by Allyson Bird
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Who telleth a tale of unspeaking death?
Who lifteth the veil of what is to come?
Who painteth the shadows that are beneath
The wide-winding caves of the peopled tomb?
Or untieth the hopes of what shall be
With the fears and the love for that which we see?
-Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), from ‘On Death.’
In 41BC a terrified young woman, her skin a deep olive colour, and her black hair flying wildly about her, ran for her life up the steep steps, making for the temple in Ephesus. They dare not take me from there, she thought. She stumbled once, cutting her knee on the sharp stone, blood oozing down the inside of her leg, and staining her white gown. Before she reached the door to the temple the soldiers cut her down.
Mark Anthony had sent his soldiers for the sister who had plotted against Cleopatra. Eventually the renegade sibling was buried in an octagonal-shaped tomb which looked like the Pharos lighthouse in Alexandria, and forgotten for two thousand years. Mortal sisters. Rivals. Once close, but when it came to ruling Egypt they would do anything for the throne…even kill each other.
Cleopatra was a warrior queen, a woman used to getting everything she wanted. She manipulated, fought, and set her sights on Rome. Mark Anthony lay asleep by her side in his opium dreams but she was far from sleep. Naked, she left the bed and walked across the white marble floor, over to a white vase full of Egyptian Blue irises, and picked one up. She thought of the mother goddess, Wadjet, and prayed for her guidance, and strength. Cleopatra picked up her cloak from the floor, where Mark Anthony had thrown it, and wrapped it around her shoulders. When she stepped out onto the balcony and looked out upon the city she saw that the heavens were black and there was no star in sight. Only the moon cast its light upon her anxious face. She heard a movement behind her and turned slowly, thinking it to be Mark Anthony. He would want her back in bed with him, she thought. It wasn’t Mark Anthony who pulled her close. It was the tall woman. Cleopatra had been held by her before, and as Cleopatra offered her the flower, Isis smiled.
Two years before The Aeneid was written by Virgil and fourteen years after Julius Caesar was assassinated in the Senate, Cleopatra and Mark Anthony made their great and triumphant entry into Rome. The battle of Actium had been the turning point. On the Ionian Sea Octavian had been defeated. Mark Antony aided by Gellius Publicola, headed the right flank of the Antonian fleet, Marcus Octavius and Marcus Insteius the centre. It was Gaius Sosius who attacked first from the left, and Cleopatra’s forces, strongest of all, attacked from the rear. Malaria had considerably weakened Octavian’s men and their smaller ships were rammed and broken into pieces. Mark Anthony went on to win the land battle too with considerable ease. Octavian was killed and the Mediterranean belonged to Mark Anthony, and Cleopatra. An empire was born. With the rise of Cleopatra the legacy of Hellenistic civilisation and Ptolemaic rule continued to have an influence.
Cleopatra sat, back straight with her hands firmly placed on the intricately worked arms of the great golden throne, carried by Nubian slaves. The sunlight glinted off their diamond-encrusted armbands. All gold and glory, and the day belonged to Cleopatra, with her dreams of being empress of the world about to be made manifest. She was already wearing the precious jewels of most continents. Mark Anthony, with their children walking by his side, headed the procession. The children all dressed as great warriors, even the girl. A Romano-Egyptian princess carrying a blue lotus cupped in her tiny hands. Cleopatra Selene 11 of Cyrenaica and Libya. She adored her brothers. Alexander Helios, Ruler of Armenia, Media and Parthia. Ptolemy Philadelphus—his to be Syria, Phoenicia and Cilicia. Her half-brother, Caesarean, son of Julius Caesar was to be struck down not a year later by a mystery illness leaving Roman rule for generations to come to the descendants of Cleopatra and Mark Anthony.
This dynasty had lasted for over two thousand years—a dynasty blessed by Isis and protected by her. Ancient scripts had told of her appearance, to all the rulers, since Mark Anthony and Cleopatra. Isis was the goddess of many names and not all of them good. Her name was understood to mean knowledge by Plutarch but others considered her to be cruel and ruthless. Isis was so powerful or so his script had described her, she was ‘the lady of the people, the royal wife, great goddess of the sky, powerful on land, the mistress of Egypt and the desert,’ and according to Diodore, Osiris bestowed the totality of power to Isis. To some Isis was known as the daughter of Prometheus.
During Osiris’ absence, Seth never fought against Isis so certain he was of her power. That was all a very long time ago. Osiris and Seth were dead now. Only four gods were left. Isis, her sister Nepythys, and their sons, Horus and Anubis. None had the courage to stand in her way. She had appeared to many of the Romano-Egyptian rulers in many forms from that of protector to a goddess of great malevolence when she disliked the path that the nobility took. When the empire was threatened by the barbarians she had appeared to Mentuhotep, when the great earthquakes had caused famine she had appeared to Semerkhet V, and when the great meteorite had hit the northern forests, to Cleopatra Seneca Xlll. And so on down through the centuries, to give comfort and give guidance but she had never appeared to the present Empress Cleopatra or to her father or grandfather. Now, in the time of the great plagues, rumour was spreading through the Romano-Egyptian Empire that Cleopatra had lost favour with Isis. The current super-plagues and their effect on the populous seemed to bear that out. Where was Isis now? Had she deserted the favoured ones she had supported down through the centuries?
Clovis Domitius Corbulo was to be the new Governor General of Britanniae. He was cousin to Cleopatra, and a descendant of the Frankish King Clovis who had been married into the royal family in return for loyalty. The Arvernians had helped this Clovis defeat the Visigoths, who had been in the foederati and had been richly rewarded for providing soldiers for the Romano-Egyptian Empire. But this relationship had fragmented, and the Visigoths had rebelled against the empire. Clovis had wanted a Romano-Egyptian alliance, a permanent link to Cleopatra and Mark Anthony, one of blood relative. Most of the renegade barbarian kings did the same over the next few hundred years. A vast empire was now held together by marriage alliances and Isis, but perhaps that was all going to change. That was centuries ago and now Clovis Domitius Corbulo wanted more. Much more.
16th February 1890.
Ella felt the opium mist in her mind settle and although she felt sleepy she walked steadily. Her hand fell to her side where she could feel the small gun, and when she touched it lightly she withdrew her hand quickly, afraid to even come into contact with it for a second now. She had been told to use it by her father, Ptolemy Child, if anyone showing obvious signs of the plague came too close. Ella had used it only the once. She had also been told to wear a surgical mask but rarely did. As Ella walked through the transparent-sided skyway her boots made no sound on the rubber beneath her feet. She had been on an errand for her father and had decided to use the skyway for the journey home to the part of the city called Kares-Bu. Ella had few friends and was a loner. She found comfort away from others, but did tolerate and sometimes enjoy the company of her younger sister, Loli. Rarely did Ella smile, and when she did, that would be when she was with Loli or when she thought of Swin.
It was snowing again, bitterly cold. Yet Ella doubted that even if she were at ground level in the open, she would feel it. Anyway, the skyway was preferable to the dirty streets. Privileged, as a daughter of the Chief Embalmer, she was allowed to come and go freely.
The security guards based at the entrance to each skyscraper got used to the pretty young woman with the blonde hair. Ella never saw herself as pretty at all.
She looked down from above. The sound of gunfire echoed around the tall buildings. She was especially nervous as the day before the authorities had tried to contain a riot after a soldier had shot an entire family in broad daylight, all with obvious signs of the plague, in front of many citizens. Ella feared she was about to witness another riot. Down on the street someone shot a plague victim again, and a few bystanders ran screaming and shouting down towards the river. Boxes of fruit were knocked over and peaches squashed underfoot as children ran into a skyscraper entrance for cover. Within minutes, some people took advantage of the chaos. Windows of shops were broken and looters piled baskets high with merchandise, only to drop them a few minutes later when the garrison soldiers hit the streets. For over an hour Ella watched, high up in the skyway partly shielded by the entrance to the building, disgusted at how the soldiers took every opportunity to degrade the rioters. One fell upon his knees and pleaded with his captor. The soldier shot him in the head.
There came a low rumbling sound from somewhere in the distance and then one of the steam tanks came into view. Ella was terrified of these machines. The government had come in heavy-handed. The steam tanks were fuelled by kerosene, and the flamethrower on the rotating top cabin had a range of twenty-seven metres. Mounted on the four corners of the cabin were four machine guns. Ella gasped when she saw a huge plume of flame arc and fall. Flames from heaven and two people fell to the ground, writhing in agony as their bodies burned. She saw horses pound the burnt bodies in an attempt to escape, terrified of the ironclad tortoise. The horses bolted and ran for the river as if they knew instinctively that water would cool their burns. Ella had seen such horror before.
She watched, a silent witness, as the steam tanks rumbled away again and fire engines put out the fire that had caught hold of the store on the corner. By the time it was over, twenty lay dead, either shot or burned. They were quickly taken away. The owner of the store sat in the street with his head in his hands, shouting abuse as the garrison soldiers retreated. Ella closed her eyes, stifled a sob, and moved quickly through the skyway and home.
The next day the newspapers would hardly mention it at all. And nothing of the steam tanks as usual. A steam engine and a flamethrower in the same confined space were considered by most to be a dangerous combination. However the new Governor General, Clovis, would not give up on his steam tanks, even though they often overheated, and more legionaries were hurt than rioters. They had been the playthings of the last Governor General, who had used them in a campaign against concrete pillboxes in the last fighting in the east—a campaign that he’d won, although the casualties on his own side had been high.
The human Y pestis infection, consisting of bubonic, pneumonic and the septicemic forms of plague had been treated with antibiotics successfully years ago. But now some hybrid of the pneumonic had reared its ugly head and had the city of Manceastre in a panic. Day by day new discoveries were being made that kept many pathogens at bay. However the inhabitants were terrified of this new variant of plague, which had already killed many in the city, and seemed so virulent. The wealthy preferred to get about in the high covered walkways or skyways as some of them called them, protected from the weather and disease.
No one dared cough as this was one of the initial symptoms, and a common cold could easily be misinterpreted. Neighbour spied upon neighbour and reported anything that might be plague symptoms; such was their fear of the terrible disease. Clean drinking water had rid the city of cholera a hundred years earlier, but even with scientific methodology and consequential positive practices in hygiene, the people of the city were still attacked by bacterial agents that mutated as quickly as scientists identified them.
In some districts in Manceastre, notably the richer ones, and in particular Kares-Bu, there were more monuments to the dead than there were mansions for the living. Tombs were built around little squares not far from their living relatives who mostly dwelt in the skyscrapers. The small tombs, miniature replicas of pyramids, were linked by underground catacombs to each other, and to the skyscrapers. From there the bereaved could visit their deceased loved ones, safe from the colourmen and from the prying eyes of their neighbours who watched from above. The small pyramids were a constant reminder of their short time on earth. The rich were content in the fact that they had the money and privileges to pay for the right ceremonies to ensure that they progressed to the afterlife when their time came; the poor had to settle for less.
Behind the tombs of the dead the prostitutes called for business, even on the darkest and foggiest of nights. Not all embalmers did their job properly and even the wealthy dead rotted in their bandages not far from the pox-ridden women of Memphis Square.
As it entered Kares-Bu, Ella could hear the shrill call from the whistle of the underground steam train as it passed under a ventilation shaft close by. The square shaft had been clad with bricks. Imitation windows had been painted on, so that it blended with the buildings, resembling an actual house frontage. Ella could just make out the steam rising above the rooftops, soon to get lost in the smoke that drifted across from the industrial part of the city, where the factories tirelessly produced the cotton and textiles that the city was famous for.
At least Ella and her sister had escaped the mills. They might live and work amongst the dead and the artists but at least it was quiet. She looked up at the outer temple building shrouded with frost and then down into the violet darkness, where she knew Loli was hiding from her. Loli was the other daughter of Ptolemy Child, Chief Embalmer. He was the head of one of the few favoured families who embalmed the dead. His was the most important family business because he embalmed the nobility and the rich. Ella helped him to prepare the bodies for the afterlife, and the services of Ptolemy Child didn’t come cheap.
The heat from the kerosene lamp kept her hand warm as she looked among the shadows for Loli. Ella shivered. It was a cold January night. She walked quietly through Kares-Bu. Many artists lived in this part of the city not too far from the tombs that they worked in. Ella had buttoned up her long overcoat to under her chin but she was still cold.
As she looked behind each tomb she felt unusually afraid of the dark. Her father had cured her of her fear of darkness years ago, but now each branch of every tree seemed to point at the tombs of the dead, grimly reminding her of the inevitable, and that made her shiver. Here lay generations of Romano-Egyptians, culminating in a society so totally given up to the cult of the dead that children were brought up to look forward to their deaths, for at that point their eternal lives began. There were more burial grounds with houses for the dead than there were playgrounds.
Ella would have to be quick, as she was due back in the preparation room soon. She was to help her father prepare a female corpse. It had been why Loli had run away again. Ptolemy had wanted to teach her the process, but as his knife was about to pierce the grey body of the heavily pregnant woman, Loli had disappeared. Ella had done the same on her thirteenth birthday. Loli was only ten. Ptolemy will be running out of patience, thought Ella, although he sometimes hid that behind a cool smile and a soft voice.
When Ella had first placed a knife on dead flesh, the corpse had been male and her father had never thought about the fact that Ella had never seen a living naked man before, let alone a dead one. Ptolemy Child had told Ella what was about to happen in great detail, but Ella had still suffered. Loli would have to get used to it.
“Loli. Loli,” Ella called, hoping for a quick reply. No luck.
It was getting late and she had to get back to her father. Would he be very angry with Loli? Probably not. She knew how to get on his good side, and although Ella was his eldest daughter, she thought that her father loved Loli more. Ella’s delinquent mother had run off with one of the artists. Their father had said she had been wild, far too wild, and Loli’s mother had left too. Unusually, Ella had no memory of Loli’s mother at all, though she had been old enough. The woman had only stayed a year. The daughters of Ptolemy Child had been brought up by slaves and the occasional governess, but they had mostly learnt all they knew from the many books in the family library.
Ella was now eighteen and Loli ten. Ptolemy’s attempts to limit their freedom were half-hearted and he quite frankly couldn’t be bothered. He was a self-centred creature who indulged his own whims, so Ella and Loli managed to get out into the city without supervision, frequently. Ella glanced at his thin face and drooping lips. They didn’t go together, she thought.
“Did you find her?” Ptolemy was about to make the first cut in the abdomen. He hesitated and looked up at Ella. His blonde hair streaked with grey had fallen a little over his face.
“No. I searched in all the usual places but I couldn’t. I was a little rough with her earlier.”
Ella looked nervously at the heavily pregnant corpse. She knew what was to happen next. She put the red rubber apron over her long dress. She had been careful not to put on any of her better clothes for the procedure, and it came as no surprise to her when her father made the incision from beneath the breasts down to just above the pubis. Ella watched his steady hand. Even though the woman was dead, Ptolemy cared enough about his craft not to be labelled a butcher, as the notorious Master Embalmer of Eboracum had been. For this part of the process he was beyond reproach. Could that be said for all of his work though?
There was a movement behind her and a door closed quietly. Ptolemy looked up and half-smiled. “Ah—Loli. Did you think better of hiding on such a cold night? Come closer, we are about to witness a birthing of sorts.”
Loli was dressed in her best clothes and wasn’t about to get too close. She wore a full deep pink scalloped-edged skirt with tiny red roses sewn along the hem that came to just above the knee and a ruffled white blouse—just the right outfit for learning the more intricate skills of embalming. She was even wearing pale pink shoes over white stockings, which of course were now splattered with mud due to her truancy. A little mud clung to her dark hair at the side of her front parting, where she obviously had been brushing her hair back off her face with a dirty hand. She seemed unaware of any of that and was all candy kisses for her father. Loli ran over to him and hugged him from behind and then turning to face him looked at him apologetically.
“Sorry, Father, I didn’t mean to run away. I just didn’t want to learn today.”
The look between the girls said it all. One of reproach from Ella, and when her father turned away, one from Loli for Ella—that she’d got away with it again.
“That is fine Loli. You are here now. Put on an apron and come and help.”
Loli ran over to the table on the far side of the room and reached up for one of the smaller aprons that hung there. She placed the apron over her head and struggled to tie a bow at the back.
“Ella, help me will you?”
Ella hesitated and seemed reluctant to step forward. She pulled the apron strings tight.
“Hey—not too hard, Ella.” Loli frowned.
A wooden stool had been placed in front of the embalming table for Loli to stand on. Ella and generations of young embalmers had used it before her. It had been made of the sturdiest oak and had been decorated with hieroglyphs recalling the names of the first few of the family of embalmers.
“What do I do, Father?”
Ella stood behind Loli ready to step in if, and only if, Loli faltered. She didn’t. Ptolemy pulled the abdomen apart so that Loli could see the baby. Ella could see the head and the sleepy eyes of the small grey creature and recoiled a little.
“Let me. Let me.” Loli tottered on the stool, regained her balance and tugged roughly at the head of the baby.
“Not so hard, Loli,” said Ella. Loli smiled apologetically at Ella.
“I don’t mean to Ella but it is difficult to get out.”
The incense lamp did nothing to hide the smell and Ella saw Loli start to retch a little. Ella quickly reached into her pocket, took a tiny jewelled container, put some myrrh ointment on her finger, and put a little under Loli’s nostrils. She applied the ointment to her own nostrils also.
“One more pull, Loli, come on, nearly done now,” Ptolemy encouraged.
“I’ve got it. Here it comes,” said Loli eagerly.
With a final tug the baby slipped out of the mother, and after Ptolemy cut the cord, Loli cradled it lovingly in her arms.
“It isn’t a doll, Loli,” said Ella. She looked pale and her hands were shaking.
“Oh it is, look at it. It’s beautiful and so very quiet. Can we wrap it in something to keep it warm, Father?”
Ella looked away. Ptolemy handed Loli a white cover with the Child insignia in the corner.
He smiled again. “Wrap her in this.”
“Oh, it is a girl isn’t it? Can I name her?”
“Well the family will name her before the interment.”
“Can I name her until then, please?”
“Okay Loli, you can give her a name.”
“I’ll call her Cleopatra Selene. A fine royal name.”
“It certainly is Loli. A fine royal name,” repeated Ptolemy. “Give her to Ella now, she will show you what to do next.”
Reluctantly Loli handed her over. “Be careful—don’t drop her.”
“I won’t,” said Ella grimly.
Loli jumped off the stool, pulled it over to another embalming table and hastily got onto it.
“Come on. Let’s get on with it.”
Ella brought over a small blue bowl filled with cold water—she tried to not look at the tiny form.
With great tenderness Loli took off the white cover and washed the body of the baby. She picked a clean cloth from a pile to hand and gently dried her. Loli picked up a large jar of myrrh. She at first struggled to get the lid off, but managed in the second attempt. She stuck her nose in the jar. Loli thought that the myrrh from the jar smelt a little too sweet and preferred it when they added frankincense. The fragrance of myrrh was one of her earliest memories. She began to rub it on the baby’s pale skin. Ella placed her hand over Loli’s.
Loli turned to Ella with a smile. “I like this bit. It will make her smell nice.”
“Not yet Loli, there is more to be done before this. It is a cold night; we will leave the baby with her mother. Can you help in the morning?”
“Can I take her to my bedroom?”
“You know the answer to that, Loli,” said Ella.
“I’ll see her in the morning then?”
“In the morning, Loli.”
Loli kissed Ella good night and then her father. She swept the hair from her face as she ran out of the room and couldn’t understand why Ella didn’t hug her anymore. She always used to.
“And Loli. Loli!”
Loli turned on the second call of her name.
“Wash your hands really well before you eat.”
Loli shrugged. “Always do.”
Ella thought about mothers at that point. Ella tried to be good to Loli but if Loli had a mother, life would certainly be easier, and she wouldn’t have to look after her sister so much. Sometimes Ella resented the responsibility and any of her attempts to please her father seemed to be useless. Everything seemed pointless. Then she thought of Sophia’s baby and tried to remember something important about it but could not do so. She felt numb when she looked at the little corpse and wondered why.
The embalming rooms were attached to the great house and there were even more storage rooms off those. The house was built of black marble, fitting for the preparation of the wealthy dead. A small courtyard garden lay all around the house. In summer it was filled with many flowers and the most beautiful was the iris. The iris dominated every household in the summer months. Her father had told her the colour of it was Egyptian Blue and belonged to the goddess, Wadjet. In ancient times a messenger from Olympus was called Iris and led young girls to the afterlife. As a child Ella often called it the bruised flower. It reminded her of the colours she had seen on a corpse. Too cold for it to bloom now, thought Ella.
The house had six bedrooms but Ella had promised Loli that they would share one of the great beds that had witnessed the births and deaths of the last hundred years. It was made of solid oak decorated with strange designs that she had never learned the symbolism of. Nine years on and they still shared a room but it wasn’t just for Loli’s benefit. At night Ella had, many times, thought she had heard the first cries of a newborn and the last sighs of the dying. In the dark she imagined that the dead came back to that room time and time again. Sometimes Ella would keep the gaslight low so that she could see the pale rose-pink face of her sister. That practice, Ella thought, kept them both closer to life than death. She might be an embalmer’s daughter but she was still afraid of death…more so these days.
When Ella got in bed long after the night had enshrouded her sister, Ella pulled a dark strand away from Loli’s face and wondered if they would both really carry on the business of embalming after Ptolemy was dead. They would have to embalm their own father—a disturbing thought.
Just the two of them to carry on the tradition well into the next century.
This was 1890. The 1900’s–would they be full of promise or the beginning of the end for the Child family?
Guest post is an excerpt from Isis Unbound by Allyson Bird.
© 2011. All rights reserved.
Allyson Bird now lives in the Wairarapa, New Zealand, with her husband and young daughter. Occasionally she is drawn to strange places and people and they are occasionally drawn to her. Her favourite playground, as a child and adult, had been the village graveyard. Once she wondered what would happen if she took one of the green stones from a grave. She has been looking over her shoulder ever since but has never given it back.
by Allyson Bird
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