A Little Treat, a Little Teaser
If you're wandering by and wondering what this project is, here's a sample. It's one of three intertwined stories, three lives that weave in and out and through one another across thousands of years. (The others are present day and far future.) This is the first and the earliest. I hope you enjoy.
A hawk hung on the pinnacle of heaven. From the temple far below, it looked like a bird of metal suspended in the sky.
The sun's heat was fierce, but Meritre shivered. The choir was so much smaller than it had been a year ago: so many lost, so many voices silenced. Of those whom the plague had left, too many were thin and pale, and their singing barely rippled the air above the courtyard.
They would be strong again. New voices would join the chorus. Pharaoh had promised, swearing that the promise came from the great god Amon himself.
Today, there were only twelve singers, and somehow they had to sing as if there were three times that many. The plague was gone at last. In just nine days there would be a royal rite of celebration, and the choir would sing the responses.
The mistress of the chorus struck the stone paving with her rod. "Again," she said. "Clearer, louder, stronger. The king will be here, and the king's daughter. Give them a hymn worthy of the god himself."
Meritre filled her heart and head and throat with the song and poured it out with all the strength she had. Eleven voices joined with hers, swelling until they filled the great court with its brilliantly painted columns and its ranks of statues both royal and divine. Even the blue vault of heaven and the hawk of Horus hovering in it seemed to pause, struck motionless by the sound.
One voice faltered, lost its power and swiftly died. It was the one of them all that Meritre knew best, the purest and until now the strongest.
She turned in time to see her mother fall. The singers on either side leaped to catch her, but Meritre was there first. Her knees were bruised from the pavement; her mother was a dead weight in her arms.
Aweret still breathed, though shallowly. Her skin was damp and unnaturally cold.
The plague came with a cough and a burning fever. These chills must be something else, something less deadly--from the heat, maybe. It was terribly hot in the courtyard, and they had been rehearsing since the early morning. It was a miracle that no one else had fainted.
One of the temple servants brought a cup full of barley water. Meritre held it to her mother's lips. Aweret drank a sip or two, then turned her head away.
The mistress of the chorus was a sharp and irritable woman, but her heart was kind. She insisted on sending Aweret home in a chair like one of the priests. Aweret was weak enough not to object--and that frightened Meritre all over again.
She held herself together well enough to make her way home, though she hardly remembered the streets between. Those were much less crowded than they used to be, and the markets were almost empty.
The servants from the temple helped her carry Aweret up to the roof where there was a fan and a shade and as much coolness as anyone could find in this season. No one else was in the house. Father and the boys were in the king's workshop, carving statues as they did every day except festival days.
Meritre dampened the shade in the jar of water that she always kept filled, and hung it up to catch the wind. It cooled the air where Aweret lay. She sighed, and Meritre thought she looked a little less pale.
The cat who had chosen to live in this house came gliding out of air as cats could do. It sprang up onto the cot and curled in the curve of Aweret's hip.
Aweret was well guarded now. Meritre wanted to stay beside her, too, but there was too much to do: bread to bake, beer to brew, dinner to get ready for the others when they came home in the evening. She stooped to kiss Aweret's forehead and smooth her hair.
Her eyes were open, and they were clear. Meritre never meant to burst into tears.
Aweret caught Meritre's hand before she could spin away, and said, "I'm well. I'm not sick or dying."
"Then what?" Meritre tried, but she could not keep the anger out of her voice. "You scared half my souls out of me."
"I am sorry," Aweret said. "I wasn't sure, you see, and I didn't want to tell anyone, even your father, for fear it wouldn't be true. But while we were singing, while the rays of the god were bathing my face, I knew. I'm afraid it overwhelmed me."
"You are sick," Meritre said, "or the sun has driven you insane."
"Oh, no," Aweret said, laughing. "Here. It's here." She laid Meritre's hand on her middle, where it was always gently rounded, but maybe, now, just a little more.
Meritre stared. Aweret nodded. Her eyes were full of joy. "It's an omen," she said. "The terrible times truly are gone. This child brings blessing to us all."
"Gods willing," Meritre said.
She was glad--really, she was. But more than that, she was terrified.
The plague had been kind to her family. It had only killed the baby, little Iry; it had left the rest of them alone.
Babies were so fragile. Any smallest thing could sweep them away. That had been true of every human life in the plague, but a new one, so young it had just begun to wake to the world, was most vulnerable of all.
Meritre did not know if she dared to love another sister or brother as she had loved Iry. A part of her had gone away when her sister died, and still had not come back.
She set another kiss on her mother's belly where her hand had been. A thought was growing in her, but she needed time to let it take root. "You rest," she said. "The others will be home soon. I won't tell them. Unless . . . ?"
Aweret laid a finger on Meritre's lips. "It will be our secret for a while."
"Not too long," Meritre said.
"Oh, no," said Aweret. "Even a man will notice eventually--and your father has a sharper eye than most."
"That's the sculptor in him," Meritre said. She claimed back her hand and made herself stand up straight. "Now I really have to go, or dinner will be late, and they'll all ask too many questions."
Aweret's secret was heavy inside Meritre, as if she had a baby in her, too, but one made of stone. While her mother slept on the other side of the roof, Meritre retreated behind the screen to the kitchen. She ground the barley into flour, made the bread and stirred up the stew of lentils and onions and salt fish. It was familiar work, and welcome, but her mind kept on spinning through it.
Just after the bread was done, she heard the commotion coming down the street, a boisterous male noise that made her smile in spite of herself.
The smile died. One of them was coughing. The deep, hacking sound brought back every memory and every nightmare of the plague: people coughing up blood, their faces turning black, their eyes rolling up in their heads as they wheezed and gagged and died.
Meritre staggered and almost fell into the cooking fire. Sheer stubbornness saved her. She would not faint. There had been enough of that today.
Her brothers tumbled up onto the roof, with her father bringing up the rear. He was still coughing, but not so hard now.
"Stone dust," he said when Meritre leaped toward him. She must have looked as panicked as she felt: he hugged her tight and kissed her, and stroked her as if she had been the cat. "There now. We've started the new statue, and the dust has been worse than usual. A jar or two of beer and I'll be as good as new."
She wanted to believe it. She needed to. She brought him his beer and tried not to hover while he drank it.
The boys were starving, loudly. While she fed them, she could stop thinking about her mother having a baby and her father coming home with a cough.
It was going to be well. The plague had taken all the lives it meant to take. Meritre promised herself that.Whatever she had to do to make it so, she would do. She promised that, too, deep in her heart, where only the gods could hear.