“Last Call: Acheron” by Christine Lucas
The night breeze from the desert west of Thebes chills my skin, and I stifle a curse. I should be in bed. Instead, I stop beneath a palm tree and lean against it, lifting my foot to check under the light of the oil lamp what in Sobek’s scaly ass I stepped on this time. And more curses crowd at the tip of my tongue.
To Duat with all the ghosts that think it acceptable to wake up the High Priest of Anubis in the dead of the night! To Duat with all their demands and complaints! To Duat with their countless neglected—or, gods forbid, forsaken—tombs, their widows already sharing other men’s beds or their orphans turning to fast-fingered little thugs.
My child, comes Anubis’ admonition, and enters my thoughts deep and masculine, a growl lingering between words. Once more you speak ill of my crocodile brother’s posterior. Once more you think ill of the spirits of the people of Egypt. Your people. Was tonight’s visitation so unwelcome?
“Dog crap,” I mumble, and the growl waxes to a howl of a myriad angered jackals inside my head. “No, my Lord Anubis, Oh Him-who-is-upon-his-mountain. That’s what I stepped on. I meant no offense,” I lie, then wipe my sandal with the cat-chewed cords on fallen palm leaves. Hopefully, that will clear some of the stench. It doesn’t, but there’s little more than I can do at this hour. Dipping my foot into the shallows of the Nile might disturb the sleep of one of Sobek’s scaly children. I’d rather not be crocodile supper. Not tonight, not ever.
And yet you keep offending Sobek’s divine posterior. How courageous of you, Lord Embalmer Ankhu. A lifetime around Bast’s furry spawn hasn’t taught you any humility, I see.
“Thank you for your insightful observation of the obvious, my Lord Anubis. My lack of humility is exactly the reason I’m in my night robes chasing after a cat who’s chewed on too many sandals, slaughtered too many unlucky creatures of too many worlds and ran off to strange places more times than I can count.” I stand up, wipe my soiled sandal on the dry leaves one more time, and hold the oil lamp high as I start walking again.
One glance over the languid flow of the Nile, to the flickering lights of Thebes across the river, and my aching bones yearn for my bed. A slice of my heart envies the common folk in those mud-brick homes deep in their slumber and those sharing beer with friends and family. When will I rest?
You know when, my child, comes the answer, and it’s soft and comforting in a hair-bristling way.
Of course I do. Never. The High Priest of Anubis does not retire; he dies in office, his servitude extended from one life to the next. At least, that was the arrangement I made was when I was young and foolish and not yet tired from the relentless babbling of undead voices in my ears.
But you did enjoy this night’s visitor, did you not?
“‘Enjoy’ is not the word I would use, my lord. But it was good to see my old friend again.”
Poor Khemes, my lifelong servant and friend, had glided inside my bedchamber wearing the form of his youth, free of wrinkles and scars at last, shrouded in divine light and the scent of lilies and jasmine. Then he leaned by my headrest and hollered in my ear with the ferocity of a thousand panicked donkeys that my damned cat had slipped out to venture into forbidden places. Again.
Nedjem is too old to go on adventures of the feline sort. I’m too old to keep chasing after him. And Khemes is too dead to do anything. He’s earned his rest, the lucky fellow.
And yet, here you all are.
“My Lord Anubis, your ability of stating the obvious has risen to unfathomable heights. Congratulations, I am impressed. And please to be thanking Lady Bast for her gifts—or, rather, her lessons in futility.” Everyone present already knows that cats are her on-going prank on humanity—probably on the whole of Creation, too. “Now, if you could just point me towards the direction of my cat?”
Ah, Lord Embalmer Ankhu, one cup of Mareotic wine too many before bedtime? You never needed my assistance to glance into the Unseen before.
A shove between my shoulder blades, and I stumble and almost fall and choke on all the excuses now crowding at the tip of my tongue. I’m not drunk, I want to say, but perhaps I am, because now I stand with one foot in Egypt and the other elsewhere, and I’m seeing things that shouldn’t exist. There, over the dunes, where the fertile land gives way to brittle soil and then sand and sand and more sand, stands a building. It should be made of mud bricks, low-roofed, its wooden door sturdy with cast iron hinges, but I cannot be really certain. Its edges blur against the darkness beyond, as if it’s a mirage. Or, as if its foundations reach into more than one world.
One step closer and I know it’s not a vision, because my visions come with an assortment of beings dead, undead, and everything in between. This one merely stands as if in waiting. Another step closer, and I spot the drawings on the wood: a snake devouring its own tail.
Mehen, the Lord of Time, both its beginning and its end. That’s new.
Where has Nedjem led me to this time?
I raise my hand to push the door open, and a whiff of embalming fluids brushes against my face.
Ankhu, you are entering a place where I cannot follow. There’s a thread of warmth stringing those words together, a thread I have no time to untangle, but it scares me more than any threat or curse he could have uttered.
“I can manage,” I jest to calm the flutter in my chest. Can I?
And still I push the door open, and the sudden silence in my head feels like a trepanner’s drill through my skull. No whispers, no pleas, no constant susurration of dead voices. Has my mind gone numb? Has my connection with the divine been severed? Or is this a place where the dead cannot enter?
It cannot be. Because there’s a pale, dead man sitting by the door, and there’s a corpse over there. That one sits by the wall, a drink in his fleshless hands, clad in a tattered shroud, with cats around his feet and cats on his lap. Nedjem, too. My rascal of a cat sits atop the low wooden table by the skeletal man, posing as a miniature sphinx—a sphinx with wide eyes, flattened ears, and twitching tail. When he sees me his ears perk up, but he doesn’t move. But the corpse waves at me to approach.
I know him, don’t I? Now I remember: the Ferryman of an Underworld of deities yet unborn when I first met him. He normally awaits in his boat with the three-headed dog figurehead in the company of black cats. Several now crowd around him, an assortment of ebony limbs and tails with yellow eyes reflecting the candlelight. All female, from what I can tell, and I glare at my own cream-colored rascal.
Really, you horny old-timer? You’ve spread your bloodline plenty in both Upper and Lower Egypt. How many more consorts do you need?
At least that’s what I’d say, had I been back in Egypt. Here, in this establishment between worlds, I do not know what careless words might breed, or what its patrons think of old men who talk to cats. But since they don’t seem to mind skeletal beings in their midst, perhaps I’m not the weirdest stranger they have encountered. So I take another step forward, and the wooden planks beneath my feet creak, and the image of a monstrous serpent coiled around Creation that stretches and wriggles enters my thoughts, and I want to grab my cat and bolt. But then the Ferryman waves at the empty spot beside him, and I sit.
Atop the table, Nedjem rolls over, exposing his belly. I should trust Nedjem’s evil-seeking nose, but my shoulders refuse to relax. I do not like this place.
It’s not the dim light. It’s not the thin cloud of smoke that clouds the already shadowed corners of this tavern. It’s not the few other patrons, bent over their small, round tables, they too blurring at the edges like midday mirages over the sands. It’s not the narrow dais at the far wall with the unfamiliar drums and lyres propped against the wall. But perhaps it’s the lone man sitting by the door, on a stool that cannot possibly be comfortable in this realm or any other. He rests his palms on his thighs, clad in strange clothes and obviously dead. Does he know he’s dead? I cannot tell, for all the voices in my head are silenced, and this man with the vacant gaze does not seek my assistance.
Ah, there it is, the source of my dislike for this place. The silence. No ghostly fluttering behind my ears, no divine murmurs at the edge of my hearing. Nothing but my own thoughts reverberant in my skull. For the first time in my life, I am alone.
A purring bump against my arm, a tentative kneading of black forepaws on my thigh, and a skeletal hand shoving a mug into my face try to convince me that I’m not. I sniff the mug and it’s rich and thick and sweetish, and I let the Ferryman’s cat curl up on my lap, and I take a sip. But the drink burns my throat and I choke at the overly sweet taste, and Nedjem hisses at the insolent invader of his own seat, and the black cat bolts.
Yes, I do not like this place.
Then another man nears our table: a tall, dark-skinned man, his hair and beard styled in long, oiled curls. I cringe at the thought of the armies of lice marching beneath all that, and I clench my fists so I won’t raise my hands to feel my clean-shaven scalp. Offending strangers for their hair-grooming choices is the last thing I need in this place. What I need is to take my cat and return to my bed. Instead, the stranger offers me a drink.
“Ambrosia might be hard for you to digest, Lord Embalmer Ankhu,” he says and hands me a clay mug decorated with patterns of faience and gold flecks. “Try this instead. On the house.”
So he knows me and he knows my tongue. I take a sip. And it’s good. Taeniotic wine, pale, fragrant, perhaps a little astringent, but good: wine fit for a pharaoh’s feast. So he knows my throat’s cravings too. I nod, and drink more.
He grins and the curls of his beard wiggle and captivate all feline eyes. He reaches down to pet Nedjem upon the table, his eyes still on me. Nedjem rolls over and spreads for a tummy rub in this obscene way that only cats can make look dignified. Then the stranger—the owner, perhaps?—turns to the Ferryman beside me.
“Charon, I told you the first time: ambrosia won’t revert the damage in your bones. It doesn’t work this way. Never has.”
A growl and a dismissive wave of a skeletal hand, its bones grinding too loud. So the Ferryman’s name is Charon. And now I notice that he’s missing a phalanx or two since I last saw him.
The tavern-keeper shrugs. “Fine. It’s your money,” he adds and leaves with steady strides to return to his place behind a tall, narrow table that runs the length of the western wall.
Charon elbows me and a torrent of hisses and moans leaves his fleshless grin. I can’t see beneath that dirty, once-white shroud—or is it a robe? Does he even have lungs? Nonsense, his huffs and frantic gestures say—by all the demons of Duat, did a clawed nail just fly before my eyes towards the far wall? I open my mouth to say something, but what can I say? So I take another sip instead, and beside me Charon shrugs, something cracks behind his shroud and he downs the rest of his drink in one breathless gulp. Where that drink goes, I don’t know. I don’t want to know, and I fix my eyes on my cup so I won’t check the floor beneath our bench.
It’s a good drink. I’ll finish this, grab my cat even if he scratches me bloody, and go home. Yes, that’s what I’ll do. What I absolutely won’t do is to go and talk to the dead man by the door.
The lack of an impertinent retort inside my head from my jackal-headed god makes my shoulders slump again. Then the door bursts open and a whiff of Nile’s air teases my nose: honeysuckle and lilies and the faintest smell of embalming fluids. I sit up. Anubis? Here? No, it’s not him. Two other men enter. One heads the opposite direction and sits with his back turned to me. The other, a pale youth with long dark hair tied back, strides towards our table.
“Here. It’s the last time. I’m not your delivery boy, Charon. Ask Hermes the next time you need a lint roller.” He speaks nonsense with a deep, sonorous, and annoyed voice, and hands a weird cylinder to Charon.
Beside me, pleased coos and grunts from Charon, and fleshless hands press the cylinder over the fur-covered shroud. And, Anubis help me, I stare agape at the weird, otherworldly, ingenious contraption that removes cat fur from the fabric. Other things too: bone shards and strips of desiccated flesh and fragments of dead things and tiny parts of Charon’s sum that have fallen off during his many years. He offers me the contraption but I shake my head. I’ve had my fill of dead things. I need one of these, brand new. So I turn to the youth, who up close doesn’t look that young, after all.
He flashes me a smile that’s obviously rehearsed. “Hello. Are you Nedjem’s owner? I’m Orpheus.” He leans over the table and shoves his hand in my face.
Why does he do that? Am I supposed to give him something? Am I supposed to know who he is?
He holds his hand out for one embarrassing moment before Nedjem reaches up from the table to hook him with four sets of claws for uttering the word “owner.” That, Nedjem hears. But if I say, “Let’s go home now,” he’ll play “embalmed corpse.”
Orpheus pulls his hand back just in time, licks his lips, then points with his thumb over his shoulder, at the musical instruments by the far wall.
“Right. I’m a musician. I sometimes play here. If you have a song request, let me know.”
Wonderful. Just as I was getting used to the silence. I keep my tongue harnessed, I try not to think of all that hair on his head and what might be crawling beneath, and shift my attention to the garment covering his upper body. Black, short-sleeved, with unknown insignia drawn upon the front. The inscription resembles a black shovel inside a white circle, with a banner beneath it. Unfamiliar hieroglyphs surround it, and I can only think of a crest of a gardeners’ guild. But isn’t he an artisan? A family crest, perhaps?
He notices my gaze and his face lights up. He stretches the hem of his garment to display the insignia.
“Isn’t this shirt amazing? I just got it. Awesome song, too, ‘Ace of Spades.'”
He’s talking nonsense again, while beside me a strangled noise leaves Charon’s throat. I honestly cannot tell if he’s chuckling or choking.
Orpheus rolls his eyes and pushes back a stray lock of hair. “Oh, shut up. Here, have some more ambrosia on me, in case the vertebrae you lost chasing Cerberus grow back. How was I supposed to know that your mutt doesn’t appreciate metal? Your cats do.”
He signals to the owner to bring another round of drinks, then leans closer, his voice low—conspiratory. “Look, let’s just agree not to tell Hades anything about that Cerberus incident, and I’ll promise not to tell him that you took one of your dead out for a drink.” He nods towards the dead man who’s still sitting rigid by the door.
An angry growl from Charon and Nedjem sits up, his eyes wild, the fur alongside his spine bristled. But then the Ferryman sighs and nods, Orpheus nods, even Nedjem nods, all in agreement of some arrangement I’m not privy to. But this I know—now: that dead man over there matters in a way that’s still hidden from me. I want to glance at him through the Unseen, but I dread what might unravel before me in this tavern between worlds. Then my drink comes, Orpheus strides away to fiddle with his instruments across the hall, and a skeletal palm rests upon mine. And, Anubis help me, I see.
The shore of an eternal river stretches before me as far as my eyes can see beneath an overcast sky. It’s neither the Nile nor the eternal waters of Duat. It’s the Acheron and the Nile and the Ganges and countless other sacred rivers merged in one, flowing through more than one world. At the nearest shore it still is Acheron, and Charon’s boat is docked by a creaking, moss-covered pier. The memories of countless souls that boarded his boat flit before my gaze to be entangled with those still to come to be ferried elsewhere. All but one: the man now sitting by the door. There’s something important about him, about his presence there, and I force my sight to seek deeper, and I see his heart. There’s nothing remarkable about it: a human heart, some blotches of darkness here and there, some tendrils of light around it. It could tip the Scales of Ma’at either way. I cannot tell which way; such judgment I leave with the gods. But in the last heartbeat before I avert my sight, I spot roots. Those tendrils of light course through his whole, all that he was and all that he is, to reach deep into Acheron’s shore.
That one won’t go. He’s not the first to resist his passing—by all the demons of Duat, I have encountered my share of the stubborn dead. But this one has actually succeeded. Is this why I’m here? To convince this mutinous soul to move on?
I tilt my head ever so slightly to focus the Sight, but it shifts and turns and spins and I’m no longer on Acheron’s shore, I’m not in that tavern, I’m not back in Egypt. I’m riding the scaly back of a serpent greater that the Nile. Mehen. And it slithers and squirms and wriggles, devouring its own tail, between stars and constellations, through countless yesterdays and innumerable tomorrows, and I see the Creator God Ptah breathe the Cosmos into being and the pyramids rise and crumble and the Great Sphinx a kitten in Ptah’s arms and then lost beneath the sands, and the world spins and rises and dies before my eyes, and I have no lids to squeeze them shut, and no lungs to scream, and no—
A sharp pain in my arm. A rough tongue licking up the wound. Nedjem bleeds me back into my body and I suck in a deep breath.
Lost no more.
And with a task at hand.
First, I down the rest of my wine. A shame not to savor the fine taste, and it burns my throat, but it helps my thoughts to return to the present—whatever that means in this tavern that rides on moments. I glance sideways at Charon, and the fragments of the Sight still flickering at the edges of my vision reveal what I missed: he’s crumbling, the degeneration deeper than a few missing vertebrae, more than one dislodged nail and a couple of torn fingers. His underworld isn’t empty anymore. It hasn’t been for a long time, and he’s tired. Is this man the last soul he must ferry across, so he can finally rest?
Well. This need I do know. It is my time to nod, and I approach the lost soul on weak knees, my body still unbalanced by the turbulence of my vision. But if my steps falter, I make sure my voice will not the first time I speak in this place, and I recite the ancient words from the funerary texts.
“Peace be upon you, friend, on this night of counting the years and of numbering the months.”
He looks up, his gaze still vacant, the stretch of his neck slow as if pained from stiff muscles. I draw another stool to sit beside him and it’s exactly as uncomfortable as it looks. But then Nedjem trots over to my new seat and rubs his arched back against my calves. He jumps up and curls upon my lap, his body a little thinner beneath my touch. My boy is getting old, and one of these days…
My eyes mist. I keep them busy with counting the dark spots on Nedjem’s sand-colored fur to avoid embarrassing myself further. Then a hand grips my wrist: a cold and stiff hand. I look up and see glassy eyes fixed on mine. His jaw drops loose, and a pained moan flows outward, a plea and a prayer carried upon the bodies of wriggling maggots.
“Not without him.”
So he’s waiting for someone. I blink away the tears that dared to rise, and I steal another glance deep into the dead man’s heart. A son? A lover? Or…
On my lap, Nedjem yawns and stretches in impossible angles for any other creature than a cat, his yellow gaze daring me to ask him this favor. At the edge of my hearing, I’m certain I hear Charon snickering.
“Ah, come on, Nedjem,” I say, my throat straining to employ the ceremonial tone of voice that sends servants on their knees, demons to the Underworld and leaves Nedjem totally unimpressed. “For all my meals you have appropriated. For all the sacred papyri you have ruined. For all the slaughtered creatures you’ve brought home from Anubis-knows-where and I’ve buried in my garden. Please. This is a path I cannot take. Find this man’s friend, so we can go home.”
Nedjem whines and stretches and yawns a little more. Then he leaps off my lap a creature of flesh and fur to land on the wooden planks a being of liquid, languid moonlight. He darts off, the obstacles of such mundane things like doors and walls barely a nuisance. Bast has crafted her soft-pawed children with too many gifts.
My feet have traveled the pathways of the dead many a time, but I’m not allowed to venture the pastures of dead animals. There, Nedjem must go alone to track down this man’s dog. I’m not surprised that this man clings on to this un-life until he can be reunited with his friend—would I do any different? And I’m not surprised that it feels mere moments before there’s frantic scratching on the door. The dog’s spirit, true to its nature, couldn’t have been far from its master.
Then Mehen plummets, the tavern follows, and many marvels occur at once, blending into each other and unblending in another cycle of the self-devouring serpent. The spirit of a dog bursts through the door; two spirits, man and dog, merge in a single two-fold soul; the walls of the tavern turn translucent beneath the dawn of the merciless fire of the benu-bird—the phoenix, Ra’s own soul; overhead, between this moment and all others, the scales of Ma’at appear, ready for the final judgment. But they rise neither for this man nor for me, or any other mortal.
They rise for the Judgment of Mankind.
The weighing pan on the left oozes darkness and putrefaction, wretched deeds of wretches’ hearts, too many to count and too vile to name. But the right… the right shines with a pile of tiny golden feathers, souls of countless little things of love and compassion. No, not little. Never little. And while the scales seem to hang in balance the two-fold soul rises, its form shifting in flight—now dog, now man, now more, until another tiny feather of solid sunlight floats and lands with its kin.
One day, in one tomorrow or many, Mankind will ascend.
Charon stands beside me now and murmurs things I do not fully comprehend. I turn to look at him, at those eyeless sockets beneath the hood and the Infinite glances back. He’s no longer a crumbling corpse; he never was. He’s evolving now alongside humanity, a being of both bone and light. He whispers strange words; he speaks of something Singular, of higher realms of understanding, of empathy and transcendence and journeys beneath uncharted skies.
I do not understand. But I want to. So when he waves me onward, while the tavern returns to its walled and roofed appearance, I know I have to follow. The door opens onto Acheron’s shore and Charon’s boat awaiting. Two steps before the exit someone calls my name.
“Lord Embalmer Ankhu.”
A voice, deep and masculine. A voice I’ve heard in dreams and waking all my life. It comes not from a jackal-headed body, but from a short, olive-skinned man, his head clean-shaven and his black eyes lined with kohl. The man who entered with that musician, a while ago, and took a seat away from me.
Has he come to drag me back to Egypt? Back to service? Has he come to remind me of oaths and loyalty beyond death? Has he—
He offers me a small parcel. “My cat-headed sister thought you will need this.” No scorn in his voice, no anger—only the faintest edge of sadness. “For all the strange places you will walk.”
I unwrap the gift, and I do not voice my thought that, perhaps, the Deities of Egypt could wrap a gift in something finer than sackcloth. Inside I find a pair of leather sandals. New, sturdy sandals of fine leather that bear no mark of Nedjem’s teeth. Yet.
Any possible parting words choke in my throat. So I just bow and take my leave, with Nedjem at my side to board the ship with the three-headed figurehead.
I take a seat by the tiller and, with cats on the prow and cats on the mast, Charon stirs his boat towards distant stars and new adventures.
|Christine Lucas lives in Greece with her husband and a horde of spoiled animals. A retired Air Force officer and mostly self-taught in English, has had her work appear in several print and online magazines, including Daily Science Fiction, Pseudopod/Artemis Rising 4 and Nature: Futures. She was a finalist for the 2017 WSFA award and is currently working on her first novel. Visit her at: werecat99.wordpress.com.|