Memphis – (Short Story)


My name is Ptah. I sit on the bank of the canal playing my wooden flute. Seagulls circle above me and swoop down gently into the deep waters searching for something to eat. The canals where I live run through Memphis, the capital of the Lower and Upper kingdoms. Some say that Memphis is one of the most powerful cities in the world. Or at least it was.

As I play my flute, I see strange visions. At a doorway of a clay hut, there she stands, a light breeze sifts through her dark hair. Her green eyes sparkle and her lips part in laughter. Does she mock me? Her parents named her wisely. She is Neferet which means beautiful woman. One day I shall marry Neferet. But for now, I have only my dreams.

I am startled by my mother’s voice calling me. “Ptah, where are you?” Come and eat some freshly baked bread.”

I awaken from my visions, tie my flute to my kilt, and head towards my mother’s voice, freshly baked bread, and the scent of jasmine and honey.

From my small abode, I see the white walls of the temple glisten in the morning sun. Thoughts rush through my mind and for a moment, I am lost in the scenes of a week ago when a stream of blood trickled past the temple. Young men my age chanted phrases of overthrowing the Pharaoh. Some people regarded the Pharaoh divine and no matter how ruthless he proved to be, would never advocate his overthrow. But others, dissatisfied with injustice and unstable living conditions insisted on changing his rule. Those brave enough to insist were slaughtered in the street. Those who silently agreed with the dissenters, crept away with the scenes of the slaughter forged in their memories and the scent of blood of the fallen still in their nostrils. From the mud huts, some of the denizens of Memphis whispered a rumor that the Pharaoh’s own son was behind the plot.

I am torn between my love for Neferet and the struggle for freedom. If I join the fight for freedom, the chances of ever marrying Neferet vanish. If I marry Neferet, then I will not join the ranks of freedom fighters. Every night Neferet appears to me in my dreams. I see her crying next to my tomb. I wake up sweating. Which is better I wonder, to sacrifice my life so that others might one day walk free, or to marry Neferet. Surely no human feeling exceeds that of love. Yet surely, nothing is more noble than giving that ultimate sacrifice of dying so that others can live free. One such night as I float between sleep and being awake, I hear the voices of my friends outside my window. “Ptah, come with us. There is a meeting in Djau’s house. We must act quickly!”

Their urgency draws me like a magnet. I quickly dress and sneak past my parent’s room, open the door, and close it quietly. My friends and I hasten through the shadows. The moon lights a path for us. The night feels cold and stark. We knock softly at Djau’s door. A tall gaunt figure shoves the door open. Worry creases his forehead. His eyes dart past us, making sure no one is following.

“Come in and sit down,” he says motioning to us.

We enter and gather round his table. We speak in hushed voices. A candle flickers. Its light blinks on and off our faces. “We must strike tomorrow. Remember, the Pharaoh’s soldiers can kill us, but they cannot kill our voices.”

Small consolation I think. As the words fall from Djau’s mouth, I notice that he has aged ten years since I last saw him a week ago. His hands shake as he scribbles something on a scroll. His shaved head gleams under the rays of the flickering candle. The sweetness of Neferet’s face glows somewhere in the night. Her green eyes beckon me. I hear her voice whisper softly with the wind blowing through the leaves of the trees, “Please don’t listen. Run while you are safe. Come to my father and ask for my hand in marriage. It is better to love me than to die for nothing.”

But my friends and Djau’s conversation pull me back to the moment. Neferet’s voice drowns in the heat of the plot to get rid of the Pharaoh.

The sparkle of her eyes fade and the glow of her face disappears. We plan until night gives way to early morning. The sound of a rooster reminds us that we must disband before we are discovered.

“This evening we will meet just as the sun sets.”

We hear Djau remind us as we retreat. The door shuts behind us. My friends and I go our separate ways, our final words are the promise to meet in the square in front of the white temple. I sneak back into my mud hut. My parents still sleep. I stumble onto my cot and try to get some sleep before night falls. I drift in and out of coherency. I think I hear someone crying. I hear the clash of swords and smell blood gushing on the streets of Memphis. People shout. There is a fire somewhere. Moans of people dying fill the air. I wake up in a sweat once again. Then I drift off to sleep once more until someone taps on my door.

“Ptah, it’s almost noon. Why do you sleep so late? Are you ill?

I try to justify my lethargy to my mother but words fail me. I splash water on my face trying to wash away the groggy feeling that saps my strength. My heart beats so loud I fear my mother will hear it or that it will explode and I will die before I start my own revolution. I don’t dare look into the piercing gaze of my father. At the head of our dining table, he eyes me with suspicion. My mother busies herself with serving. Is it breakfast or lunch? I have no idea. I have no appetite. I think I have a rock in my stomach. I plop myself down on a chair and look out the window, perhaps for the last time. Where is Neferet? Does she sense the revolt my friends and I are about to stage? Does she know that thousands of people will gather in the square tonight to support us? I hope she will stay home and not become involved with tonight’s events.

If only I could get word to her. My thoughts seem to conjure her up. She appears under the arch of her doorway. Her eyes flash with brilliant green. The late morning breeze caresses her hair. A slight smile of recognition appears. She blushes pink. Then she frowns as if aware of the approaching disaster. Her lips form the words, “don’t.” I shake my head in disapproval. Too many depend on my friends and I. Perhaps even the Pharaoh’s son. I shift my eyes downward. This is too painful to bear. When I glance up again, Nerferet is gone.

“Excuse me mother, father. I have some things to attend to.”

“My son, you didn’t eat.”

“Sorry, mother. Perhaps later.”

I walk to the banks of the canal. I sit with resignation. Slowly, I take out my flute and begin to play. My tune is melancholy. Even my flute seems sad, dreading what will happen next. The Memphis Spring is in the air. Flowers bloom and today again, seagulls dive into the canal waters. The sun rises higher in the blue of the sky. I lose myself in time and only too soon, the afternoon turns towards evening. I must go. I must run to the square and help my friends. Thousands await us and perhaps some of those thousands will help us win our battle against oppression.

As I run towards the white walls of the temple and the square, I smell smoke. It is déjà vu. I hear the sounds of Weapons clash. Women scream. Men shout. In a few seconds, I am in the middle of chaos. A thousand soldiers swarm the square. Thousands of voices rise in protest. Then I spot Djau and the rest of my friends. Djau waves a sword and encourages support. But support from whom, I am not sure. I run up to Djau and my friends. I am out of breath and my heart beats louder than ever. Suddenly, Djau takes his sword and plunges it into my chest. I don’t understand. I fall to the ground. My mind begins to float away in confusion. This must be it then. I have loved and lost. I have lived and died. Amidst the screams, the smell of smoke and blood, I sense some kind of victory. But victory has come too late for me. I gasp. I know now that in every burst of freedom, there are the seeds of a new slavery. I also know that every truth becomes a falsehood.

As I lie in my tomb not too far from the Great Pyramid, I hear the soft footsteps of Neferet. She sits herself down and sobs next to where I slumber but yet though I slumber, I hear her cries. I hear her sighs.

Oh Ptah. You know I didn’t want you to go. You died before you saw the overthrow of the Pharaoh. His son is now the new ruler. My love for you has turned me into a poet and I know that true love stories never have endings. Your love will remain with me forever. I pray that one day we will be united in a better place.

Then I hear the sound of my sweet flute. Is Neferet the one who is playing it? I rest now in peace, knowing that because of my sacrifice and the sacrifice of those who cherish freedom, Memphis will prosper.

And I know that one day, perhaps in another world, I will be with Neferet.