Translated from the Greek by Nicolas D. Sampson and Irene Noel-Baker.
PART ONE – 3500 BC – 1900 AD
I was accustomed to the intense heat, but that morning it seemed to me unbearable. Perhaps because I was looking forward to completing my goal. I get like that when I’m excited, which fortunately seems to be happening more sparsely as time goes by. It was early in the morning and I was walking barefoot in the scorching sand, but that hardly bothered me. From the day I’d left my village at the northwest of Abydos, I’d been walking tirelessly, day and night, through the desert, my mind focused solely on my journey, my driving purpose. I passed the muddy delta of the Nile, feeding myself with desert reptiles, dead fish and mice belched forth by mud-riven boats, my longing for answers a passion. I hadn’t touched the corn in my knapsack. I was saving it for the way ahead. I traversed the villages of Hu, Al Mahasna and Al Amrah without incident, though I heard jackals, their night howls invoking the distance between the countless stars, the vastness of the desert. I showed no fear – not that I wasn’t afraid – so no wild animals came near me. A cheetah stalked me one day through hostile, glassy eyes, but then I stared right back at her, admiring her sharp gaze, and she turned around and went on her way.
Not quite sure of the distance I had traversed, I had a hunch that at this rate I would be arriving at Hierakonpolis in a few more days. Along the way I encountered fellahin, herdsmen and nomads, troglodytes, Blemmyes, Sembrites and fleeing tribesmen, Nubians and Megavarous, even Ethiopians from the land of Syini. And I met a tribe of dwarfs wading silently in rows of three, crouched, stark naked except for papyrus sandals on their feet, their hunchbacks lathered in castor oil. They emitted a most foul, sour odour. I stuck out my tongue in a show of respect, as was the custom, bowing deeply as they passed. They greeted me in a similar fashion and went on their way.
It was afternoon. I had reached the Negada region, dripping with sweat and striving to stay upright after having trudged through the wilderness for hours. The sun was finally setting, the furthermost points of the Nile estuary immersed in a deep red glow, when I caught sight of a strange species of bald-headed bird, perhaps ibis or persis, half a dozen of them. They were picking leaches from the open mouth of a crocodile. The giant serpent lay motionless on its side and watched them with unwavering eyes, as if it were part of a clandestine ritual. As I drew closer, I noticed a tangle of glittering gold bracelets on the crocodile’s right foot; and on its left foot, one of amber from neighbouring Nubia. It occurred to me that the crocodile was sacred, since these were times when people had not yet felt the need to search for the one and true god, the one whose mission was to reconcile mortals with their death and destiny. They still worshipped and prayed to odd animals, such as the cow, the crocodile, the falcon.
In those days every man was a god.
And every god was a man.
I knelt before the bejeweled crocodile with reverence, perhaps even awe (I have a hard time distinguishing between the two) and the crocodile stirred not one step from its dignified pose, and when I was done I resumed my journey to Hierakonpolis.
On the western banks of the Nile, where the third and fourth provinces of northern Egypt merged, near the village of Gubelein – known as the village of the two hills – and not very far from the oases of Kargha and Dachla, I lay down, weary from all the traveling in the dry hamsin wind. The last few days had been exhausting.
It wasn’t long before I fell asleep.
But the vague desert shadows weaved a litany of doubts inside my head, giving me no rest, not even in sleep. The southerly hamsin gave way to a friendly north-westerly breeze that stroked my hair like a cool hand, to my relief, and then I saw the sunburnt face of a man leaning over me, his eyelids dyed vivid with malachite dust mixed with fat, a trick common among desert wayfarers to shed the sand granules from the sandstorms.
He regarded me with curiosity.
‘What are you doing here?’ he asked in a cracked voice that came from all four directions at once. ‘Only ghosts and spirits of the desert wander here. This is no place for humans.’
In the darkness I couldn’t make out his form, which his disembodied voice rendered even more obscure.
Unafraid and with no hesitation, I began to recount my tale, explaining how I’d chanced upon him all alone in the middle of the desert.
It all began on a warm evening. Sat under a dry sycamore tree outside my hut, having nothing better to do, and dripping with sweat, I’d been observing the stars, tracing their complicated journey, when I saw a light rise up from the dark depths of the desert. It ascended the sky in an unsteady, drunken course, almost hesitant, as if it were striving to get back to earth against the wishes of some magical power that wrenched it up, until it was lost in a trail of golden dust (and who’s to say that it wasn’t a figment of my imagination?). I stood there, goodness knew how long, wondering what that light was – something that began its journey from the bowels of the desert to reach the heavens – when an idea flashed through my mind. It felt outrageous, but when an idea comes into our heads surely it’s the right one.
From that moment on my life changed. I could never rest again. Every day, what the fear didn’t destroy, the doubts infected, poisoned. The mere thought that the trembling, drunken light which had been pulled skyward against its will was a naked and startled soul… that’s what it had felt like, and it distressed me. If the material body in which the soul resided were not suitably prepared, how would the wandering soul ever find its way back to it and live inside it? The soul can’t play hide and seek in a bundle of rotting bones. Or make a home in a handful of ashes, can it?
A soul without a home turns into a ghost.
Or, as the magus in my village once ventured, isn’t the soul more like a great, eternally beating heart?
These questions have been tormenting me ever since, I said to the man, and so I’d decided to embark on a long journey to see if I could locate the answers, taking with me only the essentials: a rush mat, a few clay vessels, a supply of corn, and knives, of course.
The stranger didn’t seem surprised by my story. In the same disembodied voice, issuing from all directions, he set out to tell me something, but his answer was lost in the wind.
And then, without the slightest warning a shower broke out. The hot sand steamed and the surface of the earth vaporized. The stranger’s sunburnt face dissolved in the downpour like paper, the last traces of my dream fading with it.
I grabbed one of the knives, knelt on the damp sand and set to carving hieroglyphic symbols onto a potsherd, from right to left and from left to right with frantic motions, committing the outline of my story to a script, in the hope that one day it might inspire mortals to unravel the confused warp of life and let it guide them down their paths, in line with their deepest wishes. Just as a body cannot live without a soul, so a life cannot blossom without a dream.
The long journey had begun.
Truth to tell, I was a little fearful, but also eager. If I held back, I would be forever tormented by doubt.
With urgency, I dug a hole in the sand and deposited the rush mat inside, then lay down on my left flank, my legs curled up against my chest, my head facing west and my gaze skyward, fixed and expectant. The rain had ceased, as abruptly as it had begun. It was daybreak, yet the stars shone ever brighter in the glimmering heavens. I swam and dissolved in an ocean of light, and it swam and dissolved inside me in turn. I smiled. Perhaps a more beautiful world lay ahead, gilded in promise. Who knew? Everything was possible, as long as one believed it.
The Long Journey is an excerpt from Ginger: The Story of a Mummy (Τζίντζερ), a novel by Efterpie Araouzou, published by Okeanis House (2002).