“I grew, and did not see the rays of the sun. I did not breathe the air, but darkness was before me every day, and no one came to find me.”
- Ancient Egyptian ghost story discovered in 1915 on pieces of pottery.
Naught remains unmoving in the desert. Only time stands still.
As a serpent locomotives up and down the sand dunes, as a gust of wind flees from foreign lands, as carts rush down the narrow streets, peasant feet burned and blistered by the sand and peasant backs slashed by whips – as the days seem to stretch forever under the searing light of Ra, as traditions stand, human and animal follow their routines, and kings and gods immortalize themselves, time seems to have frozen over.
The men are crafting and carrying weight; women carry goods and look after the young, raising loyal slaves. Not a soul notes the guard from the royal palace – he's wearing the ragged clothes of a crofter. He arches his back and covers his face to hide his healthy looks. He's not from around here – as a guard, he lives in the higher residences of town – though he used to live in one of these stone ‘caves’, as he started calling these primitive constructions, many years ago, before he earned his rank.
Finding his old home, he lifts the muddy curtain, a replacement for a door that has once been here, and enters. He quickly walks towards the many crates stacked in the corner, which are only there for camouflage, filled with nothing valuable but stones. They’re just as neatly stacked as he had left them last time. He doesn’t lose hope, moves the crates aside and reveals a wooden trapdoor leading to the cellar. It still had the papyrus attached to the corner, left to indicate whether anyone had snuck inside.
The man closes his eyes for just a moment, but doesn't allow disappointment to soak into him. Thieves and the homeless, even pesky children, seem oblivious to this one empty house at the end of the street.
He opens the door. The moment sunlight entered the old, dusty room below the house, the man hears groans and vicious hissing. He descends the stairs slowly, not listening to the unnerving sounds, or simply trying not to.
It’s cooler underground. He doesn't have to light candles or torches. The basement’s rather small, and the dim light coming from the space above illuminates just enough to see it. In the farthest, darkest corner, among the remains of dead rats and snakes, a little being is wrapped up in filthy, worn out robes.
It lies in a fetus position, curled into a small ball that could fit inside his parcel. He always brought it with him, empty, for a subconscious idea that he could never quite reason. The man acknowledges how easy would be to take the creature out of here without anyone noticing. He can take it somewhere safer, somewhere with better conditions. It’s been here for over a decade now, and it enjoys its misery the way it is, but the man could never shake away the urge to take it home.
When the man steps closer, the creature hisses and spits, pulling the robes over its head, hiding from the light.
"Worry not, Senbi. It is I," says the man and unwraps the shawl around his jaw, uncovering his face. Senbi can't see him, but it was his traditional sign of respect to this ugly, living corpse.
"Nuru..." Senbi rasps in an ancient voice. All but the back teeth have long rotted away and it can’t even close its jaw. The words are slurred with drool and unexplained blood, but Nuru had learnt to understand his Master's slurping and recognize the garbled sound 'Mouhlou' as his name.
"Is she still pretty?" Senbi asks, its voice an uncanny blend of gruesomeness and care.
"She's more beautiful every day," Nuru answers, and can’t help thinking Senbi seems but closer to its grave with each time, as its been for years.
It’s nothing but foul skin and bones. How have the sharp ribs and joints not cut through the thin, loose skin was mysterious. Senbi’s too small for its eleven hears. It seems it hadn't grown a bit since the age of three. Its head’s too heavy for its brittle neck to lift – it would snap instantaneously. Its tiny hands sheer razor claws of a carnivorous eagle, snatching anything in its reach. Senbi has denied mortal food for years, feeding on the occasional critters, and only accepts clear water. A single, petite water-bag can last him weeks. As sickening of a thought as it is, it skips across Nuru’s mind just how admiringly strong is the horrendous abomination’s will to live out its delusions that it had stayed alive all these years.
“Marriage didn’t spoil her then…”
“Quite the opposite – she’s bloomed to be the most beautiful flower in the desert.
“Tell me, Nuru, don’t you think it’s ridiculous to wed little children?”
Nuru doesn’t answer, absently rubbing away a ticklish feeling behind the left ear. Senbi always speaks strange thoughts. He speaks about the rights to choose whom to bond with, the rights of women, the rights of the people, and the filth of sibling marriage. Babble of the ignorant and untaught being that’d never known society. “If I were pharaoh” speeches from this miserable thing were its holy ritual. It is nothing but the rants of a mad-one, yet at times Nuru senses this familiar vibe of dignity and pride in Senbi’s voice, not unlike a pharaoh.
“How old is the scumbag?” Senbi demands to know.
“The pharaoh has recently had his 14th birthday, Master.”
Senbi gives out a husky moan of disappointment.
“Few more years…”
Senbi doesn’t reply. A tiny, shaky hand emerged from what used to be a bright red robe, now but an old, colourless sack. It claws the cold stone floor, leaving scratches. Nuru unfastens the water-bag from his belt and slowly crouches down. He envisioned the clawy fingers snatching his hand, digging into the meat, pulling it into the crooked mouth.
But Senbi waits till it feels the sack touch its hand, then slowly turns its palm up, cupping the rounded bottom. Nuru half lays, half drops the water-bag to where its face ought to be and sat before him, staring at the wall. Senbi reaches for the corked nozzle, and from the corner of his eyes he sees the robes sliding off its face, revealing the blank, milky eyes. It grips the cork with its black gums and pulls it back under the blanket. After some time, Nuru heard faint sucking.
The phantom sensation behind the ear was back. He rubbed the skin but the feeling wouldn’t go.
He remembered when he stopped bringing it water for a month. He wished he’d waited just a little longer, pushed through a few more sleepless nights when every shadows whispered murder and Senbi howled and howled in his head, before running in a terror-dream through the moonless night to see and relish at its extinction. But when he’d reached the stone construction, the basement door slammed open by itself, and Senbi’s awful pleads for water escaped the dreadful underground. Since then Nuru began stacking crates in dread of the horrid thing escaping.
He impatiently swatted his ear, and painfully, but not a buzz in the room indicated a critter in the room – Senbi long ate every last spider that skitters by.
Nuru has seen it kill a running rat without touching it, with merely a rasping breath. At night he hears it calling for him, muttering futile schemes on the assassination of King Tut. Nuru drew it down to paranoia, but if truly Senbi has the potency to reach him miles away, then gods forbid, he did not wish to risk Senbi knowing he was not obeying it.
“Tutankhamun will die, nevertheless,” Senbi spoke at some point from under the rag. “But I want him to die now. Now!” its thin shriek echoed from the walls, shuddering Nuru’s entire body. “Not from his destined death. My own hands.” Senbi clenched its claw, as if strangling someone by the neck. Its hand motionlessly falls on the floor and the creature breathes louder and heavier, each breath sounding like its last.
“Do you remember the plan?” it cried.
“I do, Master,” Nuru answers solidly. The so called plan has been changing for years and was never close to execution – it was but another one of Senbi’s delusions. A trickle of sweat still glides down his temple. It took all of his control and willpower to maintain a steady breath and keep his heart from beating any louder.
“Do you remember who has to do it?”
“Do you know who takes the blame?”
“Do you know who has to die.”
“The pharaoh and royal wife.”
“Ankesenamun,” Senbi pronounces like a blessing. “My love, the things I would’ve done for you…”
Nuru tastes bile rising to his throat, but swallows and speaks:
“She will be mummified along with her husband. Dead or alive.
“Alive!” Senbi bellows, as if he was the one to make the choice. “She’ll be mummified alive. And then I’ll see her. I’ll see her face at last… And you will die. You will die,” he repeated, as if the words were a spell. Nuru remains still, barely breathing. “You all will, nevertheless… A few years time.”
“Is there anything you need?” Nuru asks the traditional question, which after Senbi always asked to be left alone, and Nuru would be free to leave this damned hell on earth.
Then Senbi says, “I need answer.”
The statement made Nuru’s pulse skip a beat. His heart hammered his ribs, threatening to break out of its cage.
“You know, I was born to be the messiah. I was special,” Senbi mutters. I could’ve changed the whole of Egypt. The world. True civilization would’ve came before its time. Time,” it proclaimed, such great words spoken in feeble moan. “Time itself would thaw and headway forward.
“You know, I see things to come. Things that could be.” It hiccupped. “Things that could have been.”
The itching is back, throbbing. Nuru grips his dress tight, muscles rock-hard and unmoving, fingers turning numb. This was far from Senbi’s senseless rants.
The creature shifted underneath the blankets, a portion of it pulled off of its sharp shoulders, spine coiled, rigid like the teeth of a key.
“It took me long to realize, but now I know for sure…”
Senbi keeps shifting, restlessly, noisily. Nuru knows its hearing is outrageous. Nuru knows that Senbi hears his breathing. He tries to breathe slowly, deeply, but nothing can calm his heart at this point. He’s paralyzed, and his ear keeps itching.
“I see days of past!” it croaked with desperation. “I thought you came here every day. Thought you were real… So awfully boring, always saying the same things. So c-caring,” it moans, and panic shoots through Nuru’s veins as he swears he hears a weeping note.
“I see days so far I shouldn’t know,” it pushes out with a challenge, it cannot draw a breath, the lump under the blanket convulsing rhythmically. Nuru can barely make out Senbi’s words anymore, as if it had swallowed its tongue. A content thought crept in that he could watch him choke to death right now.
“I am the messiah,” it sobs, and Nuru realizes seconds too late that this is his only chance to flee.
“They left me,” Senbi sighs, and its words pin Nuru to the stone floor.
He knows this is his doom.
“Abandoned. Misunderstood. I couldn’t stand for myself. I am the messiah. I grew, and I've never seen the rays of the sun. I did not breathe the air, but darkness was before me every day, and no one came to find me.”
The rat. All he can think of is the rat slain with but a fowl breath. The itch behind the ear grows fiercer, piercing under the skin like a needle.
“Answers. I need answers…”
Tears force themselves out of his eyes. His hands are trembling, legs are cotton; he is consciously paralyzed. A single shift, he knows, can be taken for an attempt to escape, and his innards will implode. Just a breath is all it takes.
“What is your question, Master?” Nuru achieves but a faint, shaky, sobbing whisper. He knew this day would come.
Senbi miraculously raises its head, the blanket dropping, and it looks at Nuru with those white, luminescent eyes. Startlingly, it doesn’t mind the light at all, neither winces or frowns, still his face but puckered, soggy leather – the face of a hundred-year-old man.
“Who are you, Nuru?” it asks, clearly, coherently. “Who are you?You’ve always been so kind, do tell me about yourself.”
Nuru’s throat is dry; he can’t even swallow. His shaky breaths are the only sound in the now. Senbi even stopped breathing to hear the quiet, sheepish answer:
“I–” His voice failed him. “I am Nuru, s-son of Tarik. Third born in the family. I am a royal guard of the palace…”
“You have a wife.” The statement sounded in his head, not from the creature’s black, barely moving, bleeding mouth.
“But no children?” Senbi asks and tilts its head, so as if it can truly see and study Nuru’s body language.
A creep was biting – something was truly biting – behind the ear. Nuru feels veins bulging on his neck, pulsating on his temple, blood draining from his head. It’s not just fear keeps him transfixed. He’s growing weaker.
“My wife’s been cursed with infertility,” Nuru whisphers. Tears keep rolling. He can’t control the weeping. Yet he keeps his back straight, feeling Senbi’s gaze piercing through him. Dignity won’t save him now. Senbi can’t possibly see, yet the expression on his terrible, pale face speaks that he sees the truth, in one way or the other.
“It’s been years, but we’re still trying…”
“No luck? Not at least once?” Senbi spits accusingly, toothless mouth grimacing, only blackness inside. Then it shrieks at an impossible pitch, in the voice of many men, right inside his skull. “You haven’t succeeded even once?”
A nerve blasts from his ear right to his brain. Nuru yells and moves, and falls to the ground with a heavy thud, his legs seized by convulsions, thrashing and shuddering with fierce force. Nuru pants and cries out, reaching for his left ear. A fleshy, slimy being hangs to his head. It’s revolting to touch, impossible to grip, twitching ferociously, causing blasts of pain across the head, resonating into his eyes.
“Or did you forget?” Senbi yells.
The being kicks the rag off, gesture sharp, impossibly swift. It props itself up on its single, thin arm, head dangling upside down off its limp neck. Nuru yelps. He tumbles to the stairs, rolling, dragging his whole self with a single hand, whilst crawling at the leech on his head.
His dragging hand feels a rock.
“Forget the gifted one?” Senbi propels himself on his inward, backwards kneels, but it can’t maneuver its spider limbs that were never meant to work. It tumbles and rolls after him, cussing, hacking, spitting. “Forget the one granted from beyond the heavens?”
There’s only ringing in his ear as Nuru strikes behind his ear with a shingle, cutting, lacerating, gushing with blood, but the leech only tugs, clinging to him with its razor teeth, sucking harder, greedier, with ghastly smooching.
“A messiah of child!”
His other hand finds the wooden ladder and clings to it, but he’s no strength to pull himself up. He doesn’t look behind, only hearing the horrendous sound of Senbi’s mutilated body slapping against the cellar floor as he rolled closer, scratching the stone as it reaches out for Nuru.
“Did you do it yourself, Nuru?”
With a final strike, his ear comes off and dangles from the side of his head on a strand of skin. Blood spurts, the place where his ear used to be is set on fire, yet through excruciating pain he feels the leech’s hold is loosened.
“Did you split your wife with your own dagger?” He hears Senbi scratching right behind him.
With all the strength his will can find, Nuru pulls himself up by a foot, whilst gripping the leech with his bare hand and ripping off.
“Have you held me in your hand?”
A cord travelled from head into his knuckle. The blood-soaked flesh in his grip wriggled and whipped its little head, flashing its blank eyes at him.
“There’s blood on your hands!” the fetus screeches.
Nuru screams out, shudders, dropping the wrinkled unborn, his fingers slipping off ladder.
He falls to his side, travelling through thick air, and a pair of hands grab his robe and shake him fiercely. His mind turns blank and his body thrashes. Nuru’s in no control of his arms and legs as they whip and batter, like they’d been turned to serpents with minds of their own. His elbow hits a cheekbone, then a jaw, and then his other hand swings a clear slap across a firm, healthy cheek.
A gasp of surprise. His body shakes itself awake, his burning eyes flashing open, meeting the gaze another living person.
“Honeycomb, I’m here, I’m here!” his wife cries, her gentle fingers digging into his hair, forehead pressed against his, crooked smile meant to reassure whilst her damp eyes full of dread.”
“Amunet,” he gasps, grabbing her face. She winced and backed off, the side of the face red from his punches. “Oh, darling!” He throws himself at his wife, embracing her. Feels a bumb between them.
“Careful!” Amunet puffs, pushing him away. He places both hands on her belly, feels its roundness, strokes the surface with rough, shaky thumbs. “Our son is fine, love. I’m fine. We’re fine.” She gently strokes his face, trying to look into his restless, darting eyes. “Nightmares, again? We’re safe, Nuru. They’ll never find us.”
“We have to get rid of it.”
His wife’s hands drop to her side. She regards him reproachfully.
“This is our love, Nuru,” she says steadily.
“The old woman said it,” he weeps. “It’s possessed; it’ll eat you up.”
“The priests proclaimed I can’t bear children,” Amunet says angily. “We refused to believe them then, and here I am on my fourth month. It’s “justified” sacrifice they want.”
“You are infertile, Amunet,” Nuru exclaims, panting, still catching his breath, cold sweat on his forehead. “The thing inside you is a demon; a monster! I’ve seen it, Amunet. I have!”
“My love,” his wife says caringly, sweetly, like speaking to a child, and hugs him tight. “We’re safe, Nuru. The priests will never find us. Nobody’s going to take us away from you. I know you’re scared, you don’t want to live your life running for your life. As soon as I give birth to a healthy, strong little man, we’ll flee across the desert. We’ll find the sea and trace it to new lands where the hardworking are appreciated, where waters are clean and food is plentiful, and the sun is just a bit more tender on our heads…”
Nuru digs his face into her neck as she speaks. A smile of relief creeps across his face. He no longer feel the pit in his stomach; no longer are his arms and legs shaking; no longer does he hears Amunet’s senseless babble. He found his dagger slipped between the sheets. The handle fits his palm, the feel of it reassuring, as he grips it tight.