Most people prefer the story of Khnumu the Ramheaded scraping men together out of mud and grass. That one is as easy to understand as watching a potter work clay or a farmer turn soil. This is the story I choose to write instead: In the beginning before the heavens and the waters and the air, the Limitless One said: I am! and he was from that moment, and likewise became every thing and every god created as he spoke its name. Before Horus, before Osiris, before Queen Nut stretched her stomach across the sky. Even before Tahuti, god of the written word, was there to record it.
It is not something to be forgotten. It is the most important thing I know how to set down in words. But it is not something Greatgrandfather would consider suitable for me to write.
"Here, Meri," he called to me, a faint rasp from the little corridor leading to his workroom.
I was grinding flour with Neb, and we were laughing about something or other. But I always reserved one ear to listen for Greatgrandfather's call -- which could come at any time and which he never repeated. You would find out at mealtime that you had missed a summons, when he sat with a face of stone, ignoring you. My little sisters Bant and Neb were one too young and the other too feather-minded to pay proper attention, so meals were usually ordeals -- for them. Greatgrandfather and I always had something to discuss: what new slaves had appeared in the gardens of our neighbour Heny, why animals most times cannot speak with humans, or even just the weather and the back-and-forth changing of the lands from mud to desert.
I gave Neb a look and rose to head toward the back of the house. She gave me another look -- sympathy -- but I could tell she was wondering if she could work slowly enough to leave some grinding for me when I returned.
The corridor was cool and shadowy but sunlight from the workroom splashed across its far end. There, enamelled inlay gleaming, was our altar to Tahuti. Its cabinet stood on thick legs, doors firmly closed and tied shut with golden twine, painted on all but the left side with figures and words. On that side the wood lay naked and discoloured where it had once been exposed to sun and the scouring of the weather; sand still fell out of crevices when it was cleaned. In case Greatgrandfather was looking, I bowed to the shrine atop the cabinet. As if in a doorway, Tahuti stood in mid-stride, scroll and pen-set in his hands, black eyes glittering on either side of his curved ibis beak. Sometimes he would speak to Greatgrandfather, but mostly he watched us.
Greatgrandfather's greatgrandfather and the men of the village hurried Tahuti out one night long ago, and with the invaders almost at their heels buried him far from the village in the loose yellow sand. Then they settled into the life the invaders chose for us. No one in our village lost their lives protesting the foreign gods the invaders brought. But no one truly worshipped them, either. Two summers ago, Greatgrandfather brought Tahuti home with great celebration -- the return of Tahuti and the return of Pharaoh in faraway Thebes. Soon all would be in balance again. I should have expected from that day that Greatgrandfather would go to the House of Scribes, but he was older than old and had no sons or grandsons left to work with him in Thebes.
I ducked through the doorway and down one step to Greatgrandfather's bright workroom. A breeze travelled from one window to the other, rustling through the scrolls draped over crisscrossed strings just above my head. The benches lining the walls were heavy with broken pots and grinding bowls and lumps of coloured stone. Greatgrandfather squatted in his place in the center of the room, writing-desk between his legs. His hands rested on his knees -- hands too large for their arms, large-knuckled and ripple-skinned and black as mud.
He gave a sharp nod of approval, maybe for my quick arrival, maybe for my remembrance of Tahuti. Then he stood from the crouch, and he and I were nearly the same height. I bent my shoulders down, a little. His head had once been higher than mine.
"Stand up properly," he snapped.
I straightened. A sheet of paper brushed my hair.
He made a gesture toward a scroll, a new one that had arrived four days before with a royal messenger on his way from town to town. "Pharaoh has taken back the lower lands and has called for all his servants," said Greatgrandfather. The first part I knew; the second, everyone had guessed. "I will return to service to a true ruler of the red and black lands, for however many years the gods have left for me. There is much to be written, and there are many things to be corrected." I nodded, but tried not to think of him leaving us. I thought perhaps Pharaoh would change his mind and let an old man live in peace.
"Before I leave Sekhetamit" -- our village, a small one but growing daily as people called back families scattered to outer lands or servants' quarters -- "before I go to Thebes, I am giving you a gift."
I held out my hands. When I was too young to speak my gratitude, he had given me a green and yellow hippo made of clay, that rolled on wheels and pulled a baby in a basket; I kept it on a table beside my bed. For my fourth birthday he had brought me a necklace of blue carved stones, each an amulet marked to protect a different part of my skinny little body. Plainly it worked, since I was still alive against everyone's expectations, and worked too well. Mother blamed the priest who consecrated the amulets, for getting his incantations confused and giving me the shoulders of a field worker. When I was ten, Greatgrandfather had brought me a palm-sized harp taken from the hoard of a Habiru singer after villagers seized the strangers' houses and sent them into the work crews in the mines. Now, I was twelve, and I held out my hands, waiting for him to chuckle and reveal the gift tied into some fold of his robe.
Instead he said, "Exactly -- your hands." I looked down to see if I had missed some new development. Same ten fingers, too long and too thin, and raggedy-nailed, since I was adequate at grooming but hopeless at keeping out of games with Heny's nephews. "The gift," he said, "will go in through your hands, to your heart, and stay there forever. I will teach you to write." And at last he untied a fold and from his hidden pouch he pulled a flat rectangle of wood.
I thought his words were a joke, and now he was showing me the real gift. He laid it in my hands: a palette, a mixing tablet with four depressions for the four colours of ink -- red, blue, yellow, and black. The tablet had never been used and smelled freshly of the tree it came from. Engraved and painted on it was one of the words I did know: my name, Mertahut, beloved of Tahuti, surrounded by the knotted rope to protect me from harm. There is a power in words; once they are fixed they must be protected.
I ought to have questioned his gift, but instead I was pleased at the chance to spend more time with him. Before, when the foreigners were here, he wrote in the sand, and on the bottom sides of tables. Later, he practised on pieces of pottery. No one in the village threw a shattered bowl on the trash heap; they threw it on our doorstep, instead. Now, he worked on paper, the backs of documents from the strangers' homes and courts, alone in his workroom drawing and rehearsing and redrawing until time to eat. He made beautiful, beautiful flowers, and poems, and the stories of the gods, and lists of kings. Sometimes he made drawings of Bant and me and Neb and Mother, lying about like queens with servants washing our feet and playing sweet music. Now I would be in his workroom with him, every day.
Greatgrandfather led me around his workroom to show me all the things I had already stolen looks at on full-moon nights or during his summer naps. This time I did not have to guess what stories lay hidden in the pictures. He told me some of the most important words and symbols. Now that I knew there were hundreds of signs to learn, all the stories I had pieced together and the meanings I had guessed at scattered away into blots and scratches that meant nothing. It was as if a mud-brick wall had risen up between me and the stories. Greatgrandfather assured me I would find great rewards once I learned the way through.
Pharaoh had called his scribes to assemble with the new year. We would have seven months together.
By afternoon meal, my eyes were so full of words I couldn't eat. I swirled figures that rippled and faded in my bowl of soup. Bant began tracing circles and lines in her bowl and green soup splashed onto the floor and it all became too much for Mother.
But it was Neb who scolded. "Stop making a mess, Bant," she chided.
Bant scowled at her. "I'm drawing pictures like Meri."
I looked at Greatgrandfather. He had not said it should be a secret, and at the moment he sat eating unconcernedly, paying none of us the least attention. "Greatgrandfather's teaching me writing," I announced.
Mother began to speak and stopped. She looked into her bowl and said, "Indeed, Father."
He said nothing. I told Neb, "All our family are scribes."
"It's man's work," Neb answered sharply.
I shrugged. "I'm not doing man's work. There are things men don't write about."
"What do you have to write about? You're not interesting."
Mother went still. She was uneasy when Neb and I argued, which meant she was uneasy all the time. Neb's father and mine had been twins, and our mothers had been sisters. Mother always hoped Neb and I would be as close.
I explained, as Greatgrandfather had explained to me, "Things that are meant to be forgotten."
Neb sniffed. "Then what use is it?"
Greatgrandfather sat back and waited for me to defend the both of us. "Useful for me to learn writing with," I answered.
"It takes years to learn to be a scribe," said Neb. She looked sideways at Greatgrandfather. He looked at me to answer.
"And then what?"
"Neb," warned Mother.
I had no reply. Neb laughed. Greatgrandfather frowned and sucked a piece of vegetable out of his teeth. Disappointed.
I spooned soup into my mouth. The rest of the meal was an ordeal.
Show me your hands. Clean your nails. Trim your cuticles. Wash your wrists. Every morning Greatgrandfather would run me through the inspection. The rest of me he did not care about, so long as I did not come in covered with gnats.
I enjoyed the lessons, even though I had to play less in the evenings to keep my nails in order. Even though my hand cramped like a bird's claw and clenched up stiff all night. I held the desk tight between my feet and Greatgrandfather walked around the room or crouched at the other side of the desk or sat with his back against a bench. His work lay around me for examples. Sometimes Greatgrandfather napped while I copied his texts -- at a much smaller size than his writing, since I had very little room on my pieces of board and clay.
The first thing I learned was that knowing words is very different from writing. But soon I became good enough to put down his dictation. Greatgrandfather's way to teach was to talk until I came to a place where I had no idea how to make the word. Then he would teach me every word like it. These were slow, slow sessions, but quicker every time.
He made it very clear: "None of this is for the annals of history. That is not suitable for a girl. But I think nonetheless this gift will give you more pleasure than your little hippo." He pulled the reed pen out of my hand, peered at it, and slid it back between my fingers. "And, when I am gone, you will send letters and tell me what trouble your mother is getting into without me."
He sighed. Sadness suddenly took over the room, and I knew why he had chosen this gift. He would be far from us and perhaps would never return. Even if Pharaoh's work lasted only a short while, Greatgrandfather might be sent to a court in another large city. There was no work for a scribe in Sekhetamit. There was no place for a woman with no trade and three girls in a great court.
Our family should have been used to departures. My father died in the mines. Grandfather died when he went to demand my father's body. I remember the tall man who was Grandfather, large and long-legged and determined, setting out to ask something important. I remember my mother telling him not to go, while Neb and I hid ourselves in the shadows of the doorway. She roamed from one side of him to the other, never actually touching him, lurching awkwardly because Bant was to be born only three days later. I do not know where Greatgrandfather was during this; probably on the road outside the village, drawing eggs and legs and lions in the sand. When he returned it was too late to stop my grandfather from going to the mines.
Greatgrandfather used to say he had tried many spells to keep his sons and grandsons safe. Each spell, he said, cost him a finger's width of height, so that, although he is not stooped, he is not nearly as tall as I and everyone else remember him to have been. "You should have seen me when I was a giant," he would say.
The spells were gone, all his sons and grandsons were gone, and all he had left were Mother, and Bant, and me, and Neb. The letters I would write would be the last magic to keep us together.
Mother sat us down with bowls and sacks of barley as soon as it was light enough to see. Some people recited an incantation against Apep the Serpent over their stores and left it at that, but Mother made us finger through the sacks and jars every month. Once, our neighbour Neit found a beetle in her barley, meaning excellent good luck and long life to everyone in the household. All I was finding were little worms.
"Greatgrandfather is going to bring back husbands for all of us from Thebes." Neb had not stopped talking, and Bant was following her example. I had a headache.
Bant said, "Mine's going to be a prince."
"Pharaoh himself will ask for Mother," said Neb.
I was hoping Greatgrandfather would call for me soon.
"What will you get, Meri?" asked Bant.
I considered this seriously. "I'd like to marry a scribe."
Mother, to my surprise, broke into her first smile of the morning.
"A real scribe," Neb added, to ruin things. "Not someone who pretends at writing like Meri." I was still glad to have made Mother so happy. But inside I knew I would end up no farther away than a house we could see from our own doorway -- in Heny's household most likely, with one of his nephews.
I heard a rasping sound: "Here, Neb." And I knew Greatgrandfather had heard her.
Neb went on chatting and pulling out bugs. Since I had started my lessons, he never once called any name but mine, and Neb had grown even less attentive than usual. I thought of letting her suffer his anger. But then I would have to bear with Neb whining at Greatgrandfather the stone face, and whimpering over her food later.
I poked her and told her Greatgrandfather had called her. She looked suspicious but she set aside her work and went.
When she returned, she was so pale she was nearly yellow.
"Is Greatgrandfather going to teach you everything about words?" she asked.
"Of course he is." She winced, and looked afraid, as if I had the magic of Greatgrandfather's spells. I felt sorry for her. "Only the sounds of words, not real writing." This was true. "To write properly I would need to know which picture to draw and which sounds from the spoken word to inscribe next to it. I manage with just the sounds. I wish I knew more, but I make do with what I have."
Neb listened closely, and this seemed to calm her, but it was also the end of her mocking me for my lessons.
I did not think Greatgrandfather would teach me his magic, whatever it truly was. I was not sure I wanted to learn.
The sun was at his summer brightest, but always the air was cool in the workroom, as if the wings of Greatgrandfather's painted hawks fanned the air from their perches on the lines.
I pulled over a wooden box of papers, not one of which had value except in how much space was left for writing. I set my paper aside and reached for another. Greatgrandfather's hooked toes came down on the page I was about to lift. "Don't be wasteful, girl -- turn it on its side. There's plenty of room there."
I was now learning the next part of writing, adding picture-signs to the letter-symbols, and had to make my drawings very small to fit.
"How did it happen that there are so many strangers in the two lands?" Greatgrandfather dictated, with long pauses every few words so I could match his pace. "How could it be that for so many lifetimes we were made to do as they do and speak as they speak?"
Hyksos, Hurrai, Habiru -- strange people with their strange names. The words were odd, but on paper I could make them look as elegant as a Pharaoh's name.
"The Hyksos weren't content with Pharaoh's welcome and great generosity -- they wanted all the fertile lands. They brought the chariot and the horse team to do battle. We had never seen such things used in war."
I thought of my green and yellow hippo, how smoothly it rolled with its little basket across a table. No one among our people thought of using such a thing in battle. Did only Hyksos and girls look at their toys? Or perhaps boys threw their toys away too early.
"They murdered our princes and our armies."
I knew the picture for murder, adding the sign of the fallen man next to the sounds of the word. The figures looked harsh and cruel as they crossed the page.
"They called the Hurrai to oversee our markets; and called the Habiru, who brought their gods into our houses. The Hyksos gave our farms to their friends as gifts of favour, and we were made servants in our own homes."
I struggled to keep up with Greatgrandfather's story. Sometimes I had to make do with half a word -- he would spend the entire next lesson criticising me for that.
"But the sun cannot be buried."
Outside the window, our neighbour Pasheri called to his sons. Greatgrandfather snorted. "My grandsons were proud and smart, so they went to the mines. Dedi's sons are lazy and worthless, so they worked on a Habiru farm and can sit under the trees and roll their grandchildren on their stomachs."
I was not sure if I was meant to write that, so I did not. Pasheri is one of Dedi's sons.
"There are two hundred years of scribework to be corrected. But what are two hundreds out of the thousands of years of the true pharaohs?"
Not many at all, I had to agree. Only a slight diversion of the ever-flowing Nile of time. When the scribes had done their work, it would be not even that.
"I would no longer scribe for the strangers, and brought my sons and myself back to live in the house of my father, best-loved Tahutemheb, and no women were in that house. There was a new family of strangers in the village. Their daughters joined ours to wash their hair in the river. Our little girls played in the water and their hair swelled up and stuck out in every direction. Pretty girls, but every one so much the same. When the oldest daughter of the strangers rose from washing, her hair hung straight and dark like the river itself. And our older girls cut their hair close to the head, so she stood among them like a path of good soil in the desert."
I was thinking how, if I cut my hair close to my head, I would surely be mistaken for a boy, and my writing slowed and stopped. Greatgrandfather rapped the floor.
"Do you want me to write all of this?" I asked. "About washing their hair?"
"All of it," he said. "How else will you learn?"
I wrote: The girls' hair swelled up in all directions. I used the same words I had learned to describe the yearly overflowing of the Nile, words of beauty and power.
"I saw the difference between her and us, and I measured it, and I found the difference itself beautiful even though she was a foreigner. Her name was Rachael, but I called her Ra-Is-Risen."
To hear words like this from Greatgrandfather -- "beautiful." Of course there had been my greatgrandmother, who died before he returned to Sekhetamit, but actually to fall in love. . . . I was glad to be making it into words, even words about the strangers.
"We made a place in the tall reeds and met every day. In time, I asked her to be my wife."
I kept my hand to the page, but I was tracing the same word over and over while what Greatgrandfather said turned over and over in my ears. He had asked one of them to marry him. To meet in the reeds was only what men and women did. To marry one of them -- it was wrong.
"My father forbade it. Her father forbade it, and her father's god forbade it, too. There was no one to take our side. So I asked the god of my father, Tahuti--"
"What did he say?"
"I went to the place in the desert where he was hidden. I dug deep and knelt above him where I could feel his shrine under my knees. I felt the press of his palms against my legs, and he spoke to me: 'You have named her, she is yours, take her out of this land.'"
"What did you do?" I had stopped writing. I wanted so much to hear that they had flown together in the black night, and only after many years did he return to Sekhetamit in time to be my greatgrandfather. Maybe she was still alive and would be joining him in Thebes.
He looked at my paper. He said, sternly, "The god said: 'She is The-Sun-Is-Risen, take her with you and go into the East.'"
I wrote. The-Sun-Is-Risen . . . into the East. The words and pictures balanced with a pleasing symmetry on either end of the line.
"I found her in the reeds. I gave her myself, and told her, 'I will leave my sons to my father and go with you all the way to Alalakh.'" I wrote quickly and held my breath. "She replied: 'Bring your father and your sons, and join my house and my gods.'"
"Oh." My disappointment curled around me and weighed down my hands. I knew no good ending could follow.
"We had not saved Tahuti to leave him buried and forgotten. I had not forgotten whose servant I am. I built my own house beside my father's and sought wives for my sons. Her father found a wealthy man for her, a builder in another city. I was happy for her."
This, Greatgrandfather explained, was a story of things which did not happen. It was as inconsequential as all the other stories he told me about the years of the invaders, those things that are not to be remembered.
"I know something you don't," Neb whispered as I tried to sleep. She leaned over Bant. "On dark nights, Tahuti steps down and they talk."
I already knew the god spoke with Greatgrandfather. "What does he say, when they talk?"
"Is that so?"
"And Tahuti gives Greatgrandfather words and Greatgrandfather speaks the words to his papers, and out of the papers hawks and eagles with red wings fly all around him and out one window and in the other, and they flap along the ceiling."
"Is that so?" I said again.
"And his paintboxes grow legs and walk over to him so he doesn't have to stand up and go get them. And the potsherds speak, in little tiny voices."
I laughed. But she sounded frightened.
"When Greatgrandfather was angry and called for me, he showed me some. And told me about the rest of the things he's teaching you."
"Go to sleep, Neb," I said, pushing her back to her side of the bed. Bant flung an arm out and whined in complaint in her sleep, and Neb stayed quiet.
I had seen nothing move on its own in the workroom. But I knew Greatgrandfather was not telling me all the power that Tahuti had invested in words. I knew Tahuti spoke to Greatgrandfather, and I knew that not everything Neb said was foolishness and dreams. But I did not know what one did to words to make them take flight and fill the sky.
I lay still in the bed and listened to the night. A breeze brushed along my ear and I thought I heard the rustling of wings.
At the end of summer, when our time together was almost used up, I went over some of the first work I had done under Greatgrandfather's instruction. I saw where I might have added a longer tail here or more of a curve to the letter there, or a longer flourish on the knotted rope.
"Meri," he snapped, "put those aside. You're a good scribe now and your old mistakes will teach you nothing. If you've used as much of the papers as you can, burn them."
Greatgrandfather's compliment withered to nothing when I thought of destroying all my hard labours. I went through them and picked out some papers that seemed to have more use in them. He rejected them one by one until there was no excuse to keep any. I gathered up papers and boards and tucked them under one arm.
"Come." He took my free hand, my writing hand, which no longer cramped at night. My calluses rubbed against his, rough against rough, as we stepped outside to the cookfire.
We burned all of them. No matter what wonderful verse or drawing of Tahuti Greatgrandfather had painted on their backs and in their corners, they went into the fire. My first awkward scratches and my later, surer hand. Ra-Is-Risen and the girls in the river. No document telling of the invaders could be left behind. The call had come not merely to Greatgrandfather but to all scribes of the true people; in every village a fire burned, the potsherds were ground to dust, and the incisions in stone were scraped away. From everywhere the smoke and dust rose to mingle in the sky, grey ribbons up and down the Nile, as all scribes and their sons made ready to journey to Thebes.
I watched the papers coil from the heat. A black path seared across the face of Tahuti. Flames bit through the knotted ropes, freeing the words, as the papers curled over and turned one face upward, blackening until the writing disappeared into ash.
When you come to the temple of the god, go not with great celebration and loud boasting, but with quiet step. The god will hear what is in your heart and grant all desires brought to him in silence and thoughtfulness.
That is another thing I should not be writing. It is an important prayer and not suitable for a woman's hand. Greatgrandfather spoke it to the village before his journey, and I want to remember.
The night before Greatgrandfather left, the village feasted him and sang music and poured jugs of beer over his head. In the morning he joined a group of other scribes on the road, young men, and old, and men older than Greatgrandfather.
Bant and Mother and Neb and I cried together before smiling him on his way.
"Send news to me in Thebes," he said, as he pressed one more gift into my hands. A bundle of writing papers bound with twine, clean and never touched by any words. "Don't be wasteful -- send every one, and leave no empty space."
We returned without him to the quiet of the house. During the last seven months, I had heard more words from Greatgrandfather than in all my life. But what made the house most quiet was no longer having to listen for his summons.
"That is that," said Mother, gathering the last scraps from the send-off and sweeping the floors smooth. I set my broom against the wall and walked down the narrow corridor to the workshop.
No scrolls perched on the crisscrossed lines. The benches were bare. I turned one over. On the bottom I could make out faint lettering of old poems, older than the arrival of the invaders. I set the bench back in its place. I asked Mother if I could move Greatgrandfather's bed in and have the workroom for my own, and Neb eagerly helped me shift it and moved a bedroll for herself into Greatgrandfather's bedroom.
Our neighbour Heny had agreed to look out for us. His wife had died many years before, and he was much older than Mother. But as he watched her scour bowls by the river I imagined I saw Greatgrandfather watching Ra-Is-Risen.
Bant and Neb and I let them have their days together. Bant and Neb played with Heny's nephews while I scratched words in the sand and let footprints erase them come evening.
On a cool night when Bant and Neb were asleep in their rooms and Mother's room had gone quiet, I stepped into the corridor to face the god's shrine. He would hear what was in my heart. He would answer.
He watched me down his long curved beak but gave no answer. Tahuti would not acknowledge me, a girl pretending to be a scribe and his servant. I knew only the shape of writing words, and none of the beauty. I could not write history. I was not to be trusted with the strongest magics of writing. I was not even to keep my lessons, in case what Greatgrandfather had spoken should be remembered. Tahuti stood in his doorway silent, a block of carved wood with no more answers to give than an ink palette.
"Exactly," said a rasping voice, an echo from a memory. I looked down at my hands -- large for a girl's, and callused like a scribe's as well as like a woman's -- and, past my hands, saw the cabinet doors, untied and ever so slightly parted.
The cabinet was opened only on the feast of Tahuti, and then only long enough for Greatgrandfather to dust and polish the offerings inside . . . but it was open now. I pulled the cabinet open even more, first one door, then the other. Behind lamps and reeds and my great-great-grandfather's palette sat small wooden boxes to hold powders and coloured stones for inks, things Greatgrandfather had never removed to dust. Perhaps they had been put there by my great-great-grandfather's great-great-grandfather. Perhaps they had been put there by the priests who built our altar, meant only for the god's use. With the boxes lay a tight roll of paper, wound all around in a long thin strip of gilded linen. It was empty of writing, old but of high quality.
I will return it to where I found it, the cabinet that is the god's true shrine, when I have left no empty space.
In the workroom I began, nails clean and trimmed. I began this scroll with the most important of all words, the very first words ever, and now I have told my own story of these past seven months. For the practice. And if my daughters' daughters should find what I write, it can be for their practice, as well. In time, I might coax magic to make ink birds fly and paintboxes walk, coax it out of the god or out of the words and pictures themselves.
But first, I wrote a letter on Greatgrandfather's paper, to go with the traders passing along the road to Thebes. I began:
To Tahutmes in the House of Scribes in Thebes. O best-loved Greatgrandfather, may you always be remembered.
Illustration © 2003 Tanya Chevsky
Copyright © 2003 C. Scavella Burrell
C. Scavella Burrell is a native New Yorker transplanted to Texas. She has worked as an editor of children's and young adult books, and as an art director for a roleplaying-game publisher. She intends to move back north soon and fill her home with itinerant authors and Alaskan Malamutes.