Excerpts from The Stars in their Courses
A Fight on Isis’s Birthday
It was a hot, lazy time, that five day festival when all Egyptians celebrated the birth of their gods. After the last procession, Sentnefer, Bez, and Tamar went for a stroll along the river bank. People smiled and greeted strangers with choruses of “Em hotep!” – (in peace!)
“Em hotep nefer!” Bez replied, grinning happily. She took Sentnefer’s hand in hers. Bez didn’t want this day to end, and just at that moment didn’t want to leave a land so prosperous they could afford more holidays than any other, a land where people bathed every day because there was always enough water even in the dry season, a land where everyone was so polite.
As they left the harbor they came upon four young men throwing knucklebones. One of them stood up and blocked the way. Even before he drew close enough for Bez to smell the alcohol on him, she knew he’d been drinking, though she couldn’t have explained how that knowledge came to her. Knew he wasn’t drunk yet, just a little slower than he might have been, and a lot more likely to pick a fight. She felt her body tense as if ready to spring, and smiled disarmingly.
“You’re not a man,” he said, sneering. Spittle flew through the gap where a tooth had been and landed on Bez’s shirt.
“No, I’m not,” she replied, in as agreeable a tone as she could manage.
He spat in her face deliberately. Then he yanked Sentnefer’s free arm, spun her around, and squeezed her breast. She started screaming in rapid-fire Egyptian but everything else seemed to slow down, as though they were walking through syrup. The man had his back to Bez. She reached over his shaven pate, hooked her fingers in his nostrils, pulled his head back, and kicked behind his knee, throwing him into the mire.
“Let’s just go, Bez!” Tamar shouted.
But escape was impossible. The other gamblers were on their feet now, crouched in fighting position.
Bez picked up an oar; a clumsy weapon, but it would do. She held it at chest height and when the nearest man made a grab for it, she ducked, slammed the thin edge into his shins, and faked a thrust to his groin. He dropped his hands and she smashed the bridge of his nose. The remaining two circled, one of them always behind her. From the corner of her eye she saw the attacker to her rear reach for a barge pole, and she whirled and slammed the flat of the oar against his head. Then she faced her last opponent and he tried to run but now his way was blocked—by two large Nubians carrying long batons.
She didn’t understand anything of the shouted conversations that followed, except that the Nubians were market police. They marched her and the gamblers through the city gate, followed by Tamar, Sentnefer, and a throng of holiday-goers who’d been on the waterfront when the fight broke out. Soon they arrived at the fortress that housed all the city guards, a stone and brick building with slits for windows.
The women were escorted to a room that smelled like rat turds and moldy laundry and told to sit on a packed dirt floor. There were no mats. The taller cop stayed with them, making himself comfortable on a high-backed chair. He wore his hair in braids that ended just above cheeks as thick as lamb chops. Gold hoops dangled from his ears. He tapped his baton across the tops of his thighs and a grin split his face.
Bez heard a scream from another room. She hadn’t been aware of fear while fighting the gamblers, but now she was terrified. “What’s going on?” she whispered.
“They say they have to lock you up for assault,” Tamar replied.
“Hey,” Bez protested, “didn’t you tell them I was defending—”
“Well, yeah!” Tamar said. “But those guys swore you attacked them without provocation. And the witnesses all told different stories. One insisted that Sentnefer threw the bastard off the dock—you never touched him.”
“That’s crazy!” Bez exclaimed.
“I know, but now they’ve got to put her on trial, too.” Tamar asked the Nubian a question, then explained to Bez. “The judge is in Thebes for the holidays. You’ll both have to stay in jail until he gets back, maybe another ten days.”
Sentnefer put her hand on Tamar’s shoulder and then slumped to the floor. “Oh, shit,” the scribe said. “She’s fainted.”
It’s my fault, Bez thought. I got her in trouble. But what else could I do?
Tamar pleaded with the policeman for water and he went to fetch it.
“He wants a little gift,” the Egyptian woman said, and shut her eyes again.
Tamar clapped her forehead. “I’m an idiot! Why should the cops here be different than anywhere else?”
When their captor returned, Tamar negotiated until he agreed to let her “go home for her papers.” An hour later she returned with two jugs of wine. After a taste and a nod of approval, the policeman took on a stern expression. “Those fellows,” he said, pointing at Bez and shaking his other hand as if preparing to throw knucklebones, “always making trouble in the market. Stay away from them. Now get out!” He made shooing motions.
On the way home, despite Bez’s fatigue, there was a spring in her step.
The Assyrian Came Down
Ahab king of Israel stood between his driver and his shield bearer, one hand on the rail of the chariot, and drained a skin of water. The sun was barely over the eastern hills but he was already hot and thirsty. The valley smelled of horseflesh and manure. Ahab had followed his late father’s instructions, rising before dawn to empty his bowels. “Pee down your leg and nobody cares,” the old man said, “but don’t shit yourself in front of your men. They’ll lose all respect.”
The allies waited, their banners hanging motionless in the still air. Only the cavalry horses were restless, pawing, whinnying, tossing their heads.
Sweat dripped down Ahab’s back. He itched and then forgot the itch, forgot everything except the enemy chariots down the valley, rolling into place. At last their trumpeter sounded the charge and the drivers loosed their reins, the plain shook under thundering hooves, volleys of arrows darkened the skies
and the allies raced forward, spreading out in four separate contingents, opening gaps between them to funnel their opponents into three corridors, and Ahab’s vehicle jounced across what had been a plowed field, curses flying from his lips like froth from a rabid dog, bow at the ready but it was impossible to take aim
and some of the enemy drove headlong into the traps and were surrounded and slaughtered and the rest halted at the forward edge of combat
and then Ahab’s driver stopped long enough for him to shoot off an arrow, and it slammed into a man so hard he lost his footing and fell and was trampled and horses went down men went down clang of sword against sword against shield screaming screaming screaming
The Assyrian cavalry came up behind the chariots and Ahab was astonished to see that they rode in pairs, one soldier holding a shield and the reins of two horses while the other soldier served as archer, and they were too slow that way and the allied cavalrymen picked them off easily but they kept coming
and then a spearman seemed to rise out of nowhere and hurled his weapon at Ahab, shattering the bearer’s shield, and Ahab nearly decapitated the attacker with a ferocious sword stroke below the earpiece of his helmet, and he pressed on until it became impossible to move forward and mad with fury he jumped to the ground and began to hack his way through the enemy and when he had cleared a circle around him he bounded back into his vehicle again
then a captain of the Assyrian infantry opened his lines and some of the Israelite charioteers took the bait and dashed into the gap, thinking they would cut off a segment of forward troops but they were at the edge of the marsh and their wheels stuck and the Assyrians were all over them like ants
and Ahab cursed bitterly when he saw it but all he could do was urge his driver in that direction to where he could fire arrows at whichever of the bastards were in range
and an Israelite foot soldier had somehow gotten in among the chariots, no armor not even a helmet, his face an avalanche of rage, and he swung his staff like a madman and when it broke in two he grabbed a dead man’s sword and swung that as well, screaming “For Yahweh and Israel and Elijah!” until he was standing in a circle of dead Assyrians and live ones bent on avenging their comrades
and now the Arabian contingent charged, clinging to their camels with their knees, shooting from behind the humps, and then an Assyrian hurled his mace into an Arab’s head and he slid to the ground and the riderless camel tried to bite the Assyrian but his comrade transfixed her with a spear and she crashed to earth bawling piteously, and Ahab was moved by her bravery and her suffering, and wondered if the creatures could be trained to pull chariots
then Ahab heard another blare of trumpets over the din and raised his head to see a mass of Assyrian footmen rush up the slope, while the allied infantry waited on higher ground until their opponents were within range and then hurled barrages of sling stones and arrows, and so many Assyrians in the front ranks went down that the others ceased trying to climb over them and turned and ran, and the allies chased after them and then it became a free-for-all in the center of the valley, swords flashing in the sun, the horses kicking up such a monstrous amount of dust that Ahab couldn’t distinguish his own men from the enemy.
At sunset the armies retired to their separate camps.
Copyright © 2014 Martha Shelley