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Authors: Richard; Clive; Kennedy King

The 22 Letters (8 page)

BOOK: The 22 Letters
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“… an impossible family,” he was saying. “And, really, one can hardly call them gods.”

Philaios interrupted him, his mouth full of fish. “How can our young friend follow the story, Ekerawon, if you chatter away like an old woman? Begin at the beginning!”

would like to tell the story then, Philaios,” said Ekerawon with a little pout.

“Very well,” said Philaios, washing down his mouthful with a draft of wine. “Once upon a time—”

“You'll have to start earlier than that,” Ekerawon interrupted in his turn.

“What do you mean?” said Philaios.

“The story starts before Time was born,” said Ekerawon. “So how can you start with
Once Upon a Time
? I knew you'd get it wrong.”

“All right, then,” said Philaios, returning to his food with a shrug. “
tell the story. But keep it simple.”

“Right,” said Ekerawon, turning to Nun, “I'll tell the story. As simply as I can. Only it's not a simple story. Such a family! All right, Philaios, I see you looking at me!” He sat himself upright on his couch and held up his hand. “In the beginning,” he began solemnly, “in the beginning there was Earth and Sky. We still have our Earth-Mother, of course. If you look south from here you can see the island of Dia: we say that's the Earth-Mother's body, lying in the sea.”

“That's nothing to do with the story,” put in Philaios.

“Am I telling the story, or am I not?” demanded Ekerawon. “The children of the Earth and Sky were the Giants,” he continued. “A monstrous lot they were. Some of them only had one eye, some of them had a hundred limbs, and they grew and grew, out of all proportion. They quarreled among themselves and their parents couldn't control them. One must admit they were a failure.” He took a sip of wine.

“The last of this brood was old Time himself,” he continued, “Chronos you may call him, or what you like.”

“El,” said Nun. He felt he had to say something, or fall asleep.

“I beg your pardon?” Ekerawon inquired.

“El is our name for Time,” Nun explained. “They say he settled at Gebal!”

“Most interesting!” Ekerawon exclaimed. “I was going to say something about this character, but if he belongs to your part of the world, now, I'd better not say a word against him. Besides, who are we to judge a demigod for a little thing like mutilating his father and devouring his own children?” He giggled and drank some more wine.

“You've forgotten the point of the story,” said Philaios.

“What point?” Ekerawon demanded.

“What happened to the Giants,” said Philaios.

“I haven't
yet,” said Ekerawon petulantly. “Yes, my friend,” he said to Nun. “The Giants!” He stood up and suddenly became serious. “This monstrous race, who defiled Earth and menaced Heaven, were shut up for eternity in prisons underground, from which ever since they have been trying to break out and take vengeance on the inhabitants of the world. And here we are,” he concluded, draining his wine cup.

“Here we are?” repeated Nun, uncomprehending. He couldn't even tell whether it was himself who was being stupid or his host who was being incoherent. And then, for the third time since they had set foot on the island, there came the hollow rumble from underground, the floor of the courtyard shook, pieces of twig and insects came raining down from the vines overhead, and the crockery danced on the table. This time, instead of dying away, the tremor was followed by a stronger one, which Nun felt like a blow through the couch on which he was lying. He sat up, no longer sleepy; the music of the various instruments tailed off, the girl dancer stood contorted, her eyes wide and staring. There was silence while Philaios downed a whole cupful of wine and nearly choked himself, but Ekerawon was on his feet quivering and storming at the musicians and the dancer.

“What have you stopped for?” he screamed at them. “Do I keep you to stand and turn pale every time the earth shakes? Play on, you miserable white-livered geese! Dance, girl—it's all you're fit for! More wine for the guests! Scatter rose-leaves! Gentlemen of Babylon and Gebal, your cups are empty, you put me to shame. Your health, my old friend Philaios! Be merry! We are not afraid, are we?”

Yes, thought Nun, we are: and you, my host, are more afraid than anyone. But he did not speak his thoughts. He was stone-cold sober, and wished he was anywhere but on this unhappy island.

An unreal smile was pinned on the face of Ekerawon, and he turned to Nun as the music started up again and the wine began to circulate.

“What were we talking about, my friend?”

“You were saying,” replied Nun, “the words. ‘Here we are!' And then the earth shook. I am afraid I still do not understand.”

Ekerawon sat down. He was still trembling. He drank again, and said weakly: “You have heard the voice of the Giants and felt their struggles in the earth beneath us. Did you not know that it was here they were imprisoned for their revolt?”

Nun was silent for a space. “All of them?” he asked at last.

“Oh, some here, some there, no doubt,” replied Ekerawon. “They say there are other burning mountains under which some of the tribe are pent. But we have enough here, eh, Philaios? Sometimes they sleep for years on end. Sometimes their rage to escape shakes the island for days. Just recently they have been very wakeful. It has been almost impossible to sleep. And, on top of that, no rain and no water. It is very trying, is it not, Philaios?” and now Ekerawon was sitting weeping tears into his wine cup.

“Why do you live here, then?” asked Nun.

“I don't know why,” sniffed Ekerawon. “Why do we carry on, Philaios? I'm too old for this kind of life, and yet where else have I got to go? I have my vineyards here, and the wine is good. These animals,” he sniffed pointing to the slaves, “they know no better. They've always lived here. They're just as scared—I mean the cowards are afraid when the Giants roar, but next moment they forget about it. But my family's from Crete. My father came and planted the vineyards. Very special wine we make here, a favorite with the court of Knossos. But no one knows how I suffer from the strain of living here.”

And then the Chaldean spoke, for the first time in many hours.

“What would happen, think you, Ekerawon, if these Giants were to escape?”

“The end of the human race they say,” replied Ekerawon casually. “That's the story—that the Titans have vowed vengeance on all other creatures, gods and all, once they get loose.”

“Does the thought not appall you, Ekerawon?”

“Yes. Yes, appalling,” agreed Ekerawon gloomily. “But they say it won't happen.”

“What if the stars tell me that it

Ekerawon shrugged. “What could I do about it? Sit on top of the mountain and hold them down? Maybe it will happen.
though no one can tell. We may all be dead long before. Have some more wine, you are drinking nothing.”

“What if I were to tell you the exact date when it will happen, as foretold by the stars, and well within your lifetime?”

Ekerawon got to his feet, holding out his hand in a gesture to stop the Chaldean speaking. “No! No, no, no! No dates! That's the last thing I want to know, even if you
it. What, sit here waiting for the end of the world? There's no pleasure in that. Drink man, drink! Why I've never met such a solemn fellow.” And turning to the musicians he shouted: “Some really gay music there! What's this dirge—are you all half asleep? Have you seen me dance? I feel like dancing. How's this, eh?” And the little man sidled away over the pavement in a ridiculous caricature of the girl dancer's steps.

The Chaldean was also standing. “I was about to ask you, sir,” he was saying to the retreating back of Ekerawon, “if you would excuse my absence while I go to study the stars. It must be but a short time before dawn.”

“Stars?” said Ekerawon dreamily, spinning on one foot. “Yes, of course. Take as many as you like. Make yourself at home. My stars are yours. And give my compliments to the celestial bodies, but don't bother me with their predictions, just now, there's a good fellow. I'm dancing …”

The Chaldean bowed courteously and stepped from the light of the torches into the shadow. Nun saw that Philaios was asleep on his couch, his face flushed with wine. He gave up trying to fight sleep and sank back on the cushions. The music played on. Ekerawon was holding the dancing girl by the hand and spinning her round. Nun's eyes closed. The couch he lay on seemed to rock—was it wine, sea-weariness, or the subterranean struggles of imprisoned Giants? Until dawn, Nun lay in a nightmare-haunted sleep.


The Walls That Time Built

In Gebal, the town that time built, time passes—Beth spies upon the Egyptian mysteries of the priests and scribes—Chosen by the King as a Temple Maiden

“Be off then, shooo, you lazy birds!” Beth cried, and flapped her arms at the pigeons. “Go off and find food for yourselves!”

The pigeons took their time, waddling and strutting over the flat-topped ramparts of Gebal, near the house of Resh, the chief mason. Then they suddenly took off together with a flutter of wings, wheeled round in a flock, and rose up into the blue sky. Beth watched them climb up above the sea horizon, round against the green of the mountainside, then gradually lost sight of them as they set off up the coast.

Beth sighed. They fly away and leave me, she thought. But usually they all came back by evening, though sometimes there might be one or two missing, and then she would wait and wait and at last have to give up waiting, and wonder what hawk or falcon had attacked and struck them down.

Her brothers, too, had gone away and left her. Zayin, the strong, the man of weapons, he had gone first. But she was used to Zayin going off on hunting or warlike expeditions. He would come back: it was unthinkable that he should come to harm. As for Nun, the resourceful, the serpent of the sea—he always came back prosperously from his ventures, though he sometimes had tales of pirates and sea fights to tell. But what of Aleph, the unworldly scribe, the slow ox? What had happened to him?

It was many days now since Aleph had gone off on his errand to the cedar forest and disappeared. The white pigeon he had taken with him should have flown home within a few hours to show that he had reached his destination, but that had never come back either. A messenger had been sent to the lumber camp to ask after him, but had failed to find Aleph or the woodcutters. And now a search party had gone up the mountain with orders to report back after a certain number of days. Today it was due back! Beth would perhaps get some news when her father returned from the palace.

Beth knew that her father was as worried as she was—but he at least had his work to think about. At home, she had too much time to sit and worry. And her conscience was uneasy. It had all begun with that writing game they had been playing. Absent-mindedly she traced the ox-head sign in the dust with her toe, then looked guiltily over her shoulder and rubbed it out. Her father had been shocked to see Aleph teaching her the signs—yet sending him up the mountain had not been a severe punishment. But had the Gods been offended? And was Aleph's disappearance their retribution?

Beth paced restlessly along the ramparts. She could not go back to the house and sit with her thoughts. But where else could she go? She turned to the sea and her thoughts flew to Nun, steering his ship over the sparkling waves. She looked up the coast to where the headlands receded into the blue haze, and thought of Zayin at the head of his army. She faced the mountain and felt that at least she might have been allowed to join the search for Aleph. She turned toward the palace—and she made up her mind.

A little later she was making her way through the narrow streets of Gebal. This was not much of an escape from the confinement of the house that stood under the great walls. The city was crowded on to a little promontory on the coast: the palace and the temples took up the best sites with their courtyards and sacred pools, while the houses and markets had to make do with the space left over, huddling side by side and one above the other on the slopes. Beth jumped back quickly as a large ass came round the corner, driven smartly by a boy with a stick and loaded with panniers that stretched right across the street. She nearly dropped the dish she was carrying.

She threaded her way through the crowds of porters, water-carriers, fishermen, and strange sailors from the port, toward the palace yard where she knew that her father was directing the work. Now and then she felt eyes looking at her, for she was tall for her age and even her brothers sometimes told her she was pretty. But nobody made way for her.

Between the temple and the palace soldiers stood on guard. One of them stepped into her path, but without bothering to lower his spear. He was tall and handsome and his bronze helmet shone in the sun.

“Where might you be going, girl?” he asked contemptuously, with a glance at the poor dress she was wearing and the dish she was carrying.

Beth's heart thumped a little, but she kept her eyes cast down and muttered tonelessly: “Dinner for Resh, the chief mason.”

The soldier looked her up and down as she stood there determined not to blush, and at last he said with a slight grin, “Pass, slavey,” and stood aside. Beth went on, still keeping her eyes down and her face expressionless. It had worked. She had passed for a slave girl.

The courtyard of the palace was ringing with the sound of bronze chisels on hard stone and the air was full of fine white dust. Masons were chipping doggedly at the faces of half-squared blocks: slaves were hauling on ropes attached to a vast monolith while other slaves thrust rollers underneath it; a tripod of beams stood over a pit, holding a pulley and rope on which more workers heaved, raising rubble from a deep excavation. Beth blinked in the drifting dust and looked round for her father. There he was, talking to some priests. She went up to the group, keeping her head lowered, and said in a low voice, “Your dinner, chief mason.”

“Set it down, set it down,” said Resh, and went on talking in an agitated voice to the priests. “It shall be done as you say, Your Reverence, it shall be done, I assure you.” He bowed and the priests turned aloofly away. Resh looked after them in an abstracted manner, and said in Beth's direction, “Well, girl, what are you standing there for? Is there any message?” Then he turned his head and recognized his daughter.

“Beth!” he exclaimed in a shocked voice. “What are you doing here? And dressed as a slave girl?”

“I've come to ask if there is any news, Father,” said Beth. “I couldn't bear to stay at home any longer, waiting.”

“News? News?” repeated her father. “What kind of news? Explain yourself, girl!”

“Oh, Father, news of Aleph, of course. Has the search party returned?”

“No it has not. And the best thing you can do, young woman, is to return home yourself. We have enough trouble here already.”

“Do you think Aleph will come back, father?”

“It looks as if none of them will come back,” said her father distractedly. “Our best lumber team, twelve yoke of oxen, the search party, forty baulks of timber needed for the new palace. … And why are you dressed like that?” he asked again, as if he had noticed her for the first time.

“I thought people wouldn't notice if I dressed like the slave who comes every day. I know you don't like me coming here but—”

“Of course I don't. Women are not allowed here.”

“Except slaves, Father.”

“Yes, of course. But they don't count.”

But they have more freedom than I do, thought Beth. “Good-bye, Father,” she said aloud. “I'm sorry there's no news of the workmen.” She turned to go.

“Beth!” she heard her father call as she walked away from him.

She looked round and said, “Yes, Father?”

“What was that you said the other day about a pigeon?” her father asked.

“A pigeon, Father?”

“You said Aleph took a pigeon with him. Has that come back?”

“No, Father. That hasn't come back either.”

Resh said no more, but Beth could see that he was thinking of her brother as much as she was.

As Beth moved off toward the gateway her eyes wandered round the courtyard, and she wondered what secrets were here that women were not allowed to see. Stones being fitted to make a wall—no great secret about that. A great tapering obelisk with a pointed top, lying on its side, but empty of any decoration or inscription. The hole in the ground seemed more interesting: judging by the length of rope needed to haul up the baskets from the bottom it must be deep. She edged toward it and peered down the square shaft through solid rock. A well? What was secret about a well? Now what were the veiled hints she had heard in her family, about the old kings of Gebal being buried in deep shafts in the rock, with all their treasures? And in secret, so that no impious hand would ever be able to desecrate the place where they lay? That might be it. Did not they also kill the slaves who dug the burial chambers? She shivered a little and slipped away unobtrusively toward the gate, passing on her way something that looked like an unfinished drinking trough for a giant ass.

She was glad when she got back to the house, and felt safer. It was better, perhaps, not to be a slave. She changed her dress and combed out her hair only just in time, because her aunt looked into the room.

“Where have you been all the morning, Miss?” asked her aunt suspiciously.

“Oh, dressing, and looking after my pigeons,” replied Beth carelessly, plying the Cretan comb decorated with dolphins, a present from Nun after one of his trips.

“Is that all?” sniffed her aunt, still suspicious.

“Oh, I saw that Father got his dinner.”

“Well, now,” exclaimed her aunt, “I do believe you are beginning to grow more thoughtful! As long as you don't take it into your head to go off in the street alone.”

“Auntie!” Beth protested, making round eyes. “As if I would!”

Her aunt left the room. As if I'd take it into my head to go into the street, thought Beth. As if I'd take it into my head to climb the mountain! As if I'd take it into my head to lead an army across the desert! As if I'd take it into my head to go to Knossos and see the Queen! As if I'd take it into my head to fly away like my pigeons! As if I would! She threw her little hand-mirror on to the floor, but the polished bronze merely clanged and bounced, and she picked it up and put it on the bed with her comb.

She went and joined her aunt and cousins at the midday meal, and listened to them chattering on about who had just had a baby, and the troublesome ways of slaves.

Beth slept in the hot afternoon, awoke still feeling cross, and occupied herself with some little pots of cosmetics Nun had brought her from Egypt. But she soon got bored with altering the shape of her eyes and climbed on to the wall again. It was empty of pigeons. She looked around the sky. There were flocks of birds over the sea that might be hers, or they might be seagulls. There were others circling high in the evening sky. She picked up a long bamboo wand with a piece of rag on the end and began to wave it to attract the pigeons' attention. How she wished she could whistle like the man across the road who also kept pigeons. Several flocks of different sizes were coming in from the coast and circling over the city, and she tried to make out her own flight with its pair of pure-white birds. Then she remembered, there would only be one white bird. The other was still in the mountains with Aleph. One flock circled lower, and she went on waving; then she stopped to scatter some grain over the roof—just enough to lure them home. They were supposed to find their own food among some country bumpkin's crops: her father would not allow her a lot of good food to be spared from the kitchen.

The birds were fluttering around her and settling on her shoulders. She pushed some off, and offered her favorites palmfuls of grain, speaking to them as they cooed to her. “There you are, Midnight. Had a nice day?” she asked the black one. “Get off, Rocky!” she said to a brown one. “I fed you yesterday!” The white one came and perched on her hand. “Ah, my Lady Snowy, where is your husband? Still up in the mountain with that foolish brother of mine? What are they up to together, eh? Well, why don't you go and fetch him back? You've got wings, you can go where you like! If I were you I'd be searching the mountains, right up to the peaks where there's snow the color of you. Coo? Well, what's the use of

The red sun was dropping toward the sea, the birds were settling on their perches, and it was time for her father to return for his evening meal.

Resh was cross and silent at supper. When Aunt asked him why he was not eating he snapped that he felt something was eating
and when Beth asked him sympathetically what it was, he said it was worry, worry, worry, and nothing but worry. He said it had not been like this in the old days; you just got on with your job then and work was a pleasure. But now it was rush and bustle all the time, finish a new temple here, make a tomb there, enlarge the palace somewhere else. And you could not rely on anyone either: the workmen were lazy and incompetent, timber got lost in the mountains, and even the stone they worked was not what it used to be. He Did Not Know What the Times Were Coming to!

“And to cap it all—” Resh began to say, before a mouthful stopped him (Help! Beth thought, he's going to tell Aunt what I did this morning), “To cap it all there's going to be an offering.” The women were silent, wagging their heads sympathetically.

BOOK: The 22 Letters
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