THE KINGDOM OF TA-SET
KHER NETER (THE NECROPOLIS)
CITY OF THE WORKERS
The mist hung over the land, melting before the rising sun. Four hundred meters south of the place marked for the building of the Mer, the place of ascension and the resting place of the kings, the city of the workers slowly wakened. One by one, men poured out of the small mud-brick houses and mud ramps built into the paved streets that led to the site. Young women followed behind in their plain white sheathe dresses, reed baskets on their heads. They soon disappeared round a path behind the high eastern wall towards the quarries where blocks of stone hewn from rocks the day before awaited them.
The march continued unbroken. At the head of the procession were the men who were tasked with overseeing the work for which the city had been built – The royal master builders. The masons and the mathematicians who followed behind the overseers conferred in low tones among themselves as they brooded over the matter of the Mer’s foundation.
“Perhaps we erred,” said Thaneni, a smallish man with blood-flecked eyes and a mouth that stretched wide on his thin face. “Perhaps we ought to fill the canals with water to measure the place from which the foundation is to end.”
The one who walked beside Thaneni cast him a hard frown. He was Setau, a man great in size and quick in anger.
“By the gods! Do not waver like an unsteady boat Thenani. How much is the water with which we are to measure the pits?”
Thenani looked uneasily at the back of Ti, the chief of the mathematicians.
“Six cubits perhaps.”
They arrived at the place of the Mer. The land lay bare and cut into a large square held the canals the men had dug for the foundation. They set to work, every one of them, the mathematicians setting their poles and lines to catch the shadow of the sun when it travelled to its resting place at the end of the day. Thenani and those with him labored at the canals, cutting away the rocks above the water and smoothing the surface to the satisfaction of their master Ti. Falling into rhythm, the masons heaved finely cut stones to the middle of the square and began to build the wall. Their master Khui, eyes lined with the dark gray mesdemet waved his flywhisk impatiently at them.
“Hurry! The king comes at the noon hour.”
The words had scarcely left his mouth when they heard the loud clatter of horses in the distance. The men and their master builders turned in the direction of the cloud of dust that preceded the arrival of their king and son of the goddess. He emerged from the cloud, towering far above them, his forearms oiled and bulging with strength as he observed from his chariot. The men fell to their knees.
The ones who ran on the sides of his royal chariot, the archer and the spearman, took the reins from his hands as he strode into the midst of the workers. The master builders eager to gain favour his sight, shoved the workers aside and bowed low to the ground until their breaths fanned the sand at his feet. They remembered the decree – how he was the son of the living sun god. They rose again to their feet still making obeisance, their hands held before their eyes.
“How great the light that comes from you Lord. What are we that you would bring us such honour to behold your face? That you would come to us?”
He watched them in the still manner that unnerved the bravest of men. The men stood frozen in their flattery until he spoke to the chief of the mathematicians, Ti.
“I sent word. Did you not receive it?”
His lips parting to show rows of teeth worn from the grit that filled the hard bread he favoured with wine, Ti bobbed before Irsu.
“I received it my Lord.”
Sighing within him, Irsu threw his head back to watch the sky.
“The plan does it conform with the path of the great one?”
Doubt crossed the face of the chief of the mathematicians but it was fleeting. He snapped in the direction of the one who had marked the path of the god of the afterlife in the sky.
“The scroll, Thaneni.”
Hurrying forward, Thenani stuck the papyri scroll in the hand of his master. He dared once to look at Irsu, quickly turning away when Irsu sensing his attention moved his head in his direction. Pulling the scroll apart and bowing to the ground, Ti offered the scroll to Irsu who pulled it apart and began to read with his characteristic stillness. They waited, breath stuck in their throats for his verdict.
The vision had come to him, king and high priest of his people and as with the magnificent tekhenu built at the entrance of the holy temples for protection against the evil ones, he demanded perfection in the works of the people for that through them the world may know of the greatness of the people. Breaking his silence, Irsu looked from the scroll to the master royal builders.
“And the limestone, do you send men to Troyu to gather them?”
“Yes my lord, a hundred men my lord.”
Irsu remembered the vision.
And the place shall be white and made of many stones
Four faces shall make its form – Three in one, one in three.
Three shall face the heavens and one shall face the earth
True north shall its foundations be raised
And the point shall ascend towards the light of the sun
Marking Usir’s path. We meet. We meet again.
For I am you and you are me.
“It shall be a place of secrets,” Irsu to the men, his voice low and measured, “ and a place of rebirth.”
The men bowed to him again and answered with one voice.
“Let the king’s will be done.”
Turning from them, he looked back upon the city, meditating on its progress. The people had taken root and like the sycamore tree spread upon the land like many branches. He heard the happy laughter of the children and the hapless bleating of goats set on the slaughter lab for the evening meal. He saw in the city’s expansion a fulfillment of his ambition.
In the end, his eyes settled upon every man, searching deep into their souls. Though flawed, their devotion to the building of the Mer was as clear as noonday. For this, he handsomely rewarded them with provisions and the finest linens. Two moons ago, he had ordered the lower priest to teach the magic of the stones to the master royal builders lest the weight be a yoke upon their shoulders and make them slow. He had determined that the first Mer would be completed in his time. The son his wife Nefekhare carried within her would build the others.
THE TEMPLE OF THE GODDESS
The tomb of Ahmose was lit by the single flickering flame of the oil lamp that burned in the one of the niches of the wall as Qalhata kept watch, watching and listening for the approach of his spirit. Her eyes looked into the distance and she whispered her longing.
“My soul yearns for your return. Come again spirit, come he whose name was Ahmose.”
But for the shrill scream of the wind brushing the temple’s walls, none answered her. Her hands tight against her sides, Qalhata opened her heart to the voice of the goddess.
The cord that binds him to this place is no more
He awaits the rebirth
Qalhata shook her head.
“It is not time.”
Her eyes glimmered with tears and Qalhata knew that life would no more remain the same. Ahmose was gone from her forever.
“It is fitting that I join him.”
Your time is not yet come.
“My work here is finished.”
Who then shall be goddess after you?
Qalhata thought about Nefekhare and how much she loved the girl who now felt to her like her own daughter.
“But she bears a son.”
The goddess no more spoke within her and she pondered her dilemma. Were she to choose the eternal silence to the life she no more desired, who would keep the ways of the goddess alive? Her sister Nucit bore no child of her own and showed no desire to learn the magic of the goddess. Her eyes narrowing on the dancing flame of the lamp, she breathed her command.
Queen of the Per-Ao Ahmose the second, known as Meryt-Netjert to her subjects and Neferkare to her husband and the one who bore her husband waited in the courtyard as the king made his way into the temple. Radiant with love and heavy with the child she was soon to bear, she received his affectionate kiss when he stopped before her. Lingering at his neck. Nefekhare inhaled her husband’s scent, wondering to herself if she could ever cease to love him.
“You look well,” Irsu told her when they broke apart. His hand settled lightly on her stomach. “Does he kick?”
“Yes he does,” she said, her smile deepening.
The sound of feet padding softly behind them caused them to turn. A young maiden stood in the shadow of the king, bowing low to the ground. Nefekhare’s joy began to ebb slowly. The maiden Yamtisy was new to the temple. She possessed gentle speech and was of easy manner but yet the heart of Nefekhare was not at ease. She sensed in the girl ambition and even as she looked at the king, Nefekhare was certain that the maiden sought to take her place.
She bowed again to Neferkare.
Her attention returned to Irsu and Yamtisy’s smile turned beguiling.
“Does the king require his servants to prepare for the ritual?”
Neferkare observed the king in silence as soon as the maiden had left to the inner sanctuary. He watched her in return, his brows drawing together in a knot.
“You fear her beauty surpasses your own?”
A denial began to form on Neferkare’s lips and then she recalled Irsu’s magic and how easily he could hear the voices within her. His fingers caressed the line of her jaw.
“You have no need of fear. I desire none besides you.”
She stood in the temple courtyard, one hand cradling her stomach and watched him make his way to his cleansing chamber. So occupied was she with her misgivings about Yamtisy that she did not notice Qalhata approach.
“You worry about another.”
The surprise on her face transformed to joy again as she faced the older woman.
A gentle hand forced her chin upwards and dark eyes fixed steadfastly on her own.
“Tell me child, why do you worry?”
Held in place by Qalhata’s gaze, Neferkare felt a rush of peace. She knew at once what she must do.
“Teach me magic mother,” she said, drawing closer to Qalhata and pressing kisses on the back of her hand. “Teach me the ways of the goddess.”
Silence followed in the wake of her request, leaving Neferkare beset with doubts. Had her words offended the goddess? Had she –
“You think too much my child.”
Qalhata’s lips moved in the semblance of a smile even as her face remained unyielding.
“It is you then.”
Turning gracefully, Qalhata made her way to her chamber, her robe floating behind her like birds’ wings. Neferkare hurried behind Qalhata, her heart trembling with excitement. Her breasts bare and surrounded by a dozen burning lamps, Qalhata waited for her in her chamber. Hands outstretched, she beckoned Neferkare to join her. Soon they stood together in the circle and the older woman took into her hands the face of the younger.
The soothing scent of the kapet wafted into her nostrils. She inhaled the mint, camel grass and cinnamon of the kapet until she was serene and without thought. She heard the voice of the goddess and felt as though there were others in the chamber with them. She heard the chant as though from another place. When she opened her mouth, the words flowed through her.
“I enter and pass through you. I decay in you. I spring forth from you. I am the goddess and I am you.”
The ones she had felt appeared once the ritual had ended. Dozens of them, they sprang forth from the air as if loosened by an invisible hand. They watched her in silence. Qalhata spoke to them in the voice of the goddess and they bowed to Neferkare. The light bathing her face in an unworldly glow, Qalhata touched Neferkare’s shoulder.
“There, it is in you now.”
His rituals and meditation concluded, Irsu sought out his mother. He found her reclining on the pillows of her chaise in the garden. He perceived the sorrow in her before he took his place on the gilded stool that was his own.
Her eyes remained on the starless sky but she reached out to stroke his face.
Stilling the hand on his face, he pulled it gently to his lips.
“You mourn him.”
Qalhata turned to look into the earnest eyes of her son.
“His spirit no more answers my summons.”
“He waits the rebirth.”
“Qalhata sighed. “Yes.”
Mother and son sat in the silence. The cries of the ibis and the other birds settled on the branches around them filled the air. Irsu was first to speak again. He told her about the building of the Mer and the growth of the city of the workers. He told her of the tombs and all the secret places, and how the temple of his resting place would be against the eastern wall of the Mer.
“It will be raised high above the ground and near to the peak that mark Usir’s path so that nothing may hinder my soul’s journey to the celestial Nile. There I will be joined with the sun.”
Qalhata touched the face of her son again, her smile growing wistful.
“Though you were made in his exact image, he was called the moon child.”
“And I choose the sun.”
“Yet his powers live in you.”
The Per- Ao Ahmose the second, called Irsu by those he loved, sighed heavily. He could sense the despair and the loss of will to live in his mother. He held the hand on his face, gripping it tightly.
“Neferkare bears my son in the coming days.”
Qalhata’s eyes fluttered close.
“Live for me, for the son to be borne to me, for your subjects. Your land.”
“I have lost all Irsu.”
“Your sister Nucit lives.”
“But it is him who was my all. I killed him that the land may find peace but I have lost peace.”
The joy of his triumphs and the visions of the Mer slipping away from him, Irsu’s throat ached with restrained sorrow.
“I will join him at the place of rebirth Irsu. I must.”
Irsu closed his eyes, his grip on his mother’s hand tightening.
“If you must then you must mother.”
MAY 11, 2015
JACOB MEWS ESTATE
The thick brocade curtains of the room shut out the morning light, leaving its occupants cocooned in darkness. The bed covers moved on the large bed and the man reached for the languid body of the woman beside him. She went to him without a word, and then parted her thighs as he heaved his body off the bed and clambered over her. His fingers invaded her just before his mouth clamped hard over the spot between her thighs.
Time slowly ticked away and the woman, exhausted from the activities of the night before began to drift into sleep. A sudden jerking motion forced her awake and she sat up in bed just as light flooded the room. The man stood beside the door, beard glistening with moisture as he watched the door with a perplexed frown. The woman tried to call him but realized she did not know his name.
“I will be back,” he said to her, leaving the room and closing the door behind him. The woman scanned the room once and then fell back to the bed in deep sleep. Downstairs the three-room duplex, the man crept along the perimeter of the living room certain that he had heard a door slam a few minutes ago. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end and a small rivulet of sweat trickled down his side from his armpit when he heard another sound coming from the end of the living room.
“Who is there?”
His heart thundering in his chest, he took small steps, feeling his way around the walls for the light switch. He thought of the gun in the drawer at the bottom of the wardrobe and regretted his lack of foresight.
What if the intruder was armed?
His fingers, now clammy with sweat finally settled on the switch. He began to push it down when something leaped at him from the shadows. The man tried to scream but the scream did not come out, only a cough and a groan made it past his throat. Low maniacal laughter filled his ears. He smelled the sulfur just as the weight rolled off him. The man scrambled to his feet, kicking and throwing out his arms. He found the light switch easily this time and hit it with all of his strength.
He froze when he saw the figure watching him with hooded eyes and a feral smile.
Confusion clouded the face of the woman before him and she cocked her head to the side inquiringly.
The man’s eyes narrowed. Her voice was soft yet oddly disembodied. It was as if it came from another place, distant and foreign.
“Omoni?” The man repeated again, hearing the fear and bewilderment in his own voice. Recognition filled the woman’s eyes.
“Ah, I see you seek the other one. She is within perhaps.”
“What is this? What is going on?”
The eyes observing him turned dark.
“You will help me.”
“Listen Omoni, I am done with your games. The thing between us is over. Luke has given me a fresh start. You should give back my keys. There is no need to kee – “
The woman moved in a flash across the room, appearing in front of the man in a split second. The man’s mouth hung open, his words hanging unfinished in the air. He stood immobilized as the woman sniffed him.
“You wear the scent of a woman upon you.”
The man’s stomach rolled from the smell of sulfur coming from the woman. He wiped the sweat from his forehead.
“I feel sick.”
“You will help me,” the woman said again, pinning him down with her dark eyes.
“Help you with what?”
“The one you serve.”
“I don’t un – “ The man stopped. “Luke?”
The woman’s lips curled in a predatory smile.
The man’s knees buckled under him but he forced himself to remain upright.
“Please Omoni, you know about my attacks. This is not helping.”
“Pay heed you gormless mortal,” the woman hissed, grabbing the man’s arms and squeezing tight.
“He calls for a meeting this day. You shall speak in my favour whatever the cost may be.”
The woman left as she came, silent and almost ghostlike. It was as if she was never there. The man stood a long time in stunned silence, questioning all that had happened a few minutes ago. Had it been a dream? Had he imagined his former lover speaking as if she was possessed? Even her words had sounded like they came from another time. He remembered his close shave with death. He thought about it for a long time, her tearful declarations of innocence echoing mockingly in his head.
Joseph Umana never returned to the woman that waited for him in his bed. He sat in the living room until she appeared at the bottom of the stairs asking for the money he owed her for their time together. It was the knock of his security guard, Aliyu, on the door that woke him from his limbo. He responded to the old man’s request to wash his car and afterwards prepared for work lost in a haze of thoughts. Something sinister and malignant had taken over Omoni. He was sure of it.
GRADIAS OIL AND GAS
I listen a faint squeak and a loud sigh behind me. The voices rise and flow together before dipping in subdued monotones. I look ahead, beyond the car park where cars stand primly in parking spots to the busy road now teeming with motorists and pedestrians. I study the commotion for a while before turning back to the office. Mr. Bankole holds up a paper as soon as I take my seat again.
“This looks good. Considering the economic situation and the fact that we currently employ more hands than we nee – “
“How much is the rent?”
“Two hundred million.”
Beside him, Mr. Harry clicks his tongue.
“Hmm. Four million per acre.”
“We are spending quite a lot,” Mr. Bankole says, “We already have one tank farm. Why get another?”
“Think of it as an expansion. This is twenty thousand more than our former capacity. Besides, this is mostly aviation fuel.”
“I know you are thinking this is going to be big break but what if your forecast is wrong and the market is flooded with it three months from now?”
“I think we should trust Luke on this. He knows what he is doing.”
I nod at Harry. “Thank you.” I loosen my tie. “Now, if you please gentlemen, I’d like to prepare for the meeting.”
I enjoy my own company for a few minutes before a slight rap on my door interrupts me again.
Omoni strolls into the office with a file.
“The minutes of the last meeting,” she tells me, pointing to the file she leaves on the table. I reach for the file and open it.
I drag my gaze up to her face where a stiff smile is fixed and wait for her to speak.
“I just wanted to say I understand if you no longer want me to work here.”
Her voice is soft. There is an air of vulnerability around her that was hard to ignore. I notice the high neck dress that covers most of her body and the plain black shoes. Voices jump into my head but I can’t make out what they are saying. I turn my attention back to Onome.
When she leaves I sit back in my chair, puzzled at her words. How had she known about my plans to sack her? I had spoken to no one else about it. I give up trying to solve the puzzle and go back to planning the meeting with Joseph and the senior managers.
The guards watched in silence as their charge sifted through the documents on his table, a frown of concentration on his face. They had spoken when Neferet concealed in the body of the one she had taken hold off tried to charm him.
“He did not hear,” said the first guard to the second, walking to the spot where their charge had stood at the window.
The second placed a hand on the shoulder of his charge.
“He hears, but does not know what to make of it.”
“Only her waking can stop her.”
The second guard knew who it was the first guard spoke of. He nodded in reply, turning once to look as the first guard melted through the glass wall and appeared on the other side. Both smiled at the other and the one outside rose into the air towards their second charge.
He found her in the place she worked; talking and laughing with people in a long corridor before moving towards the small office she shared with three others. He stood with her as she pushed the door open, poking her head into the office and looking around with a frown on her face. After several minutes of contemplation, she walked into the office, leaving him to walk through the wall. She sat behind her desk, her attention riveted on the phone she tapped every now and then.
Drawing close, he whispered her name.
Her head jerked in his direction and she looked through him to the door. He tried again.
I look at the door and then turn right to the new file cabinet beside it. I am still alone. Becca, Yetunde and Joyce are still missing from the office. No one had crept up on me and whispered the name from my dreams. I breathe out slowly, returning my phone to my desk.
“Okay, calm down Irima. This is just your imagination talking.”
I jump, my heart flipping around in my chest.
What was that?
I find the culprit face down and open in the middle next to Joyce’s desk. It is a black heavy book with a line drawing of a vaporous woman staring ahead, an evil smile on her face. I look at the picture for a while, feeling unease as I do. Something about the woman reminded me of my nightmares, of something I was yet to resolve. I turn the book around to read the blurb, but I quickly lose interest and return to the picture of the woman again.
The memory of the whisper returns and I throw a look over my shoulder at the door again. Unable to shake off the feeling of being watched, I look back to the book and suddenly the picture feels like an ominous warning. I let the book slide from my hand to Joyce’s desk and return to my desk. Turning on my computer, I settle down to work and lose track of time and place. Only the scuttling sound of feet on tile brings me back to the present. I look up to see Becca fling her notepad on her desk.
“I am pressed,” she says, rushing out of the office again and nearly bumping into Yetunde and Joyce at the door. They both comment on my absence at the meeting with Mrs. Shehu. Joyce walks to my desk and props herself against it.
“Luke didn’t let you leave the house on time?”
They talk and laugh about my new living arrangements. I am tempted to share the real reason for my move to Luke’s apartment but decide against it. The last thing I wanted was to receive strange looks from them. Conversation ends after Becca returns and we discuss their meeting with Mrs. Shehu. I find my mind drifting to the book on Joyce’s table and the whisper that had come from nowhere. Something bad is about to happen.
GRADIAS OIL AND GAS
Omoni raised her eyes to the ceiling and squinted at the light, one finger pressed against her temple. The throbbing had grown worse since the day before when it started. She didn’t know what to make of it or the metallic taste in her mouth or even the fact that these days she didn’t feel like herself. Her hand fell limply to her side as she threw herself back against her chair.
She thought about the lapses in her memory, the great dark place she seemed to disappear for hours on end only to wake up and find herself driving out of a house she had no memory of visiting. Sometimes she felt oddly detached from her body, distant and disconnected from everything. At noon she had run into Joseph Umana on her way to the restroom. She had attempted to smile but it was a weak effort that produced something that caused him to stare wide eyed at her in fear. Just as she passed him, he nodded at her.
“You were right,” he said, his words delivered through gritted teeth. “There will be a meeting today. I will talk to him.”
A muscle twitched in her left eye and Omoni frowned. Joseph had been afraid of her. There had been feelings of regret in those moments she felt like herself when she recalled how she tried to poison him. In those times Omoni was convinced that she had been under the influence of something strong and uncontrollable. She was losing control. It was no longer about winning the affection of the man she worked for. Things had taken a darker turn.
“Maybe I should see a pastor,” she said to herself, her voice low and strained with anxiety. “Or someone who understands these things.”
A wave of nausea enveloped Omoni immediately and she clutched at the edge of her desk in a desperate attempt to stay conscious. Her nostrils filled with sulfur and she opened her mouth to cry out from the searing pain that shot through her head, but no word came out. Her eyes widened and her body jerked upright and everything became dark.
Neferet had settled comfortably in the body of her victim when the door opened and the one whose house she had visited that morning entered the office. He stole forward quietly, his lips stretched in a tight smile.
“He has agreed.”
Neferet smiled coldly. Her fingers curled around the pen lying on the desk.
“He has agreed to meet with us actually.”
The smile on Neferet’s face disappeared. Her eyes glittered with anger.
“Speak plainly for my patience is run out. What has he, Ahmose, purposed about me?”
The man shook his head in confusion.
Neferet’s lips curled. “The one you serve.”
The frown on the man’s face deepened.
The fingers around the pen tightened and hatred grew in Neferet. She hated the manner of these ones and the names they called the ones of old.
“Well, I told him not to rush the decision to sack you.” A film of moisture covered the man’s forehead and he raised a hand to wipe it off. “I invited him out and he agreed, so I think you should use that meeting to convince him yourself.”
A low growl erupted from Neferet’s throat. The man heard it and took a step backwards.
“The meeting is at six. 284 lounge.”
The door closed as the man rushed out of the office, leaving Neferet in a seething rage of anger and hate. Only the thought of meeting Ahmose that evening calmed her. She had breached his circle that morning even in the presence of his guards. Perhaps another encounter would bring him to her. This pleased Neferet greatly and she laughed out loud.
I make a promise to my mother to stop by the house this evening and end the call. Luke’s call comes in the next second. His voice sends a warm feeling through my body. I lean back in my chair, thankful for the privacy of an empty office. Becca, Joyce and Yetunde had joined Mrs. Shehu for the ride back home twenty minutes ago.
“I sent the driver for you.”
“I will be late today. I have a meeting with Joseph and some other person he says will be joining us.”
I feel a prodding to ask him more but I ignore it and tell him about my plan to visit home.
“Maybe I should just stay the night.”
“Are you sure?”
I wait for his driver, thoughts of his dinner with Joseph keeping me company. I wonder about the identity of the second person, the unease I suffered a few hours ago returning. Who was the second person?