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Saturday, October 24, 2009

Prelude to a Tragedy

He caught my eye.

He did not so much as move, but he caught my eye. It would have been bad form for him to move – they are trained to immobility during the sacred rites. He looked like a statue, a column holding up a temple, a noble palm tree – a bit stiff, but well-proportioned. My eye, involuntarily, a reflex, wandered up and up him, seeking the roof or the sky.

The face – not pretty – stern, rather. Piers of bone, eyes strictly forward, not looking at anything, anyone, certainly not at me. It would have been insolent for him to look at me. Something told me he would never be insolent – not with intent. So stiff, so rigid – like a kouros statue – what was the attraction? We like them stiff in Egypt, of course. But sensuality is not the usual response to a statue, unless a pornographic one.

At first, I was aware of no such sympathy. I was aware of him merely from the corner of an eye, through a haze of kohl. It would be a preposterous breach of etiquette for me to look at him – I, in whose veins the blood of Isis flows. A man is a man; I am Egypt – as my nurses, the priests, my father, have always told me. A breach of etiquette, for me from my ceremonial place to notice any man, a breach worthy of rebuke by even the most indulgent parent.

A mere man may give one aesthetic pleasure – like a statue, a column upholding a temple, or a tree lifting its fruit out of my yearning reach – but a priestess does not feel for him the way a mere woman might feel, the way I have been told it is beneath me even to understand. And he did move me, aesthetically – but other men are taller, or more graceful, or more beautiful, or even stronger, perhaps braver. Why did my eye linger on this one?

Ginger, my first look. And the second, the third? A whispering look, a tapping glance, like a sprinkle of salt on bread, so that one might not detect, or analyze, the quality that adds to one’s savor – until that taste is not there, and all else is bland to boredom.

So the second time, the third, the fourth – until I began to seek him with my eye whenever the honor guard of my father’s young captains appeared to take part in this ritual or that, to notice how this muscle flexes and that extends, observe the light flash in his eye or the shadow dimple his clean-shaven cheek, and assure myself that my regard extends no deeper than my eye’s calm appreciation, of his symmetry, of his dignity, of his skill. All the while I compare him to others, and find him superior in this way, inferior in that, until there comes a moment when I realize I have not looked at any other figure for quite some time – not even at my august parent on his throne – and that I have rearranged my life, without thinking about it, so that I attend more often than I did those ceremonies he is likely to attend, and then more often still until my presence perhaps seems incongruous, calling for explanation, an explanation I cannot give, to the grave and ancient formality of those whose business it is to guide us below to match, stately pomp for stately pomp, the celestial procession marching above. It is as if the Moon were rising out of her courses, eclipsed at an unlikely season, or as if the Sun shone by night.

Almost I do not care, how the thing may appear, though inside myself a truer self (or is it?) opens kohl-lined eyes, amazed at my folly, but reassures me I am not so rapt that I cannot cease my mad behavior at any time, only that I do not see the need to do it yet.

But what do I care for their glances, their raised eyebrows, the priests, the courtiers, my old nurse? I hardly see them, in my impatient tension that can only be relieved when he enters, or aggravated when I stand like a statue, a column, a tree, immobile as a carved goddess, through an entire rite not daring to move my eyes yet a tumult behind them – and he does not come at all.

How did I reach such a point, where nothing else matters any longer but the sight of His Insignificance whose name I am not even supposed to know, though of course I have found it out?

His coming can never be taken casually because, as often as I have seen him, puzzling and calculating and appreciating and enjoying every angle of every feature, the play of light and shade, the ceremonial dance of his unselfconsciously athletic movement, when he is not there, though I spend hours of my sleepless nights attempting to call it up to myself, and though a thousand coincidences of shape, of texture, of color in other circumstances call him up to me involuntarily, still his every appearance, his hallowed looks are always a surprise, such that at first I am not sure it is he, it might be someone else, and not even an attractive someone else, for he never stood in precisely that posture, or did he?

Then I realize it is indeed he, and at first I flatter myself that his unfamiliarity means I am over this strange addiction, and I watch this new aspect of him idly, in amusement, only to feel in my inmost heart the familiar quickening of pulse and interest, and know that I have not conquered this perverse and alien feeling. Quite the contrary. Quite the contrary.

I stare, and I do not care who sees it, knows it, so long as one person sees it, knows it, acknowledges what he sees, what seems more obvious to me than the ray of light permitted entrance to the cavernous gloom so that it may magically fall precisely on my father’s exalted self immobile on the throne, or the stifling smell of incense, or the glum and eternal rhythms of the chanting priests, and yet it seems invisible to him, and to everyone – my secret.

Of course his eyes do not flicker in recognition or secret message, for I am the Princess of Egypt and it would be insupportable insolence and indiscipline in him to do so. I admire this, his discipline; one could built empires upon it. One has. Yet, oh, how madly I could wish he were not so disciplined! Though empires fell!

Some others among the captains not so well bred (I surmise – I expect – no, I know there are) who look at me as if I were a woman, and he, he does not, or does he do so only when he knows I do not look at him, at some intricate portion of the ceremony charged to my care, and he is so clever that I have not caught him at it?

But I am cleverer still.

He is moved when I am present.

I see this, I cannot doubt it. Yet I do doubt, do crave the power to see his heart and know its thoughts and reasons, but there’s no help for the wishing it, as they say.

I see that he is moved that I am so often present. His eyes, once so stiff, start and turn, shadowed perhaps, when I arrive with my suite of the noblest and loveliest of the slaves captured in my father’s wars, who surround me in many-hued diaphany, when I enter the place of ceremony.

If it is a ritual where I am not expected and have no fixed part, he stares straight ahead, as he did at first, and I, peering from a hidden place, can feast upon his unconscious posing. But if it is a ritual where I am a principal, where I am to enter in my noblest garb and my hieratic jewels, surrounded by the fairest and most dignified of my ladies, then I find, and blush for seeking it, exulting in it, that he wears the signs of one who has been waiting, anticipating – as I in my time have done for him and his regiment of captains. His eyes seek me out, still cast slightly down or away, for it would be insolent, punishable, for him to stare at the Princess of Egypt. His eyes seek and though they never look at me directly, they find – for I see them aflame, and his bearing straightens, and his color reddens as though the blood in his veins flowed quicker than it lately did, swiftly as the Nile in flood.

I feel the link, from his heart to mine, this though my blood is that of the gods and his merely human. I care not a fig for that. I feel how we know, how we understand each other, and it is not in our heads, this understanding, but in our hearts, our blood. My knees turn to water, but I am the Princess of Egypt, bearer of the ichor of Isis, and I remain as erect, as proud, as if I were a statue, a column, or a warrior trained to march through deserts. Beneath features that never move – for there is no call, in ceremony, for expression upon the kohl-masked face of the Princess of Egypt, and I am well-trained and obedient; I do not move – beneath my painted face, the woman exults, that the proud palm bears its fruit for her, that it will be sweet to her taste and no one else’s!

I exult and yet fear when I learn from my spies, who have overheard the priests and my father’s councilors, that he – he – has been noticed for valor, and skill in command. Perhaps he will have high rank in the new war. Perhaps he will depart, knowing nothing of my heart, which belongs to him now, as truly as my soul belongs to Isis.

So I summon my ladies. I have many ladies, princesses brought in tribute to the greatness of Egypt, or captive ladies whose exotic beauty has earned them a place in the array that follows me, the heiress of Egypt: pale skins, dark skins, skins stung by the sun or the tang of the salt wave; hair of even more exotic hues and textures; eyes that are not always even black. They have been carefully chosen. They are like a ceremonial garment, as they follow me, shimmering, their presence so far from a homeland where such looks are common itself a tribute, an adornment, to the imperial splendor of Egypt. I put them on or off like a garment, an ornament. When I say to them, “Come, let us attend this ritual where the new general is to be named, and the gods of victory are to be invoked for him,” if they raise their eyebrows, it is perhaps because they have realized I have a motive other than patriotism or the ritual place of my duties as a priestess in attending such things. But I no longer care, I have never cared, it is beneath me to care, what they think with minds that have never been trained to the sublime.

When I enter the room, he will see my ornamental robe of attendant ladies, and he will marvel at the woman amidst this splendor, the woman who – he must have realized by now – loves him as a woman, as well as a princess, a priestess, the daughter of Isis, Egypt loves him.

The trumpeters relax; they will lift their full lips to the silver and brass when the signal arrives that my father has come. They relax, their hands at their sides.

He has not been seen.

Beyond the portal of the great room where my father will come to speak the word of command, to name the general, to present the campaign, to be hailed as a living god, I arrive and I see him, speaking in the vestibule to one of the priests. The priest goes but he lingers, longing to hear if his or another’s is Egypt’s glory. I know; I already know; I have learned the unknown; I have my spies. He ponders and meditates, he does not yet know – unless he has come to expect it – as surely he must have done – that I am here, too – that I have observed, am observing him. One of my ladies, a copper-dark captive, intrudes in my way, looking towards that portal, not seeing her mistress – an interference, a slight. I could have her whipped for that, but I am too full of the joy that is coming; I brush her aside like a fly with my fan, to let my eyes gaze and drink their fill of him. I am taut as a cord on the hooks of a loom.

I must speak to him. It breaks the protocol, but I must speak to him. It is time. Bare seconds before the trumpets sound. Motioning my ladies to remain where they are, I step unprecedentedly forward. The thing begins.

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