Hear, O Israel: IV

(I am running out of already written chapters.  Should I continue this or keep my day job?)

 

BOOK I

Goshen

3

And they made their lives bitter with hard

bondage, in mortar, and in brick, and in all

manner of service in the field.

Exodus 1:14

 

 

 

Ahmose could hear the commotion well before he reached the brickyard.  From the shouted words he was able to catch through the mid-day hum of insects he guessed it was another fight.  Business as usual, he thought and quickened his pace, sidestepping a brick carrier heading towards the granary.

The brick pits were barely a half hour’s walk west of the construction, not an unusual circumstance in the clay-rich delta, but a blessing for Ahmose nevertheless.  Not only could the brick be carried directly to the site, saving the time and effort of loading and unloading barges, but the immediacy of the pits also gave him direct control over his brick supply.  Since most of the construction was of sun-dried brick, this was a great advantage.  The project would be desperately far behind schedule were the steady stream of bricks interrupted by the same delays and problems that were plaguing the delivery of his stone.

Watching the line of carriers passing in the opposite direction, loads bobbing at either end of their carrying poles, Ahmose could only wish for the same sort of control over the other facets of the construction.  It was enough to frustrate a god.  He had just enough authority to clothe him with overall responsibility, but not overall control, leaving the project at the mercy of the fools in Heliopolis and Pi-Ramessu.  And leaving himself vulnerable, Ahmose well understood.  Any failures and he would be at the center of a ring of accusing fingers, while success would have to be shared with officials and priests who had never set foot in Tjou.  At least Pharaoh and the Overseer of Granaries recognized his contribution, despite the lies he was now sure were being carried from the temple of Atum to the capital.

These thoughts gave way to more immediate concerns as the acacias, sycamores and scattered palms gave way to the marshy clearing containing the brickyard.  At the far side of the clearing men with mattocks pulled the dark gray alluvial mud from a shallow excavation and passed it to the hod carriers, who transported it the short distance to the mixing pits.  There it was kneaded and stirred with water brought up from the canal and sand hauled in from the Red Land just to the north.  Ahmose’s careful search before the construction got under way had provided him with a clay source that was both close to the construction site and rich enough to require only sand as a binder in the bricks, eliminating the need for a constant supply of reeds or straw.  The only straw on the site was used by the actual brickmakers, who kept their hands powdered with straw dust in order to keep the finished mixture from sticking to them.

The pits were worked by quarter sections, an innovation introduced by Ahmose.  When the clay master determined the mixture in one section was ready, work by the pit men ceased in that quarter and carriers began moving the ready mud to the brick tables.  Mixing continued meanwhile in the other sections, which were arranged so that the next batch would be ready when the previous load had been consumed at the brick tables.  There, almost as quickly as it arrived, the brickmakers packed it into rectangular wooden molds, dipped in water and sand to prevent sticking, and struck off the excess with a flat strip of wood.  The mold was then removed, leaving the brick on a board by which it was carried to the leveled drying area and dumped off.  After three days in the sun the bricks were dry enough to be stacked and transported; after eight they were ready for use.

This set-up insured an unbroken stream of clay to the brickmakers and eliminated the need for a dump of clay at the brick tables.  Ahmose had organized the whole process around his estimated daily brick requirements: this determined the number of brickmakers constantly at work, which in turn determined the output of the mixing pits.  Producing too few bricks could bring construction to an expensive halt, while producing too many wasted labor.

At the moment the whole operation was threatening to stagger to a halt.  A fight had indeed broken out in one of the two mixing pits, providing all the workers with an entertaining diversion from the tedium of brickmaking.  The half dozen overseers of the yard, all of them Egyptians, were running about yelling in Egyptian and gutter Canaanite, arms rising and falling as they punctuated their commands with strokes of their steer hide whips.  It was immediately clear to Ahmose they were engaged in a losing struggle.  There was temporary order and the appearance of work around each overseer, but as soon as he passed the workers returned their attention to the fight, cheering on the combatants.

Despite the crack of the lash the affair had a festival air, centered as it was around a fight between two clay men that was more comic than damaging.  Ahmose took this as evidence of his sound management, the disturbance sparking a burst of seemingly good-natured exuberance rather than an angry explosion.  But he also knew how easily this situation could get out of hand.  These were after all sixty odd men, many of them former desert warriors, who nurtured a deeply rooted anger and resentment towards Egyptians and countless petty, but nevertheless earnest disputes among themselves.  At any moment high spirits could easily lead to the unthinkable act of striking an overseer and turn the impromptu party into a deadly riot resulting in Egyptian deaths and massive reprisals against his labor force.  This was definitely not the sort of thing that advanced one’s career.

As he entered the clearing Ahmose noticed that the two spearmen from the fort had apparently made the same analysis.  Normally lounging in any convenient shade, the two soldiers were on their feet and alert, ready to flee if a mob should begin to take shape from the crowd of workers.  Their presence was far more a deterring reminder of Egyptian authority than any real guarantee against serious trouble.  Their faces said as much to Ahmose when he appeared: This is your job, not ours.

Ahmose strode quickly towards the mixing pit, ignoring the greetings and jests from the workers he passed.  The problem was instantly clear.  The fight could not be broken up without entering the clay, and it was no surprise that none of his overseers had done so.  One was at the edge of the pit, screaming and lashing at several men he had apparently ordered in to stop the fight, to no avail.  The men were making little effort to reach the two flailing at each other in the center of the pit and had instead begun pelting each other with clay, laughing despite the occasional sting of the lash.  As Ahmose approached, one of them slipped and crashed through a supporting pole, dumping a corner of the palm frond sunscreen into the pit and stirring an approving roar of laughter.

Once Ahmose reached the pit, the crowd quieted, eager to see how the farce would be resolved.  No one was working now, including the overseers, and brick carriers returning from the building site for another load were lingering in the clearing.  The only real activity in the yard was the fight, which for all its comic aspect, Ahmose concluded, was deadly serious, so oblivious were the contestants to what was happening around them.

The overseer at the pit edge, reduced by anger and frustration to screaming curses in Egyptian, was completely unaware of his boss’s approach and started when Ahmose put a hand on his shoulder.  He whirled suddenly, his whip hand instinctively coming up to deliver a cut to his attacker.  Prepared for such a reaction, Ahmose stepped back quickly and felt a rush of air as the leather thongs whistled past his bare chest.  The overseer’s eyes went wide when he recognized his target, but before he could get his mouth working Ahmose had stepped forward again and clamped his shoulders in powerful hands.

“You idiot,” he said quietly to the now frightened Egyptian, who had suddenly realized that the angry man effortlessly pinning him to this spot had the mob of workers on his side.

Without loosening his grip Ahmose looked up at the other overseers, who had collected near the pit.  “Is this job too difficult for you?  Four of you can’t figure out how to stop a simple fight?  It’s easy, but first you have to get near the fighters.”  He shoved the overseer into the pit, where he immediately lost his balance and flopped into the clay.  An enthusiastic cheer went up from the workers.

“Quiet!” bellowed Ahmose in pidgin Egyptian, looking around the yard, which went completely silent.  “It seems you all chose to take your midday break early.  Well, it’s over now, and any man who is not back at work at once will receive special consideration.  And for stopping work without permission you’ve all lost a ten day’s beer ration.”

There was a murmur as the older hands translated for their fellows, though Ahmose’s tone carried a meaning clear enough to all.  Men began returning slowly to their tasks, but attention was still focused on the scene at the mixing pit, where the surprise battle of the overseers promised unusual entertainment.  The original fight appeared to be coming to an end anyway.  One of the two men, the clay on his face and chest stained red from a smashed nose, had managed to get a grip on the other despite the slippery clay and was proceeding to throttle him.

The overseer Ahmose had dumped into the clay quickly regained his feet, but made no move towards the impending homicide in the center of the pit.  Instead, he climbed out and stood glaring at Ahmose, the muscles of his face working and the whip trembling in his hand.  After the barest moment, the internal struggle resolved and dangerous courses of action rejected, he spoke, rage threatening to swamp the carefully measured words.

“It doesn’t end here, Habiru.”  Throwing his whip at Ahmose’s feet, he turned and stamped out of the yard, accompanied by the odd snigger.

Ahmose did not watch him go.  The Egyptian overseers were hired labor, and his control over them went only as far as their desire to keep the job.  Which meant not very far, given Egyptian resentment towards subordination of any kind to a non-Egyptian, especially one of his particular blood.  Ahmose had tried overseers elevated from the ranks of his conscript labor, but they had no credibility.  No matter how he supported them, they lacked that authority that was automatically accorded freeborn Egyptians by the scum that made up his work force.  And Habiru overseers played favorites, punishing and rewarding according to tribal politics and personal whim rather than the justice of the moment.  The Egyptians on the other hand were quite impartial; they treated all the conscript labor, including the few Egyptians, as shit.

Stripping off and tossing his linen kilt to one of the overseers, Ahmose stepped carefully into the pit and despite the knee-deep mud reached the struggling men in three strides.  Actually, the struggle had come to an end.  Eyes bulging and rolled back, the man being choked hung almost completely limp in the other’s grasp, clearly only moments from his journey to the west.  The victor was like some mud-spawned executioner from the realm of Apophis.  Wild eyes stared out of a face hastily molded from clay, and the blood smeared mouth and chest prompted the image of a predator already begun to feed on its victim.

Yelling at him to let go, Ahmose grabbed the man’s wrists and attempted to pull the hands from their death grip.  He might as well have tried to rearrange the limbs of a statue cut from granite.  The clay man gave him absolutely no notice.  Ahmose stepped back slightly and sent his right fist crashing into the already ruined nose, dappling himself with spots of red and gray and sending a message of pain up his arm.  To his surprise the blow did not drive the man back or even cause him to cry out, but it did get his attention.  Dropping his victim, whose semi-conscious body immediately began gasping for air, he turned towards Ahmose, rapid and shallow breaths hissing through clenched teeth, eyes glazed and unrecognizing.

Oh shit, thought Ahmose.  Have I just picked a fight with something more than human?  Gods did often walk the Two Lands, but Ahmose could think of no reason why one should appear in this situation.  He had been careful to sacrifice to all the appropriate deities at each stage of the project and before setting up the brickyard had in particular honored Hapi for the use of his water and mud.  In any case he could not flee – if indeed one could run away from a god – since that would seriously undermine his authority with his workers.  Besides, was he not under the protection of Thoth?

Egyptian hostility towards easterners was not limited to adults, and growing up in the streets of Pi-Ramessu Ahmose had learned early on how to take care of himself, usually against odds.  Bending slightly, he scooped up a handful of clay and flung it hard into the eyes of his opponent.  Temporarily blinded, the man paused and naturally brought his hands up to clear the mud away.  At that moment Ahmose, taking careful balance, kicked him solidly in the crotch, and he promptly doubled over and went to his knees, retching uncontrollably.

Not a god.  Just a poor wretch in a blood fury.  Thanks be to Thoth.  He climbed out of the pit and surveyed the yard, hands on hips.  He suspected he cut something of a comic figure: dark gray from the knees down and speckled gray and pink above.  And to the Bedouin a man out in only a loincloth was both ridiculous and indecent.  He could in fact easily identify the newest arrivals in the work force – they wore shifts and even heavy robes rather than the virtually indestructible slit leather loincloths favored by the veterans.  Daylong toil under the delta sun would overcome desert habits and modesty soon enough.

Comic or not, no one was laughing, though he was surrounded by smiling faces.  The whole incident had turned in his favor.  The Lord Moses – he’s one of us, they would say – humiliated the Egyptians and took charge of the situation.  The story would spread and be exaggerated and gain Ahmose enhanced respect and authority, at least among his workers.  Unfortunately, it would do him no good at all with his Egyptians, who could only see it as further proof that this uppity Habiru had completely forgotten his place in the scheme of things.  But then, most of them would feel that way no matter what he did.

“See to those two men,” he ordered the overseers.  “When they recover, give them both ten solid lashes for fighting.  Then give the bloody one another ten for attacking me.”  It bothered Ahmose to punish a possibly innocent man, who was only defending himself, but he could not spend the time attempting to investigate and judge every case.  There were few innocents among his workers anyway, and most likely one of the two fighters would be dead in a couple of days, his throat cut in the night.  Among the Bedouin honor was far more dear than life.

“These men” – he glared at the four clay-covered workers standing sheepishly in a corner of the pit – “apparently enjoy playing in the mud.  Fine.  Pharaoh likes happy workers.  You will enjoy a two month shift in the mixing pits.”

The men’s faces fell, though they could hardly have expected less; Ahmose had little choice but to shore up the authority of his overseers.  He could never quite understand why most of his workers feared the pits so much.  True, the labor was very hard on the legs until the muscles became accustomed to lifting against the suction of the clay, but the pits were shaded and the mud was cool from the constant addition of water.  He supposed it was the utter tedium of the job, especially so for the restless men from the desert, that put it at the bottom of the hierarchy of conscript labor jobs.

His right hand was now beginning to ache.  He would be paying for his crowd-pleasing performance in the pit.  Flexing the fingers of the sore hand a few times, he retrieved his kilt and surveyed the yard.  The operation was quickly returning to normal.  Once more the dominant sounds in the yard were the reassuring plop-squirt of legs kneading the mud and the splat of clay being slapped into molds.  Ahmose concentrated for a moment on the splats, timing them against the blood throbbing at his wrist.  Allowing for a quickened pulse, he estimated the brick flow was already back to normal – normal for his brickyards, that is.  He made a mental note to hire another overseer and to make an additional offering to Hapi for the bounty of his mud.  And perhaps to Thoth for guiding him through yet another difficulty, minor though it had been.

Before heading out of the yard he intercepted one of the water carriers before the man reached the mixing pits.  While the worker stood holding his kilt and grinning hugely – he had evidently seen the fight – Ahmose dumped the contents of the water jar over himself, washing away the crust of clay and blood.  The water on his skin evaporated quickly, providing a refreshing coolness.  He felt ready to face another problem.

“Like father Jacob at the Jabbok,” the water carrier said suddenly as he traded back the kilt for his jar.

“What was that?” replied Ahmose, taken by surprise.

“The Lord Moses in the pit reminded me of the hero Jacob, beloved of Baal-Hanam, when he fought the demon at the Jabbok river.”

“The Jabbok river?  Where’s that?”  Baal-Hanam was obviously a Canaanite god, one of the dozens of lesser deities who looked after the miserable towns of Canaan, and Jacob was presumably a local hero.

“It flows from the east into the river Jordan, straight by my city of Succoth.”  Realizing that he had an unexpected and exalted audience, the worker quickly launched into his tale.  “In olden days Jacob, father of Succoth, was stopped from crossing the Jabbok by a mighty demon.  All night they wrestled until at dawn the demon sought to escape the light, but Jacob, who had the strength of three normal men, held him fast.  Only when the demon blessed him did he then free him, naming the river Jabbok, which means ‘wrestled,’ and founding nearby the holy place of Penuel.”

Ahmose nodded at the story, which had poured out of the man in a smooth, memorized stream of eastern accented Canaanite.  He had heard of none of the places named, but if the Jabbok was a tributary of the Jordan, it could hardly be more than an insignificant stream.  And Succoth, he guessed, would probably make Tjou seem a major metropolis.  Still, any man born in a building rather than a tent could be counted as one of his more civilized workers.

“Interesting,” he said, fastening the kilt about his waist.  “The world is filled with the wonders of the gods, isn’t it?”

The man beamed, and as he turned to leave the yard, Ahmose wished it were that easy to lift the morale of all his men.  But tell most Habiru their stories were interesting and you would only increase their suspicions.  Only natural perhaps for men who were so universally despised.

After surveying the yard a final time to insure the operation was running smoothly again, he headed back through the trees to the construction site, falling in with the line of loaded brick carriers.  He noticed absently that those within sight picked up their pace to match his, something he could have easily predicted.  That in fact was the primary reason he spent so much time wandering, sometimes randomly, about the work sites; that and the need to be present to deal with unexpected problems.  He often wished he could make copies of himself.  He had spies of course, but they were good only for a constant stream of low-level, though sometimes useful information.  Spies provoked resentment, but his workers would assume he had them whether he did or not.  What he really needed were better subordinates and overseers, a tough problem given the special resentment he himself provoked among Egyptians.

He glanced up at the sun winking through the leaves and fronds passing overhead.  It was close to the zenith.  The crews on site would shortly be taking their midday meal, and Ahmose preferred if at all possible to be present for the architect’s inspection that took place during the break.  Also, Merab had promised to come by around noon to discuss his problems with the Heliopolis priesthood, and he knew the busy little man would not wait long.  He quickened his pace a bit.

From the relative quiet and absence of returning brick carriers Ahmose could guess well before he actually reached the site that the workers had already downed tools.  This was confirmed when the path emerged from the last copse of trees and the low bushes gave way to ragged alfa grass and the bare sandy soil of the construction area.  Most of the workers had already received their ration of bread and beer and had retired to shaded spots around the periphery of the site to eat.

The midday break and meal were not inevitable among the conscript labor gangs.  In their brutal contempt for their workers and their desperation to keep to schedule many construction overseers pushed their people straight through the day, and few were willing to budget money for the extra meal.  Less food for each worker means more workers went the simple equation of many managers, and Ahmose could not understand why they could not see the shortsighted fallacy of this belief.  Well-nourished and rested workers produced far more than exhausted skeletons, not simply because of their better physical condition, but even more so because of higher morale, a concept that seemed totally beyond the average Egyptian overseer.

Ahmose headed southeast past small stockpiles of bricks and other materials towards the actual buildings, which were situated just north of the road and canal.  The town of Tjou, such as it was, lay immediately to the east of the temple-granary.  A number of poor huts had in fact been demolished in the original clearing of the site, but new mud and reed dwellings were already springing up all around.  Ahmose allowed his workers free use of damaged bricks, and many had built simple shelters near the site.  Some, the poorest, had even built substantial houses and brought in their families, though most left wives and children elsewhere to tend their flocks and gardens.  When the job was completed, Tjou might actually grow enough to become a noticeable town, as priests and granary officials moved in.

Ahmose passed through the east gate in the brick enclosure wall, cursing the temple of Atum at Heliopolis.  The wall itself, nine cubits high and two thick at the base, was complete on this side, waiting only to be plastered and painted, but the gate was unfinished.  Missing were the massive stones that would form the uprights and lintel of the doorway and of course the gates themselves.  The gates would normally be hung only in the last stage of construction, but the actual gateway should have already been in place and receiving the attention of the stonecutters.  Instead there were no gateways because the stone remained undelivered, and the skilled and expensive stonecutters were sitting about idle rather than carving bas-reliefs as originally scheduled.

Inside the enclosure Ahmose found Setnakht, the project architect, in front of the temple of Atum and Seth, which occupied the central part of the sacred precinct.  The temple was of very modest size, roughly fifty cubits by twenty cubits.  The massive pylon or entrance wall gave way to a small open court, which led in turn past a single row of four stone columns into the three small rooms that made up the sanctuary.  Unlike that of most of the large temples along the Nile, the long axis of this one lay not approximately, but exactly along an east-west line, so that with the gates of the enclosure open Re, rising above the eastern horizon, would send his rays directly into the sanctuary.

Behind the temple, occupying most of the western half of the enclosure, were the living quarters of the priests and the four granaries, their beehive domes rising well above the top of the precinct wall.  Made solely from brick, these structures were complete, but like the gates the temple was behind schedule.  At the moment the pylon rose to only half its planned twelve cubit height, the upper courses unfinished because the stone had yet to arrive.  This meant that the stonecutters and artists who should at this moment be covering the pylon with painted bas-reliefs of Atum, Seth and Ramses were instead sitting about drinking beer with their colleagues unable to work on the gate, all of them nevertheless still drawing salaries.

Setnakht, despite the heat dressed in an expensive wig and immaculate white pleated linen skirt, was watching two of his assistants reach the top of the pylon scaffolding.  The stones used in the upper levels of the pylon were small enough to be hoisted directly, sparing the need for the large earthen ramp used in the larger projects.  For this Ahmose was thankful, the wooden scaffolding being far easier to set up and remove than the thousands of hekats of earth necessary for a ramp sufficiently high to reach the top of the pylon in its final stages of construction.  Whenever he glimpsed the great pyramids of Khufu and Kephren on his occasional journey south to Memphis, he inevitably considered the mammoth labor involved in just building the ramps needed to lift the great blocks.

By the time he reached Setnakht the assistants were already repacking their cords and water pans, having quickly completed the routine check of the topmost course of stone.  Rolling up the sheets of papyrus he had been studying, the architect slipped them into a leather case and turned to Ahmose.

“Well, that’s it.  As far as we go until the rest of the stone shows up,” he said to a point just over Ahmose’s left shoulder.

Ahmose wondered if he was that predictable in his site inspections; Setnakht always seemed to know it was he before actually seeing him.  He looked directly into the pinched face of the old Egyptian.

“You know I’ve done what I can.  If the Third Divine of Thebes can’t help, who can?  Pi-Ramessu won’t respond.  They have never even really agreed there is a problem.  You have important friends at court, don’t you?  Perhaps if you sent…”

“Arranging for the delivery of building materials is hardly my concern,” interrupted Setnakht, indignation supplementing the annoyance that seemed always to be in his voice when he spoke to Ahmose.

“And seeing the project completed is also not your concern?” goaded Ahmose.

“I am the architect.  Seeing to it that the work gets done is the responsibility of the labor overseer.  You.”  He continued to look anywhere but at Ahmose.

Ahmose had had plenty of time to get used to the arrogant architect and his silly game of refusing to look at him directly.  A bent old reed of a man, he was competent enough, at least for an unambitious construction such as this, and Ahmose had years of experience in dealing with contempt.  At the moment, however, his growing frustration with the supply problems and the dull pain in his hand were conspiring to undermine his patience with such pettiness.  He looked up at the assistants climbing down the scaffolding and then back at Setnakht.

“Is the pylon stonework still true?” he asked innocently.

For the briefest moment the architect’s eyes flicked into contact with Ahmose’s and then darted away again.  His words came evenly, but clearly wrapped in anger.

“Of course the stonework is true!  Any apprentice could build this little pylon.”  He hesitated, apparently realizing the implication of his statement.  The pitch of his voice increased noticeably, and his face began to redden.  He now glared directly at Ahmose.

“I have done my job!  Now I waste my time because you haven’t done yours.  My career is threatened because you can’t control your thieving friends.  I suffer because somebody in Pi-Ramessu was bought.”

He turned abruptly and threw the cylindrical papyrus case at the two assistants, who were listening intently, expressions of studied indifference on their faces.  Taken by surprise, they instinctively ducked, and the case landed under the scaffolding, where one of the men retrieved it.  Setnakht was meanwhile already on his way to the gate, and gathering up their instruments, the assistants hurried after him.

Ahmose watched the party storm out, suddenly alone in the precinct.  Prodding Setnakht into a rage was hardly a challenge, but he did feel at least a momentary satisfaction.  He wondered if the old geezer really did worry about his career, when he so obviously already had one foot in the boat to the west.  He shrugged and headed out of the complex towards his house.

His residence was a short distance northeast of the temple precinct, close enough to the site to double as an office, but away from the squalor of Tjou.  The mud brick house, which had been built by his workers as the ground for the temple-granary was being cleared, consisted of a tiny courtyard and a building of only three rooms.  Though immense compared to the huts of most of his conscripts, it would be thought inadequate by the average Egyptian workingman, especially since Ahmose had not bothered to plaster and whitewash the exterior walls.  It made little difference to him; he considered the dwelling temporary, like the project itself.

Two men, household slaves by their look, lounged in the shade of the ancient acacia that stood before the house.  As he drew nearer, Ahmose recognized them as Merab’s.  The absence of any animals suddenly struck him.  Merab must be traveling by boat, which meant in turn that he had walked up from the canal.  He could easily imagine the round little man puffing and sweating as he performed this feat, walking a distance routinely covered by the country folk a hundred times in a day.

Ignoring the slaves, he went directly to the wooden entrance door, upon which he himself had painted the ankh and the winged eye of Horus as wards against evil spirits.  Still discernible above the door as a darker patch on the dun bricks was the smear of lamb’s blood, dabbed there by one of his Habiru workers back in the spring, when the house was built.  It was the blood of the first-born, a powerful barrier, Ahmose knew, to night-roving demons.  He understood and respected the potent magic found in the life fluid, but to him the blood rituals that were the heart of Bedouin worship only reflected the bloody nature of their warrior society.  According to his grandfather, the blood of captives and even infants sometimes stained the crude rock altars of the Habiru, a practice denied those living under Egyptian rule.  It was all too barbaric for a civilized man, but Ahmose left the mark as a concession to his workers and for its efficacy.  You never knew when dealing with the powers of the dark.

The door opened directly into the courtyard, where he found Merab hovering about the tiny kitchen set in one of the corners away from the house, which formed the rear of the court.  Dressed in only a linen kilt, a cup in his hand, he was issuing instructions to Heditkush, who was hidden in the coffin-sized building and from the smell of roasting meat, preparing the midday meal.  Ahmose doubted that the Nubian was paying any attention whatsoever to Merab’s words.

“I see you managed to find the wine,” he said, stepping into the yard.

“Ah, Ahmose.  Yes, it’s been a long hot journey.”  He waved his wine cup in the direction of the kitchen.  “Your man took care of me, though I must say he’s been very uncooperative over the details of lunch.”

The subject of the conversation emerged from the kitchen and handed Ahmose a cup of wine.  He wiped the sweat from his face with an exaggerated gesture.  “Eat soon.  Very hot, cooking.”

“Yes, very hot,” said Ahmose.  “A cup of beer would probably cool things down considerably.”

At the sound of the word “beer” Heditkush was already on his way towards the large covered jar standing next to the kitchen.  Ahmose turned back to Merab, who was staring into his now empty cup.

“Heditkush!  Bring wine to the house,” he called after the slave.  “And we’ll take the meal on the roof.”  He started across the yard, Merab following.

“Sorry I couldn’t get by sooner, but there’s been a press of business in Tjeku.  I’m on my way to Pi-Ramessu, and this seemed a good time to talk with you about your problems.  Ahmose, how the hell can you live like this?”

They had entered the main room of the house, an area hardly larger than the anteroom of the nomarch’s villa.  Reed mats covered the mud plaster and gypsum floor, and the whitewashed walls were painted with prayers to Thoth and other gods.  Pushed up against the walls were several large ceramic pots and low wooden chests, one supporting an alabaster statue of the ibis-headed Thoth.  A sketch of the completed temple-granary was tacked to one of the walls, and everywhere across the floor were neat piles of papyrus.  Sunlight from the door and a row of small windows set high in the walls illuminated the scene.

Ignoring Merab’s question, Ahmose threaded his way through the stacks to one of the chests, from which he took a sheaf of documents.  He sat cross-legged on the floor and began spreading the papyrus sheets out in front him.  More ponderously, Merab sank down opposite, groaning as he did so.

“Those who aren’t poor or trained as scribes are definitely not used to this.  Now I remember why I insist that you visit me rather than the other way around.”  He looked around at the prayer-lined walls.  “Min’s prick, Ahmose.  This is like living in a tomb.”

Before Ahmose, who had heard all this before, could reply, Heditkush arrived with the jug of wine, which he set down between the men.  Ahmose refilled their cups and handed one to Merab.

“I had another important dream.”

Merab rolled his eyes, but Ahmose continued.

“Come on, Merab.  You know how important this stuff is, especially since Thoth has spoken to me directly.”

“I thought he only nodded.”

“You know what I mean.  Listen, in the dream I climbed a tall cedar and began sawing off its branches.  You see!  You hardly need a Dream Book to interpret this, the meaning is so clear.  All my enemies and ills will be destroyed.”

“Or it could mean that you’ll end up a slave pruning trees for some rich man.  Or reduced to stealing firewood.”

“This is serious, Merab,” replied Ahmose, exasperation replacing the excitement in his voice.

“And I’m serious too.”  His voice had lost its playful tone.  “Now, you listen to me.  If you value your career so much, you will stop pressing this affair with Heliopolis.  You know full well that I have much more expertise in such things than you could ever hope to have, and I tell you that you are beginning to annoy some powerful figures.  Figures who aren’t all that enamored of an upstart Habiru in the first place.  The surest way to put the lie to your dreams and visions is to continue this foolish crusade.  Keep bothering these people, Ahmose, and instead of directing Pharaoh’s gangs you’ll find yourself in one of them, at the mercy of some overseer who remembers that you’re the uppity sand rambler.”

“But I have clear evidence of theft!”  He held up two sheets of papyrus.  “Look at these invoices.  Here, this one shows that thirty-two limestone blocks left the Tura quarry, but I received only twenty-six, together with this manifest from Heliopolis listing only twenty-six.  The priests clearly stole six blocks from the shipment.  That’s the only way to understand this.”

Suddenly interested, Merab examined the two documents.  “Do you have any more like these?”

“No,” answered Ahmose as he selected more sheets.  “Invoices from the suppliers go directly to Heliopolis.  The gods delivered this one to me – it was stuck to the temple manifest.  But look at these.  My copy of an order for six granite slabs from Elephantine and the manifest of the actual delivery.  It contains only five.  And this: my order for thirty jars of beer, but only twenty-seven were received and sent on to me according to Heliopolis.  And so on and so on.  More than half of all shipments of all materials are short by a tenth or more.  The temple claims that’s what was sent, but they won’t show me the invoices.”

“And the suppliers bounce your inquiries back to Heliopolis, right?”  Merab asked, unfolding one of his legs and pouring himself more wine.

“Yes.  I don’t have the authority and the temple is not about to give it to me.  They of course won’t show me anything, and my complaints to the Overseer of the Granaries get no response, despite evidence of major corruption.  What is wrong in Pi-Ramessu?”

“Nothing but business as usual in the Beloved Land.  First of all, Ahmose, keep your perspective straight: nothing connected with this little project could be considered “major.”  Second, apart from this one shipment” – he waved the two sheets – “all your evidence is circumstantial.”

“The teeth of the Eater, Merab!  It’s as obvious as the river!  The only materials that haven’t turned up short are the bricks, which I control completely.  And the damn fools suggest it’s my workers who are doing the stealing!”

He suddenly pounded the mat with his fist, startling Merab.  “It’s an outrage to Pharaoh and to ma’at, and no one seems to be concerned.  How can Ramses permit this?”

“Get serious, Ahmose.  Do you really think Pharaoh is aware of every little building project in Egypt?”

“The Overseer of Granaries told…”

“You are a constant wonder to me, Ahmose.  How did you manage to survive to adulthood?”  He tucked his leg back under him and leaned forward slightly.  “Look.  Pharaoh is the guarantor of the balance in the Two Lands, but you know as well as I do that evil exists and sometimes it goes unpunished.  Maybe even the gods have limits.  Or maybe we just can’t comprehend what they do.  Whatever the reason, the fact is ma’at does not lie perfectly upon the land.”

“Then it is even more our obligation to work to see that it does.  Remember the teachings of Ptahhotep: ‘Ma’at is good and its worth is lasting, and it hath not been disturbed since the day of its creator, whereas he that transgresseth its ordinances is punished.’”

“And how effective an instrument of ma’at do you suppose you’ll be as a quarry slave?  The advice of Anii is more appropriate here: ‘Speak not much, be silent, that thou mayest be happy.’”

Surprised, Ahmose hesitated a moment.  Merab seemed hardly the type to be studying the wisdom literature.  There were apparently aspects of the man he was unaware of.

“Anii the scribe did not mean for the good man to remain silent in the face of injustice,” he countered.  “But that the wise man speaks only when he has something to say.  This is clear from Ptahhotep: ‘Be silent – this is better than flowers.  Speak only if thou knowest that thou canst unravel the difficulty.’  Well, this man, wise or not, certainly has something important to say.  This corruption eats away at the Beloved Land.  It is an outrage to me and to Pharaoh and to the balance of Creation itself.”

“Really, Ahmose.  Keep your grip on the world.  This sort of thing goes on all the time.  If anything, it’s part of Creation.  The gods created men the way they are, and more often than not there’s just nothing you can do about it.  You don’t have to fight every battle.  Osiris will know the ones you do fight, and your heart will witness your devotion to ma’at.

“So the priests of Heliopolis and others are making a little money on the side.  Don’t you believe they’ll pay when they stand in the hall of judgment?  Meanwhile, how do they hurt you?  Judged by average standards, your project is way ahead of schedule, despite the shortages.  Which, incidentally, are always blamed on the people at the site.  Your reputation is established.  Don’t undermine it by causing trouble.”

He looked around into the glare of the door.  “Where’s that lunch?  I can’t wait here all day.”

“They do hurt me,” asserted Ahmose, ignoring the question, voice growing louder.  “They hurt me and they hurt you and they hurt Pharaoh and everyone else with their violation of ma’at.  There is nothing I can do about incompetence in Pi-Ramessu or empty-headed officials like the nomarch.  Maybe there’s nothing I can do about the corruption in Heliopolis.  But this is my project, and I’m damn well going to cause trouble!”

It was Merab’s turn to be surprised.  Rarely had he seen such overt anger expressed by his friend.  Ahmose seemed to realize this as well, and he paused a moment, eyes closed and lips moving in a silent prayer.  Composed, he continued in a lower tone.

“Merab, I know you think it’s self-destructive, but I have to pursue this.  It isn’t the insult to me or even so much the delays to the construction.  It’s just the outrage of it.  It’s the arrogance, the assumption that no one will complain while Pharaoh’s wealth is stolen almost openly.  It just isn’t right.”

He began gathering up the papyrus sheets.  “I’m taking this stuff to Pi-Ramessu.  They can hardly ignore me if I’m banging on their doors.  It’s only a question of getting Pharaoh’s attention.”

“You wouldn’t even get into the palace, Ahmose.  How much time do you think Pharaoh has to visit with his subjects?  Do you suppose his task of insuring the presence of ma’at in Egypt runs to listening to complaints about petty corruption?  What do you plan to say to the wall of officials around him?  ‘I’m here to see the Horus; Thoth sent me’?”

Ahmose looked up, cold eyes locking onto Merab.

“I’m sorry, Ahmose.  That was an unfair punch.  It’s just that you drive me up the wall sometimes.  Look, I’m your friend and I know you, and you can still annoy the hell out of me with your righteousness.  So how do you think the pompous fools in Pi-Ramessu will react when you rush in with accusations aimed at their friends in Heliopolis?

“The world is filled with people who are bad and even more with people who are stupid.  Surely you know that from running your gangs.  Why is it so hard to accept that this is true for the people at the top too?  Can’t you see that Pharaoh may be as ill served by his people as you often are by your overseers?  Face it, Ahmose.  Apparently even a god-king can’t hope to control all his servants.”

Merab’s words were interrupted by a sudden yell from outside, which he took to be the long-awaited announcement of lunch.  Rising quickly, he grimaced and began stepping from one foot to the other, driving life back into his rubbery legs.

“But I know you lack the patience and the wisdom of a god-king,” he continued before Ahmose could object.  “And I know you’re going to stick your hand in the crocodile’s mouth no matter what I say.  So let’s see if we can limit just how much gets bitten off.  Let me have the rest of those documents.”

Ahmose was caught by the sudden collapse of Merab’s resistance, but was not that surprised.  One of the things he admired in the older man was his decisiveness in abandoning an untenable position and seizing upon a new course of action.  Handing him the stack of papyrus, he rose and fetched a leather document case from one of the chests.  Merab took the case and rolled up and inserted the sheaf of documents.

“I’ll see that these get into the hands of sympathetic people in Pi-Ramessu, but I can’t promise anything, Ahmose.  The temples are very powerful, especially Amon-Re, and the court is very complex.  And very dangerous.  I have other information pertaining to Heliopolis…”  He caught the look on Ahmose’s face.  “No, I’m not going to tell you anything.  The priests are angry enough, and the last thing you need now is the suspicion that you’re prying into things beyond your own project.  Leave this to me, all right?”

“So this isn’t just ‘business as usual’ then?” exclaimed Ahmose, a note of minor triumph in his voice.

“Unfortunately, it is,” Merab sighed.  “And you’re going to have to learn to live with it if you want to continue building.  Your sense of justice is a fine thing, Ahmose, but the world doesn’t much appreciate fine sensibilities.”  He threw his arm around the younger man’s shoulders.  “Forget about Heliopolis and finish your temple.  Everybody who matters knows how things work, and if you can just avoid branding yourself a troublemaker, they’ll see your talent.  Maybe reluctantly, because of your background and because you are so damn good at what you do, but they’ll see it.  But you have to play the game.”

Allowing Ahmose no chance to reply, he steered him out the door.  “Enough of this.  Let’s get on to something important.  I expect the meal will live up to the promise of the smell.  Darkies tend to be unruly, but they sure seem to have a way with food, don’t you think?”

Ahmose was hardly in a mind to think about the culinary talents of Nubians, but he knew Merab well enough to understand the serious discussion was over.  He could only let matters run the course Merab had determined, exasperating though that might be.  At least the burden was off his back and he could indeed concentrate on completing the project.  In fact, he felt a surprising sense of relief begin to slide over him.  Before he could put any of this into words, however, he was jerked to a halt just short of the stairway.

“Wait,” said Merab, looking up towards the tree-shaded roof.  “Is the roof of this flimsy hovel going to hold us?”

The image of his ample friend plunging through the plaster and timber brought a smile to Ahmose’s face.  He pulled himself up straighter and puffed out his chest.

“I am Ahmose the Master Builder, remember?  The man with so damn much talent nobody could fail to notice.”  He bowed and swept an arm towards the stairs.  “After you, Secretary to the Great Head.”

 

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