The Space Between Heaven and Earth

The Nile River

Eleven months ago, my betrothed and I walked the desert to lie before the stars, so that their light might pierce our shells and share with us our true names. For the names given by family and friend are mere nicks and scrapes on the surface of a person’s true nature, and as the elders say, “Only the stars can show us who we are.”

Before the stars gave us the names we sought, our people called my betrothed the second son of Ammon, and me the second daughter of Nu. We went west from the great river, crossing the high dunes with a warm rain sitting soggy on our shoulders, and did not speak throughout the morning. I followed my betrothed, watching the dunes, counting our steps, spotting the few subtleties of landscape we’d been taught to navigate by, and soon we came upon our destination.

We did not see the monolith until it was right in front of us, for it had stood hidden, a giant grey slab of stone against the grey storm. Its walls inclined toward a single point high above, directing our eyes skyward, and we paced slowly around looking for the entrance to the sacred cave.

The hole sat black and gaping at the foot of the west face, water streaming down over it, gurgling in its mouth. I followed the second son of Ammon as he crawled through into the darkness, the water splashing on my head and back, the damp sand sticking to my bare knees.

We spent the daylight sheltered in the void by a fire I brought up, trying to dry ourselves, looking out the cave mouth at the world, waiting for the hours to pass and for night to come. Rain fell harder and softer, pattering against the sand outside, slapping against the stones, and streaming down over the entry.

The long walk brought hunger upon us, and our stomachs complained first with gurgling, and then with aches, when nourishment did not come. The elders said we must come close to death during the rite, so that the mind is easier for the stars to pierce. We were not to eat any real food for the duration of the quest, and did our best to do as we’d been taught, to clear our minds and close our eyes, to let life and hunger go. To let death come; but letting go was not easy, and often we complained to one another.

The storm passed in the late afternoon, and the long, pink light of sunset crawled down through the tunnel to sit with us. My betrothed unwrapped the sacred bowl and mandrake root, and brought a fire to cook them. We stared hungrily into the hot yellow tongues as they lapped at the charred underside of the bowl, and the white root spat and oozed its thick sap, filling the shelter with a bitter odor.

I added water to the bowl, and it gasped, sending a plume of white breath into my face. I was careful not to breathe it; the elders say it is bad luck to breathe it.

While the root cooked, my betrothed also unwrapped a few blue lilies so they could breathe some air, and our hungry stares moved from the flames to the petals. I recall this small rite vividly, for it made everything real, true and final. It marked the end of my youth.

When starlight glistened on the dark sands outside, we each raised the sacred bowl to our lips and sipped once, and the water tasted like month old flatbread. We crawled through the tunnel to the mouth of the cave, and saw the stars gleaming with their endless wisdom.

We stood outside together in the great quiet, basking in the starlight, chewing the lily petals, savoring the subtlety of their sweet taste, and then we moved to lay with our backs against the stone mountain. The wind rolled silently across the desert, funneling between the dunes and lifting us, slightly, as if to bring us up into the wisdom that we sought. Time slowed, and sped. Stars swooped and turned before me like fireflies in a ghost wind. The elders had said to look for a pattern in the movement, and so we did–but for all I tried, I could not see it. Heathens have said that we stir the stars ourselves, and I got to thinking about that as I gazed up, and decided that if that was true then I was no good at it.

Clouds soon crept back over the dunes, and we went with bare feet over the cool sand to the cave. As we lay together, my betrothed said the stars alighted for him, and the sky brightened under his gaze, then he asked what I saw, and I stammered. I was ashamed to tell him about the trouble I’d had, but he pressed me. I said it was like a cloud of bees.

On the second day, we began to see the stars even during daylight, shining bright from the cave’s high black ceiling, yet still they buzzed around me without purpose, and I caught no glimpse of any pattern.

On the third day my betrothed told me he got his name, though he would not tell it, for it is bad luck to say it before you say it to the elders. He went outside most of that day, to let me alone and give me some peace. I sat for a long time, looking up, but could not still my mind, could not see anything. I grew anxious. When he returned that night, I had long given up and been crying, and he hugged me and let me cry into him. I told him I saw no meaning in any of it, and wondered that a pattern might never emerge for me. He kissed my forehead and lips, and ran his fingers through my hair as he tried to tell me how he found his name, but soon the name itself slipped from him. “I bring to light,” he said, and after he spoke it the cave seemed to darken, and we shivered. He apologized to the cave and to the stars in hardly a whisper, over and over, and his face grew tense. I told him it would be okay, though we both knew that was not true.

When the fourth day came, I began to grasp the meaning in my cloud of bees, and by nightfall I understood that they were like the bees when the keepers took their hives away to harvest honey. I found my name, and my betrothed was glad for me, though I would not tell it yet, and we both worried at what would befall him for telling his name early.

#

The next morning we returned home, and in the afternoon feasted with our families and the elders in the long house by the water, to celebrate our adulthood. We stuffed ourselves with whitefish and fowl, and I waited with hands shaking and bees buzzing in my chest, to be asked my name. My betrothed’s father, Ammon, asked his son his name, and his mother and siblings looked on curiously. He said that the stars had called him Phanes, which means, I bring to light, and everybody nodded and made thinking sounds. My mother asked me my name, and I said, “Khaos,” which means the space between heaven and earth. We all went on eating. When we left to sleep in our parents’ homes for the last time in our lives, the elders were still talking at the long table, and went on talking late into the night, discussing what trade Phanes should take based on the meaning of his name. Come morning they called us back, and told us that he would live in the great house of the queen chief, to prentice with the council of philosophers for one year.

Hearing this, I stood blinded and breathless, my name enveloping me like a sandstorm. I would not be welcome to live with him in the queen’s house, for the men under her roof are all to be intimate with her, at her choosing, in order to make a mystery of the fathers of her children. The elders said, echoing each other, that it is an honor to be a member of the philosophy council, to be among the men that seed the royal family. Then they turned to me, and said, in various ways, that it is an honor to be married to a man that once sat in that council. I did not understand why philosophers needed to play any part in that, but I nodded and tried to smile, and did not say anything.

I could not be with my betrothed, and I could not return to my youth, I could not go back to my parent’s house. I was in limbo, suspended between worlds, between heaven and earth. More than that, I was without direction, confused. We are supposed to follow our betrothed into the house of their prenticeship, marry him, and raise his offspring. Motherhood is a woman’s trade. We might help in our husband’s trade, or our father’s, but children are our purpose, and I was deprived of that.

I went home to ask my mother what I should do, and she said, “You must wait for him, as the other betrothed wait for their philosophers, and make a home for yourself in the meantime. I’m sorry you cannot stay with us any longer, but you have your name now. You cannot stay.”

#

I walked up along the flooded river, past Ammon’s fields, to wander among the abandoned shacks beyond the borders of the village. I’d been told the other betrothed went there to wait for their philosophers, but found a lot more there than that. The people were dirty and unhealthy, depressed and lonely. I heard moaning and wailing, crying, shouting, and fighting, and could only assume this was a promiscuous, dangerous community, ripe with the very diseases that the queen sought to avoid. The men there were mostly traders staying overnight, yet I think some lonely widowers also came. The women seemed lost, and I hoped that I would not be like them.

Wary of my neighbors, I chose a shack far out from the others, shaded by palms on the top of a steep hill overlooking the water. Rarely did any of them come bother me, though I could hear their voices in the distant night, and often saw folk up and down river in the evening.

Fortunately, Phanes was permitted to visit, and I showed him the way that night, and he came every second evening after that, though he was not allowed to stay long.

That first night, we each said how sorry we were about the turn of things. He helped me clean the place up, and we ate some of my mother’s flat bread on the hill beside the house. Phanes told me he’d hoped to make lamps with Aither, Gaia’s husband, and that he had no interest in philosophy or the old queen. I tried to comfort him.

On the nights that Phanes visited after that, I liked to sit on the hill under the stars and ask of the queen’s house, of feasts and rituals, and the structure and discussions of the council of philosophers. He struggled to like philosophy; he did not like his fate. However, I was interested, and pressed him about what he’d been learning, wanting to understand his trade. I grew enthralled with the concepts and theories. I found myself looking at life with similar awareness and questioning, and soon I helped Phanes develop an interest too.

I worked in the flooded emmer fields for Ammon, Phanes’ father, though I rarely saw him and usually it was Phanes’ elder sister, Gaia, who managed me. She paid me fairly with poultry, fish, and wheat. I often thought optimistically that this was not what my life would be; that this was a period of transition, a period of waiting–but for what? I did not know. Outside of work, I spent most my spare time alone at the edge of the water, or in the shade under my roof, trying to understand the ideas that Phanes brought back from the council.

I didn’t care for town, and didn’t go in much, so my mother sometimes brought my little brother to visit, and my father or elder sister might come once or twice a month on their own accord or from my mother’s prodding. Talk was of the neighbors, the harvest, or the weather, but on rare occasion, someone, usually father, brought up my life, counting down the months until Phanes’ prenticeship would be over. Once, he said, “You’re sure he’ll not stay and take seat in the council when his year is up? Many women have lost their men to that house…” I spoke to reassure him, but he worried for me, as did my mother and my cousins, and I grew short with all of them the more they questioned Phanes’ intentions. I trusted Phanes. I knew the role they expected me to play, and wanted to play it. It was not by my doing that I was alone.

#

On a night deep into the wet season, I sat at the cooking pan bringing fire into the pit, and Phanes stood at the table preparing the flat bread. He said, “You know that the queen will lay with every man in her house…”

I said I knew, and asked if he was confessing.

“I am,” he said, “I’m sorry.”

Jealousy bit at me, but I forced a smile, and told him, “It’s an honor, we should be proud.”

He told me the other philosophers said the same, that he should be proud, that we should both be proud, “But I am not proud,” he finally added, “and it is a waste anyhow…. The queen’s eldest daughter is eighteen next month, and will take throne shortly after. When she goes into the earth to live on eternally she will take the child and all of her other children into the tomb with her.”

I nodded, grew silent, and drew into myself. When he was leaving, I kissed him on the forehead and on the mouth, and watched him go into the night, round the house to the road.

#

A few weeks later Phanes returned with news that the new queen had taken the throne, and that the old queen would be descending into the afterlife with her other children in a few days’ time.

I went to town to watch the ceremony, and saw my family, aunts, uncles, and cousins. We watched the old queen lead her children into darkness, and all of us had at least one hand on the long rope that lowered the great stone to seal them in.

Phanes walked me home that night, and told me he feared the quiet house in the absence of the queen’s family. He also confessed to me that he had already lain with the new queen. I did not like to hear it, but tried to be supportive, for he could not deny her.

#

In the last days of the wet season, my cousin Ananke came for dinner, and we sat in front of my house while the sun set, then went inside and sat in the oil light. She brought sweet beer, and mostly drank it herself, her tongue growing looser as the evening grew later.

“You look a little pale, Khaos,” she said. “A woman needs a man in her life, she can get sick without a proper family…”

“I’m alright, Ananke, Phanes visits often enough.”

She shook her head. “You need children about you, too. You don’t want to end up like the others out here, do you? You need to be careful…”

“I don’t intend to end up like them, cousin. I’ll be fine.”

Ananke stared with clouds in her eyes for a long time, then said, “You know that Erebos lost his wife?”

I shook my head.

“Fever. A few weeks ago. He is a respectable man, and is looking for a new wife to raise his young…”

“Cousin,” I said, firmly, “this is not just my roof under which you sit, it is Phanes’ too. I hope that you might respect our bond…”

She stood abruptly, as if to make for the door. Her face soured and she laughed. “This is nobody’s home. It is a shack that you stole from scarabs and rats! You have no home, no husband, no family, and should heed my advice! You are wasting your life here, your family is worried!”

I should have expected her response; I should have known this was the true purpose for her visit. It was likely not even on her own accord that she came; no doubt, she was acting on my mother’s behalf. I realized my response was harsh and misplaced, and said, “I’m sorry. I see that you are just trying to help.”

Her jaw unhinged, and words poured from her, spilling into the room the way the river spills into the fields in the wet season, “The young queen takes your Phanes everywhere with her. From what I hear, she’s made him hers, and is already with his child. So much for the mystery of the father! She may as well make him her husband.”

It was a shock to hear this, and I think it showed on my face. I did not know that the queen had grown pregnant, yet it did not seem that my cousin was lying. I said, stuttering, “I will not abandon the man the stars have chosen for me.”

“How do you know he hasn’t already abandoned you? When was he last here?”

“He comes almost every other night,” I said, “he’ll be here shortly. I think you should go.”

She packed her things, wished me good night and luck, and left. I sat down at the table, and realized it had been five nights since I’d seen Phanes. He did not come that night, either, though I trusted he would come when he could.

#

Phanes returned two days later. “The new queen is with child,” he said, as though trying to hold back a proud smile. Ananke’s stunted laugh haunted me. I said that I knew, and he said he was sorry he could not come sooner, but the house was in celebration. He assured me that his feelings would always be with me, and that we would still be together when his prenticeship finished.

He came back at his normal interval after that, and we struggled to find things to say to one another. It felt as though I was pretending the queen was not with child, that the child and the queen weren’t real, that nothing was real except us. Anger swelled inside me most any time we spoke, for talk between us centered on the queen’s house and her philosophers. I found myself arguing against philosophies I agreed with, lashing out at Phanes for reasons completely separate from those topics of which we spoke. He did not understand my temper, and grew distant; visiting less often.

My elder sister, Thesis, came more often than usual during this time, pressing upon me that Ananke overstepped her boundaries and that my temper showed, as it should have. She told me she had not come to make the suggestion herself because she did not agree with it, “Ananke only came because she thought we were all cowards, afraid to tell you something you needed to hear. But unless Phanes renounces his betrothal and stays in the queen’s house,” she said, “it is your duty to wait for him and be a good wife when he finishes his prenticeship.” She argued that it would be easier if I spoke to him openly about my jealousy and fears, rather than let them fester and boil. I knew she was right.

A few days later, while we washed linens in the river, I told Phanes of the pain I was in, and confronted him about all that Ananke had said of the queen.

“She pays me a lot of attention,” he said. “I think because we were both new to our positions in the house. She thinks me an ally, someone she can confide in.”

“Does she want you for herself, then?”

“She may or may not. It doesn’t matter, she can’t have me. It’s too far from custom.”

I squeezed the water from a shirt and took it to the drying line. “Is the child yours?”

“It may or may not be. She has been with plenty of other men.”

I still stood by the line, adjusting the linens.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I want it all to be over with. I want to be your husband.”

#

It has been eight months since the new queen grew pregnant, and eleven months since I moved into the house on the hill by the river. Phanes and I have grown up a great deal since then. He is nearly finished with his prenticeship, and he looks at me as a near equal in my endeavors of philosophy. As the day of our marriage approaches, we grow ever more excited.

He was standing in the doorway when I woke up this morning, the blistering heat of wet season already filling the house, the sun shining brightly on the river and the dunes behind him. I told him I would meet him down at the swimming hole, and he left.

As I moved about the house, I glanced through the doorway and saw him down the hill stepping naked into the glistening water, and thought the river looked low for the first month of the wet season. I fetched the small basket with the oils, shaving knife, and netjeri, so that we might properly bathe each other, and was taking linen towels from the cupboard when I noticed the patter of rain on the roof and on the sand outside. I left the towels, and removed my clothes, then went lightly down the damp sand to the river.

I set the bathing basket by the shore and stepped into the water, then asked, “Are you a father yet?”

He was treading a short way off, facing away from me, and turned round and said, “They say she’ll have it any day.”

I nodded. “How are you?”

“Nervous. Anxious,” he said, then let himself sink beneath the water.

The grey world darkened beneath the clouds, and the rain came harder. The river seemed to rise before my eyes.

When he came back up his face was slick. Wiping the water from his eyes, he asked, “How are you?”

“Thinking about the river,” I said. “Looking out the house at you, I thought the water was low. It was sunny then, and now dark clouds hang above, pouring themselves over the land, into the river. How do you think that happens? Is it just a chance occurrence?”

He nodded and chuckled. “Consider that chance describes something we don’t have control over–for the more control we have over a thing, the less we question chance. We have certainty over those things which we control, and uncertainty over those things which we do not. Our choice of language describes how we think we affect the world, and how we think the world may affect us. Given all that, I’d say yes, it is a chance occurrence!” A slight, proud smile came to his face, and the water by his mouth bubbled when he laughed.

“You can’t prove a thing is chance based on the language I use to describe it!” I said, swimming out against the slow current into deeper water. “You take much for granted…”

“Hmm?” he said. “I thought it another joke…. If rain comes in accordance with your thoughts is not by chance, then by what?”

I swam round a while, thinking, and he waited patiently–a common occurrence during our discussions. “Last month you told me of the council’s theory of the separation of body and mind. That we learn to use our bodies. To move hand and foot as the mind intends, through play, in childhood.”

“Correct.”

“Yet we do not learn to bring fire into the air through the same sort of play–it is taught, passed down from one generation to another.”

“One could argue that many forms of play are also taught and passed down by generation. You’re kicking up the silt from the riverbed; your argument grows murky. You can’t deny that fire is a part of us, seems to come from us, and surely you cannot deny that in some way we are taught to walk, and to use our hands? The fire may not appear attached to us in any physical way, but we call on it the same as we call on our lungs to take in breath.” He looked over the river then, and brought a line of flame streaking over the waves. “We are fire. All is fire.”

“We are taught how to best use our hands and feet, but not taught that we have them altogether. And that you bring up breathing should clue you in instantly, as that is something we know from birth, that none need show us. We do not know fire from birth. Our ancestors found it, and passed it down to us, as they did language and numbers. These things that are discovered, are external. We are not fire.”

“If not fire, then what?”

“You’re missing it. If it is external, what does it mean that we can still control it? If we have learned to make fire from the air, can we not learn to make water? Have we not already been doing it, unknowingly?”

“You think you have done it today,” he said, looking up at the sky. “How? Simply by wanting it?”

“It’s more than a matter of want. You compared the act of bringing fire to the act of breathing and I think you were right to. When I breathe I am not simply wanting air, I am telling my body to take it in, it is an action. Similarly, when I make fire, I am not simply wanting fire, I am telling the fire come.”

“Then you think you told the rain to come in that same way,” he said, and then the rain stopped.

“You’ve done it?” I asked.

“Yes!” he said. “Very good! Very, very good! Perhaps all is water too? I must get back to discuss this with the others…”

Our bath abruptly ended. We did not care to shave, nor even wash. He dressed, and kissed me on the head and mouth, then I watched him go up the sandy hill and disappear over its crest. The rain started again, and I assumed it was his doing. I stayed down by the river, feeling the water fall upon me, watching the farmland on the far bank flood as it should.

I got up and walked downstream, passing a few of the nearby shacks, trying not to let them distract me. I called fire into the air and let it die as quickly as it came. I called rain, slow and fast, big drops and small, and they all came as intended. People came out to look up at the sky, and watched me, seeming to make a connection between the weather and me. I paid close attention to the feeling of it, the feeling of intention, and then tried to call upon that same power of intention to know why such things happen, why we could control such things as fire and water; and as suddenly as the fire burned or the rain fell, the answer was clear. I could call anything into existence, not just fire or water–anything–and what I called would come into being without question. I then felt the desire to know more; to know all, and as suddenly as before, all knowledge came flooding into me. I knew everything. I knew that we, the creatures of the earth, were more than fire, and more than water, for we were without limit.

#

I was the first omniscient, and through it learned that we were, all of us, omnipotent, apeiron, without limit. Every creature of this earth could have made or unmade anything it wished, though none but me had come far enough out of ignorance to know it.

And in my knowing I grew wary. My husband was on his way to make this same revelation with his philosophers, and I did not trust them with the power in it. My paranoia swelled. I made myself ageless and unkillable. I did not trust what I knew; consciousness reshapes knowledge, reshapes infinite knowledge infinitely. I could have cut away my emotions, made my myself capable of not reshaping the information, but had I done that I would not continue to be me, and I did not wish to lose myself. So I cut away my omniscience, I returned to myself.

It became my compulsion to create structures and rules to maintain homeostasis, so that my namesake, chaos, could not unravel the world. I have taken my people’s omnipotence, and will instead listen to their wants and needs, and decide if their intentions are good. It is not enjoyable, taking their freedoms away, but it was necessary to safeguard the world from the disasters reaped by the fallible nature of consciousness.

I will ignore the prayers of the tribal peoples and creatures outside my tribe’s circle, the fit among them will survive without magic, and the unfit will perish.

I will watch my tribe, and hope to see their culture advance naturally, but I will also answer their thoughts and wants as long as they are reasonable. But if they ask to have the fire back…I do not know that I could deny them. And when my husband wants the power to call on the rain again, I surely will not deny him.

My children and grandchildren will want the wind, the lightning, and more, and how can I say no? I can’t. They will have it.

This is the final version of the story I spoke about in the post titled Building Khaos. It’s not quite finished, needs a bit of polish and a bit of help with pacing, but I’m happy with it, and I think it shows a neat progression from initial concept to something a lot more fleshed out.

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