By Askia M Touré
“Death, to me, today is like health to the ill, like going outdoors after
confinement. Death to me, today, is like the fragrance of lotus, like
sitting on the shore of feasting ….”
From the Book of Dialogue with the Soul
She waited for me by the river. Our lone canoe floated on the current.
This lioness, queen of Abydos, loved me, the wild warrior-mage the singing wanderer. I should have been prepared for this destiny: in childhood, my village oracle spoke of passion, danger, and a woman out of legend…I will forever recall that evening in Tawi, at King Scorpion’s palace, when I performed my magic rites and sang of Ausar before the captivated court. Afterward, surrounded by the noble lords and ladies, I noticed a singular beauty: she of the moon-shaped, ebon face, the large sloe eyes and bewitching full lips, which parted in a dazzling smile, like a crescent against the night. Turning aside, I asked a slim priest about the curvaceous beauty in the clinging, scarlet gown and ostrich plumes. “Young poet; hold your tongue! You speak of Auset; she is Net-Hotep, our young queen!”
Ahhh, what stunned my mind was her youth.
One expected an aging matriarch, not this goddess, this enchantress. Acutely aware, I observed the queen, surrounded
by attending ladies, leave the throne room. And yes, this wandering mage remained rooted, entranced by unworldly beauty! Afterward, in my guest quarters, savoring royal hospitality, relaxing in the luxurious bed, I heard a tap at my door. I opened it to find a slim maiden in hooded robe. “Someone seeks your company, troubadour. Follow me—quietly: your life depends upon discretion.” Walking on ghost-like feet, we entered a maze, passing vast corridors bristling with guards, dark passage ways lit with torches, until we came to a large, bronze door. She knocked lightly, it opened soundlessly. I could hear water falling and the sweet, melodious voices of noble women. Rich odors of incense and luxurious décor: ivory and ebony wall panels, colorful murals, amid musicians playing lyrical harps. I realized that I was standing in the royal women’s quarters— the king’s harem! My guide motioned me towards a dark corridor which opened, like a tunnel, into the night. A slight breeze stirred, and the odor of sandalwood was everywhere. A shadow moved within the gloom. I turned, and was face to face with destiny. Images return, haunting my fugitive nights. Her soft, voluptuous body writhing in my arms, her passionate sighs as we leapt into the abyss of love. The vast sky above our pallet, night-birds calling, jackal yelps, whispering palms in the breeze, and the subtle odor of sandalwood surrounding us…One would assume, friends, that I had a tale of love to sing to coming generations evermore. Discretion, as my guide warned, and a near-magical love affair. But no, fool that I am, once in paradise was never enough!
I had to have that angel, possess her till the end of time…and so, I stole her from the king; convincing her to cooperate with a madman’s scheme. Seizing a war canoe, we fled south on the river, moving swiftly from village to village. I had a network of kinsmen scattered throughout the South, and, though terrified, they aided us.
The king’s troops swiftly pursued on water and land. They burnt myriad villages, slaughtered populations, terrorized the frightened elders. A tale of vengeance was emerging in the countryside. The Anu king would be avenged! Fleeing ever southward, we hid by day and travelled through the nights. Once, near Aswan, reading her feverish stare, I vowed to forget this passion, to leave her with elders of the Jackal clan, then escape eastward, through the desert, to the Valley of the Two Rivers. Exile among nomadic shepherds, rather than see more innocent people slaughtered by the king’s troops. Sadly, she gazed into my eyes… “Kema, my Nehesi; you’re such a child, so naïve! A king has been dis-graced, his queen kidnapped—by a Nehesi—blood must flow, like our great floods. And is it a royal conspiracy between our priesthood and Ta Seti? Are the Nehesi seeking Scorpion’s throne? No, my love; our fate is sealed: we have challenged the gods, and must reap what we have sown.” Alas, I realized the truth in her wise words, there was, for us, no turning back.
* * * * * * *
Once we eluded the soldiers for a week, joining a caravan of Nubian merchants heading for the South. Though eyeing the great beauty, they kept all questions to themselves. Besides, Scorpion was not a favorite of any Nubian. One evening, as Ra bathed the world a vivid scarlet, she sang beautiful lyrics of courtship, and ritual chants to Hetheru, Golden Lady of the harmonies. Sitting nearby, cleaning my bronze shield and sword, I studied my face in their surfaces. A long, Nubian skull, shaven of hair, except for top knot, high cheekbones, brooding eyes, and tribal scars marking me a warrior of the Nehesi. My indigo skin glowed with a patina of sweat, burnishing the slim, pantherish frame, clad in loin-cloth; slim-waist below broad, archer’s shoulders….The shield’s bright mirror took me into trance. My mind returned to the early days of our flight. The king’s troops were so close behind, we felt we heard their angry, panting breaths. They camped across the river, unaware of our presence nearby.
That night, I slipped ashore among them in their camp; setting fires, cutting throats, collecting arms, while they slept.
According spies, they think I command a squad of assassins!
Silently, I laugh into the sultry breeze….
* * * * * * *
Returning to the present, I recapture my troubling thoughts. Why, I ask myself, this leap into a viper’s nest? In the Hapi Valley, there are millions of women: an ebony spectrum of divine beauty awaiting one. Myriad bronze, sepia, ebony, indigo maidens, to delight the eyes, warm the heart, soothe erotic longings in the hush of night. Aye, but among Gods, there is the Supreme Beauty: only one Hetheru. And, among the Anu, living people, one Net-Hotep!… slipping silently away from camp, in the dusk, she has gone to the riverside. Alone on the bank, she stands naked in the sultry breeze, beneath the night sky. A goddess, in profile, ponders her fate, as ghostly palms, whispering doom, disturb the silences. Her belly beads rattle as she moves about near the stream. I rise from my pallet, feeling the cold space which recently held her frame. Walking silently, I see her before she senses me.
In the moonlight, I see tears streaming down her face. Her mouth forms a silent “O,” as she turns into my waiting arms…
”O, my love, my magician, our race has ended now. What awaits us, even if we flee to Ta Seti? Would we selfishly risk more destruction, more innocents killed? The king might declare war against Kush because of us. And what of King Khama, his family and people? Must we burden him with our selfishness? You’re of his royal house, a kinsman; he might be forced to defend your life. No, my love…there is only one solution. Perhaps Ra will be satisfied with our sacrifice.”
A cold breeze blew through deep regions of my heart. While we talked, I sensed dark shapes moving sluggishly near the shore. Crocodiles! Their great snouts picking up our scent as we moved down wind.
“No, my lotus, do not even hint of such an end! There is still the desert and the Valley of the Two Rivers…we can leave the caravan. These Nubians despise Scorpion! We’ve a week’s head start on his troops.”
But she faced me calmly, staring deeply into my wild eyes. Smiling, she sadly shook her beautiful head.
“No, love; we are born either too soon, or too late: our race ends here, on the banks, in Aswan. Let us calmly submit to the will of Heaven…there’s no other way.”
Her quiet voice was like a scythe cutting the grain of our remaining days.
I gazed again into her eyes, then held her fiercely in my desperate arms. We would walk to a beautiful, wild place, abloom with lotuses. Taste love together for the last time in this life.
The Sun Queen and her Poet walking serenely toward the waiting crocodiles.
* * * * * * *
King Scorpion, a legendary Kemetic (Egyptian) warrior pharaoh, said to rule in Pre-Dynastic era.
Ta-Wi, one of the indigenous African names for the great kingdom. It means the United Two Lands. (“Egypt” is a foreign Greek word.)
Ta-Seti, one of the indigenous names of Kush/Nubia. It means “Land of the Bow,” a tribute to the famed Nubian archers.
Het-Heru, means House of Heru. She is the Kemetic Oshun, Lady of Beauty, Art, Love and divine Harmony.
Nehesi, another name for “Southerner” or Nubian. In correcting the egyptologists, it doesn’t mean “negro.” Another name for Ta-Wi, was Kemet, Land of the Blacks, or the Black Land, or the Black Community(People).
Hapi, the legendary Nile river, whom the Ancients considered a Neteru/or Orisha, a sacred Being.
Belly-beads, beautiful, erotic beads worn by African women, traditional and modern, beneath their clothes.
Lotus, the beautiful aquatic “lily” of the African & eastern world.
Sandalwood, a lovely, sacred scent, belong to Het-Heru.
Anu, an indigenous name of the early Nile Valley peoples.
Askia M Touré is one of the co-architects of the Black Aesthetics Movement of the 1960s along with other notable poets such as Amiri Baraka, Jayne Cortez, Sonia Sanchez and Larry Neal. He has won numerous awards including the American Book Award in 1989. This short-story is from “Isis Unbound: The Goddess Poems,” Book 2 of the Nile Valley Epic.