Mourningtide, my story about a man dealing with the death of his first child – and learning of it two months afterward, when his son is already buried – is coming along very well. It is a departure from my usual type of work, a quieter piece. I’ve been enjoying it.
One of the problems with writing a story is that an author is pulled two different ways. The urge to write the story – to get it written and finalized – is in conflict with my desire to linger in a setting and with characters that I have grown to love. With Seti, the father and king, who has lost a beloved son in a particularly stupid fashion. Ramesses, the younger son, suddenly thrust into the line of succession and wondering if he is good enough. Nefer, the woman who comes to love him. And Nebamun, the high priest who had been a soldier and a friend of Seti’s father for years, caring for both.
There is comedy there – the king comes to the town incognito and deals with a cast of characters that, historically, was quirky and singular (a town of artists). And there is a love story.
Well, it’s coming together and I’m moving toward the final draft, and the temptation is to linger and savor. But it’s time to get to work. Just for the heck of it, though, here’s a snatch of conversation between Seti (the king) and the young man who is trying, under Seti’s guidance, to set up a militia. Seti has spent the day with the women of the town (he’s no match for them), coming face to face, all unexpectedly with his loss and grief in the company of the woman he will grow to love. He is sitting on the rooftop terrace of the small house that was given him to use and Djedi, the young man, is getting his report of the day’s events:
**** **** **** **** ****
His mind understood: why was his heart so slow to accept? He raised the wine to his lips again and sipped, savoring the taste that somehow seemed to blend with the stillness after the day’s storm. It was so good to be silent, still, to stop fighting the exhaustion and wait for healing.
“Sa-Ramses? Are you there?”
Or not, he thought with a sigh, setting the cup down. “No,” he said quietly. “I’ve gone to walk along the hillside track.” He heard footsteps on the stairs, a tap on the wall.
“Come on ahead, Djedi,” he said, and tried to sit more upright.
“I knew you were joking,” Djedi said, stepping onto the terrace. He was carrying a rush basket that was giving off wonderful smells. “I brought some broiled fish and some beer!” He stopped as he took in the bowl of beans and the bread. “Oh! You’ve eaten? What did you have? Just that bowl of beans! That isn’t much. Have some of this fish!”
Seti eyed the fish and the jug of beer. “That’s barely enough to feed you,” he said. “Unless you’ve eaten already. And I’m drinking wine just now. I doubt beer will agree with me.”
“Pooh!” Djedi said. “There’s plenty for both of us! At least take this one!” He dropped one of the largest fish into Seti’s nearly empty bowl and sat down. “Though you’re right about the beer. I’ll drink it.” He did so, lifting the jug itself to his lips and taking a hearty swig.
Seti hid a smile and sipped his wine.
“Did you learn much from the women?” Djedi asked. His voice was very casual.
“I certainly found it educational,” Seti said.
Djedi raised the jug again. “That’s good! What did you learn?”
Seti smiled up at the emerging stars. “I learned that I am still quite handsome, despite my age,” he said. “The term they used was ‘fetching’. One of them had her hand to her heart. I learned that I would please them better if I wore shorter kilts and went about bare-chested.”
“They said that? To you?”
Seti closed his eyes. “It was very educational,” he yawned. “I also learned that my graying hair is not at all disgusting to women – indeed, one of them wanted to run her fingers through it. After she had a chance to admire my chest.”
Seti yawned again and opened his eyes. “Oh, yes. I’m surprised they didn’t tell me to strip then and there. They thought it was a pity I wasn’t displaying my backside in a way that would leave less to their imaginations. They said this to my back. I turned and they decided against pursuing that subject.”
Djedi was staring.
Seti stretched his legs out before himself and tipped the last of the wine in his cup down his throat. “I am obviously not a stonemason,” he continued after setting the cup down. “They didn’t say how they had come to this conclusion. Not muscle-bound enough? Perhaps because I had my tunic on and they couldn’t see my chest? Or my rump?” He eyed Djedi’s lap. “Do stonemasons have muscular backsides? Or painters? Stand up and let me look.”
“I’d have run away!” Djedi said.
“Yes: that’s why you sent me in your place.” Seti lifted the fish in his fingers and bit into it. He raised his eyebrows and took another bite. “This is good!” he said when he had finished chewing.
Djedi was staring in front of him with the look of a man facing an unimaginable horror. “That sounds terrible!”
“I survived,” Seti said through a yawn. “Well. I promised that you would come to them in the morning wearing only your shenti so they can look you over, ass and all.” He lifted the bowl and the fish over his head as Djedi spit out his mouthful of beer and began to choke. He set the bowl to the side and thumped Djedi on the back. “I told them you’d bathe thoroughly and oil yourself,” he said between blows. “Do you know how to flex your chest muscles?”
“You didn’t!” Djedi wheezed.
“That was what you wanted, wasn’t it?” Seti asked. “I gave them my word. You aren’t going to force me to back out of it, are you? That will shame me and I’ll have to resign and leave.”
“I might as well go naked!”
“I don’t imagine that group would mind,” Seti said, pulling off a piece of fish from the backbone and licking his fingers. “They’re all experienced wives and mothers. They certainly seem to know what pleases them.”
“I won’t go!”
Djedi jumped to his feet and stared at him, his face reddening. His eyes widened and he crashed back down to his stool. “You were playing me like a fish on a line!” he said.
“Admit it! Damn! I fell for it, too! What an ass I am!”
“They’d be more interested in the ass that you have,” Seti said, pulling off another piece of fish.
“You aren’t fooling me!”
“No? Show up in your shenti tomorrow and see what they say.”
Djedi shook his head. “Have some more fish.”
Seti took it from him with a smile. “Thank you,” he said.
“You were joking, right?”
“Was I?” Seti pulled off more fish, chewed, and leaned back against the wall, his eyes closed. Things were blurring around him; he opened his eyes again. He’d sleep shortly.
Djedi was eyeing him with a touch of worry. “Are you all right?” he asked. “You’re pale. You seem exhausted.”
“I am,” Seti said. “It’ll pass. Listen to me: we need weapons for this group.”
“But we have mauls and staffs,” Djedi had said. “And the stonemasons are strong…”
“Strength in itself is good,” Seti said. “And yet I know a man in his late sixties – strong, hale and hearty for all that – who could stand behind a wall and take down every stonemason in this village at thirty paces as they all approached him at a run.”
“Sixties—!” Djedi exclaimed.
Seti managed a smile. “He’s a master archer,” he said. “The finest I’ve ever known. What good are mauls and staffs against such a man if you are in the open and he has a quiver of arrows at his back and a good bow in his hands?”
“I…see,” Djedi said. “I guess we do need better weapons… Bows?”
“There’s no time to teach archery. No one said that the attackers had archers with them. I’m sure you would have if that were the case. So we need weapons. Spears. pikes, knives…”
“Where will we get them?” Djedi had asked.
Seti lifted his eyebrows. “We’ll tell Count Intef–“
“The Vizier?” Djedi gasped.
“I believe that’s his name,” Seti yawned. “We can tell him that we need them. He should give them from the royal armory. He holds public audience tomorrow. You’ll ask him then.”