Zavar leaves his hut at the beginning of every day. He is up at dawn like he has been since he was able to work, which was about age eight. In the morning light he was cool and the air temperate. He breathed this in judiciously-calmly but intentionally, fascinated by the thought that the short lived and blessedly cool dawn air would keep him alive through the hottest parts of his coming day.
He swung his legs about the side of the bed, which was a very comfortable invention of his own making- straw and fragments of elusive hides. These he had stolen, as anything of monetary worth would need to have been stolen by Zavar or his cast. His father had shown him how to procure the ingredients for a wonderful bed when Zavar was very young. Zavar could not remember exactly how long ago it was. He had no calendar.
Zavar’s father, Ur, was wise. He could read which was rare amongst people of his cast. In fact it was something that was quite illegal and punishable by banishment or death, which amounted to the same since banishment meant the desert. Gathering knowledge, however, was an act of survival, and only survivors could endure the life of a laborer. Vigilance to the harsh environment was essential. Even more dangerous, however, were the whims and entitlements of those above their cast. Ur gathered clandestine knowledge about the lieutenants, architects and royals- and passed this on to his son in whole. If he had been caught in this crude but effective schooling, little mercy would have been be applied, since mercy to laborers by the class above them- the lieutenants- was also punishable, a result that came even more swiftly for the brutal citizenry chosen by the gods to occupy that cast.
Ur died one day while walking back from the building site. It was the same site that Zavar was building and upon which Zavar’s grandfather-whom Zavar never met- had also worked his whole, short life. It was a project undertaken with greater urgency and ruthlessness with each passing generation of king and queen. Not many from Zavar’s cast could admit to knowing this kind of history. Ur had some idea, however, and taught Zavar in secret about it. Zavar remembered staying awake much past exhaustion at night as his father had demanded of him from a very young age. He learned how each successive king and queen believed that he or she would be the ones buried within the confines of the massive structure. Ultimately, it was the gods who determined the length of time to complete the building’s construction. All casts understood and believed this: That the gods decided who were to be buried there; they would be the greatest kings and queens that ever lived!
Ur was one of the most talented workers on the site. He was of enormously robust health and stature, but more importantly he could think. He knew well more about the principles of building than many of the lieutenants on the site, and was regularly consulted by them in order to produce reports. The richness of his thought -life extended however, to keen insightfulness in other matters- especially in what he knew and understood about men and geography. He had surveyed the complex systems of etiquette and speech about the site, which forgave only the slightest social maneuverability for men like him. And yet he exploited such spaces like a master. One could never look more intelligent or kind, for example, than a lieutenant-such a failure in the system was never tolerated for long. Even the gods decreed it.
Zavar and his father were taught to believe they were destined for a certain fate-a certainty that was made true by the life enforced upon them. An example of this was the doling of water rations. The promise of increased water rations was one of the greatest and most inflated currencies in the system and it was a trick. The lieutenants were bombastic in their praise and promises, but cunning and shrewd in following through. A smile, a pat on the back, a nudge…Zavar had come to hate these men, but his sentiment was not shared in his camp- at least never openly. The other laborers seemed to praise the lieutenants and to see them as portionally divine. Nothing pleased the lieutenants more, since their cast was convinced that their fates could be changed by increased productivity on the site and the consequent favor from royals and gods. Meanwhile, Zavar’s friends and family thought and prayed every day that the promises of the lieutenants would come about- that the water ration would finally be increased, and that the existence of the families in the camp would finally improve. The lieutenants dreamt also, but of greater productivity, which they in turn could bargain with architects and more royal classes of people for better lives for themselves. The laborers promised greater workloads, but this was nearly impossible without increases in water… It had gone on this way at this site for 200 years.
To Zavar and his people, kings and queens lived what seemed an age. They were considered god-like and nothing happened to please kings and queens more. When they visited the site, they assured the laborers in windy and indulgent speeches that the building these people were trying to erect in the middle of a desert was an important part of god’s plans. Laborers were held in high esteem, they said, and this was true- to a certain extent.
They were part of a noble, divine and unfolding schedule. They had a special place in this life and the afterlife, which meant brutalities against them by lieutenant classes were sharply discouraged. Zavar and his people were not slaves. Yet prohibitions on abuse against laborers had even more practical purposes: Camps like Zavar’s had been known to violently repulse such aggressions, and a fear of this danger lurked in the minds of higher casts through all of Egypt. After all, it took little imagination for masonry hammers to swiftly transform into weapons.
Zavar prepared his morning ritual today. As he did every morning, he began by giving thanks for the many gifts his father had imparted to him. He recalled his fathers face- the strong features of his brow and deep-set eyes that expressed so much joy and also hid so much pain. Today, like on most mornings, these memories caused Zavar to glumly recall the day his father passed away while walking back from the site. That heat on that walk back killed men and women like a crushing thing- a pendulum that seemed always to be swinging about their heads. Nothing was more deadly to these people. Only air, sand, toil and thirst but it was heavier than any stone, more decisive than any axe.
The site was far from the encampment of laborers- the encampment of laborers nowhere near the site. It was designed this way so the laborers could never compromise something truly royal and godly. Yet at the same time, none but men like Zavar and his father could build such a thing. No one in Egypt had the talent in masonry or the capacity to withstand the blazing, seasonless environment, yet Zavar’s people would never practically benefit from the work they did. Zavar sat and thought. He wondered this morning, as he did nearly every day, if anyone at anytime would benefit from the scaling, unfinished monument that loomed an hours’ march from his camp, where all of his people lived and died.
Ur, though a wise man, died like a laborer after work one day. No day could ever match the days these men and women worked. No matter how hot and hard other days were to other men in other places and other times, this work and this heat were the toughest. This part of the world was like a hell, Zavar thought, counterbalanced only by the blessing of the water that kept him and his family alive. The royals who lived next to Egypt’s waters didn’t understand this hell at all. This was certain. It occurred to Zavar today that the royal classes paid pious tribute to gods and desert whenever they came to the site, yet they seemed to have little respect for the truth: Deadly heat, deadly toil and endless sand. The very attempt to build this building, Zavar thought ruefully- was it not the greatest affront to gods and desert alike? Was the project not a simple and prolonged act of carelessness and vanity? Zavar lost himself in thought about the heat and the water and the desert and the men and women and their lives and deaths.
Zavar’s father had died only a year ago. It did not matter what day. Though Ur knew more of recorded time than anyone in his tribe, even he struggled to know basic things such as how old he was and how long he had been working at the site. On that day, a nauseating shiver passed through the back of his body and he lurched dizzy and fell from the line of scorched people one evening on the way home. Though he harbored a fantasy his whole life that he would die in a grove of shade and cool water, surrounded by the faces of the people he loved, Ur died in the exhausting heat.
Zavar was behind his father that day as he was every day. He knew something was wrong. His father suddenly clutched at his stomach and looked back at his son. It had been a particularly hard day at the site, the lieutenants had been particularly harsh. A visit from the royalty was expected soon and progress had been particularly slow. At one point just after lunch, the lieutenant had openly berated Ur, and the busy work on an important structural column had suddenly stopped for a brief but intense moment. Yet as in many things and in many places, the people least responsible bore the brunt of liabilities and Ur, for all his talent and pride, felt himself a failure because the project was so far behind.
At the death of every worker, the lieutenants’ job was to ensure the rites of the lost were upheld at the moment of their demise. Zavar stood motionless. They would never meet again. Ur grew cold in spite of the immense fomenting heat and he matched his son’s eyes with the same love and longing that Zavar was trying to shine back. “At all the things I taught you,” his father thought, and lost himself in his only son’s beautiful face and passed away.
The women who provided food and water during the build each day rushed in and bent down to quickly prepare his rites. One lieutenant always was chosen to accompany them back, mostly to police the water rations, and this man said nothing. He did not need to. Ur’s arms were folded and he was placed into a gurney, bedded with a selection of dried flowers. Black ash was slowly drawn across his forehead, white ash across both cheeks. Finally, and most importantly, a large cup-much larger than the ones used to dole out the daily rations- was filled with water and poured across his lips. A christening and gift for each into the holy place of the dead.
Today, Zavar moodily recalled his father’s death as if it were yesterday. A feeling of revolt weighed on him in a way that no other person in the tribe could possibly comprehend. He felt drained about the coming day and he wished these feelings would go away. He cursed himself for corrupting with angst the memories he kept of his father and he forced himself- as he did often- to recall only the last glimpse he took of his fathers loving eyes and wept.
Zavar left his hut today and began to prepare his morning. Had he not known so much, his life might have been less painful. He was tired. Unlike his father, he hated that thing out in the desert. He didn’t care what it was, and he believed that few people even knew what it’s designers had intended over 200 years ago. He had also been up playing cards last evening until well into the cool hours, the air being as much the reason for such games-forbidden as they were- as was the prospect of winning. These people were always thirsty and hot and the cool nights were one of the guaranteed pleasures of a life spent working on Egypt’s grand desert. Those who stayed up past the sun were surely cooled by the gods themselves.
Zavar and Hasina were going to be married. Though they had nearly been inseparable as children, and though the entire camp knew they would eventually marry, their actual marriage was uncertain. Zavar had not made his wish for her known to her and the others in the camp in the usual way. He shielded this from her, from others, and likely even himself. Zavar tended to ignore- at his own cost- some of the more everyday pleasures and rituals that pervaded the laborer cast. This was part of the cost of his general tendency to think- or at least that’s what he told himself as an explanation for his general awkwardness.
He was confused by the thought of Hasina. When he was about age 16, she seemed to be offered to him. Older women in the camp would knowingly glare at them anytime they met. He often overheard these same women shooing her into the room where Zavar might be, or worse, shooing him towards Hasina. This insistence from other parties became a painful obligation that he did not, or could not live up to. He loved this woman more than anything in the whole world but he resisted the pressure to make this known in the customary way that was usual for young men his age. Because of this, however, Hasina also became confused and at moments extremely disappointed, since she had always believed she would be married to him. She believed Zavar was closing himself off to her at the very time that he would have- or should have- made his love known to her.
It was not uncommon for men to become rather awkward around this young woman. Hasina possessed a stunning beauty which bewildered Zavar. Her beauty was a thing of rumor, even amongst the royal classes of women who infrequently entered the camp. Many of these, upon seeing Hasina, instinctively set her about some lowly duty. But these same royals would inevitably remark that she had a way about her- a grace and fairness that pervaded her actions and friendships that made onlookers even more envious and reverent. She could for example hold differing opinions on contentious matters about the camp, a quality that betrayed the usual rash and polarized way in which important subjects were discussed amongst the workers. Such rashness was of course the very dynamic which royals and lieutenants tried to inspire amongst these people- should they squabble and fight amongst themselves on inconsequential matters, the better for those who benefitted from their utterly subordinate position. Hasina’s grace, then, was an even greater, more practical and fundamental threat to higher classes than even her physical beauty.
Hasina commanded respect from nearly everyone and this formed an important part of the drama that surrounded the qualities she possessed. She was also a favorite subject matter of some of the older women in camp. Hasina’s aunt reported to the group just the other week that she had overheard a visiting Egyptian royal wonder to her husband if he had,”noticed that beautiful young woman.” Should you have heard some of these same people on their long journeys back to Cairo, you would know that their compliments on Hasina’s qualities were usually cloaked with intolerance and always followed along in conversations with longer criticisms of one of her likely but unknown deficits. There was no debating that she inspired admiration and envy from nearly all who met her and that the lines between casts momentarily blurred in the beauty and refinement that Hasina possessed.
None of this helped Zavar’s true pledge for her, nor helped him undo his state of shyness and reticence. Many other men had also wanted her, men more aggressive than Zavar. And of all the many men that had also been her suitor, the lieutenant’s son, Po was the most relevant to the telling of this story, and the fateful way in which things transpired today. Po was a lazy and corrupt young man. Hasina thought him boring and that he was similar to the many people she had witnessed berating and undermining the people she had loved for her whole life. But he was also relatively wealthy. He made it known very early on in his appointment to this camp- about three years prior- that Hasina was his choice.
Of course she was. Po was obstinate and obvious in nearly everything he did. His swift and unthoughtful decision was certainly not remarkable- at least not for him. His hallmarks were blatant insecurity and entitlement. Not that he was aware of these unpleasant qualities- rather just the opposite. He found himself considerate and learned, and each day he rose and peered into his expensive mirror, he reminded himself of just that. He believed that he was held in high respect amongst most laborers in this camp, which may be one of the hidden reasons that Po believed himself more safe than he actually was and why on this very day, he would lose his life.
He never got to know anything about these people, the work they did, or the rich history that passed between their generations. He made no attempt to know Hasina, either, and this made her dislike him all the more. He did not enjoy work and he foisted himself into situations instead of creating relationships and he knew little of building construction. This was not unusual, however, for those in the lieutenant class.
Po had advanced himself to Hasina the night before last, just after her the laborers dinner. Hasina’s opportunistic and greedy aunt had secretly arranged the meeting. Had the timing been more imperfect, Hasina would have likely spent the rest of her life with this man. But fate and the timing of the gods not only dictated suffering and hardness- they also came to the rescue of romance, love and story. Though she felt a deepening repulsion for this young Po, it was still considered unthinkable for Hasina to refuse him, since her life would have improved in ways she could not help but to imagine. The match would have ensured her abundant water and decent food for the duration of her life, a duration that would have increased dramatically under the influence of such necessities. She also would have been able to change jobs- from the devastating toil of the site’s water bearers and food carriers, to the camp’s dinner preparer and handmaid to the lieutenants’ secure camp.
Hasina’s and Zavar’s love remained a secret, until better preparations could be made. Zavar had wanted it this way and Hasina agreed. The lieutenant’s family did not know- and the unapologetic Po who wished her hand certainly had no idea. So when Hasina’s wishful and senseless aunt had arranged for her to visit with Po the night before last, it was understandably done without this intimate knowledge. Knowing Hasina wouldn’t have gone, her aunt used a trick to get her to go. She said something of importance needed to be picked up for tomorrow’s build. On her way across the mile expanse of desert to the lieutenants’ house, Hasina hoped that she would not run into Po. As she approached the gate to their encampment she felt a small chill run up from her legs to the back of her neck.
She prepared herself and knocked at the door. In moments it swung open and her heart fell to see Po, standing in freshly washed clothing. He smiled. “Welcome, Hasina. Welcome to my home.” He was careful to not let her see his edacious glance as she walked passed him to come in.
“Did you have something for us?” she said as she looked around the entranceway.
“So straightforward,” Po said. “That is such a good quality in a woman. No wonder so many royals speak so highly of you.”
She glanced up involuntarily at this, and Po smiled with conceited satisfaction. She stopped herself from enquiring who from the royal class had mentioned her, but a glaze in her cheeks gave away her curiosity at the mention of royal notice. “Oh yes,” Po proceeded, “I have come several times upon the wives of the architects and their friends discussing you. I, of course, did not let on that you are my friend, but you may be assured that some of them are most impressed.”
She could not catch herself. There was nothing Hasina or any other woman in her camp had grown up fantasizing about more as a little girl, than one day being a member of a royal class. The sheer poverty of their existence demanded such daydreams. This was bolstered of course by the many convictions that laborers held about the general belief in the ascending nobility of the classes. “I find it hard to believe,” Hasina said, trying to pull back.
She noticed the room she was in. It was sumptuous. She had never been in this house. “Oh it is quite true,” Po went on. “You may believe me wholly. I would not lie to you, Hasina. You may believe me about anything.” And at that he touched her shoulder. But rather than twist immediately away as her body told her to do, she looked down at his hand- pale and soft, with oval and slightly long fingernails in the fashion of kings. She considered her predicament before looking back up into his face.
“Po,” she smiled gently, “You are so graceful and well mannered. I am truly amazed at what you say.” Few kings could have resisted the glance which at that moment she evoked, and Po found himself in a trance of hopeful expectation. She turned then and walked away, towards a table, where fresh fruit sat out. “May I?” she enquired.
“Yes, yes of course,” Po responded quickly. She picked up a succulent pear and with her back still to Po, closed her eyes and carefully chewed. The juice ran down her throat and a shock of erotic pleasure passed through the deepest part of her belly, then tingling out through her arms, legs and forehead. She turned around.
“Was there something for me to pick up?”
Zavar looked at her. That was all. It had only been a look, but it was a look enough to tell Hasina that Zavar did indeed have her on his mind for a wife. She had been sitting at the side of the stove that provided the camp food near the end of one day, about one month ago. She was making final preparations for the evening meal. The table was set, and everyone would enter for dinner in less than 20 minutes. Zavar normally worked in his hut at this time, but today he walked over to the kitchen. And though he had rehearsed a hundred- or a thousand times what he would say to her, he seemed to lose focus the closer he moved towards the room where he knew she would likely be.
Isn’t it amazing- two people who had been inseparable growing up could, under the influence of an ocean of desire, come to forget who each other was at all! But this was one of the many pleasures of love… to forget- as one sometimes forgets oneself- and wonder what of the other person still lay hidden. Innocent friendship transforms under eros, which arrives always without warning. Who from any time or from any race did not love such remarkable transformations? Perhaps only the two people themselves! It is not only enjoyable to be overrun by the great unknowable nature of the gods as they sought to merge into a seemingly small, inconsequential friendship, like it’s blazing center, around which the heavens themselves sought to orbit. It could also be quite frightening. But this was the love between these two. There was nothing more powerful, sought after, misunderstood or envied.
These feelings welled up in Zavar on that day as he approached his beloved. An artless mix of fear and courage bleat in his throat just as he entered the room, and she looked up. The gaze between them was only a moment. Zavar found himself at her side and instinctively knelt next to the low stove and held her eyes in his. She silently took a small ladle, and fed him deliciously the broth she had prepared, replaced the utensil and as she did, peered down at her hands. They were chaffed with work and sand and sun and she began to weep. Zavar’s eyes welled up in profound gratitude, love and sadness. He found a cup of oil close by and used it to carefully wash her hands and feet.
Today was Zavar’s last day of work upon this site. Upon waking, he walked to the western edge of his camp, something he rarely did, to the point where he could see in the pittance of early light the outline of the building. It lay across a field of sand and dark blue Egyptian sky and sat like a sleeping menace- a dangerous beast that had killed everyone he ever loved. What a slow, selfish and harrowing gift from the royals to themselves, he thought- what a steady, unfinished lie that bid everyone believe it. It was the only place in the world-other than his camp and the long walking path- with which Zavar was truly familiar.
He turned in the still, early morning and felt as if the whole of the night was ending only for him. His belief in the cooling power of the early air caused his breath to deepen as he turned and walked over to the pool of water on the other side of the camp. A sluiceway transported these people’s daily ration of liquid right around this time, and now as he reached the pool, it was already full. Neither Zavar nor any one else in the camp knew that the Nile had more perfectly drinkable water than he and the next thousand generations of laborers throughout the whole of Egypt could ever drink. No- the next ten thousand. What he understood- what he was made to understand- what he and his family only ever knew was that water was given out of mercy and necessity, from the gods and the royal classes who were known as gods.
He reached the pool at the eastern edge of the camp. Across its span was reflected the great plain of desert beyond, towards the Nile river, which Zavar imagined he could almost hear. Few people actually knew the true direction of the Nile. It was deliberately kept a secret so that no one would think of escaping, since it was to the river where Zavar’s people would ever dream of going. It was said to be beyond the great building site, to the west, but Zavar knew this was not true; it was due east by about two days, rather than due west. Due west were a thousand days’ march that no human had ever traversed. But his knowledge gave him more than just insight; Zavar not only knew of the direction of the Nile, he dared to imagine actually visiting it. The thought had played on his mind in fantasy since he was a boy and seemed to cool him when the sun only wanted him and Hasina to suffer. When he could, like today, he spent a few minutes eliciting the clearing and quenching power of even his small camp aquifer… the diverted pool whose origin was even itself the mighty and godly Nile. This thought gave him great pleasure each time he thought it and so he thought it often.
These thoughts swam in his mind as he squat down and looked into the dark but visible reflection of his head and torso leaning over the pool. He touched the water, which he loved, and the ripple travelled like a bird from his hand, followed in formation by an eager flock of other ripples. There was such glee in him at such moments.
A breeze touched his skin that belied the hot day that was always on its way. He pulled his hand out of the magical pool and raised his face to the horizon, which was still quite invisible. He peered into the dark air and let his eyes adjust to the faint outline where land and sky met. He realized at once that he was not alone… a kneeling figure had joined him at the edge of the pool, several meters away. It was Hasina. She bore a grin as she watched him, knowing that he had only just noticed her. She touched the water then, and her glare into the pool became introspective while she peered at the ripples that quickly travelled to the place where her beloved sat. She again looked up towards Zavar playfully, met his eyes and they were absolutely in love.
The beautiful moment ended. Something broke and seeped into Zavar that was not anger that was not hate, but was a mix of the promise of the horizon, his Hasina sitting so close and the clandestine knowledge he held of the world. How would he ever carry his beloved across the expanse of Egypt, as Zavar had dreamed of doing many times? There were no other gates he and she would cross, no other thresholds, no other doors that he and she did not already know. In today’s early light and in the faint outline of the day to come, Zavar’s mind concussed, and his eyes grew wild with unshakeable angst.
His beloved noticed the look pour across his brow. It was one she had never seen. Her absolute faith in and love for him mixed with fear for what could be passing through her lovers heart. Then the breeze blew warm from the west and this small morning ritual was over. He thought of the many duties in the coming day as he unfolded to his standing height, just as the day’s heat also began to rise and the sun edged orange a sliver above the horizon. He peered at her again and pondered her who also held his eyes. The coming day would care little for either of them.
The walk to the site this morning was uneventful. No breaks were taken, except when the site was reached. There was no point, the heat would not let them, as the cool night and early dawn suddenly traded its brief tenure over these peoples lives to the long, blistering and careless heat. The site was visible from the flatland expanse between it and the small village of workers, but it was deceptively far to walk- another one of the desert’s many and deadly tricks. What seemed an easy walk could quickly become a harrowing pledge for survival for someone unprepared for calumnious nature of the Egyptian desert.
Upon reaching the site, heat began to pass through them in shivering waves. Each time the wind died down, mournful glances passed between them as they fell about their work. Women spread themselves about the site’s planned activities with their water stores and food, while the men gathered their tools and ascended the complex of scaffolds and gangplanks, which bore men, stone and pack animal alike. The lieutenants were behind by about the length of time it took to walk from the village. By the time they reached the site, the workers would have begun the day’s build.
Zavar walked the scaffold to a corner of the structure that he had been working on for months. The masonry in the cross sections of this building were highly complex. Lieutenants believed that these support and stabilizing sections could be built with algorithmic regularity and predictable speed, but good architects knew that the best-laid plans had to withstand the tolerances of masonry and reality. Lieutenants cared little for such nuance, and only plied for the results at the end of day that could bring them greater favor. It was left to men like Zavar to ensure the plans were carried out. For example, the lieutenant had repeatedly told Zavar that he should finish this section in half the time that Zavar knew it would take, and that he could place Zavar into one of the less skilled sections of the build at any point in time. These sections were more deadly, since the less skilled workers made up for themselves by being constrained to more physically demanding work.
Zavar had the materials he needed and began to work. Zavar cut stone and wood shims with as great a skill as any. His current duty was to plant stone reinforcements at the meeting points between the two massive outer walls that met on this corner of the building. His vantage point was from about 200 feet up. He turned away from the corner of the building for a moment and could see straight back to the village, along with the short line of lieutenants who were slowly making their way to the site. Excdpt for windstorms, the desert days afforded the longest views on earth. A prolonged gust of wind died down, and the shivering heat sank into Zavar’s blood, making his eyes water, and then the gust picked back up.
The lieutenants spoke as they reached the site. They dismounted from the animals. As far as Zavar could tell, their conversation looked serious. The lieutenant from Zavars section seemed to spell something out to his son Po in animated gestures. Zavar wondered what they talked about, since normally, little was said between the lieutenants at the site, or in front of the workers. Zavar did not trust these men on any day, but today this sentiment made him feel something like fear.
Zavar heard footstps on the gangplank leading to his corner as the women made it to his section on the build for morning water. To Zavar’s surprise, Hasina was the person carrying his allotment. Wives or family were forbidden to distract their men in any way, especially those with greater skill and more responsibility. It was also a way to control the allotments of water, since it was also more likely that a wife or sister would give two dips of her cup to her husband rather than the one that was the prescribed ration.
Zavar was happy and they smiled at one another. As Hasina produced his ration, though, Zavar heard footsteps on the gangplank again coming towards them- Po and his father. Zavar recognized their voices. Zavar pulled his eyes away from his wife, drank quickly and handed her back the cup. Hasina took it and nimbly ran around to the outside of the corner of the building, where the gangplank wrapped around and came to a sudden end on the open expanse of the north side of the building, which towered above her another 100 feet. The wind ripped around at this place with a hollow sound, a singular note played off the building’s massive eastern wall. There was no barrier or rail between her and a 200 foot drop to the ground. Hasina leaned against the wall, only inches from the precipice, motionless and riveted to the ensuing conversation only several feet away out of sight.
“Hello, Zavar,” the lieutenant spoke from a smile. “Hello,” said Zavar, noticing the keen manner in which Po glared. She was hiding, Zavar thought- thank the gods. “How is your section going?” asked the lieutenant and Zavar began to answer that he might even be done today. But before he could, Po broke in: “You will be done today, Zavar, I can assure you. Today will be your last day on this section. If not, tomorrow, you will find yourself at the bottom of this site.” Zava nodded seriously. “Has the morning water made it up to you, Zavar?” Asked the lieutenant, and Zavar nodded again. “Yes,” Zavar said trying to hide his nervousness about where Hasina had gone, “they came a little early today.”
Zavar knew now what the lieutenants had been discussing earlier: they were going to make another impossible push on production. These pushes- usually counterproductive and not based on anything like the wisdom of building- often resulted in men like Zavar being transferred to more difficult physical work, which also meant that less skilled workers would replace him. This way, the whole village was poorly affected, and so in turn was the entire operation. Within such a foolish alchemy , Zavar’s only hope was to produce what they wanted. It was at least possible, he told himself. “I will be staying around your section today,” Po said, “just in case you need any of my help.” Zavar wanted to laugh at this statement, but stifled his humor, and nodded. The lieutenants then left.
Zavar turned back to his work. Several moments later, he was startled to hear feet from around the east side, where the gangplank ended. Hasina emerged, with a childlike smile. She kissed his forehead and disappeared.
The morning wore on. Zavar thought to himself that he might actually finish this small section today or tomorrow should his cuts and his measurements be accurate. The heat rose and Zavar’s concentration upon his task was strained, yet Zavar felt as productive as he had in months.
Zavar began to speed up. Lunch came, Zavar ate. He kept himself in the elusive small shade, as the sun reached it’s peak. The wind rose and fell, the only mitigating thing to the heat, except one’s imagination or reflection upon the cool. The building grew hotter, even as the sun lost intensity through the afternoon. Zavar had nearly completed his corner and he made one more decisive cut to a large piece of stone that he had retrieved from down below just after lunch. He knew that if he could make the cut in time, he might just finish today. He worked hurriedly- a liability to his job. He made a few last skillful strikes to the stone between his feet and it seemed ready to be placed. Normally, with a stone of this particular size, he would have gone to find at least one other worker to assist in its placement. Today he did not. He thought of Po, his words and the push. He thought of his father, Hasina, and the whole tribe of laborers. He thought of the choking angst from this morning, and from every morning from about the time that his father died.
“Place the stone,” he thought and he wedged himself beneath the place where it would be installed, brought the stone onto his chest and pushed it upwards into place. It was heavy- too heavy. Should it fall it could crush his skull quite easily. It was more than it looked, he thought as he nudged a knee behind it to free a hand, then another, to place shims. He pounded a shim into place. Now another. On one of the final strikes upon a shim, his hammer hit the side of the stone instead, and a sharpened corner of hardened limestone flew, hitting him in the face just above his eye. He wiped his eyes with the back of one arm- blood- and continued to hold the stone. He made his final strike with blood trailing down his cheek and neck. He looked carefully and slowly at his work- it was set, and he wedged his way out.
He kneeled carefully, then decided to stand but as he did, he realized it was not a great decision. It was the hottest part of the day. The blood from his wound was heavier than he thought. He dabbed it with his sleeve and felt the cut with his hand while he gazed at the expanse of the desert floor beneath him, which seemed to rise and fall. The wind suddenly died. His arms both fell limp and numb and the blood again seeped down into his eyes. He tried, but he could not reach up to wipe it, and he fell unconscious in towards the building.
He woke about a half an hour later, to the gaze of his wife who held his head in the crux of her left elbow. With the other hand she dumped small portions of water across his lips, which he now opened to receive. His eyes fluttered clean of the blood that had gathered as Hasina gently washed them. He was alive. He smiled up at Hasina. “The day is almost done, “ she said, and helped him up to his feet. “I will be ok, “ Zavar said, “you should go back down and get ready.”
With Hasina gone, Zavar began to consider the long way back home. Getting down from this height on the structure was a chore in itself. As Zavar began make his way on the thin, long, descending planks, he realized his balance was off. The ground far beneath to his left still shuddered in and out towards him and he had to turn his head away so it was not in his field of vision. But little respite existed to his right, as he structure itself was as hot as a piece of baked iron. He had been this hot and exhausted before, but Zavar knew this was different. He reached up and touched the wound on his head. It was a gash and would need time to heal.
Almost everyone from this height had already made it to the ground, while a few stragglers- mostly older men- still made their way. There was a large staging area or hub, about tone third of the way up from the ground, and as Zavar finally made it here, he stopped to rest and looked across its expanse. It was as wide as the face of the building- a very large area, maybe 150 feet across. Supplies making their way up to the rest of the building were brought to this hub and dispensed to the various sections above. Lieutenants and visiting architects or other royals also had a covered quarters here, from which orders and other information made its way around. The hub was deserted now, and you would not know that during the day, this part of the project pulsed with activity, with people going up and down in bisecting paths and pack animals moving large pieces of material.
He felt too hot to move. His feet were unsteady. “Where was Hasina?” he thought to himself. He considered walking across the hub towards the scaffold that would bring him the final part of the way to the ground. It was about 100 feet away through the direct sun. He would have to walk away from the relative comfort and part-shade of the side of the building. He steadied himself as best he could and moved. Without the building face to lean against he focused on not falling over, but his gait was skewed, and he lumbered and weaved. A wind picked up a large tuft of sand from the floor of the hub, and Zavar stopped and steadied himself as it approached. The gust blew into his eyes and into his wound, but it was not strong enough to knock him over. His body, cooled, felt relieved for a moment.
Zavar continued to walk across the hub and he realized he was totally alone. He had to make it to that gangplank, now 80 feet away… The building loomed over his head to the right and took on a malevolent aspect- even more so than usual. It seemed to grow in height and bend in towards him. “Keep walking,” he told himself as he shielded his eyes from dust and the dizzying sight of the building.
Something then caught his eye…someone else was on far side of the expanse, coming towards him. It was hard to believe. “Who is it,” he said loud, as much to himself as to this other. “Everyone should have been down by now,” he thought. His stopped walking and strained to see. Whoever it was also huddled in towards themselves from the sandy wind and blasting heat, fully covered head to toe in linen. As Zavar winced he thought the figure….What? Impossible…It was his father, Ur. Zavar blinked and tried to focus. Though it could not be, his heart melted as Ur came close, touched Zavar’s shoulder and smiled. Zavar felt his body and mind awaken from exhaustion for a blissful moment as Ur spoke, “Zavar…”
Zavar reached out to embrace him, but as soon as he did, he realized it was one of the water carriers, Nenet, whom he held in his arms. She held his chin and lifted his face so she could see. “Your head!” she cried and she reached down for a cup of water. She looked about to ensure no lieutenant was near and gave him a drink of the warm water. Zavar drank, grateful but also disappointed, as one feels when they wake from an excellent dream. She grasped him about the waist and turned the two of them towards their destination. He leaned into her and the two them made their way down the rest of the way.
The group waited at the bottom, finalizing their preparations for the walk. The tools were being prepared for the next days build. Hasina’s eyes welled up when she saw him. The lieutenants left ahead of time on the animal’s backs, but someone from the lieutenant class stayed back with the laborers on the walk home, in case anyone were to pass away and to police the water rations. Po volunteered for this duty today, believing it would be like any other day. It turned out to be a tragic decision.
The walk began like every other day. Today seemed worse. They were a little further behind than usual. It was heat that concerned them most. Lieutenants rode on the pack animals’ backs, drinking at will from leather flasks, and chattered back and forth- they were happy today, as their push on production had brought them most of the result they could have hoped for. The laborers on the other hand, did not speak. They ambled along, shuffling and focusing on just making it back alive.
At the halfway point, water rations were doled out but the group continued to walk. It made no sense to stop, since the sun and heat were far more dangerous than the bone weary aches everyone felt. The water carriers were placed at the front, and walked backwards along the forward moving line, doling out to each person their small, life saving ration. Zavar was near the back of the line and though Hasina peered out towards him as she made her way along with the water, she could not see him. She smiled as she finished serving a teenage cousin his ration, and began to move along to the next in line, when she heard someone from back of the line cry out for help. She peaked her head up… Someone had fallen, since the line stopped: falling was the only reason that the line ever stopped. She hurriedly moved towards the back of the line and her aunt cried out, “Zavar!” Hasina forgot what she was doing and ran towards the confusion.
He lay in the sand, clutching his abdomen, looking afraid. It was Zavar. Hasina cried her beloved’s name, and he turned his head, looked up at her and forced himself to smile. Half of his face was covered in sweat-soaked sand, which he spat from the side of his mouth. The heated ground scorched his shoulders and face, but he could not resist the urge to rest there for a few more moments…
He was dying, and Hasina did what anyone would ever do in the natural order of things, if another person were starving of thirst and heat: She gave him water.
She reached down for the cup, but she had left it with the last person she had dolled water to. All she had for a container was the one that had been blessedly poured across the lips of Ur the moment he had passed away- the much larger cup, carefully reserved for the christening of the dead. She filled it without hesitation and pulled Zavar’s head up with a little too much force. “You will not die,” she said and cried out desperately.
He could barely take it into his mouth. Her ears rang and she could hear nothing. Zavar began to drink down the warm contents of the cup more efficiently- the small, divine portion of the Nile River tinkled its way down his swollen throat. Hasina dipped it again, and used that portion to wash the dried blood from his eyes. She noticed how the wound he had suffered earlier continued to bleed. She dipped the cup again, cradled his skull, and kissed his cheek while continuing to feed him water.
Hasina had not noticed- nor had anyone noticed- Po approaching the scene. Had they, perhaps the disaster that ensued for him might have been diverted…Without thinking, Po seized her arm and pulled her from Zavar’s side. Her elbow flailed and with it, the large cup and the rest of its contents arched into the air and splashed down onto the earth. Hasina screamed out in pain as her shoulder had been twisted quite badly. She instinctively slumped down in the sand and curled in towards the pain, at the feet of Po. Injuries could be devastating, since injury never kept a person from having to work, and twists, breaks and sprains dogged laborers for the rest of their lives.
Zavar teased himself awake and looked up. Po was standing above Hasina. “What had just occurred?” he asked himself as he struggled to his side then rose to all fours in the sand. He touched his forehead and his cut there and he winced in pain, which briefly focused his memory in the few moments that now passed. He could not think. He felt a deep current in his belly that was one part love, and one part rage. His mind was confused and thinking felt like spreading a dry, uncooperative paste. His eyes blinked closed and open and sand fell from his forehead across the bridge of his nose. The swirling moment, the heat and the vision of the unconscionable Po provoked Zavar, who thought for a moment that Po smiled. Dizziness and fever surmounted his heat exhaustion and finally became madness.
Zavar reached for his tool belt instinctively and quickly produced the larger of his two hammers. On one end was a chisel that every mason sharpened at the end of his day, in preparation for the next, fastened to a cherry wood stock by a kind of epoxy resin. The stock, which he had gripped since he was 13 years old, felt comfortable in his hand. He lurched clumsily and swiftly and struck Po across the top of his left foot and nearly severed it in two.
One of older laborers cried in a lumbering crescendo, “No, no, no!” as Po dropped to the ground in luminous shock. His face pushed down into the sand as his body trembled. The wound pointed grotesquely down towards the ground while blood filled the dry sand, which became dark with it. Po’s life, along with the precious red liquid, would both quickly dispel themselves onto the soulless Egyptian plain. Po seemed to come to lucidity for one last time, looked down at the wound and cried out for someone to help him. “Please,” he pleaded to the nearest worker who stood motionless.
Then Zavar regained his own clarity and assessed what he had done and the grave ramifications. There was only one thing left- for this moment. He crawled closer and mercifully turned Po over so that he was looking up at the sky, raised his hammer with the chisel pointed down and smashed it just above the bridge of Po’s nose, through his eyes and deep into his skull. It was finished.
A smattering of sand licked hard across the back of Hasina’s hand, and she looked up from the scene before her, to the west. A tuft of sand about three miles west was lifted into the air and advanced in apparent harmlessness with the wind. The tuft began to obscure the low evening sun and Hasina realized that it was anything but harmless. There was no time to think. She spoke one word to the gathered group who for several moments had had no idea what to do next. A pit were dug for Po, 50 yards off the walking path, where it would be unlikely to be found. His horse was killed and along with Po, their bodies deposed. “He was lost in the storm,” she instructed loudly to the group and everyone nodded. “Zavar and I- we were lost in the storm,” and as she said this, she began to weep. They would leave tonight and never return.
They moved swiftly. The closer they got to camp as the storm hit, the further off track Po’s searchers would be. If the laborers had only spent a mile walking through the storm at a normal pace, then Po could have only been lost within that range- not halfway between site and camp where Po had actually perished. They all took large drinks from the cups and began a fast walking pace each carrying a thin, strong piece of canvas that was now hung on their west-facing shoulders, as a shield to ripping the sand.
They arrived back to camp. The lieutenants had already retired. Po and the laborers’ well-being was far less important than their meal, which they had rightfully earned. Neither was it uncommon for groups of laborers to be lost in the storms that sometimes struck between work site and encampment, and Po’s horse would normally be the difference between living and dying through such an event.
The wind continued threw up sand in swirling furor and wraithlike columns, which made nearly certain that the lieutenants would remain indoors and Zavar prowled over to the lieutenants’ stable in the cover the storm provided.
He opened the stable doors. The horses jostled in their stalls at every thrust and peevish gust of wind. He entered the stable and closed the door behind him as a large grey mare threw back her head in fear- riled, unfocused and dangerous. She peered at him and neighed, and the others responded in kind. They clopped in their stalls as he walked along. He wanted the best horse-the largest and fastest and youngest, which was kept towards the back. He was the horse used by a royal if they happened to want to ride to the building site. The beasts shifted and pulled but Zavar made his way along calmly. As he got to the last stall, he saw his horse: he neither pulled nor neighed. Zavar unlocked the gate and the horse shifted away from him and stared at Zavar from his large left eye. Zavar released his harness, bridled him and walked quickly out of the barn.
Hasina waited for him at the flag-post which marked to travellers from Cairo the entranceway to the camp. Today, this was a departure point, instead. Hasina was ready. Zavar walked towards her. His face looked hungry with concern, but there was also something else: A reach she had never seen, a commitment to something entirely new. To a dream. Something neither his nor her family had ever experienced. They were leaving the camp.
He walked towards her with the majestic animal at his side, and had she not known his face so well, had she not felt the beaming and violent tug of adventure in her chest, she would have mistaken his own majestic countenance for fear. He smiled, and Hasina for the first time in her life, allowed herself to consider the possibility before her, and she immediately accepted the risk in what they were about to do.
He brought the horse right to her side. Its smell and power were intoxicating. They loaded the animal with their necessities. Zavar helped her into the saddle. Briefly, they said goodbye to everyone in the world they knew. All the rest would be answered by god or whatever force now cradled their delicate lives. The gods that ruled this life, the life of the laborer, were being left behind.
For the first time since it started, the storm parted and allowed Hasina to see the sliver of evening sun shine through a tall column of dust and reveal its final few bright moments. Zavar ascended the beast behind her on the saddle, and he and Hasina took their first steps into the wind, towards the true direction of the Nile.