v. Bow of the Ox
My skin burning like wildfire, the thought of the sea's brine was torture. All I could think of were the cooling waters at the foot of the carnelian stairway, so I headed south, back into the Rif. The sun was unbearable upon the travesty of my body, so I traveled at night, using the white robe as shade from the pounding sun during the day. The cloth was too oppressive to wear, so I traveled naked once the sun had set.
I felt myself a walking lamentation, wailing at the walls of my own pain and disarray. There was not prayer enough within me for gratitude, all was desolation, all the sweet fields of me burned to black. Lying beneath the white robe in the noonday sun, I felt swaddled for death and well nigh welcoming its embrace. At night, under the sharp blade of a crescent moon, I felt as if I were walking the killing fields of death's harvest.
Climbing into the Rif, I lost myself in a dark canyon I had not seen on our journey north. Ghostly silence surrounded me, a breathing abscess of emptiness. In the deepest, darkest part of the night, feeling my way through the vile labyrinth, I felt a rush of fetid air that knocked me to my knees. So sulfurous was the air, my head reeled from the noxious fumes. Nausea sapped my ability to walk on; wrapping the robe about my head, I lay down in mud that felt oddly comforting to my burning skin. Despite the reeking stench of the air, I rolled around in the mud until sleep finally claimed me.
I woke to a holocaust: a small oxbow lake, a stinking mausoleum: skeletal trees decked with black vultures stood upon the embankment that sloped to a vile green water. Rotting fish and animal corpses were strewn about the scene; my head lay not five feet from the ghost of a calf upon whose entrails a chorus of flies was feasting. As I took in the horror around me, a shadow passed across my body. A naked, one-eyed child stood above me; his eye appeared to have been gouged from its socket, as if he had been assaulted by one of the funereal birds praying in the trees to their demonic lord. In his right hand, the nimble child held a sturdy spear, with a stout though rusted blade. With its flat side, he prodded me to my feet and then indicated that I should follow him.
We walked to a cave dug into the embankment on the opposite side of the oxbow. In the doorway stood a man I first took to be Ra, though he stood crouched over a stout limb from one of the spectral trees. As I walked up to him, he first bowed low to me and then stood and bludgeoned the side of my body with the limb. As I fell, the boy was immediately upon me, with his rusted blade at my throat.
They spoke in no language I had ever heard, clearly disappointed that there was no treasure beneath my robe. With his blade, the boy shredded the white cloth; with disgust, the man threw my sandals into the fetid waters of the lake, shoving me in after them. Though the mud had been a balm to my skin the night before, the water felt corrosive on me now. I came raging out of its fire, only to be tripped by the shaft of the boy's spear. The man was upon me quickly, grabbing my wrists and raising them above my head; he stood on my hands, as the boy raised his spear and plunged it into my right armpit. I lost consciousness to the sound of my own screams for death's embrace.
I'm not sure where or how I traveled, but travel I did. I would have said on the wings of an angel, but I feel sure no angel would have entered the hell in which I lay. Still, somewhere in a memory I have no memory of, I feel sure that I was carried. The stolidity of the body carrying me suggests that it was Ra, but I doubt his capacity for such compassion. This was much more than mere rescue; it was, in its own way, a resurrection, a raising of a man leagues beyond death.
When I finally awoke, truly awoke, I was indeed at the foot of the carnelian stairway. In the slightest of breezes, I was sure I heard the sound of a distant flute playing, but there was no one to be seen. Crawling, for crawling was all I felt capable of doing, I took my battered soul and body and slipped into the healing pool. As before, I drifted off into a sleep beyond sleep.