by William Heath

O excellent, I love long life
         better than figs. — Charmian


To get from here to the hereafter
you must cross a river, if the water
is low a three-headed snake
with human feet will carry
your long slim boat over slime
to the far shore. Even Egyptian
pharaohs and their queens
lived in homes of brick from
the mud of the Nile, seasonal
flooding created a fertile plain
that sustained all the people.
When they died, however,
mummified royalty—
coffins of gold, granite tombs—
were buried in desert hills
to the West, where the sun dies
before rising in the East,
a place high, dry, remote.


Life is brief, my friend, afterlife
without end. No better way
to pass the time than doing
forever things loved best
on this earth. Here the power
of art comes in. Whatever
Egyptian painters depicted on
doorways, walls, ceilings
would have eternal life.
Thus they repeated images
of favorite foods, drinks,
animals, birds, trees,
daily activities—
all they could not leave
behind. Religion derives
from fear of dying.
The more life is loved
the greater the belief
death is not the end.


In the Valley of the Queens
we descend into Nefertari’s
House of Eternity, eighteen steps
down each narrow corridor
to asymmetrical chambers
flanked by annexes off kilter
to fit the labyrinthine design
of turns and counterturns
that evokes the torturous path
the dead take to become
effective, blessed souls.
Proof resurrection is real
is how colors on the walls
are vibrantly alive—not “restored,”
but painstakingly cleansed
from millennial damage,
limestone salt leaching
into the paint. Mine eyes dazzle
at the brilliant mix: soothing blues,
luxuriant blacks, stunning reds,
vivid whites, the roof spangled
with yellow five-pointed stars.                                                                             


Repeated hieroglyphics celebrate
Nefertari: beloved of Mut,
king’s great wife, mistress
of two lands, embodiment
of beauty, true of voice,
great of favors, possessor
of charm, sweetness, love,
for whom the sun shines,
who satisfies the gods,
is justified before Osiris,
whose transformative power
the queen seeks. Dismembered
by his brother Seth, miraculously
reassembled and restored to life,
Osiris, god of the netherworld,
appears as a mummy, swathed
in white linen, hands crossed
over his chest, flail in left,
crook in the right, his face
as green as the vegetation
returning to life each spring.


Nefertari seated at a gaming table,
eternal life at stake, then as a bird
free to fly away if she wishes.
Next as a supplicant, kneeling
in a sumptuous white gown,
a red sash at her waist, hands
raised in homage before Osiris.
His wife Isis stands nearby,
her beaded red dress clinging
to her svelte form. She holds
a scepter in her left hand,
reaches out her right, bracelets
glittering at her wrist, gently
drawing Nefertari forward
to receive Osiris’s blessing.
Though fearsome gatekeepers
bar the way—humans with heads
of lion, ram, bull, crocodile—
she speaks the proper names
at the right time, Osiris is pleased,
a goddess spreads her wings,
a priest dressed in a leopard skin
presides as Isis extends to her
the breath of life. Tranquility rules
in this last sepulchral chamber.
Even the jackal smiles. 


Image via Wikipedia Commons; pictured is goddess Isis giving ankh (the hieroglyph of breath, life, spirit) to Queen Nefertari.