Note: this story borrows precedent from, and is a continuation of, another story I’ve written, called In the Temple They Were Singing (you can read it here). You’ll need to have read that to make sense of this.
Slaves No More
It’s always been the sounds, they are the most striking. The power of sound has always been their favourite, their most versatile, and their most powerful. They wield it like warriors do spears. Back when they spoke and sang and prayed in the language we taught them, I used to visit their world to listen to them, to their ancient song.
A long time ago, during his reign, Ra, thinking that the heard trumped and dwarfed the seen, tried to diversify, to give the visual element of life more importance. Beauty pleased him. To do that many monuments were built, some of which survive to this day (Khephri is especially proud that his pyramid is of the three that remain).
In the temples they were always singing, day and night, flood and drought, happiness and sorrow. I enjoyed visiting, to listen to them at their song. Sounds are a specialty here in the … well, it hasn’t been the slave-world I knew it to be for a long time, has it?
I do not know what to call it. I must call things as they are, mustn’t I? And this is no slave-world any more: the name does not fit. I do not know what to call it now. Perhaps now it is a world with no name. Or at least, no name that I or any of my kind can dictate. They are free now. Free of us. Perhaps it is this detachment, their agelong detachment from us, that prevents me from easily naming their world.
And yet their world is not alien to me.
Things are different now, and my kind have witnessed them change. The Black Walk has seen more usage in the last thousand or so years than it had in the millions of years before. We visit their world much more often now, have been for a fair while now. You see, before they turned their attention from us, they had worshiped us. But the people of Kemet have not worshiped me and my family for years, and in that time much has changed: unworshiped, neglected, and paid no attention any longer, we deserted the Country of Kings, left behind what then became relics of a bygone age. Time is nothing if not ruthless, and even the gods suffer at its hand.
The dynasties of the pharaohs crumbled, and the people started ruling themselves: the Romans gave way to the British (with many detours along the way), and the most recent and noteworthy of historical happenings here was a bloody revolution against the ruler of the time: a man who wrongly thought himself one of my kind. Trouble comes when one forgets where the lines are, and trespasses on territory that need not be treaded upon. What’s more, Kemet, once proudly called so, found itself designated Misr, or Egypt, depending on where you hail from.
You will forgive me, I forgot to elaborate. (Yes, even gods’ memories fade and etiolate with time.) I must explain: The Black Walk is what I call the road from my home to this world. The black is that of the dead expanse of space of which it is made. The road is as follows: a long stretch toward this specific world’s galaxy, and a final swerve in the planet’s general direction, indicated by a constellation of stars resembling two lines of stars in the winter sky (they call this Gemini), from there the shining planet is easy to spot. The journey is a smooth one: my kind do not find difficulty in travelling long distances.
Though it started with mere fascination, I have come to love their kind.
These days, crossing the streets here is a perilous undertaking. I push along with the crowds traversing the crowded urban Cairo landscape. That’s what they call it now: Cairo. On either side of me are men with briefcases, hurrying, women carrying the same, also hurrying, and others lugging handbags, lively children with their signature smiles, a man steering along the sidewalk a cart lined with gold fresh bread, he too is hurrying. They are all in a screaming hurry. People have become faster. In the Golden Age, things, and people, were much slower. There was cadence to action, and to speech.
Now, I say Golden Age both metaphorically and literally: it was the period during which my family was most active around these parts (indeed, back then, every action and prayer was done in pursuit of our satisfaction, and in avoidance of our scorn and displeasure); but I also mean it literally, the time period was most characterised by one of a few things: there was plenty of gold everywhere.
It’s as though the further along the river of time they advance, they gain speed, as though slightly more conscious of the impending running out of time. Just as I arrived, another man, in narrow eye-glasses and the now ubiquitous jeans, almost bumped into me, but quickly turned out of the way before impact. (In a hurry again.)
“Sorry,” he hissed, a spit of a word, not so much an apology as a mere acknowledgement of the incident. I didn’t respond, I kept my silence. By then, he wasn’t close enough to hear my reply anyway. Rather, he’d already reached the end of the long street – even to me, that seemed fast.
Another thing I have neglected to mention: this time, contrary to my usual practice of appearing in their world as an old man, I appeared as a young man. Tall, brown-eyed, dark-haired, skin not quite dark and not quite pasty-white.
A few years ago, I hear, something slightly similar, though not nearly as inconsequential, happened to Anubis, in the east:
He’d been walking a busy marketplace along the coast when a stranger dashed toward him, bumped into him, and threw him to the floor. On the floor, the strange man picked ferociously at the shirt and trousers Anubis wore. Then the strange man darted away, leaving Anubis on the floor, still shocked and wondering what in the world had just happened. Anubis later learned that the bizarre incident was little more than an attempt at robbery (the run-drop-and-grab was at the time a technique only recently invented by local thieves). Of course, before he’d realized that the stranger meant no harm, Anubis, hot-tempered, haughty, and perpetually outraged at most things, had thought that the incident was an attack upon his being, and before angrily retreating to our home he had leveled much of the Indonesian landscape with a tsunami so big, it is still talked about years on.
But he soon returned. Truth is, we have all grown bored in the long years since presiding over the thrones of Keme … of Egypt. That is precisely why The Black Walk has been used so much: it is frequented by gods of a time long gone, seeking refuge from a mind-splitting, tedious, and monotonous life. In their world it is easier.
But, as much as it pleases me to recount the voyages and misfortunes of my brethren, I must digress. It is not my purpose to tell of these, rather to tell of my own. I have seen so much, perhaps my loquacious self just wants to share what it has seen: there is a natural urge to tell of what you know, to share what you know (that is funny, I’m sure you’ll understand, because I am the farthest there is from nature – I am not of it, I am of a different field). All the same, now is not the time. Back, then, to the man I had almost met foreheads with, and the busy street:
Between the monster of the ear-piercing sound of traffic, and the beast of fast-moving mass of human quickness brushing past me, around me, and almost through me, I felt at home. I had often visited this Egypt, the one of speed and modernity, and the changes had come to perturb me little. I thought that, by then, having spent so much time in their world, that nothing of them or their world would shock me.
I was wrong.
Some sights take you by surprise, like a hot brick to the face. You must understand, it was no regular sight; it was not even a regular shocker of a sight. It was more. It startled me, on two levels, the first of familiarity: at seeing her, I almost called out, “Sister, is that you?” “Hathor, are you here?”
It was entirely justified, I’ll have you know: her eyes were the same deep, luminous brown, and her spread of hair was the same earthy dark-amber. This was exactly the form that Hathor took here in this world, she thought it the most beautiful. I cannot but agree, and in that I am not alone: in the depictions of her in their art, our then-slaves depicted Hathor very accurately, noting every illusive detail. (One of the few things they impeccably recorded of us is the immaculate beauty with which we appeared, which doubtless says ample amounts about them as a species.)
The second reason (and I struggled to pinpoint which was the more effective) was that while those around her ran and sped, she seemed to undertake the opposite: she slowed. She bifurcated from the crowd, in the way that water is repulsed by oil, and in the way that both separate from each other. They, the inattentive and absent majority, chased down their imagined who-knows-what, and she, with deliberately slow steps and a peaceful pace, and a backpack on her shoulder that looked half-full, slowed still, as if she were swimming against the tide, trying not to be pulled along by the others. She was easy to spot: she was an almost-still light in the fast-moving haze.
Disinterested in those around her, and seeing sense in little else, I followed the Slow Walker along the sidewalk of the street they call Salah Salem. (There, in that exact spot where I first saw her, exactly where that concrete-lined slab of road is, three thousand years before, a family of four had lived, and died of the Black Fever. The son was the last to depart. They were good people, not uncommon then.)
It was a few minutes later that she’d entered a park called Al Azhar. I trailed her cautiously: not so fast as to arouse her suspicion (the last thing I wanted was to have her lose her serene ease), and not so slow as to lose sight of her anomalous demeanour. Inside the park, she found her way onto a bench that was more a painted-white slab of rock than sitting utensil. I waited until she’d sat and settled (hiding behind the body of a palm tree), then I moved over and sat at the farthest edge of the bench.
She flipped to the inner leaf of the last page in the paper, folded it to the desired page, and smoothed the bent edges. With a pencil she worked at the crossword, decoding word after another: Two down, the word was: Nameless, Six across: Babble, Nine down: Intelligence, Five across: Constantinople.
She burned through the grid, until on the second last word she stopped and bit her lips as if straining to remember the word, the name. The clue read: “Melkite patriarch of Egypt, last Byzantine prefect – five letters.”
“And as is my duty,” I said loudly and triumphantly, to no one in particular, rather reenacting the words, “I will bring life and I will bring death, and all shall be in God’s glory. There is none but him.”
She looked at me, half-startled, peering away from her paper through squared angular eye-glasses. “Eh?”
“He said that. It was a cold day, not a bird in sight, and Cyrus of Alexandria said that. He’d had a slight cold, so he struggled a bit with that last part. Cyrus, nine down.” I pointed at the crossword in her hand. “It’s Cyrus.”
“Oh,” she said guardedly, in the way that strangers are spoken to. “Wait, so you peeked? From there? Far away …”
“Good eyesight,” I said. “I got it from my mother. Long-sightedness runs in the family.” That was true enough.
She flashed a half-smile. “Lucky,” she said. “The only things that run in my family are bad hair and diabetes.”
She laughed and I did too. She tucked the paper in her bag, and thumbed into her book for the page with the wedged-in bookmark. For a while she read, and I dared not interrupt her. Though I didn’t look, I knew what she was reading: my kind see what they want to see, we do not strictly have to look. Still less do we have to do anything, for that matter, we will what we want to happen, and it … does.
There was a long pause as she read a page, during which I read the whole book. Unexpected ending. She snapped the book shut, and looked back at me. “So who was he?”
“Who was who?” I said.
“Cyrus,” she said. “Who was he?”
“Well, he was a Melkite patriarch of Egypt, and the last Byzantine prefect … five letters.”
“But who was he? You know, don’t you?”
“I do,” I said. “That’s the history book version, but -” I pointed matter-of-factly “- he was really a nasty ruler and a drunk. Took a great liking to women, inflicting pain and suffering, and died shortly after losing Alexandria to Rashidun army siege. But he was committed. He liked the idea of being obeyed. He liked being great. Men, like gods, like power.”
“Are you a historian?”
“I try to explore time. You could call me that, yes.”
Silence. I noticed her guarded demeanor liquefy a little then, slightly give way to a more welcoming being. Her face relaxed, and I think, so did mine.
“He wouldn’t have liked that, you know,” I continued. “You forgot his name. He wouldn’t have liked someone forgetting his name: he thought too highly of himself. In a way, by forgetting his name, you were punishing him. Tormenting him. I can’t say he doesn’t deserve it, though. Nasty man.”
She nodded, as if saying that’s interesting. “Illusions of grandeur are … silly. Greatness itself is selfish. So is power. It’s basically stealing other people’s will, and commanding that yourself. It’s selfish and ugly.”
“There’s little to life that actually has importance,” she continued, “and living life on the run, you can’t possibly find what that is. It’s not power, or money, and it’s not being called great and mighty. It’s simpler than that.”
Silence. Her shoulders loosened from a stubborn lock. Humans have a way of locking joints when they’re approached by possibly hostile individuals or situations. They freeze. If there is no danger, they acclimatize and unwind.
“What about you?” I asked. “What do you like? If you don’t mind my asking.”
“I don’t,” she said, sliding her bag to her side. “I like words, that’s one thing.” She held up the book so I could see. “I’m sure a historian can relate.”
“Historian certainly does.”
“What else does Historian like? Other than reciting the words of drunk megalomaniacs? Of course, if you don’t mind my asking.” The words were somehow nicer the second time round. Her humour carried an nearly imperceptible, but nonetheless present, undertone of sincerity. Like that of an old friend.
“I don’t,” I said. “I like song.”
I could’ve sworn she really was Hathor then. It’s the elated smile. Warm. Endearing.
“That’s good,” she said, trying to contain herself. “Song is good.”
“Good,” I said, “and pure, and eternal. Languages change. They die out and so do people and most other everything else, but songs don’t die. They can’t die. Songs are like gods: You can’t kill a song.”
“See,” she returned, “that’s what I meant. Song is selfless. The only purpose to music is to soothe the soul. It’s sincere to sing. It’s honest. You only bring happiness when you sing, and you become happier yourself. It’s the height of benevolence. Yes, singing, that’s the key to life.” She grinned to herself, as if in accomplishment.
“Do you ever want to sing your lungs out?” Her question was earnest, I felt like I’d known her for years. No easy feat: my kind form agelong relationships, and to establish the likes of that in a matter of minutes is a great accomplishment.
“Always,” I said. “But I don’t strictly have the best voice.”
The smile again. I had assented, so she elaborated.
“Who cares! I don’t, too. But I want to sing my lungs out. It’s one of those days. And do it from a mountaintop! So my singing can soak up to the clouds.”
Silence again. That was her grandfather’s line, “So that song soaks up to the clouds.” He’d said that on a cold winter day. He was telling her, her seven-year-old self, about a day he’d spent in sunny Lebanon. She and her grandfather had been romanticizing the sun and the summer months, on account of it being so bitingly cold outside. “It’s true,” he’d said, “it does feel like the sun is kissing your skin. And we sang so much, Lara, and on the mountaintops our voices soaked up to the clouds.” (That was also, interestingly, a day on which he made a friend for only a day, but one of whom he still talks to this day. Also interesting: her grandfather shares his name with the street she walked: Salah.)
Silence still. I stood up, as unthreateningly as I could.
“Stand up and walk five paces,” I said to her.
“You have no reason to, but trust me. Walk with me.”
Amazingly, though, after a moment of disbelief, she did. I was thankful that I could be so convincing. She started up, and at seeing me take a step forward she did the same. One. Two. Three. Four. The floor was lined with red brick.
Relocation is always more of a gradual shock than an outright one. The sky above is usually similar, and it doesn’t feel like anything, so realizing that you’ve been transported somewhere else is often a slow process. But the realization eventually happens, and there’s usually a small thing that triggers it. This time, it was the feel of the coarse rock under her feet. The top of my pyramid hasn’t changed much.
On her fifth pace, she realized it. I suggest five paces for the added effect: it feels like you traveled a world in a few steps.
She looked at me.
“Sing,” I said, standing beside her atop the golden beast. “It’s no mountain, but it’s close. It’s best not to trespass upon others’ property, and the Mountain Gods aren’t the nicest of folk. But here, this is mine.”
Shock. They breathe heavily when they’re shocked, and they become animated. Their eyes widen. Sometimes their lips quivers. Some even fall, their knees give way. “How did you do that?”
The screaming disbelief.
“We can go back if you want to, I can explain how I did that perfectly fine on that horrible bench. But here … here we sing.” I moved closer. “Sing,” I repeated. “You don’t mind my request, do you?”
She smiled again. “I don’t,” she said.
The Way Back
Like I said, it’s always been about sound with them.
Along the Black Walk, on the way back home, I passed by Isis who was taking the same route, except she was taking the opposite route, the one to the world with no name. We conversed for a short while, and she told me of her most recent excursion (involving a big boat, bad shrimp, and a stroll along the Nile), and in turn I offered a detailing of my own: Though I never asked, I know her name was Lara. Lara sang, Lara read, and Lara forgot the name of a drunk megalomaniac.
“So, what happened?” asked Isis. Her motherly voice.
“I watched clouds smile.”
She looked puzzled. “What do you mean?”
“They were happy. They were soaking up beautiful song.”