Riddles of the Sphinx

A team of twenty barefoot slaves, five on each pole, carry an elaborately decorated canopy covered litter.  The litter holds three people, two women and a boy. The boy and his mother recline comfortably. The third is a nursemaid for the boy. She waits to be needed on bended knee, bowed head, and hands clasped in front of her chest. She could be pretty if not dressed so plain. She has black hair, is adorned with no makeup and wears a simple linen dress. She is also barefoot.

A small detachment of thirty men protect the litter. The soldiers are shodless and dressed in leather tunics with dangling bronze plates attached in rows. They sound like wind chimes as they trot in formation after the litter. On their heads they have tall blue khepresh decorated with a bronze cobra hood fully extended and teeth bared. Each carry a spear in their hands at the ready and a sickle sword on their hips.  

The group journeys near the bank of the boggy Marea lake, a green oasis between the Mediterranean sea and the Egyptian wastelands. On the bank are ten more barefoot slaves wearing simple linen garments. They beat the thick reeds growing along the lake with sticks.

Under the canopy, the other woman reclines with a regal air, looking out at the world with a bored expression. She is beautiful, with brown hair and darkly made-up eyes. Her feet are wrapped with pink silk tied with red ribbon. She is stately. She is queen. She is Cleopatra, seventh of her name.

The boy is ten, wears black leather slippers on his feet and is fair where his mother is golden bronze. His hair is light brown and curly and his eyes are a penetrating blue. He holds on tight to the hem of his nursemaid’s rough linen skirt.  He does not know his mother well. When he is with her, it usually means he is being paraded about and made a spectacle of. He loves her, because she is beautiful and important and she protects him and in whose name he gains liberties and his every want. But in his soul, his mother is Meryimun, the slave he has come to count on when he is sick or hungry or frightened.

He is happy she is near. She is near only because his mother has been sick lately. She rarely leaves her chamber and the rumors are something is wrong with her heart. Rion has heard it is broken. He read that a broken heart means that a person will probably die. He does not want his mother to die because that would make him lone ruler of Egypt. He is Pharaoh, has been since his uncle died but he doesn’t want to be Egypt’s lone leader, he wants to read and run and play and be a boy. He hopes his mother never dies.

“Rion,’ the queen says, pausing to tip the golden goblet to her lips and drink deeply of the honey sweetened wine within, ‘On the muddy banks of the crocodile infested waters of the great nile lived the distinguished Sphinx. He had a body of rippling muscle similar to a lion, with the head of a handsome man. His dark eyes are said to be able to peer into a man’s soul. He told riddles. Would you like to hear one of the great Sphinx riddles?”

“Mother, please tell me a riddle,” Rion begs in Latin accented Sahidic.

He loves words and games.

“Okay, my prince,’ the queen pauses to think of a riddle for her son, she looks at him and for a moment is sad. The boy had so much potential. Of her issue he would have made a great leader. ‘This is an easy one. Are you ready?”

“Yes mother!”

“Okay, I have a mouth but cannot speak, a bed but never dream, what am I?”

The boy’s face lights up as he excitedly screams, “A river!”

“That is right. Do you want another?” Her eyes drift to the water’s edge where the slaves beating the reeds scream with excitement.

Rion follows her gaze, “yes, mother.”

A long black cobra slithers away from the commotion and is quickly killed with a spear thrust by one of the Queen’s guard.

“What,’ she begins, watching her slaves picking up slithering cobra hatchlings,  ‘is he that builds stronger than either the mason, the shipwright, or the carpenter?”

Rion does not answer, he is distracted by a slight female slave with long black hair. She has reached her hand into the reeds and quickly retrieves it with a squeal of pain and a small immature asp clinging to the webbing between her thumb and index finger.  

“Mother, is it true I am the son of a God.” he asks only because in this he wishes he could do more than just watch the slave who is now sure to die.

“Of course, this is known by all, but not a God, my darling, The most powerful God.”

A man with a shaved head who walks near the litter beckons for the woman to come to him.  In his hand is an ornamental staff that shows reliefs of great military victories. On top of the staff is an eagle with its wings spread wide. He works a small knife adding detail to the innate craving in the staff.

The slave shakes her hand over a wicker basket and the asp falls off into its confines and she walks the short distance to the priest. He is a member of the cult of Imhotep. He wears two feathers in the woven papyrus band around his head, yellow robes and woven papyrus clogs on his feet.

Rion watches him touch the woman’s wound and close his eyes. The two small puncture wounds heal. Then he says a prayer and the slave collapses backwards, convulsing in joy at being saved. She is carried away from the queen’s litter shaken, but now no longer dying.

The priest looks into the litter. Rion is certain the priest and Meryimun share a moment.

“Mother, was my father a God like Imhotep?”

Cleopatra does not answer with words, her chin crumbles slightly, but she quickly regains composure and signals a soldier to approach.

The man is sun-darkened with a stern look on his face. His khapresh is decorated with three bronze bands, signalling him an officer.

“How many?” The queen asks.

We have collected fifty.”

“That is enough. Return us to the palace,” the queen commands.

The officer bows deeply, rises and signals with a closed fist in a tight circle and the litter is turned and the processional moves back to Alexandria.

The priest taps the officer on the shoulder and hands him the staff with a smile. The soldier is obviously grateful

“Do you know the answer, my son?”

“Yes, mother. He is a tomb digger.”

 

***

Rion dreams of asps crawling all over him, but he cannot move to shake them off.

Just as a fully grown black cobra with a spread hood strikes at him, he is shaken awake.

He tries to screams but a cold hand is shoved down over his mouth.

“Shush!” the voice is harsh and scared. “We don’t wish attention.”

Rion opens his eyes to a night still deep with chill and dark. Rion wants to fall back to sleep. Meryimun shakes him again. “You must wake.”

Yellow light from a lantern suddenly flares into life and through painful blinking, Rion looks up into the stern face of the priest of Imhotep. He frowns, “I have terrible news. Your mother is with Osiris tonight. She will be judged and join the dead in the afterlife. Many wish you dead also. We have come to take you somewhere safe. All who loved her are in danger of being sent to be judged by Osiris also. We need to flee before we join her in death and share her tomb for eternity.”

On his shoulder is a small bundle. He flips it off and it lands on the bed next to Rion with a whomp of air following the sack hitting the feather mattress. The prince smells strong wine and pungent rose petals stifling a horrible rot.

He peels his eyes from the bundle, unmoving.

The shock of the announcement disturbs him. His mother has died. Sorrow suddenly fills Rion’s soul. Replaced by paralyzing fear. He is Pharaoh. “Does that mean…”

As if  knowing the question before it could be fully asked, the priest cuts him off, “not unless you want to wage a war against Rome. Please, quickly put these on.”

A bundle of rough clothing is tossed onto his lap and sandals that smell of new leather.

“I wouldn’t think of stopping you if you did and I would wield the magic of Imhotep for you, but in the end we would die. Remember, your mother lost what Roman support you would have had and Rome prefers no pharaoh. They have always been trouble to Roman conquest. The memories of the great God, Julius, and his popular second, Mark-Anthony, would only stir problems. I am afraid you would not have the support to keep the throne. Rumors run amuck that Caesar Augustus has already set a bounty on your head. He wants to keep the Egyptian throne for himself and not share it with the neonate of a dead queen many feel betrayed Roman interests.

Rion opens his mouth to complain. The only teats he suckled as a babe did not belong to his mother.

But he is cut off. “Hurry, dress.” Meryimun begs.

The priest leans down and unties the bundle tossed next to the newly orphaned boy and unwraps a small body already blackening with decay.

Rion jumps from the bed and away from the dead child.  The boy has ceremonial paint on his face and his hair is done in the style of the Egyptian monarchy. Rion has never worn his hair like that, preferring the Roman style of loose and free.

“Don’t worry, he died far before his parents brought him to me. It took more than a week for them to bring his remains to the temple. There was nothing I could do. I promised them Imohtep himself will guide him to the great beyond as I will guide you to a far away land filled with milk and honey. He will get a burial far above his station in life. He will live eternity as Pharaoh of Egypt.”

With an eye on the corpse, Rion dresses in the offered brown wool robes and loose flowing cotton thawb. He ties a long dark blue keffiyeh onto his head. Even folded in thirds, it is long enough to drape halfway down his back.

The priest smiles. “Good, from now on, you are not a Pharaoh of Egypt. Your name is Yeshua and you are an Israelite peasant born to a carpenter named Joseph and his wife Mary. Can you tell me who you are?”

Rion feels like crying. This is all happening too fast. He feels off balance.  His soul feels broken. He wants to argue. He doesn’t want to be a Jew. A person born to former slaves. He is the son of God. The God. The most powerful God ever to be born.  He is the son of Julius Caesar. He is Caesarion, Ptolemy XV Philopator Philometor Caesar, called Rion the Pharaoh of Egypt and the rightful heir to the Roman empire.

For a moment he feels a spark of rebellion. That maybe he will take up sword and shield and ride the chariot into battle and war with Rome. He knows stories of the small beating the large.

The story of David and Goliath seeps into his mind. He has read the testaments of the Jewish faith. He has read everything he can get his hands on. He knows this tale. The small becoming king. But what was the moral, he wonders. Pick your battle? Don’t let the battle pick you? He is a child with no military experience. If he sets his feet and attempts to lead Egypt against Rome, he will join his mother sooner rather than later.  

He looks at the boy’s body rotting on his bed. He wonders what happens to the children of a God if they are killed. Do they rot like this?

“Everything rots Yeshua. Everything.”

Rion hates the sound of his new name. He hates that it seems like the priest can read his mind. He also hates the idea of death and the afterlife and how little he wants to void the remainder of his life.  

The stirring of fire in his heart dwindles and dies. Maybe someday he can claim his birthright as the son of God, but today he it might be wiser to run away so he can fight another day.

“I am Yeshua born to Joseph and Mary,” he says, tears welling up in his eyes. “I am an Israelite.” And then to himself he whispers, “I am the son of God.”

 

***

They wait until the sun is an hour from rising, then leave.

Outside his bedchamber, there is not the customary guard. The corridor in both directions is empty.

He follows as the priest walks quickly but calmly.

Meryimun walk behind them both. It’s comforting that she is close. He remembers she is now his mother. A slave. The son of God has a slave for a mother.

They exit the royal Ptolemaic palace to the sounds of waves washing onto the shore of the island.  Antirhodus was to be his home until he died. His mother was building it for him. It was to rival Rhodes in finery. A testament to the power and history of Egypt.

The boy newly named Yeshua, who only yesterday was Pharaoh, looks across the water at the Timonium only half completed. Work ceased many days ago. The workers evicted by a Roman legion after Marc Anthony’s grab for power failed.  His mother was dead now too. That left only him. He wonders what would have happened if he had stayed. His mind strays to thoughts of history and the many leaders that have come afoul of Rome. He shudders thinking of the Gaul Vercingetorix, paraded through the streets of Rome and then executed by strangulation on Caesar’s orders. Would that have happened to him? Locked in a cage being showcased as an exhibit in the Roman capitol entertainment for the masses?

They pass a half completed statue. The giant stone statue stands headless with the engraved face of the pharaoh Rion laying some dozen feet away waiting to be placed on top of the statue’s shoulders. He wonders what will become of it all.

They walk through the sixty huge columns that ends in the dock. A small skiff floats on the water next to his mother’s huge Roman ship, a gift from his father the God, Julius. The ship powered by the backs of slaves makes the skiff look small and ridiculous.  

There are two guards standing barefoot at the edge of the pier. Neither seem to care much to question the Priest of Imothep. And the trio are able to board the skiff with no issues. The priest rows until the sun is just poking over the horizon, bathing the new day in orange light. They reach a dock in Jewish section of Alexandria and disembark and walk through the streets just coming to life with merchants and laborers beginning their day.

They wait only a few minutes for a man to arrive at a stable. The priest haggles briefly over the price of a sturdy looking donkey and tack. It’s testament to the power and love of Imothep that he is able to pay a small sack of Roman coin for the animal.

Yeshua is lifted and placed on the bony haunch of the mule behind Meryimun.

Soon enough, he is surrounded by the cool crispness of the near dawn air with the smell of the sturdy donkey under him.

Before they pass through through The Gate of The Sun with the priest holding the bridle in his hand, he looks back at Yeshua and commands, “Hide your face.”

Yeshua leans his face into Meryimun’s back as they are stopped by a Roman Sergeant, “None are to leave the city, priest.”

“Imothep compels it.” the priest argues in a calm voice.

The sergeant looks annoyed when he says, “Fine, be on your way,”  and mutters to himself as he rejoins his platoon. He would have wondered the rest of his life why he let the trio go if the excitement of the dead queen and murder of her ilk wasn’t discovered hours later.

The new family walk through the cool crisp morning and soon enough the swaying back and forth lulls Yeshua to sleep.

When he wakes, they move under a blinding mid morning. He blinks in surprise. He sees Alexandria far behind with the giant lighthouse standing strong.

He slips off the back of the donkey and walks beside the priest of Imohtep, Joseph, his father. Sometime while he slept, the priest changed into peasant garb also. They now all wear long robes and headscarves. A thick scruff already grows from the priest’s face. The realization dawns on him he is no longer a priest.

“What do I call you now?” he asks.

The priest looks down at the boy and smiles. “ I will ask others to call me Joseph, but you should call me father.”.

The Son of God grows silent. He has never had a father. The God Julius went wherever Gods go when they are done with Earth and Marc Anthony was more interested in shoring up power then being a father to a newly crowned pharaoh.

He glances at the man who will call himself Joseph and feels something he has never felt before, a sense of family.

 

***

When night falls, they stop in the desert and eat dried meat and huddle close together to ward off the chill. The stars shine down on them thick and bright.

Yeshua asks the question that has been plaguing him all day, “why did you do this for me?”

Joseph looks at Meryimun, “I was asked.”

And Meryimun blushes.

The Son of God has had nothing to do but think of questions he wants answers for but needs courage to ask.

“How did my mother die?”

“Your mother died when she filled her room with asps and drank wine until she got what she desired. All her servants were bit also. None lived.”  Meryimun answers, a note of sadness in her voice.

Joseph takes up the story, “I was lucky to find the dead boy. He came from a family of cobra trainers. I might have raised him from the dead, but his life was hard and if he had been brought back, he would have only died again later. Dying is hard on the body. The results make one weak. The results are never long lasting. So the family left me his remains. I promised them he would go to the afterlife in luxury. He will be buried with your mother. I am sorry she goes to the afterlife with a stranger, but her life was selfish and so maybe she won’t notice.”

Yeshua wants to fight against this. His mother was a great woman. But if his grief allowed him to be rational, he would realize Joseph was right, she was selfish, but she born into it. She did not strive to make herself something she was not. She was leader of a great land and her desire was to keep it great.

The Son of God wonders what will become of Egypt under Roman rule. They will be Roman now and not Egyptian. What does being Roman mean? They rule most of the known world and what they don’t rule, they seek to rule. He wonders if they could make it to a place that wasn’t under Roman rule.

“Where are we going?”

“Israel, home of the Hebrews.”

 

***

On the next day’s journey Yeshua cried thinking about his mother journeying to the afterlife.  His father was a God though and he hoped he was there to greet her.

He remembers his father. He was a grey haired man with wrinkled jowls and sharp penetrating blue eyes. He wore white robes fringed in red. Men bowed to him, they called him the Great Caeser.

One night while in Rome, his mother woke him much like Joseph did on the night she died and said they must go, that his father has ascended to heaven and left them to fend for themselves. Yeshua was unconcerned by that. In all the stories of the Gods, they constantly mingle with mortals, but only briefly. They mess things up then go back to wherever they came from.

From Rome he remembers a boat and rough seas. He remembers Mark Anthony sharing his mother’s cabin on the boat. He was not nice to Yeshua. He was jealous of any attention his mother got, especially when it came from her son, the son of God.

His mother liked the attention very much though and Mark Anthony stayed.

When he died she became sad and wanted Yeshua around more.

Then she died.

“How long will it take to get to the land of milk and honey?”

“Many months.”

And they travelled for many months. They passed Roman soldiers along the road many times and Joseph did the talking. He spoke Latin with a Hebrew accent and for some reason the soldiers did not bother them,

The newly named Joseph had a way about him.

He had a way with Meryimun also and she quickly started to show signs of pregnancy.

For three months they were slowed by her constant sickness.

Joseph grew a thick beard and head of hair under his keffiyeh. His temple lightened skin darkened with travel, “when in a strange land travel as if local.” he instructed. Deep in Israel, none of them could be mistaken for anything but travelers going home.

When they needed food, Joseph made the food appear. When they needed water, the water skin was filled with cool crisp water.

Yeshua asked, “How do you do these things?”

And Joseph responded “Imhotep provides.”

“But we dress and act like the Israelites, If we worship Meyimun’s Yahweh, won’t Imhotep be angry?”

They discuss Imhotep and his magic and Joseph explains, “Imhotep is not a jealous God like the Gods of Egypt or the Gods of Rome or the God of Israel. Imhotep gives his magic freely to those who wish to learn, and as a high priest I learned all I could. The only thing Imothep wishes is credit for the miracles his magic provides” he says.

“Would you teach me?” Yeshua asked

Joseph responds, “Imhotep has been teaching you since the moment of your birth. One day you will see all that you know. Trust in Imhotep and I will provide you with the rest.”

 

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