The beetle passed over the mound in search for bits and pieces of vegetation. Ants carried fodder and forage over it along newly worn paths. A small green frog hopped onto the mound, not for a better vantage point, but more to attain a perch more suited to his amorous peeping. A snake slithered over its flowing contours, settling into a small hollow beneath the mound. She was not aware of the single eye that appeared in the muddy surface of the mound, nor conscious the mound feared her, only that the hole she had found warmed her muscles and took the night chill from her skin.
She looped coil over coil, and nestled into her new shelter. Her tongue passing in and out sensing... something. Something not quite natural, yet somehow familiar. The pheromones of fear. Her senses tingled in reaction to the smell, alert, and the instincts of the huntress awoke within her. A small furry animal passed nearby and animated by its passing, the snake slipped silently from her nest.
As she disappeared into the long marsh grass, the mound heaved. The mud cracked everywhere upon its surface and fell to the ground as a woman arose from the mud of the Nile. Naked, the woman brushed herself off and looked about her. The land rose slowly from the edge of the papyrus swamp and gave way to rocks and dense tropical foliage. She knew she must move deeper into the jungle for she was moved now by a deep hunger. She pushed into the forest. This jungle did not grow wild, for everywhere about her, food grew in abundance. It was a wonderful garden, tended by some intelligence; palms laden with dates and figs waved gracefully overhead, whispering secrets to the ancient gnarled olive and proud apricot trees guarding a glade in which she suddenly found herself. Wheat and barley grew as though wild, but blessed with plump heads. Large plump purple grapes hung from vines entwined around every bole and trunk in the grotto. Cucumbers, fat and succulent, protruded from creepin
A pool of crystal water sparkled before her, in the centre was an island covered with lush tropical plant life, above which rose a large sycamore with seven huge branches. Each branch ended in a cluster of leaves. She was positive she had never seen the tree before, but it's form seemed so familiar it was as if it were a part of her.
The tree was decorated with offerings: strings of beads, amulets and objects of adoration, and fruits of first harvest. Turtledoves flitted amongst the branches, cooing and calling to each other. Lights twinkled within it and the tree was so alive, so active, it seemed to be the very essence of Life itself. She ached to touch it.
She wished she had an offering to place within its arms, but realized she had nothing to give. I could water it if I had a vessel, she thought. As if in answer, she noticed five large shoulder high ancient stone pillars set in a circle circled the pool. Each stele was inscribed in the script of Re-en-Kaam, and the image of some ancient pharaoh offering food to Ausar and Auset, and on each pillar stood a chalice. There was a goblet of gold, one of silver, one of bronze and another of carved stone, and beside her, a beautiful crystal chalice of finest Phoenician glass.
She lifted the goblet from its place and stepped forward into the pool. The water, neither hot nor cold to the skin, lapped around her legs and made her skin tingle, and her skin raised goosebumps, and she shivered with pleasure. Waist high and halfway across the pool, she dipped the chalice in the water and brought the lip of the cup hesitantly to her own. A silent call from the tree stopped her and she realized before she could drink, she must first offer the water to the tree.
She knew she could not offer the cup to the tree without first cleansing herself. She poured the water from the chalice over her head to wash the mud of the Nile from her hair. At the instant the water spilled from the cup, it flowed without end, showering her with a refreshing sweetness that overwhelmed her. As if animated by a will of its own, water splashed down her heaving chest and seemed to embrace her. She upturned the chalice above her head and crystal clear water showered down upon her. Miri closed her eyes, laughing in ecstasy. The mud of her incarceration dissolved and ran down her face and neck. Overcome, she dipped herself into the pool completely and rubbed the mud and flotsam from her hair. She arose from the water clean and whole and advanced toward the tree.
The cup still ran over the brim, though the volume had slowed. She hurried lest she have no water at all for the tree. She held the chalice out in front of her with both hands, but the water continued to run over the brim. She stepped from the pool onto the mound where the tree stood waiting. A panic rose within her that she could not control, and she was suddenly afraid the flow of water would stop and she would have none left to give to the tree. She vainly tried to catch the water with one hand as she balanced the cup in the other. Quickly she advanced to the tree and tipped the cup over its gnarled and tangled roots. The two streams splashed over the roots of the tree and drained into the soil. Wherever the water ran, wheat, barley and flax sprouted from the earth.
For the first time she saw a niche in the tree. Breathless, she moved to place the chalice into the natural shelf for it seemed to belong there, but a wooded arm grew from the bark of the tree and took the chalice from her grasp. From where the arm emerged, a human form separated from the trunk of the tree. Wood became flesh, and a gnarled old man appeared amidst the branches of the tree before her.
The man grinned at the woman. He lifted the chalice to his lips and sipped from the cup.
"Thank you," he said in a cracked ancient voice, "We have waited for you too long."
She started in fear, and backed away from the old man sitting in the tree. The memory of her present life suddenly washed over the woman and she became the maided Miriam in an instant.
"Do not be afraid," he said grinning, "I shall bring you no harm!"
There was a malevolent mischievousness to his demeanor, but she took him at his word.
"Who are you?" Miri asked nervously.
"Who indeed?" He cocked his head sideways, "Who indeed?' He jumped from his perch in the tree with an agility which belied his age. He moved in quick spurts, erratically, and it put the woman on edge. His form was thin but muscled, no fat showed upon his body at all, so little in fact, he appeared to have no skin, an effect exaggerated by his dark red colouring. His hair was not gray, but a red tinged black, his eyes yellow, seemed to glow in the darkness of the night. He lifted a platter of offerings from the tree and proffered it to her.
She shook her head.
"Come, eat!" he invited, "I know you are hungry!"
"It is an offering to Ausar, I am forbidden to touch it!"
"Forbi- What do you think will happen!" he asked, "Will the Sun stop in its course? Is that it? I have eaten of this food for-" He began to count on his fingers, then gave up, "For longer than I care to imagine! Come! Eat!"
Miri reached forward tentatively, and touched the bread lightly with the fingertip of her forefinger. Satisfied no bolt crashed out of the sky to fry her to a crisp, and the ground didn't open at her feet, she took the bread and broke it in thanks and bit into one of the pieces.
"There! You see!" the old man took her by the elbow and led her to a small altar beneath the boughs of the great tree. They sat on a low bench and he placed the platter between them. "I am sure Ausar won't begrudge us a small bite or two. I hear he feeds only from the spirit of the food!"
Miri looked about her nervously.
"Ah, you're wondering about the priest who officiates here. Asleep! Fast asleep!" The old man leaned conspiratorially towards her, "Just between you and me, I think he partakes of the wine he is supposed to be leaving on the altar!" He cackled.
Miri said nothing.
"So!" the old man said suddenly, "Who am I?"
He gestured at the full moon above their heads. "Am I the man in the moon?" He shook his head. "Nope! Not he, says I!"
He brought his head close to Miri's face. She could smell his breath, a strange smell of spice and the sharp sweet smell of rotted fruit, neither altogether disgusting nor pleasant. She half expected fruit flies to emerge from his throat.
"Perhaps I'm Ausar, himself! Yes! That's it!" he declared pleased with his answer. "I'm Ausar! And this-" he gestured about him. "This, is my Ausarium! It is here I receive the gifts from my people!" he pointed at the tree behind him. "This is the Abaton. My sycamore in which I was inhumed! The Great Tree of Life upon which the names of the living are inscribed upon every leaf!"
He stood up grandly his arms outstretched, yet his demeanor was such that his every action was a parody of itself.
"I-" he shouted, "I am Ausar!"
"Shhh!" said Miri, looking about her nervously.
The old man would not be shushed.
"I am Ausar! What would I have to fear from a priest?" He paraded around imperiously, his hands on his hips. He came closer to Miri. "With a flick of this wrist-" He brought his hand up angrily to her face touching two fingers to his thumb, then snapped them, "-I could summon powers you could only dream of-"
His features softened. "But perhaps you are right!" he whispered, "We had better not wake the priest for he would be struck dumb by my presence!" He giggled at the thought.
"So now you know my name, child! What is yours?"
He squinted at her.
"No, I mean your real name!"
Miri hesitated. Her real name! She did not wish to reveal it to this strange man, this gollum. She half believed he was a daemon, and giving her real name would give him power over her. Power she did not wish to relinquish.
"Well?" he demanded.
Miri realized she would tell him. She also realized she had not wished to reveal her own name because she would also have to acknowledge all that she had done and experienced in her life, and that is what she did not wish to reveal. The vision of Setem's head rolling across the temple floor jarred her, and her knees gave out beneath her.
So quickly he did not seem to move, the old man grasped her and guided her to the bench, lowering her gently to a sitting position.
"So we have a little secret, do we?" asked the man, his eyes glinting. "What terrible secret could such a pretty head hold at such a young age? A not so fatherly father? An unavuncular uncle?" The old man tapped her chest with a bony finger. "What great sin have we hidden inside us?"
Miri hung her head, burying her head in her hands. She held herself, pressing her fingers into her temples, then sat up straight.
"My name is Miriam!"
"Close!" said the old man. "Your name given to you at birth! A pretty name! But not-" he paused. "Your real name!"
Miri began to protest, but he held his hand up for silence.
"Nope! Not another word! Do not dispute the word of a god! I know what I'm talking about and have no time to explain! You will know soon enough!"
They fell silent for a moment and the old man sat beside her. He smiled genially and spread his hands over the offering plate.
"Come! Enough metaphysics for now! Let's eat!"
Miri realized she was famished and the two of them dug into the platter with gusto. Fruit and dates, bread, roast goose, even little sesame seed honey cakes.
"I am so hot!" declared the old man. "Would you be a dear, and cool me with that fan of ostrich feathers by the offering table?"
Miri slid from her seat and retrieved the fan. Holding the wand in both hands, she wafted it slowly over the old man, and he loosened his tunic to allow the sweat beneath to evaporate into the air passing over him.
"O, such relief!" he declared. He reached over and helped himself to some fruit from the offering table.
"They bring this stuff fresh every day! Food fit for the gods! It seems to the priests a miracle the food is eaten!" beamed the old man through his stuffed cheeks, "At first glance it seems sacrilege to eat this food, yet, the miracle of its being eaten strengthens the faith of the weak as well as the strong. If not for me, this island would be no more sacred than any of the others about here!"
"But doesn't the Nile rise from the depths under this island?"
The old man laughed.
"A legend! The Nile rises from the beyond the jungles of Nubia. The ancient ones picked Biga as the source of the Nile because they had no stomach to conquer the race of giants which live where the Nile begins!"
"But the books say here, beneath the Ausarium, the waters of the Nile connect to the primordial sea from which all life springs!"
The old man bit into a drumstick and waved it at her. "Oh, it does! There is a passageway beneath the sepulchre of Ausar which leads below the Earth and the land of the Dead. Between the two lands flow the nutrient waters of the Great Mother Nut. It is said the waters bring the dead back to life!"
He bit into the drumstick again.
A thrill ran through Miri.
"If I could bring back some of that wa-" she stopped. Her thoughts raced wildly. If she could secure a vial of the Living Waters, she could return to Philae and bring life back to Setem. She could undo what she had done.
"I know what you are thinking," replied the old man, "And I am not the one to stop you from pursuing your thoughts. But remember this: The Water of Life will bring back only those who walk in the Path of Righteousness. If the recipient has met the judgment of Maat, if the heart of the one to be brought back has been weighed against the feather of Maat and proved worthy, only then may that person return from the Land of the Dead!"
"How much would I need?" asked Miri.
"You will know," said the old man enigmatically, then he slowly disappeared.
Miri was alone.
"Ausar?" she called hesitantly, "Ausar?"
She looked about her, but could not see him.
There was so much more she needed to know.
"Who are you?" asked a shocked voice behind her.
Miri whirled around swinging the fan like a spear. She was face to face with the duty priest of the day. In an instant, she realized he had only just that moment awoken. He must have been sleeping nearby. In the same instant she also realized she was naked. Ahe covered herself with her hands and scurried to the altar and pulled the sacerdotal cloth from the stone ofering table.
"No one is allowed on the island, but the priest of the day and Auset herself!" he said.
Miri wrapped the cloth about her. "You do not recognize me?" she asked warily, for she recognized the priest from the college at Philae. She fastedned the cloth under her arm and straightened her stance, looking directly at the priest.
He peered at her intently, then his eyes widened in awe.
"Auset!" he whispered reverently. His answer surprise Miri, but she instantly recognized her advantage
"Theophilus!" she answered, using his given Greek name, for that is all she remembered.
He fell prostrate before her.
"Forgive me!" cried Theophilus, his forehead pressed to the earth at Miri's feet.
She smashed the handle of the fan over his head. Thankfully, it was made partly of gold and had some decent weight to it. His body went limp.
"O Mother, forgive me!" cried Miri and bent to feel his neck for a pulse.
He was alive.
She breathed a sigh of relief.
"I shall soon have no worshippers left!" It was Ausar. Or at least the old man who claimed to be Ausar.
"Where did you go?" she asked him.
"Where did you go?" he mimicked. "I'm a god! I have things to do!"
"Like what?" asked Miri.
"Like none of your business!" retorted Ausar.
"You're not a god!" said Miri.
"Yes, I am!" retorted Ausar quickly.
"No, you're not!"
"You are very sure of yourself, Miriam!" the old man said seriously. "Still, you have much to learn, and until you know what you must know, I cannot expect you to understand the knowing of not knowing!"
"Why do you resort to riddles, old man?" she asked impatiently.
Ausar looked directly into her eyes, and for a moment Miri swayed from a wave of vertigo, for she was swallowed by the infinite deepness of his gaze. She suddenly was not sure of her world, and her eyebrows furrowed as she saw the old man was indeed a god.
"From the waters of Nu and Nut rose the primeval mound," he said solemnly, "I am the Great One, who arose from the primordial flood, born of an egg hidden within the lotus blossom. From the Sky, Nut and from the Earth, Geb, formed from the body of the sacred field that is the body of the land. They named me Nefertum, 'Total Beauty', I, the Son of Ptah, the Ruler of the Gods.
And the children of the Earth called me Rei, and as I rose in the East, they called me Horus, for I was to rule over them. As my flame burned from gold to red, and I descended from intercourse with the sky goddess Nut, I became Ausar, ruler of the Land of the West, and Protector of the Dead!
Such was my glory, my brother Set, destroyed me, but through the love and power of my wife, Auset, I was reborn. Through her aegis, Ausar became Horus, and once again I rose in the sky, reborn. So it was. So it is.
And so it shall be!"
There was a flurry of wings and a long loud screech from above her head, and Miri ducked instinctively. A huge red and gold hawk alit upon one of the branches of the sacred sycamore. It glanced briefly at the turtledoves nestled deeper within the foliage who moved prudently, yet not fearfully, away from the reach of the hawk's magnificent talons. The great bird turned slowly to face Miri. It cocked its head to examine her more closely.
"Sa-tem-Ast-Harath!" the hawk said quite clearly.
Mir gasped and her hand covered her mouth.
"You can talk!" she whispered excitedly.
"I am not the bird you see, but the god you see within it!" replied the hawk.
"Horus!" she declared in acknowledgement.
Miri turned to look at the old man, but he had disappeared again.
"I am the bennu-bird. You have come to my holy island seeking sanctuary!" stated the bird.
Her face flushed hotly and a wave of terror flooded her being and she looked down at her feet. Her eyes closed momentarily and the face of the severed head of Setem stared up at her. She looked up again quickly.
"Sanctuary cannot be given unless you come to terms with those who would persecute you. I do not see that in your heart, Satem!"
"I do not wish to return to Philae. I want to undo what I have done!"
"That is for the gods alone to perform!" answered the hawk sternly. "Do you set yourself up as a goddess?"
"If I could undo what I have done by becoming a goddess, then I would do it!" declared Miri fiercely.
"So be it!" said Horus.
Miri stared at him in astonishment.
The bird cocked his head at her again.
"You would make me a goddess?" she asked incredulously.
The hawk blinked. "I have come to Biga to be reborn. As have you. But first I must die, as you must!"
Miri bit her lip.
"I have no wish to die!" she blurted out.
"Yet you wish to be reborn!" declared Horus. "You will learn from my example! Observe my nest!" He turned to gaze upon a nest that had appeared upon the altar, and then flew down to it.
"You will bring the sacred flame here!" he commanded. "First you must bring the holy flame from its resting place in the cave under the tomb of Ausar! Had you not incapacitated my servant, he could show you where it is, but now you must search the island for it. In the darkness your task shall not be easy! Go! I shall await your return!"
Miri looked about her, and saw a path to her left. She moved toward it, and as she reached the edge of the clearing she took one last look back at Horus. The bird had settled regally upon the nest and closed its eyes.
As she followed the winding path, the foliage gave way to barren rock, and she soon found herself ascending a winding stony path. Her way followed a narrow wadi, and eventually, she came to a small shrine. A light flickered within it and she bent down and squeezed through the narrow opening that served as a door.
There she came face to face with Ausar. Not as an old man, but as the Lord of the Underworld. A life-sized statue lay upon a stone funeral sarcophagus. It was Ausar-Nefer, swaddled in linen funeral bandages, crook and flail crossed over his chest, a gilded funeral mask over his face. It so reminded Miri of Setem in his disguise the day he had appeared to her in the temple, she gasped.
A lamp stand stood at the head of the sarcophagus.
The sacred flame.
Miri stood silently soaking in the essence of the sanctuary. A great peace entered into her, for she had heard much of the actual resting place of Ausar's thigh, and now she stood within it, it took her breath away. This shrine was one of the most holy places of Earth! Now, she was among a select few who had been honoured to see it. That the god had beckoned her to enter and carry away the sacred flame filled her with a great feeling of satisfaction.
Her feet were one with the earth and touched the feet of all the others who had entered this holy of holies throughout the centuries. The passage of time simply ceased to be, and she was held in thrall for an eternity.
But eventually, her task at hand entered her consciousness, and she removed a torch from a bracket in the wall and held it to the flame of the eternal lamp. It lighted instantly, and Miri backed out of the tomb, and made her way back down the narrow path to the Abaton where Horus awaited.
The bird sat as she had left him, and as she entered the clearing, he opened his eyes and stared at her unblinking.
"You have brought me the sacred fire! Now, you must set fire to this nest upon which I sit!"
"Do not flinch! This must be done that I, the Phoenix, can rise again!"
Hesitantly, Miri touched the torch to the edge of the nest.
She moved around the altar and touched flame to nest a third time.
The wood crackled as the three small flames flickered about, then danced from branch to branch and twig-to-twig. Soon, the three flames became one, and the bird sat calmly within the fire as it spread to its feathers. The feathers suddenly ignited with a brilliant searing light, so bright, Miri was blinded. She held her hands out in front of her to shield her eyes.
She thought for a moment she saw the old man Ausar within the light. He sat cross-legged upon a lotus flower of brilliant flame, but he faded from view as the light intensified. Mir had to close her eyes and move away from the altar, past the circle of four stones, past the circle of five. She backed away, and as she reached the circle of the gates she passed between two of the fourteen stones topped by a lintel, and before she realized it, had passed through the Fourth Gate:
The Gate of Shammash!
The Holy Gate of the Sun. The gate of Horus. The Gate of Rei.
The Gate of Power!
She stepped through and found herself back in the shrine from which she had taken the eternal flame. She stared out through the small entrance, and the blinding light from the altar in the clearing glared through it. She noticed an opening at the back of the shrine, she had not seen during her last visit and approached it cautiously. The opening was dark, and she peered inside.
A set of steps led downward into pitch-blackness.
This was the gateway to the Underworld. To Tuat
Holding the torch out before her, Miri squeezed through the opening and stepped onto the stone stairway within.
The steps were steep, narrow and worn, carved from living Aswan granite. Miri had to bend down to descend them, holding the torch awkwardly before her. The rough-hewn rock was clammy to the touch, damp with a touch of mildew. The further she descended, the more moisture dripped from the rock. Drops hissed as they fell into the flame of the torch and evaporated. The stairs and walls were becoming slippery, and Miri had to slow her steps in order to keep her balance. Slowly it dawned on her, each drop of water that fell into the flame of the torch was diminishing its heat drop by drop. The rushes she had soaked in the oil were becoming wet and the flame flickered. She had no idea how long she had been climbing down this spiralling staircase into the earth. How far was it to the bottom? From her childhood, she remembered that tales of Sheol and Hades described the Underworld as a bottomless pit. She pushed the idea into the back of her mid, but obstinately, it kept intruding on her resolve, such that it was an extreme effort to keep to her descent. In the fading torchlight it seemed to her the stairs were closing behind her, the space narrowed as she passed through it. She took a few steps upward to be sure, but shook her head.
She must reach the bottom for she needed to recover the Water of Life to bring back Setem and relieve her guilt. Here in the bowels of the Earth, she began to feel that at any moment, she would run into Setem. What if he should be there in the Underworld to confront her? What torture might he inflict upon her in vengeance for his death? She shuddered, but pressed on.
Her back and legs ached from being stooped over, and it seemed to her now that the passageway was indeed narrowing. She could barely squeeze through the pass in the rock. It was far narrower than the opening where she had first embarked upon her journey. And the walls and steps were terribly slimy now. She slipped several times, regaining her balance, but each fall seemed harder than the last to recover from, and the thought of turning back seemed the more prudent alternative to pressing on. She peered back up the steps, but having her back turned on the Land of the Dead sent shivers up her spine and she whirled, sensing something behind her.
There was nothing.
But every time she turned to go up the stairs, the feeling of dread returned, and she knew she couldn't face that kind of fear all the way back to the surface. She had to go downward.
She took two steps, slipped and dropped the torch. It sizzled, sputtered and went out and plunged her into complete darkness. Dread filled her entire being. She tried desperately to stand, but she slipped again, and in panic realized she could no longer regain her footing!
She panicked and grasped at the stairs, but she could not get a grip on the smooth slimy stone. Suddenly, she began to slide down the increasingly worn steps. She pushed her hands out to both walls to brace herself, and brought herself to a stop. With horror, she realized the walls were far closer together than before she began her slide. She gingerly reached one hand above her head. There was barely a hand's space between the top of her head and the ceiling. She felt the floor with her bare feet. The steps were now mere ripples in the rock. Then, from above she heard an ominous gurgling noise that grew in power; the sound became a roar, and the small fraction of time that it took her to realize what the was causing the sound, a wall of water enveloped her, and she screamed as she lost her footing.
She was carried by the current a considerable distance, and every cry that escaped her lips filled her mouth with water. The passageway twisted and turned, and at one point, she managed to wedge herself in with her hands and feet, but the passage had decreased drastically in diameter, with not even enough room for her to move her elbows more than a few inches from her side. The air now only existed in ephermal bubbles that were swept by the vacuum of the current. She pressed her mouth and nose against the calmmy rock ceiling and sucked at the last of the air and began to sob.
How could my life go so terribly wrong? she asked herself. Why didn't I stay at home? She missed Martha terribly. I should have been more like Martha. She wouldn't have gotten herself into this predicament! Thinking of Martha brought her some comfort, and she began to pray:
The last syllable of mother was drawn out into a terrible wail as her grip on the rock slipped and she slid rapidly down the hole feet first. Miri screamed hysterically. Her rate of descent increased and the size of the hole decreased. The passageway was now completely filled with water. Her mouth filled with water. She was drowning!
She cried out in terror, her screams muffled by the dense liquid in which she was immersed. She clawed desperately at the sides of the passage but to no avail. The water made its way into her lungs. The fear bubbled and seethed within her, pressing relentlessly against the barrier separating her from her unconsciousness until finally the thin membrane between reality and the Underworld split wide open, and the two worlds imploded upon each other. Her mind shattered!
From the darkness, from the sheer terror of all that had been, she could see a small pinprick of light. She heard music. A silvery thread of music. She followed it towards the light. What she had thought as down was not. She drifted upwards. Westwards.
All that had been reality was behind her now. She saw it for the illusion. Now in Death, she could see-
She could see...
The promised epiphany vanished, and she found herself deposited on the shore of an immense Sea. Far, far away, the sun shone in a dark night sky, its light shimmering and dancing on the ripples of the infinite sea, sparkling on the tidal pools in the mud flats before the primordial mound which rose from the nutrient waters of Nut.
Slowly, the Sea began to boil. A column of water arose and formed into a great serpent, and the head of the serpent was that of a woman. The face of the woman was her own. Miri stared up into that face as if into a mirror, and the face which was her own smiled back at her.
It was Tiamaat.
The Mother of All.
Breasts and arms burst forth from the serpent as flowers from the bud, and Tiammat handed Miri a stoppered flask filled with the Waters of Life. About its neck was a leather thong, and Miri grasped the thong and hung the flask about her neck. She looked up to thank Tiammat, but she was gone.
In the space of a heartbeat, Mir found herself in front of the altar in the clearing beneath the sycamore on Biga. On the Eastern horizon, Sothis shone brightly as dawn approached. The sacred fire still burned, yet nothing remained but ashes. Miri looked about for something to douse the flames, but not wishing to waste any fresh water, she scooped a handful of dirt from the ground, and threw the soil over the flame. It sputtered but failed to extinguish. She threw another handful onto the fire.
And another. Soon the fire flickered one last time and died. With a small silver trowel lying upon the altar, Miri scooped the ashes into a pile. Without thinking, she unstoppered the small vial Tiamaat had given her and poured some of it upon the ashes of Horus.
She had expected the ashes to form into Horus once more, but nothing happened. So sure of its efficacy and forgetting for the moment she had retrieved it to revive Setem, Miri poured the last of the Living Water from her vial onto the ashes.
At that moment, the tip of the aten, the disk of the sun poked above the horizon. The first rays of the sun touched the top of the sycamore, then the standing stones, then her hair, her face, her breasts, her belly, and her hands resting upon the altar. As the sun touched the ashes, thick red smoke billowed up from the altar. From within the smoke emanated a brilliant light rivalling as the sun itself.
Miri covered her eyes and from the light came forth the hawk of Horus! His wings flapped and he took to flight, swiftly streaking upwards into the heavens. His screeching cry reached down to her as he disappeared from view, still flying upward. Miri's heart soared with him.
"It is time to go!" The voice startled her. Ausar had returned. The old man beckoned her. "Come quickly! The new day's boat will soon land upon the island, and you must be gone by the time it arrives! Come!"
The old man took Miri by the hand and led her along a game trail to the western shore of Biga. As they descended to the Nile, Miri spied a small craft bobbing in the river. Ausar helped her into the boat and steadied it as she grasped a paddle in the bottom of the boat. The sound of voices carried to them from the eastern side of the island. The new priest had arrived, and it was clear, there were others with him, using the landing as an excuse to search the island for her.
Ausar pushed the boat off from the shore and the wide arms of the Nile took Miri alone in the boat and pulled her swifly downstream. She paddled frantically as the craft floated between Biga and the nearby shore of the closest island. She paddled madly to turn the craft to face down stream, then sruggled desperately to steer it westward across the channel.
She fought hard against the current. Her arms ached, but she persevered, and finally, after an eternity of effort, she floated into a small backwater, a serene pool amongst the rocks, and came to a rest on a small patch of sand. She lay in bottom of the boat, beached in the shallows, resting.
She had reached the Western shore.
She remembered hearing that to the west lay a sprinkling of small oases, places where outlaws could stay unmolested by the authorities. They were joined together by a road, a track across the sands of the Western Desert. If she walked westward, she would cross the track, and once on the road, no matter which direction she chose, she would find an oasis.
She would wait until dark, then, after drinking as much water as she could, set out by the light of the moon.
She followed her plan, but towards dawn, she realized she had underestimated the distance she would have to travel.
By the time the sun rose, she had no idea where she was.
Alone on the desert plain, far from the life-giving waters of the Nile, Miri looked in amazement around her. For as far as the eye could see lay a vast mind-paralyzing sea of sand. She was not sure which way she should go, nor which way she had come from; the wind had filled in her tracks behind her. She rubbed her aching calves, and groaned as she sat down.
Her world seemed to have turned inside out. Once again, everything she had known as a child, even the very ground beneath her feet, all had come apart. But now, she truly was a stranger in a strange land. She could not go back the way she had come, for she had no idea how she had got there, or where indeed she was. She reached up to the flask around her neck.
Her efforts seemed futile now. She fingered her vial of the Water of Life. She unstoppered it and to her surprise it was full. She had thought she had poured it all out on the funeral pyre of Horus. She licked her dry lips. She could not waste this now. She pushed the cork back into the open mouth of the small jar. Yet, she wondered, how could she use this sacred water on Setem? He was not one who trod on the path of Righteousness. The water would be wasted on him. She would not be able to face the Reverend Mother nor Nefrit, nor the headless corpse of Setem, his cronies, or anyone in or around the temple. Nor could she return to Canaan, for she knew they would see the mark of Cain in her eyes. She could never again show her face to anyone!
Her mouth was terribly parched and despite her determination not to, she opened the flask, and put it to her lips.
It was empty!
She up-ended the vial, but nothing flowed from its mouth. Her unbelief paralyzed her, and all hope abandoned her soul.
She let the cork drop into the sand. The vial hung uselessly from the cord about her neck.
Dejectedly, she stood up and picked a direction and began to walk. The sun shone fiercely upon her, hurting her eyes and after a while, searing her flesh. She felt dizzy and became disoriented.
She wandered for hours.
Weakened and dehydrated, her thoughts fragmented and her mind filled with jumbled images. Fleeting impressions. Setem's head rolling upon the granite floor. Standing up. Setem's crumpled body, blood spurting from the severed neck. Falling down. Blood spreading across the polished granite. Standing up. The sun. Falling down. Setem's lifeless eyes staring unseeing out from the head as it came to a stop at his companions' feet. And the sun-
Always the sun! Glaring disdainfully down on her, it's cruel white-hot rays cut into her bare skin like glowing white hot metal. She cringed beneath his onslaught, cried in agony; licked at her salty tears to moisten her parched lips. Kill me! She screamed to the Sun. To Rei-Shemmesh. Kill me!
Dizziness overcame her and she fell, but she forced herself to stand and walked a few more agonizing steps.
Her world shimmered in the heat and went out of focus. Her eyelids fluttered and she sank to her knees and fell forwards. Exhausted, she melted into the ground, whimpering. Salt tears streaked her cheeks and evaporated before they could drip to the ground. Hard sharp flint cut into her flesh.
Before her mind shut down, Miri knew that finally, even the Goddess herself had abandoned her.
It had all been for nothing.
She would die.
No one would bemoan her death.
No one would lend her a hand.