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©Copyright 2018 Tom Imerito – All Rights Reserved.
by Tom Imerito
“Perch!” the bronze-skinned boy shouted.
“Forget about the fish, Dedu,” his uncle answered.
“Look at the size of him,” the boy said, holding his hand to his brow to shield his eyes from the glare of the water.
“Pay attention to what you’re…”
“It’s a whole school, Uncle Teta. Look at them all.”
“Stop looking at the fish, Dedu and get back to pulling reeds.”
The slender boy dragged his eyes away from the fish and looked at his uncle, standing at the stern of the reed canoe, steadying the craft with a pole.
“Would it not be easier to cut them with a knife?”
“Cutting leaves behind stumps that puncture boats. Pull.”
“This chore is more befitting of a peon than of the son of the Pharaoh’s Master of the Holy Books,” the boy said with a hint of a snarl.
“Be thankful to Thoth that you have been chosen to follow your father into the scriptorium, Dedu,” the wiry man answered.
“If the god of the scribes has deemed me worthy of following my father into the House of Books, why must I gather reeds?”
The man smirked at his nephew’s guile. “Because your father wants you to learn your craft from seed to root to flower, as did his father before him, and his before him. Paper making is where the craft begins. That is why he brought you to me, Dedu.”
“Is it not enough that I learn to read the tongues and write the glyphs?”
“You have been visited by Thoth who bestows the gift of tongues and glyphs upon only the few, Dedu.”
“Thoth’s gift is a burden.”
“Beware your words, Dedu. Just because your father’s house falls within the shadow of the palace is no reason to insult the god of your craft.”
“ I am not questioning…”
“Our family’s fathers have been passing the writing craft from father to son since before the time of the Pharaohs, Dedu. Those visited by Thoth learn to master the tongues and put the glyphs to paper. Those not visited by him take up other crafts. Happily for me, your grandfather apprenticed me to Djauibi, the paper maker.
“I am learning the tongues because my father drills them into my head day after day.”
“Maybe so. But quickness of mind and firmness of memory are granted only to the select. Your father has it and so do you.” He looked down into the water to avoid his nephew’s eyes. “And even though I am your father’s brother, no matter my struggles to learn to read and write, the gift of tongues was not visited upon me in my youth.” He raised his head and stood tall. “All the same, I am honored to make the paper upon which my brother inscribes the sacred chants and spells.”
“But none of this answers the question of why my ankles are sunk in the muck of the river bottom.”
“You are sunk in the mud because you feet are not moving. Now let us stop this jabber and get back to work.”
The boy squatted to pull a stalk.
“Be sure to pull a few small ones from below the water line too.”
The boy looked at his uncle with questioning eyes.
“Your Aunt Kiya wants some young roots for roasting,” the man continued. “The biggest stalks Sawah will use to repair the roof of his house.”
“Did we not come for the best paper stalks?”
“We did. But as long as we are in the Pharaoh’s rush marsh, it is prudent that we make the most of our efforts. When we get back, Cousin Renni will show you how to sort the reeds and choose those best suited for making paper.”
The boy squatted in the knee-deep water to pull some young stalks. When he had pulled six , his uncle stopped him.
“Leave it, Dedu.”
“I thought you wanted some roots for Aunt Kiya.”
“What we have will do. Leave them. Get in,” Looking out into the distant water, he whirled his hand to hurry his nephew into the reed canoe.
“Are we done?” Dedu asked as he grasped the cord binding the boat’s papyrus-reed stalks together.
“I fear that river-horse thinks we are,” the uncle said, raising his chin in the direction of a barely visible pair of eyes and ears protruding from the river’s surface.
As the boy clambered into the boat, his uncle plunged his steerage pole into the mud and steadied the craft, shifting his his weight to counter the pitching caused by his nephew’s boarding.
Once aboard, Dedu took up his pole and, having no room to stand, sat on the stack of reeds. “This must be enough for a scroll as long as the Nile,” the boy said as he began to propel the boat out of the marsh and into the river.
Teta flexed his back and leaned into his pole, thrusting against the boy’s sweep to keep their course straight. “Perhaps enough for a week’s work.”
“A week? Not months?”
“Now that Pharaoh Ahmose has united the Kingdoms, he wants to account for everything within the realm.”
“Why should that affect the House of Books?”
“More lands. More people. More births. More deaths, The addition of the populations of the Upper and Lower reaches of the River will bear heavily upon every scribe and paperman in Egypt.”
“For the sake of keeping the peace Ahmose demands that all transactions of of life, death, land and wealth be put to paper. You and your father do the work of inscription. Renni and I make the paper upon which you inscribe. Now that the Kingdom has been twice-fold enlarged, so too will be our family’s work be burdened.”
“If the work of writing will be greater why must I make my own paper?”
“Because Ahmose will expect you to follow your father as Master of the Sacred Writings, but not without first winning his esteem.”
“Will he think more of me because I have wallowed in the muck of his papyrus bed?”
The man clenched his teeth and held his temper. He snorted and regained his composure. “He will respect you because you understand every facet of your craft,” he said with barely concealed contempt. “Learn it all and you will be without peer, Dedu. Now push. If Hapi smiles upon us, Aunt Kiya will roast a batch of papyrus roots for supper.”
“Hapi? Not Thoth?”
“As god of the River, Hapi has given us these reeds, Dedu.”
“But you just said that Thoth is the god of the scribes and the scrolls.”
“So he is. But when I departed my service to Djauibi, he bestowed Hapi upon me as the protector of my craft.”
“What of Thoth, then?”
“My eternal spirit pays homage to Thoth, for he keeps the book of my merits and sins which Osiris will weigh against the Ma’at’s feather when I arrive at Heaven’s threshold. But because my eternal spirit can enter the afterlife only if accompanied by my earthly body, I pay homage to Hapi, the god of the river which sustains my body in this world.”
Having tired of talk about the gods and growing hungrier with each thrust of his pole, Dedu brought the conversation back to supper. He twisted his trunk to face his uncle. “Will Aunt Kiya serve us her honeyed beer?”
The man raised his brows and smiled.
The boy and his uncle found a steady poling cadence and, steering clear of hippo eyes dotting the watery landscape, made their way toward the afternoon sun. When they had crossed the river, they poled downstream, in the face of the North Wind, and entered the canal that drained the water from the marsh and dried the land enough for the people of the Nile to settle and farm. They came to the mud- brick wall surrounding Teta’s village and passed through a cut just wide enough for a reed canoe. A pair of engraved and painted stone columns flanked the narrow passage. Images of ??? and ???, men who had become gods, adorned the columns which supported a stone bridge-beam depicting Osirus and his consort, Isis, paying homage to Re, the sun god.
Once inside the fortification, a tightly packed cluster of mud-brick buildings surrounded the landing where the villagers’ canoes lay careened on the bank.. As they approached the stone steps that made the river accessible during both flood and drought, they were met by welcoming calls from Dedu’s father, Sesh, his Aunt Kiya, and cousin, Renni.
When Dedu caught site of his cousin, he jumped out of the canoe, into shin-deep water and ran to the boy, shouting “Camel! Camel!” He jumped onto his cousin’s back just long enough to shout, “You’re the camel. Can’t catch me.” He jumped off and ran toward corner of his aunt and uncle’s abodee, his cousin chasing after him like a lion after a gazelle.
While the boys rough-housed, the adults conversed. “I see our visit was worthwhile, Teta,” Dedu’s father said, pointing to the stack of papyrus stalks in the canoe. “The reed gathering went well, I take it.”
“For as slight as he is, the boy worked like a draft ox,” Teta said. He paused to consider his next words. “Every now and then, the voice of a grumbler colors his words, but he is still just a boy.”
“I gather he badgered you about being too good to work with his back.”
Teta shrugged. “He is only a boy, Sesh.”
“If he expects to follow me into the House of Books, he must grow up sooner than most boys. The Pharaoh is fond of him. But he will not abide headstrong servants.”
“He is so very sweet,” Kiya interjected.
“You do not live with him, Kiya,” Dedu’s father said with a chortle.
“He cannot be any worse than Renni,” the long-haired beauty answered. “Just listen to them frolic.”
At that moment, Dedu galloped around the corner of the house carrying Renni on his back. “Fifty gallups!” Dedu shouted, as he wriggled to loosen his cousin’s arms and legs from his back. Renni stumbled backwards, laughing as he landed. He caught his balance and sprinted past his cousin shouting “Camel, Camel! Can’t catch me.”
“Hey,” the men shouted in unison. “Get back here and help with the canoe.”
The boys scurried back, laughing in joy and gasping for air. As though trained by a drill master, they went to opposite sides of the craft and hoisted the gunwale lashings as their fathers pulled from the prow and pushed from the stern to haul the boat out of the water and onto dry, land.
“Carry the stalks to the stripping table, boys,” Teta said. “You know where, Renni. Show Dedu how to sort them. Leave those small ones on top for supper. Cleave the biggest roots for the spoon carver and save the stoutest stalks for Uncle Sawah’s roof,”
The boys each gathered a shock of papyrus stalks into their arms, and walked around the back of the house to the paper shop.
Kiya touched her husband’s arm. “Might you pick out a few tender roots, for supper?” she asked.
Teta nodded without speaking and, one by one, selected the four thumb-sized stalks Dedu had pulled before the hippo brought the expedition to a close. After shaking the roots in the river to rinse off the mud, he took a sharpened bronze hook from his his waist-cloth and, taking each root in hand, slashed the stalk from the bulbous rhizome and spindly runners. He let the canes fall back into the canoe and handed the roots to his wife.
She snapped a thin root-spur from a bulb and bit off the end. She chewed for a moment to break the rind and release the juice. As she sucked the liquor from the pulp, her eyes brightened. She chewed for longer than usual and smiled as she swallowed.
“Sweet,” she said between chews. “Tender. Perfect. I pulled some leeks from the garden this afternoon. I will roast them with the runners and lentils together with a bit of garlic and a cup of beer .”
“You are making me hungry, my love,” Teta said to his wife as he caressed her hair.
Kiya smiled. “Let us retire to the garden. A bowl of sweet beer will sate your belly for as long as it takes for the dish to roast.” She motioned to the men to follow her to the home’s central garden.
They sat, cross-legged, on a woven papyrus mat protected from the scorching afternoon sun by the shade of the house. After putting out bowls of her thick honeyed beer for the men, Kiya went to the house to settle the boys and prepare the meal.
In the garden, the brothers conversed while sipping their beer with spoons carved from papyrus root.
“I would be proud for Renni to become as adept a paperman as Dedu is becoming a scribe, Sesh,”
“Getting him to do his lessons is like teaching a crocodile to pull a stone-sledge.”
“He does speak of learning the tongues with a touch of bitterness, He says he only learns them because you insist.”
“He excels at learning the tongues and writing the glyphs, but he is constantly distracted by foolishness.”
“Just like Renni,” Dedu chuckled. “I tell him to strip enough pulp for a single sheet and before he has enough for the backing he is if off to teach his pet mouse to run across his shoulder or feed a sand beetle to his lizard.”
Sesh laughed. “They sound like the two of us when we were boys.”
“We we lucky Grandmother Iusaaset was still alive to save us from Father’s beatings.”
“For me, Father’s beatings took the form of hours of repeated drilling of foreign words or drawing glyphs a thousand times each.”
“You were lucky that Thoth smiled upon you, Sesh. The life of a scribe is like that of a falcon soaring across the sands compared to that of a paperman, who lives like a camel trudging across the desert.”
“You have a beautiful wife and three comely children.”
“Surely Hapi has smiled upon me in my manhood. But when we were children I saw no no drilling of the tongues or drawing of the glyphs. Only beatings for failing to remember. Thank the gods Grandmother persuaded him to apprentice me to Djauibi. I took up my service to him on my ninth birthday.”
“I missed you when you went away.”
“That was the best birthday of my life.”
“I pitied you for the work you would be forced to do.”
“No need. I was happy to learn my craft and to escape Father’s canings.”
“His intentions for you were the best.”
“Today, I can see they were. But the time, I hated him.”
“Despite his rough manner, I cannot imagine ever hating him..”
“I didn’t want to. But he would never let up. Somehow, as learned as he was, he could not understand that his second son simply could not live up to his expectations.” He paused and looked away from his brother’s eyes.“ Nor did I wish always to be judged in the glow of my older brother.”
Sesh’s face sagged at his brother’s words. “I am sorry, Teta.”
“The blame is not yours, Sesh.”
The men became silent while each fell into a reverie of childhood. Kiya came from the house with supper.
Teta pulled his back straight. “Before we eat, we ought to make a sacrifice to Hapi for the abundance our family takes from the fruits of the Nile,” Teta said.
“Hapi? Not Thoth?” Sesh responded.
“Hapi governs the Nile, Sesh.”
“So he does, my brother. But Thoth ordains the scribes. Without the writings, we would be paupers.”
“Without the Nile we would be nothing.”
“So it is, brother. Let us make an offering to them both.”
“Very well,” Teta. said. “We will burn incense to Hapi and Thoth together in gratitude for our family’s good fortune.”
“A bowl of Kiya’s honeyed beer would be received most graciously by Thoth.”
Teta looked at his brother with furrowed brows. “Papyrus is plentiful, Sesh. Kiya’s beer is scarce.”
“Would that not give reason to offer the beer?”
“Incense smoke floats to the sky where Re and his celestial companions reside. The beer we will simply drink and piss onto the ground beneath which the evil gods live. Insulting the demons can only bring woe.”
“Perhaps so, but It strikes me as faint praise to burn milled papyrus leaves in homage to the god whose river provides them.”
“Then let us burn incense and offer beer at once to Hapi and Thoth,” Teta said.
Sesh looked at the silver bracelet on his wrist, looked away for a moment, then back to it with pinched lips. He nodded to himself and caressed the turquoise-eyed Ibis head atop a man’s body that formed the precious wristlet. “We will encircle Hapi with Thoth,” he said
Teta nodded in agreement and rose to his feet. He walked toward the house, his eyes cast toward the tiny alcove above the entryway.
He stopped. “Where is Hapi?” he said with a tinge of distress in his voice. “Kiya, where is Hapi?”
“Above the threshold, where he always is,” came his wife’s voice from the house.
“He is not there.”
“He was there this morning.”
“He is gone.”
Kiya came outside. “Where might he be?” she said. She went inside to the boys as they sat quietly, sipping their beer and playing a game of senet. “Renni, Dedu, have you seen Hapi?”
They looked at her with blank eyes.
“Renni, where are Shepses and Maia?”
“They were digging in the earth out near the privy.”
Kiya turned about and hurried to the far corner of the garden where she found her five-year old son and his toddler sister intently digging a hole in the middle of a play-land they had fashioned out of sand and discarded papyrus tops from their father’s paper shop. Moist sand flew out of the hole as the children dug deeper, their naked bottoms pointing to the sky, their heads craning into the hole.
“Have either of you seen Hapi?” Kiya asked?
The children halted their excavation and turned to their mother, each holding a broken piece of a glazed, clay figurine. The woman stood back and gasped.
“We found water, Mama,” Shepses said.
“Water, Mama. Water, Mama” his toddler sister repeated.
Kiya snatched away the toddler’s piece of the figurine. “How did you get this?” she yelped.
Maia began to cry.
“Your father will be furious,” Kiya said.
“We found them, Mama,” the boy answered, holding up his half of the figure.
She took the shard from his hand. “Found? Where?”
“Over there,” the boy said, pointing toward the open privy.
“You have insulted our family’s god,” she continued as she brushed the sand from the fragments with her fingers.
Shepses’ lip quivered at his mother’s distress. “I didn’t know, Mama.”
“We will need to assuage this blasphemy to regain Hapi’s good will.”
The boy began to bawl. “We didn’t know Mama. I didn’t know. It was in the privy.”
“Well how did it get in the privy?”
“I don’t know, Mama. It was there, that is all. Just there.”
Aroused by the commotion, Teta and Sesh came.
“What’s going on?” Teta said.
Kiya held the two halves of the figurine out to him.
He looked at the broken figure and closed his eyes. His chin quivered as he took the two halves from his wife. “This god was a gift from my master, Djauibi, who taught me the craft of paper-making,” he said with welling tears. “How did this happen?”
“I don’t know, Papa, I don’t know,” Shepses said as he sniffled a string of mucous dripping from his left nostril.
Teta fitted the broken edges of the figurine together. “At least he is all here,” he muttered.
“Perhaps you can mend it,” Kiya said.
“Hapi has been desecrated in his own house, Kiya. Patching him won’t do.”
“What then?” Kiya asked.
Teta turned to his brother with gloom in his eyes. “Might you find a place to entomb him, Sesh? Perhaps in the House of the Dead?”
Sesh took a deep breath and rubbed his lips. He nodded in affirmation, then shook his head in denial. “Keep him here in his home until the first of you enters the afterlife,” he said, passing his eyes between the husband and wife.
They looked at each other with raised brows and shrugging shoulders
“Put him in your sepulcher chest. Bury him with one of you. He is your family god and you are his earthly kin. With luck his wait will be long. But while he is waiting he will take solace that his family is near.”
“Thank you, brother,” Teta said. He turned to his wife. “Gather the children, my love. We will do this together.”
Kiya took Maia and Shespses by the hand and walked them to the house. The men followed.
Inside they found Dedu and Renni wrestling in the far corner.”Settle down boys,” Teta said. “Come over here.”
“What is it, Father?” Renni asked.
“Hapi has been broken, We must put him to rest.”
“Is there something we can do?” Renni asked.
Teta shook his head. “Nothing. Our family god is broken.”
Renni fell silent.
“It is only a piece of stoneware,” Dedu said in a consoling tone.
Sesh moved toward his son and grabbed him by the back of his neck. He pulled his his face toward his. “How dare you blaspheme the god of your uncle’s home, you sand flea.”
“I meant no offense, Father,” Dedu said as he squirmed to escape his father’s tightening grasp.
“Meant no offense? That piece of stoneware, as you call it, is this family’s god. You have been promised a life of reading the spells and making the prayers heard by the gods. Yet you insult one of them in his own home by referring to him as nothing more than a bit of crockery. I should flail you for such insolence.”
“No, Sesh,” Teta cried. “No violence. It does no good.” He grasped his bother’s slender wrist and wrenched it free of Dedu’s neck.
Dedu fell to the ground sobbing..
Sesh thrashed at his brother with his eyes. “How dare you touch you elder brother with such contempt. And how dare you meddle in matters between a father and son.” He drew back his foot as though to kick Dedu.
Dedu clutched his side and winced in anticipation of the blow.
“Did you break him?” Sesh shouted.
Teta crouched and wrapped his wiry arms around his brother’s podgy waist. He pulled him away from his son.. “No, Brother. Please do not commit violence against your own blood in my house. Enough has happened here today without provoking the gods of wrath.
“Answer me, boy. Did you break him?” Sesh yelled.
Kiya touched her brother-in-law’s arm to get his attention then wrapped both hands around it as though caressing him. “Stay your temper, Sesh, she said in her usual placid tone. “He is only a boy. He does not know any better. Look at him crying,”
Sesh caught his breath and softened his words. “He is the son of the Master of the Sacred Books, Kiya, About to enter into the service of the Pharaoh. It is mine to teach him the glyphs and tongues and, most important of all, to respect the gods. His failure to do so will be seen as my failure to teach him.”
Teta moved close to his brother’s ear. “Do you suppose beating you son will burden or lighten your fate in the afterlife when Osirus weighs your merits and sin against Ma’at’s feather?”
Sesh drew a deep breath. “Get up, boy,” he said as though the incident had concluded. “Let us burn papyrus and offer beer to Hapi and Thoth.”
Kiya sat the children cross-legged, close to the chest. Teta gave the top half of the broken god to his wife and lifted the lid of the sepulchral chest. As though acting as one person, they nestled the broken idol in a folded robe made of fine linen. Teta closed the chest. The pair pressed their palms upon the lid in a farewell gesture to their family god.
Pinching his fingers tight, Sesh removed his Thoth wristlet and placed it atop the chest. “Thoth is sure to receive this token of reverence with kindness,” he said.
“As will Hapi,” Teta said as he placed the smoking censor on the floor before the chest. “He will inhale the aroma and know that we are still his family.”
The adults sat on cushions behind the children who sat on the mat. Sesh recited a spell from the Sacred Books petitioning both Hapi and Thoth for their benevolence. Eyes brightened and breaths calmed as he spoke.
As soon as he finished Kiya chimed with a fresh voice, “Everybody must be starving. Let us eat,”
By now the final orange rays of Re’s dimming light glowed on the horizon. On the mat in the garden, the adults and children indulged their palates by the light of palm oil lamps. They ate the papyrus root pottage with gusto and drank Kiya’s honeyed beer with delight. When the beer crock was empty, Teta passed the gods’ bowl to his wife who sipped from it and passed to Sesh. Before taking his potion, Sesh put the bowl on the mat and looked to the sky. He pointed toward Thuban, the pole star, and drew a wide circle around it with his index finger. He looked at the children as though about to give a lesson. “In this portion of the sky live The Indestructibles, the stars whose light never fails through the seasons. Within them grows the Field of Reeds, where the gods share the afterlife with the dead.” He sipped from the offering bowl and passed it to Teta. Who held the bowl before him as though making a new offering.
“Field of Reeds,” Teta puffed as he nodded in Dedu’s direction. “Dedu and I were there today.” He smiled at his nephew. “Hapi’s Reeds. They grow in both within the realm of Geb, god of earth and beneath the sprawl of Nut, goddess of the sky.”
After finishing the gods’ bowl of beer, the family slumbered like babes at the breast while Re chased the demons of night away from the darkness until dawn broke anew, whence all was reborn.
In the morning, the family ate salt mullet and barley mush washed down with wheatbread beer. Dedu told of a comical dream he had during the night in which, clothed in a white robe and sandals, he brazenly bared his rump as he gazed into a bottomless well. Renni spoke of a similarly odd dream in which, for some unknown reason, he could not stop crying until Hapi came to him and dried his tears. Not to be outdone, Shepses told of building a sacrificial fire to Hapi all by himself and piling papyrus incense on it until smoke dimmed Re’s light. Urged by the excitement of the boys’ dreams, Maia told of being astonished by her dream in which she could not look away from her face reflected in a pool of water.
Alarmed by what appeared to be an augury, for which the dreams of prepubescent children were known to prove true, the adults exchanged looks of concern.
Careful not to alert the children to the import of their collective dreaming, Sesh spoke with a note of false calm. “This morning, when I return to the House of Books, I will consult the Book of Dreams.”
Teta and Kiya nodded without speaking.
When they finished eating, Dedu and Renni ferried Dedu’s father, Sesh, across the river to the House of Books. As he disembarked, Sesh turned to his son with a stern face. “Remember Dedu, Thoth is watching and inscribing your actions in your Book of Merits and Sins. Put down your pride. Honor the gods. Obey your Uncle Teta and Aunt Kiya. Run the tongues and glyphs through your mind each day. And come home when you have learned to make paper.”
“I will, Father.”
Watching out for hippos and crocs, the boys poled back across the river while bantering about joining the pharaoh’s army, venturing down river to the waters of The Great Green and concocting a mischievous plan to lose their virginity by sneaking into the Pharaoh’s harem and having their way with the king’s youngest wife. As a matter of false prudence and in order not to disappoint the Pharaoh’s seventeenth consort, they agreed to wait until after their imminent circumcisions at puberty. They arrived at the paper shop giggling in anticipation of their future fortunes.
Today, Dedu would learn the rudiments of making paper, while on the opposite bank of the river, his father would pore over The Book of Dreams to assess whether the children’s concert of auguries bode well or ill for the family. By noon he determined that the family’s efforts to appease the gods and invoke their good will the previous evening had failed. Taken together, the children’s dreams could be construed in no other way than to conclude that both Hapi and Thoth were in a state of vexation.
(to be continued)
© Copyright 2018 Tom Imerito All Rights Reserved