There's more light than I expected, under the ocean that drowns the day. One thinks of water that's ink-black and desolate, and the hollow rush of desert wind at night, and the corresponding bitter cold.
Perhaps my eyes have adjusted to the dark. But for now, the fire-spitting cobras who escort me yield sufficient illumination. It is not, after all, as if there were much to see.
We progress slowly, in this absence of wind. The near-complete silence, though it's stately rather than oppressive, still leaves me straining for -- anything. There are no oarsmen to muddy it with splashes, just the inevitable motion of the Duat's current. It's been five hours since I died; or, in any case, five hours since my mouth was opened and my body interred. I remember sitting on my own chest and taking flight, wheeling above my procession in hawk-form; I remember the high keen of my mourners, as they tore at their hair; I remember my son by my coffin, and the incense smoke curling under my new-beating wings. Perhaps I flew into the sunset.
I also remember opening my eyes, suddenly, expecting my bedroom furniture -- as one does when woken from a natural sleep -- and instead seeing the dark ocean as my barque slipped beneath the horizon and steered itself into the Duat. It's odd to think of it as mine, to look inside myself and know the sun-boat is mine: still, I know this with reflexive certainty. It's as much a part of me as my name, or my womanhood.
I have spent so long fighting to be both god and girl, to be the divine king Maatkare and still the Hatshepsut I was born - and yet in death both are facts too obvious to be questioned. I would that Senenmut could have lived to see this, I think, as -- in the living world -- my bearers plod slowly underneath the temple he built me. Our beautiful Djeser-Djeseru was the triumph of my reign, more so even than the Punt expedition. Maybe it will stand as eternal proof that a woman could rule wisely and well, could rule in accord with maat, but not one of the obelisks we raised together ever gave me the certainty I feel now. I am Re, on my sun-boat. Who can I be, but a king?
We pass through another gate. It lies deceptively open; its guardian serpent lurks underwater, ready to strike thoughtlessly hopeful intruders. He slithers under our boat in welcome, or perhaps merely acknowledgement of another night gone.
It's time to meet Osiris, or become him. The open gate disappears behind us. A strange woman walks out of the mist, and my story shatters.
She kept resurrecting me so I kept dying. I know I seem naive in the story but stop for a minute, think. If Set is so transparent to you, could he possibly have been so opaque to me, his own brother Osiris?
Yes, Isis loved me -- as a brother, as a husband -- but if you think that would stop her from choosing for me then you know little of Isis. This is the woman who poisoned her great-grandfather the sun with his own flesh, for her son's sake. (I was already dead then, and permanently. I was ill positioned to stop her.)
You may think my death hardened her, then, changed your idealized grieving wife image somehow. I admire your faith, but cannot comprehend it.
Up until now everything -- all of the everythings; every variation of my death -- has been as foretold. Everything has been a thing I have planned for. My reign upheld maat and so I was granted the same order in the underworld. It was what was supposed to happen.
And then this green-skinned woman appeared who was in none of my books, none of my preparations, who has with her very presence destroyed the order I worked so hard for in my life.
I would that I was still at the lake of fire.
My first death was a shock. I'll grant Set that successful ambush. I'll also grant that dying was unpleasant. Death itself, though, was welcome. Death fit. Death made my body feel more right around me. Not entirely right, but -- before, the gap between my present and the perfect had always been too wide to cross. Who can miss a never-seen shore? Glimpsing it for the first time -- oh, that was marvelous and melancholy. I hadn't known how much was wrong.
Then Isis breathed life back into me, unwanted, and climbed atop me, unwanted. I am grateful for our son but I wish I hadn't had to sire him.
I wanted my second death. I wanted that body back, and so when Set announced his ridiculous scheme -- to think, that I could ever lie in a coffin my murderer had built for me unaware of the possibilities -- I volunteered for his false bet gladly.
I'll grant that being hacked to pieces was a rude surprise.
I call a challenge to the stranger, and rack my memory for a death-spell that could compel her absence. Sekhmet titters -- while her lion's lungs render it as purring, her meaning is nonetheless clear. The Maat of the South, in her place at my left shoulder, quells me in a quiet low voice:
"Her meaning may not be clear to you, but her presence is required here."
Maat's words do little to restore my calm. I've studied the paths of the dead since I assumed the throne -- no surprise, no matter how benign, can occur without ruining the knowledge I've built up.
"The expectations, rather," says the woman, finishing my thought. While this is far less strange an action in the Duat than it would have been in the living world, the effect is nonetheless uncanny. I can't tell whether that's deliberate.
"Who are you?" I ask, challenging. It's my right to be here, my right to learn about this grey world where I'm fated to rule in death.
She flicks the flail she carries in one green hand, to draw my eye.
It's a struggle to not stammer, and to retain my king's dignity: "Osiris?"
When the pain ended, I returned to the river and the soil. In my scattered pieces, I retained myself -- what, why surprise? My ka and ba were intact. I wasn't myself yet, or again; my body felt as wrong as it did when I was alive.
Still, it felt no worse, as the river rushed above me, as I caught myself in palm roots, as I became soil and barley -- and my sister followed right behind, unslowed by her pregnancy, and gathered me back up.
I was brave, this time, and asked Isis two favors as she sewed me back up. She did love me. She was a good wife.
She smiles, still uncanny, her joy in the effect increasingly clear. "Yes, my daughter."
I'm not prepared. I couldn't prepare for this. I'm as unmoored as I was when Tuthmosis-my-husband died, with our son a bare toddler, and I was plunged into a regency that I had to turn into rule.
I had never doubted that decision in life. Divine order demanded a king of my country, and I had better right, by blood and by training, than any man then alive. Kilts are not so hard to wear; it was a simple matter to ape masculinity, to then grow masculine myself. I thought, in that, that I had fulfilled maat's demands.
Now, though, the very underworld has changed. This woman stands in a man's place, a mirror-mockery of my honest attempts.
"I am always a woman, Harakhti," she says. I look up. Her smile's grown more genuine. She's called me by her son's name, and acknowledged my kingship.
Maybe this isn't disastrous. I try to compose the lines of my face, and Osiris laughs.
"Daughter," she says, then trails off, misty-eyed.
Of course, I think. She is so used to sons.
"There's always confusion," she continues, slowly, "and always some shock. But the men are always so accepting."
I am silent, chastened. Then: "The men have never doubted their manhood," I spit back, the unfairness rising in my throat, a sudden bile.
Osiris laughs again. "Ah, but I'm all of them, daughter, though my manhood was ever an empty shell. You may learn something when you become us."
"The usual way."
It is good that I am an old woman, and unaccustomed to blushing.
The first thing I asked was that I be left dead. This was simple enough; it disappointed Isis to hear me ask, but I think she did expect it. It was time, if nothing else; time for me to move on, time for our son to take his throne behind me, time even for us to part.
Were I more bitter, I'd say that Isis had long since taken what she needed from me. It's true, but that's the only saving grace in saying so. I have never understood the paragon the Greeks made her, the defanged emblem of devoted motherhood. Isis has always been a woman of her own agendas.
"You want to stay like this?" Isis asked, gesturing, expansive, down my truncated body. She didn't put down her needle. The thread stretched, then tightened slightly, puckering the mid-arm graft she'd been working on.
(These words are reconstruction, of course.)
"I want you to sew me back up, first," I said. She was still on my first arm, and had only recently spliced head and neck back together. I'd been unable to talk until my mouth and heart were reconnected. "But please leave me dead."
Her eyes flashed betrayal, but it disappeared behind a shrewd veil. "I am glad, husband, that you wish to clear the way for Horus when his time comes. But it's early days yet. He's barely a toddler."
"I trust your regency," I said.
Isis shook her head. "Set will take it all. Re is hardened against me, and will give his petition favor."
She earned that enmity, but reminding her will be no use. "I trust your cleverness. How could I not?"
A nodded acknowledgement. "Yet you want no more of it. You welcome the fact that I cannot follow you in this."
"Yes" would be too much to say aloud, and too much for her to hear. Instead: "I would have paid that price before, had you asked."
"And left us childless?" she spat, and I couldn't reply. She sewed her way down my torso, methodically. I couldn't tell which stitches she tugged a bit too hard.
There was nothing for it. "I don't want that any more," I said, as she reached for my discarded cock, left hand still balancing her needle.
Her right hand closed on it, but she left it there. She looked at me, startled, a little hurt. "Have I lost that much of your trust?"
I closed my eyes, and twisted my still-clumsy lips into an approximate frown. "You don't need it any more," I said.
She nodded. (Yes, my eyes were closed -- but what, pray tell, is marriage for?) "We have our son, yes."
"And I trust you to not take more than you need, sister. But can't I not want it? Can't that be enough?"
She let go.
My left thigh was next. Isis placed it with trembling hands, but every stitch of its reattachment was careful and perfect. My sense of touch was beginning to return, and I could feel my skin stretch, distended, beneath her rhythmic needle.
I had no breath to focus on, in the silence. "You would have made me so happy, love, if I could have been who you wanted me to be."
My wife doesn't cry in front of strangers. Twelve pinpricks later, she asked what she could give me.
"I've asked for that already," I said, "and you are already giving it to me."
She met my eyes. "You haven't asked anything of me, Osiris. You've asked that I leave you dead, that I leave you sexless, that I leave you. These are all negations. I will return you to nothing, husband, if you ask that, but that will contain nothing of you as well as nothing of me. I am she who stole Re's spit, and I built a world for our son's kingship. What would you have me build you?"
"Nothing" would have been a false answer, and I owed myself better than lies.
"You'll be king, under the ground, my dead love, unless I negate that also. Do you want the kingship?" she asked, eyes glued to my face. It moved for me, more flexibly than before, and I struggled to understand the incoherent bubble of emotions that had surfaced under her assessing gaze. I could not find words for them. "There will be girl-kings, Neith tells me," continued Isis, mock-conversational.
Those were my words.
Isis smiled, the barest glimmer of water decorating her eyes. "I'll give you that, then."
Osiris reaches for my hand; steps out of the dark water and onto my barque. Her dress drips on the deck, lightly, quietly. A pool spreads around her feet. She steps me into it with a gesture and kisses me, dropping crook and flail to the floor, hands reaching behind my neck and running smooth down my back.
We were left some mysteries, I think, bringing my hands up to cup her small breasts. She's smiling again, half shyness now, and I run a thumb over her nipple. Her eyes tighten, and then I'm stumbling for balance as her fingers sweep my kilt up, clasp my inner thighs --
and we're suddenly flying again, hawks skimming below desert clouds, the Nile's broad ribbon flowing idly beneath us; suddenly sitting cross-legged on a riverbank in the dead land, watching the corn-gods flood the water before us, harvest bribes bobbing downward from the living.
The dead rise for an hour every night, bathed in the dead sun, and I see them -- from some unknown omnipresent vantage -- wake, and walk out of their beds with the swift precision of those practiced in not wasting their little time. The simultaneity's eerie, and it's a relief when the dead begin their varied work and it falls ragged.
Osiris nips my neck, and I startle back to my death-boat. I've gone still in my wonderment, I realize, and I ought to do something to recapture the moment. She's grinning up at me, indulgent, and I retaliate with a bite to her earlobe. Her fingers shift again, wickedly, and --
a dead woman levers water past a cliff, nonchalant; her child, an eternal newborn, lays swaddled nearby. It has learned quiet. Another of the dead traces thin lines on cracked pottery, learning the writing he never found time or need for in life. Osiris is leading me through her kingdom -- my kingdom, now, too, as I fade further into the godhood of dead kings --
The dead wander back to their homes. Osiris and I are walking the fire-lake's edges; she whispers protective spells in my ear, tells me where the secret cooler spots lay, teaches me to leapfrog one to the other. Her sarcophagus lies at its center, and hand in hand we part the flames until it lies before us.
Suddenly I'm watching a different coffin close above me, and hearing the thud of an axe, and I know her story and her bitterness.
Sewing me together was a simple magic. There was no need for creation in it; Isis merely needed to restore the world to something it had already been. It was too simple, really, for a magician of Isis's caliber. It used only the powers she'd been given, used none that she'd stolen or willed herself.
Isis snipped the thread, but did not knot it. I felt the last of my bones reknit, my veins seek each other out, my muscles stand attention. She smoothed the last of the thread against my foot, with a tickle, and the seams melted away. I tried to prop my restored body up. She stilled me with a gesture, then caught my eyes, rueful. When she undid her reflex, I stayed where I was.
Isis circled me four times: north, south, east, west; liver, lungs, stomach, gut. She spat on her worktable, by my feet, then idly crumbled the wet stone in her hand. She worked it between her burnished-gold fingers until it attained their shine, staring at me in frowning concentration. She climbed up on her table, knelt, spread the admixture about my body with parodic caresses.
I had no breath to hold.
She reshaped my fingers, thinning them, adding delicacy but leaving hard-won calluses. She smoothed out the lines of my arms, robbed my muscles' bulk, left long-wearing whipcord; piled small hills on my chest, smoothed my face to a mirror of her own. I named this vanity, a murmured admonishment.
Isis laughed, with a truer sparkle than I'd heard since my first death. She left my face as it was.
"This is the path," she said. "This will give us Nitocris, Sobeknefru, Maatkare-who-Neith-foretold. This will let us create. Do you want me to give you that, my love?"
"Yes," I said, and she plunged a flat-palmed hand into the crook of my legs. My body spasmed; tightened around it.
I woke up beneath the ground.
The light leaves us and I sit, emptied, on my barque's deck. I'm not sated, quite, but it's clear that the moment -- the hour -- has left. Osiris shakes her lapis-lazuli hair and the tangles fall out. She looks at me from behind it.
"After my father-the-earth and my mother-the-sky were wed they cleaved together so tight that grandfather Shu was afraid they'd recombine, and undo all the work he'd put into separating them from the ocean that surrounds us. He had to force them apart as they fucked, and has stood between them ever since.
"It's something I understand. Every night I get this taste of who I was, when I ruled the land above. I don't miss it, but it's always hard to leave."
I kiss her again. The boat rocks -- the first time, in this timeless journey, that our passage has been anything but smooth. It jolts me out of relaxation -- the chaos-snake, Apep, has arrived on schedule, and I am at the difficult part of my passage. The boat rocks again, with a great thump, and the serpent streams onto the deck headfirst, trailing small cracking noises as his passage damages the wood. Habit kicks in. I reach for the nearest weapon, draw back, strike -- and then freeze like an embarrassed child as Osiris's flail connects and I realize that I've stolen her defenses.
She nods her head, forgiveness and encouragement, and picks up her crook -- it's a lesser weapon, and even more obviously a repurposed farm implement, but she brings it down on Apep's snout with enough force that one might be pardoned for forgetting that. Apep hisses, but then drags more of his bulk onto my barque's deck. His endless thin body tangles to a maze about me. I cannot remember his weaknesses, and I'm stuck hitting him over and over again in the eyes to confuse his progress. He might be easier to fight blind, and if I keep his head down he cannot use the handspan fangs that curl from it.
While I bash away, uselessly, Osiris prods her way along Apep's sides, probing for soft places, unknotting the scaly walls that fast threaten to envelop me. Her crook's too blunt an instrument to do real damage, though --
In this long five minutes, Isis has been making her way from the front of the boat, knife drawn. Apep, chaos incarnate, is immune to her magic, but a sharp blade will nonetheless help. She nods to Osiris with the ease of long routine, and Osiris in turn points, breathless, to a clump of Apep's scales. Isis dives in with a long slash to his belly, and Apep convulses. I duck underneath his flying jaw and flay his now-exposed innards, separating muscle from his thick spine. Osiris brings her crook down again, snapping one now-exposed vertebra in half.
Apep shudders, and goes still. The boat moves onward, but without an animating will he can no longer keep its pace. His body slowly slides off the deck, disappears into the water. I step over it, carefully, lest it drag me with it in one last attack.
When I try to breathe relief, I realize that my breath is gone.
"Light the sky well, daughter," Osiris says. She kisses my hand and steps back into the Duat's dark waters. I am following with her, swimming back to the fire-lake, stepping on to her throne to rule below; and I am floating on, with my ranked escorts -- towards the weavers, towards my escape from Sokar's sands, towards the rebirth of my eyes and a new day's dawn.
Betsy Haibel is a writer in Washington, DC. She likes unit tests that don't fail, red pandas, and squishy armchairs to read in.