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The Second Coming of the Star Gods
A VISIONARY NOVEL
By Page Bryant
Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc.Copyright © 2004 Page Bryant
All rights reserved.
Journey to Heliopolis
The long journey would soon be over. Rashid and his family had secured space on a cargo vessel sailing north from Abydos to the city of Heliopolis in the Delta. For days the trip up the Nile had provided Rashid and his wife, Bata, and their children, Khem and Atef, with endless sights of what life was like outside their beloved Abydos. They saw desert dunes on one side, oases and fertile fields on the other during their daily sojourn on the thirst-quenching river. The travelers saw peasant men herding camels, sailed by countless villages with their meager huts nestled along the water's edge, and smelled the smoke wafting from cooking fires through groves of date palms, mixed with odors of animal dung, roasting fish and fowl, and the hot, parched dust of the arid land. Children played joyfully in every village. Women pounded clothes on rocks at the river's edge, while engaging in lively chatter about the latest news. Water buffalo walked in circles, endlessly pushing turnstiles to irrigate the crops. Village after village floated by, each a stage upon which the drama of the daily lives of the fellahin, the most common among the Egyptian people, unfolded.
Rashid was a fisherman by trade. In the cool winter months he helped build homes to supplement the family's income. Bata and Rashid were good parents who loved their children. They led quiet, honest lives. Aside from her duties as a wife and mother, Bata was a fine embroiderer and spent much of her spare time stitching colorful images on fine linen garments that were brought to her by women of the wealthier class.
Abydos was a flourishing metropolis that had long been an established religious center. The city belonged to Osiris. Temples erected in his honor dotted the landscape, but none was more impressive than the Grand Temple that served as a sort of cenotaph for the god.
Osiris was a good god. He had watched over Egypt for a long, long time, maybe forever. It seemed that He had been especially good to Abydos as it was the place where legends say his head was buried. Since Khem was very young she could remember the stories about Osiris told to her and Atef by their father. Rashid had always felt the need to make his children aware of the divinities, as they are the source of all things in life, including life itself. Above all else, Rashid had said, Osiris is the god of resurrection. To Khem this meant that no matter what might come, life continues.
One memory that stood out in Khem's mind was of being lifted to her father's shoulders during the Festival of Osiris so she could see the procession of priests pass by. Her eyes had drunk in the sight of the Osirian barque, the weskhet, bearing its sacred cargo to the temple to be purified. Ahead of the fellahin went the jackal-god, Wepwawet, the herald of Osiris. Scores of priests, court jesters, and common celebrants went before the royal barque, their songs and antics telling the stories of Osiris's conquests. Gods don't always have it so easy, she had thought. People want to harm or even kill them. Their lives are not always filled with the luxury and sanctity that one would expect to be accorded a deity. Though somewhat confusing, this was what had endeared Osiris to her from the earliest times she could remember.
Though the common people could not witness the purification of the god, as that took place within the Holy of Holies deep inside the temple, when the festival was over, Khem felt a strange sense of security just knowing that Osiris was cleansed and all was right with the world for another year. In her young mind, whenever trouble arose within the sphere of her life or when she became anxious over things that disturb a child's peace—a broken doll, a stubbed toe, a tear in her favorite sheath—she would remind herself that, come what might, Osiris reigned. He protected her and made things right. It was a thought that never failed to calm her fears and soothe her hurt feelings. Never did she suspect that such reassurance from the god himself did not cross the minds of others her age. To her, it was natural. It was a practice that would eventually determine the course of her life.
It was shortly after a festival day when, at the age of seven, Khem had a dream that made an indelible impression on her. Unbeknowst to the young dreamer, the dream contained the seeds of her future, the very future toward which the boat was now carrying her.
Rashid stepped out of the passenger cabin and stood at the prow of the small ship. The breeze caused by the boat's movement and the northerly airflow whipped gently through his black hair and caressed his tanned skin. Even on the water the day was hot. Throughout the day the sun's rays had reflected on the water like dancing diamonds on the river's surface. The dancing now ceased as on the western horizon the orange solar ball was sinking slowly behind the dunes. Deep in thought, Rashid wondered if he was doing the right thing. What would be his daughter's fate? She was his only daughter. Though he took great pride in his only son, Atef, Khem was his heart.
The decision to let Khem go into training at the Temple of the Sun in Heliopolis had been made. Now he and Bata must remain resigned to the decision to turn their daughter over to the High Priest at the Temple and to the High Star Priestess, Taret, who had beckoned the child telepathically with an authority that Rashid could not comprehend. The gods had called, and it was a summons that could not be ignored.
As Rashid's thoughts drifted back to earlier times, and he pondered his fatherly loss, Khem interrupted his bittersweet musings. With a tug on Rashid's arm she cried excitedly, "Come, Father! Come look at the great beast that has been killed!"
Rashid had been so lost in his thoughts that he had failed to notice the horde of noisy hunters hoisting a bloated hippo carcass from the river. Snapped back to the present, Rashid followed as the girl pulled him to the rear of the boat where they watched until the hunters and their giant quarry faded from view. The sight brought back memories to Rashid, memories of his own dream unrealized. There was a time when, as a boy, he had dreamt of being a great hunter. There would be no quarry too elusive, no beast too strong, none too smart to escape him. But, alas, these were but dreams. His days had been spent hauling his catch from the bounty of the river in order to provide for his family, an honorable task for an honorable man.
"One more night, Father, and we will arrive in Heliopolis."
Khem knew she would not get much sleep this night. Her head was filled with expectation and images of what it would be like to live in the Temple. Even at the tender age of twelve she had known it was her destiny to learn the wisdom of the stars. Now, three years later, she knew being at the Temple of the Sun, training as a Star Priestess, was where she had to be.
As twilight came, Bata and Atef joined Khem and Rashid on deck. The Nile was a mirror reflecting the pink and gold of the sunset. There was a cool breeze and the pre-night air was sweet. No one spoke. Each was deep in thought about what the next day would bring. It was the day they would arrive in Heliopolis, the day Khem would turn herself and her life over to the gods. Objections and anticipation, if they were present, did not show on the faces of the four. There were only quiet thoughts....
Khem woke at the crack of dawn. As she washed her face and brushed her hair, she pondered fragments of a dream of a tiny lion cub rolling around on a grass mat, a shiny bronze mirror, and a small aging woman clad in a plain linen sheath with a circular gold pendant hanging on a chain over her heart.
Neither Khem nor any member of her family had ever been to the Delta region. The Temple of the Sun was familiar to her in the way a fabled place is when one has heard about it countless times. Bata scurried about the cabin gathering the bedclothes and stuffing them into a large cotton garment bag. She had not slept much, and fatigue, born from insomnia and charged emotions, showed on her face.
"Hurry, Mother!" Khem urged. Bata seemed to think that moving slowly would make time stand still. As a mother, she clearly resisted what lay in store. She hated losing the daughter she loved so dearly, but she knew that the command of the gods had to be obeyed.
Reluctantly, Bata slipped a fresh clean sheath over her head and began combing the night tangles from her hair. Though Khem had combed her own hair earlier, she had done so in haste, so her mother did it again. From a cosmetic bag, Bata took a long strip of ribbon. Pulling the girl's long locks into a bundle at the nape of her neck, she tied the ribbon to secure it, leaving the ribbon's ends hanging loosely, entwining with the dark silky hair. Khem took newly woven papyrus sandals from her own clothes sack and slid them on her feet. Bata then busied herself with lining her own and her daughter's eyes with green kohl, dabbing a touch of sweet lotus perfume oil behind their ears.
"What's going on in here?"
The sound of Rashid's voice broke the rhythm of the dressing ritual and jerked Bata back from the edge of the tears she had wanted to give in to since the moment dawn had chased off the night's shadows. "We are almost ready," she replied. Before the words were out of her mother's mouth, Khem ran and flung herself into her father's arms. "Father, we are almost there, are we not? Can you see the city? Has Atef awakened? Are the—"
"Wait! Slow down! I can only answer one question at a time, my daughter."
"Oh, I am sorry. Father," Khem replied quickly. "It is time. I know it will not be long before we arrive. We must not miss a moment! We must hurry to the deck. I want to see the city, Father. I must!" Her voice became higher pitched as the anticipation of their arrival in Heliopolis shot waves of adrenaline through her. This was the day she had looked forward to and dreamed about for three long years, the day she would go to the Temple to learn about the stars.
The stars had always fascinated Khem. They were her friends. Since she was a child she had known that the sky gods held the future of the land and its people in their power. She must learn about the Star Gods. She had to know about the great Celestial River and the mysteries of the night. She knew it was what she had been born to do.
"Atef is waiting in the dining cabin," Rashid said. "He has accepted an offer from the head oarsman to have a morning meal. Come, let us go eat."
Food was the last thing on Khem's mind. But when she sank her teeth into the sweet figs, she realized how hungry she was. When they finished the meal, the four washed their hands in the clay washbowls that had been placed on the table. Rashid left a few faience beads to pay for the food, and folded the leftover loaves of bread and a few dried dates into a napkin he pulled from his clothes bag. These would come in handy as a snack later.
The river, Atur, was particularly wide in the place the boat was approaching, and it rounded into a slight bend. Ahead, the city loomed into view. The sight of it so overwhelmed Khem that she could only fix her eyes in silent wonderment. As she stared, hypnotized by the sight, memories of a dream she had dreamed a long time ago, indeed the dream that had revealed her fate to her, replayed itself in her mind. The dream had come when she was seven. She was now fifteen. The images had been vivid. Each figure and symbol and even the sounds had burned themselves into her memory in a way no other dream or waking experience ever had during the few years of her life.
Drifting off to sleep after she and Atef had had a fun-filled day playing with a day-old water buffalo calf, Khem had entered the dream world that carried her into a never-before-seen-realm, the domain of Nut, the Sky Goddess. As she awakened into her night vision, Khem found herself being led down what seemed an endless passageway suspended in space, with giant stone columns on both sides. This passageway was not solid, but composed of countless stars afire with power. No one can walk on this, she had thought, sure that she would fall through the star road and be swallowed up by whatever monsters might lurk below.
Two women, one on each side of her, guided her down this path of stars. Each was clad in the softest of linen sheaths, the seams of which were stitched with gold threads. Their skin was the color of rich cream. As the Star Priestesses guided Khem across the star bridge, suddenly a golden throne appeared: first it was empty, the next moment it was occupied by a beautiful goddess in an aura of shimmering gold light.
The deity's garment was white with a gold-colored sash around the bodice beneath her breasts. Her transparent skin revealed myriad stars inside: her eyes were like emeralds: her straight black hair hung loose to her shoulders. On her head was a crown fashioned into a five-pointed star. Encircling her delicate neck was a magnificent pectoral of sparkling gemstones. In her right hand was a staff carved from sycamore wood. Alabaster pillars, each topped with a pyramidion carved from black Star Stone, flanked the sides of the great throne.
As the resplendent image of the sky goddess stabilized in Khem's mind, four more female sky spirits appeared, two on each side of the great throne. On the right stood Neith, the goddess of the East, and Uatchet of the North. Nekhebet, the mistress of the southern sky, and Hathor of the western, completed the Holy Four. At the feet of the five star women was an image of the Earth shown suspended in space. Khem felt as if the beauty and power of the divinities would take her breath away, and for an instant a wave of fear threatened to shock her awake and return her to the darkness of her bedchamber.
A telepathic beam of calming energy brought the girl lovingly into the mental embrace of the Great Goddess and the fear was banished. The dreamer, at once a part of and yet separate from the holy presences, heard a voice speak to her. As she spoke, the voice resounded from all directions, penetrating every cell of her being:
I am Nut, Goddess of the Star World. Welcome to my place in your mind, my little one.
Excerpted from The Second Coming of the Star Gods by Page Bryant. Copyright © 2004 Page Bryant. Excerpted by permission of Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc..
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