THE CITY OF QU-STUL THE KINGDOM OF TA-SET
Qalhatta stood in the middle of the temple sick house – a large open columned hall with walls wearing bright paintings of scenes depicting the king fighting in battle and performing rituals to the goddess. In the spaces between the columns lining the perimeter of the sick house were royal statutes holding jars of oil in their hands as a reminder to the goddess and the people of their eternal piety. Pennants fluttered from tall wooden flagstaffs placed in tall niches, a symbol of the presence of the goddess.
The sick house was surrounded by a series of gateways, separating a number of courtyards and halls but its space was clear, an uncluttered link between the goddess and the humans who streamed through the carved archways of the temples on a daily basis to seek healing. The people sat with their hands between their thighs, listening with rapt attention as Qalhatta’s voice rang out across the hall.
“People of Qu-stul, I offer to you for the healing and prosperity of the land my powers as bestowed upon me by the goddess….”
Somewhere at the back of the large assembly, a baby began to cry, interrupting Qalhata’s speech. Heads, blackened, gray, and in their hundreds, spun towards the source of the distraction, reddened eyes shooting warning darts at the teenage mother of the sick child. Qalhata waited as the mother quieted her crying child. Again the hall grew quiet, and she continued.
“Though the goddess has chosen to make me like herself, I am of this land and share your blood and your pain. Let your hearts rejoice people of Qu-stul, for your diseases the goddess has taken upon herself.”
The people bowed their heads to the floor and pushed forward their offerings to the goddess.
“Hotep netjert em shabu en emenet her iabyt”
May the goddess be satisfied with the offerings, to the right and to the left
Then Qalhata began her invocation, reciting in a strong voice the chant of all goddesses before her.
“The eyes of the goddess watch over us. They are the bright light and the warmth of the sun. They shine golden with the sun as crown upon their heads. At the goddess command, the earth gives and takes, protect and destroy, wound and heal. Hail eternal flame and light of truth, I invoke you in this hour, let your power heal and cleanse the land of its pain.”
The people raised their voices in unison again.
“Hotep netjert em shabu en emenet her iabyt”
Immediately the voices died down, two women stepped out from the shadows of the columns. One was Qalhata’s first maiden Neb-Het and the other was Neferet, the new initiate who had only just joined the temple at the last festival of the goddess. Together, the women helped Qalhata, holding in quaint small hands, clay pots of herbs from which Qalhata occasionally administered a putrice to infected wounds and fished out remedies for the maladies infecting the throng in the sick room.
The sun had begun to settle in the west when Qalhata attended to the last of the sick. Led by the stooping forms of her maidens, she walked down the path across the processional way of the temple with jackal headed sphinxes, to the square stone enclosure that was her quarters. Inside the large room with a bed of wood made by the finest artisans in the land, vats containing scented oils and a hand carved chaise with elaborately inlaid decorations of graceful animal figures featuring feline claws, her maidens helped her disrobe, taking apart the fine linen that covered her, leaving her in an undergarment of the flimsiest silk.
Curling into the chaise, she threw her head back on the wool covered headboard and closed her eyes, the notes from Neferet’s flute lulling her to sleep. Neb-Het sat at the foot of the chaise, administering oils to the soles of Qalhata’s feet. In spite of the ministrations of her maidens, Qalhata’s mind was full of thoughts, many of which bordered on the need for a consort and she found herself conscious of her surroundings several minutes after Neferet had begun her music. Opening her eyes, she watched Neferet’s finger caress the slim body of the reed flute in her hand.
The flute falling quickly from small downward-turned lips, Neferet bowed before Qalhata.
A smile curved Qalhata’s lips and pride marked her face, sloughing off traces of false humility the rest of the land saw when she stood before them. Qalhata relished the power that came with her position, especially the worship of her subjects.
“Are you still a child?”
Neferet shook her bowed head, the dull white of linen dress shaking with her movement.
Qalhata’s darkened eyebrows drew together.
“So you see the moon blood then?”
“Yes goddess,” Neferet answered, a hint of pride in her voice, “since the last moon.”
Eyes narrowing, Qalhata’s gaze swept over Neferet’s figure. It was full and curvy under her shapeless dress.
“And you have known the ways of men?”
Neferet’s voice dropped to a whisper.
Giggling broke out from the foot of the chaise. Qalhata shot Neb-Het a look of reproach and her first maiden bowed, hand flying to her mouth to contain her laughter.
Qalhata turned again to Neferet.
“You cannot give me what I seek then,” she said, her tone playful and relaxed.
Neferet’s head lifted a fraction.
“What is it my goddess seeks?”
Qalhata flicked her thick curly hair to the side.
“Advice Neferet.” Her eyes settled on a distant object and she frowned. “The time has come for me to pick a consort from the men of Qu-stul. I am yet to find any worthy.”
“If the goddess permit, I may speak of the men of my country.”
Qalhata’s eyes focused on Neferet. An indulgent smile appeared on her face. She waved a slim hand at her new maiden.
“Rise Neferet. Speak.”
Lifting her head, Neferet began to speak, regaling Qalhata and Neb-Het with stories of her life in the country of Eshunna which laid to the East of the great rivers of the land. She spoke of warriors with strong arms and midnight black eyes. Fingers coiled around the strands of her waist length hair as her eyes dimmed with memories of her place of birth. In the end, she blinked to see a pensive look on Qalhata’s face.
“Eshunna,” Qalhata said, upper lip curled in distaste. “Do not your men raid the mountains of this country? Do they not pierce through the heels of our maidens with their hot irons to break their will and make slaves of them?”
Neferet’s face fell. Her head bowed again.
“May the goddess forgive the sins of the men of my country.”
Qalhata said nothing, watching her new maiden through narrowed eyes. She wondered about her oversight. How could she have forgotten to ask the old man who had brought Neferet about the country of her birth? The sign from the goddess had been clear, the people of Eshunna were her enemies.
“Forgive goddess,” Neferet said again, her figure growing smaller as she leaned closer to the ground.
Qalhata drew in a deep breath.
The maiden rose again, swaying as she did. Hands clasped before her, she watched the scrubbed earth underneath her feet, wondering if she had gotten in trouble with the goddess. Her heart sank inside her. Her uncle would be displeased.
Watch Neferet that you do not offend. The destiny of our people lies in your hand.
Leaning back into the soft wool of the chaise, Qalhata raised her eyes to the flat roof of her room and tried to summon pleasurable thoughts – like how the body of a consort would warm her bed. The sound of running feet soon disrupted her fantasies. It was Heru, the keeper of the gates. His dark face was lined with worry as he fell at the stone steps of Qalhata’s room before Neb-Het who had gone to receive him.
“Tell the goddess,” he said, words coming out in gasps as his chest heaved, “tell the goddess that the men from across the great river are here again. Tell her that they gather at the feet of Ahmose.”
Neb-Het and Neferet had quickly thrown over Qalhata’s undergarment the full regalia of her office, falling over themselves in their hurry. Her staff carried by the servant of the temple, Qalhata left the temple, walking through the lower gateway at the western end that was the path of the goddess. Outside the temple, children played among the tall grasses of papyrus at the bank of the great river, their delighted squeals mingling with the sounds of the approaching evening. The sounds were silenced when the people spied Qalhata moving in their direction. One by one, they fell to their faces and paid obeisance.
“a’ nekh djet.”
Qalhata found them at the stone quay of the river, dozens in number, turbaned and dark eyed. Ahmose stood among them, long hair wild and cascading down his shoulders. His muscular body glistened with droplets of water, evoking lust and irritation in Qalhata.
“He tells them,” Heru whispered, the size of his eyes exaggerated in his small head as they watched the crowd at the quay, “he tells them that the consorts of the goddesses are by themselves gods, not lesser than the goddesses but greater. He invites chaos to the land!”
Qalhata watched, still as a statute. She saw him as he had stood before her, several moons ago on that night, livid with rage as he had cursed her for taking part in the rites. Her heart hardened.
Beside Qalhata, another heart was waking, opening like the petals of a flower to the stirrings of love within. Neferet stared at the man whose legend spanned the upper and lower kingdoms of Ta-Set. It was said that love had made him mad, that it had caused him to abandon the majestic halls of his father’s palace for the rough company of sea faring men and invaders.
Neferet had dreamed about him, weaving fantasies around his name and birthing children for him in her head. Now she stood in awe, beside her goddess, her belly quivering at the thought of owning the man who stood in the midst of her countrymen. She mused about the legend.
Who was this woman whose love had caused him to run mad?
Ahmose turned towards them. Neferet’s breath caught in her throat. His eyes were not the wild eyes of a mad man. They were the eyes of a man born to seduce the purest of maidens. Quickly folding her hands, she lowered her gaze. A thought formed in her head.
She knew at once that he was the one for her. Standing above them on the quay, Ahmose looked down, but it was not at Neferet he looked. It was at Qalhata.
She returned his gaze.
Hate for hate.
LEKKI PHASE ONE,
JANUARY 19, 2015
The cars are the same. Black clones of metal beauty put together in some plant in Germany or U.S. I don’t know which, all I know is the ones who work here have expensive taste. I look away from the cars as a sudden rush of humid air makes me regret my fashion choice of blazer and flounce dress. I approach the steps of the building and suddenly feel the need to look up. High above me, behind a wall of glass, are a pair of familiar cold eyes. A feeling of déjà vu swamps me and I feel my steps slow down.
Why does it feel like this has happened before?
I frown to mask my confusion and return the icy intensity of his gaze before tearing my eyes away. The reception is quiet when I walk into it, the air cloaked with an assortment of expensive scents. The receptionist, armed with a ready smile, points me towards the half circle of leather and glass after I state word for word the contents of my conversation with Mr. Harry the previous weekend.
“He just got in,” she says, pink nails placed strategically on the top of her computer monitor. “So he is in a small meeting right now.”
I thank her effusively and pick a fresh copy of Guardian newspaper to leaf through. My eyes scan a multitude of information that hang around the periphery of my brain and dissipate at the intimidating vortex of insurance related information. Every now and then, the glass doors to the inner offices swing open, revealing a uniformed cleaner and I crane my neck with enough class as I can muster to spy the secret society beyond the door. Except for small glimpses of white washed walls, I gain nothing from my efforts.
Abandoning the newspaper, I settle for my phone, skipping aimlessly from my social media pages and assimilating little. Finally, the reception intercom rings and my attention is riveted to the reception desk. After minutes of inaudible mumbling, the receptionist gives me another of her toothpaste advert worthy smiles.
“He will see you now.”
Directions are issued in a crisp, efficient manner. I thank the receptionist, suck in my stomach and walk through the code operated automatic door that slides open, excited at the possibility of recording my first success of the week. The excitement dies as soon as the door closes behind me. Overwhelmed by the sight of the long passage with glass doors, polished wood and shiny silver door handles, I suffer the most crippling amnesia. I turn back in panic and frown at the closed door. What were the instructions again?
Walk straight down, the third door on your right?
Walk straight down, the fourth door on your left?
I put a hesitant foot forward, and then another until I find myself walking down the passage. The first two offices are occupied by three men – two of whom are inspecting something on a desk, and one of whom is talking into a white receiver clasped to his ear. They all look up when I walk past. I give them a polite nod and smile. The two men return my gesture while the man on the phone frowns quizzically. I quicken my steps, suddenly recalling the correct directions.
The fourth door on your left.
Mr. Harry is reclining in a high back chair behind a large desk in the fourth office, eyes fixed on the passage. He smiles and waves me in. He has company.
“How are you Irima,” he says when I walk into the office of black and muted grays. The office is bigger than the other offices. I briefly take in the shelf holding a volume of hard cover books sitting to his left and the sofas on his right before the profile of the second man turning towards me commands my attention. It is the last person I want to see.
“Mr. Eleojo,” Mr. Harry says, pointing with a smile to the man turned to me, hands in his pockets. Every single muscle in my body tightens.
“Luke,” he says simply. It is a reproach, one that Mr. Harry misses, but it is for me anyway.
I nod coolly. “Good morning.”
“Please sit down,” Mr. Harry says, waving me to the chairs at his desk. I pick the chair farthest from Luke.
“I was just telling Mr. Eleojo about your call.”
I force a smile.
I sit with my tight smile, hoping to be relieved of Luke’s unwelcome presence, but after minutes of awkward silence, I resign myself to the inevitable fate of sharing my space with the scowling man beside me.
“As I said on the phone last week, I am aware that your company is underwritten by foreign reinsurers but I believe we can come in where your local capacity is concerned.”
A scoff unsettles me. I turn to see a smirk on the face of the man I hate for no reason.
“I already told you when you called,” he says, his tone flat and unfriendly, “we don’t need your services.”
I look back at Mr. Harry. There is an uncomfortable look on his face.
“Luke, give them a chance.”
Pushing away from Mr. Harry’s desk and walking a few steps back so that he faced the desk, Luke shakes his head.
“I am sorry but I am not with you on this.”
“Don’t you get it Harry? The prices are at an all time low.” Irritation cut an edge into Luke’s voice. “You think the government cares who is underwriting us?”
“They do actually.”
An insidious smile on his face, Luke shakes his head.
“No they don’t, and if we have any sense, we shouldn’t either, not at this moment.”
“Fine,” Mr. Harry says, surprising and disappointing me with his reasonable tone. He was the boss after all. Why couldn’t he tell Luke off?
I listen distractedly as Mr. Harry continues to be the voice of reason.
“I understand your position. I just think we should hear her out first before we decide if we want her company or not. NAICOM is pretty serious about the local capacity policy.”
Cold eyes settle on me. I meet them boldly, snarling with dislike at him inside my head.
“Please go on Irima.”
I pick up from where I left, reeling off knowledge imparted through months of training and company record of successes crammed through frequent repetition. It all comes to an end when Luke after exchanging a look with Mr. Harry decides he has had enough.
“I am still not convinced we need your services,” he tells me with a slight shake of his head. Then to Mr. Harry, he turns and says,
“See you at two.”
Crushed by disappointment and annoyance, I sit stiffly under the shade of Mr. Harry’s apologetic smile and do my best to project a confidence I did not feel.
“Sorry about that.”
Mr. Harry ties Luke’s behaviour to the losses suffered by the company in recent weeks. I pretend to understand and when I can’t pretend anymore, I ask the question that has troubled me for the past ten minutes.
“Is he the one that gets to decide if you use our company?”
The face across the desk is suddenly full of regret and resignation.
I drop my smile and fumble with the strap of my bag. My plan had not gone as smoothly as I had thought it would. Mr. Harry was not the boss.
“But don’t worry, he will get around.”
I leave Mr. Harry’s office with more promises. There would be other calls, he assures me, tapping my shoulder at the door. The receptionist is still full of good cheer when I walk past her in the reception.
“Byeee,” she says, wriggling her pink nails at me.
“Byeee,” I echo, empty and hollow inside.
I rock back and forth in my chair, my eyes on the ceiling. The strains of the guitar coming from the computer speakers die down and I think of the conversation with Harry this afternoon.
I don’t get it Luke. The way you acted in the office this morning. I don’t understand it.
What is so hard to understand? We don’t need local underwriters. A lot of these companies do not have the capital base to underwrite our assets. The naira is falling. You think I am going to leave a company that pays premium in dollars for one that does in naira?
And you don’t think our assets in the country need to be insured?
I am not saying that.
So what are you saying?
Look, let’s not talk about this.
Is it the girl? You seem to have something against her.
I don’t like her.
I pull away from my chair, lean forward and straighten the neckline of my white T-shirt. Inches away from me, the smiling face of my fiancée conveys a contentment I envy, one I do not feel. I pick the portrait from the table and look into the immaculately done face.
Why am I doing this?
Minutes of self flagellation produce no answers. I return the portrait to its place and hang my head. The truth haunts me.
I am not ready.
My demons return in full force. I call my best friend Jude for help. He has the right answers ready.
“I will call them. What’s your spec like today?”
I look into my fiancee’s eyes, at the smooth chocolate brown of her face.
“Light skinned maybe, a little heavy up and down too.”
Nothing like Bukky.
I sit with the shadows of the shelves after the call with Jude.
I will be at his house in Banana Island in thirty minutes. There will be the girl with the name of an American movie star. I will pretend to be interested in her course at some university in the country. There would be sex and the parting of money. I would crawl home to Bukky, hating myself for my unfaithfulness.
It is a vicious cycle. I am lost to it.
A thousand headlights flood my vision when I step out of Mrs. Shehu’s car. Squinting against the lights, I close the door of the passenger side and wave at my supervisor. She waves back, eyes crinkling behind her glasses.
“See you tomorrow.”
The street is overflowing with humans. Mama Sunday, the akara seller is out in full force, attending to the crowd gathered in front of her wide silver tray and barking at her teenage daughter over something. The mallams are not left out. Young men wearing different colours of football jerseys, smoke in front of their stalls, arguing loudly in broken English about English premier league clubs. I walk through the commotion, enjoying the familiar smells and sounds. The sounds fall back as I approach the dark end of the street. Here the houses are silent, their windows darker. A sudden chill sweeps the air and I wrap my arms around myself to fight it. I draw close to the T-junction that leads off the street to my own street and stop when my eyes make out the slightly stooped form of a woman standing next to an electricity pole. A hand moves out of the surrounding darkness towards me.
The voice is raspy. I know immediately that she is old.
I want to turn away from the voice but my feet are planted firmly to the ground.
I wipe my clammy hands on my skirt and begin to ask the old woman what she wants.
“Walk…I want to walk to my house.”
I quell the feeling of fear and step towards the shadows where she is. Standing next to her, I regret my earlier misgivings when I see how haggard she is. Her dress is tattered and hangs off her bony frame. She takes the hand I offer and thanks me. Her grip is surprisingly firm. She tells me her house is at the opposite end of the street.
I turn away from home and back to the way I had come, her hand in my own. We walk in silence for a few seconds and then she asks where I live. I point over my head in the direction of my house.
“Somewhere down the other side.”
“Ah,” is all she says.
I turn in that instant and we lock eyes. The startling brightness of her eyes throws me off balance. The youth and vitality in their depths is in stark contrast to her aged withered form. Soon we stop before a house she says is her own. A few meters away, Mama Sunday is yelling at her customers.
Oga you say na how much you want?
Make I put kpomo abi make I put fish?
I wave goodnight at the old woman as she walks through the gate of the house. She says something but it is lost in the racket around us. Turning back, I begin to make my way home but I am once again frozen and unable to move. A nagging thought disturbs me.
The men standing in front of the old woman’s house, why had they not acknowledged her when she walked past?
Why had they looked through her like she wasn’t there?
Plagued by these questions, I retrace my steps back to the old woman’s house. The men are still standing in front of the gate, their voices raised to a shout as they converse. I wave at the one that turns towards me.
The others turn to me, mild interest on their faces. The first man is pot bellied, balding and middle aged. It is him who addresses me.
I tell them about the old woman. They exchange glances and shake their heads at me.
“Nobody like that lives here.”
I feel my blood run cold.
“Nobody like that lives here,” the first man repeats, conviction on his face.
I thank the men and hurry away. On the way, I join a laughing group of women wearing head scarves. Occasionally they burst into hymns, clapping and waving the Bibles in their hands with religious fervour. I keep my eyes on the back of the women, refusing to look at the electricity pole at the T-junction. I am relieved when we turn into my street. Abandoning the women, I quicken my steps home. The living room is full of happy laughter when I walk into the living room. My mother remarks on my lateness but I am too occupied by the events of the evening to give a cogent answer. In my bedroom, I climb into bed and stare at the door.
I just walked a ghost home.
The hour of worship had passed. The guards moved about in their numbers, approaching the light at the throne. The ones from the third realm bowed towards the glittering marble and made their report. They had left her in the care of three others. No one had known when she made her escape. The Great Spirit listened, compassion flowed from the throne.
“She seeks revenge.”
None said anything. Together they contemplated it. A soul that had found completion in the last existence had found its way back to the last realm. It was against the law. The light burned at the throne and the Great Spirit issued a command.
“Let it be, until the appointed hour!”
All heads in the throne room bowed and the matter was no more contemplated.
I lie under her, pinned and helpless. Above me, her eyes burn with hatred and bloodlust. I know the end is here and strangely I am not afraid. I yearn to touch her even as she lifts the knife high above her head to strike me. Sadness fills me. It is her I love, not the one I call wife, but her.
“You transgress the laws of the lands,” she snarls, lips pulling back to expose clenched teeth. “You ask of gods from the consorts.”
The blow is swift. I jerk with the force of it, my hand going to my side to grab the blade. I feel a rush of warmth as the blade slices through my palm.
“Die, you son of darkness.”
Her face starts to blur. I look up at the gathering darkness in the sky and take a deep breath. I know it will be my last.
I jerk up in bed, my heart beating wildly in my chest. Turning sideways, I find Bukky at the other end of the bed, still and in deep sleep. I throw back the sheets and leave the bed for the bathroom. Standing before the bathroom mirror, I pull up my shirt, half expecting to find an open wound but I find only the brown slash of my birthmark. I trace its jagged edges, wondering why it throbbed.
Dropping my hands from my body, I lean into the sink and splash water on my face. As the cold water cools my skin, I reassure myself of my sanity.
No Luke, you are not running mad. It’s just a dream, like the rest.
Behind the house, a form stepped out of the shadows cast by a tree. It was an old woman. Her eyes were fixed on the windows of the bathroom above her. She watched silently, a tear running down her wrinkled cheek. The wind shifted and her spine suddenly straightened. The old rags fell away and her skin took on the elasticity of youth. Long mahogany hair fell to her back. The light in her eyes burned through the night and her nails dug into the tree. Her lips parted slowly and she whispered.
Umari Ayim is the author of ‘Twilight at Terracotta Indigo’ and ‘Inside my Head’ both winners of the 2011 ANA NDDC Flora Nwapa prize and 2012 Poetry prize respectively.
Umari blogs at www.umariayim.com and tweets from @umariayim
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