Hetephras limped from her pallet to the door of her house like an old arthritic monkey. She pulled aside the linen curtain and squinted to the east. Scents of the unfurling day met her nostrils. Sour emmer wheat from the temple fields. The subtler aroma of new-cut barley. Distant Nile water, brown-rich and brackish. And even at this early hour, someone fried onions for the Osiris Feast.
The old priestess's eyes were almost entirely opaque now. Though a physician had offered to restore her sight with his needle treatment, Hetephras was content to view the world through the tawny clouds with which the gods had afflicted her; in exchange they had endowed her other senses with greater clarity. Out of timeworn habit she raised her head again to the east, and for a moment imagined that she saw the beacon fires burning in Amun's Great Temple far across the river. But the curtains fell across her sight again, as they always did, and the flames burnt themselves out.
She pitied herself for a moment, because as priestess in the Place of Truth she could no longer clearly view the treasures wrought in her village -- decorations for the tombs of pharaohs, queens, and nobles that were the sole industry of her village of artists; pieces that lived for a smattering of days in the light of the sun, then were borne to the Great Place, brought into the tomb, and sealed beneath the sand and rock in darkness forever.
Hetephras unbent her thin, bony spine, firmly banishing self-pity. She was priestess and had to perform the inauguration rites for the Feast of Osiris that morning. At Osiris Time, the hour for speaking with the gods was at the very moment when the sun rose, for it was then that the membrane separating this life and the next was at its most fragile, when the dead left their vaults to gaze upon the distant living city of Thebes, girded for festival.
Though she had been a priestess for over twenty years, Hetephras had never seen any shape or spirit among the dead, as others said they had. She was an unsubtle woman who took her joy from the simple verities of ritual, tradition, and work. She believed with all her heart the stories of the gods, and put it down to a fault in herself that never once had they revealed themselves to her. Her husband, Djutmose, had been the spiritual one in the family, having been the tomb-makers' priest when he married her. When he died in the eleventh year of Pharaoh's reign, the villagers chose Hetephras to continue his duties; they had seen no reason to search elsewhere.
Hetephras sighed. That was many years ago. Soon her own Day of Pain would come, as it must to all living things, and she would be taken to lie beside Djutmose and their son in their own small tomb. Perhaps it was only the morning breezes that made her shiver.
She limped to a large chest in her sleeping room. On its lid, flowers of ivory and glass paste entwined, while voles and crows of pear wood worried the curling grapevines of turquoise and agate. It had been made by her husband. In addition to his priestly duties, Djutmose had been a maker of cupboards, caskets, and boxes for Pharaoh, and he had fashioned these simple images knowing they would please his simple wife. She cherished this casket now above all else she owned; it would be buried with her.
From this chest Hetephras plucked her priestess garb: a sheath of linen, white; pectoral of woven wire, gilded; and a bright blue wig of raffia fibers in the shape of vulture wings. Then she carefully packed the oil and sweetmeats the gods so loved into an alabaster chalice. Thus attired and burdened, she waited at her stoop for Rami, the son of the chief scribe. It was Rami who had been appointed to guide her to the shrines on these feast days.
But there was no sign of the boy. Hetephras stood waiting patiently for him, skin prickling against the cool air of morning. Her thick wig made a comfortable pillow as she leaned against the doorframe. Her eyes closed, just for a moment...and the old lady was carried away into nodding forgetfulness by the quiet and the breezes. She was brought awake again by the subtle warming of her skin.
A Man Called Intrepid author dies aged 89(Dec 03 2013) William Stevenson, a journalist and author who drew on his close ties with intelligence sources to write two best-selling books in the 1970s, A Man Called...