ALL eyes were fixed on Maharet as she paused. Then she began again, her words seemingly spontaneous, though they came slowly and were carefully pronounced. She seemed
not sad, but eager to reexamine what she meant to describe.
“Now, when I say that my sister and I were witches, I mean this: we inherited from our mother—as she had from her mother—the power to communicate with the spirits, to get them to do our bidding in small and significant ways. We could feel the presence of the spirits—which are in the main invisible to human eyes—and the spirits were drawn to us.
“And those with such powers as we had were greatly revered amongst our people, and sought after for advice and miracles and glimpses into the future, and occasionally for putting the spirits of the dead to rest.
“What I am saying is that we were perceived as good; and we had our place in the scheme of things.
“There have always been witches, as far as I know. And there are witches now, though most no longer understand what their powers are or how to use them. Then there are those known as clairvoyants or mediums, or channelers. Or even psychic detectives. It is all the same thing. These are people who for reasons we may never understand attract spirits. Spirits find them downright irresistible; and to get the notice of these people, the spirits will do all kinds of tricks.
“As for the spirits themselves, I know that you’re curious about their nature and properties, that you did not—all of you—believe the story in Lestat’s book about how the Mother and the Father were made. I’m not sure that Marius himself believed it, when he was told the old story, or when he passed it on to Lestat.”
Marius nodded. Already he had numerous questions. But Maharet gestured for patience. “Bear with me,” she said. “I will tell you all we knew of the spirits then, which is the same as what I know of
them now. Understand of course that others may use a different name for these entities. Others may define them more in the poetry of science than I will do.
“The spirits spoke to us only telepathically; as I have said, they were invisible; but their presence could be felt; they had distinct personalities, and our family of witches had over many generations given them various names.
“We divided them as sorcerers have always done into the good and the evil; but there is no evidence that they themselves have a sense of right and wrong. The evil spirits were those who were openly hostile to human beings and who liked to play malicious tricks such as the throwing of stones, the making of wind, and other such pesty things. Those who possess humans are often ‘evil’ spirits; those who haunt houses and are called poltergeists fall into this category, too.
“The good spirits could love, and wanted by and large to be loved as well. Seldom did they think up mischief on their own. They would answer questions about the future; they would tell us what was happening in other, remote places; and for very powerful witches such as my sister and me, for those whom the good spirits really loved, they would do their greatest and most taxing trick: they would make the rain.
“But you can see from what I’m saying that labels such as good and evil were self-serving. The good spirits were useful; the bad spirits were dangerous and nerve-wracking. To pay attention to the bad spirits—to invite them to hang about—was to court disaster, because ultimately they could not be controlled.
“There was also abundant evidence that what we called bad spirits envied us that we were fleshly and also spiritual—that we had the pleasures and powers of the physical while possessing spiritual minds. Very likely, this mixture of flesh and spirit in human beings makes all spirits curious; it is the source of our attraction for them; but it rankles the bad spirits; the bad spirits would know sensuous pleasure, it seems; yet they cannot. The good spirits did not evince such dissatisfaction.
“Now, as to where these spirits came from—they used to tell us that they had always been here. They would brag that they had watched human beings change from animals into what they were.
We didn’t know what they meant by such remarks. We thought they were being playful or just lying. But now, the study of human evolution makes it obvious that the spirits had witnessed this development. As for questions about their nature—how they were made or by whom—well, these they never answered. I don’t think they understood what we were asking. They seemed insulted by the questions or even slightly afraid, or even thought the questions were humorous.
“I suspect that someday the scientific nature of spirits will be known. I suspect that they are matter and energy in sophisticated balance as is everything else in our universe, and that they are no more magical than electricity or radio waves, or quarks or atoms, or voices over the telephone—the things that seemed supernatural only two hundred years ago. In fact the poetry of modern science has helped me to understand them in retrospect better than any other philosophical tool. Yet I cling to my old language rather instinctively.
“It was Mekare’s contention that she could now and then see them, and that they had tiny cores of physical matter and great bodies of whirling energy which she compared to storms of lightning and wind. She said there were creatures in the sea which were equally exotic in their organization; and insects who resembled the spirits, too. It was always at night that she saw their physical bodies, and they were never visible for more than a second, and usually only when the spirits were in a rage.
“Their size was enormous, she said, but then they said this too. They told us we could not imagine how big they were; but then they love to brag; one must constantly sort from their statements the part which makes sense.
“That they exert great force upon the physical world is beyond doubt. Otherwise how could they move objects as they do in poltergeist hauntings? And how could they have brought together the clouds to make the rain? Yet very little is really accomplished by them for all the energy they expend. And that was a key, always, to controlling them. There is only so much they can do, and no more, and a good witch was someone who understood that perfectly.
“Whatever their material makeup is, they have no apparent
biological needs, these entities. They do not age; they do not change. And the key to understanding their childish and whimsical behavior lies in this. They have no need to do anything; they drift about unaware of time, for there is no physical reason to care about it, and they do whatever strikes the fancy. Obviously they see our world; they are part of it; but how it looks to them I can’t guess.
“Why witches attract them or interest them I don’t know either. But that’s the crux of it; they see the witch, they go to her, make themselves known to her, and are powerfully flattered when they are noticed; and they do her bidding in order to get more attention; and in some cases, in order to be loved.
“And as this relationship progresses, they are made for the love of the witch to concentrate on various tasks. It exhausts them but it also delights them to see human beings so impressed.
“But imagine now, how much fun it is for them to listen to prayers and try to answer them, to hang about altars and make thunder after sacrifices are offered up. When a clairvoyant calls upon the spirit of a dead ancestor to speak to his descendants, they are quite thrilled to start chattering away in pretense of being the dead ancestor, though of course they are not that person; and they will telepathically extract information from the brains of the descendants in order to delude them all the more.
“Surely all of you know the pattern of their behavior. It’s no different now than it was in our time. But what is different is the attitude of human beings to what spirits do; and that difference is crucial.
“When a spirit in these times haunts a house and makes predictions through the vocal cords of a five-year-old child, no one much believes it except those who see and hear it. It does not become the foundation of a great religion.
“It is as if the human species has grown immune to such things; it has evolved perhaps to a higher stage where the antics of spirits no longer befuddle it. And though religions linger—old religions which became entrenched in darker times—they are losing their influence among the educated very rapidly.
“But I’ll say more on this later on. Let me continue now to define the properties of a witch, as such things relate to me and my sister, and to what happened to us.
“It was an inherited thing in our family. It may be physical for it seemed to run in our family line through the women and to be coupled invariably with the physical attributes of green eyes and red hair. As all of you know—as you’ve come to learn in one way or another since you entered this house—my child, Jesse, was a witch. And in the Talamasca she used her powers often to comfort those who were plagued by spirits and ghosts.
“Ghosts, of course, are spirits too. But they are without question spirits of those who have been human on earth; whereas the spirits I have been speaking of are not. However, one can never be too sure on this point. A very old earthbound ghost could forget that he had ever been alive; and possibly the very malevolent spirits are ghosts; and that is why they hunger so for the pleasures of the flesh; and when they possess some poor human being they belch obscenities. For them, the flesh is filth and they would have men and women believe that erotic pleasures and malice are equally dangerous and evil.
“But the fact is, given the way spirits lie—if they don’t want to tell you—there’s no way to know why they do what they do. Perhaps their obsession with the erotic is merely something abstracted from the minds of men and women who have always felt guilty about such things.
“To return to the point, it was mostly the women in our family who were witches. In other families it passes through both men and women. Or it can appear full-blown in a human being for reasons we can’t grasp.
“Be that as it may, ours was an old, old family of witches. We could count witches back fifty generations, to what was called The Time Before the Moon. That is, we claimed to have lived in the very early period of earth history before the moon had come into the night sky.
“The legends of our people told of the coming of the moon, and the floods, storms, and earthquakes that attended it. Whether such a thing really happened I don’t know. We also believed that our sacred stars were the Pleiades, or the Seven Sisters, that all blessings came from that constellation, but why, I never knew or cannot remember.
“I talk of old myths now, beliefs that were old before I was born.
And those who commune with spirits become for obvious reasons rather skeptical of things.
“Yet science even now cannot deny or verify the tales of The Time Before the Moon. The coming of the moon—its subsequent gravitational pull—has been used theoretically to explain the shifting of the polar caps and the late ice ages. Maybe there was truth in the old stories, truths that will someday be clarified for us all.
“Whatever the case, ours was an old line. Our mother had been a powerful witch to whom the spirits told numerous secrets, reading men’s minds as they do. And she had a great effect upon the restless spirits of the dead.
“In Mekare and me, it seemed her power had been doubled, as is often true with twins. That is, each of us was twice as powerful as our mother. As for the power we had together, it was incalculable. We talked to the spirits when we were in the cradle. We were surrounded by them when we played. As twins, we developed our own secret language, which not even our mother understood. But the spirits knew it. The spirits would understand anything we said to them; they could even speak our secret language back to us.
“Understand, I don’t tell you all this out of pride. That would be absurd. I tell you so that you will grasp what we were to each other and to our own people before the soldiers of Akasha and Enkil came into our land. I want you to understand why this evil—this making of the blood drinkers—eventually happened!
“We were a great family. We had lived in the caves of Mount Carmel for as long as anybody knew. And our people had always built their encampments on the valley floor at the foot of the mountain. They lived by herding goats and sheep. And now and then they hunted; and they grew a few crops, for the making of the hallucinogenic drugs we took to make trances—this was part of our religion—and also for the making of beer. They cut down the wild wheat which grew then in profusion.
“Small round mud-brick houses with thatched roofs made up our village, but there were others which had grown into small cities, and some in which all the houses were entered from the roofs.
“Our people made a highly distinctive pottery which they took to the markets of Jericho for trade. From there they brought back lapis
lazuli, ivory, incense, and mirrors of obsidian and other such fine things. Of course we knew of many other cities, vast and beautiful as Jericho, cities which are now buried completely under the earth and which may never be found.
“But by and large we were simple people. We knew what writing was—that is, the concept of it. But it did not occur to us to use such a thing, as words had a great power and we would not have dared to write our names, or curses or truths that we knew. If a person had your name, he could call on the spirits to curse you; he could go out of his body in a trance and travel to where you were. Who could know what power you would put into his hands if he could write your name on stone or papyrus? Even for those who weren’t afraid, it was distasteful at the very least.
“And in the large cities, writing was largely used for financial records which we of course could keep in our heads.
“In fact, all knowledge among our people was committed to memory; the priests who sacrificed to the bull god of our people— in whom we did not believe, by the way—committed his traditions and beliefs to memory and taught them to the young priests by rote and by verse. Family histories were told from memory, of course.
“We did however paint pictures; they covered the walls of the bull shrines in the village.
“And my family, living in the caves on Mount Carmel as we had always, covered our secret grottoes with paintings which no one saw but us. Therein we kept a kind of record. But this was done with caution. I never painted or drew the image of myself, for example, until after catastrophe had struck and I and my sister were the things which we all are.
“But to return to our people, we were peaceful; shepherds, sometime craftsmen, sometime traders, no more, no less. When the armies of Jericho went to war, sometimes our young men joined them; but that was what they wanted to do. They wanted to be young men of adventure, and to be soldiers and know glory of that sort. Others went to the cities, to see the great markets, the majesty of the courts, or the splendor of the temples. And some went to ports of the Mediterranean to see the great merchant ships. But for the most part life went on in our villages as it had for many centuries without change. And Jericho protected us, almost
indifferently, because it was the magnet which drew an enemy’s force unto itself.
“Never, never, did we hunt men to eat their flesh! This was not our custom! And I cannot tell you what an abomination such cannibalism would have been to us, the eating of enemy flesh. Because we were cannibals, and the eating of the flesh had a special significance—we ate the flesh of our dead.”
Maharet paused for a moment as if she wanted the significance of these words to be plain to all.
Marius saw the image again of the two red-haired women kneeling before the funeral feast. He felt the warm midday stillness, and the solemnity of the moment. He tried to clear his mind and see only Maharet’s face.
“Understand,” Maharet said. “We believed that the spirit left the body at death; but we also believed that the residue of all living things contains some tiny amount of power after life itself is gone. For example, a man’s personal belongings retain some bit of his vitality; and the body and bones, surely. And of course when we consumed the flesh of our dead this residue, so to speak, would be consumed as well.
“But the real reason we ate the dead was out of respect. It was in our view the proper way to treat the remains of those we loved. We took into ourselves the bodies of those who’d given us life, the bodies from which our bodies had come. And so a cycle was completed. And the sacred remains of those we loved were saved from the awful horror of putrefaction within the earth, or from being devoured by wild beasts, or burnt as if they were fuel or refuse.
“There is a great logic to it if you think on it. But the important thing to realize is that it was part and parcel of us as a people. The sacred duty of every child was to consume the remains of his parents; the sacred duty of the tribe was to consume the dead.
“Not a single man, woman, or child died in our village whose body was not consumed by kith or kin. Not a single man, woman, or child of our village had not consumed the flesh of the dead.”
Again, Maharet paused, her eyes sweeping the group slowly before she went on.
“Now, it was not a time of great wars,” she said. “Jericho had been at peace for as long as anyone could remember. And Nineveh had been at peace as well.
“But far away, to the southwest in the Nile Valley, the savage people of that land made war as they had always done upon the jungle peoples south of them so that they might bring back captives for their spits and pots. For not only did they devour their own dead with all proper respect as we did, they ate the bodies of their enemies; they gloried in it. They believed the strength of the enemy went into their bodies when they consumed his flesh. Also they liked the taste of the flesh.
“We scorned what they did, for the reasons I’ve explained. How could anyone want the flesh of an enemy? But perhaps the crucial difference between us and the warlike dwellers of the Nile Valley was not that they ate their enemies, but that they were warlike and we were peaceful. We did not have any enemies.
“Now, about the time that my sister and I reached our sixteenth year, a great change occurred in the Nile Valley. Or so we were told.
“The aging Queen of that realm died without a daughter to carry on the royal blood. And amongst many ancient peoples the royal blood went only through the female line. Since no male can ever be certain of the paternity of his wife’s child, it was the Queen or the Princess who brought with her the divine right to the throne. This is why Egyptian pharaohs of a later age often married their sisters. It was to secure their royal right.
“And so it would have been with this young King Enkil if he had had a sister, but he did not. He did not even have a royal cousin or aunt to marry. But he was young and strong and determined to rule his land. Finally, he settled upon a new bride, not from his own people, but from those of the city of Uruk in the Tigris and Euphrates Valley.
“And this was Akasha, a beauty of the royal family, and a worshiper of the great goddess Inanna, and one who could bring into Enkil’s kingdom the wisdom of her land. Or so the gossip went in the marketplaces of Jericho and Nineveh and with the caravans that came to trade for our wares.
“Now the people of the Nile were farmers already, but they
tended to neglect this to hunt to make war for human flesh. And this horrified the beautiful Akasha, who set about at once to turn them away from this barbaric habit as possibly anyone of higher civilization might do.
“She probably also brought with her writing, as the people of Uruk had it—they were great keepers of records—but as writing was something largely scorned by us, I do not know this for sure. Perhaps the Egyptians had already begun to write on their own.
“You cannot imagine the slowness with which such things affect a culture. Records of taxation might be kept for generations before anyone commits to a clay tablet the words of a poem. Peppers and herbs might be cultivated by a tribe for two hundred years before anyone thinks to grow wheat or corn. As you know, the Indians of South America had toys with wheels when the Europeans swept down upon them; and jewelry they had, made of metal. But they had no wheels in use in any other form whatsoever; and they did not use metal for their weapons. And so they were defeated by the Europeans almost at once.
“Whatever the case, I don’t know the full story of the knowledge Akasha brought with her from Uruk. I do know that our people heard great gossip about the ban upon all cannibalism in the Nile Valley, and how those who disobeyed were cruelly put to death. The tribes who had hunted for flesh for generations were infuriated that they could no longer enjoy this sport; but even greater was the fury of all the people that they could not eat their own dead. Not to hunt, that was one thing, but to commit one’s ancestors to the earth was a horror to them as it would have been to us.
“So in order that Akasha’s edict would be obeyed, the King decreed that all the bodies of the dead must be treated with unguents and wrapped up. Not only could one not eat the sacred flesh of mother or father, but it must be secured in linen wrappings at great expense, and these intact bodies must be displayed for all to see, and then placed in tombs with proper offerings and incantation of the priest.
“The sooner the wrapping was done the better; because no one could then get to the flesh.
“And to further assist the people in this new observance, Akasha and Enkil convinced them that the spirits of the dead would fare
better in the realm to which they had gone if their bodies were preserved in these wrappings on earth. In other words, the people were told, ‘Your beloved ancestors are not neglected; rather they are well kept.’
“We thought it was very amusing when we heard it—wrapping the dead and putting them away in furnished rooms above or below the desert sand. We thought it amusing that the spirits of the dead should be helped by the perfect maintenance of their bodies on earth. For as anyone knows who has ever communicated with the dead, it is better that they forget their bodies; it is only when they relinquish their earthly image that they can rise to the higher plane.
“And now in Egypt in the tombs of the very rich and very religious, there lay these things—these mummies in which the flesh rotted away.
“If anyone had told us that this custom of mummification would become entrenched in that culture, that for four thousand years the Egyptians would practice it, that it would become a great and enduring mystery to the entire world—that little children in the twentieth century would go into museums to gaze at mummies—we would not have believed such a thing.
“However, it did not matter to us, really. We were very far from the Nile Valley. We could not even imagine what these people were like. We knew their religion had come out of Africa, that they worshiped the god Osiris, and the sun god, Ra, and animal gods as well. But we really didn’t understand these people. We didn’t understand their land of inundation and desert. When we held in our hands fine objects which they had made, we knew some faint shimmer of their personalities, but it was alien. We felt sorry for them that they could not eat their dead.
“When we asked the spirits about them, the spirits seemed mightily amused by the Egyptians. They said the Egyptians had ‘nice voices’ and ‘nice words’ and that it was pleasurable to visit their temples and altars; they liked the Egyptian tongue. Then they seemed to lose interest in the question, and to drift off as was often the case.
“What they said fascinated us but it didn’t surprise us. We knew how the spirits liked our words and our chants and our songs. So the spirits were playing gods there for the Egyptians. The spirits did
that sort of thing all the time.
“As the years passed, we heard that Enkil, to unite his kingdom and stop the rebellion and resistance of the die-hard cannibals, had made a great army and embarked on conquests to north and south. He had launched ships in the great sea. It was an old trick: get them all to fight an enemy and they’ll stop quarreling at home.
“But again, what had this to do with us? Ours was a land of serenity and beauty, of laden fruit trees and fields of wild wheat free for anyone to cut with the scythe. Ours was a land of green grass and cool breezes. But there wasn’t anything that anyone would want to take from us. Or so we believed.
“My sister and I continued to live in perfect peace on the gentle slopes of Mount Carmel, often speaking to our mother and to each other silently, or with a few private words, which we understood perfectly; and learning from our mother all she knew of the spirits and men’s hearts.
“We drank the dream potions made by our mother from the plants we grew on the mountain, and in our trances and dream states, we traveled back into the past and spoke with our ancestors
—very great witches whose names we knew. In sum, we lured the spirits of these ancient ones back to earth long enough to give us some knowledge. We also traveled out of our bodies and high over the land.
“I could spend these hours telling what we saw in these trances; how once Mekare and I walked hand in hand through the streets of Nineveh, gazing on wonders which we had not imagined; but these things are not important now.
“Let me say only what the company of the spirits meant to us— the soft harmony in which we lived with all living things around us and with the spirits; and how at moments, the love of the spirits was palpable to us, as Christian mystics have described the love of God or his saints.
“We lived in bliss together, my sister and I and our mother. The caves of our ancestors were warm and dry; and we had all things that we needed—fine robes and jewelry and lovely combs of ivory and sandals of leather—brought to us by the people as offerings, for no one ever paid us for what we did.
“And every day the people of our village came to consult with us,
and we would put their questions to the spirits. We would try to see the future, which of course the spirits can do after a fashion, insofar as certain things tend to follow an inevitable course.
“We looked into minds with our telepathic power and we gave the best wisdom that we could. Now and then those possessed were brought to us. And we drove out the demon, or the bad spirit, for that is all it was. And when a house was bedeviled, we went there and ordered the bad spirit away.
“We gave the dream potion to those who requested it. And they would fall into the trance, or sleep and dream heavily in vivid images, which we sought then to interpret or explain.
“For this we didn’t really need the spirits though sometimes we sought their particular advice. We used our own powers of understanding and deep vision, and often the information handed down to us, as to what various images mean.
“But our greatest miracle—which took all our power to accomplish, and which we could never guarantee—was the bringing down of the rain.
“Now, in two basic ways we worked this miracle—‘little rain,’ which was largely symbolic and a demonstration of power and a great healing thing for our people’s souls. Or ‘big rain,’ which was needed for the crops, and which was very hard, indeed, to do if we could do it at all.
“Both required a great wooing of the spirits, a great calling of their names, and demanding that they come together and concentrate and use their force at our command. ‘Little rain’ was often done by our most familiar spirits, those who loved Mekare and me most particularly, and had loved our mother and her mother, and all our ancestors before us, and could always be counted upon to do hard tasks out of love.
“But many spirits were required for ‘big rain’ and since some of these spirits seemed to loathe each other and to loathe cooperation, a great deal of flattery had to be thrown into the bargain. We had to do chants, and a great dance. For hours, we worked at it as the spirits gradually took interest, came together, became enamored of the idea, and then finally set to work.
“Mekare and I were able to accomplish ‘big rain’ only three times. But what a lovely thing it was to see the clouds gather over the
valley, to see the great blinding sheets of rain descend. All our people ran out into the downpour; the land itself seemed to swell, to open, to give thanks.
“ ‘Little rain’ we did often; we did it for others, we did it for joy. “But it was the making of ‘big rain’ that really spread our fame
far and wide. We had always been known as the witches of the mountain; but now people came to us from the cities of the far north, from lands whose names we didn’t know.
“Men waited their turn in the village to come to the mountain and drink the potion and have us examine their dreams. They waited their turn to seek our counsel or sometimes merely to see us. And of course our village served them meat and drink and took an offering for this, and all profited, or so it seemed. And in this regard what we did was not so different from what doctors of psychology do in this century; we studied images; we interpreted them; we sought for some truth from the subconscious mind; and the miracles of ‘little rain’ and ‘big rain’ merely bolstered the faith of others in our abilities.
“One day, half a year I think before our mother was to die, a letter came into our hands. A messenger had brought it from the King and Queen of Kemet, which was the land of Egypt as the Egyptians called it themselves. It was a letter written on a clay tablet as they wrote in Jericho and Nineveh, and there were little pictures in the clay, and the beginnings of what men would later call cuneiform.
“Of course we could not read it; in fact, we found it frightening, and thought that it might be a curse. We did not want to touch it, but touch it we had to do if we were to understand anything about it that we should know.
“The messenger said that his sovereigns Akasha and Enkil had heard of our great power and would be honored if we would visit at their court; they had sent a great escort to accompany us to Kemet, and they would send us home with great gifts.
“We found ourselves, all three, distrustful of this messenger. He was speaking the truth as far as he knew it, but there was more to the whole thing.
“So our mother took the clay tablet into her hands. Immediately, she felt something from it, something which passed through her
fingers and gave her great distress. At first she wouldn’t tell us what she had seen; then taking us aside, she said that the King and Queen of Kemet were evil, great shedders of blood, and very disregarding of others’ beliefs. And that a terrible evil would come to us from this man and woman, no matter what the writing said.
“Then Mekare and I touched the letter and we too caught the presentiment of evil. But there was a mystery here, a dark tangle, and caught up with the evil was an element of courage and what seemed good. In sum this was no simple plot to steal us and our power; there was some genuine curiosity and respect.
“Finally we asked the spirits—those two spirits which Mekare and I most loved. They came near to us and they read the letter which was a very easy thing for them to do. They said that the messenger had told the truth. But some terrible danger would come to us if we were to go to the King and Queen of Kemet.
“ ‘Why?’ we asked the spirits.
“ ‘Because the King and Queen will ask you questions,’ the spirits answered, ‘and if you answer truthfully, which you will, the King and Queen will be angry with you, and you will be destroyed.’
“Of course we would never have gone to Egypt anyway. We didn’t leave our mountain. But now we knew for sure that we must not. We told the messenger with all respect that we could not leave the place where we had been born, that no witch of our family had ever left here, and we begged him to tell this to the King and Queen.
“And so the messenger left and life returned to its normal routine.
“Except that several nights later, an evil spirit came to us, one which we called Amel. Enormous, powerful, and full of rancor, this thing danced about the clearing before our cave trying to get Mekare and me to take notice of him, and telling us that we might soon need his help.
“We were long used to the blandishments of evil spirits; it made them furious that we would not talk to them as other witches and wizards might. But we knew these entities to be untrustworthy and uncontrollable and we had never been tempted to use them and thought that we never would.
“This Amel, in particular, was maddened by our ‘neglect’ of him,
as he called it. And he declared over and over again that he was ‘Amel, the powerful,’ and ‘Amel, the invincible,’ and we should show him some respect. For we might have great need of him in the future. We might need him more than we could imagine, for trouble was coming our way.
“At this point, our mother came out of the cave and demanded of this spirit what was this trouble that he saw.
“This shocked us because we had always been forbidden by her to speak to evil spirits; and when she had spoken to them it was always to curse them or drive them away; or to confuse them with riddles and trick questions so that they got angry, felt stupid, and gave up.
“Amel, the terrible, the evil, the overwhelming—whatever he called himself, and his boasting was endless—declared only that great trouble was coming and we should pay him the proper respect if we were wise. He then bragged of all the evil he had worked for the wizards of Nineveh. That he could torment people, bedevil them, and even prick them as if he were a swarm of gnats! He could draw blood from humans, he declared; and he liked the taste of it; and he would draw blood for us.
“My mother laughed at him. ‘How could you do such a thing?’ she demanded. ‘You are a spirit; you have no body; you can taste nothing!’ she said. And this is the sort of language which always made spirits furious, for they envy us the flesh, as I’ve said.
“Well, this spirit, to demonstrate his power, came down upon our mother like a gale; and immediately her good spirits fought him and there was a terrible commotion over the clearing, but when it had died away and Amel had been driven back by our guardian spirits, we saw that there were tiny pricks upon our mother’s hand. Amel, the evil one, had drawn blood from her, exactly as he had said he would—as if a swarm of gnats had tormented her with little bites.
“My mother looked at these tiny pinprick wounds; the good spirits went mad to see her treated with such disrespect, but she told them to be still. Silently she pondered this thing, how it could be possible, and how this spirit might taste the blood that he had drawn.
“And it was then that Mekare explained her vision that these
spirits had infinitesimal material cores at the very center of their great invisible bodies, and it was possibly through this core that the spirit tasted the blood. Imagine, Mekare said, the wick of a lamp, but a tiny thing within a flame. The wick might absorb blood. And so it was with the spirit who appeared to be all flame but had that tiny wick in it.
“Our mother was scornful but she did not like this thing. She said ironically that the world was full of wonders enough without evil spirits with a taste for blood. ‘Be gone, Amel,’ she said, and laid curses on him, that he was trivial, unimportant, did not matter, was not to be recognized, and might as well blow away. In other words the things she always said to get rid of pesty spirits—the things which priests say even now in slightly different form when they seek to exorcise children who are possessed.
“But what worried our mother more than Amel’s antics was his warning, that evil was coming our way. It deepened the distress she had felt when she took hold of the Egyptian tablet. Yet she did not ask the good spirits for comfort or advice. Maybe she knew better than to ask them. But this I can never know. Whatever was the case, our mother knew something was going to happen, and clearly she felt powerless to prevent it. Perhaps she understood that sometimes, when we seek to prevent disaster, we play into its hands.
“Whatever was the truth of it, she grew sick in the days that followed, then weak, and then unable to speak.
“For months she lingered, paralyzed, half asleep. We sat by her night and day and sang to her. We brought flowers to her and we tried to read her thoughts. The spirits were in a terrible state of agitation as they loved her. And they made the wind blow on the mountain; they tore the leaves from the trees.
“All the village was in sorrow. Then one morning the thoughts of our mother took shape again; but they were fragments. We saw sunny fields and flowers and images of things she’d known in childhood; and then only brilliant colors and little more.
“We knew our mother was dying, and the spirits knew it. We did our best to calm them, but some of them had gone into a rage. When she died, her ghost would rise and pass through the realm of the spirits and they would lose her forever and go mad for a while in their grief.
“But finally it happened, as it was perfectly natural and inevitable, and we came out of the cave to tell the villagers our mother had gone to higher realms. All the trees of the mountain were caught in the wind made by the spirits; the air was full of green leaves. My sister and I wept; and for the first time in my life I thought I heard the spirits; I thought I heard their cries and lamentations over the wind.
“At once the villagers came to do what must be done.
“First our mother was laid out on a stone slab as was the custom so that all could come and pay their respects. She was dressed in the white gown she so loved in life, of Egyptian linen, and all her fine jewelry from Nineveh and the rings and necklaces of bone which contained tiny bits of our ancestors, and which would soon come to us.
“And after ten hours had passed, and hundreds had come to visit, both from our village and all the surrounding villages, we then prepared the body for the funeral feast. For any other dead person of our village, the priests would have done this honor. But we were witches and our mother was a witch; and we alone could touch her. And in privacy, and by the light of oil lamps, my sister and I removed the gown from our mother and covered her body completely with fresh flowers and leaves. We sawed open her skull and lifted the top carefully so that it remained intact at the forehead, and we removed her brain and placed it on a plate with her eyes. Then with an equally careful incision we removed the heart and placed it on another plate. Then these plates were covered with heavy domes of clay to protect them.
“And the villagers came forward and built a brick oven around the body of our mother on the stone slab, with the plates beside her, and they put the fire in the oven, beneath the slab, between the rocks upon which it rested, and the roasting began.
“All night it took place. The spirits had quieted because the spirit of our mother was gone. I don’t think the body mattered to them; what we did now did not matter, but it certainly mattered to us.
“Because we were witches and our mother was a witch, we alone would partake of her flesh. It was all ours by custom and right. The villagers would not assist in the feast as they might have done at any other where only two offspring were left with the obligation.
No matter how long it took we would consume our mother’s flesh. And the villagers would keep watch with us.
“But as the night wore on, as the remains of our mother were prepared in the oven, my sister and I deliberated over the heart and the brain. We would divide these organs of course; and which should take which organ, that was what concerned us; for we had strong beliefs about these organs and what resided in each.
“Now to many peoples of that time, it was the heart that mattered. To the Egyptians, for example, the heart was the seat of conscience. This was even so to the people of our village; but we as witches believed that the brain was the residence of the human spirit: that is, the spiritual part of each man or woman that was like unto the spirits of the air. And our belief that the brain was important came from the fact that the eyes were connected to the brain; and the eyes were the organs of sight. And seeing is what we did as witches; we saw into hearts, we saw into the future; we saw into the past. Seer, that was the word for what we were in our language; that is what ‘witch’ meant.
“But again, this was largely ceremony of which we spoke; we believed our mother’s spirit had gone. Out of respect for her, we consumed these organs so that they should not rot. So it was easy for us to reach agreement; Mekare would take the brain and the eyes; and I would take the heart.
“Mekare was the more powerful witch; the one born first; and the one who always took the lead in things; the one who spoke out immediately; the one who acted as the older sister, as one twin invariably does. It seemed right that she should take the brain and the eyes; and I, who had always been quieter of disposition, and slower, should take the organ which was associated with deep feeling, and love—the heart.
“We were pleased with the division and as the morning sky grew light we slept for a few hours, our bodies weak from hunger and the fasting that prepared us for the feast.
“Sometime before dawn the spirits waked us. They were making the wind come again. I went out of the cave; the fire glowed in the oven. The villagers who kept watch were asleep. Angrily I told the spirits to keep quiet. But one of them, that one which I most loved, said that strangers were gathered on the mountain, many many
strangers who were most impressed with our power and dangerously curious about the feast.
“ ‘These men want something of you and Mekare,’ the spirit told me. ‘These men are not for the good.’
“I told him that strangers always came here; that this was nothing, and that he must be quiet now, and let us do what we had to do. But then I went to one of the men of our village and asked that the village be ready in case some trouble was to happen, that the men bring their arms with them when they gathered for the feast to begin.
“It wasn’t such a strange request. Most men carried their weapons with them wherever they went. Those few who had been professional soldiers or could afford swords frequently wore them; those with knives kept them tucked in their belt.
“But in the main I was not concerned about such things; after all, strangers from far and wide came to our village; it was only natural that they would for this special event—the death of a witch.
“But you know what was to happen. You saw it in your dreams. You saw the villagers gather around the clearing as the sun rose towards the high point of noon. Maybe you saw the bricks taken down slowly from the cooling oven; or only the body of our mother, darkened, shriveled, yet peaceful as in sleep, revealed on the warm slab of stone. You saw the wilted flowers covering her, and you saw the heart and the brain and the eyes upon their plates.
“You saw us kneel on either side of our mother’s body. And you heard the musicians begin to play.
“What you could not see, but you know now, is that for thousands of years our people had gathered at such feasts. For thousands of years we had lived in that valley and on the slopes of the mountain where the high grass grew and the fruit fell from the trees. This was our land, our custom, our moment.
“Our sacred moment.
“And as Mekare and I knelt opposite each other, dressed in the finest robes we possessed and wearing now the jewelry of our mother as well as our own adornments, we saw before us, not the warnings of the spirits, or the distress of our mother when she had touched the tablet of the King and Queen of Kemet. We saw our
own lives—with hope, long and happy—to be lived here among our own.
“I don’t know how long we knelt there; how long we prepared our souls. I remember that finally, in unison, we lifted the plates which contained the organs of our mother; and the musicians began to play. The music of the flute and the drum filled the air around us; we could hear the soft breath of the villagers; we could hear the song of the birds.
“And then the evil came down upon us; came so suddenly with the tramp of feet and loud shrill war cries of the Egyptian soldiers, that we scarce knew what was happening. Over our mother’s body, we threw ourselves, seeking to protect the sacred feast; but at once they had pulled us up and away, and we saw the plates falling into the dirt, and the slab overturned!
“I heard Mekare screaming as I had never heard a human scream. But I too was screaming, screaming as I saw my mother’s body thrown down into the ashes.
“Yet curses filled my ears; men denouncing us as flesh eaters, cannibals, men denouncing us as savages and those who must be put to the sword.
“Only no one harmed us. Screaming, struggling, we were bound and kept helpless, though all of our kith and kin were slaughtered before our eyes. Soldiers tramped on the body of our mother; they tramped on her heart and her brain and her eyes. They tramped back and forth in the ashes, while their cohorts skewered the men and women and children of our village.
“And then, through the chorus of screams, through the hideous outcry of all those hundreds dying on the side of the mountain, I heard Mekare call on our spirits for vengeance, call on them to punish the soldiers for what they had done.
“But what was wind or rain to such men as these? The trees shook; it seemed the earth itself trembled; leaves filled the air as they had the night before. Rocks rolled down the mountain; dust rose in clouds. But there was no more than a moment’s hesitation, before the King, Enkil, himself stepped forth and told his men that these were but tricks that all men had witnessed, and we and our demons could do no more.
“It was all too true, this admonition; and the massacre went on
unabated. My sister and I were ready to die. But they did not kill us. It was not their intention to kill us, and as they dragged us away, we saw our village burning, we saw the fields of wild wheat burning, we saw all the men and women of our tribe lying dead, and we knew their bodies would be left there for the beasts and the earth to consume, in utter disregard and abandon.”
Maharet stopped. She had made a small steeple of her hands and now she touched the tips of her fingers to her forehead, and rested it seemed before she went on. When she continued, her voice was roughened slightly and lower, but steady as it had been before.
“What is one small nation of villages? What is one people—or even one life?
“Beneath the earth a thousand such peoples are buried. And so our people are buried to this day.
“All we knew, all we had been, was laid waste within the space of an hour. A trained army had slaughtered our simple shepherds, our women, and our helpless young. Our villages lay in ruins, huts pulled down; everything that could burn was burned.
“Over the mountain, over the village that lay at the foot of it, I felt the presence of the spirits of the dead; a great haze of spirits, some so agitated and confused by the violence done them that they clung to the earth in terror and pain; and others rising above the flesh to suffer no more.
“And what could the spirits do?
“All the way to Egypt, they followed our procession; they bedeviled the men who kept us bound and carried us by means of a litter on their shoulders, two weeping women, snuggling close to each other in terror and grief.
“Each night when the company made camp, the spirits sent wind to tear up their tents and scatter them. Yet the King counseled his soldiers not to be afraid. The King said the gods of Egypt were more powerful than the demons of the witches. And as the spirits were in fact doing all that they were capable of, as things got no worse, the soldiers obeyed.
“Each night the King had us brought before him. He spoke our language, which was a common one in the world then, spoken all through the Tigris and Euphrates Valley and along the flanks of
Mount Carmel. ‘You are great witches,’ he would say, his voice gentle and maddeningly sincere. ‘I have spared your life on this account though you were flesh eaters as were your people, and you were caught in the very act by me and my men. I have spared you because I would have the benefit of your wisdom. I would learn from you, and my Queen would learn as well. Tell me what I can give you to ease your suffering and I will do it. You are under my protection now; I am your King.’
“Weeping, refusing to meet his eyes, saying nothing, we stood before him until he tired of all this, and sent us back to sleep in the small crowded litter—a tiny rectangle of wood with only small windows—as we had been before.
“Alone once more, my sister and I spoke to each other silently, or by means of our language, the twin language of gestures and abbreviated words that only we understood. We recalled what the spirits had said to our mother; we remembered that she had taken ill after the letter from the King of Kemet and she had never recovered. Yet we weren’t afraid.
“We were too stricken with grief to be afraid. It was as if we were already dead. We’d seen our people massacred, we’d seen our mother’s body desecrated. We did not know what could be worse. We were together; maybe separation would be worse.
“But during this long journey to Egypt, we had one small consolation which we were not later to forget. Khayman, the King’s steward, looked upon us with compassion, and did everything that he could, in secret, to ease our pain.”
Maharet stopped again and looked at Khayman, who sat with his hands folded before him on the table and his eyes down. It seemed he was deep in his recollection of the things which Maharet described. He accepted this tribute but it didn’t seem to console him. Then finally he looked to Maharet in acknowledgment. He seemed dazed and full of questions. But he didn’t ask them. His eyes passed over the others, acknowledging their glances as well, acknowledging the steady stare of Armand, and of Gabrielle, but again, he said nothing.
Then Maharet continued:
“Khayman loosened our bonds whenever possible; he allowed us to walk about in the evening; he brought us meat and drink. And
there was a great kindness in that he didn’t speak to us when he did these things; he did not ask for our gratitude. He did these things with a pure heart. It was simply not to his taste to see people suffer.
“It seemed we traveled ten days to reach the land of Kemet. Maybe it was more; maybe it was less. Some time during that journey the spirits tired of their tricks; and we, dejected and without courage, did not call upon them. We sank into silence finally, only now and then looking into each other’s eyes.
“At last we came into a kingdom the like of which we had never seen. Over scorching desert we were brought to the rich black land that bordered the Nile River, the black earth from which the word Kemet derives; and then over the mighty river itself by raft we were taken as was all the army, and into a sprawling city of brick buildings with grass roofs, of great temples and palaces built of the same coarse materials, but all very fine.
“This was long before the time of the stone architecture for which the Egyptians would become known—the temples of the pharaohs which have stood to this day.
“But already there was a great love of show and decoration, a movement towards the monumental. Unbaked bricks, river reeds, matting—all of these simple materials had been used to make high walls which were then whitewashed and painted with lovely designs.
“Before the palace into which we were taken as royal prisoners were great columns made from enormous jungle grasses, which had been dried and bound together and plastered with river mud; and within a closed court a lake had been made, full of lotus blossoms and surrounded by flowering trees.
“Never had we seen people so rich as these Egyptians, people decked out with so much jewelry, people with beautifully plaited hair and painted eyes. And their painted eyes tended to unnerve us. For the paint hardened their stare; it gave an illusion of depth where perhaps there was no depth; instinctively, we shrank from this artifice.
“But all we saw merely inspired further misery in us. How we hated everything around us. And we could sense from these people
—though we didn’t understand their strange tongue—that they hated and feared us too. It seemed our red hair caused great
confusion among them; and that we were twins, this too produced fear.
“For it had been the custom among them now and then to kill twin children; and the red-haired were invariably sacrificed to the gods. It was thought to be lucky.
“All this came clear to us in wanton flashes of understanding; imprisoned, we waited grimly to see what would be our fate.
“As before, Khayman was our only consolation in those first hours. Khayman, the King’s chief steward, saw that we had comforts in our imprisonment. He brought us fresh linen, and fruit to eat and beer to drink. He brought us even combs for our hair and clean dresses; and for the first time he spoke to us; he told us that the Queen was gentle and good, and we must not be afraid.
“We knew that he was speaking the truth, there was no doubt of it; but something was wrong, as it had been months before with the words of the King’s messenger. Our trials had only begun.
“We also feared the spirits had deserted us; that maybe they did not want to come into this land on our behalf. But we didn’t call upon the spirits; because to call and not to be answered—well, that would have been more than we could bear.
“Then evening came and the Queen sent for us; and we were brought before the court.
“The spectacle overwhelmed us, even as we despised it: Akasha and Enkil upon their thrones. The Queen was then as she is now—a woman of straight shoulders and firm limbs with a face almost too exquisite to evince intelligence, a being of enticing prettiness with a soft treble voice. As for the King, we saw him now not as a soldier but as a sovereign. His hair was plaited, and he wore his formal kilt and jewels. His black eyes were full of earnestness as they had always been; but it was clear, within a moment, that it was Akasha who ruled this kingdom and always had. Akasha had the language
—the verbal skill.
“At once, she told us that our people had been properly punished for their abominations; that they had been dealt with mercifully, as all flesh eaters are savages, and they should have, by right, suffered a slow death. And she said that we had been shown mercy because we were great witches, and the Egyptians would learn from us; they would know what wisdom of the realms of the invisible we had to
“Immediately, as if these words were nothing, she went into her questions. Who were our demons? Why were some good, if they were demons? Were they not gods? How could we make the rain fall?
“We were too horrified by her callousness to respond. We were bruised by the spiritual coarseness of her manner, and had begun to weep again. We turned away from her and into each other’s arms.
“But something else was also coming clear to us—something very plain from the manner in which this person spoke. The speed of her words, their flippancy, the emphasis she put upon this or that syllable—all this made known to us that she was lying and did not herself know that she lied.
“And looking deep into the lie, as we closed our eyes, we saw the truth which she herself would surely deny:
“She had slaughtered our people in order to bring us here! She had sent her King and her soldiers upon this ‘holy war’ simply because we had refused her earlier invitation, and she wanted us at her mercy. She was curious about us.
“This was what our mother had seen when she held the tablet of the King and Queen in her hands. Perhaps the spirits in their own way had foreseen it. We only understood the full monstrousness of it now.
“Our people had died because we had attracted the interest of the Queen just as we attracted the interest of the spirits; we had brought this evil upon all.
“Why, we wondered, hadn’t the soldiers merely taken us from our helpless villagers? Why had they brought to ruin all that our people were?
“But that was the horror! A moral cloak had been thrown over the Queen’s purpose, a cloak through which she could not see any more than anyone else.
“She had convinced herself that our people should die, yes, that their savagery merited it, even though they were not Egyptians and our land was far from her home. And oh, wasn’t it rather convenient, that then we should be shown mercy and brought here to satisfy her curiosity at last. And we should, of course, be grateful
by then and willing to answer her questions.
“And even deeper beyond her deception, we beheld the mind that made such contradictions possible.
“This Queen had no true morality, no true system of ethics to govern the things which she did. This Queen was one of those many humans who sense that perhaps there is nothing and no reason to anything that can ever be known. Yet she cannot bear the thought of it. And so she created day in and day out her ethical systems, trying desperately to believe in them, and they were all cloaks for things she did for merely pragmatic reasons. Her war on the cannibals, for instance, had stemmed more from her dislike of such customs than anything else. Her people of Uruk hadn’t eaten human flesh; and so she would not have this offensive thing happening around her; there really wasn’t a whole lot more to it than that. For always in her there was a dark place full of despair. And a great driving force to make meaning because there was none.
“Understand, it was not a shallowness we perceived in this woman. It was a youthful belief that she could make the light shine if she tried; that she could shape the world to comfort herself; and it was also a lack of interest in the pain of others. She knew others felt pain, but well, she could not really dwell on it.
“Finally, unable to bear the extent of this obvious duplicity, we turned and studied her, for we must now contend with her. She was not twenty-five years old, this Queen, and her powers were absolute in this land which she had dazzled with her customs from Uruk. And she was almost too pretty to be truly beautiful, for her loveliness overcame any sense of majesty or deep mystery; and her voice contained still a childish ring to it, a ring which evokes tenderness instinctively in others, and gives a faint music to the simplest words. A ring which we found maddening.
“On and on she went with her questions. How did we work our miracles? How did we look into men’s hearts? Whence came our magic, and why did we claim that we talked to beings who were invisible? Could we speak in the same manner to her gods? Could we deepen her knowledge or bring her into closer understanding of what was divine? She was willing to pardon us for our savagery if we were to be grateful; if we were to kneel at her altars and lay before her gods and before her what we knew.
“She pursued her various points with a single-mindedness that could make a wise person laugh.
“But it brought up the deepest rage from Mekare. She who had always taken the lead in anything spoke out now.
“ ‘Stop your questions. You speak in stupidities,’ she declared. ‘You have no gods in this kingdom, because there are no gods. The only invisible inhabitants of the world are spirits, and they play with you through your priests and your religion as they play with everyone else. Ra, Osiris—these are merely made-up names with which you flatter and court the spirits, and when it suits their purposes they give you some little sign to send you scurrying to flatter them some more.’
“Both the King and Queen stared at Mekare in horror. But Mekare went on:
“ ‘The spirits are real, but they are childlike and capricious. And they are dangerous as well. They marvel at us and envy us that we are both spiritual and fleshly, which attracts them and makes them eager to do our will. Witches such as we have always known how to use them; but it takes great skill and great power to do it, and this we have and you do not have. You are fools, and what you have done to take us prisoner is evil; it is dishonest; you live in the lie! But we will not lie to you.’
“And then, half weeping, half choking with rage, Mekare accused the Queen before the entire court of duplicity, of massacring our peaceable people simply so that we might be brought here. Our people had not hunted for human flesh in a thousand years, she told this court; and it was a funeral feast that was desecrated at our capture, and all this evil done so that the Queen of Kemet might have witches to talk to, witches of whom to ask questions, witches in her possession whose power she would seek to use for herself.
“The court was in an uproar. Never had anyone heard such disrespect, such blasphemy, and so forth and so on. But the old lords of Egypt, those who still chafed at the ban on sacred cannibalism, they were horrified by this mention of the desecrated funeral feast. And others who also feared the retribution of heaven for not devouring the remains of their parents were struck dumb with fear.
“But in the main, it was confusion. Except for the King and the
Queen, who were strangely silent and strangely intrigued.
“Akasha didn’t make any answer to us, and it was clear that something in our explanation had rung true for her in the deeper regions of her mind. There flared for the moment a deadly earnest curiosity. Spirits who pretend to be gods? Spirits who envy the flesh? As for the charge that she had sacrificed our people needlessly, she didn’t even consider it. Again, it did not interest her. It was the spiritual question which fascinated her, and in her fascination the spirit was divorced from the flesh.
“Allow me to draw your attention to what I have just said. It was the spiritual question which fascinated her—you might say the abstract idea; and in her fascination the abstract idea was everything. I do not think she believed that the spirits could be childlike and capricious. But whatever was there, she meant to know of it; and she meant to know of it through us. As for the destruction of our people, she did not care!
“Meantime the high priest of the temple of Ra was demanding our execution. So was the high priest of the temple of Osiris. We were evil; we were witches; and all those with red hair should be burned as had always been done in the land of Kemet. And at once the assemblage echoed these denunciations. There should be a burning. Within moments it seemed a riot would have broken out in the palace.
“But the King ordered all to be quiet. We were taken to our cell again, and put under heavy guard.
“Mekare, enraged, paced the floor, as I begged her not to say any more. I reminded her of what the spirits had told us: that if we went to Egypt, the King and Queen would ask us questions, and if we answered truthfully, which we would, the King and Queen would be angry with us, and we would be destroyed.
“But this was like talking to myself now; Mekare wouldn’t listen. Back and forth she walked, now and then striking her breast with her fist. I felt the anguish she felt.
“ ‘Damnable,’ she was saying. ‘Evil.’ And then she’d fall silent and pace, and then say these words again.
“I knew she was remembering the warning of Amel, the evil one.
And I also knew that Amel was near; I could hear him, sense him.
“I knew that Mekare was being tempted to call upon him; and I felt that she must not. What would his silly torments mean to the Egyptians? How many mortals could he afflict with his pinpricks? It was no more than the storms of wind and flying objects which we could already produce. But Amel heard these thoughts; and he began to grow restless.
“ ‘Be quiet, demon,’ Mekare said. ‘Wait until I need you!’ Those were the first words I ever heard her speak to an evil spirit, and they sent a shiver of horror through me.
“I don’t remember when we fell asleep. Only that sometime after midnight I was awakened by Khayman.
“At first I thought it was Amel doing some trick, and I awoke in a frenzy. But Khayman gestured for me to be quiet. He was in a terrible state. He wore only a simple bed gown and no sandals, and his hair was mussed. It seemed he’d been weeping. His eyes were red.
“He sat down beside me. ‘Tell me, is this true, what you said of the spirits?’ I didn’t bother to tell him it was Mekare who said it. People always confused us or thought of us as one being. I merely told him, yes, it was true.
“I explained that there have always been these invisible entities; that they themselves had told us there were no gods or goddesses of which they knew. They had bragged to us often of the tricks they played at Sumer or Jericho or in Nineveh at the great temples. Now and then they would come booming that they were this or that god. But we knew their personalities, and when we called them by their old names, they gave up the new game at once.
“What I did not say was that I wished Mekare had never made known such things. What purpose could it serve now?
“He sat there defeated, listening to me, listening as if he had been a man lied to all his life and now he saw truth. For he had been deeply moved when he had seen the spirits strike up the wind on our mountain and he had seen a shower of leaves fall upon the soldiers; it had chilled his soul. And that is always what produces faith, that mixture of truth and a physical manifestation.
“But then I perceived there was an even greater burden upon his conscience, or on his reason, one might say. ‘And the massacre of your people, this was a holy war; it was not a selfish thing, as you
“ ‘Oh, no,’ I told him. ‘It was a selfish and simple thing, I can’t say otherwise.’ I told him of the tablet sent to us by the messenger, of what the spirits had said, of my mother’s fear and her illness, and of my own power to hear the truth in the Queen’s words, the truth which she herself might not be able to accept.
“But long before I’d finished, he was defeated again. He knew, from his own observations, that what I was saying was true. He had fought at the King’s side through many a campaign against foreign peoples. That an army should fight for gain was nothing to him. He had seen massacres and cities burned; he had seen slaves taken; he had seen men return laden with booty. And though he himself was no soldier, these things he understood.
“But there had been no booty worth taking in our villages; there had been no territory which the King would retain. Yes, it had been fought for our capture, he knew it. And he too felt the distaste for the lie of a holy war against flesh eaters. And he felt a sadness that was even greater than his defeat. He was of an old family; he had eaten the flesh of his ancestors; and he found himself now punishing such traditions among those whom he had known and loved. He thought of the mummification of the dead with repugnance, but more truly he felt repugnance for the ceremony which accompanied it, for the depth of superstition in which the land had been steeped. So much wealth heaped upon the dead; so much attention to those putrefying bodies simply so men and women would not feel guilty for abandoning the older customs.
“Such thoughts exhausted him; they weren’t natural to him; what obsessed him finally were the deaths he had seen; executions; massacres. Just as the Queen could not grasp such things, he could not forget them and he was a man losing his stamina; a man drawn into a mire in which he might drown.
“Finally he took his leave of me. But before he went he promised that he would do his best to see that we were released. He did not know how he could do it, but he would try to do it. And he begged me not to be afraid. I felt a great love for him at that moment. He had then the same beautiful face and form which he has now; only then he was dark-skinned and leaner and the curls had been ironed from his hair and it had been plaited and hung long to his
shoulders, and he had the air of the court about him, the air of one who commands, and one who stands in the warm love of his prince.
“The following morning the Queen sent for us again. And this time we were brought privately to her chamber, where only the King was with her, and Khayman.
“It was a more lavish place even than the great hall of the palace; it was stuffed to overflowing with fine things, with a couch made of carved leopards, and a bed hung with sheer silk; and with polished mirrors of seemingly magical perfection. And the Queen herself, like a temptress she was, bedecked with finery and perfume, and fashioned by nature into a thing as lovely as any treasure around her.
“Once again she put her questions.
“Standing together, our hands bound, we had to listen to the same nonsense.
“And once again Mekare told the Queen of the spirits; she explained that the spirits have always existed; she told how they bragged of playing with the priests of other lands. She told how the spirits had said the songs and chants of the Egyptians pleased them. It was all a game to the spirits, and no more.
“ ‘But these spirits! They are the gods, then, that is what you are saying!’ Akasha said with great fervor. ‘And you speak to them? I want to see you do it! Do it for me now.’
“ ‘But they are not gods,’ I said. ‘That is what we are trying to tell you. And they do not abhor the eaters of the flesh as you say your gods do. They don’t care about such things. They never have.’ Painstakingly I strove to convey the difference; these spirits had no code; they were morally inferior to us. Yet I knew this woman couldn’t grasp what I was telling her.
“I perceived the war inside her, between the handmaiden of the goddess Inanna who wanted to believe herself blessed, and the dark brooding soul who believed finally in nothing. A chill place was her soul; her religious fervor was nothing but a blaze which she fed constantly, seeking to warm that chill place.
“ ‘Everything you say is a lie!’ she said finally. ‘You are evil women!’ She ordered our execution. We should be burnt alive the next day and together, so that we might see each other suffer and
die. Why had she ever bothered with us?
“At once the King interrupted her. He told her that he had seen the power of the spirits; so had Khayman. What might not the spirits do if we were so treated? Wouldn’t it be better to let us go?
“But there was something ugly and hard in the Queen’s gaze. The King’s words meant nothing; our lives were being taken from us. What could we do? And it seemed she was angry with us because we had not been able to frame our truths in ways which she could use or take pleasure in. Ah, it was an agony to deal with her. Yet her mind is a common mind; there are countless human beings who think and feel as she did then; and does now, in all likelihood.
“Finally Mekare seized the moment. She did the thing which I did not dare to do. She called the spirits—all of them by name, but so quickly this Queen would never remember the words. She screamed for them to come to her and do her bidding; and she told them to show their displeasure at what was happening to those mortals— Maharet and Mekare—whom they claimed to love.
“It was a gamble. But if nothing happened, if they had deserted us as I feared, well, then she could call on Amel, for he was there, lurking, waiting. And it was the only chance we had finally.
“Within an instant the wind had begun. It howled through the courtyard and whistled through the corridors of the palace. The draperies were torn by it; doors slammed; fragile vessels were smashed. The Queen was in a state of terror as she felt it surround her. Then small objects began to fly through the air. The spirits gathered up the ornaments of her dressing table and hurled them at her; the King stood beside her, striving to protect her, and Khayman was rigid with fear.
“Now, this was the very limit of the spirits’ power; and they would not be able to keep it up for very long. But before the demonstration stopped, Khayman begged the King and Queen to revoke the sentence of execution. And on the spot they did.
“At once Mekare, sensing that the spirits were spent anyway, ordered them with great pomp to stop. Silence fell. And the terrified slaves ran here and there to gather up what had been thrown about.
“The Queen was overcome. The King tried to tell her that he had seen, this spectacle before and it had not harmed him; but something deep had been violated within the Queen’s heart. She’d
never witnessed the slightest proof of the supernatural; and she was struck dumb and still now. In that dark faithless place within her, there had been a spark of light; true light. And so old and certain was her secret skepticism, that this small miracle had been for her a revelation of great magnitude; it was as if she had seen the face of her gods.
“She sent the King and Khayman away from her. She said she would speak with us alone. And then she implored us to talk to the spirits so that she could hear it. There were tears in her eyes.
“It was an extraordinary moment, for I sensed now what I’d sensed months ago when I’d touched the clay tablet—a mixture of good and evil that seemed more dangerous than evil itself.
“Of course we couldn’t make the spirits speak so that she could understand it, we told her. But perhaps she would give us some questions that they might answer. At once she did.
“These were no more than the questions which people have been putting to wizards and witches and saints ever since. ‘Where is the necklace I lost as a child? What did my mother want to tell me the night she died when she could no longer speak? Why does my sister detest my company? Will my son grow to manhood? Will he be brave and strong?’
“Struggling for our lives, we put these questions patiently to the spirits, cajoling them and flattering them to make them pay attention. And we got answers which veritably astonished Akasha. The spirits knew the name of her sister; they knew the name of her son. She seemed on the edge of madness as she considered these simple tricks.
“Then Amel, the evil one, appeared—obviously jealous of all these goings-on—and suddenly flung down before Akasha the lost necklace of which she’d been speaking—a necklace lost in Uruk; and this was the final blow. Akasha was thunderstruck.
“She wept now, holding on to this necklace. And then she begged us to put to the spirits the really important questions whose answers she must know.
“Yes, the gods were made up by her people, the spirits said. No, the names in the prayers didn’t matter. The spirits merely liked the music and rhythm of the language—the shape of the words, so to speak. Yes, there were bad spirits who liked to hurt people, and
why not? And there were good spirits who loved them, too. And would they speak to Akasha if we were to leave the kingdom? Never. They were speaking now, and she couldn’t hear them, what did she expect them to do? But yes, there were witches in the kingdom who could hear them, and they would tell those witches to come to the court at once if that was what she wanted.
“But as this communication progressed, a terrible change came over Akasha.
“She went from jubilance to suspicion and then misery. Because these spirits were only telling her the same dismal things that we had already told her.
“ ‘What do you know of the life after?’ she asked. And when the spirits said only that the souls of the dead either hovered about the earth, confused and suffering, or rose and vanished from it completely, she was brutally disappointed. Her eyes dulled; she was losing all appetite for this. When she asked what of those who had lived bad lives, as opposed to those who had lived good lives, the spirits could give no answer. They didn’t know what she meant.
“Yet it continued, this interrogation. And we could sense that the spirits were tiring of it, and playing with her now, and that the answers would become more and more idiotic.
“ ‘What is the will of the gods?’ she asked. ‘That you sing all the time,’ said the spirits. ‘We like it.’
“Then all of a sudden, Amel, the evil one, so proud of the trick with the necklace, flung another great string of jewels before Akasha. But from this she shrank back in horror.
“At once we saw the error. It had been her mother’s necklace, and lay on her mother’s body in the tomb near Uruk, and of course Amel, being only a spirit, couldn’t guess how bizarre and distasteful it could be to bring this thing here. Even now he did not catch on. He had seen this necklace in Akasha’s mind when she had spoken of the other one. Why didn’t she want it too? Didn’t she like necklaces?
“Mekare told Amel this had not pleased. It was the wrong miracle. Would he please wait for her command, as she understood this Queen and he didn’t.
“But it was too late. Something had happened to the Queen
which was irrevocable. She had seen two pieces of evidence as to the power of the spirits, and she had heard truth and nonsense, neither of which could compare to the beauty of the mythology of her gods which she had always forced herself to believe in. Yet the spirits were destroying her fragile faith. How would she ever escape the dark skepticism in her own soul if these demonstrations continued?
“She bent down and picked up the necklace from her mother’s tomb. ‘How was this got!’ she demanded. But her heart wasn’t really in the question. She knew the answer would be more of what she’d been hearing since we had arrived. She was frightened.
“Nevertheless I explained; and she listened to every word.
“The spirits read our minds; and they are enormous and powerful. Their true size is difficult for us to imagine; and they can move with the swiftness of thought; when Akasha thought of this second necklace, the spirit saw it; he went to look for it; after all, one necklace had pleased her, so why not another? And so he had found it in her mother’s tomb; and brought it out by means perhaps of some small opening. For surely it could not pass through stone. That was ridiculous.
“But as I said this last part I realized the truth. This necklace had probably been stolen from the body of Akasha’s mother, and very possibly by Akasha’s father. It had never been buried in any tomb. That is why Amel could find it. Maybe even a priest had stolen it. Or so it very likely seemed to Akasha, who was holding the necklace in her hand. She loathed this spirit that he made known such an awful thing to her.
“In sum, all the illusions of this woman lay now in complete ruin; yet she was left with the sterile truth she had always known. She had asked her questions of the supernatural—a very unwise thing to do—and the supernatural had given her answers which she could not accept; yet she could not refute them either.
“ ‘Where are the souls of the dead?’ she whispered, staring at this necklace.
“As softly as I could I said, ‘The spirits simply do not know.’ “Horror. Fear. And then her mind began to work, to do what it
had always done—find some grand system to explain away what caused pain; some grand way to accommodate what she saw before
her. The dark secret place inside her was becoming larger; it was threatening to consume her from within; she could not let such a thing happen; she had to go on. She was the Queen of Kemet.
“On the other hand, she was angry, and the rage she felt was against her parents and against her teachers, and against the priests and priestesses of her childhood, and against the gods she had worshiped and against anyone who had ever comforted her, or told her that life was good.
“A moment of silence had fallen; something was happening in her expression; fear and wonder had gone; there was something cold and disenchanted and, finally, malicious in her gaze.
“And then with her mother’s necklace in hand she rose and declared that all we had said were lies. These were demons to whom we were speaking, demons who sought to subvert her and her gods, who looked with favor upon her people. The more she spoke the more she believed what she was saying; the more the elegance of her beliefs seized her; the more she surrendered to their logic. Until finally she was weeping and denouncing us, and the darkness within had been denied. She evoked the images of her gods; she evoked her holy language.
“But then she looked again at the necklace; and the evil spirit, Amel, in a great rage—furious that she was not pleased with his little gift and was once again angry with us—told us to tell her that if she did us any harm he would hurl at her every object, jewel, wine cup, looking glass, comb, or other such item that she ever so much as asked for, or imagined, or remembered, or wished for, or missed.
“I could have laughed had we not been in such danger; it was such a wonderful solution in the mind of the spirit; and so perfectly ridiculous from a human point of view. Yet it certainly wasn’t something that one would want to happen.
“And Mekare told Akasha exactly what Amel had said.
“ ‘He that can produce this necklace can inundate you in such reminders of suffering,’ Mekare said. ‘And I do not know that any witch on earth can stop him, should he so begin.’
“ ‘Where is he?’ Akasha screamed. ‘Let me see this demon thing you speak to!’
“And at this, Amel, in vanity and rage, concentrated all his power and dove at Akasha, declaring ‘I am Amel, the evil one, who pierces!’ and he made the great gale around her that he had made around our mother; only it was ten times that. Never had I seen such fury. The room itself appeared to tremble as this immense spirit compressed himself and directed himself into this tiny place. I could hear the cracking of the brick walls. And all over the Queen’s beautiful face and arms the tiny bitelike wounds appeared as so many red dots of blood.
“She screamed helplessly. Amel was in ecstasy. Amel could do wondrous things! Mekare and I were in terror.
“Mekare commanded him to stop. And now she heaped flattery upon him, and great thanks, and told him he was very simply the most powerful of all spirits, but he must obey her now, to demonstrate his great wit as well as his power; and that she would allow him to strike again at the right time.
“Meantime, the King rushed to the aid of Akasha; Khayman ran to her; all the guards ran to her. But when the guards raised their swords to strike us down, she ordered them to leave us alone. Mekare and I stood staring at her, silently threatening her with this spirit’s power, for it was all that we had left. And Amel, the evil one, hovered above us, filling the air with the most eerie of all sounds, the great hollow laughter of a spirit, that seemed then to fill the entire world.
“Alone in our cell again, we could not think what to do or how to use what little advantage we now had in Amel.
“As for Amel himself, he would not leave us. He ranted and stormed in the little cell; he made the reed mats rustle, and made our garments move; he sent winds through our hair. It was a nuisance. But what frightened me was to hear the things of which he boasted. That he liked to draw blood; that it plumped him up inside and made him slow; but that it tasted good; and when the peoples of the world made blood sacrifice upon their altars he liked to come down and slurp up that blood. After all, it was there for him, was it not? More laughter.
“There was a great recoiling in the other spirits. Mekare and I both sensed this. Except for those who were faintly jealous and demanded to know what this blood tasted like, and why he liked
such a thing so much.
“And then it came out—that hatred and jealousy of the flesh which is in so many evil spirits, that feeling that we are abominations, we humans, because we have both body and soul, which should not exist on this earth. Amel ranted of the times when there had been but mountains and oceans and forests and no living things such as us. He told us that to have spirit within mortal bodies was a curse.
“Now, I had heard these complaints among the evil ones before; but I had never thought much about them. For the first time I believed them, just a little, as I lay there and I saw my people put to the sword in my mind’s eye. I thought as many a man or woman has thought before and since that maybe it was a curse to have the concept of immortality without the body to go with it.
“Or as you said, on this very night, Marius—life seemed not worth it; it seemed a joke. My world was darkness at that moment, darkness and suffering. All that I was no longer mattered; nothing I looked at could make me want to be alive.
“But Mekare began to speak to Amel again, informing him that she would much rather be what she was than what he was—drifting about forever with nothing important to do. And this sent Amel into a rage again. He would show her what he could do!
“ ‘When I command you, Amel!’ she said. ‘Count upon me to choose the moment. Then all men will know what you can do.’ And this childish vain spirit was contented, and spread himself out again over the dark sky.
“For three nights and days we were kept prisoner. The guards would not look at us or come near us. Neither would the slaves. In fact, we would have starved had it not been for Khayman, the royal steward, who brought us food with his own hands.
“Then he told us what the spirits had already told us. A great controversy raged; the priests wanted us put to death. But the Queen was afraid to kill us, that we’d loose these spirits on her, and there would be no way she could drive them off. The King was intrigued by what had happened; he believed that more could be learned from us; he was curious about the power of the spirits, and to what uses it could be put. But the Queen feared it; the Queen had seen enough.
“Finally we were brought before the entire court in the great open atrium of the palace.
“It was high noon in the kingdom and the King and Queen made their offerings to the sun god Ra as was the custom, and this we were made to watch. It meant nothing to us to see this solemnity; we were afraid these were the last hours of our lives. I dreamed then of our mountain, our caves; I dreamed of the children we might have borne—fine sons and daughters, and some of them who would have inherited our power—I dreamed of the life that had been taken from us, of the annihilation of our kith and kindred which might soon be complete. I thanked whatever powers that be that I could see blue sky above my head, and that Mekare and I were still together.
“At last the King spoke. There was a terrible sadness and weariness in him. Young as he was, he had something of an old man’s soul in these moments. Ours was a great gift, he told us, but we had misused it, clearly, and could be no use to anyone else. For lies, for the worship of demons, for black magic, he denounced us. He would have us burned, he said, to please the people; but he and his Queen felt sorry for us. The Queen in particular wanted him to have mercy on us.
“It was a damnable lie, but one look at her face told us she’d convinced herself that it was true. And of course the King believed it. But what did this matter? What was this mercy, we wondered, trying to look deeper into their souls.
“And now the Queen told us in tender words that our great magic had brought her the two necklaces she most wanted in all the world and for this and this alone she would let us live. In sum, the lie she spun grew larger and more intricate, and more distant from the truth.
“And then the King said he would release us, but first he would demonstrate to all the court that we had no power, and therefore the priests would be appeased.
“And if at any moment an evil demon should manifest himself and seek to abuse the just worshipers of Ra or Osiris, then our pardon should be revoked and we should be put to death at once. For surely the power of our demons would die with us. And we would have forfeited the Queen’s mercy which we scarce deserved
as it was.
“Of course we realized what was to happen; we saw it now in the hearts of the King and the Queen. A compromise had been struck. And we had been offered a bargain. As the King removed his gold chain and medallion and put it around the neck of Khayman, we knew that we were to be raped before the court, raped as common female prisoners or slaves would have been raped in any war. And if we called the spirits we’d die. That was our position.
“ ‘But for the love of my Queen,’ said Enkil, ‘I would take my pleasure of these two women, which is my right; I would do it before you all to show that they have no power and are not great witches, but are merely women, and my chief steward, Khayman, my beloved Khayman, will be given the privilege of doing it in my stead.’
“All the court waited in silence as Khayman looked at us, and prepared to obey the King’s command. We stared at him, daring him in our helplessness not to do it—not to lay hands upon us or to violate us, before these uncaring eyes.
“We could feel the pain in him and the tumult. We could feel the danger that surrounded him, for were he to disobey he would surely have died. Yet this was our honor he meant to take; he meant to desecrate us; ruin us as it were; and we who had lived always in the sunshine and peace on our mountain knew nothing really of the act which he meant to perform.
“I think, as he came towards us, I believed he could not do it, that a man could not feel the pain which he felt and still sharpen his passion for this ugly work. But I knew little of men then, of how the pleasures of the flesh can combine in them with hatred and anger; of how they can hurt as they perform the act which women perform, more often than not, for love.
“Our spirits clamored against what was to happen; but for our very lives, we told them to be quiet. Silently I pressed Mekare’s hand; I gave her to know that we would live when this was over; we would be free; this was not death after all; and we would leave these miserable desert people to their lies and their illusions; to their idiot customs; we would go home.
“And then Khayman set about to do what he had to do. Khayman untied our bonds; he took Mekare to himself first, forcing her down
on her back against the matted floor, and lifting her gown, as I stood transfixed and unable to stop him, and then I was subjected to the same fate.
“But in his mind, we were not the women whom Khayman raped. As his soul trembled, as his body trembled, he stoked the fire of his passion with fantasies of nameless beauties and half remembered moments so that body and soul could be one.
“And we, our eyes averted, closed our souls to him and to these vile Egyptians who had done to us these terrible things; our souls were alone and untouched within our bodies; and all around us, I heard without doubt the weeping of the spirits, the sad, terrible weeping, and in the distance, the low rolling thunder of Amel.
“You are fools to hear this, witches.
“It was nightfall when we were left at the edge of the desert. The soldiers gave us what food and drink was allowed. It was nightfall as we started our long journey north. Our rage then was as great as it had ever been.
“And Amel came, taunting us and raging at us; why did we not want him to exact vengeance?
“ ‘They will come after us and kill us!’ Mekare said. ‘Now go away from us.’ But that did not do the trick. So finally she tried to put Amel to work on something important. ‘Amel, we want to reach our home alive. Make cool winds for us; and show us where we can find water.’
“But these are things which evil spirits never do. Amel lost interest. And Amel faded away, and we walked on through the cold desert wind, arm in arm, trying not to think of the miles that lay before us.
“Many things befell us on our long journey which are too numerous here to tell.
“But the good spirits had not deserted us; they made the cooling winds, and they led us to springs where we could find water and a few dates to eat; and they made ‘little rain’ for us as long as they could; but finally we were too deep in the desert for such a thing, and we were dying, and I knew I had a child from Khayman in my womb, and I wanted my child to live.
“It was then that the spirits led us to the Bedouin peoples, and
they took us in, they cared for us.
“I was sick, and for days I lay singing to my child inside my body, and driving away my sickness and my moments of worst remembering with my songs. Mekare lay beside me, holding me in her arms.
“Months passed before I was strong enough to leave the Bedouin camps, and then I wanted my child to be born in our land and I begged Mekare that we should continue our journey.
“At last, with the food and drink the Bedouins had given us, and the spirits to guide us, we came into the green fields of Palestine, and found the foot of the mountain and the shepherd peoples—so like our own tribe—who had come down to claim our old grazing places.
“They knew us as they had known our mother and all our kindred and they called us by name, and immediately took us in.
“And we were so happy again, among the green grasses and the trees and the flowers that we knew, and my child was growing bigger inside my womb. It would live; the desert had not killed it.
“So, in my own land I gave birth to my daughter and named her Miriam as my mother had been named before me. She had Khayman’s black hair but the green eyes of her mother. And the love I felt for her and the joy I knew in her were the greatest curative my soul could desire. We were three again. Mekare, who knew the birth pain with me, and who lifted the child out of my body, carried Miriam in her arms by the hour and sang to her just as I did. The child was ours, as much as it was mine. And we tried to forget the horrors we had seen in Egypt.
“Miriam thrived. And finally Mekare and I vowed to climb the mountain and find the caves in which we’d been born. We did not know yet how we would live or what we would do, so many miles from our new people. But with Miriam, we would go back to the place where we had been so happy; and we would call the spirits to us, and we would make the miracle of rain to bless my newborn child.
“But this was never to be. Not any of it.
“For before we could leave the shepherd people, soldiers came again, under the command of the King’s high steward, Khayman,
soldiers who had passed out gold along the way to any tribe who had seen or heard of the red-haired twins and knew where they might be.
“Once again at midday as the sun poured down on the grassy fields, we saw the Egyptian soldiers with their swords raised. In all directions the people scattered, but Mekare ran out and dropped down on her knees before Khayman and said, ‘Don’t harm our people again.’
“Then Khayman came with Mekare to the place where I was hiding with my daughter, and I showed him this child, which was his child, and begged him for mercy, for justice, that he leave us in peace.
“But I had only to look at him to understand that he would be put to death if he did not bring us back. His face was thin and drawn and full of misery, not the smooth white immortal face that you see here at this table tonight.
“Enemy time has washed away the natural imprint of his suffering. But it was very plain on that long ago afternoon.
“In a soft, subdued voice he spoke to us. ‘A terrible evil has come over the King and the Queen of Kemet,’ he said. ‘And your spirits have done it, your spirits that tormented me night and day for what I did to you, until the King sought to drive them out of my house.’
“He stretched out his arms to me that I could see the tiny scars that covered him where this spirit had drawn blood. Scars covered his face and his throat.
“ ‘Oh, you don’t know the misery in which I have lived,’ he said, ‘for nothing could protect me from these spirits; and you don’t know the times I cursed you, and cursed the King for what he made me do to you, and cursed my mother that I’d been born.’
“ ‘Oh, but we have not done this!’ Mekare said. ‘We have kept faith with you. For our lives we left you in peace. But it is Amel, the evil one, who has done this! Oh, this evil spirit! And to think he has deviled you instead of the King and Queen who made you do what you did! We cannot stop him! I beg you, Khayman, let us go.’
“ ‘Whatever Amel does,’ I said, ‘he will tire of, Khayman. If the King and Queen are strong, he will eventually go away. You are looking now upon the mother of your child, Khayman. Leave us in
peace. For the child’s sake, tell the King and Queen that you could not find us. Let us go if you fear justice at all.’
“But he only stared at the child as if he did not know what it was. He was Egyptian. Was this child Egyptian? He looked at us: ‘All right, you did not send this spirit,’ he said. ‘I believe you. For you do not understand what this spirit has done, obviously. His bedeviling has come to an end. He has gone into the King and Queen of Kemet! He is in their bodies! He has changed the very substance of their flesh!’
“For a long time, we looked at him and considered his words, and we understood that he did not mean by this that the King and the Queen were possessed. And we understood also that he himself had seen such things that he could not but come for us himself and try on his life to bring us back.
“But I didn’t believe what he was saying. How could a spirit be made flesh!
“ ‘You do not understand what has happened in our kingdom,’ he whispered. ‘You must come and see with your own eyes.’ He stopped then because there was more, much more, that he wanted to tell us, and he was afraid. Bitterly he said, ‘You must undo what has been done, even if it is not your doing!’
“Ah, but we could not undo it. That was the horror. And even then we knew it; we sensed it. We remembered our mother standing before the cave gazing at the tiny wounds on her hand.
“Mekare threw back her head now and called to Amel, the evil one, to come to her, to obey her command. In our own tongue, the twin tongue, she screamed, ‘Come out of the King and Queen of Kemet and come to me, Amel. Bow down before my will. You did this not by my command.’
“It seemed all the spirits of the world listened in silence; this was the cry of a powerful witch; but there was no answer; and then we felt it—a great recoiling of many spirits as if something beyond their knowledge and beyond their acceptance had suddenly been revealed. It seemed the spirits were shrinking from us; and then coming back, sad and undecided; seeking our love, yet repelled.
“ ‘But what is it?’ Mekare screamed. ‘What is it!’ She called to the spirits who hovered near her, her chosen ones. And then in the stillness, as the shepherds waited in fear, and the soldiers stood in
anticipation, and Khayman stared at us with tired glazed eyes, we heard the answer. It came in wonder and uncertainty.
“ ‘Amel has now what he has always wanted; Amel has the flesh.
But Amel is no more.’
“What could it mean?
“We could not fathom it. Again, Mekare demanded of the spirits that they answer, but it seemed that the uncertainty of the spirits was now turning to fear.
“ ‘Tell me what has happened!’ Mekare said. ‘Make known to me what you know!’ It was an old command used by countless witches. ‘Give me the knowledge which is yours to give.’
“And again the spirits answered in uncertainty:
“ ‘Amel is in the flesh; and Amel is not Amel; he cannot answer now.’
“ ‘You must come with me,’ Khayman said. ‘You must come. The King and Queen would have you come!’
“Mutely, and seemingly without feeling, he watched as I kissed my baby girl and gave her to the shepherd women who would care for her as their own. And then Mekare and I gave ourselves up to him; but this time we did not weep. It was as if all our tears had been shed. Our brief year of happiness with the birth of Miriam was past now—and the horror that had come out of Egypt was reaching out to engulf us once more.
MAHARET closed her eyes for a moment; she touched the lids with her fingers, and then looked up at the others, as they waited, each in his or her own thoughts and considerations, each reluctant for the narrative to be broken, though they all knew that it must.
The young ones were drawn and weary; Daniel’s rapt expression had changed little. Louis was gaunt, and the need for blood was hurting him, though he paid it no mind. “I can tell you no more now,” Maharet said. “It’s almost morning; and the young ones must go down to the earth. I have to prepare the way for them.
“Tomorrow night we will gather here and continue. That is, if our Queen will allow. The Queen is nowhere near us now; I cannot hear the faintest murmur of her presence; I cannot catch the faintest flash of her countenance in another’s eyes. If she knows what we
do, she allows it. Or she is far away and indifferent, and we must wait to know her will.
“Tomorrow, I’ll tell you what we saw when we went into Kemet.”
“Until then, rest safe within the mountain. All of you. It has kept my secrets from the prying eyes of mortal men for countless years. Remember not even the Queen can hurt us until nightfall.”
Marius rose as Maharet did. He moved to the far window as the others slowly left the room. It was as if Maharet’s voice were still speaking to him. And what affected him most deeply was the evocation of Akasha, and the hatred Maharet felt for her; because Marius felt that hatred too; and he felt more strongly than ever that he should have brought this nightmare to a close while he’d had the power to do it.
But the red-haired woman could not have wanted any such thing to happen. None of them wanted to die any more than he did. And Maharet craved life, perhaps, more fiercely than any immortal he’d ever known.
Yet her tale seemed to confirm the hopelessness of it all. What had risen when the Queen stood up from her throne? What was this being that had Lestat in its maw? He could not imagine.
We change, but we do not change, he thought. We grow wise, but we are fallible things! We are only human for however long we endure, that was the miracle and the curse of it.
He saw again the smiling face he had seen as the ice began to fall. Is it possible that he loved as strongly still as he hated? That in his great humiliation, clarity had escaped him utterly? He honestly didn’t know.
And he was tired suddenly, craving sleep, craving comfort; craving the soft sensuous pleasure of lying in a clean bed. Of sprawling upon it and burying his face in a pillow; of letting his limbs assemble themselves in the most natural and comfortable position.
Beyond the glass wall, a soft radiant blue light was filling the eastern sky, yet the stars retained their brilliance, tiny and distant though they seemed. The dark trunks of the redwoods had become visible; and a lovely green smell had come into the house from the forest as always happens near dawn.
Far below where the hillside fell away and a clearing full of clover moved out to the woods, Marius saw Khayman walking alone. His hands appeared to glow in the thin, bluish darkness, and as he turned and looked back—up at Marius—his face was an eyeless mask of pure white.
Marius found himself raising his hand in a small gesture of friendship towards Khayman. And Khayman returned the gesture and went on into the trees.
Then Marius turned and saw what he already knew, that only Louis remained with him in the room. Louis stood quite still looking at him as he had earlier, as though he were seeing a myth made real.
Then he put the question that was obsessing him, the question he could not lose sight of, no matter how great was Maharet’s spell. “You know whether or not Lestat’s still alive, don’t you?” he asked. It had a simple human tone to it, a poignant tone, yet the voice was so reserved.
Marius nodded. “He’s alive. But I don’t really know that the way you think I do. Not from asking or receiving the answer. Not from using all these lovely powers which plague us. I know it simply because I know.”
He smiled at Louis. Something in the manner of this one made Marius happy, though he wasn’t sure why. He beckoned for Louis to come to him and they met at the foot of the table and walked together out of the room. Marius put his arm around Louis’s shoulder and they went down the iron stairs together, through the damp earth, Marius walking slowly and heavily, exactly like a human being might walk.
“And you’re sure of it?” Louis asked respectfully.
Marius stopped. “Oh, yes, quite sure.” They looked at one another for a moment, and again Marius smiled. This one was so gifted yet not gifted at the same time; he wondered if the human light would go out of Louis’s eyes if he ever gained more power, if he ever had, for instance, a little of the blood of Marius in his veins.
And this young one was hungry too; he was suffering; and he seemed to like it, to like the hunger and the pain.
“Let me tell you something,” Marius said now, agreeably. “I knew
the first moment I ever laid eyes on Lestat that nothing could kill him. That’s the way it is with some of us. We can’t die.” But why was he saying this? Did he believe it again as he had before these trials had begun? He thought back to that night in San Francisco when he had walked down the broad clean-swept pavements of Market Street with his hands in his pockets, unnoticed by mortal men.
“Forgive me,” Louis said, “but you remind me of the things they said of him at Dracula’s Daughter, the talk among the ones who wanted to join him last night.”
“I know,” Marius said. “But they are fools and I’m right.” He laughed softly. Yes, he did believe it. Then he embraced Louis again warmly. Just a little blood, and Louis might be stronger, true, but then he might lose the human tenderness, the human wisdom that no one could give another; the gift of knowing others’ suffering with which Louis had probably been born.
But the night was over now for this one. Louis took Marius’s hand, and then turned and walked down the tin-walled corridor to where Eric waited to show him the way.
Then Marius went up into the house.
He had perhaps a full hour more before the sun forced him into sleep, and tired as he was, he would not give it up. The lovely fresh smell of the woods was overpowering. And he could hear the birds now, and the clear singing of a deep creek.
He went into the great room of the adobe dwelling, where the fire had burnt down on the central hearth. He found himself standing before a giant quilt that covered almost half the wall.
Slowly he realized what he was seeing before him—the mountain, the valley, and the tiny figures of the twins as they stood together in the green clearing beneath the burning sun. The slow rhythm of Maharet’s speech came back to him with the faint shimmer of all the images her words had conveyed. So immediate was that sun-drenched clearing, and how different it seemed now from the dreams. Never had the dreams made him feel close to these women! And now he knew them; he knew this house.
It was such a mystery, this mixture of feeling, where sorrow touched something that was undeniably positive and good. Maharet’s soul attracted him; he loved the particular complexity of
it, and he wished he could somehow tell her so.
Then it was as if he caught himself; he realized that he had forgotten for a little while to be bitter, to be in pain. Maybe his soul was healing faster than he had ever supposed it could.
Or maybe it was only that he had been thinking about others— about Maharet, and before that about Louis, and what Louis needed to believe. Well, hell, Lestat probably was immortal. In fact, the sharp and bitter fact occurred to him that Lestat might survive all this even if he, Marius, did not.
But that was a little supposition that he could do without. Where was Armand? Had Armand gone down into the earth already? If only he could see Armand just now. . . .
He went towards the cellar door again but something distracted him. Through an open doorway he saw two figures, very like the figures of the twins on the quilt. But these were Maharet and Jesse, arm in arm before an eastern window, watching motionless as the light grew brighter in the dark woods.
A violent shudder startled him. He had to grip the door frame to steady himself as a series of images flooded his mind. Not the jungle now; there was a highway in the distance, winding north, it seemed, through barren burnt land. And the creature had stopped, shaken, but by what? An image of two red-haired women? He heard the feet begin their relentless tramp again; he saw the feet caked with earth as if they were his feet; the hands caked with earth as if they were his hands. And then he saw the sky catching fire, and he moaned aloud.
When he looked up again, Armand was holding him. And with her bleary human eyes Maharet was imploring him to tell her what he had just seen. Slowly the room came alive around him, the agreeable furnishings, and then the immortal figures near him, who were of it, yet of nothing. He closed his eyes and opened them again.
“She’s reached our longitude,” he said, “yet she’s miles to the east. The sun’s just risen there with blazing force.” He had felt it, that lethal heat! But she had gone into the earth; that too he had felt.
“But it’s very far south of here,” Jesse said to him. How frail she looked in the translucent darkness, her long thin fingers hugging
the backs of her slender arms.
“Not so far,” Armand said. “And she was moving very fast.”
“But in what direction does she move!” Maharet asked. “Is she coming towards us?”
She didn’t wait for an answer. And it didn’t seem that they could give it. She lifted her hand to cover her eyes as if the pain there was now intolerable; and then gathering Jesse to her, and kissing her suddenly, she bid the others good sleep.
Marius closed his eyes; he tried to see again the figure he had seen before. The garment, what was it? A rough thing thrown over the body like a peasant poncho, with a torn opening for the head. Bound at the waist, yes, he’d felt it. He tried to see more but he could not. What he had felt was power, illimitable power and unstoppable momentum, and almost nothing other than that.
When he opened his eyes again the morning shimmered in the room around him. Armand stood close to him, embracing him still, yet Armand seemed alone and perturbed by nothing; his eyes moved only a little as he looked at the forest, which now seemed to press against the house through every window, as if it had crept to the very edge of the porch.
Marius kissed Armand’s forehead. And then he did exactly what Armand was doing.
He watched the room grow lighter; he watched the light fill the windowpanes; he watched the beautiful colors brighten in the vast network of the giant quilt.