Bright Wings in the Ebony Hall

Dale Carothers

Emesh plucked the fly from the bright red blanket on his bed - the bed he'd shared with Shakti for the last thirty-six years. The fly was as white as the hairs on the backs of his gnarled fingers. It meant that Uushkof had lain with Shakti. Uushkof used the narcotic effects of the ivory fly's bite to seduce women.

Emesh tore the blanket from the bed and dropped it at his sandaled feet.

"What are you doing?" Shakti asked. She wore an ankle-length gown that left her hennaed feet exposed and a golden hoop in her nostril.

"It's not what I'm doing that's the problem. It's what you've done."

"What are you talking about?" Shakti narrowed her kohl-lined eyes. Her crows-feet deepened.

Emesh showed her the fly in his hand. "How could you?"

"Nothing happened. He came here looking for you."

"And when he found me gone he was happy to visit with you. I told you never to let him in our house when I'm not home."

Shakti's lips twitched. "So you don't trust me."

"No, no. I trust you. It's him I don't trust."

"How can you be friends with a man you don't trust?"

"He's so full of life and he makes me laugh, but his carousing always sickened me."

Shakti took Emesh's hand. "Nothing happened. You believe me don't you?"

"Did you fall asleep while he was here?" Emesh squeezed her hand.

Shakti pulled her hand from his grip. "Yes."

"Did you wake up in bed, not knowing how you got there?"

"Yes, but he didn't touch me."

"How can you know? He drugged you."

"A woman knows."

"Liar!"

Shakti slapped Emesh. "Get out! I can't look at you!"

Emesh's cheek burned like a rock in the desert sun. "It's your guilt that makes you angry."

"I said get out!" Shakti sat on the bed, her body heaving with sobs.

Emesh stalked into the main room. He draped his blue sun cape over his shoulders and put his skullcap on his head. From a drawer in his workbench, he pulled a little wooden locket on a leather thong. He dropped the fly inside and tied the locket around his neck.

When he got outside, Emesh dodged past the camels and street hawkers on Market Street toward his son's home in the temple district. Priests clad in gaudy robes and wearing jeweled slippers argued the finer points of spirituality amidst the magnificent marble temples and minarets.

When he came to the temple of Ep, loving grandmother and goddess of wisdom and forgiveness, he stopped to kiss her fat feet, but couldn't; too much anger still burned inside him. Instead, he walked into the temple and up the stairs toward Afyed's room.

Afyed was three years into his studies and soon would become a priest of Ep. He'd counsel those in need and perform rituals of forgiveness for those who'd transgressed. Emesh wondered how Afyed would feel about performing his first forgiveness ritual for his own mother.

"Emesh!" called Chendi. She was fat, as priestesses of Ep tended to be, and wore the deep blue robes and yellow rope sandals of her order. "What's wrong? Do you need to unburden yourself?"

"I do. But I need to see my son first."

"He's not here."

Emesh's shoulders slumped. "When do you expect him back?"

"He left you a letter." She handed Emesh a folded sheet.

Dear Father,

I met your old friend Uushkof in the street near our house. He is a different man than I remember. He now speaks of transcendence and meditation instead of profit and trade. I plan to travel with him to his valley and learn what I can from him.

Afyed

Emesh crumpled the sheet and dropped it on the floor. "Why has my son left your order?"

"This is something that every student must do to become a priest of Ep. He must test his faith by exposing himself to alternate views. If he comes back with his faith intact, he will be ordained."

Uushkof had taken Emesh's wife and then his son. Emesh balled his fists, closed his eyes and imagined plunging a knife into Uushkof's belly.

~

Emesh went to the bazaar and bought a water skin, bread, dates, nuts, apricots, and apples. A holy beggar, coated in thick red paste from head to toe, called to him. "Please, kind sir, give me water and I will pray for you."

"A splendid idea," Emesh said, handing over his water skin and a few dates. He remembered Afyed's time as a holy beggar. Family members weren't allowed to feed a holy beggar so he'd made a point of mentioning the corner that Afyed occupied to all of his customers. "I'm crossing the desert today. A blessing will do me good."

"Then I will pray for rain and cool breeze." The holy beggar wet his finger with water from Emesh's water skin and then smudged a bit of red paste onto the tops of Emesh's feet. "I pray that your feet never tire and that your sandal straps never break."

The holy beggar drank and handed the water skin back to Emesh. "Thank you."

"Yes, and thank you for your blessing."

At the rough brick wall that surrounded the city, Emesh waited in line near a fountain to refill his water skin. The young woman ahead of him smiled and nodded. Her eyes were lined with kohl and her ears with a row of dangling green jewels.

"Good day to you," Emesh said.

"It is a good day." She clasped his hands. "Would you like to know why?"

"Please."

"I'm making the pilgrimage to Uushkof's Valley."

Emesh ground his teeth. How many innocents did Uushkof plan to corrupt? He wanted to ask what her parents thought of her decision.

"Wonderful," he said. "I, too, am going to Uushkof's Valley."

She looked him up and down. "Aren't you too..."

"Old?"

"Yes," she said and then looked at the ground.

Emesh was happy to see that her parents had taught her respect. "I'm not too old to seek happiness and enlightenment. I need it more than you. I'm closer to the end."

She smiled. "I'm Zaquiq."

"Emesh." He placed his hand on his chest. "It looks like it's our turn at the well. We'd better fill our skins."

When they were finished, they walked together through the giant pearl-inlaid doors, heading east within a mass of traders leading donkeys, camels and wooden carts piled high with goods destined for outlying villages. Soon the pilgrims formed a group, some twenty-five in number.

"How long will it take us to get there?" Emesh asked Zaquiq.

"I don't know. I met a man earlier who knew." She searched the crowd. "Tadil, come over here!"

Tadil, his skin still dyed red from where he'd scraped off the holy beggar paste, stopped and let Emesh and Zaquiq catch up. "What?"

"How long will it take to get there?"

"Three days by foot."

Emesh couldn't help himself. After seeing the fine example set by the holy beggar who'd blessed him, this man's failure angered him. "What, you couldn't convince anyone to give you food or water?"

Tadil scowled. "I now seek a quicker path to enlightenment."

"Let's hope you find it before you quit again."

~

By the middle of the second day, Emesh could barely keep himself upright. He was running out of food, and he cursed himself for wishing that he still had the dates he'd given the holy beggar. The sunlight was like a sizzling weight on his back.

Emesh stumbled.

Zaquiq grabbed him under the arm. "You should've stayed home. What made you think that you could make it?"

Emesh was disappointed in himself. He thought his anger would carry him to Uushkof's valley, but now he was too tired to continue.

A spine of rock stood a good distance from the road to his left. It was late enough in the day for the sun to have passed above the formation, leaving its southern side dark with shadow.

Emesh looked at the shade like it was his salvation. "I need to rest."

"I'll call for a break," Zaquiq said.

"No. We just had one. They won't want to stop again so soon." He pointed to the spine of rock. "I'm going to go sit in the shade."

"If we walk all the way over there we'll have to walk all the way back and we'll get left behind."

"That's why I'm going alone."

She hugged him. "Hurry back." A tear mixed with kohl traced a black line down her cheek.

Emesh stepped off the path.

"Who's the quitter now?" Tadil yelled.

Emesh walked a crooked path toward the rocks, his feet barely catching him before he fell. He passed into the shade, and if he hadn't sweated every last drop of moisture out of his body, he would've cried. Scrambling over the loose brown scree that littered the base of the formation, he found that the gods had truly smiled upon him. The outcropping hid the entrance to a cave.

He sat near its mouth, his back against the rough rock, and took a drink from his water skin. The water was warm, like tea without the leaves.

The cave was cool inside but it stank. When he found a suitable spot to lie down, he dropped his sun cape on the sand and balled his vest for a pillow. The last thing he heard before falling asleep was the buzzing of wings.

The next morning the sun's rays delved deep into the cave. Emesh opened his eyes but couldn't bring himself to move. He would rather have seen Shakti's beautiful face, first thing in the morning, than the desiccated carcass that lay against the wall. It had thick yellow fur and black claws on the toes of its padded feet. A leopard, dead from disease? Its back was thick with sores. Huge insects fluttered about the cave, landing on the jaguar's back and burrowing inside.

Emesh strained to get up. He needed to get Afyed away from Uushkof, but he was too weak. Something tickled his back, and each time he moved to bat it away it stopped. But it grew more persistent, and soon the tickle became a crawling tattoo that moved in waves from his ribs to his shoulder blades.

A tiny iridescent bird swooped in and dropped a speck of water on his lips. The bird stopped, hovered, its wings a blur, and then flew away, only to be replaced by another bird and another drop. He opened his jaw and soon tiny flocks of birds were dropping water into his mouth all at once, unafraid in their servitude.

Emesh rolled onto his stomach and the birds squirmed under the skin of his back. He put his hands against the sandy ground and pushed. He crawled over to the wall and used cracks in the rock to pull himself up. His legs shook under the added weight.

One of the birds flew out of the jaguar's fur, around his waist and then landed on his lower back. He ran his fingers over the skin of his back. It was scaly and lumpy. His fingers brushed against feathers. He did the same over his shoulder, only to feel a higher concentration of feathers. He took a step and the birds that had burrowed into his back shifted. Their tiny wings cooled his back.

Emesh wondered if he'd been cursed. Was this punishment for the anger he harbored against Shakti and Uushkof? Surely the gods could foresee his plans for revenge. Or was it a gift? The birds were beautiful, and they didn't cause him any pain, just a slight discomfort. The desert was Pekkelu's domain. Had the god of war and perseverance sent the birds to Emesh as a sign to make sure he kept going? He made the sign of the talon with his left hand and let a few drops of water fall to the sand.

Emesh donned his sun cape and walked to the mouth of the cave. He dreaded the sun and wished that he had a clutch of grasses to weave into a brim for his skullcap. A flurry of birds launched from his back and disappeared into the sky.

"Wait, come back," Emesh said. He felt suddenly deflated and lighter.

He stepped into the sunlight and a bird zipped to his face and hovered, it seemed to be asking him to stand still. Soon another bird dropped a long blade of grass at his feet. The pile of grass grew as more birds came and when he saw that he had enough he said, "That will be plenty."

The birds stopped their gathering and once again crawled into the holes in his back. Emesh sat and wove a wide spiral brim around his beaded skullcap and then put it on. He walked back to the road and became a pilgrim again, headed east, to Uushkof's valley.

~

Emesh followed the path up to the crest of a ridge. Below lay a verdant oasis. A dome made of clay and wood with an arched ebony hallway leading into it sat in the center of the oasis surrounded by goat hair tents. People with clay jars collected water from the well. Goats, sheep and camels bleated in their pens.

Emesh descended.

A guard stood at the entrance to the hallway. He was clad in green and gold brocade and wore a wickedly curved sword. Apparently, Uushkof's method of enlightenment didn't forbid him from resorting to violence.

A crowd formed, waiting to welcome Emesh. He saw a familiar face.

Zaquiq smiled. "I almost went back to look for you." She looked different without her jewelry and kohl, but still beautiful.

"I thank you for your concern. Are you further along the path to enlightenment?"

She looked at the ground and then drew a circle in the dust with her toe. "I haven't been inside yet."

"Why not?"

"Pilgrims become supplicants first. We tend the herds, bring water and do the bidding of the initiates. They represent the next step." She pointed to the largest of the tents. "The initiates live there, and are one step away from living inside with Uushkof himself. They take what we gather inside to feed Uushkof and his devoted."

"How long will it take you to get inside?"

"Nobody knows."

Emesh didn't want to wait. He needed to confront Uushkof as soon as possible. He scanned the faces of the crowd, no Afyed. "Is this everyone?"

"All of the supplicants."

"Where is everybody else?"

"Inside. There's a feast tonight."

"I need to get in. Can you help me?"

Tadil stepped out of the crowd. "We all got here before you. What makes you think you can bypass all of us?"

"This." One hundred tiny birds swirled around Emesh in a shining whirlwind.

The supplicants and the guard gave him room to pass into the tunnel. The birds came back and crawled into their holes, tightening the skin of his back.

It was hot enough to choke the breath out of him. Brass braziers hung from chains every ten steps, emitting sickly sweet smoke and flickering orange light. The walls were layered in black glaze. A faint tinny music, like the bleating of an effeminate donkey singing songs of lost love, came from holes cut into a long brass tube that ran along the ceiling. The swarm of ivory flies hovering around the nearest brazier showed Emesh what he had guessed to be true. The music and smoke and darkness were all distractions. He fingered the locket that he wore on a string around his neck and the anger came back.

Emesh stopped when an ivory fly landed on the back of his hand. He hurriedly flicked it away.

"Eat them all," he said to his birds. "Don't let a single one touch me."

His flock swarmed past him. Twisting and turning about the tunnel, eating the flies. Emesh stepped back and left them to their meal. Soon the birds slowed, flying as if they were drunk. Some bounced off of the walls and fell to the sand. Emesh collected them and put them in his pockets. When all of the flies were gone, Emesh continued down the hall.

He heard the chink of cutlery, laughter, the susurrus of conversation, musicians at play, and smelled roasted meat, spiced tubers and heady wines.

Emesh stopped at a pair of gauzy black curtains that blocked his view into the room and tilted his hat down over his face. Half of his flock was drunk on ivory flies; he hoped he had enough left to distract everyone inside. He stepped through the curtains.

To his left a group of musicians played their instruments into the fluted end of a wide brass cone that was connected to the tube running down the hall. To his right was a banquet table, strewn with golden trays bearing meats, fruits, sugared sweets, and a line of green glass bottles of wine. At the center of the room a mass of sweaty bodies lounged in post-orgiastic torpor.

Here was Uushkof's version of enlightenment: excess, idleness, and vanity. It turned his stomach to think of his son here. And Zaquiq, did she know that this was all that awaited her within? If so, his opinion of her would change. It wasn't that Emesh was against good food, the pleasures of the flesh, and laziness, but it bothered him that Uushkof had made a life of them, and had conned the weak into believing that they could achieve transcendence by joining him.

Uushkof sat on a mountain of pillows laid upon a dais. His pale belly, freckled and massive, shook with laughter. He had a heavy brow lined with thick orange eyebrows. His hair was plaited into the rays of a brass headdress fashioned into a stylized sun. Uushkof's heavy-lidded eyes shot open when he spied Emesh at the doorway. He raised a heavy arm and the music stopped.

"You dare to intrude on this most holy ritual?" Uushkof said. "I'll flay the guard alive and feed him to my devoted. How did you get in here?"

Emesh stifled a laugh. Uushkof spoke as if he wielded true power. "The supplicants outside marveled at my miracle and thought that it would please you . . . lord." Emesh stumbled over the last word. He wanted to bite out his own tongue for saying it.

"Show me then, but be quick about it." Uushkof clapped his hands. "Everyone, pay attention. He thinks that he'll be able to amuse us."

The devoted laughed but turned to look at Emesh.

With a flourish Emesh raised his hands and the birds flew in swirls around him. He stepped slowly forward, through the tangle of bodies, and they parted to let him pass. He directed the birds this way and that, hoping that he put on a good show. The devoted clapped and cheered, and soon the band took up their instruments, trying to follow along. He went to the banquet table and asked the birds deliver morsels of food to everyone.

He ordered the birds to orbit him, cloaking him in a mad flash of speed and wings. When he neared the base of Uushkof's throne he looked up and took off his hat. Understanding finally dawned on Uushkof's face. Before Uushkof could summon his guards, the birds scattered and Emesh leapt up onto the dais with a knife he'd taken from the banquet table. He straddled Uushkof's gut and put the tip of the blade against Uushkof's throat.

Uushkof opened his mouth to speak. Emesh pricked him with the tip of the blade. Uushokof stopped his guards with an outstretched hand. A trickle of blood flowed from the cut.

"Not a word." Emesh tooking up the pendant box with his other hand. "Not until I've said what I've come to say." He opened it and showed Uushkof the ivory fly within. "I found this in my bed. You've had my wife, but then my son was lured here by word of your 'enlightenment.' I can't let you have him, too."

Uushkof closed his eyes. "Poor Emesh."

Emesh gritted his teeth and cut Uushkof again. "I don't want your sympathy. You are pathetic, not me. Soon everyone will feel sorry for you."

"No, you misunderstand. I never touched your wife."

"Liar!"

"No. It's true that I went to your house. I waited until you went out. I showed your wife my flies and then took her to your bed and removed her clothing, but I couldn't do it. Even though I've always admired her, I couldn't betray our friendship."

Emesh sat there, wheezing, the knife shook in his hand. The birds hovered about them and buzzed between their faces. Uushkof's face was serene. It betrayed none of the nervousness of a man caught in a lie. Even with the knife at his throat, Uushkof had been honest about his plan to seduce Shakti. Emesh remembered Shakti's anger, the burning pain after she'd slapped him, and knew that he was wrong.

Emesh shook his head. "All those things I said to her. All the rage. For nothing. I should've believed her." He dropped the knife, and Uushkof stilled his guards with a hand again.

Their mingled sweat made Uushkof's belly slippery. Emesh slid off, onto the pillows. He hid his face and wept. "I'm sorry that I cut you."

"Just a few little scratches. Nothing to worry about." Uushkof patted Emesh's head.

"What about my son?" he asked.

Uushkof leaned in and whispered. "He came here to test his faith, to see if my wisdom could poke holes in that of Ep. I sent him away because he found the flaws in my path to enlightenment in less than an hour."

"He's always been a smart boy," Emesh said, smiling.

"He took a few of my converts with him when he left."

Emesh wondered why he hadn't seen Afyed on the road. But then he remembered the cave.

"It's time I went home," Emesh said. "Shakti and Afyed will be waiting."

"I don't envy you your homecoming. Shakti has a poison tongue."

"I deserve it."

They embraced and Emesh left. His feet felt heavy and his head seemed full of cotton. He passed through the ebony hall, bright wings all about him. By the time he passed into the sunlight, the weight had lifted.

~

Three days later, Emesh gingerly opened the back door of his house and walked into the bedroom.

"Emesh!" Shakti burst through the door. "Where have you been? Six days, without a word. I looked everywhere for you."

She rushed in to hug him but he held up his hand.

"You can't still believe that I -" said Shakti.

"No. You must be careful of my birds." Emesh untied his sun cape and let it fall to the floor. He raised his hands and a flurry of birds rose up from his back and darted about the room.

Shakti's eyes grew wide, and she took a step back. "What happened to you?"

"Sit down and I'll tell you."

Afyed walked in. He wore the blue robes and yellow rope sandals of Ep. "I think I need to hear this, too."

Emesh smiled. "Learned Father, I need you to perform the ritual of forgiveness for me."

It took Afyed a moment to realize what was happening before he asked. "Do you need to unburden yourself?"

"Yes."

"Who have you wronged?"

"My wife."

"Stand before her," Afyed said.

Emesh looked at Shakti. He would never doubt her again.

"Have you a token to offer her?" Afyed asked.

"Yes, Father." Emesh untied the locket and handed it to Shakti.

"Good. Then we can begin."