She looked around, startled, sniffing the air. Irritation and panic made her heart beat faster. It was fast becoming full dawn! She would miss the appointed time for the offering! The gods would blame her, and in turn would become churlish with their blessings.
Damn Rami! Where was he? Sleeping with the shroud-weaver Mentu's little slut, no doubt. She had heard them together before, her ears keen to catch their shared laughter and, later, their moans. The youngsters of the village often used the empty stable next to Hetephras's house as a trysting place -- as did some of the adults. The old priestess murmured dismally to herself that a generation of sluggards and whores was poised to inherit Egypt.
Hetephras decided to go alone to the Osiris shrine. It was the most distant of all the shrines and chapels she tended, and when she thought of the effort it would cost her, half-blind as she was, her heart thumped with fresh anger toward Rami.
Damn him! She would give him a tongue-lashing in front of his parents, that's what she would do -- in front of the whole village!
This satisfying thought propelled the old woman up the narrow avenue as if she were young again. So what if Rami were not with her! Didn't she know the Great Place better than anyone? She had traveled between the shrine and her home every Osiris Day for almost a quarter of a century; she would find her way. But as she passed through the northern gate, Khepura's voice called out to her.
"Hetephras -- you're not thinking of going up to the Osiris shrine by yourself, are you? You, who can't see a cubit in front of your face."
"The rite must be performed, Khepura, and I've no time to wait." The smell of onions was stronger, and the squinting Hetephras could almost see the dark form of her neighbor bending low over an outside griddle. "Rami never came to fetch me this morning, wicked boy."
"Then I'll go with you." Khepura's voice was insistent, as always. Wife to the goldsmith Sani, she had been chosen head woman of the tomb-makers' village in the last election. To everyone's regret, she had become quickly used to the habit of command. "I've gotten enough of the feast organized here for the servants to take over. I'll just get my shawl. It's brisk this morning." She turned to go back into the village.
"No time, Khepura, no time -- the gods will not wait! And you're so fat, you'll only slow me down!" The old priestess hurried on impatiently, leaving Khepura to sputter ineffective protests.
The path up the Gate of Heaven was narrow, bounded on either side by limestone chips. The bright shards, remnants from carved-out tombs, served to prevent the unwary traveler from straying too far to the edge, where a sheer drop of some twenty cubits waited. By keeping to the center of the path, Hetephras was able to ascend quickly. Near the crest of the pathway, however, a cascade of stones suddenly blocked her way.
"These were never here before," Hetephras thought in wonder, curious not to have heard the stones tumble in the night. All the tomb-makers were keenly alert to the sounds of shifting rock. Landslides had been known to bury the village -- along with many of the villagers -- in distant eras.
Hetephras edged forward and gingerly felt her way across the unfamiliar heap of stones. She looked up toward the sky, fearing that the time for the ritual was long past. But she felt no light on her face; it was as dark as ever on this side of the mountain.
She thought again of Rami, how he should be helping her, and muttered aloud, "I wish my husband could see how this pathway has been neglected, and how children no longer heed their elders." She pulled herself forward across the heap of rubble. The irregular limestone rocks shifted beneath her feet. Hetephras steadied herself, then took a step forward. Another few cubits and she would attain the smooth, narrow path once again. She placed a sandaled toe tentatively upon a rock and took a tiny leap --
Copyright © 2005 by Brad Geagley
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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