A quiet, worried, busy week passed while Jeshed cared for the girl. The storage room slowly turned into a proper bedroom around her. First to be swapped out was the sad cot with a decent bed. A bedside table was next to be added, so that he might leave water for her to drink whenever she was ready. A few days later, he found a papyrus illustration of some happy animals in a sunny field. He felt it would add some color to her room and perhaps give her good dreams so up it went on the wall. While in the market, he purchased a cotton cow doll and when he lay it next to her, he thought he saw a smile on her face as she slept.
Jeshed brought a steaming bowl of barley broth and set it on the table by the girl’s bed. He looked around the room and allowed himself a small proud smile. The girl was asleep now, so the soup would just have to wait. Jeshed had gotten her to eat woefully little though getting her to take water was easier. He was no longer startled when she vomited up thick black khemu, but he was amazed that she still had any left to expel. He kept an urn by her bed, just in case.
The girl seemed to be recovering and could even speak, but she still hadn’t spoken any sense to him. It was all just disjointed sentences and things that weren’t words. Sometimes it seemed as though she was not addressing him but someone else. Her fever had long since broken, but he wondered if it hadn’t left her permanently addled.
“He said it was important before he became all arms,” she mumbled and returned to sleep.
Jeshed sighed. I will get her an amulet of good health tomorrow, he thought. And maybe another doll for good measure.
“What will you name her?”
Eshmedi’s sudden question made Jeshed jump.
“What? Gods, don’t…” he sputtered. “What do you want now?”
The old priest stood in the doorway and appeared to be lost in thought. Jeshed gave yet another loud sigh which failed to elicit any response. He resolved to count to five before he asked again. Jeshed had worked alongside Eshmedi for decades and was not fazed by his eerie presence. This made him one of the few people who could stand Eshmedi’s company for any significant amount of time.
Eshmedi carefully watched the girl with a stare that would make the sun flinch. “She reminds you of Sumi, doesn’t she?” he finally asked.
The trick was to stay emotionless. Eshmedi might not know how painful his idle observations were sometimes. “I suppose so,” Jeshed answered curtly.
“How old was she when the Weeping Sickness took her?”
“You had a fine wheat farm back then,” Eshmedi continued.
Jeshed made a faint noise of agreement.
“It’s been thirty-five years, old friend,” Eshmedi said.
“Can I help you, Eshmedi?” Jeshed’s impatience could not be suppressed any longer.
“She was borne to us on the sacred river during the khemu flood. She was dead and now she is not. How can you not see the significance?” the old priest finally replied.
Jeshed turned away and resumed his vigil. “I imagine one day you’ll stop being so vague. Perhaps that is when the sun goes out.”
“Nothing is for nothing. You’ll see.”
The sound of the girl retching made both grimace. When she was done, Jeshed dabbed at her mouth with a cloth as she sank back into the blankets.
Eshmedi nodded to himself. “‘Shoshanna’ would be a good name. Like a lily, she was carried on the river and, like a lily, she will….”
Eshmedi stopped. “Are you certain?”
“If she can’t remember her name, I will call her Ashira until she does.”
A slow smile spread across the elder priest’s face. “‘Empty cartouche’? That’s a bit odd but then again, you are too. Do as you like. You are the one caring for her, after all.” To Jeshed’s disgust, he peered into the befouled urn. He reached out a bony hand and with a shaking finger, he dabbed it into the mess.
“Eshmedi, that is unclean,” Jeshed scolded. The old priest pulled his hand back. His finger was covered in the thick black sludge and he held it up for Jeshed to see.
“On the contrary, friend, this is khemu,” he said. “She isn’t coughing up what she swallowed. She couldn’t possibly have taken in that much. No, she is making it.”
“What are you saying?”
“I’m saying…” Eshmedi began and then appeared to drift off in thought again.
“Yes?” Jeshed’s patience was about to shatter into countless pieces.
“I’m saying this is significant.”
“Of course, you are.”
“You have much work to do now. I will leave you be.” When Eshmedi left the room, Jeshed was glad.
“Perhaps he is mad after all,” he muttered to himself.
“Who are you?” a small voice asked. The girl was sitting up in her bed, looking weak and confused. He rushed to her side.
“I am Jeshed. I am a priest here at the temple,” he answered.
She nodded. “Can I have some of that?” She pointed at the bowl of soup.
“Certainly. It will make you feel better.” To his delight, she held the spoon and fed herself. She ate like she had never seen food before, and he had to stop her before she made herself sick.
“Do you know where you are?”
She shook her head.
“You are in the temple of Uftem.”
She looked at him blankly.
“It’s a village in Ptalyat Province,” he elaborated. “We found you in the river a week ago. We thought you had drowned. Can you tell me your name?”
She opened her mouth to speak but then, almost instantly, tears welled up in her eyes.
“Do not cry,” he soothed, “I’m not angry. Do you know how you came to be in the river? Where did you come from?”
Great wracking sobs were his only answer. He hadn’t felt so panicked in years. After trying to offer more soup and handing her the smiling cow, Jeshed finally resorted to just hugging her. To his relief, she calmed down and rested in his arms, clutching at the arm on his robe.
“You don’t have to remember,” Jeshed said to the little girl who clung to him. After a time, she stopped crying and fell asleep in his arms. He lay her back in the bed and watched her until he remembered that he had work to do.
He always had work to do but that was the nature of the business.
He returned to the Chamber of Going Forth. The newest arrival was a man who had died of the Weeping Sickness. The disease had arrived decades ago but in just a few short years, the massive numbers of people it claimed dwindled down to just the occasional victim like this unlucky one. He had met with many other priests of other towns and cities and while they did not know what caused the illness, they agreed that it was not caused by contact with the afflicted. The emergency conclave could only blame malignant spirits who chose their victim at random out of sheer capriciousness.
He was quick to don his mask. The snout of the leather jackal-faced mask was stuffed with lavender blossoms. The smell would help combat the evil spirits of sickness. He worked quickly despite his protection. The mask, while practical, made his face sweat profusely.
Jeshed examined the man. All the symptoms were there. His throat had completely swelled shut. His lips, hands and feet were swollen like overripe peaches. Angry red welts covered his entire body. His eyes were shriveled from all the fluid that had been expelled through them.
No one deserves to die like this, Jeshed thought. He made the incision in the chest and prepared to remove the heart. It was the only way to keep the body from rising and the only way to secure labor from the dead. He would put it back later, of course, when the body was ready to serve. The heart was the most sacred part of a person, the house of thought and feeling. This man’s heart was as black as any proud Khemari’s. Withered white spots dotted the organ as though the heart were a moldy piece of fruit, but it was like that with everyone who fell to the Weeping Sickness.
With deft hands, he removed the organs from the central cavity and placed them in the appropriate urns. Hours sped by as he did the work he had done for decades. He always had a calm, clear head when he was preparing a body. No worries, no concerns…it was just him and the dead. Time gently flowed around him, serene despite the macabre environment.
Suddenly a thought flared into his mind. How much time has passed? I need to check on Ashira!
He turned away from the slab and sprinted to the little chamber down the hall. He threw aside the curtain, only to find an empty bed. His breath caught in his throat as he searched for some clue to her whereabouts. He slowed his breathing and forced himself to focus. She was weak and bedridden. She couldn’t possibly be far. Ashira hadn’t entered the Chamber of Going Forth so there was only one other way she could have gone.
The hallway led to Eshmedi’s chambers where he distilled the khemu from the river water and then, further on, it led to the upper level of the temple. Jeshed hoped he could find her in time before she reached either of those places. He would be surprised if she could get up the stairs unassisted and Eshmedi always kept his doors locked.
He barely got into the hallway when he found her. She stood without wavering or wobbling. She was looking up at a relief carved upon the stone wall and stared at a single man rendered over and over again in different scenes along the wall. Unlike most images in the temple, it was clear he was just a man. He didn’t have the sacred disc behind his head like the gods did. He was strong of build and his eyes were painted purest black. Ashira murmured to herself as she traced the contours of his foot.
“Ashira?” Jeshed called. She did not turn to him. Though she didn’t remember her own name, she might not know the name he had given her. He approached her slowly. “Little rabbit, it’s time to go back to bed,” he said.
“That’s far away,” she said to no one. “Oh. I’ll have to ask.”
“Ashira?” Jeshed asked.
Ashira mumbled something and rubbed her eyes. She finally turned to him and her sleepy eyes went wide. She screamed. She turned to run but her weak legs gave out under her and she fell to the hard stone floor. Jeshed realized he had left his damn mask on in his panic. He tore it off and cast it to the floor without a second thought. He dashed to the terrified girl and knelt beside the trembling child.
“It’s me! It’s me!” he soothed. “I’m sorry! I forgot I had it on! It’s just a mask!”
“A…a mask?” she hiccupped.
“Yes. Just a mask.” He handed it to her, so she could see there was no danger.
She held the mask up to her face and laughed. ““I thought you were a monster, but monsters don’t smell like flowers! Why were you wearing it?”
“It’s for my work. It helps keep me safe.”
“What do you do?” She wiped away her tears.
Jeshed smiled gently. Now would not be the time to explain. “You are still half-asleep.” Jeshed picked her up and headed toward her room. “But you seem to be getting better, wandering out here all by yourself. Who were you talking to, you silly thing?”
She ignored his question and pointed to another carven mural of the Black Pharaoh. Here Nephtet-Ka was in a chariot, riding over richly dressed men and cutting them down with a khopesh. A woman rode with him. Her long hair streamed out behind her. Her eyes were covered in a strip of cloth and she swung a wicked scythe as they rode. Behind them were countless identical masked forms, dispassionately ripping into onlookers. Jeshed flinched. He walked by these reliefs every day, never really seeing them. He never realized how brutal they were until now. He turned her head away.
“Who is that?” she pointed to the rendering of the woman in the chariot.
“That is the Nameless Queen,” he replied.
“Why doesn’t she have a name?” Ashira asked.
“It was lost to history once we became a province of Alvara.”
Ashira yawned. “I know her name.”
Jeshed chuckled. “Is that so?”
He entered her room and set her down on her bed. “And how do you know that?”
She snuggled under her blanket. “Some things you just know.”
He patted her on her head and smiled. He had forgotten what it was like to have children around. With his own, he had learned that what children didn’t know, their imaginations quickly filled in the spaces.
“Do I have to go west?” she asked suddenly. Jeshed had thought she was asleep.
Jeshed tugged at his beard. He didn’t want to tell her that everyone goes west at some point. “Not right now. Why do you ask?”
“I’ll need to go west soon. Can I have a camel? I don’t want to walk the whole way,” Ashira said.
Jeshed flinched. He had experience with the gravely ill. Many times, they knew they were not going to recover and gently accepted their fates. “You won’t need to go for a very very long time.”
“But it’s important.” she sat up. “I need to go.”
Jeshed sat on her bed and held her close. “You’re getting better. Do you hear me? You’re getting better and soon you’ll be able to play with the other children of the village.”
Ashira smiled. “Can I?”
“Of course!” he replied. “I’ll even teach you how to read and write. You’re going to be the smartest girl in Uftem.”
She settled back down in bed. “I can stay with you even if I can’t remember my name?”
“Even if you did, you’d have a place here. The river brought you here, you know,” Jeshed said.
“Can you teach me to be a priest like you?”
Jeshed paused. “We don’t need to talk about that right now.”
Ashira nodded and drifted off to sleep. Jeshed carefully left her room and returned to the embalming chamber. After a moment’s thought, he locked the door behind him. Children didn’t need to see certain things, after all.