Washi in the Underworld
The air in the coffin was rank.
The smell of death choked Washi's nostrils, death and the musty odor of newly-turned earth, hot earth above him, like clay, baking in the heat of the afternoon sun. Or was it night? He'd lost all track of time. At first he'd tried to keep track by counting his breathing, and the beating of his heart, but each time he drew a breath and let it shudder out his uncle's cold body would vibrate in response, giving the illusion of life, and terror quickly made him lose count. His mind, driven by terror and sensory deprivation, retreated into itself.
Sweat soaked his body; he felt as if he were in a furnace. It had to be midday. The rivulets of sweat felt like bugs crawling across his skin, or perhaps snakes. In the pitch blackness he imagined all sorts of burrowing creatures slithering around his body. Perhaps a sign that Nebru, Lord of the Underworld, was finally coming.
His heart beat faster, his uncle's body stirred in response. The coffin clutched him like a fist. Pray that he comes soon, I pray I pray I pray.
When Nebru came for his uncle, Washi would follow, down into the underworld. He didn't know why, or how, but he would strike a deal with Nebru. He knew that beyond a doubt. Just as he had known when he was a child visiting the marketplace, in those days before his mother had begun prostituting herself to put food in his mouth and coin in his pocket, he had seen something he coveted and even though he was penniless, he knew that he would get it.
The marketplace. His mind latched onto the sunny image and retreated into the past, away from the terrifying coffin. The marketplace in the center of Utsukush, the Endless City, the City of Death, the city of stone and brick and filth where he had lived for thirteen years before learning what lay beyond the walls, for the nearest edge of the city was twenty miles away from his cramped home.
The desert was what lay beyond the walls, the desert which pilgrims crossed to reach Utsukush, bringing their dead for a proper burial in one of the city's million cemeteries which encircled the city, just inside the walls.
He laughed thinking of the pilgrims, a laugh that was stifled by the wood and heat and dankness inside the coffin. He had always laughed at the pilgrims as they danced along the brick streets of the city, trying to be nonchalant as they went about their business but instead grimacing in pain, many times screaming at the sun-baked hotness of the bricks. For they had removed their sandals before entering Utsukush, following custom, and their uncalloused feet blistered quickly. His laughter never lasted long, though, for more often than not a passing priest would smack him for his disrespect. The priests, the somber, dour priests who were both loved and despised by the people of Utsukush, the priests who held themselves above the people as lords of death, the intermediaries between Nebru and the world at large. The priests who seemed to think with one mind as they taught the ways of Nebru to the people of Utsukush.
Utsukush, the White City, the city that was blinding to look at, especially in the heat of the day, when the whitewashed stone shimmered. Most natives were blind by the time they were thirty. Washi's mother, who was extremely beautiful, began prostituting herself when he was ten, so that they could afford a two-room apartment beneath the city, near the Tombs, mainly to keep Washi out of the sun and so preserve his eyes, but also to keep food on the table, for in those years a famine gripped the land and food was harder to come by than usual. As was money. But that didn't keep him from the sun. He was a boy, and like most boys he often managed to sneak away, find his way out of the warrens to topside, where he'd wander the streets, always ending up in the marketplace, where he thrilled to the smell of dung and the hot sweaty press of bodies and the steady roar of conversation, like an ocean, though he'd never seen an ocean. Ocean was a fable told by heat-crazy pilgrims. The most enjoyable aspect of the marketplace, to Washi, were the bone carvings. The delicate carvings made of bleached bones, in the shapes of fantastic, impossible creatures and shapes which had no names but were pleasing to the eye. He had acquired quite a collection of carvings; he suspected half the thrill was in snatching the things right from under the eyes of the merchants. He imagined that his bottom was as calloused as his feet, from all the whippings Talara gave him when he returned home. But she never made him return the carvings.
Talara, his beautiful flame-haired mother who had died when he was fourteen, died from an outlandish wasting disease she'd picked up from a pilgrim who had lain with her. He hadn't realized how much he loved her until he saw the priests carrying her body away into the depths of the Tombs. Which astonished him, for normally only the very rich were allowed burial in the Tombs. Commoners were buried topside, in rickety coffins in the cemeteries. He'd discovered later that his mother had been intimate with several priests, and it was they who had gotten her a place in the Tombs.
He lost the apartment then. He would have been turned out onto the streets, become a beggar, but fortunately his uncle, whom he'd rarely seen, stepped forward to claim him, taking him into his small house topside.
His uncle Enkoba was infertile and had no children, and Washi had never known his father. So each filled a void in the other's life, and they became close. Enkoba, to Washi's delight, was a bone carver. From him Washi finally learned where the bones for the carvings came from, which he'd never thought to wonder before. Enkoba took Washi to a place beyond Utsukush's walls, a short distance into the desert. To an enormous pit, shielded from the sun by a gigantic tarp which stretched from rim to rim. Great fans placed at intervals around the rim blew out the heat. And at the center of the pit was a huge stone pestle, spinning and spinning, grinding away at the bones dumped into the machine by sweaty workers who brought the bones in burlap sacks. Washi and his uncle stood on the rim for hours that day, Enkoba explaining various aspects of the trade to Washi, who listened in fascination to the crunch-grinding sounds that rolled across the pit.
Small splinters of bone were removed and carted away, to wind up in the skilled hands of carvers like Enkoba, who fashioned them into the polished statues and wind chimes that Washi loved. Most of the bone, however, was ground into a fine powder, which was used to make food for the masses back in Utsukush, as well as in the starving lands beyond the desert.
"Few people know the true source of the mainstay of our diet," Enkoba said. "And those who do know do not discuss it, for it is a distasteful subject. But we have no other choice. Man must have food."
"But the bones," Washi asked, fascinated and a little horrified by what he knew would be the answer, "whose are they? From where do they come?"
"From Nebru, of course," Enkoba replied. "We bury our dead in the cemeteries, Nebru comes up from the underworld and takes away the corpse, first removing the bones and leaving them for us. Several weeks later the coffins are dug up, the bones are removed, and a new body is put in the ground. Such has it always been. The world is full of death, and all the detritus winds up here in Utsukush, for we have Nebru, and without him the bodies would pile up and smother the world."
Washi listened to the bones snapping, the rocky grinding of the great pestle. Thinking of the thick, watery soup he had had for dinner the previous evening. "But what does Nebru do with the bodies of the dead? What use has he for them?"
"If you would know that," Enkoba said, "become a priest."
Washi shook his head. He would not be a priest. He doubted he had the self-control, and he certainly lacked the desire to set himself apart from his fellows. And anyway, how did one become a priest? He put the thought from his mind, listened to the satisfying power of the great pestle.
"Some say that Nebru causes death, because he needs our bodies," Washi said. "Before Nebru there was no death."
Enkoba shrugged. "As a priest you would perhaps learn the truth."
Washi looked up at his uncle. "I think I will become a bone carver, like you."
For two years Washi lived with Enkoba, learning the secrets of bone carving. Finally, two days ago Enkoba had died, poisoned by a serpent on his way out to the grindery.
"I have lost everything. All that I love has gone to Nebru," Washi said. And so as his uncle's body lay in its coffin in a minor temple near their house, waiting for a midnight burial, he snuck past the sleeping priests and climbed in beside his uncle, pulling the lid tight behind him.
Near midnight he heard a shuffling of feet: the priests coming to bury the coffin. He was jostled about as they picked up the coffin and carried it from the temple and out to one of the cemeteries. There was another rough jolt as it was lowered into the prepared hole, followed by a soft pitter-patter as the grave was refilled with dirt. What little light had been leaking in through the coffin slats faded. Washi was left alone in darkness, and he composed himself to wait
Washi swam out of his memories. Had he been sleeping, dreaming his past? Or was his mind retreating from the poisoned air choking his nostrils? Was it really two days since Enkoba had died? Was that possible?
The coffin no longer felt quite so hot. The sun must have set.
As he listened to his heart beating, he gradually became aware of a light breeze sighing across his body from the direction of his feet. He shifted, and felt the unexpected rattle of bones next to him, rather than the cold press of his uncle's flesh.
Bones! Nebru had been here and gone while his mind drifted! Or had Nebru gone?
Washi stiffened in terror, holding very still, not daring to breath. What would Nebru do if he found a living being in the coffin? And what did Nebru look like? What horrific beast might even now be lying next to him, jaws gaping wide? Washi suddenly realized how very little he knew of Nebru and his ways. He'd been foolish to come in here. Perhaps Nebru was merely waiting until the air ran out to come for Washi. Fool!
But what's done is done, he thought, calming himself. I will have my uncle back.
Idly he wiggled his bare foot, feeling for the source of the breeze. Where his toes should have encountered the coffin wall they encountered empty space. With growing excitement he traced the jagged edges of the hole, feeling splintered wood scratching his flesh. He stretched his foot beyond the hole and felt empty space surrounded by cold packed dirt: a tunnel burrowing into the earth.
The hole was wide enough for him to worm his way into. Wide enough for something to have come up from the underworld and taken his uncle's body.
Without further thought he dragged himself forward with his feet, wincing as splinters from the coffin floor snagged the bare skin of his back. As he dragged himself past the wall of the coffin one of the jagged slats sliced open the back of his right arm and he screamed in agony. He gritted his teeth and pushed onward.
Finally he was out of the coffin. He lay for a moment panting on the cold earth of the tunnel. He ripped a piece of cloth from his trousers and wrapped it tightly around his arm, stanching the flow of blood.
The tunnel was wider than the coffin had been. He was able to turn around so that he faced forward, which would make the going easier. That done, he snaked his way forward. The tunnel descended quickly. At times it became so steep he wished he hadn't turned himself around; it would have been easier to back down the slopes. Once without warning the slope became a sheer drop and he nearly plunged to his doom. But his reflexes were quick and he managed to catch himself, and continued by lowering himself with his arms braced against the tunnel walls.
He descended for what seemed several long hours; perhaps the sun rose and set once or twice as he huffed and squirmed into the earth. He grew weak with hunger, his throat became dry and cracked.
Just when he thought he couldn't go any further, the tunnel abruptly widened, and he was able to stand. He climbed wearily to his feet and shambled forward. After a moment he realized that there was light ahead. Sudden hope gave strength to his muscles and he raced forward.
The tunnel issued into a large room. A sourceless, bloody orange glow provided a dim, eerie illumination. Washi stopped and stared. The walls and floor of the room were white marble, littered with dirt and debris. Toppled, shattered columns crisscrossed the floor, columns carved with strange markings and symbols. At the far side of the room water gushed from a hole in the ceiling and collected in a large, deep pool. Pale mushrooms grew beside the pool. Beyond the water, three elaborate stone arches framed the entrance to more tunnels.
Washi, bone-thirsty, ran to the pool and threw himself to the ground, plunging his face into the freezing water and taking enormous, choking gulps. Finally, his thirst quenched, he pulled up several mushrooms and threw them down to his growling stomach. Thus sated, he lay on his back beside the pool and stared up into the fading depths of the ceiling.
What was this place? Somewhere far above would be Downbelow Utsukush and beneath that, the Tombs. Was this a forgotten area of those catacombs? But the tunnel he'd come down here through: who else but Nebru could have dug it? This place surely was the Underworld, the Land of the Dead, of which Nebru was lord. He closed his eyes and listened to a faint whistling breeze issuing from one of the arches in the wall. The sighs of the dead, all the dead from all the years, crammed into some nearby room?
The rustle of feet on concrete brought Washi leaping to his feet, instinctively crouching into a defensive posture.
His uncle stood before him. Mouth agape, eyes staring at Washi without recognition, not actually looking at Washi, but rather through him.
"Uncle?" Washi asked, relaxing his posture.
Enkoba was naked. Washi looked at the fresh, pink scars that traced Enkoba's entire body, following the lines of his arms and legs. Washi's eyes widened in realization: as if someone had sliced Enkoba open and pulled forth his bones. The bones which even now lay in the coffin somewhere far above, which would soon be removed by the priests and taken to one of the bone grinders to be ground into food for the hungry masses.
Enkoba saw Washi looking at the lumpy translucent scars and raised his arms to look at them himself, as if seeing them for the first time. Then he looked up at Washi and smiled.
"I've come to take you back, Uncle," Washi said.
Still saying nothing, Enkoba turned toward one of the arches and beckoned for Washi to follow. Moving slowly, ponderously, Enkoba went through the arch, and Washi followed, with more than a little trepidation.
Beyond was another tunnel, stone carved with incredible precision, lit with the same bloody orange glow as the last room. Washi followed several steps behind his uncle, who still had yet to say a word. Finally the door let onto the top of a steep staircase, which itself hugged the wall of a mind-bogglingly enormous chamber, a chamber so immense neither the ceiling nor the far walls could be seen.
And filling the chamber entirely, standing shoulder to shoulder as far as Washi's eyes could see, were naked people. Men and women, young and old.
He'd never seen such a large collection of people, not even in Utsukush, in the crowded, popular market. The strangest thing of all was the utter silence. In Utsukush, a crowd a quarter this size would make a deafening roar, a thousand thousand conversations clashing together into a ear-splitting cacaphony. But this infinite crowd made no sound. The people merely stood, swaying slightly to some unfelt breeze.
Enkoba was already halfway down the stairs. Washi stopped his dumbstruck staring and hurried after. As he descended, details became visible: the people were all pale white, and etched with the same scars as Enkoba. Fear grew in Washi, and his heart pounded faster as he came into their midst.
This truly was the land of the dead. Washi felt awe. Everyone who had ever died, since time began, must be in this huge room, which surely could have no end. And when I die, he wondered, will I too come here, to stand shoulder to shoulder in this crowd for all eternity? Is this how it ends? Why?
Enkoba led his nephew along the wall for a long ways. Washi hugged the wall, only looking at the dead in a sidelong, furtive manner; mostly he kept his eyes fastened on his uncle's back. Washi could feel the eyes of the dead upon him, tracking him. The silence rang in his ears.
After several hours of walking, they came to a shadowy recess in the wall. It must have been a deep alcove; the bloody glow that lit the underworld did not illuminate the alcove's depths. Enkoba stopped at the alcove, and Washi stopped. Enkoba turned to face Washi, staring at him unblinkingly.
Within the dark of the alcove Washi heard a wet, slithering noise. Scales sliding over scales, perhaps, reminding Washi of the serpents he and his young friends had sometimes tormented, the serpents that had somehow made their way into the heart of Utsukush. Then came another sound: the chink-chinking of chitin as something within the alcove moved nearer the mouth. Three blood-red eyes suddenly appeared in the darkness, hovering above a half-seen, moist coiling of scales, several feet above Washi's head. A hiss rising in pitch came from the darkness, and fetid air washed over Washi.
Washi stared at the floating eyes, mesmerized.
"I am Nebru," Enkoba said suddenly.
Washi looked at his uncle, opened his mouth to speak--
"I AM NEBRU, LORD OF THIS PLACE," said a million million voices in unison, at Washi's back. The air vibrated as the untold number of voices reinforced one another, amplifying a million-fold.
"WHY HAVE YOU COME?"
Washi threw his hands over his ears and fell to his knees. "Stop," he cried out.
"Why have you come, you who do not yet belong here?" Enkoba's voice alone spoke now.
Washi got to his feet and looked at Enkoba. "Uncle?"
"I AM NEBRU!"
"The one who is many," said Enkoba. "Your uncle is dead. I have breathed my essence into his shell. Why are you here?"
Washi faced the floating eyes. "I want my uncle back."
"I left his bones. I paid for his shell. It is mine."
"They say you're a god," Washi said. "Put the life back into his body and let him return with me. Isn't there some bargain we can make?"
"Why do you think you will leave this place, with or without your uncle?"
The hissing began again, accompanied by a loud rattling somewhere in the darkened depths of the alcove. The eyes moved back and forth in the air, mesmerizing Washi. Paralyzed with fear, vainly willing his unresponsive body to turn and run, Washi saw his death before him.
But abruptly the hissing and rattling stopped.
"I will give your uncle back to you, if you wish it," said Nebru through Enkoba.
Washi relaxed a bit. He looked at the floating eyes shrewdly, for he knew that nothing in the world came without a price. "What must I do?" he asked.
"Merely pass through the tunnel behind me, into the place that lies beyond, return and tell me what you see," Nebru said.
Washi looked into the darkness. The thought of coming closer to Nebru filled him with fear. "But why?"
"I DO NOT BELONG IN THIS PLACE!" sang the million voices.
"Paradise lies through this tunnel, my home. But I was cast out, and the entrance was warded against my return. But return I shall, and so I call your shells down to me, and when my number is great enough, I shall burst forth into paradise and reclaim it. I shall overwhelm the others with my great size, with my billion hands. But first the stone that wards against me must be removed, and I must know what preparations the others have made. Go now, and when you return with the warding stone, your uncle shall be made whole and you can return together to Utsukush."
Washi looked at the crowd of the dead behind him. "Why must I go? Why not send one of them?"
"I AM them. I cannot pass the ward, and my number is not yet great enough to overwhelm its power. Go now, before I change my mind."
The ominous rattling began again, more softly, urging Washi into action. With a last look at Enkoba's body, he stepped forward into the alcove. Darkness swallowed him. He heard Nebru shifting, heard the slither of coils as the god shifted to let him pass. He felt his way along the wall, hardly daring to breath, fearing that Nebru might strike him at any moment. Soon, however, he sensed that Nebru's presence was behind him, and he felt relief as he felt his way in the pitch blackness. Far ahead he saw a faint pinpoint of light, which rapidly grew into a blinding white circle. Finally he stepped from the mouth of the tunnel, shielding his eyes against the brightness.
When his eyes had adjusted, he saw a wild profusion of life before him. He stood at the base of a towering granite cliff. A green tangle of every imaginable variety of plant stretched away into the distance. Plants and trees with heavy, juicy fruit splashed with all the colors of a rainbow. Surely a garden of the gods. A river with crystal-clear water flowed slowly by a short distance away. The sky above was a crisp blue dotted with cotton puffs of clouds.
But how can I be outside? he wondered. He'd descended deep into the earth, and even if he'd somehow come out again, he should still be within Utsukush.
He pushed away his puzzlement. This was the underworld, beyond the understanding of mortals.
To his right, next to the mouth of the tunnel, a spherical, black rock was cradled in the palm of a claw-shaped pedestal: the ward which kept Nebru from entering this land. Washi touched the stone. It was ice-cold and heavy, but he would be able to carry it back to Nebru.
He saw none of the "others" which Nebru had mentioned; saw no army poised to block Nebru. He therefore decided to eat some of the inviting fruit and relax a bit before returning with the stone of warding. Stepping forward into the midst of the garden, he plucked a blood-red fruit and bit into it. Rich nectar gushed forth into his mouth and washed down his throat, spreading waves of sweetness crashing through his body. He picked several more fruits and sat down beside the river, leaning against a tree, closing his eyes for a restful moment. All was working out as he'd wished; soon he and Enkoba would be back in Utsukush and life would go on; he wouldn't be alone in the world.
"The fruit pleases you?"
Washi opened his eyes, startled. Before him floated a vaguely human shape, but made of light and rippling with bright, clashing colors. Washi nodded. "It does. I've never tasted such goodness."
"All you have tasted is bone," the creature of light said.
Washi didn't reply.
"I am Seraph," said the creature.
"I know. Nebru sent you, didn't he? To steal the stone of warding."
Washi hung his head, struck with a sudden guilt. A feeling that Nebru did not belong here, that this place would die if Nebru returned. "I just want my uncle back," Washi said.
"Your uncle is dead. He cannot be brought back. Once your kind dies, you are gone forever."
"But Nebru promised--"
"Nebru lies, child. That is his way. Once you bring back the stone, he will kill you and use you against us. Do you know that your kind was not made to die? Nebru causes your deaths, by poisoning the bones he leaves behind. Because he needs your bodies for his coming war against us. He must be stopped. You must warn your kind to stop eating the bones of your dead."
Washi shook his head. He knew Seraph must be speaking the truth, could sense the goodness of the creature. But: "We need food! The land dies, it refuses to bring forth life. Without the bones, we'll starve."
"Warn your people, make them stop eating the bones. We will send food for your kind."
Washi looked at the half-eaten fruit in his hand, and over at the stone of warding. "My uncle cannot be returned to life?"
"No. The only life that exists for you ends with death. Nebru is robbing you. And he will destroy us. Go, warn your people, for both our sakes."
Washi fought back tears, repressed grief for his uncle finally overpowering him. Now he truly was alone. His uncle would not be returned to him. Nebru had to be stopped, that others would not be condemned to feel such loss. Washi looked back at the tunnel mouth through tear-clouded eyes. "But to return to Utsukush I must pass Nebru. He will kill me."
Seraph extended an arm of light, pointing at the silver river. "There are other ways from this place. Go now, and warn your people."
Washi stood, filled with resolve. He took one last bite of the fruit, then dove into the river.
Raindrops suddenly began falling to the parched, cracked earth.
The group of pilgrims looked to the sweltering sky and gasped as the hot drops struck their sun-baked faces. An unusually large drop hit the ground and splattered open, leaving a young boy lying on the ground gasping for breath. The pilgrims looked upon the boy in wonderment, then dropped the casket they were carrying and fell to their knees, pressing their faces to the ground, worshiping the miracle boy.
Washi climbed to his feet and looked down at the genuflecting pilgrims. Days earlier he would have laughed at their foolishness. But not today. He turned and ran toward the walls of Utsukush, toward the great double gates which loomed wide open in the distance.
He fought his way through the crowds thronging the streets, jumped over the piles of oozing dung. His mind raced. Should he stand in the streets and begin yelling what he'd learned? No, he'd be taken for a ranting lunatic. Boys his own age would laugh at him, pelt him with dung, and the adults would steer clear of him. His only hope lay with the priests. They held great influence over the people. They made the laws. If he could convince them, his job would be done.
He dodged through the streets, finally coming to that long, wide street at whose end lay the Great Temple. Racing up the thousand marble steps four at a time, he burst into the outer hall and accosted the first robed figure he saw. Luckily it was Padre Abalar, with whom Washi's mother had had a passing acquaintance. Washi fell at Abalar's feet and pantingly told of what had befallen him recently.
When Washi was through, Abalar reached down and helped the boy to his feet. "That's quite a tale, young Washi."
Washi looked around at the other priests in the room, who had stopped what they'd been doing and watched with placid expressions.
"Let us go into the council chamber," Abalar continued, "and discuss it further."
Washi felt relief. They believed him, it seemed.
He followed Abalar into the halls of the Temple. The other priests trailed behind, their arms folded within their robes.
When they were deep within the Temple, in a narrow, dim hallway, Abalar's hand suddenly closed on Washi's shoulder with a vice-like grip. "You cheated me," Abalar said, his voice scornful and full of hate.
Another priest opened a door to a dark room.
Washi's heart sank.
"We made a bargain, you and I," the other priests said in unison.
They roughly shoved Washi into the darkness. He stumbled and scraped his knees against cold concrete. The door slammed shut behind him with ominous finality.
Copyright © 2001 by Scott Reeves
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