Friday, 7 February 2014

Fragment of 'The Temple Plot'

The Queen is entombed and Merytaset acts upon the Goddess's sign in the hope of finding the missing Princess.

'Music splendours the soul', Isis the goddess of bird and fish and human, of all things, whispered in my ear. Tears fell like fronds. I marvelled at the power of the dancers and musicians to move me. We had wonderful, inspiring persons of this ilk in my own temple but this was the great Osirion, this was Alexandria. This was a requiem for a Pharaoh.

'You will be careful in the capital, won't you little one?'

I'd smiled at Userrera's use of the epithet. Only the old priest at Thebes, who had taught me, looked after me and loved me, still called me that. I'd smiled at his concern. We had been alone in our temple's inner sanctum. Two weeks and an age ago. I was on my knees, cleaning the feet of Amun with oil. I stopped and rose, turned towards the voice.

'Of course Aweni,' I replied, giving him the honorific he deserved, Master. 'But is there anything I should particularly be aware of?' I, as much as anyone, knew how dangerous our times were. Our leaders, all descended from the great one himself, Pharaoh Alexander, were, even if it may be blaspheme to utter it, a fickle lot. But, our present Queen, Pharaoh in her own right, was loved, truly loved, I thought, by all throughout Kemet. There had been peace for many years. Userrera had just raised his finger to his lips, the index finger on his right hand, like he'd done a thousand times to me before, when he wanted me to be calm, to stop running around, to listen, to study harder, to stop thinking and let the word of the Gods come to me. I had not thought to question him further. I'd turned back to my task of service.

Now I wished I'd pressed him. Had he known aught of what had transpired? Would it, could I have made a difference if I had been forewarned of the disaster. Had the Gods, had Isis been trying to tell me something? Perhaps, and perhaps I did not listen properly until I was being interrogated after the riot. Did not listen until it was too late.

I dried my eyes with a cotton square. The dancers refocused. Their dresses gleamed gold and blue, a fine fabric. A fabulous echo of the gilded sarcophagus we had recently carried here to the centre of the Osirion. Inside, the Queen's body lay, at rest, embalmed and soon to be entombed.

The song of revelation of Death, a song of transformation, finished. All eyes turned to me. Out of respect to the priesthood of Alexandria, I had hung back when the procession carrying the Queen had reached the temple. I had sat near the back during the service. But, the high priest had sent me a note late last night, and had confirmed his intentions in a whispered conversation earlier this morning. As the high priestess of Thebes, he felt it fit that I take part, moreover, he believed that Queen Cleopatra would have wished it so.

All eyes turned to me. I was to deliver the prayers of change, the prayer that supports us on our final journey, the prayer of supplication to Anubis, Nephthys and Djeuty. These prayers would ensure that the Ba of Cleopatra, if her heart were true, would be delivered to the halls of Amenti, across a sea that stretches beyond our earthly horizon. I lifted my skirts and on gravelly feet I made my way through the throng. To where my Queen lay upon a granite dais that had been strewn with flowers.

Do not ask me of the detail of what I spoke, This is not the time to tell you. You can find the prayers in any 'book of coming forth by day'. I cannot recall myself if I did the prayers properly. For my head was full of the damned plot that had taken our Pharaoh.


Two days later, sleepy and withdrawn, I found it hard to rest. Why did the perpetrators not strike at the city? Yes, it appeared they were not so crocodile hearted, for they had allowed us to observe the seventy days required to prepare Cleopatra for her journey, but she was now laid safely in her tomb. The high priest and I visited the sealed entrance every day. We gave offerings to Amun and Osiris, as was the custom. This would continue for fourteen days and then I would, should leave for Thebes. Except no one and nothing was moving. The chief of the local guard had, in fear, gripped the city in his hands, posting guards at the gates. No one got in or out.The atmosphere within the walls had grown into a siege mentality, the pressure palpable. Like a lidded pot forgotten on a fire, the city could explode at any moment.

The strange thing? There was no siege. No army camped on Alexandria's doorstep with a ruler in waiting. The chief sent his best, his shrewdest men to scout east, west and south. Nothing. Nothing nearby anyway. I wondered if this was a mental siege, an emotional oppression, to break the famous spirit of the Alexandrians and whomever it was who had slain Cleopatra would eventually sail up the Nile in the guise of a saviour not conqueror.

I shook my head in disgust, to free myself of this thought. Others just as unpalatable flooded in . Why could those born to rule us not live in harmony amongst themselves? Who might it be? The exiled sister Berenice, the half brother?

I remembered from my childhood there was an Uncle, brother of my Queen's father who quarreled with him and left the palace and Alexandria. As I was a young child and soon to be sent to Thebes, I never learnt the reasons. It could be any of them and it did not matter. The person most on my mind was in danger whichever Royal hand had blessed the assassin's blade.

I tossed and turned on my pallet, gave up on sleep and got up. Pulling back the curtained entrance to the rooms that had been loaned to me by the high priest, my skin was touched by warm water. July is always an uneasy mistress. The unseasonable rain, as if Nuit herself lamented the passing of Cleopatra, did nothing to allay the distrust in the air. It shimmered.

It was dusk but my tasks for the day were not over. Isis had given me a sign soon after the Queen's death. I'd known I must follow it but had waited. Now was the right time. I retrieved the oil lamp from my sleeping area and plucked my cloak from a hook near the door. Through empty streets, and breaking a curfew, I made my way to the old slave quarter. The quarter where I had been born.

At the entrance there was a cow that daily promised milk. It lay on the ground. Fast asleep. Its day done. Its keeper was no more than a boy. He rested his head against the beast's flanks, dozing, their breathing in harmony. I was loathed to disturb his peace but I needed to know, and know soon, if my reading of the sign was correct. And I could not afford to be caught by the guard and give the Chief another reason to throw me in prison. I gently tapped his shoulder.

'Priestess!' A little startled, he saw my robes and scrambled to his feet, bowing in a very sweet way.
'Please forgive the interruption, but you look like you know all about this place,' I gestured at the darkened walls behind him,'will you help me please?' I'd decided flattery would be the best path...
'Yes, Priestess,' he bowed again, 'of course, anything I can do I shall, and perhaps you will intervene with the Gods on my behalf,' he said, a roguish grin spreading.
I gave him a knowing look, I think! 'I shall make an offering to the blessed Lady for you, for your health and good fortune.' Even in the poor light of the lamp, I saw his face beam.
'Ahh, Adoratrice, thank you, how may I help you?'

My mother had known a seer when she was my age. He must be very old now if he was still alive. It was he that had brought me here, 'I seek the residence of Tel'eph, the...'
'Yes, the old one, the hermit. I know it, I know it' the boy interrupted and, having bent and whispered a sweet refrain into his cow's ear, he turned and made to go through the arch that marked the beginning of the quarter.

When I had asked my Mother why Tel'eph was known as the Hermit even though he lived amongst others, she told me that when he was but a young man he had taken himself off to the desert out west. He had been gone so long that his family, everyone, assumed that he had been driven mad and died. But, two years to the day of his leaving he returned with the powers of a seer. Ever since then, people had revered him and gone to him with their problems, for advice, for cures for all sorts of things.

I was not sure how apocryphal this tale was as I soon found out my Grandmother had told Mother the story. The truth was as likely lost as a city under the sand but, for sure, Tel'eph was the oldest inhabitant of this quarter and if anything happened he knew about it. I was convinced of that.

So, if she were hiding here, as Isis had shown me, then he would know. The Queen's daughter. Her only child, no more than five years of age I supposed. It was she that I'd searched for frantically amongst the tragedy I found in the Queen's quarters.

The boy was waiting, he tipped his head on one side 'yes, Priestess, he is here, I show you.'

I opened my arms to indicate he should lead the way, hoping I could summon the courage to save the girl if I found her. Around me, the shadows of Alexandria's buildings towered above.

The copyright of this post belongs to Gabrielle Goldsmith

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