After the final moult, adult bugs emerge in the desert: mealybugs, green lacewings, gall madges that eat their mothers from the inside out, cornborers; hornworms, bean beetles, ladyclocks.
The priests open the secret windows of the tombs.
One priest cries: Look, the birds ...
The sky fills with birds: the birds that are spirits of people who chase the sun, spirits of the people who died today, spirit soul birds; birds of the eagle class, hawks with a whip, bread birds, bennu birds, birds that are right and true, mutilated birds of Ethiopia, loons and boobies; birds that fly upside down, birds that cannot fly but walk on the ground.
The priests pour water, drink water, throw water. A silence. Then, suddenly-the sky bangs open: the Boat of Millions of Years sails through the ozone; the all-powerful Prophet Boat that brings freedom; on the poop stands the Admiral. The Boat comes to a stop at the landing-place, floating on the river. The Admiral approaches the priests. The Priests kneel.
Priests: Welcome, sire. Welcome to the black land.
The sun has lingered-now it sinks, vanishes, leaving the sky behind it.
A procession of beggars; one man holding papers to present to the Chamber of Commerce; the Photographer; the Writer; Boy with a Monkey; a Holy Man; the Artist and his Apprentice, holding his umbrella.
Writer: I have seen the eternal. Near the tomb of Seti the First. So beautiful. In her eyes, I could see the last perfect day on earth. Just like that. It is not extraordinary that I should be attracted to such a girl. I see by your rags, sir, that you are an artist.
Artist: Yes. My apprentice and I are returning to Sheik Abdel Giourna. I have been restoring a funeral procession in one of the tombs. With respect, sir, my apprentice is able to satisfy any desire.
Writer: No, that will not be necessary. I am not a sodomite. I was once attracted to a boy in a massage parlour, but I found I could not bear his hand on my balls.
Artist: Did you know that it was at this exact spot that the earth was first described as a ball in space?
Writer: Where are we going to? I was following a beautiful girl, now I'm here.
Artist: To the black land, we go to the end of the night. A little journey by boat. Come on, I want to show you something. You must write down everything that you see.
The procession passes, the Writer and Artist join it. The Soldier wearing a tall hat (an army dancing on a death's head) watches as a cart, piled with suitcases, is pushed along.
A beautiful girl dancing, dancing to the Long Scarp of the Mountains of the Sunset. She runs to meet her father, but her father refuses to meet her. Her mother refuses to meet her, her brother refuses to meet her, her lover refuses to meet her. Her name is unknown, she has yet to arrive; she cannot buy property, money is not lent to her.
She runs through the stars. She runs around the moon. She meets Baboon. She stops. Baboon takes her hand. Baboon signals. Chairs are brought in. A shadow-screen is erected for the purposes of scientific demonstration. Baboon peels an egg.
Girl: Are you taking the Boat too?
Baboon: Yes. I am one of the few who knows the way.
Girl: Have you seen the Admiral?
Baboon: I was his section leader at the Treasury when he first began. He's come a long way since then. But tonight will be difficult. The borders are uneasy.
A beetle on the screen, then a snake-making a complete circle around the beetle.
Artist: We will now demonstrate certain defensive procedures.
The beetle sends a jet-spray into the eye of the snake, which tosses and turns violently, then disappears. The beetle scuttles to each edge of the screen, trying to find a way out.
Artist: As you can see, the beetle sends into the eye of the snake a jet of scalding chemicals which have been mixed in the separate chambers of its body.
Girl: (To Baboon) I will call you Hapi. Because you just happened to come along.
Hapi: Yes. Tonight, I will be Hapi!
Artist: A spontaneous reaction raises the temperature of the chemicals to boiling point. A pair of flanges inside the propulsive gland eject the spray a hundred times per second from the beetle into the brain of its enemy. The beetle represents the Soul. The snake represents Time. Time can also be represented as the Twelve Gods of the Mountain.
On the screen: The Twelve Gods of the Mountain.
Artist: These are the twelve hours of day.
On the screen: The twelve gods burst into flame.
Artist: And then they become the Twelve Gods of the Mountain in the Hidden Land. That is to say, the twelve hours of the night. I hope you have found this presentation useful.
The Girl and Hapi applaud. The screen is rolled away. The Admiral is standing there.
Hapi: Ah, greetings sire, oh Person Who Speaks the Truth.
Admiral: Who is she?
Hapi: Sire, she has come from a great distance to be with you tonight.
Admiral: Then she must come with us.
Hapi: There are rules, sire, about civilians on the Boat ...
Admiral: I am the captain. I have said what I have said.
Hapi: Just reminding you, sire, that you must avoid any liaison of a carnal nature or your command will be taken from you. That's the rule.
The moon rises. Birds fly across it, casting long shadows.
The Boat of Millions of Years casts off, it glides into the river. The first gate: The Burning Gate. The Admiral speaks the magic formula: HAA ... MAAA. The Boat sails through the Gate.
Procession of people who have given up and have been given up, staggering corpses, the living dead, mummy-people, indifferent, mechanical, sad. Their faces are gouged by time, their eye sockets deep; their skin is a pale grey-they are people on paper only.
Hapi: Sire, I hate this place. Their lives are short, their numbers are endless. These people are too empty to love, to suffer.
Admiral: We must not allow one drop of our blood to flow in this tormented country.
Girl: They are not humans?
Hapi: Halfway between humans and not-humans. They have been abandoned by their gods.
Admiral: People of Abydos, I address you as a soldier who remembers the cruelty of war.
The procession comes to a stop.
Admiral: Do not allow your fellow countrymen to starve; take care of the soil; be faithful to your oath to guard the state against the enemy.
Girl: Why is bread in short supply?
Hapi: A state of inertia prevails in the bakeries.
Admiral: Citizens, until you learn to look again, and to use your language, the holding of all kinds of gatherings, processions and demonstrations is banned. It is forbidden to disseminate information. Freedom of movement is curtailed. Any persons at any time may be forced to carry out various kinds of unpaid work for a period of up to seven days.
The procession moves away.
Cries: Sire! Sire! Sire! The Lake of Burning Water. Look out! Sire!
Large mirrors close around the Boat.
Hapi: Sire, we must go to Seker to pay the tax.
The travellers leave the Boat. The Girl walks with the Admiral, sheltered by monks who hold fans to shield the delicate parts of her body. A wind, their faces are lashed with small stones and sand. The travellers become lost and run in all directions, as their feet sink deeper and deeper into the black sand.
Seker waits for them, a hawk on his shoulder, on his arms are huge red wings, on his head a crown like a pyramid. Blood drips from his mouth, his eyes are white stones.
Admiral: Seker, we have come to pay the tax. When we have paid it, let us go from this land of exile and continue our journey.
Seker: It was not always like this. We could have risen up by ourselves. Didn't we show goodwill? It could have been different. You could have stayed where you were.
Admiral: You live death. What is this place? It is the warehouse of the dead. For you, the only possibility of life was death. You forgot happiness.
Seker: To do nothing is a crime. In an extreme situation, the instinct for self-preservation disappears.
Admiral: We have come to pay the tax. Take the money and let us go.
Seker: Pay the tax.
Admiral: I will declare for this land a Martial Council for National Redemption. You are not lost as long as I live.
Seker: Live? Ah. I voted for your death. Because of you we lost control of our borders, you bureaucrat!
Admiral: No, your fortress will not stand. Life here is trivial. There's nothing human about it.
Seker: Go, I don't want your shit in my ears.
Seker departs. The storm returns. The travellers cry out in their despair until, finally ...
Hapi: The river, sire! We have returned. We are safe.
The river, the Boat of Millions of Years floating on it.
Hapi: Quickly, we must sail immediately or remain in this deserted and empty place forever.
The Admiral washes the baboon's feet. As he does so, they talk about the fate of humans.
Baboon, we have travelled far. We have seen colonies where the sun never stands upright. We have seen the Dead waiting in line at waterfront sheds for a ship to call. But always I hear something else. What is that hand knocking on the stairs?
It belongs to the man who cannot be surprised. His face is wrinkled like a centipede's back. There is danger to the people should they ever hear him cry with wonder. He nails the ears of dogs to the rich man's house, so the house can hear ...
There is a voice which only the oldest parts of my body can understand. Intuition on the left is made small and indecisive by the crocodile on the right. It is impossible to look at someone and talk at the same time. When I walk, I concentrate so much on breathing I no longer know where I am going.
These are the disturbances of the sleepwalker in the sadness of the ocean, the sadness of iodine, the sadness of nitrogen, the nervous counting of stars on our fingers. This is the exile of green turtles on the equatorial current.
I no longer sense changes in atmospheric pressure. I cannot distinguish between either glass or ice entering my skin. I see cities thrown into the skies falling back as black dust over a number of days.
You are the sleepwalker. You are the master of inherent characteristics. The master of the last secret that keeps lovers together. You are the revelation of cockroaches on ground zero, watching a kind of animal disappear. Go on. Go further, you alone. The night is long. Go.
Clouds of flies. Everywhere is white.
A silent family cuts salt into blocks for export. The Admiral drags his hands across the salt. They bleed, leaving red splashes on the salt. The Girl is carried in on a chair, her face covered. The Writer scribbles in his notebook.
Soldiers rush forward with a sinner, throwing him at the feet of the Admiral.
Soldiers: Sire, this man has stolen from the graves of the ancestors, he has profaned the most sacred ground. He has raped the nuns of the temple.
Admiral: Do you have anything to say? Anything at all?
Sinner: I curse the day I was born. I curse this filthy little planet.
Admiral: You are nobody. You should live where nobody lives. Destroy his soul. He will return to us when he is dead. We will remember him as a human being, not as this bag of stink.
The soldiers force-feed salt into the mouth of the Sinner through a large funnel. The Sinner threshes about in agony and then goes still. The funnel is removed. The Sinner is guided to the centre of the salt. Everyone abandons him there.
Birds drop from the sky like kitchen knives, slashing his face, reducing the Sinner to nothing.
A chair on a platform, nine steps to the top of it. On each step: a magistrate with long, jealous fingers. Rows of boxes, letter-boxes. A constant hustle as a clerk puts slips of paper into each box.
The Artist and the Writer.
Artist: So. What have you written so far?
Writer: (Undoing his notebook with elaborate care) 'The Admiral is rather under middle height, of a spare but strong build. He has light-brown hair. On his face, short, brown stubble catches the light. His eyes are azure, deep as eternity. His high forehead reveals his intelligence. His long, straight nose reveals an impossible sensitivity. His jaw is squarely set but is not sensual.'
Artist: That's all?
Artist: Go on.
Writer: 'Tonight, we enter the headquarters of the Supreme Commander for the South. The Admiral will seek permission to travel into the northern lands. This is not a favour that is lightly bestowed. The Admiral will have to prove that he has always acted with justice, that his intentions are pure, and that he desires happiness for everyone.'
Writer and Artist exit.
The Commander, pale, glossy-lipped, in a long white sheath-dress, heeled sandals, enters alone and sits.
The Clerk opens a box, taking out the slip of paper.
Clerk: The General of Dog Troopers.
General of Dog Troopers: There is rebellion in the red lands. Seker has raised a mercenary force and we must assume his intentions are hostile. With your permission, I shall raise an army to defend us from this contagion. Once Seker is defeated, our gross national product will expand and our city will become prosperous. Once order is restored, I shall retire and the people may elect a new general from among themselves for any future emergency.
The Commander pins a medal to the General's tunic.
General: Sir, we have come a long way from the metal mines of Hammamat.
The Commander waves distractedly. The General exits.
Clerk: The Twelve Ladies of the Patriotic Society.
The Twelve Ladies of the Patriotic Society: Commander, it gives us great pleasure to present these flowers for the beginning of the Season of Going Out.
Bouquets are placed around the Commander's platform.
The Twelve Ladies of the Patriotic Society: Sir, you will remember the confusion of last year. We hope that this year, more appropriate accommodation for the laundresses will be provided.
The Commander waves distractedly. The Twelve Ladies exit.
Clerk: The Holy Man.
The Holy Man enters twisting and turning on stilts, then stops, but stays silent.
Holy Man: I cannot. I am sworn to silence.
Holy Man: Sir, I had a good home. Then I left. I walked in a straight line. Then I walked in a circle. I came to a vast emptiness. I said, I will make a thing and fill this vacuum. But when I picked up stones, the stones leapt from my hands. When I picked up sticks, the sticks beat me and then flew away. I am not supposed to talk. In this way, I deny the reality of my physical body.
Clerk: What do you want?
Holy Man: Permission to re-enter life. I want to walk and dance and sing and shit like normal people do.
After a silence, the Commander waves distractedly. The Holy Man exits.
Clerk: The Twelve Professors of the College of Agriculture!
The Twelve Professors enter, pushing a barrow of black dirt. They show large seeds which they bury in the dirt. They sprinkle water. Silence.
The Professors show a jar of dust which they then sprinkle on the dirt.
Plants shoot up, bearing huge ears of corn.
The Commander waves. The Clerk presents medals to the Twelve Professors who then exit.
Clerk: The Admiral of the Boat of Millions of Years and his baboon request the ceremony of Proof of a Pure Heart.
The Admiral and Hapi enter. The Clerk sets up scales. The Commander comes down from the platform and on one scale, places a feather. The Commander is excited. The Admiral removes his shirt. The Commander tears out his heart and places it on the other scale. After a long moment, the scales balance exactly. The Commander exits. The Clerk sews the heart back into the Admiral with a large thorn.
Clerk: Permission is granted to travel over the frontier into the northern lands. Congratulations. The Supreme Commander hopes your journey will prove to be inevitable, economic and unpredictable. You may go. Go further than any man has gone before. Good night.
The Court of the Supreme Commander dissolves. Fog. Sound of the Boat of
Millions of Years setting sail. The starry sky grows slightly pale, like a
photograph of sparks in a white frame, growing smaller. A gate.
Huge gates made from poles and barbed wire. A white-faced woman with her harpoonists.
The Admiral, Hapi and the Girl enter. The harpoonists surround them.
Woman: What brings you here so softly in the night?
Admiral: I must pass through all these gates.
Woman: I can see you go to extremes. Are you married? Is this your wife?
Admiral: No. She's just a girl.
Woman: (Dancing) Join us. We're a happy family here. Look, my eyes painted with galena, my hands painted with henna. Look, my arm bracelet of felspar. Kiss it. Kiss my bracelet of olivine and peridot. That's not so hard is it? Look. My necklace of amethysts. (As she speaks, she takes off clothes.) Oh, my shoulders cleansed with salts of natron and alabastron. My skin perfumed with cardamoms and galbanums. Yes, my thighs rubbed with cinnamon. Kiss me, kiss my ankle bracelet of sard and jasper.
The Admiral bends to kiss the ankle bracelet. The harpoonists come forward and hold him down with their spears. The Woman becomes hard, like her mineral accessories.
Woman: You'll never leave. You're weak. You'll stay with us, you pig. Yes, you are a pig.
The Girl unbinds her rope, she dances with the Woman, wildly, attacking with her rope. Hapi fights with the harpoonists.
Hapi: Anopheles come, holy mosquitos of the divine punishment, come.
The air fills with mosquitos. They attack the harpoonists, driving them off
into the trees where they stumble into the darkness, never to be released. The
Woman emits smoke, then a shower of flames and transforms into a shitbird, a
vulture. Screeching, the bird flies away.
Hapi swings the gate open. The Admiral and the Girl start to go through. Hapi stops the Girl.
Hapi: Sorry, sire. The girl must remain on this side. She belongs elsewhere. You have other work to do. She is, well, sire, she is alive.
Admiral: Who is she? You never said ...
Hapi: Close, sire, she is very close to you. You've got all the same bits, inside-the code, sire.
Hapi: Close, sire. Let's just say 'close'. We must return to the ship. Twelve sailors waiting with their twelve oars raised, ready to race, sire, out of here, into tomorrow. That's your duty. The restoration of the sun. This is the, well, it's called The Vestibule to the World of Light. I think we should go.
The Admiral looks back once and then departs.
The Writer, followed by the Artist. The Artist embraces the Girl, then turns to the Writer.
Artist: This is as far as we go. It's the end of the trip for us.
Writer: You mean ... ?
Artist: Yes. This is Sheik Abdel Giourna. I mentioned, I think, that I have been restoring a funeral procession in one of the tombs. With respect, sir, my apprentice ...
Writer: Her? She is ...
Writer: Not a boy?
Artist: Ha ha. Disguised for the journey. I'm sure you will agree, a tiring trip, dangerous. But you will have made notes ... ?
Writer: Did I? I don't remember ...
The Admiral at his table, looking over maps. Hapi makes observations with a primitive kind of sextant. The Admiral's navigator brings the Admiral up to speed. Sound of the wild sea.
Hapi: Today, like every other day, we entered the last stage of our voyage as the sun came up, fat and red like hope, like tomorrow, like life. The birds came out of their secret places. We are travelling alone now. The Admiral is in command of his vessel. We will follow the sun around the world.
As the Agent talks, the scene dissolves to the Boat of Millions of Years as it lifts off the river, into the sky, glowing like a spectacular firework.
Agent: Good to have you back on board sire we have dispatches from Punt you will recall Punt sire unforgettable nights there and this is the contract we must sign with Seker making him a favourable offer at first sight for he is anxious to protect his industrial base although we could send in a few marines to soften him up if he makes trouble what I'm suggesting is a small insurgency force to disrupt his connections with the underworld he's deep in prostitution and gambling and sire those people in the south desperate for trees some kind of arboreal thing you must tell us what you want to do there sire and yes we're moving now easy as she goes eh sire and I must say you seem like your old self again wonderful to have you back here very good I catch your sire oh papers yes no need to deal with these now I think we could just but you know what you're doing and sire hello it's a bright new morning in paradise ...
The Writer wakes, the sun in his eyes.
Writer: Oh, it's another day ... morning already, I ... my notebook. Where's my notebook? Oh no ...
The Girl brings a pipe and a glass of milk. The Artist with his painting.
Artist: Morning. It's a wonderful day. Yes, drink ...
Writer: How strange it was. What a bizarre night ...
Artist: You remember everything, eh?
Writer: Perhaps. Perhaps many things I have forgotten will come back to me.
The Girl dances.
Artist: You'll be alright. You didn't steal anything, ha ha ...
Writer: I remember her, that tall and beautiful girl ... she was ...
Artist: (Turning the painting) We all breathe. We all eat and drink. We all
Originally published in brief #28 (Spring 2003)