Charon – 24

Part V: The Necropolis

Chapter Twenty-Four

Martin walked through the gates and entered a place of dry stone and drawn faces. An organ hymn played out on the very stone of the buildings. A serpent of shuffling humanity that filled the streets with their cold eyes. Martin stared out from the gateway at the vast procession that crowded past, hundreds of mourners with their eyes fixed on their own black-polished shoes, mournful wailers that trudged past, lifting their voices in unison of rehearsed tragedy. Each dressed alike, each dry of emotion, each walking in step behind the shiny, silk-draped box that contained the latest dead.

Martin watched, shocked into silence at this mile long procession as it filtered slowly past, circling the city on its way to inter the flesh of the departed. And a be-cloaked and high-hatted old man came at the head of a cadre of younger fellows and chanted at the gate, ignoring Martin.

The words were meaningless, drawn out to signify their history, their constant use, century after century. The old man’s words were intoned not spoken. And when finished, they waved their hands and shook out powders and lotions upon the long-stained stone and moved on to their next duty. Martin saw even as he entered the character of the place. And he stared aghast at the multitudes that swarmed among its grey stone monuments. Vast buildings built to house those ancestors that had passed before, huge statures twice life sized, pyramids and columns and pointed needles thrusting out from the earth.

And Martin slipped past the tail of the funeral procession and strode further into the city and walked the streets of the city of the dead, the final and largest of all the places he had stopped.

A city, large and ornate. Thick with the product of human endeavour. Yet quiet, quiet as the graves that lined its streets, quiet as the tombs that thronged its squares. Quiet as the monuments that pierced the canopy of roofs and columns and walls to raise their pinnacles above the city and proclaim the names of the dead that walked endlessly around their curved sides.

There was a procession of dead men and women, frozen in their own endeavours, frozen in the acts that the carver had imagined them in. Raising spears against each other, against beasts, against the world. Riding horses hard against the stone, prancing in the act of movement, though but an act, for they never would move again. Hollows for eyes and ridges for hands and stone for flesh and clothes and lives. And all was quiet now for the dead lived here. Though frozen their movements were more energetic than the living. Though dead their names were more prominent than those who tended their rest.

Great statues of men long past, horses whose names were unknown and unheeded yet on their backs sat men whose names would live forever. Or for as long as the stone would bear them. And for some this forever had passed too soon. Some stones were silent, with nothing left to say. Some statues were still now for their names and deeds were forgotten. No one kept their tombs, no one knew their names. Their faces were worn away to blank shapes upon shapes. The language their heroics had been graven in long forgotten by mortal man. They had become more faceless than the bones that lay beneath the stone, more dead than the dead.

And Martin walked among them, gazing at the immensity of the construction. Many millennia of labour stood before him. Great tombs raised high above the heavy soil. Reliquaries, labyrinthine quarries of remains. Shaped and beaten minerals to represent the animals long gone. Some were smaller, mere coffins of stone in a fence of gravel. Some though were the product of many generations of descendants, now ancestors alike with those they had buried and ornamented.

There were vast buildings, with many rooms, and halls and chambers, each with their own testaments to make, in the quiet roar of words and pictures, of statue and engraving. Thick upon each other, the stories of the dead ran on, unceasing, proclaiming now to everyone, and no one, for no one had time to read them, the lives that were no more.

Martin walked among the graves, reading, perhaps for the first time in years, the words gouged upon the cold stone. He read the pictures, more vocal than the words for many of the words were written in languages that had died for lack of people to speak them.

Here, a monument to a great king. Martin could not read the name for the letters were none he knew. Perhaps none knew how to read them, or if they could they could only guess at the pronunciation.  What was this majestic man called when he walked among these tombs himself. What did his friends call him, what did his mother whisper in the night as she cradled him and rocked him to sleep. None now would ever know.

But what they did know was what the stone proclaimed in its steady, silent roar. They knew he rode a horse, larger than any other. They knew he hunted great lions with bands of loyal followers. They knew he killed those beasts and dragged them home to feed his men. They knew he led an army, vast and dressed in strange and brutal clothes. Hung thick with armour and waving banners that proved their honour they rode against men who had less banners, and less armour. And they would know that this man won, and other men lost, and they bowed before him and some lost their heads, and some did not, though they lost everything else. And a line of men waited to give him gifts. And another line of men waited to give him their lives.

The stone told all this and more. It told the names of the men who gave him gifts, though these names were lost. It told of rich and priestly things, of tributes given to the gods and blessings received in turn. It told of the king’s honour, and piety and strength. And his generosity to his people, and his cruelty to his enemies. And in all these ways it said, he was the best man who ever lived.

And the next monument proclaimed the same.

But none now knew their names.

But, Martin thought, there was one man perhaps. Martin saw him, a little man, quiet and industrious. He wore a drab coat, tied tight about him. And he moved among the columns of the monument. Collecting leaves in a small bag. Brushing the dust into smaller piles with a broom. Laying fresh flowers in pots and little gifts of raisin cake and grain, of wine and small beer in little alcoves that were there for that purpose.

He was quiet as he did so but his hands were always moving. Either working on the stone to keep it clean and make sure what it had to say was not drowned out by the roar of the years it had to speak through. Or when not working his hands danced, flicking between shoulders, making signs, making symbols against himself. Habit perhaps but no less meaningful to him for that. There were many signs to be made, in many different ways and at many different points and times of the day. And these actions of his hands were just as important to him as the other habits that led his hands to move, as the movements of the broom, or the careful placing of the gifts, or the scrubbing of the bare stone and the more careful washing of that stone that had more to say.

   Martin moved across to this little man who moved so busily and so silently.

  “What was his name?” he asked.

 The little man raised his head at length and allowed his quiet little eyes to rest on Martin for a time as his hands busied themselves at more important tasks.

 “His name?” The man said. “His name is written on the stone.” And he pointed the name out to Martin with a steady hand.

 “I cannot read it.” Martin replied. “I do not recognise the signs.”

 “That does not matter.” The little man said. “There are many signs, and no one now could tell you the meaning of them all. But they mean something, and that is what matters. That is his name,” he said, his finger resting upon the scratched symbols that once meant something to the man who carved them. “That is his name. He needs no other that I can give him.” And he turned his tired eyes from Martin’s face and went back to his ministrations of the dead.

 Martin stared at the marks carved deep into the stone. That was the man’s name. He read it. Horizontal line, vertical line with a dot beside, two vertical lines joined at the bottom with a dot between them, horizontal line. He did not know what it meant. But that was the king’s name and he needed no other. There was no one now to give him any other. Not one that would mean anything.

Martin read the name and, in a small way, was comforted. It wasn’t much, but perhaps, perhaps it was enough. He walked on.

He walked on, and as he walked he saw others, moving among the tombs, pacing the marble and mosaic, cleaning the pictures and the carvings. Mostly the tombs were still but many still had those to tend them. Descendents of the dead tied to the graves of their fathers, preparing the house that they too would spent their rest within. Huge buildings with a hundred generations resting in their narrow beds lined the streets, avenues of the dead, streets given over to bones and desiccated flesh.

And those who would join them soon chose to join them now as well. The living alongside the dead, the same though the breath still moved between their lips. Yet sharing space, sharing food, sharing their lives, as though they could give a little back and make the dead live again. But there were too many, and they were too hungry, bottomless pits that could not be filled even if the caretakers gave all they had. And so they rested, and their descendants gave what they could.

Was this the same as Ankhor, as that town of the ever-living? No, they were under no delusions here about the state of things. They knew of death in this place. In Ankhor they had tried to keep the dead among the living. Here it was the other way around. The living lived among the dead, they tended and cared for the stones for that was all that remained, that was all that still had something to say. And Martin did not understand, though he had come here, and entered in. He wondered at these people, who did not seem to be afraid of death, as though by their ministrations they could bind it in the stone, could contain it and build houses for it. As though by their labour the dead became more vital than the living. As though the living took something vital from the dead.

A building, ahead, smaller than others, built not of stone but wood and plaster. A smaller street leading to it, an alleyway for the living –  they did not need broad avenues like their ancestors. And Martin walked up to it. This small home among the great houses. He reached the door and knocked.

> Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Three <

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