Monday, November 28, 2011

Love Letter

"Lorie, come check this out."

Lorie left the side of the sarcophagus and moved across the burial chamber, skirting the oily black pool that dominated the center of the room. Her torchlight reflected in strange patterns off the surface of the water. For a brief moment she thought she saw something dart away from the light into the depths of the pool, but the water didn't stir. She shook her head sharply.

"Shades of the Damned," she muttered. "No matter how often I do this the heebie jeebies never seem to go away."

"What's that?" Corwen asked. Despite the fact that this was his first trip to the field, and his first entry into a genuine Egyptian tomb, her grad student seemed unperturbed. Even "The Curse," boldly chiseled into the lintel above the entrance to this chamber, had failed to faze him. Not that Lorie gave any credence to ancient Egyptian magics – that would be absurd – but that didn't prevent her from getting the shivers every time she trespassed into one of their sacred demesnes.

"Nothing," she said as she stepped up to him. He was examining a narrow pillar running from the floor to the ceiling of the chamber. "What have you got?"

"I'm not sure. Does the placement of this pillar look odd to you?"

Lorie ran her practiced eye over the area Corwen was indicating. Now that he mentioned it, the placement did look odd. It took her a moment, but she figured it out.

"It's not load bearing," she said. "It's got another purpose."

"That's what I thought!" Corwen was nodding his head, excitement bubbling through his words. "And look at this. You stand right there."

He positioned Lorie in front of the pillar and then moved off to the side, directing his flashlight beam so it would strike the pillar's front face at an angle. As the light struck the pillar, various raised portions of the stone cast shadows. To Lorie's amazement, the shadows coalesced into a recognizable pattern. Hieroglyphs! She tried to read them, but they kept flickering in and out of existence.

"Your hand isn't steady enough for me to read this. Bring the work light over." As Corwen went to fetch it, she added, "And make sure you keep the cord clear of the pool. There's something in the water."

Corwen raised an eyebrow. The edge of his mouth twitched up in what Lorie recognized as a slight, intentional expression of mockery.

"It's got some kind of oily substance on the surface, you dweeb. I don't know what it is and I don't want to have to clean it off later."

Corwen's expression blossomed into a full grin as he turned away from her.

"Students," Lorie muttered. "Why I let them get away with such blatant disrespect...." She trailed off as Corwen brought the work light over. It wasn't disrespect, she knew. She had always cultivated very casual relationships with her grad students. She even insisted they call her by her first name. She found that they were more open and honest about their opinions when they felt more relaxed. If that meant she had to put up with teasing every once in a while she at least contented herself that she gave as often as she got.

Corwen set the tripod down and adjusted the twin halogen lights. The hieroglyphs sprang into sudden clarity.

"There! Lock them in right there," Lorie said. He twisted the locking screws, and then joined her in front of the column.

It was strange seeing the familiar Egyptian picture words formed by shadows. She had read papers about secret carvings discovered by archaeologists in the twenties and thirties, but grave robbers had destroyed any actual examples of such things, as had misguided scholars more interested in what they might find behind the written facades than the writing itself. What she saw here was clever in the extreme. Torchlight would never been consistent enough to allow the message to be read; Corwen's inability to hold even the constant beam of a flashlight steady enough was proof of that. How had it been made? Using sunlight was the obvious answer, meaning the stone had been carved elsewhere, then installed here. But for what purpose? Lacking a source of constant light, who would be able to read it?

"This doesn't make any sense," Corwen said.

Lorie turned her attention to the writing itself. She saw immediately what he meant, but decided to use this as a teaching moment. "Why not?"

"It's just a constant string of unilateral characters. There are no bilateral or trilateral glyphs, no logograms, and no semagrams. Except for the cartouche here, this is all gibberish."

Corwen was right. Egyptian hieroglyphic writing was a complex affair. Characters could mean different things depending on how they were placed, which glyphs went before and after them, whether they were taken as literal representations of what they depicted or used phonetically. Lorie had always thought it interesting that although the Egyptians had unilateral characters - glyphs that represented the sound of a single consonant - they never used those symbols to simply spell out words as with the modern alphabet. Wait….

"This is alphabetic writing." She had said it out loud and she still wasn't sure she believed it. Corwen's tone echoed her own doubt.

"That can't be right. The Egyptian scribes never wrote that way."

"But look." Lorie pointed to the first line of the script. "N-f-r, that's 'nefer:' 'beautiful.' And these would be 'flower,' and this would be 'Nile.' And then you have the cartouche representing the name 'Naksutifi.' Read out phonetically this reads 'Naksutifi, my beautiful flower of the Nile."

She knew as she spoke that she was right. The entirety of the shadow writing was written the same way. Almost like a code. What kind of message was this, so completely hidden that the ancients would never have found it, and then encoded in case it was?

"It's a love letter!"

Corwen's voice pulled her back from her musings. She had been so caught up in wondering why the message had been created that she hadn't even looked to see what it might say.

"Corwen, a love letter in the tomb of Amenhoten, the Egyptian warlord? Such a romantic you are."

He blushed. Lorie was glad to have gotten him back for the jibe about the pool, and then she saw that he was right. The message WAS a love letter.

"Grab my notebook. Let's see what this says."

* * *

It took more than two hours of careful work. Corwen had been in the thick of it with her. He hadn't understood all the words, but his pronunciation of the unilateral symbols and the subsequent Egyptian words grew noticeably better the further they went. The lack of punctuation, compounded by the lack of vowels and the odd syntax of ancient Egyptian, made the work difficult, but she thought she had the translation.

"Okay, here goes," Lorie said. "Naksutifi, my beautiful flower of the Nile. If you read this, it is because Set has heard my prayers and answered my petition. I fear I have doomed myself to eternal servitude to the Dark One, but I could not let your murder go unanswered. We were betrayed by Osiris himself. Though we were on his errand, his priests struck you down, extinguishing the brilliance of your essence before it was your time."

"'Brilliance of your essence?'" Corwen interjected. "Come on."

Lorie shot her student a look. "It's a love letter, Corwen. I'm allowed to take a few liberties with the language in order to give it the proper nuance. Do you want to hear this or do I stop now?"

He held up his hands in mock surrender. "Sorry, professor. Please continue."

She snorted at his sarcastic use of her title and went back to reading. "I suspect he wanted you for his own. This could not go unpunished. I made Osiris pay. I heaped anguish and sorrow on all those who called out his name. I reaped a harvest of death and destruction - all for you. It should have been enough, but I could not bear the thought of him finding pleasure in your presence. With the help of Mighty Set, I have cheated him of your very soul. Be strong, my flower. You are the dawn set free from Darkness. Live. Let these words proclaim it."

There was a momentary pause. "That's it?" Corwen asked.

"That's it. Save for that last bit down there at the bottom. I can't combine those letters into any recognizable words."

Corwen moved to the pillar and squatted to see the symbols at the bottom. "Maybe they're in a different language? We could try reading them out loud and see if it sounds like something else. Let's see. 'Apopsi manatiri kala….'"

Lorie listened carefully as Corwen spoke the syllables aloud. It was nonsense. There was nothing to it. If it was another language it was nothing she had ever heard before. She opened her mouth to tell him to stop when a cold seized her so profoundly she couldn't speak.

* * *

Corwen finished the last syllable. "What do you think, professor?" The words had scarcely escaped his lips when the two 1000-watt halogen bulbs of the work light suddenly dimmed to the level of candles. He turned, thinking the power cord had somehow entered the pool. What he saw was far worse.

The water of the pool frothed and boiled. An unearthly green glow emanated from the depths, growing brighter by the second. Lorie stood transfixed by the water's edge, unmoving.

"Lorie! Lorie, back away!"

Corwen took a step, and then froze as terror such as he had never felt petrified his limbs. A dark shape swam through the water in tightening spirals, drawing ever closer to the surface. With a sudden burst of green, the shape lanced from the pool and drove right into Lorie. Her eyes widened in pain, and she collapsed to the ground.

In an instant, everything was as it had been. The work lights glared harshly over the pillar. The water of the pool was still. Corwen could once again move. He rushed to Lorie's side. She was cold, but her pulse was strong and she was breathing. He sat, pulled her head into his lap, and pushed her hair back from her face.

She stirred and her eyes opened. They were a brilliant green. The look she gave Corwen lacked any sign of recognition.

"Lorie? Are you okay?"

Her eyebrows came together, and then widened as she held up a hand in wonder. "I am Naksutifi. I live!"