Translated from the original Bengali by Dipen Bhattacharya and Lisa Conyers.
The sun was setting; the arches of the temple of the Empress Hatsepsut began to disappear into the darkness. My hands were red after hammering away the whole day on a piece of sandstone. A blister had appeared on my left palm, and it was not giving me any peace for the last days. I was carving the hymn of the god Amun-ra, and then painting it red and green so that it could be seen from afar. The colored sandstone was in striking contrast to the dry brown-yellow hills to the west.
“Amenhotep, go home. We have two more days to finish this,” said friend Amenakht, “Take care of the blister, otherwise you won’t be able to hold the chisel later.”
The Nile River was flooding. It was only the first month of the flood, with rainwater flowing north from the land of Kush far to the south. We crossed the river by boat from west to east. The pain of the blister became intense. As the boat approached the other shore, I thought that drinking heket might relieve the pain. The tavern, where mainly royal representatives and wealthy businessmen came, was very close to the boat dock. The commoners couldn’t enter, but the owner respected me as an educated writer, so there were no barriers for me.
There was quite a crowd in the tavern, many standing, some sitting on the floor. Their faces flickered as the twinkling oil lamp reflected on them: ghostly beings came in and out of the light, it was quite a dramatic and strange sensation. I handed my chisel to the owner and said, “Give me a jug of heket.” Knowing how valuable the chisel was to me, he said, “I’ll give you a couple of jugs for this.” The owner was a good man, his name was Nebnefer.
I sat on the floor and quickly drank the two jugs. I forgot the blister. Then I came to realize that an old man had been sitting next to me for some time. I could not remember when he had sat down. I muttered, “My son has grown up suddenly, but the girl is five years old. If only she could be always like that, a small child.” That was all I said. I didn’t pay attention to the old man that day, but I thought he muttered, “Ah well, what’s wrong with such an experiment? Who else is in your family?” I didn’t understand the meaning of the word ‘experiment’, but I think I replied, “My wife, son, daughter, and mother. The boy is big, the girl is still little.”
“And your daughter’s name?”
“Naunakht! The jewel of my eye.” I don’t remember what else I said after that, maybe I said, “I swear by Amun-ra that it’s better if no one grows old.”
When I returned home that night, the warrior Empress Hatsepsut was standing at the door. No, I’m joking. My wife’s name was Menatnakht, but her mood was occasionally such that I would call her our Pharaoh Hatsepsut. I calmed her down a bit with my blister story, but I chose not to tell her that I had bartered my chisel for heket. I had another chisel.
Menatnakht was eight months pregnant at that time, with a full stomach, giving her a hard time walking around. Naunakht ran to me and wanted me to pick her up. Her mother scolded her and told her to go and sit in the corner of the room. I asked, “Where is Neferhotep?” My son Neferhotep was eight years old. In the morning I asked him to copy a prayer song of the Goddess Hathor. It was my wish that Amenhotep’s son would grow up to be a writer like Amenhotep. Menatnakht said, “The poor boy fell asleep while waiting for you.”
For his age, Neferhotep’s handwriting was excellent. He could hold a reed pen properly, he could make ink on his own. There were not many papyrus sheets at home, so he practiced with what we had. As I entered the inner room with a lamp, the trembling flame of the lamp brought to life the sleeping face of Neferhotep, my dear son, the jewel of my soul. The papyrus leaf was coiled to the side. Leaving the lamp on the ground, I sat down beside the boy, picked up the leaf, and read, in the trembling handwriting of Neferhotep –
O the elders of the western heavens,
O the combined gods of the western sky,
O the kings of the western horizons!
We celebrate the arrival of the Goddess Hathor,
We rejoice in her beauty.
Very few people in Egypt could read these words, and I was very proud of my son’s work.
I would say that night was like many others, but due to the influence of heket – or maybe for some other reason that I could not fathom – I could not sleep. I came out of the house before the sun rose, Sirius shone in the eastern sky, and I addressed her in my mind, “O Goddess Sopdet, safeguard my family.” In fact, I did not need to pray to neither Sopdet, Hathor or Amun for safety, because, what seemed to be already so long ago, but actually had taken place only the evening before, our future was determined in Nebnefer’s tavern.
A few months passed after that night, but my wife Menatnakht’s pregnancy remained as it was and her swollen state never changed, as if time had stopped for her. You can understand what kind of suffering the poor woman was going through. We had thought of ways to get rid of Menatnakht’s pregnancy, but we did not dare to take any action for fear of adverse consequences.
My elderly mother lived in a room across the yard, opposite our two rooms. Mother was dying during this first month of the flood and was going through intense physical pain. The reader must have experienced the suffering of such a loved one, when death is a kind of liberation. Sadly, mother was not released, but somehow rallied to survive the ordeal. At times, my wife and I wondered if there was a way to make her free of pain, but the method was so terrible that we could not take that step. A year passed like this.
It was an intense year of discomfort and pain. Meanwhile, rumors started circulating about us in the town of Waset. My friend Amenakht said that news had spread to the west bank of the river: Apophis had landed in the town of Waset to destroy the world, and that he had made our house his base in the early stages of advent. Many shops in the market stopped selling goods to me, and I had to send our maid Henetsenu to do our daily shopping. Luckily for me, the mayor of Waset liked my work, so the work orders didn’t stop, so there was no shortage of food at home. But I must say memory is a strange thing, I did not think of that old man in the bar of Nebnefer throughout the year. Finally, one night when I was not sleeping again, I got up before the sunrise and went out of the house to find Sirius in the eastern sky. That’s when I remembered the words – “Oh, well, what’s wrong with such an experiment?”
I could not wait until Nebnefer’s tavern opened that day. In the meantime, I had an order from the mayor of Waset to have Amun-Ra’s hymn engraved on a stone. I sent my boy to the Mayor to tell him that my wife was ill, and I could not come to work. When I went to the tavern that afternoon, Nebnefer could not remember any special old man. He said, “So many old men pass through here, and it has been a long time.” With that he stared at me fixedly, perhaps wanting to check if I had grown old, if Apophis was leaning on my shoulder. From that day onwards, I started going to Nebnefer’s tavern every day, and it cost me much hard-earned gold Deneb. Menatnakht objected at first, but I was able to convince her that we had no other choice.
Finally, one evening in the fourth month of the second year of the flood, an old man sat down beside me. By that time I had already drunk three jugs of heket. The old man finished a jug of heket in one go and turned to me to say, “How is your daughter?” I looked at him in surprise. Under his thick white eyebrows, two eyes were burning just like those of a young man. Reader, I am not ashamed to say, in that shop, in the midst of a crowd consisting of people that I knew and that I did not know, I tried to kneel before him, but I could not hold my balance. I was too drunk. I lay down, gathered my two hands in the form of a prayer and tried to say, “Lord, please save us!” But my tongue got stuck and something like “loplesavus” came out. I think he was unprepared for my outburst, but I don’t remember much after that. Later I discovered myself sitting on the bench next to him (it was he who probably pulled me up). It seemed like his words were coming from afar: “These things don’t happen linearly. And don’t call me Lord, I’m not the man you need. He lives in the north – in Inebu-hej. His name is Imotehep.” I don’t remember anything else after that. Late at night when the tavern closed, Nebnefer brought me home. No one would see this old man again.
Inebu-hej, 60 iteru north of Waset, was the ancient capital of Egypt. It would take at least eight days by boat on the Nile to reach there. I had never been so far away from home, Menatnakht wouldn’t let me go, son Neferhotep seriously advised me about how dangerous Inebu-hej city was, and Naunakht, without any idea of what the fuss was about, would burst into tears. Such a thing, but I had to go. Menatnakht said, “If Imotehep has so much power in his hand, he is equal to Amun-ra, and he must have come down from the sky. Will he change the world because you said something in your drunken state? Doesn’t he know about our condition? Don’t think he’s just waiting for you to come.”
I said, “So tell me then how the old man that I met at Nebnefer’s tavern knew about us? Surely I have some special meaning for him?”
Hearing this, Menatnakht sat on the floor laughing. She said, “Who do you think you are? Amun-Ra’s representative? “
I said, “Don’t say that. Our empress is his only representative, she is Amun-Ra’s descendant.”
“Then?” Menatnakht exclaimed, “Leave it to Empress Hatsepsut and she must be looking for Imotehep.”
This time I remembered the second old man’s words. I told her, “He said, ‘These things do not happen linearly’, which means that there are not always a direct instructions from Amun-Ra to the Pharaoh.”
These arguments went on for a few days before I was able to convince Menatnakht. On an autumn morning, I sailed north with my friend Amenakht. Reeds and papyrus grew near the shore; palm, acacia and persia trees could be seen with a background of dry brown-yellow mountains in the distance. A couple of pyramids would appear now and then, once in a while a temple to Goddess Hathor. A few times we had to pay tribute to the royal navy and local goons. Arriving at Inebu-hej, we found an inn where royal writers and inscription engravers could stay temporarily. I could not sleep that night. The buildings of a new city, the weather, the smell kept me awake, I went to the roof of the inn and saw Sirius above my head. I addressed her and said, “O Goddess Sopdet, fulfill my wish, so that I may meet Imotehep.”
The next morning my companion Amenakht got up and left for the river to see if anyone had stolen our boat. I went out into the town to look for Imotehep. After searching the alleys of Inebu-hej all day, I found a toy peddler who said he knew a writer named Imotehep. It was evening when the peddler took me to the front of a large house. I could hear people crying inside. I knocked on the front door. A maid opened the door.
I said, “My name is Writer Amenhotep, I have come from the south to find Writer Imotehep.” She brought me to the inner yard and left me to run inside, one could overhear a chorus of the crying from within. An elderly woman came out after a few moments. I repeated to her what I said to the maid. She looked at me for a few moments and then said, “Writer Imotehep died this morning.”
“Died?” I cried out, “But that’s impossible! A representative of Amun-Ra on this earth cannot die.” The old woman kept looking at me with a surprised face and then started to laugh just like Menatnakht had. Tears rolled down from her face as she laughed. She could not control herself and sat down on the ground. Several people came out from the inside, I understood they were the people who had been crying all this time. Their eyes were bloodshot, and the tears hadn’t yet dried on their cheeks. They picked up the old woman, all the while giving me a quizzical look.
The old woman addressed them, “Listen what this man is saying. Apparently your father was a representative for Amun-Ra.” Imotehep’s adult children couldn’t decide if they should also laugh out loud, like their mother, after hearing such a respectable denomination of their father. Then the old woman said, “Imotehep was a writer all right, but after he retired from writing he would not do a single thing for this household. He couldn’t. What I mean is that he did not know how to do anything. This morning, I sent our maid to the market. I just washed a few clothes so I asked Imotehep if he would go to the roof to hang them on a rope to dry. It was a terrible decision on my part, because he went to the roof only to fall below to die. Thanks to the grace of Amun-Ra, he met death immediately and did not suffer. Amun-Ra’s representative, you say? Hum, some representative!”
The idea that Imotehep could have the power of Amun-Ra was laughable to his wife and children. To go to the roof to hang the laundry and the subsequent fall to his death surprised me to say the least. This entire expedition to Inebu-hej was for naught. I said, “Please accept my sincere condolences on your bereavement. From one writer to another, in his journey to the other world, I send my best wishes. Let Osiris bring his soul back again. Would you permit me to pay respect to his body?”
Imotehep’s children took me inside. There were four lamps on long stands surrounding the body. The procedure to conserve it was ongoing. I couldn’t remember if I had seen this Imotehep in Nebnefer’s bar one and a half years ago. The faces of the dead are different than the faces of the living.
As I was going out after taking my leave, I asked one of his adult children if Imotehep ever went to Waset. I became a bit sad when the young man said yes, so there was a possibility that he was the right Imotehep. I walked away with a very unsettled mind. My poor Menatnakht, my poor mother! Will their suffering never end? I walked to the bank of the Nile. Amenakht was there guarding our boat. We spent that night on the boat and the next day, with a full sail, embarked on our journey back.
After eight days, as we arrived in Waset. Our maid Henetsenu was waiting at the dock. She was delighted to see us. She shouted, before even the boat had a chance to dock, “A beautiful girl was born. You’ve got a girl!” Oh, what a relief, Menatnakht’s long suffering has ended. Naunakht would not be stuck at five years of age and I would be able to see her growing up.
Behind the hills to the west the sun was setting, the columns of the temple dedicated to the Empress Hatsepsut were disappearing in the darkness. I jumped from the boat onto land. Henetsenu’s smiling face darkened, she started to cry with her face down. She said, “Your mother left her body yesterday, Osiris is walking with her now, let her path be without obstacles.”
A full moon was rising on the east. He is the god of time – Khonos – who has started his clock again. I was sad that I could not say goodbye to my mother. I looked at the descending darkness of the sky: there somewhere Osiris was carrying my mother’s soul.
I, writer Amenhotep, am writing down these extraordinary events on the tenth year of the Empress Hatsepsut’s reign, on the fifth month of the flood, in the city of Waset.