Bird in a Snare

Corruption and Murder in Ancient Egypt

N. L. Holmes

When Hani, an Egyptian diplomat under Akhenaten, is sent to investigate the murder of a useful bandit leader in Syria, he encounters corruption, tangled relationships, and yet more murder. His investigation is complicated by the new king’s religious reforms, which have struck Hani’s own family to the core. Hani’s mission is to amass enough evidence for his superiors to prosecute the wrongdoers despite the king’s protection—but not just every superior can be trusted. And maybe not even the king! Winner of the 2020 Geoffrey Chaucer Award for historical fiction before 1750.

Trigger Warnings:
Sexual abuse of children

Book Excerpt or Article

They reached the west bank, stepping across the luminous reflection of the shore and onto the reality. The city of the dead stretched before them, little pyramid-roofed whitewashed shrines dotting the bleak yellow terrain. The tombs of kings and nobles were hidden in the cliffs still farther west. Hani saw southward of them the gigantic statues of Neb-ma’at-ra that marked the entrance to the late king’s mortuary temple. At least Nefer-khepru-ra hadn’t stopped the worship there.

Together, the two men crossed the barren rock-strewn path that scarred the desert and penetrated deeper into the Red Land, heading toward the cliffs—the Mountains of the West, the land of the dead.

“It’s peaceful here,” Hani murmured. There was no sound except the cicadas, the distant twitter of a bird, and the crunch of their footsteps on the gravel. Hardly a breath of wind stirred, yet there was a mellow coolness to the early-morning air.

“The neighbors don’t make much noise,” Mery-ra agreed with a grin.

Hani slowed to accommodate his father’s pace. “No, I mean, it isn’t gloomy. All these people we’ve loved—people who made us—are happy in the Field of Reeds. The Lady of the West is present, motherly and comforting. Don’t you feel it?”

Mery-ra punched his son’s arm. “You get this streak from your mother’s side of the family, my boy. But now that you mention it, that’s true. Mostly, I’m thinking about how good it is to be nearly finished with our tomb. One more thing out of the way. At my age, that’s a source of great consolation.”

Hani saw the familiar trail fork off to the left, and he took his father’s arm as they struggled over the rougher ground. Ahead, against a distinctive outcropping of the cliffs, stood the whitewashed little facade of their family house of eternity. A ladder and various bits of artists’ scaffolding lay on the ground. The workmen were not yet finished with the decoration inside. No doubt, they came when they were able to get away from the building of the new capital.

“You know,” said Hani, “we ought to set a guard here as long as the tomb is open. Anybody could wander in.”

“But there’s nothing to steal yet. It’s more likely that some fox would find her way inside and whelp her pups.”

Hani crouched and took up the fire drill that lay just inside the door. After a moment, he had a light going. Mery-ra handed him one of the torches that lay nearby. The old man sniffed. “Smells like thes
e have been used recently. Good. The artists must have been at work.”
The torch made a brave little puddle of light as the men entered the darkness of the antechamber. Hani touched the torch to others bracketed on the walls, and all at once, the room glowed, bright with freshly painted colors and gay scenes of daily life. Statues of Mery-ra, Pipi, and Hani with their wives sat on plinths against the wall, just under life-size and colored like real people with russet skin, white clothing, and black wigs. Their smiling faces gazed out across the heads of their visitors.

Mery-ra laughed delightedly. “I haven’t been so slim for forty years! They’ve done a nice job with the painting. That’s your mother to perfection, isn’t it?” He approached the wall to admire the images of his family enjoying the ideal life of the Field of Reeds. Suddenly, he turned to Hani, his eyes wide with shock.

“What is it, Father?” Hani asked, drawing closer. His heart stepped up a beat.

The color had fled Mery-ra’s broad face as if some artist had scrubbed it away. “Bring the torch here, son. Look at this.”

Hani drew close and raised the flickering torch. He followed his father’s pointing finger to the explanatory text that accompanied every picture. It took him a moment to register what he was seeing, and his stomach clenched as if he had been struck.

“My name!” he cried at last in horror. “It’s been defaced. Every time Amen-hotep occurs, the Amen has been chiseled out!”

The two men hustled from scene to scene, torch held close, and their steps became frenzied. Aha’s name, too. And Nub-nefer chantress of—the god was gone. From Mut-benret, Hani’s mother, someone had obliterated the name of Mut. In the scene where Neb-ma’at-ra had conferred on Hani gold and honors, even the king’s birth name had been hacked away.

“Lord Amen, help us,” Mery-ra breathed. He sank to the ground and leaned against the wall as if his legs had betrayed him.

Hani continued searching the walls. “In your name, they’ve taken out the divine determinative so you’re just Beloved of the Sun and not the Lord Ra. This was done by someone literate.” Rage was building in him like the first wave of the Inundation—he who was by nature so calm. “The impious bastard!”

“What sort of monster is our king that he would stoop to defacing private tombs?” Mery-ra moaned, his eyes wet. The flowers for offering lay limp at his side. Hani had never seen his easygoing father so undone. But then, no affront could ever have compared with this. To destroy one’s name was to destroy one’s soul—in this house of eternity, to condemn the dead to nonexistence.

A ferocious pulse ticked in Hani’s temple. “Surely it’s not the king.” He tried to be rational, but his voice shook with fury. “There wouldn’t be enough soldiers in the Two Lands to attack every private person’s tomb. Some enemy, perhaps.” Ammit devour his soul, whoever he is. Although Hani knew that even if the defacement were the work of an enemy, it was the atmosphere—the increasingly intolerant climate of the times—that permitted someone to dare such a crime.

“Do you think it was one of the workers?” Mery-ra asked. “Did they feel we didn’t pay them enough?”

Hani sat down beside him. “This was done by some zealot. Some stupid courtier who wanted to show his loyalty to the king.” Suddenly, a terrible fear skewered him.

“Do you have any enemy so vengeful?”

“I didn’t think so,” Hani said faintly. Because the one thought in his head was Aha.

Hani finally rose and laid their gifts at the foot of his mother’s sarcophagus, among the desiccated remains of the offerings from previous years. I’ll come repair this with my own hand, Mother, if I have to write in every defaced name with pen and ink. He helped his father to his feet, wrung with sorrow to see how age seemed to have descended upon Mery-ra’s bowed head and slumped shoulders. Hani wondered whether he should reveal his suspicions to him but decided to let the old man recover first from his shock.

They extinguished their torches and left the last one at the door, which stood open. No point in closing the tomb up now, Hani thought sarcastically. The fear that Aha had done this vile deed gnawed at his vitals—not that he thought the boy hated his family, but he so spinelessly seemed to crave the royal approval. Why, his own name had been defaced. But then, Hani already knew that Aha had rejected his name, which was the same as his father’s. Perhaps he has rejected me deliberately as well, he thought with a pang of sadness so bitter he was afraid tears would mount to his eyes.

They shuffled back to the River in somber silence, their feet dragging. Hani was concerned for Mery-ra. He said finally, as he helped his father into the ferry, “I’ll see that it’s repaired, Father. Don’t worry.”

“But who would have done such a thing to us? I just can’t understand.” Mery-ra seemed mired in that question. He collapsed into his seat.

Hani couldn’t keep the anger from his voice altogether. “Such are the times we live in.”

As they slid across the river, he found his thoughts drifting to Rib-addi, left to defend his borders as best as his feeble strength permitted, no son at his side, no suzerain’s troops at his side. These were times of perfidy and division, generation against generation. A wave of slow rage was rising in Hani despite his brave words to himself. This was all the work of one man, faithless and self-centered. Was he a god? Hani wasn’t sure the king himself thought he was the Living Haru, despite the thousands of years of tradition. If his father was the Aten, what exactly is he, this paragon of filial piety who amputates sons from their fathers? Hani ground his teeth, as helpless before his own fury as he was to change the king.

And how could he continue to serve such a person? Did it offend the gods that he kept his silence and plugged away at furthering Nefer-khepru-ra’s ends? Yet what else could he do? It was Kemet he served. Even the First Prophet of Amen-Ra was biting his lip and staying low. Amen-em-hut is probably the bravest among us all, spewing his outrage over anyone who will listen. Hani hoped his brother-in-law wouldn’t be punished for his outspokenness. But at least he would have a clean conscience.

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N.L. Holmes is the pen name of a professional archaeologist who received her doctorate from Bryn Mawr College. She has excavated in Greece and in Israel and taught ancient history and humanities at the university level for many years. She has always had a passion for books, and in childhood, she and her cousin (also a writer today) used to write stories for fun.

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