The queen of the damned, p.29

The Queen Of The Damned, page 29

 part  #3 of  The Vampire Chronicles Series


The Queen Of The Damned

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Chapter 26




  ALL EYES WERE FIXED ON MAHARET AS SHE paused. Then she began again, her words seemingly spontaneous, though they came slowly and were carefully pronounced. She seemed not sad, but eager to reexamine what she meant to describe.

  "Now, when I say that my sister and I were witches, I mean this: we inherited from our mother-as she had from her mother-the power to communicate with the spirits, to get them to do our bidding in small and significant ways. We could feel the presence of the spirits-which are in the main invisible to human eyes-and the spirits were drawn to us.

  "And those with such powers as we had were greatly revered amongst our people, and sought after for advice and miracles and glimpses into the future, and occasionally for putting the spirits of the dead to rest. "What I am saying is that we were perceived as good; and we had our place in the scheme of things.

  "There have always been witches, as far as I know. And there are witches now, though most no longer understand what their powers are or how to use them. Then there are those known as clairvoyants or mediums, or channelers. Or even psychic detectives. It is all the same thing. These are people who for reasons we may never understand attract spirits. Spirits find them downright irresistible; and to get the notice of these people, the spirits will do all kinds of tricks.

  "As for the spirits themselves, I know that you're curious about their nature and properties, that you did not-all of you-believe the story in Lestat's book about how the Mother and the Father were made. I'm not sure that Marius himself believed it, when he was told the old story, or when he passed it on to Lestat. "

  Marius nodded. Already he had numerous questions. But Maharet gestured for patience. "Bear with me," she said. "I will tell you all we knew of the spirits then, which is the same as what I know of them now. Understand of course that others may use a different name for these entities. Others may define them more in the poetry of science than I will do.

  "The spirits spoke to us only telepathically; as I have said, they were invisible; but their presence could be felt; they had distinct personalities, and our family of witches had over many generations given them various names.

  "We divided them as sorcerers have always done into the good and the evil; but there is no evidence that they themselves have a sense of right and wrong. The evil spirits were those who were openly hostile to human beings and who liked to play malicious tricks such as the throwing of stones, the making of wind, and other such pesty things. Those who possess humans are often 'evil' spirits; those who haunt houses and are called poltergeists fall into this category, too.

  "The good spirits could love, and wanted by and large to be loved as well. Seldom did they think up mischief on their own. They would answer questions about the future; they would tell us what was happening in other, remote places; and for very powerful witches such as my sister and me, for those whom the good spirits really loved, they would do their greatest and most taxing trick: they would make the rain.

  "But you can see from what I'm saying that labels such as good and evil were self-serving. The good spirits were useful; the bad spirits were dangerous and nerve-wracking. To pay attention to the bad spirits-to invite them to hang about-was to court disaster, because ultimately they could not be controlled.

  "There was also abundant evidence that what we called bad spirits envied us that we were fleshly and also spiritual-that we had the pleasures and powers of the physical while possessing spiritual minds. Very likely, this mixture of flesh and spirit in human beings makes all spirits curious; it is the source of our attraction for them; but it rankles the bad spirits; the bad spirits would know sensuous pleasure, it seems; yet they cannot. The good spirits did not evince such dissatisfaction.

  "Now, as to where these spirits came from-they used to tell us that they had always been here. They would brag that they had watched human beings change from animals into what they were. We didn't know what they meant by such remarks. We thought they were being playful or just lying. But now, the study of human evolution makes it obvious that the spirits had witnessed this development. As for questions about their nature-how they were made or by whom-well, these they never answered. I don't think they understood what we were asking. They seemed insulted by the questions or even slightly afraid, or even thought the questions were humorous.

  "I suspect that someday the scientific nature of spirits will be known. I suspect that they are matter and energy in sophisticated balance as is everything else in our universe, and that they are no more magical than electricity or radio waves, or quarks or atoms, or voices over the telephone-the things that seemed supernatural only two hundred years ago. In fact the poetry of modern science has helped me to understand them in retrospect better than any other philosophical tool. Yet I cling to my old language rather instinctively.

  "It was Mekare's contention that she could now and then see them, and that they had tiny cores of physical matter and great bodies of whirling energy which she compared to storms of lightning and wind. She said there were creatures in the sea which were equally exotic in their organization; and insects who resembled the spirits, too. It was always at night that she saw their physical bodies, and they were never visible for more than a second, and usually only when the spirits were in a rage.

  "Their size was enormous, she said, but then they said this too. They told us we could not imagine how big they were; but then they love to brag; one must constantly sort from their statements the part which makes sense.

  "That they exert great force upon the physical world is beyond doubt. Otherwise how could they move objects as they do in poltergeist hauntings? And how could they have brought together the clouds to make the rain? Yet very little is really accomplished by them for all the energy they expend. And that was a key, always, to controlling them. There is only so much they can do, and no more, and a good witch was someone who understood that perfectly.

  "Whatever their material makeup is, they have no apparent biological needs, these entities. They do not age; they do not change. And the key to understanding their childish and whimsical behavior lies in this. They have no need to do anything; they drift about unaware of time, for there is no physical reason to care about it, and they do whatever strikes the fancy. Obviously they see our world; they are part of it; but how it looks to them I can't guess.

  "Why witches attract them or interest them I don't know either. But that's the crux of it; they see the witch, they go to her, make themselves known to her, and are powerfully flattered when they are noticed; and they do her bidding in order to get more attention; and in some cases, in order to be loved.

  "And as this relationship progresses, they are made for the love of the witch to concentrate on various tasks. It exhausts them but it also delights them to see human beings so impressed.

  "But imagine now, how much fun it is for them to listen to prayers and try to answer them, to hang about altars and make thunder after sacrifices are offered up. When a clairvoyant calls upon the spirit of a dead ancestor to speak to his descendants, they are quite thrilled to start chattering away in pretense of being the dead ancestor, though of course they are not that person; and they will telepathically extract information from the brains of the descendants in order to delude them all the more.

  "Surely all of you know the pattern of their behavior. It's no different now than it was in our time. But what is different is the attitude of human beings to what spirits do; and that difference is crucial.

  "When a spirit in these times haunts a house and makes predictions through the vocal cords of a five-year-old child, no one much believes it except those who see and hear it. It does not become the foundation of a great religion.

  "It is as if the human species has grown immune to such things; it has evolved perhaps to a higher stage where the antics of spirits no longer befuddle it. And though religions linger-old religions which became entrenched in darker times-the
y are losing their influence among the educated very rapidly.

  "But I'll say more on this later on. Let me continue now to define the properties of a witch, as such things relate to me and my sister, and to what happened to us.

  "It was an inherited thing in our family. It may be physical for it seemed to run in our family line through the women and to be coupled invariably with the physical attributes of green eyes and red hair. As all of you know-as you've come to learn in one way or another since you entered this house-my child, Jesse, was a witch. And in the Talamasca she used her powers often to comfort those who were plagued by spirits and ghosts.

  "Ghosts, of course, are spirits too. But they are without question spirits of those who have been human on earth; whereas the spirits I have been speaking of are not. However, one can never be too sure on this point. A very old earthbound ghost could forget that he had ever been alive; and possibly the very malevolent spirits are ghosts; and that is why they hunger so for the pleasures of the flesh; and when they possess some poor human being they belch obscenities. For them, the flesh is filth and they would have men and women believe that erotic pleasures and malice are equally dangerous and evil.

  "But the fact is, given the way spirits lie-if they don't want to tell you-there's no way to know why they do what they do. Perhaps their obsession with the erotic is merely something abstracted from the minds of men and women who have always felt guilty about such things.

  'To return to the point, it was mostly the women in our family who were witches. In other families it passes through both men and women. Or it can appear full-blown in a human being for reasons we can't grasp.

  "Be that as it may, ours was an old, old family of witches. We could count witches back fifty generations, to what was called The Time Before the Moon. That is, we claimed to have lived in the very early period of earth history before the moon had come into the night sky.

  "The legends of our people told of the coming of the moon, and the floods, storms, and earthquakes that attended it. Whether such a thing really happened I don't know. We also believed that our sacred stars were the Pleiades, or the Seven Sisters, that all blessings came from that constellation, but why, I never knew or cannot remember.

  "I talk of old myths now, beliefs that were old before I was born. And those who commune with spirits become for obvious reasons rather skeptical of things.

  "Yet science even now cannot deny or verify the tales of The Time Before the Moon. The coming of the moon-its subsequent gravitational pull-has been used theoretically to explain the shifting of the polar caps and the late ice ages. Maybe there was truth in the old stories, truths that will someday be clarified for us all.

  "Whatever the case, ours was an old line. Our mother had been a powerful witch to whom the spirits told numerous secrets, reading men's minds as they do. And she had a great effect upon the restless spirits of the dead.

  "In Mekare and me, it seemed her power had been doubled, as is often true with twins. That is, each of us was twice as powerful as our mother. As for the power we had together, it was incalculable. We talked to the spirits when we were in the cradle. We were surrounded by them when we played. As twins, we developed our own secret language, which not even our mother understood. But the spirits knew it. The spirits would understand anything we said to them; they could even speak our secret language back to us.

  "Understand, I don't tell you all this out of pride. That would be absurd. I tell you so that you will grasp what we were to each other and to our own people before the soldiers of Akasha and Enkil came into our land. I want you to understand why this evil-this making of the blood drinkers-eventually happened!

  "We were a great family. We had lived in the caves of Mount Carmel for as long as anybody knew. And our people had always built their encampments on the valley floor at the foot of the mountain. They lived by herding goats and sheep. And now and then they hunted; and they grew a few crops, for the making of the hallucinogenic drugs we took to make trances-this was part of our religion-and also for the making of beer. They cut down the wild wheat which grew then in profusion.

  "Small round mud-brick houses with thatched roofs made up our village, but there were others which had grown into small cities, and some in which all the houses were entered from the roofs.

  "Our people made a highly distinctive pottery which they took to the markets of Jericho for trade. From there they brought back lapis lazuli, ivory, incense, and mirrors of obsidian and other such fine things. Of course we knew of many other cities, vast and beautiful as Jericho, cities which are now buried completely under the earth and which may never be found.

  "But by and large we were simple people. We knew what writing was-that is, the concept of it. But it did not occur to us to use such a thing, as words had a great power and we would not have dared to write our names, or curses or truths that we knew. If a person had your name, he could call on the spirits to curse you; he could go out of his body in a trance and travel to where you were. Who could know what power you would put into his hands if he could write your name on stone or papyrus?

  Even for those who weren't afraid, it was distasteful at the very least.

  "And in the large cities, writing was largely used for financial records which we of course could keep in our heads.

  "In fact, all knowledge among our people was committed to memory; the priests who sacrificed to the bull god of our people- in whom we did not believe, by the way-committed his traditions and beliefs to memory and taught them to the young priests by rote and by verse. Family histories were told from memory, of course.

  "We did however paint pictures; they covered the walls of the bull shrines in the village.

  "And my family, living in the caves on Mount Carmel as we had always, covered our secret grottoes with paintings which no one saw but us. Therein we kept a kind of record. But this was done with caution. I never painted or drew the image of myself, for example, until after catastrophe had struck and I and my sister were the things which we all are.

  "But to return to our people, we were peaceful; shepherds, sometime craftsmen, sometime traders, no more, no less. When the armies of Jericho went to war, sometimes our young men joined them; but that was what they wanted to do. They wanted to be young men of adventure, and to be soldiers and know glory of that sort. Others went to the cities, to see the great markets, the majesty of the courts, or the splendor of the temples. And some went to ports of the Mediterranean to see the great merchant ships. But for the most part life went on in our villages as it had for many centuries without change. And Jericho protected us, almost indifferently, because it was the magnet which drew an enemy's force unto itself.

  "Never, never, did we hunt men to eat their flesh! This was not our custom! And I cannot tell you what an abomination such cannibalism would have been to us, the eating of enemy flesh. Because we were cannibals, and the eating of the flesh had a special significance-we ate the flesh of our dead. "

  Maharet paused for a moment as if she wanted the significance of these words to be plain to all.

  Marius saw the image again of the two red-haired women kneeling before the funeral feast. He felt the warm midday stillness, and the solemnity of the moment. He tried to clear his mind and see only Maharet's face.

  "Understand," Maharet said. "We believed that the spirit left the body at death; but we also believed that the residue of all living things contains some tiny amount of power after life itself is gone. For example, a man's personal belongings retain some bit of his vitality; and the body and bones, surely. And of course when we consumed the flesh of our dead this residue, so to speak, would be consumed as well.

  "But the real reason we ate the dead was out of respect. It was in our view the proper way to treat the remains of those we loved. We took into ourselves the bodies of those who'd given us life, the bodies from which our bodies had come. And so a cycle was completed. And the sacred remains of those we loved were saved from the awful horror of
putrefaction within the earth, or from being devoured by wild beasts, or burnt as if they were fuel or refuse.

  "There is a great logic to it if you think on it. But the important thing to realize is that it was part and parcel of us as a people. The sacred duty of every child was to consume the remains of his parents; the sacred duty of the tribe was to consume the dead.

  "Not a single man, woman, or child died in our village whose body was not consumed by kith or kin. Not a single man, woman, or child of our village had not consumed the flesh of the dead. "

  Again, Maharet paused, her eyes sweeping the group slowly before she went on.

  "Now, it was not a time of great wars," she said. "Jericho had been at peace for as long as anyone could remember. And Nineveh had been at peace as well.

  "But far away, to the southwest in the Nile Valley, the savage people of that land made war as they had always done upon the jungle peoples south of them so that they might bring back captives for their spits and pots. For not only did they devour their own dead with all proper respect as we did, they ate the bodies of their enemies; they gloried in it. They believed the strength of the enemy went into their bodies when they consumed his flesh. Also they liked the taste of the flesh.

  "We scorned what they did, for the reasons I've explained. How could anyone want the flesh of an enemy? But perhaps the crucial difference between us and the warlike dwellers of the Nile Valley was not that they ate their enemies, but that they were warlike and we were peaceful. We did not have any enemies.

  "Now, about the time that my sister and I reached our sixteenth year, a great change occurred in the Nile Valley. Or so we were told.

  "The aging Queen of that realm died without a daughter to carry on the royal blood. And amongst many ancient peoples the royal blood went only through the female line. Since no male can ever be certain of the paternity of his wife's child, it was the Queen or the Princess who brought with her the divine right to the throne. This is why Egyptian pharaohs of a later age often married their sisters. It was to secure their royal right.

  "And so it would have been with this young King Enkil if he had had a sister, but he did not. He did not even have a royal cousin or aunt to marry. But he was young and strong and determined to rule his land. Finally, he settled upon a new bride, not from his own people, but from those of the city of Uruk in the Tigris and Euphrates Valley.

  "And this was Akasha, a beauty of the royal family, and a worshiper of the great goddess Inanna, and one who could bring into Enkil's kingdom the wisdom of her land. Or so the gossip went in the marketplaces of Jericho and Nineveh and with the caravans that came to trade for our wares.

  "Now the people of the Nile were farmers already, but they tended to neglect this to hunt to make war for human flesh. And this horrified the beautiful Akasha, who set about at once to turn them away from this barbaric habit as possibly anyone of higher civilization might do.

  "She probably also brought with her writing, as the people of Uruk had it-they were great keepers of records-but as writing was something largely scorned by us, I do not know this for sure. Perhaps the Egyptians had already begun to write on their own.

  "You cannot imagine the slowness with which such things affect a culture. Records of taxation might be kept for generations before anyone commits to a clay tablet the words of a poem. Peppers and herbs might be cultivated by a tribe for two hundred years before anyone thinks to grow wheat or corn. As you know, the Indians of South America had toys with wheels when the Europeans swept down upon them; and jewelry they had, made of metal. But they had no wheels in use in any other form whatsoever; and they did not use metal for their weapons. And so they were defeated by the Europeans almost at once.

  "Whatever the case, I don't know the full story of the knowledge Akasha brought with her from Uruk. I do know that our people heard great gossip about the ban upon all cannibalism in the Nile Valley, and how those who disobeyed were cruelly put to death. The tribes who had hunted for flesh for generations were infuriated that they could no longer enjoy this sport; but even greater was the fury of all the people that they could not eat their own dead. Not to hunt, that was one thing, but to commit one's ancestors to the earth was a horror to them as it would have been.

  "So in order that Akasha's edict would be obeyed, the King decreed that all the bodies of the dead must be treated with unguents and wrapped up. Not only could one not eat the sacred flesh of mother or father, but it must be secured in linen wrappings at great expense, and these intact bodies must be displayed for all to see, and then placed in tombs with proper offerings and incantation of the priest.

  "The sooner the wrapping was done the better; because no one could then get to the flesh.

  "And to further assist the people in this new observance, Akasha and Enkil convinced them that the spirits of the dead would fare better in the realm to which they had gone if their bodies were preserved in these wrappings on earth. In other words, the people were told, 'Your beloved ancestors are not neglected; rather they are well kept. '

  "We thought it was very amusing when we heard it-wrapping the dead and putting them away in furnished rooms above or below the desert sand. We thought it amusing that the spirits of the dead should be helped by the perfect maintenance of their bodies on earth. For as anyone knows who has ever communicated with the dead, it is better that they forget their bodies; it is only when they relinquish their earthly image that they can rise to the higher plane.

  "And now in Egypt in the tombs of the very rich and very religious, there lay these things-these mummies in which the flesh rotted away.

  "If anyone had told us that this custom of mummification would become entrenched in that culture, that for four thousand years the Egyptians would practice it, that it would become a great and enduring mystery to the entire world-that little children in the twentieth century would go into museums to gaze at mummies-we would not have believed such a thing.

  "However, it did not matter to us, really. We were very far from the Nile Valley. We could not even imagine what these people were like. We knew their religion had come out of Africa, that they worshiped the god Osiris, and the sun god, Ra, and animal gods as well. But we really didn't understand these people. We didn't understand their land of inundation and desert. When we held in our hands fine objects which they had made, we knew some faint shimmer of their personalities, but it was alien. We felt sorry for them that they could not eat their dead.

  "When we asked the spirits about them, the spirits seemed mightily amused by the Egyptians. They said the Egyptians had 'nice voices' and 'nice words' and that it was pleasurable to visit their temples and altars; they liked the Egyptian tongue. Then they seemed to lose interest in the question, and to drift off as was often the case.

  "What they said fascinated us but it didn't surprise us. We knew how the spirits liked our words and our chants and our songs. So the spirits were playing gods there for the Egyptians. The spirits did that sort of thing all the time.

  "As the years passed, we heard that Enkil, to unite his kingdom and stop the rebellion and resistance of the die-hard cannibals, had made a great army and embarked on conquests to north and south. He had launched ships in the great sea. It was an old trick: get them all to fight an enemy and they'll stop quarreling at home.

  "But again, what had this to do with us? Ours was a land of serenity and beauty, of laden fruit trees and fields of wild wheat free for anyone to cut with the scythe. Ours was a land of green grass and cool breezes. But there wasn't anything that anyone would want to take from us. Or so we believed.

  "My sister and I continued to live in perfect peace on the gentle slopes of Mount Carmel, often speaking to our mother and to each other silently, or with a few private words, which we understood perfectly; and learning from our mother all she knew of the spirits and men's hearts.

  "We drank the dream potions made by our mother from the plants we grew on the mountain, and in our trances and dream states, we
traveled back into the past and spoke with our ancestors-very great witches whose names we knew. In sum, we lured the spirits of these ancient ones back to earth long enough to give us some knowledge. We also traveled out of our bodies and high over the land.

  "I could spend these hours telling what we saw in these trances; how once Mekare and I walked hand in hand through the streets of Nineveh, gazing on wonders which we had not imagined; but these things are not important now.

  "Let me say only what the company of the spirits meant to the soft harmony in which we lived with all living things around us and with the spirits; and how at moments, the love of the spirits was palpable to us, as Christian mystics have described the love of God or his saints, "We lived in bliss together, my sister and I and our mother. The caves of our ancestors were warm and dry; and we had all things that we needed-fine robes and jewelry and lovely combs of ivory and sandals of leather-brought to us by the people as offerings, for no one ever paid us for what we did.

  "And every day the people of our village came to consult with us, and we would put their questions to the spirits. We would try to see the future, which of course the spirits can do after a fashion, insofar as certain things tend to follow an inevitable course.

  "We looked into minds with our telepathic power and we gave the best wisdom that we could. Now and then those possessed were brought to us. And we drove out the demon, or the bad spirit, for that is all it was. And when a house was bedeviled, we went there and ordered the bad spirit away.

  "We gave the dream potion to those who requested it. And they would fall into the trance, or sleep and dream heavily in vivid images, which we sought then to interpret or explain.

  "For this we didn't really need the spirits though sometimes we sought their particular advice. We used our own powers of understanding and deep vision, and often the information handed down to us, as to what various images mean.

  "But our greatest miracle-which took all our power to accomplish, and which we could never guarantee-was the bringing down of the rain.

  "Now, in two basic ways we worked this miracle-'little rain,' which was largely symbolic and a demonstration of power and a great healing thing for our people's souls. Or 'big rain,' which was needed for the crops, and which was very hard, indeed, to do if we could do it at all.

  "Both required a great wooing of the spirits, a great calling of their names, and demanding that they come together and concentrate and use their force at our command. 'Little rain' was often done by our most familiar spirits, those who loved Mekare and me most particularly, and had loved our mother and her mother, and all our ancestors before us, and could always be counted upon to do hard tasks out of love.

  "But many spirits were required for 'big rain' and since some of these spirits seemed to loathe each other and to loathe cooperation, a great deal of flattery had to be thrown into the bargain. We had to do chants, and a great dance. For hours, we worked at it as the spirits gradually took interest, came together, became enamored of the idea, and then finally set to work.

  "Mekare and I were able to accomplish 'big rain' only three times. But what a lovely thing it was to see the clouds gather over the valley, to see the great blinding sheets of rain descend. All our people ran out into the downpour; the land itself seemed to swell, to open, to give thanks.

  " 'Little rain' we did often; we did it for others, we did it for joy.

  "But it was the making of'big rain' that really spread our fame far and wide. We had always been known as the witches of (he mountain; but now people came to us from the cities of the far north, from lands whose names we didn't know.

  "Men waited their turn in the village to come to the mountain and drink the potion and have us examine their dreams. They waited their turn to seek our counsel or sometimes merely to see us. And of course our village served them meat and drink and took an offering for this, and all profited, or so it seemed. And in this regard what we did was not so different from what doctors of psychology do in this century; we studied images; we interpreted them; we sought for some truth from the subconscious mind; and the miracles of 'little rain' and 'big rain' merely bolstered the faith of others in our abilities.

  "One day, half a year I think before our mother was to die, a letter came into our hands. A messenger had brought it from the King and Queen of Kemet, which was the land of Egypt as the Egyptians called it themselves. It was a letter written on a clay tablet as they wrote in Jericho and Nineveh, and there were little pictures in the clay, and the beginnings of what men would later call cuneiform.

  "Of course we could not read it; in fact, we found it frightening, and thought that it might be a curse. We did not want to touch it, but touch it we had to do if we were to understand anything about it that we should know.

  "The messenger said that his sovereigns Akasha and Enkil had heard of our great power and would be honored if we would visit at their court; they had sent a great escort to accompany us to Kemet, and they would send us home with great gifts.

  "We found ourselves, all three, distrustful of this messenger. He was speaking the truth as far as he knew it, but there was more to the whole thing.

  "So our mother took the clay tablet into her hands. Immediately, she felt something from it, something which passed through her fingers and gave her great distress. At first she wouldn't tell us what she had seen; then taking us aside, she said that the King and Queen of Kemet were evil, great shedders of blood, and very disregarding of others' beliefs. And that a terrible evil would come to us from this man and woman, no matter what the writing said.

  "Then Mekare and I touched the letter and we too caught the presentiment of evil. But there was a mystery here, a dark tangle, and caught up with the evil was an element of courage and what seemed good. In sum this was no simple plot to steal us and our power; there was some genuine curiosity and respect.

  "Finally we asked the spirits-those two spirits which Mekare and I most loved. They came near to us and they read the letter which was a very easy thing for them to do. They said that the messenger had told the truth. But some terrible danger would come to us if we were to go to the King and Queen of Kemet.

  " 'Why?' we asked the spirits.

  " 'Because the King and Queen will ask you questions, the spirits answered, 'and if you answer truthfully, which you will, the King and Queen will be angry with you, and you will be destroyed. '

  "Of course we would never have gone to Egypt anyway. We didn't leave our mountain. But now we knew for sure that we must not. We told the messenger with all respect that we could not leave the place where we had been born, that no witch of our family had ever left here, and we begged him to tell this to the King and Queen.

  "And so the messenger left and life returned to its normal routine.
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