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By Raven Undersun
1. The Ashes
I am not convinced that perfect goodbyes exist. At any rate, I didn’t get the chance to find out.
Temporary farewells have always seemed out of sync with the living breathing reality of the friendship. They left, along with the imprint of a clap on the shoulder, a strange lingering feeling and the sense that you ought to have said something more.
Sometimes they were missed out altogether and blue clouds rushed across the internet to ping in pockets saying ‘c’est la vie! See you after summer!’ A poor substitute, I realized now.
All that aside, the moments you didn’t realize were goodbyes until afterward have a different feel to them. My lip wobbled. Staring down into the broad circle of my mug of tea to steady myself, I saw it too was full of ripples. I had been jiggling the table with my leg. Glancing out the door to the back yard, I finally found a distraction. The neighborhood cat was back.
She was a black cat, and unusually slight. A tuft of white fur rose delicately above her breast. She had wide, amber eyes like saucers, and the proportions of her face were peculiar in an endearing way. She liked to sit on the fence and stare into space as if haunted by memories of her past. I always thought she had a remarkably human expression. Sometimes she would jump onto the kitchen windowsill and peer into my eyes while I washed the dishes or made kissy faces at her. We had named her Dinah, after Alice’s kitten in Alice in Wonderland. Theo thought it was fitting, because Lewis Carroll had thought up the book here in Oxford. At least, that’s what he said. I knew he came up with the name because he was rereading the book but wouldn’t admit it: I’d seen him stuff it under his pajama shirt and pillow when I brought the coffee in in the morning. I didn’t like the name much but I gave in easily.
Theo and I had let her into the house once. We’d stood about, scarcely daring to breathe, as with tentative pawsteps of pure velvet she explored the ground floor of our lives. She’d passed by most things with only a cursory sniff, but after springing up on my desk, she curled around an urn I stuck dried flowers in and settled, legs splaying out. I’d bought the urn from the junk market that took over Gloucester Green square every Saturday. It would’ve made a lavish flower vase except for second-hand scratches which softened the impression. It had come with a lid but I had stowed that somewhere, on the off-chance I wanted to use it as a hiding place for some trinket later. Eventually, Theo had had to scoop Dinah up in his arms to get her away from that vase and out of the house. His cheeks popped up into rosy crab apples when he smiled down at the cat. She’d sat in front of my window for a long time after that, just looking. That was another funny thing about Dinah: I never heard her make a noise.
Well, I got the call to tell me I was dying after Theo and the others left. Arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy. My grandmother had had it. She’d been on medication for years. My father had made me go to get a scan around a month back and the doctors had just got back in touch. It had progressed too far to be rectified. I was advised to say my last goodbyes, to spend time with my family, and to avoid exertions such as leaving the house. I accepted the information numbly. It was the small things that got to me: things I knew it was unreasonable to be upset about in the face of my entire life being snuffed out. The ball in May, which I’d already bought a dress for, playing hide and seek in the Taylorian Library’s labyrinthine rooms, hugging everyone as they came in the door still burdened with luggage. My future after university had always been hazy in my mind, so it was the months ahead which bore most of the brunt of my sadness. I wrote in the margins of the notebook I used for lecture notes: I have finally had this lesson hammered into me: the future really did only exist in my mind.
So, then, what had my goodbyes been? ‘Catch plenty of sun for me!’ followed by cursing myself an hour later, wondering how you were meant to say anything important out loud. Promises we would catch up next term. Too much sloe gin, falling asleep on the sofa before remembering to plan travelling to Romania together. A cigarette outside, willing the stars to push themselves through the black sky, embers cascading to the floor quicker than expected, snuffed out by a shoe. Why hadn’t we tried harder? How had we let that flurry of practicalities, of train timetables and bags already in hand, distract us from the sentiment which invariably welled up, unexpressed, as soon as the door closed?
I practiced accepting my death every day. There is a yoga pose called savasana, or ‘corpse pose.’ One lies on the floor with eyes closed and palms upturned towards the sky. I would lie on the floor of my room, trying to slow my breaths and stop my mind from racing. I never did quite accept it, I just trembled and trembled until I got up. Dinah watched me from the window with a considering look. I wondered why she spent so much of the day here, instead of in her owner’s house. If I’d had to guess which house she belonged in, I would’ve chosen one far back on the block which, from the road, was invisible behind a curling wall of dead morning glory vines.
One day the house was cold, so I went to the upstairs bedroom, that the sun spilled into from the East every morning. It was warm enough to make me drowsy. I released my arms from their lonely embrace around my chest and lay down in a patch of light. My vision dissolved easily into the peachy yellow static on the back of my eyelids. At some point, I stopped counting my breaths. I don’t know how long I stayed like that. My body felt like it was melting away into the heat, into the soft prickle of the carpet in my back. Consciousness stole away to play hide and seek with itself somewhere I couldn’t see.
A cloud passed over the sun. I sat up, dizzy. Was that what it was like to die?
My father had been sending me passages from the Tao Te Ching to meditate on. They unnerved me. Spiritual rather than religious, he was fond of saying that we must come to whatever afterlife we believed in. I had told him that I was worried about the medical tests and no more. He was a plane journey away, anyway, or that was my excuse. In truth, I felt that I had already sealed my fate. Any other possibilities had ceased to be real. Choosing to stay here for the holidays had been the lick on the envelope which enclosed my confession for a crime that would send me to the gallows. I knew deep down in my gut that I would die alone, in a house with walls covered by photos of times spent together. Independence, a bitter tonic, was my drink of choice. In the wake of this epiphany, considerations such as informing my nearest and dearest that I was on the verge of death seemed unimportant.
My days were quiet. They had to be. I missed my dance classes most of all: those long Thursday evenings I would spend gliding along the lengths of St. Columba’s Church underneath the old iron-wrought chandeliers amid all the other couples. I was afraid of my heartrate raising too high, such that I began resting with a hand over my left breast to feel my pulse. It always sped up when I did this. It wasn’t the dying I was afraid of – that I imagined was something like sleep – it was the moment that someone I knew would piece together that I had known I was dying. But I wouldn’t tell anyone: this was the last thing I had a shred of control over in how I died. I could picture them standing in the living room among all my tea-stained mugs, my favorite sweater on the couch, my notebook’s secrets exposed in pages wavering open. There, in the center of my circle of cast-off possessions, my incidental remains, they would know that this was the way I had chosen to live or die.
My resolve softened. Paralyzed between fear of death and the inertia of the everyday, I let the cat into the house. I would spend long afternoons sitting on the couch opposite the double doors to the yard and leave them open. Dinah would respond to any movement by freezing in a wide-eyed amber stare, much the same way people would look at a marionette moving with lax strings and no puppet-master. She liked to go into my room and curl around the urn on my desk. I would read, watching her explore with slow deliberation, inundated with a sense of companionship.
There was one other momentary transgression: I danced. It was a song I had known years ago, in that unconscious way when you’ve heard it at parties or on the radio, where you could mouth along to the words without knowing its name. I stretched out my arms, the melody resting on a high note, before dropping my hips to the left and right as the groove started up again, rolling my shoulders. I smiled. The final part of any move, dance teachers liked to say. I took tiny, fleeting steps round the small room in front of the speaker. Spinning, eyes half-closed, remembering a part of what I love, I whacked my arm against my guitar. It stood in a stand on top of my dresser by the desk. Cursing, opening my eyes to inspect the six-ridged mark on my knuckles, I saw too late that it was falling to the side. The neck and tuning pegs smacked down on top of the urn, snapping the brittle flower stalks and promptly shattering it. My mouth fell open.
A pile of slate-gray powder flowed from the crack in the urn’s side in a fat stream. Some of it lifted off, curling up in the air. It was ash.
A heavy exhale escaped my loose jaw followed by an uncomprehending snicker. I couldn’t think for a moment. Then it began dawning on me how stupid and funny and entirely awful the whole thing was. I had never checked that the bottom of the urn was empty. I just stuck the flowers in, already dry. A few withered petals had curled up into purple husks and lay intermixed with the ash. With unwilling fingers, I prised the bottom of the urn from under the ash. In small, barely legible letters, it read ‘Golders Green.’ I looked the name up. Golders Green offered cremation services for Hoop Lane Cemetery in London.
The ashes resting on my desk had been somebody. What on earth was I meant to do with the ashes? I imagined myself as those remains, whipped around by fate to be bought and sold in a marketplace, arbitrary, accidental. I couldn’t very well just put them out with the teabags and orange peels and the rest of the compost. I would have to scatter them somewhere. The shock of the shattering urn and my loss of self-possession drove home the message that I should be resting, if even one outbreak could have such strange results. That, alongside the uncomfortable throbbing that had settled underneath my breastbone. I breathed slowly, propped up on pillows, praying for it to go away. What would they do with my body?
Not too long after the light faded from the windowsill, the pain subsided. I moved gingerly back down the stairs. I swept the ashes as best I could into a large bowl. The pile looked mesmerizingly surreal in its new home. This was the bowl I used for oatmeal in the mornings.
I waited 'til around ten o’clock at night. This was the time that footfall outside fell into a lull: most people were at home watching TV and no one had started making their way to O2 Academy or the clubs further afield yet. Cutting a few streets over, I came to Headington Hill Park. I shivered outside the big blue gates, which lay open. I had forgotten there were no streetlamps on the paths inside. There was nothing else for it, though. I took the path which arced up to the right under a thick archway of yew trees which pressed out any light from the sky. I took a deer trail continuing upwards, coming to stand in some undergrowth under a tall redwood tree. The park lawn stretched down away from me, the trees sprawling on it in expressive silhouettes. Two magnolia trees were in full bloom, the veined pink and white blossoms lit by the moon.
It seemed like I should say a few words but I couldn’t think of anything fitting. “Memento mori,” I muttered as I flung the ashes out of the bowl. They lingered a moment in the air, a glittering cloud, before dissipating down the hill. Headington Hill was a good place of final rest. It was both unusually beautiful and unusually empty. In the spring, it bloomed with cherry blossoms, the branches of the trees laden down with white splendor. In the summer, the big trees in the middle of the lawn grew leafy purple bowers down to the ground, so that you couldn’t see their trunks. In the fall, it went a glorious melancholy orange and the crunch of each footstep felt significant. I wasn’t sure about winter. It had rained too much, and I hadn’t come here on my walks. Now I wished that I had.
Even with death pressing in upon me, I still had no clue what I would want to be done with my body after. If those ashes were mine, I didn’t know where I would want them to be placed. I should be writing a will and testament. I’d thought that necessity or desperation might draw the words out of me and once I could see them on the page, I would think that of course I had always known what I wanted. But I had nothing to say. I had given up preserving myself for posterity, was merely living, slipping from moment to moment with uncomprehending ease. I dusted my hands off, gazing towards home over the treetops.
2. The Guide
I woke the next morning with a feeling of tiredness and cold permeating my body. Chalking it up to last night’s expedition, I resolved to stay inside and rest. God, the last days or weeks of my life and I was spending them mothering myself. But when I tried, I found I couldn’t think up many explosively dangerous last-night-on-earth plans anyway. Once again, it was the small things that were getting to me. I flipped through my sketchbook, the pages mostly empty, and felt hollow and heavy at the same time.
I’d intended to do a series of sketches. I would’ve called it The Pitt Rivers Collection. I’d planned on heading down to the museum, which housed an amazing incongruity of cultural artefacts, and spending afternoons which were either too hot or too stormy to be spent outdoors drawing. I would’ve loved to draw the bottle which, according to legend, held a witch, to use the shadows inside to suggest her shape. Or maybe the tiny replica cities and ships, or the Native American ritual masks. I’d wanted to go beyond what was there in the box, to imbue the drawing with the qualities of where they came from, what they meant. The easiest one to do would’ve been the black jackal which sat atop the Egyptian sarcophagus: Anubis, god of the dead. One of his epithets from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, sometimes referred to as The Book of Coming Forth By Day, as listed as a tagline on the wall next to it: the dog who swallows millions. I’d have drawn him with paws straining forward, reading to pounce, yellow eyes ready to drink up his prey’s soul. Although in photographs, jackals always looked smaller than you expected, almost timid: but that wouldn’t make for any interesting tension in the piece.
I kept the doors downstairs open, hoping Dinah would come in. I had pointed out to Theo once that we didn’t really know she was a girl, but he said it didn’t matter because no one was named Dinah anymore anyway. I walked out in the back yard, barefoot, looking for her. All winter long it had been a barren brick square. Every new sign of life I saw astonished me: the yellow primroses and waxy leaves, greener than I’d ever seen them before. The wisteria on the back wall had just started putting out delicate shoots of a dusty lime color and the neighbor’s roses curled up proudly, the edges of the leaves tinted russet. My attention floated easily, the way it does when you watch clouds from a swimming pool on an afternoon when you have nothing to do. I forgot myself. A butterfly fluttered past, and I whipped my head to follow it as it flew higher and higher before it vanished over a fence. Butterflies only live around two weeks.
I went back inside and up the stairs. That effort left my throat dry and my heart beating hard. I swallowed and walked into the master bedroom, which the sun had left as hot as a greenhouse. The sky outside was a dizzying blue. A pair of tennis shoes with a white stripe hung over a telephone line. Head in the clouds. Shoes in the sky. Feet in the clouds! I shook myself. A red hawk wheeled overhead. There was Dinah, after all: she was hurrying after an old lady outside, wreathing around the woman’s ankles as she tried to pull a trolley behind her. The two figures, the stooped woman and the cat, went out of sight from the window. Maybe Dinah belonged to her.
I lay down on the floor in the sun. Had I been imagining it, or had the circles under my eyes looked darker in the mirror this morning than they had yesterday? Savasana. Surrender. I held my hand up in front of my face. My bracelet slipped down my wrist. Silver florets joined single beads in a chain, each of a different color. I counted to seven. Purple, indigo, blue, sage green, tiger’s eye, cloudy peach, red. The veins on the back of my hand stood out in vivid contrast. I was put in mind of one day as a child when I’d splattered paint on paper towels and then soaked them in water. The paint spread out instantly, gorgeous feathers of ink seeping through the paper. I was spreading out in swirls, liquid heat stretching my senses to the edges where they faded, unrecognizable. My heart beat a tattoo on the inside of my ribs. Sporadic pain came in bursts.
I came back to myself only enough to realize I was crying. The tears slipped down the sides of my temples and nested in my hair. I cried, but I wasn’t afraid. That felt important: I would’ve liked to tell someone that. I cried, but I wasn’t afraid. And then I was gone.
An arc of awareness stretched from one temple to the other across the bridge of my nose. At one end of this semicircle, I was roused by a strange rough warmth lapping at the skin, which was tight with dried tears. Without my eyes seeming to have opened, I could now see. Perhaps they had been open the whole time. Dinah was licking the salt from my face, the white ruff of her neck tickling my cheekbone with unbelievable lightness. I sat up. She pressed her face into the crease of my hip. Sending a silent message of gratitude up to whoever was listening, I turned to look out the window. Gold light still suffused the crests of the chimneys but it was clearly fading. Shadows were growing in low places down on the street, behind hedges and under parked car wheels. Dinah butted her head against me and padded a few steps away to wait in the doorframe, looking over her shoulder at me with round questioning eyes.
People do strange things when left to their own devices. It never occurred to me not to follow the cat. A strange childishness seized upon me: it was a game. Out of superstition, I didn’t look back as I left the room. My only passing glance fell across a copy of the collected works of Dylan Thomas on the oak dresser by the door. Involuntarily, the only line I could recall from it slurred through my mind. Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light. Frowning, I put on my boots at the bottom of the stairs. The pattern of the laces was identical to the vintage ice-skates you saw in antique stores and made me feel that for the instant I tied the bow, I might be experiencing a mundane moment from another life. The leather hugged my ankles, giving the comfortable familiarity which had started me out on many expeditions.
There was no spring in my step tonight, though. The night felt soft – welcoming, almost – and for all Dylan’s urging, I went into it with gentle steps. Dinah led me through the city. She darted into the mouth of a small street to the side, but I’d sighted the domed top of the Radcliffe Camera over the skyline and wanted to stop to look. For a moment I worried I might lose her, but she appeared again as I stepped out onto the cobbled square. It was slightly too late in the evening to catch the sunset in each of the West-facing windows. I’d stood here on a few nights, arrested by the spectacle. I took a few long breaths, letting the limestone pillars and arced recesses sink into my memory before turning away.
Dinah led me down a small pedestrian street which crooked into unexpected turns under old lamp posts. Other people passed by us but they seemed like shadows. They had lost definition and substance in the low light. Their outlines were flowing and no longer static. I didn’t see faces, I saw caricatures.
The two of us glided into the open entrance to St. Edmund Hall. Why had she brought me here? This was my college, the only one with a graveyard in its campus. A crowd of boys were coming out of the college bar. They walked by me like I wasn’t there. Of course. That was what they always did. Dinah went into the graveyard-cum-garden which surrounded the old church, now the library. I always made a point of stopping to check what flowers were coming up when I came here, but tonight they seemed less vivid. They were still there, the purple vinca flowers twining up from straight stems, the hyacinths and daisies, but the colors were faded. My steps slowed. What was different? Why was I here?
On the side of the library, crooked steps led down into a dark opening. The opening’s edges were uneven, with bricks sticking out in the wrong places along the arch. Dinah leapt down the stairs with surprising ease. I followed more slowly, tensing my thigh to test my weight on each step. Ivy clung to the rusted handrail. This was the crypt. I had been here before for candlelit evensong services by the choir. There was no light now apart from the faint twilight filtering through the small panel at the top of the crypt, which opened onto ground-level up above. The sandy floor swallowed the sound of my footsteps.
Dinah scrabbled onto the edge of the baptismal font in the centre of the room. Promptly, she jumped down inside. I leaned over the side to pick her up. The bottom of the font stretched at least four or five feet further down than I’d expected. It looked more like a dried-up well from this angle. Faintly, I could see her eyes still fixed on me. Cursing, I swung my legs over the edge, praying the thin stone was sturdy enough to hold my weight. I couldn’t leave her down there – she wouldn’t be able to get out. Without a thought for how I might get out, I pushed myself off the edge and landed with a heavy thud. In the wake of that resounding impact, I realised I now had no easy means to get back up either. The font was narrow and I bruised my brow against the side wall.
A tail brushed against my leg, then the sensation vanished. As my aching eyes adjusted, I could make out the outline of an opening in the wall of the font, just tall enough to squeeze under. A faint orange light seeped from it. And Dinah had disappeared into it. Gulping, I ducked down and emerged on the other side in a taller chamber. Maybe there was a way out? A round tunnel stretched away from me with sandy walls. Small alcoves had been chopped into the sides of the passage at regular intervals. Each housed a skull.
Catacombs. I had always heard Oxford colleges were connected by a network of underground passages, which some claimed were the city’s old catacombs. Now I finally knew for certain.
Yesterday night, I had been worried to walk to the park for fear of upsetting the fragile balance my heart established within me. I had forgotten that worry. It seemed to bear no material connection to reality: I couldn’t even feel my heartbeat. I followed the path Dinah picked ahead of me. Her shadow grew longer in the flickering candlelight which seemed to have its source always around the next bend. I cocked my head to one side. The angle of the light didn’t seem to account for the transformation of the cat’s shadow. When she looked over her shoulder, her eyes, which had always been so oddly round, were now closer to the shape one expected cats’ eyes to be. Only, they had gone too far the other way, had morphed into gentle arcing slits that reminded me of the half-lidded gaze of a coyote in the sun. It could only be an effect of the light. If I had looked behind me, I might have noticed that although each section of the passage was lit when we passed through, inky blackness followed swift on our heels, engulfing the way we had entered.
The shadows in the eyes of the skulls lining the walls sprang at me as I passed. The hollowed sockets reminded me of the way my eyes had looked for the past week. Dinah’s tail was long and fluffy where it hadn’t been before. She was almost unrecognizable. By all rights, I should have been afraid. Still, she was my guide. I had always thought it unfair that the original Dinah was left above ground while Alice explored Wonderland. The roles had been thoroughly reversed. I focused on the spaces on the wall in between the skulls. Safe, blank sand. Only, the longer I looked, the less blank it became. Small indented lines swum before my eyes, twisting into forms that filled with pigment from nowhere. Small hieroglyphic paintings appeared with each step I took. At first, I thought they were paintings I had seen before in the Egypt exhibition at the British Museum. They depicted the gods and goddesses of their religious pantheon in humanoid bodies with animal’s heads. They were often found on the insides of tombs or pyramids. But the faces on the wall, with wide stylized eyes drawn in brown arches, were not the faces of the Gods. They were people I knew. I put a hand up to the wall, as if to touch them, to say ‘it’s good to see you again. What are you doing here?’
Small plants grew in the crack where the wall met the floor. Some sprigs looked like tiny evergreen trees in the making. How could they grow without light? The smell of thyme, cedar, and cassia sprung up sharply around my heels, though there was no heat to release it.
Dinah wreathed around my legs in a circle until I started walking again. The tunnel opened out into a long chamber. Its floor sunk down in a deepening arc to the middle of the room. At its end, a snake sat coiled. Its body flowed behind it in loops but its flared neck and head were drawn up off the ground. It opened its jaws. I was rooted to the ground. It was too far from me to strike, I told myself, the thought carrying the note of a plea. It spat. Two jets of venom pulsed from the top of its jaw, wetting the sand at the middle of the room. The flow didn’t stop. Its jaws stayed open and the spray gushed, the sound unbelievably deep, the darkened dots on the floor swelling as water began to build up in a pool. A river was birthed in the snake’s mouth and it filled the room until the water came to touch the toes of my shoes.
3. The Scales
The cat – if that’s what she was – went down the slope and swam easily across the pool, her back leaving angled ripples in its wake. I opened my mouth to call her back, but the name had always felt wrong and besides, it wasn’t Dinah anymore. It was a living, breathing replica of what I’d wanted to sketch in the Pitt Rivers: a black jackal stared back at me with Dinah’s gently expectant amber eyes. The same feeling it was trying to say something, if only I would listen.
Coldness curled around my shoulders. The cold that comes with darkness, with subterranean places that never see light or warmth. I walked through the water, let it seep through my jeans up to my thighs, skimming the tops of my curled knuckles. It was warm in a way rivers never are in England. It smelled of myrrh. My reflection split: nine versions of myself stared back at me, distorted by coiling ripples, with iridescent eyes. One, which looked the most like me, faded away. Two merged together, leaving undulations in the water that looked like a pair of wings flapping before folding into a single point of light. One dissolved into black letters etched on the surface like scratches in glass, vanishing in an instant. My shadow remained with me, trailing faithfully behind, stepping carefully.
When I arrived at the end of the room, the snake was gone, and in its place lay a woman. She drew herself to her feet, whereupon she towered over me. She wore a dress made of gauze, through which I could see every inch of her curving body, the fabric hinting at shimmering scales over her skin. As the last of the water sluiced off my calves, I felt clean, like I’d emerged from freezing ocean waves, shocked into forgetting anything but the present and the path to hand.
“Come,” said the woman. “I am Qebhet.” Her voice was smooth, powerful. It invited no questions.
A flame burned steadily atop a torch which had been thrust into the ground in the centre of the room. The jackal padded to a set of scales which another woman was delicately configuring, tweaking the golden chains with her hands. A single feather rose up long and proud from a band round the top of her head.
“Dinah?” I tried one last time.
The woman with the feather blinked up at me. “Don’t you know his name?”
I didn’t want to say it aloud. The knowledge acquired in long afternoons pouring over history books or wandering through dusty museums had not entirely faded in adolescence. Anubis was the god of the dead, often depicted with a jackal’s head. “Can’t he speak?”
“He knows you prefer him not to.” A long silence ensued. “Wild jackals are opportunists. Scavengers. Circling round cities at dusk, they learn human ways. Your feelings are more readily seen by animals than you might think. When he came to collect you, he knew what you needed to see.”
She was right. These last weeks, Dinah’s exploratory missions in the house had felt like a recurrent motif from my life, the black cat filling in the last square of the repeating mosaic. The incarnation of the cat I’d always wanted, the kitten I never had.
“Now it is time for your confessions. It is customary to use the negative form: the things you have not done.” She motioned for me to kneel by the scales. “I’ll need your heart.”
Her palm was open, long olive fingers outstretched from a delicate wrist. I stared at her, struck dumb. Her eyes were dark blue with green streaks running out from the pupil. The colours of peacock feathers.
“But I can’t –”
“It is easy to give your heart.” The jackal spoke. He had a deep, gravelly voice that could never have come from Dinah’s tiny chest. It was the voice of the grave speaking to you, lulling you to sleep with old stories as you were lowered into it. And it was true: had I not given too much of my heart already, had I not splattered the red brick walls of my road with it in the rosy sunsets, had I not let it seep into the dying plants in the garden when it didn’t rain? When they came to take the photo prints off the walls, wouldn’t there be crimson imprints, six inches by four, left underneath?
A blinding light flashed twice. My eyes and skull ached. A smooth hunk of muscle sat in her hands, dripping red between her fingers. Valves sprawled over one another like dancers frozen in the middle of a floor routine. So there it was: my flawed heart, that had let my blood rise in passion, that had kept me alive while I slept, that had failed me so much sooner than anyone expected. The woman placed in the scale. It was to be weighed against a hawk’s feather.
“Begin,” she said.
“But there are so many things I’ve never done...”
Her features remained impassive.
“I mean, I never turned twenty-one. I guess. For starters. I never went to the ball this May: I had this plum coloured dress that made me feel like a real woman...” Although I knew the things I was saying were wrong, I couldn’t stop. Her steady gaze drew these small admissions of sadness out with the same helpless honesty that I had written them into my diary with, before closing the cover on them. “I never told Phoenix Melnyk that I wanted to sleep with her. And I’ve never wanted someone quite so much. I never got up the guts to tell her that her cheeks flush a better colour than blush after she runs or that when we pass in the library aisles all I want to do it kiss her. I never saw Paris or Machu Picchu. I never really completely learned to like myself. I never found someone that felt like my soulmate. I didn’t write back to my grandma’s letter this Christmas.” Tears were welling up in my eyes. The awful sticking feeling at the back of my throat, the resistance one usually felt, was gone. “I never got married. I never had a house I thought I might stay in the rest of my life. I wanted...” my voice wavered and broke.
She held up a hand. “Child. I want to know if you have sinned.”
Distant memories of this ritual floated back to me. In the Hall of Two Truths, there were forty-two statements Egyptian souls would recite before being admitted to the afterlife. I scrunched my brows together in concentration. Things like, I have never committed robbery with violence, or I have never made my parents cry, or I have not lied. I spoke to most of the obvious crimes I could think of, violence, murder, witchcraft. But my tongue fell still long before I had reached forty-two. White lies, unjust anger, eavesdropping, pollution of the body, arrogance, petty thefts: these undeniably populated my past. I hung my head. “I have sinned.”
She was silent. Anubis growled. I watched my heart tipping in the balance. If I could remember correctly, it was about to be devoured by a Frankenstein goddess with the heart of a lion and the head of a crocodile. I wondered if its wandering rhythms would trip her up from the inside as it had done to me.
Ma’at, goddess of truth – for this, I hazily reasoned, must be she – stood. She pinched the top of the flame between two fingers. It clung to her skin like sparks do as matches are struck along the edge of a box. She transferred it to the golden bowl which held my heart, her hands unblemished, unburnt. Gold paths tore through my heart, flaming up into sharp relief then fading. The ashes fluttered up and out, blown by an invisible wind, or thrown by an invisible girl on a hilltop. What was left balanced exactly with the feather in the other bowl. With a startling pang of clarity, I knew exactly where I wished my ashes could be scattered. Too late, too late. The familiar weight of my body and blood was gone, hot coursing light all that remained.
“This is what you will take with you. The akh is the eternal self. All the daily things of your life are now stripped. You are only your constant soul.”
I thought of my room. The tiny red lucky cat on the slate windowsill. The leaf I’d caught for luck while it fell last autumn. The puzzle-box that held jewellery from exes I didn’t know what to do with anymore. My skirt, tossed on the floor, crumpled flowers now emerging from the carpet. The half-empty bottle of brandy tucked behind my dresser for emergency top-ups. It felt wrong. Those things felt like another part of me. But loss, as it transpired, it as much a part of death as it is of life. Already I was forgetting them.
“The Fields of Aaru await you.”
Aaru; reeds, rushes. Behind the tip of Anubis’ tail, the back of the chamber opened into a starlit sky and far-flung horizons. The path dipped away from view for many miles but I could distantly recognise the final destination. It was the fields that ran alongside the canals outside the city. In summer, they were populated by bulrushes sticking feathered plumes up in the air, as if staking claim to their newly charted territory. Theo and I had cycled there once, sprawling down on the grass. He’d stuck a reed behind his ear, pretending to be a troubadour. It was a mirror image of the life I had led.
“In time, your friends will come to you.” Anubis spoke once more.
Was I to sit on the bridge above the river forever, kicking my feet at its blueness, surrounded by the places I loved so well that I had chosen to die in them, still waiting for the people who had meant something to me to catch me up? The idea left a bitter taste in my mouth. I’d known this place would be my first home...I had chosen it, had relished the choice...but I hadn’t known it would be my last. I hadn’t known I would never leave. Never to walk different streets, lazy afternoon ambles round new neighbourhoods. And when those I loved had returned, the pastures they would roam would be wider than mine, the lives they had led and would find once more here would be immeasurably more vast. They would have mapped out places unknown to me in their unbearably long lives.
“Don’t worry. You still have a long and perilous journey between you and that horizon. It will remain night until you have passed through all gates along the way. Only then will you come forth into the daylight of the life you loved.”
Those were Anubis’ last words to me. I nodded to him, trying to convey my deference and gratitude. At the last moment, I broke into the wide crazy smile I would give the cat when it had leapt over the fence and come to nose at the door. His whiskers twitched, pleased. As I passed him, I saw his shadow on the floor stretch and change into the form of a man, nine feet tall, with a jackal’s head. Ahead of me, the tops of pyramids were visible above the gloom into which the road descended.
It wasn’t over yet, then. The way was dark. My soul had been stripped naked and my heart made light as ash. In this world of the tomb, the underground universe, where the phantasmagoria of Ancient Egypt morphed into the world I’d known, I was sure the dangers which awaited me would be strange and unimaginable. But I hadn’t yet arrived at the end – the journey still had space for a few more steps – and in this, I took heart.