Read an Excerpt
Life was so monotonous. Plowing immediately after the annual Nile flood, sowing, reaping, and harvesting, stocking up the granaries, watching out for locusts, rodents, and hippos that might lay waste the fields. Then there was irrigation, looking after your tools, plaiting ropes at night instead of sleeping, watching over the flocks and the teams, not to mention forever worrying about your piece of land and never thinking of anything beyond the quality of the wheat and the state of your cows' health....Yes, it was utterly monotonous, and Ardent could stand it no longer.
The young man was sitting under a sycamore tree, where the fields met the desert. It offered him plenty of shade, but he was unable to get off to sleep and enjoy a well-deserved rest before heading to the family pastures to tend the oxen. At sixteen, Ardent was over three and a half cubits tall and built like a giant; and he had no desire to settle for the life of a peasant, as his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather had done.
Just as he did every day, he had come to this quiet spot, and, using a little piece of wood he had whittled, he had drawn animals in the sand. Drawing. He would have loved to draw for hours on end, then add color and re-create a donkey, a dog, and a thousand other creatures.
Ardent had great powers of observation. What he saw entered his heart, which then gave orders to his hand though his hand was completely free to trace the contours of an image that seemed more alive than everyday reality. What he really needed were papyrus, styli, some pigments. But his father was a farmer and had laughed in his face when the boy told him what he wanted.
There was only one place where Ardent could find everything he desired: the Place of Truth. Nobody knew what went on inside the walled village, but those walls enclosed the greatest painters and artists in the kingdom, the men who were authorized to decorate Pharaoh's tomb.
A peasant's son had no chance of entering that fabled brotherhood. Yet the young man could not help dreaming of the happiness of those who could devote themselves wholly to their vocation, forgetting the meanness of daily life.
"Well, Ardent, having a rest, are we?"
The voice, heavy with irony, belonged to a boy of about twenty named Hayseed. He was tall and muscular, and dressed only in a short kilt of plaited rushes. By his side stood his younger brother, Fat-Legs, a stupid smile on his face. At fifteeen, Fat-Legs was much heavier than Hayseed, because of all the cakes he gobbled every day.
"Leave me alone, you two," said Ardent.
"This place doesn't belong to you," said Hayseed. "We've a right to come here."
"I don't want to see you."
"Ah, but we want to see you. And you've got some explaining to do."
"As if you didn't know!" said Hayseed. "Where were you last night?"
"Who do you think you are, a policeman?"
"Does the name Nati mean anything to you?" demanded Hayseed.
Ardent smiled. "It certainly does."
Hayseed took a step toward him. "You filthy swine! She's betrothed to me, and last night, you...you dared "
"It wasn't my idea. Nati came looking for me."
Ardent got to his feet. "I don't let anyone call me a liar."
"Because of you, my bride won't be a virgin."
"So what? If she has any sense, Nati won't marry you at all."
Hayseed and Fat-Legs produced a leather whip. Though it was only a rough weapon, it was a formidable one.
"Let's leave it there," suggested Ardent. "Nati and I spent a pleasant moment together, it's true, but that's just nature, isn't it? As a gesture of goodwill, I agree not to see her again to be frank, I shan't miss her."
"We're going to spoil your looks," announced Hayseed. "With your new face, you won't be seducing any more girls."
"I'd quite enjoy correcting two imbeciles, but it's hot, and I'd rather finish my nap."
Raising his right arm, Fat-Legs threw himself at Ardent. Suddenly, his target disappeared from in front of him and he was lifted up and flung into the air; he fell back down again headfirst, and crumpled against the trunk of the sycamore, unconscious and unmoving.
Hayseed was rooted to the spot for a moment, then he reacted. He lashed the whip through the air, intending to slice Ardent's face open, but the young giant parried the blow with his arm. An ugly cracking noise put an end to the short struggle. Hayseed dropped the whip and fled, howling with the pain of a dislocated shoulder.
There was not one drop of sweat on Ardent's brow. Since the age of five he had been used to fighting, and he had taken some real drubbings before learning the winning moves. He never provoked a fight, but confident in his strength, he never walked away from one either. Life did not hand out gifts, and neither did he.
The thought of spending the afternoon in the pasture and then returning home like a good boy, bearing milk and firewood, made Ardent feel sick.
Tomorrow would be even worse than today, even duller, even more boring, and the young man would continue to lose heart, as if his blood were slowly draining away. What did his family's little farm mean to him? His father dreamt of ripe corn and milch cows, the neighbors envied him his success, the girls already saw Ardent as his father's lucky heir who, thanks to his great strength, would double production and become rich. They dreamt of marrying a wealthy peasant and having lots of children, thus ensuring a happy old age.
Thousands were content with that destiny, but not Ardent. On the contrary, to him it seemed more oppressive than the walls of a prison. Abandoning the cattle, which would be perfectly all right without him, the young man set off into the desert, his gaze fixed on the Peak of the West. It loomed over Thebes, the fantastically rich city of the god Amon, where the sacred precinct of Karnak had been built to house numerous temples.
On the west bank were the Valleys of the Kings, Queens, and Nobles, which had welcomed the tombs of these illustrious people, and also the pharaohs' Houses of Eternity, including the Temple of a Million Years built by Ramses. The craftsmen of the Place of Truth had created wonders people said they had worked hand in hand with the gods, and under their protection.
In the secret heart of Karnak, as in the humblest shrine, the gods and goddesses spoke, but who truly understood their message? As for Ardent, he deciphered the world by drawing in the sand, but he lacked the knowledge to progress further.
He could not accept this injustice. Why did the goddess hidden in the Peak of the West speak to the craftsmen of the Place of Truth yet remain silent when he begged her to answer his call? The sun-beaten mountain abandoned him to his loneliness, and his young, pleasure-hungry mistresses could never understand his aspirations.
As a kind of revenge, he drew the mountain in the sand as accurately as he could, then angrily kicked the drawing apart, as if through this one act he were wiping out both the silent goddess and his own frustration.
But the Peak of the West remained intact, imposing, and impenetrable. And, despite his physical power, Ardent felt laughably insignificant. No, things could not go on like this.
This time, his father must listen to him.
Copyright © 2000 by XO Editions. All Rights Reserved.
English translation copyright © 2000 by Sue Dyson