A Star Falls in Memphis
Original fiction by Michel Faber
This story was runner up for our 1998 Explore! Prize (sponsored by the travel company of that name) and judged by Hilary Mantel. It was first published in the Winter 1998 edition of Solander magazine – copyright remains with the author
from Solander 1998
Michel Faber studied English Language and Literature at Melbourne University with the vague intention of becoming a teacher. Instead, he started writing a novel and got distracted. He has worked as a cleaner, pickle packer and nurse. Since coming to Scotland in 1993, he has won the Macallan, Ian St James and Neil Gunn awards for his short stories, and a volume of them, Some Rain Must Fall, is coming out in September 1998, published by Canongate. A massive Victorian novel, The Crimson Petal and the White, waits in his bottom drawer.
The Crimson Petal and the White has since been published to international acclaim, and was recently televised. A film version of Michel’s first published novel (2000), Under the Skin, starring Scarlett Johansson, is due for release in July 2012.
“I do not want,” said Elveptah, “a pyramid.”
“No, most adored and godlike, of course not,” the vizier hastily assured him, struggling to conceal his discomposure. Even in discussing the finer details of his king’s death and entombment, it was wise to remember that nothing made one’s own demise more inevitable than being a thorn in the royal side.
“I want,” continued the Pharaoh, splaying his fat hands theatrically, “a star.”
“A star?” echoed the vizier. For a moment he thought King Eiveptab was insisting on being conveyed directly to the heavens, a magical transubstantiation of his corporeal form into a celestial body. From long habit, the vizier considered whether this impossible requirement could be met and immediately began rehearsing how he might convince the court astronomer to lay aside his scientific principles. However, as often proved to be the case with Elveptah’s whims, the truth of his meaning was more gross and carthbound than it first appeared.
“I want,” he said, “a tomb in the shape of a star. Let lesser rulers have pyramids. A million years from today, who will remember which pyramid is whose? There will be thousands of them by then, infesting the earth like so many mounds of bird cack. Yet one tomb will stand out, unmistakable. The star shaped tomb of Elveptah the Sun King.”
“A magnificent idea, sire,” grimaced the vizier. “Divinely inspired!” A slightly offended glance from the Pharaoh warned him to add: “by your own divinity, of course.”
Elveptah the Sun King was the monarch of Memphis, and, at age forty-two, had left it rather late to be organizing his tomb. The delay was mostly due to his controversial decision, while still in his teens, to break with tradition by not dying. Instead he would live forever, ruling over an ever expanding Egyptian empire down through the millennia, until the gods themselves jostled to win his favour. Only recently, since he’d started to have difficulty breathing and occasionally collapsed at banquets, had he begun to entertain the thought of mortality.
The young Elveptah had been a lithe and handsome creature, slightly effeminate perhaps, but athletic and exuberant. Visitors to his kingdom would arrive convinced that his fame as a singer and dancer must have arisen from nothing more than the terrified flattery of toadies and sycophants, then Elveptah would sing and dance for them, and they would be astounded. Men would envy his grace and potency; women would find themselves helplessly crying with desire. Yet Elveptah seemed unmoved by female enticements, preferring a well cooked breast of wildfowl to the mysterious bosom of a lovestruck admirer.
He had been married once, as a child, to his own mother, and some said there had been more to it than dynastic convenience. Certainly his mother’s death was widely held to be responsible for the orgies of eating that had bloated him in recent years.
Those courtiers old enough to remember Elveptah as he had been before his alimentary excesses always liked to recount the time when Scilla, High Priestess of the Assyrians, had made the long and arduous journey to Memphis for no other reason than to set eyes on the world’s most beautiful man. When she’d seen him at last, she was enchanted, and returned to her people in a daze of wonder.
Nowadays, Elveptah still inspired wonder in all those who saw him, but it was wonder of a very different kind. Few who witnessed the king consume an entire idra-full of bean puree along with a dozen aish breads soaked in ta’leya failed to be impressed, not to mention secretly sickened. He could eat stuffed pigeons one after another as if they were boiled eggs, and then toss a succession of boiled eggs into his mouth as if they were olives. His lips, once girlishly attractive, were swollen and slackly distended now, and attracted only the fattiest foods. His body, which he had once displayed almost naked with only a white kilt around his slender waist, he now disguised under voluminous raiment. Between him and the images of himself that had been painted in younger days, there was by now only the most tenuous resemblance: a certain arrogance in the expression, perhaps, though even this was lately conveyed more by the kohl drawn around the eyes than by the bloodshot and puffy eyes themselves.
The vizier had observed the change in all its miniscule degrees, and had managed to hold on to his job and his life through many years of the Pharaoh’s temper tantrums, physical dissolution and denial of political realities.
The threat of invasion by barbarous tribes, for example, did not trouble the Sun King. He knew there had been times in Egypt’s history when the succession of dynasties had been interrupted by a century or two of chaos, but he did not see what that had to do with him. In his view, trouble came when the gods took a dislike to a particular Pharaoh, but he was safe, as he was on excellent terms with all of them.
For this reason, the vizier only mentioned invaders if he had reason to suspect they were merrily sailing up the Nile.
“I do not want,” Elveptah would sigh, “to hear any more about the Hyksos and the Hittites. They are ephemeral; I am eternal.”
“Of course you are right, sire,” the vizier would reply, “in essential principle. Yet, in practicality, the Hyksos and the Hittites have armies and weapons, and they are biting at the tender flanks of Egypt.”
“Then little Egypt must learn,” pouted the king, “to wield the whip.”
This was as close to fighting talk as he ever came, but it was not to be mistaken for an offer to lead troops into battle. Egypt for him was a loveable old pet which, when it was out of his sight, was reportedly being plagued by other animals. It should stand up for itself , he felt, but there was nothing he could do personally about its predicament.
On matters that were close to his heart, however, he could demand instant action. The matter of his star¬shaped tomb, for instance, rapidly became an obsession, and when the vizier passed on to him the architect’s plans for its design, the king’s normally somnolent face was sharpened with annoyance.
“I have,” he declared, “been misunderstood.”
“Misunderstood, sire?” The possibility was worrying; lives were often lost over misunderstandings.
“This design,” explained the Pharaoh, with generous forbearance, “is for a star that lies flat on the ground.”
“Yes… yes, I see that now, now that your most adored excellency points it out to me,” stammered the vizier, all the while desperately trying to anticipate the nature of the king’s objection to this rather self evident premise.
“I want,” asserted the Sun King, “a star that stands up on one point.”
“Ah,” said the vizier.
“A point of stone,” specified the king.
“Ah,” said the vizier.
By way of demonstration, the Pharaoh took the sheet of papyrus on which the architect had drawn the design and tried to balance it on its edge. It fell, of course.
“A most beautiful idea, sire, and so daring in its defiance of natural… ah… conventions.” He’d almost said natural laws, but in the presence of the Lawmaker, this might have smacked of disloyalty. Yet, he could guess what the wretched architect would say.
“We may find, sire,” he suggested, “that the architect will say that it is imp ” (the king glared at him) “p¬portant to recognize the difficulty of constructing a tomb whose great bulk is balanced on a sharp and narrow point.”
“You are deceived,” sneered the Pharaoh, “by symbols. This papyrus will not stand on its end precisely because it is papyrus. Stone is a different matter.”
So perturbed was the vizier by the dubious vision of a great tomb balancing as it were on one leg, however, that he risked death by persisting in his misgivings.
“Still he murmured, almost in a dream, “when my poor wit tries to imagine a vast and heavy thing supported on a thin axis…”
Elveptah reared to his feet, gesticulating alarmingly; he might have been putting on one of his old performances.
“Is not my greatness supported on the feeble shoulders of my subjects?” he demanded, more in rhetorical vehemence than in anger. “Does not Nut, the sky goddess, bear down on her tiny husband Geb without crushing him? Does not the very lily rest its great flower on top of a slender stalk?”
“Yes, most adored and holy,” agreed the vizier. Seeing the Pharaoh standing before him thus, the massive weight of his obese torso and flabby legs swaying on curiously dainty ankles, he fancied there might be hope for the tomb after all.
Construction was begun almost immediately after the execution of the first architect and the investiture of his successor. The tomb was to be erected right next to the imperial palace, so that Elveptah could watch the progress from the comfort of his throne. Special stone was being quarried in Thebes for the crucial point of the star; it would be denser and stronger than the stone of the upper reaches. To cut even a sliver off it, an entire squad of men could labour for a whole day; the king was delighted.
“I am,” he told his vizier, “so happy. I am watching my destiny sprout up from the ground like an eager stalk of barley!”
The vizier blinked through the fierce sunlight of the palace window and watched the labourers drag giant slabs of rock, cubit by cubit, across the earth.
“An inspiring sight, your highness,” he said, pressing his thumb and forefinger hard against his eyeballs in an effort to forestall the migraine.
“Even I,” enthused the Sun King, “am inspired by it, and I was its inspiration!” He drew a ring in the air with one pudgy forefinger, to indicate the mystical circularity of it all.
“Also,” he went on, “this design is the perfect solution to the problem of tomb robbers. You know that many kings in the past have no sooner been sealed in their tombs than the treasure chambers are broken into by thieves. And what makes this possible? It is only possible because, to gain entry into a pyramid, the villains burrow like termites. Their progress is entirely secret. But to gain entry into my burial chamber, the thieves would have to climb up. In doing so, they would surely be observed, and my loyal subjects could swat them like insects!”
He laughed uproariously, and, all through the palace, his courtiers laughed likewise, each man and woman prompting the next.
“Also,” persisted the Pharaoh, by now in a state of near ecstasy, “my tomb has a symbolic perfection. I shall be enshrined within a star, blossoming with many points. Each of these points can be seen as a divine phallus, ready to project the seed of my memory in all directions of time and space, so that the name of Elveptah will take root in the heavens and the earth; the south of the past, the east and west of the present, and the north of the future. By contrast, to have been buried inside a pyramid would have been an imprisonment. Imagine it! To be stowed, helpless, within a secret enclave, at the mercy of whoever gains entry. It would be like…” (he shuddered in disgust) “being trapped inside the womb of a woman.”
The vizier grinned and nodded like a simpleton, inwardly confirming his suspicions of why the Sun King had neither wife nor child.
As, with the passing of weeks, the base of the star-shaped tomb rose off the ground, its angles tapering outwards in sublime disregard for old fashioned wisdoms, the Pharaoh became ever more serious about death. In particular, he liked to rehearse the confessions which Osiris would expect of him when he was called to account for his earthly life.
At first, the declarations as they appeared in the Book of the Dead seemed straightforward enough, but as he memorized them, the king began to worry that he might be accused of perjury on some minor detail. Osiris himself was a decent sort of fellow, but what if there were some lesser deity hanging about, intent on making trouble?
So, he consulted his vizier to make some amendments.
“I have not inflicted pain,” he quoted serenely, then added the carefully worded disclaimer: “unless it was richly deserved.”
Similarly, “I have not made anyone hungry” he said, “except those who would not work.”
“I have not made anyone weep,” he continued, “except those whose tears flood as surely as the Nile.”
“I have not committed murder,” he declared happily, secure in the knowledge that it was true. It was the next incantation that was the tricky one.
“I have not commanded murder,” he said, then paused for suggestions.
“I must admit I’m having trouble with this one,” confessed the vizier.
“Have I really,” mused the Sun King, “commanded murder all that often, compared to all the other things I have commanded?”
“Perhaps some dozens, sire.”
The Pharaoh combed his fingers through his oily hair, and inspected the nails afterwards as if expecting to find something unusual.
“Do you think Osiris would notice,” he suggested, “if I simply left that one out?”
The vizier fidgeted uncomfortably.
“A mere mortal such as I,” he said, “could not presume to guess what a god would or would not notice.”
“You know,” remarked the Pharaoh after some reflection, “The inflexibility of our religion really is rather unfortunate. You would think a religion should make some provision for… forgiveness.”
“Hmm,” commented the vizier noncommittally. He did not doubt that Elveptah was capable of dismantling the faith of aeons and replacing it with something newfangled. But the vizier was not keen to serve under another Akhenaten, in case he shared the fate of all heretics. To distract the king from the lure of apostasy, he blurted out a suggestion. It was trite and slimy, but seemed to please Elveptah immensely.
“I have not commanded murder,” he repeated, “except to save the precious life of Egypt herself.”
The base of the great star was fifty cubits off the ground when the Sun King was sent news, via an emissary, that the High Priestess Scilla was on her way from Assyria. Apparently she had dreamed of the Sun King all the years since first glimpsing him, and she could no longer bear the poignancy of her memories. She must see him again before dying. The Pharaoh was much disturbed by this news.
“I have grown,” he told his vizier, “in stature, both as a monarch and also… in other ways. This lady has not seen me since my… my great increase in might. Expecting to behold my former puny form, I fear she may be disappointed.”
“Time will have altered her, too, my lord,” said the vizier, but the words fell short of their purpose, and the king rapidly grew disconsolate.
In the days that followed, to prepare himself for the Priestess’s visit Elveptah took a remarkable amount of exercise. Lifted onto horseback by a dozen attendants, he rode off to hunt gazelles, his steed panting and perspiring beneath him. He practised archery, his courtiers ducking and applauding with each volley. He made plans for a sumptuous banquet at whose climax he would entertain the Priestess Scilla with singing and dancing, just as he had done years before.
When the Priestess and her entourage finally arrived in Memphis, they were met on the banks of the Nile by the vizier and a welcoming throng.
“On behalf of the most holy and exalted Pharaoh, I greet you,” he exclaimed, noting with the upturned eyes of his bowed head that the Priestess was every bit as beautiful as she had been all those years ago.
“It fills me with pleasure,” she replied in a voice like the belly of a cat, “to be back in the Land of Grace.”
The vizier, as he had been instructed, took the Priestess and her party to see the construction of the Pharaoh’s tomb. The sight of the great stone spike flowering towards the skies provoked a babble of murmurings among the Assyrians, but the Priestess herself said nothing, and accepted the obeisances of the slaves with gentle good humour.
At the banquet that afternoon, she sat demurely at the great imperial table, and only the most sharp eyed of observers, like the vizier, could see that she was straining, as much as decorum would allow, to catch a glimpse of Elveptah. But the king, anxious to make the best possible impression, was reserving his presence and allowing anticipation to build up like monsoon waters.
Finally, when all the assembled guests had eaten and drunk themselves half insensible, and darkness had fallen, huge golden braziers were lit, throwing a warm glow of firelight onto a podium behind the revellers. Musicians began playing, a swaggering tattoo of martial pride, and a giant ornamental disc, emblazoned with pictograms of Ra, was rolled onto the podium by groaning stagehands. For a full minute this huge solar apparatus was held in place, its burnished surface gleaming and flickering in the firelight; then it was rolled away again, to reveal the extraordinary figure of the Sun King behind.
Elveptah was dressed from neck to toe in pure white clothing wrapped tightly around his flesh like bandages. There was a gasp of wonder from the courtiers of Memphis as they struggled to believe just how much of their king’s prodigious bulk had apparently been compressed into a fraction of the space; the very laws of nature seemed to have been defeated. Though not as reed¬thin as he had been in younger days, the Pharoah stood before them now as a powerful, well-muscled figure, and he had painted his face to give it the appearance ot terrifying beauty.
As the music swelled and the rhythm throbbed in the very floor of the hall, the Sun King began to sing and dance, possessed of a wild energy. He entranced the crowd with the richness of his voice and the sensuousness of his gestures. Yet, within seconds, he seemed to run short of breath, and his movements stiffened. His song faded into a mumble, and his arms were splayed out crudely, as if in supplication. His face, even allowing for the reflected light from the braziers, was as red as sunset, sweat sizzled in his eyes, sending streaks of kohl running down his checks.
“Oh, let me be,” he slurred, shambling forward on the podium towards the gaping onlookers. Then he dropped dead.
On impact, his impossibly tight clothing burst – exploded, in fact – and his pale sebaceous flesh spread out on the floor like a monstrous spill of aspic.
Everyone sat frozen in their seats, Egyptian and Assyrian united in horror and disgust. One by one the musicians stopped playing, each instrument fading away like a sunbeam at twilight. Silence descended on the great hall.
Eventually, the vizier took the situation in hand. “The Pharaoh is resting,” he announced solemnly. “I beseech you all to leave him to sleep.”
Awkwardly at first, the revellers stood up in their places and backed away from the table. Sons assisted their mothers, soldiers gave precedence to their commanders, wives clove tightly to husbands, and thus in twos and threes the company filed out of the banquet hall, nodding their respects to the vizier as they passed.
Before long, only the vizier and the Priestess Scilla remained.
Scilla, who had been siaring all the while at the grotesque mound of flesh on the podium, turned at last to regard the vizier with eyes that shone with tears.
“He was the most beautiful young man,” she said, “once upon a time.”
The vizier extended his hand, inviting her to accompany him to a less dismal locale.
“The embalmers will make him beautiful again,” he assured her. “And his sarcophagus will have a face to make maidens swoon.”
“And what of his dynasty?” said the priestess, reluctantly consenting to walk away from the dreams of her youth.
A strange took of’weariness came over the vizier’s face, as if he had lived a thousand years already and would live a thousand more.
“Elveptah’s younger sister will become queen,” he sighed. “She is eight, and loves braiding her hair. I expect she will rule for a week or two, and then the Hittites will invade again, rape and kill her, and put their own king in her place. He in turn will be murdered by his own men, and then Egypt will slip into anarchy forever.”
“And you?” enquired the priestess.
The vizier fastened the clasp of his robe and looked out through the palace window.
“I must find a new place to dwell,” he said.
Suddenly from outside there was a deafening crash of rock.
“That will be the great star of Memphis,” remarked the vizier. “Falling.”