An Apostle’s Tale 1.3 – The Gift of the Storm

The water jug in his arms was an item of considerable value to his impoverished house, and he dashed it to the ground at his feet, a ruin.

He reached for the tiny amulet hanging around his neck, fumbling like a man who’d lost the proper use of his hands. It was a flat disc no bigger than the iris of Asha’s eye, crudely etched with powerful commands and strung by a thin fishgrass cord. It was, in fact, armor stolen from an unlucky umbrella-shell slug that once crept along the bottom of the Great Green, and how it had come to rest in Bibleb-Akhet he neither knew, nor, at that moment, cared. Seizing the charm tightly in one fist, he struck himself in the mouth much harder than magically necessary, and certainly harder than he’d intended.

“Bibleb eats the storm. The body of the storm is the strength of Bibleb. Behold, the storm is consumed. Bibleb eats the storm.”

He raced back to Asha, slung her beneath one arm and, as she hollered her objections, raced up the trail toward Bibleb-Akhet, shouting as he ran.

“Storm! Storm!” he screamed, through the gathering winds. By the time he reached the village Osiris had disappeared completely behind a veil of blown dust and sand. Already well aware of the descending peril, the villagers were dashing about collecting their animals, herding them inside their tiny huts, and frantically muttering “Bibleb eats the storm, Bibleb eats the storm…” Bib-useka raced to his own dwelling, flung aside the heavy fish-grass mat that was its door, and stepped into the cramped, windowless interior. By the flickering light of a single oil lamp, he could see that his wife, Tinet, was exactly where he’d left her – laying upon a thin blanket upon the packed-earth floor, her small, calloused hands folded over the great mound of her pregnant belly, her legs spread wide apart and her dark eyes round with fear. He set Asha down atop a pile of loose fish-grass against the back wall, and was momentarily horrified to see wet blood spattered on her face and arms.

“What happened, Asha?” he demanded. “Where are you hurt?”

Alarmed by her father’s tone, Asha-shen merely started crying and pointing at his chest, which is when Bib-useka became aware that his energetic prayer in the desert had cracked open his lip, resulting in the bloody cascade that now covered him from chin to sandals. Sighing with relief, he turned away from his disconsolate daughter and knelt beside Tinet.
“It’s a storm?” she asked. There was a hint of panic in her voice, but only a hint.

“It’s a storm.”

“Where’s the water?”

“We’ll have to make do with what we have.”

Tinet gasped as a strong contraction gripped her.

“Nopet isn’t here yet,” she panted. “She’s supposed to midwife. Did you see her?”

“No, but Nopet won’t be coming,” Bib-useka said, trying to sound relaxed and confident. “Don’t worry. I know what to do.”

“This child is not a goat,” Tinet said. “I want Nopet.”

“Nopet will have her own troubles just now. We’ll be alright.”

Tinet’s labors lasted all that night, and all the next day, and for all of the two days after. Every hour, it seemed to Bib-useka, the storm increased in anger and doubled in violence. A slight, but steady rain of grit sifted into the gloomy hut through the small smoke-hole in its roof. He lit incense before the household’s shrine to Bibleb, enticing the god to ease Tinet’s labors. The aromatic resin – a costly commodity Bib-useka had sacrificed much to acquire and now burned with desperate profligacy – added its fragrant vapors to the dense pall of oil lamp fumes until the room’s atmosphere could almost be felt with the fingertips.

Every so often Tinet screamed in pain. When she did, Asha screamed in sympathetic alarm. Each time they screamed, Bib-useka’s heart exploded within his chest. He was frequently tempted to step outside and gather his composure, but he knew without looking that he would find no relief under the storm’s gritty lash.

Fact was, despite the hut’s thick mud-brick walls, little of the screaming could be heard against the howling gale and the sinister hissing of high-velocity sand. In theory, at least, humble Egyptian “beehive” houses were proof against sandstorms, but more than one in Bibleb-Akhet’s history had collapsed under the onslaught of a Lybian storm, and that would spell disaster for his wife and daughter and unborn child. They rationed their water, ate sparingly, recited spells over their charms and prayed to Bibleb.

Just before the fourth dawn, on the twelfth day of Drought, in the sixth year of the blessed reign of Pharoah Amenhotep III, Great Spear and Shield of the Two Lands, Tinet gave birth to a boy. He appeared to be healthy and whole, and flailed his arms and legs with proper energy, and gave every indication of wailing satisfactorily, although it was impossible to be certain within the terrible din. Bib-useka swabbed his first-born son with the cleanest scrap of linen he could find, tied off his umbilical cord with a fragment of fish-grass twine, and gently placed him at his wife’s breast. Then he collapsed and lay for a long time as still and senseless as a corpse.

The storm blew itself out that morning. The winds died as quickly as they’d risen, leaving deafening silence and enormous drifts of sand in their wake. The gods of Lybia had said their piece and could do no more. The Children of Bibleb emerged from their homes to survey the damage and locate the carcasses of livestock left outside and killed by the storm. The unhappy creatures would need to be butchered before the flesh became too rotten to eat. If their loss was a heavy blow to their owners, at least the village would eat well for a few weeks.

Knowing that Tinet had been due, a neighbor thought to look in on the little family. He kicked away a low drift of sand, tossed off a friendly Opening-of-the-Door chant and swung the mat aside, allowing a flood of fresh air and sunlight to enter the stifling room.

“Congratulations,” he smiled. “Looks like you have a son.”

“Bibleb is great,” said Bib-useka, moving nothing but his lips.

“What’s his name?”

Long custom dictated that males of Bib-useka’s line be named to increase the glory of their god and indicate the possessor’s fervent devotion to Bibleb. Bib-useka, whose name meant “Bibleb’s Ox”, merely gave an almost imperceptible shrug and tiredly rolled his eyes toward Tinet. His wife opened her eyes, looked at the baby in her arms, and them closed them again.

“His name is Djamose,” she whispered. “The Storm Gave Birth to Him’.”

An Apostle’s Tale 1.2 – The Red Birds

Ra awakened in the east and rose as Khepera, the scarab beetle.

By late morning he’d shed his mighty carapace, allowing the full glory of his personage to fall upon the earth. Several hours later, as he sank low toward the western horizon, he assumed the crown and wrappings of Osiris, in which guise he would descend into the Underworld. Far below, holding a cracked clay pot in one hand and towing his four-year-old daughter with the other, Bib-useka barely registered the approach of evening.

“Pardon me, ladies,” he said, apologetically shouldering his way through a small knot of women idly chatting in the dusty lane. “I need water.”

The village’s main street was really a path, or perhaps more correctly an alley, albeit one with the olfactory aspect of a sewer, winding through the middle of Bibleb-Akhet’s two-score mud huts. A child of 10 could, at any point along its length, easily stretch out their hands and touch the crumbling walls on either side. Besides the bevy of biddies, traffic was further impeded by a smattering of dogs, roving squadrons of chickens and the occasional donkey that had inadvertently wandered into the reeking maze and had yet to find its way out.

“Blessings on you, Bib-useka,” the women cried, shuffling aside and touching the man and child with their hands as they hurried past. “And may Bibleb’s strength be upon Tinet this night!”

Tossing distracted thanks back over his shoulder, Bib-useka raised the pot before him like a warship’s ram and plowed on, shortly emerging into the orange-painted late-afternoon desert and tacking south along a well-beaten track thickly littered with shards of broken pottery. A cat missing one ear and about half of its fur tailed them a short distance into the waste, then grew suddenly and crushingly bored and lay down where it was. The air was perfectly still, and the dust disturbed by his daughter’s racing feet hung in the air behind her like a rare morning fog. That would have struck Bib-useka as ominous if he’d been inclined to notice.

“Slow down!” Asha-shen complained. His only child was named “Abundant Hair” because she’d been born with a full six inches of dark, gossamer tresses falling down over her still-unopened eyes, which tresses were now bound together in a thick braid that stretched down to her heels and swung wildly behind her as she galloped along. “Why do we have to run?”

“Because mommy needs water, sweetie.”

Bibleb-Akhet’s only source of water was a muddy well at the bottom of a deep wadi a good half-mile distant. Lined with nothing more substantial than native dirt and endless toil, the well was forever falling in upon itself and the men of the village were forever digging it out again. North and south of the well, winding between high crumbling banks for a hundred yards in either direction, the wadi’s floor resembled an unlikely green river of vines and trees and grasses. It was there, 50 feet below the Red Land’s scorching face, that the Kher-Bibleb cultivated what fruits and vegetables and animal greens as could be coaxed from the stubborn stream-bed to sustain the meager life/health/strength of Bibleb’s Horizon. A sturdy stone basin perpetually full of sparkling sy-Sobek product ranneth over a short walk east of the village, but that liquid treasure was quite expressly not intended to refresh the Children of Bibleb. As he and Asha made their careful way down the steep, narrow defile leading to the gully’s bottom, Bib-useka silently prayed that he would, just this once, find the troublesome hole intact. To his surprise, it was. He set down his jug and dropped to his knees, bending low and gently striking his forehead on the well’s uneven rim.  

“Hapi will open his mouth and water will pour forth,” he murmured, eyes closed. “Blessed is the gift of Hapi, may his breasts never wither.” He kissed the dirt, shifted ninety degrees and repeated the ritual, then again, then again, until he was certain that Hapi had no valid procedural reason to withhold his benediction. “Hapi is satisfied,” he said, rising to his feet. “Behold his bounty.”

He ordered Asha to stay put. She was happy to, contentedly squatting down and drawing pictures of birds in the packed earth with her tiny finger and softly humming to herself.  Bib-useka quickly lowered the well’s ragged goat-skin basket hand-over-hand into its dark mouth until, perhaps 30 feet down and just beyond the reach of the dying light, he heard it strike water with a muted splash.

“Well, thank Bibleb for small favors,” he muttered, hauling up the rough, fish-grass rope. He was rewarded with a half-gallon of milky brown water. It took about 10 minutes to fill the pot. As anxious as he was, Bib-useka carefully coiled the rope next to the well’s mouth and fortified it with a brief protection spell for good measure. Water and the rituals associated with it were matters of considerable gravity to the people of Bibleb-Akhet.

“The birds are red,” Asha said, regarding her artworks with curiosity.

“Yes, Asha. Red birds.”

Bib-useka hoisted the jar in both hands and started back up the path.

“Stay right behind me. Hurry up, Asha.”

They climbed back onto even ground and retraced their steps toward Bibleb-Akhet, the father’s eyes staring blankly at the beaten earth, his attention already far ahead. Despite the heavy burden in his arms and the even heavier one on his mind, Asha-shen’s father was nevertheless instantly aware when the rapid patter of her footsteps behind him suddenly stopped. He turned impatiently, silently cursing even that momentary delay, but the admonishment that rose in his throat never made it to his lips.

His daughter’s face, ordinarily rather pale for an Egyptian, was the color of boiled beets and facing directly west.

“It’s red, like the birds.”

The tiny square teeth peeping through her smile looked as though they’d been tearing at a fresh kill. Her eyes glinted like polished onyx set down in blood-red pools. Erratic gusts of wind softly played with the loose hair around her temples, blowing them first forward, then back. Bib-useka cursed himself as he realized the whole barren expanse within his field of vision was awash in crimson light. Somehow in his preoccupation he’d failed to receive the warning sent up by the spirits of Asha-shen’s crude representations, and managed not to notice that the world was on fire. He spun around to face the setting sun. Where one would expect to see Osiris shining like burnished copper, the King of the Underworld had instead donned a scarlet cloak and the black underworld seemed to be boiling up through the dim heat-haze to meet him.

“Damn,” he said, instantly chilled to the bone. Bib-useka knew the desert, depended on it for his livelihood and lived at its mercy. “Damn.”

An Apostle’s Tale 0.3 – A Second Chance

The way he had it figured, a man was who was neither alive nor dead was on a one-way trip from one to the other. Osiris seemed to be dodging the central issue.

“If I was alive, and now I’m between, can I conclude that I’ll shortly be dead? I’m on my way to the Underworld, right?”

Let him dodge that.

“Only the faithful may enter the Fields of Rejoicing. You are not faithful. The gates of the Underworld are shut to you.”

It was an alarming response in no way superior to previous hedging. The dead enjoyed few options, and the Underworld was most of them. He tried to imagine himself a feeble shade lingering miserably above the desiccated wreckage of his corpse for all ages to come, forever formless, powerless and alone. The prospect was too dismal to contemplate.

“Great and Merciful Lord,” he began, diplomatically reversing a longstanding policy against flattering titles, “that I receive this condemnation from your own perfect lips is a blessing beyond measure, and I’ll concede your point that I haven’t always spared the gods their due attention. But if I’m not staying here, O Light of Compassion, and I’m not traveling through, then where am I going?”

“You will return whence you came.”

The words were plain enough, their precise meaning somewhat less so.

“I’m not sure I follow.”

“You will resume your place among the living.”

Disappointing, yes, but he’d heard worse news. Going back to an unsatisfying life was certainly better than eternal impotence, and he could consult with a priest regarding his prospects for eternity at leisure. Still, he was a meticulous man accustomed to straight lines and right angles, and he could see no sense or object in this strange ordeal. He cleared his throat softly and stole a glance toward the silent kings, still perched indifferently upon their bench like graven images. Even should Osiris excuse him from final judgment today, wasn’t it just a matter of time before he was again summoned into their presence for a more permanent accounting? He shrugged his shoulders, blinked twice, and lifted his gaze to address Osiris directly.

“Great God, it looks to me like you’ve gone to a little trouble for this interview, and I know I’ve gone to a lot of it, but I’d feel more comfortable about the whole business if I knew exactly what kind of business we’re in. If this is a trial, shouldn’t I get a word or two on my own behalf?”

“This is not a trial, and no words can expunge your guilt.”

“Perhaps if you told me what I’m guilty of…”

“The greatest crime of which a man is capable,” said Osiris, without apparent rancor, his voice still the stealthy rush of water and reeds. “You abandoned your god.”

That was a glancing blow. There was no disputing the fact that he’d devoted considerable thought and energy to minimizing his religious involvement. On the other hand, one simply could not exist in Egypt without yielding the occasional nod to its gods, and he’d ever been careful to make what conciliatory gestures as tradition and geography required.

“You do me a disservice!” he cried, genuinely aggrieved. “Maybe I never saw the inside of the king’s temple, and that’s no easy trick, I can tell you, but who serves a country serves its gods, and I’ve been sweating in Pharoah’s service these many years without rest or complaint. And haven’t I always made offerings as the law requires? I think it’s fair to say I’ve been faithful to the letter of the creed, if not the spirit of it.”

“You have been faithful to neither. Gods are not sustained by tax and tithe only, but are most nourished by true allegiance and honest devotion.”

“Well, I suppose it’s no secret I’m not much for worship, Lord, but I’ve been given to understand that even murderers and heretics can find a berth aboard the Eternal Barge, whether or not they like the accommodations.”

“Even a murderer may worship with a true heart, and the heretic, however misguided, acknowledges the gods’ primacy. Your sin is neglect – a murder of the spirit and a heresy against the living and the dead. There can be no harvest for one who does not sow.”

It seemed to him that Osiris was quite deliberately ignoring some very solid arguments in his favor, and his frustration was mounting.

“I hope you’ll correct me if I go over the banks, here, Splendid One, but was all of this really necessary just so you can tell me in person that I’ll have no place to go when I die?”

“It was necessary. You are an affront to Ma’at.”

There was no mistaking the sharp edge on that statement, or the hot force of the god’s displeasure. He studied Osiris to see if he could get a better read on the god’s mood, and realized the room had gradually brightened until the source of its illumination was apparent. Light rose from the god’s wrappings like a fog, a curiously substantial radiance that drifted slowly about the chamber in blooms and tendrils, winding about the pillars and insinuating itself into every corner, steadily accumulating until no place was left in shadow. In a very few minutes, he estimated, the tomb would be, quite literally, blinding.

“Stand,” ordered Osiris.

He rose hesitantly to his feet, casting a nervous eye at Eater of Souls. The twelve silent judges turned their heads toward him, their eyes as white as new limestone, without iris or pupil. He realized with a shudder that their eye sockets were stuffed with wads of clean linen. Thoth raised his right hand to his shoulder, holding in his grip a sword as long and slender and curved as his mighty beak.

“The impious may not enter the Land of the Dead,” continued Osiris. “Yet for the dead to remain among the living disturbs the balance governing both dominions. It is for Ma’at’s sake, not yours, that  I grant this audience.”

Now we’re getting somewhere, he thought, relieved and gratified, but forcing himself to a remorseful expression. Osiris himself was about to reveal the foolproof antidote to damnation. A little penance, a few prayers, the appropriate offering at the appropriate shrine and all would be forgiven. Despite the harrowing journey, it looked as though his long-term situation was about to improve. He was suddenly glad he hadn’t died in the river.

“I am your clay, Lord Osiris,” he said, bowing deeply for effect.

“Take care, irreverent fool, for your path to the Underworld will not be as straight as you imagine. To achieve balance, you must practice balance. To satisfy Ma’at, you must obey Ma’at.”

“I see what you mean.” He knit his brow and nodded slowly, trying to convey thoughtful agreement, then carefully brightened, assuming what he hoped was a credible mask of resolve. “Balance will hereafter be my guiding principle, and Ma’at will be my guide. I think the gods of Egypt will find me a most attentive servant from here on in.”

“The gods of Egypt will accept those words as your binding oath,” said Osiris, “but your chief sin is not against any god of this land. Your crime is against the god of your inheritance.”

 That caught him up short. He gaped, disbelieving. The idea that he might owe a debt to his ancestral deity seemed preposterous.

“Begging your very great pardon, but are you talking about Bibleb?”

“It is to Bibleb that you must atone.”

“But…but…Bibleb isn’t even Egyptian!”

“You are Egyptian. Bibleb is your god.”

“Well, okay,” he said, not really following, “but I can’t imagine why you bother extending yourself on his part. I can assure you Bibleb doesn’t rate the trouble.” He was genuinely incensed and didn’t bother to hide it. “I don’t know if you’ve got all the facts of the case, but my clan has been propping up that holy fraud for ages, and all they’ve got to show for it are double helpings of abuse, grief and sand for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I’d say it’s we who’re due for some atonement.”

The amorphous light filling the chamber abruptly fell in upon itself until only Osiris remained, a shining white sun from which no reflected beam escaped, afloat in a black and empty universe.

“You have forsaken the god of your fathers. If you would live beyond your grave, it is to him that you must atone.”

He feared to test the god’s patience, but wasn’t yet ready to accept the absurd pronouncement.

“I don’t think you understand, Great God Osiris,” he began again. “It’s me and mine that are forsaken. Bibleb failed us. He’s always failed us. He failed me!”

Light flooded back into the tomb. Without sound or warning Thoth reached out his sword and, with a single fluid motion, hacked off his left leg at mid-thigh. He felt the impact, like a kick from an ass, but no pain. The severed leg tipped over, hit the floor with a dry thud and began surrounding itself with a dark moat of blood. The silent judges regarded him passively with their white linen eyes. He stared at his severed limb in bewilderment, feeling like he should say something, but unable to think of the appropriate words.

“It is you who do not understand,” said Osiris. “The failure is yours.”

A dull ache began growing at the neatly cleaved frontier of his missing leg. His head started to swim, and the slowly swirling white light began dimming into shades of gray.

“As by your inattention Bibleb was hobbled,” the King of the Dead continued, “so by the judgment of Ma’at you will travel the path of atonement a cripple.”

He stood balanced, quite unconsciously, on his right leg, but as his senses rapidly drained away with the blood pouring from his wound he toppled over onto the gushing stump. He gasped and winced, bracing himself for the agony that must result, but the throbbing merely kept expanding apace. His relief of moments earlier was quickly disappearing beneath spouts of red horror. Dismemberment was a particularly serious matter to an Egyptian, who can take nothing into the next world that they don’t possess in life. For most of common station, the only reward for drudgery and sickness and subjection and privation was the prospect of a marginally better life in the death. Irretrievably maimed he faced the strong likelihood of spending the remainder of his living days an unemployable ruin, his mutilated Ba thenceforth a useless shade, an object of pity and scorn begging contemptuous strangers for crusts and prayers. Terror returned, far stronger than before, but it was not the hot, immediate terror of impending pain and death, but the cold, slow, infinitely sad terror that his every secret hope had slipped forever out of reach. If a conciliatory gesture toward his ancestral god seemed preposterous before, it now seemed outrageous.

“Don’t you see?” he groaned, weakly. “Bibleb let this happen. Bibleb lets everything happen.”

“You let this happen. And yet the god that you despise may yet provide the key to your redemption. If you would find peace, it is to Bibleb that you must atone.”

It seemed a slim reed, and monumentally unjust, but he grasped it with everything left in him, his only thought to somehow salvage

“What do you want? How do I …?”

“Only by your god’s rehabilitation will your own be accomplished,” murmured Osiris. “Your fates one. Your fates have always been one.”

The soft light was bleeding away quickly, and he felt the stone begin melting beneath him, sensed his body dissolving and his mind tipping into the void. His last chance to get a straight answer out of Osiris was rushing away on a relentless current, and he needed an answer. His life, and afterlife, depended on it.

“For the love of Set” he rasped, “just tell me what to do…”

But his mouth had already evaporated into the ether, along with the rest of his face and attendant parts, and his words fled like water spilled on sand. Damn the gods and their riddles, and damn me for asking, he spat, the voiceless curse dissipating into nothing as his lamed spirit plunged into oblivion.

 And yet, as luck would have it, the gods are perfectly capable of hearing mortal thoughts, and are, when they care to be, equally adept at answering them.

“Do as you have been told, Djamose,” commanded Osiris, “for the love of Bibleb.”

An Apostle’s Tale 0.2 – After the Fall

There came a crushing impact, and he distinctly felt every one of his bones shattered to splinters. And then he felt nothing except cool, damp stone against his hands and face.

In view of recent events he wasn’t ready to accept deliverance so easily, prudently remaining prone and motionless, preparing to meet whatever fresh abuse was about to commence with whatever dignity he could muster. No blow fell, however; no flame scorched him, no ice bit his flesh, no gaff pierced his vitals. After what seemed a sensible period of immobile anxiety, he relaxed enough to assess his new situation.

Wherever he was, the river hadn’t followed. Deep silence lay upon him like a heavy blanket. The stone under his hands felt level and smooth and reassuringly solid. Wherever he was, he couldn’t fall and wasn’t likely to drown.

So far, so good.

He opened his eyes and winced. A large, sandaled foot rested just inches in front of his splayed hands, ideally situated to launch a kick at his face, which seemed depressingly probable, under the circumstances.

Steady, now. Anything’s better than the river.

He drew a careful breath that sounded like a gale in that soundless precinct, lifted his gaze and beheld a striking apparition. A well-formed male of superior height stood over him, broad shoulders surmounted by the graceful neck and head of an ibis. He’d seen no end of images depicting otherwise human figures sporting the cap and countenance of lesser organisms, but meeting one up close and personal struck him as both comical and more than a little weird. A brilliantly white pleated skirt wrapped the figure’s waist, held in place by a belt of braided silver thread. Thick gold bands encircled its muscular arms, and beneath its long, curved bill hung an immense gold collar densely crusted with precious stones. Though not a religious man, he knew enough to recognize Thoth when he saw him.

He looks just like his picture.

Exactly what business the heavenly scribe had with him he couldn’t begin to guess. He cautiously raised himself to a kneeling position, keeping his hands respectfully open and palms-down on his legs, at the same time straining to keep his eyes on Thoth while holding his head piously inclined toward the floor. He held his peace, fearing it might be considered presumptuous to address a living deity without invitation. The god cocked its narrow head sideways in a familiar twitchy, disarmingly bird-like way and returned his gaze with a single round, unblinking eye. After what he thought an uncomfortably long time it seemed clear that Thoth was in no hurry to explain himself, which, he decided, gave him tacit leave to look elsewhere.

He saw before him a windowless rectangular chamber perhaps thirty feet long and twenty wide, dimly lighted from no obvious source. Six stout, square, and, he deemed, structurally unnecessary pillars supported the low ceiling, marching away from him in two even rows to the far wall, which lay cloaked in gloom. Apart from the bare stone floor, every surface was smoothly plastered and brightly painted. A large scale occupied the room’s center; two shallow copper bowls suspended from a plain wooden cross-tree perched atop a plain wooden post. A lone white feather was its only burden. At Thoth’s left heel sat the largest crocodile he’d ever seen, its eyes closed, to all appearances asleep, which didn’t make him feel any better about it.

Decorated stone benches ran the length of the walls on either side. The bench to his right stood empty, while that on his left held a stately panel of robed figures, perhaps a dozen serious-looking men, each sitting stiffly erect, each crowned by the regal menes headscarf and false beard reserved for kings, each wearing an identically stony expression that could be interpreted as solemnity, or possibly boredom, or even indigestion. None betrayed the slightest interest in him. On reflection, he preferred it that way.

As best he could tell, the wall above the empty bench to his right was entirely covered by unremarkable scenes depicting the unremarkable life of an unremarkable man – gathering bundles of grass; stooping under the weight of a heavy basket; dragging a large block of stone at the end of a rope, wielding a hammer and chisel. With a shock only slightly less jarring than falling into a flaming river, it dawned on him that the chamber was a tomb, and the unremarkable man was he, the unremarkable life was his, and the unremarkable scenes might be evidence at some manner of trial that appeared poised to begin.

“So I’m dead after all,” he said in a low whisper that hissed about the soundless crypt like falling sand, “and now I’m to be judged.”

With the sober panel of dead kings lending gravity to the proceedings, Thoth would weigh his heart against the feather. Should it be found too heavily freighted with sin and falsity, the great reptile at his heel – Eater of Souls, he remembered – would consume the guilty organ on the spot.

The surety of one’s demise might, in another man, precipitate a sense of loss, a moment of grief, a touch of apprehension, at least. Instead, kneeling on the hard, gray floor of his eternal abode, he felt a wave of relief wash over him like wind off the river on a stifling afternoon. Muscles relaxed and anxieties bled swiftly away to nothing, leaving him feeling agreeably tired, like a diligent laborer who completes a difficult job to own satisfaction. He’d worked hard at difficult jobs for as long as he could remember in return for little comfort and no peace at all. Life held no particular joy for him, and the thought of being parted from it occasioned no particular sadness. Like all creatures, he preferred living to the alternative, if only in principle, but at that moment, kneeling before eternity, he could think of no good reason to plead for reprieve. If he expected no better from the next world than he had received in this one, neither did he expect any worse. And if he had been an unremarkable man, he had also been a reasonably honest one, and he saw no reason to fear much in the way of remedial action. He wasn’t really up on the procedures involved, but he was confident the transition could be accomplished in relatively efficient and straightforward order.

“I’m ready,” he said, spreading his hands wide before him and touching his forehead to the floor, “to take my place among the dead.”

“You are not dead.”

It wasn’t a voice so much as a sigh, at once everywhere and nowhere, the secretive murmur of a breeze passing through a papyrus swamp. But it was not Thoth who had pronounced his living status. He became aware of a white figure that he sensed had been present all along. There was a dead man seated at the far end of the room upon a carved wooden throne, atop a low stone dais, beneath a plain white canopy. The morbid figure was tightly bound to the neck in ribbons of white linen, pale hands crossed upon his chest, one grasping a golden hook and the other a jeweled flail. The dual crown of the Two Lands sat upon his head. It could be no other than Osiris, Lord of the Underworld, august magistrate of that spectral court and Egypt’s foremost authority on death.

“If I’m not dead, then what am I doing in my tomb?” He didn’t mean to sound impertinent or impatient, but the good news was surprisingly disappointing. If his ordeal of the last few minutes wasn’t prelude to the Gardens of Plenty, then somebody was jerking him around.

“This is not your tomb,” Osiris replied, his face blank and still and so pale as to be almost transparent.

Of course it’s my tomb, he thought. Isn’t that my life scribbled all over the walls? He was about to make that point when he remembered that his family owned no crypt – could scarce afford to dig a shallow hole in the sand, for that matter – and that the sumptuously decorated sepulcher around him lay far beyond his meager personal resources. Has a patron made some provision without my knowledge? Who do I know with money?

“If it’s not my tomb, then what is it?

“It is a place between.”

Well, that tells me exactly nothing, he thought, and then nearly gagged as it belatedly occurred to him that Osiris could conceivably have the capacity to hear mortal thoughts and might not appreciate sardonic commentary, however valid. When, after several tense moments, Osiris made no move to punish the unspoken affront, he concluded that his private musings were still private and decided to risk a cautious nudge; maybe encourage the King of the Dead to more helpful revelation.

“If you’ll forgive my ignorance, a place between where and where else?”

“Between life and death.”

An Apostle’s Tale 0.1 – The Fall

He fell from darkness into darkness, tumbling weightless, surrounded by a cloud of his own fear and expecting at every instant to dash his fragile substance against indifferent earth.

At least I’ll die quickly, he thought.

He was mistaken. Time stretched away beneath him, agonizing seconds uncoiling like the rope of an anchor thrown in deep water, his body given up for dead, his mind clawing at emptiness, dread increasing with every beat of his racing heart.

He felt certain he must be screaming because the circumstances so obviously called for it, but could hear nothing. His was equally sure his arms and legs were flailing wildly – those being the only affirmative responses available to falling persons – but he could neither see nor feel his limbs. He felt lighter than sunlight, heavier than granite, at once plunging and soaring, accelerating into the expanding void.

As often happens when the doomed are cursed with a moment to reflect before crossing the threshold between vales of existence, he sought comfort in memory, sifting accumulated trinkets for something bright and pretty to cheer him into his grave. He was not happy, but not surprised, to find his earthly trove composed of poor stuff, dull and shabby, unhappy souvenirs of days spent in toil and discontent. Facing the bitter end of life, he merely confirmed that his life had been bitter all along.

Finding no consolation in his mortal scroll, he thought it advisable to beseech heaven, ask that the gods grant him a swift death, a merciful reception, and peace and ease in the immortal realm, which new effort failed as miserably as the first. He’d had little use for gods in life, asking from them nothing, expecting nothing, and, as far he was concerned, receiving nothing. In the final extremity, he discovered himself incapable of constructing even the simplest of prayers and without the faintest idea where such appeals are best directed. At the moment when even a nodding acquaintance with the divine could best serve him, his habitual apathy toward all things religious ensured he would enter the next world friendless and unescorted.

The two most immediate lines of deliberation thus unsatisfactorily exhausted, his thoughts turned to precipitating events. He sensed the hot echoes of fierce emotion within his panicked brain; surprise, and shock, and a towering anger.

Was I pushed? Am I murdered? Falling to one’s death should rightly leave a strong impression on one’s mind, he reasoned, and being helped into it by nefarious agencies, known or otherwise, even more so. But he could summon no memory of how he had come to the brink of ruin. Likewise, he could conceive of no cliff so tall, nor shaft so deep, that it could afford a falling man more life than that required to comprehend the finality of his situation, yet he’d already enjoyed more thoughtful insights in the course of his protracted descent than would normally occur to him in a year’s time. Yet within those very contradictions he perceived the faintest glimmer of hope. If his manner of falling was clearly impossible, then he was clearly not falling.

This is a dream. A bad dream. Perhaps I am stricken with fever. Or maybe I am under some powerful and malevolent spell, and this is simply an infernal delusion. I must in due course awaken, alive and whole. It is only sense.

He was in a mood to be persuaded, and just as the faintest spark of uncharacteristic optimism began to loosen the freezing band of terror around his hammering chest, his fugitive senses exploded back to business with a stupefying crash and he fell, screaming and flailing, into an icy river of fire.

He sank like a stone into a new contradiction – water so brightly red that it seared his eyes through tightly closed lids, so cold that he felt as if his flesh were being flayed from his bones. His choking fear of falling transitioned seamlessly into a choking fear of drowning, and after reassembling some part of his scattered wits he commanded his newly compliant limbs to action. He flailed to good purpose, now, although in the blinding tumult of the river he couldn’t be certain if he was fighting for the surface or making straight for the bottom. It struck him as patently unjust that he might survive an improbable fall only to drown in an implausible river.

But he didn’t drown, emerging head up and sputtering just in time to swallow a single, grateful breath before smashing painfully into a jagged boulder sitting low in the water. The river was littered with rocks, stealthy ranks strewn across the torrent like an undisciplined army, their sharp shoulders and broad shields tearing the flood into fanciful crimson fountains and broad scarlet fans. The secret to survival, he saw, was in keeping head above the angry flood while maintaining his body in a downstream attitude whereby he might stand a chance of avoiding onrushing obstacles before they battered him shards and splinters. Paralyzing cold and numbing fear notwithstanding, he managed to maneuver past the next few boulders without serious hurt and, in the process, get better acquainted with his surroundings. He observed that the river holding him captive was itself a captive. Irregular stone walls curved up on either side, forming a great echoing throat that amplified the rush and roar into a thunderous howl. Massive stone teeth knifed down from an unseen roof, their menacing points tinged blood-red, like a fearsome seine eternally combing the channel for morsels to satisfy an insatiable hunger.

I’m in a cave, he thought. That can’t be good.

Neither was he pleased to learn that he wasn’t alone. Lifted high on the crest of a wave, he glimpsed a grotesque figure leaning out from the bank, scanning the surface with a hundred staring eyes, a forest of drooling fangs bristling in its gaping mouth, a huge ax in its powerful grasp, raised and ready to strike. The current swept him past the monster almost before he had time to fear it, and he presently came to a massive gate leading to a chamber in which burned a vast fire. The figure of a beautiful woman stood before the gate in flickering silhouette, her sweet voice lifted high in a plaintive psalm that struck him as vaguely familiar. She beckoned to him with arms that were snakes, and her breath carried to him a ghastly stench of infection and decay. He slammed hard against another rock, and by the time he recovered he had drifted within reach of a giant, as tall as a giraffe and with the head of a great hyena, who stood upon a narrow shelf of stone by the river’s edge and repeatedly stabbed at the frantic swimmer with an enormous barbed spear.

If I survive this spell, I’ll kill whoever cast it.

Dense billows of darkness vomited from the mouth of another passage, and the red river shrieked aloud as the black effluent fouled its bright waters. He prudently began kicking for the opposite shore, nearly swimming straight into the grinning jaws of three enormous crocodiles lounging on the bank, spouts of crimson water reflecting like tongues of flame in their glassy black eyes. Reversing course again, he managed to regain what he took for the middle of the stream. But he was approaching the end of his strength. Blinding terror, brutal cold and frenzied exertion had taken their toll, and he knew that he must make for dry ground or perish. As he twisted awkwardly, sluggishly about, scanning the banks for any place not guarded by sharp stones or infested with dubious characters, he detected a change in the river’s mighty voice; a low growl, as much felt as heard, was rising within the prevailing howl. It was a sound he knew only too well: the boom and crash of falling water. In the span of perhaps only a few minutes he’d survived things that should rightly have killed him at least twice over, but it was the approaching cataract that finally defeated his will.

I give up.

He stopped thrashing and lay back in the boiling stream, filled with an unexpected quietude. Desperate efforts on behalf of life seemed suddenly pointless, even foolish.

I’ve always done my level best to look after my mortal property, he silently lamented, and to present myself in marketable condition. Spell or no spell, I’ve had it.

A soft and fatal peace enveloped him, and he was only distantly aware that a new sound had risen within the commotion, a faint and light and musical sound he absently recognized as the jangling cadence of a sistrum approaching from behind. Motivated by nothing more imperative than careless curiosity, he swung around to see who dared create a joyful noise within that terrible place. A stately barge bore down upon him; clean planks neatly joined, rails gilded sun-bright, great falcon’s eyes regarding him from either side of its sharp prow. A small forest of oars dangled from its sleek hull, apparently unmanned and carving wild arcs through the air as the ship careened through the maelstrom. It may have been a trick of the light, or perhaps a phantom of his overwrought imagination, but he conceived a fleeting impression of passengers aboard the vessel, robed in white, seated erect and still as death, expressionless faces staring straight ahead as the river carried them toward their fate. The menace was at last perfected, his doom inescapable, the terror exquisite. Just as a surplus of fulfillment can dull the mouth’s appetite for food, so does overindulgence eventually mute the mind’s capacity to fear. As the final course in such a lavish banquet of horrors, the spectral barge seemed rather bland fare, more absurd than menacing. He would have laughed out loud, but could no longer summon the energy.

If I survive this spell, I’ll have to congratulate whoever cast it.

Raised high by the surging water, the barge’s golden keel crashed down upon him even as the flaming river fell away beneath his idle feet, and he found himself again falling through darkness, this time surrounded by a rain of blood-red stars and the rapidly diminishing roar of the cataract.

At least it’s over, he thought.

He was wrong again.