By krichardson - Posted on 24 March 2010

 
Bahri in the Light of Ra
            The dust from my most recent project drifted into my eyes as her face slowly formed in the limestone of her funerary temple. This strong woman, who had commissioned me, could not really be captured by stone, but each project I had tried and tried again to give her ka a proper escape vessel into the afterlife, even if she would never reside here. The nine other statues that I had finished before were in shadowy relief, housed in their niches along the corridor. Gently I caressed her face and thought about the spirit that might one day live in this stone. Only one of divine birth, such as she, could appear so lovely despite having the body of a man and a false beard protruding from her chin. Only she, the Pharaoh, was allowed a beard of any fashion.
            “Badru, Ra is setting. Let’s head back to the city before complete dark!” Issa called to me from down the corridor. He held a torch in his paint-coated hands and it flickered over the finished works. The temple was very close to completion and each day it was harder to leave with such little left. It was Issa’s job to paint the statues once I had finished carving them, so his skin was constantly dyed a different hue. Our work became nearly impossible without the daylight to guide our eyes to detail so we would leave as Ra began his journey into the underworld.
            “I am coming.” My breath stirred more dust from the half finished face as I silently bid it goodnight. The statue of Hatshepsut faded from view as we made our way out of the chamber and I tried to stop myself from thinking about the woman I had been depicting all day. The sunken reliefs of stories told flashed as we walked passed whispering of her divine birth and lineage. These cold depictions could not capture the way her black hair shown like onyx or her eyes that could cut straight to the soul of any man, especially one as lowly as me, but they were silent homage to her glory.  
            As we exited the temple of Deir el-Bahri a group of guards approached us herding a few other artists. This was my least favorite aspect of being a commissioned artist. We were no longer allowed to leave the Capitol and we were rarely left alone to our own devices unless we were working. The architects were so scared that we would leave, and our skills exploited elsewhere, we were guarded like well-kept secrets. Jibade, Thutmose III’s younger half-brother from their mother, led the group towards us. His bulking frame was surprisingly agile for the amount of muscle he carried on his bones.
            “Omorose, done for the day already? Perhaps the dark hours frighten such a pretty young girl, making you call out for your mother.” His voice rumbled and grated my eardrums as his pet name for me rolled from his tongue. At this point the insult of being called a woman no longer stung. Disgust and mockery twisted his scarred features into a grotesque mask of contained violence from such a simple slight as not reacting to his taunts. Fear chilled me as his eyes promised future pain when my silence continued. He was Thutmose III’s favorite guard, but not very intelligent. His ruthlessness was known throughout the land from his half-brother’s many victories in Punt, but he could easily be led astray with a witty sentence. He may have shared a mother with a man of royal blood, but I was glad he did not share any with Her Majesty the Pharaoh, or else my loyalties and affections might have waned over the years.
            “Come on Jibade, Badru may be a good looking man, but I would not call him beautiful by any standards.” Issa smiled at the behemoth and warranted a laugh from one of the other guards trying to defuse the tension of the situation. Jibade spit on the ground at our feet and turned to lead the way back to the city for the night.
            “You are lucky the Pharaoh is pleased by your works or you would find yourself in a desert ditch with neither foot nor tongue by tomorrow. There would be no yelling for help nor running to safety. It would be you versus Seth, and I would not bet on you.” Jibade’s rebuttal had been delayed, but there was vehemence and promise behind his words. I thought I caught a sneer in his voice when he mentioned the Pharaoh as well. Issa’s tanned face flushed slightly before fading to a sickly pale in the diminishing light and his throat worked to swallow. I did not envy him.
            We were deposited at our house as Ra’s final rays were swallowed by the horizon. The faint glow of our living quarters did not appeal to me, but there were no other options at this time of night. Oseye bustled about preparing our night-time meal as we pushed open the shutter door and stepped into our small abode. She was a young neighbor who cooked for at least five houses on this block.
            “Smells good Oseye, thank you,” Issa commented. Oseye’s pale skin flushed red and she dropped her gaze with nimble fingers still working to finish our dinner. Her braid slipped over her shoulder and seemed to dance in the fire light.
            “It is no trouble at all. Are you hungry?” Her movements were quick and efficient since we were not the last stop of the night.
            “Famished,” Issa rubbed an appreciative hand on his stomach and slapped my back with the other. “Why so quiet Badru? I have heard your voice but once today. Surely Oseye deserves some praise for her hard work!” I pursed my lips and looked at him.
            “Perhaps I do not feel the need to fill silence with useless chatter. But I do apologize for any offence. Thank you for the meal Oseye, it is greatly appreciated.” He just smiled and took a seat near the table, ignoring my foul mood. Oseye bobbed again, serving us and leaving quickly. I caught her glancing at me a few times but she did not speak again.
“Really, Badru, you could be nicer to the girl. She will think us cruel men if you keep this up. I had hoped that one day I may touch her soft flesh, but you are ruining my chances.” His eyes danced with firelight and lecherous thoughts. I snorted.
            “The girl is meek as a mouse, Issa. I do not think she will succumb to you. She is a woman of marrying worth and unless you wish for a wife she is out of your reach. I would not advise you to make a habit of ruining virgins for their marital beds. We do not need enraged fathers after us too. And I was plenty nice to her.” I tore bits of flat bread from the loaf and dipped them into my stew. It was still warm from the fire. My stomach groaned with pleasure as its needs were fulfilled.
            “Please, you make it seem as if we have enemies.” I quirked a brow but continued to eat. “Who would you consider an enemy then? We are well liked. Well at least I am.” He flashed a grin.
            “Anyone you have beaten unfairly through gambling, half the palace guards, wronged husbands? Does any of this seem familiar? I’m surprised we have not been murdered in our sleep as of yet.” I did not argue that he was better liked, for though Issa had enemies, he also had friends.
            “Why would the palace guards hate us?” He dropped his chunk of bread into the soup and pushed it beneath the broth’s surface until it was completely saturated. He picked up the soggy pile with his red and black fingers and swallowed it whole. Of course he could not refute the two other groups of adversaries.
            “They seem to prefer Thutmose III to Her Majesty, perhaps they dislike us because we are among her favored? I do not understand completely why they would hate me otherwise, but you poke fun at them and many have short tempers.” He chuckled around his food but there was a glint of fear in his eyes. Jibade’s words still rang in both our ears.
            “Please, Badru, that is foolish, it is you who ask for mockery when you walk around with such distain. It’s almost a contest to see who can make you lose your composure the fastest. I imagine the stakes are high at this point. I really doubt the palace guards, who are meant to guard her life, would turn on the Pharaoh, let alone me.” He smiled and shook his head at such a preposterous thought. I stood from my place and walked to my room without another word to my housemate. “Fine, then, walk away, but my words are still true!” he called to me as I pulled my door closed.
            My room was sparse and unwelcoming and had the smallest window available. Yet when Issa and I moved in I requested it. Issa did not understand why I had wanted it in the first place but did not complain when he got the larger room with a window that over looked Thebes and the Nile. His window allowed a picture of true panoramic bliss that he seemed to enjoy.
However, he did not know that my window looked up to the Palace to a view that I valued far more. A specific hallway the Pharaoh travelled to enter her chambers was situated for my viewing. She would make this trip at least once a day around the same time and I would watch her. It was part of my nightly ritual. He did not realize that I sat here every evening just waiting for a glimpse of her beauty.
            I lit the lone lamp on my desk and sat to work on a small statue I was making. It was a serdab for the Pharaoh’s spirit to inhabit, and one day I hoped to give it to her. As the oil ran low in my lamp and my eyes and fingers were bleary with exhaustion, she finally came. I could not see the hair I wished to touch nor much of the feminine body beneath her robes, but she still stole my breath with her mere presence.
            She was walking with Senenmut beside her, a respectful distance between them. I assumed they were discussing some aspect of the Temple since Senenmut was the architect, but I could not be sure as to their subject matter. As they neared the corner of the corridor a trick of the light made it appear as if he touched her arm, causing fury to boil my insides. My breath came in short gasps as I tried to reign in this unexpected rage. Perhaps the tinkle of laughter that flit to my ears was my imagination or a misinterpretation. I could not be sure since the sound of my own blood coursing through my veins was deafening. They turned the corner and were lost to my sight quickly, but my breath still came in small pants when the lights were extinguished.
            There was talk that Senenmut was the Pharaoh’s lover, but I had always dismissed the claim, for I foolishly believed that if I, who had watched her for so long, had never seen them together, they could not possibly be so. But now the hours I had spent at Deir el-Bahri made my chest clench. Perhaps they would meet during the day and the light would caress her bronze skin as he touched her with his unclean hands. Perhaps they would meet and savor each other in disguise so as not to draw attention.
            There were too many options and not enough answers. My feet cut a familiar path across my floor as I paced from desk to door over and over again. I knew my feelings of betrayal were unjustified since she did not even know of my existence, but they still lingered in my consciousness as the night wore on and sleep never came.
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            The next few weeks were torture as I watched Her Majesty stroll the temple grounds with Senenmut beside her. They would laugh and she would smile a smile bestowed by the Gods themselves. So the rumors were true. I would hear and see them in my sleep, causing me to toss and turn through the dark hours. I had taken to staying awake as much as possible to avoid the torment. Issa’s humor could not even bring me from my foul mood; therefore I did not speak much either. We had not spoken for so long I could barely recall the sound of his voice. I just watched, fumed, and carved. I carved my heart into the Temple walls and raised reliefs formed under my hands. I gave my love to a woman of stone, and caressed the face of an empty rock.
            “Badru, I must say that your sculptures look different than normal recently.” Senenmut’s voice caused my spine to stiffen as I brushed dust from the statue I was working on.
            “And why is that?” Venom dripped from my words and I did not turn around in a show of defiance. I could be whipped for such insolence, but the pain of my voice being dragged from my throat was the first feeling I had enjoyed in many a night. I did not want to look into Senenmut’s face; perhaps this feeling could spread to the rest of my body if I was physically punished. Maybe they could gauge out my eyes so I would never have to see them together. I did not want to see the one she chose. I did not even want to be at this Temple at which I slaved for years and poured out my very soul.
            “You remember the political unrest that arose from my being depicted as a woman? Well your statues are becoming more life-like in that they are showing signs of my gender.” The heat that had been coursing through me for so long chilled to an exquisite ice. Could she really be speaking to me? I stumbled as I turned around to see the Pharaoh standing next to my work inspecting every detail with a critical eye. The only aspect that was wrong was that she held Senenmut’s hand in her own. She was still perfection in my eyes despite choosing this man or the small signs of age around her eyes.
            Bile rose in my throat and I bowed to my Pharaoh. My knees hit the hard stone and my shoulders trembled slightly with suppressed emotions.
            “I… I’m sorry. I did not realize. I carve what I see. Please forgive me!” I bent until my forehead touched the cool stone and I could barely see the Pharaoh’s sandals in my periphery.
            “It is alright. I was curious to see if you were trying to infuse propaganda into my temple on the orders of my nephew or honestly just caught up in the art. If you were spreading propaganda there would have been great repercussions.” I slowly slid back to my knees and gazed openly into the face of the most beautiful woman in the world. My stomach relaxed knowing in this moment I was the only thing she saw.
            “I would never do such a thing! Would you like me to change the statues?” Sweat slid down my spine as the thought of my work causing her harm hit my nervous system. She caught one perfect lip between her teeth and tugged on it as she contemplated my suggestion.
            “I do not think it is a problem yet, but please do not make the differences more pronounced as you continue,” Senenmut commented, glancing between the two of us. Irritation caused his brows to furrow but he did not say more.
            “Yes, I agree. Alteration is not necessary, just continue your work. You do it wonderfully. Truly your gift is blessed by the Gods.” She reached up and caressed the stone I had just been shaping as if it were her daughter Nofrure, or perhaps the man beside her.
            I lowered my head again before responding.
            “Thank you your majesty, may Horus keep you safe.”
            “And may Bes protect you from any lurking snakes; my speaking to you might stir some problems in the future.” The sincerity and shrewd truth in her voice surprised me.
            “Thank you.” Their sandals made small sounds as they moved away from me. I stood from the floor and my knees protested. Angry marks were forming on my skin as the blood rushed back to its rightful place. The pain empowered me and I returned to work with more vigor than before. The urge to finish the temple filled me and I did not stop until all light was gone and Jibade stood in the doorway waiting for me alone.
            I swiped grime from my face and coughed a few times when the night air hit my face. My lungs were full of stone dust that would not leave my chest. Jibade thumped my back hard enough to jerk me forward, but did not speak. That was unusual, but pleasantly so. As we walked back to the city alone, since everyone else had left long before, I could not seem to take a deep breath. Jibade kept shooting me disgusted glances but did not attack me verbally. I was almost tempted to make small talk but it did not seem worth the sound of his voice.
            We reached my house and I moved to go in when I thought I heard Jibade mutter something. I glanced over my shoulder and tried to listen as he stalked back towards the palace. Originally I thought the words “tonight, later, be back,” had been spoken, but I could not be sure. His voice was deep enough it could have just been aggressive growling at the inconvenience I had just forced upon him.
            The house was quiet as usual except for a faint thumping rhythm from Issa’s room that meant he had company. I did not call out to him but instead just closed the door to my room to block out any passionate words that might make it though his walls. Without lighting my lamp I stood next to my window and looked up at the small piece of visible sky.
            Khons was at his largest tonight, but there was a strange orange tint to his normally silvery complexion as he watched over his father’s kingdom. Ra had disappeared hours before and there was no one stirring tonight. To be honest I was not sure if that was a normal occurrence. Of all the years that I sat and looked out my window, I had never paid attention to any other person I might see except Her Majesty. Yet this solemn quiet did not seem normal. There was always some noise drifting up from the city, but not tonight. Not even the wailing of a babe cut the silence.
            I sat at my desk and picked up the serdab for the Pharaoh. It was complete. The best thing I had ever made with my two hands. I rubbed my thumb over her headdress and uraeus and sent up a silent prayer before setting it back down. I hoped Wadjet, who regally sat atop Her Majesty’s crown, would here my plea. Stripping off the clothes from my day, I lay on my cot to sleep. The cloth of my bed prickled my skin as I slid against it. The straw of my mattress jabbed and irritated my skin with every position I chose. Eventually exhaustion claimed me and I fell into a fitful sleep.
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            I woke in a cold sweat shivering in the warm air. Only the sound of my labored breathing could be heard. Forcing myself to calm down, I listened, trying to hear what had ripped me from slumber. A faint thump sounded from the living area and I jumped from my bed. It was probably Issa’s bed partner sneaking out while he was sleeping, but those footsteps were too heavy sounding.
            Tiptoeing to my door I pressed my ear to the wood. No sound came through. Slowly, I pushed it open and was greeted by nothingness. Darkness met my eyes and it was a few seconds before I could see in the dim glow of the fire embers. There did not appear to be anything out of place, but I could not be sure. Gently I reclosed my door and shuffled to retrieve my lamp.
            My fingers shook as I tried to light the wick. Finally it sparked to life and its light comforted me. I turned to investigate but grabbed the serdab as an afterthought. Once again I found myself peering around my cracked door, but there was still no movement.
            The floor was cold beneath my bare feet as I slid them across its surface. I made it to the table before noticing the front door was ajar. A chair was knocked over and our cooking pot lay on its side. My fist clenched on the statue in my pocket and I took strength from Hatshepsut. Faint voices whispered outside, but I did not worry myself with other peoples’ business, only Issa’s safety was on my mind. I rest my hand on the corner of the table and it came away wet. Tentatively I rubbed my fingers together but could not tell what liquid painted my skin.
            My feet took me to Issa’s door and I peered in. His bed was rumpled and the blankets were strewn on the floor. I hurried back to the living area and tried to find some clue as to what happened when I saw it. It glistened in the light of my lamp and my stomach clenched to the point of pain. The room tilted on its axis and I grabbed the wall for support leaving a bloody handprint along the mud brick.
            A scream split the night, causing me to stumble blindly back to my room in blind terror. I shut the door to block the sight of the severed tongue that lay on my table and crumpled to the floor under my window staring at the blood on my own hands. The image of it sitting in a black pool of congealing blood was burned into my memory. I tried to rub the liquid from my palm against the floor but it persistently stained my skin. It reminded me of the way Issa’s skin was stained and I feared for him. The scream was cut short and I edged up my wall to peer out. Guards were marching along the narrow passageways, and up in the Palace I watched Thutmose III striding down the corridor towards Hatshepsut’s rooms.
            Cries of warning unintentionally burst from my lips, but there was no one to hear. There was no one else to see when he dragged her from her chamber by her hair in nothing but a silk shift. There was no one to see a guard bludgeon Senenmut to silence him when he followed enraged. There was no one to see when Thutmose III pushed her from the edge of the walkway after a string of harshly whispered words. I was the sole witness as she fell over fifty feet to her ultimate demise. I could hear her body make contact with the ground, and I felt a part of me die with her.
            A chill shuddered through me and I sank to the floor. The serdab in my pocket was strangely warm next to my skin as tears silently streamed down my face. I clutched the statue to my chest and tried to block out the screams of the world as people were silenced all around me.
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            “Get up.” A swift kick found my side and I sprawled painfully on the floor. “I said get up!” Jibade kicked me once more before I groggily scrambled to my feet. “Get dressed.” He threw something at me and I was too disoriented to comprehend the command. I glanced at the clothes he had given to me and then back at him. “There are things to be done now, move!” Jibade roared at me before storming from the room. I pulled the clothes on and glanced around. Was last night real? Did any of those events actually occur?
            I grabbed the serdab and stuck it in my pocket again before moving out into the living area where guards waited. My stomach plummeted to my feet when I saw that the tongue still lay on the table. It was dried and did not resemble what it once was, but it was enough to convince me last night was not a horrible dream. A trail of blood dribbled the floor leading to my doorway and outside as well.
            “Come, Badru, we must depart.” I nodded stiffly and left my house without a backward glance. We followed the blood trail until it was lost in the dirt. There was a point where there was even more blood but I tried not to think about it. Outside the sun was blinding and everyone seemed to be moving in a daze. There was no outward damage that I could see besides blood spatter, but everyone seemed tentative as they went about their business.
            The walk was strained, but not terrible, to the Temple at Deir el-Bahri. Jibade had disappeared after kicking me awake so I was relieved when he wasn’t inside. I was sure that he was responsible for the mutilation of Issa and anger caused my throat to burn. Perhaps I could slip away and look for Issa once we were back in the city for the night. Hopefully he was able to hole up somewhere safe for now, but even as the thought formed I doubted that he was still in this life.
            Seeing a large statue of Hatshepsut that I myself had carved recently brought the previous night’s events back into my mind in vivid color. My breath froze in my throat as I remembered her descent from on high onto the hard stone beneath. Tears sprung to my eyes as realities crashed around me. Finally the actions of the other artists surrounding me registered. Not only was Hatshepsut dead, but these artists were chipping away at any of the inscriptions that held her name. As her history was cleared, scarred stone was left in its wake as if she had never existed.
            “You will be starting back here in this hallway. Your objective is to remove the old Pharaoh’s name from all of the stories. Any questions?”
            “What happened to the Pharaoh?” A young artist, that I did not recognize, asked while clenching his hammer and chisel to his chest as if he would fall apart, but he looked determined for an answer.
            “The Pharaoh took a terrible fall last night. I’m sorry to be the one to inform you, but she has passed on to the next life.” The guard’s face took on a solemn look but his eyes were as blank as this stone was about to become. The artist’s shoulders slumped and he did not ask any more questions. “If that is all, we need to complete this project.” We artists were herded to various sections of the Temple to tear down statues and eventually burn them in a pit to destroy the evidence of their existence. If not destroy, then desecrate them to the point of oblivion.
            Each piece of her history that was thrown into the fire or smashed caused the statue in my pocket to grow warmer. My hair stuck to my face and neck in wet clumps as I helped smash statue after statue. The crumbling pieces were kin to my heart as years of my life were destroyed along with the memory of Hatshepsut.
            “So did you hear about the severed feet they found this morning?” A man to my right whispered to another as they hoisted a statue from its pedestal.
            “No! What happened?” They heaved a week’s worth of labor into the fire.
            “Well apparently someone found a pair of severed feet this morning. No one knows who they belonged to, or where the person without them might have ended up!”
            “May the owner find them, before it is his turn to enter the after-life.” They both glanced to the sky in silent prayer showing respect despite their gossip. No one wanted to wander the afterlife without feet. I was shocked into silence. My eyes unintentionally sought out Jibade because he would be the culprit of such a horrible crime. He was still nowhere to be seen. In fact all the guards seemed to have disappeared. Nausea had me clutching my stomach and people stepping away from me as I made my way off of sacred ground to purge.
            I still do not remember making the decision to run once my stomach was empty, but run I did. Sand slid under my sandals as I sprinted away from the Temple out into Seth’s domain. I did not slow until my legs shook and gave out completely. My skin felt tight across my face and my lips bled copper into my mouth. The hot sand burned my face, but I was too tired to move from the position I had landed in.
            Somehow I managed to wiggle my hand into my pocket and I pulled out the serdab. My fingers checked it over for any imperfections or scratches, but I found none. Despite being far from the Temple now, I could feel the destruction of each piece of art as if my soul was the one being harmed. I could feel Hatshepsut in the serdab I created for her as her other vessels were destroyed one by one. She was warm against my heated skin and she brought comfort as a vulture circled lazily overhead.
            Sleep pulled at my consciousness as my tongue chased around my mouth searching for moisture but only dried blood was present. I could not see any sign of civilization in either direction when I lifted my head to peer over the dune I lay on. The wind shifted sand into my straining eyes so I closed them. Precious water was lost in my tears.
Lying in the baking sun, the will to live drained from my body. I decided this dune would be my final resting place, for a world without Hatshepsut was not worth living in. A world that wished to destroy any memory of her magnificence was not one for me.
Hours passed as Ra travelled closer to the horizon. No one found me and I doubted they even searched. The vulture sat and watched from a safe distance, to wary to come closer until I ceased all movements. Curling on my side with the serdab cradled in my hands I sent a prayer to the Gods as Ra silently slipped beneath the edge of the world. All I prayed for was peace.
 

 

 

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