of disappointment. My journey is over and I am still prisoner. No, I think, never again. I look across at Ma-nan giving curt instructions to his servants, and find that I no longer fear him. I will stay Oracle, for Oracle has power. I will bide my time and take this power when I am ready, and neither Ma-nan nor anyone else will know the moment of its approach or be able to understand it when it comes.
With apparent docility I wait, peering at the great city, Waset. Men-nefer was huge and sprawling, but, nothing like this. It always gave the impression of clutter, as though it had grown up haphazard and too many people had crowded into it. Here there is shape and order. Hugging the earth are the mud-brick houses of the people. Above them rise huge stone edifices, obelisks with glittering pyramidal points reaching to the sun; mighty temple-gates under the protection of the winged sun disc colourful with the fluttering pennants of the pharaoh and his priests; noble houses, palaces with green and leafy gardens beside the waters of the Nile... Set back on the west side of the river lie the silent hills of pale stone which hide the entrance to the Underworld, the tombs of the kings. And between the river and the mountains is the huge mortuary temple of the present pharaoh with its tall painted columns, its magnificent cedar doors inlaid with golden silhouettes of the gods, and, flanking the entrance pylons, two gigantic seated effigies of the king himself set to keep him in the minds of his people as long as time lasts. I cannot help being impressed. If I had not seen the king (shorter than myself, though I am scarce full-grown) from his statues I would have believed him to be a giant among men.I try to re-establish contact with my friend and counsellor, Khurahtaten, but he has left me alone to find my own way and form my own impressions in this new place. He warned me that he did not want to be gaoler of my mind as Ma-nan was of my body. But I find something of the old fear creeping into my heart as I see the huge walls of the temples, and the darkness from inside lurking behind them. The sun blazes down on them but does not penetrate.
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