by Yamanashi Moe (山梨もえ)
illustrated by serenity_winner
“Behold, she comes to meet you, does the Beautiful West, meeting you with her lovely tresses, and she says, ‘Here comes he who I have borne, whose horn is upstanding, the eye-painted pillar, the bull of the sky! Your shape is distinct; pass in peace, for I have protected you’ — so says the Beautiful West to the king.”
from Pyramid Text Utterance 254, trans. R. O. Faulkner.
“It is good of my mother to order me like this,
‘Give it up out of your sights’;
see how my heart is torn by the memory of him,
love of him has stolen me.
Look what a senseless man he is
– but I am just like him.
He does not realise how I wish to embrace him,
or he would write to my mother.”
from Papyrus Chester Beatty I, trans. B. Mathieu
The woman is still dressed in her mourning clothes. Her hair is cut short, and she wears no jewellery. Her only adornment is kohl under her eyes, but roughly-smudged lines, functional rather than beautiful. She introduces herself as Kebi.
“You must be the priest.”
He is grateful she recognizes him. His head is shaved clean and he wears white robes over his whole body, but still people sometimes take him for a scribe or an apprentice. At seventeen, he is very young to have taken on the full duties of a lector priest. “I am Amenthotep of the Temple of Amantet. I have come to help you with your troubles.”
“Thank you.” She bows to him, briefly. “Please come inside.”
The house is of average size for a farmer’s family. Kebi gestures him to sit on a low stool with a seat made of cowhide. She offers him beer to drink, but he declines with a shake of his head.
“It’s my husband,” she says, taking her seat on a reed mat across from him.
“He has become an akh?” asks Amenthotep gently.
“Yes,” she says, seeming grateful that she doesn’t have to say it herself. “In the morning, I find our pots broken and food scattered on the floor. The animals are sick. My daughter, too. And I still feel his presence in the house. I don’t know what else to think but that…”
“That he has come back.” Amenthotep nods. “I see. Were the burial rites performed correctly?”
“I think so,” says Kebi. “But how can I be sure? We had a mortuary priest in the town, but he passed on last summer. His apprentice prepared the body and performed the ceremony.”
“Had he done the funeral rites before?”
“I don’t know.”
The next question is a delicate one.
“And you’ve been leaving offerings regularly?” Some families can only afford to provide food and drink for a short while after the funeral. He doesn’t blame them, but it is hard for the dead to sustain themselves without regular supplies.
Kebi doesn’t seem offended by the question. “Every other day,” she replies. “When I can’t go myself, I ask my son or his wife. They both loved him dearly.”
“I don’t know what to do,” says Kebi, not meeting his eyes. The conversation seems to have made her sad and somewhat afraid. “Is there anything you can try…?”
“Tonight at sunset, we’ll go to the tomb,” says Amenthotep. He keeps his voice tranquil, hoping to reassure her that there is nothing unusual about her situation. “I can talk to your husband and see if something is wrong. The burial rites are complicated – it’s easy to make a small mistake which can leave the akh unable to cross into the underworld.”
With a sigh, Kebi twists the hem of her skirt. “I’m so afraid for him,” she says, quietly. “It’s not the haunting that troubles me. I just can’t bear to think of him in pain.”
“Please don’t worry,” replies Amenthotep. “I have experience in these things. I know the funerary rites and the Book of the Dead by heart. I also have great skill in working magic. I have even brought a man back from the dead to accompany me in my work. Whatever troubles your husband, I will make sure his soul is free to depart this world. I will do whatever it takes.”
Kebi still looks uncomfortable. “But the price-”
“-will be only what you can afford,” finishes Amenthotep quickly. “It’s important to the Temple that the departed are welcomed into the west by our goddess.” He rises from his stool. “I will go purify myself for the evening.”
“Is there anything I should do?”
Amenthotep nods. “Prepare a boat to take us to the cemetery, and a lamp to light the tomb. I will meet you here.”
“Thank you.” Kebi bows to him once more as he leaves her house. “Until this evening.”
“Until this evening.”
Outside of Kebi’s front door stands User, waiting. He never talks to the people who ask for Amenthotep’s help. He says the discussions make him uncomfortable. Talk of akh who return to the world of the living because they cannot rest must make him think of his strange situation as an akh who was instead brought back from the west by another.
User, too, makes many people uncomfortable. At first glance he looks like any other soldier, with his short-cropped hair and pleated kilt. But even those who don’t know he is an akh can tell that there is something strange about him. His body is no longer filled with blood, so his skin has a greyish cast and is strangely cool to the touch. There are scars on his body where his organs were cut out. And his voice is deeper than it was in life, cooler, like the inside of a tomb.
“She is haunted?” he asks quietly.
“It seems that way,” replies Amenthotep with a nod. “The usual disturbances in the household. I’ll go to talk to her husband tonight.”
“Shall we return to the ship?”
“Yes. I need some things for bathing.”
User nods, and they start down the path leading out of the village. The sun is high, and the occasional puffs of wind carry sand which coats Amenthotep’s skin and tunic. It will be good to take a bath, and not just because he needs to purify himself before he makes contact with the dead man.
A short distance from the house they pass by a small girl playing with a puppy by the side of the road. This is probably Kebi’s daughter. She does look a bit sick.
“She looks a little like you did at her age, Sesen,” says User. A small smile plays across his face.
Amenthotep nods, distantly. He feels strange whenever User mentions the past: nostalgic, perhaps, for a time when things were simpler and his companion was still alive, but also strangely queasy. He wants to say that he is not a child anymore. But only a child would be tempted to say such a thing in the first place, so he bites his tongue.
User was introduced to Amenthotep with the understanding that he would be guarding him temporarily.
He had been conscripted as a soldier, but finished his training during a time of peace. He was assigned to work as a guard of the Temple of Amantet in the north. He could hardly believe that anyone would steal from the Gods, but he had been told of such things, and at first he was eager to protect the temple from heretics and thieves. His enthusiasm was misplaced. In training, he had been famous for loyalty and good behaviour, but after six months of standing at the gates watching people come and go without incident, he was starting to doubt the importance of his duty. It was almost a relief when the High Priest asked him to keep watch over his son instead.
Amenthotep’s father was a nobleman who had been involved in some kind of scandal at Court. His wife had divorced him, his friends deserted him. Pharaoh had not punished him for whatever he had done, but likely had appointed him to this temple because it was so far away from Thebes.
Entering the High Priest’s house for the first time, he had been wary, certain that unseen enemies were lurking in the shadows awaiting their opportunity to kidnap a nobleman’s son. He kept his hand on his sword as a servant led him through the gates and into the central courtyard of the house.
It was early morning, and the rays of the sun were just beginning to illuminate the courtyard. In the middle was a pool of clear water filled with plants and small carp. Never before had User entered a house where water was in such abundance. A young boy who he recognized as Amenthotep was sitting at the edge, looking out over it with intense concentration.
He knelt beside the boy. “Good morning, young master.”
“Shhh,” said Amenthotep. “They’re opening.”
As he spoke, the tightly-shut lotus buds in the pool began to unfold, revealing their sky-blue petals and radiant gold centres. Amenthotep’s gaze locked on each in turn.
“They’re very beautiful,” said User quietly.
“I just want to make sure they’re all okay.” The boy didn’t so much as glance at him. “Sometimes they die during the night.”
“Even if they die, they will not be gone forever.” As User spoke, the last of the flowers bloomed. “But it looks like they have all lived.”
“Yes.” Only then did the boy turn to face him. “Good morning,” he said, and the expression on his face changed from stoic concentration to a brilliant smile, just as the lotus buds had opened into flowers. At that moment, in his mind, User called him Sesen – lotus – for the first time. “Are you the one who will accompany me?”
“Yes. I am User, son of Wosret. From the Temple Guard.”
“And I am Amenthotep, son of Khaemweset.” The boy rose to his feet, so that he and User were at the same height. “Welcome to my home.”
He realized quickly that his job was not to protect the boy, but to look after him. Amenthotep was in no danger. The High Priest had needed to find his son a companion, and User was certainly not needed at the temple gates. Likely he had thought it an elegant solution.
He agreed with the man that Amenthotep needed companionship. He was a strange child. Sometimes he was serious and anxious, seeming far older than his age. In the next moment, though, he would be laughing and smiling like any boy. Raised away from the life of a noble at Court, without a mother’s guidance and with a father whose duties as High Priest kept him constantly occupied, he had no guidepost for the man he was to become.
There were other children around – the children of the household servants – but although Amenthotep played with them at times, mainly he seemed to enjoy being by himself. At first, User assumed the child would prefer him to stay at a distance, but he found that he was wrong. Amenthotep was fascinated that User’s life had been so different from his own. He would beg to hear stories about User: his childhood on his father’s farm, his military training, and his travels up and down the Nile. Then he would invent games based on this new information. Sometimes he was a brilliant general and User his loyal second-in-command, other times he was a hard-working farmer and User was his ox.
Every evening before he went to sleep, Amenthotep would come to the servant’s quarters where User slept and explain to him what he had learned from his tutors that day. He found it intolerable that User couldn’t read and had convinced himself he could teach him. They would sit together on the straw-stuffed mattress and draw words in the sand. Often User would have to come close to scolding him to convince him to return to his own bed for the evening.
After a year, User forgot that he had wanted to ask for another duty. After two, he would not have taken it had it been offered to him.
His situation was a strange one, but he loved his work. Amenthotep came to take on a special place in his life. And he knew that he, in turn, was a unique presence in Amenthotep’s life. He already had tutors, cooks, and servants to see to his needs, a father to respect. User was none of these. He was someone Amenthotep could talk with honestly without fear of judgement, and expect the same honesty from in return. User would never punish him nor defer to him. Despite the difference in their ages and social status, there was a powerful connection between them.
They were not a master and his servant, nor a boy and his caretaker. They were friends.
The boat is a small one, with a crew of only five or six. It belongs to the Temple of Amantet. They mostly use it to trade for food and supplies, but sometimes, as now, the priests need to travel and it becomes a barge temporarily.
“I’ll be a moment,” says Amenthotep, and he scrambles up onto the ship only to disappear below deck. When he returns, he is holding a jar of natron oil and two small loaves of bread. “Are you hungry?”
User nods. “A little,” he says, and accepts the bread Amenthotep holds out to him. It’s not exactly true – he doesn’t get hungry anymore, although he knows that he needs food and drink every so often to keep himself securely in his body. Without them, he could lose control of himself, and become a restless and vengeful spirit like other akh. “Are you going to bathe?”
“I should.” Amenthotep points north. “I think I saw a good place on our way here.” If they were at the temple, he would cleanse himself in the Sacred Pool, but the Nile will have to do.
They walk up the riverbank together, eating their bread. To the right of the path, men and women are weeding the fields where shoots of grain spring up from the black soil. The sun beats down overhead.
“Are you too hot?” asks User, gesturing to Amenthotep’s bare head.
Amenthotep laughs. “I’m fine,” he replies. “I won’t get burned, if that’s what you’re worried about. I don’t stay indoors all day like some priests.”
User has to laugh at that. It’s true that Amenthotep is different from the men who grow pale and solitary from never leaving the temple. Men like his father.
Eventually they find a cove where the bank has been pressed smooth by footsteps of the people who have come to bathe. The spot is deserted – everyone is at work this time of day, or resting at home. “This is it,” says Amenthotep, and immediately pulls off his tunic and tosses it carelessly on the bank.
Amenthotep has grown into a stunningly handsome young man. His skin is the rich colour of red ochre. His body is well-proportioned, neither thin nor fat, with long, graceful limbs. Like all priests, his body hair has been plucked. His member hangs soft but large between his legs.
He wades into the river, gently pushing away the plants that grow in the shallows. There are lotus flowers here, and Amenthotep stops to admire a particularly large one before continuing. When he is waist-deep in the water he splashes the water over his head and turns around.
“User,” he calls, “come help me wash?”
Hesitating for just a moment before deciding there can be no harm in it, User unfastens his kilt and joins him in the river. “Of course.”
He rubs the natron oil into Amenthotep’s skin, careful that their bodies do not touch more than necessary. The young man’s skin is warm from the sun and his own natural body heat. Even without the oil, his skin is soft and almost shining. User fixes his eyes on the other bank of the river and works faster to keep his fingers from lingering.
Oblivious to his inner struggle, Amenthotep arches up into User’s touch like a cat being petted. “Mm, that feels good.”
“You should learn to wash yourself,” says User akwardly, because it would be suspicious to say nothing at all.
“I know how to wash myself,” replies Amenthotep, with a teasing laugh. “I just prefer to have you do it.” He sighs contentedly, leaning back against User just enough that his buttocks are flush with the base of User’s shaft. “Don’t you?”
If he were a living man, User would be aroused. But as an akh, his body can no longer act without his command, and he wills himself to stay soft.
This is not the first time they have been in such a position. Amenthotep has asked for his help in bathing many times since he was revived. At first it was a perfectly innocent process. Whether Amenthotep really needed the help or simply wanted the comfort of a temporary return to childhood User couldn’t tell, but he was happy to help either way.
He realized too late that neither childhood nor convenience had anything to do with it. Amenthotep knows that bathing like this is when their bodies are closest, and User most vulnerable. Every time he has been more insistent, come a little closer, pushed a little further. This is the boldest gesture he has made yet.
“What are you doing?” he asks, quietly, although he knows perfectly well.
If he had hoped Amenthotep would pull back in shame, he was mistaken. Instead of answering, the young man turns around, keeping their bodies close, touching his hand to User’s chest where his heart once beat. His dark eyes shine.
“User.” It might be a command, except that his voice trembles.
For a moment, User feels his determination wavering. There may have been a time when he told himself he was no longer interested at all in the pleasures of the living – had no interest in what was freely and repeatedly offered to him – but he is a bad liar, especially when lying to himself. He can’t deny that he desperately wants to answer Amenthotep’s unspoken request.
Instead, he forces himself to listen for the sound of his own heart under Amenthotep’s hand, and to remind himself why he hears nothing. Then he is quick to take a resolute step backwards.
“I’m going to the shore,” he says, with a somewhat forced cheerfulness. “My body may bloat if I stay too long in the water.”
It’s meant to be a joke, but Amenthotep doesn’t laugh. The expression on his face mirrors the pain that User feels. He turns, walking away from User, farther into the cool water of the Nile.
User was killed by a scorpion when Amenthotep was twelve. He was on his way to the market when he stepped on the creature’s hiding place. The poisonous sting killed him less than an hour later. There was nothing anyone could do.
Amenthotep spent the day waiting for User to come. He only learned that night at supper the reason for the man’s absence.
There was no reason to feel so sad. Amenthotep’s father was the High Priest of Amantet, the goddess who greeted the dead when they crossed over to the west. He had known for a long time what became of a person when they died in this world. User would brave the trials of the underworld and emerge triumphant. Nor did he doubt that User, who was the kindest, bravest and truest man he knew, would survive the judgement of Ma’at. His heart would be as light as the god’s white feather, and he would be declared free to enter the glorious lands of Osiris, where he would live happily forever.
And yet he could not stand the thought that they were separated. User had been the centre of his world for a long time. Sometimes he could be reserved, but he was always kind and understanding. Who would he play with now? Who would he talk to about his fears and hopes? User had always been at his side, a presence which had never wavered, never changed.
Amenthotep was the one who had changed. At first his feelings for his guardian had been purely those of a child. In the past few months, though, he had noticed his thoughts of User blossoming into something else. Seeing him naked was no longer a normal event, but a secret, delirious pleasure which left him shy and weak-kneed. Bathing together was both unbearable and irresistible.
It was like something inside him had begun to crystallize. He had begun to see User in a different way just as User disappeared from his world, never to be seen again in his lifetime.
He was a twelve year old boy and he felt like a widow mourning her husband. He wanted to cry and beat his breast like the servant women, to sprinkle dirt on his head, to tear his clothes. He could do none of these things. There was no socially acceptable way to express the grief that he felt.
He did what he could. He demanded of his father than User be buried with the nobles of the city, in the tomb reserved for their most honoured servants. His body was covered in beeswax and his organs were wrapped in blindingly white linen. His grave goods were all of the highest quality. Amenthotep himself made many of the clay shabti figures which would serve in the fields of Osiris in User’s place.
The day of the funeral procession, he watched as User’s coffin was carried into the burial chamber. He tried to remember that soon his friend would be welcomed into the Underworld by the warm embrace of Amantet. The thought gave him no comfort – he had prayed countless times to the goddess, given her so many offerings, and she had repaid him by stealing User away from him.
He felt sick, and sad, and alone. No thoughts of the afterlife could dispel those feelings.
User’s death marked the end of his life as a child. After the funeral, he told his father that he wanted to begin training for the priesthood.
Amenthotep was a good student. He had already started to learn reading and writing, at his father’s behest, but now all his time was spent in studying. He memorized the liturgies and recited them so well that he was chosen as the lector for the daily temple rites more than any other priest his age. Because Amantet was a goddess of death, he also learned to perform funeral rites, and when called he would go to the houses in town and serve as a mortuary priest.
During this time he took it upon himself to visit User’s tomb and bring offerings of food and drink. The tombstone was heavy, but he rolled it back more easily each time. He sat in the cool half-darkness and imagined User coming back each night to get his sustenance. The thought made him smile. When he was at the tomb, he felt the empty place in his life less keenly. Whenever he left, though, his feelings of longing always returned.
He’d thought the longing would ease with time, but it didn’t. Instead it grew stronger. The first time he made himself come he was thinking of User’s hands stroking his hardness, of User’s own thrusting desperately between his thighs. He tried these things with other young men, but mere physical pleasure could never dull the yearning of his heart.
Eventually he stopped trying to find a replacement for User. It was useless. Instead, he threw himself into learning, intending to become the best priest he possibly could.
Through his studies, he gradually gained a sense of the ways in which the boundaries of life and death could be travelled across. The dead sometimes came back from the west to the world of the living. Usually it was only their spirit which returned to the mortal world, but there were times when the akh of a man or woman could travel in their physical body. Furthermore, although it was difficult, he knew that there were times when a living person had been able to enter the underworld and return once more to the land of the living.
He made a plan.
When he entered the burial chamber and looked upon User’s coffin, painted in red and gold, he knew that this was what he had spent the last four years preparing for. He put his arms around the sarcophagus and kissed its cool lips. Then he began the spell which would allow a living person to travel to the underworld.
The afterlife was good to User. In life he had been a guardsman, but in the Everlasting Paradise there was no need for such work. He spent his time helping neighbours: his grandparents and their ancestors, his uncle who had died of illness, his stillborn sister.
His house was large and well-furnished, filled with things he could not have dreamed of affording in life. Often he would sit on the roof, where there was always a breeze to offset the heat of the sun, and hold his sister on his lap. From there he could hear the sounds of music and laughter floating up from the streets below. He missed his old life, but with a feeling of disconnect. He knew that eventually everyone he had loved in that world would join him. He only had to wait.
He had no clear sense of time there, so it was shocking to see Amenthotep as a young man.
“Sesen,” he said, taken aback. “You’ve grown.” And then, for the first time since his head, he felt an immense sadness. Perhaps there had been a reason he had been asked to guard the boy. But there was a look in Amenthotep’s eyes which he had not seen since he came to the west: the look of someone who was still troubled by the world of the living. “What are you doing here?”
Amenthotep lowered his head, as though being scolded. “I came to see you,” he said softly. “Since I didn’t get to tell you goodbye.”
User was unspeakably touched. “Thank you,” he replied gently, trying to reassure the boy that his presence was welcome. “You must have had a long journey. Come and sit with me.”
Amenthotep nodded and took a seat on the cushion beside User. He looked down at the baby on his lap. “Who is this?”
“My little sister. She was too young to have a name.”
Amenthotep held out his hand to the child. She took his index finger in her chubby fist and giggled. “She seems happy.”
“We are all happy here,” said User. “This is a good place.” Carefully, he drew her away from Amenthotep and lowered her into the shallow cradle beside their cushions. Immediately, her eyes fluttered closed. He paused, unsure of what to say next. “I’ve felt your presence in my house sometimes,” he said.
Amenthotep nodded. “I come and bring you offerings as often as I can.”
“I’m a priest now.” He seemed almost shy of saying this, as if he didn’t want to brag. “I’ve learned about the afterlife. The ways of the dead.”
User could only chuckle. “So have I,” he said. “In another way.”
His comment prompted nervous laughter from Amenthotep. “I had to come by a different route, of course,” he said. “Far easier than yours, I think. It took me a long time to learn how to travel here. I made a gate out of the door of your tomb, and when I passed through it, I was in front of your house.”
“Did you see Amantet?”
Amenthotep shook his head. “She would not have welcomed me.” It struck User that Amenthotep’s presence here might be forbidden, that the boy might be in danger. His worry must have shown on his face – Amenthotep shook his head. “No, I could have. But I didn’t want to see her yet.”
“I…” Amenthotep averted his eyes. “I was angry at her for a long time. I’m still not sure…” He shook his head. “Enough of that. How was it for you?”
“The… the journey. Meeting her. Was it like they say?”
“I don’t think I should tell you that,” he replied. “The living aren’t meant to know. I’m sorry.” But seeing Amenthotep’s face fall, he continued anyway, on impulse. “It’s different in some ways. The judgement… the feather of Ma’at is heavier than I had thought it would be. In life, I should not have worried…”
Amenthotep smiled. “I never doubted that you would pass the judgement.”
“Someday, so will you.”
For a while neither of them spoke. There was an old woman playing a lute nearby, singing an old love song. User must have heard her do the same thing a thousand times, but somehow it felt different with Amenthotep at his side. Something had been put right within him which he hadn’t realized was wrong before.
He could forget, for a little while, that Amenthotep was only a visitor in this land. But only for a little while.
“Why have you come?”
“I need you,” said Amenthotep, with a quiet desperation. Suddenly there were tears gathering at the corners of his eyes. Only then did User realize how young he still was, and how alone he must feel. “Please come back with me.”
What choice did he have?
He embraced Amenthotep. “Of course I will,” he said. “It would be an honour. I will be with you for as long as you need me.”
The afternoon is quiet. Amenthotep covers himelf with a powder made from herbs blessed at the temple Usually he would ask User to do it for him. He is grateful that his companion is kind enough, or embarrassed enough, to say nothing about what he did at the river. They barely speak to one another.
That evening, after a modest dinner on the boat, they return to Kebi’s home. She is waiting for them with an olive-oil lamp in her hands.
“This is my companion, User,” says Amenthotep, gesturing to him. If Kebi is shocked by his appearance she says nothing, although she must realize that this is the akh he mentioned in their earlier conversation.
User bows, although in life he and Kebi would have been of the same social status. “Good evening.”
“Good evening,” she replies. Whether she is nervous because of User or because of what they are about to do, Amenthotep cannot tell.
“Let’s go now,” he says. “Before it’s too dark.”
They row a small boat across the Nile at a narrow point. The town cemetery starts beyond the west bank, spread out for miles among the red rocks and dunes of sand. Kebi’s husband’s tomb is close to the river, in a valley meant for their family alone. The stone at the entrance is larger and more ornately carved than most farmers would be – a sign of the family’s prosperity.
User pushes the stone away from the entrance, Kebi holds her lamp up, and they enter.
The tomb has only one chamber, but it is covered with richly detailed engravings of scenes from Kebi’s husband’s life. One depicts him reading grain in his fields, another standing face-to-face with Kebi, with their children between them, all depicted as the same age. Amid the engravings are lines of poetry and incantations.
“I’ve been leaving offerings regularly,” says Kebi, pointing to the jars lining the floor of the tomb, “but nothing seems to happen. Is that right?”
Amenthotep kneels down to take a look, and shakes his head. “The dead don’t eat as we do,” he says, “but the seals should be broken.” He would explain further, but the way in which akh transform physical food and drink into spiritual sustenance is complicated. The important thing is what he finds inside the jar: bread that has been left untouched.
“He hasn’t been receiving the offerings.”
“He hasn’t? But…”
“I expected this,” says Amenthotep gently. “Now I’ll need to open the coffin.”
Kebi nods. “Yes, of course.” She opens it herself, revealing her husband’s mummy, wrapped in linen of middling quality. Amenthotep examines the body briefly, but this gives him no clues. He suspects that only the akh himself can tell him what he needs to know.
He leans in close. “He is speaking to your husband now,” he hears User say, as though from far away. Already his concentration is focused entirely on the man who lies before him.
Speaking to the dead is sometimes easy and sometimes difficult. Since this man is already an akh come to the world of the living, he is easy to rouse, especially since night is close at hand. Amenthotep can already hear his voice, echoing across the border of life and death.
“My friend,” he says, coming closer, so that his mouth touches the linen over the man’s head. “Can you hear me?”
What follows is an indecipherable babble of relief. Many akh respond like this when they realize that they are again in contact with the living.
“What is your name?”
The akh answers that he is known as Bes.
“Bes,” he responds, “your wife says that you are haunting her. She has asked me to help you.” It is always good to ensure the akh knows they are still loved by those who have outlived them.
Bes expresses a wide range of feelings: love for Kebi and his child, grief that he has caused them pain, hope that he can leave his coffin and finally begin his journey into the land of the dead.
“Then tell me. What is troubling you?”
What follows is a story Amenthotep has heard too many times. He listens carefully, in respectful silence. Only when he is sure that Bes is finished does he turn away from his body to face Kebi and User.
“There was a mistake in the Opening of the Mouth ceremony,” he says. “Your husband cannot eat.” He points to the western wall of the room, where spells are chiseled into the stone row by row for the use of the dead man. “The builders should have included the recitation that would allow him to open his own mouth, but it seems they ran out of space.”
Kebi does not cry out, as some have in the past when he tells them what has prevented their loved ones from making their journey to the west, but her eyes immediately fill with tears. “Poor man,” she whispers. And then, louder, “Can you help him?”
Amenthotep nods quickly in response. “I can teach him the spell myself. That should fix the problem.”
“No. I’m sorry, but this isn’t the right time.” Time and date are crucial to the success of magic, and the order of things can’t be rearranged without tremendous risk. “We’ll need to wait until sunrise.”
Kebi’s face falls. A tear breaks free from the corner of her eye and splashes down her cheek. “Are you sure you can’t…”
“We will stay here overnight to watch over your husband,” replies User. “His akh should not leave its home tonight. And he will be happy knowing that he will not be hungry for much longer.” This is much more than he has said to anyone other than Amenthotep since he returned from the west.
Bowing first to User, then to Amenthotep, Kebi smiles weakly. “Thank you,” she says. “Thank you so much. I will make preparations for you to rest here.”
Most people would be worried to spend the night in the tomb of a restless akh, but Amenthotep seems, if anything, more at peace here than in his father’s house. Kebi has left them food and drink, and her oil lamp to light the room. Amenthotep sits cross-legged on the bare stone floor. User stands beside him, as if to stand guard.
“Don’t let me fall asleep,” says Amenthotep at the beginning of the night, but soon enough User lets him close his eyes and rest. There’s no harm in it – he can rouse him in a moment if there is any sign the akh is on the move. Amenthotep is probably exhausted from the effort needed to communicate with the dead. He, on the other hand, no longer needs to sleep at all.
Just after midnight, Amenthotep’s eyes flutter open again. He sits up with a start.
“All is well,” says User immediately. “Go back to sleep.”
Amenthotep rubs his eyes, smearing the kohl slightly. “Liar,” he says, getting to his feet with a wry smile. “You said you’d keep me awake.”
“No,” responds User, “you asked me to. I didn’t answer.”
His response draws a laugh. Then Amenthotep’s expression turns serious. “Thank you for consoling Kebi. I think it helped her to hear it coming from you.”
“She’s a good woman.”
The apology comes out of nowhere, and User is left confused. “What?”
Amenthotep makes a vague, nervous gesture. “About today. I’m sorry.”
Only after another moment does User realize he is talking about what he did at the river. “You have nothing to be sorry for,” he answers, cautiously. He doesn’t want to discuss this any further than necessary, for fear of saying something he will regret.
“No.” Amenthotep bows his head to him – something he has done before only as a small child. “My behaviour today was shameful for both of us. I won’t do it again.”
That should be all. But somehow, User can’t leave well enough alone.
“Why?” he asks.
Amenthotep seems to understand the question immediately. “Because I love you.” The wall opposite them is decorated with a portrait of Kebi and her husband at their wedding. Amenthotep faces away from him to stare intently at the picture. “You are the only one I’ve ever wanted,” he says. “I fell in love with you a long time ago.”
“I waited for so long. I hoped that someday, things would be different between us.” His tone of voice is falsely cheerful. Clearly the words are causing him great pain, but his pride keeps him from showing anything but the slightest glimpse of his emotions. “But now I don’t think that will ever happen. I know that you still see me as a child of seven.”
User could lie. But he was never good at it in life, and it feels wrong to keep secrets from Amenthotep. “No.”
Amenthotep turns his face towards him. The smile is gone now. “Then why won’t you touch me? Is it because I’m a man?”
He shakes his head.
There is an expression like hope in Amenthotep’s eyes. He takes a step closer to User. “What, then?”
“If I were alive,” says User, carefully, “it would be different. But Sesen, I’m dead.” He gestures to his body. “I have no heart, no warmth in my body. I am only here with you because you brought me back with magic. How can I lie with a living man?”
Fire flashes in Amenthotep’s eyes. “I’ll show you how,” he breathes, and throws his arms around User, kissing him fiercely, almost violently.
User tries to restrain himself. After all, he has done so before. But what he thought was temptation at the river was harmless in comparison to this. Amenthotep’s arms are surprisingly strong, and User can feel the breath of life in him, the blood pounding through his veins. He is so alive. User can pull away only when he fears Amenthotep will pass out from lack of air.
When he breaks the kiss Amenthotep almost staggers. He is panting heavily, but his expression is triumphant. He guides User’s hand to his shaft, stiff under his robes and somehow hotter than the rest of his body.
“I… we…” starts User, trying one last time to protest.
“I don’t care if you are dead or alive,” he says. “It doesn’t change my feelings for you. User, I love you. I love you so much. ”
Looking at Amenthotep’s helpless expression, User doesn’t know whether he wants to laugh or cry. It shouldn’t be like this. They should both be alive and well, in some place that is not a stranger’s tomb dimly illuminated by a widow’s oil lamp. Or at least they should be united in the land where all souls find happiness at last.
But they are here instead.
“Please touch me,” says Amenthotep. “I need you.”
Finally, that’s all it takes. User – who had promised himself that this was a boundary between the living and the dead that he would never cross – who had dreamed of this, or something like this, but only after they were united in Paradise – gives up.
“Yes,” he says, and as he lets go of what he had thought was his moral duty, he feels as though the weight of death itself is lifted from him. “Of course. Yes.”
It’s amazing how quickly everything comes back to him. He wraps his hand around Amenthotep with a sense of reverence. The young man shivers at his touch, pressing up against him. “User,” he whispers, “You…”
“I love you,” replies User, beginning to stroke, lightly. “I have always loved you, Sesen.” He finds that his body is not so under his control as he had thought: his shaft grows hard as his hand relearns the movement it has not practiced for a very long time. With his other hand he begins to touch his own member. “And now that you have grown, I want you so much.”
“Please,” whimpers Amenthotep against his shoulder. Already he is wet at the tip. The slickness allows User to move his hand both faster and with more pressure, so he does, watching in satisfaction as Amenthotep flushes and almost winces with pleasure.
“Do you want to come?”
“No, I… not yet.” Amenthotep seems to come back to himself. He takes User by the wrist and draws his hand away. “Hold on, I want to…”
He drops to his knees, and in an instant it is perfectly clear what he meant to say. He unfastens User’s kilt and without warning takes the head of User’s hardness into his mouth.
When he was alive, User did occasionally have sex with men: a furtive encounter in the silent dark after a hard day’s march, a moment seized with a traveller he knew he would never see again. Sometimes those men even used their mouths on him. It was never anything like this. Amenthotep teases him, sucking him in deep one moment, drawing back in the next to lick the length of his shaft. His mouth is hot and wet and he hums a little as his lips press against User. Even jealousy at the thought that Amenthotep has done this before can’t dull the pleasure.
“Is it good?” asks Amenthotep, mouth still half-full of User’s shaft.
User nods. He no longer feels that he has any control over his body at all. It’s impossible to stay steady on his feet while Amenthotep’s mouth is all he can feel, all he can think about. He leans back against the wall of the tomb, overwhelmed.
“Sesen,” he says hoarsely, not knowing how to continue, “If you keep going, I…”
He is embarrassed by the sound of dismay that escapes his mouth when Amenthotep pulls away. The young man looks up at him with love in his eyes and almost-bruised lips. He has never been more handsome than at this moment.
“User,” he starts, suddenly hesitant, “I don’t have anything to prepare with, but I… I want you inside me.”
The words jolt him back to the reality of their situation. “We can’t,” he says, and instantly regrets it when hurt flashes across Amenthotep’s face. “No, please understand. It’s not that I don’t… Of course I want to…” He gives up on finishing that train of thought for fear he won’t be able to keep from coming. “It’s just, just that you need to remain pure until the morning. For the spell.”
Amenthotep sighs with frustration. “You’re right,” he says, begrudgingly. “If I have intercourse, I won’t be able to communicate with the dead for at least another week. It’s just that I’ve waited so long, and I…” He flushes. “It’s not fair.”
“I know. I’m sorry.” User is more than sorry, but the thought of a fellow akh trapped and suffering firms his resolve. He closes his eyes so as not to be distracted by the sight of Amenthotep still kneeling before him. “If there were any other way-”
“Is this the scar?”
User is confused for a moment. Amenthotep’s voice sounds pained. Then he feels a touch on his ankle, and he understands.
“Yes,” he says quietly, lowering himself to sit against the wall. “That’s where it stung. I stepped on its nest, I think.”
“It’s so small,” says Amenthotep. He lowers his head as if to look closer, but instead, he kisses User’s ankle. “Such a small wound.”
“It’s alright,” User replies, gently. “It doesn’t matter now.”
Amenthotep nods, looking up to meet his eyes. “You’re right. We’re here now, and…” Seemingly struck by an idea, he smiles. “And there are still things we can do.”
“What,” he starts, but before he can get any further Amenthotep is crawling into his lap and folding his legs around his waist. Bringing his hips forward, he aligns his pink-flushed shaft with User’s, smaller and dully-coloured but equally hard. He brings his hands together around them.
“Like this,” he whispers, and starts to move.
User can hardly stand it. To be together like this with Amenthotep is more than he had ever allowed himself to imagine. Now he fears that it will be over too soon. To last, he forces his thoughts away from his own pleasure and towards Amenthotep: the way his heart pounds, the flutter of his eyelids, his breath coming in great, heavy gasps. But the sight of Amenthotep writhing in his lap only intensifies his passion.
“Sesen,” he whispers, He worries that the nickname will remind him of the child Amenthotep once was, but instead the meaning of the name seems transformed. Amenthotep is a man now. He is as beautiful as a lotus, and as sensual. “Sesen, I love you.”
Amenthotep seems to thrill at the sound of his voice. “I love you too,” he gasps, shuddering, rocking his hips. “I love you so much, I… User…” His hands move harder and faster, moving frantically. He is perfect. “Please kiss me…”
A kiss is all it takes for Amenthotep to cry out his name and come. Seeing the look on his face, User can do nothing but follow.
There is a jug of water in the tomb which was meant for them to drink. Amenthotep uses it to wash the semen from his hands instead. Now that the fog of lust has cleared from his thoughts, he feels embarrassed to have used Kebi’s husband’s tomb in this way. He hopes Bes is not too angry.
“It’s almost dawn,” says User, from where he sits on the floor, still naked. His body is mostly clean – he seemed to come without ejaculating. “Kebi will return soon.”
Amenthotep nods, almost too distracted to understand. One worry has led to another, and although what happened between them was more than he had ever hoped for, he can’t help but feel anxious. He kneels at User’s side, unable to look in his eyes for fear of what he’ll find there.
“You don’t regret–”
“Of course not,” interrupts User before he can finish. He puts his arm around Amenthotep’s shoulder and draws him close. “I could never regret loving you.” He smiles, bitterly as if wondering at himself. “All this time I felt that I had to do what was right. I couldn’t imagine that what was right and what made me happy could be the same thing… but now, I think they are.”
Amenthotep relaxes. “I’m glad,” he says, smiling and nestling closer.
Kebi finds them like that, but doesn’t remark on it. She barely seems to notice. There are dark hollows under her eyes, and impatience is written on her face. “Is it time now?”
“Yes.” Amenthotep rises to his feet. “Yes, it’s time.”
Once again they open the coffin. This time Amenthotep doesn’t even need to initiate conversation; Bes is there with him immediately. Fortunately, he doesn’t seem to have even noticed what Amenthotep and User did last night. Instead, he is eager to begin the process which will lead his soul and spirit to wholeness once more.
“I am going to teach you the spell that will open your mouth,” whispers Amenthotep. “Repeat after me: My mouth is opened by Ptah.”
The voice echoes him, becoming clearer and clearer:
My mouth is opened by Ptah
My mouth’s bonds are loosed by my city-god.
Thoth has come fully equipped with spells,
He looses the bonds of Seth from my mouth.
And so it goes, phrase by phrase. At last the whole spell has been said.
“Did it work?” asks Kebi, with a tremble in her voice.
Instead of answering, Amenthotep draws back. His legs feel a little bit weak and he has to take extra care not to stumble. “Come forward, Bes,” he says, with a smile. “It’s done. Your trial has ended.”
The akh steps forward out of his coffin. His movements are slow and shuffling at first, as he readjusts to inhabiting his body, but within a few steps his gait is that of an ordinary man. He unwraps the linen from his head and tosses it aside to reveal a grey but smiling face.
“Kebi,” he says, in a deep, raspy voice, a sign of his long wait in the grave. “Kebi, it is so good to see you again.”
“Bes,” replies Kebi, drawing towards him. “Are you…”
“I am healed.” Bes wraps his arms around her and holds her close. “I’m so sorry for the trouble I caused you. When I discovered that I could not eat, I swore to myself I would never harm you or the family, but after a time I grew so hungry… I fear I lost control of my spirit.”
Kebi shakes her head. There are tears in her eyes. “No, it’s fine,” she says, her head resting on his shoulder. “I knew you would never act that way unless something was wrong. And besides, if you hadn’t haunted us, we would never have known that you couldn’t…” She shudders. “It’s my fault. I should have found a better priest.”
“It’s no-one’s fault, Kebi,” replies Bes, stroking her back. “You could not have known. The boy was young, and the rituals are complicated. Sometimes things go wrong in life.” He chuckles mirthlessly. “After all, I didn’t expect to leave you so soon, and now…”
“I miss you so much,” whispers Kebi.
Bes nods. “And I miss you. But it won’t be forever. Someday we will be together once more. Until that time, you must look after our family and our land. Have faith that we will meet again in the west.”
Kebi breaks their embrace and wipes her tears on her arm. “Goodbye, then,” she says. “Until then.”
“Until then,” echoes her husband, with a wistful smile.
Kebi blinks repeatedly as they step out into the bright sunlight of the cemetery. Her expression is peaceful, and as they roll the stone back over Bes’ tomb, she even smiles a little.
“I can’t tell you how much I appreciate how you’ve helped us,” she says, turning to Amenthotep and then to User. “Both of you. Thank you so much.”
User bows to her one more time. “You are welcome.”
Amenthotep is quiet as they make the return journey to the east bank of the river. As soon as Kebi leaves them on the road he stops and turns to User.
“They love each other,” he says, abruptly.
“It’s been a year since I brought you back from the west.”
“So it has.”
“Do you miss it there?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think about it.”
“I worry that I’ve kept you too long,” says Amenthotep, staring into the western sky where the moon still hangs barely visible. “I’ve changed since your return. I…” He pauses, takes a deep breath, and continues. “If I know that you love me, I can be alone. It won’t be easy, but nothing is. If it’s what you want, I can help you return.”
“And if I say no?”
“Would you say no?”
User nods. “Bes is a better man than I am.” Carefully, he puts his arm around Amenthotep’s shoulder, draws him closer. “When I was in Paradise, I thought that I could wait for you. But I am too selfish to leave you now.”
Like a lotus bud greeting the sun, Amenthotep smiles more brilliantly than he has in a long time. “Come, then,” he says, after a moment of what seems to be pure happiness. “Let’s go home.” His smile turns almost seductive. “After all, we have many things to do now that I need not remain pure.”
If he were alive, User would blush. But that doesn’t matter so much to him now. “Of course,” he says, returning the smile. “Home it is.”